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Yellowstone Spring 2015 Trip Report, Days 8 & 9 (May 18 & 19)

Day 8, May 18
It was a late night on Sunday, so I opted to sleep in Monday morning. I didn’t want to skip the morning entirely and made it into the park before 9am. I wondered whether I was getting in too late for decent wildlife sightings, but that wasn’t the case.

In the western Lamar, a small grizzly bear walked down the hill through the sagebrush. I pulled over and the bear headed right at me as I shot through the car window.

Another 10 yards and I’d have a clear view of its face at eye level, surrounded by sage… a cool shot, to be sure. And then the bear turned, its attention occupied by something underground. It proceeded to dig for a bit, but after it finished it didn’t resume its course, going behind my car (and toward the other stopped cars instead). So close.

Next stop was the Tower Road, where I stopped to listen for pygmy owls. I heard the ruffed grouse drumming again, and faintly from the top of the hill, the telltale call of the pygmy echoed. I opted to hike up again, in hope that the owl might be in a better position than the first time I found it. This time I chose a slightly less strenuous route, heading up a game trail diagonally rather than straight up the tall, steep hillside.

Halfway up, the owl stopped calling. Great. Without any audible clues, it would be nearly impossible to find such a small bird in the pine forest. We continued up anyway, stopping at an open meadow dotted with aspens. Across the meadow was a bear! Not one of the sows that’s been in the area. Instead, it was a large chocolate-colored cinnamon boar I’d seen a couple years ago at Petrified Tree. He was pretty bulky for a black bear, so I was wary about getting too close. Fortunately, when the bear saw us, he turned tail and ran back up the opposite slope.

We continued the hike, but the pygmy owl never announced its presence. On the way back down the far hillside, we could see a clearing below where Rosie and her brood were grazing. We could have easily approached for photos, but chose to skirt them, wanting to avoid sandwiching the bears between ourselves and the road, and also not wanting anyone on the road misinterpreting our intentions. So we left the bears alone and cut through the woods back to where I left my car.

Following the hike, I drove back downhill, where the Rainy Lake fox was busy carrying a couple of snacks back up the road. I didn’t get anything useful in the way of photos as it passed by, but the small fox jam did get Ranger John to stop. He stayed to chat, which can be fun since John has some good stories to tell from his years on the job.

Bison eyeEventually, I got back to my car and headed west. I stopped at Petrified Tree, arriving a bit late for another hunting fox. At this point I was feeling a bit tired behind the wheel—nothing a 15 minute nap wouldn’t normally cure—so I drove to the Hellroaring lot and shut my eyes. Just as I dozed off, some huffing and puffing disturbed my sleep. No, it wasn’t exhausted hikers coming from the trail. Instead, a large bull bison crossed in front of my windshield and came over by my window in order to drink from a puddle right next to my car. I carefully and quietly picked up my camera for a few intimate portraits.

I was unable to sleep after that, so I hit the road again and made it all the way to Gardiner, where I had to run errands. On the way back into the park, I was going to stop at the owl nest, but a ranger was in the process of clearing out the area due to the presence of nearby grazing elk.

So I moved eastward. Sunday’s black sow with two cubs was attracting a large crowd east of Phantom Lake again. I found a roadside spot and waited to see if any photo opportunities would emerge. The bear family was just waking up from a midday nap. The sow descended to the open meadow below the road while the cubs climbed a very tall tree and hung out at the top (which happened to be close to eye level) for some time.

Eventually the cubs returned to the ground and momma bear led them back up into the woods.

At Floating Island Lake two bald eagles were attracting a crowd (supposedly there’s a carcass there). After weaving through that, I returned to Petrified Tree hoping the hunting fox might reemerge. Instead, I found Bill and Peggy, and soon the Dutchies showed up, which led to Happy Hour in the parking lot. A few minutes in, Bill spotted the fox, so I dropped everything and grabbed my gear. I was able to photograph the fox both at the lot and at the bottom of the hill as it hauled rodent snacks back to the den. But the light was difficult and the fox was a ways away, so nothing all that interesting came out. Still, it was fun to spend some time shooting something other than bears (and birds). Gotta love the variety this park has to offer!

On the way home, yesterday’s Barronette black bear had suddenly turned into two black bears… so we may have a courting pair up here in the northeast corner.

Day 9, May 19
Eight years ago today I had my best day ever in the park. I didn’t expect to match that incredible day’s activities, but it was still a fun and successful adventure.

We decided to explore the Northern Range in the morning, followed by a trip down to the lake in the afternoon. Yes, we were going to brave the dreaded Construction Traffic!

Resting black bearJenn and I hit the road at the normal time for our northern exploration, but not before waving to a pair of moose from our porch. We passed through the Lamar without incident and arrived at the Tower Road. Very few vehicles were on the road, but there was still a small backup. A black bear was resting right next to the road.

It had to be one of the sows that’s been in the area, but which one? Looking up, I spied two dark blobs at the top of the tree. I couldn’t see the fur color, so the jury was still out, but when we came back down the hill, we counted a third cub at the top of a neighboring tree. So it was Rosie.

As we idled and Jenn snapped a couple photos out the passenger window, a vehicle pulled up behind us. The young man driving got out and sauntered over. He stood maybe 30 feet away from the bear, cell phone in one hand to record the moment, a half-eaten apple in the other. He was likely ignorant of the fact that this was Rosie, and that he was lucky it was not the other sow, who’s gained a reputation for having a temper.

We waited until he was safely back in his vehicle before departing. Our next stop was the Petrified Tree road to look for the fox. Sure enough, it was hunting and stashing what I thought was prey near the bottom of the road. After inspecting the few photos I took, it looked like it actually had an egg in its mouth (perhaps a goose egg). The fox didn’t hang around long, and soon was across the road to continue hunting down near Elk Creek.

We made one more stop at Rosie’s spot. She was up and grazing, and eventually called the cubs down before disappearing into the woods. The small group of photographers on hand turned their attention to a ruffed grouse that was drumming somewhere in the woods nearby. I showed them the traditional spot where I’ve seen it the last couple years, and thankfully after about five minutes the grouse did actually appear (saving me some embarrassment!).

It was time to venture south, through the construction and down to the lake. First, we needed an hour-long nap on the quiet and secluded Upper Terrace Drive, and then we timed our lunch stop to take place at Otter Creek. I’d be lying if the recent sighting of 755M in that area didn’t influence our lunchtime location.

No wolf, so after a quick meal we drove through Hayden Valley and turned toward Fishing Bridge. We’d received a tip that Blaze and her cubs were at Pelican Creek, and that proved to be good information. She was working over an elk calf she had killed earlier. After about ten minutes, she gathered the cubs and took them toward the trees for a break.

It was a good time to move on and check out the rest of the east road. I really wanted to find the cross fox that’s been seen near Sylvan Lake. However, we were delayed in getting there.

At Mary Bay, another grizzly bear wandered into view. This one was a boar, and after getting a couple distant photos I guessed it was the grizz known as Circus Bear. He was heading toward the road, but changed course at the last moment and went uphill, scattering several bison in the process. Circus Bear grazed and dug for a bit before disappearing into the woods.

Swimming grizzly bearZack had arrived at this point and mentioned how someone had photographed Circus Bear swimming in the lake recently. Must’ve been a fun sight, I thought. I’ve only seen one swimming bear in the park, a brief dip by a grizzly in the Yellowstone River several years ago.

We parted ways with Zack and continued eastward. Moments later, at the far end of the bay I looked out into the water and spotted a strange silhouette. It didn’t have a long neck like most of the swimming birds in the area. It didn’t appear to be zipping along like the beavers and muskrats I’ve seen. And it had bumps on both sides… kinda like ears.

“Is that a bear?” I asked Jenn. She grabbed the binoculars to check. Sure enough, a grizzly was swimming in the lake right at us!

We pulled into position to capture the end of the swim and to see the medium-sized grizz emerge.

It shook the water off, walked up to the road (at this point I had to suggest to the folks in front of me that they get back inside their car), and quickly crossed.

Wow, that made the whole trip south worthwhile! Which was good, because the cross fox was nowhere to be found. Back at Blaze’s spot, she was out again. This time I set up my gear to record some of the distant interaction between mother and cubs. At one point a cub climbed up onto mom’s back, very reminiscent of the show Blaze and Hobo put on back in 2011 (which I missed, of course). It was a bit far, but fun to see.

We left for the long drive home, a good three hours. There were no more notable sightings the entire way, so we were able to make it back to Silver Gate before dark.

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