Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Grizzlies, Eagles, and Snow!

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This is a continuation of my previous post on our adventures in Yellowstone National Park titled Wolves, wolves, wolves, wolves.

Last night as we were watching the Slough den site this coyote walked in behind us and bedded down about 10 meters away.

 

We awoke this morning to about a half of an inch of new snow. We were both very tired this morning. The first I noticed I was not up to par was when I lit the stove but forgot to put the coffee on. Due to my slow reaction time, we drove well below the speed limit as we made our way into the Lamar Valley. Nothing here, so we proceeded on to Slough Creek to watch the Slough Creek wolf pack.

The highlight of the Slough Creek wolves was when one of the dark females walked toward the den area. The Alpha female immediately started chasing her. The others joined in. Seven wolves pursued her, but they eventually gave up the chase. It is a strange situation where this female is well received by the pack for the rest of the year, but during denning season, she appears to not be welcome. It appears to be a competition situation, as the alpha female is the instigator. The alpha is receptive to the other females who also have pups this year. It is reminiscent of year ago when Druid wolf 40 chased her sister wolf 42 from the pack. Later 40 ended up dead and 42 was the new alpha female. 42 was clearly the biggest threat which was likely why she was excluded by 40. Of course, we will never know. Just another fascinating reason to watch and study wolves. The seven Sloughs continued on up Slough Creek and out of site, apparently on a hunt.

At the half way point of our trip, we have yet to see a bear. This is the longest bear-less stretch we have ever had in the park. Since the weather is bad today, Paul, Karyn, and I decided to go searching for bears instead of hiking (when we like to avoid bears!). On the way we found an Agate wolf pack member chewing on a leg bone of a carcass. The wolf is referred to as half-tail as she has lost half of her tail and broke her leg. The leg healed and she has nearly full function. It’s amazing the will for survival that wild animals have.

 

At only the second location we searched we found two grizzly bears! They were interacting with a coyote regarding a carcass that appeared to be there just out of sight. As I indicated in a previous post, this is and will continue to be a very good year for carnivores as there are winter kill carcasses everywhere. We watched the bears for an hour before the weather deteriorated so that we could no longer see. Word arrived that they were also seeing Grizzlies at Slough Creek and in the Lamar Valley.

Today would also be a day of the eagles. We would see 6 different eagles today, 5 bald and 1 golden. Here is a picture of a juvenile Bald Eagle on a carcass with more than 30 Ravens.

 

Karyn and I retreated to the Lamar Valley to a place called Dorothy’s Knoll and took a much needed nap. Wave after wave of snow has moved through the valley. A Western Meadowlark sang nearby in between storms.

 

Later we would watch members of the Druid wolf pack. One grey nearby in a heavy snowstorm, then a dark female later after it cleared. Despite the weather it was a great day.

 

 

On the way home we found a Red Fox. This makes it our first three dog day (wolves, coyotes, fox)!

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Wolves, wolves, wolves, wolves!

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This is a continuation of my previous post on our adventures in Yellowstone National Park titled Wolves

The beautiful weather in Yellowstone continues although the forecast is indicating a change is in the works – 4 to 7 inches of snow over the next two days! Regardless, we will take it while we can get it.

The alarm sounded a 5am this morning as it does each morning here. Up and rolling in under 20 minutes. Into the Lamar we head for a 4 pack day. The events this morning would lead to our observation of 4 different wolf packs.

 

The first on the menu was two members of the Druid Peak wolf pack. These yearlings were down near the road harassing coyotes. The coyotes had a den in the area so they were playing for keeps. The wolves were just wandering around causing trouble. The coyotes were yipping and howling at the wolves. They would follow them around and try to nip at their tails. When contact was made the wolves would turn around and the coyotes would go running. The wolves didn’t appear too interested in pursuit so they just continued on. The coyotes were right back on their tails. We watched for about 30 minutes.

 

Next up, the Agate wolf pack. This pack killed a bull elk just inside the tree line last night. We had arrived just a minute too late to watch the chase where the wolves had the elk on the ground twice before it went into the trees. While unsure of the result last night, the result was more obvious this morning as the Agate wolves were stretched out in the sun near the site. They had been feeding well.

Third of the day were the Slough Creek wolf pack whose den is visible from Slough Creek. We watched a few individuals near the den site, then 12 adults passed near us, cross the creek and walked up the hill to the den. There were many greetings. Greetings are always fun to watch as each wolf must show their affection for the higher ranking wolves. Lots of excitement and tail wagging. We have been hoping that the puppies will emerge from the den, but there are still no signs. The biologist believes there are three females sharing a single large den, each with their own puppies. We will probably never know for sure. The adults eventually bedded down for the day. One exciting part of the morning was during all of the action, everyone looking through their scopes, a huge bison decided to join us. He walked right between the cars and up toward all of the people. I received the warning when he was about 10 feet away. I instinctively grabbed my scope. Few others did. In the end, only one scope was knocked over and into the snow. The bison passed through without harming anything or anyone else.

Paul had asked us if we wanted to hike Rescue Creek. We agreed, so Paul, Karyn, and I all left for the hike. It was a shuttle hike and would cross some snow fields. We didn't know if we would make it or not, but it was worth a try. A half mile out the trail, we see a lone Black wolf, most likely a Leopold pack member, making this our forth pack of the day! As it ended up, the snow was a bit deeper than we expected. After a mile and a half, we had to turn back at an impassable stream.

 

Tonight the storms started coming up. We were present to watch eight of the Slough Creek adults head out for a hunt before dark. Tonight marks the first night we haven't seen a moose on the way back to Cooke City.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Wolves!

click photos to enlarge.


This is a continuation of my previous post on our adventures in Yellowstone National Park title Coyotes and Carcasses.

After the afternoon relaxation and tea, we headed back into the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone in search of wolves. At a place known as "Footbridge", we met up with a friend of ours, Paul, who we have spent time with on previous visits to the park. I beleive this is the third year that our visits have overlapped with his. Other friends of ours are scheduled to arrive later in the week.

"Footbridge" is a turnout which is close to where the Druid wolf pack have once again denned. Each turnout in the northern range has a criptic name that are used by the wildlife watchers - Hitching post, trash can, picnic area, Dorothy's knoll, etc.

The evening would turn out to be good for wolves. The Druid yearling wolf in the photo entertained us for 30 minutes.

 

The yearling walked through the valley stopping to chew on an old bull elk carcass half submerged in Soda Butte Creek. After a while he haded across the road and up toward the den site. Later, just before we planned to leave for the evening two more wolves entered the valley. They kept looking behind them apparently for other wolves to join them. As they sat down and waited, we heard two wolves howling at the den site. The two waiting in the valley didn't answer back, but kept looking back and forth from the den site and then back to where they came from. This is how the evening would end as the light faded.

This morning we traveled to Slough Creek where it is believed that the Slough Creek Pack has denned. Seeing no action here, most of the watchers moved west. Paul, Karyn, and I decided to stick around. Paul mentioned that sometimes it is better just to stick in one place that drive around looking for action. A short while later I was looking into where the Slough Den was 3 years
ago. I asked him if that den was the hole behind the middle aspen tree. Just then a wolf crawled out answering my question. We watched as this wolf walked around apparently looking for scraps then hiking off to the North out of site. We aren't sure if this is a female with puppies in the den. Her behavior wasn't quite right. It could have just been a yearling that was investigating and slipped in there just before I looked. We will talk to the local biologist about that one. We appeared to be the only 3 people who stuck around to see it. Wolf watchers always believe the viewing is better someplace else. It would end up, that we probably had the best watching today.

A bit later, Paul, Karyn, and I were joined by another woman Jean on a hike to tower falls from tower junction. This hike is on a closed road so it is an easy walk, 4 to 5 miles round trip. We were a bit nervous as they had seen a Grizzly Bear near the start about 30 minutes before we headed out. The hike climbs up the canyon wall of the Yellowstone River providing great views of the river and down onto nests of Osprey.

 

It is usually a great hike for black bears but we didn't see any today. We did see lots of birds and a Yellow-Bellied Marmot. On the hike back down we were attacked by a killer Blue Grouse.

 

The grouse wouldn't let us go. He kept chasing us until we were a few hundred yards away from where we first found him. He showed very unusual behavior as he appeared to try and divide our group. Not sure what would cause a threatened individual to step between two of the threats, but he did it over and over again. Maybe this only happens during mating season. I will have to investigate further.

For Lunch, Paul, Jean, Karyn, and I went to the elk creek overlook. We ate in the beautiful sun as Mountain Bluebirds flitted around in front of us.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Coyotes and Carcasses

click photos to enlarge

Yesterday we departed on a trip to Yellowstone National Park for some wildlife and bird watching. We have looked forward to the trip for some time, although on more than one occasion we considered delaying it due to the high snowfall this winter. The Lamar Valley where we intend to spend much of the time is still buried in a couple feet of snow. We stuck with our original schedule.

The first day we leisurely travelled toward the park, stopping for some occasionally bird watching. We took a side trip to Centennial Marsh in Idaho where we observed a number of birds. Unfortunately we had to turn back after a third of the way in as the road was closed due to snow and water. In Island Park Idaho, we watch as a bald Eagle, then this Osprey flew overhead fishing the Henry's Fork.

 
Swans, Herons, and numerous other birds were on the river as well. We spent the night in West Yellowstone after visiting the Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Center for some up close photography (not highlighted here).

Early the next morning we headed into the Park. The first and most alarming sights were the skinniest Elk and Bison I have ever seen. This above average snow pack really took a toll. High snow pack is good for predators as the prey species get weaker. This balances out last year where the opposite occurred - low snow pack means that prey species are healthier and predators get less food.

A couple of miles inside the park we came upon an Elk carcass. It was fresh enough that no predators or scavengers had gotten to it yet. A few miles down the road we found this Bison carcass being visited by a Coyote and a Raven.

 
We would find a few more Bison carcasses and an Elk Carcass before noon. Each of the others visited by Coyotes, Ravens, and two had Bald Eagles as well.

Arriving on the Northern Range, the snow pack was a little lower and the animals looked a bit healthier. We still found a double carcass (one Bison and one Elk) here near a pond. I counted 45 Ravens and 1 Coyotes on the carcasses. There were many other ravens nearby, likely full from gorging themselves. We arrived at our camp site in Cooke City (the parking lot of the Alpine Motel!) to relax for a few hours before heading out tonight to see the focus of our journey, Wolves!

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Fascinating Sounds of Birds

My favorite science story of the week comes from the latest book I just finished, The Singing Life of Birds.

The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong
by Donald Kroodsma

Read more about this book...

I came upon this book as Donald Kroodsma, the author, was the guest speaker at the annual banquet of our local Audubon chapter - Golden Eagle Audubon Society. He spoke of his life long research into vocal communication of birds. His enthusiasm was amazing, I got the feeling he could talk about this for days. The evening content was an interesting introduction to the detailed content presented in the book. While his science is in-depth and detailed, his presentation both in person and in the book is tailored toward the non-scientist. It's an easy and interesting read into the unique structure of bird song and how it varies between different species.

The book has clearly increased my awareness to the complexities of bird song. Since I began reading the book, I have noticed my own attention to bird song details has changed. The other day while walking downtown I listened to different House Finches singing from their territory. I noticed them answering back to each other. I noticed when they made subtle changes in their song. Drawing real conclusions about their communication would obviously require in-depth research, but at least I was now appreciating more about the song. In another example, while walking back form dinner downtown, I picked out a European Starling mimicking a California Quail. The subtlety would have been lost on me a week before. Any book that has a this dramatic of an impact on my awareness, is well worth the price tag. I obviously recommend this book highly.

The author covers many different species in the book and highlights the unique aspects of each.  Each specie that he covers has some underlying structure to its song. Details such as whether a particular male would sing the same song back to back, whether a neighbor would match a song of a neighbor, whether a song bird learns the songs of his father before dispersing or picks it up from his new neighbors after dispersing, etc.

Now to the favorite story of the week. While all of the bird stories are fascinating, I found his coverage of Song Sparrows the most interesting (pages 55-67). Song Sparrows have a large number of songs that they learn over their lifetime. They also maintain common songs with their neighbors, but not necessarily the same song for each neighbor. Its how they use these songs that I found particularly fascinating. When addressing a particular neighbor, the Song Sparrow almost always chooses a song that the two of them share. This proves knowledge of which neighbors know which songs. When answering a neighbor, there are three ways to respond, with the same song, within another that the two share, or with one that the other does not share. As stated earlier, a song that the two does not have in common is rarely used. Kroodsma noticed that a Song Sparrow responding with the same song caused an increase in aggression and responding with a different song causes tension to decrease. As a result the song sparrow has a number of choices to make when communicating with a neighbor. He first must consider the songs that he has in common with the neighbor, and then choose a match to that last song sung by the neighbor to increase aggression, maybe to enforce a territorial boundary, or a non-match to decrease the tension. The complexity grows when you realize that each bird's territory is surrounded by many other territories. It was interesting but not surprising that he also proved that a juvenile joining this community will pick up on the songs that he hears multiple other birds singing.  Just one view into the type of study covered in the book.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Alternative Transportation Challenge

One of my volunteer projects at work, in other words not officially part of my job, has been to create an alternative transportation proposal to the HP Boise site leadership council. I started this project as I see a large opportunity for our business to decrease traffic, congestion, and air pollution through increased use of alternative transportation methods. With somewhere near 3000 employees working on the site, there is clearly ample opportunity for a measurable impact.

This is not to say that there aren't a significant number of participants already. Last year our company was awarded the silver participation award for the May in Motion alternative transportation program. This is based on percentage of employee base using alternative methods. As a whole our employees reported over 8000 one way commute trips utilizing alternative transportation during May 2007.  We hope to greatly improve on this measure this year.

My proposal to the site leadership council offered background education on the valley's air quality and traffic congestion issues, and presented a number of options for programs to make alternative transportation use easier and more convenient for employees. This ranged from company sponsored subsidies to sponsoring new bus routes, vanpools, etc. While a number of options are still being discussed, we did decide to roll out what I feel is the most significant program.  Company management has decided to challenge all on site employees to use alternative transportation at least one additional day per week than they are today. The message went out to employees this last week and will be reinforced in communications over the next few weeks.

While I would like to see more programs rolled out, I feel this one is very significant. We could subsidize the cost of alternative transportation for employees, but the cost is rarely the issue. Most alternative transportation options are less expensive than what employees are using today.  Additionally, most of our employees could afford it anyway. Our employee base is usually very good at responding to challenges, so we will see how this goes.

Other programs with incremental investments are still on the table.  The key determining factor to fund those programs are the employees response to this current challenge. If our May in Motion results are significantly better than last year, there is high likelihood we will invest in some of these additional flexibility options.  The decision will be to favor projects that provide more options to employees versus simply subsidizing the cost.

This next week, in celebration of Earthday, we will be hosting an information fair for all employees to help educate them on the various transportation options available. I hope to see Hewlett-Packard at the top of the May in Motion results this year!

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Favorite Science Story of the Week

Two weeks ago I posted a summary of some fascinating science stories I had recently read in an article called Trophic Cascades. Yesterday I found myself out of podcasts to listen to on the way to work. I also completed my most recent audio book, The Kite Runner, and don't receive another Audible subscription credit for another week (my Audible.com subscription provides one audio book per month).

The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini

Read more about this book...

Last night I searched for some new sciencey podcasts (is that a word?). Since I already listen to Science Friday and This Week In Science, I was looking for something a little different and more in-depth. My search led me to the podcast from the journal Cell.

Today on the bus to and from work, I listened to a couple of podcasts from Cell. My first impression is that I have a lot to learn as I start work toward my Biology degree in the fall (see Mid-life Crisis). My second impression is that it is a fun challenge to see just how much of the discussion I can understand.  I did better than I expected.  Lastly, its fascinating to hear about this research and understand just how much we do know about the inner workings of life on this planet, but equally fascinating how much we don't yet know. I definitely plan to continue listening in.

This brings me to my favorite science story of this week. Within the March 9, 2007 podcast of Cell, they interviewed one of the authors of a paper on Central Role of p53 in the Suntan Response and Pathologic Hyperpigmentation. The researchers study the pathway initiated by UV radiation (sunlight) which produces a suntan. They prove that this pathway is controlled by the gene p53, which is known to be associated with DNA protection mechanisms. This makes sense as UV radiation can damage DNA. The paper explores this pathway in much more detail than I could or would explain here. The interesting part of the story is that they also found that the same pathway produces a beta-endorphin. This could explain why people feel better when they are in the sun.  The authors, at least in the interview, did not provide a hypothesis as to why beta-endorphin generation might be part of this pathway.

Excuse me while I go outside to get some endorphins!

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Insanity

Last Friday the Endangered Species Act protection for the gray wolves was lifted in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. The management of wolves is now the responsibility of individual states. The amount of protection for wolves in each state varies with Montana providing a little legal protection, Idaho near zero, and Wyoming has a shoot on sight policy anywhere outside of the national parks.

The day after the protection was lifted the extermination began. I received word last night that famous wolf #253m was killed on the Elk feeding grounds in Wyoming.  Apparently for no other reason that fun. The coward didn't even bother himself with a hunt. He just went to the elk feeding grounds and started killing. Wolf 253 and a female companion were killed.

Upon hearing the news I was outraged! I expected this to happen, I knew it would happen, but that still didn't prepare me for knowing that it was NOW happening. I sat in front of the keyboard wanting to type this message.  I wanted to type that the coward that shot the wolves should himself be shot.  I wanted to type that the politicians who successfully won the right to re-exterminate the wolves should be shot.  I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, "haven't we learned anything in the last 100 years!" I sat there for an hour, but no typable words came out. I tried to read, but I couldn't.  I tried to watch TV, but I couldn't.  I tried to sleep, but I couldn't.  I hoped this was an isolated incident, but I know that it's not.

Wolf #253m was the famous beta male of the Druid peak wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park. He had an injured rear leg that caused him to walk with a significant limp, unless he was on a hunting chase. In a chase he ran through the pain with all four legs. He once traveled over 500 miles in a week to be caught in a trap in Utah. When Druid Pack Alpha male #21m was killed while trying to bring down a bull elk, 253 tried to take over the alpha spot. He was challenged by another which caused a separation within the pack into two groups. 253 and his group moved out of the park. Since then he has kept a low profile and stayed out of trouble. In the winter the State of Wyoming feed elk in a huge feeding ground operation. Wolves go where the Elk go, so 253 has regularly visited the elk feeding grounds. This is where he was apparently shot.


Alpha 21m, Beta 253m (center black wolf), and Alpha 42f
howling in Yellowstone National Park (Feb 2003)

Wolf 253 holds a special place in my heart.  He was within the first group of wolves I ever saw in the wild. He and the alpha pair of the Druid pack (21m and 42f, both killed naturally), helped formulate who I am today. While I was always interested in wildlife, watching wolves in the wild triggered my deeper interest in wildlife, birds, eco-systems, etc. They started the motivation to create this blog.  They were the seeds of my interest in going back to school to study biology. My life, my interests, my motivation, have all been transformed by their presence.

Now we have state sponsored wolf extermination in progress. Is it due to the wolf's  effect on elk, no. Elk populations have not suffered under their presence. Is it due to their impact ranching, no. There are many effective ways to prevent livestock predation by wolves and predation levels have been insignificantly small compared to other much larger issues. Is it for personal safety, no.  There have been no wolf attacks on people or near attacks in the years since re-introduction. Is it simply political, absolutely. Many people in Idaho are opposed to any regulation that governs their behavior. They are opposed to clean water regulations, they are opposed to clean air regulations, and they are of course opposed to any restrictions imposed by the endangered species act.  They fought re-introduction of wolves, not because of wolves, but because the result is that the federal government was enforcing restrictions on their behavior.

It comes as no surprise that the current Secretary of the Interior, under which the ridiculous state management plans were approved, was one of the most vocal opponents to the re-introduction to begin with. He has essentially approved state management plans which will reverse all of the ecosystem value that we have received thus far and negate the intent of the endangered species act.

I have stated before that if a reasonable management plan was produced that ensured stable and reasonable sized wolf population, the issues would go away on both sides. Instead we have let the pendulum swing back to the other extreme providing wolves less protection than any other species in state! This will ensure that the wolf issue stays in the forefront for decades to come.

Update April 2: The killing continues - Pair of wolves shot in Idaho.

Update April 8: Four more wolves killed in Wyoming, bringing the total to 9 that have been reported. This accounts for nearly one third of all wolves in Wyoming outside of the national parks.

Update April 10: A total 10 wolves have been now been reported as killed in Wyoming outside the protected zone (1/3 of the expected population). Rancher receives permit to kill 4 more inside the protected zone.

Update April 12: People shouldn't be alarmed, but the Wyoming kill total is up to 13. "If that pace were to continue, all of the known wolves in the Cowboy State's new wolf predator management area would be dead in fewer than three weeks"

Update April 17: Two more illegally shot in Idaho. These were absolutely illegal as they weren't near any livestock, domestic animals, and they weren't reported.

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