Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rocky Mountain Highlights- Elk, Bison & Moose

We arrived in West Yellowstone on a rainy Sunday evening as a majority of visitors headed home after the weekend. The wake-up on Monday was about 5:15 am so we could get the car loaded, and be on the road at 6:00 am; elk are early risers.  The west entrance to the park is only 1/2 mile from the town, and my research told me to expect elk anywhere after the first 5 miles along the Madison River.

At about 10 miles, we found a large meadow across the Madison River. The sunrise was soft in the damp morning air. The faint outlines of elk were visible where the meadow met the mountain.  We could hear the cow's "mew" call as they kept track of one another.

As the dawn approached, we could see with binoculars that there were five cow elk and a spindly 3 point bull. I thought, he's just a teenager, and not likely to hold onto those cows when one of the big boys shows up.

 His bugle was a bit weak, reflecting his immaturity.  But, of course, he did not know that. 

After some time, we drove north towards Mammoth Hot Springs.  There is a fraternity of nature photographers who willingly share useful intelligence, likely based on how big your lens is.  (ha ha) The closer your lens is to their big lens, the more they tell you. So, we heard that there was a big bull raising havoc at Mammoth near the campground. 

Along the way, we encountered our first large bison bull.  Reminded me to keep my speed down so I could avoid hitting one.  His horns show a lot of wear; possibly an old boy that the dominant bull drove away to a solitary life.

 We arrived at Mammoth, and saw no elk around the hotel or visitor center.  Driving into the campground just north of Mammoth, we found the big bull sleeping in a campsite.  We parked a reasonable distance away and watched him from beside our car.  You can see that the tine on the near side is broken off; the result of his aggression on something.

He was accompanied by a calf, and a few cows were off to the side. The evidence of  his potential for anger shows in the leafy branches wrapped in his antlers. Bulls are well known to rake small, and sometimes rather large trees.  This guy was also getting a  reputation for raking cars.  When we entered the campground, a ranger shadowed us from a distance to be sure we did not approach the elk.  Not a chance we'd do that.

In the evening, we returned to the meadow on the Madison River, and as expected, the little bull was replaced by a big bull. He's a 6 by 5, the result of breaking off his sixth tine in some confrontation.

There were two somewhat smaller bulls on the periphery keeping the dominate one alert; we counted nineteen cows and yearlings in his harem.  The little bull continued to stay on the edge near a lone cow, but he was clearly outdone now. It was a pleasant evening watching the manuvering within the herd, and listening to the haunting sound of elk bugling. It was a long day, and we were early to bed.

We returned at first light to the meadow, and elk were just across the river in the half light. By sunrise, we could see the big boy was still there with his harem, but only the spike bull remained on the edges.

The bull was keeping close tab on his ladies, and enforcing any attempt to stray too far from the group. 

The little bull remained in the tall grass near a lone cow, and when the little boy stood, the bull took action.  First with some strong bugling.

And, then he exhibited just how fast and threatening a mature bull can be.  The spike retreated near the river, with the bull glaring at him.

Satisfied, the bull trotted back to the harem.

He's just a manificent animal.  At some point, probably hours past sunrise, I had all the photos I could want (for now) and the herd was retreating back into the trees from the meadow to chew their cud and sleep through the midday.  We headed on to the famous Hayden Valley that stretches upstream along the Yellowstone River toward Yellowstone Lake.

So far, we had only seen solitary bull bison, and photographers led me to expect herds of bison at Hayden, maybe a bear or a wolf.  (No bear or wolf showed.) We found bison as hoped, all very close and sometimes on the road.

In the interest of family harmony, I need to attribute this photo to my spouse, Pam. It is perhaps the first time she had used one of my cameras, and the results were pretty good. 

There is a key point to the photo above.  Bison, and other big animals, have the right of way, always. That is something the driver of this car failed to understand.  This bull's tonage is close to that of the car, and his construction is a bit more substantial.

So, there were so many bison around the road that a ranger arrived to manage the situation when cars stopped in the traffic lane or people failed to move behind a car to let the bison through to the  other side of the road.  The rangers have reduced the number of gorings to well under a fifth of what they were in 1994.

Now, I could get close images of bulls and cows that showed the incredible texture of the bisons' winter coats.

And, there were nice groups of bulls, cows, yearlings and calves.

 The smallest calf is called a "red dog" due to the initial coloration at birth.  This one was born much too late in the summer and faces a poor outcome once winter arrives.

While we were  in the Hayden Valley, the herd continued to shift back and forth across the road, sometimes coming very close so that with no cropping of the image, the resulting image was very detailed.

Such big brown eyes, and so stoic.  I can imagine how it will look in the middle of one of the Yellowstone's hard winters.  Wish I could see that.

We returned to our meadow on the Madison River that evening, and the elk were again there in the steady rain.  I set up under the rear door lid on the rental car, and got some more nice photos.  As a bonus, a lady began to fish right in front of us, keeping an eye on the elk.  She caught one very nice trout while most watched the elk. She released it.

The next morning was our day to return home.  The meadow was empty and we could only see some cows on the distant mountain plus a few cows across the road.  I was a bit surprised to see that the cows were still nursing the calves in late September.

Again, using tips from other photographers, we decided to leave Yellowstone and return to Pocatello via the Tetons where there was a good spot to find a large bull moose. The report was correct, and after watching him through a screen of willows, he finally  moved in plain sight just some five minutes after we needed to leave if we were to return the rental car on time.  This was too good to listen to the rental car clock. Better to have the photo and hope the rental company forgives an hour past the return, which they did.

As I watched this bull watch us, I remembered the old joke that I don't need to outrun the bull, just the lady next to me.  And no, that lady is not my wife. This is another lady.

We had a wonderful trip. Late September is absolutely one of the best times to visit Yellowstone.  Our time with our friends in Pocatello was a delight, and we almost forgot how badly Delta treated us on the flight west.

Now, about next year....



1 comment:

  1. Awesome photos Paul, I love Yellowstone and your photos made me feel like I was back there :)