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Yellowstone Winter Trip Report, Days 10-11

January 21, 2020

Don’t you love it when things don’t go according to plan? For all the right reasons, that is.

I was rather pleased when my clients voted to skip Old Faithful and the thermals on our final day in the interior in favor of wildlife searches in Hayden Valley again. Unfortunately, we never made it to the east side of the park.

We started with our usual bobcat exploration, and once again, there was no sign of a cat. A pair of coyotes patrolled below the road, their presence (or mine, more likely) presumably contributing to the cat’s absence.

We cruised through the most cat-friendly stretch of road, stopping occasionally to check tracks. Nothing doing. It was time to turn around and make another pass, as we had done the previous mornings.

Or was it?

This is where we made the biggest decision of the trip. We chose not to make a second pass down the Madison, putting off the next (and final) bobcat search for the afternoon when things would be quieter and there would be less snow coach and snowmobile traffic.

This decision proved to be crucial. We continued toward Madison Junction. Approaching the campground, we spied a bison herd on the other side of the river. Rather than grazing lazily as they had been all week, they were huddled together. Why?

Wolves!

The Wapitis had returned to the interior, just in time to see us off! After consistently getting skunked by the bobcat over the years, and after a coach operator’s scheduling screw-up doomed my clients’ chances of a close Wapiti encounter two years ago, I’d finally hit paydirt with one of my groups.

The pack—all sixteen I counted a few days prior—were lounging just off to the side of the bison herd, paying them little attention (which did nothing to calm the buffs!). They were spread out in the snow, lounging and socializing. A few grays disappeared into the trees. Then? Howling!

It was still rather dark, and they were pretty far away, so none of the photos really turned out well, but I’m guessing some of the video footage (of which I’ve recorded more this past week-and-a-half than I have in the last several years combined, thanks to these wolves) turned out well enough.

Then, the wolves were up and moving. We lingered a few moments longer to get them crossing behind the bison…

Wolves and bison

And then it was time for us to move too. The wolves were heading upriver, so there was a chance we’d get a better view around the corner.

It’s pretty important to think about an animal’s movement and anticipate the action if you want to put yourself in a better position for photos, and we were first on the scene at the bridge when the wolves appeared before us. It was still dark, and they were still out pretty far, but getting closer.

Gray wolves

A few other coaches were pulling in, and a small gathering of photographers had formed. The problem at this point was that there was a large pack of wolves pretty spread out, and nobody was quite sure where they should be focusing their attention.

So when it suddenly turned out the lead wolves were quickly approaching the road through the trees, nobody was really prepared. I briefly glimpsed them through the thicket, but they vanished almost instantly… except for one gray, which popped out at the end of the bridge.

It was as if every mammal on the road at that moment froze and stared for a couple seconds. Then all of us in the small gathering of humanoids gave the canid a wide berth to cross.

Gray wolf

It lingered a few moments longer (it seemed like an eternity), before trotting across the road. Finally, everyone was able to reconvene and process what had just occurred. While folks were chatting, I looked up the road to see that the gray had re-emerged, giving us one last look before loping away.

Gray wolf

The rest of the pack chose an alternate route through the trees, and we eventually piled back in the coach to see if they planned to commute south.

Up the road another coach had pulled over near a turnoff, in hopes of seeing the wolves pass into the open. We arrived soon thereafter, followed by the other couple of vehicles that were previously on the scene.

Seeing the approaching convoy, the first coach driver began loudly complaining how “the wolves would never come out now (that there were more people around),” even though everyone was fairly quiet and well-behaved. It was his version of “we were here first!” He wouldn’t let it go, grousing repeatedly a few different ways before hustling his group back in his vehicle. As they drove away, we could hear his group loudly yelling, presumably to scare the wolves farther away… Apparently if they couldn’t enjoy an exclusive special wildlife sighting, nobody else should have any fun.

We made the decision to move southward, assuming that was the pack’s intended direction… and within a few moments caught sight of a few of them crossing up ahead, but they easily disappeared in the thick stands of small pines. We hoped they might come back out and continue on the road (as this pack often does), so we set up far ahead, around the corner. Some park service and ranger vehicles were coming through at this point, and we surmise they may have seen the wolves thinking about returning to the road, but we never saw the pack again. There was finally time to pause and collect our thoughts.

Whoa. That was intense.

It was thrilling, of course, but stressful to an extent. I ended up taking relatively few photos during the peak of the action, and I think many of the people on hand were doing their best to ensure that brief, close encounter remained as respectful and controlled as possible… while still trying to relish the moment a bit.

It’s not the type of encounter anyone should take for granted, and for me will go down as one of my more memorable Yellowstone moments on tour.

So yeah, what about the rest of the day? Well, Hayden was obviously out. We spent most of our remaining hours cruising the area along the Firehole and the Gibbon Rivers, as did a few other coaches, to keep an eye on the roads in case the pack chose to return. They never did. The bison herd they had originally spooked did get a move on, however. Some headed south on the road, while others streamed northward and crossed the Madison.

American bison herd

That was largely it for our wildlife photo ops, though we had a couple of interesting finds in the snow. Not far from the bison/wolf drama, we found a series of wing prints left by a Bald Eagle, which had likely pounced on some small prey, and then had some difficulty taking off again. In the afternoon, one section of the snowy shoulders of the road along the Madison was littered with more wing prints, this time from ravens.

Raven tracks

We suspect a squabble over food, probably the remains of a swan that coyotes had killed the day before. The wing and talon impressions were everywhere, on both sides of the road, on a large boulder in the river, and stretching for a couple dozen meters. I’ve never seen anything like it. It looked like it must’ve been quite the battle.

One final search for the bobcat (we found tracks finally, but leading the wrong way), and then it was time to pack it in. After all, we still had the long drive up and around to Gardiner ahead of us.

We parted ways with Zack and Adam, with whom we shared some excellent adventures these last couple days. Three hours later, we arrived outside Yellowstone’s north entrance safe and sound, still buzzing about what had transpired.

 

January 22, 2020

First day in the northern range on tour. Would it be as slow as the most recent reports had indicated? Surely the sparsely-populated interior couldn’t provide more wildlife highlights than the abundant north. Only one way to find out…

Gardiner got a light snow overnight, which made me optimistic for more fresh snow inside the park. That didn’t turn out to be the case, and much of the northern landscape continued to look mushy and used. The tracks from my first encounter with the Wapitis a week-and-a-half ago were still visible near the road as we drove through.

Wolf watchers were out searching both on Blacktail Plateau and points east early, but weren’t having much luck. Neither were we. A coyote crossing the road near below Mammoth was the only canid we spied all day. The only notable sighting of the morning involved a few moose out in Round Prairie.

Moose

A late morning pass back through the Lamar revealed that we had just missed the re-emergence of the badger, which had taken a couple days off but chose to come out earlier today than it had last week. There was a fresh mound of dirt, but little else to see.

I proposed to my clients that we leave the park for a bit, heading up to Silver Gate to look for more moose on my property, while also following up on some bird-centric leads. Neither of those activities panned out, and eventually we were driving back into the park looking for some afternoon action. Oh, I guess I did find a mountain goat butt on Barronette Peak, so it wasn’t a completely wasted trip.

On the return leg, we stopped at Barronette again in order to photograph a lonely bull bison that was standing in the deep snow. He was somewhat photogenic, right down to the decorative sprig of pine tucked behind his horn.

Bison

We probably spent too much time photographing him. I felt we definitely spent too much time photographing him after we got to Round Prairie and discovered that an ermine shoot had just wrapped up!

I was a bit confused by this. I’d been hearing reports that the Round Prairie ermine had been coming out between 2:45 and 3pm for several days, and we were arriving on time… but like the badger, the show was apparently over early. So all the mustelids in the northern range had set their clocks forward and failed to send me the memo.

I started having flashbacks to a winter tour four years ago. Back then, we went up to Silver Gate for lunch one day, and when we returned to the park we caught the tail-end of an hour-long ermine session. I came away with only one decent photo from that sliver of an encounter. This time, we may have missed the whole thing (on what was otherwise a somewhat slow day to that point).

But of course we staked it out anyway. A weasel was at the top of one client’s wish list. Others had never seen one in its winter coat before, and even I had few successful ermine photo sessions under my belt. We waited as snow fell, and the wind picked up. I wasn’t sure how long to stand there. We’d been told the weasel had disappeared under a log with a vole. So maybe it would be full after a nice meal, falling asleep under its cozy log on its new comfy vole-fur-lined pillow.

We stuck it out for 45 minutes or so. Nada. I was beginning to think my lucky streak had finally come to an end on this trip. We still had a little bit of daylight left, and we could check on the badger and other things on the drive back. But as we were walking back to the car, I chatted with some of the other photographers who were present earlier. They indicated that the ermine had brought back two voles during that session.

This changed my attitude. If one fat vole wasn’t enough for a single hunting session, what’s to say that the ermine wouldn’t come out again after two? Though we did pile back in the vehicle and drive away, all I did was reposition to another pullout where we could watch the remaining photographers a bit longer from the comfort of the car. If something happened, the payout would be worth it, after all.

Something happened.

Ermine

It’s been a while since my last weasel photo session. I had forgotten how frantic and challenging they are. The speedy little mustelid tests the limits of one’s tracking skills and autofocus. While it’s obvious that you need to employ a fast shutter speed, something that’s underrated with this subject is depth of field. I learned from a previous close ermine encounter that it’s important to have more depth of field because at close range even a tiny weasel face may not be fully in focus when you’re shooting wide open.

The ermine was dashing to and fro, zigging and zagging, up, down, left, right… and under the snow at times. I was hand-holding my big lens at this point, hoping I could track the elusive critter faster, but it wasn’t really working out well. Some keepers, but a lot more files destined for the garbage.

Many times, the ermine disappeared. Folks spread along the road would call out when it reappeared, often in a different spot completely from where it went under the snow or into the shadows of a fallen log. After several frantic minutes, all was quiet for a while.

We got a short breather before the action started up again, and then an ermine popped out right in front of my group. I beckoned to the folks down the road, but also noticed something different about this latest sighting. Aside from the vole in the mouth, can you tell what’s changed?

Ermine with vole

That’s right, we had two ermines in the same spot! That was a first for me. Both were long-tailed weasels, but one had the traditional black tip of the tail, while the other had lost its tip.

For a brief period we had both animals out, bounding through the snow at different points of the hillside. It was pretty difficult to keep track of everything. Eventually, the black-tipped one crossed the road and began working toward the willows. It caught two more voles (including the one pictured above) before disappeared into the snow with one.

Just like that, our first “slow” day was revived with an all-time encounter, perhaps the best ermine shoot I’ve enjoyed. Even so, I bet we all feel we can do better behind the camera given the chance, so maybe we’ll have to try for ermine again during our remaining time in the park.

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