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Yellowstone Spring 2019 Trip Report, Days 11 – 13 (The End!)

June 5, 2019

I’m trying to write this entry a day late, after coming off sixteen (Tuesday), fifteen (Wednesday) and fourteen (Thursday) hour days. With no midday breaks, that has meant very little sleep in between. I took a day off from writing. Now, in my half-conscious state, I have to try and recall what the heck happened on Wednesday and Thursday. So be warned that what follows may be truncated, disjointed, and probably totally inaccurate. Half of these recollections may be based on hallucinations.

On Wednesday we finally dedicated a morning to the northeast corner. In my book, this area of the park still offers the most potential for sheer variety (something I’ve always enjoyed, often picking destinations with multiple possibilities rather than just spending each morning searching for one type of animal). We were due for more black bear photo sessions, anyway, so the northeast made sense in more ways than one.

Our first stop was not for a bear, however. Instead, we got a moose feasting on young aspens at Floating Island Lake, an encounter which made me thankful we didn’t plant any new aspens on our property. We have enough trouble keeping the bison away from our wee pines.

Next, a random bighorn sheep traveling solo down and back up the steep hills near the Petrified Tree lot. And then, finally, a bear. One of my clients spotted it below the road. We found a safe place to pull off and walked back up. While my group snapped some photos, I scanned the trees for cubs. I had seen a black with a mixed pair in the area, after all. Didn’t see any, so we figured it was a lone bear. After the shoot, we moved on to check Calcite Springs (quiet) and then went out into Little America and the Lamar. We stopped for bison calves, searched for an elusive Western meadowlark and photographed some of the Poopville swallows at Hitching Post.

Though we had not yet explored the rest of the Lamar and the northeast corner, I chose to turn back and make the rounds one more time back around Tower-Roosevelt. There was still time to find some bears, after all. I stopped near Calcite to join a small gathering waiting on a napping black bear (hidden behind a log). A good time to show my group the Peregrine falcon nest across the way. Then a client spotted a very pregnant bighorn sheep down in the canyon. And then another bighorn, this one with a new lamb!

Speaking of sheep, our hillclimber from Petrified suddenly appeared behind us. And it was heading right at the log where the bear had been hidden during its nap. Before I could give my group a warning to prepare for action, the bear emerged. It scrambled over the log and took off. Just a yearling, recently booted by its mum. No wonder it was so nervous. The sheep was also spooked, changing its trajectory slightly before reaching the road and hopping over the wall and down into the canyon. The bear angled away from the road and disappeared into the trees.

Around this time, a visitor mentioned to us a bear with two black cubs down the road. I’d seen a sow with mixed cubs and a cinnamon sow with twin brown cubs. But not a mom with two black-furred babies. So we decided to investigate. Lo and behold, it was the bear we first spotted in the morning. And she did have cubs after all. They were simply too well-hidden for me to spot them earlier. Some fun playtime moments ensued. Light was harsh, but watching cubs of the year expend energy never really gets stale.

Black bear cub

From there, our bear count started climbing. Grizz with cubs in Little America, cinnamon black in the northeast corner, and later a number of other black bears scattered throughout the late morning and afternoon. A fourteen bear day by the end of it.

I usually pick one day during the week to take my group out of the park and up to the Beartooth Pass (which was finally open after a lengthy delay). It’s a nice change of pace, and for most of the people who haven’t visited, an awe-inspiring experience. The scenery didn’t disappoint this time, and we had some bonus wildlife sightings. A bull moose half-way up, marmots periscoping above the snow (and one out of the middle of the road!), and even a brief pika sighting, despite the thick snows. I found the mountain goats near the top, but far away.

Due to an active morning, we had made the trip up later in the day than normal, so it was hitting late afternoon by the time we were on our way down. On the heels of a long day on Tuesday plus Wednesday’s very full morning, I was feeling pretty beat and called for my first power nap of the tour. Since I often haul my clients around for some marathon sessions during the week, short naps are inevitable, but quite effective when implemented. Usually 15-20 minutes of sleep will be enough to carry me through the rest of my driving day. This time I got seven whole minutes.

Most of our vanload decided to snooze a bit, but we were awoken prematurely by some rowdy folks that chose to take group pictures right next to the van. Joking, giggling and laughing the entire time, they even took time to stand against and jostle the van a bit as they snapped photos. I started to dream about that whole Swamp Thing/Revenge scenario again. Except that I couldn’t dream, because I was no longer actually asleep, was I?

Believe it or not, seven minutes was sufficient. We returning to normal Yellowstone altitudes and entered the park a little after six. More bears: Barronette, Lamar Canyon, and the Yellowstone Picnic Area.

Black bear

By the time I wrapped everything up in the evening, I was looking at a wakeup time less than four hours away…

 

June 6, 2019

Probably should have just slept in a little, but we had decided to make our final morning foray down to Hayden and the Lake on Thursday. That meant a 4:30 departure. Though we missed that start time slightly, we were ahead of most of the action throughout the day. So many moments happened after we drove through an area. We went down the west side and did spot two subadult grizzlies early on (at the exact spot where I first saw the Obsidian Sow earlier on this trip). Presumably these were the young offspring of the Beryl Sow, recently booted by mom. They didn’t pause for a photo op, disappearing quickly into the woods.

Others were patrolling for grizzlies, but we had a goal to reach places further south while it was still early. Unfortunately, this did cost us, as a mating pair of grizzlies randomly showed up in the western stretch and put on a show after we had passed through. Not to worry: there was plenty of bear sex to go around on Thursday.

Thursday’s sunrise in Hayden wasn’t as dramatic as that of our previous visit. Nor did we find much to photograph, though the valley floor was quite active with birds, elk and bison. We made it to the lake, and this time I chose to check for owls first. Same result as before. So we checked the east road for bears. No love there either. Just as we were about to leave Lake Butte, a grouse appeared out of nowhere and ran across the parking lot toward us. Later, I surmised this rotund little creature was hired to distract us by forces acting against our best interests. Because a bear was, at that moment, appearing down near Mary Bay. But, you know, we had to photograph something, so we fell for the ol’ Grouse Diversion hook, line and sinker.

But hey, it perched in a tree for us.

Dusky grouse

When we did finally leave and go down to the lake, Snow (a.k.a., the Lake Butte Subadult grizzly) was back up high on a ridge, largely keeping out of sight once she disappeared into a swale 1. We only got brief glimpses from a distance, even after a long wait. Knowing we were all going to be operating on fumes soon, we decided to wrap things up and start heading north for a much-needed midday break. Before we could leave Mary Bay, I spotted something I hadn’t seen in a few years: an American avocet. These handsome migrants pop up in spring on occasion before mostly moving on. I normally only see them in small flocks, but this was a lone bird. I snapped a few distant photos from my window so as not to spook it by opening my door, while my clients were able to quietly shoot from behind the van. A beautiful bird and a welcome sight after being duped by the Lake Butte Trickster Chicken a little while earlier.

American avocet

Up we went through Hayden, only stopping at Canyon so one of  my clients could grab some souvenirs. Though we joked with her about her penchant for shopping the park stores, it actually saved the day. Very few of my texts to contacts in the park were going out, but I did receive one message indicating that there was new bear activity… back down at the lake. Of course.

It was not Snow. Instead, her mother had appeared with her boyfriend, just around the bend from Sedge Bay. This time we weren’t too late to the show, joining a big crowd to watch the pair mate, nap, growl and walk in circles through the deadfall below.

Mating grizzly bears

The Nine Mile Tryst lasted for a good hour or two before both participants settled down for a well-deserved nap.

We, of course, had missed our own naptime as a result of all this. So we decided to have our lunch while giving the Great gray owl one final chance to appear. No owl during the meal, but I got another much-needed power nap (second of the day, to complement the twelve hours of sleep I’d had the last three days). We were ready to head north again.

Aside from a stop to power up with a F’Real milkshake at Canyon, our second attempt at reaching Gardiner wasn’t interrupted by any more distractions or detours. Later I learned we passed through the west side a little too early again prior to another appearance by the other mating grizzlies. We made it back to town earlier than any other night so far on this tour. But it was still a fourteen hour day. Hopefully an early bedtime (before 10:30?) was in the offing.

 

June 7, 2019

For our final day of exploration we aimed east from Gardiner. We devoted our morning to driving anywhere from Hellroaring and Tower, to Slough Creek, Lamar Valley and beyond. It was a somewhat dull, overcast day… which seemed perfect after some sunny and warmer-than-preferred days. As long as the rain held off—we’d been lucky in that regard to this point—a gray day in the mid-fifties sounded perfect for wildlife searches.

Except at first, the wildlife didn’t quite cooperate. We expected bears would be out early, but it took a few passes for us to start finding them. A client spotted the first, a lone black high on a hill opposite Petrified Tree, during our second pass there. Then we got a yearling near Calcite Springs. So momentum was building.

At Slough Creek I finally saw the Sandhill crane chicks, hatched in the last week or so.

Sandhill cranes

Only one adult accompanied them, but eventually we heard the telltale croak of another crane behind us. In the distance, a Sandhill glided over the creek before flapping into a turn toward us. It was the second parent, arriving with an awkward landing in the dense green grasses. It immediately marched over to chase a coot off their nest.

We put in some extra time looking for otters nearby, as well as any sign of badgers, but didn’t have any luck.

One thing we had not yet done this week was look for pikas at Hellroaring. There were a lot this morning. In fact, more than I can ever remember hearing there. Yes, hearing… because they were largely out of sight. Either out of view around the corner of the rock wall, or standing so still we couldn’t pick them out. We checked multiple locations, kazoos echoing down on us, but didn’t have any luck seeing them close. At last, as we returned to the parking lot I was able to spy one halfway up the rock pile. A couple of my clients were able to snag photos before it too headed up and out of sight.

A cinnamon black bear was still hanging out in Lamar Canyon, high up when we passed through in late morning, lower in the afternoon… but in a spot that snarled traffic to the point where a ranger plowed down the road toward us (going the wrong way) to get to the point of congestion and reset traffic. Bison jams were also an issue (second reminder on how to handle a bison in the road) much of the day.

We were also getting a sense that our luck with the weather was about to run out. Steady rain began to fall, and eventually changed to hail in the northeast. We were going to lunch while staking out the moose carcass, but the weather sent us scurrying into Silver Gate, where we got one final parting treat at the Stop the Car while having lunch under cover.

So how would we finish the final stanza of this trip? Strong!

First, we spied a moose with twin calves. They weren’t up for photos, so we continued down the road. Within a couple miles I just caught sight of a moose dancing near the creek. By the time we backtracked, it was out of sight. I went down to get a better angle, and discovered not one but two moose (likely a cow with yearling). I surmised that they had just crossed the creek, which was flowing quite strongly. The “dance” was likely the tail end of an effort to escape the rushing water. Both moose were blocked by a stand of trees and my location wasn’t exactly easy to reach with a group (at one point I had to grab a tree trunk and swing across a small stream, before squelching through mud and muck to follow their tracks). So we let them be.

Since our lunchtime stakeout didn’t work, we returned to the carcass at Warm Creek. Parking the van with a clear view of the meadow, a couple of us went out on foot away from the stakeout to search for owls. While we were gone, the rest of the group got word that the moose with twins had reappeared near the road. Returning from our owl excursion with nothing more than some litter to throw away (including a hubcap), we piled in and went back to look for the moose family. Sure enough, they were within view, much more relaxed than when we first spotted them earlier. We got a few clear views through the trees.

Moose calf

Such a sighting would be a sufficient highlight for the day, especially the wet kind we were now experiencing. But we weren’t quite done. Our pass back west through the park afforded us one more chance to search for otters. I scoured the water and shoreline, but didn’t find that particular mustelid. Instead I found its cousin: a badger! None of my clients had seen a badger before, so it was pretty thrilling to land this sighting right at the very end. We watched from across the creek as it dug up a squirrel den, and then excavated another hole nearby.

American badger

A couple of final encounters capped a great afternoon: our first fox of the tour (Elk Creek), and an adult Great horned owl (our second of the day after seeing one at Calcite earlier in the day) at Mammoth.

We wrapped up the evening with the traditional group dinner, a chance to relive the wonderful sightings we had on tour.

I continue to be blessed with wonderful clients on these trips. It’s not easy to stuff six people from different states, countries, backgrounds and experience levels into a single vehicle and expect them to gel. But it almost always seems to work. There was great camaraderie among the members of this week’s group, which simply enhances the shared adventures we enjoyed. Big thanks to Barrie Lynn, Bill, Dave, Jane, Kevin and Linda!


And thank you for following these reports, especially after I wasn’t sure whether I’d publish anything during this trip. If you would like to join me on a future Yellowstone or other wildlife photo adventure, please visit my Photo Tour page.

Notes:

  1. Thanks, Bill.

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