Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Bison Birth

Cow and Calf bison, but not the ones described in this post.

I had a totally different post planned ….. but, the big BUT, my desktop is in the repair shop.  Not sure when I’ll get it back.  But I have all the ingredients for this post on our laptop.  Here is another peek of our time in Yellowstone National Park this spring.  

May 4, 2014 - YNP

The afternoon is windy and spitting rain.  At least it isn’t snow.  About 3:30 PM we are heading down the ’S Curves’ when I spot a bison cow with a large cantaloupe balloon of placenta.  A birth!  Dale swings the car around at the next turn-around and drops me off on the way back.  
Burrr!  The wind goes right through me, but it’s dues worth paying if I’m going to see a birth.  In the short time between the original sighting and my jumping out, the placenta has burst.  Water streams out plus a dribble of placenta.  
By the time Dale drives by me again I realize there is just enough shoulder for one car.  What luck!  We can safely get off the road and both watch from the car.  
There are four other cows with this one, all seemingly indifferent to what is going on.  ‘Our’ cow is thin.  Many of the bison are showing the stresses of a hard winter.  Their hips stick out; ribs show even under their winter coats.  
We wait and watch.  The cow is antsy, but quiet.  Before long we see the front leg hoofs of the little calf.  The tips of the hoofs are creamy white, followed by dark, dark feet …. but the little hoofs don’t seem to be making much progress.  The cow lays down for awhile, even stretches her head flat on the ground; then twists around as if to see what is going on.  Slow.  It seems too slow.  I recently read that a bison gives birth in about 20 minutes.  This bison hasn’t read the manual. 
Up.  Down.  Up.  Down.  At first just a nose and now the whole head and front legs are out.  but then nothing happens.  Time moves so slowly.  Is this going to be another failed birth?  Years ago we watched a birth for two and a half hours.  We finally left when we knew the calf was dead but not yet born.  Our only consolation was that we learned later that at least the cow survived. 
Finally we see the cow is making progress.  We’ve only been watching half an hour, but it seems far longer.  She is back to standing.  The calf’s head and legs start slowly slipping out.   It’s a fairly gentle drop since the placenta keeps the calf from dropping with a thud.  

The calf is totally limp.  My heart is in my throat.  Is he alive?  Did I see movement?

The cow is licking the calf — head first.  rough licks nudge the calf.  And then I see a little kick!  Yes.  He is moving.  
Over the next five minutes she licks and placenta off the little guy and eats it.  At first it looked as though the calf was packed in a plastic sack.  Now more and more dark hair shows and the calf starts moving more — a little lift of his head — another kick.  The cow keeps on licking and gradually the wet hair takes on the burnt orange cast typical of bison calves.  

He is trying to make those legs work, only they are made out of silly putty.  He gets his hind legs up, but the front ones are still bent.  Using his nose as a fifth leg doesn’t seem to help.  

He topples over, legs flailing.  It takes several tries before he has four tripod legs holding him up.  Not for long!  Down he goes again, but he is getting better at managing those long wobbly sticks.  
When the calf finally has a little control he knows enough to want to nurse, but where?  First he tries Mama’s neck, but that doesn’t work.  Then he gets between her hind legs and walks out behind.  That’s not working either.

Before the first nursing the cow lays down for a brief rest.  Her calf totters over and flops himself over her front legs.  So sweet!

The cow soon stands again.  Finally the little fella gets a drink.  All is well. 

The next morning I spot five cows with one calf on the same slope.  I feel sure it’s the calf we watched.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Watching Guillemots

I've combine two wonderful, foggy days of pigeon guillemot watching at Coos Head, the southern side of the Coos River where it flows into the Pacific.  On the first day, July 17, it was obvious some of the nests had hatched; by July 29 there was a lot of feeding activity.

July 17, 2014
 I'm sitting on the rip rap bordering the Coos River just south of Coos Head, the mouth of the Coos River).  It's cool and foggy.  No wind.  Near rocks are damp and rich with color.  Farther off they soften into mellow greys.  The far bank of the Coos River is lost in greyness.  Somewhere out there two foghorns call.  The nearest blows to a steady beat, maybe just a channel marker.  The other is stronger -- a single blast 30 seconds apart.  It is my understanding each major lighthouse or important marker has a unique sound and unique pattern of blasts of light so the captains out at sea can tell where they are. 

Tide is nearing high.  The ocean swell laps on the boulders beneath me.  An occasional swell is higher, splashing into the rocks and spattering me with saltiness.  I savor the coolness and breath deep, enjoying every breath.  Inland, where I live, it's beastly hot.  Here I look forward to letting the chill seep in.  Maybe if I get cold enough I won't mind driving back into the furnace when we go home. 

All too often our impression of this spot is of dogs, people and litter.  It is the only place I know of on the Oregon coast where people can camp overnight for free. But I just have to hop out of the car, cross a tiny dune, and climb on the cement pathway that runs on top of the rip rap that boarders the mouth of the Coos River.  Once there I leave the grunginess behind me.  On my side of the river there the small cove between me and Coos Head, a promontory. On sunny days a variety of birds are usually off in the distance ... gulls, cormorants, pigeon guillemots, sometimes brown pelicans, grebes and maybe a great blue heron or an osprey. 

On foggy days the birds are apt to be much closer to shore.  Today three guillemots sit on a rock just a few yards from me -- near! I'm so close I can hear their high chittering. I hurry back to the car to get my camera and sketchbook.

Guillemots nest in rock crevices; sometimes in the cavity of a rotted out piling. This cove is surrounded by steep rock walls and several suitable crevices.  Here comes an adult with a fish flying towards one of the two nearest cavities.  The birds are such klutzes!  Navigating into the nest hole is a challenge. The bird swoops up, almost on target, then chickens out and drops down low over the water. I've even seen them miss-judge and crash into the rock wall.  This one swings a huge arc around the bay before attempting another approach.  This time it lands precariously on the edge of the opening, then disappears into the dark interior.  Out again soon.  That was a quick feed.

Today Coos Head is a busy place. Every few minutes an adult guillemot flies up to a nest.  Most nests are so far away I can barley see if the adult has a fish. Even more often a guillemot plops down on the rocky ridge near me.  The guillemots particularly like this ridge and one across the bay. No finesse in their landings!  They fly in, plop down a little too fast and stumble.
They've got big bright red feet, well suited for propelling themselves in the water, but on land they remind me of a toddler playing with a pair of oversize bright red fireman boots.  Clumsy.  When guillemots walk on land, they rear up and plop one red foot after another until they are ready to rock back onto their heels.  They like to congregate in small groups, often resting on their bellies.  They are a social, talkative bunch.

July 29, 2014 Back to Coos Head
Foggy again.  I think we've come at one of the best times -- lots of feeding of youngsters.  Two nests are relatively close to us, both dark crevices in the steep cliffs that reach down to the salt water.  I'm standing on the rip rap again, along the river edge.  The nests are just a little above my eye level but about 50 feet above the water at low tide.

Here comes a guillemot.  No fish.  The bird zooms up to join another on the tiniest of ledges.  They call out briefly, revealing the fire engine red interiors of their mouths, then settle on their bellies. 

Another guillemot is heading my way, with a fish, this one a very slender fish maybe six inches long -- a gunnel or a sandlance? We've also seen them bring in sculpin.   The guillemot zooms up to the left crevice, losing momentum at the base of the opening.  It quickly disappears into the darkness and out again a moment later.  Feeding the chick happens so quickly I almost think the adult just tosses the fish inside.  But I know better.  I imagine a chick greedily grabbing. Every so often I see a tantalizing bit of movement in the darkness of that crevice,  then a babies' tush  backing out to poop!  How tidy.  A long squirt of whitewash splats on the rocks below. 
And then I get really lucky.  First one head and then another peers out of the nest hole.  The babies look nearly adult sized.  Unlike their parents, their throat and bellies are light grey, their upper sides dark.  These two will soon be ready to jump.  They'll leave the nest before they can fly.  Once on the water they can swim and dive and will have to fend for themselves.