The Moose Chronicles
My first encounter with a moose occurred when I was five or six years old during a family vacation to Yellowstone. Or so I'm told. I remember my parents pointing at something off the side of the road and saying "look, see the moose?" I most certainly did not see the moose. Apparently that was the first indication anyone had that I was actually quite nearsighted and needed glasses. I went on to not see several bears, elk, and antelope on that trip, though I did see some big blurry things that I'm told were bison.
I didn't actually see a moose until the summer after my college graduation. Glasses long-since replaced by contact lenses, I was solo-hiking Mt. Timpanogos in Utah's lovely Wasatch range. I heard a rustling in the trees, and I stepped through the branches expecting to find a deer. Instead I found myself in a small clearing - and inadvertently standing between a moose cow and her calf. I'd heard that moose are mean, sometimes aggressive. But momma moose looked up at me briefly, decided I was not a threat, and went about her business peacefully munching leaves and twigs. I was fascinated with their sheer size, beauty, and calm demeanor. Sadly I did not yet have a camera - it would be about another 6 months before I even bought my first point & shoot - but the memory of these magnificent creatures remains vivid in my mind and has been an inspiration for me to spend much time over the last year seeking them out and photographing them.
While it is still possible to find moose in Yellowstone, the fire of '88 destroyed large swaths of their preferred habitat; as a result the Yellowstone populations have declined. But in neighboring Grand Teton National Park, abundant willow flats along both the Snake and Gros Ventre rivers support a large moose population. I've visited four times in the last 12 months - roughly once per season - and below are stories and photos aplenty from these trips, along with more than you probably ever wanted to know about the moose!
Moose BreathA bull's breath comes out as fog on a chilly morning in the Tetons This was the first bull I found in all my visits to the Tetons. He was on the move, heading east across sage flats; a poor position for photographing him as he was backlit by the early morning sun. There was no way I could get to the east of him for better lighting, so instead I took advantage of the chill of the autumn morning to take this backlit silhouette, showing his breath coming out in a fog.
The only reliable way to gauge moose age is by examining the teeth. Still from the relatively small antler size on this guy relative to others I've seen, I would guess this is either a young bull of about 2 years, or else a senior - but more probably the former.
Moose CowThis cow appears to be checking her hind hoof as though she stepped in something Moose CowFinally she looked up!
Cows tend to be just a little lighter in color than bulls, particularly in the face, and have a less prominent dewlap or "bell" under their chins. I spotted this cow while shooting near the Chapel of the Transfiguration. She was solo; no calf present. She was fairly far away and was intent on feeding; I only got a couple shots where her face wasn't hidden by brush.
Typically cows will only give birth to a single calf in the spring, but occasionally they produce twins if resources are plentiful. That was the case with this adorable family that I encountered while hiking Cascade Canyon with my husband Jonathan:
The three of them were dining on willow and aspen just off the trail. I watched the mother carefully for any signs of apprehension as we slid past them on the trail to where I could turn back and photograph. Like the mother moose I saw on Timpanogos, she was not at all concerned with our presence, even when one of the calves crossed the trail to sample foliage on the other side of me. Because they were comfortable I was able to spend a great deal of time with them, photographing them until the light grew too dim. Hiking out in the dark was totally worth it.
Typically yearling bulls will grow a small pair of antlers in the fall that have at least a few points on each side, so when I first spotted this guy I initially mistook him for a cow. But his long dewlap was more suggestive of a bull, and as I got a closer look through the zoom lens I saw that he was indeed sprouting the very beginnings of antler nubs. It is possible that he was lateborn - closer to one year old at that time than the 16 months or so of a yearling born in the spring - and therefore slightly behind his peers in development.
He's the only moose I've ever met that initially seemed a little afraid, so we kept a good distance and sat and waited where he could see us clearly. As the minutes passed, he recognized that we were not actually a threat. He became visibly more relaxed, then confident, and eventually curious. He came closer, crossing over to our side of the marsh where we remained seated. He stamped out a platform in the grass not far from where we sat, laid down, and let out a big moose yawn. Eventually when he was rested he got up and scratched against a small tree, and we reluctantly bid him goodbye to hike out in the dark once again.
For the most part, moose are diurnal. With their dark, thick coats they typically aren't very active in the heat of day; it's easier to spot them within an hour or so around sunrise or sunset when they arise to feed. I've spent many a sunrise and sunset moose hunting along the Gros Ventre river, sometimes successful and sometimes not. On the stormy morning pictured here, I happened upon a mother/calf pair, only in this case the calf was a yearling female rather than a baby. Initially the light was flat behind the stormclouds, but eventually cloudbreaks let through some golden rays which beautifully illuminated the cottonwood foliage.
I was particularly drawn to photograph the yearling, who had a wonderfully expressive face. After a time she went into the river to drink, cross, and then come back to my side, all with gorgeous lighting making for some of my favorite moosetography ever.
Winter is, in my opinion, the easiest season to spot moose in the Tetons. Increasing snowpack drives the higher-elevation individuals down, increasing the population density in the valley. Bare branches provide less cover, dark coats stand out against the snow, and the moose must spend more time eating to keep up their energy to survive the frigid temperatures. By late December the bulls will start dropping their antlers but in early winter most are still crowned.
In winter the buds, leaves, and fresh shoots that form dietary staples are no longer available. So moose use their prehensile upper lips to grasp twigs and branches from which they strip and eat bark as shown here.
They also feast year-round on aquatic plants like pondweed and water lilies. They have a couple of adaptations allowing them to dive if necessary to find food underwater. The first is a translucent inner eyelid which protects the eyes while still allowing vision underwater. The other is an expanding pad of connective tissue within their nostrils that seals them shut against water when the animal dives.
Read any literature on moose and it will tell you that moose are solitary animals; they do not herd like their elk cousins. They congregate only during the fall rut where bulls spar for mating rights, and then disperse again. I'm sure that is mostly true. But my own personal observation is that in winter while mothers are still raising their calves, the unencumbered bulls will herd together despite their supposedly solitary nature.
Calves bond closely with their mothers and will stay with them through at least the first year of their lives, sometimes longer if another calf is not born the following spring. Mom must teach them important skills such as how to survive the winter, when temperatures can easily drop well below -30⁰ F, as was the case the morning I met this pair. You can see the ice crystals where their breath has frozen to their faces.
Newborn moose and momma Like baby bison, newborn calves are initially orange-ish in color, with their coat gradually darkening as they grow older. They are born helpless but quickly gain the ability to walk and within a few days can outrun a human.
Bullmoose with Velveted Antlers Time was limited on my most recent trip to the Teton Area as I was actually there to exhibit in Art Fair Jackson Hole. Luckily the festival hours were 10AM-6PM which meant I had time around both sunrise and sunset to hunt for moose - just the times that they are easiest to find. And from past experience I've gotten pretty good at knowing where and how to find them. My goal this time was to find and photograph a bull in velvet, and I found several!
Like their deer and elk cousins, moose drop their antlers in winter. Shedding the extra 50+ pounds they are carrying atop their heads helps them conserve much-needed energy while resources are more scarce. The antlers regrow each year starting in the spring, and while they are growing they are covered with a thin layer of skin and hair called velvet, which they will later scrape off.
Velveted Bullmoose Initially I was seeing most of the bulls from quite a distance, but on my last morning in the area I'd hiked the banks of the Gros Ventre and found this bull just across the other side. I was watching him through my lens when suddenly his head shot up, and he froze keeping his eyes pointed toward me. He'd known I was there and had been fine with my presence for many minutes so I couldn't figure out why he was suddenly on alert.
The Big Boy I then heard the snapping of a branch behind me and realized he wasn't staring at me - he was staring at the much larger bull who was emerging from the willows directly behind me! I quickly backed off to give the big guy his space, but he didn't seem to mind me at all. He chewed on some leaves and eventually retreated back into the willows, at which point the bull across the river decided it was safe to cross over to my side. Spending time with these two was such a wonderful, amazing experience and was a great note on which to end that trip.
And on that note I think I'll finally end this blog entry. If you've stuck with me this far then I guess you must love moose as much as I do! If you want to browse my moose photos you can do so here: http://www.ajpaul.photo/?q=moose. I'll be putting more of them online shortly!
Great read and lots of cool moose info! Glad that last day out paid off. Beautiful shots!
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In this blog I'll be sharing my photography-related thoughts & recommendations, stories behind new work, and answers to some of the FAQ's I hear at my exhibits. If there's any particular topic you'd like to see me address, please feel free to contact me!