Montana Outdoors

February 5, 2011

Some folks rely on a groundhog

Filed under: Wildflowers, Winter — Tags: , , — montucky @ 9:04 pm

The month of January was unusually warm in 2009: most of the snow had already melted and it seemed that during the few hours of each day when the sun appeared it had more strength than that time of year warranted. At the end of the month, taking advantage of the mild weather to get in some minor exploring, I ventured into a place I had noticed on the Lolo Forest map. Both sides of the highway east of where I live are almost all private land, except for a tiny spot about a dozen miles away where a slight sliver of the National Forest touches the road.

There is a trail there that was made and is used by deer, elk, sheep, the predators that have aspirations to dine on them and an occasional human hunter who uses the narrow and steep draw through which the trail leads as an access to the much higher ground to the north. It’s a faint little trail, brush-choked and rocky, friendly only to the animals who do not walk erect; a great trail really, because it is one that will never draw a crowd.

As I walked along the trail about a half mile up, I found myself leaving the draw to follow a sheep trail that meandered up a rocky mountainside to my left that was filled with small cliffs and slide rock. It led to the top of a small, sharp-sided ridge several hundred feet above the river, with a narrow, nearly flat top that was covered with grass and sheltered by some big pines. Under the pines, the ground was covered with sheep droppings: they obviously spend a lot of time there, out of sight and out of the wind where they can enjoy every bit of any sun that comes out, with plenty of graze and a great view. It’s my opinion that Big Horns and Mule Deer enjoy the scenic beauty of where they live just as much as I do.

On that sheep trail, just before it topped the ridge, as I looked down to find some solid footing among the rocks and remaining ice, I caught sight of a bit of bright yellow: I was astounded to find a small buttercup in bloom, even before the groundhog made his annual prediction about the status of spring.

Last winter was also unseasonably warm, and an end of January visit met with the same result; one small buttercup just beginning to bloom.

This year, the last of January and the first few days of February will be remembered for the Arctic air that visited the area, producing nights with temperatures well below zero, certainly not what one would consider wildflower weather. However, just to be sure, a trip up that little trail today seemed to be in order and it led me to not one but two buttercups in full bloom. (In any other place where I find buttercups they will not be in full bloom for at least several more weeks.)

Sagebrush Buttercup

Sagebrush Buttercup

Sagebrush Buttercup, Ranunculus glaberrimus


  1. How amazing that these are blooming now, so close to the very cold weather you’ve had. Loved this post! It sounds like a special place.


    Comment by farmhouse stories — February 5, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

    • I am in awe of those little things that can exist in such conditions and do it in such beauty. The will to live and flourish that is found in nature is just awesome!


      Comment by montucky — February 5, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

  2. What a special discovery!


    Comment by mitambien — February 5, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    • Perhaps one of the purposes of those little plants is to bring a touch of joy to those who will venture into the woods this time of year.


      Comment by montucky — February 5, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

  3. Who would have thought… but a great thing that you ventured out to your special place. I looked at my 2010 blog and the witch hazel was blooming this time last year. The buds are not even swollen right now. Maybe it will get the cold out of it’s system and won’t freeze the spring blooms this year. One can only hope!


    Comment by kcjewel — February 5, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

    • That is a pleasant place because it is close and fairly easy to reach even if the weather is bad.

      The weather has been so strange this year that it’s hard to guess what will happen next. We usually get one session of sub-zero weather in a winter, and often don’t see temperatures above freezing until into March. This year we have had 4 visits from the Arctic air interspersed with many warm days. I’m hoping for a more normal spring too.


      Comment by montucky — February 5, 2011 @ 10:31 pm

  4. A buttercup? Really? Now? How odd….
    Here we have nothing but snow/cement. The snow that fell a few weeks ago was so wet when it fell that now it is like cement. Nothing can possibly be alive under there…..or can it? I guess we’ll find out in spring:)


    Comment by Roberta Warshaw — February 5, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

    • I think you have had more cold and more consistent cold than we have, although at times we had that “cement” look to the snow and ice too. The conditions under which plants can survive and actually flourish are incredible. The ground under those little buttercups was frozen down deep, but a half inch of the surface had thawed. Just enough I suppose.


      Comment by montucky — February 5, 2011 @ 10:43 pm

  5. Well, that is a welcome sight! They are so sunny and cheerful. Hard to imagine that it is still the middle of winter. It will be at least a month and a half before we see any flowers here.


    Comment by kateri — February 5, 2011 @ 10:45 pm

    • Our buttercups are always the first to bloom, but for some reason they bloom in that particular place very early. The next wildflowers will start to bloom toward the end or March.


      Comment by montucky — February 5, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

  6. Today? I can’t believe it. I don’t think you’re lying, but I just can’t wrap my head around it.


    Comment by Cowgrrrl — February 5, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

    • I know, Patia. Crazy, isn’t it! Something about that little spot: this is the third year in a row that I have found them there at the end of January or early February. With the sub-zero nights we’ve had within a week I wouldn’t have wanted to bet on them this year, but…


      Comment by montucky — February 5, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

  7. Nice to be reminded that not all winters have been as harsh and as snow-filled as this one. Such a sweet little winter flower!!!


    Comment by Marcie — February 6, 2011 @ 5:20 am

    • Actually, I’m quite happy that all winters aren’t alike!


      Comment by montucky — February 6, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

  8. Is this unusual, buttercups in February? Even on a rocky slope that catches the sun this is quite surprising! Haven’t been above freezing here in ages! What an incredible find, getting off the beaten path sure pays off.


    Comment by Bill — February 6, 2011 @ 7:33 am

    • It’s very unusual here,except for this little area which is no more than 50 yards wide and a couple hundred long. It is amazing to me because I know the ground beneath the plant has to be frozen down to probably 2 feet: just the top half inch has thawed, and that just within the last few days.

      Yes, I’ve found that getting off the beaten path nearly always pays off. (That’s also my excuse for spending a day following deer trails.)


      Comment by montucky — February 6, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

  9. Survivors…what, I wonder, do they appeal to?


    Comment by burstmode — February 6, 2011 @ 8:27 am

    • These little plants, while common, have many secrets I think.


      Comment by montucky — February 6, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

  10. Wow, that’s incredible. I remember your post about the buttercup last year, too.


    Comment by Candace — February 6, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    • Same place. This is the third year I’ve found them there this early.


      Comment by montucky — February 6, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

  11. Hi Montucky, Wonderful thing, I agree! Beautiful little flower and excellent photo. I have admired Big Horn Sheep and Mule Deer in CA when I lived there. They are both special animals. Glad you went hiking! Have a good day, stay warm, enjoy football if you are watching.


    Comment by wildlifewatcher — February 6, 2011 @ 10:51 am

    • Both of those animals like about the same type of terrain and surroundings mostly on the south-facing slopes with open hillsides, although the sheep like a little steeper ground. I sometimes visit this spot in summer when I can sit in the shade of a big pine and look out over the valley as I know the sheep also do.


      Comment by montucky — February 6, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

  12. Didn’t it make you feel great? Nature can be so amazing. Sounds like you are getting the best of two seasons.

    We are having a warm weekend, which means we got rain, thunder and lightning with our snow last night. It was only the second time since I moved to Maine that I have seen lightning in the winter.


    Comment by sandy — February 6, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    • Meteorologists here mentioned that there was a chance for lightning here too, But I missed it if it happened. After a couple of warm days, it is getting colder again and snow is predicted for the net several days. this has been a “yo-yo” winter.


      Comment by montucky — February 6, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

  13. Lovely… although they do look cold!

    About Lightroom and photo management/editing… I’m going to be comparing a couple of different books and will let you know which of the two might be most useful if you are thinking of learning it on your own… I’m a retired computer geek and found the class I took to be an ESSENTIAL way to kick start my learning… there is SO MUCH to learn about that program and Photoshop as well! (off to your previous posts… been awhile since I visited)


    Comment by Victoria — February 6, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

    • Tonight the buttercups are resting under a new blanket of snow. The forecasted rain has has been coming down in a white state for several hours now and looks like it will continue for awhile.


      Comment by montucky — February 6, 2011 @ 10:40 pm

  14. Fantastic. I enjoyed Your text and photos. Of Course I had to check if we have “Ranunculus glaberrimus” here, but no.

    Mother Nature sometimes arranges surprises and we have had here few times in January so “warm” that some plants start to think that Spring is here. This is destructive, when cold comes again. It takes them a long time in the spring again revive.

    Thank You.


    Comment by sartenada — February 7, 2011 @ 12:05 am

    • We have had many surprises this winter as it has alternated from sub-zero (F) temperatures to above freezing and from rain to freezing rain to snow. Tomorrow we anticipate snow and wind enough to cause drifting. I look forward to taking a long walk in it tomorrow!


      Comment by montucky — February 7, 2011 @ 12:46 am

  15. One of the highlights of living in mountainous country is getting to find and explore those little worlds of microclimate. That one must be a special place to consistently produce conditions that are a month ahead of the area.


    Comment by Daveabirding — February 7, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    • It is rather sheltered, but still there must be something about it that I have missed. Maybe because it’s well fertilized by the sheep?


      Comment by montucky — February 7, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

  16. Amazing! And what beautiful buttercups! I noticed the robins, flocks of them, arriving early here and it actually looks like some buds on the top of a few trees! How odd! Nature may well have more surprises in stock for this year.


    Comment by Anna — February 7, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    • Robins already! Wow! Several years ago they arrived here in the middle of March along with a new, heavy snowfall. They know what they’re doing though. Maybe they could train some of our weather forecasters!


      Comment by montucky — February 7, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

  17. As fragile as they appear, these buttercups must be made from a very hearty lot indeed!


    Comment by Scott Thomas Photography — February 8, 2011 @ 11:47 am

    • They must be. They are the earliest bloomers and they almost completely disappear by summer. There is a strategy there that We know little about I think.


      Comment by montucky — February 8, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

  18. My, O, my. Buttercups in Montana Winter! Those little surprises — hopefully not ferocious bears — I’m sure keep you tracking into the forest. Beautiful shot.


    Comment by Jack Matthews — February 9, 2011 @ 6:28 am

    • They will be a lot of motivtion in another month and a half. Bears will be out by then too. I enjoy the black bears, but Grizzlies not so much. This area is at the southern end of the Cabinet Mountain range which does contain some Griz, but they very seldom venture this far south. I plan a few excursions into their turf next summer though. Always a little apprehensive, but these are very wild bears and unless you step on one they are pretty shy.


      Comment by montucky — February 9, 2011 @ 10:57 am

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