A Winter’s Journey

Winter is not a season, it’s a celebration.

~Anamika Mishra

Melissa had another wonderful educator workshop to Yellowstone last month with plenty of extraordinary sightings including a Pygmy Owl, Ermine, and a Bobcat feeding on a Mule Deer carcass (jealous, me??). We planned for her to take some time off afterward and have some friends join us for a week in our favorite winter wonderland. I went out a few days before that group arrived so we could scout things out and hang out with some our friends that live near the park. I’ll post some of our highlights here and add another post on our friend’s group trip next time.

Snow amounts were a little more than in some of my previous trips. The slopes surrounding Lamar Valley were stunning under a brilliant blue sky (click photos to enlarge)

Pronghorn, and many other ungulates, migrate to lower elevations near Gardiner (the north entrance to the park) in winter. This year has seen huge numbers of Bison, Elk, Mule Deer, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, and Pronghorn congregate in the sagebrush flats along the Yellowstone River. The drive along the Old Yellowstone Trail between Corwin Springs and Gardiner yielded great views of large numbers of animals.

One of many Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep rams hanging out on the Old Yellowstone Trail. Though the peak of their rut is in December, this guy was pursuing a ewe in this classic pose.

A nice bull Elk has pawed through the snow to feed on grass. Melissa noticed that Elk feeding pits typically had sharper edges and little mini-cliffs to them compared to the more jumbled bulldozed appearance where Bison use their massive heads to plow through the snow.

This same Elk hung around Phantom Lake throughout the duration of our trip, seen here browsing on willow twigs just below the road. He caused several traffic jams during our stay.

A small herd of Rocky Mountain Goats on the slopes of Barronette Peak in the northeastern part of the park. This peak is the best place to find this non-native species, but snow cover can make it challenging. Photo taken with an iPhone mounted to a spotting scope.

A light snow (ice crystals really) was creating a diamond-like dusting in the sky behind us while watching the goats

— Melissa’s educator workshop did not see wolves during their trip, so we felt a little guilty finding members of the Rescue Creek pack during our first couple of days. We heard howls and then a nearby guide shared that he had seen them surround a bison and perhaps take it down This was at a distance of about 2 miles through a spotting scope. The carcass seemed to be down in a ravine and the wolves would periodically come up to the ridge line where they were visible.

Another scope/iPhone video…

— On one of our many trips through Lamar Valley, we spotted a Raven about 1/4 mile out from the road acting oddly – jumping up and flapping its wings, and then grabbing at something in the snow. It turned out to be a dead duck. We could only guess as to how the duck ended up so far from the river – perhaps an eagle dropped it?

Melissa had discovered a new snowshoe hike near Pebble Creek in her workshop. We snowshoed in one afternoon and were rewarded with some wonderful surprises…

An American Thee-toed Woodpecker was busy pecking away at the bark of a conifer searching for insects and seemed oblivious to our presence. This, and the Black-backed Woodpecker, differ from all other North American woodpecker species in having only three toes (instead of four) and lacking red feathers. This woodpecker is associated closely with spruce forests and nests farther north than any other North American woodpecker. I can’t recall seeing this species before so this was a treat.

The highlight of this hike for me was when we paused to watch some birds and we both heard a noise behind us. I thought it was some ice cracking on the nearby stream edge, but Melissa quickly spotted the source – a nice bull Moose.

He was feeding on aspen branches, reaching high to snap off twig tips.

He then stuck his enormous snout into the snow and pulled up some hidden vegetation.

While we watched the one bull, I spotted another coming down the hill and headed our way. This was another bull that had recently dropped its antlers (most drop them in December and January). You can see the whitish pedicel where one of the antlers was attached to the skull. We stayed still and this moose walked across the path where we were headed and wandered off into the trees. We slowly snowshoed along the trail and the first bull eventually made his way behind us to join the other moose.

— I’ll leave you with some video shot by Melissa of this magnificent bull Moose browsing on aspen twigs – a privilege to witness such wild beauty.

Moose Magic

Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old.

~Bill Bryson

For many years, Moose have been one of the more difficult of Yellowstone’s large mammals to find. The best place was usually at the Northeast entrance or in the small town of Silver Gate just beyond that gate. This trip had Moose aplenty, with sightings on almost every day we were in the park, ranging from the upper part of Lamar Valley to near the Northeast entrance. The area known as Round Prairie was particularly productive and we saw a record (for us) of seven of these magnificent creatures there one day. Unfortunately, our best views happened before our group of students arrived, though they also saw Moose, but at greater distances (except for one quick roadside spotting on our last full day in the park).

Needless to say, on our multi-moose day at Round Prairie, there was a crowd. We got lucky and pulled into a spot in the closest pullout as someone was leaving. Here are some images of the group of five Moose close to us (another two were far out in the meadow in another willow thicket).

A young bull tilts his head to thread his antlers between tree branches

At first glance, I thought we had two bulls and three cows feeding in front of us. When I looked with binoculars I could see that one of the largest animals was actually a bull that had dropped its antlers. Bull Moose shed their antlers annually anywhere from late November until March. Mature males tend to shed the earliest, soon after the fall mating season (the rut). That makes sense as you probably wouldn’t want to carry around those giant armaments (they can weigh over 50 pounds and span almost 5 feet) any longer than necessary.

Bulls start growing their new set of antlers a few weeks after dropping the old ones. A bull’s antlers increase in size (the number of points, span, and size of the palms – the flattened portions) each year until its prime (usually about 5 or 6 years of age). Young bulls start off with only a few points and small palms as a yearling. The number of points and the size of the palms will grow each season with the antlers usually forming a protective arch over the face during the prime years, preventing damage to the bull’s eyes when competing for mates. As he ages past his prime, the antlers tend to get smaller each year, with fewer points and smaller palms.

An antler-less bull feeding
The largest antlered bull showing how the antlers emerge from the head just above each eye. Antlers are a sign of rank and strength during the fall mating season. Younger bulls are usually scared off by the size of a mature bull’s rack, so fighting is avoided. Evenly matched bulls may lock antlers in a shoving match to fight for a female.
Here is a close-up of the bull that had already dropped his antlers. You can see the point of antler connection to the skull, called the pedicle, as a somewhat circle-shaped scar above the eye. After the rut, the male’s testosterone levels drop, activating specialized cells called osteoclasts. These weaken the connection of the antlers to the pedicle and the antlers eventually drop off.
Another view showing where the antlers were attached. When an antler first drops off, the pedicle may bleed a bit before clotting and drying up

At one point, three bulls started running toward the road as they shoved one another and acted a bit aggressive. There’s nothing like a running bull moose (weighing up to 1100 pounds, being nine feet from nose to tail, and 7 feet at the shoulders) to get a gang of photographers to move (although I thought a few of them did not clear out of the way fast enough for their own good considering there were three bull moose running toward them!). Two of the bulls went across the road and then returned to the willows to feed with apparently no more ill will between them. Moose tend to be solitary animals, but will congregate, especially in winter, at good food sources. The willow stands in Round Prairie offer that prized resource.

A group of Moose suddenly moved quickly toward the road (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Two bulls that crossed the road soon moved back and started feeding
A cow and calf feed near a bull in a willow thicket
Here you can clearly see the dangling triangle of skin below the chin called a dewlap (also called a bell). The dewlap’s function is not known though theories vary from heat exchange to communication during the rut. During courtship, a bull will rub the cow with his chin (called chinning) and the dewlap may transfer scent to the female.

A Moose’s winter diet consists almost entirely of twigs. In fact, the word moose comes from a Native American word that means “twig eater”. We watched them browsing the tips of the willow shrubs and a close look would show them both breaking off the twig tips to eat and pulling on them as if to strip off the bark.

A Moose browsing on the willow twigs

Here is a short video clip of Moose eating twigs. The falling snow made it difficult to get a sharp image but it is still interesting to watch them feed.

– Moose feeding on willows in Round Prairie

Our final Moose was one spotted by one of the students as we headed back through the northern part of the park on our last full day (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Though Moose look gangly and awkward to many, I am fascinated by this largest member of the deer family. I hope their population continues to grow in Yellowstone so other visitors may also marvel at these magical beasts.

Of Moose and Men (and Women)

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

~Henry David Thoreau

This is a post about the final leg of our journey last fall on our truck camping adventure. From the deserts of Utah, we herded into familiar territory of Kebler Pass in the Colorado Rockies. We had camped there the year before in peak color of the aspens and it had been glorious. This year, we were just past peak and a wind storm two days before our arrival had stripped the trees of most of their leaves. But, the scenery is still magical and the wildlife put on quite a show.

We wanted to camp at the same site as before, with a view into a beaver dam filled creek surrounded by high mountain peaks. As we were driving to our site, we saw some folks gathered down by the stream and Melissa soon spotted a large dark shape in the tall willows. We pulled in and got the scoop from the others that a bull was following a cow as she was browsing in the dense vegetation.

A bull keeping an eye on a cow as she feeds in the willows (click photos to enlarge)

She finally headed to the edge of the creek and broke out in the open in front of a beaver dam.

The cow walked out in the open in front of a beaver dam

We waited, and, sure enough, he followed.

Bull Moose following his female

The next morning we drove back down to the site and found her again, out in the willows. She bedded down and we waited, but did not see the bull anywhere.

She is almost impossible to see, but is bedded down along the shore in thick brush

We waked around to the other side of the creek for better light and sat for quite awhile as she lay in the sun, but almost invisible to our eyes. She finally got up, and, then, nearby, so did the bull, who had been there the whole time but hidden from our view.

She finally got up, started feeding, and then waded across the creek
The bull follows again

After crossing the creek, she began running in tight circles in the willows and snorting, and finally went into thicker vegetation and disappeared (maybe she had had enough of this young male?). The bull ended up crossing back across the creek and vanishing in the huge willow thicket upstream.

Having spent a couple of hours with these moose, we felt privileged and couldn’t imagine having that kind of luck again. But, when we found ourselves in a beautiful valley of the Taylor Park region, we picked a campsite along a meandering stream valley full of beaver dams with lots of moose and elk sign in the surrounding forest.

Sitting near our campsite looking out over the beaver marshes

That afternoon, we went out looking for wildlife and Melissa soon saw something and whispered, “I see a moose, no, two moose, wait, three, no four moose!”. Indeed, there was a group of four moose feeding in a beaver pond downstream of our campsite – a cow, two young ones, and a bull. The late day light flooded the area and we spent a long time basking in the sight of these magnificent animals doing what they do, wading in a beaver pond, feeding on vegetation, and looking regal.

Melissa spotted the Moose in a nearby beaver pond
The cow was ever alert as she dipped her huge snout into the water for vegetation
As soon as the cow and young ones moved off, the bull followed
After the moose departed, we sat next to a beaver dam and soaked in the scenery (what a vista these critters have)

After the phenomenal moose encounter, we relaxed by a large beaver pond just upstream. Soon, we were rewarded with an eye level view of one of the inhabitants.

A beaver swan out of the lodge and eyed us before deciding we weren’t bushes that sprang up during the day
The resounding slap of a beaver tail as it sounds the alarm

We decided to leave the beavers to their kingdom and retreated back to our chairs with a view of the incredible surroundings.

Sunset from our campsite in beaver and moose country

The next day, we headed out, bound for home, with three stops along the way at familiar types of campsites – a state fishing lake, a state conservation area, and the gorgeous Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

Another restful Kansas State Fishing Lake campsite
A Missouri campsite next to a vernal pool
A view of the unusual landscape of Red River Gorge
Our final two nights on the road in crowded Red River Gorge, but we managed to backpack in a short distance and find a secluded ridge-line

It’s always good to get back home after an adventure, but it definitely whet the appetite for more, especially in isolated-truck-camping-loving Melissa. So, stay tuned for more…