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/

Getting airborne when lift is lacking….

If you’ve had the good fortune to watch a bird caring for nestlings and then encouraging them to enter the big wide world, you might think that the young ones automatically know how to fly. But my recent observations of a ruby-throated hummingbird family (Archilochus colubris) showed me that a learning curve — albeit not a long one — may be involved.

On the 29th of April, my friend Ace and I had the good fortune to spot a female hummingbird. We discovered that she was gathering construction materials for a nest with inside walls that included plant down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was camouflaging the outside of the walls with lichen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As she worked on the nest, she sat in it periodically, moving her body to form the cup shape and tamp down the bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

The walls expand as the eggs hatch and nestlings grow; this is possible because the walls are held together by spider web and caterpillar webbing (6 May).

If we hadn’t seen her working on the nest, we likely would not have seen it. It was very cleverly placed near the crook of a small branch that had lichen growing nearby (13 May).

I noticed a twig curving down from the branch beneath the nest and that became the marker for finding it again — not always an easy task as the hummer home blended in so very well with the tree she had chosen.

Just after mid-May, I had to stop my observations as I had the immensely good fortune to visit Yellowstone National Park (blogs on that coming up!). It was only on 4 June that I was able to visit the hummer nest again and it was a thrill to see two babies had emerged from the coffee bean-sized eggs.

During their first days, young hummingbirds are very vulnerable. They are blind for about 9 days and only begin to grow pin-like feathers after about 10 days!

Mom would come by and regurgitate food (insects and nectar) into their open mouths.

 

 

 

 

 

When the chicks grew enough to peer over the nest’s edge, we were able to watch them surveying their surroundings.

The two of them would look around in unison.

They moved around the nest more and more, jostling for space. By 3 weeks of age, ruby-throated hummingbirds are fully feathered and getting ready to fledge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 7 June, I had a premonition that fledging was going to occur that day. I had volunteer duty in the morning (to pull invasive plants at a local reserve) so I could only visit the nest briefly before going to work.

The babies were both flexing their wings a lot. Hummers typically flap their wings 50-200 times per second! It turned out that they needed to exercise a lot, or they weren’t going to be able to get the lift needed to leave the nest.

The nestlings flapped back and forth as they revved up their muscles for a coming take-off. Their pectoral muscles need to be strong for their airborne flights and may account for up to 30% of their body weight.

Watching with excitement as I maneuvered a bit to get better lighting for photos, I saw one of the little ones begin to lift (above). S/he flapped furiously. I got a photo of the lift off but not the actual departure from the nest.

One nestling remained and s/he began flapping vigorously.

I had to stop my vigil as it was time to get to the nature reserve. While leaving, I ran into Ace and told him that one hummer had just fledged, and the other was getting ready so that he could see the event!

After my 2-hour shift, I drove back to the nest. Ace had let me know that Chick No. 2 had not yet left while he was watching. Sure enough, when I returned the little one was still there (above).

He moved around a lot but didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

It seemed that Chick No. 2 was not getting the lift needed to soar up and away despite all its efforts.

Mom came to give some encouragement.

She also gave Chick No. 2 a bit of nourishment.

That seemed to provide the young one with renewed energy as the practice wing flapping resumed vigorously.

After a couple hours, I needed to leave to do other things. I took a few more photos of the hard-working almost-fledgling.

11

The next morning, I visited the hummer home again wondering whether anyone would still be in residence. The nest was empty so Chick No. 2 had departed the previous afternoon or evening. But as I watched, a hummer was zipping around the tree and the nest.

I think it was Mom. She may have been considering whether the nest could serve as a spot to raise another brood. It might also have been one of the young ones returning for a last look at home.

Observing the hummingbird nest over a period of weeks was a wonderful learning experience. I’ll treasure the memory for a long time to come. And I now have an even greater appreciation for these tiny birds that become flying gems in our natural surroundings.

Springtime spat?

Eastern meadowlark P4075310© Maria de Bruyn res

Well, maybe “spat” is too mild a word for what I witnessed a few days ago when out birding. It was a gloomy, heavily clouded day and my expectations of seeing something unusual were low.

Eastern meadowlark P4075316 © Maria de Bruyn res

A male meadowlark (Sturnella magna, above) greeted me and his sweet song and subsequent foraging with his partner was a definite bright spot in the field.

Eastern meadowlark P4074595© Maria de Bruyn

His little concert was delightful. But then I thought perhaps he was asking me to go away and leave him and his partner to forage without spectators, so I did get ready to leave.

Eastern meadowlark P4074980© Maria de Bruyn

Before I left the area, however, my eyes were drawn to a spectacle further away.

Northern mockingbird P4074757© Maria de Bruyn res

There were flashes of gray and white erupting up from the ground, into the air and back down again. Before putting up my long-lensed camera (which serves as substitute binoculars for me), I figured the wing patterns were showing Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos). My first photos confirmed it.

Northern mockingbird P40748280© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern mockingbird P4074786 © Maria de Bruyn res

But then I watched with fascination and growing consternation as the two birds tackled one another in what was an actual knock-down, drag-out fight. I’d seen mockingbirds having territorial disputes before, but those spats only lasted a couple minutes and were mostly threat displays. This was a real battle.

Northern mockingbird P4074818© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074819© Maria de Bruyn res

I don’t know if they were arguing over a third (female) bird or if it was mostly a territorial dispute. Perhaps it was both.

Northern mockingbird P4074864© Maria de Bruyn res

They ascended, facing off angrily.

Northern mockingbird P4074825 © Maria de Bruyn

They attacked one another mid-air.

Northern mockingbird P4074819© Maria de Bruyn res

And while descending to the ground.

Northern mockingbird P4074841© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074834© Maria de Bruyn res

They pummeled one another.

Northern mockingbird P4074826 © Maria de Bruyn res

Northern mockingbird P4074833© Maria de Bruyn res

Flying to the ground, one would sit atop the other and seemed to be pecking at it once in a while. After getting off its opponent, the pair faced off again and started the fight anew.

Northern mockingbird P4074851© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074835© Maria de Bruyn res

They were at it for at least 5 minutes and perhaps longer as I’d spotted them once the dispute was underway.

Northern mockingbird P4074831 © Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074839© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074840© Maria de Bruyn res

As they continued fighting, I wondered if one of them might be hurt or wounded.

Northern mockingbird P4074832 © Maria de Bruyn. res

Neither one of them appeared to show any wounds (but then I was not really close enough to tell for sure).

Northern mockingbird P4074842 © Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074821© Maria de Bruyn res

At last one of them decided he’d had enough. The other two birds were chasing him, but he got away and flew to a tree. The fight ended and no one seemed to have been irreparably harmed. But it was a real lesson for me in realizing how territorial the mockingbirds can get. I’d seen some short-lived spats before, but now I know more serious fights occur as well. I don’t know if they ever lead to one of the opponents being mortally wounded. Hopefully not!

Northern mockingbird P4074866© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up – a story of my own close call with a hawk!

Springtime with awesome, beautiful and awe-inspiring insects

This spring of 2021 has offered some delightful chances to see interesting insect species, some of which I’ve noticed before and some that were new or gave me my first opportunity to observe them up close. While not many people aside from entomologists pay much attention to the “creepy crawlies,” they are certainly well worth watching in my view. Including insects in my nature observations greatly enhances my experience of appreciating the natural world.

male giant ichneumon wasp P5068000© Maria de Bruyn res (4)

ichneumon wasp P5067996© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068007 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)The month of May brought me two especially awe-inspiring events. The first was seeing long-tailed giant ichneumon wasps (Megarhyssa macrurus) preparing for reproduction on a nature trail in Chatham County. It was easy to distinguish the females (right) from the males (above) because they had very long ovipositors (a tubular organ through which a female insect lays stored eggs). In the species I saw, the ovipositor can be 4 inches long!’

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068028© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

There were several male and three female wasps flying about. None of them showed the slightest interest in the large human looming overhead. Even if they had, I needn’t have worried since these wasps don’t sting people. The females were busy pressing their antennae against a disintegrating hardwood log’s bark, aiming to detect vibrations inside.

ichneumon wasp P5068180© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The mothers-to-be were “listening” for the best spots to lay their eggs by identifying where the larvae of the pigeon tremex horntail wasp (Tremex columba) were buried. Why you ask? The mother ichneumon paralyzes a horntail larva before laying an egg next to it. When her own offspring emerge from the eggs, they will eat those unfortunate horntail larvae while they prepare to overwinter until they emerge as full-grown ichneumon wasps in the spring.

ichneumon wasp P5068058 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

 

The giant ichneumon’s ovipositor has three components. In the middle is the ovipositor proper, a filament with two interlocking parts that slide against one another; it is tipped with a cutting edge that can drill through wood. Some researchers have data indicating that the cutting edge may contain some ionized zinc or manganese.

ichneumon wasp P5068164© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Two other thin filaments called valvulae sheath the central structure and their function is to protect the egg-laying organ. During egg-laying, they arc away from the ovipositor.

ichneumon wasp P5068171© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While I watched one female wasp in particular, she sometimes had part of her ovipositor coiled up in a transparent expandable pouch at the end of her abdomen.

ichneumon wasp IMG_2003© Maria de Bruyn res (2) ichneumon wasp IMG_2002 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

She would push out the ovipositor and appeared to smooth it out with her legs. The literature I read about the wasps did not explain this movement, but I thought she might be pushing eggs down the tube. Watch the video to see what you think! 

When she finished this smoothing movement and had found the right spots for her offspring, the protective lining filaments separated from the ovipositor itself and she inserted it into the log. It was a fascinating process to witness.

 

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068170 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068109 (© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Although ichneumon wasps are parasitic, various species are beneficial insects since their larvae feed on insects that harm food crops such as boll weevils, codling moths and asparagus beetles. The adults usually only live about 27 days and may only drink during that time. Their adult goal is to find a mate and then reproduce.

ichneumon wasp P5068014 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Another way in which the ichneumon wasps have contributed to human society is by serving as an example for the medical community. The STING Project at the Imperial College in London is investigating options for Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS) to diagnose and treat various medical pathologies. The research team is now developing a flexible steerable probe that was inspired by the ichneumon wasp’s ovipositor!

cecropia moth IMG_0019 © Maria de Bruyn (2)My other exciting insect event involved a moth. Last fall, a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) positioned its cocoon on the door jamb of the women’s restroom at Cane Creek Reservoir. The reservoir’s manager feared that it would be damaged there and asked if I would be willing to care for it over the winter. I took the cocoon home and kept it safe during the fall, winter and much of this spring.

Cecropia moth larvae (caterpillars) are often found on maple, cherry and birch trees. Why this one chose a building as an overwintering site is a bit of a mystery. Since the pupa was going to be dormant all winter, I placed it upright in a large plastic container with a grate over the top and kept it on my screened-in porch.

cecropia moth IMG_0020© Maria de Bruyn (2)Periodically, I would check on it and it seemed to be ok. This was important as these moths are “univoltine” — they only have one generation of offspring per year. Out in nature, the caterpillars may fall victim to parasitic wasps and flies that lay their eggs on them. So it was fortunate that we were able to “rescue” this cocoon.

One evening at the end of May, I stopped working on my porch to go inside to watch the news. When I came back after about 20 minutes, I spotted a brilliant large moth on the screen. My youngest cat spotted it at the same time, so I shooed her inside. The cocoon scarcely had a hole in it; I really wish I’d seen how the huge moth got out.

cecropia moth IMG_0006© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

cecropia moth IMG_0003© Maria de Bruyn 2 res

The cecropia moth is North America’s largest moth with a wingspan up to 7 inches. The males and females look similar but the males like this one have larger, more feathery antennae.

cecropia moth IMG_0012© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

Female moths emit pheromones that the males can detect from up to a mile away. After mating, the female lays up to 100 eggs. Both sexes die after about two weeks as they lack functioning mouths and digestive systems and don’t eat.

cecropia moth IMG_0014 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res

 

The moth’s short adult lifespan must have made this guy anxious to get underway. Or seeing my cat and I hastened his development. One website reported that it takes the moth a few hours to dry before they can open their wings and fly.

cecropia moth IMG_0011© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

 

However, very soon (perhaps 10 minutes) after I removed him from my porch and took him outside (never touching him with my hands), he began vibrating his wings. In less than a minute, he launched himself upwards and flew towards the top of the nearby tall pine trees, setting off on his quest for a mate.

cecropia moth IMG_0016© Maria de Bruyn (2a) res

I suppose it is possible that the moth had emerged earlier and had crawled away to hide but that seemed unlikely. In any event, he looked like he could fly just fine, and I sincerely hope that he found a mate and that they were able to collaborate in ensuring a new generation of this stunningly beautiful species! And I was grateful for having agreed to overwinter the cocoon as it enabled me to contribute to the propagation of this wonderful moth. In any event, I was enthralled to see what a gorgeous creature he was. These moths are generally nocturnal so seeing him was a treat!

cecropia moth IMG_0017 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res

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