Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Elk vs the coyotes

We're up in Rocky Mountain National Park. We've been watching a coyote family now for several days. Today I went into a different area, Upper Beaver Meadows. I've been expecting to see coyotes in more than one area of the park and I was not disappointed. But I'm finding the coyotes when I see the elk start to behave differently. Several times now, I've seen the elk aggressively chasing coyotes. The Beaver Meadow area coyote very slowly left the scene after being chased out of the willow area by the elk herd.

Today we had snow. I had gone over to the Beaver Meadow area to find a vantage point to get photos of the mountains hidden by the snow clouds. But after I had gotten a few of those, I was ready to head over to the Sheep Lake area and check on "my" coyote family.

I checked the den area - no kits out, but there was mother coyote all curled up in a slightly protected area not far from her den. While she would look up every now and then, she stayed hunkered down as the snow showers came through. It was only a little bush or a little mound of ground that protected her from the wind. But all curled up she looked snug and warm. I kept looking for the other adult coyotes, but for a while I did not see them.

Then, I noticed the elk acting funny again . . . sure enough the elk were chasing the darker coyote. He found a spot to hide in the short willows and the elk went back to grazing.

I could see the snow coming in from the west. The valley west of Sheep Lake was totally whited out for a while. As the snow began to die down, things were quiet so I headed up to Endovalley. The elk were plentiful near the road. There was some accumulation of snow on the pine trees, the willows, and the aspens. I made my way back and all of a sudden I could see the sun lighting up the clouds in the valley behind me. That had to be a photo. I hurried back to the main road and back to Sheep Lake. I'm not sure those photos are great, but the most exciting part of my day was just about to begin.

When I got back to the Sheep Lakes area, I saw the elk at it again. They were in hot pursuit of another coyote, the dark one. The race was on. They also found the mother - so both coyotes were on the run. They were running north and away from their den, and the elk were intent on chasing them away from their area. The coyotes split up, but the elk were not deceived. They had lured most of the elk away from the den. But one elk stayed and nosed around the den. She wasn't eating, she was intently sniffing. But she finally moved away. I saw the mother begin to double back toward the den. Most of the elk were still intent on the darker coyote. Then all of a sudden there were three coyotes at the den, the elk were in pursuit, the kits were piling out of the den. Somehow, the other two coyotes managed to lure the elk after them. Mother and babies had feeding and play time. Two wandered a good distance from the den. After the other kits were back in the den, mother coyote seemed to round up the wandering babies . . . and soon all the kits were back in their snug home ready for the cold night.

Now, for several hours, I had not seen the babies. How does mother coyote teach them to stay in the den, even when she is not there? Or was one of the coyotes in the den with the babies keeping them company? I did not see where the third coyote came from.

In other seasons of the year, the elk have not been concerned about the coyotes. But it is almost time for the elk to start dropping their foals. Must be their mother instinct, trying to chase the coyotes away from the areas where they will be hiding the fawns.

It was a fascinating drama. Hope I can watch more of it tomorrow. And I wish the den was closer to an area where I could get better photographs.

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