Ermine, also known as the short-tailed weasel or stoat, turns white in the winter cold except for the black tip of its tail. In its winter coat, the Ermine was once sought after by European royalty and its fur was made into cloaks and hats and other fur-trimmed items that were a sign of royalty or wealth. England’s royal crown is lined with the white fur with its black accents from the tail tips. Ermine are no longer sought after as status symbols but this particular Ermine has become somewhat of a celebrity at the Visitor’s Center in Minnesota’s Sax Zim Bog. Although weasels are feisty hunters and fierce carnivores, this one was attracted to the partial carcass of a deer that was stretched over a stump as food for many of the bird species that visit the Sax-Zim Bog area. It knew a good thing when it found it. And we did too as we watched, fascinated, as this tiny white critter scurried up inside the carcass, stripping off pieces to consume and occasionally peeking out to check on its audience.
When we visited the Black Sands Basin in Yellowstone National Park last month, we photographed the brilliant colors in the bottom of a small lake off the boardwalk. At the time, I did not realize that the lake is named Rainbow Pool but the colors, from bottom to top, are indeed the colors of the rainbow: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, aka ROYGBIV, an acronym I learned in my high school chemistry class. Although there’s no violet in this image, it is quite obvious how this pool got its name.
Coyotes seemed to be everywhere in Yellowstone National Park in January. In my visits in past years, we might have seen a Coyote once, maybe twice, and with little chance to photograph them. This year, we saw Coyotes every day and four out of our five days in the Park, we were able to photograph them fairly close as they went about their daily routines. They strode by us without concern for our presence because we respected their space. This Coyote has a lush winter coat that keeps it warm as the snow falls around it.
Northern Harriers are beautiful birds, exotic looking if you look at their faces. They are hawks but they are slim and long-tailed and they glide low over a marsh or grassland, holding their wings in a V-shape and sporting a white patch at the base of their tails. From the front, a Northern Harrier has an owlish face, more flat with eyes almost front-facing that helps it hear mice and voles beneath the vegetation. Until last week, I had never successfully photographed a Northern Harrier. They were constantly in evidence over the marshlands in the Skagit Valley. Sometimes, late in the day, I mistook a Northern Harrier for a Short-eared Owl until it got closer to me. A very cool bird to photograph!
In the winter, the snow covered knolls in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley are surrounded by mists from the hot springs and thermals that distinguish Yellowstone from any other place in the world. The mists create an ever-changing scene. At certain times of the day, the winter sun contributes deep shadows that further sculpt the hillsides. I love spending time in the Hayden Valley in the winter with its stark, quiet drama. In January, we were lucky to be the only visitors that day in Hayden Valley, a very special treat. Being alone in that vast, sparse place makes it feel even bigger and more special.
The Coyotes in Yellowstone National Park were ubiquitous last month when we were there. We saw and photographed them at least once each day and often it was with prey in their jaws. Late one afternoon we watched this Coyote trotting by clenching something in his teeth. Our driver shouted that it was a duck. Of course when we viewed our photographs that evening, it was obvious that the Coyote had a hoof in its mouth. It had come across a bison carcass, possibly a wolf kill. The Coyote seemed pretty pleased that it had made off with the foreleg of the unfortunate critter. We searched for it the next couple of days but never found the hidden carcass.
Short-eared Owls don’t flutter. But as I watched through the viewfinder, I was taken with the fact that at a certain point in its flight pattern, its wings resembled a butterfly’s. Most of the time on the East 90 in the Skagit Wildlife Area, the owls stayed far from the road where we stood. Although a few photographers ventured onto the field, we were reluctant to intrude on the owl’s territory so we stayed on the road and the owls were pretty far away. Despite the distance, I think the trees in the foreground and the mountains in the background give the owl a sense of place and it is identifiable as an owl…or a butterfly.
The Skagit Wildlife Area in Washington — also known as the East 90 — is an interesting place. Large open fields are home to Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls that hunt there. The area is also open to two-legged hunters and large, bright orange signs announce when hunters with guns will be in the area. These hunters don’t hunt the Harriers or the Owls. But our concern last week was that signage announcing the dates when hunters with guns would be in the area was unclear and inconsistent. Some signs said the hunters would be there through March 31, others through March 15, some said January 31, and still other signs had the dates covered with tape. We never saw a hunter and the few hunting blinds in the fields were empty. Still, the confusing dates made me a little wary. Luckily for us, the only hunters we saw were the Northern Harriers like this one, Short-eared Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Bald Eagles.
Great Blue Herons were vigilant hunters in Skagit Valley. Several GBH’s had staked out territory and tried to hold their own against onslaughts from Northern Harriers and Bald Eagles. One Great Blue resisted as long as it could before relinquishing its small prey to a couple of bullying Bald Eagles. This is possibly the same Heron who skirmished with the Bald Eagles earlier and as it later searched the marshy grasses near where we stood watching for Short-eared Owls, its successful strike resulted in a small frog for dinner.
Gung hay fat choy! Today is Chinese New Year 2021, the year of the ox. But today is also Abraham Lincoln’s 212th birthday, and I don’t have any photographs of an ox, so instead, I am featuring a Lincoln’s Sparrow. This little sparrow joined us on the East 90 in the Skagit Wildlife Area as we watched for Short-eared Owls. The tiny bird foraged on the edges of a frozen drainage ditch before venturing out onto the ice.