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Yellowstone Spring 2019 Trip Report, Days 8 – 10

June 2, 2019

Client pick-up day means a scramble to pack the car, clean up the cabin a bit and hit the road in time to get through the park and up to Bozeman in order to run errands before picking up folks at the airport or the hotel.

All that leaves little time to photograph anything on the way out. I had hoped to maybe see a reunited moose family outside the cabin before I left, but it was not to be. Driving past Warm Creek, I spied a moose grazing in the willows. Much later in the day I’d learn a moose popped up dead across the road from that spot (reportedly it died during a breech birth).

Driving through Round Prairie, folks were still set up where the elk carcass was, but everyone was fairly relaxed. Whatever action may have happened occurred earlier in the morning. I drove onward, keeping an eye on the clock. I didn’t have much free time, but I did check a few spots for bears on the way through. All I found was a ragged coyote—one I’d seen a couple days earlier near Floating Island Lake—digging around and searching below the road on the Petrified Drive.

That was all I got on Sunday as I retrieved everyone successfully and we prepared for our first day of adventure in the park.

 

June 3, 2019

Every Yellowstone visit presents something different (which is a big reason I love the place), and every photo tour is also different. On Monday we began with something I’ve never done on Day One of a tour: we went up to Swan Lake Flat. Normally I save a trip up there at sunrise for later in the week, since traditionally so much of the action occurs in the northeast and down on the east side. But we had a good excuse to switch things up. Grizzly bears and wolves had been seen close to the road in recent days, and further south the Obsidian sow and her cubs were seen again the previous evening.

Well, we got no wolves, and the grizzlies (we only saw one) were far away. We did get some sunrise elk.

Elk at sunrise

Fitting to start with this scene, as it was the last thing I shot with clients during my last Yellowstone morning on tour (last year’s fall trip). No big whiny bulls this time, but a little steam, a bit of rim lighting and some golden tones go a long way.

We cruised back and forth a little, daring a bear to pop out close, but it never happened. We did manage to stop for a cooperative raven sitting in front of Electric Peak, while a male Mountain bluebird perched on posts in the background.

Mountain bluebird

It was time to head south, so we went on through to the area where the grizzly with two cubs had last been seen. On the way down, we stopped to photograph a distant elk cow with calf (this calf was not being attacked by bears). As usual, a whole crew of photographers was down in bear territory waiting and canvassing the area. But the search was fruitless. Our bathroom break wasn’t, however.

Not wanting to venture north and wait for the construction delays, we turned south to get down to Norris Geyser Basin. On the way, in the middle of a heavily-treed stretch of road, a black bear was walking on the shoulder. A bit of a random sighting, but it was the first close bear encounter for my group, so we parked and jumped out to snap a couple quick shots. The bear was moving away, barely giving us a second look. And of course, the road was right there. Far from an ideal scenario for photography. But you make the most of what you get. In this case there was a fine opportunity to take a picture that tells a story, as the bear crossed the road in front of oncoming cars. I’ve licensed a number of images specifically chosen because they portrayed human/animal interaction like this, so I always tell my clients that sometimes man-made elements can be a useful and even necessary storytelling device in one’s photographs.

They probably didn’t hear a word I said this time, because they were either buzzing about their first close bear or just wanted to pee.

We returned afterward to the grizz patrol, but didn’t have any more luck. After a healthy wait at the construction zone, we returned north and turned off at Sheepeater Cliff. Golden-mantled squirrels and marmots were the main attraction, along with a sideshow of White-crowned sparrows singing in the morning light. Next, a late morning excursion on the Upper Terrace Drive. This was later than I normally like to do the short loop, but we still made a couple stops to photograph the (gasp!) thermals. Oh, and one of my clients spotted a Killdeer at Angel Terrace.

Killdeer

Then we popped down to Mammoth, where I hoped to find some owls. But the area was closed off, perhaps due to birthing elk (hopefully not due to the nest, which has attracted bird enthusiasts and visitors for at least a decade).

At that point we chose to return to Gardiner for a midday break. It was later in the morning and was getting warm, so we aimed for a mid-afternoon departure to close out the day’s exploration. Post-nap (I slept right through the passing thunderstorm), we went to the northeast. We soon got in on a little bear action. Blacks near Calcite on either side of the road slowed traffic. My clients managed to get a few shots before rangers put a halt to the proceedings. That same ragged coyote I’ve been seeing was now further east, close to the Yellowstone River Bridge. Out in Little America, a grizzly with two young cubs grazed on a distant hillside.

Somehow this whole time we managed to miss all of the major thunderstorms. It sounds like nearly everyone else I was hearing from was getting soaked, but we just had a few light drops here and there.

We drove through much of the Lamar, but any hopes for a late dash to the northeast corner (to check on the dead moose, which had a bear on it earlier) were dashed when we ran into a long bison jam near the Confluence. Fortunately, I found room to turn the van around. We made a stop for some bison/valley scenery, and paused for the ragged coyote again (though some were distracted by marmots lounging or standing on boulders near the river). At Elk Creek a moose stood on a distant hillside, and back near Mammoth we had elk wading in a small pond, reflected nicely.

In the evening, I joined some friends for dinner in Gardiner. All are longtime park vets, and coincidentally all have joined me on past photo trips (Costa Rica, Chile, South Africa). It was nice spending time with folks who share the strong bond that this place provides (I touched on that feeling here a few years ago), but it was also a nice reminder how some of the relationships I make while leading my tours last well beyond the week or two I spend with a group of photographers. Hopefully similar bonds will be formed this week with my current group.

It was a fun first day, but a very early wakeup call loomed for Day Two…

 

June 4, 2019

Four-thirty departure. Ugh.

Yet necessary if one is to reach Hayden Valley in time for sunrise. It usually happens once or twice during a tour. We chose to head over Dunraven Pass to get there. There was a brief stop at the canyon overlook near Tower Fall to photograph the misty river below. Otherwise, we went up and over without delay.

We arrived at Alum Creek just in time for the last vestiges of the suns rays burning through the fog. These semi-opaque mornings are the reason I want to get here early. There’s so much… mood. Just after I got done telling clients how we sometimes see wildlife in the fog (bison, sandhills, bears), a bull elk appeared on the horizon. Though not at full antler growth, this could be a great subject to photograph in the soupy environs. We were able to pull off the road, walk up the hill and grab a few shots.

Bull elk

The fog was so thick in places, folks driving by quickly lost sight of us. As is usually the case, it all burned off once we hit the southern end of the valley. We had spent a full hour in Hayden by then, so I wasn’t sure how our timing would work for activity to the south. The main goals during these southern excursions are usually lakeside grizzlies and, during this trip at least, an owl. We sort of struck out in both cases this time.

Arriving at Lake Butte Overlook, we did see Raspberry and her beau, but they were high up. He was sprawled out on the snow, while she was busy munching on the remnants of an elk calf one of them had killed. Backlit dots on a white patch, from our perspective.

Down at the lake, we stopped for a couple of bison bulls. They crossed the road and one of them climbed the hill to the steamy thermals billowing opposite Sedge Bay. Some of my clients were able to capture some nice moody (there’s that descriptor again) photos that included some quintessential Yellowstone ingredients: buffs and puffs of thermal steam.

This late in the morning, I figured chances for an owl were dimming. And by the time we finally made it down to Bridge Bay, it was bright and warming up. A good spot for a coffee break and snack, which could’ve only been improved by Strix nebulosa. Someone forgot to tell the owl that. It didn’t show.

It was closing in on eleven o’clock. I wasn’t sure what exactly we’d do next. We’d just eaten a bit, so lunch needed to wait, but this late in the morning we weren’t exactly going to find much going on during a warm spring day. I chose to go back north through the valley. As we entered Hayden, I reminded my clients (joking, maybe… sorta) that “usually things quiet down by this hour and not much is happening,” all the while scanning for activity. And then I quickly found a dot.

It was a brown pixel flashing through sage just below the trees on the eastern slope. I stopped the van and grabbed binoculars. Now it was four or five pixels. My initial instinct that this was something different from the ubiquitous bison or elk was right. It was a grizzly bear, proceeding with great intent in a southerly direction.

We pulled ahead and got out, trying to relocate it as it passed behind trees and high sage. After a few moments we found it, moving downhill toward the river. The bear’s pace had quickened. By the time we turned around and got back down to one of the valley’s southern pullouts, we could see scattered elk, but the grizz had disappeared into a draw. It never came out, but we quickly pieced together what had happened. At least one of the cow elk had a calf. That family scrambled to safety on a southern hillside below the draw. But on the northern hillside, two other cows kept lingering. They approached the draw, looked down, trotted away, returned. It was apparent that the bear had taken a calf.

What’s sort of remarkable is how quickly this predator was moving the entire way since we first spotted it. I’ve seen grizzlies cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, so that wasn’t all that new. But it knew what it wanted from a long ways away, and either could intuit visually (seeing some cow elk… it probably would not have spotted the calf from that far) that a meal awaited, or it smelled the byproducts of afterbirth. A bear proves itself to be a finely-crafted hunting machine at times.

We did eventually located the bear by moving back up the road a bit. Keep in mind that this all happened a half mile away, so we weren’t getting any “usable” photos, but it was a cool sequence to witness even from a distance. It was pretty apparent that the grizz wasn’t moving off its meal any time soon, so we wrapped things up.

Remember, “not much is happening” at this hour of the day.

Five minutes later we were pulled over again for the next episode of Hayden Valley Murder Mysteries. A Golden eagle was on the ground near the riverbank, not far from a pullout. Ravens were pestering it.

Ravens harassing golden eagle

And as a random addition, a trio of Sandhill cranes paraded around the scene, occasionally chasing each other while completely ignoring the eagle and ravens.

Sandhill cranes

Sure enough, the eagle was on a kill, while the ravens wanted a piece of the action. They kept circling and probing, looking for a chance to steal whatever was at the eagle’s feet. After several minutes they took off, only to return a while later and repeat the dance. The eagle, meanwhile, began a lengthy process of plucking feathers. It appeared to have taken down a duck. Plucking took some time. We snapped occasional photos of the ravens hopping around the raptor, but mostly waited (over an hour) for the meal to commence, and then finish.

At last the eagle’s appetite was sated. Or at least, there was very little left on the bones of its victim. It hopped to a stump, cleaned its beak, and prepared for flight. After a few false starts, it left its perch, nearly dropped into the river, and flew low over the water to the opposite bank. The heavy load demanded a few short warm-up flights before it could finally get going and head south out of view.

We were due for our own lunch, which we had at Wapiti Lake trailhead. Afterward, a short visit to Artist Point (one of my clients is trying to get a photo there in all seasons; this was number three). After a short discussion, we tried to give Yellowstone Lake and Bridge Bay one more try. This time, no bears. And still no owl. So it was time to break for home, with a detour up along the west side in search of more bears.

We found a bear, though not the one I expected. Swan Lake Flat was blanketed in near-darkness as storm clouds rolled in overhead. Out in the sage was a young grizzly bear, foraging on its own. This was presumably a subadult I’d heard about that had recently been booted by its mother. Knowing it was a young bear, I imagined we might eventually get a moment when it stood to evaluate a potential threat. All it took was a big, rumbling vehicle to get its attention, and it was quickly up on its hind legs.

Grizzly bear

Not long after that, a large bison strolled right toward it. Another quick periscoping move, and then the little bear turned tail and ran off. And ran and ran and ran.

Our closest grizzly on tour so far, and a nice way to end a long day in the park. But was the day truly over?

Below Mammoth a rainbow appeared. I asked my group to keep an eye on it, in case we could photograph it with Roosevelt Arch in the foreground. The arch was still ten minutes’ drive. Plus I knew (thanks to a tip from a fellow guide) that we might have something else waiting for us at the bottom of the hill.

We exited the north gate and there she was: a momma pronghorn with a little fawn bedded at her feet. I had been told there were actually twins, but for now we had mother and baby together, in golden late afternoon light. We promptly forgot about the rainbow and pulled over. Soon someone spied the second fawn, as it stood up to confront a nosy raven. A fun and unique interaction ensued.

Pronghorn fawn and raven

I was loving this, maybe even more than my clients, who were all intently shooting the adorable scene unfolding before us. Any interspecies interaction is a treat to photograph, but I never imagined I’d combine such a unique pair as a pronghorn fawn and a raven!

Mom saw the little one playing with a stranger, so she quickly hustled over. And then we got nuzzles and nursing and all sorts of nice family moments. Meanwhile, the first fawn was also greeted by a raven before it was approached by a male pronghorn.

Pronghorn and fawn

Who promptly laid a headbutt on the little one.

I didn’t need chasing, or fighting, or any sort of drama. The combination of unique pairings, tender family moments, sweet light, and a heavy dose of cuteness easily made this my favorite pronghorn encounter ever.

Oh, and remember that rainbow? It waited.

Roosevelt Arch and rainbow

We had so many unique moments during Tuesday’s adventure that it’s no wonder everyone was positively giddy at the end of a marathon sixteen-hour day. Apparently I’m supposed to do better tomorrow though.

 

2 Comments

  1. Kathy June 5, 2019 Reply

    What a pleasant, low-key and rewarding day you had! My favorite photo was the fawn and raven, but ending with the rainbow at the arch was also special. Thanks for the glimpse of what might be waiting for us next week!

  2. Jim Ochoa June 5, 2019 Reply

    What a “slow day”!

    My family’s first grizzly siting where at Swan Lake Flat. It was the Quad mom.

    Great report as always, Max.

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