Landscape 4: Winter Mountains

On our last day in Yellowstone we woke to the first proper snow of the season, and after a few hours they closed the park entrances.

Instead of leaving to the south we had to exit to the north, drive up to Bozeman, Montana, and loop around to the West of the park back to Jackson, which took all day.

But the morning after the snow the clouds lifted, and there were the Tetons for the first time, as a parting gift before my flight home. The Tetons rise straight out of the valley with no foothills to blur their lower slopes, creating a dramatic and forbidding barrier.

Jackson Valley is at an altitude of 6,800 feet, and the highest peaks in the Tetons are 13,770 feet. This early snow blanketed just the upper slopes of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski area, which gets an average of 500 inches of snow a year.

I stayed with generous friends, so I end with the view from their house. How shall I ever repay them?

Brown black bears

Black Bears, Ursus americanus, are properly black where I live in Maine, but out west they come in many shades. In The Tetons and in Yellowstone I saw black-hued ones in the far distance on two occasions (one of which I personally spotted first through the scope at least a kilometer away, eliciting a high-five from Mark), but my closest encounter was with a walnut-brown mother and two matching cubs.-

They were coming down a steep hillside across a gully from us, and Mark using his scope/cellphone combo got this video:

Then the mother crossed the gully (and the road) to the next hillside

followed by the cubs, in a big hurry,

and they headed off into the woods,

where they hung out for some considerable time, foraging:

The cubs would have been born in the den in mid-January to early February while the mother was still hibernating, so they are now about 8 months old. Two is the usual litter.

She probably weighs 150 pounds; males can be twice that.

She is now building up her body weight to survive another long winter in hibernation. On this occasion she was eating snowberries:

The cubs will spend one more winter with her before she chases them off in the spring.

PS Yellowstone is vast, 3500 square miles, but it has very few roads, and vehicles must stay on those roads. You can hike, but the animals are thinly spread, so you mostly see them from vehicles. As a result, when a bear comes close enough to the road to be easily visible, bedlam ensues. Cars screech to a halt, people leap out, the rangers arrive to control the crowds. Not my preferred way to see wildlife, though I am one of the tourists in the vehicles adding to the problem. You have to wonder why the animals ever go near the roads, given how much back country they have to roam in, and that feeding the wildlife is strictly forbidden and well policed.

“Oh, lovely, gentle, unobtrusive mule” (deer)*

The unassuming mule deer is sometimes called the grey ghost of the forest (a nickname it shares with the unrelated African kudu).

They are a sub-species of black-tailed deer, Odocoileus hemionus, and are limited to areas west of the Missouri River, in contrast to the white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, found over most of the eastern US, but rare in the West. (though we did see one! ). The mule deer’s tail isn’t actually black, which would make it useless as an alarm mechanism, but it has a black tip:

They’re called mule deer because of their large mule-like ears:

Here is an actual mule for comparison!

When an adult male materializes out of the forest he is imposing, even at a mere 3 1/2 feet at the shoulder (much smaller than an elk). He can still weigh in at up to 330 lbs.

and he can have pretty large antlers, this one has six points:

Their facial masks vary widely, and some have black lines down their spine or at the base of their tail. The male above has rather quizzical “eyebrows” that reminded me of Mr. Bean. The young 3-point male below has a chic black V on his forehead and a black spinal stripe:

The young are usually born starting in late May and are now 3-4 months old, miniatures of their doting parents:

Sometimes romance seems to have been delayed, and this fawn still has its reddish color and its spots, meaning it can’t be more than 2 1/2 months old.

Winter will be a challenge: this fawn will have to keep up since they can migrate as much as 150 miles south (one travelled 240 miles), the longest land migration of any ungulate in the Lower 48.

*Mules tend not to get a good press, but my title is from a poem written to a pet mule. It is not great poetry, nor is it about a mule deer, but I include it here to demonstrate that even a mule can be loved by someone. The newspaper observes that “it is in blank verse, which seems to be the only literary method for successfully treating the mule.”

Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser, 1891
By Bill Nye

Oh, lovely, gentle, unobtrusive mule,
Thou standest idly, ‘gainst the azure sky,
And sweetly, sadly singest like a hired man.
Who taught thee thus to warble
In the noontide heat and wrestle with
Thy deep, corroding grief and joyless woe?
Who taught thy simple heart
Its pent-up wildly warring waste
Of wanton woe to carol forth upon the silent air?

I chide thee not, because thy
Song fraught is with grief-embittered
Monotone and joyless minor chords
Of wild, imported melody for thou
Art restless, woe-begirt, and
Compassed round about with gloom,
Thou timid, trusting orphan mule!

Few joys, indeed, are thine,
Thou thrice-bestricken, madly
Mournful, melancholy mule.
And he alone who strews
Thy pathway with his cold remains
Can give the recompense
Of festering and injurious woe.
He who hath sought to steer
Thy limber, yielding tail
Anigh thy crupper band
Hath given thee joy, and he alone.
‘Tis true, he may have shot
Athwart the zodiac, and, looking
O’er the outer walls upon The New Jerusalem,
have uttered vain regrets;
Thou reckest not, O orphan mule,
For it hath given thee joy, and
Bound about thy bursting heart,
And held thy tottering reason
To its throne.

Sing on, O mule, and warble In the twilight grey,
Unchidden by the heartless throng.
Sing of thy parents on thy father’s side,
Yearn for the days now past and gone,
For he who pens these halting,
Limping lines to thee
Doth bid thee yearn and yearn and yearn.

Landscape 3: Evening

In Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, as we watched fruitlessly for wolves in the evenings, the sun occasionally leaked through the omnipresent low clouds:

Once it gave us a rainbow:

And once it came in low and sideways, washing the flanks of the hills

We had our backs to those hills, and the light crept up on us almost unawares:

I am glad I turned around, and lifted up mine eyes unto the hills:

What Thomas Chatterton called “the burnish’d mountain-top”, but this one was masquerading as a sand dune.

Partial compensation for the dearth of wolves.

A bull moose in his pomp

I have seen moose in Maine over the years, but always without those iconic antlers: either cows, or bulls after they have dropped their antlers. Hallelujah, in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming I finally saw bull moose in their full glory.

It wasn’t easy. The biggest one I saw was just turning his back on me to wander nonchalantly back into the deep forest, so I got barely a glimpse and no photo.

The second one was high on the hillside about 300 metres away: he is the little black dot halfway down and left of centre.

When I zoomed in you could admire his rack and his beard, but not in close-up.

And then he decided to settle down under a tree to chew the cud:

The next day, though, a different male decided to travel across the landscape in full view close by, and here he is:

Their muzzle always reminds me of a carthorse, and I have an urge to hold out my palm with a carrot on it. Probably a bad idea. Anyway, this one is in his prime, between five and ten years old.

It is very hard to age a moose by its antlers, but they don’t get this butterfly (or split-palm) shape until around 5 1/2, and then as they age the antlers dwindle again.

The forward pointing portions are to protect their eyes and faces in dominance displays, though they rarely actually fight. The “beard” is in reality a flap of skin, more properly called a dewlap, or bell, and it is found in both males and females, though it is bigger in males.

No-one really knows what it is for. It may help to spread the animal’s scent during mating season. Bull moose will scrape a depression in the ground, urinate in it, and then lie down in the resulting fragrant slop. A muddy dewlap is a good way of dispersing the enticing pheromones to passing females. In this movie, again taken by Mark with his iPhone/scope combo, you can see how the dewlap flops around:

PS Here is a graphic of the different stages of antlers; the chap in my close-ups carries a fine example of the final stage:

PPS A depressing appendix. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a prion disease (like mad cow disease) that affects the brains and spinal cords of moose, elk, and deer. First identified in Colorado in 1981, it has now reached the Greater Yellowstone area. It is probably spread through bodily fluids, is slow-growing, and the early symptoms are not obvious. It is always fatal, and is considered a serious threat to the populations of all these animals. We can only hope that they acquire some resistance to this scourge.

Landscape 2: Water

Rivers thread the landscape of Greater Yellowstone, some no more than a trickle:

and some wide and fast:

There are lakes, some natural and some the result of dams. One dam was being repaired and the lake was deliberately low:

Yellowstone even has its own Grand Canyon, fed by the Yellowstone River as it drops over an impressive waterfall

The canyon deepens, and if you hike along the rim the river looks tiny below you :

On other days, if the wind drops and the light is right, you see double:

And when you come over the brow of a hill there are wide valleys miles across with streams running through them, and your heart leaps:

In 1871, on the Hayden survey expedition, the artist Thomas Moran painted watercolors of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. These first images of Yellowstone’s astonishing beauty were produced for the masses as chromolithographs,

and turned into the awe-inspiring oils we now find so familiar:

His work helped build public support for the establishment of the first national park in the US (and the second in the world), signed into law by President Ulysses Grant in 1872.

Bison bison bison

Of all the iconic animals of the American West, surely the Plains Bison is number one.

Their story is one of inexcusable near-extinction, followed by a remarkable recovery effort. Before Europeans arrived, they are thought to have numbered around 60 million. By 1905 their numbers were down to less than 1000, including those in captivity. The pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge shot this series of stills in 1883,

later composed into a video:

The numbers were brought back up to the current 350,000, initially partly by cross-breeding with cattle, but that practice has long since stopped. The Yellowstone bison are pure bred Bison bison bison with no cattle DNA. (Yes, that is their scientific name!). These numbers are far below what they once were, but their survival as a species is no longer in doubt.

The males have horns whose ends point straight up:

The females have horns that curve elegantly inwards:

Boys will be boys, as evidenced by these two play-fighting:

But an adult male can weigh 2500 lbs

and do a lot of damage. This adult’s flank has been pierced by a horn, not seriously:

And just look at what they can do to a human being:

They are not all brute force. This one has lovely eyelashes!

And their topknot hair is luxuriantly wiry:*

Their thick coat insulates them well, but one of their pleasures is a good wallow in the mud. These dark circles are wallows created by the bison:

When winter comes, that coat is a pretty good insulator and also fairly waterproof:

The main challenge posed by snow is getting at the food underneath. In Yellowstone, which is at an altitude of over 8000 feet, an average winter brings over 12 feet of snow, with much more at the higher elevations. The bison swing their huge heads from side to side to bulldoze their way through the snow.

PS Bison are often called buffalo, but they are unrelated to the African buffalo or the Asian Water Buffalo, so bison is a better name.

PPS: From The New Yorker, a few days after my return:

*Talking of their hair, this is Hilaire Bellocs’ assessment:

The Bison

The Bison is vain, and (I write it with pain)
   The Door-mat you see on his head
Is not, as some learned professors maintain,   
The opulent growth of a genius’ brain;
   But is sewn on with needle and thread.

Landscape 1: Trees

[In between animal posts, I’m slipping in the occasional post to show you the stunning landscape of the Greater Yellowstone area (which also encompasses the Grand Teton National Park)].

The weather during my trip was mainly cloudy and sullen, with intermittent rain, and one day of snow. The mountains could only be glimpsed, and the dramatic vistas rarely got the kind of lighting they deserved. But its beauty still comes through. The cottonwoods and the aspens turn the most astonishing colors in the fall, and although some were bare by the time I arrived there were enough left to show flashes of brilliance in the otherwise sombre landscape:

Sometimes there were long golden borders between the evergreens and the meadows:

In the moister areas, the low-growing bushy willows were purple and orange in the foreground:

creating a tapestry of autumnal carpets:

Even where all seemed dead and gone, leaving this bleak aftermath from a catastrophic fire some years ago:

a closer look shows brave new trees returning:

And a few wildflowers hung on, a promise of new life when spring returns.

Phlox multiflora

Quelques Elk: Part 2

It is mating season, and the bulls that we met last time have harems of from 5-30 females each.

The one in the right foreground below had 26 females!:

The male guards them day and night, because younger ‘periphery bulls’ lurk nearby, hoping to impregnate any female that strays from the group.

The young spikes also have to be watched, just in case they get any ideas. If the seigneur perceives a threat to his sovereignty he stretches his neck out and curves his head back so his antlers touch his spine.

And other threats lurk. This periphery bull wandered away, and when I looked at my distant photos I noticed for the first time that he was not alone:

The watcher is certainly a canid, (confirmed by my guide), and probably a wolf, (though it could be a coyote). Since I never did see wolves I am going to claim this as a wolf-sighting! Elk is the preferred food of wolves in the Tetons, and they can tackle both calves, and older or weaker adults.

Bull elk make eerie calls during mating season, known as bugling. Listen here:

The result of these fall liaisons will be calves in late May to mid-June. This calf is now four months old, browsing with its mother.

When her belly is full, she lies down to digest:

They may look stiff-legged, but those hind legs can be used to scratch behind the ear:

As winter closes in, they drift southwards.

Traditionally, the Jackson herd of about 11,000 animals would have moved from the Grand Tetons to lower elevations further south. Now their way is blocked by the town of Jackson at the southern end of the valley, so to prevent winter starvation the National Elk Refuge was created over 100 years ago, in 1912. Controversially, they are given supplemental food during the winter. The migration routes for the Greater Yellowstone elk herds can be seen below: the largest magenta blob, bottom center, is the Refuge.

I am proud to live in a country that once thought to create a National Elk Refuge. Long may we continue to value such places.

Quelques Elk*: Part 1

My guide in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone was the wonderfully well-informed wildlife biologist Mark Byall of EcoTour Adventures. He was a constant source of fascinating information, and never ever boring. Thanks Mark. And Gloria and Rich (you know who you are).

The North American range of the elk is much more limited than it once was, (and Maine has never been their home), so this was my first chance to see elk.

They’re huge! A bull elk, Cervus elaphus nelsoni, can weigh over 1100 lbs and stand up to 5 ft at the shoulder (I am 5ft 3″). The most striking thing about them is of course their antlers. This one has five points on each antler:

and this one, confronting a potential rival, has six:

They don’t reach their maximum size for 9 1/2 years or so, and the record-holder had 14 points on each side. But most mature bulls are six-pointers, like my second photo above, and the one in this video, far off on a ridge and taken by Mark Byall through his spotting scope with his iPhone:

We will meet this bull again next time.

Young bulls are called spikes, for obvious reasons:

Look closely at his spikes:

They push out of the pedicles, and initially they are covered in a velvety membrane. He still has some attached to the tips of his miniature antlers. The velvet has a blood supply, and helps the antlers grow. Indeed, at this stage they will bleed if they are damaged.

This wonderful time-lapse video shows how antlers grow (it is a white-tailed deer, but the process is the same for elk, moose, or any antlered species):

They rub the velvet off on a nearby tree, leaving a scrape behind:

elk scrape

After the mating season is over, they drop their antlers. This video shows an elk just after he has lost his antlers. I suppose it feels like losing a tooth (Is there an antler fairy, I wonder?). He still behaves like the alpha male, and at the end of the video you can see it feels itchy and strange to him.

This arch in the town square in Jackson, Wyoming is made entirely of natural elk drops:

Jackson Hole’s Elk Antler Arch Tradition

In Part 2 I will introduce you to the rest of the family, and an unexpected visitor.

* My title is grammatically justifiable since ‘elk’ can be plural as well as singular! ‘Quelques’ is the plural of the French for ‘some’ and can be pronounced [kelk] or [kelk-uhz]. And you try finding another rhyme for ‘elk’. The only other one is ‘whelk’.

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