Nature News from Greater Yellowstone #45

December 21, 2022

Greetings to all on this winter Solstice Day 2022.

Here in West Yellowstone it’s been snowing and cloudy much of the time so we have not seen some of the celestial events that occur this time of year such as the Geminid meteor shower which typically peaks about a week before today.

Shoveling the back deck of my home

The solstice is our sign to celebrate seasonal change. For us in the Northern Hemisphere, the December solstice marks the longest nights and shortest days of the year. The sun is at the southernmost point in our sky, after this is starts to move north again.

The earliest people on Earth knew that the sun’s path across the sky, the length of daylight, and the location of the sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year. Monuments such as Stonehenge in EnglandMachu Picchu in Peru and at  Fajada Butte in Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico were built to measure the sun’s yearly movements.

In 1982 I visited Chaco with a friend and we were able to hike up to Fajada Butte at that time. A set of spiral petroglyphs (images carved into the rock) behind three giant slabs of stone, had been observed in recent times. On the winter solstice, two shafts of light perfectly bracket the spiral. This spot is known as the Sun Dagger. On other important dates the sun marks this spot in notable ways as well. Last year, again, I visited several National Parks in the SW with a friend and we camped in Chaco for a few days. As a rockslide closed the trail to Fajada Butte in 1989, we were not able to return to that spot, but so many other magnificent archeological sites and clear night skies reminded me of one reason Chaco is a very significant spot in the world.

Here you will see images of spiral petroglyphs . Image on the left I took at the Petrified Forest National Park and image on right I took from an internet site showing the spiral Sun Dagger on Fajada Butte.

Fajada Butte close to the campground in Chaco Culture National Historical National Park.
Chaco Canyon doors on left/ Machu Picchu doors on right

In the Southern Hemisphere, winter solstice is the 21st of June and is the shortest day of the year, marking the start of winter.  In Inca times, winter solstice was known as Inti Raymi or the Festival of the Sun. In Machu Picchu at dawn, when the very first light rises over the distant mountains, it shines through one of the two windows of the Temple of the Sun and illuminates the ceremonial stone within.  Another opportunity for me was to travel to Peru in October 2019. We hiked through the Andes on the Salkantay trek eventually to Aguas Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu. It is an extraordinary place and, similar to Chaco Canyon, is a physical reminder of how important this seasonality was to early peoples.

Notice how light shows through perfectly formed windows and doors at Machu Picchu below

December 18, 2022 was the Christmas Bird Count in West Yellowstone. The final count has not been compiled as of yet, but it’s always a great day to get out with a specific goal, to count all the birds (species and number) and where, one sees in that day. In West Yellowstone we had 7 folks who participated. For anyone who has spent time in this area, you can guess what species was my highest count….Yes, the Common Raven! The Raven is an acrobatic, vocal, intelligent and amusing bird seen ubiquitously in this area.

My friend, the common Raven, photo by Tom Nicholls

The National Audubon Society initiated the CBC in 1900 to monitor the health and distribution of resident and winter birds across the Western Hemisphere. Now in its 123nd year, the National Audubon Society’s CBC is larger than ever, expanding its geographical range and accumulating valuable scientific data about the winter distributions of various bird species. This 100-percent volunteer generated data has become a critical part of the U.S. Government’s natural history monitoring database critical to understanding the health, numbers, and distribution of bird populations. The Audubon Society is doing an analysis of the long-term CBC results to determine where the most significant declines in bird populations appear to be happening. The results of this analysis will be and are being used in making conservation management recommendations to help prevent or reduce declining bird populations. Count results from 1900 to the present are available through Audubon’s website at:

More recent happenings in Greater Yellowstone….snow is the big event of this year. LOTS of snowfall for early winter season and it is hopeful we’ll be set up for good moisture content in our soil and vegetation and keep river levels high next summer. Of course, many people visit this area for winter recreation and that segment of our visitors will be very pleased. Yellowstone is open for the winter season now. Only one segment of the road system is open to private vehicles, and that is between Mammoth Hot Springs and Cooke City. This is the road through the northern range. That has traditionally been plowed for access for the Cooke City residents as that is sometimes their only route to the outside world. The only way to access other parts of the park in winter is over the snow. If it’s not skis or snowshoes, then it is in a snow coach or a snowmobile. On occasion I have driven some of the older styles of snow coach (built by Bombardier) that brings folks into Yellowstone with Yellowstone Alpen Guides. Last week I did my first trip of the season and took 8 employees from the Big Sky resort in to see what the day could offer their guests.

It was one of our few sunny days recently and a great time was had by all!

A few photos below….

Delacy, A Bombardier built in late 70s, but retrofitted for quiet, clean comfort!
Ghost Trees

Old Faithful Geyser Cone in the Distance
Bison on a snowy morning

As we head forward from Winter Solstice into another winter in Yellowstone, I am grateful for my time experiencing the natural world around me in this “Blessed ol’ Yellowstone Wonderland” (quotation by John Muir).

Wish you all a good holiday time and going forward to 2023.

Photo by a friend taken as we skied “Walkin Jim’s Way”
ski trail at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky.

One Comment


    Hello Leslie, thank you for another 5 star gem including for the great pictures. You sure have enough snow. It reminds of the 90s . All lot of cottages in West the snow was draping from the roof meeting the accumulation We wish you a merry and blessed Christmas and a blessed healthy new year. Love hugs and blessings Ken and Dorothea Sent from my iPhone


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