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Yellowstone Winter 2018 Trip Report: Days 15 – 17

February 5, 2018

FOXPLOSION!

After the largely uneventful final day in the Yellowstone interior, our group was hopeful that a change of scenery would bring about more photo opportunities.  The northern range did not disappoint in that regard on Monday.

It should have been a Three Dog Day.  Our morning started with two coyotes walking roadside near Floating Island Lake.  While my group was out shooting I heard that the Junction Butte wolf pack was visible from Hellroaring.  We returned westward in hopes of finally seeing some wolves with this group (even if a scope was involved).  Unfortunately, the Hellroaring Overlook was overflowing, so there was no way for us to catch a peek of the big dogs.

That was okay, since we had other, better canid luck.  Entering Little America, we finally spied a fox.  It was moving up the hill and away, so we were a tick too late for photos.  All the way east in the end of the Lamar I spotted another fox, but it was too far out in the flats beyond the willows on the valley floor.  It soon scrambled up the hill and out of sight.

No problem, because back in Little America (the east end this time), we had another fox.  And this one was mousing closer to the road.  The group happily clicked away with their first good winter fox photo session, and we were off and running.

Red fox

Approaching Roosevelt I spied yet another fox.  No, this wasn’t getting old.  It was great!  We watched as it went from roadside out into the meadow.  It appeared to be heading toward the Yellowstone River Bridge, so I drove down there and we had a short stakeout.  The fox didn’t appear after ten minutes or so, so we decided to move on.  But when we returned a little while later, there it was.  We didn’t get much in the way of photos before it disappeared over the hill.

All this fox action can make photographers hungry.  After lunch, we resumed our search.  Our fourth fox had re-emerged, this time with company.  Two coyotes eyed it from high above.  Hungrily perhaps?

Coyotes

We let the fox trot away, but spent some time watching the coyotes, which stood at attention from their high perch.  My British client described them as “John Wayne coyotes.”  Which I guess is a compliment.

We let John and Wayne go, and drove back to the west.  By now, we had heard of yet another fox (and later two more individuals… meaning there were at least eight foxes out within view between Blacktail and the Lamar), so it was worth checking on that and revisiting Hellroaring in case the wolves were out.  They weren’t, though we did see another coyote west of Roosevelt on the way.  Canids were letting loose Monday!

There was time for one more pass out to the Lamar.  I love the fox action, but it was time to look for otters.  We drove all the way to the Confluence, which was otterless, but above which a host of bighorn rams grazed.  A couple hung out closer to the road, including what is probably the largest male I’ve ever seen in this eastern Lamar bachelor flock over the years.

Bighorn sheep

I was ready to head for home, but after peeking back at some sunlit peaks to the northeast, I decided to make one more trip up toward Round Prairie.  Though this detour didn’t prove to be particularly fruitful (we did see moose in their usual digs along the way), it did prove beneficial.  On the return leg, just as we passed the Confluence, I spotted… an otter!

But wait, it wasn’t alone.  It was the trio of otters that’s been seen on and off in this area this winter.  I was able to drop my clients off in time so they could nab the only shots of an otter getting out on the ice.  Otherwise, the mustelids were intent on swimming downriver without much pause.

They, like my lone otter with the last tour group, eventually disappeared around the bend.  A group of us tried to drive down into the valley and catch them further along the river, but they never reemerged.  Just like last time.  Nonetheless, it was a fantastic way to cap the most active and fun day of the tour so far!

 

February 6, 2018

Buoyed by the success of Monday’s adventures, we entered the park in a good mood on Tuesday morning.  And that carried us through a long day filled with ever-changing weather and occasional-but-often-challenging photo ops.

We actually completed our Three Dog Day this time.  After stopping to scope the Junction Buttes from Hellroaring (we barely fit into the last spot in the lot this time), we had a coyote in the Lamar at 8:23.  One of the clients remarked that we’d complete the Three Dog Day by 9am, and I was ready to challenge him to aim higher, but before I could say anything we had a red fox crossing the road in front of us!

Our first real shoot came near the Confluence, where a couple of bull moose provided the closest encounter of my trip.  They were munching on the lovely red willows not far from the road, which made for a colorful setting.  The only downside is that their antlers had already dropped.

Moose

Back down the road, other photo groups were taking in the bighorn rams and a trio of coyotes (probably the same threesome my last group saw in the same spot last week).  The Confluence is hopping!

We kept a continuous eye out for otters, though a few other photographers were more dedicated than we were, staking out the Lamar River for hours throughout the day.

While we didn’t have otter luck, the fox sightings continued…

I spotted a fox running along the hillside near Elk Creek, but when I dropped my group off it suddenly disappeared.  Not because of us.  It turned out there were two coyotes bedded in the trees, which forced the fox to switch lanes.  After getting a few shots of the coyotes, my clients piled back in the vehicle and we headed up the road to find the fox.  It had already made it to Floating Island Lake, where it was circling in the snow and digging up cached food.  Eventually it crossed to the north side of the road, where everyone was able to get a few more shots.  Even I snapped a few pictures after parking the car.

Red fox

It’s hard to believe, but we weren’t done with foxes yet.  First though, we drove up to Silver Gate, where I’d planned to have lunch at my cabin.  On the way, we checked off another species: a stoic Ruffed grouse, meditating near a small pine a few feet off the road.

The northeast corner was inundated with snow.  Leaving the park, the white stuff just kept piling up.  Silver Gate looked way different from just a week ago.  They’ve had at least two feet of new powder, probably.

After lunch we took a quick drive up to Cooke to scout the road for more possible wildlife sightings.  No signs of moose or martens, but as we re-entered Silver Gate another red fox popped out on the road before disappearing into the willows to the south.

We stopped for hot drinks and ice cream at the Stop the Car Trading Post (thanks Cheryl!) before returning to the park.  Our afternoon drive was actually pretty mellow, though it was punctuated with another fox just past the Tower Ranger Station.  That was our fifth fox of the day, which surpassed Monday’s total, and at least two others were seen by other photographers.  If you love foxes, now’s the time to visit the northern range.

Wednesday marks the final day of my second photo tour, and the last day of my trip before flying home.  Hopefully we can make it a good one!

 

February 7, 2018

The final day of exploration for both myself and my clients was a white one.  Lots of snow fell in the park today, and visibility was at a premium.  It looked for a while like we might be relegated to ungulate sightings.  None of the canids were out or about early.  We drove all the way to the Confluence before we stopped for photos.

The bighorn rams were near the road, but we passed them and found the moose out in the willows again.  In a thick snowfall, details become less of a priority and photography often becomes more about shapes.  Animals like bison and moose have distinct shapes that often work well in “graphic” images.

Moose

Unfortunately, our otters were nowhere to be found, so we drove back west to photograph more shapes in the thick snow (bison this time).  Thankfully, we finally landed something different when the first fox of the day appeared below the road at Elk Creek.  It wasn’t as close as some of our foxes from the last few days, but in this case it was performing a courtship scream.

Red fox screaming

This was my first time hearing and seeing this behavior live (listen to an example on YouTube), so I was pretty excited, even if photos were tough to achieve in the blizzard.

A few more canids finally appeared afterward.  Three coyotes near Roosevelt Junction, and later we had two more distant coyotes in Little America.  Our final dog sighting and photo session of the tour was provided by another red fox (naturally).  This one was curled up nicely at the west end of Lamar Canyon.  After a bit of a wait, it finally unfurled itself, stretched, yawned and went on its way.

Red fox

The remainder of the drive was quiet despite our best efforts, and we returned to Gardiner to pack for departures tomorrow, prior to one final group dinner to celebrate a really fun week.

Thanks to my great clients on this trip: Joss, Pete, Steve and Ted.  Thanks also to Cheryl at the Stop the Car Trading Post for the treats, and to Judy and her team at the Yellowstone Super 8 for hosting these last two weeks.

3 Comments

  1. Reny Bovy February 8, 2018 Reply

    Great report Max!

    Thanks again for taking time to write your reports and post your pictures. I know it’s a lot of work and I’m sure your days were full making sure your clients had a fantastic tour.
    Have a safe trip home!

  2. Susan Manley February 9, 2018 Reply

    I enjoyed your thorough report!!!! Hope to meet you someday. I have heard great things about you.

    • Author
      Max February 10, 2018 Reply

      Thanks Susan. Maybe this spring, when I’ll be back in the park for a couple weeks!

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