Since mortality in juvenile golden eagles can be as high as 75 percent, it can take one mating pair up to 10 years to produce two breeding birds.
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
Denali National Park, Alaska
Canon 100-400mm lens @ 100mm
1/640 sec @ f4.5
© Teklanika Photography 2013
Winter is in full swing, and mostly due to the blanket of snow, wildlife viewing has improved greatly. Coyotes, whitetail and mule deer, and bald and golden eagles have been seen daily. The contrast between dark fur and bright snow makes it difficult for properly exposed mammal photos, every day in the field is a learning experience. Avian photography, on the other hand, has been getting a little easier. The eagles and hawks are plentiful, and I finally feel like the time spent practicing bird-in-flight shots with the thousands of Canada geese that spend their Winter in the area is paying off.
courtesy of the Billings Gazette
by Brett French
Across northeastern Montana, continuous snow and cold have left antelope weakened and dying. Whitetail deer swarm haystacks like flies on meat. Carcasses of dead antelope and deer litter the hillsides and valleys. Only the golden and bald eagles, magpies and crows are getting fat as they scavenge the animal corpses.
“It’s difficult out there, and they’ve been doing it since November,” Johnson said.
Bad winters are common across the rolling prairie of northeastern Montana, only miles from the Canadian border. But this winter has been harsher than normal, with snow coming earlier and heavier.
“We’re well on the way to having a record-breaking winter,” said Mark Sullivan, FWP’s Glasgow-region wildlife manager. “It’s tough on wildlife, no doubt.”
Working in Grand Lake for the Division of Wildlife now, frequent updates will be a bit more difficult to pull off… The past week was excellent – plenty of wildlife and beautiful vistas to be seen in Grand County. I saw my first wild pine marten, spent some time with several moose (mostly bulls, but a couple of cows and calves as well) and elk (again, mostly bulls), and was able to focus on many of the osprey nesting around the lakes in the area. Looking forward to spending the next couple of days at Roxy and Chatty, hoping for new bear and coyote shots.
Arrived in the park around 6 PM after spending an hour or so in the hot sun at Chatfield (I didn’t see much hiking along Plum Creek, only mosquitoes and meadowlarks). The twin fawns were with their mom near the visitor center, they’re growing up so quickly. No bears or lions to be seen, and the lack of predators put the deer at ease along the Fountain Valley trail. I was so busy watching and shooting the deer that I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake – the loud rattle at my feet sent me into the air, haven’t jumped that high in a while. Rob spotted a nice bull elk in the far eastern meadow around sundown – pretty far away for shots, but it was nice to see one in that area.
Busy week, too busy for daily reports… The golden eaglet has been hopping from the nest to nearby cliffs, trying to muster the courage to make that first flight – won’t be long until it’s soaring along with the other eagles. Bear viewing has been great, several sightings last week brought the total to 16 individual bears spotted in the park this year. My dad and I, along with Rob, Chris and Earl, had a very close encounter with a big boar (missing part of his right ear, I remember him from many sightings last year, dubbed him “Bruiser”) as he worked his way across a hill and crossed the road directly in front of us. The mule deer fawns are getting bigger, and along with that growth comes the danger of not being able to hide as well as before. Newborn fawns have no scent, but the older they get the more their scent increases, which makes it easier for predators to detect them. We watched a young bear take down a fawn high on the hogback this week – the mother deer attempted to charge the bear with the fawn in its jaws, then backed off when she realized that it was too late – a hard thing to watch but this is life in the wild, the way it should be and has been for thousands of years. I spent Friday around Hot Sulphur Springs, didn’t see a whole lot of wildlife but the wildflowers are in full bloom, awesome vistas as well. Made another trip to Mission:Wolf on Saturday – helped out a bit, spent the night and lucked out with some wolf and sunset/sunrise shots. The wolves greeted the morning sun with a wonderful group howl, and a family of coyotes somewhere in the mountains nearby responded with their own chatter – what a way to wake up! I was able to see the new additions to the sanctuary – two 11-week old wolf pups that look like tough little mini-wolves with gigantic paws, just adorable. They’re pretty skittish, I didn’t want to add to their already obviously high stress levels by clicking away at them with my camera, so no shots to share. These little guys, due to the age at which they’re beginning their human habituation, will no doubt make excellent ambassador wolves one day, travelling the world and enlightening kids and adults.
Too busy for detailed daily reports lately, so I’ll summarize the past few days. Deer fawns are growing fast, as is the golden eaglet on the canyon nest. The wildflowers are in full bloom, and all of the meadows are blanketed with vivid color. I’ve been seeing a pair of great horned owls, presumably fledglings, at the Sharptail Ridge trailhead nearly every night on my way home. A couple of sporadic bear sightings in the past couple of days, but for the most part bear action has slowed down for now – I’m betting it will pick back up once the berries start appearing on the bushes. Spotted a couple of bull elk at dusk on Friday at the south end of the Fountain Valley, never seen elk there before so that was a rare treat for me. Speaking of rare treats, a lion took down a mule deer doe very near the road on the 4th, and after waiting until dusk, a handful of die-hards were able to see the cougar make his way down to the carcass. No shots to speak of due to the fading light, but still very cool to watch – my third mountain lion sighting this summer! Dan reported that the lion wasn’t seen again on Monday, but a red fox enjoyed some of the deer during the day and a big black bear came down to the carcass and fed at sunset. There seems to be a good portion of meat left, so there could be more of this story still unfolding on Tuesday.
Another hot summer day in the field – still no bear cubs, but I did finally get some decent shots of a pair of twin mule deer fawns that I’ve been seeing for the past couple of days. They’re still getting used to their wobbly little legs, just adorable. Drove through Chatfield on the way home, spotted one coyote pup that for some reason ran for it’s life when I drove by, but not much else.
Arrived at the park around 5 o’clock and headed up the South Rim trail. I hadn’t been up there since last season – most of the flowers are in full bloom and there are a lot more than last year around this time.
From the top of the ridge I could see a black bear mom and two brown cubs in the distance. I really, really want cub shots this year, and I almost hiked to them for some photos, but my instincts told me that it was a bad move since I was out hiking alone, miles from anything or anyone. It’s so dangerous to approach a protective mother bear – I made the right choice, took some far away shots and moved on.
Hiking down the trail, Rob’s voice came over the radio – “I’ve got a bear in the canyon, get down here!”. “I’m on the way, thanks!” – I high-tailed it down to him, just in time to watch the bear disappear into the brush.
We spent the rest of the evening watching the bear wander the hills, too far and heavily wooded for anything decent in the way of photos. There was a mountain lion sighting around 8:15 near the lower parking lot, Rob and I had barely missed it. The sunset was excellent, the summer sky morphing into vivid blues, oranges, pinks and purples.
The golden eaglet is really big now, almost completely dark and quickly losing the patch of white on its head. It was an excellent four-bear day for me, no complaints whatsoever – hopefully those elusive cubs will make themselves available for photos soon!
Today was bittersweet, to say the least. Arrived in the park around 5:00 and, after spending some time with the golden eagles, headed up the Fountain Valley trail.
The temp was 90+ and it felt every bit that, if not hotter. At the Lyons Overlook trail there was the biggest pile of black bear scat I’ve ever seen, we’re talking big Grizzly size. I hiked to the top of the overlook, smelled the distinct odor of a bear nearby, and turned to my right just in time to watch the tail end of a big bear making its way into the oak brush. I stuck around for the next 45 minutes, shooting landscapes while I watched the movement of the bushes and listened to the bear root around – never got a clear look at the bear due to the thick brush, and finally gave up due to the unrelenting heat. Back down the trail toward the truck. I arrived at the parking lot and found Rob shooting a doe and her fawn, finally got some halfway decent fawn shots.
We spotted what looked to be either a mountain lion or a small deer on the hogback about 1000 yards away, and though we were both fairly sure that it was “slinking” through the brush and couldn’t be a deer, for some reason we ignored it and moved on. Nothing for the next hour. At 8:00 I decide that my luck might be better out of the truck, so I hit the Willow Creek trail. The hike yielded nothing but a great horned owl that waited until I was very close to it to fly, scared the heck out of me as it dove off of a low branch and sailed right over my head. Met one of my wildlife watching buddies on the way back to the truck, he had just returned from the Fountain Valley trail and, of course, got some shots of the big bear that I’d lost patience waiting for earlier. He informed me of a big problem with two bears in the nearby neighborhood, apparently two youngsters had been breaking into homes for food and were put down earlier in the day. By now the light was fading.
I was about to hop into the truck and leave the park when a couple of guys that I’d shared a bear sighting with last week pulled up and let me know that a lion had just crossed the road right in front of them in the canyon. Rob and I got there just in time to watch the lion climbing the canyon for a couple of minutes – it had crossed the road from south to north, most definitely the lion that we had seen earlier from so far away (Rob had snapped a couple of shots from some distance earlier, after close scrutiny we could see that it was a lion). By then it was too dark for my camera to get anything worthwhile, Rob’s camera handled it much better and he walked away with at least one decent shot – here’s the best one I got.
When I got home the news channels were all covering the bear story. The two yearling bears hadn’t been aggressive with people, they hadn’t bluff charged anyone, they hadn’t attacked a pet or livestock – they certainly hadn’t deserved to be killed. The cubs had broken into a home and were eating out of a residents freezer, when the homeowners arrived they fled – no aggression whatsoever. What happened to the three strikes rule that the DOW usually goes by? A spokesperson for the DOW was interviewed and claimed that the danger was that they would pass these bad habits (which they claimed that the bears had learned from their mother, though there was never a report of a mother bear with cubs breaking into homes in the area) onto their offspring, even though they wouldn’t be able to reproduce until at the earliest next year. These young bears, which had just been weaned from their mother and really knew no better, should’ve been hazed away from the neighborhood or trapped, tagged and relocated, certainly not trapped and killed. Based on the amount of negative comments online, I’d say that the public is as outraged as I am at the way the bears were handled. The DOW will definitely be “under the microscope” now, let’s hope they handle future situations differently.
Arrived around 5 with my neighbor BJ and his son Aiden. We hiked the Fountain Valley trail, but it was just too hot to see much wildlife. The golden eaglet is growing so fast, it now looks like a little bald eagle with white left only on its head and dark feathers everywhere else. After a couple of trips up and down the road we finally spotted a black (Gorilla Bear) on the east side of the first hogback. Watched her for a while, then a second bear (Choco, still trying to prove to GB that he’s a worthy mate) wandered up and closely followed the first bear for the rest of the evening. Too far for any decent shots, but still well worth it – Aiden’s first bear sightings! After we’d left, my friend Allison sent me a text me to let me know that Choco had pushed GB’s boundaries and she had charged him and bit him on the butt (again), she’s not quite ready to mate, but that’s one persistent bruin! At 10:00 my wife and I were sitting on the front porch and a huge raccoon wandered down our street, it’s been a while since I’ve seen one in the neighborhood (a live one that is, always plenty of road-killed coons). Fingers crossed for cubs tomorrow!
Bears and fawns have kept me busy the past couple of days – I haven’t been able to get any really great shots, but the viewing has been excellent! The little golden eaglet is growing fast, showing more and more dark feathers every day. I’ve met some really nice folks on the trails, shared some wonderful wildlife sightings and made some great friends. The weather has been a lot hotter and drier than the past couple of weeks – hopefully we’ll get some more rain this week!
June 14th: Rob, Dan and I arrived at Roxborough around 6:00 PM. The golden eaglet was visible on the edge on the nest, squawking at the top of its little lungs. It wasn’t long before one of the adults showed up, circling above the nest. A small rabbit in the canyon below the nest never saw the eagle coming, and after a couple of minutes dinner was served.
After spending half an hour or so at the nest, we decided to push on. As soon as we reached the upper parking lot I noticed some movement on the right hand side of the road. I grabbed the radio, “Rob, the two bears are back – upper lot!” Dan and I hopped out of the truck, I went down onto my knees in the road and began shooting – the bears crossed the road in front of the truck and started walking east on the other side of the road. By the time I pulled my eye away from the viewfinder and stood up there were four cars stopped behind us – bear jam. The bears flanked the road for a bit, then headed up the Willow Creek trail.
We stuck with the bear pair for the next hour or so (I ran out of disk space and Dan ran out of battery power), then made our way back to the truck. We reached the truck as my buddy Chris and his wife pulled up. Chris was anxious to see his first bears of the season, so we told him where to look and he started up the trail. After a bit of “bear talk” with Rob, Dan and I drove east to take a look in the canyon. We reached the high pullout on the east side of the park where we usually scope from, and before I could get the spotting scope out Rob was on the radio. “Another bear, upper lot again!” This bear was extremely skittish – it had darted through the parking lot and attempted to scramble up a tree near Rob’s vehicle, but fell out about half way up. The reddish-cinnamon bear finally settled down a bit when it hit the brush line on the other side of the road, following the path that the other bears had taken, sniffing the ground for the scent trail as it walked along. Dan, Rob, Chris’ wife (sorry, I’m not very good at remembering names) and I watched the bear for a couple of minutes, then Chris came around the corner on the trail – just in time to see the third bear as it ran past. The light was gone, so we decided to call it a day.
June 15th: Arrived at Roxy around 6, and passed a large group of cub scouts at the visitor center on my way up the Fountain Valley trail. My hike yielded nothing, just too hot for the wildlife to be out. I made my way back to the truck and down to the eagle nest, arriving just in time to see an adult leaving the nest – just missed feeding time. I waited around at the nest for a couple of minutes, and a group of scouts led by a park volunteer came down the road. I did my best to point out the nest, but it’s camouflaged against the cliff and hard to make out without an eagle visible on it. Down the road, and after a half hour of nothing, I found myself back at the upper parking lot. Four deer shot out of the oak brush, heads held high, bleating and scattering as they ran at full speed. I picked up the radio – “Rob, you’d better get over here, something’s got these deer spooked. Definitely a predator.” As soon as I took my thumb off of the receiver a mountain lion walked out of the brush. “Mountain lion, mountain lion, get over here quick!” I was out of the car and shooting in a couple of seconds, and Rob raced into the parking lot. The lion slowly stalked toward us, eyes locked onto the two humans below it the entire time.
The lion came to about 40 feet from us and froze, looking off to the left. We could hear the sound of kids walking up the trail, and the lion obviously heard them as well, dropping down as low as it could in the tall grass, ears exposed above the foliage. The next hour was a blur – kids and parents trying to be a quiet as possible (these are kids, after all) while we watched the ears twitch in the grass. I shared my photos with the kids, discussing lion behavior with the brave ones at the front of the group and explaining to the frightened ones that the animal was just as afraid of us as we were of it. We could’ve ignored the scouts and let them pass by without ever seeing the lion, and we may have been able to get more shots after they passed, but I’m convinced that sharing this experience with the kids was the right thing to do. The joy and excitement on their faces made it worthwhile. Chris and his wife waited with me until dusk, and as soon as the crowd left the lion arose. It looked over at us for a moment, then disappeared into the thick oak brush. My first mountain lion sighting of the year, and I’d finally been able to get shots of the reclusive cat!
June 16th: Dan and I got into the park later than usual, about 6:30. Not much happening, another hot afternoon. We spent some time with the eaglet, squawking again at the edge of the nest as an adult circled overhead. Rob spotted a bear near the Willow Creek lot, and we were on the trail within shooting distance of the bear within 10 minutes. We spent the evening with the bear, a beautiful black that didn’t seem to mind our presence at all.
At sunset a female bear and cinnamon cub appeared on the top of the ridge above us, obviously very interested in the black bear we were photographing. She stood on her hind legs for a better view as the cub rambled around the rocks at her feet. First cub of the year, hopefully we’ll have more time with it in the future. The light was gone, so we headed back to the truck. Another 3-bear day, and these were three bears that we’d never seen before, bringing our running total to 7 individuals in the park so far this year – another day in parkadise!
Another great couple of days in the field! It’s been rainy and overcast, but you’ll get no complaints from me – the weather has kept much of the usual traffic out of Roxborough, and the wildlife viewing has been excellent. The golden eaglet (I’m fairly certain now that there is only one) is growing fast, it’s losing some of that baby “fur” and a few dark feathers are beginning to appear. Both adults can usually be found atop the cliffs somewhere near the nest, and lately a peregrine falcon has been perching nearby as well. Most of the muley bucks have joined bachelor groups, and the pregnant mule deer are busy evicting their yearlings, preparing to give birth to a new generation. It’s hard not to feel a little bad for the confused youngsters as they’re bitten, kicked and chased away by their loved ones. I remind myself that it’s time for them to face the world on their own, and nature isn’t always pretty, but it’s right.
The 12th was a fairly quiet evening – not a whole lot to see, just too stormy and wet for most of Roxy’s wild inhabitants.
On the 13th, Dan and I met Rob (and a nice group of mule deer bucks) near the entrance to Roxy, and after a couple of deer photos and a quick radio check, we were on our way into the park. Dan pointed out a bull elk grazing in the valley about 500 yards from the road, and after scoping, spotted another bull (a massive 6-pointer) that was at least three times farther away than the first – good eyes. I had somehow talked Dan into taking a quick hike, so at 6:00 we headed up the trail to Lyons Overlook. About 1/4 mile up the trail, we rounded a bend and I caught some movement along the rocks to the right of the trail. I stopped in my tracks – “Dan, fox…? not a red fox…? swift fox…? No, it’s a gray fox!” It took me a second to figure out what I was looking at – I’d never seen a gray fox before, and it almost looked like a mix between a fox and a cat. Little fox face, short legs, big bobcat-like feet (the only North American canid capable of climbing trees) and a long, grizzled gray tail with a black stripe down the middle and a black tip. It looked like it would be more at home in a South American jungle, not much at all like the red fox that I’m so well acquainted with. We took as many shots as we could before the fox grew tired of us and slowly walked down the rock and out of sight. Bad lighting and light rain made for grainy photos of the little guy, but nonetheless a great first-time experience with this species.
We passed a doe bedded down under some oak brush on the way up, then set up at the top for some landscape shots. After a couple of minutes we started back for the truck. The radio had a low battery and was spitting out interference noise (or so I assumed) throughout the hike back, and numerous attempts to reach Rob were unsuccessful. We rounded the corner near the visitor center and the noise on the radio suddenly cleared up, “Where are you guys? 2 bears, 2 bears! Past the eagle nest!”. Dan and I made a mad dash for the truck and drove down to Rob and the two bears. We hopped out and were able to get a couple quick shots before both bears disappeared into the creek bed.
Rob had been trying to call for fifteen minutes – another lesson learned, always charge the radios.
The rest of the evening was spent watching the bears from afar (a big boar and a smaller female, apparently courting) as they grazed and mingled in the valley, sharing the scope and binoculars with friendly wildlife watchers, enjoying the sunset, the silence, the smell of rain, and the cool night air.
The forecast called for rain in the early evening, so I left the house around 4 PM and met Rob at Roxborough, once again in search of bears. There wasn’t a whole lot happening at Roxy – no coyotes and no activity at the golden eagle nest, just a handful of distant deer. 5:15 and still no rain, though some dark clouds were beginning to move in from far to the west. We decided to try our luck at Chatfield for a while, then return to Roxy when the rain started. There wasn’t a whole lot happening at Chatty either – no coyotes at the den (there were two baby magpies in the bushes outside the den, still unable to fly – first time I’ve ever seen baby magpies) and no whitetail deer in sight, just a lone killdeer wading in the creek.
Back to Roxborough, and as soon as we drive through the canyon and turn around for a return sweep the rain begins to fall and I finally spot what I’ve been waiting all year to see – BEAR!!! I fumbled around with the 2-way radio for what seemed like forever and finally got a call out, “Rob! Get up here! Bear! Big bear!” The bear was over the hill to the north and out of sight within a minute, no photo opportunities whatsoever, but at least we’d finally seen one. It was headed for the Fountain Valley, so I parked the truck and started up the Fountain Valley trail. I passed a couple of frightened hikers and rounded the trail just in time to see the bear disappearing into the thick oak brush at the top of the hill, heading southwest. I waited out the downpour under a tree in the valley, and when I was sure that the bear wasn’t going to double back my way, I headed back to the truck. Rob hadn’t seen anything come over the hill yet, so we spent the next half hour waiting for the bear to show up – no dice, the bear never made another appearance.
At 8:00 I left the parking lot to check the canyon and east side of the park, Rob waited at the parking lot for the big bear to show up. I drove through the canyon and out the other side, and as I crested the hill on the east side of the park, I heard a group of coyotes loudly snarling, barking and howling, then spotted a black spot out in the flats surrounded by 4 coyotes – ANOTHER BEAR! The smaller bear had wandered into coyote turf and was surrounded by them, standing on hind legs and spinning around in circles trying to avoid a bite on the butt. The bear fought them off for a minute, then made a break for it to the south. The coyotes, surprisingly, did not give chase – probably guarding their den site. I franticly tried to reach Rob over the 2-way, but the canyon was too much for the radio… I tried to call him on the phone, but no answer so I left a panicked message… By now it was getting too dark for decent photos, but I clicked away anyway, excited to see my first Colorado black bears of the year.
I turned around and started driving back to the west side to alert Rob, and his crackled voice finally came over the radio, “Did you say bear? I’m on the way!” We spent the next twenty minutes watching the bear out in the flats. He kept wandering south, then got too close to another group of coyotes and the air was filled with howling and barking again, until he disappeared into the creek bed. We finally left the park around 8:45 – mission accomplished!