It was one of those dark and cloudy winter days in Yellowstone National Park where the clouds are so heavy and low, you feel like you can reach up and touch the cloudy sky. A light wind helped to blow the falling snow with occasional gusts of wind, causing swirls of fluffy white snow tornados.
I had just one hour before the sunset, although, in these conditions, it was hard to tell the difference between the day and night. I was at about 8,000-foot elevation, which isn’t extremely high, but high enough to cause me to breathe extra hard when walking, or should I say plowing my way through the knee-deep powdery snow.
The spruce and pine trees that make up the surrounding forest were covered in a thick blanket of snow, and when the wind gusted, it sent plumes of fluffy snow off the branches to the ground. A small stream snaked by in the forest. The water was moving fast enough to keep it from freezing. Next to the stream were several thick stands of willow shrub, the perfect food for the reason I was at this location, the moose (Alces alces).
Moose are the tallest animals in North America and the second-largest in overall size/mass, second only to the American Bison. The name “moose” is thought to originate from the Algonquin language, translating loosely to “he strips off twigs” or, as some say, “twig eater.” This perfectly describes the winter diet of these large members of the deer family. Small twigs, such as willow, are their main food during the winter months. This is why I was in this snowy meadow next to a creek looking for moose.
During the daylight hours, moose usually sit down in a covered area to rest and chew their cud. Since I couldn’t see any moose in the area, I thought I would set myself up in the perfect habitat and wait for the moose to become active at the end of the day. But first, I needed to walk about a quarter mile through the woods to reach the open meadow. Walking in the woods wasn’t too bad, but the open meadow had deeper snow, making it more challenging. As I trudged through the knee-deep snow, I stopped often to catch my breath, before moving on.
While walking along the edge of the meadow, I spotted one moose lying down. It was a bull (male), but his antlers had already fallen off. I was really hoping to find one of the bull moose that still had their antlers. Not 20 yards later, I spotted a nice big bull moose that still had its antlers. I was in luck. Now I just had to wait and see if the big boy would eventually get up before it got too dark to capture some images. I didn’t have to wait long, and the big bull moose stood up, shook the snow off its back and started to walk over to the willows.
Because of my background in wildlife biology, knowing and understanding the behaviors of animals often gives me an edge when it comes to finding and capturing images of wildlife. Anticipating that the moose would eventually make its way to the willows, I hiked over to a slope that would give me a good view. The snow was extra deep on the downward side of the slope where the wind had blown the snow. I took a couple of steps down the slope, then just sat back into the snow. I was covered with snow from the waist down, and I was next to a small pine tree, so I blended in perfectly. Now all I had to do was wait.
Within a few minutes, both bull moose walked into the willow stand, and I was treated to unobstructed views. As I captured many images and better yet, stunning video, I could study the details of their feeding behaviors. I was close enough to hear the moose grab the ends of the willow twigs with their oversized lips and strip off the tips.
What was going through my mind was how such a large animal could first find enough to eat and also be able to obtain all the nutrients needed to survive a long harsh winter in the mountains of Wyoming on just some twigs.
I only had about 30 minutes together with the moose before it was too dark to capture any quality images. I sat in the snow for a few minutes after photographing to just watch and enjoy. I was able to slowly get up and head back to my truck. By the time I got back my truck was covered in snow, so I cleared it off and started the long hour and a half drive back to where I was staying. All in all, it was a great end to the day. Until next time …
Editor’s note: Stan Tekiela’s NatureSmart column appears twice a month in the Eden Prairie Local News. Tekiela is an author, naturalist, and wildlife photographer who travels extensively across the United States to study and capture wildlife images.
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