Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Animals of Northwestern Wyoming

I fully acknowledge that I am a geek. Alas, I should have listened to my Kindergarten through eighth-grade versions of myself and gone into some branch of zoology. Instead, I let my irritation with math send me into journalism, and look where that got me. Anyway, following are photos of some of the animals I'd not seen before in person before this month's road trip, or animals that are interesting enough to re-post even though I saw them in Alaska on my two trips to that state.

The elk are ridiculous in the two national parks in the top west corner of Wyoming. You turn a corner on a road in Grand Teton or Yellowstone and the scattering elk are reminiscent of the scurrying roaches fleeing the flick of a light switch in an infested tenement building. These two, a cow and a very young bull, were waiting for a break in traffic to cross the main road in Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone.

From what Mickey said, K and I may have been the only visitors to the parks not on the lookout for moose. Having spent a week for our honeymoon and two weeks a few years later in Alaska, we've both been accustomed to moose. Heck, in Anchorage, a reasonably sized city, you'll see moose wandering through residential neighborhoods. Still, moose are an interesting animal, and not one most of us get to experience in person. There was also a third deer species we saw on a regular basis, only I can't seem to find a decent picture of a mule deer. I think this trip marked the point where I saw all four of the deer species in the US and Canada. I still think whitetails are the prettiest, although they are the least impressive. Whitetails are smaller than even the mule deer, but the mule deer have slightly bulging eyes, are a little gangly, and have those goofy ears that earned their name. The elk are even worse with the bulging eyes and gangly build, but they are quite large. In the fall, the giant racks of the bulls distracts from the fact the animal is pretty goofy without its pointy bits. The moose doesn't even bother trying to look pretty. It just impresses you with its sheer size, of body and antler.

A pair of older male elk. The antlers are rounded and velvety now, but by fall they will be even larger, pointed, and ready for the rut.

These aren't a variety of deer. Instead they're North America's only antelope. This herd of pronghorn was grazing near the Interstate on our way out west. We saw our first pair while still inside the Cheyenne, WY, city limits and we didn't stop seeing them until we left the state. Really cool animals.

We didn't see any grizzlies on this trip, but we saw them on our Alaska trips, so no biggy. This black bear crossed the road behind us in Grand Teton. K actually got a really good view as it was sitting on the side of the road waiting to cross when on her side as we passed it. We saw a sow with cubs in Yellowstone, but it was too distant to get a decent photo. I actually mistook this bear for a young grizzly initially, but as I zoomed in to show Mickey a good shot of the bear on my camera, I realized it was just another black bear. No hump at the shoulders, no griz.

This was my most surprising find, although this is a horrible photo. I took a short hike after lunch down the Hidden Lake Trail in Yellowstone one day. I first came across a few bones that had to come from something no smaller than an elk and from the stockiness of the leg bones, I'm assuming it was a bison. Regardless of species, whatever it was had bones bigger than anything in my body. Maybe a quarter of a mile later, I see a gray shape loping off in the distance, heading away from me to the cover of trees on the other side of a narrow valley. I think it may be a wolf, but it's fleeing me, so I keep on down the trail. Still, those bones are weighing a little on my mind. Large predators don't like being separated from their kill. I turn a slight bend in the trail and a young-looking face pops up out of the grass. Shit. It looks like an older pup. Previous meal in the area, and pups? I turn around and head back. I take a peek over my shoulder and see this guy running through the grass away from me and I take a photo when he stops to watch me again. Honestly, given that I didn't have a truly up-close look other than than one little face, these could have been coyotes. Still, I've seen coyotes around my own house and these looked bigger and didn't look yellow enough or have a bushy enough tail for the smaller canines. Later, I found out from Mickey that this was near the site where the original pack was reintroduced into Yellowstone. I'm going to stick with the wolf story. It's got a good chance of even being accurate.

A step down in excitement was this chipmunk. Still, compared to the chipmunks we see back East, it's a little interesting. First, the tail is surprisingly long for a chipmunk. Second, it's significantly smaller than the normal chipmunk I'm used to. From what I can tell, this is a Least Chipmunk. This one's eating a carrot some stupid tourist kid probably dropped.

If the elk are the cockroaches of the valleys, these are the cockroaches of the mountainsides. Marmots were larger than I expected. I'd always imagined them to be the size of rats. Instead, they're the size of groundhogs. Every boulder field had a few and a couple of them were rather bold, probably fed by previous hikers and climbers. This one even posed for photos. I also got to catch a brief, but close, view of a pika. While we ate lunch on our 14-mile near-death march, one scurried up the cliff onto the path, paused to look at us, and then fled into the boulders before I could get my camera. The pika is the size I imagined it, a very large mouse, only it's not a rodent at all. Instead, it's in the same group as rabbits and hares.

After leaving Wyoming, we headed into South Dakota and I got my first glimpse of prairie dogs. The sound of hundreds barking through the colony as I walked through the middle was pretty cool. This prairie dog had a couple of young peaking out of the hole with her.

After leaving the prairie dog town, we saw this badger crossing the road. I'd actually never seen one of these, so it was kind of exciting for me. Those of you from Wisconsin are probably a little less impressed.

This isn't really exciting to most of you, but I'm fascinated by birds. This guy flew around in our campsite while we packed up to leave in Yellowstone. It looked very much like a giant, overly-fed mockingbird. After a little research when I got home, I found out that it's a Clark's nutcracker, a bird in the crow and jay family. I saw a couple of other species in this family as well. I have a photo of the common raven, but it really doesn't look like much out of context. Imagine a crow, then imagine a crow that just ate another crow. That's a raven. They're huge. We also saw a few black-billed magpies, and Mickey and I managed to piss off a pair of Steller's Jays on our hike.

The western grebes were pretty amazing. It's a shame I didn't get to see them put on their bizarre mating displays or at least carrying chicks on their backs.

Finally, we saw a ton of ducks in ever body of water. Some were just everyday mallards. I saw a pair of buffleheads once, but these are a pair of Barrow's Goldeneyes we saw on Lake Yellowstone.


Theresa B (of Nebulopathy) said...

You got some great pictures on your trip. I'm with you -- the badger is one of the coolest things since I've never seen one in person.

I think I see the Loch Ness Monster in the background of the wolf picture... ;-)

Courtney said...

You are quite the wildlife photographer. Nice shots.

I'm still pissed you saw a bear so close after only being here for a few days. I've been here for a month and I only saw a bear from a distance, and that's only because he's been hanging around the same spot because he's injured.

Julie said...

I read your narrative with an Australian accent. It felt right

A Free Man said...

What is it with you guys (you and Mickey) and your dodgy 'wolf' sightings. That photo looks a lot like my dog. Are you sure it wasn't a stray husky? Or a dingo?

Jacob said...

Mickey's photo was pretty obvious, at least to me. I'll admit that my photo really is pretty damn dodgy.

Courtney: I can't tell if that's sarcasm or not. Some of these photos are pretty crappy because I couldn't get close enough and didn't have a long enough lens.

Courtney said...

I'm not being sarcastic! I really like them!