This week in the neighborhood

It’s been a great week for wildlife encounters. I was driving down the highway and watched a group of swallows wheeling and flying quickly, with a Swainson’s hawk in their midst. The group flew near the New Fork River bridge and I actually saw the hawk grab a swallow! The hawk flew with the small bird to the top of a tall pole nearby, where the hawk attempted to feast on his meal, only to be so severely harassed by the rest of the flock he had to leave. The hawk, with the small bird still in its clutches, flew off to the safety of confines of the old cottonwoods along the riverbottom and I lost sight of him.

I couldn’t believe what I had seen – how could this raptor
take one of those quick, small darters of the sky? Amazing!
A few days later, a friend came to the house and told me he
had just seen a hawk grab one swallow out of a large whirling mass of swallows,
at the same place. Perhaps we’ve got a swallow-snatching expert in the
We’ve had a nest of Swainson’s hawks that are hanging out
along the same patch of river and meadow, and it has been wonderful to watch
this brood as they hunt. The number of Swainson’s hawks present here is
dwindling now, as they begin migrations. Here’s a few more juveniles from our neighborhood:

The sheep are doing well in their new pasture near the
Midland Ranch, with no wolf or bear problems. The herd is close enough to the
ranch headquarters that there can be up to eight guardian dogs with my herd at
any one time, in addition to the burros, so I have one of the most well-guarded
herds in the country. The Midland is my business partner Pete’s ranch, and he
has dozens of guardian dogs working to protect the various herds, so old dogs,
young dogs, retirees, and nursing females sometimes come out to spend time with
my herd since it is nearby. Fine by me – I’ll feed any guardian dog that tends
to my flock.
Jim enjoys accompanying me to check the flock. Part
of the pasture is a natural slough where he’s been harvesting meadow
mushrooms (Agaricus campestris). Several times in the last few weeks we’ve split a steak for dinner, with a
side of sliced mushrooms cooked in butter. Yum. Jim’s also been trying to teach
Hud the herding dog to find mushrooms, but Roo the burro is far more
Today as we returned from checking the sheep, we saw a large
bull moose grazing along the New Fork River. We stopped in to watch and visit
the beast as he grazed the riparian area on the other side of the river. He’s
one of the bulls that wintered in the sheep pasture last year, so it feels like
he’s somewhat of an old friend. Jim and I spent an hour sitting on the ground
across the river from this Shiras moose, and he rewarded us by moving into the river
toward us to stand in the cool water on a warm afternoon. 
I had never seen nor heard a moose slowly lapping water before. It was pretty darned entertaining, and I laughed when I saw this image of his curled tongue:
 We left him to his
grazing, thanking him for accommodating our quiet visit. Jim snapped a new “glamour” shot for me before we left. Oh yeah, the boys on my block are badasses!

December in the sheep pasture

The Wind River Mountains are magnificent in their snow-covered spendor, but the sagebrush rangelands still contain only a scattering of snow.

The image below is our New Fork River pasture where the sheep are currently located, taken at sunrise earlier this week. It was about -8 degrees that morning, which is a typical overnight low for us this time of year.

This herd of mule deer have been a constant presence in the pasture for the last few weeks, safe from disturbance for breeding season. I’m still trying to get a good photo of the muley/white-tailed hybrid buck that hangs out with this bunch.

We turned the rams out last weekend, to join the ewe herd, so we’ll have lambs five months from now. This ram has wounds from recent skull-crashing disputes with another ram.

While I fed the guardian dogs and had a look around the pasture, I heard the sound of branches breaking. It was two bull moose, browsing their way through the willows.

Western Wyoming’s Shiras moose population has been suffering, so it’s a great pleasure to share the pasture with these fellows.

Five (million)-star accommodations

Jim and I decided we were ready for a night out, so on Saturday evening we took a bottle of wine, our sleeping bags, and dogs, and headed for our sheep pasture. Jim built a small bonfire and we relaxed, eventually crawling into our sleeping bags to sleep under the stars alongside the New Fork River. Click on photos for enlargements.

The sheep herd, along with their guardian burros and dogs, met us when we entered the pasture, but didn’t join us at our campsite. We had two herding dogs and Rena the Akbash guardian with us, so we were sure to be alerted to any critters roaming about during the night.

Not long after we settled in around the campfire, Hud the herding dog let us know there was a bull moose just down the river from us. You can just make out the moose crossing the river in the photo below (those are our sleeping bags and pillows in the right side of the photo also).

Darkness crept in and the moose came up the river just opposite from our camp. It’s rut (breeding season) so this bull was walking along emitting soft grunts and calls. We could see the moonlight reflecting off his paddles even in the darkness. He eventually walked upriver from our camp and crossed back onto our side, but was met by the guardian dogs when he tried to walk back toward our camp. We could hear the bull as he thrashed around, rubbing his paddles against the willows and brush, and crossing back across the river again.

We let the fire burn down and went to our sleeping bags to watch the light show. There were millions of stars filling the night sky, and we saw several stars slowly falling, while others seemed to shoot across the sky. I closed my eyes and started to drift off to sleep when the screech owl arrived in the trees nearby. They are definitely named appropriately. Fortunately the owl only screeched about four times before moving away from us.

Things were fairly quiet for a while, but another moose tried to approach our camp from downriver a few hours later. Rena put the moose in the river, giving us peace once again as the bigger animal retreated.

We had a series of visitors during the night, including our guardian dogs that were in charge of the sheep herd. They never came together to our camp, but stopped in on individual patrols during the night. Luv’s Girl was thrilled to see us, and tried to bulldoze her way into our sleeping bags, but Rant seemed irritated that we were there. He ran around outside the perimeter of our camp, huffing into the darkness and marking all the brush. Apparently we were just another burden of his, more critters to be guarded. We heard the soft hoots from owls off and on during the night, and the occasional howl of a coyote, always met with a ruckus of sound from our guardians from various points throughout the pasture.

The sheep and burros arrived at our camp at sunrise Sunday morning, nibbling on the frost-covered vegetation.

Jim started us a pot of coffee, and a few ewes came forward to share a bag of pumpkin seeds.

We drank our coffee while enjoying the view, soon realizing that any effort at getting acquainted with a trout would have strong interference (see photo below). We threw our gear and dogs back in the truck and headed back to the house.

Border guards

We arrived back at the sheep pasture this afternoon to find a quiet standoff in progress. Two young bull moose were in the pasture, but the three burros were lined up in a row, forming a border between the sheep herd and the moose. What I love about this photo are the magpies on the butt of the burro in the middle. (Click on the photo for a larger view.)

These two moose are well known in the sheep pasture. They’ve been lurking around on the other side of the river, watching me do chores, and sulking about the dogs not letting them into the haystack. The dogs leave the moose alone, as long as they keep their distance. Today was just another day in the neighborhood, and the moose finally went on their way into the next pasture.