It is a relatively quiet time in Jackson Hole in terms of people but one of the best times to view wildlife. Ground squirrels have finally emerged from their long hibernation, migratory birds such as bluebirds, cranes, red-tail and Swainson’s Hawks have returned and the large hoofed mammals are on the move toward their Summer ranges.
Today, we watched a pair of coyotes chasing bighorn sheep, a porcupine foraging in an open meadow, and a northern shrike along with over a dozen moose, thousands of elk and mule deer. Elk and moose aren’t typically found in the same habitats but we were fortunate to observe both (the two largest members of the deer family) side by side as they browsed and migrated through Grand Teton National Park.
Lots of moose activity has been seen on recent safaris and this moose was particularly entertaining to watch as it eagerly browsed on a spruce tree. Spruce are probably not a moose’s favorite food, but long Winters limit available forage and require them to diversify their diet. Moose are often the highlight of a wildlife safari since they are so unique looking and seem to have a lot of personality. Signs of Spring continue to take place and today I saw my first Osprey which had returned to Jackson Hole after its long migration South (often as far away as South America).
The snowy weather throughout today seemed to contradict some of the Spring wildlife sightings that were taking place at the same time.
Mountain bluebirds have made their return along with red-winged blackbirds and the largest bull elk have dropped the antlers that they worked so hard to grow last year. Each Spring, we hope that our pair of bald eagles that nest on Spring Creek Ranch will return for another attempt at nesting, and yesterday I was happy to observe both adults perched on the nest. I’ll continue to watch this nest to monitor the pair’s progress. The largest (but, not heaviest) owl in North America is the great gray owl and we are fortunate to be one of the few regions that this owl calls home. We actually found two on today’s safari and I really liked how this one looked thanks to the surrounding snowfall. Moose were also on the move today and we ended up with a total ten moose sightings throughout the day.
Today’s excursion was a classic winter wildlife safari here in Jackson Hole with sightings of bighorn sheep, many bald eagles, coyotes, mule deer and thousands of elk. Our local wildlife is very well equipped to deal with snowy days such as today, as this moose photograph suggests. The snow landing on the fur of this moose isn’t melting which tells us that there is a substantial temperature gradient between its skin and outer-most fur which keeps it comfortable even in extreme conditions.
This moose can be determined to be a bull by the presence of its ‘pedicle’ which is the part of the skull from which the antlers grow. It can be seen just in front of the ears. The blizzarding snow surrounding this moose was captured by stabilizing the camera and setting it to a very slow shutter speed. Other interesting sightings from today included a northern shrike and large flock of sage grouse.
Wildlife watching began early on today’s safari since we encountered a red fox hunting within about a minute. This fox has been seen frequently around Spring Creek Ranch lately, taking advantage of the vast undeveloped land within this property. Another highlight came toward the end of the safari when we found this bald eagle perched in Grand Teton National Park. The warm, sunny weather today enhanced the experience even more.
Lots of interesting wildlife sightings on today’s safari including a shy porcupine perched cryptically in a cottonwood tree. These large rodents are fascinating and their unique ability to discourage most predators from bothering them thanks to their thousands of protective quills.
After a full day of wildlife watching, I returned home to find this little owl perched on my wife’s skis, which leaned against our house. I had only seen a Boreal Owl once before so to see one in my yard (and seemingly happy to be photographed) was a fantastic close to the day!!!
Another great Winter wildlife safari today! Highlights included coyotes scavenging, moose browsing, sage grouse flocking and a porcupine roosting. This great-horned owl was serenely perched in a cottonwoood tree turning its head back and forth while studying us. Eventually, we noticed the most remarkable part of this sighting which was a long-tailed weasel clutched in its talons.
Normally its white Winter coat serves as camouflage to prevent such incidents. If you look closely at this image, you can see its leg and tail underneath the owl.
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2011 is shaping up to be one of the best years on record in Jackson Hole. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort opened with a record 130” of snow, followed by unrelenting storms throughout December and January. Now with almost 330 inches of snow to date, lift ticket, lodging, and lunch package options starting at $79—it’s time to check Jackson Hole off the bucket list.
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Predators have always held a certain fascination with wildlife enthusiasts and while we are often fortunate to see predatory behavior in action on safaris, the robin-sized northern shrike is an unlikely killer compared to its larger cousins. During Winter months, we frequently observe the subtle yet deadly shrike perched upon wires or posts while seeking its next victim. Like birds of prey, such as hawks and eagles, shrikes have hooked bills to facilitate tearing of flesh. There are only two species of shrikes in North America and both are sometimes referred to as “butcherbirds” due to their carnivorous habits and tendency to impale prey upon thorny shrubs for later consumption.
One of the coolest wildlife behaviors to see during Winter months is a red fox stalking and diving after its prey and today we had the good fortune to witness (and photograph) this on our safari. The fox begins by walking carefully on the packed snow so as to not alert rodents underneath. Once it hears or smells activity underneath the snow, it tenses its entire body, leaps high into the air and lands, jaws first, into the snow. If it is lucky, it emerges from the snow with an unfortunate rodent within its teeth. This action-packed sequence was a lot of fun to photograph and fortunately this fox gave us a couple of opportunities for trial and error.