Back when I started making more frequent trips to Yellowstone, either on my own or with friends, I would opt for what was familiar. Trips would happen during summer, the traditional vacation period from my school and college days. First August, then July, and eventually late June. Wildlife sightings became more numerous the earlier I went during the season, but I still wasn’t having crazy wildlife luck. Bears were a good example of an animal I seemed to do “worse” with than other park visitors, and I wasn’t sure why 1.
Eventually I joined an online community focused on Yellowstone, and began seeing posts from people who were having loads of bear encounters. These people weren’t visiting the park in summer like I was. They were going in May. So I finally planned a May visit. And just like that, I unlocked one of the biggest secrets the park had been keeping from me.
I did make short April trips to the park in 2006 and 2007 (both of which were fairly quiet), but the May 2007 trip was the spring trip I had high hopes for. This was supposed to put me in prime bear viewing season, and who knew what else might be in store for me.
A lot, it turned out. And it all seemed to happen at once on my first full day… the day that turned out to be The Best Day Ever.
May 19, 2007
This is the tenth anniversary of TBDE, something we all experience at one point or another during our Yellowstone adventures (or wildlife adventures in general). I’ve had some incredible individual wildlife encounters, and some really fantastic, action-packed days over the years during my travels around the globe. But May 19th, 2007, remains the wildlife photography day that was so good that I can’t recall another that has surpassed it in the last decade. This is a recap of that day, as written that same evening when I posted my trip report online.
I woke up at 5, and my alarm wouldn’t stop going off. Not the best way to start the day on not much sleep. It wasn’t long though before I was in the car and headed eastward. I had decided the day before that even though there was a lot going on in Hayden and the Lake area, I should still visit the northern stomping grounds first, with maybe a trip south slated for the afternoon.
The sun rose over the mountains as I drove quietly into Little America. The stillness, however, was about to end. I rounded the bend into the Lamar and entered a mad house. I had never seen so many people crowded into this place, even during the height of summer.
The photo above doesn’t do justice to the massive throng, which was piled into three turnouts and parking along the road. Apparently the night before, the Slough Pack had taken down an elk in the river at around 7:30. Now everyone within five states had rushed to the Lamar to witness what might unfold the next day. Doug Smith and Rick McIntyre were playing traffic cop and tour guide at the same time, trying to keep the mob safe and informed.
Actually, there wasn’t that much happening when I arrived. There was a black wolf out across the river that was occupying everyone’s attention. It was ambling across the flats (at one point chased by some sandhill cranes, whose honks could be heard echoing throughout the valley). There was a rumor that the Slough alpha male was on the other (north) side of the road, but nobody in the largest groups seemed to know or care. After snapping a couple very distant shots of the black wolf, I slipped away down the road to see if someone might know where the alpha might be. I walked past a gentleman standing by his car, and he asked if I had seen the gray wolf. I told him I heard it was up the road somewhere, but I hadn’t seen it.
“It’s right there,” he said.
Luckily, I managed to get some shots despite my excitement. And to think, of the 200 people here, there were only three looking at the north side of the road and this wolf. That didn’t last long though. The wolf was obviously looking to cross the road and join up with its family member.
After giving off a howl, it began running parallel to the road. Slowly, the crowd turned in a wave as word got out that the wolf was near the road.
Naturally, they began to follow it, including a car that kept pacing it. The rangers eventually stopped everyone, and the wolf disappeared down the road 2.
A drive through the rest of the valley yielded plenty of bison and a pack of coyotes that were picking over an old carcass. I headed back out of the valley and wandered up to Tower to try to find the famous owl nest. Luckily, Helene and Rene 3 were up there, along with some scopers, so I finally got to see where the nest was. Helene and Rene were off to the Lamar, and I eventually headed back down the road. Near Calcite Springs, a grouse met me in the middle of the road. As I slowed, it ran straight at my car, giving me an evil eye.
It then circled around the front of my car, and I couldn’t see it. As I was in the middle of the road, I didn’t want to run over it while I was pulling over. So I hopped out of the car to see where it went… when I was suddenly attacked from behind! Peckpeckpeck on my leg! There were actually two grouse, and now with my attacker in sight, I was able to pull the car over without causing any further injuries. Naturally, the crazy warbird flew off in a panic when I got out of the car again to take pictures (wuss!), so I snapped a few of its more peaceful buddy instead 4.
Back toward Petrified Tree I went, in search of black bears. Before the PT drive, I pulled over behind a couple of cars. It turns out there was a coyote den right beneath the road. I was lucky enough to get a couple shots of one of the adorable pups before he slid back inside the den. I waited a while, but the pups did not emerge, so I kept going… and found my bear at Floating Island Lake.
Afterward, I headed back to check on the coyote pups, and instead was treated to a male grouse (non-aggressive) showing off for the ladies.
So far, it had been quite a day, but I couldn’t believe my next encounter. I ended up back in the Lamar. The wolf activity had diminished, and at this point there were only a few stragglers left. I headed up to Round Prairie and back. Things were fairly quiet, so I headed back through the valley. I noticed a van pulled over at the Institute, but I couldn’t see anything. As I slowly pulled around them, I caught a glimpse of a flat furry shape waddling through the brush and over the hill.
It was a badger, my first in Yellowstone. I grabbed my gear and was fortunate to spot it crossing the road and into the valley. I followed it from a distance until it reached the river bank and disappeared. Slowly, I approached further down the bank and was rewarded with a curious badger head peeking out at me from a hole.
It continued to dig a couple of new holes before deciding which one was more comfortable and turning in for a midday nap.
Back to the coyote den again, again with no luck. One of the adults appeared briefly, but didn’t approach the den site, instead just lounging in the grass. After waiting for over an hour, I decided to head to the other coyote den that had been spotted from the Self-Guided Tour boardwalk at Blacktail. A boatload of photographers were setting up and we waited for about a half hour before we were rewarded. The mother showed up with a meal an the pups came bounding out of their hiding place 5.
Even after all that the day wasn’t quite over. I showed H & R the other den, but of course the pups there were nowhere to be found. We checked out the Tower owl nest once more (the adult was gone) and then I headed back toward Gardiner, but not before one last stop at that frustrating den (the pups were finally out, hooray!) and a peek at the Mammoth owl nest.
So now it’s all downhill from here, huh?
So, to recap: My favorite wolf encounter ever, two active coyote dens, including the most photogenic setting Yellowstone photographers could ever ask for, a black bear, an Attack Grouse, my first displaying grouse, two separate owl nests… and my first badger. Ten years later, it’s still The Best Day Ever!
- I often mention to folks that it took me five trips before I saw my first Yellowstone bear, mainly because I didn’t know what I was doing… this is one big reason I encourage the sharing of information and tips with first time visitors. ↩
- In September, the Slough alpha male was struck and killed by a vehicle during the night. ↩
- Dutch folks whom I met for the first time on this trip, who eventually became lifelong friends and shared in many future adventures in Yellowstone and Africa. ↩
- Ten years later, I encountered another Attack Grouse in the Lamar Valley. ↩
- A decade later, this remains far and away the best den site for photography one could ask for. We could all sit on the boardwalk a safe distance away, the rocks and lichen were very photogenic… it was all perfect, until some coyote researchers decided to walk up on top of the den, which scared the mom into moving the pups away. It hasn’t been used since. ↩