June 10, 2020
They came to us in the night.
Next door at our second cabin, heavy footsteps were heard on the front porch. Something tried to get into the (bearproof) garbage can. This according to our guest over there. Later that morning, one of the neighbors on the opposite hillside looked down into the willow field beyond our property and saw a grizzly bear peering back at her.
On the road at four in the morning, a red fox scurried in front of us. In the Lamar Valley, bison stood and stared silently as we eased by. A cow elk and calf crossed the road ahead, leaving the valley floor for the safety of the hills and trees.
It was one of those Hayden/Lake days, with an extra early start time and two hour drive to get to Canyon. This one was tough. The early mornings, lack of naps, and late nights working are adding up, and I was struggling all the way down. But we made it. Not for sunrise (which would demand a 3am wakeup time), but in time for the action to start.
About halfway down the valley, we made a pit stop. Others were already in the area, roaming back and forth hoping for wolves. The Wapiti Lake Pack has remained active in the valley in the last couple weeks. We’d missed them during our two forays south, but the third time was the charm.
A wolf was seen chasing an elk. We repositioned a bit farther south and caught sight of a black and white pair… the alphas. They weren’t close, but it was a good open view, and as they were followed by three more wolves, the trotting lineup actually made for an okay photo op (as such things go from 300 yards).
They climbed a hillside in the gray overcast light. Just as the white alpha female reached the crest, everything glowed. Cue the choir.
The wolves were on a mission, continuing south on a tangent that gradually took them away from the road. Though everyone fanned out and watched points where they might reemerge, the small band of Wapitis never appeared. We occupied ourselves with photographing a Great Blue Heron, reflected nicely against overflowing creek water. Pelicans bobbed and elk grazed in the mist near Alum Creek.
After a few passes, it was time to head to the lake to try, once again, for grizzly bears. And once again we struck out, as we did with our quick owl check later. In between, however, we were driving back past Sedge Bay. In the middle of a thermal area above the road, something moved on top of a boulder. Could it be bighorn sheep, or mountain goats? Certainly an odd place for them…
No, it was Darwinawaardi muricanus, the southern cousin of Darwinawaardi canadensis. A.k.a., the Yellowstone Wild Ass.
Down at Bridge Bay, it was nice to see the park staff cleaning and prepping everything for the busy summer tourist season.
Hayden was still quiet when we finally worked our way back north. A cinnamon black bear attracted a crowd near the turnoffs to the falls. We drove past and tried our luck in the woods. Another owl search that ultimately yielded no results, though it was interesting to see a pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets following some Canada Jays as they flew from tree to tree (before the jays were driven off by marauding robins).
We lunched at Otter Creek. My mind was drifting (no surprise, I’m sure), and I starting revisiting our recent encounters on this trip. The badger on Tuesday afternoon was particularly satisfying. I was able to record some video clips, and thought it might be nice to produce a badger video as part of my new educational series. But I couldn’t really do that without highlighting more of the badger’s unique behavior. Namely, the badger/coyote cooperative hunting strategy… something I had yet to witness. Some day, perhaps.
Anyway, we finished lunch and I was beat, so I handed the keys to my dad (who had refueled with a fair share of napping during the morning’s exploration). You don’t understand how hard it can be to let someone else drive me around the park. It shouldn’t be difficult, of course. When I lead tours, I’m often behind the wheel of a large vehicle for 12-15 hours, trying to stay alert, watch traffic, and spot wildlife or a photo op all at the same time. It’s not too different when leading family and friends around. Over the course of a week or two, it’s an exhausting process. Being a passenger sure sounds nice and relaxing. I could actually devote the remaining 40% of my attention to scanning my surroundings away from the road. So why do I only cede the wheel reluctantly?
Let’s just say that it’s a bit jarring. Inevitably, other folks drive way faster than me. If I had a website devoted solely to Yellowstone Trip Reports, I’d probably title it 37MPH, which I’m guessing is my average speed on park roads. Often, I’m driving slower as I scan for interesting stuff, but most people aren’t wired that way, and they just focus on the speed limit and the road ahead. Jenn always warns me that if she takes the wheel, she’s not looking and she’s not stopping. It’s not an idle threat.
Sometimes, others drive too slow. Oh look, people are excited and scrambling for cameras up ahead! Wait, why are you slowing down to 10 miles per hour while we’re still 300 yards away? Stopping is an acquired skill as well. I face this challenge when being driven by professional guides during overseas adventures. If you want to stop for something, it’s obviously much easier to time things right when you’re in control of the vehicle.
But on this day, I was happy to let someone else drive for a bit. What, napping meant I’d miss the exciting Canyon-Norris stretch of road? So many pine trees I could’ve counted when instead I dozed! I managed to sleep through most of that leg and the run from Norris to Mammoth, and I didn’t feel bad at all (though we may have missed a mountain goat at Golden Gate). The rest was much-needed.
Even though it was already creeping into early afternoon, we agreed to head back to Silver Gate for a short break. I used it to get a little work done. My father napped some more. So we were both raring to go at 4pm. I figured this might be another one of those quick out-and-back runs, like we had done the day before.
At Lower Barronette, a wandering moose on the far side of the creek drew gawkers. Between Thunderer and Round Prairie, a black bear grazed in the tall vegetation off the road. Presumably this was one of the two blacks we saw the previous afternoon in the area. We were soon in the Lamar Valley, and I pulled into the Hitching Post lot when I saw a few people pointing excitedly into the sage. There was a pronghorn there, but a pronghorn alone doesn’t get people excited. This does.
There were actually two fawns, but one quickly bedded before I could get the camera set up, and the second eventually disappeared into the brush after following Mom for a while.
The weather finally appeared to be improving. We’re supposed to be in for warmer, sunnier days, which is good and bad. I’ve really enjoyed the varied mess in the sky over the past week. There is such thing as too hot when it comes to wildlife viewing. I really don’t want summer to arrive just yet.
The bison in the valley were bathed in a warm glow, while fluffy clouds dotted the sky. After snapping a few photos of them, we resumed our journey. I had just driven past the Buffalo Ranch when WHOOOSH! A falcon divebombed a flock of swallows directly over our car! There was no room to pull off the road, and by the time I’d turned the car around and parked safely, we lost sight of the raptor.
A few minutes later we turned onto the Slough Creek Road for what has quickly gone from an occasional detour to a priority. This stretch of dirt and gravel has been good to us and a lot of others over the past week. I passed the usual crowd set up behind their scopes and continued toward the second half of the road, which usually has more potential for goodies with the ponds and trees lining its flanks. Looking far ahead, I could see a few people scurrying around their cars. Such human activity could well mean animal activity nearby. I drove with purpose.
As we pulled up, I rolled down my window and asked a family what they were scoping through their binoculars. “A wolf,” came the reply. “And a badger too.”
Huh. We quickly parked and got oriented. Okay, so it wasn’t a wolf. It was a coyote. But there was a badger as well! So I finally became a witness to one of the true Odd Couple moments in Yellowstone. The two hunters roamed a hillside together.
Actually, it was more a case of the coyote sitting around watching as the badger went into various holes, hoping it might spook a squirrel right into its waiting mouth. Whenever the badger would amble by, the coyote would get out the way. But if the coyote went running or leaping after some prey, the badger would quickly shuffle over to investigate.
Ultimately, the coyote did catch a squirrel all on its own with a quick hop or two up the hill. The two eventually disappeared over the berm and out of sight. And yes, I managed to record a little video.
There was time to drive west a short distance. A black bear roamed far below the road at Elk Creek. Another was near Floating Island Lake. We turned around at that point, and had to stop back near Elk Creek for another Odd Couple. This time, it was a robin and a hawk perched almost together.
Not really buddies this time, however. The robin kept chirping up a storm, trying to convince the hawk to move. No divebombing or truly aggressive behavior, just annoying chitta chatta. It worked, as the hawk took off. The robin flew along chirping even louder, presumably letting everyone in the neighborhood know how intimidating it was.
In Little America, we stopped to photograph bison and their calves near the road. The Lamar Valley was painted in an even deeper shade of gold than when we first drove through, and we went past even more bison. That’s when a brawl broke out between two large bulls. This wasn’t the usual half-hearted spring sparring. This was a few seconds of serious, snot-spraying brawling, something usually reserved for late summer. Truly intense, but it was over before we could position ourselves for decent photos.
Just a little ways down the road, I spotted pronghorns on the run. Lately, this has meant that a coyote’s in the area. Sure enough, there it was.
It was preoccupied with hunting, but the speed goats wouldn’t leave it alone, so it was occasionally turn around and scatter them. So we got the coyote/badger hunt and the coyote/pronghorn chase in the same day! Remarkable to land these two displays of unique interspecies behavior in such a short period. Not to mention that I was pretty happy with the photos and footage from both encounters.
Near the Buffalo Ranch, the falcon was back. It went after swallows again and we could see that it was a Peregrine (I have seen Prairie Falcons in the Lamar before). Even farther to the east we had more pronghorns running, way off on the other side of the Lamar River. Surely it wasn’t another coyote moment… No, in this case it was a small herd of bucks, and like the battering bison, they were getting testy with each other. Two pairs of combatants broke off from the rest of the group and locked horns. Two separate, nasty fights played out while the rest watched. Again, echoes of later seasons. There’s something weird in the air.
That was it, right? Surely, nothing else could happen. Well, we had to stop for a bull moose at Round Prairie for a bit. Oh, then a larger bull much closer at the Soda Butte Creek Picnic Area.
That took us into darkness, one of the few times I ever stay out this late in the park. We decided not to be greedy and failed to find an owl on the last leg home.
June 11, 2020
Thursday was a designated sleep-in day. Which is probably why I stayed up until 1am. Still, I knew it would be a miracle if I made it past seven. I was awake at 6:40.
I had a lot of work to catch up on, but I promised myself at least fifteen minutes to relax outside on the porch while eating breakfast. Looking through the trees of our property out to the neighbors’ meadow, I could see someone else was doing the same.
I started tackling work, and once I knew my family was up and moving back home, I called to chat with them. I stepped back out onto the porch during the conversation, and was rudely interrupted by unannounced guests.
We quickly cut the conversation short (don’t worry, I did call back later) and I grabbed my gear from inside. This appearance was not a total surprise. In fact, I’d been hoping for it ever since news of a new moose calf in town reached us a week ago. It was nice to see the family finally pay us a visit. They didn’t linger too long in the open, but I was able to snap a few photos from the deck. Then they went back to the cover of the trees, where we let them be. Later, right around lunch time, they reappeared on the edge of our willows before going back into the woods. I hope they enjoy their stay!
Departure was set for 4pm again, perhaps because we were hoping to replicate our amazing session the previous afternoon. Initially, it looked like we wouldn’t get the same nice weather, as there was a lot of cloud cover. But it would start burning off, giving us some nicer light on the drive home. Because it’s been so good to us, we headed straight to the Slough Creek Road. It appeared we may not land anything interesting on this visit, but at the very end of the road we spotted someone looking into the trees and pointing. The black bear family that’s been seen off and on was down in the lower bowl, so we waited around a bit to see what they’d do.
Eventually, they began to work their way closer, walking past the small group of onlookers while they grazed. The yearling cubs attacked the grass with as much gusto as the mosquitoes were going after me. This, of course, is what makes yearling bear cubs only about 25% as interesting as first year cubs… they graze too much to have time for cute antics. But they still remain significantly cuter than any mosquito.
On this trip we’ve had little bear luck in general. Quite a few sightings, but not much in the way of decent photo ops. This session was probably our best one, and soon we’d see a few more black bears on our drive. There was a cinnamon (probably the same one we had at sunrise a few days back) on the south side of the road in Little America, while a black emerged from a pond on the north side and meandered down the pavement in front of a line of trailing cars.
We waited on the cinnamon to see if it would ever get closer, pulling ahead to a small pullout. When we got out to see if we could spot the bear, I noticed a bird show instead. A fledgling raven was begging for food from an adult that had just arrived.
To me this was far more interesting than a distant black bear. I’d never had a chance to witness raven family interactions at close range. So I settled in to shoot… until the person next to me decide to walk down to look for the bear, and he actually took time to try and shoo the ravens away as he walked past.
The adult flew off. The decidedly immature human went over to show others where the bear was. The young raven remained on the boulder, alone and unable to fly up to the branches above.
Driving west, we came across a black bear on the hillside beyond the Yellowstone River Bridge. It’s possible this may have been the pond bear, already across and grazing where the grass was greener, though we don’t know for sure. Quick checks at Petrified Tree, Elk Creek and Floating Island revealed no further sightings, except for a dog that decided hauling a trailer with a Passat was a good idea.
On our way back, the ravens were back on the boulder. This time the adult was busy picking at the youngster, probably finding tasty bugs to snack on (similar to what you might expect some primates to do).
In the Lamar Canyon, an osprey teased us for a little while. Then in the valley we made brief stops for a pronghorn and a roadside Western Meadowlark.
Tomorrow we venture south again. Gotta get some sleep!