Sunday, October 30, 2011

Your Sunday Squirrel

Exciting news for squirrel calendar fans! In about a week, I'll be done with my brand-new Sunday Squirrel calendar for 2012! It will feature all your favorite squirrels from the last year, many of them engaging in such squirrel-like activities as eating peanuts, climbing trees and waiting for me to give them more peanuts. If you enjoyed this year's calendar, you're very likely enjoy next year's even more - although I guarantee nothing. One thing's for sure: the Denny Park squirrels haven't gotten any uglier over the past year. Anyhow, it's so much fun to have a local squirrel tell you what day it is. And this year, you can get in on that action! Just gimme a few days to throw it all together. And by "throw it all together" I mean: "create it with all the care and skill I'm capable of mustering." So you have been warned!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Beyond the Mammoth Site

I just want to say again how very nice the mammoth site was. The great thing about it is that you can drop by every few years and there will be all kinds of new discoveries. So with that done, I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone: catch some older bones and visit a state I'd never been to.

So I went to Nebraska. Let me tell you, there's a whole lot of nothing in the western part of the state. And that's how people like it. If you like grasslands, then you should definitely visit. My objective was the Agate Fossil Beds.

In the 19th century, a rancher noticed a bunch of weird bones on his land and wired some university-guy for help identifying them. The result was pretty stunning. They uncovered a vast array of species from around 19 million years ago. The most numerous of all were at least 30 pony-sized rhino skeletons. They also found 6-foot tall carnivorous pigs, bear-dogs and strange horse-ancestors that had three massive claws on their front hooves. Here some photos:

That's a carnivorous pig and below is the strange horse-ancestor:

And of course, a bear-dog:

One of the bigger mysteries in the area were these spiral formations all over the place. They looked like this:

At first, the experts thought these were left by plants, but soon figured out that they were the burrows of ancient land-beavers known as palaeocastor. It lived some 22 million years ago. These formations were at one time all over the place and were dubbed "the devil's corkscrew" because why not? Here's a picture of an old-timey guy looking at one:

This is what a lot of western Nebraska looks like:

It's all pretty scenic/desolate. Speaking of that, I went back to Hot Spring via South Dakota's Badlands. That's also known as "taking the long way home." The Badlands are these fairly dramatic volcanic(?) formations that rise up all over the place in a large area of SD. At the time I took these, I thought they were pretty awesome, but on further review, they just look like countryside. Well, you be the judge:

So that was the rest of the day. Thanks to another wrong turn, I had to go through Rapid City, otherwise known as "the big city." All in all, it had been a very good foray. There were many bones as well as a healthy dose of Badlands.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Mammoth Site

OK, this place was the prime attraction for me. Sure, Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore are majestic and make us all swell with national pride, but this place is super-interesting. And it was practically right next to where I was staying in Hot Springs. See, 27,000 years ago, there was a tiny seismic event that caused hot water to bubble up and form a pond. The local animals quite enjoyed that, it being an ice age and whatnot. Mammoths dropped by to eat the thick grass that grew around the pond and take a dip. Sometimes they couldn't get out. It was a bad way to go. They would starve to death while predators waited nearby. This pond was around for around 700 years. To date, they've found all kinds of bones (including predators), but most notably, they've unearthed 59 mammoth skeletons. So far, they've identified three woolly and 56 Columbian mammoths. Yes, there was more than one kind of mammoth. I didn't know that either before I visited the site. Apparently, the Columbia mammoth looked a lot like this:

And this is what one looks like without any skin or guts:

They were pretty massive; something like two feet taller than an African elephant, which is about as large as a woolly mammoth. Of course, what they call the "ancestral mammoth" was bigger than the Columbian mammoth by another three feet. So that was one very large creature. Anyhow, the place kind of looks like a bankrupt church from the outside:

But on the inside, it's an active dig. They give you a tour and it's really quite unforgettable, because, y'know, there are tons of bones everywhere. Some are immaculately preserved; others are just a jumble. This is what it looks like:

The thing about mammoths is that they had really weird teeth. Here's the story and an example:

So they've found 59 skeletons. Funny thing, they're all male. It seems that mammoth society was exactly like elephants are now: the females travel together and the males go off on their own. So they would just wander into the warm pond and never come out. Poor guys. Well, it was 27,000 years ago.

They've drilled down to see how much farther the site goes. It's pretty staggering. So far, they've excavated 22 feet down. The drilling indicates that there are bones for another 45 feet. Who knows, they might even find a mastodon. They haven't yet. Anyhow, there's an exhibit about mammoths off to the side. This is what it looks like:

They were also really big on miniature mammoths. There's this phenomenon that happens when animals get stranded on islands. They get smaller. It happened to dinosaurs. It happened to horses on the Shetland Islands. And it happened to mammoths. This fellow's bones were found on Catalina Island in California:

When they originally found him, they thought they'd unearthed a one-year-old baby, but his bones and teeth revealed that he was quite old. So presto, mini-mammoth! They've also found similarly-sized guys on Wrangel Island in Russia and on some other island that I can't remember.

This place was simply stunning. I highly recommend it. You know, if you're feeling paleontological, you can volunteer to help excavate. I'm seriously thinking about it.

OK, so that was just the beginning of the day. There is more to follow tomorrow.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Your Sunday Squirrel

I've been cooped up all day writing music and such, so by around 5:00, I really had to take a walk. As I'm wrestling with a few nagging musical problems who comes my way but a squirrel. At 2nd & Vine. How unexpected. Carrying a very large acorn in his mouth, he scurries past as some phone zombie nearly steps on him. Of course, he climbs a tree. And of course, I take his picture. In this shot, he's upside down and in profile. After that, he hops around the corner, off to other adventures. I hope he gets back safely to his home tree with his large acorn.

Here is another shot of the friendly guy from a few weeks ago. I hope I run into him again sometime soon.

Oh, and I made a wonderful, accidental discovery this week. I stumbled onto the Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology the other day. I like birdsong. I live in the middle of a city. Songbirds avoid urban centers like the plague. But I still like birdsong. Anyhow, little did I know that Cornell has a massive archive of animal audio and video. Of course, I typed in "squirrel" and got a zillion results. Did you know that there's a squirrelfish? It doesn't look anything like a tree rodent. But that's what you find out when you're being non-specific. As I went down the list, I saw lots of gray and red squirrels, but one particular species really caught my eye. It's called Prevost's squirrel and it lives in Southeast Asia. This particular fellow is from Indonesia. Since you can't embed the video, you'll have to go here to see him. Isn't he handsome? He's kind of a mix off all kinds of squirrels, but still very distinctive. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Road Trip 1

So yeah, I've been remiss once again about blogging. I have a good excuse, though: I got to do an interview on Evening Magazine. One of the reporters heard my album and figured I was worth a feature. I ended up having a blast with these guys. The story should air sometime in November. Of course, I'll post the exact details when I find out myself.

Before any of this happened, I took a trip. See, for the last year, the farthest I've been away from Seattle has been Snohomish. I was getting a little antsy, so I rented a car and headed east. This is the car:

It's a Mitsubishi Galant. It really wasn't a bad ride, although the handing was a little weird. In my mind, the steering was a little over-sensitive and the suspension was more on the unresponsive side. But still, it was comfortable enough and it got me there and back. What was the whole point of this? Well, I wanted to see the mammoth site in Hot Springs, SD. I'd read about it in Smithsonian Magazine and really wanted to go. Plus, I had spent all too brief of a time in SD two years ago and wanted to see more of it.

The first day was just driving. My goal was to get as far as Billings. I got as far as Big Timber, about 80 miles short of Billings. There are two things wrong with that town's name: 1. it's tiny, and; 2. there are no trees for miles in any direction, so God knows why it's called Big Timber. However, Montana is known as the Big Sky State for good reason. Have a look:

Note the bigness of sky.

The next day was packed with seeing all the roadside attractions. First up was the Little Bighorn battle site. The Indians call it Greasy Grass and since they won, that's probably what we should call it. Here's what Last Stand Hill looks like from below:

It's pretty unassuming. I mean, there's very little to indicate that one of the most famous battles in our nation's history took place here. Of course when you get to the top of the hill, it's a different story:

They put up markers wherever they found a dead guy. They go all the way down the hill and towards the river below, because the cavalry guys were retreating as fast as they could. By the way, you can see Custer's marker in the top photo; it's the one with the dark paint on it. Most of them looking like this:

Most of the dead guys couldn't be identified, so there are lots of these. There are others that have been added more recently, here are a few:

Of course, for a guy from Seattle, a sign like this was a real treat:

Rattlesnakes, how quaint! I didn't see any, by the way. Here's the Indian memorial that commemorates the tribes and individuals who took part in the battle:

My favorite name of all - and I can't remember which tribe he was from - was a warrior named Guts. You know, we've come to expect such brave fighters to be called things like Noble Eagle or Proud Bear or such like, but no, this guy was named Guts. I hope his name suited him.

I could have gone done the road to see where Major Reno hid out, but I decided to head out. I really recommend Little Bighorn (or Greasy Grass); it's well worth a visit. OK, so next stop was the Devil's Tower in Wyoming. Here it is:

It beats me why there's a post office here. I mean, it's in the middle of nowhere. Maybe the tower gets a lot of junk mail. Who knows? Anyhow, here it is again with America in the foreground:

Look at how much taller that flagpole is than the tower! I didn't stop to climb it - the Devil's Tower, not the flagpole - because that would have been insane. Instead I headed to neighboring SD. The first stop was Deadwood:

As you can see, it's a quaint enough place. It's also a total tourist trap. I took these photos out the window, which is why there are bug smudges. I really didn't want to get out, lest I fall into the trap of tourists. I was actually much more partial to neighboring Lead. It's a little more run-down and a lot less infested with casinos and fake nostalgia.

Of course, any visit to the region requires a stop at Mt. Rushmore. On the way, I took a wrong turn, but fortunately, I happened to drive through a really nice part of the Black Hills. Trees were changing colors and this is what it looked like:

Yeah, it was real scenic and all. After I got un-lost, I ended up at Mt. Rushmore towards evening. The place was almost empty. Here's what it looked like:

If it had been during the day, there would have been like a billion tourists here. But there were only about a dozen people:

And in case nobody's said anything, there isn't a house above all the heads. No, that's North by Northwest. It's a movie. It isn't true. No house.

OK, so after this, I got pretty severely lost (again). But while I was regaining my bearings, I saw three squirrels. They were small, brown/black and they wanted nothing to do with me. They weren't interested in peanuts and not at all friendly. Fair enough. I eventually made it to Hot Springs and stayed at a motel almost right next to the mammoth site.