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Yellowstone Spring 2020 Trip Report, Days 0 – 2

I escaped quarantine. Probably to the benefit of my mental health more than my physical health (though it would be nice to get some hiking in while I’m here!). I realized very late that one of the consequences of COVID isolation was coping with not being able to get out and explore or photograph much, for at least six months, due to the cancellation of most of my tours. There’s still hope for Alaska in September, but otherwise things were looking pretty bleak. From a photography standpoint, 2020 was feeling like a bit of a wasted year already, given all of the planned photo outings that aren’t happening, but I also wasn’t sure how confinement would affect my level of happiness and level of contentment. There are positive things to fill the gaps—the satisfaction of catching up on overdue work projects, and spending more time with family chief among them—but it’s a big change to a routine I’ve grown accustomed to over the past decade as a full time professional photographer. I feared the prospect of potentially going the rest of the year with no outings, so I insisted on coming out whenever the park finally opened and Montana relaxed its quarantine restrictions.

Fortunately, it was still late spring when that happened! But since the Montana entrances didn’t open until June 1, it meant this was the first year since 2006 that I wasn’t in the park in May. I usually lead my photo tours at the start of June, and they’re consistently successful from a wildlife standpoint, so I didn’t really doubt that I’d have something to photograph. But we’ll just have to see how things play out this time around with slightly later start and end dates.

This marks my fifty-first trip to Yellowstone. I’ll be looking back at my previous park adventures in the blog very soon, but for now I’ll remind everyone that my first trip was in the summer of 1988, a road trip with my dad. I was twelve. So it’s appropriate that I am kicking off my second half-century of Yellowstone visits with another road trip with my father. It’s his first visit in spring, and our first shared adventure here since a short trip in October of 2011.

 

June 1, 2020

We departed Seattle at 5:30, and almost immediately started seeing wildlife as we drove through western Washington. Deer and rabbits count, right? Surely, this was a good sign.

Just before entering Spokane, I spied a police vehicle on the side of the freeway. A turkey was walking around on its roof. If you had Rioting Turkeys listed after Murder Hornets in the Next Stage of the Apocalypse Pool, you’re a big winner.

The drive took a little longer than normal, but it was pretty uneventful beyond the consistent rain showers pelting us through Montana. We arrived in Yellowstone with a little daylight left, and immediately found an osprey perched above the Gardner River. Too many branches in the way, so it wasn’t possible to get a good shot. We did manage one black bear sighting as we drove through the northern range. A moose grazed in willows at Lower Barronette.

 

June 2, 2020

After two nights of very little sleep and a fourteen-and-a-half hour drive, I agreed to my dad’s suggestion of sleeping in. I have two weeks and no tour… there’s no rush.

A bison grazed outside the kitchen window, having its breakfast while we ate ours. We hit the road at a little before 9am. Our first stop was at the Soda Butte Creek Picnic Area, for a pair of stragglers: Harlequin Ducks!

Harlequin Duck

Normally they’re gone by mid to late May, but occasionally I’ll see them as late as mid-June (my best ever Harlequin shoot occurred at that time), so I wasn’t terribly surprised. A nice subject to start with, and during the subsequent drive through the Lamar Valley, I saw some other less common waterfowl (for that area): Green-winged Teal and Northern Shovelers. While I’ve seen them in other parts of the park, the extra water from all the snow melt probably helped them try out some new swimming pools this week.

We explored the Slough Creek Road. I spied a wolf moving out of the flats on the opposite side of the creek and ascending the hill. We stopped for ground squirrels. No badgers to be seen, as of yet.

After that… more birds! I decided to stop and check out some past nest sites, and we were in luck. We found some Northern Flickers entering and exiting a nest hole, so we set up and waited. There was loads of activity in the area. Aside from the flickers, we had bluebirds (working a hole in the same tree), siskins, sparrows, warblers, kinglets, wrens, geese, and ravens flitting about or flying overhead.

Northern Flicker and Mountain Bluebird

There wasn’t much of a plan at this point, so I kept driving west. We decided to lunch at Sheepeater Cliff. On the way there, a small herd of bison cows and calves occupied the road. We eventually squeezed by them and then turned off at Sheepeater. The bison presumably continued south. While lunching at the picnic area, I heard a familiar call. And then I saw… a pika! To many of you, this should not be news. People report pikas at Sheepeater all the time. I had never seen one at the main rock pile. In all these years, my only pika sighting in the area was down the trail a ways from the parking lot… I was convinced they’d mostly disappeared from the area, because all I ever saw were marmots, squirrels, and chipmunks. As always, I get excited about “firsts” in new locations.

I didn’t take any pika pictures, but I did catch a raven and a hawk (I’m guessing Cooper’s) chasing each other directly above us.

Cooper's Hawk and Common Raven

Afterward, the plan was to head south, likely to check out Hayden and the Lake. But we immediately ran into a long line of cars. Single vehicles were sporadically coming through from the other direction while our lane remained backed up and crept along slowly. I guessed that our small line of bison was still on the road, snaring traffic. I wasn’t prepared to wait it out, knowing the road was going to be narrow with few good shoulders for some distance. We turned around.

We actually drove all the way back along the northern road and straight out of the park. I decided to tackle the Beartooth Highway, which my dad had never driven. First, I stopped at the Stop the Car Trading Post in Silver Gate… they’re open! I said a quick hi to Cheryl and got caught up on the latest local grizzly and moose gossip, and I made a mental note to save space in my belly for ice cream and milkshakes.

Then we were off to the Beartooth. A rain storm chased us all the way up, and I was worried we may not get some of those great views, but it veered off and we were treated to the usual spectacle. The whole time, of course, I was keeping an eye out for wildlife. Marmots and pikas were somewhat active (we may need to revisit them later in the trip), but we struck out on mountain goats during the initial run. There was other wildlife at the summit, however.

Skiers

Instead of turning around at this point, I decided to drive just a bit farther. The afternoon light was too nice, and if we found something good, it could make for a nice shoot. And hey, we scored a single goat. We never quite got the best angles for it, but it was nice to be rewarded. On the way back down, evening light was lighting up the many aspens dotting the slopes. We stopped for a landscape shoot.

Aspens

We returned home around seven and found two moose grazing in our willows by the creek.

Moose

This is presumably the same cow and calf that were hanging out here during my winter visit, and perhaps the same mom who brought twins through our property last spring. It was nice to see them again, and to finish off the day with our neighbors.

 

June 3, 2020

We had a real start time today: 5am. However, we weren’t going to use up that time with a full morning drive. I got a late missive from a past client reporting an otter sighting at Trout Lake. He was planning on an early morning hike up, so we decided to meet him at the trailhead. This gave us enough time for one sweep of the Lamar Valley. It wasn’t completely wasted. In the eastern valley, an elk cow and calf were out in the flats… not a typical sight on the floor of the Lamar.

Elk with calf

We returned to the Trout Lake trailhead and geared up. Soon, our source arrived. He and I shared some fond memories of our winter tour together that took place seven years ago, and which featured one of my top two tour moments ever in the park (something I’ll talk more about in the coming weeks during my retrospective). We hoped to recreate our luck on this hike…

…but it wasn’t to be. Still, it was good to get the exercise, and we did get one nice wildlife shoot. Just as we arrived at the lake, a Bald Eagle swooped down from overhead and flew to the other side. As we walked around the shore, we could see (and hear) several pairs of Canada geese, as well as a few Scaups here and there. No mammals, however. As we neared the inlet on the far side, more geese entered the water… with babies in tow. One pair of adults had a bundle of little fluff balls following them. Another adult only had two. Now we knew why the eagle (which was back on its original perch) was hanging out at the lake… eagle snacks!

Canada Geese

I can say with all seriousness that this resulted in my Best Canada Gosling Shoot ever. I keep track of such things. Seriously, I’ve seen plenty of goslings, but always on land. I’ve never had a good opportunity to photograph them swimming with their parents, so this may have been a common sight, but a special treat nonetheless. And it meant the hike wasn’t completely fruitless.

We did our due diligence by visiting neighboring Buck Lake. Found some otter scat, but no other sign of them. Then we returned to the parking lot. It was still fairly early, approaching 8am. We headed west, determined to find something else with our remaining scraps of morning light. I decided to skip the Slough Creek road this time, hoping perhaps to find a bear somewhere closer to Roosevelt. Oops. I got reports later that a black wolf popped out in front of a few folks, including one of our hiking companions.

Instead, we drove on. As we rounded the bend approaching the Yellowstone River bridge, I could see that a car was stopped in the middle of the expanse, and a lone bison was trudging toward it. We came up on the bridge, and sure enough, the lead car was stopped as the bison walked toward it in our lane. Another car was behind the lead car, and as I arrived, it was quickly backing up.

I’ve never seen a car turn tail and flee a bison before. I pulled up behind them, figuring we’d just wait and let the bison move past using the open lane… they are good about avoiding traffic and no cars were moving… well, none moving forward at least. The backward driver saw I wasn’t moving and stepped out of their car to warn me about the bison, gesturing that I should move. I assured them that it would walk around. Then they dropped the “I’m from here!” bomb, presumably adding credence to their strategy of a hasty, pre-emptive retreat. Again I insisted the bison would get past just fine if they returned to their vehicle and waited. Plus, I wasn’t in the mood to drive backward into a blind curve on which many people drive too fast.

They didn’t wait, instead pulling a 180 in the middle of the bridge and hightailing it back behind us a whopping… 30 yards before turning around again. I always thought that if I ever saw a car speeding away from a bison, perhaps it would be an inexperienced park visitor unsure of how to comport themselves around large wildlife, not a Local Wildlife Expert.

The bison, in case you were wondering, continued moseying along, walking past the lead car, and then us. We continued west.

No bears, so we drove down to the Hellroaring lot for my traditional pika/weasel/marten search. I go knowing that I’m looking for pikas, but hoping I will get a weasel or marten (which I have seen there before only once). Williamson’s Sapsuckers or a random owl would be a bonus.

It didn’t take long to find our first pika, a youngster. Since it didn’t stick around, we descended the game trail to the lower rock pile. I heard a sapsucker in the distance. It was a female Williamson’s (though not as striking as the male, she’s still quite pretty), but unfortunately she was staying high up in the trees. The pikas at the lower pile didn’t reveal themselves, so we started walking back up. Passing the first mound of rocks, we spied an adult higher up. And then one of the juveniles appeared. Followed by a second.

American Pika

Teenage pikas are definitely cuter than the adults. I kept hoping the two juveniles would come together (I’ve never photographed two pikas in the same frame), but this was a long shot. They’re not very social creatures from the looks of it, and I’ve heard they can be extremely territorial. Even these presumed siblings were totally independent of each other and wouldn’t cross paths.

We wrapped up the longer-than-expected pika shoot and returned to the main road… quickly finding that some bears had finally appeared. A cinnamon black with two yearlings had been out by Elk Creek. They were approaching the road just as we pulled up and soon crossed and climbed up into the tree line. After that, the drive to Silver Gate commenced. We had agreed to lunch at home and take a little break. A perfect excuse to get my first ice cream cone of the trip from the Stop the Car!

A little after 3, we were back in the park. The weather was looking… ominous. Storm clouds gathered on the southern side of the valley. We drove past a small bachelor herd of bison near the road. As we passed, I saw one large brute standing before those dark clouds and thought it might make for a nice moody wide angle shot if we could somehow line them up. So I turned the car around and we managed to find a safe place to pull off. I did snap a few wide shots as the largest bull walked past and crossed the road. Mission accomplished. We headed out again… but then lightning flashed.

Hmm… the only time I’ve successfully created a good lightning photo was in the Lamar Valley. That storm was also coming from the south. What if we could get a lightning strike with bison in the foreground? We had to try, so we reunited with the remaining bison.

Lightning presents several challenges for a photographer, but the last time I found an easy workaround by using my remote cable to fire long exposures repeatedly. The problem in this case is that with a super long exposure, any movement by the bison would make for a pretty blurry foreground. As I was thinking this through and setting up all of my gear (tripod, plates, cable release, wide lens… a rain jacket!), my dad was sitting in the car, pointing his lens out the window hoping to react quickly enough to fire the shutter and get something.

I missed everything (don’t ask). He got this.

Lightning and Bison by Dan Waugh

See, rainy days aren’t always a bad thing. We—okay, I—got wet, but it was well worth it. We continued on, hoping to outlast the storm. It did look brighter to the west, and I told my dad that once things cleared, we could get our bison in front of a rainbow next. But first…

We had lamented the lack of coyotes so far. There hadn’t been seen a single one prior to this afternoon’s drive, but that eventually resolved itself after I stopped to shoot… a cowbird. Yeah, I said it. Anyway, a coyote did show up. I didn’t even notice it as I concentrated on the little brown speck flitting after some bison (my dad was paying attention, however).

Farther down the road in Little America, we encountered a bachelor herd of pronghorns.

As pretty as they are, pronghorns aren’t the most dynamic subjects to photograph. They’re a bit stiff, and often lack personality. But when that personality does emerge, it’s show time! In this case, I stopped because it was nice to see so many bucks huddled together. But we soon found out why they had lined up like that, as they ran past us… right toward another coyote.

Coyotes and pronghorns have a very interesting relationship, as they almost seem to play with each other at times. Coyotes chase pronghorns, and then pronghorns will chase coyotes, often during the same encounter. I’ve seen pronghorn line up and run around in circles when a coyote was present… as though it was a sheep dog working its herd. That happened again here, and I was thrilled. As many times as I’ve seen this interspecies interaction, the few photos I have of it aren’t that great. I finally had a decent opportunity to witness and photograph it at closer range.

Coyote Chasing Pronghorn

In this particular case, the interaction was a bit one-sided. The coyote was intent on hunting for squirrels, but the pronghorns continued to march about, occasionally running past the coyote, and then spooking any time it lunged at a squirrel. Such a fun and unique interaction to witness.

We started to head for home. The skies to the west kept clearing. The sun was trying to break through. At the east end of the valley, we finally spied the rainbow I’d promised. Sadly, there were no close bison about, but we did arrive at Soda Butte in time.

Rainbow and Soda Butte

We even managed to get some geese and a ground squirrel in the foreground of a couple shots. It was a great way to end an active day filled with all manner of sightings. On Thursday, we hope to make our first foray south, which means a super early wake-up time.

3 Comments

  1. Reny June 4, 2020 Reply

    I’m so glad you’re back in park and share your stories with us.
    Your dad sure takes great pictures :), the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

    Love that pika shot.
    During our last trip to Yellowstone we were at Hellroaring trying to shoot a pika. Erik, René, Hélène and I were so excited to see one.
    After taking some pictures we took a closer look at it………turned out to be an ordinaire mouse …….we had fun though!

    Great way to start your trip and I can’t wait for the next report.

    Have fun !

    Reny

    • Author
      Max June 10, 2020 Reply

      If it was a mouse, that’s nothing ordinary. I’ve only photographed a mouse once in Yellowstone!

  2. Sue Reigle June 4, 2020 Reply

    What can I say!! Felt like I was driving along w/ you & Dad; great report!! Harlequin pic was just crystal clear; surprised they were at Soda Butte!! Enjoyed the skiers @ Beartooth & their homemade ski jump! Goose & goslings were so cute; glad for the water opportunity for you! That pika was just precious; you know me and those cuties!! Congrats to Dad on that fantastic lightning/bison capture!! Sorry but had to chuckle at all your set up + getting wet & Dad snaps the perfect capture! Not aware of the “closeness” of the coyotes & pronghorns; good shot! Rainbow was a stunning ending….hope I won’t be booed off but I’ve always tho’t that Soda Butte resembles a “still Jaba the Hut” and again, no offense, but def saw “him” in your rainbow pic! Better quit while I’m ahead!! Nite!

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