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Yellowstone Spring 2020 Trip Report, Days 11 – 13

June 12, 2020

Operating on three hours of sleep, I did pretty well getting down to Hayden Valley on Friday. This time, most of the animals avoided us. A fox skirted the glow of the headlights as we drove through the Lamar. A waning half moon lit the sky to the east.

The east side of the park is often, well… nibble or famine. Rarely do you have a feast. I find myself counting on/hoping for one major sighting while I’m down there. A couple days prior, the wolves provided that. I wouldn’t say the Harlequin Ducks were a major sighting during our first visit, but they at least gave us ample opportunities to click the shutter, so it was time well spent.

On Friday morning the wolves were absent. Even the wolf project personnel patrolling the valley with all the regular photographers—tasked with “making sure they stayed away from the road,” which leaves a lot to the imagination—weren’t having any luck. Our reflected heron was back, a little closer to the road this time…

Great Blue Heron

…and some lingering mist made for some pretty scenery over the river near Alum Creek.

Sunrise on the Yellowstone River

We made two quick passes and decided to continue to the Lake while it was still early. Alas, not early enough, as a grizzly and her cub of the year had recently vanished over a hill. My dad got a brief glimpse of her back at one point, but the bears were moving up, up and away from where everyone was stationed.

I don’t use the phrase “desperate measures” lightly, but our two most notable photo stops were for a) gulls, and b) a muskrat.

This is probably only the second time I’ve bothered photographing gulls along Yellowstone Lake. But my index finger was getting stiff, and I figured I should ID these gulls once and for all. The problem is that even after looking at the photos, I can’t be sure if I’m looking at Ring-billed Gulls or California Gulls.

Ring-billed gull

Or perhaps both were present. Coloration and markings were different, and both had similarities with various ages and seasonal plumage I’ve seen for both species. Any thoughts?

And yes, we staked out a muskrat. It never returned, however, after munching on some veg at the surface.

Muskrat

And if that wasn’t bad enough, I shot some lake landscapes…

Yellowstone Lake and tree reflection

…and then turned around and took photos of a spider with the same wide angle lens. Shot of the day?

Spider

I powered though the drive north. We stopped for lunch at Sheepeater Cliff. The park is getting busier by the day after a lull at the start of the week. Picnic areas are filling up. At Sheepeater, four tables were occupied by park visitors, the fifth by a deer. Following a quick meal, we headed east, and though it was noonish, found a couple of bear jams. We passed through, and I was delighted to note the presence of a volunteer ranger on duty for the first time this season. The cavalry has arrived!

Passing Elk Creek, the vehicle in front of us slowed to photograph a deer to our left. I saw it was a white-tailed deer, so common to folks who live farther east, but still much less common than the mule deer in these parts (and non-existent in my home territory on the west coast). Since we were idling, I stopped to snap a couple photos because [see Gulls, above]. Then the car in front of us finally moved, but they pulled over and all quickly got out. I thought that was a bit odd. I still geek out at about a 3% level when I see white-tailed deer, since they remain a relatively fresh subject for me. But I didn’t expect someone else to bother pulling over to spend more time photographing one. I was about to go when I looked back into the meadow and figured it out.

White-tailed deer fawn

A fawn! Likely no more than a day or two old. More importantly, however, this was the first white-tailed fawn I’ve ever seen in my life. That was worth pulling over for, especially since I love new sightings. We were able to snap a few more photos before both doe and fawn sunk behind sage and grass, out of sight. As we left, there were a few more people idling up the road, including a family sitting on the ground looking down into a draw. I figured they had seen a black bear or fox (it was the right place for those), and were just hoping something would pop back out. We kept going.

The remaining drive home was interrupted for one brief bison/mountain shoot in the Lamar.

American Bison

The Lamar is teeming with bison. The “super herd” stretched from the western end of the valley all the way beyond the last cottonwoods to the east. I’d never seen such a consistent spread of bison across the valley floor before. It was an amazing sight.

We returned to Silver Gate for a short break—pausing for a black bear buildup on the way—before returning for our afternoon outing. We were back in the park around 4:30. I think I squeezed in a twenty minute nap.

I stopped again for bison, just to record a short video. Then we were off to Slough Creek. No badgers, coyotes, bears or wolves, but as we were driving out I looked down into the sage below the road and spotted a brown shape bounding through the grass. Not Squirrel Brown… it was a deeper, richer brown. With a yellow belly. Weasel! We stopped and grabbed the gear. Eventually, the long-tailed weasel appeared, this time carrying something in its mouth as it leaped away. We tracked it until it vanished temporarily. Then it reappeared, this time with no luggage. It soon disappeared again.

Tracking weasels in their summer coats through tall grass and sage is no easy feat. I’ve long thought that it’s easier to spot them in winter mainly because there’s less environmental obstruction. As to what it was carrying? I was reminded of the famous Soda Butte Creek Picnic Area weasel of 2012, which spent considerable time raiding ground squirrel dens and stealing their babies. Could this one be doing the same?

We waited a good 45 minutes (at least) hoping to see it reappear, to no avail. Nobody got photos, but it was the first weasel sighting for both of my traveling companions. We vowed to check back later.

On our way out of Slough Creek, I ran into a friend. She’s just seen another friend. At the “badger den,” she said. Uh, what? Well, you remember those people sitting by the road following our fawn encounter in the morning? They had actually been waiting on a badger sett! So we raced over, just in time to see mom come out of the hole for a few moments. The light was pretty terrible, but in the morning it could be a nice spot for photos. Another promise was made to return.

After finding a newborn pronghorn in Little America (my dad got a distant shot before it bedded down)…

Pronghorn fawn

…we just had to stop for bison on the way back through the Lamar. The males are really riled up at the moment. Perhaps the forced proximity of so many herds coming together is getting to them. But dust was flying, bulls were rolling and snorting, and they’d occasionally come together for short battles. One monster in particular made a point of marching straight to another bull who was being extra loud. Forget what I said about the bull bison a couple days back. This was a true monster. His chest was practically dragging on the ground!

American Bison

The bulls engaged ever so briefly before separating and mellowing out. The true battles are fought in August, but it’s likely we’ll see a lot of testosterone on display until then.

I finally managed to drag myself away from the herd, and we hustled home before hundreds of bison decided to cross the road in front of us. Arriving at our cabin, we found a young moose grazing next to the driveway. This was the yearling we’d seen with his mother early in the trip on our property. Perhaps he was finally independent.

Moose

After a late dinner we turned in, with mustelid plans laid for Saturday.

 

June 13, 2020

We didn’t need an early start on Saturday, since the idea was to roll over to the badger sett by 7ish. I was guessing we might get activity between 7 and 8am, and the surprisingly overcast conditions in the morning made me feel there was no rush.

A black bear grazed at Lower Barronette. Folks had also stopped in the road and were out of their vehicles looking across the creek at the Soda Butte Picnic Area, watching another black bearish shape. I slowed and heard some uncertainty in their voices about what animal it was. Keep in mind, it was obviously black, and everything else about it screamed black bear. But even that didn’t dissuade them from “looking for the hump.” They were apparently trying to talk themselves into a grizzly bear sighting.

We saw little on the rest of the drive to the badger site (a fresh batch of Mallard ducklings in a roadside pond was about it) and found ourselves arriving right around the appointed time to set up… except as we arrived a gentleman with a big lens pointed up the road and exclaimed, “there’s a grizzly with cubs up there!”

I should have known better.

Of course, it was the cinnamon sow with two cinnamon yearlings. Between this morning’s two missed IDs and a frustrating online discussion rife with misinformation on bear identification, I think I’ve settled on my next educational video topic…

We returned to the badger sett. A few folks were already there waiting, so we picked our spots and settled in.

At 7:53am, a badger face emerged.

American badger

First Mom, and eventually two kits. It was a great session. The sett is in an ideal location, and the rangers measured off 25 yards and set up signs, a boundary everyone adhered to. There are very few den sites over the past decade or more that I can remember offering such a great opportunity to watch and photograph a badger family. The adult eventually headed out to hunt.

American badger with kit

When a mother badger departs, you really have no idea how long she’ll be gone. In some cases it could be hours. But in this case she sprinted back to the den quickly, perhaps spooked by something. Badgers are often quite tolerant, and of course, we know they’re brave. They had no problem with an audience.

American badger family

The one thing that disturbed them was the rumbling of passing diesel engines. Those often caused them to scramble back to the den hole. Eventually, the mother headed out again. We weren’t sure if the show would be over at that point, but we stuck it out a bit longer, and were rewarded when the more adventurous of the two kits came out on its own. After a few more photos, we decided to pack it up and go for a hike.

We chose the Lost Lake trail, in part because it was close. Early on, I found a souvenir.

Canon eyecup

This should be no surprise to my fellow Canon users… I’ve complained to them multiple times about these eyecups constantly flying off. Maybe this is the one I lost in Brazil or Costa Rica or western Washington, finally coming to reunite with my camera bodies.

There were plenty of ground squirrels, a couple more ducklings following their Mallard mother, and we could hear pikas in the far rock pile (a pleasant surprise… I haven’t done this trail in a while, and I didn’t remember pikas). The trail took us past the falls and down a set of switchbacks through the trees above the lower part of the Tower Road. At this point I spied blackish fur peeking out over a boulder. “A grizzly bear!” I exclaimed.

Just kidding. It was obviously a black bear, which was not surprising at all given the population density in this area. It appeared to be a smaller one, perhaps one of the past cubs from Rosie or the other black sow in the area. It didn’t notice us at first, so I had to give it a shout of “Hey Bear!” to get its attention and make sure it knew we were there. We were on similar trajectories, so an early warning was better than a late surprise.

Black bear

It paused to check us out, but eventually returned to grazing. We descended toward Roosevelt, and then continued the loop back up—passing a couple mule deer along the way—to the car. We returned to Silver Gate for a lunch break and a much-needed nap (it’s going to take a week at home to catch up on sleep). On the way back, we maneuvered our way through a small wildlife jam. Vehicles were parked in the middle of the road as people were watching a distant gri—er, cinnamon black bear. Understandably, not everyone was happy about being stuck behind parked vehicles, but I was still taken aback as a Jeep from the opposite direction pulled around and finally cleared the mess. That was normal, until the passenger leaned out yelling profanities at the parked vehicle and then spit on their window. The other driver was oblivious. Still, two wrongs (plus a little COVID) definitely don’t make a right. Maybe we’re wrapping up this trip at the right time.

We returned to the park after four and headed to our next stakeout, the weasel spot from Friday. This didn’t go as well as our morning mustelid stakeout, since the weasel didn’t reappear.

After a quick drive west a little ways, we chose to switch things up, driving all the way out of the park and heading up into the Beartooth a bit. The hope was to perhaps see one of the many grizzlies that have been around, but we didn’t see much of anything. On the return leg, I decided to make a detour up Lulu Pass, semi-navigable in my decidedly-non-bumpy-road-friendly car. It’s been some time since I’d been up there. Not a bad choice though, as we quickly found a fox hunting near the road. It disappeared into the trees, and we almost immediately spotted another fox, lighter and quite pretty in its still-poofy coat.

The second fox was shy and only paused for distant photos, but then the first fox reappeared out of the trees just ahead. This one paid us no heed, so it was easier to snap a few photos (though the mosquitoes did their best to dissuade us).

Red fox

It was a nice reward for our little detour, and my car even made it back down the mountainside in one piece. Driving back to Silver Gate, we passed one bull moose along the highway. A final gift awaited us at the cabin.

Bison fur

The scraggly bison who’s been hanging out on the property since we arrived finally shed his dangling carpet (this piece is at least three feet long!).

 

June 14, 2020

Our final day started a bit early. Not Hayden Valley Early. We actually scrapped the plan to go south, especially after hearing a bear closed down the Lake Butte Overlook Drive by making a kill on it the day before. But there was a new bison carcass from the previous afternoon in Little America, and I felt it was a good idea to get out there early in case some large predators decided to come in and scavenge.

On the way in, we saw our usual northeast corner fox in the darkness, and at Round Prairie a mystery owl flapped across the road. Likely a Great Horned, but it was too dark to tell for sure.

At the carcass it turned out there were nothing but birds. It was a small meal, a calf, so it may not have attracted larger scavengers. We gave up on that plan and started roaming. There wasn’t much to photograph initially. A distant black bear was visible from Petrified Tree, and we chose to forgo the badger den this morning (preferring to search for new experiences). Back near the Confluence, we just missed a backlit bison herd splashing across Soda Butte Creek. That would’ve been nice. Farther on, a portion of the herd was snarling traffic, so we didn’t dare venture east, and at that moment a garbled call came over the radio saying that a wolf had crossed the road to the west. So we gladly hustled that way.

Sure enough, a lone black wandered the valley floor.

Black wolf

It worked its way eastward, possibly following the scent of its packmates (wolves were being watched in that direction). At one point it approached some resting bull bison, walking right up to sniff and check them out, but I guess it wasn’t that hungry. The wolf eventually approached the first cottonwoods in the middle of the valley.

Black wolf

Then it swam the Lamar River and continued on its way. We decided to move on as well, figuring that if we returned early to the cabin to get some work done, we might have time for an outing later in the afternoon. We did make a couple more stops, both times for pronghorn fawns. Unfortunately, in both instances they bedded down quickly, so there wasn’t much in the way of a photo op.

Work was completed in a timely manner back at the cabin, milkshakes were purchased at the Stop the Car for the final time, and we headed back in by 4:30. The only thing we ended up photographing was a fox near Pebble Creek. It may have had a touch of mange, but didn’t mind the attention.

Red fox

The rest of the short afternoon drive was spent in the usual haunts, but there were no other photo ops forthcoming. We wrapped things up, still having much to do before our early departure for home in the morning.

MVP of the Trip: The Slough Creek Road! That’s the first time I can say that’s happened, but this spot consistently provided diverse and interesting encounters for us, from nesting cranes, to badgers, to coyotes and badgers, to bears, a weasel, and even wolves. Nearly every day we had a special encounter there, which really helped in a year when one of the more inviting areas to explore in the north (the Tower Road) was shut down.

Big thanks to Cheryl and her team from the Stop the Car for plying us with naughty food throughout our stay, to my father for joining me on his very first spring adventure… and of course to all of you who took time to read all of these reports!


Next spring, in what I hope will be a post-COVID world, I expect to lead my traditional spring wildlife photo tour. If you’d like to join me there are spots left. Learn more here.

9 Comments

  1. Reny June 15, 2020 Reply

    Thanks for taking again the time to write your extended reports with awesome shots added. Especially because of your chronic sleep deprivation.

    As always I was thrilled to read them and it felt a tiny bit as if I was in the park myself.

    Safe travels home and sweet dreams

    Reny

    • Author
      Max June 16, 2020 Reply

      Thanks as always for being a “faithful reader,” Reny!

  2. Carol June 15, 2020 Reply

    I will be headed to slough creek for a pack-fishing trip in 3 weeks. Hope I’m half as lucky with sightings. How bad are the mosquitos??? I know the others on trip are fishing so I expect some bugs.

    • Author
      Max June 15, 2020 Reply

      Carol, they were getting bad near the trailhead (where the big pond is). As it gets later into June it will only get worse.

      Best of luck on your adventure, and I hope they’re biting!

  3. Dan Carr June 16, 2020 Reply

    Thanks again for another wonderful series of reports, Max! One day I’ll get myself down there.

    • Author
      Max June 16, 2020 Reply

      Thanks Dan. When you’re ready, do get in touch.

  4. Sue Reigle June 16, 2020 Reply

    Ah, hate to have these report ends! Gorgeous second fox, badgers were fantastic….and that buffalo pelt, wow!! Actually tho’t at quick first glance it was a dead animal!😟 Wolf pic made my day and while it’s a pretty fairly common sighting for you was amazed at your reaction to the whitetail & fawn……now here in PA, that’s quite a common sighting for me! Would def prefer the wolf tho! Thanks again for the pics and reporting; hope you’ve caught up on your sleep by now!! Sue ❤️🐺🐻❤️

  5. Cherryl Griner June 17, 2020 Reply

    What incredible photos of your journey! Thank you for sharing your travels. We were in the park June 7-12.

    • Author
      Max June 17, 2020 Reply

      Thank you, Cherryl. Hope you had a great visit.

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