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Yellowstone Spring 2021 Trip Report, Days 11 & 12

June 7, 2021

A Hayden and Lake day… and I still woke up before the alarm. No delays to kick things off on Monday, and we cruised down toward Hayden Valley in good time.

A surprise greeted us before we even reach Canyon: a large collared grizzly bear walking across a meadow. In the darkness it was difficult to nail many keepers, but it was still a nice way to start the day!

Grizzly bear

Despite our efficiency, there was little fog to be found at Alum Creek once we arrived in Hayden. Clear views meant we could see pretty far out. No sign of wolves or bears.

There were, however, some Sandhill Cranes out in the creek bed, and with the sun about to appear over the eastern trees, we figured we might be able to get some good light on them.

After getting out of the vehicle, I kept searching our surroundings, lest something else pop into view. And I spied… a raven.

Now, you know I love ravens, but this one was just sitting on a berm above the road a 100 yards away. So why did I walk down to check it out? It happened to be lined up just right to greet the sunrise.

Common Raven at sunrise

I quickly beckoned the group over. Despite the seemingly mundane subject, this was a different sort of photo opportunity than most I’ve had in the past (the closest maybe was recording video of foggy bison at sunrise in the same valley many years ago, even if they didn’t provide good silhouettes). You’d be happy with any animal that posed in front of that backdrop, so a raven was a perfectly adequate subject. Because it was so different, this will probably end up being one of my favorite moments of the trip.

We headed south, first to check roadside owl spots, then turning east to look for some lakeside bears.

And they were out! It was a leisurely drive as we arrived at Mary Bay, but I spotted a van pulled to the side of the road, its occupants intent on the nearby trees. This seemed a bit odd. They were waiting for something. I felt compelled to ask.

Sure enough, a sow grizzly was being pursued by a boar. They were currently out of sight, so we joined the search. Back to the west, I noticed some cars had paused in the road, so we drove up to see what was happening.

Bison. Pretty feisty, acrobatic, kicking bison, as it turned out. Unfortunately, the moment they walked onto the pavement, they calmed down. We drove ahead, just in case the touch of soft grass at the next meadow riled them up again.

But the bison never came. They had disappeared, but cars were slowing down back in the woods. We joined them, soon spying two bear silhouettes walking in the woods. They emerged.

Grizzly bears

While the commotion unfolded (the boar quickly departed toward Pelican Valley while the sow crossed the road), I overheard someone mention more bear activity to the east.

We waited a bit, but eventually decided to act on this new information. Sadly, we arrived a few minutes too late, as a sow and yearling cub had disappeared over a hill. After a bit of waiting, changing positions and viewing angles with no luck, we moved on.

Eventually we wound our way back north, deciding that we’d return to the Lake area following a midday break. But first, a quick exploration of the owl woods, with no sightings again (aside from two elk). Then back to Gardiner, where we took care of some errands and I found time for a much-needed nap.

The afternoon found us back at the lake in decent time, and though there was no sign of our courting pair, we did arrive on time to see the sow with yearling out and about. The light was harsh, the bears just a bit far away, but they sat and played and wrestled for a while, so it was fun to watch the show.

We found time to fit in one quick owl search, and then the plan was to head to LeHardy Rapids for the Harlequin Ducks. But the sun was still up too high, and the rapids were too bright, so we continued to Hayden for one quick pass back and forth (interrupted only by a quick scenic bison photo op).

Back at LeHardy, the light was just about perfect. I’ve never actually photographed the rapids so late in the day, but I was looking forward to seeing how we could work with the reflected color of the sunlit trees above the river.

Quite well, as it turned out. Even this dipper perch was extra colorful.

American Dipper

My clients all came away with some dynamite images of the ducks, and the mosquitos had a feast. Speaking of which, we had to get going, not only to get back in time to have some sort of late dinner, but to pick up lunches for Tuesday. We had enough time to make the drive to Gardiner.

Except for the fact that we got caught behind someone who was riding their brakes incessantly. We weren’t even on a hill, or going through any sharp curves, or anywhere near the speed limit. He was tapping the brakes so much, he may as well have been practicing some of Metallica’s double bass drum pedal parts.

And then we ran into a bison jam north of the valley. It was a small one, but the problem was that every car in front of us (including the ones in the oncoming lane) broke most of the rules on how to handle a bison jam. It was brutal. One pause after another. Every single car stopped to take photos, practically inviting the bulls to march back in front of their vehicles (the invitation was always accepted).

I urged folks to keep moving in a slightly-louder-than-normal voice (I sought permission from my clients first). Naturally I was ignored. I kept an eye on the clock. There was only so much time left before the market closed back in Gardiner.

At long last we made it through, but we were still behind Brake Rider. I found a safe and legal place to pass. At Canyon Junction, they turned right, offering a one finger salute as they headed toward their very near destination while we turned toward our very distant one. If they had followed us left, I could have used my own finger to simply point out the Slower Traffic Use Pullouts sign 200 yards down the road.

We still felt urgency, but barring any more wildlife jams, I thought we might make it in time. At Swan Lake Flat, Sunday’s grizzly was barely seen in the dark sage a fair bit closer to the road this time. That made for a six grizz day, all within 100-200 yards. Not bad.

Five minutes to spare. Made it, ensuring nobody would starve the next day. I parted ways with the group hoping they all had some sort of backup dinner options in place, since all of the restaurants were closed. And even with a three hour midday break, we’d somehow pulled off 14.5 hours in the field. Not bad.

 

June 8, 2021

We hadn’t decided on our first destination the night before, but after it was left up to me I chose the northeast over a proposed sunrise visit to Swan Lake Flat. Probably a good thing. It was cloudier than expected and there was no sunrise.

I still wondered about the decision, however, since the northern road was very quiet. Our first notable sighting occurred all the way over at the Pebble Creek parking lot, when I spotted a mountain goat and her kid at dot distance on the opposing mountainside.

The sun, at this point, was trying to fight through the clouds, and it looked like we might have some nice light at our backs if we returned to the Lamar Valley. But I chose to head east a short ways first, since we weren’t far from potential moose and fox areas. I didn’t drive too far after we struck out in the first few spots, but during our return, a jam had formed in a meadow just past Thunderer. This has been both a moose and black bear spot in the past week. Which would it be today?

Neither. Instead, it was a fox (different from the “northeast” fox I’d hoped we’d run into). My clients piled out to get some photos before it disappeared.

After the slow start, everyone was refreshed by the fox encounter. We pressed onward. In Lamar Canyon, a cinnamon boar climbed the hill across the water (quite possibly the father of the mixed cubs I saw at the end of last week). At Petrified Tree, a black bear grazed in a far meadow. A moose bedded at Elk Creek, and just past Floating Island Lake, a black sow with two tiny cubs made her way through the trees.

Finally, some cubs of the year for my clients to view! We set up, staying at the road since the sow had left the cubs and entered a draw that obscured her presence and location. Rangers were not yet on the scene, so we politely reminded some people of this when they crept toward the cubs.

Other wildlife was present, including woodpeckers active at a nest, and some ticked-off ants whose home kept getting stepped on while people watched the bears. In an eastern tree, a Red-tailed Hawk enduring the swoops of a marauding kestrel before finally taking flight.

Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel

We waited for some time, but eventually the cubs went from their semi-obscured hiding place to total concealment when they joined mom in the draw. It was time for us to go (once we did—and with rangers absent—the crowd surged toward the hillside overlooking the bears’ very near location). In Little America, we came across another bear jam with more cubs of the year. But we were late, and missed the main show as a cinnamon sow and her two black cubs wandered up the hill and into the trees. We only got distant views.

Today’s primary goal was to leave the park and head up the Beartooth Highway, a destination I schedule at least once every spring tour to mix things up. So we continued driving toward the northeast gate. Unfortunately, this took forever thanks to yet another slow driver who refused to pull over to let the burgeoning line of cars behind him to pass.

Twenty-five to thirty-five in a 45mph zone may cut it if nobody’s around, so you can lazily cruise along looking for wildlife. But when ten cars are tailing you and there are few opportunities to pass (something the trailing cars refused to do for some reason when rare windows were present), then you’re lacking awareness at best, and being selfish at worst.

SLOWER TRAFFIC USE PULLOUTS. (These signs need to be redesigned so they are more prominent. Small black text on white doesn’t cut it.)

We did finally make it out of the park, and stopped for lunch at my place. A massive bison greeted us as we pulled in, but thankfully moved on to let us dine outdoors in peace.

Next stop: the Beartooth Wilderness, and as we drove upward, we could see a storm racing in our direction. I hoped we’d beat it to the top, but a full half hour wait in the construction zone halfway up prevented that. By the time we arrived near the summit to look for pika and marmot, hail was falling. Marmots did peek out at us, and I heard distant pika calls, but it was getting pretty miserable.

Continuing the search to the second summit, we failed to spot any mountain goats, so we quickly turned around and hightailed it for Silver Gate. Thankfully, we arrived just as traffic in our lane was prepping to go through the construction zone, so we made far better time on the way back.

Though I was fading fast behind the wheel, I manage to spot two wrestling marmots way out in a field just outside Cooke City. We tried to walk out to them, but were blocked by a stream before the marmots finally went their separate ways.

At Silver Gate, I treated my guests to special treats at the Stop the Car (Rutabaga the Badger and Codswallop the Goose thank you for their nicknames). A bit refreshed, we re-entered Yellowstone. Near Barronette, my clients spotted a fox. Likely the very familiar fox I’ve been seeing the past several weeks. She hunted in the meadow for a bit.

Red fox

Though she wasn’t done showing off, we hit the road again, eager to not repeat Monday’s late, late night. In the eastern Lamar, however, we were stopped again by a special sight: a pronghorn doe and fawn, close to the road.

Pronghorn fawn

I’m so used to seeing fawns drop out of sight, or being led away, that it was almost shocking how they calmly walked parallel to the road for a while. After they went on their way, one of my clients realized that a teleconverter had gone missing. Some quickly sleuthing determined that our best bet for finding it was a return to the fox spot.

The fox was still hunting in front of an audience, but we ignored it and almost instantly found the piece of equipment where it had fallen. A twenty minute delay, and, I guessed, not our last before reaching home.

And the timing ended up working perfectly, as we neared the west end of Little America in time to catch the cinnamon sow and her two little ones approaching the road.

Black bear family

During the drive home, another black bear had two cubs of the year below a narrow stretch of road. That made for eleven black bears—including six new cubs—on the day. It actually felt like a traditional spring trip for once, despite the closure of the Tower Road.

We arrived back in Gardiner eventually, recording a 15.5 hour day on the road. Why bother sleeping at all at this point?

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