Elk, Elk Everywhere!

One thing we saw in Rocky Mountain National Park was elk.

Lots of elk.

Lots and lots of elk (click to view full size).

In fact, while at one point there were almost no elk left in this area – in 1913 and 1914 about fifty were transplanted from Yellowstone to repopulate them – today there seems to be a herd grazing in every meadow you pass. Because their natural predators, such as wolves and grizzly bears, have been extirpated from the park and its surroundings, their numbers have exploded dramatically. In order to protect sensitive riparian areas from overgrazing, the park has erected fences to create elk “exclosures” around some of the streams. They’ve also culled individuals periodically.

The park’s elk population is closely studied and monitored, and we spotted a couple with radio collars while we were there. One thing they keep close tabs on is the prevalence of Chronic Wasting Disease, a relative of “mad cow” disease that affects species in the deer family.

These weren’t the only large mammals we saw on our trip – we also spotted several moose, and from a distance a herd of mountain big-horned sheep. No black bears, but I should have plenty of chances to see those once I arrive in Wisconsin!

Squirrel Skull?

I went for a walk this evening in the extra hour of daylight, and while I was in the dunes something white half-buried in the sand caught my eye.  It’s common to find fragments of bleached-white shells back in the swale, but this wasn’t a shell – it was a bone!  Digging in the sand gently with my fingers yielded what appeared to be most of a complete skeleton, and while some of the pieces, like the vertebrae, were so fragile that they fell apart when I tried to pick them up (they must have been exposed to the elements for quite a while), I managed to find all the pieces of the skull – the cranium with the upper jaw, and both halves of the mandible.  (Bones are not something I know a lot about, so I apologize if I have the terminology wonky.)

Definitely a rodent with those incisors, right?  And too big for a mouse or shrew or something?  So that leaves squirrels.  If someone who knows skulls wants to confirm or correct this ID I’d love that.  I can’t remember whether I’ve ever actually seen a squirrel down in the dunes – I feel like I mostly see them at the edge of the woods.  Of course, a hawk could have killed it further up and then carried it down into the dunes to eat…?

(Updated: Bruce Neill of the Sanibel Sea School was kind enough to solve the mystery – it’s not a squirrel, but a young rabbit.  I see marsh rabbits in the dunes all the time so this makes perfect sense.)

Also: completely unrelated, but I just have to share the fact that there are currently SEVERAL Chuck-will’s-widows calling outside! Maybe to people who live around here they’re old hat, but to me they’re incredibly exciting.  Life bird #553!

Rabbit Highways

Along our boardwalk are several narrow trails of the type blazed by critters rather than people.  (They’re rather hard to see in these two-dimensional photos, but look closely.)

Deer?  Raccoons?  Marsh rabbits?  Perhaps all of the above, but after I’d been standing there for a minute I heard a rustling noise in the brush and a possible culprit hopped into view.

Australia Flashback: Echidna Encounter

When I was preparing to go to Australia, I tried to keep realistic expectations when it came to the wildlife I’d see.  Kangaroos and emus?  Probably.  Koalas and platypuses?  No – I wouldn’t be anywhere near the right habitat.  But despite my lack of platypus-viewing opportunities, there was another monotreme that, with just a little luck, I might run into.

The first time I saw an echidna, I had only been there a few days.  I didn’t have my camera with me (yes, I was dumb enough to go for a walk in the Australian Outback without my camera), but if I had seen one that quickly, surely I’d see more, right?  Then weeks passed.  Weeks and weeks.  I started to lose hope.  Had I missed my one opportunity to get some photos of a real live monotreme in its native habitat?  Nearly two months later, I finally saw a second one, and this time I had my camera on me.  Thank heavens.

The great thing about echidnas is that they can’t really move any faster than a waddle, so when they see you they don’t even bother trying to run away.  When you get too close they just curl up into a prickly ball and wait for you to leave.  You can get as close as you want to take photos, and I admit I couldn’t resist reaching out to touch one of its spines!

Near the beginning of this video you may be able to hear me over the wind, softly saying “Echidnaaaaaa!”  I was completely alone at the time.  I was just a little excited.  :)

Updated to add: I showed one of my echidna photos to a coworker, and she said, “What the heck’s an echidna?”  So in case you’re not in the know, an echidna is a monotreme, or egg-laying mammal.  There are actually several species of echidna in Australia and New Zealand, and they’re the only close living relatives of that other, more famous monotreme, the platypus.  This is a short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus.