Jackson Hole – Day 5

After getting my fill of landscapes the day before, it was time to go hunting for moose again! As moose tend to prefer wetlands, here in Jackson Hole the riparian habitats (river bottoms) are the key areas to search for moose. The snake river offers photographers some amazing opportunities to photograph moose. However, working this river requires some big logistics as this stretch of the valley is big, long, and difficult to access. The rewards however are scenes and backgrounds that you will not find elsewhere in the valley when it comes to moose. Unfortunately, time was not on my side for making this happen this trip (on workshops we do a float trip down the snake for this very reason).

Since the Snake was out of the question, the obvious substitute was the Gros Ventre river (pronounced grow-vant). This river is a classic braided river in which sediment loads are so large that gravel bars form across the river bottom which effectively divides the main flow into multiple channels. Along many of these old bars grow thick stands of willow which in this region stand as one of the preferred foods of moose. With a large number of bulls and cows living along the Gros Ventre, and the ease of access for photographers, this river is a hot spot for moose photography. Most photographers never venture more than 50 yards from their vehicles and therefore miss out out much of the action. If you are willing to get your feet wet and do a little hiking around, you can quickly leave the crowds behind here – much like the Snake.

In this image, I followed the bull on the right for nearly 2 miles. From his behavior it was quite obvious that he had no interest in food. With head held high and soft grunts that reminded me of the cooing that tundra swans make when they are all clustered together while pair bonding, and a steady pace above the bank of the river through the sagebrush, it was obvious that he had something else on his mind. Really the only time that he would stop was to toss his head back into the air and roll back his upper lip in what is known as the flehmen response. Ungulates, or hoofed mammals, have a vomeronasal organ (also known as the Jacobson’s organ) in the roof of their mouths which is basically a chemoreceptor that picks up pheromones in the air. In behaving this way, my bull was basically trying to taste the air for cows or potential threats from other nearby bulls.

Working with animals that are on a mission is next to impossible. Moose are big and dangerous, especially when in the rut like this. Trying to jockey in front of the bull to capture some head on images proved almost futile and therefore the best thing to do was to just keep up.

Dropping back down into the river bottom, his pace began to slow. Twenty yards from a dense stand of willow growing along the edge of the river, he stopped cold. He stood motionless for a minute and it was then that I realized he had stopped his strange grunting noise. It was obvious that he was fixated on something unseen by me. Suddenly, his ears lowered to the side and protruded horizontally from his head. With this most subtle of body language, I knew that there was another bull approaching, though still out of site to me.

I heard a rustle come from the willows and suddenly another bull, quite larger than the one I had been following, materialized from the vegetation. Both stood broadside to each other, displaying their size in hopes to intimidate the opponent. In what seemed like a perfectly choreographed action, both bulls began rolling their heads and antlers in exaggerated fashion from side to side in perfect synchronicity. This was the ritualized dance that bulls partake in with each other leading up to battle royal. To read about this is one thing. To be knelt down 30 feet away and watch this with your own eyes and something completely different. There is much poetry involved in this ritualized behavior. The dance is beautiful to watch – both bulls walking parallel to each other, antlers swaying in unison, slowly closing the gap until turning to face each other nose to nose. Such elegance, yet potentially so deadly for those who choose to partake in this dance.

It was obvious who was the dominant bull today. Nearly a foot taller at the shoulders the defending bull would hold his ground and his cows today, as the invading bull glanced away after several very suspenseful seconds  that felt like an eternity to me as an onlooker. With that avoided glance, he showed that he recognized the authority of the defending bull and his claim to the cows that stood watching down below. With the grace of the greatest of kings, the dominant bull allowed the other to walk away from the challenge without aggression. That’s how you know who was the real bad ass here!

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