A Matter of Trust

A black bear with brown fur browses on huckleberries near the Skyline Trail in the Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park

Another picture of my favorite bear from my trip to Washington. I watched it graze on huckleberries for an hour in a meadow below the Skyline Trail in Mount Rainier National Park, so it was already pretty comfortable with me when it started moving up towards the trail. I could tell where it wanted to go so I moved down the trail in the opposite direction to give it plenty of space.

I assumed it would continue higher up the hill but instead it started walking down the trail in the same direction I hoped to head. I followed at a long enough distance to keep it in its comfort zone, so mostly I had a view of its rear end. I should post a gallery of animal rear ends I’ve taken over the years, keeping an animal in its comfort zone doesn’t necessarily lead to the best pictures 😉

I’ve experienced this in my own home, Scout has liked to sleep on me ever since she was a little kitten, but unlike Templeton she often sleeps with her rear end pointed towards my face. Sometimes to the point that she actually sits on my face, when she was younger I woke up many a time getting smothered by a little kitten butt. My wife convinced me to take it as a badge of honor, that she was showing trust by exposing her most vulnerable position, so I’ve adopted the same philosophy to animals on the trails. Missed picture opportunities are a small price to pay for earning their trust.

In this case though, the bear’s desire to fatten up for the winter worked to my advantage, it turned aside for a moment to grab a few more huckleberries before continuing down the trail.

You … You … You Are Going to Share Your Mango, Aren’t You?

An American pika with a twig in its mouth on the Palisades Lakes Trail in the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park

Ever since first seeing pikas in the Tetons, I always choose some of my hikes on my Wyoming trips to go into terrain where I might glimpse these little mammals. So it should be no surprise that I chose many of my hikes on my trip to Mount Rainier to put me into the land of marmots and pikas. At first I had only near misses at pictures as pikas scampered along the Sourdough Ridge Trail, dragging plants down into their homes under the rocks. But at the end of my first full day of hiking, the Palisades Lakes Trail blessed me in abundance.

I stopped at a talus field near the end of the trail for some water and snacks, hoping that a pika might poke its head out from the rocks while I rested. I had heard but not seen them in the area as I passed by at the start of the hike, but it wasn’t long after I opened my water bottle that this pika first appeared. It was busy adding plants to its cache under the rocks, occasionally stopping to eat a little. I took a number of pictures while it was active, spending almost half an hour watching it as it gathered food. During the stretches where it was out of sight, I swapped the camera for my water bottles.

I took me a while to quench my thirst as I picked up the camera any time the pika popped up, but eventually during a quiet stretch I turned my attention to my hunger and brought out my bag of snacks. We had picked up some dried mango slices shortly before I left, I had never tried them before but they immediately became my favorite treat of the trip. As I started into the mango the pika suddenly reappeared, so I closed up the bag and set it a nearby rock before picking up the camera for more pictures.

The pika kept ducking in and out of the rocks, classic pika behavior, but I could hardly believe my eyes when I realized that the pika was actually working its way in my direction. The little thing was soon too close for pictures so I just stood baffled by such a close encounter. I soon realized its intention as it shuffled over towards my snack bag and sniffed around. I eased over and took the bag away, having just watched it store away a variety of plant life I feared my dried fruit was about to be added to the cache and enjoyed all winter long by my furry friend.

It hung around for a little while, almost at arm’s reach but always with an escape route into the rocks. The timing was probably coincidence, but when I finished the mango it either lost interest in the remaining fruit or realized I wasn’t going to share and headed back up the slope. I finished my snack and hoped for more pictures, but it wasn’t long before the pika went under for good and I continued up the trail.

I couldn’t help but feel guilty about not sharing my bounty, given that it posed for so many pictures, but better to keep them wild. Besides I knew from our time together that it wasn’t going to go hungry this winter, even if it was going to have to miss out on the mango.

Timing

A black bear with brown fur dines on huckleberries along the Skyline Trail in the Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park

I’ve been taking a hiking trip each fall, in Wyoming this meant that not only did I miss the summer crowds, but also got fall colors and the elk rut. But it also meant the weather can be hit and miss, such as last year when a snowstorm forced me to cut my trip short.

My fear when I started my Washington trip was that I had waited one week too long. After nice sunny weather the previous week, the rain arrived heavily on the first day, then was off and on for much of the trip. Fortunately although the higher elevations got an occasional dusting of snow, it stayed off the roads so I didn’t have any travel problems.

The occasional rain did mean I often had overcast skies, which is what I want during the day for wildlife photography. The sun did shine inconveniently at times, such as when I was watching the large marmot colony at the end of the Summerland Trail in Mount Rainier NP or when I came across a bear on the Beaver Valley Trail in Olympic NP.

I had overcast skies and rain when I came across this young bear on the Skyline Trail in Mount Rainier National Park, the most beautiful bear I’ve ever seen. Many of the pictures didn’t come out very well, the light was low and the rain sometimes heavy and my tripod was in my hotel room (intentionally, it was a long hike with a lot of elevation change). The bear was nose down in the huckleberry bushes and rarely raised its head, but it stopped to look at me once and you can see the seeds that have latched on to its head.

And that was the best part of the timing of the trip, getting to watch a variety of animals preparing for the long winter. I doubt I would have seen so many bears if they weren’t fattening themselves on the huckleberries, and also I spent a lot of time watching marmots and pikas gathering food. The marmots were putting on weight before hibernating for the winter, while the pikas (which don’t hibernate) were creating large stores of food above or under the rocks that they will feed on during the winter.

So despite my early fears, my timing turned out to be perfect.

Big and Little Feathers

A close-up of a sooty grouse's head on the Sourdough Ridge Trail in Mount Rainier National Park

When I think of bird feathers, I usually think of the large wing feathers. But birds have feathers of all sizes, and one of the fun things about close-up pictures like this is getting to see the individual feathers of all sizes. For example, although the eye ring of this sooty grouse looks like a solid band from a distance, up close you can see that it is actually a ring of tiny little feathers.

Does This Picture Seem Familiar?

Close-up view of a sooty grouse's head on the Sourdough Ridge Trail in Mount Rainier National Park

If you’ve followed my blog for a while and have a photographic memory, this picture will seem a little familiar. It certainly seemed familiar to me when I took it. This view of a sooty grouse is very similar to a picture I took last year of a dusky grouse while in the Tetons. Not exactly the same of course, the head is turned at a different angle and the light and colors are different, but I certainly had the older picture in mind when I took this one.

Sooty and dusky grouse used to be considered two races of one species, blue grouse, but were recently split into separate species. Here in the Northwest, the sooty grouse tend to be in the areas from the Cascades and west to the coast, while duskies tend to be in the eastern interior.

This picture is from the Sourdough Ridge Trail in the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park, the trail where I saw grouse the most often. I also saw them down by the Paradise Inn, and saw one in Olympic National Park at the end of my trip.

That last encounter in the Olympics was the most like my experience with the grouse I photographed in the Tetons, I was driving out of the park when I saw one in the road in front of me. I stopped the car and turned on my hazard lights, as the bird was moving slowly and in no hurry to get out of the way. I got out of my car and encouraged it to hurry across the road, which is fortunate as a pickup came driving past right afterwards.

That’s twice now I’ve played crossing guard for grouse.