After two weeks of above average temperatures winter weather returns to Jackson Hole. Much of the open water on the NER has refrozen and left the waterfowl with less room to forage. Many of the Trumpeter Swans that were near the highway just a week ago are now gathered together in the ponds next to the Miller House. Trumpeter Swans, Barrow's Goldeneyes, Mallards, and Gadwall are all a common sight on the refuge this week. Trumpeter Swans are just about the heaviest bird that can still lift off the ground and all of that extra meat and feathers go a long way to keeping these birds warm on the cold nights in late winter.
Muskrats are not rats at all they are actually the largest member of the vole family. They are also not an animal that we are specifically hunting for on our safaris. However, when cute mammals are nearby we will always stop and have a look. This pair of Muskrats were feeding on Cattail stems near the Flat Creek turnout. They also spent some time grooming themselves and each other before swimming off to gather more food. The warm weather in Jackson Hole this February has melted the ice on flat creek. Swans, ducks, and other critters have returned to take advantage of the open water.
On this evenings tour we spotted 9 Wolves near Kelly Warm Springs. They were resting on a snow covered hillside near the edge of a thin aspen stand. We watched through the spotting scope for a while and eventually noticed that there appeared to be a solid line of tracks running from the wolves to our location. Our group took a small walk on the snow to see if the line of tracks nearby was that of the Wolves. We were rewarded with some great looks at enormous paw prints crossing over packed snow. It gave everyone a very special and wild feeling to be standing where Wolves had recently been.
The USFWS began its supplemental feeding program a little early this year. Heavy snow, cold temps, and a nasty ice layer in the snowpack were the justification. The NER gives the Elk about half of the forage they need per day which leaves time extra curricular activities like sparring. Many of the bull Elk seen on the refuge today were killing time by practicing their sparring skills with a partner. They are not very aggressive in the winter like you would see during the fall rut, instead they are just practicing the basics and conserving energy for the long road ahead. Todays tour included a ride on a sleigh which brought us up close and personal with some of the bigger bull Elk wintering on the refuge
The winter of 2016/17 has been especially harsh thus far. Above average snowfall and extremely cold temperatures have taken a toll on the ungulates wintering in Jackson Hole. The National Elk Refuge is littered with the remains of Elk, Sheep, and Pronghorn who were not strong enough to survive. This is a boon to Eagles, Ravens, and Magpies who now have easy to access protein buffet laid out on the valley floor. On todays trip there were over 50 Bald Eagles seen feeding and flying about on the Elk Refuge. Eagles don't really play nice so scenes like the one in the photo were common. Eagles attacking Eagles, Ravens waiting their turn, and Coyotes moving around from carcass to carcass to get the freshest pieces of meat to feed on. There were many carcasses within 50 yards of Elk Refuge Rd. making for incredible viewing with binoculars and naked eyes.
The up close Moose sighting. It makes you feel small, it makes you feel a little wilder than you did just a moment before. This is what we strive for on every trip! Seeing the wildlife of GTNP and YNP up close but far enough away that they are behave naturally. We watched a mother Moose and her calf feeding on twigs and brush for quite a while. We approached in a slow and non-threatening manner and once we established a little trust we opened our custom roof hatches and captured great images of this pair bathed in the golden evening sunlight. Moose calves rely on their mother heavily their first year. Cow Moose show their calves where to feed, how to avoid predators, and they even share specialized digestive bacteria from their stomachs by putting saliva on branches their calf is about to feed on. Everyone can appreciate a good mother, because just like Moose we needed help surviving in our early years as well.
At the end of most years certain areas in Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge are opened to conduct a highly regulated hunting season for Elk and Bison. The hunting seasons are a tool that wildlife managers use to control Elk and Bison populations that are using Jackson Hole. At this time of year it is not uncommon to see a harvested Elk or Bison in the back of a pick up truck during a wildlife safari. However, it is uncommon to actually see a hunter fire a shot and drop an animal in front of your tour group. Today we witnessed a hunter shoot and kill a Bison along Gros Ventre River Rd. The Bison had been shot and wounded earlier in the day and had wandered out of the area open to hunting. The hunter was given special permission to finish the animal outside of the hunt area. A small crowd formed along the road and then a loud crack was followed by a Bison kneeling and finally collapsing on the snow covered ground. In the minutes after the shot many of the other Bison came up to their fallen relative and smelled her body, a calf seemed particularly interested in what had happened, perhaps her own calf? Were they mourning or just confused by strange event that was unfolding? This is a picture taken about a minute after the shot, and captures the essence of the confusion. I liked it best with an oil paint effect.
Just add some sub-zero temperatures to a foot or two of fresh snow and *Poof* thousands of Elk appear on the floor of Jackson Hole. It happens every December, just in time for our holiday guests. There are about 3000 Elk that are using the floor of the refuge and we are seeing many on and around Miller Butte as well. Though they may not come up and lick the salts off of your truck, they are giving us up close views of their amazing antlers. It's somehow still hard to believe that they grow these massive beams of bone in only a few short months every year.
There is a small number of Pronghorn that stay in Jackson Hole throughout the winter. They mostly stick to the Miller Butte area feeding on Bitterbrush and other dried plants. It looks as though we may have around 100 that will try to endure the harsh Teton winter. Though we have had ample snowfall in the mountains there is very little on the ground in the National Elk Refuge. Very few Elk have made their way on the refuge as the foraging is good elsewhere in the park. An exciting moment occurred today when two Coyotes decided to chase some Big Horn Sheep lambs. The lambs are still pretty small and quite capable of slipping on the rocks as they tried to escape. The Coyotes never even came close to making a kill, but they did make some of the nearby Pronghorns run incredibly fast. The Pronghorn in this photo showcased it's amazing speed amongst the jumble of broken rocks on the ridgeline. It pulled away from the Coyotes and Sheep like they were walking. All were impressed, especially my guests from Florida!
Big Horn Sheep are returning to Miller Butte on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole. Today we saw several large rams that were exhibiting pre-rut behaviors that included chasing, sparring, and kicking each other where it hurts. Guides love this time of year, our guests like this time of year, what's not to love about the changing of seasons. Very few people are out and about in the parks and the wildlife viewing is simply amazing. Pronghorn are being seen regularly and have begun leaving the refuge for their winter ranges south of Jackson Hole. The sheep of Miller Butte often get so close to your safari vehicle that you really get to know them individually. Look at the chip in this rams horn, I'm assuming that it took a pretty good blow to knock that loose.
An early October snowstorm left behind several feet of snow in the high country and several inches of snow on the valley floor. We found a great log of Wolf scat on the road and had a wonderful look at a female Grizzly Bear walking through the snow. We only saw the bear for about a minute, but we spent nearly 20 minutes photographing the tracks that she had left behind. There was also a nice set of Wolf tracks in the snow as well. The snow covered ground and the autumn colors made for a cool looking photo. Many of our guests are sometimes apprehensive to take huge bursts of photos, that was not the case on this bear sighting. The gentleman in the back seat held down his shutter release till his processer overloaded and then looked at his wife and said "Awesome".
Rainy days are great. There are fewer people in the parks and the wildlife often hangs out right in the open. Today was no exception. We had a quick but rather unfulfilling look at the rear end of a Grizz for no more than 10 seconds, we did not see much else during our drive along Pacific Creek. Then all of a sudden I spotted this Owl, I didn't believe it for a second since it was almost sitting on the ground, but sure enough it was. This Great Gray Owl, like most Great Grays, will go about their business even with people watching them from close by. We parked, quietly got out and snuck up on the Owl. One of the guests stepped on a branch and it made a cracking sound which caused the Owl to break focus and look in our direction. We watched for a few minutes in the rain and then left. The Great Gray Owl has one of the most penetrating stares in all of the animal kingdom.
Sometimes on a Best of Yellowstone trip you pull into a parking lot to see a waterfall and you end up with an unexpected wildlife sighting along the way. This Red Fox was hunting for rodents in the small field behind the restrooms. He was watching us and we were watching him. We had a cautious truce as both species continued going on about their business. Our guests are always blown away with how beautiful the winter coats of foxes are in the GYE. He eventually scampered down this log and disappeared into the forest.
Fields of grass that were once green have mostly turned to a golden brown as our hot and dry summer begins to wane. Calves of many species are still staying close to mother both for protection and for cues to find the most nutritious forage. Views like this are common along Mormon Row in the evening. We sometimes see groups of three Pronghorn calves following a single mother. Can you see all three calves in this photo? Soon the long days of haze will be replaced by long cool nights.
Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks are home to some pretty amazing species of birds. None, however, is more colorful than the Western Tanager. These birds nest along the Moose-Wilson Road and are often seen perched in the roadside Choke Cherry trees. The native peoples of this area believed that this bird had the ability to start forest fires and was to be both feared and respected. These birds are only in the Tetons for a very short while. They are one of the last migrant birds to arrive and first to leave, taking full advantage of our 3 month wild berry and insect bonanza. Today we had some very intimate looks at a caring father taking a break from berry picking to feed a few insects to its fledgling. We didn't even have to leave the van or put on a bigger lens to capture great photos of this feeding.