Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Great Gray Hunter

Although we weren't lucky with bear close-ups this year, we did relish other  opportunities to watch and photograph wildlife, in particular one fine June morning in Grand Teton National Park. While "cruisin' for bear" early in the day we made a short foray along the wildlife-rich Moose-Wilson Road at the far south end of the park, and quickly came upon a small gaggle of what I call Big Glass - folks behind high-magnification spotting scopes and cameras with extraordinarily long focal-length lenses on tripods - set up in the brush on a steep rise above the road. By this time I had hurt my toe (more about that later) so I hobbled up the rise to ask the standard question, "whatchalookinat?"  It turned out to be a flicker nest in a tree hole some 20 yards away; mom and dad were making frequent chow-shuttles, resulting, to be sure, in wonderful photographic moments with the chicks rising open-mouthed to receive the goods. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case turned out to be, the small-scale action was too far for my 300 mm lens, which had been damaged in conjunction with my toe, and would not focus beyond 220 mm. So, having found nothing by way of bears or other "charismatic megafauna" within zoom range, we started slowly making our way back north; as we approached a seasonal pond often patronized by moose (Alces alces), we could just see around a curve that there was more big glass assembled in a pullout. We guessed it might be Mr. Moose again, a most handsome fellow working on his velvety 2012 antlers, that we photographed the day before:
But to our great delight, it was something far less often seen than a moose: a great gray owl (Strix nebulosa):
It was amazing to see such a large bird (according to the Peregrine Fund site: "The Great Gray Owl has a body length of about 24-33 inches, a wingspan of 4.5-5 feet, and weighs only 1.5-3 pounds, despite its large size.") securely balanced at the tip-top of a pointed snag:
Great grays are "crepuscular" hunters, meaning that they hunt at dawn, making them among the easier of their kind to watch. But this roost was much too high for this ground-hunting owl, so within a few minutes, it relocated, miraculously, closer to its small, respectful audience at the roadside.
It stood there quietly rotating and tipping its head to better sense any movement in the grass below. It showed no sign of being disturbed, or even aware, of the silent watchers not far away. 
Then, to muffled gasps, the owl again moved closer, this time to a perch only a yard or a yard-and-a-half or so above the long, lush grass. 
It listened intently
And then it heard what it had been waiting for
As there was no struggle, we feared it had failed, but we misjudged its precision-accuracy as a hunter. This was the only time it looked directly at the assembled watchers.
The vole struggled hopelessly for its life, but the owl's grip was firm. It dispatched its prey mercifully.
At this angle you can just see the array of fine feathers surrounding its face; these feathers serve as sensors to help it detect the movement of prey such as small rodents hidden on the ground below.
It is unlikely even an experienced great gray owl-watcher would have been able to tell whether the bird was a male or female due to the species' lack of dimorphism in external sex characteristics, but the fact that it did not eat the vole, but instead at last took flight with it, landing deeper and much higher into the trees behind the slough, suggests that it too had a waiting hungry brood.

I do not know how long before our arrival it had been hunting, but the fact that we watched the drama unfold over almost half an hour provides some sense of what enormous investments Nature demands of its parents in their job of continuing the species. That we were privileged to see its unfolding was yet another extraordinary gift of the park.

Note: Please accept my apologies for the need for Do Not Use notices on certain photographs, and for my complete inability to gain the cooperation of in adjusting font sizes in spite of trying everything I can think of.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Cranky Bear Updates, 2012

KLK and I made our annual journey to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in mid-June this summer, and as we have come to learn from our many, many (but never enough!) visits to the area, no two visits are alike. Each brings at least one, and usually multiple, unique experiences, sights, sensations, and adventures. You can read about our 2011 experiences that were special to that year, for example. 
Among other things, 2012 stood out, alas, as Not the Year of Bears. Bears are high on the list of favorite wildlife-watching subjects, and I have been lucky many times to get in some fantastic observation with photographic documentation; I blogged about the thrills of being in bear country about a year ago. In 2012, there was plenty of bear activity, it's just that, due to the luck of the draw, all of our sightings this year were of what we call "bear dots" - distant, or fleeting, or both. 
But one far-away sighting revealed bear behaviors that we had never before witnessed.  Last year, in Yellowstone's magnificent Hayden Valley, we enjoyed watching grizzly sow known as "Cranky Bear." I understand she got that moniker when she huffed at some photographers that were crowding her. Those photographers were lucky she didn't do anything more than that, as one of the other grizzly sows in the same vicinity killed one and ate part of another person before being captured and euthanized last year. 
Here's a photo of Cranky Bear and her two nice looking Cubs-of-the-Year (COYs) from June of 2011 (click to enlarge and see what magnificent animals they are:
One day on this trip, as we entered Hayden Valley from the south, we could see that a pullout-parking area on a high overlook was full of people with spotting scopes and binoculars aimed at the slopes across the Yellowstone River. Hayden is one of the world's richest areas for watching grizzly bears, bison, and wolves, among many other interesting animals, pawed, clawed or hoofed, furred or feathered. So we too stopped to scan the far high treeline, maybe a half mile distant, where there was a herd of elk cows, doubtless with their new spring calves bedded down invisibly in the sage. Many of the elk had their heads up, ears and eyes on alert, while, as usual, others calmly grazed. I said to KLK, "oh, it's just a bunch of elk, doesn't look like much else is going on" thinking we should get back in the car and move along in case we were missing something big happening elsewhere. 
But then, very suddenly, a big sow grizzly bear, with two kids in a line behind her charged out of the trees and into the midst of the elk, scattering the poor animals in all directions. We were gasping in anticipation (and my heart was pounding) that she would within seconds nail a helpless elk calf right before our (binocular-ed) eyes. As it turned out, she wasn't serious as she didn't bother to pursue the easy prey.  Apparently satisfied with her lesson to her cubs on how to terrify elk, she led her big babies gradually down the hill, nibbling at vegetation and grubbing for insects and small rodents as they made their way down to the river edge while the distraught elk retreated into the safety of the thick trees at the top of the ridge.
When the bears reached bottom, I could see that Mama Bear wanted to come across the river in our direction. She disappeared into low ground for a few minutes, only to reappear in the middle of the river, her big head floating above water, turned backwards to keep an eye on the cubs about 50 feet behind her, two basketball-like brown heads bobbing northwards in the current. Mama picked a safe spot to get out of the water on our side; I couldn't quite see them get out of the river, I would have loved to watch them shake off, like enormous dogs. But they soon re-appeared in the sage, making their way southward. If you click to enlarge the images you will recognize Cranky Bear and her now 2-year old cubs, back in the same territory they reigned over a year ago.
They continued moving steadily to our right, while also gradually coming closer to the assembled audience. 
As they neared, it all at once dawned on the people standing out on the edge of the rise that it would take the bears only a few seconds to get up that ridge should they decide to do so. Everyone started en masse back to the relative safety of the paved overlook, except for the couple of people who apparently thought discretion was the better part of valor and ran for their cars. As all this unfolded, with the bears paying absolutely no attention what-so-ever, a pale-coated coyote wandered along. KLK, whose angle of view was different from mine, said that the coyote's attention was instantly drawn to the runners. It stopped and stared, as if considering whether a tourist might be fun to chase, or perhaps even be worth a serious attempt at hunting down.
Coyotes are a wise dogs though, and it quickly determined it would be better to return to whatever its original agenda was and move on. The fleeing bear-watchers never noticed the coyote.

Returning our attention to bear-watching, we guessed the grizzlies, now out of our sight, would come out closer to a nearby geothermal area known as Mud Volcano (rather than coming up the ridge at the crowd), so we hopped in the car and headed that way. Bingo! 
These closer bear dot photos were taken from the car under terrible photography conditions, as by the time we got into a position to shoot there were massive numbers of cars stopped all over the road, doors flung and left hanging open, pedestrians all over the place with cameras glued to their eyes in an attempt to snap the photo of a lifetime. Fortunately, Cranky Bear was a model of a calm, fully focused on bulking up on the nice grass (though grizzlies are omnivores and need plenty of animal protein and fat from elk calves, for example, their most easily acquired calories are from plant matter), with her kids following suit. It was one of those terribly dangerous, classic Yellowstone situations where neither drivers nor pedestrians were paying any attention to anything other than the mother and baby bears by the road. 
Here is a bit of a blurry crop of one of Cranky Bear's beautiful children. I hope next year I can post more and better bear photos, especially if next year's photos can also illustrate  exciting wildlife behaviors!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Log Cabin Café, Silver Gate Montana

I have been absent from Amusing Musings for the best of reasons: a 10-day mid-June sojourn with KLK through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. This trip is a yearly must-do for us, as every trip is new and rewardingly different from the one before, but always nonetheless old and wonderfully familiar at the same time. I have just finished sorting through and processing my 1,000 + photos (ah! digital photography, ain't it great?) and now am ready to post them as they represent this year's experiences great and small.
The first I'd like to celebrate is the Log Cabin Café (always with the accent acute on the "e"!) in the map-dot town of Silver Gate, Montana. Silver Gate is immediately adjacent to Yellowstone National Park's northeast entrance, so it's the first non-Park area one comes to when exiting in that direction. Silver Gate also resides in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness at the foot of the Beartooth and Chief Joseph scenic by-ways. 
One of Yellowstone richest wildlife-watching and scenic areas is the corridor along the northeast entrance road (U.S. 212) which means that most often when I've gone to Silver Gate, it's before (if I'm staying outside of the park in or beyond Silver Gate in it's "twin" town of Cooke City down the road about 3 miles) or after (if I'm staying in the park) hours of hiking or wildlife-watching in that corridor. In either case, it means I'm hungry! My very first stop is always the Log Cabin Café, where I know the atmosphere is inviting and the good is very good. 
Somehow, in that remote location (it's a very long drive from, say, the nearest airport or railroad freight depot) they always manage to have fresh ingredients and fresh ideas of how to prepare them. This year KLK and I stopped one day for a yummy lunch and learned that they are celebrating 75 continuous years of operation. We picked up a flyer which tells us: "The Log Cabin has had only four owners since it was built. It is now owned by life-long, year-round Silver Gate residents Jay Schifferdecker and Laurie Hinck. Along with [their] parents, Larry and Vranna Sue, [they] bought the beloved Log Cabin from Kay and Cecil King who ran it for 30 years."
Here are some interior shots - aside from the wonderful classy and reasonably priced food, don't you want to go in and sit down to take it all in?

May the Log Cabin Café continue and bring prosperity to its owners for another 75 years! Congratulations!

I might  add, that area is the best in the Yellowstone region to look for moose. This guy, just sprouting his spring antlers, was right behind the church (2009 visit):
And this is the setting (Amphitheater Peak) under which The Log Cabin and the moose reside: