After seeing plenty of Wood Bison at a distance dotting pastures, fields and forest edges I imagined that the day I would get close and personal with the largest terrestrial animal in the americas would be along a remote trail far away from human civilization. Well I could not me more mistaken. I came across this gigantic male Wood Bison right by the fence along Highway 16. I had stopped on a gravel road turn-out along the highway and there he was, a solitary male Wood Bison, right on the other side of the fence. I could have reached out and touched him if I wanted to. I decided not to give him any reason to tear down the fence and go after me. He was certainly curious though. As I approached the fence he came right up to meet me, not the least shy. Although the wire fence looked solid and was at least 6 feet tall it would not stand a chance against an adult Wood Bison hellbent on getting through. I did manage to get some nice closed up pictures of him, including this one where he is staring me down probably wondering what my intentions were.
This is the third day of bison-themed posts. Another post and another bison…, yet, this one is different. All my bison pictures and posts so far have featured Plains Bison (Bison bison bison). Today’s picture, however, is featuring a Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae). Why the trinomial names, instead of the usual Linnaean binomial names? Well, Plains and Wood Bison are considered subspecies within the genus Bison, just like you and I belong to the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, which is different from the extinct subspecies Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, both belonging to the genus Homo. Morphologically Wood and Plains Bison can be told apart by Wood Bison being substantially larger with bulls averaging 880 kg and females 540 kg while Plains Bison bulls average 739 kg and females 440 kg – so about a 100 kg difference, not exactly spare change. Wood Bison also have a pronounced hump above their shoulder blades forward of their front legs while the Plains Bison is lacking the hump and have their highest point along their back centered over their front legs. Although they are of different sizes and one has a hump, if you do not have them right next to each other telling them apart is probably as easy as telling a Downy Woodpecker from a Hairy Woodpecker (that was a birder joke). If you visit the bison at Elk Island telling them apart (the bison, not the woodpeckers) is child’s play. If you see a bison north of the Yellowhead Highway it is a Plains Bison and if you see a bison south of the highway it is a Wood Bison. This fella was a southerner so, yeah…, definitely a Woody.
The park maintains about 450 Plains Bison and about 315 Wood Bison, selling off any surplus animals. Historically, the Plains Bison lived primarily in their Greater Plains of central North America, while the Wood Bison lived further north, from Alaska into Yukon and the North West Territories and in Northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is believed that there used to be up to 30 million Plains Bison and about 170000 Wood Bison during their heydays. All was hunky dory until the Europeans arrived. When the Europeans colonized North America the population numbers of both bison species declined rapidly. By the late 1800s, Plains Bison no longer existed in Canada and the Wood Bison population was down to about 200 individuals. Conservation efforts saved the bison from complete extinction with populations today around 375000 Plains Bison and 6000 Wood Bison.
Well, it had to happen…, my bison mojo is back. Just like last Sunday, today I was up at 5 am, on the road at 5:15 and at Elk Island by 6 am. I can get used to this Sunday morning routine. There were plenty of bison around this time. A number of Wood Bison were hanging out along the fence in the South part of the park and I probably must have seen a dozen or so Plains Bison throughout the morning in the North part of the park. Most of them were hanging out out by the aptly named Bison Loop, a few kilometres long gravel loop for for watching bison from your vehicle (but, ironically, I rarely finding bison at the Bison Loop). As I emerged from the Bison Loop I bumped into these two fellas that were taking a stroll down the main thoroughfare towards the Bison Loop (note road sign). Perhaps they just wanted to find out how it is to tour the Bison Loop from “the other side”. It was a bit hazy, probably due to lingering fire smoke, so taking photographs was a bit tricky, particularly when shooting over a long distance. One can see a bit of the haze in the picture. The morning turned out successful, however. I spend quite some time observing a very hungry Musk Rat that was going to town with the aquatic vegetables. A whole bunch of Northern Shovelers and Blue-winged Teal were in the ponds as well, both very beautiful waterfowl. I saw a sparrow that I am still working on identifying, so that one is still a loose end, but I did score two lifers, the Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus, Lifer #160, AB Big Year #111) and the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia, Lifer #161, AB Big Year #112).