Category: Mammals


For those familiar with the Bow Valley Pack of wolves in Banff National Park, it has been a very unusual winter. At this time of year with luck, persistence and knowledge of wolf movements, it’s not uncommon to come across the pack of wolves that frequents the Bow Valley.

BVWPEach winter they travel throughout their territory between Banff and Kootenay National Parks. This winter the pack appears to have splintered with what appears to be only a few juveniles remaining. No concrete information on what has happened to the breeding adults (known locally as ‘Faith’ and ‘Spirit’) has surfaced, but with no sightings of them over the past several months the most likely explanation is that they are no longer alive. Both were getting up in age with each estimated to be around 9 and 11 years old.

FaithIn Spirit’s case, his canine teeth were worn down almost to the jaw line and after most hunts it was not uncommon to see him and Faith limping around for several days or weeks. Only three wolf pups were born in 2014, down from their usual number of 6, which was another indication that their time as the resident pack in the Bow Valley was coming to an end.

SpiritIf indeed they are no longer alive, it will take a while before a new wolf pack moves in and gets established. Time will tell, but for the moment it seems the wolves of the Bow Valley are in a state of flux.

Sunshine

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Rogue Beaver

When you think of the Alaskan Highway what comes to mind? Probably beautiful landscapes, mountains, camper vans and occasional wildlife sightings along the shoulders. How about a feisty beaver walking down the highway?

Beaver walking down road WMWith no water in sight and no easy escape route from would be predators, the last place I expected to find a beaver was on a high elevation portion of the Alaskan highway in Northern BC.

Maybe it was the lure of fresh Aspen trees off in the distance or a predetermined rendezvous with another beaver, whatever the case, this one had decided to set out down the road.

As I came around the bend I had to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting it. Of course my next reaction was to pull over, grabbed my camera and start taking photos. After all, who would believe me if I said I saw a beaver walking down the Alaskan Highway?

After taking the above photo, I got out and tried to coax it off the road, but the plan didn’t really pan out the way I had drawn it up. Instead of leaving the road the beaver sat down and silently sized me up. It wasn’t budging and if anything it seemed more determined than before to stay put on the tarmac.

Road Beaver WMAfter sizing me up, the beaver stood and slowly stalked towards me. Then, with an unexpected and surprising burst of speed, it lunged forward as it let out menacing hiss. I had to quickly jump back to avoid being chewed on, but a new plan came to mind.

Charging Beaver WM

I used the beaver’s fighting spirit to lure it off the road and into the nearby ditch just as a car came around the corner. I can only imagine what they were thinking when they saw the beaver walking behind me alongside the road!

Raw Wilderness

First a disclaimer. If you are squeamish about seeing footage of nature at its most raw, than the below photos and story may not be for you. However, this is reality. Animals need to hunt to survive and some animals have to die so that others can live.

With that out of the way, below is one of the rarest wildlife moments I have ever seen and captured in photographs. It is an age old battle between predator and prey.  A young wolf honing its hunting skills against a seasoned mule deer.

With each photo, if you would like a closer view please click on it.

How it all started was that I was busy taking pictures of a bald eagle when I heard a big splash just up the river. When I turned to have a look I was shocked to see a black wolf running down the snow bank towards a mule deer that was frantically swimming across the water! I didn’t have much time to react or set up, my own adrenaline was kicking in as I fumbled with camera settings and started taking photos. Undeterred by the frigid water, the wolf bounded into the river in hot pursuit of the deer…

Wolf swimming after deer WM As the wolf made it close to shore, the deer who didn’t want to leave the relative security of the river and was resting along the banks, turned and they eyed each other up for a few seconds… Predator vs Prey WM FBThe pause in action didn’t last long, as the wolf jumped up onto the snow bank and came directly towards the deer. Relatively calmly, the deer turn and jump back into the river and again the wolf followed in close pursuit. By the time the deer reached the other side it had increased the distance between them and I thought it would easily escape. That seemed to be certain when the deer trotted out of the river and started heading for the forest. But then something strange happened. Just as it got to the trees it stopped in its tracks. Whether it sensed other wolves waiting for it in the trees I’m not sure, but for whatever reason it quickly spun around and headed back to the river just as the doggy paddling wolf was getting close to shore. The deer seemed to have made a critical mistake by turning back to the river. As it jumped into the shallows, a split second later the wolf made it to shore. With a burst of speed and water splashing everywhere, it sprinted along the rocky banks and quickly closed in on its prey… Head on off center BW WMWith only a few feet separating them, the deer made one last ditched effort to escape by frantically plunging back into the river. The stamina of both of these animals was incredible. It seemed like they had reserves of energy and any time one needed a surge of adrenaline they got it. It was spectacular to watch this back and forth battle play out in front of me… The Plunge BW WMSurvival in the wild is always a precarious balance. One misstep by the deer on a slippery rock was all that the wolf needed to gain the advantage. With one powerful bite, it leveraged the deer off its feet and the chase was over. Wolf deer water WM For most animals life is a daily struggle with little in the way of certainties. Wolves only have about a 10% success rate during hunts and so the majority of their prey get away to live another day. This particular wolf was just coming into its prime and its possible that the mule deer was an old male that was too weak from winter and the fall rut to outpace the wolf. Whatever the reason, nature took its course.

To have wild places in North America where animals can still play out their age old battles and we are the outsiders that only get rare glimpses into their world is something I hope we can maintain well into the future.

Cheers,

Owen

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year Pika WM

May your year be full of awe inspiring landscapes, remarkable wildlife sightings and an even greater appreciation for the natural world!

All the best,
Owen

Ramcicle WMIt’s big horn sheep rutting season in Alberta and the big rams are at their most impressive. Covered in snow and ice, this ram was filling up on minerals, with some of them sticking to his lower lip, before heading up the mountain to battle with the other rams for breeding rights.

Rocky Mountain Moose

It’s relatively rare to see moose in the Rockies. I see more wolves and bears than I see moose, but late fall and early winter always seem to be good times to run into them. You would think it wouldn’t be hard to  find them when they weigh around 500kg and stand about 2.5 meters tall at the shoulder, but this bull was only given away by his prominent set of antlers while he bedded down during a snow storm.

Moose antlers snow fall WM

Two other similarly camouflaged bulls were resting nearby, but when they got up and started moving towards the larger bull it didn’t take him long to get their attention. He stood up, flattened his ears and strutted over to them.

3 male moose standing WM

Bull moose will posture before ever sparring and the smaller bulls quickly realized they had no chance, put their heads down and got out of his way.

Moose retreat WM

Satisfied with his work, the big bull turned and had a look at me. I had placed myself next to a large tree just in case I needed to make a quick escape, but I guess he didn’t feel I was even worth trying to scare off since he just turned around and went back to feeding on willows. I was just fine with that!

Bull Moose Antlers WM

On Sunday I had the privileged of being a guest naturalist with Classic Canadian Tours on a one day Polar Bear Safari out of Edmonton. We had a wonderful day with over 20 bears spotted, including several mothers with cubs.

If you can only spare a day away from home over a weekend in October or November, I highly recommend these tours. The chartered flight from either Calgary, Edmonton or Saskatoon will take you directly to Churchill and have you out on the tundra viewing polar bears by mid-morning until dusk!  All meals are covered and there is even enough time to head into the town of Churchill to pick up a few souvenirs before heading home.

Below are just a few photos (click on each one for a larger view) from our trip on November 9th as well as more details about the bears and the trip itself. Enjoy and feel free to leave comments.

Polar bear play fighting B&W WMPolar bear sparring is a cold weather event. Only when temperatures get to around -10 degrees Celsius do the bears get frisky. Any warmer than that and they are too hot to play. Yes, you read that right! Polar bears are so well insulated against the cold that they only get active when the temperature dips to levels that would easily kill many other mammals. The above photo is of a mother (left) and her two year old cub that took a break from napping to spar during a winter snowstorm in Churchill, Manitoba.

Frozen bear hair WMWith blowing snow starting to cover this bear, it hunkered down for a snooze. Polar bears are so well insulated that any snow that falls on their coat doesn’t melt  and provides another layer of insulation against the cold. Having not eaten a meal since July, the bears spend most of their time conserving energy while they wait for the sea ice to form. The late afternoon light, the snow crusted fur and the blowing snow over the paws of this bear made for an interesting photo

Polar bear paw and stare WMUp close and personal, this bear came to investigate our tundra buggy and provides a great example of just how big their feet are! Polar bears are great swimmers with these big feet and can easily outswim Olympic athletes. The longest swim ever recorded for a polar bear was 687km over 9 days straight!  The female bear lost 22% over her body weight during that time.

Polar bear smile WMPolar bears have an amazing sense of smell which is needed to find seals under ice and scattered over large stretches of the arctic. This bear was catching our scent as it passed next to our buddy.

Polar bears and tundra landscape WMTo cap off our wonderful day, these two bears started heading out towards Hudson Bay as another storm on the horizon moved in on us. Hard to believe you can wake up and see polar bears all day long and be back home in the comfort of your own bed the same night!

If you would love to have an experience like this, check out Classic Canadian Tours website to get more details about this amazing safari and similar trips to see grizzly bears and beluga whales in other remote locations throughout Canada.

Wondering what the bears are up to right now?  Click on this link to watch live coverage from Churchill as the Tundra Buggy Cam gives you live streaming videos of the bears before they head out onto the ice to start hunting.

 

Red Wolf Pup WM

Would you like to directly impact the future of a critically endangered species?

Currently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of determining if the Red Wolf Recovery Program will continue.  This project has great personal significance to me, given that I was directly involved in efforts to save this species. In 2009,  while working at Lincoln Park Zoo I flew from Chicago with four, 1 week old red wolf pups in a carry-on suitcase!  We were head to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina to link up with biologists to cross-foster the captive born pups into wild red wolf dens to bolster the wild red wolf population.

Click here for my 2009 travel blog featured on Lincoln Park Zoo’s website with lots of photos.

This species is one of the most endangered carnivores in the world (only about 80-110 in the wild) and drastic measures were and are needed to save it. With the intensive conservation measures mentioned above the population is slowly increasing but more work is required.

If you feel that red wolves are worth saving, please send your comments, concerns, or information to the following e-mail: redwolfreview@fws.gov.  Input needs to be provided by September 26th (next Friday)

Additional information on the Red Wolf Recovery Program can be found by clicking here.

Thanks for your support!

Owen

 

Bison Grasslands Fog Panoramic WM

Few places in Canada offer the peaceful solitude, natural beauty and diversity of species as Grasslands National Park. I tried to capture the magic of this place during our visit last week. With the help of a  lone bull bison gazing down into the Frenchman River Valley on a foggy August morning, I got the photo I was looking for. (click on the image for the full size)

If you are ever in Saskatchewan this park is one of the gems of the province and certainly well worth the detour.

Wild Pup

Wolf pup black 2014

Wild wolf sightings are always thrilling, but seeing and photographing wolf pups takes it to a whole new level. Finding them is the first challenge. Getting any decent photos is the next. I positioned myself next to a small clearing and silently waited, hoping one of them would come out into the clearing. Luck was on my side that day and I managed to get a few decent photos of this little black pup, no more than 3 months old before it trotted off to join its siblings as they explored their surroundings.

Curious Lynx

Lynx slink WM ss

One more photo from the amazing, wild lynx encounter! Which lynx photo do you prefer?

Here, Kitty Kitty

Lynx frontal cropped WM ss

Traveling the Alberta back roads has its perks! This beautiful lynx calmly strolled along the shoulder as I tried to contain my excitement long enough to get a few photos!

It came within 10-15 feet of us and not once did I hear its footsteps. The only sounds were of the very concerned red squirrels high up in the trees.

Red fox carrying hare WM

The morning after photographing Fire Fox the same fox, now several miles from where I first found it, was feasting on a snowshoe hare. After burying a few mouthfuls to lighten the load, it neatly folded the rest into a bundle and made the long journey back to the den to serve breakfast to its family.

Grizzly mom and cub mountain landscape wm 960

One could be forgiven for thinking that even the grizzly bears in Banff take a break from their daily routines to appreciate the mountain scenery. While I will never discount the fact that other animals can appreciate their surroundings, what’s more likely is that this bear is smelling the air for any potential threats or food options.

I took this photo last month near one of the most popular places in Canada; Lake Louise.  Bear 138 as she is known to park biologists, was feasting on one of the only spring food sources available to the bears; dandelions. Imagine how many dandelions a 150-200kg lactating grizzly bear would need to eat to produce enough milk to feed her two cubs?  Needless to say, it’s a staggering amount. When they enter their hyperphagic state later this month, they eat about 35,000 calories a day.  To put that in perspective, the average person eats about 2000 calories daily!  Almost all of these calories are from berries, with a single bear eating between 200-300,000 berries per day to put on enough fat to survive the winter. That’s the equivalent of you or I eating 63 hamburgers daily! Yet these bears suffer no heart disease or complications association with high cholesterol.

This only touches the tip of the iceberg of all the interesting adaptations of bears, but I hope you agree that these are amazing animals and deserving of our respect and protection.

 

Gray Wolf

Wolf head profile wm fb

I came across this gray wolf in Muncho Lake Provincial Park in Northern British Columbia.

If you spend any time photographing wild wolves, they make it clear from their body language if they are relaxed with you around. This 2-3 year old wolf (based on body size and teeth condition) could have cared less that I was just a short distance away. It kept its ears forward, jaw relaxed and pace at a slow trot, paying no attention to me while scanning the clearings for any caribou or stone sheep.

The entire sighting was over within a few minutes as it disappeared into the trees, but like with any wolf encounter, it left me with an adrenalin rush that kept me going for the rest of the day.