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(Non) Yellowstone Spring 2021 Trip Report, Days 3 & 4

May 30, 2021

Saturday’s traffic cemented my decision: we’d leave the park on Sunday and head to Idaho. It’s been a few years since I visited the reserves outside the park, always good for bird sightings and photos, and occasionally mammals too. Best of all, they’re almost completely devoid of human activity while everyone is raiding the national park.

Of course, we did start out in Yellowstone, having to drive all the way from the northeast entrance to the west gate, so I treated the morning as I would any other. We got out the door around 5:30 and drove the northern road. No moose or fox sightings this time, and in fact it was fairly quiet most of the morning.

We checked a coyote den site on the way through, but there was no sign of activity. Even though it was early, I turned south. Maybe I’d finally time it right with those grizzly bears…

First, we made a quick visit to the Upper Terrace Drive. It was late enough in the morning that it was already full of traffic. No surprise that we didn’t see any wildlife.

Continuing uphill, we saw some folks standing in a pullout, but a slow pass by didn’t reveal what they were seeing. Only as we drove on and above Africa Lake did I spot a grizzly bear. No, make that bears. It was ______, the sow who had three cubs of the year.

We returned to the pullout, and eventually the bears popped out on the shore of the lake, where Mom got a drink. She then disappeared into the sage and trees, the little ones running behind. Occasionally we’d catch sight of them, but it was impossible to get photos.

The bears didn’t come toward the road, instead turning northward and disappearing behind the trees. I figured there might be a chance we’d catch them farther down the hill, so we spent the next hour or so checking different spots to see if they’d come into view. At a small lake, a Goldeneye drake chased his sweetheart before flying off and leaving things silent.

Barrow’s Goldeneye

During this search, we learned the coyote pups had appeared at the den site, then disappeared prior to our return. The bears never showed up either.

That’s because they had actually turned back and lingered near the lake up top, offering fleeting glimpses (later, they apparently did cross the road). We had to continue on, however, so on I drove past Norris, turning west at Madison Junction. From there, it was a non-stop parade of cars going in the opposite direction. A literal 10+ mile backup as folks entered the park. Memorial Day. Sheesh. I felt even better about my decision to leave.

We stopped for lunch at Seven Mile, the line of traffic passing all the while. It was still crawling along when we got back on the road a half hour later, and stretched almost to the West gate.

Off to Idaho, where in years past I’d spent time at Market Lake Wildlife Management Area and Camas National Wildlife Refuge. While the park may be insane over the holiday weekend, these spots are usually quiet, with few cars around. Both house a number of wetland bird species and have proven to be good for owls.

Traditionally, I favor Market Lake. It’s produced more interesting encounters and I like the owl potential (though that’s suffered lately, compared to when I first started visiting). Plus, the evening light hits the main canal just right. So we drove there first.

If you’re worried that I might not have much to entertain me away from the wonders of Yellowstone, fret not. My mom was giving her two-day TED Talk on trees. I have no idea where this obsession came from. She’s a historian after all, though perhaps she’s channeling her botanist father. In recent months our son has been bringing back a different kind of pine cone after every play date with her.

The problem, of course (aside from the whole left field aspect of this), is that I just read The Overstory last year. I’ve had enough arboreal philosophy to last me another five years or so. But hey, she paid for gas, and it was a lot of fun introducing her to several new species at the reserves. Even if I know more about junipers and “real cedars” than was ever necessary.

We arrived at Market Lake. I immediately noticed that the water was a bit low. Activity seemed slower, though we were seeing more turtles on the exposed banks. There was still a nice collection of waterfowl and waders. Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, and Willets marched back and forth in the shallow water. Mallards, Cinnamon and Blue-winged Teals, Ring-necked Ducks, Scaups, and Redheads cruised the canal. Ibis and cormorant flocks flew overhead. An osprey dove and caught a fish. The usual Canada Geese and their young marched in small groups.

Canada Geese

So something was happening. But it still seemed slow. Very few harriers circled the meadows. Despite reports of Short-eared Owls, we didn’t see any. I looked for Burrowing Owls, but it’s been several years since I saw them here five years ago.

We ended up at the grove of cottonwoods where one can walk, but it was quiet. I did spot one adult Great Horned Owl. A Bullock’s Oriole teased us from up high, and we spooked a nighthawk (something I’ve never seen in North America).

As the last light of the day was cast across the Idaho plains, I snapped a few shots of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

It was nice to be back, and to soak in the peace of the place. But I still felt something was lacking. Normally on my second day, I return to Market Lake in the morning, and then head up to Camas a few hours later. This time I thought it would be best to just go straight to Camas first thing.

When I broke the news of another 4:30am wakeup time to my mom, there was a lot of grumbling. Until it was pointed out that we were technically on Pacific Time, so she was getting an extra hour of sleep!

The other day, I responded to one of those social media threads asking one to describe their job in the worst way possible. I answered, “I push a single button hundreds or thousands of times a day while wearing the least fashionable clothes possible.” I could probably add ”and deprive people of sleep.” A year ago, I was doing this to my dad after all, and my clients next week are in for some fun morning alarms.

 

May 31, 2021

The timing was perfect. We arrived at Camas at sunrise. The light was glorious, and I was quickly firing the shutter. Perhaps it was just the fact that I showed up earlier in the morning than normal, but there seemed to be more activity (than Market Lake at least). The water was low here as well, but I remained busy.

There were more harriers, which made a couple of nearby passes and perched relatively closely (by harrier standards).

Northern Harrier

There were loads of blackbirds. Yellow-headed, but also Red-winged… and Tricolored, I soon realized (Edit: or not. A friend has pointed out that Tricolored is unlikely given their range, and I may have been putting too much emphasis in the white band on the wings… Red-winged remains more likely). The males put on a nice territorial show close to the small canals that run below the road.

Red-winged Blackbird

After a good first drive through, I stopped near the visitor center to check the trees for owls and porcupines (a common sight in most years). I walked all the way to the end of the cottonwoods—well, almost to the end—but didn’t see anything. Back to the car for more driving.

As I drove past a ravine, I caught sight of a large shape flying low. Definitely an owl. I parked and walked out. The alarm calls had sounded, and magpies helped me pinpoint the owl. It was a Great Horned, and it was not welcome.

Did it have something in its talons? I couldn’t tell until it flew. Sure enough, it had nabbed a victim, what may have been a juvenile magpie. The adult magpies gave the owl hell, chasing it to several different perches.

Two hours in, by the way, and I hadn’t seen another person in the reserve.

Back in the car, I caught sight of Western Meadowlarks chasing each other. Swainson’s Hawks perched above a path. Another Great Horned Owl perched out on the edge of a branch far from the road. And one Short-eared Owl circled over a far meadow.

My mom slept through all of this (just as I did as a kid when I was dragged out the door before dawn), but once she roused herself, we went back to the big trees. She had never seen a porcupine, so I wanted to give it another go. We went for a walk.

Halfway through, we ran into a gentleman who mentioned seeing two porcupines at the end of the stand of trees I had explored earlier in the morning. We walked over, and there at the very end of the trees, was one furry/spiny lump. And another. And a third! Every one of them was perched at an angle that made it impossible for me to spot them where I had stopped earlier… a mere twenty feet away from where we were now standing.

As usual, all three porcupines were perched behind leaves and branches, offering almost no clear view of their faces. Oh, did I mention one was a baby?

Porcupette

The porcupette (yes, that’s what they’re called) actually cooperated the most, moving around to the front of the tree to give us a partial view of its adorable face.

My mom was happy, until she began lamenting the broken cottonwoods everywhere during our walk back to the car. Then she segued into a discussion about the potential of cottonwood for woodworking and furniture (verdict: not great). That’s when I knew it was time to go.

In total, we saw four other humans all morning at the reserve.

We reached Yellowstone in a couple hours following a lunch and nap stop in Rexburg. On the way, we could see a flood of cars, trailers, and boats coming our way, like a spring thaw at the end of the holiday. Half of Idaho passed us going west.

I was optimistic about traffic in the park. However, as we approached Montana, outbound traffic seemed to die down. Maybe those were just all the folks recreating outside the park. Uh oh.

We arrived at the west gate and were warned by the ranger that there was a bison jam on the road ahead. Initially, no worries. Traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been yesterday, but we did finally hit the backup. It ended up lasting about a half hour. “Could’ve been worse,” I thought. In a way, it was. As we passed the bottleneck, it was apparent that bison had never even been on the road. The backup was simply caused by all the people refusing to pull off, instead slowing or stopping to snap photos of a herd 75 yards out in a meadow.

As it turned out, the delay may have been fortuitous. We crawled north, and as I approached the coyote den site I decided to pull over to check on activity. And there, below the trees and almost by the pavement, was a single coyote pup.

After we pulled over and I set my gear up, it was a full ten minutes before anyone in the long line of holiday traffic pulled over to ask what I was shooting. Of course, it happened to be a fellow photographer, so his instincts were a bit more refined I guess. Anyway, we started a coyote jam (oddly, half the people who showed up thought we were looking at bobcats… I wish!). There ended up being five pups total, and though they were often out of view, there were a few playful moments clear of the trees. This one was a bit distant, but too fun not to share.

Coyote pups

Happy to finally see the pups, we continued east. Ignoring at least one distant bear sighting (I was more interested in getting home after the long day) and creeping through some bison and (very distant) grizzly bear crowds, we approached the Lamar Valley.

Exiting Lamar Canyon, my mom suddenly exclaimed, “A bear on the beech!” Oh, here we go with the tree talk again…

Oh, she meant a bear on the beach. And yes, there was a black bear on the sandbar along the Lamar River. I turned around and found a place to park off the road. It was a healthy looking bear, and I knew there had been a sow with two cubs of the year in the area a couple weeks ago.

It didn’t take long to find them. Though she initially appeared to be taking them into the thick stuff, the sow soon turned around and went back into the open meadow above the water.

Black bear cubs

One cinnamon and one black. This was the second time in a week I’d photographed such a combo after getting cinnamon and black fox kits together last weekend in Washington.

The bears returned to the river, where she took a drink, as did one of the cubs. The mother kept staring out across the river. She wasn’t really considering it, was she…?

She plopped in and started swimming. She either forgot something important on shore, or has a very high opinion of her little ones’ swimming skills. Eventually she realized she had to turn back. She shook off the water, and took the cubs up the hill. We chose to leave too, as the vehicle backup was getting pretty bad.

That was one heck of a day, and ultimately the Idaho excursion was a fun way to escape some park madness for a while.

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