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Yellowstone Spring 2015 Trip Report: Days 10-12 (May 20-22)

Day 10, May 20
Wednesday was a day off from the park for me, as we caught up on work back in Silver Gate.

We did have friends over for our traditional spring pancake breakfast, which was punctuated by a surprise grizzly sighting! The bear emerged from the woods and was heading at the cabin when our excited babbling (I admit it, I babbled) or the presence of the workers at the cabins next door caused it to turn away. The bear turned and walked down next to our driveway before finally disappearing across the road. Next year I’ll probably spring for a marten appearance, as their appearances fees are cheaper.

Day 11, May 21
What a day Thursday turned out to be, despite some near-misses in the morning and a very rainy afternoon.

Western meadowlarkI was on my own the first half of the day. As I turned onto the highway in Silver Gate, the cow moose and yearling calf that have been hanging out in town were grazing a short ways away. I made it to the Lamar in good time. As I approached the Buffalo Ranch, several wolf watchers were pulled over scanning the north hillside. Up on that hill, a number of small bison herds were trotting down the slope, seemingly spooked by something. Apparently three wolves had been seen up there, and they were coming eastward.

I wanted to capture some of the bison coming down the hill on film (er, “film”), so I drove west of the ranch a short ways and set up. The wolves were not in sight, so I photographed the buffs and their offspring as they streamed through the sage. Then the call of a meadowlark pierced the air, and when I looked to my right it wasn’t too far away. This is a bird that usually flies off before I can get decent photos, so I snapped a couple pictures.

While I was doing this, a car pulled up and a gentleman asked if I had seen the wolves. I motioned toward the hill and said that they were presumably somewhere up there. “No,” he said. “They just crossed the road.”

I looked out to the west, and sure enough, out in the flats maybe 300 yards away, a black wolf was trotting across the floor of the valley. Shoot. I had just missed a crossing due to my dalliance with the bird and bison.

Two wolves—the black and a gray—trotted across the valley, heading south. Large herds of bison roamed the southern end of the valley floor near the Lamar River. They naturally shied away from the oncoming predators and waded into the river en masse. One, two, three little red blobs were swept downstream as bison calves were separated from their mothers. If the wolves were a little smarter (or perhaps a little hungrier), I suppose one of them could have done the spooking upriver while the other waited downstream to pick off the little red snacks. Instead, the wolves took only minor interest in the buffs and skirted the edge of the herd.

At Slough Creek, a grizzly sow with three COYs grazed in the mid-level meadow above and east of the gravel road. This is the same spot that a grizzly sow hung out in two years ago, then with two new cubs. Not sure if it’s the same bear, but based on the behavior two years ago, I had little faith that this family would come down any lower any time soon.

I continued west. Coming around the curve past the Yellowstone Picnic Area, I encountered a slowed vehicle. A guide I know was looking out the window scanning the hills. I thought he might have a fox, but instead it turns out that a wolf had just dashed in front of his car. Another crossing just missed!

I pulled into Wrecker and scanned the hillside below Junction Butte with binoculars. There was a gray wolf, collared, disappearing into the trees.

At this point I knew it was too late to follow—there’s no way I could keep up with a wolf on foot even if I wanted to–but it did remind me that I had promised myself a chance to explore the backside of the butte, where I had never hiked before. Aside from wolves, it’s good mountain lion, bear, fox and badger terrain, so I didn’t really need an excuse to hike back there.

I went up the hill and through the trees, walking out into some open sage beyond. The area back there is much more expansive than I expected, as I thought the river canyon butted up against the backside of the trees seen from Wrecker. I roamed about aimlessly, checking out some of the tall boulder outcroppings that overlook the river canyon. A lone red-tailed hawk was the lone animal I tried to photograph early on (and unsuccessfully).

As I clambered down from the high boulders I looked to the east and saw two wolves harassing a bison. Very cool to see, but very far away (at least 500-600 yards). The wolves eventually left the bison alone and trotted eastward into Little America.

At this point Bill and Peggy caught up to me. They had seen me enter the tree line from the Wrecker lot. They didn’t know about the wolf, but were interested in bears and other critters, so we continued to explore the back side of Junction Butte. We went down to the Lamar River, where we found an old bison skull, some trash someone had dropped (that I packed out), and a fishing rod that happens to belong to someone close to my home town, so I’ll be making a phone call when I get home next month.

We did find some older piles of bear scat, but the most interesting stuff was the birdlife. A couple of red-tailed hawks circled above. Flickers flew to and from a nest. Mountain bluebirds were chasing each other everywhere, and Cassin’s finches flew down to a natural spring. There was even a pair of Williamson’s sapsuckers that stopped to peck at a couple of the nearby trees.

Though it wasn’t a great mammal hike, it was very interesting, with loads of nice birds.

It was closing in on midday when we returned to the parking lot. I needed to head home for lunch and to haul Jenn into the car for an afternoon drive in the park. Twice I almost left Little America to head to Silver Gate. Twice I was sidetracked.

Several cars were pulled over and photographers were out staring at something to the south. On a distant hill I saw a running black bear with two cinnamon dots trailing behind it. This was presumably the sow with new cubs that had been photographed well over a week ago, but which I had yet to see. And yet, this was not what most of the photographers were concentrating on. They were looking closer to the road, in the flats. I thought maybe one of the wolves I had seen earlier was chasing the bear. Instead, it turned out to be a badger.

The badger emerged from the sage and crossed an open meadow fairly close, allowing everyone to snap a couple photos. Meanwhile, the bear family scurried west, avoiding a massive group of at least 60 school kids that had just started a hike to Specimen. I monitored the bears for a short time, but wasn’t convinced they were coming within photo range. So I turned to leave for home for the second time… and that’s when the sow finally turned north toward the road.

Black bear with cubSo I pulled over again. And set up my gear again. And the bears kept coming. The cubs were following mom, bounding all over the deadfall on the hill. I was standing beyond the large pond near the road when momma bear turned right and headed straight downhill… toward the pond.

The rangers were on the scene at this point, but they allowed everyone to remain in place as long as the bears kept to the other side of the water. It was a fantastic sequence.

The bears were maybe 50 yards off the road at the closest point, with clear viewing (except when the long grasses obscured their drinking session). And everyone was well-behaved. There were lots of cool photos to come from this, and I’m sure I’ll share more down the road.

Okay, so I was finally heading home. But I ended up making two more quick stops. More bison were crossing the Lamar River with calves, but the midday sun caused too much heat distortion for good photos or video. And just past Pebble Creek I spied the biggest badger I’ve ever seen entering a freshly-dug hole right next to the road. I snapped a couple quick photos of this goliath before he shuffled back down into the hole.

That was nearly the end of the action, but Jenn and I did have one more interesting encounter before we returned to the park. On our way up to Cooke City, a small, scraggly fox was walking along the road with some prey in its mouth. The fox put its meal down at one point to do a little mousing in the grass (unsuccessfully) before moving on with its previous catch.

The afternoon was much more benign. A cow moose grazed at the Confluence. An osprey perched above the river at Old Picnic, and back at the west end of Little America, the black bear family remained under a tree, where the sow slurped up the remains of a bison calf carcass she had discovered. The second half of the day was very wet, so I didn’t do much photography, but the incredible morning more than made up for that.

We ended up in Gardiner for dinner, a chance to say goodbye to the Dutchies before they departed for the Tetons and home. We drove back to Silver Gate mostly in darkness. At Round Prairie, an unidentified bear (too dark to tell what species) held up traffic while someone tried futily to take pictures using their flash from 30 yards away.

A long day, only half-full of action, but it ended up being the best day of the trip so far.

Bison in fogDay 12, May 22
I brought Jenn in for her last full day in the park before her departure on Sunday. We got going a bit late, but it worked out okay. The Lamar Valley was blanketed in fog, which made for some interesting bisonscapes.

Back toward the Yellowstone Picnic Area, the sow with cinnamon cubs was out and active again. There were a lot more trees in this area, so it was very difficult getting open views.

I lingered for a few photos before continuing to the Tower Road. Someone had asked to meet there so I could show them a few wildlife spots. Unfortunately, they never showed up. I spent the time checking on the ruffed grouse (heard but not seen) and listening for the pygmy owl (which did eventually start calling at the top of the hill).

My contact was running late, and I thought I knew why. They had to be with the bear family back near the Picnic Area. So we drove back there, and sure enough, nearly everyone was there. The timing was great, as the sow was just coming down to cross the road. I had time to set up as the cubs followed mom across the pavement.

The well-behaved crowd and helpful volunteer ranger parted for the bears as they crossed and went down for another drink of water, this time to the large drying pond on the north side of the road. Everyone got a great view of the cubs as they followed mom around, stood and scampered about. It was another fun show by this bear family.

Once the sow had slaked her thirst, she hurriedly led the cubs across the open sage northward toward more the trees.

Cinnamon black bear cubsFollowing that show, it was time for an annual rite of spring: the first drive over Dunraven Pass… and the subsequent spotting of nothing while driving over Dunraven Pass for the first time.

We made it all the way down to Mud Volcano before spotting anything of interest, a grizzly on the far side of the river. Fishing Bridge, Pelican (where an otter had been seen earlier in the day) and Mary Bay were all quiet. At Sedge Bay, we could see about six remaining eared grebes along the shore.

I was beginning to tire out by the time we reached Lake Butte Overlook, so we took a nap and then had lunch. Afterward, a quick trip east to Sylvan Lake yielded no fox sightings as I’d hoped. On the way back I stopped to photograph a nice scene with a bison, the lake and mountains near Sedge Bay. A trip south to Gull Point Drive and Bridge Bay offered up a quick Swainson’s hawk sighting, but nothing else.

On our way back north, we stopped at a pullout south of Hayden Valley to walk along the river a short ways. We found the remains of three or four bison carcasses, all picked apart long ago. Nonetheless, we still emitted the occasional shout of “Hey Bear!” just in case a scavenger was in the area.

At Trout Creek, I finally had a chance to pull out the gear again. A lone grizz–perhaps the one spotted at Mud Volcano earlier—was walking along the far side of the river. There was a huge bear jam. Thankfully there were several large pullouts there to accommodate what must have been a hundred vehicles… but not one ranger was present. Still, as long as the bear remained on the other side of the river things were pretty benign.

The bear looked young and had a collar. I wondered if it might be Hobo, who I’d heard was collared this year.

The next bear jam was back over Dunraven Pass, down at Rainy Lake. An insane amount of people were trying to photograph Rosie’s family through the trees. It was only when I realized I recognized almost no faces in the throng that it dawned on me: Memorial Day Weekend has begun!

At Petrified, folks were scoping a distant bear. I didn’t feel like experiencing the inevitable bear jam at Phantom Lake (where the sow with two black COYs had been all day), so instead we headed for home a bit early. There was one final bear sighting: a lone black at Warm Creek. Probably the same individual we’ve seen between there and east of Silver Gate this past week.

There was one final wildlife sighting after I had already unloaded the car at our cabin. I walked out to Soda Butte Creek after hearing a strange noise (which, in retrospect, was probably just someone’s engine), and discovered a pair of harlequin ducks settling in for the evening.

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