January 23, 2020
Thursday offered a nice change. We had snow flurries throughout much of the day. The landscape could use some freshening up, and the falling flakes made some of our stakeouts quite beautiful.
We kicked off our photography with one of the few remaining bull moose that still has his antlers, in the eastern Lamar. He’s not a giant by moose standards, but mature enough to look grand and imposing amidst the winter scenery. We watched as he grazed on red willows while bison foraged in the background. Eventually he crossed to join a buddy (antlers gone) in another thick stand of willows.
We continued on, looking out for otters, fox, and of course, ermine. Coyotes were abundant, unlike yesterday, so my group finally got a few closer sessions with them in the Lamar Valley. We stopped for our closest view of bighorn rams as well.
Our day featured a lot of back and forth, which is typical… maybe it felt like more since we weren’t stopping to shoot as often. We arrived to stake out the weasels from Wednesday, but that didn’t last long, as a lady pulled up and described the lovely fox that had just crossed the road in front of her car.
Since fox was still high on my clients’ list, we decided to investigate… which led to a bit of searching and some extra exercise for me. We had trouble picking out any fresh tracks in the area where she described seeing it, so I was soon walking down a snowshoe trail at Thunderer. I went all the way to the bottom, just to be sure, and never saw a single animal.
But man, it was so gorgeous down there… widely spaced medium pines, falling snow, a quiet creek and utter silence. Just a gorgeous place that could’ve only been spruced up by a poofy red fox.
I wanted to be sure I checked a few more spots on my way back to the vehicle, but that took me off the trail and into the deep stuff. I was slogging through drifts until I reached the trees, and then at that point I was clambering over a lot of deadfall. It was a nice workout.
On our way back down the road, we paused at a view point, and I could spy a very distant fox out in the far meadow. So maybe it had crossed, but it was on a mission and there was no chance for us to get pictures.
Instead of returning to the ermine, we chose to continue our fox search to the west, stopping only to check the badger den (missed it out again), and for a pair of coyotes. Farther west, we pulled over to check a spot on the river that had been staked out earlier by some photographers… they were going for otters, and it appeared (based on fresh markings and droppings) that the otters had come out after they packed up.
So we got out to look and wait a bit. I headed off into the snow and around the bend to get a better view of the river… and that’s when I spied an otter dashing toward the water. I notified my group (back on the road) that they should get ready, as there was a chance the fast-moving otter might appear in one of the thawed areas closer to them. But it never did. Instead, it must have gone to a den hole buried beneath the ice. File that one away for a future search.
One final stop on the way home yielded our first shoot with the bull elk group on Blacktail. The light was fading, but we snapped a few shots of the regal animals before we returned to Gardiner.
January 24, 2020
Last days of tours are a bit weird. Usually we’re scrambling to check off remaining to-do items, or we’re seeking better photo opportunities with something we’ve already seen. The challenge is balancing and prioritizing these goals.
We knew, for example, where we could find badgers and otters (neither of which my clients had seen on this tour), but the question was how long we wanted to wait around for them without wasting too much time on our last day in order to also seek more foxes or perhaps more ermine.
The day unfolded in a very similar fashion to Thursday. The morning was occupied by moose and bighorn shoots.
Throughout the day we sprinkled in some bird photos, as well as a brief stop for a bull elk in the Lamar Canyon, but the proceedings were dominated by multiple stops at the badger spot in the valley, the otter spot on the Lamar River, and fox searches in between.
Perhaps we should have cut out the fox stuff altogether. They simply haven’t been showing themselves very close in the northern range this week. We’re lucky to have had our close encounter from Hayden Valley, but fox detours up north nearly cost us.
We missed a second badger (yes, there are two that have popped out in the Lamar) midway through the day, and the spot for my first badger remained quiet every time we came through, including extended stakeouts. Thankfully, we timed things right on the otter front, returning to the river just in time to see photographers grabbing their gear.
The otter was out on the ice. A Dipper accompanied it.
It was only a brief appearance, for a trip to the toilet. The Poop Dance commenced, and after it was over, the otter disappeared. We waited around a while longer, but it never came back. Similar to Thursday’s schedule, I figured it might reappear later in the afternoon following its midday trip to the potty. So we’d have to check back.
Instead of returning to the valley, we drove west to check for foxes again. Oops. Back in the Lamar, the first badger had finally emerged, and actually crossed the road! As we arrived it was just finishing its new sett for the night. Dirt was flying as I dropped my clients off. Thankfully, they were able to see it before it went inside for the evening. It took me around fifty trips to see my first winter badger. Some of my clients got one on their first try!
Another drive to look for foxes. Same result. We returned to the otter spot, only to have missed it peeking its head out by twenty minutes or so. Oh well, we were thankful we got it and a badger on our final day. That was a great way to wrap a fabulous tour!
I’d like to thank my wonderful clients on this trip, which is probably the best winter Yellowstone tour I’ve ever led: Amy, Heather, Pat, and Rhett. Thanks also to our snow coach drivers Owen and Adam for their work in the interior, as well as Zack Clothier for coming along for the ride down there. And finally, thanks to all of you for following the adventure once again this year via my trip reports!
If you are interested in joining me on a future winter Yellowstone tour, I will likely be accepting pre-deposits on a 2022 tour soon. Please contact me for more information.