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Yellowstone April 2017 Trip Report: Days 14 – 16 (The End)

April 19, 2017

I’ve obviously established a pattern of missing mornings in the park.  Something I wanted to break out of soon, but it was simply a question of whether I’d be able to do it before we left for home.

Still, I’m fortunate to get any time in the park, so I was happy to accept another afternoon drive on Wednesday.  We headed in on what was generally a sunny and beautiful day.  Based on the success of my Tuesday excursion, I think I may have preferred more rain and gloom…

Indeed, I did not touch the camera for some time.  But there were a few important sightings in the Lamar Valley.  We saw a grizzly bear not far from Soda Butte.  Apparently it was down in the flats closer to the road earlier, but when we passed through it had moved up the hillside further away.  This was likely the bear that had helped pick clean that dead bison from last week (of which only a head remained on this day).

Onward and westward we went, and as we were nearing the end of the valley we spied a small herd of bison galloping down the slope on the south side of the Lamar River.  Among them were two calves, only the second and third I’d seen this year.  To this point, the red dogs were still too far for pictures.

We drove all the way to Blacktail Plateau in search of something interesting to photograph.  Passing the Yellowstone Picnic Area, I hoped to see a fox again.  It was not to be, but a herd of bighorn rams had come down from the high slopes.  Like the elk, the bighorn sheep in the park aren’t looking so great at the moment as they shed their winter coats.  A bit ragged, and not terribly photogenic.

On Blacktail, I stopped to chat with a fellow guide, who mentioned seeing the 8 Mile wolf pack there that morning.  Otherwise, it was also a fairly quiet day for him.

When we returned to the east, things finally picked up a bit.  A quick stop at Elk Creek to snap some Mountain bluebird photos, and down the hill around the corner a smallish coyote was picking its way through the sage near the Tower ranger station.  The coyote approached some elk, which didn’t appreciate the company and quickly chased the canid off.

Elk chasing coyote

On Tuesday I had deer chasing off a fox.  On Wednesday elk chasing off a coyote.  So that meant Thursday would be all set for the Moose-Chasing-Wolf moment!

Heading back into Little America, a small crowd had formed for a bear.  It was one of my favorite cinnamon black bears, from the set of cubs that provided so many amazing photo opportunities as youngsters in 2015.  It was looking like a nice healthy two year old should, but since it was exploring the far tree line it was a bit far for photos.  Still, this was officially my first black bear sighting of the trip.

There was one more photo opportunity before we made it back to Silver Gate.  In the eastern Lamar, another herd of bison was approaching the road, and we spotted a little red dog among them.  It looked wet and unsteady on its legs as it snuggled close to its mother.  Fresh dog!

Bison with calf

As the cow turned and guided her offspring toward the road, we could see the afterbirth, still hanging from her backside.  Undoubtedly, the calf was born within the previous hour or two at most.

It was a nice way to end another afternoon excursion in Yellowstone!

 

April 20, 2017

Another day near Yellowstone, another morning spent outside of it.  I did manage to get out for a walk with our son, taking the Bannock Trail a couple miles toward Cooke City.  Though I hoped for maybe a pine marten sighting and hoped to avoid any bear encounters, all we saw was a squirrel and some moose tracks.  On the way back I found myself craving ice cream for some reason…

We finally drove into the park later in the afternoon.  Perfect conditions: fifty degrees or so and overcast, but it still didn’t improve our wildlife sightings a great deal.  A coyote crossed the road in front of us in the Lamar Valley.  Not sprinting across, but slowly stalking.  It was in hunting mode.  I pulled over as it disappeared into the nearby sage, its ears visible occasionally as it honed in on potential prey.

Coyote listening

When it moved further away, I got out and watched as it crossed a small stream, slunk low to the ground… and then dashed quite a ways—maybe 20 yards or so—before pouncing on a ground squirrel.

The valley seemed abnormally quiet.  A group of grizzly watchers huddled together with their scopes and binoculars, but there were generally very few people around.

In Little America I heard that we just missed a fox at the Yellowstone River Bridge.  Above the Tower ranger station, a bison cow licked a newborn calf clean.

Perhaps the biggest discovery was a new No Stopping Zone set up in Little America for a dead bison.  Something already appeared to have snacked on it (I’m sure I missed a show in the morning), but there were only ravens on it when I drove through in the afternoon.  With only one day left, I’d have a good excuse to finally make it back into the park early in the morning on Friday.

We did finish off our drive with a couple more bison calves crossing the Lamar River at the Confluence.  At this point of the spring, the crossing is not too difficult for them.  Things will change with more snowmelt and rising river levels in late May and June.  Finally, on our way through the densely-wooded northeast corner, a Ruffed grouse walked in slow motion (literally, dragging one foot out of the snow at a snail’s pace and then the other) toward the road.  It had better watch itself.  Every year I see one or two of these grouse dead in the middle of the highway up there.

 

April 21, 2017

Crunch.  Crunch.  Crunch.  Gotta love walking on fresh snow.  I opened the door early this morning to discover several fresh inches.  Everything was white again.  Once I finally hit the road, it was slow going, with fresh falling snow and subfreezing temps.  Very few people were on the road just yet.  It reminded me of the type of morning when I might see a moose.  Sure enough, two moose walked up the hill at Round Prairie.

It was still snowing when I arrived in the Lamar.  A bald eagle flew overhead near Old Picnic.  The valley was semi-opaque, but it created some somewhat interesting photo ops with the bison on the valley floor.

Bison and cottonwoods

The carcass I’d mentioned from yesterday was apparently not much of a carcass at all.  I was told the main part of the animal was hauled off by the rangers, leaving skin and other bits for the ravens I saw on Thursday.  So there wasn’t much point in waiting around there.

I kept forgetting that the roads south into the park opened today.  Because we didn’t originally expect to stick around this long, it hadn’t crossed my mind.  I figured I may as well take advantage of the access to new areas, even if I didn’t have a ton of time.  Driving south from Mammoth, the weather didn’t get much better.  In fact, things were a bit worse.  While the northern range is starting to feel like spring, it’s still winter in the interior.  A ton of snow stacked up everywhere.

There’s already road construction happening again between Mammoth and Norris, complete with traffic delays.  Okay, so it’s not really construction… right now they’re simply clearing the snow in order to be able to resume construction!

Most folks who reached Norris Junction today continued south toward Old Faithful.  I opted to head east.  The road was closed a couple miles south of Canyon Junction, so it’s not like I could travel very far.  But even in those scant miles there was always a chance of seeing martens or wolves or owls or otters… maybe a grizzly bear.  So it was worth a shot.

I didn’t see any of the above, as it turned out, but I did stop for photo opportunities here and there.   A raven trudged through the snow right next to the road.  Along the North Rim Drive (which is open, as it the drive to Artist Point), the ospreys have already occupied the nest visible from Lookout Point.  Visitors to the canyon today would be able to get a taste of how it might look in winter.  Perhaps not much ice, but the walls and trees in the canyon were rimmed with snow.  It was quite beautiful.

Snowy tree

As I returned to Canyon Junction, I was dreaming of wolves on the road… and spied a canid in the distance!  Well, it turned out to be a coyote.  But hey, at least there’s no question the interior is showing signs of life.

I had to return northward to get home.  Near Twin Lakes, a couple of Trumpeter swans lounged near the water.

Trumpeter swans

Bison were on the highway everywhere, north and south.  Thankfully, they didn’t cause too many major jams and I made it back on the north road in good time.  At Roosevelt I had to stop to drop off some trash, and that’s when I had the most unique sighting of the day.  As I pulled in, a bird was perched in a tree near the parking lot.  I couldn’t recognize it at first glance, due to some odd coloration.

It sported a mix of orange or red with white.  The color combo reminded me of a phalarope, but that aquatic bird wouldn’t be on a tree at Roosevelt junction, would it?  Nope.  It turned out the oddity was a semi-leucistic robin!  A first for me, and certainly a unique sight in Yellowstone.

Semi-leucistic robin

Back in the Lamar a little red dog huddled in the fresh snow.  At Round Prairie, six sandhill cranes stood together in the meadow.

Snow continued to fall all the way to Silver Gate, which probably had a food 4-6 inches of powder.  The final half of our final day was set aside for packing and preparation for the trip home, so that’s just about it for photos and adventures this time around.

Thanks to everyone who followed along.  I didn’t spend nearly as much time in the park as I normally would (I only swapped one 16GB memory card and never changed camera batteries in 16 days!), so I appreciate you sticking with these shorter and less exciting reports.  I’ll return in late May for some solo exploration and more trip reports before commencing with my annual Spring Wildlife tour.

8 Comments

  1. Reny April 22, 2017 Reply

    Hi Max,

    thanks again for taking the time to write your reports,for me they definitely weren’t less exciting.

    Great catch on that Robin.
    Love the coyote shot !

    Reny

    • Author
      Max April 23, 2017 Reply

      Thanks Reny! Have a great trip.

  2. Don Weiss (highwalker) April 23, 2017 Reply

    An enjoyable armchair trip from start to finish. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us. I’ve always somehow been disappointed in seeing robins in the park over the years. They always seemed too common to be in such a majestic place. Your capture auto corrected my opinion… The best of luck in May. We will probably be there the same week. Hope to run into you! Don

    • Author
      Max April 23, 2017 Reply

      Thanks Don. I do hope to avoid the Memorial Day crowds (perhaps exploring elsewhere outside the park), but should be roaming around that last week.

  3. Kristin April 23, 2017 Reply

    thanks for the post. enjoyed reading about your adventures. I hope to head up for a few days coming up and was wondering how the interior is. will try to stay in west Yellowstone for 2 nights.
    coming up from Idaho falls. 😀

    • Author
      Max April 23, 2017 Reply

      Be ready for lots of snow, Kristin. One of my fellow guides did photograph a grizzly bear at one of the geyser basins and otters along the Madison, so maybe you’ll have some wildlife luck on the way in.

  4. Kristin April 23, 2017 Reply

    great thanks! I’ve been keeping all layers of costs in the car. snow shoes to sandels!!

  5. Jeanne Blakesley May 1, 2017 Reply

    Thank you so much for your time and photos. I enjoy following your adventures, no matter how brief or successful. I will be in the park for 6 days in May…The highlight of our year. I’m hoping for some photo opportunities, and enjoyment of the springtime beauty… I’m thinking it might still be winter when I get there. Thanks again!

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