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.
On Todays Dusk Safari we spotted a Moose along the banks of the Gros Ventre River and got out of the vehicle to have a closer look. We walked down to the banks of the river and viewed a beautiful bull Moose feeding on the other bank. We watched this Moose for about 15 minutes and then returned to the parking area only to find that while we were gone 4 more big bull Moose had emerged from the young Cottonwood forest and were now in plain view feeding along the banks of the river. Moose are fairly solitary creatures. Sometimes we see groups of 10-20 form in Antelope Flats during early winter, but for August this seemed rather like a coincidence. Regardless of how this meeting of the Moose came to be, we turned our lenses on this fine looking group and captured some photographic and mental images.
Most of our guests come on a safari expecting to get great looks at the megafauna of the GYE and that is certainly what we aim to provide every time. However, being exposed to the amazing stories of the microfauna, for many folks, can be just as exciting. Today we stopped to examine the busy community that can be found on the stalks of a very common plant, Desert Parsley. Aphids love to feed on this plant, as they feed they will excrete nutritious drops of sugar water our of their rear ends. Ants know about this and will not only feed on the sweet sugary drops, but will heard aphids to the best parts of the plant and protect them from their predators, much like human shepherds do to their sheep. It never gets old seeing faces light up as they watch an ant slurp up a big drop of honeydew. Sometimes the best wildlife sightings are right at your feet if you only stop to take a closer look.
I often tell guests that the Common Raven is without a doubt the smartest animal in all of Yellowstone NP. Todays guests witnessed a great example of why this is true. We pulled into the Old Faithful parking lot and noticed that a pair of ravens were very interested in someone's motorcycle. We decided to wait and see what they were up to. Over the next few minutes we watched one of the Ravens open up a zippered compartment on one of the saddlebags, then remove and investigate several things including a box of tic-tacs which were quickly smashed open and consumed. These birds have become so good at exploiting the millions of humans that come to Yellowstone each summer, it is always a pleasure to share those moments with newcomers. Below is a photo I took of the Raven with incredibly fresh breath.
Timing is everything in Yellowstone. Sometimes a Grizzly walks across the road and is only visible for a minute, before disappearing into the dense Lodgepole Pine forests. On todays Best of Yellowstone trip we had a Grizzly walk across the road and vanish moments later. I made the call to head down the road a little bit and wait in a picnic area to see if the bear re-emerged. Sure enough the bear came back out of the forest about five minutes later and walked right by our vehicle. Our cameras were ready and we all captured amazing close up images of this enormous predator from the comfort and safety of our well parked safari vehicle. You can see his amazing sense of smell at work in the photo. I'm sure you can guess what the kids decided to name this bear who was wandering through a Yellowstone picnic area.
One of the most popular questions I get on a safari is what kind of snakes are in the area. Though there are four different kinds possible we tend to only see one species, the Wandering Garter Snake. Great views were had of this snake lurking in the cracks of a few boulders near one of Grand Teton NP's many lakes. We watched the snake for about ten minutes and it barely moved, their patience is incredible. Both me and one of our guests had telephoto lenses and were able to capture some decent images of the patient hunter waiting for its next meal.