Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Tyranny of Nature’s Plan

I borrowed the title from one of my favorite lines of a Jakob Dylan song. It’s very appropriate for what you can experience in Yellowstone National Park this time of year. Yellowstone, like no other place nearby, allows nature to play out in front of you. It brings excitement, fascination, life, sorrow, and death. In each of life’s struggles, there are winners and losers. Today’s winner might be tomorrow’s loser.

Finishing up my finals this week, my internal zugenruhe (migratory restlessness) couldn’t wait to get to Yellowstone. We left early Friday morning, but was delayed as I accidently backed into someone in the parking lot. No injuries and only minor damage. It only slowed us up about an hour.

We stopped in to Centennial Marsh on the route. This is a great birding place in South-central Idaho. Lots of water birds here – Ducks , Geese, Shorebirds (Avocets, Stilts, Phalaropes, etc), Sandhill Cranes, and a new life bird for me, a somewhat lost Eastern Kingbird. The Swainson’s Hawks and American Kestrels were also plentiful. From there we headed straight into Yellowstone.

Eastern Kingbird.
Black-necked Stilt.

We had reservations at Madison campground for the first night. We had seen wolves here before, but they are not very predictable. In fact, the wolf’s photo at the top of my blog was taken on a hike from the campground. We wouldn’t see any on this day. We did hear both Coyotes and Great Horned Owls during the night.

The next morning we headed off for the northern range of Yellowstone where most of the wildlife action usually is. Driving by Nymph Lake Karyn noticed an elk standing in the water. This being somewhat rare unless a predator was present, we turned around and found a spot to check it out. The elk was clearly disturbed. Further investigation revealed three wolves on the shore, mostly bedded down. The elk had a significant gash in her front shoulder. The wolves clearly had her before she made it to the water. Now it was simply a stare down. The wolves were in no particular hurry, essentially sleeping on the shore.

After about 30 minutes, the black wolf waded out into the water after the elk. The elk ran into the deeper water where the wolf lost its footing. The wolf turned and the elk attacked chasing him instead. He tucked his tail and lowered his head running until it got on better ground. He then turned and reversed the process. The chase went back and forth six times, the advantage shifting from one to the other. The following highlights some of the sequence.

In the end, the wolf returned to the shore and bedded down with the other wolves. The elk stayed in the water. We watched for two more hours, the stalement unchanged. It amazes me when you hear the stories of “the wolves decimating the elk”. They always sound so one sided. I have been watching wolves for 10 years and have yet to see a take down. Clearly they kill and eat elk, I have watched them feed on many carcasses, but I have also observed many situations like this one, where the wolves come up empty. Who knows how this one untimely played out, in my opinion it could have gone either way.

Heading toward the Lamar Valley, we found another of nature’s stories being played out. A female bison had died of unknown causes, but apparently not from predators. Her calf, likely only a few weeks old, was trying to nurse. The calf’s fate is sealed, it will die by predation or by starvation sometime in the next day, two at the most. (Update: 3 days later found the calf dead - starvation was the fate).

We decided to camp at Tower campground. It is near the center of the action. Other choices would be Mammoth or Cooke City. Slough Creek campground is our favorite, but it hasn’t been opened yet. Finding our site, we took a hike up behind the campground. We found a number of birds present. The sound of Ruby-crowned Kinglets filled the air. At one point we were staring down a Blue Grouse. He was drumming, it was barely audible as the sound is at the low end of human hearing.

Blue Grouse.

Near the top of the trail we started seeing bones, lots of them. We became much more aware of our surroundings as carcasses are dangerous places to approach. Both wolves and grizzlies will aggressively defend a carcass. No signs of either. But there were lots more bones, too many for a carcass. Then we found skull after skull. It dawned on me that this is likely the dumping ground by the park service for roadkill. We checked it out, but didn’t stay long.

The evening trip into the Lamar Valley would fail to produce wolves. We did get to watch three grizzly bears and took a few good photos as one swam the river, chased some bison, then moved down the valley. The bison mounted a hearty defense, the males grouping up to rush the bear. The bear wouldn’t have a chance to get a calf in this herd. This will be a tough day to beat.

Grizzly Bear.

Before our alarm went off the first two vehicles of wildlife watchers left the campground. We were clearly behind the game. We will have to remedy that tomorrow… We headed into the Lamar Valley in the hopes of seeing the Druid Peak wolf pack. We were not disappointed. One member of the pack was heading down from an apparent carcass toward the parking lot where we were watching from. The den site is on the hill behind the parking lot. Thus, this particular vantage point is fairly popular as most of the to/from trips to the den pass nearby. This wolf passed fairly close, enabling a few great photos.

Druid Peak Wolf.

Later we would see a few other members in the area. The alpha male was found bedded down near a carcass in the middle of Soda Butte Creek. Many of the wolves were visiting the area, but not the carcass itself. That was left to the Common Ravens, Black-billed Magpies, and a Golden Eagle. A number of Grizzly bears were in the area. High on a ridge above the valley was a group of Bighorn Sheep. While there was not the same excitement as yesterday’s exchange, it is amazing to be in one place watching wolves, bears, antelope, bighorns, eagles, etc. The scene also allowed us to catch up with some of our wolf watching friends that we only see in Yellowstone.

Today’s hike took us to Trout Lake and beyond to Shrimp Lake. We didn’t see trout or shrimp! We hoped to see otters, but struck out there as well. The upper lake was still mostly frozen. The lower lake (Trout) was occupied by several pairs of Barrow’s Golden-eye. At one point we heard a woodpecker in the forest. We had to hunt it down to get a positive ID. I am in the process of learning the woodpeckers by sound so that next week I can perform woodpecker surveys for a graduate student friend of mine. This one would be a Hairy Woodpecker. Earlier in the day I properly identified a Red-naped Sapsucker by sound. While watching the Sapsucker we noticed a Mountain Bluebird perched at a nest cavity in an Aspen tree. He flew to a nearby branch. A Northern Flicker jumped in and claimed the cavity. Not sure who it belonged to previously, but it was now in the possession of the Flicker. For a secondary cavity nester like the bluebird, finding a vacant nest is critical. Another of nature’s ways. We wished him luck. A few minutes after our hike we watched a grizzly come out of the trees a couple of hundred yards down the road from where we were just hiking! Hmm.

After lunch it was back to the wolves and grizzlies in the Lamar. Not usually seen mid-day, but today was an exception for both. We would see lots of both. After a few wolves crossed back and forth across the road, apparently shuttling food to the puppies at the den, the photographers decided to line up right at the crossing. Of course, this prevented the wolves from crossing. They tried a number of times to cross, but failed. They eventually circled far around the corner and crossed. From our vantage point we could watch it all. Who knows what the people were thinking. They each had 600mm lens, backing off 100 yards would have provided great shots and not interfered. That evening was beautiful as we watched multiple grizzlies in the Lamar Valley.

Monday produced another beautiful day. The Druid Peak pack were still somewhat visible near their den sight. We moved to Slough Creek, but didn’t see any action. Instead we opted for a morning hike in the marsh. I specifically hoped to see an American Bittern. We were not disappointed. Another new life bird!

American Bitter.

A beaver was working the local ponds, one of the new residents that recolonized after the wolves returned. Lots of ducks, phalaropes, blackbirds, and sparrows filled in the scene. High on the hill above was a pack of wolves, one black and three grey. We watched them mill around the old den site of the Slough Creek wolves. While watching, one elk started walking up the mountain toward them. I couldn’t believe how close she was getting. It was later hypothesized that this elk had a calf hidden in the area. We are just entering calving season. We didn’t observe any direct interaction, now did we see a calf. Another of natures stories that we won’t know the end to. Did the wolves eat or did the calf live…

The afternoon hike took us in search Harlequin Ducks at the confluence of the Lamar and Yellowstone rivers. Once again we were not disappointed.

Harlequin Ducks.

With luck like this, I should definitely set my sight higher.

Tuesday brought many lessons about territory and resources. The morning began watching three separate grizzlies interacting with bison. Apparently those calves look mighty tasty. The bison would have nothing to do with it. Either running away as a heard or chasing the bear as a herd. The herd instinct clearly helps the bison.

High on the ridge we saw the Druid wolf pack. They had come across some coyotes who were causing quite a ruckus. The coyotes had a den in the area. The wolves descended, dug up the den and killed at least 4 pups. There would be no litter this year for these coyotes.

We moved down the valley to Dorothy’s Knoll. Here we found a fresh elk carcass with three coyotes on it. While watching a lone wolf came in and chased the coyotes away. They put up a good fight, but 3 against 1 wasn’t enough. The wolf ate quite a bit before the coyotes returned with reinforcements. This time it was 4 on 1. The wolf could not cover all 4. They grabbed his hind leg numerous times, but if they held on he would have got them. The wolf gave up and moved across the valley. The coyotes returned to the carcass. On the way across the valley the wolf picked up a dead elk calf. He carried it to the river, swam the raging river with the elk calf in his mouth and climbed the mountain beyond. Amazing. By this time one of the Druid wolves found the carcass and fought off the coyotes. He too ate until the coyotes put up another assault to chase him from the carcass. He suffered more damage as he limped away.

Gray wolf (center) surrounded by 4 coyotes.

Later in the day at Floating Island lake we watched as a Barrow’s Goldeneye repetitively attacked another goldeneye couple. Apparently this was his lake and he did not appreciate intruders. He was dive under the water and attack them like a torpedo. Great stuff.


Anonymous said...

The elk lost the standoff. We watched from about 3:00 p.m. Saturday until the kill took place around 6:30 p.m. It is amazing how the wolves worked together. After sleeping in the shade on the shoreline for hours, they slowly walked away along the shore, appearing disinterested. The elk even laid down on the small island. The black wolf hopped around in the water, as though he was trying to catch something. Suddenly, he trotted along the short to the side of the lake by the road and then entered the water. The two gray wolves entered from the other side, and the chase began. It lasted maybe 10 minutes, with the wolves circling the elk and finally bringing her down. While fascinating, it was also disturbing (I heard her scream once). I was so hoping the wolves would not tear a fetus out of her as the elk are about to drop their calves; they didn't, so I wonder if she was an older cow?

For photos of the wolves eating the carcass, see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thevestguy/3545490813/

wolf21m said...

Anonymous, Thanks for posting an update on the developments at Nymph lake. I heard a rumor in the park about what happened. We drove by yesterday and saw the bones on the little island. Thanks for the link to your photos as well.

Anonymous said...

You're welcome. I discovered your blog after googling "Nymph Lake" and "elk" and/or "wolf" shortly after we saw the events take place. I have to tell you that my husband, boys and I really enjoy your photos and your narrative! We live in Bozeman, so we make it to the park at least once each spring and fall (when tourist traffic is minimal -- I understand your comment about Memorial Day weekend!). We'll be sure to try to read your latest park adventures before we go in the fall, in the hopes that you will give us more great ideas about where to spend time in the park. I worked in the park for three summers in the 1980s (for the concessionaire) and despite that, there's always more to discover every single time we go.