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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:
-Bison
-Elk
-Red squirrel
-Gray wolf
-Coyote
-Bighorn sheep
-Moose
-Pronghorn

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)


9 comments:

  1. Great stuff, John!

    You must be working with Jim Halfpenny in Bozeman?

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  2. I love the photo of the pack. Why would they have a difference in the metacarpal pad from the front foot to the back foot?

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    1. Many animals do. Humans for example :) -- bat that is kind of cheating. Others include coons, bears, opossum. The short answer is that they use their front and rear feet differently. That is dramatic in an animal like a black bear, but more subtle in felines and canines. So you NEXT question will be: How do wolves use their front and rear feet differently? I am going to email an expert and see what he has to say.... stay tuned!

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    2. Well, I guess one of the obvious different uses for front and back feet would be something like digging.

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  3. Snow,wolves,tracks...what can get better than that?Seeing wild wolves are top of my wish list.Looking forward to next track posts.......

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    Replies
    1. Very cool pictures. We're sweltering in South Africa presently so the idea of spending time with wolves in the snow is very appealing.

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  4. Shame I don't think any of my comments went through last week. Being a dunce I totally forgot to turn off my javascript blocker and approve my wordpress ID to be used for commenting. So to sum up the missed comments, I am very jealous of your opportunities to take the amazing photographs you have, especially in Yellowstone.

    Hopefully one day I'll get to work there as a wolf researcher. I'm very interested in studying their behavior and interactions. It was amazing to learn that a lot of the knowledge we used to have about their hierarchy may be invalid when applied to wild populations. Researchers are starting to disregard the Alpha-Beta structure and label it as a family structure instead similar to humans.

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