Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Yellowstone's Small Mammals

When visiting Yellowstone, it is easy to get caught up in all the large animals - the bison, the elk, the deer, the bears, etc. Those are pretty easy to spot and they are fun to watch. But Yellowstone is filled with small mammals. Some of these small mammals require "luck" to get to see them.

We saw Mr. Beaver one afternoon when we were driving through Lamar Valley. I called out "Beaver." Henry turned around and parked at a nearby pullout. I was sure the beaver would immediately dive under the water and that would be that.

But to my surprise he swam through his channel, cut down a branch and came back to eat.

It was amazing how fast he devoured every leaf on that branch. Only then did he swim back to his house. Although we looked for him every time we drove by his home, I never saw him again. Henry did see him one day when he was doing a bicycle ride.

Throughout the park Uinta ground squirrels chatter behind the sage from their burrows. While they sound like high pitched birds, they are actually calling out warnings to the rest of their family. They were on my list of animals I was hoping to photograph. One day when we had driven up the road to the Slough Creek Campground, I spotted one on a large boulder. It left, but I went ahead and got out my big lens and tripod hoping that this rock was a place where it spent a lot of time. My patience was soon rewarded. From the photos, I can tell this one was female. She stood on her rock and sang with all her heart and body.

But in reality she was warning the rest of the ground squirrels that there was a predator nearby - me. Bravely she held her post. Occasionally she would stop her call and glare at me.

By the way, Uinta ground squirrels estivate. When the weather gets hot, they go back underground and sleep until the weather cools off in the fall. They are only active a few months a year.

We had been seeing marmots on occasion. Marmots love the big rock piles left by the glaciers. We had seen one near Floating Island Lake and we had seen another on the road between Tower and Roosevelt. The one at Floating Island Lake was too far away to get a good photograph. And the other disappeared immediately as we drove by. My opportunity came when we were stopped and set up by the red tail hawk nest. There was a marmot that came out to check on us.

At first he would check us out and then scamper to the safety of his home. We were chatting with another photographer - and the marmot began to feel more comfortable. He kept coming closer and closer in his search for food. Since I wanted marmot photos, I began to move around with the camera and big lens hoping to get some good shots. Fortunately for me, the marmot just went about doing his marmot thing - and I got some good shots. He finally retreated back to his home, but he came back on the rock occasionally to keep checking on us.

Years ago when my children were little and we were visiting Yellowstone, I saw my first muskrat on the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley. While I've seen a few muskrats elsewhere, I'm still thrilled when I get to see another one.

On this trip on one of our almost daily runs through Hayden valley, I saw a water mammal and, of course, hollered, "Stop!" Henry made a quick U-turn. I guessed pretty fast that this was a muskrat instead of a beaver. We quickly dug out the big lens and tripod. Fortunately, this little fellow swam around long enough for me to get off a few shots.

Of course, the animals are more interested in doing their thing than in me getting a good shot. One of the shots gave me a clear view of his body, but not a good view of his face and eye. Naturally, the one that gave me good eye contact had blurry foreground grass. While I've seen wolf photos that have the same issues - blurred foreground, sharp wolf- competitions frown on that blurry foreground.

I played around a little tonight to see if I could salvage that shot. First, I cropped so that I could get just the muskrat and a few of the ripples around him. Then I carefully starting cloning out the remaining blurred green grass. At one point, I tried one more crop . . . I'm not sure this will be a saleable shot . . . but it is MY best muskrat shot!

I had planned to make the hike up to Trout Lake to see the river otters there. I was disappointed when I learned that the fishing coyote had killed them. I've heard since that there is one otter left up there, but I gave up on the long uphill hike when I realized I had missed the otters. But one evening when we were going through Hayden Valley I did get a chance to see a river otter at Yellowstone. For the first time in a long time there is a river otter at Otter Creek in Hayden Valley. We saw a bunch of people looking at the water. Naturally I got out and hustled over. Not knowing what it was, I only took the 100-400 lens. I had a pretty steep trail to get to the water level, so it's probably just as well. But I was thrilled to get my first look at a river otter in the wild. He stayed under the bridge. Occasionally he would swim over . . . get a good look at us and immediately dive. There were too many people in his space so eventually he moved on over to the river.

While I did not get great shots . . . I at least got something. River otters are part of the marten family - not rodents like beavers and muskrats. Instead of grass, twigs, and trees, river otters mostly eat fish. But they also eat crustaceans, some amphibians, reptiles, and occasional bird or insects.

To see larger versions of these photos, check out my Yellowstone's Small Mammals webpage.

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