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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Yellowstone in Winter

Greetings from Montana! I am attending a workshop in Bozeman later this week and flew out a few days early to visit Yellowstone National Park. I rented a Jeep and entered at the Northwest corner of the Park at Gardiner, MT. The road that runs along the northern end of the Park is the only road maintained in winter for autos. I arrived on Saturday and managed a few hours in the park but managed no photos. Today, I got up nice and early (thanks to being on Eastern Standard Time). I managed 8 species of mammals today:
-Red squirrel
-Gray wolf
-Bighorn sheep

The highlight from that list was the wolf sighting. It is hard to take any credit for it. I simply found the large group of individuals with spotting scopes and gigantic cameras who had already found the wolves. As luck would have it, I arrived literally moments before the entire pack of 11 wolves crossed the road. One of the wolves, a female, was howling! What an amazing sound.

Gray Wolf, with radio collar
(Yellowstone National Park, 1/12)
 The wolves crossed about 75 yards away. I was without a tripod so the photos are the best I could do with a handheld 300 mm lens. This is an adult male wolf with a VHF radio collar on.

Gray wolf crossing road
(Yellowstone National Park, 1/12)
 Here is another wolf. I cannot remember what the wolf watchers said about this one, but it also appears to be an adult. This is the more typical coloration (hence the name "gray wolf" although this species can be called timber wolf as well). Bear with me as I share one more road crossing photo:

Gray wolf crossing road
(Yellowstone National Park, 1/12)
 This is the Lamar Canyon pack. I have to admit to not knowing a whole lot about the wolves in YNP, but there are many people that literally know them by name. The wolf watchers I met today were very friendly and readily shared their scopes (I left my scope at home to save on baggage). I am looking forward to trying for this pack once more tomorrow.

Lamar Canyon Pack
(Yellowstone National Park, 1/12)
 After the wolves headed over a ridge and were out if sight, several of us wandered down the road to photograph the tracks. I was the only one to wander off the road and I backtracked the wolves all the way to the river. I was hoping for some fresh scat or scent marking but no such luck. I DID however, get some great track photos and should be able to create several postings so stay tuned. But here are a few to get us started:
Gray wolf track
(Yellowstone National Park, 1/12)
We received about two inches of fresh snow last night so even if I had not seen the wolves make these tracks I would have been certain they were fresh.Here you can see that the snow is covering a layer of ice. Notice how lave the track is compared to my hand. The nails are prominent and the negative space between the toes and the metacarpal pad forms a nice pointed three-dimensional pyramid.

Gray wolf track in deep snow
(Yellowstone National Park, 1/12)
 Same wolf only this time, it stepped in much deeper snow. Check out the drag marks of the individual claws in the leading edge of this track. I really like this photo. Can you see the small round mark behind the track? That is the carpal pad that normally doesn't show in a track. I am pleased to see it here.

Gray wolf tracks, Hind (r) and Front (l)
(Yellowstone National Park, 1/12)
These tracks were down near the river. I can tell the front from rear tracks in two ways. First, the front tracks are larger overall but secondly, there is a difference to the size and shape of the metacarpal pad. Look how much smaller the pad looks in the rear track as compared to the front track. I will spend more time on that in a future post. For now, it is time for me to get some sleep and dream of what YNP will hold for me tomorrow. I will leave you all with one last photo of a coyote for comparison.

Coyote in winter
(Yellowstone National Park, 1/12)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Muskrat lodges and the last camera trap photo of 2011

The weather continues to be unseasonably warm here in Central New York, so it was easy to convince Danika to join me in checking the cameras. Pickings were slim... only three individual deer were captured including the buck here.

White-tailed Deer
(Seneca Falls, NY 12/11)
 But the real find was in our wetland on the way to the cameras. We found what I believe are recently built muskrat lodges. I have to admit to being negligent lately when it comes to knowing what is happening out on my property. But I have to believe I would have noticed the two massive muskrat lodges despite my obliviousness. Muskrats are said to build in the spring and fall, and with our mild weather perhaps they have been extending the building into the winter.

Muskrat lodge
(Seneca Falls, NY 12/11)
Danika and I ventured into the water thinking we could easily make it to the lodges. I wanted a photo of her standing on top of one. But the 'rats had other plans... the lodges were built in water that was just a tad deeper the height of our boots. So we had to settle for examining them from an arm's length. Muskrat lodges are made from pliable vegetation (unlike beaver lodges which are made of woody material). Cattail was the building material of choice. I asked Danika to stand near a stalk so I could show off how the plant got its name. The hot dog or cat tail is actually the fruiting body of the plant.

Danika with cattail
(Seneca Falls, NY 12/11)
 Cattails are not just used by 'rats for builiding, but are also an important food source. Muskrats feed on the roots. One of the lodges has a nice runway going to the top. Muskrats do feed in the open but also feed under cover. I have never personally seen one on top of a lodge, but that runway is sure getting some use. Perhaps some of the muskrats are enjoying the view...
Runway on top of muskrat lodge
(Seneca Falls, NY 12/11)