Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Grizzlies and Moose - Pictures are worth a thousand words

The NJAS tour of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem continues. I still miss Cape May. . . honest! But also note that we will offer this tour again in 2008.

[Female Grizzly, 9/3/07, near Pacific Greek, Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Don Freiday. Click to enlarge all photos.]

[Mama Griz with one of her three cubs. Photo by Don Freiday]

[Bull Moose, Grand Tetons 9/3/07. Photo by Don Freiday.]

[The glamorous life of a tour leader - Sean Grace washes down one of the tour rig's windows.]

[Elk in the mist, Snake River Valley 9/3/07. Photo by Don Freiday.]

[Gray Jay feeding on road-killed Chickaree, Signal Mountain, 9/3/07. Photo by Don Freiday.]
Tour notes, Monday September 3rd, 2007 - After a 6:00 a.m. start and a brief coffee stop, we were at the Snake River View pull-off (near where Ansel Adams composed his famous Tetons photograph) in time to catch the first hint of sunlight on the Teton Range. Before the sun crested in the east, we found ourselves looking over the broad, mist-decorated Snake River valley where a herd of elk, 160 head strong, fed and milled in preparation for bedding for the day. Several bulls bugled and pursued cows, and occasionally each other. One dominant bull off to the south seemed to have his harem under complete control, with no rivals nearby. Black-billed Magpies fed among, and occasionally on the elk.

This seemed like an auspicious start, but we had no idea what was about to follow. On our way to Oxbow bend, we located a throng of people viewing perhaps the chief objective of our tour: grizzlies! Four to be exact, a mother and her three one and a half year old cubs, foraging actively in a dried out kettle wetland, where they rooted and excavated for tubers - hardly 150 yards away, and in perfect light! We watched these bears for over an hour, cameras alternately churning and silent as we simply absorbed the sight. This, we learned, was bear #399 of the Teton Range - she wore a red earing (tag) - a bear that had been frequenting this area near Pacific Creek for much of the summer. One of her cubs was dark brown like its mother, and the other two were much more silvery, perhaps taking after their father. We undoubtedly spent more time with these bears than anyone else this morning, indeed, some people just snapped pictures from their car windows. We sympathized with the Park Rangers who were assigned to crowd and traffic control.

We finally left when the bears moved out of sight, ready for our own breakfast, but were detained by "Bullwinkle", a big bull moose standing belly deep in Oxbow Bend, again in perfect light with Mount Moran in the background. There was no passing this sight up. The big bull fed on aquatic plants, often turning his 4 foot wide antlers side-to-side, revealing the shedding and still somewhat blood-stained velvet.

Enough? Not quite, because soon a family of four river otters emerged from around the bend and swam upstream past the moose, soon followed by a kingfisher and then an immature Bald Eagle. The day at this point had taken on a decidedly unreal quality, which it maintained until dark.

We breakfasted at the historic Jackson Lake Lodge, with the Tetons rising behind, then headed up Signal Mountain for an overview of Jackson Hole and the Tetons. We discussed zonation of montane vegetation on the way up, and on the way down encountered yet another moose, this one a cow apparently feeling the heat of the day, because it took a full-body swim in a pond. A brace of Gray Jays feeding on a road-killed Chickaree, or Red Squirrel, finished out our wildlife sightings of the morning. . .almost, because soon we crossed paths with two Coyotes, and were forced to pause once again to watch these intelligent canids forage for pocket gophers.

Finally we made it back to Jackson for a brief rest before heading out for our evening float on the Snake River. The Snake here is swift but not really whitewater, so the incidents of our float were of the wildlife kind - three eagles, four ospreys, two elk, two beavers, all with the Tetons in the backdrop. An outdoor dinner at Dornans capped a day that we all counted among the best wildlife watching experiences we'd ever had.

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