Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Yellowstone - Day 6

It was 34 degrees when we left at 6:45 the next morning (we slept in a bit) and headed into the Park.  The only plan today was to take a mid-morning Trout Lake hike once it warmed up a bit.  As mentioned before, there were lots of Bison in the Lamar Valley this trip but today there was even more.  They were everywhere and pouring in from Little America.  Others had noticed it too and after discussing it for a bit the theory is that many of the Bison didn’t make the trek to the Hayden Valley and instead were hanging out in the Lamar Valley.  Whatever the reason, it was a great spectacle to watch.

Bison Joining the Herd

At the coyote den we had a lone adult but no pups.  We also had a pair of Pronghorns that decided to race each other.  Boy, it's fun to watch them run!

Pronghorn Race

Once they ran by we turned around just in time to see a small herd of Bison running down the hill:
Bison Race

This Uinta Ground Squirrel didn't seem entertained at all:
Uinta Ground Squirrel Enjoying the Sun

 I'm not sure why everything was in such a hurry, but maybe that meant it was time to press on.

At the Slough Creek carcass there was a Grizzly but once again it was too far away to enjoy that much so we head to the YPA to see if the badger was around at all.  It wasn’t.  But, we did get our one and only Bighorn Sheep closeup of the trip.

Bighorn Sheep

Next we headed back towards Trout Lake but before we got far we encountered our first Baby Pronghorn of the trip.  There were two adults and one baby strolling along in Little America.  They were a bit far for good pictures, but I took some anyway.

Pronghorn with Fawn

We scoped a black bear in the Lamar Valley and had 2 pups out at the den when we passed by.  As we approach the parking lot for Trout Lake it became painfully obvious that we were in the summer tourist season.  Not only were all the parking spots taken at 10AM but all the flat areas around the parking spots were taken as well.  So, there would be no Trout Lake hike for us.  On a whim, we continued on to Pebble Creek and decided to hike the trail there instead.  We parked at the Campground (which was not yet open), loaded up the gear and headed out.  We looked everywhere for the trailhead that is clearly marked on my detailed Yellowstone map but we couldn’t find a way across Pebble Creek and didn’t feel like fording the river. Little did we know that the footbridge from the camp grounds to the trail was gone which explained our issues.  You can only reach the Pebble Creek trail for the turnout East of the Campground now.  Oops…

We were hungry after another failed hike so we hit up the Buns and Beds deli in Cooke City (Hi Jan!) for excellent sandwiches which we ate in our cabin. 

After lunch we headed back into the park not expecting to see much because the temperatures had started to climb (It was 70 degrees that afternoon).  But, we didn’t have to wait long for a great photo opportunity with a beautiful cinnamon black bear that was grazing alongside the road. Since I was driving, Karen took this shot.

Cinnamon Black Bear

At Pebble Creek (where we had just been a hour or so earlier) a jam of people had formed along the road.  We pulled off in the Campground parking lot, pulled out the scope and joined them.  The moose with baby that we had sort of seen two days ago was back and closer.  Through the scope we were able to see the baby moose walk around and nurse from mamma.  Our first baby moose! 
We next took our daily drive down Slough Creek in hopes of seeing badger.  No badger was seen but we did have a lone coyote.

We didn’t have any further excitement until we reached Elk Creek and saw a huge car jam.  We knew that multiple black bears with cubs had been seen in the area so we found a pullout along the road, grabbed our gear, and headed towards the people.  Just as we arrived, the Ranger doing crowd control said that we missed the bear nursing the cubs and the whole family was asleep behind a tree now.  They weren’t likely to be out for a few hours so we could do what we wanted.  With that, the Ranger left and so did most of the people.

We decided to stay and stake out the bear family. After all it was a mother with two restless cinnamon yearling cubs. How long could they stay sleeping behind the tree?   Actually, the answer was 3 hours, that’s how long.  We know this because we stood around the whole time waiting.  The time actually went by quickly because we chatted with fellow photographers.  During the 3 hours, the bears played with our hopes many times by getting up, stretching, looking around, and then laying back down to sleep more.  They would tease us with a glimpse of heads and bodies and the occasional stretching paw.  Eventually, they did get up.  But, instead of walking down the hill and into good light the headed up the hill away from us an out of sight.

Black Bear with two Cinnamon Cubs

During the “great bear stakeout” we heard from others that another black bear was out up the road a bit and she had one cub of the year.  So we headed up that way and got a glimpse of the mother bear and the cub climbing a dead tree.  There were no spots left to park so we decided to head back to YPA to see if the badger would make an appearance.

We arrived in Yellowstone a few days too late to see the fox kits at the Yellowstone Picnic Area (YPA) and too late to see the drama that happened with the badger that ended up killing the fox kits.  We knew that the badger had been seen in the area but weren't expecting to see what we saw next.

We pulled into the YPA to see the male fox at the 2nd den site digging furiously.  He would dig for a few seconds then stop and look off to his left:


After doing this five or six times, he finally disappeared into the den.  He reappeared with something in his mouth, moved a few yards away and dropped it.  He then went back to the den and repeated this a few more times:


It quickly became obviously looking through the lens that he was pulling out the remains of the fox kits.  The scene was enough to bring tears to your eyes.

Once he was done, he went over to the spots where he had dropped the remains, rolled around, and sniffed the area:


He then walked up the hill a bit and greeted the female fox that we didn't even know was there.  She had been laying down in the scrub hidden from view.  They rubbed against each other a bit and then the female proceeded to head down the hill. She walked over to the to the 2nd den site and the area where the remains were to sniff around just like the male did:



She then walked back up to the male and they rubbed against each other again.  It was incredibly touching:


After a few more minutes of this, the male got a burst of energy and started to hop around and run back and forth, but the female didn't join him and instead just watched:


After a a minute or so of this, the male went back over to the female and greeted her again.  Then they both walked up the hill and disappeared...

It was such an emotional experience for us as we watched this unfold because we knew that we had just witnessed the foxes holding their version of a memorial service for their lost kits.

It is so hard not to humanize animals when you witness something like this that seemingly had so much human emotion to it.  At the end, it even appeared as if the male fox was trying to cheer up the female fox which is such a human thing to do.  It was a somber evening for us but an amazing piece of animal behavior to witness in person.

We never saw these foxes again the rest of the trip.  We wish them well and hope to see them successfully raise a new family next year.

On the way home we had one adult coyote at the den site but not much else except this great panoramic view of the Lamar Valley and the hundreds of Bison that had moved in.  

Lamar Valley Bison Herd

We didn’t get back to the cabin until close to 9:30 so it was another light late dinner and bed for us. 

Daily Highlights:
  • 7 Black Bear (3 cubs)
  • 4 coyotes (2 pups)
  • 2 Moose (1 baby)
  • 2 Red Fox
  • 1 Grizzly Bear
  • 1 Pronghorn fawn
  • 1 Bighorn Sheep

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