Summer Elk Behavior

While the cow elk are busy raising their young, the bulls stick together in small bachelor herds. Thanks to the nutritious grazing opportunities summer provides, their antlers, covered in velvet, begin regrowing up to an inch per day.

Teton Elk
 A cow elk walks the bank of the Madison River with her newborn calf.

A cow elk walks the bank of the Madison River with her newborn calf.

 Two newborn elk calves prepare to cross the Madison river to join their mothers.

Two newborn elk calves prepare to cross the Madison river to join their mothers.

Winter Wildlife Feature III - River Otters

There is little question that the next species in my series of winter wildlife finds the most creative ways to have fun. Humans aren’t the only ones enthralled with the feeling of sliding on snow. While we use skis, boards, or sleds, river otters need look no further than their long and slender bodies. When on land, otters cover ground with a hop, hop, slide, hop, hop, slide movement pattern. Sliding on the snow and ice certainly allows them to travel more efficiently, but spend any time with otters and there’s no denying the routine is as much, if not more, for fun as it is for practicality. 

Yellowstone River Otters
River Otters Sliding

Other than playful antics to keep their mind off the cold, otters have some impressive adaptations and strategies for winter survival. River otter’s lengthy guard hairs, and dense underfur, which traps insulating air, keeps them warm in extreme temperatures. On top of that, oil secreted from the sebaceous gland actually waterproofs their coat, preventing water from reaching their skin. To remain well insulated they must replace the air in their underfur after swimming, and they do this by rolling around in the snow, and yes, you’ve guessed it, playfully. 
Since the water temperatures are warmer than the air, otters opt to spend more time underwater. They will often travel and hunt underneath the ice shelves which line the rivers and creeks during winter months. An otter may stay below the ice indefinitely by breathing in the air pockets trapped beneath the ice.

River Otter Swimming

Winter Wildlife Feature II - Wolves

While bison display some impressive adaptations for surviving winter, they, along with other ungulates, share one significant disadvantage during the winter, a lack of speed and agility in deep snow. While this may sound more like an inconvenience, it becomes a matter of life and death when your main predator appears to move through the snow as if it wasn’t there. This is the distinct winter advantage of the wolf. Wolves are made for winter. While their prey struggle and sink in the snow, wolves float relatively effortlessly on the surface. Their secret lies in the design of their paws. A wide round shape, and thin webbing between each toe enables each paw to function as a snowshoe. In the search for prey, a pack of wolves, such as Yellowstone's Wapiti pack featured here, may cover 30 snow covered miles in a day. I encountered these wolves recently on one of my photography workshops in Yellowstone. We followed their tracks for miles before catching up to them along them Gibbon River. 

Wapiti Wolf Pack
Wapiti Wolves in Yellowstone

Winter Wildlife Feature I - Bison

Featured first on this series of posts highlighting wildlife and their unique strategies for enduring Yellowstone winter is the bison. Two key assets equip bison to survive in this unforgiving climate. 

Bison in snow

The distinct shoulder hump on their back, which is actually a protruding muscle, allows them to function as a 1 ton, living snow plow. Unlike other ungulates, such as moose and elk, which scrape with their front feet to access food under the snow, bison use this muscle to rock their massive heads back and forth exposing grass and sedge buried under several feet of snow. Some bison will opt out on this “snow-plow” technique, preferring to graze alongside thermal features where the warm steam from geysers or hot springs melts the snow on the surrounding grass. 

Bison in thermal steam

When violent winter storms hit, prompting other wildlife to seek shelter from the chilling wind and blinding snow, bison just plop down where they are and wait it out. Their winter coats are so thick and well insulated that the falling snow doesn’t even melt on their back. In a heavy snow, you can watch the largest land animal North America vanish before your eyes in a matter of moments.

Yellowstone Bison

In Search of Great Grey Owls

     It has been a challenging year for Great Grey Owls in the Tetons. With such a heavy snowfall, and repetitive thawing and freezing cycles, the snow pack was near impenetrable for these skilled hunters. Quite a few succumbed to the harsh conditions and were found dead. The ones that survived, managed to do just barely that, and did not have the strength to nest and raise chicks.

     On a typical year I spend a lot of my time with these owls. So much so that is easy to take it for granted. My search, going on three months, for just one good Great Grey image has really made me appreciate the time I’ve had with them in the past.

     After hearing about the appearance of one in the backcountry the other day, I dropped everything to investigate it. It took several hours of hiking, but just as the sun dropped behind the mountains I found the “Phantom of the North” hunting in an aspen grove. My time with her was brief, as darkness was enveloping the forest I still had to trek through to get back to the car, but I was reminded why I spend an inordinate amount of timing searching for just a moment with these birds.

Grand Teton Owl