I love lists. I really do. Give me an idea for a Top Five or Top Ten Whatevers, and I’ll run with it. Frankly, I’m surprised I haven’t published a list on the blog until now. That’s about to change.
Now that I’ve published my full collection of images from my spring Yellowstone trip (view the galleries here, here and here) I’d like to recap the Top Ten Wildlife Encounters. This was my longest Yellowstone trip to date, so there was much to choose from. Some of these moments came while I was exploring on my own, while others were shared with friends or clients, which made them even more special. Some may not seem like a big deal to most people, or perhaps they didn’t produce very good photo ops, but they may have been special for other reasons… a rare sighting, for example.
I’ll spread this list over a series of three posts that will run today, Wednesday and Friday. Today, we’ll start with numbers 10-7. Let’s get started!
#10: Northern Pygmy Owls
You all know I love owls. I also love Firsts. If I find an animal inside the park, or even in a certain area of the park, that I’ve never seen there before, I get excited. It doesn’t matter if I’ve seen it just outside the park boundary or photographed the species endlessly back in Washington. There’s a sense of discovery and a bit of an epiphany that comes with every new sighting. Oh cool, I can find this animal here! It’s another piece of the puzzle, and something that gives me one more place and subject to explore and seek out on future adventures.
I had never seen a northern pygmy owl inside Yellowstone. Sure, I’d photographed one in Silver Gate a couple winters ago, and I had a couple of nice photo sessions with northern pygmies closer to home earlier this year, but I’ve never found one inside the park park boundary. It didn’t take long to rectify that situation.
On Day One of this trip, I found not one, but two northern pygmy owls! Ironically, I only found them because I was searching for a different elusive owl species, the long-eared owl. A former client of mine, Robert Warrington, had discovered a pair of long-eared owls near the Hellroaring Trailhead prior to my arrival in Yellowstone. Long-eared owls are an extremely rare find in the park, with only one or two sightings typically reported each year. So when Robert found two and was able to photograph them, I was excited. Like the pygmies, the long-eared owl is a species I photographed earlier this year in Washington, but I’d only seen one in Yellowstone before. So again, the rarity alone made finding one a top goal once I arrived.
I pulled into the Hellroaring parking lot with my friends Bill and Peggy on my first day. The moment I stepped out of the car, I heard a tooting sound coming from up the hill. That wasn’t a common bird call. It sounded like an owl… but it wasn’t the long-eared. Peggy, being an expert birder, confirmed that it was a pygmy.
Then it was just a matter of finding a way up the steep slope to track the owl down. As I got closer, I began to realize there were two calls coming from up high. Two pygmy owls hooting back and forth.
Eventually I did find them, perched high up in a couple pine trees about 75 yards apart from each other. Based on the calls, they may have been two males staking out territory, rather than a courting pair (breeding season is normally earlier in the year). Because they liked to perch high up at the tops of the trees, the lighting was really poor for photos… but it was still a treat seeing my first pygmy owls inside Yellowstone.
And, believe it or not, a few days later I found another pygmy owl in a different part of the park! Plus, I did see a long-eared flying before dawn, only my second in Yellowstone. It was a great trip for owls, for sure, as we’ll see later in this list…
Blaze and I have history. For those that don’t know, Blaze is a grizzly sow who hangs out near Yellowstone Lake. Back in 2011, she put on a show during the spring, and I seemed to be the only photographer who missed every great “performance” she and her little cub (later nicknamed Hobo) put on. We’re talking about really fun behavior with incredible photo ops… the type of stuff that went down as My Best Moment Ever in Yellowstone for some photographers. And yeah, I missed it. I never ran into her in subsequent years either. So you could say Blaze and I never really got along all that well.
Well, I finally had a nice visit with her this spring. Granted, I missed the really good moments, when she and her two new cubs were playing very close to the road, but I still had at least one prolonged photo session with this grizzly bear family that made me feel a bit better about where Blaze and I stand.
Blaze and her little ones spent a full day wandering around near Mary Bay. For the most part, they were pretty far away, but it was still a treat to see these very energetic cubs following Mom, practicing digging, nursing and even chasing the occasional raven or goose.
Edit: I wrote this post well before any of the controversy surrounding Blaze and the death of the hiker in Yellowstone occurred in August. All of that happened while I was out of the country (and out of touch with civilization) during a tour. If you’d like to read more about the Blaze issue, please take a look a this thoughtful article by friend and fellow photographer Keith Crowley.
#8: Phalarope Murmuration!
Two words I never thought I’d utter in the same sentence: Phalarope. Murmuration.
If you’re asking me to translate to English at this point, I’ll do my best. The wildlife in question is the Red-Necked Phalarope, a small shorebird that’s not seen all that frequently in Yellowstone. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve seen them at all prior to this trip, though I have seen a couple of individual Wilson’s phalaropes, a species that is very similar in appearance. I believe phalaropes migrate through the park like so many of the other aquatic birds seen in spring (e.g., American avocets, harlequin and ruddy ducks), which is why they’re an uncommon sight.
A murmuration is a term usually applied to a flock of starlings. It’s informally used to describe large flocks of birds that fly about in formation, at times forming tight balls, at others loosening and transforming the flock into strange shapes as they bob and weave through the sky. You may have seen this lovely video by Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith, featuring a starling murmuration.
On this particular day I visited Yellowstone Lake and was surprised to see a murmuration gliding over the surface of the water. I pulled over to snap as many photos and video (which I hope to share at some point down the road) as the birds soared back and forth across the lake. Sometimes there were two or three flocks moving at once, crossing in different directions. They flashed from drab beige and gray to stark white as they banked and weaved, exposing their bellies and the undersides of their wings before turning again. It wasn’t until I examined the photos afterward that I was able to identify the birds as red-necked phalaropes.
So I’d gone from seeing only one or two of these birds at most to witnessing great flocks of them performing dynamic maneuvers on an otherwise dull, spring afternoon. Another first for me in Yellowstone, which is part of what makes the park so great. Every visit offers up something new.
#7: Fox Den
Because I was leading a number of photo tours this spring, I was confined to Yellowstone and didn’t have much flexibility to venture very far outside the park boundaries. So I had to sit and watch as friends and fellow photographers flocked to the Grand Tetons to photograph a lot of the cool wildlife down there. Among the spring Teton highlights were great gray owls, a cooperative pine marten (a true rarity) and loads and loads of red fox kits. There were several active fox dens down south, but it was a different story in Yellowstone.
The foxes in Yellowstone had been pretty active. We’d seen adults commuting here and there, usually on their way out to hunt or returning home with several rodents (and one time a goose egg) crammed in their mouths. But the den sites were tucked away out of view.
Finally, a fox chose to house its kits in a much more accessible area: right next to the main road! It was a dangerous spot for the family, as the adult often needed to cross the road when venturing out to hunt. And once they got old enough, the kits were sometimes brave enough to wander up near the road.
The park service did put up several cones in an attempt to keep visitors from parking and stopping right next to the den, and to keep photographers at a reasonable and legal distance. This worked for a while. However, summer crowds continued to grow, and more casual tourists and first-time visitors kept ignoring the barriers, which ultimately created a potentially dangerous traffic situation. So the park service was forced to close down the site to all traffic.
Nonetheless, I was fortunate to have a couple opportunities to bring clients to the spot while the area was open, and we had a chance to photograph some of the kits and the very photogenic vixen as she lingered near the den.
Check back on Wednesday for numbers 6 – 3 on the list! And remember, you can view all of my spring 2015 Yellowstone photos (and order prints of any of them) in the following galleries:
If you’d like to join me on next spring’s Yellowstone adventures, learn more on the tour website.