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Yellowstone Spring 2024 Trip Report, Days 6 – 7:

June 4, 2024

How would you feel about a 3:45am start to your day? If that’s happening here, it means we’re aiming to get to Hayden Valley around time for sunrise. Thankfully, the weather predictions for Tuesday were relatively accurate. I could see stars when I stepped outside. The worst of the rainy weather had passed, for the moment at least.

We headed in, and I was glad to see the rangers are allowed to sleep and that no one was manning the gate at 4:30 in the morning. Our progress toward Canyon was smooth and efficient via the western route. I chose that path in case we ran into any bears along the way, but the voyage passed without distractions.

That’s not to say we made it to Hayden on time. At Chittenden Bridge, a couple folks had pulled over and were looking into the river. There, on the far shore, a lone cow elk stood in the frigid water. She kept eyeing the tree line above. I asked the others what had happened. Apparently wolves had chased her into the river. Two had crossed the bridge, while two other wolves had held back.

It was time to make a decision. The folks already parked there were content sitting and watching the elk. I didn’t see any wolves, so that wasn’t an option for me. But the choice was either to cross the bridge and see if the wolves may have moved on… or backtracking and scouring the road for the two that hung back. Plus, the elk was still looking up into the trees, so if the first two wolves were lingering we might be able to see them from across the river.

I felt it was sound logic to go with the last choice, but it may have cost us. We conducted a quick search along the road both north and south. There were elk everywhere, some with calves. They were all skittish, but it was impossible to tell if any wolves were actually still around.

Not finding our quarry, we returned to the bridge, and then I finally followed through, crossed the river and went up to the Wapiti trailhead parking lot beyond. Someone else was there, and sure enough, had just seen two wolves. We couldn’t see anything at first, but then the pair came into view. They paused ever so briefly…

Gray wolves

…and then turned and continued southward. Not a bad start to the day, but we still had two other wolves somewhere on the other side of the river. We spent a fair bit of time canvassing the area. Along the way, we spied a distant bear in the shadows of the trees at Cascade Meadows (chunky, but it looked like a black bear), a roadside black bear that we passed south of the falls, and at Otter Creek, an elk family in the river.

Elk and calf

We accepted that it was time to move on, lest the rest of the morning get away from us. The valley was clear and sunny as we drove through. A quick check for owls down near Fishing Bridge came up empty, so we drove east. Any bears around? Alas, no. We ended up at Lake Butte, where birds are always a good backup plan when no bears are around.

It was a blustery day. An eagle, raven, and Sandhill Crane all blew past us while we explored the top of the bluff. The grouse was nearby, though not displaying. One of my guests was hoping to photograph bluebirds, and this happens to be a great spot for them.

Mountain Bluebird

At this point we decided to head home for a midday break. The reason? There was some stuff we wanted to do back down this way in the late afternoon, and possibly evening. Given the early start, a recharge and return to the park for a second session made a lot of sense. But it’s a long drive back to Gardiner, and things can happen…

Just as we approached Yellowstone Falls, I realized that it was 9:30. I checked the sky. The sun was out! This meant we could catch a rainbow on the falls, something that is usually on the To-Do list for Tour Week.

The parking lots were crowded, but we found a spot and made it out to catch a spectacular rainbow. Because it was a bit windier, the spray of the falls was being blown about, and the rainbow ended up extending farther to the right of the falls than I’d ever seen before. I had to use my phone to capture the wider vista.

Lower Yellowstone Falls

Before continuing north, we opted for a pit stop. Even in this case, there was a crucial choice to be made. Visitor Center, or Gas Station? We chose the latter, which proved fortuitous.

As we hopped back in the car to go, Client Pat looked out the window and exclaimed, “Rabbit! Based on our location, I knew it was likely to be a snowshoe hare, a widespread species in Yellowstone, but one that’s typically very hard to photograph. In all my years, I had only photographed one snowshoe hare, back in 2011! I cautioned the group to snap a few shots from the vehicle before getting out, in case it spooked.

We exited the vehicle quietly, and ultimately were able to land a few photos of one of the most elusive-yet-common species in the park.

Snowshoe hare

On the north side of Dunraven, two Bald Eagles chased each other across the sky. Near Hellroaring, following another owl check, we spied a black bear ambling down the hill. Then we continued to Gardiner, where we accepted the opportunity for some much-needed rest.

Our focus for the afternoon? How about owls! We had been looking here and there, and so far had seen the one Great Horned chick out at Slough Creek. But we had yet to make a visit to the Mammoth owl family, and a Great Gray Owl was also high on the list.

At Mammoth, I noted that the nest was empty, confirming reports that the three chicks were fledging and were likely scattered elsewhere in the compound. I did quickly find one of the adults in his usual tree from past years. But we had more trouble locating the rest of the family. It wasn’t until we circled all the way back to the other side of the first building that I spied the adult female and two chicks. Views were so-so, but it was nice to tally a few more owls. Now, about that Great Gray…

We were actually planning to follow up on a lead tied to some evening owl sightings, our whole reason for returning south on this afternoon. But we still had some time, so we drove slowly in search of bears and other goodies.

As we passed a creekside meadow, April exclaimed from the back, “there’s an owl!” Yes, there was. She had spotted her first Great Gray! And nowhere near where we had intended to look for them. Huh. I guess April can conjure owls after all…

Great Gray Owl

It was difficult getting clear shots of the owl given the many overlapping trees in its hunting ground. On the plus side, it was quite active in the short time we were watching, giving us a few chances to at least get a good look. Then it flew across the road and far into an adjacent meadow. The landscape prevented us from getting any closer views, so we headed out. A wolf-hare-Great Gray day… not bad!

During the rest of the afternoon we spent some time at LeHardy Rapids with some mostly uncooperative Harlequin Ducks, and then followed up on our other owl lead. That never materialized (we did see mergansers, sandpipers, a crane, Bald Eagle, and even a Swainson’s Hawk while we waited), and since we had already been blessed with one Great Gray for the day, we were willing to pack it in before sunset and begin the long trek home a little early. On our way back, we paused to glance at a distance grizzly at Mud Volcano, and then hightailed it back to Gardiner.

 

June 5, 2024

Yesterday on social media, park visitor Erin Braaten posted photos of a newborn white bison calf, a true rarity for Yellowstone. I received some additional information about it from a fellow guide, and made it a priority to go see if we could glimpse this unique animal this morning.

We drove into the park and headed to the spot where it had supposedly been seen. Along the way, we passed multiple herds of bison, many near the road… sometimes even on the road. We studied the calves that passed us. All normal red dogs.

Arriving at the reported location, I spied a lone bison out on the other side of the creek. Normally a lone bison isn’t a total oddity, except this was a cow. The bulls are the ones who usually travel solo. But a new mother that had given birth less than 24 hours before? Definitely could be hanging back alone with a youngster, or at least recovering.

We did not see a calf nearby, but there were plenty of long grass and willows in the vicinity. So the next step was identifying the cow. Based on Erin’s photos, we could spot some pretty distinctive markings on the animal’s rump, where her fur was shedding. It seemed like a pretty good match.

As we continued to watch her, she grazed contentedly, moving to different spots. But not once did she go into the brush to rouse a calf, and at no point did a calf come out into the open to join her. Typically, young bison calves hang pretty closely with mom. So when the cow started marching toward the water, I didn’t take it as a good sign. And then she crossed alone.

She went up the hillside, and as we drove past, we could see that she appeared to have recently nursed. Further confirmation? But again, there was no offspring in tow.

I’m only reporting these events since the birth of a white bison anywhere is significant, much less in Yellowstone, and many folks are taking an interest in this story. I only can use the reference photos from Ms. Braaten, the location information I received, and my own comparison between the bison I saw to the photos from yesterday to reach the conclusion that the bison calf has disappeared. There are several reasons it may not have survived the night, among them a fast-flowing body of water and the proximity of several predator species.

Hopefully, I am proven wrong and the calf reappears. But at the moment I fear the worst for this bison family.

We tried to search for better news. It was still early in the morning, so we returned to the Tower Road to check on bears. On the way, a message confirmed what we were hoping for, that our rainy day bear family was visible and active. By the time we arrived on the scene, however, they were exploring some unnatural terrain comprised mainly of concrete, metal, and cut wood. On the plus side, we learned that Mom has already taught her little ones to use the park’s crosswalks.

Black bear family

We weren’t done with babies, by a long shot. Back in Little America, the Sandhill Crane family was out and on the move. It’s probably the closest view I’ve ever had of a Sandhill colt (much less two).

Sandhill Crane family

So that was good family news. But then more bad family news, depending one’s interpretation. When we approached the Hitching Post pullout, I could see that the badgers were finally out in my presence. So for the first time on this trip, I grabbed my camera at the den site.

However, what we saw didn’t instill any optimism regarding the state of things at this badger den. There was no adult present. All three kits were out on their own, sniffing around and probing the grass, flowers and general surroundings.

American badger kits

Two of the little ones even disappeared over the hill for a short time. I suspected, given the lack of reported sightings of their ailing mother recently, that they were getting hungry and perhaps even desperate for sustenance.

Hmm… so any good news to counter that? Well, we went to visit another family, and ended up seeing three kits of a different kind.

Red fox kit

We did not see their mother, but suspect things are going relatively well for this family so far. We didn’t stay long, and headed up to check if the Beartooth Highway had reopened following Monday’s storm.

It remained closed, and we failed to see any wildlife during our short drive between there and Cooke City. A short stop at Cooke City Coffee landed us some emergency lunch supplies, and then we returned to Silver Gate for an outdoor picnic. Silver Gate is beautiful on sunny days. White clouds, tons of blue sky, rich brown and green mountain walls, and the pristine snows of Amphitheater combined for a breathtaking setting. A view only enhanced by sidelong glances at the ice cream cone from the Stop the Car in one’s hand.

There was still half a day of exploration ahead of us. We made a plan, and covered a lot of ground (this did not include the Beartooth, which opened an hour or so after we left!). We hit Slough Creek, drove through Little America (a crowd gathered for what was at the time a reported sow + 4 coy grizzly family, later amended to a Yellowstone record 5 cubs!). We drove over Dunraven, stopped at Canyon, went through Hayden, traveled all the way to the East entrance (ratty bighorn rams along the way), and then backtracked up and out via the west side.

Arriving back in Gardiner, we were all quite stiff because we had barely left the car during all that, and hadn’t touched our cameras. At least we made the first half of the day count!

1 Comment

  1. Reny June 10, 2024 Reply

    I’m sorry to read about the white bison calf and the badger mom.

    Today I actually watched the Stan Mills video with the 5 grizzly cubs, WOW !

    We only had 1 icecream from the Stop the Car Trading post during our stay but it was delicious.

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