Learning from a Nuthatch

Barker-Ewing, National Parks, Rafting, Wildlife

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The Red-Breasted Nuthatch is a frequent feeder visitor.

Another delightful holiday season is wrapping up, and family and friends are hunkered down in anticipation of the cold days of midwinter and I am learning from a Nuthatch. The winter solstice brought an end to short dark days and started our slow climb towards summer. Here in Bozeman, north of Yellowstone National Park, the sun is setting at around 4:30pm. Though the daylight hours are few – and I need a headlamp to ski after work – there’s still plenty to see and learn, especially if I’m lucky enough to be outside in the right place at the right time.

It is easy to spend hours outside during the summer, when the sun is out until 10pm and we’re working three daily trips on the Snake River. We watch the play of light on the majestic Teton Range. We enjoy temperatures that can range from 30 to 80 in a single day. We listen for birds singing from the banks while we drift down quiet side channels. And we float past plenty of animals: sometimes hidden, sometimes in full view. …continue reading Learning from a Nuthatch

Olympic Fever

Barker-Ewing, Biathlon, History, Jackson Hole, Recreation, Winter Olympics

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I’ve got Olympic Fever! Up here in Jackson Hole, as the old joke goes, we have two seasons: Winter, and the Fourth of July. The warming climate has subtly altered this once-accurate description. We still enjoy just two seasons, but while Winter has become noticeably shorter, the Fourth of July has extended on both sides and is now known as Road Construction. (For those of you from more temperate climates who are wondering about the two seasons that remain: Spring in Jackson Hole is three days of mud, and Fall lasts about a week.)

Betty Woolsey, Olympian and Dude Wrangler

In truth, we do have a nice, long summer in this high mountain valley – long enough for our Barker-Ewing boatman to guide more than 200 trips each down the Snake River before low water and early sunsets bring the season to a close. But Winter comes early and it sticks around. Usually we have enough snowfall to start skiing before Thanksgiving, and in many years, spring “crust” skiing is still going strong in late May. These long winters have given many of us locals the chance to excel at winter sports. And with such an abundance of snow and cold, what choice do we have?

I was lucky to be a member of the Jackson Hole Nordic team in the 1970’s. Our training center at Trail Creek Ranch on Teton Pass was owned by Betty Woolsey, a legend in the valley and captain of the first women’s alpine ski team that raced at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany. Her generosity in sharing her ranch with local skiers launched the careers of many Olympians – including biathletes, Nordic skiers and Alpine skiers. (For those who don’t know, Biathlon combines cross-country skiing and target shooting.) Many more locals became members of U.S. National teams, representing America in non-Olympic years. …continue reading Olympic Fever

Whose Antlers Are Those?

Jackson Hole, National Parks, Wildlife

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Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park host annual animal and bird surveys – and the Christmas Bird Count was one of my father’s favorite events of the year. It seems as though birds and other residents of our ecosystem would be easier to spot in winter, when the seasonal background is mostly white and grey. You’d think that the mighty Bull Moose would be the easiest to spot. And they’re definitely here. Wildlife-spotters can find them around Blacktail Butte, along the Gros Ventre River corridor, and along the highway from the Wilson Bridge to Teton Village (an especially hazardous area for moose due to heavy vehicle traffic). But the Bull Moose, like many antlered animals in our neighborhood, wears a winter disguise.

Rare Video: Moose Loses an Antler | National Geographic

Flashback to 1992, when my wife was working in a jewelry store on the Jackson Hole town square. A visitor from some coastal city stopped in to shop, and commented on Jackson’s famous antler arches. “How horrible,” she lamented, “that so many beautiful creatures had to be killed to make those disgusting arches!” Eager to set her mind at ease, my wife happily informed this out-of-towner that members of the deer family – like elk, moose, and mule deer – shed their antlers after the fall rut and regrow them the following spring. This visitor’s eyes widened in disbelief. “That’s completely ridiculous. What kind of fool do you take me for?” Needless to say, she left the store empty handed. …continue reading Whose Antlers Are Those?

Magical Mustelids

Environment, Jackson Hole, Wildlife

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Grand Teton National Park is home to many types of small mammals, including the Magical Mustelids. This family of fearless carnivores includes badgers, fishers, martens, mink, river otters, wolverines, and three weasels: the least weasel, the long-tailed weasel, and the short-tailed weasel or ermine.

A nice brown coat for summer.

The short-tailed weasel measures between 7 and 13 inches including the tail, and despite their diminutive size, they really believe themselves to be quite tough. I remember one little guy I saw while hiking with some clients along the river – he bravely held the trail against four much-larger mammals, and would not let us pass. It turns out the weasel symbolizes courage in many Native American cultures. Even though they are small and only weigh up to 12 ounces they will readily attack larger animals. They are effective hunters, preying mostly on mice and voles. (Researchers rely on the presence of weasels as an indicator of an abundant rodent population.) They are also terrific climbers, so our avian friends are not immune to their predatory survival strategies.

How does the little short-tailed weasel survive the long cold winters in Jackson Hole? Food, shelter, and companionship are critical. With their long bodies, low weight, and lack of body fat, weasels have some distinct disadvantages during the long winter months. They must keep warm by eating up to 40 percent of their weight every day, and may occasionally engage in “killing sprees” so that they can storing leftovers as a hedge against days without any kills. They use up a lot of energy during a hunting day, covering as many as three miles in their quest for prey. How does the Small-tailed weasel negotiate the winter landscape? …continue reading Magical Mustelids

Surviving the Jackson Hole Winter

Wildlife

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Jackson Hole WildlifeWhile we’re snug in our home in Grand Teton National Park, bundled under blankets and cozying up to the fire, the valley’s abundant wildlife is using other strategies for surviving the Jackson Hole winter. Some pack up and leave for warmer climes, some grow nice long fur coats and seek shelter from the wind, some puff out their feathers to trap heat, and some hibernate.

One of my favorite animals is a little guy found in the mountains surrounding the Snake River and throughout the Yellowstone region. I’ve heard his high-pitched chirp in the talus slopes on the west side of Jenny Lake – and seen him scurrying around the granite boulders at Inspiration Point. This little animal is the pika, and his winter survival strategy is to hunker down under the snow and wait. …continue reading Surviving the Jackson Hole Winter