Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Off on the Next Great Adventure....

Well, no more posts for a few weeks. This time I am off to Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. It's the wet season there. Should be interesting! It'll be farther south in Africa than I've been before, and also my first all camping safari. Unfortunately, I can't share the stories and photos as soon as I get back, because this trip is on behalf of a magazine and they will have the rights. But, when it comes out and hits stands and their website I will be sure to post links so you can read about the trip if you care to. It's my first travel writing experience and I am looking forward to it immensely!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cool (Neat) Looking Ice

There was some very neat looking ice in Yellowstone. Below is a photo of ice crystals near a hot spring in West Thumb. You can see the green growth under the ice crystals. Animals eat the greenery year round, but apparently it contains high levels of arsenic and other bad things so the animals who graze on it have easier, but shorter, lives. Interesting. I like the photo because of the amazing contrasts, and because the frost is so big and so defined that it looks like white leaves on the ground, or a frost plant.

The other photo, what looks sort of like frozen angel hair, is called needle ice. It forms around geothermal formations because the moisture in the ground freezes and pushes up out of the ground in small, thin strands and small bunches. It is also like an ice plant springing from the frozen ground. Amazingly cool.

We saw a glimpse of an otter in one of the warm patches of Yellowstone lake, but only for a moment - no photos. We saw Bald Eagles this trip too, and a golden eagle, but again, no photos, sorry.

We saw lots of geothermal features while hiking in snowshoes, and also at some stops along the journey in the snow coach. It was not at all crowded in the park. We did run into some snowmobile groups, but not that many. Although I like to snowmobile on groomed and designated trails in non-wildlife areas, I think it's shame and wildly inappropriate to allow snowmobiles in the National Park, among the wildlife. They are very loud and disruptive not only to the animals, but to anyone else around. I know it's a big controversy, but since there are so many other places to snowmobile I don't see why there should be so much insistence it take place in Yellowstone.

In any event, lots of way cool stuff to see in winter so it's a very nice trip to make.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Elk

We saw hundreds of elk, but I got hardly any photos. It seems we were always driving by the elk where there was no pullout, or they were so common most people didn't want photos of them so we didn't stop. I didn't get a chance to sit and observe them as much as I have herds of zebra or other African species, which was too bad. I know less about the elk that live near and in my own state than species halfway around the world...weird.

These are the best two photos I have - a large bull elk, traveling alone. And, a herd of cows and calves on the move when some wolves were nearby. They gathered at a river and then crossed over.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Dog-Sledding

We stayed an extra day at Chico Hot Springs in Pray, Montana so that we could try dog-sledding. We went with Absaroka Dogsledding Treks, which has an office right at Chico for a half day trek. It was fun, but harnessing and unharnessing the dogs takes a looooong time, a lot longer than saddling a horse or two. The dogs are surprisingly little - most around 45 pounds, some a little smaller, some a little bigger. Most were mixed breeds, not the classic Siberian Husky stereotype.

There were five sleds going out, some with 10 dogs and some with 6. We went with a guide and a team of ten led by Faith, the dog in the close up. She was a bright and enthusiastic leader and you could tell when she looked back for commands that she was really happy and having a great time. She wasn't the type of dog who loves people, she was rather shy, but on the trail she sure was a joy to watch. At top speed the dogs were running 18 miles an hour, which is really impressive, especially considering they must have been pulling about 500 pounds (three people and a sled).

The other photo shows multiple dog teams on a break at lunch. While some dog mushers don't socialize with their dogs and treat them as solely working animals, I was glad that the guide we had fed his dogs well, let them come in the house, knew the personality of each dog, and genuinely cared for them all. His dogs were in better shape than the ones owned by someone else. One of the other dogs was actually too underweight to be working in my opinion, and if she was at the Humane Society they'd put her in foster care to gain weight before they even adopted her out. They weren't being mistreated, it was just clear different philosophies of caring for the dogs were at play.

Overall it was fun and I'm glad we tried it. If I have the chance to go again sometime I will.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Winter Wonderland

There were amazing thick snows on branches and bizarre frost on trees, and steaming hot springs amid the snow, and the incredible combination of ice and boiling mud pits. There were many stunning winter Yellowstone scenes and I'm glad we went and saw them.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Trumpeter Swans & Bighorn Sheep

We saw two different families of trumpeter swans in Yellowstone, but due to distance and moving vehicles I only got a photo of one of the adults. They were beautiful, and it was nice to see four signets in each family, almost fully grown but still grey on top.

We saw bighorn sheep on the top of a ridge, but they were quite far away. Although I could see them well with the scope, they were too far away for a photo. This one, with extensive digital zoom, is a bit fuzzy and not very good - you can more or less see animal legs. But, they're sheep.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Bison

We saw a few bison herds of cows and calves, as well as lone bull bison or small bachelor groups. We saw bison throughout Yellowstone, above where we saw elk. Pictured here is a herd we found in a meadow, as well as a close up of an individual. The bison move snow out of the way with their big heads, moving them side to side like shovels. Their coats get matted with snow and they stand in bitter cold winds with snow blowing and just look sort of hunkered down. These are tough animals, no question.

The most upsetting thing I saw in the park was a baby bison, a calf less than a year old, which was on the side of the road. It appeared to have been hit by a vehicle, but it wasn't dead yet. It had a ruptured gut and a wound on it's side that was round, like on the hip bone, but a clean round circle not a tear or a bite. There was a rumor wolves injured the bison and were chased off, but it appeared to me to be a human inflicted injury. The calf was suffering and looked me in the eye. I really wanted to put it out of its misery. I made sure the rangers knew about it, but with limited resources dispatching injured animals doesn't seem to be a high priority.

That was upsetting on many levels. Every safari in Africa I see animal suffering I can't stop, and I recognize they have next to no resources at all, so as much as I hate it, I understand. But here in the U.S., in our National Parks, I expect a higher standard of care for the animals. I recognize that we shouldn't interfere with nature and predator kills and I am fine with that. But when we humans inflict suffering on an animal through a vehicle accident or other event, I believe we should have a policy of making it a priority to put the animal out of its misery. Predators and scavengers will do the rest, but we don't have any excuse for letting an animal lie in misery for hours and dying a slow and excruciating death.

Also, the speed and idiocy of people in the park (many of whom just stop on the road to look at something with no regard to traffic) is astounding. There should be a hefty fine for hitting an animal, and that should be well advertised so that people are more cautious. Supposedly 26 bears were killed by cars last year in Yellowstone. Not to mention the elk, bison, coyotes, deer and whatever else was in the way.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Wolves: The Druid Pack

We had two days in the Lamar Valley looking for wolves. We were lucky enough to see the Druid Peak pack both days. The first day they were laying on a knoll near an aspen grove, and there was a grey wolf looking on, trying to join the pack but not yet a member. People who watch the wolves regularly say he's been trying to join for awhile, and that later the same day we saw him he was injured by the alpha male. We didn't see him the second day, so I hope he made it. The photo above is of the onlooker standing under a cottonwood tree looking towards the pack.

The second day we encountered the pack laying down, but they got up and howled for awhile, which was very cool to hear, and then loped off across the valley. We saw them chase a bull elk down a slope, and then encircle another one but decide not to take him down. They also moved a herd of cows and calves across a river. I saw eight pack members - my guide said he saw eleven. There were many greys but also several blacks. Two blacks and a grey of the pack are pictured above, on the edge of a frozen river.

Wolf watching was great, but the wolves are a ways off and they avoid people, so binoculars are a must, and spotting scopes were awesome (thankfully the guides had them available). You can't get good photos without a camera a lot better than mine.

Also, it is really, really cold. When the wind blows it is staggeringly cold and any gap in your clothing is a major problem. Hand and toe warmers and many layers are required.

There are "wolf groupies" who watch the wolves every day, and I can see why. If I was retired and had nothing else to do and lived nearby, I'd probably go every day too, to see what's up. The wolves were incredibly cool to see, and it made me all the sadder that people want to start hunting them. Destruction of the pack structure will impact breeding, and stability, and I think we'll be undoing years of progress.

At least there is a protected area in Yellowstone for them, and perhaps as more people learn more about wolves we can eventually move past the killing mentality and appreciate the species for the wonderful attributes it has, and what wolves bring to the greater ecosystem.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Coyotes At a Kill, And Not

Yellowstone in winter was gorgeous, and it was a nice trip. It was the first time in the U.S. that I've seen herds of animals, animal kills with scavengers, and wilderness with animals like I've seen in Africa. It's different here, of course - you don't get as close to the animals and there are not as many of them, and typically you see one species at a time instead of a dozen. But, it was still very cool and overall a great experience. At least we have some wild places left.

Our first day in the park we saw this coyote on the left trot over a ridge; he/she only turned to look at me for a minute before disappearing over the crest. Shortly after entering the park we saw an elk kill that was being scavenged by ravens and coyotes, pictured on the right. There was another elk not farther on that looked as though it may have been hit by a car and then wandered off to the side and died, as it didn't appear there was much blood. Coyotes, ravens and a golden eagle were taking care of it each time we drove by.