That Makes Scents

…neither fish nor beast is the otter.

~Ted Hughes

Driving down a dirt road last week on the Pungo Unit, I spotted something up ahead. It wasn’t a critter, but rather a distinctive sign made by an animal.

River Otter wallow

River Otter scent-marking and rolling area (click photos to enlarge)

As I got closer, I could see it was a very large area that had been marked by a River Otter, although by the looks of it, undoubtedly more than one animal. River Otters are common in the canals at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and have regular spots they use to cross the roads from one canal to another. I had seen tracks and scat in this general location before, but never this large of an area with this much sign. There were a bunch of squiggles in the sandy substrate indicting the otters had rolled around in a patch of road measuring about 6 or 7 feet across. River Otters roll to maintain their fur. Rolling fluffs it up, cleans and dries the fur, and helps distribute the oils that are critical to maintaining its insulating and waterproofing qualities.

River Otter sign

River Otter scat and urine at the rolling location – notice the tracks on the lower edge of wet area

Rolling also serves as a means of communication amongst otters by scent-marking as they roll. They frequently defecate and urinate in or adjacent to these areas (and regularly used haul-outs) as a means of scent-marking. To make sure other otters know they have been in the neighborhood, River Otters have scent glands on their hind feet as well as highly developed anal scent glands (the latter is typical of all members of the weasel family).

River Otter scat with fish scales

River Otter scat usually is full of fish scales

A common indicator of their presence are small mounds of vegetation and debris scraped into a pile by an otter and topped with scat in locations where they regularly haul out or have pathways to water.Their scat is usually composed of fish scales and is tubular in shape, although you often see it simply in a small pile.

River Otter scat with crayfish parts

River Otter scat with crayfish parts

Another common component are bits and pieces of crayfish, which usually have a reddish-pinkish tint. There is usually a distinctive musky-fishy smell associated with these locations, especially if recently used. With so many ways to scent mark, River Otters must be constantly checking on the comings and goings of friends, relatives, and potential competitors in their neighborhood.

While I did not see an otter on that day, they left ample evidence of their presence. It was fun to imagine three or four of them laying and rolling in the road, leaving their calling card for the next otter to come by. And they probably did it in that playful manner we so often associate with these beautiful animals. I have seen otter here several times and had the privilege of watching them hunt and go about their business in many other areas around the country. Whenever I see them, it always brings a smile to my face…they just seem to have that affect on people.

River Otter at Lake Mattamuskeet

River Otter catching a quick nap at Lake Mattamuskeet

River Otter pair

Pair of River Otter at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Scrambled Eggs

The name “raccoon” is drawn from the Algonquian term “arakun” and roughly translates to “he who scratches with his hands”.

~Samuel I. Zevelof, in Raccoons: A Natural History

Between the Bobcat and the Black Bear cubs the other day, I had another interesting wildlife encounter. Most of the dusty miles of gravel roads at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge are accompanied on at least one side, by many miles of canals. These dark waterways are home to a diversity of wildlife including substantial populations of aquatic turtles (mainly Yellow-bellied Sliders and Painted Turtles). Driving along on a sunny day reveals many turtles basking on the canal banks or lined up on any partially submerged log. Last Monday, there were plenty of turtles basking, plus two crossing the road, and one was even laying eggs in a shallow nest in the gravel road. I thought that was a poor choice for a nest location, but, shortly thereafter, I saw that choosing a good nest site is probably not easy in this predator-rich environment.

Raccoon crossing road

Raccoon crossing road (click photos to enlarge)

Driving around a curve, I spotted a female Raccoon scurrying across the road. She ended up in a grassy area near the junction of two roads and their neighboring canals. I quickly pulled over, expecting her to just disappear into the brush, but she had other things on her mind.

Raccoon sniffing in grass

Raccoon sniffing in grass

She moved quickly along the back edge of the opening, swinging her head and sniffing, pausing every now and then when she smelled something interesting.

Raccoon digging

Raccoon digging

Suddenly, she stopped, spun around a couple of times with her nose to the ground, and began digging with those incredibly dexterous front paws. If you have ever seen their distinctive tracks in the mud, you know their front paws resemble tiny human hands, without an opposable thumb. One reference stated that the front paws contain four times the touch receptors as there are in their hind feet. Plus, a Raccoon’s brain supposedly has a major portion of the cerebral cortex devoted to these paws and the sense of touch.

Raccoon eating turtle egg 1

Raccoon removing something from the hole she has just dug

After digging for about a minute, she hunched over a bit more and then gingerly lifted something out of the hole – an egg, a turtle egg. She held it between her paws, not grabbing it with the “fingers” as I expected, but holding it cupped in her paws like we would hold a tennis ball if our fingers were taped together. She gently roiled it into her mouth and began to chew.

Raccoon eating turtle egg lifting its head

She lifted her head as she manipulated each egg in her mouth

As she chewed, she lifted her head, and it looked as if she was moving the egg around inside her mouth to get the contents out, perhaps without swallowing the egg shell (which, in a turtle, is somewhat leathery instead of brittle like a bird egg). This routine was followed for each egg dug out of the hole.

Raccoon eating turtle egg 1

Holding an egg to get the last drop of goodness out

She manipulated each egg for 15 to 30 seconds, then her head would drop back down,  and she would pick up another egg and move it to her mouth. Her head was always low when she first got the egg, and then she would always raise it as she extracted the yolk.

Raccoon eating turtle egg

Raccoon pulling out the last egg from the turtle nest

She finally ate the last egg, looked over at me, and started walking back across the road. It was as if she knew she might get a meal in that spot and had made a quick run to the store to pick up a few things and was now heading home. And I’m betting she has had success in that location the past. Favorable turtle nesting sites are hard to come by in a swamp, which is what most of the land is around that road juncture. This wide grassy patch has probably served as a turtle nesting area for years, and the local Raccoon population has learned to periodically check it for the possibility of an egg breakfast.

Raccoon face with deer fly

The Raccoon was not the only one getting a meal

When I later looked at the image of her after she ate the last egg, I saw that she was not the only one getting a meal at that moment. In fact, in almost every image I took that day, I could see one or more biting flies somewhere in the image. She has one above her left eye in the photo above. And a close look at one of the earlier photos will show a tick in her left ear. Everything needs to eat I suppose.

Raccoon-raided turtle nest

Raccoon-raided turtle nest

After she departed, I walked over to inspect the nest. I have seen this crime scene many times after the fact, but this was the first time I have witnessed the egg thief in action. There were 8 egg shells scattered about the hole. Sliders may lay two or three clutches per year of up to 15 or more eggs, so there are plenty of chances for a little one to at least hatch, although there are still a lot of predators to get past before becoming a fairly well-protected adult turtle in one of these canals. Meanwhile, that female Raccoon is probably returning to a tree to gather her family of babies after a good breakfast. As always, I am thankful to have been there to witness part of the cycle.

 

 

A Rare Day

…a very secretive animal; you rarely see them.

~Paul Rezendes, in Tracking and the Art of Seeing

Secretive indeed. I have been lucky over the years to have seen several (about twenty five or so), mainly at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. A few others at Alligator River and Mattamuskeet, one in Chapel Hill at Mason Farm, one in our mountains, and one in a swamp in South Carolina. Many have been brief glimpses. One that I wrote about last September, was a long, privileged view of one casually walking toward me, and snagging a quick snack along the way. All have been special to me. So, Monday was a very good day when I saw two of them. I have had only one other day where I was lucky enough to see two. One was chasing another one when they ran out into the road in front of a friend and I at Pocosin Lakes several years ago. We saw them for less than 20 seconds but it left a lasting impression.

Bear in reeds 1

If it had not been for this guy, I would have probably missed a rare sighting (click photos to enlarge)

The first sighting on Monday was one of those lucky moments where things just work out. I was driving on a road south of Pungo Lake when I passed a bear in a patch of reeds across the canal. It stood up as I drove by, so I kept going and turned around to pass by again, so it would be on my side of the car for a photo. The bear stayed put for a few clicks of the shutter, but was actually a bit too close for the lens I had. It slowly turned away and walked off. I started to do another three-point turn to resume my drive through the refuge, and when I glanced in the rear view mirror, something stepped out of the brush alongside the road about 75 feet behind me.

Bobcat behind my car

Bobcat came out behind my car

I couldn’t believe it…a Black Bear in front of me, and a Bobcat behind me. I had to complete the turn in order to get an image, and when I started to, the Bobcat slipped back into the brush alongside the road. Having seen this before, I knew there was a good chance that, if I waited, it would come back out. I drove a little closer, pulled at an angle so I could get a shot, cut the car engine, and waited.

Bobcat looking straight

After waiting a few minutes, the Bobcat came back out to the road

Sure enough, the graceful cat came back out in almost the exact same spot after only a couple of minutes of waiting.

Bobcat close up

A mesmerizing gaze

It looked around, glancing my way a time or two, and then walked out into the road.

Bobcat looking at me in road

The Bobcat kept an eye on me as it walked down the road

The harsh shadows made for tough exposures, but, hey, it was a Bobcat!

Bobcat walking away from me in road

Out for a morning stroll

It started walking slowly down the road, weaving from side to side. I cranked the car and started to follow at a snail’s pace. The Bobcat wandered over to the edge of the canal on the opposite side of the road twice and paused, seemingly trying to decide whether to cross. I was ready to leap out of the car if it did, as I really wanted to see it swim across the canal and get out on the other side.

Bobcat walking away from me in road 1

It decided not to swim the canal, and then headed back toward the thick brush

But, it never did. And then it gave me an up close look at one of the signs you usually see instead of seeing the animal itself…it hunched its back and deposited an unmistakable Bobcat scat at the edge of the road. It’s not often you get to witness animal sign being made, or that you get to share such a thing with readers:).

Bobcat scat and boot

The scat seemed large for the size of the cat

Bobcat scat

Bobcat scat is tapered and often blunt at the tip

The cat then walked off into the brush. I waited, and waited, but it didn’t return. I got out and checked the scat and was surprised at how large it was given the size of the Bobcat (the cat I photographed last Fall was much taller than this one). Bobcat scat can be distinguished from similar-sized canine scat by being fairly segmented and often blunt at the tips. This scat contained hair, and lacked the larger chunks of bone often seen in Coyote or Red Wolf scat. And while we think of cats as always covering their scat, one of my track references (Tracking and the Art of Seeing) says that Bobcat cover their scat about half the time. I figured I would have to show pretty pictures of the animal to get yo to read this far and learn about poop:).

Later that afternoon, while watching a deer along a road at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, another Bobcat came out of the brush and walked toward me. It was over 300 yards away, but both the deer and I intently watched it as it walked closer. It then disappeared back into the brush before I ever took a photo. But to have two of these secretive animals in one day….I’ll take it, and be thankful for it, photo or not.

Bobcat looking straight crop

A two Bobcat day…one to remember

 

 

The Wilds Close to Home

What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which the bounty is received.

~Richard Nelson

You all know by now how I feel about Yellowstone and its extraordinary wildlife. But, I have learned that every place can be special if you take the time to look closely and appreciate what the place can give you. My last post was about the wilds of my garden, a place with much in the way to offer in terms of interesting creatures, although most are admittedly a bit on the small side. So, when I want a wildlife fix back in North Carolina, I usually head to that other place you have seen me blog so much about – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Brownish bear

A bear greeted me shortly after my arrival at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

So, when I woke up a bit too early Monday, I decided, what the heck, I think I’ll drive down to Pungo and see what I can see. I arrived about 8:30 a.m. and spotted my first bear within a few minutes. It was a bit unusual-looking in that it was distinctly brownish in color. While brown-colored Back Bears are common in Yellowstone, they are not in the East. I have seen this coloration a couple of times at Pungo on bears in their summer coat, which is probably much thinner than the winter one, so some of the color may actually be due to their skin showing through.

Bear in reeds

Black Bear in reeds along canal bank

After passing two more bears, I drove by a bear that stood up in a patch of reeds along a canal when it saw me. Not wanting to spook it, I kept driving past and then did a three-point turn, before heading back for a photo attempt. The bear had dropped back to a sitting position and stared at me when I pulled to a stop across the canal. I snapped a couple of quick images before the bear slowly turned away and walked back into the forest. I started to make another turn as it walked away to resume my drive when I noticed something in my rear view window. But I’m going to make you wait until the next post to find out what I saw,

After driving around the refuge for a couple of more hours (and chatting with a friend that frequents Pungo even more than me), I decided to head over to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge to check things out. The heat and the abundance oi Deer Flies had convinced me this might be a good day for a driving tour instead of a lot of hiking. So, off I went, making a detour to get access to roads leading through another section of Pocosin Lakes (budget cuts have hampered the road maintenance on the refuge so some roads are closed requiring a long drive around outside of the refuge). That part of the refuge produced another couple of bear sightings, plus two White-tailed Deer and a Raccoon.

Bear in soybean field 2

Black Bear grazing in soybean field at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

As soon as I drove onto one of the dirt roads at Alligator River, I spotted a bear. It was a young one (2 or 3 year old most likely) and it was slowly walking through one of the refuge soybean fields, chowing down on the leaves as it went.

Bear with three bears behind

As I watched, another group of black blobs moved in to the field from the adjoining woods and walked through my view finder behind my bear. It was a sow and two young from a previous year. They slowly moved across, grazing on soybean leaves, until they reached the tree line. One stayed out in the field eating, but, it too, finally headed into the coolness of the shade. My bear count for the day was growing,

Needham's Skimmer most likely 1

Dragonflies were constant companions on the refuge

In addition to the abundant Deer Flies, I saw plenty of other insects on both refuges. Dragonflies were everywhere, hopefully catching some of the biting flies that streamed into the car every time I opened a window or door. A particularly common species was the one shown above – I think it is a Needham’s Skimmer, since I have photographed the bright red adult males in this location in previous summers.

Roadkill rattlesnake

Roadkill rattlesnake

I was hoping to see some snakes out and about on this hot day, but, surprisingly (and sadly), the only snake I saw was a roadkill Canebrake Rattlesnake at Alligator River NWR.

Fawn running away

Fawn running

As I came around a curve I spotted a fawn, which immediately took off running, foiling any attempt at a decent photo.

Fawn standing at edge of road crop

Fawn starting to come back across the road

Suddenly, the fawn stopped and walked across the road. It turned and paused, allowing a few quick pictures.

Fawn running 1

Fawn jumping

Fawn running

Missed opportunities

I had the 500 mm lens plus a 1.4 teleconverter to get a close image. That was fine until the fawn took off across the road, managing to jump out of my frame every single time. Less can be more I suppose.

Sow with cubs hidden

The low angle sun was reminding me of the 3+ hour drive home, but it was soooo nice after the heat and noticeable atmospheric interference of most of the day. On the way out, I stopped where I had seen the first bears on this refuge a few hours earlier. It did not disappoint. There was a bear in one field that had bright yellow ear tags. I have seen a couple of bears on the refuge with ear tags from someone’s research in past years. When I stopped, she looked up and quickly walked over to the edge of the field into the taller vegetation. I moved on and when I came back a few minutes later, she was back in the field eating. But this time, I saw something I had missed in the first sighting.

Sow and three cubs

Tagged bear with her three cubs

She had three tiny cubs in tow. They were small enough that they were pretty well hidden in the soybeans until they lifted their heads or stood up.

Sow and one cub standing

They stuck close to their mom as she maneuvered through the field. Finally, she gathered them and headed back toward the edge, perhaps a bit frustrated with the guy in the car across the canal.

One cub standing crop

Bear cub getting one last look at me

The day ended on a high note with the last cub in line standing “tall” and looking my way. It finally dropped and left a wake of soybean tops waving in its path as it rejoined the rest of the family. For what started as a spur of the moment trip, it had turned out to be an incredible day for wildlife – the final mammal count for both refuges was 24 Black Bears, 4 White-tailed Deer, 2 Raccoons, and…something else I will tell you about in a future blog. A good day, indeed, in the wilds of North Carolina.

 

 

 

Garden Glimpses

Each day has its own beauty, and a mindful attitude enables us to discover the awe and wonder of each moment.

~Stephen Hatch

Coneflower

Wildflowers blooming in the garden (click photos to enlarge)

I’ve been back from Yellowstone about a month now. It took me  a couple of weeks to go through my images and post blogs on the trip. I just finished that process last week and then took a short break from blogging. To be honest, the heat and humidity, plus the realization that I won’t be seeing bears, wolves, or large ungulates, has dampened my enthusiasm for getting out and about. I have been busy doing chores and errands here and catching up on the gardening which has required watering at least twice each day due to the aforementioned heat and lack of rain. To be fair to my North Carolina woods, I have seen a lot of birds (the usual suspects), a couple of new fawns, and a variety insects, but have just taken a break from carrying the camera. Yesterday I decided it was about time, so I carried the 100 mm macro, two extension tubes, and the twin flash out in the garden to see what I could see.

Coneflower single

Coneflower in bloom

A large clump of some sort of coneflower (Rudbeckia sp.) has managed to survive the heat and poor soil of the area outside the raised garden beds and has been blooming for the past week.

Coneflower showing stamens ripening

Stamens appear first with the ripe anthers and bright yellow pollen

A close look shows how the male parts of the flower open first, moving from the bottom of the flower head toward the tip. The female parts then follow that pattern as they mature a little later.

Bee collecting pollen

Bee collecting pollen

The abundant bright yellow pollen attracts a host of pollinators, especially small bees. They become covered with pollen as they work the flower heads, moving in tight circles around each flower before buzzing off to another.

Bumblebee on monarda

Bumblebee on Monarda

A nearby patch of Monarda is bringing in larger insects, especially bumblebees. I need to work on my ability to identify species of this important group of pollinators. There are now a lot of great references available so it should be much easier than in years past and there is growing concern about population declines in some species.

I spent an hour or so wandering the 300 square feet of the garden, and was rewarded with some beautiful flowers, interesting behaviors, and a few species I need to try to identify. While not quite the same as trying to grasp the wonders of the 2.2 million acres of my favorite national park, it still can be rewarding to spend some time in the wilderness outside your doorway.

Flesh Fly

An unknown species of fly, most likely one of the so-called Flesh Flies

Larva on bean

Unidentified larva drilling into one of my green beans

Lightning Bug

Lightning Bug

Yellowstone Reflections

This place, this Yellowstone, comes in through the nostrils, swims into the blood, to alter your very constitution, leaving the familiar skin a sage-scented facade for the wildness running beneath.

~Liz Hinman, a teacher that participated in a Yellowstone Educators of Excellence Institute

Reflections in Lamar

Reflections in Lamar Valley (click on photos to enlarge)

It usually takes me awhile to readjust after returning from Yellowstone. As I sat out by the garden this morning, sipping coffee and watching birds, I thought about that magic that is always with me in Yellowstone. A feeling of freedom and peace. But what makes it so special? And why do I keep returning?

wide bison view

Bison herd in Little America

sunset in Lamar after storm

Sunset in the Northern Range after a storm

Lamar Valley, Little America, the Northern Range – these are the places I think of when I think of Yellowstone. That is where my experiences in the wilds of this incredible national park first began some 30+ years ago. It is also the area I associate most with the large numbers of wildlife – the herds of Bison and Elk, the bears, the packs of wolves – and the wide open spaces and vibrant skies, that epitomize the West to me.

steam at Grand Geyser

Sunrise through steam cloud in Upper Geyser Basin

Mud pots

Mud Pots produce fantastic shapes and sounds if you sit, and watch, and listen

patterns at Grand Prismatic

Thermal features produce a variety of colors and patterns

downed trees in geyser basin

Ghostly skeletons of trees caused by their absorption of silica in the thermal areas

But Yellowstone is so much more. It was set side as the world’s first national park, not for its expansive views and wildlife, but for its unique geology – the world’s greatest concentration of geysers and other thermal features that seem born of another planet. And they still enthrall people from all over this planet today, with over 3 million visitors coming to the park each year.

cloud over lake bandw

Snow squall developing over Yellowstone Lake

frozen lake

Ice breaking up on Yellowstone Lake

ice on Yellowstone Lake

Patterns in the ice on Yellowstone Lake

It is also home to the largest high elevation (greater than 7000 feet) lake in North America – Yellowstone Lake. And on this last trip, the lake went from winter to spring in just a few days time, creating a vast sculpture of patterns and colors along the way.

fog on river in Hayden

Foggy morning on the banks of the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley

Brink of the Lower Falls

Looking down over 300 feet and seeing a double rainbow in the mist at the brink of the Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

From the lake flows the longest free-flowing (no dams) river in the continental U.S., the mighty Yellowstone River. It flows through the park and beyond for almost 700 miles before joining the Missouri River in North Dakota. Along the way, it plunges over two spectacular waterfalls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the parks’ most visited tourist attractions.

Shooting stars 1

The unusual flowers of Shooting Star dot the sagebrush flats in the Northern Range

Prairie Smoke

The flower is delicate and beautiful, but Prairie Smoke gets its name from the seed tufts which look like puffs of smoke

Yellowstone is home to more than 1350 species of flowering plants. A walk through the forest or sage flats in spring and summer offers a kaleidoscope of colors.

Red fox eating 1

Red Fox eating a Pocket Gopher

Grizzly standing bandw

A young Grizzly Bear stands for a better look at a person who has walked out on a nearby hill

Elk on horizon

Cow Elk panting as she crosses a hillside

bison skull 1

The skull of an old Bison bull in Lamar Valley

The abundant wildlife is now one of the main attractions for visitors. Yellowstone probably has the greatest concentration of large mammals of any place in the continental United States. Because of the diversity and abundance of animals, it is a place where you can witness behaviors that most people generally only read about or see on television. And seeing it first hand helps us to begin to comprehend the notion that all things are connected, a critical component to fostering a land conservation ethic.

bison and clouds 2

A cow Bison silhouetted against brewing storm clouds

Yellowstone is, indeed, many things to many people. It gives me a feeling of awe and wonder better than any place else I have traveled. And it stirs something in my soul, something I do feel in many other wild places, but something that is so close to the surface in Yellowstone that it is palpable…I breathe it in, I taste it. It is that feeling of oneness with the world around me, a feeling of belonging. A feeling of peace and freedom. This is why I keep going back, and why I keep sharing it with others. And I think there is one other reason it is so special. It is protected, and should remain as it is, as long as we as a nation continue to value our parks. And that is critically important.

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Looking back at the hundreds of images from this last trip brings back a flood of special memories. I believe it is the gradual accumulation of moments like these that helps create who we are, defines what we believe in, and gives us purpose. It has helped me value time spent outside learning about nature and sharing that passion with others. And while I am over 2000 miles away as I sip my morning brew, I know Yellowstone has helped shape my view of the world, and for that I am grateful.

young moose

Young Moose checking on the whereabouts of its mother

Mallard landing

A Mallard lands in a quiet pool in Lamar Valley

Bull bison chewing cud 1

Bull bison chewing its cud

reflections in Lamar in morning

Morning reflections in Lamar Valley

Calf head

Bison calf checks us out as it crosses the road with the herd

American Avocet and reflection

An elegant American Avocet in Little America

Bison reflection

Bison bull and its reflection in Lamar Valley

ice at lakeshore

Ice has broken up first along a thermally influenced shoreline in Mary Bay on Yellowstone Lake

elk cow silhouette

Elk cow silhouette

reflections in Lamar in evening

Sunset in Lamar Valley

Time and space – time to be alone, space to move about – these may well become the great scarcities of tomorrow.

~Edwin Way Teale

 

 

 

 

Bison Babies

I hear the soft inquiring grunts of the cows as they talk to their calves, and the gentle grunt in return as the calf answers, “Here I am”.

~Wes Olson, in Portraits of the Bison

Bison calf in grass

Bison calf grunting (click photos to enlarge)

If there is an iconic animal of Yellowstone, it has to be the Bison. And spring is a great time to be with the Bison herds as they are full of rambunctious calves. The past couple of years have been good ones for birthing Bison calves, and, at times, there seem to be a hundred or more of these reddish brown bundles of energy stretched out across the sage flats and grasslands in Lamar Valley and Little America.

cow and calf walking

Cow and her calf walking together along a well-worn Bison trail

In every herd, there are young calves following their mothers, or playing with one another, or sacked out in the grass, seemingly exhausted. After a gestation of about nine months, a cow gives birth in May or June. Newborn Bison weigh 30-50 pounds and are a distinctive reddish-brown color for the first few months of their life.

Bison calf

Bison calf in subdued light

bison calves 1

Pair of Bison calves in late afternoon light

Their color can vary from reddish-brown to an almost orange-red, depending on the light. Though you often see pairs of calves cavorting, twins are very rare, and these are usually just singles wandering away from their moms for some fun.

bison calves head butting

Bison calves playing and head butting

bison calves head butting 2

bison calves head butting 3

When not nursing or sleeping, Bison calves are very energetic and curious, and engage in all sorts of running around and play. I watched a couple of them head-butting and shoving each other for several minutes one afternoon, apparently practicing for their more serious bouts when they reach adulthood.

bison sparring

A couple of young Bison sparring near the cavorting calves

Ironically, there were a couple of young adult Bison engaged in a more aggressive-looking match not far away.

bison and newborn calf

Bison with newborn calf

We kept seeing calves that looked like they had been born just a few hours earlier, so we were really hoping to witness a birth. While that eluded us, we did get to see one that had just been born, and was probably taking its first steps.

bison and newborn calf 2

Newborn Bison calf taking its first wobbly steps

bison and newborn calf 3

Nursing newborn calf

bison and newborn calf 4

The cow was very attentive to her newborn

Driving through Lamar Valley, I saw a cow that was separated from the herd on a hillside. Next to her was a reddish blob on the ground, a tiny calf. The cow finally got up and coaxed the calf to its feet. Bison calves are able to stand about a half hour after being born, so we just missed it. The calf was wobbly, and remnants of the umbilical cord were visible, as was some placental material still hanging from the cow.

Bison and newborn heading toward the rest of the herd

Bison and newborn heading toward the rest of the herd

As we watched, the cow licked and encouraged the calf. After ten or fifteen minutes, she gradually walked slowly away, the tiny calf teetering along beside her as she went down the slope to rejoin the safety of the herd. Most Bison babies are able to run and keep up with the herd within an hour or two after birth.

Bison calves

One calf is exhausted, the other looking to play

I admit to having to stop every time I pass a herd where the calves are up and about. Their antics are so much fun to watch and when the light is right, they are so beautiful against the lush green grasses of Lamar and Little America. What’s not to like about these babies? And in a few years, they will be part of the iconic herds of the largest land mammals in North America. And thanks to the foresight of some conservation-minded people almost 150 years ago, they still roam in Yellowstone for all to enjoy, and to feel awe in their presence.

Bison calf 1

Bison calf in Little America

 

 

Wings Over Yellowstone

Walk in wild places, and you are sure to see, and hear, birds, if nothing else.

I am betting that many visitors to Yellowstone pay the birds little notice. It is, after all, the big mammals that draw most of the attention – the bears, the wolves, Elk, Bison, Moose, and Pronghorn. Some of the smaller mammals are also favorites, especially the ubiquitous Uinta Ground Squirrels. To be clear, I’m sure most will pause and watch an American Magpie fly by with its ridiculously long tail and bold pattern. And a Bald Eagle or pair of Sandhill Cranes will certainly cause folks to look up. But, I am guessing relatively few give much thought to what sparrow they flushed out of the sagebrush, or what that melodious call is coming from the bushes near the road. And that is too bad because, like most wild places, Yellowstone has a great diversity of beautiful and interesting birds.

Killdeer

You will recognize many of Yellowstone’s birds as familiar ones from back east (Killdeer) (click photos to enlarge)

A lot of familiar birds can be observed in the park. American Robins are among the earliest risers each morning, often singing before 5 a.m. Others include Killdeer, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Crows, and Red-tailed Hawks (although western Red-tails are highly variable in color compared to those back in North Carolina).

Mountain Bluebird male 1

Mountain Bluebird

And there are many species that are not the same, but are similar to the ones in my woods. Mountain Bluebird males may fit Thoreau’s famous quote better than our Eastern Bluebirds (the bluebird carries the sky on its back).

Mountain Bluebird female 1

Female Mountain Bluebird

The bluebirds were starting to nest in May so they were active in aspen groves and other places with suitable nest cavities.

Tree Swallow in cavity 1

Tree Swallow in nest cavity

As in most places, there always seems to be some competition for tree cavities, even though Yellowstone has a seemingly large supply. Tree swallows often compete with Mountain Bluebirds and I have seen the same cavity occupied by different species in subsequent years.

Northern Flicker male in nest cavity

Northern Flicker in tree cavity occupied by Bluebirds last summer

One of the primary cavity makers is the Northern Flicker. Yellowstone’s flickers are what used to be called Red-shafted Flickers. Eastern birds were once called Yellow-shafted Flickers and believed to be a different species, but they are now recognized as the same species. The western flickers have red undersides to the feathers on their tails and wings, and males have a red “mustache” instead of a black one like North Carolina males.

Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Duck in breeding plumage

Certain species of waterfowl are familiar, but are in breeding plumage instead of their subdued colors I usually see them in each winter.

Barrow's Goldeneye female

Barrow’s Goldeneye female

Others are species that I have never seen at home. Barrow’s Goldeneyes are diving ducks found on lakes and many rivers in Yellowstone.

Barrow's Goldeneye male 1

Male Barrow’s Goldeneye showing its purplish head and apostrophe-shaped white face patch

Males are easily distinguished from Common Goldeneye males by the shape of the white cheek patch – an apostrophe in Barrow;’s (like in the name) and an “O” in Common Goldeneyes (again, like their name).

Cinnamon Teal

Cinnamon Teal male

In addition to the Green-winged Teal seen on many waterways in the park, there are frequent sightings of the aptly named Cinnamon Teal. The males are simply stunning.

Eared Grebe

Eared Grebe

I see a few Eared Grebes every summer, but rarely can get close enough for an image. This year, we found a very cooperative one feeding on Trout Lake. It stayed close to shore as it dove to feast on aquatic invertebrates, occasionally turning its adorned head to let the sun strike its brilliant red eye.

Grizzly and Raven

Raven moving in close to a Grizzly digging for food

Some species have interesting relationships with other species in the park. Ravens and Magpies are well known for their association with carcasses and therefore with predators such as Gray Wolves and Grizzly Bears.

Brown-headed Cowbirds on Bison back

Brown-headed Cowbirds on Bison back

And Brown-headed Cowbirds are often seen foraging on the ground in front of moving Bison, snatching insects disturbed by the big beasts. They also hitch a ride on Bison and Elk and glean ticks and other parasites off these large mammals.

American Avocet

American Avocet

While there were many good birds among the 75 species seen in my two weeks in May, there were two that were very special. It started with a long distance sighting of one of my favorite shorebirds, an American Avocet, in a seasonal pond in Little America. As I was watching it, I could see another, smaller, bird nearby.

Red-necked Phalarope and American Avocet 2

Red-necked Phalarope and American Avocet

The smaller bird was spinning around in tight circles. At the initial distance, I couldn’t see much detail, but guessed it was probably one of the Phalarope species. They swim in tight circles in water, creating a vortex which pulls up potential food items to the surface, which they rapidly pick off. It turned out to be a Red-necked Phalarope, a rare bird for the park. The park bird checklist said there were fewer than 20 records of this species in Yellowstone. So, I went closer to get some images for documentation.

White-faced Ibis

White-faced Ibis

In that same pond, there turned out to be another rare bird for the park, a White-faced Ibis. Both of these were lifer birds for me, and I have since submitted images and documentation for both to the park’s bird biologist for their records. The images are a bit soft due to the great distances (I did not want to flush the birds) and the warm temperatures which created blurring heat waves, but they are adequate for identification.

Sphinx Moth

This large Sphinx Moth was misidentified by several visitors as a hummingbird

On one busy trail in a thermal area, one non-bird drew a lot of interest from visitors that thought it was a hummingbird. A huge day-flying moth, probably a White-lined Sphinx Moth, was feeding on Dandelions next to a boardwalk. I saw people pointing their cameras down and talking about a hummingbird, but when I looked, it was this beautiful moth. They are said to frequently forage for nectar during the day. So, next time you are in Yellowstone (or any other park), keep your eyes open for some of the smaller, but still charismatic, fauna, and it will make your experience even richer.

Here are a few more images of some of the birds of Yellowstone…

Barrow's Goldeneyes

Pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes

Cinnamon Teal agression

Cinnamon Teal aggressive display toward another male

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl near nest in Mammoth

Mountain Bluebird male

Mountain Bluebird male in Upper Geyser Basin

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow with nest cavity in hole in wooden bridge post

 

 

Badger Business

Badger hates society, and invitations, and dinner, and all that sort of thing.

~Kenneth Grahame, in Wind in the Willows

Badgers are a solitary lot, except during the mating season, or when females are raising their young. So, last year in Yellowstone, I was thrilled when I saw more badgers than I have ever seen in my 30+ years of visiting the park. Naturally, I expected to see quite a few this year with my group. But, I was surprised when Badgers were just not to be found. Given the earlier than usual time frame of this trip, I assumed that these members of the weasel family were simply not yet very active above ground. They are not true hibernators, but do become less active in cold weather.

Badger at Slough Creek 1

Badger at Slough Creek (click photos to enlarge)

After my group departed, I finally started seeing these busy carnivores as they shuffled across the sage flats and grasslands of the northern range doing what they do best – hunting for ground squirrels and other prey.

Badger at Slough Creek 3

Badgers move in a purposeful manner

Every time I have seen Badgers out and about, they always seem to be moving at a hurried, focused pace, often nose to the ground, head swinging back and forth as they check the area for food. I imagine that these seemingly grumpy loners are muttering to themselves as they ramble, and every now and then exclaim, “SQUIRREL”, and make an abrupt turn, and start digging.
Uinta Ground Squirrel on alert

Uinta Ground Squirrel on alert because there is a Badger in the hood

One morning I spotted a Badger scurrying alongside the road down by Slough Creek. It was a large one, perhaps a male, busily looking for a meal. Uinta Ground Squirrels were on alert, chipping alarms, and disappearing into their underground sanctuaries. But this predator is one that can quickly dig them out.

Badger at Slough Creek running with tail up

Badger at Slough Creek running with tail up

As it trotted along, this Badger did something I had never seen…it raised its tail when moving at a particularly brisk pace. I’m not sure if that is a sign of excitement when closing in on fresh ground squirrel scent, or just some Badger brake system in action if it gets going too fast on a downhill sprint.

Badger starts digging

Badger starts digging

The Badger moved about a hundred yards while I watched. Mine was the second car on the scene, but soon there were a handful of big lenses following the Badger’s every move. It gave us a glance from time to time but seemed intent on its mission and eventually started digging in earnest in one spot. A Uinta Ground Squirrel soon erupted from the ground a couple of feet away and ran straight towards us before disappearing into another burrow over 100 feet from the busy Badger. But the Badger kept digging and the dirt was still flying. I decided a video clip was the best way to capture the energy of this earth moving machine.

Badgers often dig a new burrow (or more) each day, and it appeared that this one was doing just that. We watched it dig for about 10 minutes before it came out one last time, shook off, and retreated below ground, presumably for a siesta.

Badgers move a tremendous amount of earth in the course of a year. Their burrowing activities help aerate the soil, redistribute nutrients, and influence patterns of plant growth.

Estimates are that fewer than 10% of Badger-dug burrows are occupied by a Badger at any one time. There may be ten to twenty burrows per acre in good habitat.

Badger burrow

Badger burrow

The next day, I walked out and took a photo of the burrow entrance. Badger burrows typically have a sizable entrance hole and a large mound of dirt piled outside. These burrows may remain intact for several years after they are dug, providing shelter for many other creatures.

Badger at Slough Creek

Report Badger sightings online to assist in a Yellowstone Badger study

When I got home, I learned of an online Citizen Naturalist Project being conducted on American Badgers in Yellowstone’s northern range (Yellowstone Badger). The coordinators are hoping to gather information and photographs from park visitors that will help answer some basic questions about Badger distribution, density, and habits. The distinctive facial markings may allow for identification of individuals. It is hoped this information will contribute some basic knowledge about an important, but little studied, member of the park’s diverse mammal fauna.

Cub Scouting

Bears are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters. A bear’s days are warmed by the same sun, his dwellings are overdomed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours and was poured from the same fountain…

~John Muir

My recent trip to Yellowstone was a great one for bears. Although Grizzly Bears were offering quite a show, there was one Black Bear that was drawing even bigger crowds. I had read about her before the trip and was hoping to find the Black Bear mom with three cubs. While three cubs is not all that unusual in the rich habitat of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina, it is a much less common event in Yellowstone. Raising three bear cubs requires good forage, and an experienced and protective mother.

I made a few passes through the area where she had been reported before and during my group’s visit. We managed a quick glimpse of the sow and an occasional cub as we slowly passed through the ever-present “bear jam” along the road, but there were so many cars and people that it just didn’t seem worth trying to join the crowds for such limited views.

Black Bear mom

Black Bear mom (click photos to enlarge)

Driving back toward Tower Junction (Black Bear central) one afternoon after the group had left, I passed through a tremendous rain storm. I decided to try for the bear family again, and this time, it paid off. The large female bear was in view, and the rains had chased away much of the crowd, allowing for some empty parking spaces in a nearby pullout.

Three cubs playing

Three tiny Black Bear cubs busy being playful while their mother feeds nearby

Under a large Douglas Fir tree were three tiny black blobs, rolling around in the carpet of needles. These cubs were unbelievably cute, and incredibly playful, especially one cub that always seemed to be the instigator in any rough-housing. The crowd oohed and aahed as the cubs wrestled and jumped around. After watching them for over thirty minutes, I decided to try to capture some of their play on a short video. Enjoy (best viewed full screen)…