June 4, 2018
I came this close to missing both of my alarms Monday morning. Can you blame me? It was 3:30am. I stumbled around, found my clients and our van, and we hit the road bound for Yellowstone Lake. Grizzly bears were on the agenda on this morning, and there’s really only one place to look for reliable grizz photo ops in the park right now.
At least, I thought they were reliable, since Raspberry and Snow had been seen consistently in the morning for at least a week. This morning, however, I didn’t find any of the usual bear-stalking crowd. Then, at Lake Butte Overlook I was told that the bears had gone a mile or so “inland” away from the lake the previous day, so our odds suddenly seemed diminished.
I walked up the hill to look for grouse in the meantime, as I often do at the overlook. Instead of a grouse, in a moment of deja vu a Peregrine falcon flew in and landed on a nearby tree. This is exactly what happened during last year’s spring tour, and I even had two of the same clients with me to witness this.
The falcon perched for a short while, then plummeted toward the lake below, presumably targeting prey, before circling back up and landing again below the parking lot. We walked down the hill a short ways and snapped some photos, including a few shots of the falcon in front of the distant Grand Tetons.
But what about those bears? I hadn’t been east yet, so we piled in the van and drove up to check Teton Overlook. Nothing there, so why not go a short ways further? Coming all this way down to the east road, I wasn’t about to leave the area just yet. So we drove all the way to Sylvan Lake before turning around. And then, as we neared the last bend before the Overlook Drive, there was the jam I was looking for. Raspberry and Snow had returned to the road.
A great shoot ensued. My best with these bears, in fact (admittedly, I have little to go off of, since I rarely spend time with them). Mother and daughter came to the road a few times, climbed hills, grazed, nursed and continued on. And they also photobombed my sunrise shots.
It was my fifth year in a row sighting Raspberry on a spring tour, with past sightings including everything from a beach walk, to mating (the possible conception of Snow and her deceased twin), to mom and daughter hanging out together. Many of the previous sightings were somewhat brief, so it was something different and a really nice way to pay off our early morning wake-up call.
The rest of the morning’s a bit of a blur. My passenger side spotter saw a Red-tailed hawk near the lake, which allowed us all to set up before it posed for some takeoff and flight shots. Down at Gull Point Drive, I spied a large rodent swimming in a side pond. At first I thought it was a muskrat, which is more typical for that area, but its size made it difficult to discern… distance and angle didn’t help. You’d think after writing this article, I’d be able to tell, but I simply didn’t get the best look at it.
On the way north, we stopped for our first bull elk, the largest of which was sporting a half-rack at best. Heading over Dunraven Pass, a foursome of juvenile bighorn rams roamed the hillside above the road. As some members of the group snapped photos, a visitor from overseas tried—I don’t know—beckoning/serenading/wooing the sheep with a loud, obnoxious cry. It sounded like the call of a chicken mixed with a strangled goat. The sheep gave him the same puzzled look as the rest of us.
We had already all agreed on a midday break back in Gardiner, but it wasn’t until 1pm that we made it back. Already a nine-hour day, and we still had the afternoon session to go!
After a much-needed nap, we were refreshed and ready to return to the park. We stayed in the north, first stopping at Mammoth for a couple of elk calves bedded near the buildings. Then we ventured east. Some distant bears in the usual areas, and then we went across the Yellowstone River Bridge. Near the picnic area, a couple folks were standing at roadside. I confirmed that they had seen a fox, but it was out of sight, so we turned around to search. Nothing on the first pass, but on the way back up, one of my rear window spotters saw it (it’s great to have so many extra eyes in the vehicle!).
My group was able to get some photos of the fox, and then may have saved its life after jumping into the road to slow a large truck that was barreling around the corner just as the fox was crossing. We let the furry orange streak continue on its way as we drove in the opposite direction.
In Little America, a small herd of pronghorn bucks browsed and sparred casually. At Slough Creek, a coyote caught an unfortunate ground squirrel.
In the Lamar, we paused for a short while to get some meadowlark shots, and then further down the road we finally had a chance to photograph little red dogs in nice light. One was still quite young, sporting blue eyes and the remains of an umbilical cord.
We did one last check for moose at Round Prairie before circling back westward. It was a long drive back to Gardiner, and we didn’t arrive until a little before 10pm. Everyone instantly vanished into their rooms and, presumably, into bed.
June 5, 2018
Who needs sleep? Who needs dinner? We seem to be forgoing some of the basic pillars of a normal healthy existence on this trip. Midday naps are replacing early bedtimes and sleeping in. Ice cream and snacks in the van are taking the place of actual evening meals.
But who said a Yellowstone trip guaranteed a normal existence, anyway? We’re just going with what the park gives us, and right now, it’s offering up some amazing opportunities.
After Monday’s marathon, we allowed ourselves a more normal morning start: getting on the road by 5:10 to drive up to Swan Lake Flat. While the sunrise I always hope for up there wasn’t in the offing on this cloudy morning, we found other distractions.
Driving across the expanse on our first run, I spied Northern pintails (an uncommon sight for me in the park) in a nearby pond, and there were actually swans in Swan Lake. We drove to the beginning of the road construction zone (blocked off until 7am) and then returned, keeping an eye out for the reported grizzly with two cubs of the year in the area. Heading back through Golden Gate, I took my group through the Upper Terrace Drive, which I like to hit at least once every spring. There are hidden gems along this drive from time to time. Mountain bluebirds flitted about. A lone cow elk grazed in a meadow of yellow dandelions. A marmot stood lookout near a past den site (no babies visible, however). We completed the loop and drove back up the hill.
Back we went through Swan Lake Flat, where a few hearty grizzly fanatics awaited their quarry. I drove on to the turnoff for Sheepeater Cliff. And there we found a bear.
Not a grizzly, but a robust cinnamon black bear. It was foraging alongside the drive. As we snapped photos and kept an eye on the bear’s progress, I noted that it took unusual interest in the small group of huddled human onlookers. It would pause and check everyone out before continuing its search for food. Then it would act as though it was going to cross the road before pausing, or cutting back. Eventually it crossed, but stayed close below the road… and then it crossed back again and circled back toward everyone. No aggressive moves, but much unlike a standard bear-on-a-mission sighting.
Due to this unusual behavior, I beckoned to the group and opted to leave. I wasn’t comfortable with a somewhat erratic bear. Later I spoke with some other folks who had beaten us to the bear find, and they indicated that it first tried to get into the trash cans at the Sheepeater lot, and then went after the tires on bicycles attached to the back of a vehicle. So it wasn’t just my imagination that this bear was acting a bit strange around people. Hopefully it’s not deemed a “problem bear” down the road.
At the Sheepeater lot we didn’t see much. It was still cloudy, cool and somewhat dark. None of the resident rodents in the rock pile were willing to come out. What was interesting was the find of a freshly-dug hole right at the base of the cliff. It was rather large, looking very much like the work of a badger. We never did see what made the hole, but it ran deep and quite possibly still housed its resident. An odd location for a badger, so I’d be curious to learn whose handiwork this was.
The morning was progressing and we were on the move. We passed a number of white-tailed deer as we descended to Mammoth Village, where my group would get their first looks at an owl. Two owlets were in the Great Horned nest tree, and while my clients photographed those fluffballs, I wandered, trying to locate an adult owl. An elk cow nursed her calf as I walked and scanned trees in the area. Ultimately, I ended up back where I started, disappointed I couldn’t find the owl… until I heard a high-pitched, raspy squawk. There it was, tucked under the eves of the building opposite the nest.
We shared the sighting and looks through binoculars and my camera’s Live View screen with a school group, snapped a few more photos and then packed up. Next stop, Lamar Valley.
Or so I thought. The intent was to check on some reports we’d received of badger activity, but we got an update on the way over that quashed any hope of that. Instead, we got to shoot bison and little red dogs reflected in a roadside pond while a Trumpeter swan buzzed overhead. Then it was time to finally look for pikas at Hellroaring with the group.
We hiked down to check the various pika spots—kazoo-like alarm cries giving us hope—and finally had one of the little lagomorphs pop out in front of us.
It was the first good look at a pika for nearly everyone on hand, and everyone got their shots. But there were other attractions nearby. A female Williamson’s sapsucker teased us with a few appearances. A swallowtail butterfly landed on bright flowers… we were embedded in a hotbed of activity that catered to everyone’s interests.
After wrapping up the successful Hellroaring outing, we took advantage of the opportunity to have an early lunch before returning to Gardiner for a planned midday break. I had worked this respite in due to the likelihood of yet another long afternoon session and late night. By request, we were doing my traditional Beartooth Wilderness drive later in the day. It’s something I normally save for midday (when the park is quieter), but one of my returning clients wanted to try it at a different time.
On the way to the northeast, we finally landed our first moose sighting when a cow crossed the road just past Pebble Creek. Reaching Silver Gate, we had a quick refueling stop. That’s right, a monster ice cream cone was needed to power me through the afternoon drive!
Onward to the Beartooth. We had been warned of high winds, but the weather overall was quite lovely. Lots of clouds in the far skies, but lots of sunshine too. Naturally, we stopped at the usual viewpoints to document the amazing vistas. Some of the usual critters I might normally expect to see (ground squirrels and marmots) were absent, likely due to the high winds. The Great horned owl nest near Beartooth Lake was empty for the second year in a row too.
Passing by a large waterfall, we noted a brilliant rainbow (something I’d never see during a traditional midday excursion here), and stopped to snap some more landscape photos. At higher elevations, the fields of snow exhibited signs of a rapid melt. Furrows and pockmarks scarred the white expanse, bisected occasionally by recent snowmobile tracks.
Near the summit, we spied a light morph Red-tailed hawk. First it was chased by a raven. Next it chased the raven away. Then it caught the wind and hovered above us while scanning the ground for prey. It let the wind carry it to different positions before finally diving down to snatch something off the ground.
At last we reached the first summit, driving beneath some of the highest walls of snow I’ve ever seen here (despite the recent thaw), and as we approached the second summit, I spied the mountain goats.
Goats are always a goal on these excursions, but it’s impossible to predict if they’ll be close to the road or far away on a distant slope, so any close sighting is a bonus. In this case, we were doubly rewarded by the fact that there was a nearby pullout, so we could walk down the slope to photograph the goats in late afternoon light. As a triple bonus, they actually looked pretty good, sporting shaggy coats that bristled in the high winds rather than dangling bits of shedding fur.
It’s the best mountain goat encounter I’ve had to date, so we were feeling pretty content as we prepped for the long drive back home. But we had to remain on our toes. Between Cooke City and Silver Gate, we spied a moose in the willows. It was a bull with small paddles. We spent a fair bit of time with him since it was the group’s first moose photo op. Just as we were about to leave, his buddy appeared on the far side of the meadow. From zero to three moose in one drive. But why not get more?
As we neared the Soda Butte Creek Picnic Area in the waning evening light, a traffic slowdown marked yet another animal sighting. Yup, more moose. This time, it was the rumored cow and new calf I’d been hearing about. Make that zero to five moose in one drive.
We didn’t make it back to Gardiner until 10:30 (thanks in part to an elk calf nursery in the middle of the road near Mammoth… four little ones hanging out on the pavement together). Another late night and another missed dinner, but we were still sated thanks to another fantastic day. Hopefully we can keep this momentum rolling on Wednesday and Thursday to wrap up the tour!