(Please click on either image to open the Great gray owl gallery)
It has been a while since I put together a gallery of animal images so I worked on one last night. I chose Great gray owls as they are among my very favourite birds to watch and to photograph. They have a balance of power and intelligence that always impresses me. All of these images are from the Bragg Creek area, either in West Bragg or on the edge of Kananaskis that shares a border with it. I have been photographing some of these owls for six years or more although most of the early images didn’t make this cut for various user operator (me!) issues. For the 35 images that did, it was fun to look at the scenes I’ve been able to see them hunt, perch and fly in.
Looking back over these I feel very fortunate to be able to have spent so much time with these beautiful raptors. At some times of the year, I see them rarely but I enjoy knowing that they are still there. When are paths do cross, it never fails to be a continuation of my education about Great grays. I still have a lot to learn… lucky me!
The snow fell hard enough to allow us to go sledding last weekend has melted away but it feels like winter will be here soon. It has been a good fall and I have looked for a few more intimate scenes to represent the season before it leaves.
A couple of these are from the Jasper National Park in the first few days of September. Banff is 350m higher elevation but, with her higher latitude, fall in Jasper seems to come at least a couple of weeks earlier. Kian was flanked by leaves starting to turn as he watched the water run down Tangle Falls along the Icefields Parkway .
By contrast, the cormorants on the Bow River in Calgary were photographed in an autumn season on the last day of September.
On our last day in Jasper, Kian and I went for a walk along Pyramid Lake that morning. It was the first weekend of September so it was cool with a bit of mist on the water and the autumn colors were just starting to come in. We headed back to town around 9am and spotted a Black bear in the open forest above the road.
One bear soon became two when the other stepped out from behind a dense clump of Buffalo berries. The berries were ripe at that time so the bears had been drawn in. At first we thought they were a mother and cub but when they were side by side, and then when they were wrestling, we could see they were both the same size.
To me, they seemed like they were near adults and given their play fighting I think they are siblings that are still hanging out together. Whether related or not, they seemed to enjoy each other’s company and stayed close to each other as they munched through the patches of berries along the hillside.
This beautiful moose looked amazing in this autumn meadow. Snow in Moraine Lake that morning, was rain lower in the valley. This created a glow in the grass and a shine on her coat.
She crossed the meadow slowly, grazing as she went along, before she slipped up into the forest. I continued west along the Bow Valley Parkway and met up with a Grizzly to continue a particularly great day.
When Kian and I left Jasper we headed home via Highway 93A, which runs parallel to the main road but was much quieter and proved to be a great start to the end of our boys weekend in the national park.
We spotted this black bear almost a kilometre ahead and it was kind enough to wait by the roadside until we drew near. When we pulled up beside, the bear had settled onto a Buffalo berry bush. The berries were pulled free, the bear slowly moved forward and my son and I watched as the moments crawled past. It was cool to share that experience with Kian.
The second time I crossed paths with this family of Grizzly bears it was deep into dusk. I spotted the mother in the hill above the Swan Lake Flat about an hour earlier but quickly lost her and the cubs in the rolling slopes as they made their way down.
When they did appear it surprised me how close they got before I saw them. Knowing the size of an adult Grizzly, it showed me how high those hills are. The trio walked and grazed, with he twins play fighting along the way, towards the Grand Loop Road eventually settling about 150 metres away.
The failing light made photographing the bears a fun challenge. The golden halos created by the glow from the western horizon being caught by the hair in their coats was amazing. That alone was more than worth the wait.
They moved parallel to the road for about 20 minutes before heading back into the hills.
The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States. The rings of color which the rock, microbes and water create are amazing and I had hoped to be able to photograph them when I visited in late May. The weather had other plans and the cold, wet air created a heavy mist over the scalding hot water. The wind blew in on gusts from the south creating waves of cloud.
Occasionally, the elements would conspire and rifts would open in the sheets of white lifting off of the spring’s surface. I walked around the boardwalk twice, enthralled by the isolation created amid the fluid transitions blowing by.
At the western edge of the Lamar Canyon at a small trailhead just above the river of the same name this fox was curled up under a sage bush. A small crowd had gathered, and under the watchful eye of a park ranger, had their cameras trained on the small patch of red visible between the gray-green branches and leaves. Watching it from a slightly higher vantage point, I could see the ears pointed forward and hoped she was hunting. Within a few minutes, she belly crawled forward a little and it was plain to see she was readying for a leap.
The grass and sage hid any rodents from my sight but not so for the fox. Or, at least through those large ears, their sound was not hidden. When she did jump it was fast but she came up empty. She dug anxiously around this bush and circled it several times but somehow the little creature made good on its escape.
With the meal gone, the fox looked up and seemed only then to realize the crowd to one side of her. At that point, she lowered her head, ears and tail and sprinted past the people, crossed the road (where happily traffic had long been stopped) and sped up a hill through the underbrush, grabbing a rodent along the way.
I went further up the road in the hopes of the fox reappearing down that way. I guessed wrong but soon found that the fox had backtracked and went to a small hollow downhill from the original trailhead. When I set up 35 yards away, she was laying low against another bush with her eyes, and ears, trained on a spot near a rock and some fallen trees.
The weather in Yellowstone is always changing and while she waited sun gave way to rain pushed in by a strong wind, then snow, sun and clouds followed in quick succession.
A lightning run got her on the spot stared at for the previous fifteen minutes in a flash. This time she struck successfully and “wolfed” it down while her head was still hidden by the grass.
She stalked through the hillside again for a few more minutes.
She rubbed against a bush next. I don’t know if that was to rub off scent or to pick up the sage. Then she headed off through the scrub and grass.
Pronghorns are scattered across Yellowstone. They range from the lower grasslands through to high valley meadows. It was a cold morning so I was not surprised this fellow wanted to shake off the cold. When the droplets flew from his position a little higher than me, the effect looked more like there had been an explosion. I thought it was a good start to our respective days.
I watched him approach from Soda Butte Creek at the northeast end of the Lamar Valley. He looked like he had just crossed it but maybe that was just from the rain at daybreak. Shortly after spinning off the water, the sun came out, apparently to help dry his coat. The wet sagebrush began to steam as soon as the sunlight hit it, creating a haze around the Pronghorn.
He passed within 30 yards of me and then crossed the road on his way up the base of Druid Peak’s southern flank.
I watched this osprey bathe in a shallow stretch of the Bow River in the Banff National Park on the weekend. The splashing around and dunking under water reminded me of my son when he’s having a soak in the bathtub.
After delivering a fish to his mate, he flew off, gliding under the bridge the nest is built on top of.
He took a break to soak for a few minutes and then dry out his feathers for a couple more.
After a long shake, the Osprey flew back to a high point to better survey the water.
The story of the Banff wolf pack’s takedown of the elk last Sunday begins for me where Banff Avenue goes under the Trans-Canada Highway. I had spent some time along the Vermilion Lakes, then the Bow Valley Parkway and was heading for the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive. At the stop sign I looked south for oncoming traffic and noticed movement up on the railway overpass. Pulling off the road, I could see an elk from the shoulder up – the body blocked by the solid concrete side of the bridge.
The elk took a couple of paces, doubled back and then repeated that a couple of times. It seemed unusual behaviour so I trained my telephoto lens on her to have a better look. When I did, I couldn’t make out anything unusual – until a wolf’s head came into view when it leaped up and bit the elk’s neck!
At that point, part of me was in amazement but the more important part got to work. I ran up the small hill beside the bridge to get level with the animals. As I did, I could see four wolves (although the pack has five members; I just don’t have one photograph with more than four but all five were likely there) surrounding the elk. I did not see what led to the elk being on the bridge but suspect it was herded there by the wolves.
Over the next seven minutes, the wolves alternated between attacking the animal and walling it in on the bridge. Both the herding and the attacking suggested great intelligence and teamwork.
The large male, likely the alpha, which primarily attacked the face and neck alternated initial lunges with the other wolves at the back. Whoever went first would dodge and parry the increasingly weak counters by the elk while the others would bite viciously while her attention was distracted from them.
When the elk would get closer to one of the ends of the bridge, the wolves would line up along the edge and force her back towards the middle. During the struggle, she was pulled down twice and recovered her legs before being taken down for good by the alpha in a twisting move of immense power.
The cold air, it was about -15°C at 10AM when I came across the attack, condensed the breath and the heat from the open wounds into steam that added to the poignancy of the scene.
When the elk was down, the pack wasted no time in starting their feast. They had about 45 minutes before the carcass was removed which gave the whole pack time to get at least one full meal down.
Parks Canada has said that the elk was removed due to the location beside the tracks in the middle of the bridge and the danger that would pose to the wolves and the other animals the kill would attract. I fully agree with that and hope the carcass is taken to a location where the pack can find it again whenever that decision makes sense. I had hoped they might move the carcass to another location immediately but there are a number of factors involved in making those decisions. I respect the Parks Canada people that follow these wolves on a daily basis and believe they will continue to make those calls with the best outcome for the wildlife. I certainly appreciate their work getting the trains slowed down for a period of time after the attack and giving the wolves a decent amount of time before the elk was moved.
I will post a few more images a little later but wanted to share the story as I saw it now.