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Yellowstone Spring 2023 Trip Report, Days 8 & 9 (The End!)

June 7, 2023

Another 3:45am day for me. Our goal on Wednesday was to arrive in the far northeast as early as possible in order to land some a) moose, and b) better opportunities with the fox kits that have barely peeked out during previous visits.

We made pretty good time, considering the usual traffic concerns along the northern route. Our initial pauses were for a fantastical combo of pink/orange sky and fog atop Blacktail Plateau…


…and pulling over for the construction workers who were blazing through the Lamar Valley at 60mph to get to their work site.

During our drive through the eastern part of the Lamar, a call came over the radio that someone “had a wolf” right in front of them “down by the river.” We turned around and tracked down the lead, which turned out to be two… coyotes. Wolf radio privileges revoked!

Another pause on the way to the northeast gate, for a morning bisonscape this time (these iPad-processed images are only so-so in black and white):

American bison

Once again, we struck out on moose sightings all the way through to Cooke City. But we arrived in what has been the “sweet spot” on the clock for the fox kits there, so we settled in to wait. We waited, alright. The times at which the kits had emerged the previous two days came and went, and we were still idle.

Finally, a fox appeared. It seemed more groggy than active. We took some photos, but eventually went up to Cooke City Coffee for a proper breakfast break. By the time we returned, the vixen had come and gone (without any food), but more kits were finally out.

Red fox kits

We saw a total of four during the session, and eventually folks were satisfied enough to head out. Rumors of moose down the road led us that way, but we didn’t see them. Other moose news I’d received the day before led me to canvas a different area… still with no luck until I saw a gentleman carrying a lens and camera.

I had a sense this was a mutual acquaintance I should have crossed paths with some time ago, but our schedules had never quite aligned. My instincts were correct, and following salutations, we finally got the hot moose tip we were waiting for.

Moose family

Though the photo ops and light weren’t ideal, seeing such a young moose (only a few days old) and its mom up close was a special experience. And I actually got to hear a moose calf vocalizing for the first time!

The bottom line is that we were aided in this sighting thanks to a number of generous friends and neighbors. Big thanks to J & G, R & M, and W & J for inviting my group in for such a special encounter.

Wow, so how do we follow something like that up? First, with ice cream and shakes from the Stop the Car, of course. But I wanted to squeeze in one last pass between Silver Gate and Cooke, and this time we scored more moose (thanks to Amy, who spots larger-than-small critters from the car too). It was the older pair of calves that had been hanging out by the church recently. We did not see their mom.

For the rest of the afternoon, I suggested a plan that might net us more youngsters. We drove west, arriving at Mammoth to thankfully find no new elk mothers near the visitor center. This allowed us to check out the traditional Great Horned Owl nest, which is once again active this year (I first photographed it in 2007!). So we finally scored an owl sighting on tour. Mom and three owlets were in the nesting tree, while I found Dad in a different tree. All of the owls were largely obscured by branches, but we got decent views.

Great Horned Owl

The real baby animal goal for the afternoon was those grizzly cubs we’d seen on the first morning of the tour. We’d been monitoring updates on their whereabouts, and I thought we might have a chance to find them again.

Driving down the western corridor, we passed a few cars that were pulled over along the road. Some folks were standing nearby, scoping the far hillside. I thought perhaps they were waiting on our bear family, but I wanted to explore a bit further before turning around.

Good thing! We approached the same area where we’d found the bears previously, and encountered a massive line of parked cars. One vehicle pulled out just as we arrived, so we scored a front row seat to…

Well, nothing really. The bears had disappeared an hour before. But we’ve become accustomed to waiting and stakeouts on this tour, so nobody seemed bothered by this.

Not five minutes later, a woman next to us emitted a loud squeal. That could only mean one thing. We sprung into action, and soon lined up along the road with dozens of other onlookers as the sow grizzly brought her brood down the hill.

Grizzly bear family

Overall, the crowd was quiet and well-behaved. Thank goodness, because no rangers arrived for the next 45 minutes or so that we stayed with them.

Grizzly bear cubs

We had opportunities to stick around longer and continue to follow the bears as they made their way along the road, but we were sated at this point, and didn’t want to linger in case the crowd situation escalated further. Besides, it was a perfect way to end the day.

Despite having a few hours of remaining daylight on the clock, we agreed to turn in. It had already been a long day, and we were planning on another super early start for our final morning.


June 8, 2023

Off we went, into the dark and fog of Yellowstone. It was 4:30, and once again we were destined for Hayden Valley and its morning mood.

We were still reliving our experience from the previous afternoon with the bear family, and I finally copped to my paranoia about having a sow with wee cubs crossing the road in the hazy pre-dawn darkness. Minutes later, I slowed as I spied brake lights ahead and dark shapes silhouetted in their glow. Just as I had envisioned, the mama bear and her three fuzz balls scurried across the road before us!

Thankfully, we had time to stop, and they proceeded to walk just below our vehicle on the neighboring hillside. Less than a minute after crossing, a construction trailer truck came barreling through the fog around the bend. A near miss, as far as I’m concerned.

It was still dark, and feeling satisfied with our previous encounters with this bear, we stuck to our plan and let them stick to theirs. When we arrived in Hayden, the fog was even thicker than normal. It was apparent that sunrise was on hold, and we weren’t likely to even land some of the eerie silhouettes and interesting scenes we witnessed during our last morning foray to Hayden.

We put in the work, and canvassed the valley a couple times. Soon we were heading south, however. Noting that the Harlequin Ducks were lower on the river at LeHardy Rapids (a good sign should we return later for a shoot), we went south to check on owls, and then east to look for bears. Neither endeavor panned out, so we turned north.

Once again, the Harlequins were in view, three males perched on the best boulder in the river. Conditions were still gray and overcast, perfect for a Harlequin shoot. But it was still early enough that Hayden Valley was tempting. We might finally have some open views of the valley floor, and you never know when wolves or some other interesting critter could appear closer to the road.

We opted for one more pass through the valley before heading to the ducks. I think it cost us slightly. I was mainly worried about the sun burning through the clouds, but when we returned the bigger concern was the sudden absence of Harlequins!

I correctly surmised that they had simply flown upriver… which meant they’d float back down to us eventually. However, when they did that, a couple of females took that “best boulder,” and the more photogenic males were relegated to another perch that didn’t offer quite as good of a view.

That said, it was still a great shoot. From the moment the males returned they got a bit territorial with each other. You might even say they were hopping mad…

Harlequin Ducks

The reason I like overcast conditions here, of course, is because it’s easy to work on long exposure motion blurs. In June, the higher water levels make for some nice silky lines under the right circumstances, so you just need cooperative (still) subjects and good angles. Despite missing the opportunity to get the males on the other boulder, I still found a way to work with what they gave us.

Harlequin Ducks

Later, an American Dipper joined the fun, giving us yet another subject on which to expend plenty of memory card space.

American Dipper

It was a fine way to wrap up our time on the East Side. I still had to get up to Silver Gate to drop off supplies prior to my trip home, so we began the trek north. Rather than opt for the quick route over Dunraven, I backtracked to the west just in case any grizzly bears were out. We missed them, and eventually made it all the way to Sheepeater Cliff. This coincided with lunchtime, and gave us an excuse to visit what is a traditional stopping point on my spring trips (but which we’d missed so far).

We settled in at a picnic table and began to chow down. The rock pile was quiet, with no signs of life—chipmunks, squirrels, or pikas—beyond parents and children climbing over the rocks. This always sort of bugs me, since the boulder field is home to numerous small critters, but there are no signs posted dissuading folks from doing it.

I looked up to see a distant small shape scuttle across the rocks, its body delineated by different tones. “A golden-mantled squirrel,” I exclaimed to the group. But the shape kept darting in and out of the boulders relentlessly, and it was fast. Something didn’t feel right. Squirrels don’t move at that speed persistently.

I stood up to get a closer look (promptly impaling my leg on a low-hanging branch attached to a nearby tree). Was it….?

Approaching the stone cascade, I called to the dad who was climbing above us. “Is that a weasel?!”

It was. It was as fast as every other weasel I’ve encountered, but it barely stayed put… and it was tiny. Much smaller than other weasels I’ve seen. This made it that much harder to photograph, especially amidst an uneven, jagged landscape. So I struggled to even get a proper photo for ID purposes.

Short-tailed Weasel

Eventually, I landed a couple of semi-sharp shots that helped a bit. First, it was easy to tell that it was definitely not a long-tailed weasel. That’s the most common species I’ve seen around here (though half the folks ID them as short-tailed weasels simply because we Americans use the inaccurate moniker “ermine” for any weasel in a winter coat). The American ermine, or short-tailed weasel, is something I’ve only seen a few times, and only once on a Yellowstone trip… at our cabin in Silver Gate.

Long- and short-tailed weasels can often be hard to differentiate if you’re not familiar with their characteristics. In this case, the tail was super short, so we knew it wasn’t a long-tailed. A white-ish belly (versus yellow) and paws helped confirm this. However, it was truly tiny, even smaller than the short-tailed weasels I’ve seen. It was also lacking a discernible black tip on the tail… something that’s normally quite prominent on the short-tailed. So could it be… a least weasel???

That’s a species I’ve never seen. One reason is that though its range covers parts of Montana and Wyoming, but it’s not supposed to be found in Yellowstone.

So I still suspect this was in fact a short-tailed weasel/American ermine, but its diminutive size and lack of black tail tip could be attributed to being a younger animal. I’m currently welcoming confirmation from the mustelid experts out there!

Either way, it’s the first of its kind that I’ve seen in the park, and our rarest sighting on this tour. And whatever its age, it proved to be a successful hunter. When it reappeared from its hiding spot, it had a small pink, sightless baby animal in its jaws, perhaps a young chipmunk or ground squirrel. We mostly flailed wildly in trying to land any shots of it with its catch (I came up empty), but it certainly was a memorable experience.

The afternoon that followed was mostly occupied by the long trek to and from Silver Gate, with a goodbye ice cream from the Stop the Car crew, and eventually a farewell group dinner back in Gardiner. I even squeezed in a reunion in the later hours with some of the guests from my recent Patagonia tour!

This wrapped up my spring trip, with only airport drop-off and then a long drive home slated for Friday. It also concludes a busy spring full of travel for me. I’ll be glad for the downtime (six weeks?), but am grateful for four wonderful adventures that have occupied my time and attention since late March.

Big thanks go out to lots of people on this trip, starting with my clients Amy (who joined the Five Times on Tour Club!), Bill, Tom, and Tracy. I couldn’t have pulled the trip off without the support of Cindy, Michael and the Yellowstone Gateway Inn crew, Sarah at the Gardiner Market, Cheryl, Tom and the team at the Stop the Car Trading Post, Kara and Cooke City Coffee, Jess and Tyler, and Wooka’s Wild Eats, Linda and Reg in Gardiner, and so many more. It was also great to catch up with friends here, despite the fact that my trip was curtailed at the start. Hopefully I’ll find a way to return to the area—maybe a laid-back family trip—before next year’s spring tours!

Finally, thanks to all of you for following the reports for another year!

Interested in joining me on a Yellowstone photo tour? My 2024 spring wildlife adventure still has spots remaining.


  1. Jeff Klavine June 9, 2023 Reply

    Found this site from mt government about Least Weasel range. Sort of shows that would be unexpected, but then again they have observed close to Yellowstone. So maybe???

    • Author
      Max June 10, 2023 Reply

      Thanks, Jeff. Have seen a few different maps, some indicating that Least Weasel distribution is expanding southward. There’s no consensus among the naturalists I’ve sent this to, but one clue from European folks is that their Least weasels have a jagged line along the neck/throat, rather than a smooth one like we see here. Still leaning toward young short-tailed…

  2. Reny June 12, 2023 Reply

    I finally had time to read your last report.
    Like always, I love reading your reports (they are very entertaining!) and looking at the wonderful pictures.
    Thanks again for taking the time to write them despite your busy schedule and for me way toooo early wake up calls in the morning.
    You showed your clients a lot of beautiful places and saw a lot of animals. Ofcourse I loved the bear (cub) shots……….hope to see them next year !

    Thanks Max !!

    • Author
      Max June 12, 2023 Reply

      Reny, thanks for following the adventures, as always!

  3. Justin June 18, 2023 Reply

    Love reading your reports! Please keep them coming. While I try and get down into the Park as often as I can things often get in the way. Its fun to see the critters and hear your stories. Thank you.

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