Yellowstone National Park: Part 4. An unplanned and unexpected encounter!

As my friend Joan and I traveled through Yellowstone, we saw bison everywhere, in herds, small groups and sometimes in pairs or alone. Quite often this was on the road, so that we needed to be aware it might take us longer than planned to get to a particular place.

The many reports of human-bison encounters which I had seen and read about over the years made me quite aware of how dangerous it can be for a person to come close to a bison. They are huge animals – adults weighing between 1,200-2,000 pounds and standing 4-6 feet tall. If provoked or alarmed, they can be quite dangerous.

I was not above making derogatory comments about how thoughtless people took risks when they approached bison. For example, one day we stopped along a road and watched bison crossing the Yellowstone River, swimming with difficulty against the rapid currents.

Some park visitors had stopped down the road and a couple got out and descended into the valley, headed for the river. They apparently were hoping to get some close-up photos and I made some disparaging remarks about how they were taking unnecessary risks and should turn around.

A few days later, however, I discovered that not all encounters are the result of thoughtlessness.

Joan and I had stopped at a valley overlook where Park authorities had laid out a walking trail. It was a good distance from any hills and several people were out hiking the trail. As we both like to walk, we decided to go down to the trail as well.

As Joan walks faster than me and because I stop often to photograph, she went on ahead. I meandered along taking photos of plants, birds and what I thought were prairie dogs, but which were likely Uinta ground squirrels. There were some bison far down the valley, but they were mostly heading up into the hills, so we felt ok walking on the trail.

After a while, I was nearing the river and wanted to photograph some green-winged teal. As I approached their spot, Joan came walking back to my surprise. I’d thought she would go on for a while, but she said some people ahead of her were following the trail as it ascended a hill, and they were not that far from some bison. She didn’t want to be around any mammal-people encounters so she decided to return. I said I’d come back when I had photographed the ducks.

The sun was shining nicely and the teal were swimming back and forth. I checked my vicinity and saw no people or animals; the rodents had gone into their dens.

As I stood taking pictures, I suddenly heard a soft sound behind me, kind of like a grunt or snort. I slowly turned right with my camera still held up to my face and found myself facing a small group of bison with the lead male watching me from some yards away.

This is not the bison that faced me: I was not taking photos or making any noise at this point!

Joan had been watching from above the valley at the parking place along with a couple other people. She’d seen the bison come up over a hill and walk toward me, but she was too far away to let me know. I never heard them – or smelled them as the wind was blowing in their direction.

Not the bison who was examining me!

Joan considered calling 911 but phone coverage can be spotty. She also briefly thought about how to get medical help if something happened but hoped a ranger would come quickly as they did seem to magically appear all over the park when needed. We saw them often when groups of people stopped at roadsides.

Again – not the bison who was examining me!

In the meantime, I quickly considered my options. I can’t run; even if I could, it would be useless as bison have been clocked at 40-45 mph (65-70 km/h). I knew enough not to challenge the bison in any way, quickly looking away so I wasn’t gazing into the male leader’s eyes. I kept the camera with its long lens up in front of my face. Slowly, I pivoted back left towards the direction of the river, facing away from the bison. Then I stood completely motionless (camera still up in front of my face). I don’t know how long I stood there but at some point, I heard movement further away to my right and dared a look. The bison leader and his group had decided that I posed no threat and they had moved on down the valley.

I waited, still standing stock still, until they were a good distance away. I had to take a couple photos of the – now far off – group and then began walking as quickly as I could manage down the return path.

Photo heavily cropped; they were very distant!

My feelings were mixed: shock at what had happened, relief that I had known what to do in order not to provoke the bison, and elation that I had survived the close encounter unscathed. It also taught me that not all human-bison encounters are the result of complete stupidity – I was on a path laid out for visitors, there had been no bison nearby when we began walking, several other people had been on the trail and so I hadn’t suspected anything could happen. I likely won’t hike any paths at the park again if bison are in sight, even far away.

I continue to be in awe of the magnificent bison. I’m glad my love of wildlife and instincts helped me through a safe encounter and this will certainly be one of my most vivid travel memories. And I’ll continue to be as careful and watchful as I can when I go out into nature.

Yellowstone National Park: Part 3. Red dog at play!

When I visited Yellowstone in 2016, seeing the American baby bison at play was one of my favorite sightings; I was certainly looking forward to seeing them again in May 2022. They did not disappoint; the first group of bison (Bison bison) that stopped us on the road on Day 1 included a good number of babies.

During our week’s stay in Yellowstone, the weather was very changeable. On one and the same day, we would have snow flurries, cold winds and hours of bright sunshine and balmy warmth leading us to shed warm jackets. That didn’t stop us from seeing bison everywhere though.

As you drive through Yellowstone, your progress is often slowed down or stopped as herds of bison take over the roads. They have the right of way, so cars need to stop as the group walks around the parked vehicles. People are not allowed to get out as the protective parents could seriously harm anyone nearby.

Sitting in your stopped car does give you a good look at the molting adults and cute youngsters as they pass by your window, sometimes within a couple of feet.

Bison are the largest mammals in the USA. They were designated the country’s National Mammal on 9 May 2016 through the National Bison Legacy Act.

They literally go everywhere. When we walked through thermal areas, we often saw bison “patties” lying about.

When I asked a ranger how they could traverse the hot springs, she said that their hooves can withstand the heat; in some areas, their thick fur even shields them and they lie down to rest in the warmth for a while. However, rangers have seen some with burns on their legs.

Bison patties are also left in grasslands, hillsides and forests. I don’t recall seeing many on roads, however.

Most calves are born in late April and May. They can stand within an hour of birth and begin walking soon thereafter. It doesn’t take long at all for them to become rather independent even though their mothers care for them for about a year.

Apart from their obvious small size, the baby bison are notable for their reddish coloring; their fur will turn adult brown during their first mid-winter. When they are about 2 months of age, the characteristic shoulder humps begin to emerge.

The babies can be extremely playful; their relatively small size enables them to run and jump in seeming jubilance, leading to the nickname “red dogs”.

Perhaps it was the climatic circumstances, but we didn’t see as many playful red dogs as I’d seen in 2016. One youngster did give us a sample of youthful exuberance, however, running, jumping and generally exuding joy.

I did learn this year that Yellowstone’s bison are quite unique. The Park is the only place with bison that are direct descendants (without cattle genes) of the millions of early bison that roamed the area in prehistoric times.

By the late 1800s, only a few hundred bison remained, having been hunted to near-extinction and deprived of needed habitat. Then, by 1902, poachers had reduced Yellowstone’s herd to only about two dozen animals.

Today, their Yellowstone population varies from 2,300 to 5,500 animals and there are groups at other National Parks as well. The Native American Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council collaborates with the National Park Service to transfer bison from national parks to tribal lands.

It’s so fortunate that strides have been made in preserving these iconic animals for us to see in person. And dedicated people are providing resources for people who want to learn more about bison: https://allaboutbison.com/

Aquatic mammals making my day! Part 2

0 beaver PA299293© Maria de Bruyn res

In 2019, I came across a few areas on walks where beavers were active and local residents were enjoying their presence. The animals weren’t shy and would come out in the mornings and evenings to eat and work on their lodges and dams, so I was able to observe them fairly often.

1 beaver PA299182 © Maria de Bruyn. res

In the intervening years, people have taken varied actions to deal with these mammals at the sites I visit, and my sightings have decreased. So, I was very pleased this past fall when I came across a beaver who had put aside his (or her) shyness and was coming out to swim often during daytime hours at one pond.

2 beaver PA299216 © Maria de Bruyn res

One day, this amiable animal decided to have a prolonged grooming session and gave me some good looks at its anatomy. S/he had what is considered a typical beaver tail: large and flat. Later I learned that beaver tails differ from animal to animal, with tail shapes (short, long, narrow, broad) being determined by individual and family traits.

4 beaver PA299318 © Maria de Bruyn res

Their large tails not only assist them in swimming and balancing on land — they also serve as a storage unit for fat that can be accessed during winter periods with less food available. Those tails can increase their body fat supply for cold weather by as much as 60%!

3 beaver PA299429© Maria de Bruyn res

The beaver has long digging claws on its front paws.

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Their hind feet have two specialized toes which were described by Vernon Bailey in 1923 after he had studied young beavers in his home. He called these inner toes the combing claw and the louse-catching claw. The innermost toe he termed a coarse combing tool and the second toe a fine-toothed comb.

7 beaver PA299393© Maria de Bruyn res

The second toe, which has a double toenail, is now called a preening toe or grooming claw.

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These toes are useful tools, as their comb-like action during grooming helps prevent the beavers’ soft fur from matting. (Unfortunately, the beaver only used his/her front paws while I watched; I’d like to see those back claws in action!)

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Beavers may spend almost 20% of their time on preening and grooming as this activity helps them remove burrs and parasites and aids in keeping their fur’s insulation and waterproof characteristics intact.

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An oil from abdominal glands is used to help waterproof their fur, too. Scents from these glands are further used to mark territory. And, oddly, castoreum (one of their castor gland secretions) smells and tastes like vanilla and has been used in human food preparation. Fortunately, it is difficult to obtain (the beaver must be anesthetized and “milked”) and scarcely used – about 292 lbs. (132 kg) yearly around the world.

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The beaver’s well-developed whiskers are useful in dark water and narrow burrows because they help the animal detect objects.

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Like birds and otters, beavers have a nictitating membrane to protect their eyes underwater. They can also keep water out of their ears and nostrils by closing anatomical valves.

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The beautiful beavers have been designated a keystone species because of their important role in creating environments suitable for other animals and plants. The habitats they create remove pollutants from ground and surface water. Their dams act as water filtration systems and help lessen compounds such as nitrogen and phosphorus so that we can obtain cleaner drinking water. In addition, some research has shown that the plants and algae in beaver ponds may help remove toxic metals from water, including lead, arsenic, copper, mercury, cadmium and selenium.

16 beaver PA299248© Maria de Bruyn res

There are ongoing efforts by some people in our area to get rid of beavers but fortunately an increasing number of advocates are looking for ways to coexist with beavers in urban and semi-urban areas. Researchers from local universities are aiding in the effort and hopefully this will lead to co-existence successes!

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And some closing words…. When I was a child, I loved a small statue of three monkeys that sat on a shelf in our home: “speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil.” I liked the message and the fact that it was advised by an animal. Unfortunately, over the past decades, the statuette did not survive intact, but I’ve kept it nonetheless.

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Here below we have a new version, brought to you courtesy of my friendly beaver. 😊

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Speak no evil!

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See no evil!

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Hear no evil!

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And have a wonderful upcoming day, week, month and year!

Next up – back to birds of the woodpecker family!

Aquatic mammals making my day! Part 1

1 river otter P1154270© Maria de Bruyn res

While I love all wildlife, many of my blogs feature birds because my chances of seeing them are greater than seeing other animals. Mammals are a favorite of mine, however, and aquatic mammals are always a pleasure to see since spotting them is not always easy. That is certainly the case for the cute river otters (Lontra canadensis) like the one above.

4 otter PC251157© Maria de Bruyn

These river and pond residents are among the most elusive mammalian water residents for me.  At one pond that I visit regularly, they appear to have adopted an abandoned beaver lodge as their home. There, it is usually movement caught out of the corner of my eye that alerts me to their presence.

2 otter PC251094 © Maria de Bruyn res

Sometimes a view of the rump and tail is all I get as they barely lift their heads out of the water. It’s interesting to know, however, that their tail comprises up to 40% of their body length, helps speed them up to 8 mph (13 Km/h) in the water, and helps them dive up to 36 feet (11 m).

3 otter PA309843© Maria de Bruyn res

5 otter PA309953© Maria de Bruyn resThe otters don’t always appreciate spectators. Sometimes, they emerge from the water briefly and give me a view shrouded by vegetation before they dive back down. That’s frustrating when you’re trying to get a nice photo, but at least I’ve never scared them enough for them to sound their alarm scream, which apparently can be heard up to 1.5 m/2.4 km away!

8 beaver lodge IMG_0294© Maria de Bruyn resThe other day at another pond, I was lucky enough to see a pair close to shore. They were foraging and when they finally disappeared, they appeared to have entered a beaver lodge located next to a walking path (seen here). The beavers may have abandoned this lodge as they have at least two others in this park.

6 river otter P1154288 © Maria de Bruyn res

Researchers have not yet agreed on when otters enter their breeding season; it could be winter, late spring or summertime according to different studies. In any case, it seemed to me like this might be a mated pair.

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As they swam around, the couple would occasionally come together.

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They didn’t stop to frolic, however, even though otters are known for their playfulness. They did blow some bubbles and I’ve learned that they can close their nostrils during dives to keep water out of their noses. Seeing them was a real treat! And their presence should indicate good fortune for the Sandy Creek Park since river otters are considered an indicator species that signal good water quality.

11 river otter P1154272 © Maria de Bruyn

In September, I wrote about seeing muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) and North American beavers at a third reserve. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to see both species there several times. The muskrats have especially graced me with their presence.

12 muskrat PC173212© Maria de Bruyn res

14 Brumley pond IMG_0308© Maria de Bruyn resThat’s lucky because last year our county had its 12th driest December month on record over the past 128 years. This was quite evident at the pond, which appeared to have shrunk by at least 30-40% during the autumn and early winter drought (my estimate). I’ve been surprised to see these animals still living there.

Because muskrats don’t tolerate dry heat well, they’ve been designated an indicator species for the effects of long-term climactic drying. Recent research has shown that their numbers and response to this phenomenon should be taken into account in scientific and environmental policy-making.

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To deal with dry heat, these mammals regulate blood flow to their feet and tail through a mechanism called regional heterothermia. This enables them to keep these appendages cooler than their body’s core. Another interesting anatomical feature is the muskrats’ specialized nostrils, which they can use to trap and recycle air after removing more oxygen before exhalation.

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At this particular pond, I’ve discovered that if I wait patiently for at least 20 minutes or so without other people walking by, it’s likely that one of the resident muskrats will surface to go for a swim and/or to forage for weedy food. (They can stay submerged for up to 15-17 minutes, so patience is warranted.) It’s often the appearance of small bubbles that alerts me to their presence and location.

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Sometimes they emerge with their tails held high as if waving a signal flag – “I’m here!”

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The muskrats dive down and come up with a mouth full of vegetation which they chew while swimming or sitting near the shore. They can also eat underwater since they’re able to chew with their mouth closed because they can close their lips behind their incisors.

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Muskrats prefer to live in areas with at least 4-6 ft (1.2-1.8 m) of water where they build tunnels that lead from the pond or marsh bottom into burrows dug into banks. I now know approximately where their burrow is located as I’ve seen them emerge and submerge in a particular spot.

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Our area just had a snowfall of 2.3 inches (5.8 cm) which will be melting in the coming days. Hopefully, the next time I visit this pond it will be fuller, and the muskrat residents will have a more spacious swimming and eating area. And then they will have good reason to wave their tails in celebration!  (Apologies for the less than stellar photos as I’ve had to use a short lens lately. Hope to have my long lens back soon. The photos in part 2 of this aquatic mammal series are better!)

21 muskrat PC312678© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

A surprise at the pond

1 Bynum IMG_0631© Maria de Bruyn res

A combination of abundant vegetation and some type of water — a creek, river, wetland, pond or lake — is one of my favorite types of natural area to visit for wildlife watching and photography. Water attracts wildlife and increases the chance of seeing something unexpected. 

This was the case recently at a local nature reserve. A few days earlier, I’d seen many goldfinches and warblers at one of the ponds, but this day it was very quiet. I descended a small slope to stand on a mudflat and was suddenly surprised by a large splash to my left.

2 Brumley pond IMG_0643 © Maria de Bruyn res

When I looked, I saw a largish head forging across the water in front of me. My first thought was that it was a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) as there is no beaver lodge in this enclosed pond.

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Muskrats and beavers look very similar, but beavers (Castor canadensis) tend to be much larger. This was a hefty individual who seemed fairly relaxed as s/he swam along.

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As I watched the mammal swim back and forth for a while, I tentatively concluded that it was a beaver, based on my previous sightings of this rodent species. Still, I wasn’t quite sure and kept hoping that the animal would raise its tail so that I would have a decisive clue to its identity.

Beavers have large flat tails, while muskrats have long, thin tails. Finally, as s/he swam by again, I got a glimpse of the tail for a couple seconds and it was large and flat! Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that (see a previous blog for some photos showing the beaver’s tail).

 

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As I watched and took photos, a couple walked by with their dog and stopped to watch as well. I moved down the path and heard the gentleman exclaim, “Oh, it’s a beaver!” I turned and he explained that he had thought the swimmer was a muskrat, but he had just seen the tail, too.

6 American beaver IMG_0256© Maria de Bruyn res

The aquatic mammal climbed up onto a log for a bit to groom and relax and, as the couple remarked, almost seemed to be posing for me. The beaver kept its back to me most of the time though. 

 

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I began to walk back down the path in hopes of getting a head-on view if the beaver decided to swim again. S/he did indeed slip back into the water to resume swimming back and forth. And then to my delight, a small head popped up going the other direction!

7 American beaver and muskrat P8132482 © Maria de Bruyn res

For some reason, I just assumed that it was a baby beaver, swimming around under the watchful eye of a parent. The newly arrived rodent seemed to be very intent on eating and dove down into the pond to bring up some tasty vegetation.8 Muskrat P8132671 © Maria de Bruyn res

It then swam over to the mudflat where I had been, and I ventured back there.

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Moving slowly and maintaining a good distance from the dining animal, I was able to get some good views as it enjoyed its meal.

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12 Muskrat P8132506 © Maria de Bruyn resWhile the beaver’s fur remained sleek on its head and back after being submerged a while, the little one’s fur stuck together in clumps all over its head and body. To me it looked a bit like a punk teenager — an analogy that undoubtedly came to mind because I was thinking of it as a baby or adolescent beaver.

This was one of the cutest wildlife spottings I had had in recent weeks, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. But I began doubting if this animal was indeed a beaver. I never saw its tail but at one point, I could see some orange teeth that reminded me of beaver incisors.

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Of course, the diner didn’t care and just kept diving for more veggies to eat. The large beaver appeared to have left in the meantime.

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It was when I was reviewing identity characteristics of beavers vs muskrats while writing this blog that I ultimately came to a final conclusion about whom I had been watching. This was based on several websites that provided some good ID clues:

Beavers tend to weigh about 35-70 or even up to 100 lbs (15-30 or even 45 kg), Muskrats generally weigh only about 2-5 lbs (0.9-2.3 kg).

Beavers’ ears protrude from their heads as they swim around (first photo below), while muskrats’ ears lie flat (second photo below). Beavers also have larger noses.

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Muskrats dive down to get vegetation from pond bottoms to eat, which my second visitor was very busy doing indeed. Beavers strip bark and leaves from trees and in my experience (having watched beavers eat close by a couple years ago), they can be quite noisy chewers.

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I’d enjoyed the idea of having seen a parent-and-child beaver duo but, in hindsight, I concluded that I’d been watching a beaver and a muskrat sharing pond space.

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This was also a very cool event since neither one had been shy. A lack of other human passersby (only the one couple strolled by in the space of almost an hour) may have made them feel comfortable. It was certainly a treat for me!

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Next up: fateful days for frogs….