Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wildlife Biology in Yellowstone

We spent two days with a wildlife biologist in Yellowstone. Here is Isaac's summary of our first day. Stay tuned for day 2....

Our Yellowstone Trip

Part 1
Day 1 in Gardiner started out partly cloudy, with plenty of snow on the ground. Our goal for the day was to see mountain lions.We went to the restaurant at the hotel for breakfast, to see what it was like to eat plastic for breakfast. It’s not fun. Anyway, after breakfast, we headed back to our room, packed, and ended up in the parking lot, waiting for the bus to arrive. As we waited, other members of our party arrived. The bus arrived, and after a confusing introduction to the guide, we packed in and left. We drove for perhaps a half hour through beautiful Yellowstone National park, passing groups of bison, pronghorn, and elk. As we turned at an intersection, we noticed a fox trotting through a field adjacent to the road. We all thought that was pretty cool.We continued on to a picnic stop, ate lunch, and learned a bit about tracking. Then, we decided to go and track the fox we saw. We drove back to the intersection, and parked. We all piled out, and some of us stepped into the snow. We soon learned why quicksand is so dangerous. While there is a slight difference between quicksand and deep snow, it’s hard to notice. Anyway, while the last of us tried to swim back out, the rest abandoned us to go see if they could track the fox. The rest of the party soon caught up, and we all stared at the tracks, wondering where the fox had crossed the road, and where he had come back out. After a five minute search, we found the tracks again. We followed them. As I trudged through the snow, trying not to go any deeper than thigh deep, someone noticed the fox ahead. After digging myself out of the hole I was in, I turned to watch the fox wander around sniffing things. He did not seem to be afraid, regardless of the fact that he was within two hundred feet of us. After a while, he trotted away. We watched him until we couldn’t see him any longer, then turned and waded back to a dry patch beneath a nearby tree. There, the guide showed us how to set up a camera that would activate when it sensed movement, and would keep going for thirty seconds. If the sensor sensed movement before thirty seconds was up, the timer was reset. The guide was active in trying to monitor mountain lions, and that was what this camera was used for. It had an infrared light to light up the scene, since actual light would disturb the cats. Cats love lights, for some reason (possible connection to moths?). After we had played with the camera and it’s accessories a bit, we headed back to the bus. We continued to drive back the way we came, then parked. We got out a lot of snow shoes and poles, stuck the snow shoes onto our feet, and began a hike down into a flat field below the road. The hike down was longer than it normally would be, as we had to detour around three or four bison (one or two possibly bulls?). Then we trekked across the field, losing a few snow shoes along the way. Then, we halted to wait for those of us who were looking for lost snow shoes. A party of tourists drove up to where we had parked, and got out. Then, they all stared at us. A few of us had the brilliantly amazing idea to act as if there was something amazing to the right of us. Then, we all laughed as the tourists turned all of their binocs to where we had just been pointing. They were so focused looking at that point, that we began to wonder if they saw something there. After this amusing stop, we shouldered our packs and began a trek towards the area we had been pointing to. To the right of us was a sparsely wooded forest on a slope that dropped down sharply. Down that slope, a large bull was resting. To the left, there was the road. Ahead of us, there was a sort of small ridge that turned off to the right. On that ridge, we found tracks, possibly mountain lion tracks. They were old, so we didn’t follow them. The guide led us all down a rocky bison trail. Snow shoes do not sound good on rocks (imagine fingernails on a blackboard, except fourteen of them [the number in our party, including the guide]). I took the first opportunity to use snow, instead. Which resulted in an exciting fifty foot slide. Quite fun, slides. Anyway, at the bottom, I dusted (snowed?) myself off, and continued on in the direction the guide was heading. We stopped at a tree with marks on it. We determined that it must be some animal’s horns or antlershad scraped the tree. The scrapes were about a year old. We headed across a huge dried up riverbed, the only remnants of the river being a small stream at the other side of the river bed. Beyond that, large cliffs rose up. Many a mountain lion had thrown off a tracker there. Behind us, steep hills, with large rocks that could be called cliffs interspersed. A thousand feet of exposed riverbed to the trees and cover of the other side. The perfect spot to see tracks. We started off again, scanning fortracks. The flatness of the snow was beautiful and untracked, as far as I could tell. At least, if you didn’t look backwards, it was. Then, I noticed something. A deep trail, cutting straight through the snow. Ah. Ancient mathematicians would not have liked that. We trekked over to it. Bison tracks. Fun. We followed them to the stream. Now, this was interesting. A stream. Multiple tracks, possibly from moose, on the other side. Plenty of scraped up trees, including one which had had a bear climb up it. Now,that left interesting scrapes. Across the stream, tangled brush running up a hill to the foot of those tall, rocky cliffs. We walkedwestwards along the stream, hoping for a nice crossing area. We found one, crossed it, and began hiking up the slope, towards a rock outcropping. That was quite fun to climb up, especially with snow shoes. It added to the challenge, and running up it increased the challenge even further. I guess I’m lucky I didn’t take a fall and plummet twenty feet down to uneven ground. Anyway, we did find quite a lot of interesting tracks up there, mostly from small animals like mice or squirrels. After that, we stumbled down the outcrop, and sat down and ate some snacks. Then, we played around with an elk’s knee. It was interesting sticking one leg part into the socket of the other, wiggling it around, and taking it apart again. After that, we crossed the stream, and began trekking into some decently forested ground. Perfect habitat for a mountain lion. A huge dried up riverbed, completely empty of cover, with trees, bushes, and rocks nearby, to serve as cover. What more could you ask for? Well, a nice house or apartment, clothing, food… We kept on hiking. We began to go up a slight incline, angling back towards the hills that led back to the road. We found some frozen coyote tracks along the way. We dug up one of them, but couldn’t make anything out on it, so I dug up another one while everyone else moved on. After breaking a lot of dirt away, I smiled in triumph. I was holding a frozen coyote track! And I could see the pads, barely. Heck, this was better than one of those rubber models we had played with earlier in the day. I showed everyone once I caught up again. We all thought it had been made the previous fall, since a coyote would not sink that far into the ground if the ground was frozen. The ground would have been muddy, but it would have frozen soon after, to preserve the track. Soon after that, the fun part came. We had to climb a forty five degree plus slope in snow shoes. This, combined with the certainty of rolling down the hill bouncing off logs if I made a fall, made the climb extremely fun. I finally got to the top, wondering how much I had sprained my ankles, and rounded the corner of the cliff that was at the top. This is what the guide wanted us to see. It was a mountain lion den. The guide had found this den after tracking a female mountain lion up to this cliff. She (the guide) had gotten to the den, to find one set of tracks going in, and one set with two small tracks following exiting the den and heading off towards the infamous Trackerbane (improv name; you like it?) cliffs. The two smaller tracks had been left by the mountainlion’s kittens. The guide and her fellow researchers had followed back to the cliffs, only to find that they couldn’t get up them to follow the mountain lion. Of course. That’s nothing surprising. Anyway, after we had all looked into the den with a flashlight, we traversed back across the foot of the cliffs, heading westwards, taking a game trail up around towards the top. Going up that trail, I lost my snow shoe for the first time that day. After sticking it back on my foot without a punishment (never spank a snow shoe; they’re spiky), I continued up to the spot where everyone had stopped to rest. The guide asked for questions. We asked some deep physics questions, then got involved in a debate about the formation of life, if I remember correctly. Finally, we asked some biology stuff. The guide told us stuff that was interesting; I just can’t remember it at the moment. After that stop, we continued onwards, this time heading east towards the bus. I had the great fortune to find out just how fun it is to jump off a snow bank into a gully. After extracting myself from that particular mess, I ran after the rest of the group. Not recommended, by the way. After getting off my face, I proceeded at a more cautious pace. I soon made it to the front of the group. After some riddles being exchanged (what’s green but turns red when you press a button? Answer: (edited)), we made it back to the road. I flashed my own riddle out at the people gathered there. Here it is: ‘A guy and his son get into a car accident. The guy is killed, but the son survives, and is rushed to the hospital. The physician enters the room, and says, “Hey, this is my son!” How is this possible?’ Answer: Post what you think is an answer into the comments! Anyway, after we had all gotten our snow shoes off, we trekked about three or four hundred feet down to where the bus was parked. We all piled in, and drove back to Gardiner. When we got back, we all headed back to our rooms. Three of the four families involved in this outing ate in their rooms; the last family (mine) decided to go eat pizza. There was a local pizza place about half a mile or so from our hotel, called the K Bar. If you ever go to Gardiner, EAT THERE. IT IS (edited) AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!! Anyway, we ate there. The guy who owns it (maybe) gets all of his vegetables from his garden, when he can, and makes sure that his pizzas are as high quality as possible. It is really, really good. It’s some of the best pizza I’ve eaten. Seriously. It’s making me hungry to think of it. Eat there. After that nice dinner, we headed back to the room, and fell asleep.

Click here for photos. 

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