Visions of the beautiful face of a grizzly bear emerging from the grass with a mouth full of dandelions is what forced me to get up at the ungodly hour of 3:15 AM on June 15, 2017. It was opening day of the Highwood Pass in Kananaskis, historically a great bear viewing day, and my friend Jamie and I got a super early start. Fuelled by coffee and excitement, we rolled into bear territory around 5am, bursting with the desire to find our grizzled friends.
We traversed the Highwood pass, Smith Dorrien trail and other roads in Kananaskis, looking for that tell-tale dark figure on the side of the road for 5 HOURS. The shutter on both of our cameras remained closed the entire time – no bears, no photos, no nothing 🙁
Lack of photographic opportunities is all part of the process, we get it, but it can still be disappointing. We stopped to re-group, stretch our legs and review our game plan when a small, long-bodied figure bounded out from the bushes around some Columbian ground squirrel holes.
Willy the wonder weasel, an adorable long-tailed weasel with glimmering eyes and mud-covered fur, snapped us from our bear-less revery, inviting us into the world of a bold and ferocious hunter.
We watched him bound – literally bound – back and forth in the dewey grass, in and out of the holes of the Columbian ground squirrels. He would go in one hole, and pop out of another – always empty mouthed. I was surprised to see such boldness. I know weasels of all types are relentless hunters and will take down prey significantly larger than them, but a Columbian Ground squirrel!? They are pretty darn big by comparison. Jamie and I deduced that he might have been looking for some unsupervised babies vs. an adult, but who knows?
Unable to bag himself a ground squirrel, he hopped back to the bushes where he initially appeared. Amazingly, the ground squirrels immediately popped their heads out – one actually ran in Willy’s direction in a possible attempt to chase him off. The ground squirrels seemed to know exactly when the weasel gave up on invading their home.
He disappeared from sight for a few seconds, then re-appeared on a distant slop, chasing what we thought was another ground squirrel, but we were wrong – Willy emerged with his meal, an unfortunate chipmunk. I managed a distant shot of him with his prey before he bounded off into a large wood pile.
While only lasting about 10 minutes, this was one of my most remarkable encounters of the year so far, at least on par with (or maybe ever better than) my badger experience in Grasslands National Park. Jamie and I continued our drive for another 10 hours – the day remained bear-less but neither of us cared. Willy the wonder weasel blessed us with an appearance and our energy shifted from disappointment to optimism, resulting in a pretty great day.
Weasels are ridiculously fascinating creatures – I so rarely get a chance to observe and photograph them. Jamie has had a few great encounters with long (or short) tailed weasels, but in terms of observing behavior, the Willy encounter was top-notch for him too. See Jamie’s photo’s of a weasel in winter white on Flickr (click the arrow to the right to see the full series).
Until next time, continue loving life and everything wild 🙂