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Yellowstone Fall 2021 Trip Report, Days 4 – 7

October 17, 2021

We expected to start late Sunday morning in order to explore the north, but one of my traveling companions backed out. So we still started late, but changed things up and went for the east side again.

Meaning we were very late to get down there. At Swan Lake Flat, we spied the family of Trumpeter Swans, standing at attention on the mostly-frozen lake. They’d been sitting there for a few days already, seemingly frozen in place. As we stepped out of the car, they took off right at us, then circled overhead and flew south.

Trumpeter Swans

Not all of them, however. One cygnet was left behind. It flapped a bit and flew a short ways over the ice as a pair of Bald Eagles suddenly appeared overhead. We waited to see if they’d make an attempt, but they left the young swan alone. Later in the day it was gone, so hopefully it found its way into the air and was able to rejoin its family.

Down south we missed a roadside owl due to the late start… and spent most of the day trying to make up for it. We spent a lot of time tromping around in the woods, with little to show for it.

We actually did have a rare sighting, more unusual than the Great Gray we were seeking. It was my friend’s first time photographing a Three-toed Woodpecker, which was working at ground level on a fallen log.

Three-toed Woodpecker

Of course, we later learned that a Three-toed also showed up back at the cabin for the guy that slept in!

An afternoon forest outing only yielded squirrels. So all in all, we took barely any pictures again, but got a good workout. The north, by the way was slow both early and late. We have yet to spot a moose on this trip. Perhaps one fill finally show up on our property in the coming days.


October 18, 2021

Once again, we aimed for parts of the park that are very far away. The north seems quiet these days, and our more specific (and elusive) goals remain down on the east side. So we were out the door in the darkness again.

At Round Prairie a fox was lying flat in a pullout. Perhaps not the best place to turn in after a long night of hunting. As we approached in the car, it jumped up and headed out into the meadow.

When we arrived in Hayden Valley, the fog was lifting and there was nothing to see. Also, very few vehicles. The regular faces we’d been seeing cruising this stretch were nowhere to be found. Did this mean we were missing out on something? Not in the valley. It was quiet all the way south.

Next we checked some of the roadside owl spots. Not our roadside owl spots, since we keep missing them both in the morning and evening. Things remained quiet. We backtracked to go check on grizzly bears. On the way along the northern shore of the lake, I spied a pair of muskrats below the road. We filed that away just in case.

Bears were not out, but people were looking for them. So we returned to the muskrats.


Eventually we got word that two bears had come into view after we left, so we went back to see them. They were far from the road, so the cameras continued to gather dust. We left again, driving to Lake Butte Overlook (open for the first time since I arrived), and out to Sylvan Lake to switch things up. And during our absence a third grizzly bear emerged. It also disappeared before we made it back, just letting folks know it was there but not really posing for photos.

We stayed in the area for a while, but never caught sight of it. The first two bears remained distant. Time to go do something else.

Our next stop was Bridge Bay, which hasn’t seen any owl action in a couple weeks, but it gave us an excuse to stretch our legs. Following a quick lunch, we went for a walk. This time at least we avoided getting soaked in deeper snow, unlike our other recent hikes. But the results were largely the same. Lots of tracks (including the biggest bear tracks we’ve seen this week), but not much wildlife outside of some Steller’s and Canada Jays, plus a brief woodpecker sighting. We did have a quick fox sighting through the trees, but it headed down to the road, where we heard brakes squealing and doors slamming as folks rushed to photograph it.

On our way back to the car, we watched as the same fox came back past us, walking right up the path we had just vacated. I never got a shot off.

There are plenty of signs that we’re reaching the end of the season. Employees are (loudly) vacating their housing areas. Park stores are sticking to inconsistent schedules and prepping to close until spring. The Fishing Bridge store was open in the morning, but by 2pm it was long closed. As was the Canyon store. Bathrooms everywhere were closed, and a long line formed at the one bathroom still open at the Canyon gas station.

It was time to start heading north. The drive was as uneventful as usual. We finally gave in and stopped at the one consistent sighting in the northern range this week: the denning black bear family near Petrified Tree. I figured I should at least procure evidence that I saw a bear family prepping for winter.

Not as easy as it should have been, really. The parking lot was crowded, so sight lines were limited (especially if one wanted a view of Mom peeking out of the den, where she’s been lying most of the week). A cub was out of the den, and I could see the sow inside… but I had to wait my turn before stepping into a spot where I could take pictures. And once I did, the cub went and sat directly in front of the hole!

Five minutes later, it finally stopped scratching itself and went inside, crawling over its mother, who didn’t move. I snapped a couple quick photos (her obnoxiously bright green ear tags visible in the shadows), and we took off.

Black Bear in Den

We’ve been discussing our failure to see moose. “We’re due!” is a mantra being repeated in the car these last few days. Up in the northeast corner, a dark shape crossed the road… a bull moose! It disappeared into the trees, and we never caught sight of it again. A step in the right direction, at least. Back in Silver Gate, trail cam footage at one of our cabins revealed a bull moose grazing right by the deck that morning. Perhaps the same one?

Let’s face it, it’s been a slow week. But that’s what you get at this point in October. Things get very inconsistent. You can have good weeks (as we did at this time last year), and you can have some of the slowest weeks possible. Sometimes a visit is punctuated by one amazing wildlife encounter… there are two days left to find ours.


October 19, 2021

We chose to stay north in the morning, which was probably a good thing since neither of us slept well. Well no, it wasn’t a good thing. We missed an owl down south again. We’ve spent more days exploring the east side than the northern range on this trip, but the owls have only appeared on the mornings we’re not around.

That definitely sounds like a case of bad luck and bad timing, but I’ll reiterate that one good sighting can change the tone of a trip… and often those bigger moments come as the result of all of the successes and failures that lead up to it.

So all of these slow days and fruitless searches might eventually build up to something good.


The north was slow once again when we got the message about the owl. Though it was highly unlikely that it would still be around ninety minutes later, the utter quiet of the road between Silver Gate and Mammoth convinced us there was no point in delaying. We drove south again.

Near Hellroaring, a moose cow and calf grazed off the road. Nice to see more moose, but this definitely wasn’t a good photo op, nor a priority on the wildlife wish list.

Our arrival at the east side of the park echoed Monday’s visit. Few people and little wildlife activity in Hayden. The area where the owl had been active was empty. We continued south to check other owl areas, and also struck out. But at Bridge Bay we did spy a fox—perhaps the same one that provided fleeting glimpses the day before… apparently there are two around—but like Monday’s encounters, this one only yielded very brief looks that didn’t lead to any meaningful photos.

Around this time we got word of some grizzly bear activity. The morning was progressing rapidly, but some cloud cover at least meant we weren’t dealing with harsh light. Maybe there would be an interesting photo op.

We did get grizzlies. A sow and cub, and a hundred yards away, a boar chowed down on an elk carcass. They were all below us, at a fair distance, so it was tough coming up with any interesting angles.

Grizzly Bears

But hey, wildlife. I had no problem hanging out a while, chatting with friends and colleagues. It’s not as though our searches in this part of the park had yielded many other sightings.

The bears did bear things: they kept their heads down while grazing, or slept on their meat pillow. The only excitement came when a bull elk crept across the deadfall-riddled hillside and spooked the sow and cub momentarily.

Following a long visit, during which I barely touched my camera, we decided to finally head back and try to snap our owlless streak. As with our previous attempts, this one provided a bit of exercise, but not much in the way of wildlife encounters.

Canada Jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers continued to hop about, so things weren’t dead quiet. Back at the parking lot, we were chatting with friends when I spotted an elongated brown furry shape in a tree. I suddenly perked up. It was…

…a pair of very friendly squirrels. They seemed to be spending a fair bit of time hugging. Really, that’s all. Friends without benefits.

American Red Squirrels

Back to chatting. And that’s when it happened. Pat, my remaining travel companion on this trip, and I spent a week exploring Yellowstone last October… a trip that was highlighted by a weasel sighting at Gull Point. This time, we weren’t far from there, and Pat once again spotted the weasel as it dashed behind the rest of us.

Game on. Long grass, fallen logs, heavy lenses… we did our best to nail at least a few sharp shots.

Long-tailed Weasel

During the half hour encounter I may have landed four or five sharp shots. The vegetation and the fastest possible subject made for a good challenge. Like last year’s October weasel, this one was transitioning to its winter coat. It was almost there, sporting all white except for a few faint streaks of brown on its back and some brown eyeliner (and, of course, the black tip of its tail that never changes color).

Ultimately, this was the type of encounter we were waiting for. Not earth-shattering, but it definitely felt like it wiped away the last three or four slow days. And of course, it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t tried again to find an owl after all those failures.

Oh, and after we left we learned that we missed another Great Gray, just south of Gull Point. Back in the morning… we’ll see if they finally come to play with us.

One final sighting of note to end the day: the moose cow and calf we saw in the morning had traveled to Floating Island Lake, where she waded and dunked her head for a wet salad while the calf roamed the shoreline.

Moose Calf


October 20, 2021

What would my final day bring? Not leaving anything to chance, we drove south early. So desperate were we for an owl sighting following all the legwork this past week that we left five minutes early!

First sighting: Hayden Valley… another weasel! Pat once again spotted it, this time from behind the wheel. By the time we pulled over it had disappeared. Even stark white fur can disappear quickly in tall brown sage when you’re only 3 inches off the ground.

We made the usual rounds near the lake, including our first foray onto Gull Point Drive. Some of you may recall that this was our MVP (Most Valuable Place?) spot during last year’s mid-October trip. Unfortunately, it’s been closed up until now due to lingering snow. Our drive through this morning wasn’t as fruitful as the many visits we made in 2020. A rumor of a grizzly seen in the area didn’t pan out either.

As we were driving out, we received word (from about three different people… word of my owlless week gets around, and the community is chipping in!) that an owl was seen near the road close to the lake. We hustled northward.

Arriving at the reported spot, I instantly spied the owl perched low to the ground in a roadside meadow. I had just enough time to step out of the car, walk over on the opposite side of the road, and watch as it plunged into the grass… just as a car pulled up and blocked my view. They passed, and the owl returned to its perch. It ruffled its feathers, looked around, and took off into the woods.

Great Gray Owl

All told, we got maybe 30 seconds, no good poses, and a messy background. But hey, the streak was broken!

The next report came in: wolves? We went to investigate. On the way north, as we were driving through a densely-wooded stretch of road, a vehicle came in from the other direction and pulled hurriedly into a pullout near the Yellowstone River. I urged Pat to slow down—after all, people were piling out and grabbing cameras—and that’s when I saw the grizzly bear crossing the river.

We had time to park, jump out, and get a few shots as the bear hauled out, shook itself off, and lumbered toward the tree line on the far side.

Grizzly Bear

The wolf lead was a bust. Sadly, our morning weasel didn’t come back to wave hello either. We returned to the lake and our owl spot. A relaxed walkabout in the woods (best of all, no wet shoes this time!) didn’t produce any sightings, though we did learn of another Great Gray sighting that someone else had just enjoyed nearby. These owls are popping up all over the place… you’d think I was actively trying not to find them all week.

We ventured out to Lake Butte to check on the grizzly bears. Someone must have glued them in place overnight, because all three were in the exact same spots where we left them yesterday. Today we didn’t stay quite as long. It was a shorter day in the field and we might still find an owl, weasel, or other…

Oh, who am I kidding? It had to be an owl, right? At Fishing Bridge we turned south. Nobody there. Those pullouts were empty. As was that one… Oh look, lots of vehicles.

One year (to the day) since we photographed a Great Gray Owl in this exact spot, an owl was there again. Though we were initially told it had flown off, we knew it probably hadn’t gone far. We hadn’t gone fifty feet down a trail when someone saw it. Parking ourselves at a fair distance, we got to watch it perch, fly, attack the grass and, eventually, catch and swallow two fat voles. Harsh light and dense forest made for some sloppy photos, but I was just happy to spend more than thirty seconds at this sighting.

Great Gray Owl

Perhaps the most interesting moment occurred when a red squirrel scampered up and down the tree the owl was using as a perch. Do you see them both?

Squirrel and Owl

Unfortunately, we had to go, since I needed to return to Silver Gate to finish some cabin work and prep for my departure. We surely missed some nice photo opportunities over the next couple hours with that owl, but left satisfied. After putting in so much work trying to find them, ending this trip with a relaxed sighting was perfect.

With that, this trip is done (barring a crazy sighting early tomorrow morning on the way out). Thanks to those that followed the adventure, despite the dearth of action at times. I will be back in January to lead a couple tours. If my last few winter trips are any indication, the next visit should be pretty fun.



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