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Yellowstone Spring 2021 Trip Report, Days 7 – 10

June 3, 2021

We had some work scheduled for the cabin. I figured I’d need to be around for a half day, tops. Unfortunately, the work dragged on longer than expected, and I was forced to stick around all day. All so that I could unplug and plug a few things in.

 

June 4, 2021

As a result, I may have been a little surly Friday morning. This was supposed to be the week when I’d get in a lot of photography and exploration on my own—much needed after all of the distractions during our family trip earlier in May—and it doesn’t quite feel like it’s panned out that way. Thank goodness for my upcoming tour, when we’ll be putting in five straight (long) days dedicated to photography!

Despite the lack of activity on Thursday, I got little sleep and was a bit slow rousing myself on Friday. So I was out the door late. This time, any missed opportunities were my own fault.

I spent the initial morning drive stewing a bit, as little was happening. At one point I had to turn around and track down an acquaintance I’ve been trying to see since I arrived last month. I was thankful to finally tackle that task… but it was another delay. What could I find to kick off some momentum and make me feel more like the morning was being utilized properly?

As it turned out, I didn’t need something. I needed someone. I stopped at a Sandhill Crane nest to photograph the adult with two colts. While there, I happened to start chatting with a nice couple… and it totally calmed me down.

For 98% of us, Yellowstone is sort of a forced social experience. You can’t avoid people during an entire visit, unless you’re spending most of your time hiking in the backcountry or are a total recluse, refusing to stop or go near jams or most wildlife sightings. Roadside, we can’t help but avoid sharing memorable experiences, wildlife viewing opportunities and other moments with others.

This isn’t for everyone. As larger crowds continue to overflow into the shoulder seasons, more and more people I know keep rescheduling their visits earlier or later in the year. Or they stop coming altogether.

I really don’t mind sharing photo shoots and wildlife viewing opportunities with other people (unless, in a rare case, someone is behaving in an overtly repulsive manner).

You may not believe me after having read how I tried to escape the park over Memorial Day, for example. But it’s a bit more nuanced than basic complaints about “the crowds.” What I really don’t enjoy is anything that inhibits my ability to explore at my own pace. And traffic, not people themselves, is a huge factor in that frustration during crowded times.

“Slower Vehicles Use Pullouts,” say the oft-ignored signs in the park. I’m normally the Slower Vehicle. And I pull over quite a bit to let other cars by. But when the five cars behind me are replaced by five more almost instantly, the only options are to accelerate to the speed limit (potentially missing sightings), or sitting in place. Neither happens to be my style.

But once we’ve found something, and we’re out of the car, and folks are lining up to see and photograph alongside me, I enjoy the shared experience. Just like I enjoy the shared experience of seeing a movie in a theater (back when, you know, that was a thing).

So this particular morning, as I stood there in the sunlight, watching the crane family… shooting the breeze with two strangers put me back in the part of the Yellowstone experience which doesn’t appeal to everyone, but is something I enjoy. And I walked away totally relaxed.

Oh, the other adult crane parachuted down at one point while we were talking.

Sandhill Crane

I may have felt better, but that doesn’t mean activity had picked up. I decided to head back out of the park. Initially, I thought I’d drive straight up to the Beartooth Pass, but I knew a few things needed to be wrapped up in Silver Gate before my tour commenced this week. The option was doing it in the middle of the day, or coming back early and staying in at the end of the day. I opted for the former.

Once I was ready to hit the road again, I had to choose: Beartooth or the park. There wasn’t time for both. For fun I called a friend to make him choose, trying to take the pressure off myself and putting any blame squarely on his shoulders when I failed to find anything. He wisely didn’t pick up.

I chose the park. Entering the Lamar Valley, a squirrel ran across the road. Wait, no. It was the wrong color. A rich chocolate brown with a light belly. Weasel!

Had this been a winter visit, I may have had a chance. But first I had to wait for cars to pass before I could pull over (at least fifty yards down the road). And at this time of year a tiny, lightning fast mustelid can disappear in two-foot tall sagebrush in no time. Chances were very slim.

Nonetheless I wandered back and forth a bit, in case a small head might peek up behind a bush or clump of grass.

It wasn’t to be. I carried on. The mother badger in the Lamar was wandering in circles above the road. I opted to hang back in case she’d walk my way, out of the ever-expanding No Stopping Zone. During the wait, I told fifteen different carloads what everyone was watching (once in Russian, even). I think a couple of them may have even been interested enough to stop and go take a look.

I made my usual rounds and thought about heading back (still more to do before pickup day tomorrow!). On the drive back through the Lamar, a black wolf was on the valley floor. It approached a bison herd.

Wolf and bison

I knew it would cross the road, but the possible avenues for viewing were too spread out. I and others chose the wrong one, and soon the wolf was across the road and heading uphill.

There was a chance it might reappear at Slough Creek, so I headed back in that direction. Again, one had to pick a viewing spot and wait… and hope. I stood scanning for a good half hour. The wind picked up, dust clouds blew across the road, and eventually rain peppered me.

Behind the rain clouds there was a clearing. If I waited it out, we’d get sun again, and maybe a rainbow or two.

Pronghorn and rainbow

The sky was pretty dramatic. Even some mammatus clouds were forming overhead, the beginning of a popcorn ceiling. I gave up on the wolf and decided to head home (figuring I may be able to take advantage of the sky at the very least).

The weird clouds lingered, but the rainbows mostly disappeared. Back in the far northeast, two bull moose grazed at Round Prairie, and the fox was out along the road again.

 

June 5, 2021

Client Pick-up Day, during which there’s usually little to report. I did, however, come across our northeastern fox on the way into the park. It had a large bundle of rodents (and, upon closer inspection of photos, at least one bird!) in its mouth.

They can sometimes manage to stuff close to ten voles at once into their maw, and it’s something I’ve rarely seen, much less photographed. So I drove ahead to the next safe pullout, which was a fair distance down the road. I can never be sure where the fox will turn off into the woods, so I gave myself five minutes to see if it would come into view (I was on a timetable to get up to Bozeman, after all).

After four minutes it rounded the bend and headed my way. I got out and set up near my car to see if I could get some low angle shots to provide a better view of all the legs and tails poking out from between its teeth, but I never really got the chance. A car came up behind it, and instead of driving ahead to join me in the pullout, they kept pace with the fox, stopping and starting… and startling it. Despite the fox’s apparent discomfort with its stalker, the car stayed with it, so the fox finally ran up the hill… and disappeared into the woods. I got a couple distant photos.

Red fox

They were kind enough to ask me if I got any pictures as they drove by. Sigh.

I saw one of the bull moose as I approached Pebble Creek, and after that it was smooth sailing. It remains hot here, but we’ve had the occasional passing thunderstorm to mix things up. Remembering last year’s spring storms, and how they really added a nice touch to certain scenes, I wouldn’t mind a little tumult in the sky this week. Hopefully it’s not all clear, sunny skies, because that’s likely mean it’s going to be a warm week, and animals will be a bit harder to find. Let’s see how things go on Day One…

 

June 6, 2021

The first exploration day on tour almost always starts behind schedule. Today was no exception, but we were only on the road ten minutes or so later than expected. When heading east first thing, being late isn’t the end of the world. It gives you a bit more light to see anything that may pop out early on.

As it was, we didn’t see anything of note around Mammoth, so we continued west to the usual spots on the northern range checklist: Petrified Tree Drive, Roosevelt, Yellowstone Picnic Area, Little America, Lamar Canyon, and of course, the Lamar Valley.

At first things we pretty low key, with one exception. Our first major animal sighting was a fox about halfway through. But it ran across the road and up the high hillside above, not lingering for any photo ops.

Soon there was some nice morning light developing. We just needed to pair a subject with it. Even the bison were largely huddled far from the road, but we finally found a herd of cows and calves in the eastern valley just past the Confluence. The calves were active, frolicking and chasing one another. But not in that nice light. There will still in the shadow of the tall hills. I predicted that once the sun hit them, they’d settle down a fair bit, so we got to work, capturing as much fun as possible before they were bathed in warmth and light.

Bison calves

We continued to the northeast (a bit odd that the Cliff Swallows aren’t nesting under the eaves of the outhouses at Hitching Post this year), but no wolves, bears, moose, or fox greeted us. Coming back through the valley, it was just about Badger:30. Mom was out, and looking to cross the road.

We set up with others on the edge of the No Entry Zone, but some folks had plunked themselves down right in the middle of it, directly above the den site. After a helpful guiding colleague kindly asked them to move out of the Zone, most did. One person just went to the opposite side of the road… technically within what the rangers were allowing, though still almost directly in the path the badger wanted to take to cross.

In reality it was likely the traffic more than the people that were causing her to hesitate, but she finally found a gap and the courage to cross the road.

American badger

By now this was part of the routine for her, having spent considerable time hunting above the road while her kits were stationed below. She headed uphill and we went up to get a better view. A few fleeting glimpses, but soon she disappeared into the sage. It may not have been a hunt this time. The squirrel alarm calls soon stopped, but we didn’t catch any more views of her. I suspect the badger may have settled in for a bit of a nap away from the kids.

We stayed longer than most (for many in the group—including some of the Yellowstone vets—this was their first sighting of an American badger!), but eventually left, vowing to check back in later.

Further exploration down the Slough Creek Road and Little America yielded sightings of the Sandhill Crane family (colts already looking bigger a few days since I last saw them), Yellow-headed Blackbirds, American Coot and Cinnamon Teal. We pressed on, checking more bear territory and then heading down to Hellroaring for a pika walk.

It paid off, with a single pika sighting at the lower rock pile. Again, another first for several folks. A chipmunk and red squirrel were also present. Not our last small critters of the day.

In Little America, an immature Red-tailed Hawk perched in an aspen. Another run through the Lamar brought us back to the badgers. The kits were out, but not really visible from a ways away. A Golden Eagle soared over the Confluence. A Green-winged Teal took off from the creek below the road. We ultimately ended up at the very crowded Soda Butte Creek Picnic Area for lunch, thankfully finding a spot to park.

It was crowded because, well, Yellowstone. But also it was lunchtime and there were two bull moose out in the meadow across the creek. A nice diversion during our break.

Following lunch, we continued northeast a bit more. I wasn’t ready to head all the way out of the park yet, so we found a spot to turn around for our drive back in. As it was still early afternoon, I wasn’t quite sure where to go at this point (having covered the northeast pretty thoroughly already), but ultimately suggested switching things up and heading to the northwest. A change of scenery might be good, and we could still return to the Lamar one final time before the end of the day.

On the floor of the valley, a pronghorn with twin fawns stood in the open. With no sage to hide in, the little ones eventually walked away from mom and settled in a field of dandelions. At Phantom Lake, a black bear slept in the far tree line. Two rangers were on the scene, but there was no crowd to manage.

We check the old coyote den site (no action), and then headed uphill to Swan Lake Flat. Almost immediately, we spied a group of people sitting along the Glen Creek Trail, looking out into the sage. It had to be a grizzly bear (there was, in fact, one reported there yesterday), but we couldn’t see it from our initial vantage point. We drove along slowly, and that’s when I saw it, running pell mell down a short hill (away from that trail… perhaps spooked by hikers?).

It began to roam around in the brush, and we’d only catch occasional distant views of a hump and rump. Probably digging for food. We continued south.

Pulling into Sheepeater Cliff, we soon had more small critters to watch. A couple of marmots, and a few golden-mantled ground squirrels clambered and scampered about. Yes, we hit the rodents hard today.

Okay, back to larger (and more serious) targets. It was time to turn back and begin our final afternoon leg of the adventure. The grizzly was still in the distance (slightly more visible from the road, and there was significantly more traffic backed up as a result), so we headed downhill and turned onto the northern road bound for Roosevelt.

If it seemed like we drove forever without any stops at this point, it’s because we did. I did pause at Phantom Lake, however, where a couple photographers were standing around. They reported some bad news: the snoozing black bear we had seen earlier had cubs… and it had just been hazed back into the trees. Missed it all.

We made it all the way to the eastern Lamar without distractions, but at this point it was time to figure out when to turn for home. Once we reached Soda Butte, I executed a quick U-turn, and back we went. As we neared the Confluence, we spied a Canada Goose family swimming in a row in the afternoon light below the road.

It was something, so we stopped. Naturally, the geese stopped swimming and went out onto the gravel bar in the distance instead. While we waited for them to return to the water, my clients called out. They had spotted a rather ragged-looking coyote heading our away along the opposite shoreline.

It would pause occasionally, sniffing at the water’s edge, perhaps seeing a passing fish (or not… the swelling rivers and creeks are looking rather silty at the moment). Finally, it seemed like it was prepared to swim across… but instead, waded just a short ways into the water to checkout a protruding snag. At one point, it chomped down on a stick. Perhaps it was checking to see if it was part of a carcass.

Coyote

That was a nice bonus, and a pretty good way to wrap up what was a long, active day filled with a variety of wildlife.

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