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Yellowstone Spring 2021 Trip Report, Days 1 & 2

Prelude: May 27, 2021

Wait, wasn’t I just here? It seems like very little time has passed since we wrapped up our family visit a week-and-a-half ago. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss any reports. Since I had relatively little time in the park over those two weeks, I didn’t bother writing. I did have a few nice wildlife encounters in my limited exploration time, however, so you will either have to check out my Facebook/Instagram/Twitter accounts to see a few of the recent photos or wait for me to get the full spring gallery up in the archive (that will take some time).

Anyway, I’m fortunate enough to get back here for a little bit of solo photography before my spring photo tour commences next week.

Not wanting to make the long drive from Seattle two more times in the span of a few weeks, I flew to Bozeman on Thursday. By the time I arrived in Yellowstone, it was early evening. A bull elk (about half-rack size) drew some attention at Phantom Lake. I spotted a few Sandhill Cranes. In the northeast, a familiar face greeted me. The red fox we’d seen along the road nearly every time we drove through a few weeks ago was going about its business. I had previously ignored it, but this time I stopped to snap a couple quick shots before heading the rest of the way to Silver Gate.

Red fox

 

May 28, 2021

I thought I’d get about three hours of sleep before the alarm went off. Friends had given me a heads-up about some wildlife down south, which meant I had to hit the road earlier than normal to trek west and south via Mammoth.

Three hours ultimately would have been a luxury. I usually sleep poorly early in these trips, and Thursday night was no exception. One hour, tops.

I was on the road a little after four and made decent time to Canyon, though by the time I arrived in Hayden Valley the fog was burning off. So perhaps I was too slow. Or was I too fast? Apparently I missed all sorts of bear excitement along the western corridor, driving through that area too early in the morning.

After I’d passed, two grizzlies were courting near the road. And another grizzly had a run-in with a hiker above Mammoth. Beryl? Quad Mom? It’s hard to keep track of these bears. The nicknaming of park animals is getting a little out of control. Every time I open the door at the Stop the Car to get an ice cream cone and the bell rings, an animal in the park gets a new nickname.

Obsidian, Circus Bear, Snaggle Tooth, Felicia, Pepper. Is there a lighter grizzly today? Then it must be Snow. Not to be confused with Snowy, a different bear in the Tetons. In case you’re wondering, Snowier and Snowiest are still available. Freezing Rain, or Beachball-Sized Hail? Good bear names, but taken, sorry. Casper, Elmer’s, and Caulk? All available for lighter-colored bears. Two Percent has been claimed, however.

Most of these ideas aren’t necessarily unique. Scarface was a famous Yellowstone grizzly. Scarface is also a famous Pantanal jaguar in Brazil. And a puma in Chile’s Torres del Paine. No relation to Scar, the famous lion of Kenya’s Masai Mara.

The lack of originality is countered at times by outright absurdity. Someone named a poor bear Fritter. Pancake was already taken… by a rotund marmot someone saw sunning itself on a rock in 2006.

Sometimes, people who name these animals get a little mean-spirited and derogatory. There was a brief controversy a few years back when someone decided to call a wolf Butterface. A Sandhill Crane earned the moniker of Long John for all of five minutes in 2014… until he put his other foot down. The rangers apparently recently nicknamed a limping coyote Tripod.

Of course, you can only imagine the chaos that ensued when, back in 1998, they nicknamed a grizzly “Cinnamon.”

Word is, someone has already reserved the right to name the next litter belonging to the Lake Butte Sow. If she comes out with triplets, it’ll be

Raspberry
Cheesecake
with Graham Cracker Crust
and Chocolate Sauce.

So yeah, I missed all those bears this morning. But I did see Light Switch the grouse (he tried to off himself by stepping in front of my car), and Omelette the raven (once seen flying with a stolen goose egg, which was promptly dropped).

I arrived in Hayden Valley, where a two day old carcass had attracted a crowd. Folks were waiting for wolves, but only ravens were scouring the slim pickings. Geese flew noisily overhead and Sandhill Crane calls rattled across the sage.

A few drives back and forth didn’t yield any nice wolf sightings like we had a few weeks ago in Hayden. I went north a short ways and headed into the woods to check for owls. Aside from a Mulie buck and some chittering squirrels, there wasn’t much going on. But I did manage to soak my shoes and socks.

I returned to Hayden and drove all the way to the lake, where I checked Bridge Bay, and then continued to Gull Point Drive. It was finally open, and I was able to pause for a while and spend some time with several chipmunks.

Least chipmunks

Yeah, chipmunks. Highlight of the day, perhaps. And though I was getting very tired at this point, I met up with some friends back at our prospective owl spot, and returned to the wet woods. I checked a few more areas, but it was ultimately a fruitless search.

Back at the car, I wolfed down a quick lunch and tried to take a nap in the back so I could survive the drive back north. I did catch a little shuteye, and awoke just in time to see about two tons of humanity pour out of a caravan of vehicles across the road. Music, the kind played by a radio station that uses a lot of red, white and blue in its branding, was soon blaring from the radio as coolers were unpacked and feasting commenced. I counted my blessings that I at least woke up before the cacophony ensued, so I could process it better.

It was a signal, of course. The claxon sounding the arrival of the Memorial Day crowd. Sure enough, during most of the drive home, I was stuck in lines of vehicles 8-10 deep. Summer is already here.

On my way through the Lamar, I stopped at a reported badger den site. After parking a good half mile away, I walked up a minute too late. The mother had just brought a meal back, racing to beat the wind and storm clouds that were rolling in. Since I had hardly photographed anything all day, I lingered for an hour or so, even though I knew chances of a sighting were slim.

Several folks slowed to ask the obligatory question about what we were seeing. Some had specific requests: bears, bison, wolf pups. Nobody seemed interested to hear there was a badger den. Ho hum.

On my way out of the park, I passed a momma and yearling moose, likely the family that had hung out on our property a couple weeks ago.

(Approximately half of the animal nicknames above are fictional, by the way. But not Fritter. The park service may or may not be looking for any information that can lead to the arrest of the person who came up with that name.) 1

 

May 29, 2021

We (my mother is visiting Yellowstone for a few days) had a slightly more normal start time today. Departing Silver Gate at 5:30 or so, we looked out the window to see the moon hovering over Amphitheater.

Moon over Amphitheater Peak

No sign of yesterday’s moose family as we entered the park, but the fox was making its usual rounds along the road. We carefully passed and let it go about its routine. Minutes later, a question I’d been asking myself last night was answered. Someone was pulled over filming across the creek. It took me a moment to spot the cow moose, camouflaged against the dark pines. With her, a mini version.

Moose and calf

So I had my answer as to when I’d see my first new moose calf of the season. In minutes, it already felt like a more active day behind the lens than Friday. Thankfully, the action would keep up for much of the rest of the day.

We actually made a few passes in the northeast without much activity first, unless you count pausing for multiple bison jams (which some found more fascinating than others).

Dog watching bison

But this meant we could drive back through the Lamar as the sun started to warm the valley floor. It felt like a good time to get back to the badger sett and stake it out. From my experience, badgers aren’t necessarily early risers (they are technically nocturnal, but moms obviously have a lot of grocery shopping to do, leading to more daytime sightings). They’ll often pop out around 8 or 9 in the morning once things have warmed up. Sometimes they’ll head off and disappear for hours. At other times hunting will be more active with constant trips back and forth. I felt good about our chances of seeing some activity one way or another, if we were patient.

Though others had passed occasionally to check on the site, we were among the first to settle in for a longer wait. It took an hour, but close to 9ish, the mother finally appeared. Another hour and then a single kit joined her. With a lone black wolf wandering on the far bench about a mile away during the proceedings.

American badgers

We were no longer alone. It was an impressive badger jam, and it was nice to see a bit more interest and appreciation for these creatures than I’d witnessed the previous afternoon.

And why not? As far as I’m concerned, the American badger is a distinctly unique animal in this ecosystem. Nothing is quite like it, even its mustelid cousins. It’s not sleek or fast (nor is it brown like the rest of them, for that matter). It’s an impressive digger, an even more impressive waddler, and is the rare not-so-tiny animal around here that lives below the sage line. And it sports unique markings and an unmatched body type… though I may resemble one slightly when I forget to clip my nails for a while. I fully admit I prefer most of its quicker, agile cousins, but the badger has its own special place in this ecosystem. I can’t fathom not wanting to see one during a Yellowstone visit.

Two nice family moments in the first half of the day marked it as a great success. We returned to Silver Gate for lunch and to tackle a bit of work before a planned afternoon excursion up on the Beartooth.

A couple hours later, rearing to go and full of milkshake (Ding! Ding!… a ground squirrel on the Slough Creek Road just got its nickname!), we drove away from the park and up into the mountains.

It was a glorious day for a Beartooth adventure. Mostly sunny, and shockingly, as we approached the first summit, there was almost no wind. Which may be why the upper reaches of the pass were packed with winter sports enthusiasts. I’d never seen it so busy, with ten times the snowmobilers, snowboarders, and skiers than I’d ever seen before.

Small villages were popping up at every big pullout. There were even dogs. Lots of dogs. Trailers, barbecues, camping chairs had been set up at each stop.

Disheveled silhouettes, sporting unfashionable hats and carrying long objects over their shoulders trudged up hillsides. If you swapped out the inordinate amount of neon for an equally inordinate amount of camo, you might first think a mob of photographers had ascended to the mountains.

Well, one photographer did make it up there, and as I was lying on my belly photographing pikas and marmots (the lack of wind really helped bring them out), I heard a loud sliding sound emanating from the opposing mountainside. I looked up to see a rather large snow shelf suddenly come loose under some snowboarders and slip downward.

Snowboarders

Suffice to say, that was the last time anyone bothered riding that slope.

I got caught up trying to photograph the small critters for much longer than expected, but eventually we drove the rest of the way up. Loads more people, but no mountain goats (always the hope when you reach the summits). So we turned back.

It was getting late, and though many of the spring daredevils were packing up, it appeared the social hour might extend to darkness. At one point, I rounded a sharp bend to find that the party had spilled into the road, occupying an entire lane… and not clearing at my approach.

Fortunately, years spent driving in Yellowstone had prepared me for navigating a herd of scraggly creatures staring dumbly at an approaching vehicle with a glazed look while thinking they own the road. We managed to navigate the jam without incident.

On the way down, I spied a moose grazing in a roadside willow field (only my second ever seen in the Beartooths). As we reached lower elevations, the sight of a couple of parked vehicles on each side of the road caused us to slow. A red fox was standing nearby.

Red fox

This fox had unquestionably been fed. Any time someone knelt to take a picture, it practically galloped in their direction. Fortunately, everyone present wanted to dissuade it from approaching (especially with 55mph traffic zooming by), but basic shooing wasn’t cutting it. So I broke out the trick I had just seen used during my Washington fox outing last weekend: we had to clap to finally get it to keep its distance. At last, it disappeared into the woods.

Such an active day. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going tomorrow morning.

Yellow-bellied marmot

Notes:

  1. Okay, not really… but if you want to mete out your own form of vigilante justice, it may be warranted in this case.

2 Comments

  1. Candy Thompson May 31, 2021 Reply

    Max, love your stories. Steven and years ago stayed at one of your cabins. We saw your moose almost every night while eating our dinner. For sure we should book a tour with you. Thanks again for your report.

    • Author
      Max May 31, 2021 Reply

      Thanks, Candy! Currently, the bison is hanging out with us here in Silver Gate. Really hoping he doesn’t knock over the new satellite dish…

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