It was a crisp cold morning in early June 2006. I was awakened to the sound of moose grunts outside the yurt, where we live. My alarm had not gone off, so it had to be sometime before 6am. I was not prepared (mentally or logistically) to make observations on the foraging behavior of this moose. However, I can’t seem to resist the sound of those burdened grunts! You cannot make these observations when you want; they have to be made when a moose decides to share its time with you.
So I crawled over my comatose husband, John Vucetich, and sprung out of bed. I pulled my baggie field pants on over my sleeping long undies, zipped on a fleece, and slipped on my red crocks. Later, I realized that I pulled my field pants on backwards. I dug my binocs out of yesterday’s pack and grabbed my notebook.
A cow moose was right outside the yurt, toward the Park Service junk yard that we live next to. She was foraging busily. The early morning light was still dim, so making observations was difficult. Nevertheless, I recorded several bites. As she moved deeper into the forest, I realized I was being swarmed with mosquitoes and blackflies, and I had forgotten an essential piece of equipment - my bug shirt. I noted her position and line of movement and headed back to the yurt. I changed into socks, boots, bugshirt, baseball hat, gloves and citronella spray and headed back out. Despite the ruckus, John showed no signs of awakening.
I listened, but heard nothing. I proceeded carefully from where I had last seen her. Then I heard the crack of a hoof on a twig, and the methodical munching of leaves. I began to record more foraging observations. As the morning light became brighter, I noticed her pattern of hairloss (caused by winter ticks). The pattern was different from those which I had seen this year. This was our first meeting, this cow moose and I. I thought I knew all the moose who had been foraging in this area. Then I saw something I recognized - a tear on her left ear. I had met this moose before – two years before. In the summer of 2004, she and I had spent quite a bit of time together. That year, she had a calf, and I helped a German film crew video-record her at a nearby mudlick.
It was great to see an old friend, and it made me smile to know she was still doing well. She now carries a tumor on her right shoulder (these skin tumors are common and typically benign). I think that’s new since we last met (I’ll check my notes).
She continued to forage and I continued to record. She is a moving browser – no standing in one spot and gorging. She takes a few steps and a few bites and a few steps. I’m sure this works for her, but it does make for recording a challenge. This morning she eats lots of yellow birch leaves – both from branches on tall trees and from small suckers. Each birch bite is nearly matched with bites of lady fern and Dryopteris, and supplemented with hazel leaf here and a maple leaf there. After some time, she continued foraging, but began moving a bit more quickly – too quickly for me to handily follow, observe and write notes. It is amazing how swiftly they can move while still appearing to be just meandering casually. I was disappointed that she was getting too far away from me to note her foraging.
Then she stopped suddenly and looked intently into the forest beyond her. She stood stock still for several seconds. Then she turned and bolted straight for me. In an instant, I felt that she was not charging me, or displaying any type of aggression toward me; but she was beating a rapid retreat from something she had heard, seen, or smelled ahead of her. She trotted toward me – all 800 pounds of brown fur and muscle – and then past me, just an arm’s length to my left. She spun around and I could feel her looking over my shoulder from just behind me.
There we both stood, both looking intently into the forest. Then I saw it - just a fleeting glimpse of the dark form of a wolf as it ran through the trees just beyond where she had been standing.
After her danger had passed, we stood near each other for what seemed a long time - perhaps 2-3 minutes. I spoke with her and we examined each other carefully. I asked if she remembered me from the mudlick. She leaned toward me, sniffing with ears cocked forward toward me. I stretched out my hand and spoke gently to her. She decided to move past me, and foraged a bit more. She never stopped looking where she had seen danger. She was no longer relaxed and leisurely in her foraging. After a couple of minutes, and just a few more bites, she left the area, walking too quickly for me to keep up.
I had been excluded from her moose world and was back into my own. But where exactly was I? I had no map, no compass, no GPS and no glasses or contacts, no sun and have been on a moose trajectory through the forest. I decided to first look for tracks that may have been left by the wolf, but found no appropriate substrate to record the passing. I began to walk in the direction I thought was home. Eventually, I returned to the yurt, where John was still groggy – hadn’t heard the alarm, didn’t even know that I had been out, and had no idea that a moose decided that I was the safest thing to put between her and a wolf!
Leah Vucetich has been working with the wolf-moose project for over a decade. She coordinates personnel, conducts field and lab work, manages logistics and budgets, and countless other duties.