We just came back from an unforgettable trip to Norway, Dovrefjell- Sunndalsfjella National Park.
The idea to photograph Musk Ox in winter came spontaneously and quite unexpectedly. We’ve done quite a lot of preparation for a trip to Japan but with the things not going as planned, we gave up an idea of Japan and decided to fly to Norway in search of Musk ox. Musk oxen date back thousands of years to the Ice Age where they lived together with mammoths.
We have to admit that the trip was quite tough but at the end it was very rewarding. Images of a running musk ox and a close-up of fighting musk oxen are one of our favourite.
Our trip was divided in two parts. First we headed to Oppdal, later to another village of Dombas. Both villages are based near Dovrefjell mountain range where in 1932 a population of musk oxen was reintroduced.
In the early hours we left Oppdal accompanied by Sigbjørn and his truly amazing dog, and headed to a so called 'Sweaty hill' in search of the Norwegian population of Musk oxen.
The first unforgettable sight of musk ox male we spotted early afternoon. In winter musk oxen conserve heat and energy, so they spend much of their time resting and sleeping. This means lots of waiting for any action to happen. In winter, musk oxen prefer to stay high in mountains where winds blow the snow away from dried grass, sedges, and willows. This poor vegetation is the main food source for the animals during the time of cold. Their front hooves are larger than hind hooves, making it easier for the muskox to dig through snow for food. During summer months musk oxen typically stay in areas near water.
Musk ox has an average height of 135 centimetres and an average length of 245 centimetres. The long, thick coat of the muskox makes the animal look larger than it really is. The big bulls can weigh over 300 kilos and can survive in the extreme arctic environment for up to 20 years.
After finding the musk oxen, we’ve stayed with them till the sun went down. The night we have spent in a tent. We've managed to get couple hours of sleep. It was simply too cold...
A sky with millions of stars, freezing cold, nice company and warm breakfast... These are the things we will remember from the first night photographing musk oxen.
Just before the sunrise, we headed back up to the mountains.
Just when we wanted to head to another location, musk oxen decided to challenge each other and test their strength.
Much more powerful fights for dominance can be seen in late summer/early autumn. During head butting, males charge up to 25 miles per hour (40 km/h) and crash together on the horn bosses on the forehead. Musk oxen can repeat this procedure up to 12 times or until one of the males cannot continue and runs away. This behavior is rarely fatal. To cushion the blow and prevent brain damage, they have an air pocket between their brain and skull. Males that compete for dominance are typically between the ages of 6 and 8 years old.
As we headed to another mountain, it started snowing... In half an hour the visibility became very limited.
We continued climbing the mountain till we reached a group of musk oxen. We stayed with them for couple of hours which in blizzard and cold was quite a challenge.
Over the course of their 600,000 year long history, musk oxen have developed ways to stay warm and protected during the long cold winter months. The most significant adaptation is a layer of extremely fine under-wool. It is said to be one of the finest fibers in the world, more luxurious than cashmere and much warmer than sheep wool.
On a third day we headed to photograph musk ox using sledges with Alaskan huskies as transportation.
The weather that day was very changeable; within a few minutes the sunshine used to turn to such heavy snowstorms that each other’s location we knew only from the howling of huskies. When the wind calmed down, we’ve managed to spot musk oxen.
Musk oxen really adore a good rub against a stone.
They might even queue for one particular spot.
Further down we’ve spotted couple calves infected with scabby mouth (nor. Munnskurv).
This virus causes skin lesions which are painful and often occur on lips, muzzle and nostrils. They develop into scabs which bleed easily. Generally animals recover but in severe cases they might die from starvation. This is more common among young animals. The rest looked strong and healthy.
Muskoxen usually have single offspring in April or May after a gestation of about 8 months. Reproductive rate is low with single calves born annually or every 2 to 3 years. Calves typically weigh 20 pounds (10 kilograms) at birth and can gain up to 1 pound a day (0.45 kilogram). Calves are dependent upon their mothers for warmth and food for their first winter, sometimes longer.
During the last days of our stay in Norway, the temperature dropped down to -20o C. Luckily the cold didn’t cause any problems with equipment and we didn’t get frostbite. For couple of days we headed to another location - small village of Dombas. There we mainly saw females with calves.
Musk oxen are very social animals. Most herds average between 10 and 20 animals. Musk oxen have two separate hierarchies – one for males and one for females. Calves are generally lowest in the hierarchy, although they determine dominance among themselves through chasing, mounting, and play.
As in Dombas mainly we have seen herds of females with calves, on our last day we decided to go back to Oppdal. We were very lucky to come across three different sightings of musk oxen.
We decided to stay with a group of males chasing each other quite high in the mountains. Musk Ox may run at the speed of 60 km/h. In general they are not aggressive towards human but if threatened or approached unexpectedly they can attack.
Good photo opportunities came when the males started to challenge each other.
Early in the afternoon the snow arrived giving as one more opportunity to enjoy beautiful winter scenes.
It was a truly fantastic trip and unforgettable experience photographic this ancient, powerful, arctic mammal.