2017 was an unforgettable year for me as a photographer, filled with adventures, personal achievements/celebrations and of course, making new friends. Detailed below is a summary of this busy yet thrilling year, one that I will always remember and one that was filled with memories of special places, people and wild subjects. A very big thanks to my family and my parents, and to Jess Findlay, Connor Stefanison, Melissa Groo, Todd Gustafson, Henry Holdsworth, and the Freligh family for following along, lending advice and being such supportive friends. I also want to thank those that have inspired me through their work for wildlife, including the teams at the Teton Raptor Center and Panthera's Teton Cougar Project. Also thank you to friends Amy Shutt and Lisa Robertson, for including me in your plans to bring awareness to our wild canids (and felids!). :)
My 2017 started off with a trip to Tanzania with my Mom for a photography workshop with good friends Melissa Groo and new friend Todd Gustafson. I had always hoped to be able to do a workshop with Melissa, and to do it in Africa made it such a special experience for me. We spent some days in Tarangire, Ndutu, Serengeti, and the Ngorogoro Crater. My favorite subject was the cheetah. We found over 20 of them, including many mothers with their cubs. It was such an incredible experience being able to observe the behaviors of so many animals for the first time. I also got a chance to see one of the most beautiful lesser-known cats in the world, the serval, on a few occasions. Elephants, leopards, giraffes and hyenas were also very exciting to see, as was watching the lions hunt in their prides! The people on this trip were so nice and fun and they definitely made the experience more memorable for me.
In March, I received some thrilling news from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. I won the 11-14 year-old category with my image of a red fox stuck in the snow in Yellowstone, and also placed a runner-up image of a sow and cub brown bear in the same category. I had earned a runner-up in this category in 2015, with my red fox family photo "Mama's Back", and I really enjoyed the experience of being in London for the ceremony and meeting many of my peers and heroes. I couldn't believe that I was now invited back! I felt so thankful and fortunate and couldn't wait for the October event in London.
In April, I stopped by the Paul Nicklen Gallery in New York City to see my friends Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen. The line was out the door and down the block! Their photos look amazing on display in their gallery. Cristina and Paul were the judges of the Por el Planeta Conservation Photography Competition in 2015, and I have kept in touch with them ever since. They are both very inspirational to me and I hope one day that I can photograph with them. If you are in the New York area, please make sure to stop by their gallery in Soho!
During the month of May, I spent alot of time photographing a family of screech owls that had occupied a nestbox in our backyard. We have about 4-5 nestboxes on our property, and it's always a pleasure to know that one of them was chosen for nesting by these amazing little raptors. It wasn't until all of the owlets had fledged and we could count them that we realized that there were 5 chicks raised in the nestbox - a record for us! It was so thrilling to search my backyard for these tiny little owls. Fun, but very hard at times! They blend in so well. I am so fortunate to have been able to photograph and watch a whole family of screeches thrive in my own backyard. What a treat that was!
At the end of the month, I received a phone call from Steve Freligh, the Director of Nature's Best Photography magazine, who told me that I had won the Youth Wildlife Photographer of the Year title in the 2017 Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice International Photography Awards. The winning image was another brown bear image, this one of two cubs wrestling in the sedge grasses. The Nature's Best competition was always one that I hoped to win. I was a Highly Honored winner in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and I was so appreciative of the Freligh family and everyone at Nature's Best for including me in their award ceremonies over the years, and displaying several of my photos in the Smithsonian in their amazing gallery displays. To win though, meant so much more, as I knew that I could better connect with other young photographers now, and ultimately inspire the next wave of youth conservation-minded nature photographers. I am also very honored to have won an award in the name of Windland Smith Rice, a special person who cared deeply about her subjects and loved the Tetons as I do. I am looking forward to watching other young nature photographers have an opportunity to shine in this competition!
In late June, I left with my Dad for British Columbia to do a photography workshop with two of my friends, Jess Findlay and Connor Stefanison. Jess and Connor have been supporters of my work for many years, and I was really excited to finally get to shoot with two of the best young photographers in the world. We spent a week photographing loons, various other waterfowl and my favorite subject, the great gray owl. Our days were from 5am - 9pm, with maybe a nap sometime mid-day. The forests and lakes in British Columbia are some of the most beautiful that I've ever seen, and the wildlife opportunities were incredible. Most of all though, I had a great time with two of the nicest young photographers that you will ever meet. Jess and Connor are very inspirational to me, due to their passion, hard work and creativity, and I am looking forward to doing another workshop with them soon. If you have booked a trip with them, prepare to have fun and a lot of success! After the loon workshop, we drove to visit my friends the Launsteins, who were kind enough to show us around their neck of the woods: Waterton Lakes National Park. We spent a few days with them and enjoyed seeing grizzly bears, black bears, moose and owls. It was such a fun-filled week being able to spend so much time shooting with friends! I’m glad I was able to learn something new from each of them.
(with Jess Findlay)
In July, I flew to Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, where I was a student in the 2017 NANPA High School Scholarship Program. This program chooses ten High School students to learn nature photography from leaders in the field. We photographed some of the local wildlife and also pushed our individual comfort zones by trying new and innovative techniques. I met alot of other youth photographers and had a blast! My instructors were Kika Tuff, Morgan Heim and Andrew Snyder. They were all so fun and helpful! I would recommend this program to any young person interested in nature photography. I had so much fun at NANPA I still talk about it all the time! I learned so much and tried so many new techniques and am proud to have improved my photography skills a little more. I am so thankful to NANPA and the many supporters that make this program possible.
In August, I had a photography exhibition at a gallery in Vermont at the Tilting at Windmills Gallery in Machester. This was a new experience for me, and I chose a gallery/printer in my hometown that was very helpful with prepping files and handling acrylic mounting. The best part was that proceeds from my sales were going to the World Wildlife Fund. This made all of the hard work worth it for me! The exhibition was a huge success and I really enjoyed meeting customers and talking to them about my stories from the field. I am super excited that they were the first gallery I have displayed my work in!
In September, I was asked to take over the Instagram account of Adobe Lightroom for their "Rising Stars" campaign. Adobe's agency had emailed me earlier in the summer with the news. For the takeover, I selected a few of my favorite images along with related stories, and also shared some editing tips. This was a great honor for me, and also gave me a good platform to raise awareness for some of the subjects that I care so much about. As my friend Cristina Mittermeier once told me, "Never turn down an opportunity to speak up for wildlife". Adobe gave me that chance, and I'm grateful for it.
In October, I visited Wyoming with my family during a school break. The fall is one of the best times of the year to see Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Park. On this trip, I took a day trip into the field with my good friend and mentor Henry Holdsworth for a day. We drove around looking for moose and bears, talking and laughing as we usually do. Henry has meant a lot to me, and I credit him for much of my success as a young photographer. A day later, I met Jeff Hogan who did a brief film session with me for the Nature's Best ceremony. I had heard alot about Jeff during my time in the field with the Teton Cougar Project. Jeff has created many of the nature films that you may see on TV today, including alot of natural history footage from the Tetons and Yellowstone for the BBC and National Geographic. What an awesome guy and so fun!
(with Henry Holdsworth)
Later in October, I traveled to London for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. The ceremony took place at London's Natural History Museum, in the great hall beneath a giant blue whale skeleton called "Hope". At the ceremony, I had a great time meeting so many other photographers from all over the world, including many of the other young photographers that were also recognized. I gave a short speech after receiving my 11-14 award, and then did an interview for NHM Live, answering questions about my winning photo. Later, I got a chance to tour the exhibit and answer questions from members of the global press. I was really pleased to see how many conservation-minded images were recognized this year, especially those by Brent Stirton (overall winner) and Justin Hofman (seahorse riding a cotton swab). I spent time talking to as many photographers as possible, and was especially excited to talk with Brent, whom I had met in 2015. Photojournalists like Brent spent so much time in the field in often very dangerous places to return with very powerful and important images. I was so happy for him when he was announced as the Grand Prize winner, and even happier knowing that the plight of rhinos and the ivory trade would get more exposure. All of the other photographers gave me such great advice and I look forward to applying it to my future work.
Two nights after the awards ceremony, I joined David Lloyd and Aaron "Bertie" Gekoski (both category winners) on stage to present our images and stories in a private event for the Natural History Museum's members. I had always admired David's work from afar, but after speaking with him personally, and hearing his speech about the difference between a picture and a portrait, made me appreciate his talent and caring and thoughtful style even more. Bertie's spirit and passion were infectious and I hope that we can work on a project together some day. The event was hosted by the amazing Roz Kidman Cox, editor of the WPY portfolio book and other publications, and former BBC Wildlife Magazine editor for 23 years and WPY judge for 32 years. Roz was such a pleasure to be around and so kind, fun and helpful. She is hopeful that young photographers will continue to enter WPY and other international competitions worldwide.
(Bertie, me, David and Roz at the 2017 WPY Member's Evening)
In November, I had 3 events that shaped this busy month. The first was a gallery exhibition at the 70 South Gallery in Morristown, NJ, my hometown. 70 South exhibits the work of a local high school student each month, and I was the first student exhibitor to present wildlife art. The gallery was very helpful in preparing my images and choosing mats and frames for the display. I had a separate event where I had the chance to meet and talk with gallery customers during an informal Q&A. It was cool to see so many of my favorite images on the walls of 70 South! I am so glad to be able to exhibit my work so close to home!
The next event in November was the Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice Photography Awards, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. When I arrived at the exhibit, Jeff Hogan's short film about me was playing on a TV screen in the gallery space. It was so cool to see the finished product and it looked great! On one wall nearby was a tall vertical image showing several frames of my leaping fox sequence (which had won the Yellowstone Forever Youth award), and on another wall, a huge acrylic print of my Nature's Best winning bear cub image. The entire gallery looked beautiful! That night, I was introduced on stage by my good friend and last year's Youth winner, David Rosenzweig. I had an opportunity to give a short speech and then I enjoyed the rest of the evening talking with other photographers. It was great to see Jackson Hole photographer Steve Mattheis there (who is so talented and so much fun!), as well as my friend Amy Shutt and many members of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The Freligh family did an amazing job with the exhibit and the awards ceremony, and I am going to make sure that I inspire more young photographers to enter this awesome competition. One thing that makes the Nature's Best Awards so special to me is that they are named after a Jackson, WY female photographer, Windland Smith. I never got the chance to meet Windland, but I know many people who did, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be recognized by a competition in her name. I hope to honor her by continuing to support wildlife non-profits in the Tetons which she loved so much.
(Giving my acceptance speech at the 2017 Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice Photography Awards)
(Thanking my good friend, David Rosenzweig, 2016 Youth Photographer of the Year)
(Doing a short interview after the awards ceremony)
Finally, I wrapped up November with a visit from a new friend of mine, whose family has been an inspiration to me since I was really young. Robert Irwin and his mom, Terrie came to visit me in NJ while Robert was in town to film the Jimmy Fallon show. I took them to the Great Swamp and to The Raptor Trust, two of my favorite places near my home. We walked in the woods and talked about wildlife, and their life back home in Australia. They were so kind and humble, and I am really glad to have met them. Robert is a very talented wildlife photographer and an amazing ambassador for wildlife. I hope to visit with him at the Australia Zoo sometime soon.
December was a month of closure for me, having wrapped up most of my photography commitments. In the middle of the month, I took a Saturday to explore a local beach in New Jersey for snowy owls with my good friend and gifted photographer Carolina Fraser. Carolina and I had a great time looking for snowy owls (we found one!) and I really hope to be able to photograph with her more in the future. During December, I also finally had time to complete a big goal of mine for the year - a children's book about great gray owls. The book, "Growing up Great Gray", was the result of many years of great gray owl photography in the Tetons, and included alot of shots taken with Jess and Connor in B.C. The book could not have been done without the help of Jaymi Heimbuch, who assisted me with editing, time management and lots and lots of good advice! Thanks Jaymi! The book is self-published and my hope is to donate the proceeds of the book sales to the Teton Raptor Center located in Wilson, WY. I have spent many hours in the field with TRC biologists learning about great grays, and this is my way of paying them back and helping their research and awareness efforts. In late December, I had a book signing at the Tayloe Piggott Gallery in Jackson, WY. I am proud to say we sold a lot of books and all the money went towards the TRC program. The coolest thing about the event was that Taiga, an educational great gray at TRC, got to hang out with me the entire time. Taiga is the lone surviving owlet from a nest that was predated on by a black bear. Having Taiga there made all of my work on the book worthwhile!
(me, Jessie, and Taiga, TRC's educational great gray owl)
And finally, what could possibly wrap up such a busy and thrilling year for a wildlife photographer better than a visit by one of my biggest nemesis subjects, a species that I've only ever heard, and always hoped to find? One late December morning, I woke up to find a northern saw-whet owl roosting peacefully in a spruce tree in our Wyoming backyard. Finding this owl was the icing on my 2017 cake. It also put it all in perspective for me, too. Standing there with my tripod and watching this little owl sleeping through the sounds of mobbing chickadees and the chill of blowing winter wind, made me realize that my entire year was all about moments like this. It feels awesome to be rewarded for my work, to see it hang on museum and gallery walls, shared on social media, and used for conservation purposes. But in the end, a quiet moment with a wildlife subject, whether it's a playful brown bear, a calling loon, a hungry red fox, a cheetah cub or even this sleepy little owl, is what it's all about for me. And I hope that 2018 brings more moments like this.
Thanks for following along and for all of your support! Best wishes in 2018,
I had some exciting photo adventures in 2016, including an amazing trip to Lake Clark National Park, AK and a few vacations to Wyoming. I was focused this year on capturing unique behavior and trying to add to my portfolio of fur-bearers for a presentation that I gave in Jackson Hole this fall to benefit Wyoming Untrapped, which works very hard on trapping reform in Wyoming. I had many outings searching for my favorite subject, the great gray owl, and also had a memorable experience with Panthera's Teton Cougar Project. Scroll down to see which images were my favorites, not just because of the images, but because of what the experience taking them meant to me.
"Leap of Faith"
A red fox at the top of its arc, leaping for prey buried deep underneath the frozen snowpack of the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, WY.
"Mama's Little Shadow"
An Alaskan brown bear cub sticks close to its mother in the sedge grass flats of Lake Clark National Park, AK, as hungry male bears roam the forest edges looking for an opportunity.
An american marten snoozes on a pine branch in our backyard near Jackson Hole, WY. I had always looked for martens in and around Yellowstone over the past few winters but only ever found tracks. I could not believe that one was hunting in our yard for a week during this holiday season.
An adult great gray owl gets ready to swallow a meadow vole from a perch near Jackson Hole, WY.
A pair of western coyotes along the edge of the Madison River listen nervously to a disturbance far off in the trees, near a recent elk kill, in Yellowstone National Park, WY.
A brown bear spring cub boldly stands its ground near its mother during a break from clamming on the flats of Lake Clark National Park, AK.
"Blending Right In"
A great gray owlet, recently fledged from its nearby nest, chooses an ideal spot to roost during the most challenging time of its life, when it must learn to hunt for itself and avoid predators, in Grand Teton National Park, WY.
Red fox kit siblings take a break from playing outside of their den site to take in the early morning sunrise in my backyard, Morristown, NJ.
"Prepare to Launch"
As the autumn leaves fall on an October day in Grand Teton National Park, WY, an adult great gray owl hones in on the sounds of its prey and prepares to launch an attack.
"Eyes of Innocence"
A mountain lion kitten waits patiently for its mother to return to their den site in a dense willow thicket in Wyoming. Despite only taking a handful of quick shots with really low lighting conditions, this experience was by far the highlight of my photography career. Thanks to the generosity of my Facebook followers, I was able to sell copies of this photograph and in turn raised over $3,000 for a WY mountain lion research team to continue their efforts studying this magnificent animal.
This is a sequence that I took this past winter (February, 2016) of a female red fox mousing in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park. It was a cold and overcast morning and it was the third day of my trip. We hadn't seen a fox until we climbed a hill and looked up ahead of us in the road. This vixen was hunting right next to the road. We drove up near her and waited. She left and walked out into an open field. I watched her and waited until she started listening closely to the ground in front of her. This is what happened next:
1. She tilted her head a few times trying to pinpoint her prey. A red fox has incredible hearing.
2. Once she knew something was there, she focused on the exact spot and got ready to jump.
3. She was now ready to spring. I was braced on a beanbag in a car window and I moved the lens up a bit here from the last shot. I don't remember doing it but I was now worried that I didn't have enough room at the top of the frame if she jumped.
4. She uses her forelegs to push up and then her back legs give her the spring. She is still looking at her target.
5. I don't know if I ever would have had enough shutter speed in this low light to freeze this frame perfectly. It shows how focused she still is on where the prey is.
6. There is a subtle shadow of where she used to be. She's on her way to the top of the leap, still looking at where she should land.
7. This is the highest point of the leap. I love the shape of her body and how determined she is.
8. She is on her way down now and is tucking her back legs in a bit.
9. Here she is becoming more streamlined and the forelegs are folding up tightly under her chin. There is no turning back now!
10. This is one of my favorites from the sequence. She is like an arrow, focused and straight dropping out of the sky to pin a vole under the snow below.
11. OK. Ouch. This has to hurt a little bit, especially if there's crust on the snow surface. I think the nose breaks the snow first and then the front paws follow to widen the hole.
12. There is a lot of fox under the snow now. Who knows what is going on under there??
13. This is the straightest she extended herself on the landing. She held herself like this for a few seconds. I think she was feeling around for the vole or maybe scratching deeper with her paws.
14. After the landing, my buffer was about full, so I reset my AF point and recomposed for what she would do next. This is my favorite of the series. Im pretty sure she stayed down there for almost 15 seconds. That's a long time.
15. Here she is starting to push herself backwards out of the hole. I was curious to see if she caught her prey!
16. I still can't tell if there's a vole in her mouth. I was impressed that she was able to back out of that hole with just her forelegs. She shook off some snow from her face...
17. and I can now tell that she missed her target. At least she doesn't look too disappointed...
18. well, maybe a lot disappointed :(
19. This is the last shot that I took of her, as she trotted off to find another meal. She looks more determined in this photo. I never saw her again.
This was harder than I thought! I have so many that I like but I chose these 10 because of what they mean to me and the stories behind them. I have left out some of my award-winning photos, even though they were photographed in 2015, so that I could share some newer images. You can see all of my award-winning photos in my Gallery.
"Lady of the Lake"
"All Ruffled Up"
"What's the Matter, Momma?"
"Owlet in Pines"
"Thank You, Screech Owl"
A rufous-morph Eastern Screech Owl looks out from the cavity of a Sycamore Tree near my home in NJ.
My photos of this owl won a couple of awards in 2015, including Nature's Best Youth Highly Honored (18 and under), and 1st place in the Por el Planeta Nature, Wilidlife & Conservation Photography competition (11-14 year old).
This photo is of the last time I saw this owl, and it makes me wonder how it is doing. I hope it's safe.
"Alone in the Meadow"
The barks of her rescued hound dog, Thor, let Michelle Peziol know that my Dad and I had arrived at the Teton Cougar Project office in Kelly, Wyoming. It was a cold, sunny morning and Michelle, a Project Manager with TCP, waved through the office door and invited us inside. The office was covered in photographs, charts and lists of data of the local Mountain Lion populations. Big computer monitors on the tables showed maps with hotspots and pinpoints of the lions being studied. We sat down and talked to Michelle about the work the TCP team is doing and I was so excited to be there.
The month before, I had written a post on Facebook about Mountain Lions. I talked about meeting Steve Winter at the Por el Planeta Nature, Wildlife and Conservation Photography Competition in Mexico City, and about all of the work Steve has done on the world's big cats. I talked about how important it is to have empathy for big predators and that many may be misunderstood. My friend Lisa Robertson from Wyoming Untrapped saw my blog post and sent it to Mark Elbroch, Science Director of Panthera's Puma programs, like TCP. Mark invited me out for a day in the field to investigate kill sites. I couldn't believe it!
Talking with Michelle was an incredible experience. She was so nice and very smart. I learned about the technology that TCP uses to study Cougars, and how they track them using GPS collars. Some of these collars are heavy, and newer, lighter models are needed to help, especially with grown kittens. Some of the collars even drop off automatically after a year or so. We looked at the monitors and saw the paths that some Cougars had taken in the past week. Mostly they circled around in a territory, sometimes stopping to sleep. But other paths showed a lot of time spent in a very small area. Michelle was pretty sure those areas were kill sites, where a Cougar had taken down an elk or deer and was feeding.
It was hard to talk about the Mountain Lions and not feel emotional about their situation. Recently, I had seen a documentary on National Geographic about some Cougars in this area of Wyoming. They are called F61, F51, and M85. F61 and F51 are mothers, and M85 is a male. The documentary is based on these three mountain lions, and how successful F61 was in raising her two kittens (more on her later!). However, F51 and M85 have a different story. F51 was known as the “hippie mom” and was known for being a very loving and energetic mother. F51 had just lost 2 kittens, so due to stress, she started moving her remaining two kittens. She entered an area which used to be occupied by M29, a male, but this Cougar had been shot by hunters, and another male, M85, was now in his territory. As soon as their paths crossed, F51 was assumed to have attacked M85 possibly in defense of her kittens, and the bigger, stronger, male mountain lion killed her, leaving her two kittens orphaned. Michelle told us some more information about what happened to these two kittens and their fates. F51’s two kittens struggled to survive with many threats including wolves, bears and humans. They split up for awhile and they lost each other for about 2 weeks, until eventually reuniting. Unfortunately, one kitten died of starvation, while the other one survived for longer, feeding on grasshoppers, rotten carcasses, and really anything she could find, until one day she found a porcupine. She successfully killed this porcupine, but some quills found their way into her body, and eventually killed her. This story broke my heart. F51 had three litters in her lifetime. Two kittens from her first litter may still be alive. All 7 kittens from her last two litters died before they became adults.
As I was walking around the room, my eye caught a poster hanging up by the back door. It was the Teton Cougar Project family tree, and it was color coded, noting all of the Cougars studied since 1993. Red meant predation, or killed by another mountain lion or any other animal, blue was unknown, white was still alive, and the last color was orange. Orange meant killed by humans. Michelle explained that there are many different challenges that Cougars face: weather, hunting, wolves/bears, etc. I learned about how hard it is for a Cougar kitten to survive to adulthood. In fact, TCP's studies show that Cougar kitten mortality is higher than was thought before. I can't believe how difficult it must be for the people who work so hard studying these animals to find out that they were either killed by hunters or died of other causes. I tried to keep my mind off of this.
Michelle noticed that F61’s tracking collar had shown a lot of activity in a certain area, and we decided to go outside to check it out. It would be a long drive and hike, so I had to be prepared. We drove for awhile and then got out to snowshoe a couple of miles up into the mountains. On the way to the “kill,” we stopped at some older Mountain Lion cached kills from 9 months, to a year ago. These kills were an elk calf, and a white-tailed deer. Michelle found the white-tailed deer kill due to its white tail sticking out of the ground. However, the only things left of these two carcasses now were an elk calf leg, and some deer hair.
During our hike, Michelle told me about all of the wildlife she has seen in this area, including wolves, foxes, coyotes, bighorn sheep, elk and many species of raptor. Above us, a bald eagle perched on a cliff. I could see some elk high up on a snowy hillside. Ravens called back and forth in the cottonwoods behind us and I wondered if they had found something. There were animal tracks in the snow all around us. As we kept snowshoeing, Michelle spotted a cross fox trotting up on the cliffs above. I stopped and took some photos, and the fox moved on. It was my first time seeing a cross fox!
To get to the second old kill site, we had to climb higher. The 9 month old elk calf carcass was on a high slope a little ways from where the cross fox was. It was buried in snow. Mountain Lion kills are very important to many other scavengers including coyotes, foxes, wolves, bears, martens, ravens, magpies, eagles, and even smaller animals. Looking up at the hillside I could imagine the Cougar leaping down from a rock onto this elk calf. Just like the last kill site, there was a hill nearby, something the Mountain Lion can use to its advantage when hunting.
Michelle used her GPS to pinpoint the activity of F61 again. She pointed straight up. We drank some water and started climbing again, this time up a steep slope covered in rocks and snow. From here we could see the entire valley, the forested hillsides and the river flowing and winding way below. We stopped on a ridge and noticed a trail of tracks in the snow - there was a mix of wolf, fox, and coyote tracks, but no sign of Mountain Lion tracks. From there, we looked straight down at a pine forest, and the GPS led us right down there. After sliding over small pine trees, falling a ton of times, and getting snow in my back, sleeves, and gloves, we finally made it to the bottom, where we found even more activity. We started to see bits of hair scattered in the snow, until Michelle pointed to an elk calf carcass less than 100 feet away. It was pretty cleaned out, resting in a small gulley surrounded by brush. The head was intact along with the legs and hide. Some ribs had been broken off and taken away. The Cougar had probably eaten the organs first, followed by the muscle. The blood is an important nutrient source, too.
We noticed where F61 had first cached the elk, scraping sticks and snow into a pile on top of it, and then where she had dragged it further down the slope. As I walked closer, we found magpie tracks, fox tracks, and coyote tracks. I even found some marten scat. But what really caught my eye was this huge, disgusting, brown lump next to the carcass, frozen to the ground. It was the rumen from the elk's stomach. Michelle explained what this was and how it contained all of the grass and vegetation the elk ate. I was so curious and disgusted, that I kept asking questions about this lump. She said how it was inside the elks stomach, and how it was basically a huge scat...and that was the end of that conversation! Michelle also talked about how bears scavenge on these “lumps” and thats why bears may smell so bad. She also said how Mountain Lions don't smell bad because they sleep on sage or pine, and so they may smell like a Christmas tree. :-) Michelle had to fill out a sheet asking what the habitat was, what animals scavenged on it, what trees were around the elk, and how much of it was eaten. All of the muscle and organs were gone, so the rest was just a little meat, bones, and hair. F61 had left it about 3-4 days before we got there.
We searched around the kill site and found lots of clues, including some Mountain Lion scat, but I wanted to find a print. The snow was deep and it was shadowy, so it was difficult to find some. But luckily, we had Michelle with us. Michelle is an expert tracker. She was the first woman in North America to score a 100% on the Tracker Certification! Woohoo!! Michelle spotted some prints and we followed them for a bit. It was amazing to see how close the tracks came to trees and brush, and Michelle explained how big cats "slink" their way through the woods, using obstacles as protection and screening. Leaving the site, we saw more wolf tracks surrounding the area. Mountain Lions and wolves usually keep their distance, but wolves may try to drive Mountain Lions away if they ever cross paths. We headed back out after I took one last look around, trying to imagine what happened here to this young elk right around Christmas day. Maybe the Cougar had jumped out of a tree? Maybe it lay hidden in some deadfall, waiting for the elk to pass? Maybe it was a wild chase down the hillside?
As we slid down another snowy hill leading us back to the river, there were a couple or ravens and an eagle sitting on something that looked really small from where we were. The ravens were up in a tree and the eagle was standing on the thin ice right next to the rushing river, sitting on some kind of meat. As we got closer, the eagle flew away, letting us get close to the mysterious carcass. Thoughts ran through my mind.. Beaver? Otter? Nope. It was another elk. But, not a kill of wolves. This elk had drowned in the river and became frozen on the riverbank. The circle of life continued deep in the Gros Ventre backcountry.
After eating an entire pack of Honey Stingers for energy, we snowshoed back to the truck, listening to Michelle tell more stories about her awesome experience with Cougars. I kept looking above me in the pines across the river, and the rocky cliffs above me, hoping and wondering if F61 or another Cougar was up there somewhere, sleeping, or watching us. I wondered if it had kittens that were playing somewhere nearby, their spotted coats hopefully keeping them safe from predators. We spotted some mule deer crossing the river below us, but that was it - no more wildlife to be seen. Pretty soon I was folded up again in the back seat of the truck, on our way back to the office. I had a lot of information to think about, and I knew that night I would dream of Mountain Lions. I was tired.
I have a lot of respect for people like Mark, Michelle and their team that work so hard, every day, to collect data about an animal that not enough facts are known about. The longest running Mountain Lion project, TCP provides critical information on Mountain Lion survival, breeding and mortality and most importantly through their video and photo captures, data on the social behavior of these predators. The more we can learn about Mountain Lions, the more we can help protect them and make sure that they have a future.
Thank you, Teton Cougar Project for this awesome opportunity and I hope that you can continue adding to your Cougar "Family Tree". I will see you soon!!
For more information on the Teton Cougar Project, please visit these links. I hope that you will take the time to learn more about these amazing creatures, and support TCP with their important studies:
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