Monday, February 4, 2013

Merganser Afternoon - Yellowstone Reflections

One afternoon in Yellowstone National Park I wanted to hike, but I was on my own and the Park Service strongly recommends that people hike in groups of three or more for safety in grizzly bear country. So I settled for a solitary stroll on the boardwalk at LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River.

The boardwalk was too short to soothe my wanderlust, but it provided an excellent view of the rapids, so I settled onto the grizzly-free deck to watch the river noisily leap over and surge around rocks. Even here, in this little byway where the Yellowstone River regains its tumbling nature after leaving Yellowstone Lake, the park offered a rich opportunity to view wildlife. Out of a curtain of splashing bubbles, a bright orange bill appeared above a lowrider feathered back.

Pair of common mergansers surfing the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park

It was a common merganser.

Another merganser appeared also charting an upstream course through the rapids. The pair took turns surfing standing waves and diving into churning pools. One would disappear underwater, then pop up on the other side of a rapid, and spin around briefly to check on the progress of its partner before heading into the next whitewater challenge.

A common merganser thriving in the elements of Yellowstone National Park. By the large white wing patches, I think this surfing duo were adult males in eclipse plumage.
The surfing mergansers successfully made their way through the rapids and out of my view. Then I noticed on the far side of the river was a steady parade of common mergansers floating downstream. The water was slow-moving and calm on that shallow shoreline, and the mergansers were poking into tiny bays, dipping their heads and backing out like tugboats. At a crop of exposed rocks, the raft of mergansers pulled out to preen in the sun. Each duck sat on its own round-topped rock flashing a pair of bright webbed feet which matched the color of their sharp bills. "I know that color," I thought.

Life-jacket orange.

Life-jacket orange feet on ducks surfing the Yellowstone River. That is how I would like to end this series of posts about our week in Yellowstone National Park in September 2012. Seeing so much wildlife, especially wolves, was exciting. But the merganser afternoon reminded me that biological diversity comes in all sizes and forms. Fitting together, affecting each other and constantly changing.

Common mergansers resting on the edge of the Yellowstone River.
As I visited Yellowstone National Park and read more about it afterwards, I've been astonished by the efforts and results of the gray wolf reintroduction. I won't be creating habitat for gray wolves in my own work as a biologist restoring and protecting wildlands in California. However, looking into the eyes of a Yellowstone wolf and witnessing a merganser afternoon on the Yellowstone River each inspire me to seek biological diversity in my own backyard, and to keep finding ways to reconnect ecological processes with the local lands that have been reshaped by people before me. This type of work feels more possible, more valuable and more beautiful after witnessing the great and small wonders at Yellowstone National Park.

The other night, I was reading Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone, and this passage brought it all back again: "As it looked up I could see its eyes, and they were magnificent, bright and burning. While a lot of animals in that sort of circumstance [being observed from a low-flying spotter plane] would be nearly overcome with fear, here was one tossing out a stare that seemed brimming with confidence. The wolf looked hard at us, following us with its gaze for a couple of seconds. Then it merely stepped away, back into its element."

This is the last of a ten-part series on wildlife observed in Yellowstone National Park in September 2012. To see the other posts, select "Yellowstone" in the Sightings box in the right column.


Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone, Douglas W. Smith and Gary Ferguson, The Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2005.  This is the best book I have read so far about the gray wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park. It describes the steps biologists took in bringing in wolves from Canada and studying the subsequent establishment of many wolf packs. Every other chapter follows the life of an individual wolf, or at least as much as could be determined by Douglas Smith, the Yellowstone Wolf Project biologist and then project leader, through radio collars, observations from the air and on horseback, and all the other ways a biologist collects and shares information with fellow scientists and volunteers in a remote and rugged terrain like Yellowstone. The book is very well-written.


  1. Good stuff. And the merganser is a terrific totem - an animal that learns to effortlessly go upstream, against the flow.

    Here in the SC Mtns the lion is the trophic topper, of course. And we may need more of them - on the way home from a site yesterday I counted 34 deer browsing in a field. 34. They may be evolving into herd animals.

  2. Shortly after I read your latest Yellowstone post, terrestrial tv in the UK aired a half hour programme on some of the ecological goings-on in the park. Principally to answer the question, how come beavers have done so well since the re-introduction of the wolf?

    As you described, coyote numbers are down due to competition and pressure. This has allowed the pronghorn numbers to increase. Bear numbers have increased slightly, which is possibly attributed to scavenging of wolf kills. Bison numbers have remained stable, as the wolves only take the weak and the old. None of these relationships affect the beaver. The connection is the elk. Without a large predator to worry about (they discounted bears?), the elk were being more sedentary, staying in the river valleys and stripping the banksides of all vegetation. This caused erosion and silting, which affected fish populations and also caused a dearth of trees for the beaver to feed on. Once the wolves were re-introduced, the elk herds were much more nervous and reverted to their normal behaviour of moving around the park, rather than staying in one spot. The banks re-vegetated, water quality improved and the beaver numbers grew.

    It was a fascinating programme.

    Apologies if this is old news for you!

  3. I&T: that's a great summary of the cascading effects the return of a top predator appears to be having on the Yellowstone ecology. In the March 2010 issue, National Geographic had an excellent illustration summarizing some of these research findings and observations:

    When I was in Yellowstone summer 2012, I found a book in a visitor's center by one of my favorite children's authors, Jean Craighead George (who has her own family connections to Yellowstone). The Wolves Are Back explains many of these changes in kid's language. I thought, heck if this is now in kid's books, it's really getting out. Still, I continue to meet people who are just learning about and being equally fascinated by this story. And changes keep happening. As an ecologist, it sure is encouraging.

    1. Thanks for the link. It is also encouraging to hear about positive inadvertant effects, rather than the constant stream (no pun intended) of negative human intervention.

      In Scotland, there is a debate about wolf re-introduction in the Highlands, but as land owners aren't even happy about the few beaver schemes, I doubt that large carnivores will be readily accepted.

      Thanks again for your ever-enlightening articles.


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