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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Moose Mania

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Steve Curwood takes a journey into the Maine woods with moose-lover and wildlife photographer Bill Silliker.


TOOMEY: Photographer Bill Silliker is a man obsessed. As these things go, it could be worse. He's obsessed with moose, those lanky, prehistoric-looking creatures with big lips and bad eyesight. Lucky for us, Bill likes to share his obsession with others, and he offered to give us a tour of Maine's north woods, where we'd meet some moose. On a road near Mt. Katahdin, Living on Earth's Steve Curwood saw why Maine is called moose country.

(A vehicle on the road)

SILLIKER: See where those cars are stopped?


SILLIKER: I'll bet you there's a moose down there.

CURWOOD: It's getting dark. Dinnertime at what locals call the salad bar for moose. Along a paved logging road close to the park.

SILLIKER: I think we've got three moose here, and they're munching. One of them is a pretty good-sized bull. Decent. Not big, not that big. Youngster. Four moose. Hey, the guys are all hanging out here. We could pull right over there on that side, and I might even set up a camera, though there's not much light. This guy's a decent bull right here. Look at the rack on this guy. He's just growing his antlers for the year, and by the fall he'll have that hardened bone. Right now they're in what they call velvet. It's blood vessel-laden tissue.

(Door opens)

SILLIKER: Why don't we get out and hear some moose?

(Door shuts, distant peeping, footfalls)

CURWOOD: Vegetation here is loaded with salt. It's a taste delight for bull moose.

(Footfalls, peeping)

CURWOOD: Across the road near a small pond, there's another moose all alone. Smaller than the others and surprisingly shy. It moves away as we approach.


SILLIKER: Hi. We just want to hear you eat your dinner. We're just here to watch you.

CURWOOD: It's a boy moose, a girl moose?

SILLIKER: A little boy moose. He's a yearling.

CURWOOD: And why is he all by himself?

SILLIKER: Because his mom just threw him out about a month ago. They follow their mother for a year, and then suddenly about mid-May, Mom says, "That's it," and turns and pushes him off, shoves him away, and chases him and kicks him if he won't leave. Now he's on his own. He's wandering. He's got to face the moose world by himself. She does that because she's ready to have another calf. He doesn't really know where to hang out. He's looking for a place to fit in. My wife had one yearling follow her through the woods, one time, for about a quarter mile. Just almost getting an attachment to her.

CURWOOD: Aw, looking for his mommy.

SILLIKER: Looking for his mommy. That, I suspect, he might be doing a little of it. He also looks like he wants to come up here, but every time a car comes by he's really nervous about that. I could try talking to him if you want.

CURWOOD: Would you? How do you talk to a moose?

SILLIKER: Just a little moose grunt. He's coming closer over here.

CURWOOD: All right, let's try it, then.

(Silliker grunts)

CURWOOD: We stand there waiting. The sky is now black, and all we can see are the shadows of trees on the steep bank down to the pond. We listen.


CURWOOD: Finally, we hear it.

(Movement through grass)

CURWOOD: He's closer than we expected. It sounds like just below us.

(More movement up and under)

SILLIKER: All right, let's see, what have we got? Everything, tripod...

CURWOOD: This time of year it's easy enough to find bull moose out by the road. But if we want to see the cows, we have to get into the backcountry. So, at five a.m. we are up at the trailhead of Baxter State Park. We catch glimpses of the great mountain above us, but we can't stop. Bill wants us to be the first people at a pond we're headed to this morning. And he makes me promise I won't put the name of this pond in the broadcast. If everybody comes, he says, the moose will stay away.


SILLIKER: A few weeks ago I was here, and there were six moose all at the same time feeding, and about four here, and this one big cow moose came out. And the other moose looked up and said uh oh, and they all left the pond.

CURWOOD: The woods grow lighter and we can tell we're nearing the lake.


CURWOOD: And Bill stops short and raises a finger to his lips. I can't see anything yet, but I listen, and I can hear a sound like splashing.


CURWOOD: Bill says, "It's a moose," lowering and raising her head as she feeds in the water.


SILLIKER: Go quietly down here through the woods. I'm listening for her head to come up again. When I hear it go back down I know she's out there feeding. I'd rather try to approach in case, for some reason, she's just startled. If I want to get closer to the edge, I'd rather not have her think that I'm a threat coming out of the woods.

(Bird song)

CURWOOD: We wait for the sound of her head going under before we move. And then...

SILLIKER: Okay, let's move.


SILLIKER: Oh, look, she's got a calf with her. See the calf?

CURWOOD: Oh yeah.

SILLIKER: It looks kind of like a golden retriever, but the legs are too long and the ears are really big. The same color as my dog.


SILLIKER: Let me set this up. (Sets up tripod) You see how she's left her calf on the other shore, though.


SILLIKER: So it's safe from people. She knows this pond. This is her home, and she knows that people frequent this side of the pond. She's safe over there. Now it would be a bad mistake for somebody to think they could walk over there to get closer to see the calf, because they would find out what it feels like to be chased by a big cow moose.

CURWOOD: How big is this moose?

SILLIKER: I'm going to guess about 800 pounds maybe.

CURWOOD: Does she stick her head all the way under the water?

SILLIKER: Yes. In fact, I've timed them, Steve. And you know, time it some time, watch and time her, and she might be underwater for a minute. Out here in the center of the pond and parts of it, moose actually submerge for food.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah?

SILLIKER: They dive like a duck. And there are some records of moose going down 20 feet or so. There's the calf. See the ears?


SILLIKER: She knows where he is.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah. Just the ears, there.

SILLIKER: Just the ears. It's kind of waiting -- whoop, here he comes. Here comes the calf. Mom, where are you? (Snaps pictures) Wants to see its mother. Moose? (Clicks) This is tuna. (Quick clicks) See it running along the shore? (Clicks) It's a feisty little calf.

CURWOOD: Can I take a look through your lens?

SILLIKER: Absolutely. Take a look through here, that is 700 millimeters you're looking at. It's about the equivalent of 14-power binoculars.

CURWOOD: And what it means is, I can see the hair standing -- there's a mane on a moose.

SILLIKER: Yes there is.

CURWOOD: It's like a horse.

SILLIKER: Yes. That's an important part of a moose, for a moose-watcher, anybody that's wanting to watch moose. If you see the mane flared, it's just like a dog. Back out. You're in trouble.

CURWOOD: You're in trouble.

SILLIKER: If she starts coming at you with her mane flared and drops her ears, that's body language and you'd better pay attention.

(An insect buzzes)

CURWOOD: This time of year it's the cow moose who can be dangerous if she feels her young is threatened. Later, as fall comes and the hormones start to flow in the males, they'll become more risky to encounter, as Bill likes to recall.

SILLIKER: You see that rock right there?


SILLIKER: One day in fall, early on in my moose photography endeavors, I came to this pond and I looked across. It was the fall mating season.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

SILLIKER: And a big bull and a cow moose came out right on that shore over there.


SILLIKER: And so I thought well, I could get a little bit closer. Even with a telephoto lens you're always trying to get a little, you know, better shot maybe. And I figured it was safe enough, they were over there. And I hopscotched on the rocks. And I got out on to that rock. And they went into the woods. And the next thing I knew, about 15 minutes later, they came out of the woods right here. (Curwood laughs) On the same trail. And I told you the bull moose can be cantankerous.


SILLIKER: This guy was. He dropped his antlers and started tossing his head back and forth like this, and -- that's a guy thing, Steve, it's like he's telling me he can kick me any time, you know. He can beat me with that. It's a challenge. And the next thing I know, he started to do his grunting behavior, and that is not a good time, when you're out there without a tree to climb, to grunt back at that guy. (Laughs) If you know what I mean. So I started talking to him, because it's the only thing I figured I could do. And I'm a pretty big guy, and I've got all this rigging. I'm thinking, could he be that near-sighted? He thought I was another moose that he was challenged by. So I said well, I'll convince him I'm human. So I really did, and the only thing I could think of to say was, you know, she's beautiful, but you found her first. And fair is fair. And she's yours, I mean, you know, she's really, really cute, but -- (Curwood laughs) You know, it's your moose. So -- oh, I need to photograph the ducks with this calf, look at that. Is that cute? (Clicks)

CURWOOD: Do you ever get tired of taking pictures of moose?

SILLIKER: Never. (Clicks) I probably have, oh, conservatively, 25,000 pictures of moose. Every sub-species. There are four sub-species in North America. I photograph them from here to Alaska, and I'm just as excited to see this moose cap as any of the pictures I've got.

CURWOOD: So far we've seen the bulls and the cows apart. And I'm curious about what happens when they come together, to make moose.

SILLIKER: I don't know how they know this, Steve, but according to the researchers more moose mate on my birthday than on any other day. (Curwood laughs) September twenty-fifth, right in the middle of the rut.

CURWOOD: Moose day, huh?

SILLIKER: Moose day. Maybe that's why I like moose so much, I don't know.

CURWOOD: Now, I've been out west and I've seen the elk at that time of year. And one big bull elk will gather up as many cow elks as he can, and the younger guys, hey, if they don't have the big rack, they don't have any girlfriends. Are the moose that way?

SILLIKER: It's interesting because in these woods, and in most of the region, even into Yellowstone area, the moose, the bull moose will chase off the guy with the smaller rack, but they don't gather that harem like the elk do. But in Alaska, the bull moose does collect a bunch of cows, because of the open tundra, I suspect they can find each other easier. Whereas in these woods, you know, you'll see them come along through the woods sometimes. But more often than not, you'll hear them first. They'll go (grunts). And that's a bull moose kind of walking through the woods, signaling to cows in the area, hey, who's around?

CURWOOD: What does she say?

SILLIKER: She'll sometimes answer back with that grunt. But more often -- I cannot do this call as well -- but if you're ever here in September, especially September twenty-fifth, unless you have a good tree to climb, do not make this call.

CURWOOD: All right.

SILLIKER: (Makes long, drawn out call) You'll more than likely have a very big friend if he's within earshot.

(Splashes; fade to music up and under)

TOOMEY: Wildlife photographer Bill Silliker talking with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood. Silliker's newest book of moose photograph is called Uses for Mooses. You can check out some of his pictures on our Web site at www.loe.org.



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