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Yellowstone Spring 2017 Trip Report: Days 12 & 13

June 7, 2017

I’m referring to this day as Yellowstone Strikes Back, since we struggled to find much to photograph after our banner day on Tuesday.

We were awake before 4am, and on the road by 4:30.  The idea was to get down to the Lake and find grizzly bears, which had been seen the last couple days (as everyone tended to remind me when I saw them).  But of course, we couldn’t find them on this particular morning.  We did just miss a grizzly boar crossing the road, possibly the same male that’s already scared off Raspberry and her cub.  Despite a lot of backtracking and searching, the sow and her offspring could not be found.

During one of the many stops at Lake Butte Overlook, I decided to at least see if I could find the grouse.  While I was up on the hill, a bird flew in, sporting a very distinct, aerodynamic shape in flight.  A Peregrine falcon!  It landed on a tree not too far from me, and, if it would stick around long enough for me to grab my clients and my camera, could provide a rare photo opportunity for us.

Peregrine falcon

Luckily, it stayed in place for a bit, and we were able to snap a few photos before it headed to a different perch.  A few more photos (my clients even got a few really nice flight shots that I missed out on), and then it was off to other hunting grounds.

This was by far my best photo opportunity with a Peregrine in the park, and perhaps ever.  Even on the slowest of days, Yellowstone finds a way to thrill sometimes!  As we turned to go, I spotted a huge herd of elk (by current standards, probably close to a hundred head) sprinting across a distant meadow below.  Something had spooked them, and we eventually saw a couple of people emerge at the far end of the clearing.  It appeared to be a couple of park service personnel heading into the backcountry.

Our other excursions around the lake area proved fruitless, so we finally headed north.  This allowed us to stop at LeHardy Rapids, but even that didn’t pan out as I’d hoped.  The one Harlequin duck pair in the area wasn’t all that cooperative, and the weather was too nice (too much sunlight can make for some tough shooting there).

The one plus side about a slow morning is that it gave us an excuse to return to Gardiner for a midday break.  After some 13-15 hours days on the road, everyone welcomed this opportunity to get some rest.  Even I managed an hour of sleep to help power me through the afternoon.

In the second half of the day we went to the northeast.  Storm clouds were rolling in, so we weren’t going to get the late light we’d planned on, but the mixed weather did provide some interesting photo opportunities.  Along the way, we saw two yearling black bears on the Tower Road (the rangers were keeping traffic moving), and had another opportunity with the Yellowstone Picnic Area fox, in almost the exact same place as the day before.

Red fox

In the Lamar Valley, we stopped for a group photo just as a rainbow emerged behind us.  That was followed by a quick trip out to Round Prairie (no sign of the moose family) before we returned west.  More interesting cloud formations were forming, so we stopped a couple more times in the Lamar to shoot some bison-filled landscapes.


June 8, 2017

It was the final day of exploration for the spring tour participants, so I hoped we’d make it a good one.  We did, though I had some help from the denizens of Yellowstone.

The day started off with what has almost become a final day tradition in spring: Rosie and cubs near Calcite Springs.  It seems that a number of my spring tours have featured one last, solid photo shoot with the queen of the Tower Road and her family.

Black bear cubs

We spent nearly an hour-and-a-half with them, watching as they crossed the road at one point (a vanload of visitors couldn’t get back into their vehicle fast enough when one of the cubs peeked around the rear bumper).  After that, they grazed calmly below the road before disappearing into the deadfall.

Following the bear fun, we drove northeast, stopping briefly as a pronghorn and very wobbly and wet-looking fawn scurried away from the road.  It must have only been a day or two old.

I looped back so we could look for pikas at Hellroaring.  Sadly, there was no activity, unless you count the mosquitoes.  So back we went toward the Lamar.

We finally stopped at the osprey nest in Lamar Canyon.  Though the light was a bit harsh, we waited around for some time.  Just as we arrived one of the adults had arrived with a large fish, delivering groceries.  I figured it might take off right away, offering some flight photo ops for the group.  Instead, it stuck around and preened.  So the eggs must not be hatched (at that point, food runs would be made frequently).  For over an hour, we waited for action.  One quick flap and hop to a lower branch, and a long time later, the osprey finally took off again before landing in a tree further up the canyon.

By that point it was late morning, and the clients agreed to another midday break, after which we could stay out late again.  So we didn’t resume our park exploration until 3 in the afternoon.  I wanted to take them to a couple more areas we had not hit yet during the week.  With many of my clients staying on in Yellowstone after the tour (or making return trips later), it’s always important for me to build their knowledge base so they have more fruitful exploration on their own.

So we drove uphill from Mammoth and crawled through the Upper Terrace Drive (good in the mornings sometimes, empty on this particular afternoon) and then drove onward to visit Sheepeater Cliff.  People love to say there are pikas here, but I’ve only seen one once on the trail (not near the lot) many years ago.  Still, I probably had this secret hope one might pop out.  Or I’d take a pine marten passing through.  Regardless, one can at least rely on some other cute critters.  On Thursday there were several golden-mantled squirrels and a chipmunk scurrying about.  A couple marmots waddled over the rocks, and then eventually we saw what are perhaps the youngest baby marmots I’ve ever seen.  They were quite shy, but we managed to sneak a few photos.

Then it was time to make one last run to the northeast corner.  We did make one more quick stop at Hellroaring, but there was still no sign of the pikas on what had been a pretty warm day.  So we drove up the Tower Road to check on our bears from the morning.  A large crowd of people and vehicles greeted us as we rounded the bend below Calcite Springs.

Ah, summer.  The last two days have really picked up in terms of visitation, with the popular areas of the park filling fast from late morning until early evening.  In this case, folks had obviously spotted the bears somewhere on the south hills.

I’m driving a passenger van for this tour, so parking for my slightly larger vehicle is at something of a premium in crowded jams.  But lo and behold, there was a perfect spot to pull in at the large pullout just beneath the Calcite lot.  Now if only those couple people would move out of the way…

I slowed and indicated I’d like to pull in.  A couple folks moved aside in the large (at least 50 foot) gap to let me in.  Except for one guy who had dragged his son over while he was trying to take pictures of the bears on the opposite hill.  After a couple seconds, seeing he was still planted in place, I rolled down my window and asked if he could make room so I could safely pull my van off the road and out of busy traffic.

He didn’t respond and kept snapping away.

Since he was so firmly planted in place, I double-checked to make sure his son hadn’t secretly tied his shoelaces together.  Why wouldn’t he make room for us?  I asked again if he could move slightly to make room for us to park, as traffic began to build up and cars and people milled about.  He finally responded, not by accommodating us, but by lecturing me about how rude I was wanting to “block his shot.”  Then he slowly shuffled aside.  As I was pulling in, I again explained that I was simply trying to pull off to keep the situation safe for everyone.  He retorted with more anger.  Apparently it was too difficult to stand anywhere but the middle of a fifty foot parking space to take photos.  The other three or four people in the same pullout (who had moved aside) looked on awkwardly.

By the time we did manage to squeeze off the road, the bears had moved on further up the hill and out of sight.  Oh well.  Dad of the Year gathered his troop, hopped into his car and drove off.  I noticed a window sticker on the back windshield that read, “Be Awesome.”  Indeed.

Thankfully, my faith in humanity was restored rather quickly.  Our next stop was at a bear jam in Little America, where we watched a distant cinnamon bear (one of the two-year-olds in the area) and chatted with park visitors who were quite friendly.  As we stood around watching the bear from a distance, the light colored YPA fox showed up, like clockwork, and walked right through the crowd before anyone had a chance to move.

The fox traversed the road, crossing several times, and a couple minutes later we saw it sprinting back toward the hills further to the east.  Perhaps it had a close encounter with a vehicle or a larger predator.

We rolled on.  We missed the moose action at Round Prarie, but on the way back through the Lamar, one of my clients spotted a bull bison who looked like he wanted to cross the creek.  We pulled over at Footbridge, and hustled down to the bridge just as the bull found a place to cross.

American bison

We finished photographing the crossing right as a group of hikers emerged from the Cache Creek Trail.  They said they’d had plans to camp overnight, but that changed when they encountered a grizzly bear out in the valley, less than a mile down the trail.

I’m not sure it was the same bear, but by the time we made it back on the road, a medium-sized grizz was foraging in the flats west of Hitching Post.  It caused quite a jam, thanks mostly to the lead vehicle stopped in the opposite lane… which essentially backed up both sides of the road since people had trouble pulling around him.  This was all in the No Stopping Zone, of course.

We eventually made it through, and began the slow drive home.  A nice moonrise was expected soon, so I intended to make a quick detour up Dunraven, but we were waylaid by Rosie and her family near Rainy Lake.  So we spent one last session with the black bears.  It was getting dark, and the mosquitoes were relentless, but we waited until the bears crossed behind the pond (as they often do), giving us some reflections.  As one of the cubs took a dust bath in a small crater on the far shore, a family of wary Canada geese watched, and a muskrat quietly swam with a huge clump of grass back to its den.

Okay, it was nice to have one last photo session, but it was getting late and time was running out to get dinner in Gardiner (most restaurants close very early).  So we hit the road… and had to stop for a moose and newborn calf crossing near Floating Island Lake.  And then we had to slow for another moose and calf sighting near Geode.  And then we had to stop altogether when I spotted elk silhouetted on the far ridge line.

Elk herd

Meanwhile, the large moon rose behind us.  Plenty to photograph in Yellowstone, even in the dark.

And plenty of mosquitoes.  There was only so much we could take, so we returned to the safety of the vehicle and spent the rest of the drive swatting at bugs and venting them out the window.

We arrived in Gardiner with less than a minute to spare, so at least nobody would starve this evening.  It was quite a frantic end to a fantastic tour.

Big thanks go out to my wonderful clients this week: Doug, Jake, Miyuki, Sheila, Susanne and Wolfgang.  What a wonderful group to work with.

The trip’s not quite over!  One more report to come…



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