Thursday, May 29, 2014

Yellowstone 2014 – The Other Animals

Here’s the final installment of my summary of Karyn and my recent trip to Yellowstone National Park. In a previous post I presented Yellowstone 2014–The Mammalian Predators and Yellowstone 2014 – The Birds!

While bears and wolves get most of the attention, there is a lot of other cool wildlife to watch in the park.  The moose at the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek were a constant attraction when they were visible – a female with two yearlings.

Yearling moose at confluence of Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek.

Female and two yearling moose at confluence of Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek.

Further up Soda Butte Creek we would see a moose near dusk on our evening drive to Cooke City.

While watching moose and looking for wolves at the confluence, we would often see beaver working the area. The number of beaver in the areas have increased dramatically since the wolves were re-introduced. It is believed that the wolves change the behavior of the elk. The elk eat less willow along the risky river banks. More Willow leads to more beaver. We expect that more beaver will help build trout habitat, so yes wolves may help trout!

Beaver at the confluence of Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek.

Beaver at the confluence of Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek.

Beaver at the confluence of Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek.

If you have followed my blog for very long you will know that we are big fans of the Pika! The Hellroaring trailhead is always a great place to find them and this year was no exception.

American Pika, Hellroaring Trailhead.

Bighorn Sheep were ever present at the Yellowstone picnic area, but the evening sunlight was great for highlighting them on the cliffs above Soda Butte Creek.

Bighorn Sheep, Soda Butte Creek.

Bighorn Sheep ram, Yellowstone picnic area.

We would also spy Mountain Goats each evening above Round Prairie.

Mountain Goat, above Round Prairie.

One one photo of Pronghorn? What were we thinking?

In a previous post I mentioned that you can’t admire the predator without respecting the prey. Here is a prey species, the Uinta Ground Squirrel, which we have seen taken by Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, and Coyotes. I am sure they are also eaten by most other predators in the park. But, they are beautiful!

Uinta Ground Squirrel, Hellroaring Trail.

And I will close with a non-animal photo – two hot springs in Norris Geyser Basin. Different water temperatures lead to different organisms inhabiting the water, thus the color.

Until we return again…

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Yellowstone 2014–The Birds!

Here is a continuation of the summary of Karyn and my recent trip to Yellowstone National Park. In a previous post I presented Yellowstone 2014–The Mammalian Predators. This next post is focused on the birds! As a raptor biologist, I probably should have led with the birds, but the purpose of our trip was on wolves so the mammalian predators were posted first.

The Raptors

While there are many birds that I like seeing and many more that I would like to see, there is one particular species that always gets me very excited. Ok, maybe two as I do love to see my study species, the Northern Goshawk, in the wild (we did see two goshawks on our trip!). The species that I am most excited about seeing in the wild is the Peregrine Falcon.

If you don’t know the history, the Peregrine Falcon was threatened with extinction. According to wikipedia, it is the most widespread raptor of the world and one of the most widespread bird species in the world. However, through human actions, this species became threatened with extinction primarily at the hands of a chemical pesticide known as DDT. The impressive part of the story, and the part I am most inspired by, is the fact that humans realized the problem, changed, and the species is now rebounding in many parts of the world, particularly in the United States. We are still dealing with the remnants of DDT in our environment and it’s US manufacturer still ships the product overseas. But it’s decreased use has resulted in the rebounding of Peregrine Falcon populations. It is a tremendous success story. Conservation is most often a bad news business. Many of our actions are simply delaying or slowing the trend toward extinct instead of reversing it. As species across the world head toward extinction, it is still encouraging to know that if we put our actions toward conservation we can make a difference.

On this trip to Yellowstone, Karyn and I spotted two adult Peregrines in flight and observed a nest. I was awed on each occasion.

Peregrine Falcon in flight above Yellowstone River (likely from nest we observed near there).

Peregrine Falcon in flight above Yellowstone River (likely from nest we observed near there).

Peregrine Falcon preening, Round Prairie.

Last year we found a Golden Eagle nest near Slough Creek. We returned to the area this year finding three un-used nest structures. However, we did find an adult in the area eating what appeared to be a ground squirrel and a sub-adult unsuccessfully trying to get in on the action. It is possible the adult and his/her mate have a nest that we did not detect, or they may not be breeding this year. Golden Eagles do not necessarily breed every year.

Sub-adult Golden Eagle, Slough Creek.

We observed two Bald Eagle nests, both occupied. The nest in the Lamar Valley is easily observed from the main road on the opposite side of the valley. We saw two nestlings (chicks) in the nest and observed a feeding on one occasion. The adult Bald Eagles were regularly observed visiting various carcasses.

Adult Bald Eagle flying over elk carcass in Lamar Valley.

Through our travels and past knowledge, we located three occupied Red-tailed Hawk nests. These birds regularly fly over one of the best viewing areas in the Lamar Valley, Dorothy’s Knoll. Each evening, multiple birds are present soaring on the updrafts caused by the breeze through the valley. They often interact with the Ravens and the Bald Eagles.

Adult Red-tailed Hawk flying in Lamar Valley with Jasper Bench in the background.

The Osprey put on a show! We found four nests in the park and one near Mesa Falls, just outside the park. The nest in Lamar Canyon is a highlight as a turnout on the main road provides an above nest view. We watched as one bird returned with a fish, ate half, then handed the rest to it’s mate. They then switched incubation duties as the other finished the dinner.

Osprey prey deliver and incubation exchange, Lamar Canyon.

Just above Upper Mesa Falls on the Henry’s Fork in Idaho, we observed another pair of Ospreys during an incubation exchange. This one did not involve food.

Osprey nest, Upper Mesa Falls, Idaho.

Osprey, Upper Mesa Falls, Idaho.

Last year we found a Great Grey Owl nest. We returned to check on the nest this year and found it unoccupied. We search the area but found no other nests. I hope they are nesting somewhere.

The Songbirds.

Hiking in Yellowstone during the springtime is fantastic as every songbird tries to be heard over all of the others. The forest and shrublands are filled with non-stop songs from the powerful and  warbling Ruby-crowned Kinglet, to the methodic and simple Chipping Sparrow. Sometimes there are so many birds singing at once it is difficult to distinguish one song from another.

The Yellow-rumped Warblers were pervasive in sight and sound.

Male Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon sub-species), Tower Road.

Male Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon sub-species), Tower Road.

My favorite songbird of the trip was observed at Upper Mesa Falls, outside the park in Idaho – the Green-tailed Towhee. I love this bird for a number of reasons. First, this bird is an important prey species for my research focus, the Northern Goshawk. I am always telling people that you cannot admire the predator without respecting the prey. The inverse is also true, you cannot admire the prey if you do not also respect the predator that helped create and improve it. A few of my co-workers can probably guess my second reason and why I was excited to get these photos. A few years back we captured one of these birds during our banding process. I was processing the bird and fumbled it before anyone had a chance for a photo. These photos are much better than a bird in the hand!

Green-tailed Towhee, Upper Mesa Falls, Idaho.

Green-tailed Towhee, Upper Mesa Falls, Idaho.

Vesper Sparrow, Hellroaring Trail.

Mountain Bluebirds are quite common in the Yellowstone area as there is no logging to remove the dead snags which provide homes for woodpeckers and then bluebird (as well as other cavity nesters). We observed bluebirds on many of our hikes. The blue color can appear dramatically different in different lighting conditions. the next two photos highlight the difference. The first is in late evening sunshine, whereas, the second is in mid-day sun.

Mountain Bluebird, evening sun, Elk Flat.

Mountain Bluebird, mid-day sun.

Mountain Chickadee, Specimen Ridge.

Chipping Sparrow, Hellroaring Trail.

Other Birds.

The sound of Sandhill Cranes rank in my personal top-10 bird sounds. Their calls were heard nearly everywhere in and around the park.

Sandhill Crane rolling eggs in nest, near Floating Island Lake.

Sandhill Crane flying through Lamar Valley.

While watching wolves in Elk Flat, we observed a Dusky Grouse walking very slowly toward us. She carefully placed each step one at a time before pausing. Our observation of wolves quickly turned into a “wolf jam” of people and cars. Regardless, the grouse kept on her journey. She walked right under the car next to us. Once she reached the other side of the car, she flew across the road and into the trees. The total journey took her more than 30 minutes!

Dusky Grouse, Elk Flat.

Another nearly pervasive bird in the park is the Common Raven. It is widely believed that these intelligent birds work cooperatively with wolves to find prey. We as humans use these birds to find wolves and to find carcasses. More than 100 ravens ON AVERAGE feed on a single elk carcass taken down by wolves.

Coyote and Common Ravens picking through the remains left behind by wolves and grizzly bears.

Common Raven Nest, near Junction Butte.

American Dipper nest near Mammoth.

These is one native bird species of North America that generally gains little respect, even from ornithologists – the Brown-headed Cowbird. The Brown-headed Cowbird does not build a nest. This bird lays eggs in the nests of warblers and other small birds letting them take on the effort of raising the young. This most often occurs at the expense of the warbler’s own young. It is believed that this evolved as the cowbirds followed the migratory herds of North American Bison. They did not have time to stay in one place and raise young. Historically, this had little impact on warbler species overall as only a small number of nests were parasitized and usually only those in poor habitat near the edge of forests. With modern day development, wide-spread cattle grazing, non-migratory cattle operations, forest fragmentation, etc., it is believed that a much higher percentage of warbler nests are parasitized. Hence in people’s perceptions, the cowbird has shifted from an innovator eking out a living creatively to a conservation threat to many species.

In Yellowstone the cowbird does what it had evolved to do, follow bison as they migrate up and down the Yellowstone and Lamar rivers.

Flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds surrounding Bison and calf.

I’ll have at least one more post in this series, so check back soon.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Yellowstone 2014–The Mammalian Predators

Karyn and I just recently spent a week long vacation hiking and wildlife watching in Yellowstone National Park. I managed to squeeze the trip in between my various field projects this spring. Yellowstone is always a great place to be, one of the few areas with a near complete ecological complement of animals without undue human pressure (although human impact is still quite prevalent…). We generally prefer visiting earlier in May to avoid the summer hoards, but it still worked out well.

One of our prime objectives is to observe wolves. The wolf population in the northern range of Yellowstone is lower than it has been for some time. With the expected natural decrease in the population after hitting its high after reintroduction, coupled with a few years of disease and key animals (alphas) being killed just outside the park boundaries, the sightings are rarer than in the past. However, we still had some great encounters.

On the first day entering the park we stopped at Elk Flat on the western side of the park and just happened to see a wolf walking through the meadow. It was great timing!

Gray Wolf of the Canyon Pack in Elk Flat with geothermal features in the background.

A bit more searching through the meadow and we found three other wolves bedded down. It appeared that they had a carcass just out of sight. We watched as each made their way across the meadow and up toward their presumed den area. We changed our plans and found a campsite at Norris so that we could extend our observations.  We watched them again in the evening as each wolf came back one by one to access the carcass.

Member of Canyon pack heading back to the presumed den area.

It is common for all members of the pack to take food to the young. As wolves greet the puppies they will regurgitate food for them and any other pack members that remained behind during the hunt. Thus, it is common for the same wolf to return to the carcass, even if they had recently fed.

Wolves will sometimes carry pieces of the carcass back to the den area for the puppies. In this case, it appears that it is a portion of an elk calf. Since the carcass was clearly larger than a calf, we expect it consisted of the cow elk and the calf. We once watched the alpha male of the Druid wolf pack (wolf 21m) try to take an elk calf. The female elk came in to defend the calf, so the wolf switched to focus on her. I expect that this cow and calf combination kill happens fairly often during the calfing season.

Alpha male carries portion of carcass toward the den.

The highlight of the Canyon pack is the alpha female. This wolf is one of the few very white wolves that have occurred in the lower 48 state populations. I am only aware of three “white’ wolves. One was killed in Idaho, one was alpha female of the Hayden pack and was killed by other wolves in central Yellowstone, and the current alpha female of the Canyon pack (pictured below) who is the daughter of the alpha of the Hayden pack that was killed. Years ago we had gone searching for the Hayden white female on a number of occasions, without success. We were very excited to see her daughter in Elk Flat!

“White” alpha female wolf of Canyon pack.

We made our way on to the northern range of Yellowstone where we had observations of the Junction Butte pack, the Lamar Canyon pack, and a lone wolf which also inhabits the area. This lone wolf was associated with the Junction Butte pack, but now spends most of the time alone.

“Lone” wolf 889 near Junction Butte (Photo credit: Karyn deKramer).

We watched the Junction Butte pack on a recent elk carcass and on an older bison carcass. We seem to continually miss the Lamar Canyon pack until our last day when one of the wolves had taken a bison calf. We watched as she returned from the carcass to the den area and as another wolf visited the carcass and carried a portion back to the den.

Lamar Canyon wolf heading back to den with a stomach full of bison.

Wolf crosses Soda Butte Creek and heads for den area.

We had much more frequent sightings of bears. The highlight was finding the famed grizzly bear “Scarface” on a carcass only about 100 yards from the road. At the time he was sleeping on the carcass to prevent anyone else from getting at it. He later woke up and continued his meal. At the same time we could see two family groups, one with two yearling cubs, and one with two 2-year-old cubs, resulting in seven grizzly bears in sight at one time.

“Scarface” on an elk carcass, Lamar Valley.

“Scarface” on an elk carcass, Lamar Valley.

One day while watching wolves near Slough Creek, we heard over the radio that a grizzly bear was walking just below a group of wolf watchers on “Bob’s Knob”. Hey!, we were just below “Bob’s Knob”! We turned to see a grizzly running between ourselves and the other group. It is always a good idea to look behind you from time to time.

Grizzly bear sneaking in from behind! Slough Creek.

As far as the bear experts know there is only one grizzly cub-of-the-year in the Slough/Lamar Canyon area. We went looking for her, but didn’t find her at first. Later as we were driving, she appeared right in front of us. We watched as she crossed the road.

Sow and cub-of-the-year grizzly near Crystal Creek.

She was clearly stressed by the people and the traffic. Research has shown that young animals key into the stress of parents and carry it with them for the rest of their lives (the study was performed on Common Ravens, but I am sure that it applies to bears as well). This road crossing was probably an important lesson which the young bear will use to avoid people and cars throughout its life. That’s a good thing!

In total we observed at least 16 unique grizzly bears, probably a few more. In addition to those previously mentioned we observed two separate courting pairs and a handful of individuals. But not all of the attention was on the grizzlies. A female Black Bear had three cubs in the Tower Falls area. This of course, caused tremendous bear jams.

Sow Black Bear and three cubs-of-the-year.

The cubs are amazing at climbing trees. Here is a video of how fast they can climb. Karyn believes that the sow was pointing them up the tree. I agree.

Black Bear cub climbing a tree (credit: Karyn deKramer).

Black Bear cub (Photo credit: Karyn deKramer).

We also had two “three dog days”. Days in which we observed wolves, coyotes, and red fox in a single day. One day we had two red foxes come and scent mark rocks just outside our van when we were camping. On another the fox walked down a valley, apparently hunting. We observed him/her face off with a Yellow-bellied Marmot.

Red Fox along Tower Road (Photo credit: Karyn deKramer).

Check back for my next few posts which will highlight birds, other mammals, and other scenery.