Saturday, May 21, 2016

Yellowstone Day 1 & 2 - May 2016

We can't believe it has been 3 years since our last Yellowstone visit.  It doesn't seem that long but we have been many times before.  In fact, after a quick count, we realized that this was our 9th trip to Yellowstone.  Hopefully, it won't be another 3 years before we hit double digits...

After an uneventful flight to Bozeman and a quick escape through baggage claim and the rental car counter, we were on our way.  Hmmm...a Chevy Traverse.  Not too sure about that...

We stopped in Livingston and Gardiner for supplies and made it through the entrance gate at around 3PM.  We would have driven through the Roosevelt Arch but that stretch of road is under construction.  Looks like lots of improvements are afoot in Gardiner.

We saw nothing of note until reaching Petrified Tree Rd.  At the end, a quick scan revealed something that we had never seen there before...Bighorn Sheep.  There were 5 to 6 ewes chomping on the grass but only a few stayed long enough for the first photo of the trip:

Bighorn Ewes

At the Tower Junction we had our first bear sighting of the trip from a long ways away.

Black Bear at Roosevelt

The quick drive (we did have groceries to refrigerate) through Little America and the Lamar Valley didn't yield any great photo ops but we did see Bison, Pronghorn, a couple Bald Eagles, a Marmot, and an Osprey nest to be visited again in better light.  After a long day's travel, that was all the energy we had for the day so we hit the sack hoping to get an early start the next day.

Well, so much for an early start.  We didn't leave the cabin in Silver Gate until 8AM.  But, some of that was on purpose since the weather was gray, cold and snowy.  We did make a quick drive up to Cooke City where we spotted a mother and yearling moose in the willows:

Moose Mama with Juvenile

We also spotted a Ruffed Grouse along the side of the road on the Beartooth Highway:

Ruffed Grouse

On the way back through Silver Gate we picked up our rental scope at the Silver Gate general store ($40 a day and it paid for itself everyday of our trip!) and headed West.

Back in the park, we made our first stop at the Mt Barronette pullout where we scoped a mama and 2 juvenile Mountain Goats.  Without the equipment to digiscope, a cropped 500mm picture is the best I could do:
Distant Mountain Goats

Back in the Lamar Valley we were able to stop and enjoy the grand vista.  I never get tired of looking out over the Lamar to see 100's of Bison, Pronghorn, Elk, Wolves and more going about their business like they have for generations (well, not quite that long for the wolves).  This is truly the closest thing to a Safari you can find in the US.

In fact, it didn't take long to spot the wolf watchers with scopes out at Hitching Post.  So, we joined them and were just in time to see 3 black wolves from the Mollies pack disappear into a distant grove of Aspen trees.  5 minutes later, or without a scope, and we would have missed them.

The Bison were plentiful in the Lamar and there were lots of calves to watch and enjoy:
Bison with Calves

We stopped at Slough Creek to locate this year's wolf den belonging to the Junction Butte pack.  With some assistance from the always helpful wolf watchers already there, we located it in no time.  Our stop was timely because we were able to spot a female Gray Wolf and 3 black pups around the entrance to the den.  10 minutes later...and they were gone.

So far, our wolf timing had been incredible and we had seen 7 wolves before lunch.  Not too shabby!

We made it all the way to Tower before seeing anything notable.  At Tower, a black bear had just started grazing in the field below the main parking lot:

Black Bear

There were only a few people so we got to enjoy the bear for quite awhile before the first Touron sighting of the trip.  The name Touron (a mashup of Tourist Moron) is pretty self explanatory.  Today's Tourons were from Utah according to their license plate and for some reason they took offense at people viewing the bear from the parking lot in front of their parked truck. With their view partially blocked, instead of rolling down the window to nicely ask people to move, or better yet getting out of their car, they decided to honk the horn long and loud.  Luckily, it only scared the people and not the bear about 50 yards away.  Eventually, they got out of their car which revealed an entire family dressed in camo and plump from one too many meals...I mean, the kids were in camo too.  I wonder if they realized that they had to actually get OUT of the car for the camo to have any effect?  Hmm...not much left to say.  They did get an earful from some folks but I doubt they cared.

Next we headed back to Mammoth and around to Sheepeaters.  I wanted to see if we could find any Pika among the rocks there.  We didn't find any Pika but we did see some other critters.

A wet Marmot:
Yellow-bellied Marmot

Gray Jay:
Gray Jay

Least Chipmunk (I wonder if it objects to being the "least"?):
Least Chipmunk

Back through Mammoth and my obligatory Magpie pic:
Black-billed Magpie

The first disappointment of the trip also occurred in Mammoth.  We had timed today's trip to hit the Grill for a heart clogging Western Chicken Sandwich and fries only to find that they don't make them anymore and that their menu had changed.  It looks like they added...gasp...healthier options.  What the heck?  What was I going to do now to raise my cholesterol levels?  So, I tried the Ham and Cheese sandwich which was absolute crap.  That might be our last stop at the Grill this trip.  Too bad...

At Elk Creek, we came across a forming bear jam which we happily joined.  It turned out to be a mother and yearling Black Bear:

Black Bear with Juvenile

Black Bear Mama

We headed back to Silver Gate for a quick dinner stop and some scenery:
Silver Gate Scenery

After dinner, we decided to head back to Tower to see what was out.  We saw the same Black Bear and yearling, around a dozen Bighorn ewes at Yellowstone Picnic Area and a coyote in Lamar.  The only photo op to end the day was of this cooperative Pronghorn:


So, the major critter count on our first full day was a good one:
- 12+ Bighorn Sheep
- 7 Wolves
- 3 Black Bear
- 3 Mountain Goats
- 2 Moose
- 1 Ruffed Grouse
- 1 Coyote
- Numerous smaller mammals
- 4 Camo'd Tourons

Friday, May 20, 2016

Yellowstone Day 3 - May 2016

Today we had a stakeout planned.  There was a Bison carcass pretty close to the road near Yellowstone Picnic Area and we were hoping something interesting would happen.  So, we got there relatively early but not early enough to see the wolves at dawn apparently...oh well.

There was a black bear on the carcass but it had already fed and was snoozing.   But, some action did start once a coyote showed up:
Coyote Approaching Carcass

The bear woke up darn quick and proceeded to chase the coyote off:
Black Bear Defending Carcass

Once that threat had been neutralized, the bear decided to nap a little closer to its prize:
Nap Time

A short time later, a Bison showed up and visibly upset the bear.  In fact, it wandered close to the protection of a nearby tree and stared at the Bison:
Bison Approaching Bear

The Bison appeared to give the bear the "Ole Stink Eye":
Bison Eyeing Bear

Then it did a bluff charge and took off which caused the bear to just about climb the tree:
Scared Bear

With the Bison now farther away, the bear seemed to relax a little and came down from its "ready to climb" pose:
Danger Reduced

So, it was nap time again:
Back to Nap Time

Meanwhile, the Bison came over to the carcass and checked it out.  There have been many documented accounts of Bison seemingly mourning dead ones and this sure seemed to be the case here:
Mourning Bison

A short while later, the coyote came back and the bear jumped into action to protect its meal:
The Pesky Coyote is Back

The coyote wasn't so easily deterred this time and trotting around the bear to an apparent "napping stash" the bear had:
Threat Subsided?

Bear Stash Found

Always an opportunist, the coyote wasted no time in making off with the Bear's stash:
Bear Stash Raided

Even though the coyote was now gone, the Bison lingered in the area so the bear stayed alert:
Keeping an Eye on the Bison

Finally, with all the threats gone, the bear was able to really get a good nap going:
All Threats Gone, Major Nap Time

With the bear napping, I focused on other subjects like this Mountain Bluebird:
Mountain Bluebird

Eventually, the bear woke up, stretched and decided it was time to get a drink:
Nap Time is Over

Time for a Drink

The only problem was the road AND a line of photographers were in the way.  The bear carefully made its way across the road and with the help of a Ranger the photographers backed away allowing the bear to get a drink and return to the carcass:
Coast is Clear

Back to the Carcass

It was at this point that the Ranger permanently relocated people farther from the carcass and we took this opportunity to move on.  But, it was a really good 2 hours spent with the bear and carcass.

We decided to drive to Tower next.  After seeing a coyote at the Tower Junction we made our way up the road to Tower and were just in time for another bear sighting:
Mama Black Bear

Where are those Cubs?

We knew there were a couple Black Bears with cubs in this area so we scanned the meadow but saw nothing.  Then we looked up...Up here!

Cubs!  How cool!  Plus, we were in a pretty good position and the crowd wasn't too bad.  So, we stuck around for about an hour to enjoy the show...

Mom?....Where's Mom?

I don't see her either!
Where is Everyone?

There she is, let's go!

Wanna Play?

Hey, that branch looked at me wrong:
This Branch Looked at me Wrong

Time to attack!

Take that!


Fun with Branches:
Fun with Branches

The chase:
Gonna Get You!

I'm King of the Hill!
I'm King of the Hill

No you're not...
A Challenger

Challenge Rebuffed

Yes, I am!...
King of the Hill Once Again

As you can imagine, this was all great fun to watch.  It's hard to beat the entertainment provided by young bear cubs.  As the crowd grew and the bears moved farther away, we took our last few looks and decided to move on:

Proud Mama

Mama's Watching

Wow! How do you top that morning?  We likely weren't so we just enjoyed what Yellowstone threw at us next.  We learned long ago that you can't force Yellowstone, you have to let Yellowstone come to you.  This means, don't make plans because if you do they will change.  So, what did Yellowstone throw at us next?

How about with a Uinta Ground Squirrel:
Uinta Ground Squirrel

More Bighorn Sheep:
Bighorn Ewe

And, a REALLY pregnant Pronghorn:
Pregnant Pronghorn

We went to Cooke City for lunch to grab some sandwiches at Buns and Beds, then it was back to the park.  Between Cooke City and Silvergate we saw the same pair of moose that we had seen yesterday.
Once in the park, we stopped at Slough Creek to scope the wolf den and saw 1 adult gray wolf and 1 black pup.  We turned around and scanned all the nearby hills and mountain tops looking for Grizzly since we hadn't seen one yet.  Instead, we saw a group of 25+ Bighorn Sheep high up Specimen Ridge.  All appeared to be female and there were obviously a different group than the 12+ that were hanging around Yellowstone Picnic Area.

In Little America there was a mini jam so we stopped and followed the binoculars.  At the tree line was a mother Grizzly and two cubs.  There were too far for pictures but we enjoyed watching them for a time through the scope.  Hopefully, we will get closer looks at Grizzlies in the future (spoiler alert...we will!)

At Petrified Tree was another Black Bear munching on the green grass exactly where the Bighorn Sheep had been the day before.

At Elk Creek was yet another Black Bear.  This one was cinnamon and quite stunning, so we stopped for a few pictures:

Cinnamon Black Bear

Grazing Cinnamon Black Bear

This was also one lazy bear.  Its preferred eating method was to lay down and chomp up all the grass around it minimizing effort while maximizing reward.  That's my kind of bear:
Lazy Cinnamon Black Bear

With the light dwindling now, we made our way back home. Besides seeing a coyote just past Slough Creek, this Western Meadowlark was the last good sighting of the day:

Western Meadowlark

Today's Critter Tally was not too shabby:
- 28+ Bighorn Sheep
- 7 Black Bears
- 3 Grizzly Bears
- 3 Coyote
- 2 Moose
- 2 Wolves