Sunday, September 14, 2014

Wild Montana Wolves

Watched a wild wolf last week. In contrast to what you read in letters-to-the-editor around here, he looked something less than fearsome. His eyes weren't glowing red, there was a definite lack of blood dripping from his canines, and he wasn't standing over a dead animal and gloating. No evidence of blood lust whatsoever. In fact, he looked downright defenseless.

Wild Montana wolf (c) John Ashley
Wild wolf mousing near Polebridge
Solid black, the wolf wandered slowly around a freshly cut hayfield, up near Polebridge, on a sunny afternoon. The heat seemed to be getting to him as he half-heartedly stalked mice in the short stubble. He was just far enough from the gravel road to feel unconcerned by the occasional passing truck, but well within rifle range so he probably won’t make it to winter.

This black wolf was just about 10 miles south of where I laid hands on a different young wolf many years ago, just a stone's throw across the Canadian border.

In the summer of 1987, I was a young wildlife biology student living in the North Fork while working on a white-tailed deer study. On weekends I also tagged along with the Wolf Ecology Project biologists to document the “Magic Pack,” a pair of wolves who moved south into Glacier Park, met, and raised a family.

That morning in late June – my birthday – three of us crossed into Canada to check a baited trap line that Mike, the wolf biologist, had set along a gravel road on the previous evening. The hidden traps were foam-padded and heat-treated to weaken them, leaving them just strong enough to hold onto the wolf’s leg without injury. The trap itself was attached to a 20’ chain with a large grapple hook on the other end.

This technique allowed a captured wolf a degree of mobility. Once caught it would head into the forest, dragging the chain along until the grapple hook caught on a tree. The wolf would then be hidden from the road, and it would have enough freedom to move into the shade if it wanted. 

Parking our truck and checking the third trap location, we followed the grapple drag marks into the woods and discovered a medium-sized, gray-black wolf laying in the deep shade. She was a young non-breeder from the Magic Pack, already wearing a radio collar, so all we needed to do was sedate her, take measurements and check for any injuries before releasing her.

Mike prepared the jab stick – a long pole tipped with a hypodermic needle filed with sedative – then slowly crept up to the wolf and jabbed her in the left hindquarters. She jumped to her feet from his “attack” but soon settled back down as the sedative began to do its job. Mike marked the time, and we waited five minutes.

“Find a forked branch to hold her down with,” Mike told me. What?

Mike had calculated a small amount of sedative to minimize her down time, though by four minutes she was laying completely prone. So armed with nothing more than a questionable, four-foot long, dried-out old forked branch, I slowly tiptoed towards this wild wolf who had just been trapped, cornered and attacked by a similar-looking man.

Just as my branch touched her neck, the wolf sprang to her feet and lunged – but not at me. After all she’d been through, this "fearsome" predator ran away from me, dragging the chain through the forest until the hook caught up on the next pile of wood.

I looked back at Mike, who was bent over with surprise and stifled laughter. He quickly prepared a small amount of additional sedative in a second needle and jabbed her again, and finally we were able to take our measurements.

Glacier Park Magic Pack wolf (c) John Ashley
Sedated, female Magic Pack wolf in summer of 1987
Of course, I’d never held a wolf in my hands before. She left lasting impressions, but not for the reasons I'd read about. She was small, not much bigger than my golden retriever. And in mid-summer her coat was wispy thin – she was battling heat by losing hair. But most impressive of all, she lunged away from me when she had every reason to defend herself instead.

I saw her once more, my birthday wolf, three months later.

She was lying in a dusty pool of dried blood in the back of a battered old pickup. One of the Canadian locals saw her walking in the woods, spied the radio collar, and decided to shoot her (legal in Canada) just for spite. He drove her down to the border station to brag and show off her carcass to the biologists. We thanked him for letting us take measurements, but I mostly bit my tongue.

I realized that what I’d read in the newspapers – written mostly by foaming-at-the-mouth "hunters" who have never actually seen a real wolf – was somewhat less than accurate. Their vile words certainly didn't jibe with my on-the-ground observations, from that summer or in the 27 years since.

Yes, wolves survive by killing other animals. In this part of the world, they eat mostly white-tailed deer in winter, and deer and small mammals in summer. They face starvation every day, and because it’s more efficient they tend to prey on the old and sick – removing the weakest genetics and making the surviving deer herd stronger.

Hunters also kill other animals. I know a few old-timers who hunt just for the meat, and I'm fine with that. But most of today’s well-fed hunters – many experiencing the ills of obesity – kill just for fun. It’s called “sport” when the other side is unarmed. Hunters always look for the biggest deer to kill, thus removing the healthiest genes and leaving the herd weaker – exactly the opposite of natural predation. And of course, a percentage of them proceed to parade the dead carcasses around town on their trucks for several days, a show of male machismo.

I used to be a hunter, and I've shot my share of deer. But that was back in the days when most hunters were conservationists, and back when we honored the ethics of fair chase. Those days appear to be over. From everything I've seen in the woods and game-check stations over all these years, it’s pretty obvious which animals are brimming with blood lust – and it’s not our wild Montana wolves.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Northwestern Lights

Northern lights over Kintla Lake (c) John Ashley
Northern lights over Kintla Lake, in Glacier National Park
A pair of coronal mass ejections (CME) from the sun earlier this week set off three nights of weak to moderate northern lights that were visible from most northern states, including Montana. The first CME burst forth on August 22nd and 23rd, reaching Earth on the 26th and 27th. The second CME sent a glancing blow across our night skies on the 29th, but clouds interfered with that one. The clearest skies occurred on the first night, when a small group of campers gathered on the shores of Kintla Lake to enjoy the late-night lights.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Pecking Order

Adult Loon near the lily pads
No young Loons this year, here at the end of the road. Our resident pair of Loons hatched two chicks, but one only lasted one week and the other lasted two. So the adults have been free-floating this summer, appearing and disappearing at will, and even tolerating a few visiting Loons from time to time.

Because they aren't tied down to the marsh this year, which they use as a nursery to raise their young, the adult Loons have been spending more time on our side of the lake as summer wears down. And having resident Loons with time on their hands is causing strife in the neighborhood.

Juvenile Hooded Merganser
Many of the neighborhood ducks hang out on this side of the lake specifically to avoid the bad-ass Loons. Twice as big as our largest ducks, the Loons are territorial while nesting and chase other Loons off the lake. But now that they're not nesting or raising young, the Loons have turned their attention to the ducks, especially the little diving ducks that eat the same food.

The juvenile Hooded Mergansers feed in a narrow opening between our shoreline and the lily pad thicket. Feeding quietly, or resting on a log, they'll suddenly explode out of the water and rush to shore, facing towards the lily pads. This is our cue to search for the hidden Loon.

Eventually a skulking Loon surfaces like a submarine just beyond the lily pads, or even in the middle of the thicket. Earlier this week, our favorite neighbors saw a Loon apparently grab a Merganser from underwater, as the Hoody exploded towards shore and the Loon suddenly appeared where the duck had been.

We don't attribute the ability to rationalize to birds, and this is just considered normal behavior. The Loons aren't mean or angry or frustrated, they're just doing what their hard-wired brains tell them to do. And the Mergansers who survive these encounters will be the ones to pass along their genes for vigilant behavior. Just the natural pecking order here at the end of the road.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Great Spangled Fritillaries

If you have any native flowers currently gracing your Montana habits, then maybe you've noticed the frequent aerial chases between orange and black butterflies. Here's a secret - that isn't competition for food, it's the age old chase for a mate.

Female (top) and male (bottom) Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies (c) John Ashley
Female (top) and male Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies
They fooled me into thinking there were two different species not wanting to share the same flowers. But in reality, the dark ones are females and the orange ones are males of the same species, Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies (Speyeria cybele). Males hang out in open areas, looking for females to chase after - sort of like college town bars during spring break.

This late-summer courtship is just about the only time you'll ever get to see this secretive species, because the camera-shy adults are extroverts compared to their mysterious young caterpillars.

Adults nectar on lots of different flowers, including the thistles and beebalm in my yard. But the females seek out one specific flower family when it's time to lay eggs - wild violets. Later this month, each female will lay up to 2,000 eggs close to the ground, near (but seldom on) violet plants, and the first instars hatch out 2-3 weeks later.

The young caterpillars drink a little water but don't eat for 7-8 months. Instead, they burrow down into the leaf litter and enter diapause, a state of rest for the winter. Come spring, they climb back above ground to eat the fresh, new violet leaves and flowers - but only during the cover of darkness. By day they burrow back down below ground, away from the violet plant.

Is it any wonder that you and I have never seen a secretive, nocturnal, ground-dwelling Great Spangled Fritillary caterpillar?

In July the caterpillar anchors itself to the underside of a rock or log to pupate, and the adult butterfly emerges three weeks later. By early August, the largest members of the Fritillary family start chasing each other around the yard like newlyweds, giving us one good chance to see this otherwise modest animal.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

High on the Hog

Juvenile American Robin (c) John Ashley
Juvenile Robin on our front porch
I no longer wonder why there are so many American Robins. Today our front porch Robins fledged their third brood of the short Montana summer. One nest, two parents, twelve chicks in total. That's in addition to the two broods fledged each by our side and back porch Robins. And while their nests were out of view from each other, their foraging areas overlapped somewhat, leading to occasional arguments and chases around the yard. Now the neighborhood is at peace again - and now Tracy and I can finally use our front porch for the little bit of summer that remains.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Going Batty in Glacier

Left to right: Silver-haired bat, Long-eared Myotis, Little Brown Myotis

Triple mist net set over the inside North Fork Road at 1AM

Got to tag along with the park biologists last night / early this morning to catch bats around Ford Creek, near the northwestern corner of Glacier Park. My friends lured me in with rumors of "huge" moths getting tangled in their bat nets.

We ran a series of five nets in four locations, including two over-water sets and one triple-tall net on a pulley system that they set over the inside North Fork Road. Fortunately, there isn't a lot of traffic between 10PM and 1AM in that part of the middle of nowhere.

We caught a total of 16 bats, if my foggy memory holds up, including a pregnant Long-eared Myotis, several Silver-haired Bats including one with what appeared to be tiny orange mites behind his right ear (ooohs and aahhs from all of us biologist types), and a couple of Little Brown Myotis which is probably our most common bat in western Montana.

We got to see many of our most amazing native animals up close and personal, and collect measurements and other valuable data on these little-known species, so the sleep deprivation was definitely worthwhile. But I didn't see a single large moth, much less a "huge" one. I think I got snookered.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Four-of-a-kind Full House

Northern Flicker family (c) John Ashley
Four juvenile Northern Flickers in their crowded nest cavity
I knew this would happen, given my previous luck with these things. While I was working out of town over the weekend, I missed the moment when our neighborhood Northern Flicker family finally fledged and left their nest. I haven't seen the parents or youngsters for several days now.

I'd been watching the family for a few weeks, ever since the chicks were big enough to climb up the inside wall of their nest cavity and peek outside at the big wide world. That also gave them a better platform to beg for more food. Flickers have a long beak that makes their stare seem extra intense somehow. And as soon as a parent lands nearby with food, the hungry teenagers start making a buzzing, grinding, growling sound. Most un-birdlike. The begging sounds stop just as fast when the parent flies off.

Eventually, the fully-feathered offspring just can't stand to wait around any longer. They make the leap out the front (and only) door, usually to follow one of the parents around and keep begging to be fed. Watching their parents gather food helps to jump-start their innate foraging skills, and then they're on their way.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What's Good for the Gander - is a Goose

Canada and domestic goose family (c) John Ashley
Canada Goose (dad?), domestic goose (mom?) and their offspring

While I was in Helena about a month ago, a birder friend directed me to the local (Bud Ballard Memorial) duck pond to check out an unusual goose pair. A Canada Goose has paired with a domestic goose, and they hatched a handful of fluffy, yellow chicks. This sort of thing happens from time to time, and it reminds me that while the big concept of "species" is easy to understand, it can appear rather muddied at times.

With Canada Geese at least, the female leads and the male usually swims along behind the family. This makes me to think that the domestic goose is the "goose," as it were, and the Canada Goose is the "gander" or male. Canada Geese also tend to mate for life, and they nest where the female was born. The young birds stay with their parents for the first year, which means these guys should be around long enough to watch them grow up.

When these cross-pairings happen, the youngsters can look very different from their parents and each other. So if you're in the Helena area it might be worth taking the time to swing by the duck pond and check this family out. These youngsters will probably be unlike any geese you've ever seen, or will see again.

Sandhill and Whooping Crane flying together (c) John Ashley
Whooping (top) and Sandhill Cranes flying together
Side note - we saw something similar last winter, down on the Texas coast. Small groups of Sandhill and Whooping Cranes winter in the area of Goose Island State Park, where we were camped. On a foggy morning as we watched for cranes appearing and disappearing in the mist, a flock of three Sandhills and one Whooper flew past us.

Now we've got a mystery on our hands. Like the geese, cranes also live in family groups. Does this Whooper live with the Sandhills? Is it paired? Where did they come upon each other? It always irks me to leave with more questions than I arrived with.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Chickadee With Magpie Hair?

Chickadee with nesting material (c) John Ashley
Adult Black-capped Chickadee carrying nesting material
I crossed paths this evening with a Black-capped Chickadee carrying a beak full of nesting material. Some of our Chickadees have young in the nest already, while others are late nesters. With many bird species, older females nest earlier and often produce more eggs than younger, inexperienced females. The female Black-capped Chickadee picks the nesting location, normally a cavity excavated by both adults from a dead and rotting tree. They only produce one clutch per year.

At dusk I walked back down the hill to my own nest cavity, and we started looking a little more closely at the photos from today. What exactly is in this bird's beak? Could it be? It looks like this Chickadee might be carrying off some of the black and white hairs we combed out of our young Border Collie. You know, the one named "Magpie." Good to see her soft hair going to a good use.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Wee Little Spotted One

Spotted fawn (c) John Ashley

Lots of little big-eyed spotted fawns around the woods right now. While the youngsters are still relatively small and slow, mom stashes them in thick grass or brush where they lay hidden while she goes off to feed somewhere, sometimes out of sight and fairly far away. Then the doe returns with a careful, watchful approach. When the coast is clear the fawn leaps up and starts nursing while his mom stands guard.