Bear with me folks, I’ve fallen behind with my Yellowstone blog posts – due to spending approx. 12 hours per day, every day out in the National Park that is Yellowstone – once the evening came around all I had time for was backing-up footage before sleeping the night away! Or at least sleeping until approx. 04.00….early bird catches the worm!….Or various much larger wildlife to be precise!! Speaking of larger wildlife, the ungulates are many and few between – some small, some huge! Some very secretive and some as ‘bold as brass’ who happily approach you and expect YOU to move out of THEIR way! To which you oblige….
There are eight ungulates in Yellowstone, and after watching some of the most amazing predator-prey dynamics unfold in front of me during my time there (yes, unfortunately I’m back in the UK now…..and I do indeed have major fieldwork blues…..) I think it is only right I give the prey animals, these ungulates, a moment in the spotlight, so first and foremost, Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana)!! (Oh, and a warning – this post is long due to MANY photos!)
Though they look like antelope, and indeed they behave like antelope! A. americana are in fact in a family all of their own. They are incredibly fast too, to the point that the wolves do not have a chance in catching them! And observing them play is very amusing – I spent several hours in Montana and Wyoming, observing them playing, out on large open flats, prancing and frolicking about without a care in the world, and watching both males and females lock horns – yep, that’s right! Sexual dimorphism does not apply to ‘head-gear’ in Pronghorns – both have black horns, though the male horns are larger than females and of course the females are a little smaller in body size to males.
Next, Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), or as I call them “big rabbits with long legs”! Named for their ears (supposedly looking like mules, but with that face, I reckon they look more like rabbits) – look at those big ears, they’re so cute! Cute, yet bothersome when a herd of them jump out in front of your car (from the side of a cliff!) in the late evening when daylight has long gone! These guys are relatively small and are seldom seen alone, i.e. they always group together – safety in numbers! As these guys aren’t as fast as the Pronghorn and so can be hunted by one of the various predators in Yellowstone (not just wolves!).
White-Tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Cousin of the Mule deer, these scarce (in Yellowstone) herbivores I only managed to come across once – and it is ‘game on’ to get an ‘eight ungulate day’ in Yellowstone once you spot these guys! While observing the Lamar Canyon pack (wolves), I glanced to my right and down in a wee valley were two O. virginianus just wandering by – at first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at as they were so well camouflaged, but low and behold, they flicked their white tails repeatedly as they moved through the brush grazing upon the new grass shoots of Spring. As soon as the wolves went ‘out of sight’ I proceeded to find all eight ungulates, and sure enough, within a few hours I had my eight ungulate day!! (She says with a grin of accomplishment!)
Mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus). Ok, so these guys were less obvious – I said the White tailed deer were the rarer ungulates to find in Yellowstone, BUT, O. americanus is difficult to spot due to being several miles away on the sides of snow covered cliffs! However, if you point your telescope towards said cliffs and scan back and forth a few times you will inevitably see some of the ‘snow’ move – yeah, it’s not snow, it’s the goats!! At which point you grab your wee camera (or phone in my case) and attempt to grab some shots through the scope – not easy when these guys decide to descend the cliff edges at lightning speed!! The nimbleness of the Mountain goat is comparable to a flashy Samba dance mixed with Parkour!!! It’s a mesmerising show.
Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis). One of the most viewable non-human animals in Yellowstone – often sat by the side of the road or even sat next to you as you’re observing the wolves – HOWEVER, they do tend to blend in very well with the sage and so, there were a couple of incidents where I literally nearly walked into them!! Though, they didn’t exactly give a ‘hoot’ (fairly bold personality traits from the majority of them!) – they just continued to lay there in the sage, not even bothering to glance at me as I made my retreat away from them (they may not have reacted, but quite frankly there was no way I was going to risk a battle with those horns!!).
Moose……Yeah, can I get vanilla and chocolate, please, OH! With a raspberry swirl??…..Sorry, my bad – we’re discussing Alces alces here not here my dessert 😛
Ever seen a race horse with a funky head? Well, below you will!! As A. alces looks just like that – especially with those white legs (yeah, white legs! I didn’t even know that either – you learn something new every day!). My initial siting(s) of the famed moose was with a cow and her yearling calf – NOW, you would think that something so huge (and these guys are huge, believe me!) would be easy to spot – not really anywhere it can hide, right?…..WRONG!! Stick a few sprigs of willow in the snow and hey presto! Your moose has vanished!! Of course, moose hiding in the willows does make for rather cute photos as they nervously (seemingly being of a more shy personality trait) peer out from behind them to see what the strange humans are up to now with their cylindrical Lucida boxes!
Elk. The good, the bad and the ugly!! Well, maybe not ugly – though some Cervus canadensis did look rather ‘scrawny’ and ‘unappealing’ due to the moult. Whereas some, looked downright gorgeous! Especially the bulls with their ‘racks of magnitude’! (aka their antlers) – wandering about like proud peacocks in a show ring! Even the ‘weedier’ guys were strutting about like John Travolta on a Saturday night listening to the Bee Gees! (Yeah, I know – I just tangently wandered away from my usual Rock & Roll analogies – shame on me!)
Not so hard to find, C. canadensis are pretty much everywhere in Yellowstone (even outside local stores and in backyards!) and thus, provide a very abundant food source for the wolves (who do tend to just hunt the most abundant prey anyway), but, more on that later!
……..OK, so, finally number eight, the buffalo, or North American bison (Bison bison) – I deliberately kept these till last, as they are my favourite ungulate in the world, and always have been – yes, the canid loving behaviourist loves an ungulate too! Where do I begin talking about these guys though? To be honest, I think the buffalo deserve a blog post all of their own – so…..that is what I will do – sorry to leave you folks at a cliff-hanger (no goat puns please!), but the buffalo deserve an extra special place in the spotlight.
Until next time, rock on and love wolves!