The Continuing Saga of Hoback and Shoshone
In the Tetons, two bull moose seem to get all of the attention: Hoback and Shoshone. There are several other majestic bulls, but over the past couple of years, the dynamic duo are both stunningly large and relatively “dependable”. There are times, especially early and late in the season, when you might see them together! Over a period of three or four years of photographing them, I can suggest they enjoy each other’s company. That is, of course, except during the heat of the annual rut.
Grand Teton National Park spans roughly 310,000 acres, so it might be short sighted for me to say these two are “the biggest” bulls. Still, they are the biggest bulls I know of right now. Could there be a “monster” out there somewhere? Another bull, Fremont, is equally impressive, but he doesn’t make an appearance until after the rut. Cheyenne and Bondourant area two additional contenders.
Besides his overall stature, the most distinguishing feature on Hoback is the down tine on his left antler. Then throw in the size of his paddles and he becomes easily identifiable at a long distance. Both Hoback and Shoshone have dewlaps dangling from their “bells”, so if you see one lacking the dewlap, you are looking at “someone else”.
This year, Hoback seemed to get a jump start on the other bulls. His antlers were already quite large when compared to the other mid-August bulls.
Needless to say, it takes a wacky amount of time to get these shots. My wife knows how much I like the moose, so she tolerates me being out of the house long before daylight. (week after week!).
Bulls are occasionally visible at sunrise, but especially in August, retreat to the shadows quickly as the sun begins to warm their dark fur. They plop down in the shade, but as the sun gets higher in the sky, or as the clouds blow out, they end up baking in the sun. Moose usually get up, stretch, then move to a new shady spot. It’s easy to wait hours to get only a minute or two of them standing again!
For all of August, the bulls mill around eating and taking it easy. Their primary goal is to nurture their growing antlers. Typically at the end of August and the beginning of September, bulls start stripping the velvet from their new antlers. Hoback started stripping his tender velvet on September 2nd this year. Bulls have little or no interest in the cows during the velvet period, though I often see several bulls hanging together.
Unlike some bulls, Hoback didn’t “hurry” to finish the job this year. When they catch it right, the velvet falls off in slabs.
If they wait too long, the velvet dries on the antlers, making it much more difficult to remove.
Shoshone has impressive “brow tines”. Over the past couple of years, Shoshone had five tines on each side of his brow tines, but this year, he grew an extra tine on his right side. Shoshone disappeared for a while when he “should have been” stripping his velvet. Believe me, I looked long and hard for him! When I finally located him late in the day on September 6, his bloody antlers made it appear he had stripped his velvet that morning, or possibly on the 5th. I mention it on Hoback’s page just to note he had an extra three or four days of antler growth to catch up somewhat with Hoback. At the shoulders, Hoback and Shoshone appear to be almost identical, but this year, Hoback’s paddles are definitely larger. I love Shoshone’s appearance when viewed straight on, however!
During most of the summer of 2021, the sky in Jackson Hole had a rose colored hue to it — a result of the smoke and haze from the western wildfires. I couldn’t see that it affected the moose, but it added an orange hue to many shots. This photo was taken while both Hoback and Shoshone still had velvet. I only saw them this close a couple of times. Once this year, Shoshone approached Hoback, but Hoback backed away quickly.
Last year, several of my friends told me they saw Hoback and Shoshone at Blacktail Ponds one evening during the height of the rut. No one saw them fight, but the next morning Hoback showed up with the front of his left antler broken off. A day or two later, the entire antler broke off. Hoback spent the rest of the fall and early winter with only one antler. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. When I saw Hoback back away this year, I wondered whether the fight in the previous year had anything to do with it?
The Rut Begins
After the bulls strip their velvet, they spend a day or two thrashing around in the willows to make sure it’s gone. Then, it’s off to the races! I took this photo on September 11th at Schwabacher Landing. Hoback had moved from his summer zone on the Gros Ventre River to the river bottom of the Snake. He had found a cow with a calf and was checking her readiness to breed while performing a lip curl or Flehmen Response. Cows will seldom come “into season” while they are still nursing a calf. Still, it doesn’t stop the bulls from checking.
A few days later, Hoback found a single cow. That sequence will follow!
On September 16, 14 days after Hoback stripped his velvet, he showed up late in the day at Schwabacher Landing. He crossed along the south end of the beaver pond, with ducks letting the massive shape go by and with tiny insects hovering above the water.
Hoback was on the “scent trail” of a nearby cow. All things considered, he was on a straight line to her.
Hoback did something I have been hoping to see for years…the biggest bull in the valley crossing the classic reflection pond at Schwabacher Landing. He was “on a mission” looking for the cow hidden in the stand of spruce trees across the inlet. When Hoback went into the darkness of the evergreens, I figured the show was over. I was ecstatic to have captured the crossing!
But wait…there’s more! The cow came out of the spruce trees and into the pond. Along the way, she urinated in the grass next to the water’s edge.
With few exceptions, a bull will locate the cow’s fresh urine and begin a lip curl — or Flehmen Response. True to form, Hoback put on a show for me.
“Flehmen Response: In many ungulates, the raised lip facilitates the transfer of odorant chemicals into the vomeronasal organ. In the flehmen reaction, animals draw back their lips in a manner that makes them appear to be “grimacing”. The pose, which is adopted when examining scents left by other animals of the same species, helps expose the vomeronasal organ and draws scent molecules back toward it. This behavior allows animals to detect odorants, for example from urine, of other members of their species. Flehming allows the animals to determine several factors, including the presence or absence of estrus and the physiological state of the animal” Source: Cattle Today
Occasionally, a bull will sniff the urine more than once. Hoback did that twice on this occasion, allowing me to get a few different shots and variations.
Moose are still prey animals and must keep eyes and ears alert for danger. Once clear, they are back in courtship behavior.
Another lip curl. There are times when things seem to be moving in slow motion. The precious evening light is so fleeting, and at any time, a thick cloud can spoil it. With the Tetons in the west, it can be a race against time.
While Hoback was going through his last lip curl, the cow moved across the reflection pond to the east side. Hoback began to follow her.
It’s a good thing my Sony Alpha 1 has a large buffer because I was taking a lot of photos at this time!
That afternoon, I had attached my Sigma Sport 60-600mm lens to the Sony A1. It was a great call as it let me take a variety of photos, including shots like this with reflections in the still water. (Note: Sigma does not make an E-mount version of their 60-600mm lens for Sony. To solve the “problem”, I bought a Canon version of the Sigma 60-600mm lens and added a Sigma adapter from Canon to Sony.
Typically, I’d tell myself to limit groups of shots like this pond crossing to only one or two images for this blog, but each of them are still unique.
Hoback crossed the reflection pond, pushing a large number of tourists and photographers south on the trail. Hoback was in full courting mode, but apparently the cow wasn’t.
The cow moaned, then bolted south along the pond. Hoback was in hot pursuit.
I am sure the cow would have raced south along the reflection pond, but she was startled by all of the photographers and tourists that had lined up on the trail. They were a respectful distance when the original courtship was happening. The cow made a sharp right turn into the pond in order to miss the people and evade Hoback.
Oh my gosh! What a splash! Earlier, when Hoback was crossing the pond, I had moved across the outlet of the beaver dam and was set up on the other side. Not only did I catch Hoback crossing the pond the way I had wanted, but I ended up in a good place to catch the action. I mentioned earlier that a lot of the time, photographing moose happens in slow motion. During the chase, things accelerated to light speed!
If I had known what was about to happen, I would have been much more prepared for the action…but this will have to do! Hoback’s dewlap was swinging under his neck as he paused in front of the water.
At this point, Hoback settled down. He entered and crossed the pond at his own pace.
The cow had bounded off into the dark zones on the other side of the pond.
At this point, I had backed well off the pond and shooting tight via the zoom at 600mm. I had enough shots for the day and headed back to the truck.
There’s More to the Shoshone / Hoback Story!
On my Daily Journal entry for October 7, I mentioned that Shoshone had broken off one of his brow tines on his right side. I also suggested that he must have found a comparable sized moose to challenge him. A few days later, I had a couple of reliable sources telling me they knew where his antler was…in Hoback’s head! I was doing tours at that time, so I did’t get a chance to personally see it, or photograph it, but I will just have to take their word for it.
A friend that saw a photo, said the tine had entered just above his right eye.After hearing the report, I spent quite a bit of time looking for Hoback. I finally found him on October 20. The photo shows a hole over his right eye, but no tine. The photo also shows a couple of broken tines on Hoback’s antlers. As with Shoshone, it would take a fairly large bull to actually take him on. Similar to the broken antler from last year, I’ll simply have to visualize these two big boys going at it for “keeps”. By December, I’ll likely see them gently sparring with each other in the snow and sage. Buds again!
Big Bulls Over the Years
I’ve been photographing the Teton moose for roughly 17 years. Knowing most Shiras moose live around 15 years, the odds are very good that I photographed our biggest bulls when they were just “toddlers”. Over the same period of time, I’ve seen a lot of the big bulls rise to dominance, pushing the previous big bull out of the top tier of breeders. My Best of the Tetons blog is now over 7 years old, so I’ve spotlighted some of the big bulls, some with pages of their own.
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