June 4, 2020
During my first ever trip to Yellowstone, my dad would constantly drag me out to the car at some ungodly hour so we could go explore the park. Revenge is so sweet 32 years later.
We were awake at 3:30, on the road by four. So the sweetness didn’t last too long. Maybe an hour, tops, before I began to feel the effects of only three hours of sleep. We didn’t see a single larger-than-mouse-sized soul on the road until we reached Roosevelt. Your national park service crew is putting in extra work sanitizing bathrooms at 4:45am to keep you safe. Kudos to them.
The early wakeup time was supposed to get us to Hayden Valley for sunrise. Plans went awry. First, there was no sunrise to speak of, as yesterday’s unfriendly weather lingered in the form of a cloudy blanket stretching from Silver Gate to the south entrance. That, and we had a grizzly bear with two cubs walk down the road right at us in the darkness near Roaring Mountain.
They were being followed at a distance by a single car, but otherwise nobody was around. I had just finished telling my dad about last year’s grizzly encounter in that same area, so it was fitting that what I assumed was the same bear showed up at that moment with her now-yearling cubs in tow.
The family moved into the trees, and we caught a brief glimpse a few minutes later as they crossed a meadow and disappeared up a forested hillside. I wasn’t sure they’d be back at the road any time soon, and Hayden and the Lake were calling.
Actually, that was just my imagination. Nothing was calling in Hayden, nor at the lake. Things were dead quiet. Some photographers were staking out a bedded elk calf, and otherwise there were several small herds of elk roaming the valley. After being halted temporarily by a parade of Canada Geese, we continued toward the lake.
I slowed as we passed LeHardy Rapids and thought I spied some ducks in the water. Something to file away for later.
Out past Mary and Sedge Bays, there were more elk scattered about. Not much else. I heard the grouse drumming somewhere below Lake Butte Overlook, but didn’t see him. In the distance we could see the Grand Tetons glowing in sunlight. Folks were enjoying a nice morning down there, I bet. Wondering if perhaps the bears and bear fanatics were farther east, we drove all the way to Sylvan Lake (convincing me that they’re all—yes, even the bears—in the Tetons). At the lake I did spy a courting pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes. There was a nice bit of head-bobbing going on, so I stopped to snap a few images and record some video.
We did our best, making the usual rounds at Bridge Bay and Gull Point Drive. There was a pelican at Pelican Creek, but construction along that road prevents any stopping. So we were soon heading back north, and I decided to confirm my earlier duck sighting at LeHardy. It turned out there were at least seven Harlequins. That’s pretty good for this late in the spring!
As you know, I have shot a lot of Harlequin photos at LeHardy over the years. And while I think I’ve nailed some real winners, these ducks are so active that they provide lots of opportunities to try different things behind the lens. I spent a lot of time experimenting during our hour or more with them.
The usual blurred water shots were tried. Same with sharp action shots, either flying or swimming the rapids. But what about even longer exposures, or long exposure pans on flying ducks, perhaps purposeful overexposure… there are still many stylistic choices I can try to nail. Harlequins are a challenge, which makes them a lot of fun.
Hey, another bird stop came soon after that! I got my best view of the Great Blue Herons at the rookery on the Yellowstone River. Distant, but it was nice to see several herons perched on nests.
Following lunch, we made it all the way back to Mammoth, and nobody fell asleep at the wheel. There was a stop to check for owls in the woods, but everything was still quite wet in there. At Mammoth I got a brief view of an elk calf before it bedded down behind the Justice Center, and I was able to show the Great Horned Owl nest to my dad (one chick visible). There were a lot of black bears out along the northern road, including the cinnamon family we saw previously. “Parking,” as you might expect, was a mess. Not a ranger in sight, which is not surprising given the staff shortages we were warned about. At Slough Creek we had a nice surprise close view of a nesting pair of Sandhill Cranes (which we somehow missed during our previous drives). According to someone who had been watching them a while, the colt we saw had only hatched in the previous few hours. A second egg remained unhatched.
It had been a long day with little sleep, so we returned home early. On the way, we did see a coyote run away from the Lamar River with a sizable prize in its mouth, perhaps a muskrat. It didn’t linger, however, and the rest of the drive was quiet.
June 5, 2020
Amazing how a 4:30am wakeup time can feel great. I got twice as much sleep as the previous night!
There’s been some odd weather during our stay. It’s been pretty cool. Lots of rain would stink, to be honest, but conditions have been all over the board. The skies were clear above Silver Gate, then we had rosy clouds as we drove through Round Prairie, and then in the Lamar we could see some nastiness to the south. To the west, weeping rain clouds were painted pink by the sunrise.
There was more lightning (not enough to set up another bison/lightning shot, though!), some patches of golden light, and some really dark cloud cover. The weather has provided a nice moodiness to the proceedings, at least, and makes it more interesting to photograph familiar subjects (or, God forbid, landscapes!) in new ways.
A herd of elk marched by a pond in Little America as light and dark tones battled it out in the skies overhead.
We tried the Lamar, Slough Creek, eventually Roosevelt and beyond. There was a distant black bear at Petrified Tree (closer to the lot but still pretty far our second time through). I paused to photograph birds as the sun peeked through the clouds. A male bluebird perched ever so briefly near the car.
The White-crowned and Chipping Sparrows were going for dandelion buds.
At this point it was nine o’clock and warming considerably, and I felt like it might be a good time to get in a hike. So we went to one of my favorite spots away from the road, an area that’s been quite good for birds in the past. And we did see a lot of them. Williamson’s Sapsucker, Clark’s Nutcracker, Red-tailed Hawk (photographed through the crack in a boulder)…
…plus sparrows, Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers, and even a vulture. We also saw a coyote and got a brief glimpse of the back side of a fox. However, the most notable sighting occurred when we were standing at the top of a hill and a fuzzy face suddenly appeared on the horizon.
“Hey bear!” I started chatting with this young grizzly to make sure it knew where and who we were, and eventually it turned and walked away, pausing to dig a bit before disappearing out of sight. After that, we decided to return to the car. First we stopped at a natural spring to try and land a few more birds. By the time we got back on the road and drove back east (I had a couple of midday appointments in Silver Gate), the Lamar Valley had come alive.
In one short stretch, a wolf killed an elk calf (then got chased off by the cow), a pronghorn gave birth to twins, and a badger appeared. When we finally arrived on the scene, most of the action had ended. We did see one of the fawns, but little else. It really was too bad about my appointments, though, as we came across another interesting sighting close to Hitching Post in the eastern valley. A grizzly sow had come down from the hills… with two cubs of the year! A large crowd had gathered, and traffic was getting a bit messy (a ranger drove through and didn’t seem fazed). We had a little time to get out after finding a legal parking spot well down the road. If the sow had continued on her path immediately, we might have had a chance to see her close to our part of the creek, or perhaps approaching the road to cross. But she lingered. So I soon had to head back and retrieve the car. When I drove through, she was actually nursing the cubs.
Just as we had to leave, the bears got going as well. Here’s one of the final shots my dad got before we eased through traffic.
I can only imagine the mess that ensued once she approached the road after our departure.
Back in Silver Gate I was able to get my work done, though it took a bit longer than expected. After the obligatory power-up from the Stop the Car (Sea Salt Caramel Truffle milkshake this time!), we were heading back to Yellowstone, but for one brief stop. Jill and Greg, owners of Creekside at Yellowstone, are putting in some work sprucing up the town sign. I love this community.
Back in the park, the sunny weather had mostly disappeared, and more weird clouds and threats of the type of stuff one would describe as “inclement” came and went.
Do you drive differently in Yellowstone? I’m not talking about the speed limit. I mean how you hold the wheel. I’ve found that I have to constantly remind myself to position my hands in the Yellowstone manner… not Ten and Two. More like Eleven and One-Thirty. Why? So I can quickly respond to the Oncoming Driver’s Wave and have my hands positioned high enough on the wheel for them to see me responding. Normally a flap of the hand from the top of the wheel, like a Hungry, Hungry Hippo grabbing at a marble. Or perhaps the One Finger Wave, as though you’re testing the wind inside your car, or you’re just too lazy to lift more than a finger. Rangers especially have perfected the Driver’s Wave, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who fears getting a ticket if I don’t respond in kind.
Speaking of which, on our way back through the Lamar, a couple of rangers had some folks lined up out of their car. Lights were on and we soon saw multiple backup vehicles with lights flashing, speeding through the valley toward the scene. Presumably these folks had done something worse than leaving their RV in the road at a bear jam. Or maybe they accidentally gave the One Finger Salute instead of the One Finger Wave. We drove on, checking the Slough Creek road before heading through Little America, where we stopped to photograph a couple of massive bison. Below Junction Butte, a grizzly bear high up the hillside drew a crowd, and it was here that I was ambushed.
Bryan and Sharon came all the way from Georgia to deliver me monster cookies! It’s been several years since I’ve enjoyed them, and I forgot how massive they are. In an emergency I could probably use one as a spare tire, but fortunately I already have one of those around my waist, so the cookies will be utilized in a more urgent and appropriate manner.
Just across the Yellowstone River Bridge, a black bear was grazing beneath the road. I was silently hoping for cubs, but none were present.
That bear eventually made its way up the hill and headed toward the junction as we returned to the east. In the Lamar, we stopped to photograph isolated groups in the massive herd of bison wandering across the flats. Next, we spied a couple of Red-tailed Hawks… standing on the valley floor. It was the second time I’ve seen them on the ground in the last couple days. We also came across a muskrat swimming in one of the seasonal ponds. Oh, shoot! I probably wasn’t supposed to disclose the location, in case coyotes are reading my reports for intel. My dad took a few shots of the small rodent.
Our final small rodent of the evening was not as active or full of joie de vivre. Check that, it wasn’t full of any vivre… since it was in the jaws of a fox trotting along the road as we approached home. A nice little moment to end the day.
Our day. Not the vole’s.