Saturday, September 4, 2010

High Drama on High Cliffs

During our Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour, in which we saw moose, caribou, grizzly bear, Dall sheep, and gray wolves – plus arctic ground squirrel (the fast food of the tundra) and a Canada lynx at the end of the day – we were very fortunate to witness a life and death drama on a high cliff.

As the tour bus drove along, having just spotted our first Dall sheep, people on the right hand side of the bus began shouting for the driver to stop. There, at least a mile away and at least a couple of thousand feet above us, an incredible sight was to be seen.

Two white specks – Dall sheep – were moving across a sheer cliff at amazing speed. But what was causing them to move so quickly in such a dangerous area? Hot in pursuit was some kind of animal, but what? The bus was a-buzz with excited chatter, conversation, and speculation. “It’s a wolf!” “No, it’s a grizzly!” Every pair of eyes, and every pair of field glasses, on the bus strained to see what was going on. Ultimately, we realized it was three wolves – one black and two gray colored – that had caused the sheep to run. The really incredible thing was that two of the wolves had run after the sheep quite far out on the sheer ledges. To fall would mean certain death either from the fall itself or through injury and slow starvation. But it was worth the gamble to the wolves, and to the sheep. For the latter, to not risk death from falling would have meant certain death from being eaten.

My guess is that the wolves’ strategy was to force the sheep into a panicky mistake and a fatal fall. This did not happen. You or I would have fallen attempting to cross the cliffs at any speed, but the sheep, through many thousands of years of evolution, kept their footing and their lives, at least for one more day. The wolves slowly gave up, and when we returned a couple of hours later, the two sheep were still in the same place. It was a waiting game, and the wolves were no where to be seen. The sheep were not taking any chances with such a formidable and daring predator in the vicinity, and could afford to wait a bit longer.

We were fortunate to see such a drama. I have since talked to people that had wolves come out by the road and lie by their bus, literally feet away. I would not have traded our mile-away view of wolves in action for such a close up.

I took these mile-away photos from the opposite side of the bus, trying to shoot through an open window – most of which were packed with the heads of people on the right hand side of the bus trying to get a better view. I have circled the wolves in pink and red, and the sheep in aqua and blue. In this first photo, the black wolf (lower left) is hanging behind on a steep slide area. His two pals, maybe more experienced or just more daring, have run out past the sheep and gotten above and below him towards the right of the photo. The sheep is not moving. It has reached a spot that the wolves cannot climb to without risking a fall. The other sheep was able to climb high above the action and is looking down on things.
In this second photo, the upper sheep is out of the frame. The black wolf remains in the slide, and the two lighter colored wolves have spent a lot of time exploring how to reach the sheep. But the sheep knows he is safe as long as he does not move from his ledge. It must be unnerving to have two wolves literally feet away, but sheep must have nerves of steel to live and survive where they do. The wolves look like they have given up, and are both below the sheep and are returning to their dark buddy.

1 comment:

  1. That must have been so cool to watch even though it was so far away.
    I'm sure not going to see anything like that on my morning walks!! :-)