Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Year of the Weasel

It seems we get a glimpse of a weasel about once in every five years …. And very occasionally we see more than a glimpse. Dale was with me on both of the two really good encounters I have had in years past.

We were alerted to the first encounter by a loud cawing near the entrance of Lagoon Campground on the Oregon Coast. Any crows that noisy must have something on their mind. Much to our surprise we found a weasel had just killed a little ‘brush bunny,’ a small cottontail. The rabbit was still on the asphalt, and was too big for the weasel to drag…… so he pushed. He pushed one end of the cottontail a few inches, jumped over, and pushed the other end a few inches. Gradually he inched his treasure over a couple of feet of asphalt. Pushing it on the gravel shoulder wasn’t any easier. The rabbit was fresh and provided a quick drink of blood between every few pushes. Finally the little weasel reached the dense salal bushes growing along the roadside. Now he could drag his bounty over leaf litter. He soon disappeared into the undergrowth, but not before coming back to stand right at Dale’s toe and glare up at him.

My second weasel came as an interruption. It was a Monday following a three day art show at the Favell Museum in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Dale and I had a few hours to enjoy the Klamath Basin’s bird life before heading home. We went to Miller’s Island, a small wildlife area near town, to see if any migrating snow geese were still there. I was tuckered out and the sun-warmed ground looked so inviting. I found a spot free enough of goose poop to meet my standards and stretched out on my belly for a few minutes of springtime bliss.

But wait! Something was watching me. About six feet from me peered a weasel. I hardly dared breathe. Dale caught a glimpse before it disappeared into a hole. In a moment she popped up again, spun around in mid air, landed in the opposite direction, and then back into the hole. I know where the expression “Pop goes the weasel” comes from. It happened so fast I felt I had imagined it.

She was back up in a moment, this time carrying a kit in her mouth. Off she whisked, and disappeared down another hole not far away. We didn’t mean to disturb her, but it was done. We watched her carry one baby after another to a new den, then quietly we left her to get settled in.

Almost twenty years passed before another weasel sighting amounted to more than a lucky glimpse. Three times during our Yellowstone trip this spring we watched a weasel for several minutes. All were hunting, so I’ll relate just one of them.

I’d been sitting in the car for too long. I needed exercise, so I grabbed a camera and head down the road. Soon I find Joe Conrad, a good friend, sitting on a rock drinking his morning coffee and keeping half an eye open for mountain bluebirds and Williamson’s sapsuckers. As we chat I suddenly I realize I am facing a weasel! He is hunting right where I photographed a vole last spring. It is a little male with enlarged testes, typical of roving Romeos at this time of year. His upper parts are a rich, reddish brown, and his under-parts a creamy yellow. He fur is shiny and looks silky and soft. Bright black eyes briefly look at me, but he is much more interested in his search for prey.

The weasel floats from one rock to another; then freezes while he looks and listens. Maybe his nose helps him too. Off he goes again. Sometimes he disappears for a moment in between the loose tumble of talus. I’m amazed at how quickly he moves …. and how quickly he stops. He is frozen now. Every fiber in his body seems to be wired; the hair on his tail is electrified – hairs standing on end. He relaxes and bounds off to a new spot.

I found him checking the toe of a rocky slope. He flits from one rock to another for at least a hundred feet along the bottom of the talus slope. Nothing. When he loops back he takes a higher route, through pika territory. The pikas are in hiding too. He comes back to where I first saw him, to check the toe of the slope again.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Re: The 100 Paintings Challenge!

Just a quick note today to say that I have finished “The 100 paintings Challenge.” The host of that blog, Laure Ferlita, has posted part one of a two part interview with me which some of you might enjoy.

And I’m temporarily grounded from sketching with tendonitis in my right shoulder …. But this will pass. Don’t think I’ve given up posting.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Chunky the Fat Black Bear

First a quick note about the "E-mail Button" I had posted on the right side of this blog. I finally realized it doesn't work! I've removed it. If you would like to contact me, go to my 'profile' where I have posted a hotmail address. I've been warned I might regret posting an e-mail address so this one may dissapear too. For those of you who have my private e-mail address, please continue to use that. I check it more regularily.

Now that the holidays are over I hope to finish up with my Yellowstone posts. It is pouring rain ourside here. A good time of year to focus on the wonderful happenings in Yellowstone.

The events took place May 20 of this year. We headed into the park early. The day didn’t start well. Grizzlies had been seen on a winter killed bison at Blacktail Ponds the day before. We passed the ponds about 6:45 AM. All available space and then some was taken up by parked cars. One coyote on the carcass and thousands of dollars of equipment pointed at him.

Floating Island Lake wasn’t any better. A bull moose was feeding in the shallow water. No parking there either. We continued on up to Tower Falls hoping to see the great grey owl that was seen recently. No owl.

Back at Tower Junction three bison bulls caught our eye …. And the cowbirds accompanying them. The cowbirds forage right underfoot, taking advantage of the bugs the bison kick up as they graze.

By now the clouds were beginning to thicken. Good weather for the great grey to come out to hunt. They are more diurnal than a lot of owls. We head back up towards Tower Falls. This time we run into Chunky, the black bear.

Such a fat bear ! Most bears come out of hibernation with plenty of fur, but look rather scrawny underneath. This guy is downright chubby, and working at getting chubbier. He grazes on peeks of new grass near Rainy Lake.

Chunky ambles around the south end of the small lake and up into the lodgepoles. All that hair must be itchy. First he scratches his shoulder on a lodgegpole and then he walks over to another. Chunky stands and gives his back a good rub. AH-h-h-h, that feels good!

Chunky walks down to the edge of Rainy Lake for a drink. He faces us now – a nice full face. I suspect Chunky is a boar.

And then into the lake! He walks right out to swimming depth, keeping his head and a small bit of shoulders dry. Round and round he splashes. Chunky thoroughly soaks his heavy pelt. He shakes when he is half way out and once again when he is on dry land. Gallons of water fly into the air.

Once out of the lake, the bear ambles on to a patch of light colored bare ground. I hadn’t noticed it before, but there is a depression, a bear-sized depression. He rolls about in the coarse dirt and gets himself thoroughly grungy. Once well dirtied, he shakes again, ridding himself of most of the dirt.

Then he walks over to a little, three foot tall lodgepole. Time to wash his face. He almost demolished the little tree in the process. Finally done with his beauty treatment, Chunky continues on his way. He walks up the nearby slope and disappears over the rise.

It is only 8:30AM and already we have had a wonderful day.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Return to Shell Island

My last post, "Making Whoopee in the Sand" comes from this same location, one of the best viewing spots on the Oregon Coast.

Arrived at Shell Island right at high tide: 12:32. Water sloshing all over the beach. Darn. Not likely either of the elephant seal pups survived. In spite of that it is a beautiful day here. Chilly, but no wind. High surf. Huge white plumes break on the outer reef and explode upwards. The most athletic sea lions have crawled high on the rocks out of reach of the surging waves. Seals can’t climb, so none of them up there. I settle in to draw a couple of pelagic cormorants and sea lions high on one of the smaller outcrops of rock.

1:30 PM: Did I see an elephant seal pup? Maybe. Water still sloshes over the beach but I thought for a moment I saw a little black head being tossed about.

I check with the spotting scope, but all I see is the beachmaster and three or four females hoping for a rest on the sand. Sand exposes for a minute or two and the elephant seals come lumbering in – only to get washed off again. It is not an easy life at high tide!

2:30 PM: Yes! There is one elephant seal pup out there. His is hollering and his Mama is hollering. Actually I can’t hear them. The surf drowns out all the loudest sea lion bark. But the elephant seal’s mouths are wagging. Mama and pup are trying to reach each other.

The pup looks to be in good shape. He has filled out some since we last saw him. Not surprising. It’s been six days and they are supposed to gain about ten pounds a day.

Mama is doing her darndest to co-operate. She ambulates along on her belly towards him, and he ambulates towards her. Noses touch. The little guy wants milk. Mama obligingly rolls to her side. He just starts to nurse when, whoosh! A big breaker rolls them apart. This high surf is bothersome, but the baby seems to be doing just fine.

There are seven females (and or young males) out there today. I can’t swear this is a pup from six days ago and not a new one, but the fact that he is putting on weight and obviously coped with this last high tide leads me to believe this is one of the two we saw a few days ago. The really good news is we’ve just passed the new moon. It will be nine days before the tide is this high again. Barring a storm, this little guy just might be a survivor.

By three PM our little pup has suckled and the waves just lap the outer edges of the beach. The beach will stay clear of water until the next high tide, many hours from now. The pup is flat out, sound asleep.

We stayed another hour and a half. As the tide went out about a hundred harbor seals came ashore, but very few sea lions. Those that were in the area were already high on the rocks. Black oystercatchers, double-crested cormorants and a great blue heron came down to forage in the shallow water. Harlequin ducks bobbed in the choppy water, then climbed up on the rocks to preen … and whales. The swells are large, but smooth. No wind to give them whitecaps, and so the whale spouts puff up and blink like little puffs of smoke against the dark water. A handful of whales are passing by, heading south to their birthing grounds in Mexico.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Making Whoopee in the Sand

One female elephand seal, three harbor seals, and ten sea lions.

We arrived at the overlook to Shell Island in time for a shrimp cocktail lunch. Tide is well on its way out. Lots of beach exposed. Clumped in a tight pancake are about 75 California sea lions, 100 harbor seals and a handful of elephant seals. After a brief look we settled in to eat lunch. We’re hoping to see migrating whales.

Whoa! What is that? Just away from the mass of fellow marine mammals two pups are trying to suckle on one elephant seal. Two? Are they both hers? Amongst the thirty or so pups we’ve seen over the years we’ve never seen any sign of a multiple birth. These two are the same size, black, and still too big for their skin. Baby elephant seals are about 75 pounds when born, and seem way too small for their skin. By the time they are abandoned a month later they are 250 pound butterballs. These two are very young. A gull keeps trying to cozy up to them, and gets chased off. The gull is probably looking for scraps of afterbirth.

I’m trying, but I’m too cold to draw. At least I got three little sketches done before my hands went stiff. Its above freezing, but the wind chill is putting me into the deep freeze and beyond. So much is happening. Where to begin?

The pups aren’t having much luck. Mama is on her belly. We look carefully to see if another female might belong to one of these babies. Of the five females, two appear big enough to be mature adults.

The California sea lions are pretty laid back – some scratching, some barking, lots of sleeping. Only males come this far north. The harbor seals are enjoying a good long rest on the sand. Their dappled silver fur blends well with bits of shell and sand. At high tide there is no room for them. Sometimes there isn’t even room for the larger animals.

The elephant seals mostly sleep too. The Mama with the pups is the most active. She shoos the gull a couple of times and obligingly rolls on her side so the pups can nurse. Both pups eagerly search for a teat. They both look strong. A high percentage of elephant seal pups born here drown during their first week of life. The combination of a high tide and a rough surf sends water crashing over the entire beach area. I can only hope these two will be strong enough to cope if that time comes. Until about fifteen years ago elephant seals didn’t even try to breed this far north. I still remember my excitement when I first spotted one. Hundred of sea lions were packed on the beach. I was searching through the mass of living meat with my spotting scope when I realized one was way too large -- an elephant seal! They are so big that I have found three smallish sea lions sleeping on the back of one elephant seal. The elephant seals and sea lions like to munch together for warmth on the wintery beach. Today we don’t see those huge numbers, but a shift in currents could bring them in. This is one of their favorite resting spots. Today, at mid tide, there is plenty of beach for all.

Big interruption! The other large female elephant seal comes lumbering along, with the beachmaster hot on her heels. He is a big fella. Big floppy snout bounces along as he ambulates on his belly, hot on her heels … or rather ‘hot on her tail flippers.’ Just imagine that you are a mere 1400 pounds and you are being chased by a whopping 4500 pound lover! The beachmaster lunges forward and nails the female down with a fore flipper. She wiggles and hollers and flips sand in his face, but to no avail. He hangs on. In the struggle he flops himself on top of her and over to her other side.

Its hard to see if he actually accomplishes his goal. Sea lions are curious and get in the way of our line of sight. Lots of sand flying…

… then a rest,

… and then round two. After a very sandy ten minutes, she finally breaks free and heads into the center of the sea lions. The beachmaster is content to settle down for a nap and recharge his batteries.

As for the whales, we didn’t see any today. My husband and I remembered to scan the horizon a few times, but not often enough. Our attention was captivated by the beach action.

Note: Elephant seals have a fascinating life history. They spend about 80 % of the year at sea and 80% of that time underwater. They can dive to 5000 feet. They come ashore for both birthing and breeding during the winter. After only a month the female abandons her pup on the beach and returns to sea. Her pup, now called a ‘weaner,’ spends another two months on the beach and playing in the water before maturing enough to head out to sea. His fat reserves carry him through this stage in his life. Once a year, during the spring or summer, the elephant seals return to shore for about a month to undergo a ‘catastrophic molt.’ They laze in the sun while their old coat peels off like a monster sunburn.

After I got home I tried to solve the mystery of multiple pups. According to “The Pinnipeds” by Marianne Riedman northern elephant seals very rarely have more than one pup and when they do, usually only one survives. But elephant seals appear to be rather relaxed about adopting other pups. There is even a term for pups that routinely suck from two mothers, “double-mother sucklers.” These pups can turn into super-sized weaners.

Perhaps one of the pups we saw today actually belongs to the female who was being actively courted by the beachmaster … and in the interim the pup was helping himself to a meal elsewhere.

I drew the simple line drawings on location. The colored drawing are drawn from our photos.