Select a page

Yellowstone Spring 2019 Trip Report: Days 3-5

Flashback to Monday…

My mother and I were walking along the road after our brief moose-with-calf viewing, and a car pulled up. The lady in the passenger seat said, “Hi Max!” out her window. I thought, oh nice, it’s our guests at the neighboring cabin, whom I planned to say hi to later. “I’ll meet you guys up there in a little bit!” I exclaimed. Only to watch them smile, and then drive off with a semi-puzzled look on their faces. “Uh oh,” I thought. I’m normally good with faces but I had just screwed this one up. Those *weren’t* our cabin guests. They drove off before I could catch up to apologize.

 

May 28, 2019


How To Write an Opening to Each Yellowstone Trip Report:

  1. Mention what time you woke up/hit the road.

2) Mention the weather.

3) Mention how slow the Lamar Valley is.


Only four hours of sleep before the alarm went off, and maybe this sluggishness contributed to a delayed departure. The goal on Tuesday was to head south again, but I wasn’t out the door until 5:15 []. It was already getting light, so it was easy to see that our damp Monday was well in the rear view mirror [].

Though the Lamar looked better on this morning, it remained quiet []. A low blanket of fog was draped over the valley, obscuring the ridgelines and any views of distant peaks. About halfway through the valley I could just peek under the edge of the foggy blanket southward to clear skies beyond. It was looking as though a pretty nice day was in store.

Just past Lamar Canyon, folks were setting up scopes and tripods. I thought maybe wolves were in sight, but it was actually a trio of grizzly bears, a little ways up the north hillside. Just a bit too far for photos, and I had a potential appointment with another grizzly family further south anyway.

Things cleared up in Little America, but once I got onto Dunraven Pass is was as if Mt. Washburn felt cold and pulled that foggy blanket back over itself. Suddenly I couldn’t see more than 15 yards ahead on the road. Creepy elk head silhouettes peeked and bobbed above the roadside sage as I slowly drove up.

Finally, I broke free of the mist and was soaking in golden morning light. The wide swaths of pines north of the pass were glowing with a yellow tinge. It was a totally different feel from my silvery blue morning just a couple days before.

I was running behind, so I kept hoping to get a text from a friend, letting me know if I should bother to head west. We had agreed to possibly look for the grizzly bear family that’s been attracting attention over there, but knowing it would take me longer reach the area, I was hoping for some reaffirmation before committing to a western route.

The west side of the park feels like a foreign land to me. At one point I caught myself daydreaming about where I had placed my passport, so they could let me into Western Yellowstone. The west is also like a desert: vast stretches of terrain seemingly devoid of animal activity (dense tree cover makes spotted incredibly difficult), marked by an occasional oasis of life. This grizzly bear and her two little cubs occupied one such oasis the previous day, and the hope was they’d still be around on Tuesday.

Still no word from my contacts, so I committed to driving west toward Norris. Many times over the years I’ve expressed how tedious the Canyon-Norris drive can be. Thankfully, it’s short. But I still hoped like heck that those bears were around, because doing that drive twice in quick succession is a painful way to waste morning prime time.

I reached Norris and turned north, keeping an eye out for any little pockets of real estate housing bears. I started to see photographers I recognized driving in the opposite direction. Not a good sign… people could be moving on to other things. I wasn’t feeling particular good about my choice as I drove by a familiar vehicle. I recognized the driver… hey, it was the car that had pulled up next to me on Monday–“Hi Max!”–containing Someone-Other-Than-My-Cabin-Guests.

So I pulled over. Finally, a chance to apologize for the previous day’s mix-up. It turned out Liz and Mark follow my work online, and remembered me from a past bear sighting. We chatted a bit and then parted, each ready to continue our grizzly search. Before I could pull out though, a raven plopped onto the railing next to my car, so I rolled down my window to snap some close-ups. After all, I’m the last person to pass up a raven photo op.

Then I saw Liz running up to my car, exclaiming “they’re out!”

I guess the western adventure had been worth it after all. The next few hours were spent photographing the grizzly sow and her two cubs of the year, mostly from my vehicle at first, as they were right below my car.

Grizzly bear cubs

Later, they crossed the road right in front of my car again, urged by rangers to hustle.

Grizzly bears

Though photography wasn’t always ideal due to tree obstruction and a lot of man-made items scattered about the hillside (sand bags, stakes), it was a very fun shoot. I had flashbacks to my last photo op with a grizzly sow and two young cubs on this side of the park. It was the infamous day in 2010 when my memory card ejected from my camera inside the car after I reviewed my photos. It flew in between the car seat and the center console and lodged into the seat track below. A million-to-one shot resulting in a stuck card filled with prized grizzly pics… which was irrevocably destroyed after I finally pried it out a half hour later.

In case you’re wondering, I did not review my images immediately following the bear shoot this time.

The rest of the day? No owl at the lake, but Snow was out and I saw yet another grizzly family while driving back through Little America. A ten grizzly day. There were a couple bonus black bears too, including a handsome cinnamon reflected in a small pond just a couple miles from home. Unfortunately, I had a meeting scheduled (the work here never stops!), so I had to forgo the photo op.

For a nightcap, a moose wandered in front of out dining room window, helping itself to some of our creekside willows.

 

May 29, 2019

I had swapped house guests. My mother left and was replaced by Jeremy, a fellow guide who had just wrapped up a couple tours and had an extra day before his return to Europe. We had a half-day to explore, so I left our planned activity up to Jeremy. After being cooped up in a vehicle for two weeks, he was ready for a walkabout. I was too.

First, we spent a little time behind the wheel looking for roadside wildlife. At last, the moose with calf  was out in the open for a short time.

Moose

We roamed the northeast. The light was pretty, so we kept hoping for a major sighting. Instead we were content stopping for small moments here and there. The low mist and light down in the canyon offered up some landscape photo ops (naturally, I had to ensure some sort of animal was in my compositions).

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

After a bit more driving around (including a stop to see a drumming Ruffed grouse), we opted to start our walkabout. I took Jeremy back into the woods where I’ve had some nice encounters with various animals. Heads always on a swivel, particularly after finding a couple piles of relatively fresh black bear scat, we scanned the trees for just about anything. Songbirds fluttered about, a nutcracker perched over our heads, and a female Williamson’s sapsucker explored a nearby tree. We scrambled down hills and (unfortunately) wheezed back up. Exploring a high meadow, we stumbled upon a male Dusky grouse. He was in full courtship mode, tail fanned out, red breasted exposed and thumping.

Male grouse can be fun to watch. I’ve witnessed a lot of this ritual before, but this was probably the best grouse encounter I’ve ever had. Two females entered the picture, which really set our boy off. Lots of drumming, some leaps, and we even saw up close how he changed the color of his combs (“eyebrows”) from yellow to deep orange. It was my first time capturing this transformation.

Dusky grouse

The females kept going uphill, and the male followed.

Dusky grouse

Eventually, they crested the hill, where the views opened up. Suddenly he had a grand stage on which to display. Awesome.

Dusky grouse

Afterward, we descended through the trees, popped out of the woods through a meadow and returned to our cars. A crowd suddenly showed up to greet us. No, wait, a bear was coming. It was a cinnamon, and it proceeded to stroll right back up through the hillside we had just walked through. Timing!

I had to get to Gardiner to take care of some errands. After lunch, I said goodbye to Jeremy, and then returned to the park for an afternoon drive. Black bears were starting to emerge in droves. A black sow with yearling cubs near Blacktail Plateau Drive, plus a cinnamon sow with new cubbies near Petrified tree. Nothing was really in photo range, so I continued. I had committed to another hike. This time, a friend and I went roaming looking for dens… coyote or badger, I’m not too picky. No real luck on that front, but it was good to get in more activity leading up to a week of non-stop driving for me.

A quick search for moose back in the northeast (including on my property), and then I turned in. I was definitely a bit fried. Thursday would be a good day for sleeping in.

 

May 30, 2019

I may not have gotten to bed until midnight, but waking up at 8:30 still felt amazing. This doesn’t mean Thursday was a lazy day, by any means, as there was a lot of work left to be done. But hey, there was still some wildlife action! I looked out the dining room window and had a cow moose and yearling calf enjoying a late breakfast in our willows.

Moose

Later when I walked over to our other cabin, I scared the cleaners, who thought one of the moose had walked onto the deck (they were grazing a couple dozen yards away). While wrapping up lunch and a few more work items, an Accipiter (likely a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk) buzzed past the window and into our trees. The songbirds had better watch out.

My work dragged on quite a while, anything from printing labels to finalizing guiding permit paperwork to setting up a new coffee maker to making a dump run. And then of course I had to get an ice cream cone from the Stop the Car Trading Post after dropping off my new 2020 calendars there.

So how did I feel about being forced to stay back and take care of all these menial tasks rather than exploring in the park? Fine, actually. It’s good to switch things up a bit, and I’ve reached the point where, even in my limited “private shooting time”—less than a week in this case—I don’t feel the urgency or pressure I once did to make things happen from a photo perspective. Do I need better photos (or any photos) or a lot of Yellowstone subjects? Absolutely. And a week isn’t nearly enough to time to accomplish many new things here. But that’s okay… it’ll happen at some point. And if I get a few hours of extra sleep and a bonus ice cream cone out of it, that’s fine too.

Some time before 4pm I finally made it in. How much could I see and do in the few hours remaining in the day? Quite a bit, as it turns out. More than the people stranded alongside their broken-down bus just inside the park entrance at least. Yikes! Hopefully they hiked back to Silver Gate for ice cream.

Just before Upper Barronette there was a grazing black bear in a small roadside meadow. That was an appetizer. I continued toward the Lamar Valley. As I scanned the open areas along the way, I caught a brief glimpse of a lithe black shape dipping down out of my sight. This was no black bear. It could only be one thing.

Black wolf

Good wolf encounters don’t happen as often as they used to in Yellowstone (though I know a lot of people who have had some lucky sightings this spring). Shockingly, I had this one to myself, as there was very little traffic at 4 in the afternoon in the northeast. A few of these encounters next week and we can quit my tour early! Nah. There’s always more out there, isn’t there?

So I went to find more. Another roadside black bear, grazing east of Pebble Creek. Passing Hitching Post in the Lamar, I was surprised to see bighorn rams on the small cliff opposite the pullout. Normally this is a winter hangout for them. I’ve rarely seen them down this low in spring. Further west, a wolf was on a riverside kill in the valley. Not a bad distance, but I couldn’t see it from my car, and I knew it wasn’t anywhere near as close as the wolf I’d just encountered, so I continued on.

In Little America, things got a little weird. I passed a family that was walking along the road. They had binoculars and were staring intently at the low hillsides to the south. I couldn’t see anything. Were they looking up beyond the hills, or down into the sage? Hard to tell. More importantly, they were walking their dog while this was happening. So was it a casual stroll, or did they indeed spot something while driving and were on an active search? I couldn’t figure it out. So I pulled over up ahead and watched in the rear view mirror. They kept looking, then pointing. Okay, definitely down on the hillside, in the sagebrush. But I still hadn’t spotted anything. This meant it was something smaller. Badger, fox or coyote. I hadn’t seen a badger yet this trip, so I turned around and backtracked. I got out and soon saw a flash of brownish gray. Then dirt began flying. I had my answer.

I also understood why they brought their dog. It also really wanted to see a badger!

Tourists and Dog

The badger was tucked away pretty well behind some sage, so for some time all we got to see was flying dirt. If it was digging a sett for the night, this wasn’t going to be much of a photo op. But I hoped it would eventually move out into the open to hunt. After at least twenty minutes, it did. But it spent more time investigating clumps of sage and digging. After getting the few open views available, the crowd got bored and dispersed. I still didn’t have anything interesting, so I stayed. Eventually I was rewarded, even if the light wasn’t ideal.

American badger

At this point it was time to return home. The drive back was just as eventful as the drive in! Those sheep ran down the rocky cliffs toward the road. Then there was more bear action. The second black bear had moved toward Ice Box Canyon. There appeared to be a distant grizzly at Soda Butte Creek Picnic Area, and then in the first meadow where I saw a black bear earlier, I instead saw a hunting fox (which did not linger). My first of the trip. None of these encounters really presented a photo opportunity, but I returned home feeling quite fulfilled. On the way, the poor busload of stranded passengers was still waiting for a means of escape. A tow truck had arrived to take the bus, but its replacement had not yet arrived.

My game drive wasn’t done, by the way.  I spied the top of a dark hairy back just below the shoulder of the road. It was a big ungulate, but the contours weren’t right for a bison. That meant a moose. I’ve seen a lot in recent days, but with rumors flying (and my own confirmed sighting previously) of new calves here and there, it was worth stopping to check. At first, I just saw the cow’s dark silhouette as I tried to block the setting sun from my field of view. Then a second, smaller silhouette appeared.

I grabbed the gear, but it was difficult finding open views of the cow and calf. It took a fair bit of maneuvering, all while being very cognizant of the fact that cow moose with calves can sometimes be wary, skittish or aggressive. I kept my distance (at least 50 yards) while I tried to find an opening. And it was during this time that I discovered there were actually two calves.

It took a while longer, but they finally stepped out into the open for a brief period. Shooting through a hole in the trees, I was able to snap a few pics of the twins.

Moose calves

Not a bad four hours, I guess. See, this half (third?) day thing really isn’t so bad, after all.

5 Comments

  1. Sue Reigle May 31, 2019 Reply

    Max, totally speechless at the capture of that gorgeous wolf; those eyes! Tummy looked “full”; do you know what pack, sex? Are their bellies “full-ish” like that when they’re nursing!! And, you were blessed to see THOSE cubs, and “Snow”. Have a friend from here in town who flew out this a.m. to visit a friend in Billings for a week. She wanted me to tell her what places to see in the Park. Gee, where do I start? Thanks sooo much for the report. Oh, by the way, have June Fox calendar page turned over already…..what a stark contrast of that background of snow & the lone fox! Sue

    • Author
      Max May 31, 2019 Reply

      Sue, I’ve been told this is likely “Little Dot,” the current alpha male of the Lamar Canyons.

  2. Reny May 31, 2019 Reply

    What a great day, all those moose (especially the babies), grizzly cubs, that fantastic wolf shot and a badger, WOW !

  3. Matthew K Paulson June 1, 2019 Reply

    Max, Awesome shots. I have been a follower for awhile across multiple sharing sties and love your work. I am heading to the Tetons tomorrow for 2-3 days and then a week in Yellowstone. I hope we can see half the wildlife you saw on this report. Really would like to see some bears and baby moose. Any tips would be appreciated.

    • Author
      Max June 1, 2019 Reply

      Matthew, thanks. In the Tetons, a Great gray owl was seen tonight on the Moose-Wilson Road. Also, a moose cow with twins calves has been seen near Dornan’s on and off. In Yellowstone, you can search for a Great gray near Bridge Bay, you might see one of the popular grizzlies on the east entrance road near Mary or Sedge Bays, and in the northern range you can probably find black bears between Tower and Petrified Tree. There’s also a lot of bear and moose activity in the park’s northeast corner right now.

Leave a reply to Sue Reigle Click here to cancel the reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*