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Yellowstone Spring 2021 Trip Report, Days 5 & 6

June 1, 2021

After the long weekend adventure, it felt good to sleep in and putter around the cabin for a bit. I had some work to catch up on (including hanging new prints… check out my Facebook Page for a killer deal on the older canvases that are coming down), so I wasn’t planning on heading out until the afternoon.

It wasn’t until three or four when I did finally get going. Entering from the northeast, I quickly saw a bull moose bedded down in a meadow, but I didn’t actually stop for anything until the west end of the Lamar Valley. Along the way, I noted that the badger den site was now coned off. No stopping there.

At the Fisherman’s pullout at the end of the valley, an odd sight greeted me. Out by the Lamar River, a herd of people and a herd of bison seemed to be mingling. The bison were scattered across the valley floor, resting. The people were milling around at the river’s edge, ignoring them. And then there were these guys.

Playing football near bison

I guess it’s not Riding-a-Unicycle-Down-Soda-Butte-Cone (which a friend once witnessed) weird. Or Hitting-A-Duck-Hook-in-Yellowstone inappropriate. But inviting the Bills to scrimmage doesn’t seem wise… especially if it’s two-horn touch. Of all the Yellowstone teams, probably the Ravens, Falcons, or my Seahawks (that’s an osprey, by the way) would’ve been a wiser choice. Lord knows the Rams aren’t all that smart. The Eagles can get a little nasty. Okay, and you avoid the Bears too… but really, Buffalo? No thanks.

Knowing I only had a few hours to kill, I wasn’t planning on venturing far (despite some exciting reports from other parts of the park). Instead, I wanted to check on at least one site I’ve visited in the past, in case it might be an option for my upcoming tour.

I parked the car and hiked the down the hill a little ways before positioning myself in front of some trees. In the past, I’ve enjoyed some fun bird activity here, so I settled in to see if there was action again this year.

While doing so, I had to keep one eye on the herd of bighorn sheep that was settled down a game trail some hundred yards away. They were far enough from the road not to be attracting attention, but my presence would probably cause passers-by to pause, so I anticipated more traffic soon.

While I waited, the birds came and went. Swallows, a wren, robins, and finally a Northern Flicker and a pair of Mountain Bluebirds. Then, a surprise visitor, which provided one of the cooler behavioral moments I’ve witnessed so far on this trip. See if you can guess what’s going on here:

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Northern Flicker

I believe that’s a female Brown-headed Cowbird (I’m not declaring it with 100% certainly after botching a blackbird ID from the previous day), a species that happens to be a brood parasite.

If you’ve never heard of that term, it’s a bird that goes around laying its eggs in other birds’ nests. Those other birds look after and hatch the foreign egg, and then look after the chick as though it were one of its own.

This cowbird was likely looking for nests to play Santa in! The flicker wasn’t having it. I never though I’d actually see this type of behavior on display, much less document it.

As predicted, I was eventually joined by some folks who took time to park and walk down. While I was pointing one way, everyone else was pointed ninety degrees to my right. They were there for the sheep.

And the sheep were moving, slowly grazing their way uphill. Fortunately, they passed me at a safe distance and went closer to the road. I went back to staking out my birds. Occasionally folks would ask me what I was seeing. Most masked their disappointment politely.

Things remained quiet, and the people with me on the hill and pulled over by the road watched respectfully. Well… there’s always one. The calm was shattered by a screech from the road.

(Clapping hands)
(Banging on car door)

The girl went on like this for five minutes. I’m pretty sure when she was younger, her dentist uncle tried to gift her a clown fish for her birthday.

The dee—uh, sheep had circled back at this point, and though they continued to calmly graze, they were inching closer to my position, so I decided to pack up and go.

A quick drive a bit farther west yielded no sightings of note, so I began to work my way toward home. Back in the Lamar, folks were gathered not at the coned off area above the badger den, but a short ways down the road. And there she was: momma badger was out on an evening hunt. I parked and set up to watch. She continued out onto the valley floor (sadly not close enough to the massive herd of bison out there for me to be able to frame a fun shot).

While this was happening, I heard someone say they saw the kits. Ah, so she had moved the den. Shows what she thought about the rangers’ No Entry Zone.

While she was occupied, bouncing around out in the grass after some unseen prey, a robust coyote marched behind everyone above the road. The badger kits were out at this point… but the coyote was intent on smaller prey. It left completely unaware that a double badger burger was within reach less than 50 yards away.

The adult badger gave up and worked her way back toward the den. Perhaps realizing she had left her offspring vulnerable (remember, she’s lost one to a coyote already), she sprinted the last 100 yards or so for home.

I made one final stop in the valley, for that big bison herd. Subadults tussled at times, while little red dogs sprinted to and fro. Hundreds of bison methodically marched westward across the valley floor.

American bison

Returning home, I saw a message too late that there were grizzly activity in our area, but I was at least treated to a sighting of two Harlequin Ducks in the creek out our window as darkness descended.


June 2, 2021

My entire draft of Wednesday’s report was lost last night, so hopefully I can rewrite it to the best of my abilities.

I set my alarm for 3:30. I was awake at 3. Surely because I was sooo excited about a two-hour drive to Hayden Valley in the dark, right?

So I was hitting the road earlier than expected, but it was still a struggle to reach my destination at sunrise. I had the Lamar to myself (well, sharing with a few bison crossing the road in the darkness). As I neared Norris, a snowshoe hare—a species I have managed to only photograph once in the park—ran across the road and out of sight. A few moments later I saw its unfortunate companion, whose own crossing had been permanently halted by a passing car.

A few miles out from Canyon, the few clouds in the sky glowed in magenta and peach hues. Late again, I figured. Especially since it was a bit warmer (in the fifties in the Lamar, but thankfully down to the upper thirties in the central plateau). I hoped the fog hadn’t all burned off.

That didn’t prove to be the case. It was still cool enough for some fog to be present as I entered Hayden Valley.

There are some folks who prefer Hayden Valley for wildlife viewing over the Lamar. Not me. The endless expanse of Hayden makes it easier for animals to disappear out of sight from the road (Lamar is essentially “walled” on both sides), and the Lamar boasts a slightly wider variety of species.

But what Hayden Valley does have going for it is atmosphere. The constant morning fog (even in summer) makes for a magical environment first thing in the morning. It’s like a mystery box, unleashing spectacular scenes and revealing morning secrets as the fog shifts and lifts… no doubt a reward for anyone brave enough to endure the monotonous Norris-Canyon drive.

In this case, I primarily only had geese and some distant elk to photograph in the haze and morning light, but that was just fine. Things went from gray to gold to gray again.

Canada Geese at sunrise

Canada Geese at sunrise

I spent the first hour soaking in these views, and though I just missed a distant grizzly over one hill and only caught sight of a black wolf in the binoculars as the Wapitis started howling, I left Hayden satisfied.

Driving south, I checked some roadside meadows for owl activity before turning down the east road toward Yellowstone Lake. Though I would strike out on bears there as well, once again birds came through. A family of geese waddled up to the wide expanse of the lake.

Canada Goose family

Nearby, some Cinnamon Teals practiced their courtship strut, male and female bobbing their heads up and down and quacking, while walking side by side along the shore of a roadside pond.

Cinnamon Teals

After my Lake excursion, I returned northward. It was time to trek into the woods to find an owl. Once again, friends had seen a Great Gray (while I was busy with work far to the north), so I was—once again—coming in a day late. In the past I’ve been pretty good about tracking down these birds, but I’ve been on a bit of a cold streak lately. Would I have any luck?

I started with the usual spots, and then went in to find a pond where the owl had been seen the day before. No luck, and I was pondering my next move when my thoughts were interrupted by a booming hoot. This sort of threw me off. There was definitely a Great Gray, but the exact direction of the call was somewhat vague, and coming from what was essentially dense forest. I waited for a repeat call, but it never happened again.

So I set out and wandered the woods for the next couple hours. I did find my first moose antler shed, and was startled at one point by a red squirrel and an elk creeping through the woods.

Moose antler

But no signs of the owl, aside from some discarded feathers in one of their favorite meadows.

About half-way through my exploration, I ran into another photographer who had come in with the same goal. So we explored together. There’s safety in numbers in bear territory.

As we were about to wrap things up, we decided to give the “feather meadow” one last try. We stood there a while chatting when I began to hear some very chatty robins in the trees ahead. It didn’t quite sound manic enough to be full-fledged alarm calling, but they weren’t letting up. Worth investigating.

At least my instincts haven’t completely deteriorated. There was an owl. But it was a Great Horned—traditionally very shy in these woods when I find them, as opposed to the very accommodating Great Gray—and it didn’t stick around.

By this time it had been three hours, and I was ready for a breather. Walking down a path that would take us out of the trees, I came to a sudden halt.

“Hey Bear!”

In the distance (100 yards, maybe a bit more) a black bear had paused while drinking from a small pond, and was staring at us.

American black bear

We had been chatting fairly loudly already, so I’m sure it knew we were coming, but I called out again in a calm voice, to help it pinpoint our location and understand what we were. Since it was in the general direction we were trying to go, we waited for it to decide what to do. When it finally turned and walked off into the forest, we picked an alternate route and headed out, calling occasionally to make sure it was aware of our general location.

So no Great Grays, but a nice walk in the woods and a bit of wildlife excitement to cap things off. There are worse ways to spend a morning.

Back at the car, I paused to have lunch, leaving my soaked shoes and socks in the sun to start drying. This time, I had remembered to bring a backup pair, so my feet weren’t miserable during the drive home.

Traffic had seemed lighter on the roads, and I wondered if the holiday crowds were dying down (it normally takes a few days). When I arrived at Mammoth I saw that wasn’t the case. It took me a full ten minutes to get from the south end of Mammoth Village to the road leading to Roosevelt.

Once clear and free, it was time for the final leg home. I’d hoped to get back to Silver Gate, have a meal, and get out for an evening drive somewhere. On the way, I saw newborn twin pronghorn fawns in Little America and passed a couple bear jams.

A quick visit to the Stop the Car Trading Post (Ding!), then I was back at the cabin. It turned out a past tour client had arrived in the park, so I invited him over for dinner. Afterward, we decided to drive out to the east to see if we could find the bears, moose or fox that had been seen out beyond Cooke. It was quiet however, the most excitement being provided by the constant bumps on Lulu Pass. Thankfully, my rental is still in one piece.

1 Comment

  1. Linda June 9, 2021 Reply

    Thanks for sharing!

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