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Yellowstone Spring 2023 Trip Report, Days 6 & 7

June 5, 2023

In a never-ending attempt to keep things fresh, new, and different, we targeted the northeast on Monday morning. It looked to be a nice day. Temps were still mild, and skies were relatively clear.

My first goal was to check some of the black bear hot spots. Though we had seen several black bears the previous afternoon, they were mostly brief glimpses or distant sightings. I was hoping we’d find a nice subject during the quieter early morning hours.

After visiting some of the usual haunts on our way east, we ascended the Tower Road and arrived at the exact type of sighting I’d hoped for. A family of bears was grazing calmly near the road, bathed in warm morning light.

We joined a few of the other onlookers who were set up a fair distance away from the family, and waited for the occasional moment when Mom would emerge briefly from her bovine state and look up between bites, or when the calv… er, cubs, would also pause to look around before returning to their grassy breakfast.

Though initially a fairly benign sighting (basic black bear portrait opportunities in good light are nothing to sneeze at, but are something I’ve experienced many times before), the encounter got a little more fun. The cubs finally remembered what it was like to be kids again, and started wrestling.

Playing black bear cubs

Mom ignored this, and continued to forage, coming closer and closer to the road. After the shenanigans in the background finally subsided, the family seemed to poised to cross the road. The sow calmly walked between the idling vehicles that had stopped to snap photos out the window.

American black bear

Her offspring were about to do the same, but got distracted by the traffic cone, biting and licking it (and occasionally each other). It’s important to note that they were the only ones who enjoyed a cone-based treat on this day, as the Stop the Car Trading Post is closed on Mondays.

That was about as good as it was going to get with this session, so we packed up and moved on. It was time to head out to the Lamar Valley while we still had some morning light, since my group didn’t quite make it there the previous afternoon.

Unfortunately, the valley was fairly quiet. Even the bison calves were calm and well-behaved. On a normal spring morning, I might backtrack and do another pass through the valley, Little America and beyond… but chose not to in this case. First, nobody would want to sit through the construction delays again so soon. Second, the northeast potentially had additional goodies waiting for us.

Though we didn’t see anything of note on our way out to the northeast gate (check that, I did spot mountain goat and kid dots on Barronette), I still had hopes for moose, foxes, or perhaps even bears.

Moose were hiding, so we next stopped at the fox den in Cooke City. Things had already calmed down, and only one kit came out for a brief look while we waited. The vixen was seen crossing the road some distance away as she went out to hunt. In the meantime, we just missed seeing the grizzly family that’s been lingering just beyond town.

So we drowned our sorrows in hot chocolate, coffee, and maybe even a brownie from Cooke City Coffee. After waiting a few more minutes for the foxes, it was time to move on. Since the weather was nice and we were already on the doorstep of the Beartooth Wilderness, we opted to drive up to the pass.

We briefly stopped for a visit to the gushing falls on the Clark Fork. Apparently we weren’t the only ones interested in checking out the waterfall.

Bear print

On the way up the Beartooth Highway we enjoyed the usual breathtaking views, but then had to pause when a red fox came trotting down the road at us. It immediately dropped the vole in its mouth and hurried over to our vehicle. This gave us good insight into its personal history with humans visiting this area.

We weren’t about to ply it with less-healthy food than it had already caught (plus, most of our group guards the cookie stash in our vehicle jealously). I encouraged it to move on, so it returned to the organic snack it had left on the pavement, and kept trotting down the road.

Red fox

The scenic trip toward the summit was punctuated by more comments and exclamations of awe from my guests. We finally pulled over for something other than a landscape shoot, as I hoped to find pikas in my favorite spot. The wind wasn’t too bad, so I thought we had a chance. Eventually, a few of the little lagomorphs emerged from their hidey holes.

American Pika

We reached the first summit, and on our way to the next summit spied mountain goats. Unfortunately, they were some ways off, so it was apparent we weren’t going to photograph them on this day. Plenty of skiers are still skidding down a few of the remaining frozen bowls near the top, but we saw no other wildlife of note beyond the occasional roadside marmot.

A stop at Beartooth Lake for lunch was our only delay on the way down. We passed on through Cooke and Silver Gate (no fox or moose sightings), and re-entered the park. A slowdown at Warm Creek hinted at some sort of animal sighting. It was the fox I’d seen in this area a few days prior (also our third adult fox of the day to go with the one kit).

Our remaining mission for the afternoon was to return to the badger den and see if we’d have better luck. When we arrived there were plenty of cars… but no photographers. Strange. Then someone who recognized me took the time to come over and let us know that everyone, including the mother badger, were over on the trail.

We got over there too late, and waited a bit (the Calliope Hummingbird provided some mild entertainment). The badger never did reappear, and some members of the group returned to the den to wait for her there. They were eventually rewarded, as she returned, then left again and came back again with a young ground squirrel in her jaws.

She quickly departed yet again, and this time we waited over an hour before finally giving up. For a brief moment, we amused ourselves with an attempt to photograph a vigilant ground squirrel against wildflowers.

Uinta ground squirrel

Editor’s Note: Wait, did I actually capture it dropping a turd? A lovely scene indeed!

We’ll have to keep trying in hopes of getting slightly longer viewing opportunities with the badger or her kits.

With an early wake-up planned for Tuesday, we drove back to Gardiner without stopping for anything other than metered lights.


June 6, 2023

How would you feel about a trip during which every alarm time begins with a 4 or (gulp) a 3? Remember, we call this fun!

Today’s wake-up call came at 3:45am, which gave me barely enough time to prep for the day and depart for our morning drive to Hayden Valley. The goal? To be there close to sunrise to experience and photograph the eerie morning mood of the place.

Hayden has grown on me over the years. I still don’t agree with those that insist it’s better for wildlife than the Lamar Valley. Not even close, in fact. BUT, Hayden has a big thing in its favor: atmosphere. The mornings are mystical. The consistent low-hanging fog makes for some banging sunrises, and peels back mysteries and surprises slowly. You just never know what might pop out of the mist for you. Today? There were a fair amount of distractions that occupied our attention in the first half mile of the valley.

Elk on foggy morning

The fog was so thick and low clouds obscured the sunrise, so everything was overwhelming gray. But there was potential, with loads of Canada Geese, a foursome of grebes (species presumed to be Clark’s, due to the lack of discernible details in the fog, but I looked later and saw it was a mixed group with at least one Western Grebe too!), and shadowy bison and elk roaming the periphery of our limited vision. Our familiar swallows swooped and bank above the reflected, hazy sun.

Swallow and sun reflection

We finally released ourselves from the grip of fog photography (not without seeing a proper fogbow on the way back to the car), and continued south to the lake. Hoping for morning bears, we covered a fair bit of ground, but came up empty. On our way back across Pelican Creek, a pelican (imagine that!) swam before the expanse of Yellowstone Lake and the looming presence of Mt. Sheridan.

American Pelican

I squeezed in a quick run southward to check for owls before hustling back to the north. Along the way, client Amy—who specializes in spotting small critters from moving vehicles—spied a fox. We only had a brief sighting before continuing on our journey.

It appeared our timing would work out, and I’d be able to bring the group to Lower Yellowstone Falls in time for the traditional spring rainbow. Though it was slow in developing, this short-lived phenomenon came through for us. I’ve photographed it plenty of times before, of course, so this time I hoped to maybe nab one of the tiny swallows in front of the massive spray of the falls.

Swallow and rainbow at Yellowstone Falls

They’re so tiny it may not be all that interesting as a small web image (viewed by most on a mobile device), but I suppose it successfully shows the sheer size of the falls off a bit.

So what to do following the rainbow show? This is a conundrum I commonly face in this circumstance, as we’re entering late morning by the time the waterfall shoot is over. In the past, I’ve taken the opportunity to go on an owl walk in the woods. My leg seems to be improving each day, so I figured I could handle a short walkabout.

The group opted to join me for this excursion, typically one of my favorite activities in the park. Yellowstone’s sparse forests make for easy walking and good sight lines, and the anticipation of unexpected surprises accompanies every walk. When I recalled my most recent owl searches in the park, two things came to mind: I wasn’t finding any owls, and instead I kept seeing Three-toed Woodpeckers.

Within five minutes, a Three-toed Woodpecker flew in on a nearby tree. We should’ve quit then, I suppose, but we dragged out the search another 20-30 minutes. Aside from a couple of red squirrels carrying pine cones, the forest was still and silent. I was still nice to get in there again, though.

It wasn’t quite lunchtime, and I had planned to try and get up to Cooke City for lunch today, anyway (in order to avoid the redundancy of sandwiches each day). So we made the looong drive up over Dunraven and out toward the northeast gate. Our one and only stop along the way was for a roadside bear sighting. It was far from ideal, and after some half-hearted attempts to nap, I gathered the troops and we returned to the road.

Up in Cooke, there were no foxes, and my intended choice for lunch was closed. But Kara at Cooke City Coffee hooked us up, and we followed that up with a triumphant return to the Stop the Car for frozen treats.

Back in the park, Amy once again came through with another sighting out the car window: a badger running through the sage in the eastern Lamar Valley. This individual was rather put off by our presence and never quite paused in the open for very long, so we sought out back-up badgers. That meant returning to Slough Creek, of course, where we just missed the mom returning to the den.

The weather was on the verge of being rather crummy during this stretch. Lightning flashed a few times, and rain was falling here and there. We really weren’t expecting the badgers to re-emerge, especially later in the day, but just as we were packing up and about to drive out, she popped out… and eventually a kit appeared as well. They mostly slumped in the longish grass, so we didn’t really land any decent photo ops.

Passing a couple bear jams along the route home, we focused mainly on returning to town, expecting another super early start on Wednesday. We’re hoping the earlier start will get us out to the northeast sooner and boost our viewing opportunities. Fingers crossed.


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