Saturday, October 6, 2007

Yellowstone - October 6, 2007

Well, I always thought it would be fun to visit Yellowstone in the winter time. Little did I know that I would get my wish on this day. We woke up to about 6" of snow and more was coming down by the minute. Plus, we beat the snow plough into and through the park. Needless to say, the driving was part nerve wracking and part fun. It was nerving wracking because we had an 11:40AM flight to catch in Bozeman and if it was snowing this much the whole way, we weren't going to make it. It was fun because I don't get a chance to drive in snow much.

Anyway, the Rangers weren't even manning the station as we passed through the NE entrance prior to sunrise. At about a 20-25 mph clip, we had a long drive ahead of us. Luckily, we weren't the very first cars into the park so we had some groves to follow until it got light enough to see well. Here is a taste from our drive once things got better (no light to photo the really "fun" parts of the drive):

Even if there was wildlife close to the roads we wouldn't have seen it until we were past Roosevelt. That is when visibility improved enough to see how beautiful everything looked. Here is Floating Island Lake:

We were pretty much figuring that we would see absolutely no wildlife until we saw a car coming the other direction stop ahead of us. It started up again and passed us. As it passed we noticed the driver was really excited and clapping her hands. We drove up to where they had stopped and looked around but saw nothing. Then we started moving again and I saw why there were excited. There was a coyote on the road trotting ahead of us. We had seen a lot of coyotes in the park but this coyote was "really, really good looking" (Zoolander movie reference). To top it off, the coyote cooperated nicely and allowed us to get some of the best pictures from our trip.


This was a great encounter on our way out of the park and really topped off the week nicely for us.

The snow let up the closer we got to Gardiner so we felt comfortable stopping every now and then to enjoy the scenery and take some photos:


The drive from Gardiner to Livingston was really pretty and we saw tons of wildlife including our closest encounter with a bald eagle. Despite lots more snow coming down around the Bozeman area we made our flight and got home on time. Final tally from this partial day:

1 photogenic Coyote, 1 bald eagle, plus bison, elk, pronghorn and deer.

All in all, we had a tremendous vacation. One that we will never forget. Once again Yellowstone exceeding our high expectations. Seeing all that goes on in one of the last complete ecosystems in our country is truly a pleasure. Thanks for reading my reports over the week. The really good news is that it looks like we are going back to Yellowstone next May which will be our first spring visit. I have started the countdown already...

Friday, October 5, 2007

Yellowstone - October 5, 2007

Today was a mix of snow and rain all day so we were pretty much car bound. Good thing we got some exercise the day before. The Ranger at the NE entrance informed us that Dunraven was closed again so we decided to head to Mammoth. Here is what the entrance looked liked today:

Round Prairie was particularly picturesque on the way in:

As was the Lamar Valley:

The Lamar had the usual bison herds and we did spot some Elk hanging out near the YS Picnic Area. We stopped to hear the bugling which is another of Yellowstone's sounds that I don't grow tired of.

After yesterday, the animals seemed to be playing hard to get today. We grabbed some sandwiches at the Subway in Gardner (gas and food at the same place is nice) and headed back to Slough Creek where we ate and enjoyed views of the area.

As we left Slough Creek to go to Lamar, there was a large jam. A grizzly had decided to hang out in one of the meadows across from the Slough Creek road. So, we got out and watched him for a while. Unfortunately, it got really crowded and people headed down the hill too close to the bear. Turned off by the stupid humans, we left.

In the Lamar, we saw another grizzly that we watched for a while. He was walking parallel to the river and my wife was hoping to see him cross. We headed down towards the institute and set up the scope. Turns out, he did cross the river and we were able to see him wade through the water which was kind of cool. We also ran into some close Pronghorn in the Lamar.

The weather let up so we decided to check to see if any otters were at Trout Lake. I had my doubts but wanted to try anyway. Before we got there we saw a lone car pulled over and a guy with a BIG lens (600mm probably) taking pictures of something close by. Turns out it was a coyote who was digging. I thought about stopping but we had seen a lot of coyotes and if we stopped we may have scared off the coyote. I didn't want to be responsible for interrupting a photo session so we pressed on.

We made the Trout Lake hike in slight rain. It was very pretty up there as you can see:



Soon the calm and silence was disrupted by a large family that hiked up. So, we decided to try to find Buck Lake. There were many trails leading off in the right general direction and I wasn't really sure which one to take so after reaching a rise and not seeing the lake we decided to turn back. I will be more prepared for the exact location of the lake next time. Anyone know the right trail to take?

Next we decided to head to Tower. We passed the grizzly across from Slough Creek who was still causing a large jam. At Tower, the Bighorn were out foraging in a meadow but no bears were around at all. We stopped at the "osprey" pullout for this shot:

It was getting late now so we headed back home through the Lamar Valley. Just as we passed the institute was saw a huge herd of something in the valley. The rain was coming down a little bit now so we stopped to take a look. It turned out to be a HUGE herd of elk. We are talking at least 500! This was incredible because I had no idea that the Elk in YNP did this. I assumed this was the beginning of their migration to the elk refuge near Jackson. Could this be correct? Here is a pano stitched together to try to show the size of the herd. Even this picture doesn't do the scene justice since many of the elk were behind a little hill. (Forgive the poor post processing. That is what happens when you stitch together shots taken at different settings):

What was really interesting is that the bulls hung out at the rear of the herd. I assume this was to keep them moving:

And this herd was moving pretty quickly down the valley. Between the plethora of bugling, the dimming light, and the dampening rain, this sight was truly surreal. It was a great way to end our last full day in the park because we never expected to see something like this.

Today's tally: 500+ elk, 12 Bighorn Sheep, 2 Bears, 1 coyote, some hawks and of course Bison, mulies and pronghorn. So far we have seen bears and coyotes every day which we think was pretty darn good.

Tomorrow we head back home but we do need to drive through the park to get to Bozeman. Boy, was that an interesting drive. So, I have named tomorrow's post "Snow Day".

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Yellowstone - October 4, 2007

We woke up to some light flakes of snow and headed into the park around 7AM as normal. Our goal today was to get to Canyon one way or another but the Ranger at the NE entrance told us that Dunraven was still closed so I guess it would be the long way around again.

Once again, we saw mule deer just past the NE entrance which seems to be a common occurrence. Too much snow on the mountains to look for goats again. I guess we should have spent more time doing that the first 2 days. We did see 2 bull elk at the Mt. Baronette pullout. Then we spotted more mule deer around Pebble Creek which seems to be another party spot for Mulies.

As we approached Roosevelt, 2 cars had pulled over a few hundred yards up the road to Tower. Since we all know that cars pulled over in Yellowstone usually mean something is lurking about, we turned left to see what was going on. I immediately spotting a Coyote heading towards the coral so we pulled ahead of him and waiting for him to show up. He had some breakfast in his mouth that he was intent on burying for later but he either couldn't find a suitable spot or I distracted him. In any case, he happily moved out of sight with breakfast still in tow.

However, this is not what the cars were looking at because we hadn't reach them yet. Once we did, we realized that they were watching a grizzly who had crossed the road into the field across from Roosevelt. We were able to watch this bear for a long time and it was really fun. Eventually, the bear crossed the road leading into the Lamar valley just as a new yellow Yellowstone bus with a few passengers pulled up. However, they didn't really stop to see the bear which I found interesting. Maybe someone REALLY had to go to the bathroom? Why else wouldn't they stop? Once the bus passed by, the bear got a little startled and ran for a few hundred yards. That was a very cool thing to witness for the first time since they reach high speed in only a couple steps. Here are some not so great pictures from this encounter:



After the bear disappeared, we headed towards Mammoth. We spotted a small family of mulies near Elk Creek:


The elk were not very active at Mammoth. At least that is what we thought. We learned later that around the time we passed through Mammoth one of the bulls gored another bull in the side and the Rangers had to put the wounded bull down since he was too badly hurt. I guess that is still part of the natural cycle, but I am glad we didn't witness it.

The weather was better so I wanted to stop to do the Hoodoo hike. However, the little road into the rocks that I thought led to the trail head was just a little road into the rocks that curved back to the main road after a few hundred yards. Oops! I did get a morning fog picture out of it though:

I did know that you could get to the Hoodoo trail via the Glen Creek trail at the beginning of Swan Lake Flats, so we set out to do that. The parking lot for the Glen Creek trail has what appears to be a beaver dam in the neighboring water ways. Has anyone seen beavers here? Anyway, I have never seen Swan Lake flats look so good. Morning sun accented by snow capped peaks made for awesome views on all directions (and good reflections):

We had just started the hike when we heard howling come from further down Swan Lake Flats. This was the first time we heard wolves howl and it was great. We didn't see anything through the binoculars so we continued on the hike. Then, more howling came. This time, I noticed the pullouts down the road in Swan Lake Flats had more cars in them then I would expect. So, on a whim, we aborted the hike and hustled back to our car.

The large turnout past the Lake had people with scopes. So, we parked and set up the scope. Sure enough, 5 wolves (3 blacks two grays) were cavorted on the hillside. They bedded down pretty quickly but before they did we were able to "see" them howl…wait a second or two and then "hear" them howl. VERY COOL!! That made our day. I assume that these wolves were members of the Swan Lake pack, but no wolf expert was around to consult.

Next, we pressed on to Sheepeaters cliff for a bio brake and hopefully some Marmots. I wasn't sure if Marmots hibernated or not but I thought we would look just in case. In previous trips here, we always took the path to the right of the picnic area. This time, my wife headed left. We ended up in a rock amphitheater that has to be a great spot for Marmots. But, we didn't see any. We were lucky enough to get our first in focus Pika pictures:


On to Canyon now. Just past the Ice Lake trail on the road between Norris and Canyon, we encountered a coyote trotting along the road with a stick in his mouth. I thought this was odd behavior, but it got even more odd as the coyote proceeding to trot down the middle of the road on the yellow line:


Nothing was budging him off the line. We were very amused. Eventually, enough cars jammed up to force him off to the side so we passed him by. In my rear view mirror, I saw the coyote trot back onto the middle of the road once some of the cars passed. This coyote was very entertaining.

At Canyon we turned right towards Hayden Valley. Now was my chance for a little owl spotting. I have never seen an owl in the wild and thanks to all the Y-net tips, I knew sort of where to look. We found the double pullout (No other cars there however) and headed down the trail. But, then the trail intersected with another one and I didn't know whether to go right or left. We went right and walked around for a while but never did see the owl. Oh well, we could try again on the way home.

Next we headed down past Fishing Bridge to see what was out. It was drizzly and no wildlife wanted to be out in it I guess. We did decide to take the Pelican Creek Nature Trail since it is nice and short. We are glad we did because we saw this little guy who couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. It didn’t even appear to be walking that well yet so maybe it was days old. That does seem awfully late in the season though:

On the way back, we saw bison and a lone grizzly in the Hayden Valley and some more ducks at Le Hardy Rapids (still no Harlequins though). Back to Canyon for a hike to Clear lake. This is an OK hike but they should call it Stinky Lake and not Clear Lake if you want my opinion.

Once the hike was done we headed back past the Owl turnout. There were numerous cars here (it is mid afternoon by now) but the weather was starting to look bad and we knew that it would take a while to get back to Silver Gate via the long route so we opted not to hunt for the owl again. We did stay long enough to watch 2 photographers heading out because I wanted to see whether they went right or left at the intersecting trail. They did neither. They went straight cross country and into the woods. Doh! At least now I know the right way to go.

We took off and reached the Canyon junction. We just happened to notice that the road straight to Dunraven wasn't closed. So, we headed up the pass hoping to see some bears. Just past the Mt. Washburn trail parking lot we spotted a couple on the road looking up. I looked up as we passed and saw a grizzly bear. We parked in the next turnout and walked back. It was a sow and cub digging. She tore at the dirt with ease and sent piles of it flying backwards. We spent about 45 minutes with this pair. For most of the time it was just the 4 of us watching the two bears with light snow coming down. This was superb and slightly surreal because they were probably a little over 100 yards from us the whole time and we had never seen bears in snow before. This was our best Yellowstone bear encounter to date. Here are some photos:


At tower, we saw a black bear far up the Tower campground road. We were the only ones that saw this bear so we had him/her to ourselves for a while. The photo ops weren't great, but it was nice not to share the experience with anyone (it is OK to be selfish once in a while right?)

Past Tower, the mother black bear and two cubs were down lower this time so we stopped and spent some time with them. At one point, the sow stood up facing away from us and sniffed around. This was another first for us since we hadn't ever seen a bear stand before. This was turning into a day of bear firsts…

Light was failing now so we headed home. But this was certainly "Bear Day" for us. Of course, we saw many other great things as the tally shows:
8 Bears (3 cubs), 5 Wolves Howling, 3 hawks hunting, 2 coyotes, 1 pika and the usual staples. What a day of firsts. However, tomorrow will bring a new first. One that I didn't even know existed. So, stay tuned for "Migration Day".

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Yellowstone - October 3, 2007

Day 4 started out with some light rain and was pretty much on and off rain all day. Just past the NE entrance we ran into a herd of elk. It was probably the possessed herd from a few nights back, but they seemed less possessed in the morning light. We also encountered a herd of at least 20 mule deer around Pebble Creek. They were on both sides of the road and didn't seem to care much about us. That's the biggest herd I have ever seen.

Just past the Trout Lake pullout we had a coyote cross the road, give us a quick look and take off up the hill. This keeps our daily streak of coyotes going.

Nothing much happening in the rest of the Lamar Valley so we headed on to Slough Creek to check on the wolves. This was a good idea since the Slough Creek pack was on another kill but closer now so that they were more than dots to the naked eye. Of course, viewing through the scope was great. We saw 9 wolves total. There were also 2 bald eagles hanging around waiting for their turn. With my 500mm lens steadied by the side mirror of our rental car (Yes, a tripod purchase is in my future), I managed to get this shot. It shows 4 wolves and both eagles:

Before reaching Tower Falls, we ran into the herd of Bighorn Sheep again. The light was better this time and they seemed intent on being photogenic. I didn't want to disappoint them so I snapped off a few frames:


The Dunraven pass was still closed and we didn't feel like going the long way around to Canyon so we headed back into the Lamar Valley. Just before Slough Creek we encountered a good size Bison Jam. This is where we met "Norman". He was just too cute and frisky to resist. He was obviously a late summer birth so we hope he makes it through the winter:


In the Lamar, there was a grizzly hanging out far across the valley but he disappeared into the trees before we could get the scope on him. By this time, we were getting hungry for lunch and we needed gas so we decided to drive to Cooke City for both. On the way, we saw a moose running at full speed just passed Soda Butte. The moose was on the other side of the valley and quickly disappeared into the trees. That was our first running moose so that was pretty cool. It looked very horse-like as it ran which surprised me a bit.

After lunch (by the way Buns and Beds deli in Cooke City makes good sandwiches) we wanted to walk around a bit and there was a break in the weather so we took the YS picnic area hike. This area affords great views in both directions. Too bad rain cut the hike short but did provide this photo op near Roosevelt:

The weather got progressively worse so we headed home early to get some well needed rest. We did manage to catch an interesting grouping in the Lamar Valley:

Another very rewarding day in the park:

12 Bighorn Sheep, 9 wolves, 5 bears, 2 bald eagles, 1 coyote, 1 running moose (I swear I should make a song out of this daily tally…) and the usual assortment of Bison, elk, deer, and pronghorn.

A 5 bear day is pretty darn good and our best ever in YNP (we saw 13 in Denali). However, since I am naming tomorrow's report "Bear Day" you can bet we do better than 5 so stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Yellowstone - October 2, 2007

We woke up to about 1/2 inch of snow on the ground in Silver Gate which made for a pretty drive into the Lamar Valley:



Except for the usual Bison and a quick glimpse of a grouse, there wasn't much action in the valley. So, we headed to Slough creek and saw that the wolf watchers were there in force.

Through the scope we could see 9 members of the Slough Creek pack. One had a bone in his mouth at one point so it was obvious they were on a kill. There was also a bald eagle sitting in a nearby tree waiting for scraps. This was our first wolf pack viewing and it was incredible. The Slough Creek pack appears to have about 7 or 8 black wolves and they are striking. Renting a scope sure was a good decision and one I will make again.

After spending sufficient time watching the wolves we headed toward Mammoth intent on hiking the Hoodoos trail for the first time. Right before the YS Picnic Area we spotted a nice herd of pronghorn.


Around Hellroaring, this mule deer stop just long enough for one click:

We also took a quick detour to hike to Wraith falls. There sure were some large burrows on the trail that we hoped might be from a badger but nothing turned up on our hike.

The weather turned bad at Mammoth with a combination of light snow and sleet so we decided to skip the hike and head down to Sheepeaters to look for critters. No luck there, so on to Norris. We did spot a coyote out in a snowy meadow, but that was about it. Unfortunately, icey conditions had closed the road from Norris to Canyon which was our next destination.

So, back to Mammoth for lunch and on to Tower/Dunraven to look for bears. Well, Tower was a bust and the Dunraven pass was closed. We did manage to pull off for a scenary picture:


We decided to take the Lost Lake hike since the rain stopped. It was really windy but that is still a nice hike. However, we only spotted a few ducks for the effort.

Back towards the Lamar Valley now and just past Specimen Ridge the wolf watchers were out. The scope came out again and we saw 2 wolves from the Oxbow pack hanging out around multiple herds of Elk which were understandably nervous. A few hundred yards away, a Grizzly meandered up and over a ridge. It was quite the sight to see all this action in such a small area. Eventually, more wolves joined the two and headed down into a valley and out of site.

So, we packed up the scope and headed pack to Slough Creek to see the wolves there since not much other wildlife had made an appearance that day. The Slough Creek pack had bedded down up the hill a bit and only a head or two and some ears were visible. As we were packing up, someone stopped and said the Oxbow pack had bedded down in a meadow in plain site.

So, back to see them. We counted 10 in all. The Oxbow pack has two black wolves and the rest are grayish in color but still pretty. That makes this a 19 wolf day for us between the two packs. We never dreamed we would see that many our whole trip let alone in one day :)

Heading back through the Lamar we saw a coyote in the distance and we ran into a frisky little bison that loved showing off his running skills:

On the way back to Silver Gate we decided to stop to look for Mountain Goats. Unfortunately, with snow still 2/3 of the way down the peaks, looking for a white Mountain Goat just amounts to a hopeless game of Where's Waldo.

On the way out of the park more elk made an appearance as well as a startled grouse.

Another great day in the park. Less pictures since most of the action was via the scope, but the pictures in our heads will last forever.

Today's tally:
19 wolves, 2 coyotes, 2 grouse, 1 bear and of course bison, pronghorn, mule deer and elk

Monday, October 1, 2007

Yellowstone - October 1, 2007

Since this was our first full day, we wanted to use it all. So, we were out of the cabin at dawn.

Just after we passed through the NE entrance and turned the corner past Warm creek, my wife has me hit the brakes for.....a black wolf. This was our first true wolf encounter and we were thrilled. The wolf only stayed within sight for less than a minute and with the low light, this is the only evidence we have:
Black Wolf

If we saw nothing else the rest of the day, we would have been happy. But, that didn't last long.

A quick stop at the Mt. Barronette pullout yielded two coyotes hanging out and mousing. One was collared and they posed for lots of pictures.


Once the coyotes cleared out, we pulled out the scope and got a great look at a male Mountain Goat high up. He appeared to have his full winter coat already (he will need it later in the week...).

Next up, not 3 minutes later was this fellow crossing the road at a place we now call "moose junction":

As we passed the YA Institute in the Lamar, we saw a lot of cars pulled over with scopes pointed up the hill. Turns out the Slough Creek pack was on a kill in a small valley. They were mostly obstructed by trees, but we managed to see 4 of them. We also confirmed that it was a pack of coyotes that we saw the night before, since wolves do look noticably different.

Once they laid down there wasn't much to see so we pressed on to Slough Creek for a quick bio brake. But, we didn't make it far as we encountered our first bison jam and this little guy:

Once that cleared out, on to Slough Creek. Turns out, someone was waiting for us and was not shy at all. Another coyote:

So far we had seen more wildlife before 9AM then most people see all day :)

At Tower we ran into our favorite Bighorn Herd (met them many times last year). Looks like they had more young ones this year. I will save the pictures for our next encounter with them.

Nothing much happening over the Dunraven pass but we did see another coyote in the Hayden valley with a Bald Eagle not far away:

On to Le Hardy Rapids (Thanks to another Y-Net tip). No Harlequin Ducks but we did see these pretty Mergansers:

Back over Dunraven and another bear jam. A sow and cub. Fellow jammers say this is a Grizzly, but we decided that it was a cinnamon black bear.
Black Bear

Black Bear

Just past Rainy lake we ran into the resident mother black bear and her two cubs. The cubs were at the top of a tree and the jam was out of control so we moved on after a brief glimpse.

Back through the Lamar and our first close look at Pronghorn, one of my personal favorite animals in the park:

We were running out of daylight as we neared "moose junction" again and wouldn't you know it....

A female moose:

After spotting some mule deer along the way we passed the Mt. Barronette Pullout and found a herd of possessed elk. So, if you venture that way in the evening, beware...

What a day :!: :!:

12 Bighorn Sheep, 5 wolves, 5 Bears, 4 Coyotes, 2 Moose, 1 Mt. Goat, 1 Bald Eagle and the usual Bison, Elk, Mule Deer, and Pronghorn. Not bad for a days work.

Thanks for reading this rather long post. It was a busy day but stay tuned for tomorrow because that is "Wolf Day"...