Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Spring in Yellowstone

With the return of spring, we quickly found ourselves longing to return to Yellowstone. We planned our trip to occur shortly after the roads opened and before elk calving season. Calving season is a good time as well, a recommended experience, but a full week of watching calves being eaten by Grizzlies and wolves wears on you after a while.

Since we planned a week long trip we decided to take our time getting to the park.  We planned three stops for some bird watching.  The first location was Centennial Marsh on the Camas Prairie near Fairfield Idaho. We have traveled within 4 miles of the marsh many times, but have never been there. 

There was an amazing variety of birds. Lots of Sandhill Cranes, Turkey Vultures sunning themselves, Wilson's Snipes, Wilson's Phalaropes, and Black-necked Stilts. We found one Black-necked Stilt with an injured leg. It didn't look good. We wished him/her well. We saw over 30 species in and around the marsh in less than an hour.  What a great side trip.

Stop number 2 was the Camas National Wildlife Refuge (not on the Camas Prairie).  Unfortunately we traveled around a number of gravel roads, but never found a good viewing spot. Apparently we needed to do more research. Next time.

The third stop was the Mesa falls scenic highway. This road parallels the main road into West Yellowstone. Mesa Falls consists of two major water falls, the upper and lower. Both were spectacular. We had hoped to camp near Island Park, but all of the campgrounds were still closed. We ended up at an RV park in West Yellowstone.

Birds not mentioned above: American Crow, Mallard, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Northern Harrier, Swainson's Hawk, Long-billed Curlew, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Brewer's Blackbird, Canada Goose, Killdeer, American Avocet, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, American Kestrel, Horned Lark, Meadowlark, Red-tailed Hawk, Mourning Dove, American Coot, Lesser Scaup, Willet, Great Blue Heron, Black-billed Magpie, American Robin, European Starling, Ruby-crowned Kinglet,Yellow-rumped Warbler, Snowy Egret (new to me), Osprey, Violet-green Swallow, Northern Flicker, Bald Eagle, Gray Partridge (new to me).

Mammals not mentioned above: Mule Deer, Antelope, Red Fox, Yellow-bellied Marmot

Day 1

Our first day in Yellowstone! It was a beautiful morning, sunny and no wind, as we entered the park. We took our time traveling through the park, stopping often to look for wildlife. The lighting was great for photography. We photographed Bison, Elk, many types of birds, etc.  It was great just to hang out.  There is little traffic in Yellowstone this time of year.  The roads have only been open for a week. After taking 60-70 photos, we walked down to the river at one pullout.  A beautiful bird posed for me.  I didn't recognize the bird. I turned on the camera to take a picture and receive a memory card error. The bird flew closer and posed again, still no luck with the camera. The bird moved closer still. There would be no pictures.  Good thing I have the same type of memory card in my PDA.  I returned to the van and reformatted the card for the camera, but the bird was gone. My concerns were bigger. Would my camera system work all week?  Hopefully I can recover the photos when I get home.  I tried with my laptop, but I couldn't get them back. (note: after getting home I was able to retrieve the photos!)

A juvenile Bald Eagle posed in a tree, with its wings spread wide in the sun.  There was some disagreement on whether it was a juvenile Bald Eagle or an Osprey, but we did confirm its identity from the photograph as an Eagle. The transitional feathers on the head of the eagle, lined up closely to Osprey markings. Once we moved further up the road and could see the beast of the bird, it was more obvious that it was an eagle.

We moved on to Gibbon meadow.  Searching the horizon, I see a bird in the meadow. It looked like a Peregrine Falcon, but I was hesitant to call it until I was sure. Increasing the magnification of the scope, I confirm not one, but two Peregrines!  This was a first for us in Yellowstone. We heard a Coyote howl in the distance. What a great place for lunch! In the restroom, Karyn finds a Deer Mouse, but it quickly exits.  It must have known her mouse killing reputation! At Indian Creek we stopped for a short hike.  We were searching for Otter, but we only found a Mountain Bluebird. On to Mammoth to get our campsite. We would later hike the Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces before a relaxing shower and dinner in the van.

I watched a cow elk eat grass in our campsite. She would eat as fast as possible for about a minute, then look up and around for signs of danger, returning to her food. She was relentless in her eating. It dawned on me that this was the majority of the existence of an elk. Three major functions - 1) convert grass to protein (eat), 2. keep from being eaten, and 3) once a year, reproduce. Not much else for an Elk. You see Bison and pronghorn run and play, but Elk mainly move to the next grass patch and eat. To her defense, she was probably just weeks away from delivering a calf.

Birds not mentioned above: Mountain Chickadee, American Crow, Northern Flicker, Raven, Canada Goose, American Robin, Red-winged Blackbird, Mallard, Common Merganser, Belted Kingfisher, Sandhill Crane, Bufflehead, Green-winged Teal, Red-tailed Hawk, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Cinnamon Teal, Wilson's Phalarope, Northern Shoveler, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, Black-billed Magpie, Black-capped Chickadee.

Mammals not mentioned above: Uinta Ground Squirrel, Pronghorn

Day 2

The 5 am alarm sounds in the van.  Yes, we are on vacation. Up quickly to make coffee and we are on the road in about 20 minutes. It is a dark and dangerous road just before light. We arrive at Hell Roaring Overlook at a few minutes after first light. Calvin, a wolf watcher we have met here before fills us in on the recent watching and points out the Oxbow Wolf pack bedded down near their den site. Three wolves in sight.  What a great start. They looked like they were in a deep sleep and planning to stay awhile, so we head into the Lamar Valley.  We meet up with Jim, Joellyn, and Paul, other wolf watchers we have met on previous trips. I step out of the van to look up and silhouetted on the ridgeline are three members of the Druid Peak wolf Pack. We watch and photograph five members of the pack as the move along the ridge. What a beautiful sight. After a short while, they cross over the ridge and out of sight.

Next up was searching for beavers at the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte creek.  No luck, but we did see a Grizzly Bear high up on Specimen Ridge. Later on we hiked into Trout Lake. Appropriately named as we saw a number of Rainbow Trout swimming around. There were also a number of Barrow's Goldeneye on the lake. They seem to be very plentiful here this time of year.

The afternoon was spent hiking the closed road from Tower Junction to Tower Falls. This is a great place to see Black Bear and we were not disappointed. Part way up the road, a mother and two yearlings cubs walk out onto the road ahead of us. We held back and took photos as they slowly moved up the road and down the hill on the other side. Once we thought it was safe, we hiked on by them. This is a great hike as you get to overlook the Yellowstone River canyon and the numerous occupied Osprey nests. We also found a Yellow-bellied Marmot hanging out in the sun.  It was a great hike.

We had dinner in the Lamar Valley then returned to Hell Roaring Overlook. We watched for a while searching for wolves.  At one point I thought I found one, but then again, it could just be a rock! Another gentleman looked at my rock and told me it was moving.  Sure enough there were three wolves there.  Then puppies!  And more puppies. At least five small black puppies were running around between the adults playing with sticks, occasionally nursing, etc. The puppies were about the size of an adult's head. They should only be 2-3 weeks old. We were looking right down on the den site! What a way to finish the evening.

Birds not mentioned above: Black-billed Magpie, Common Raven, Sandhill Crane, Red-tailed Hawk, Bufflehead, Pine Siskin, American Robin, Gray Jay, Clark's Nutcracker, Lesser Scaup, Dark-eyed Junco, Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, Mountain Bluebird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Tree Swallow, Mallard, Red-winged Blackbird, Northern Harrier, Canada Goose.

Mammals not mentioned above: Uinta Ground Squirrel, Pronghorn, White-tailed Deer, Coyote, Elk, Bison, Big Horn Sheep

Day 3

5am. Ouch. Back to Hell Roaring Overlook. The Oxbow Pack Wolves were out and about again. We counted 7 adults and caught a few glimpses of two of the puppies. The advantage of being the first to the overlook is that we had the best scope position of the group.  There is only a few narrow paths through the tree to see into the den area. Of course, we shared our scope with everyone else who was there.  I later volunteered to give up my spot for the lead wolf researcher. Hopefully this will give me good wolf karma!  We watched a number of dominance gestures as the younger members of the pack (yearlings not the pups) wrestled with each other. 

We moved on to a place called Junction Butte. Another observer had watched the Agate Wolf Pack dip down into the canyon headed this way. We set up the scopes and camera in the hopes to get some great shots.  The sun was at my back and the pathway was within a half mile. It would be a great opportunity. A hour later we were still waiting. I guess that karma wasn't good enough.

Just up the road we came along a Bison cow in a serious form of labor. The placenta was partially exposed. We watched (no privacy!) as she would stand, turn around in a few circles and then lay back down. She did this a number of times. As the contractions increased she spent less time laying down, although she would still alternate between standing and sitting. Finally we saw one leg. She laid back down.  Upon her standing again we saw two legs. We were close enough to hear her loud guttural growls. She laid back down and delivered the baby calf at high noon. After a minute or two she rose and started to eat the placenta. Mmm. The calf started to shake its head. As the mother started licking the baby, starting at its head, the calf would slowly start moving that portion of its body. At the 15 minute point the calf made its first attempt to stand up.  The back legs were still not working. At 28 minutes the calf was standing on its own. The cow worked to get the calf to nurse. The calf knew to look up, but finding the right location and getting its feet in the right position took another 15 minutes. Wow. Definitely something to see. 

After lunch we hiked down into Slough Creek. It was difficult finding a suitable route.  The water was high blocking many of our paths. Then a heard of bison convinced us that we didn't want to go any further. We sat on a hill and watched two different Coyotes, and many types of water fowl before returning to the van.

The evening wolf watching was back at Hell Roaring Overlook. Sleeping wolves for the first 30 minutes, then pile-o-puppies! We counted a total of 8, but others confirmed 9 maybe 10. They mobbed one of the yearling wolves of the pack. Crawling all over it, then rolling off. It was quite a sight. As is usually our approach we let others look through our scope.  One women took a very long look and wouldn't give it back. That was the end of that (at least until after she left).

Birds not mentioned above: Mountain Chickadee, American Crow, Northern Flicker, Killdeer, Brewer's Blackbird, Downy Woodpecker, Western Meadowlark, Canada Goose, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Black-billed Magpie, Common Raven, Sandhill Crane, Red-tailed Hawk, Bufflehead, American Robin, Gray Jay, Lesser Scaup, American Kestrel, Mountain Bluebird, Tree Swallow, Mallard, Red-winged Blackbird, Cinnamon Teal, Belted Kingfisher, Rind-necked Duck, American Coot, American Wigeon.

Mammals not mentioned above: Uinta Ground Squirrel, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Elk, Black Bear.

Day 4

The morning started at the hangout of the week- Hell Roaring Overlook to watch the Oxbow Pack of Wolves and their new puppies. We counted five adults this morning, with only a few puppies occasionally visible. With just the two of us at the overlook we were surprised to hear something that sounded like someone talking right behind us.  We turn to see a Blue Grouse standing on a log about 20 feet away. Another thing that's great at the overlook is the sound of many woodpeckers in all directions. We have yet to see one from the overlook though. As the adult wolves appeared to be bedded down for a while we left for the Lamar valley.

On the way to the Lamar, we discovered a juvenile Moose in the Elk Creek drainage. This is a fairly common place to see moose.  We struck out on seeing wolves and beavers in the Lamar.  We did watch an interesting show as a herd of Elk attempted to cross the raging Lamar river. The herd moved toward the river, then stood there apparently exploring the options. Then one brave soul jumped in - walking about half way across the river before being swept downstream. Swimming for a while, she finally pulled out on the other side. Some were more successful at swimming against the current than others. One by one they would jump in while the others watched. When about half of the herd had crossed, the others gave up and walked upstream apparently looking for an easier crossing. It was quite a sight to see.

Today was resupply and laundry day, so we headed into Gardiner, stopping to see some puppies from the overlook on our way. At 2-3 weeks old, they were first seen out of their den on Sunday (3 days ago). According to others, they have eaten meat on a couple of occasions - regurgitated by other pack members, but we haven't been there at the time.

This afternoon we went to Floating Island lake. Karyn drew the Sandhill Crane that has a nest on the floating island in the lake. Its actually a built up dirt island that the Sandhills build. She is sitting on two large eggs.  We watched as she worked to build up the nest and then rolled the eggs. As Karyn drew, I watched the waterfowl on the lake and looked out for Coyotes, we had seen two here a few days ago. A rumor has it that a Peregrine also hunts here. We listened to Redtailed Hawks screeching and woodpeckers drumming, but no Peregrines today.

Dinner was prepared and consumed at a place called trash can. There is not actually a trash can there, but apparently there was at one time. Spend time with our wolf watching friend Jim.  We had one report of a wolf up valley but it turned out to be a coyote. I spotted a Grizzly Bear heading down into the valley. It was sniffing around as it walked.  It apparently caught wind of a new born calf.  As it approached the bison herd they all came together and charge the bear back into the trees.  I would run too if 50 Bison in a  herd charged at me.  We left the Lamer valley a bit early as we wanted to stop by and see the puppies.

Birds not mentioned above: Kestrel, Canada Goose, Red-tailed Hawk, Barrow's Goldeneye, Black-billed Magpie, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed  Blackbird, Bald Eagle, Common Merganser, European starling, American Robin, American Crow, Mountain Bluebird, American Coot, Ring-necked Duck, Common Raven, American Wigeon, Tree Swallow, Mallard, Dark-eyed Junco.

Mammals not mentioned above: Uinta Ground Squirrel, Bison, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Coyote.

Day 5

We awoke to the sound of pouring rain with some lightning mixed in. The routine is habit by now.  The van is rolling 20 minutes after the first alarm. We rounded a corner to see a down tree in the road. It wasn't a small one either.   We were able to get around it. A few days earlier there was a rock slide on the road as well. Definitely need to pay attention. We went straight into the Lamar valley this morning. Most of the wolf crew was heading the other way to look at the Oxbow pack and their puppies.  We knew that we would be by there later, so kept heading toward the Lamar. Looked for bears and wolves with no luck, but did finally see the Beaver at the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. From there we heard report of a lone black wolf near "Dorothy's Knoll". We quickly found a spot just up the road. We thought we found it, but it turned out to be a wet Coyote. Finally we saw the Wolf. It was a black yearling wolf from the Slough Creek pack. There was apparently a carcass over the river's edge that he/she would get a few bites and then come up to the ledge and look around.  This would be normal behavior for a wolf in someone else's territory.  The Druid pack used to own this territory, but they were chased out by the Slough's a few years ago. Last year, the Druid's took it back.  The carcass site was also occupied by two Bald Eagles, a number of Ravens, and some Black-billed Magpies. The wolf eventually traveled down the valley. Once it left our sight we moved down to a place called "Coyote". The wolf would probably cross the road at a place called "Fisherman's".  If too many people were there it would not cross. We decided not to be part of the problem, so we stayed at Coyote. We were rewarded when the wolf changed course, came up the hill, and crossed right in front of us. We would have had a better view had we not been trying to stop a car coming up the road.  I took numerous photos as the wolf traveled up the hill and over the ridge. Wow, it doesn't get much better than that.  The carcass, will likely provide great viewing for all sorts of wildlife for the next few days.

We returned to Hell Roaring Overlook, or "The Overlook" as it is known this week because of all of the action there. We were rewarded by seeing 7 adult wolves and 8 puppies. The official count is now 10 puppies for this pack, but I only counted 8. The Agate wolf pack had been seen earlier, high on the Hell Roaring slopes, but we couldn't find them to make a hat trick of wolf watching (3 packs in one morning).  We did find a Black Bear. On the way by Floating Island Lake, the Sandhill Cranes were rolling their eggs and we saw the first Trumpeter Swans of the year.

The wind, rain, and snow discouraged us from a long hike, but we did make it out to Trout Lake again to look for Otters. No otters, but we did see an Osprey fishing.

Dinner was at "Dorothy's Knoll". After dinner, wolf watcher Jim joined us in our search for wolves.  The temperature had continued to drop and the wind was up. Definitely a Gore-tex night! The worst part is that we didn't find any wolves!  The Grizzly Bear from the previous night was back out chasing Bison.  Once again the herd grouped together to charge off the Grizzly. I like seeing the different responses of the various animals to predators.  Bison group together and charge the predator, Elk group together, but its everyone for themselves (except mothers with calves). Antelope just outrun everything as a group. 

In addition to the Grizzlies, we watched four Golden Eagles soaring overhead.  Most likely brought in by the carcass. I also found another Bison giving birth, although this one was about a mile away. I could still keep track of her progress through the scope. When we left for the evening, I think the calf was on its feet, although we couldn't see it through the Sagebrush.

Birds not mentioned above: Barrow's Goldeneye, Canada Goose, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Robin, Mallard, American Crow, Mourning Dove, Mountain Bluebird, Common Raven, Gray Jay, Redtailed Hawk, Common Merganser, Lesser Scaup, Mountain Chickadee, Northern Flicker, American Kestrel, Meadowlark.

Mammals not mentioned above: Uinta Ground Squirrel, Bison, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Elk, Moose, White-tailed Deer.

Day 6

Looking for some "Druid Action", we bypassed the Overlook to proceed into the Lamar Valley.  We arrived in time to see 11 Druid Pack Wolves interacting with a Grizzly Bear over an old carcass. A black wolf kept trying to sneak in behind the Grizzly. The Grizzly would chase it away. The other wolves appear to sit back and watch. The wolves worked down into a draw, out of site.  We quickly moved down to the confluence and climbed the hill to get a better view. The 35 degree weather, strong wind, and snow made it very cold up there. We watched for about two hours as the pack moved down through the forest and looped around back where they started. They would occasionally test Elk by chasing them, but nothing very serious. They eventually disappeared into a ravine.  We watched for a while with no luck. We retreated to "Trash Can" to watch another Grizzly walk up the valley testing Bison and Elk.  Added to one Karyn saw first thing this morning, this was three Grizzlies today (this could have been the same as she first saw making only 2).

The next stop was a place called "Wrecker" where the Agate Wolf Pack had a Bison carcass. This was very far away and difficult to see. This was the first time this week we had seen the Agate wolves. The four Agate wolves had already eaten and were stretched out like it was Thanksgiving Dinner. Three coyotes were on the carcass and I counted 35 Ravens! There were likely many more.  This will likely be an eco-center for the next week attracting all types of wildlife until the carcass is gone.

We heard another report in the Lamar of the Slough Creek wolves chasing Bison calves. We positioned ourselves at "Fisherman's" to see the action. We arrived just in time to see the final interaction before the wolves gave up. There were six Slough Creek wolves and they were held off by just the one mother Bison. That's commitment! The wolves wandered around, providing some great silhouettes against the sky, before disappearing over the ridge.  This is three wolf packs in one day, we finally got out "Hat Trick".

After our shower we returned to the Lamar. Karyn quickly spotted a gray wolf chasing a black wolf down the hill and into a ravine.  A few minutes later, the black comes out of the ravine being chased by multiple Coyotes. They apparently have a den in the area. Coyotes wouldn't threat a group of wolves, but they are quick enough to harass a single wolf.  Once this wolf disappeared down the river, Karyn pick up the gray going over the ridge top.  One of the wolves is believed to be a slough creek wolf and the other out of a new group (not technically a pack until they mate and successful raise young) that has been traveling the area. That makes 4 groups/packs in one day!

The last stop of the day was the overlook to see the Oxbow pack for a 5 group/pack day. Wow.  On the way to the overlook we found two Moose in Elk Creek.  The juvenile and it apparent parent.  We fell asleep listening to the Great Horned Owl in our campground.

Birds not mentioned above: Sandhill Crane, Black-billed Magpie, Common Raven, American Crow, American Robin, Canada Goose, Redtailed Hawk, Mallard, Red-winged Blackbird, Barrow's Goldeneye, Mountain Bluebird, Common Merganser, American Kestrel, Golden Eagle, Tree Swallow.

Mammals not mentioned above: Uinta Ground Squirrel, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Big Horn Sheep.

Day 7

Our last day in the northern part of the park. We had to see the puppies. Since we were the first ones there we were able to get the prime scope position. We saw two adult wolves and four puppies. We heard over the radio that the Druids were out in force in the and hunting. We decided we had seen enough of the puppies and had to see the Druids.   The Druid wolf pack is our favorite as it is the first pack we had ever seen. We arrived in time to see them playing on a snow field before getting serious and stalking some Elk. They tested a few and then chose the group. The 10 wolves froze in the stalking position and then accelerated at full speed. The elk and their predators split into two groups. One group coming toward us and one away into the trees. The group coming toward us failed in their attempt.  The other group was hidden in the trees. The other wolves went there and none came back out.  The Druids were likely successful.  Their puppies will eat tonight.

We moved down to "Wrecker" to see yesterdays Bison carcass. There was a grizzly Bear on the carcass. It was surrounded by 6 Agate Pack Wolves and 30-40 Ravens. The Grizzly was defending the carcass from the wolves that appeared unable to get a bite. The Ravens were more successful. The wolves would then chase the ravens causing them to drop their meat. It was definitely something to watch. The Grizzly would put his front legs up on the carcass and growl at the wolves. At one point he stood with all 4 feet on the carcass.  Another great sight at "Wrecker" were a pair of Harlequin Ducks in the Yellowstone River.

Some of the wolf watchers had traveled the previous day down to Hayden Valley to see the pack there.  It was visible for most of the day. We decided to try it out on the way to Madison. We were planning to spend our final night in the park at Madison before heading home. The Hayden Valley is also a good place for otters, we we have been looking for during our last few trips.  Unfortunately, after many hours in the Hayden Valley, we hadn't seen anything.  No wolves, no otters, no bears. At least we had three wolf packs in the morning.

Birds not mentioned above: Sandhill Crane, Barrow's Goldeneye, American Crow, American Robin, Western Meadowlark, Black-billed Magpie, Osprey, Common Merganser, Red-winged Blackbird, Canada Goose, Wilson's Phalarope, Ring-necked Duck, Cinnamon Teal, American Coot, Redtailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, Northern Shoveler, Bullhead, Great Blue Heron, Rough-legged Hawk, Mallard, American Wigeon, Semipalmated Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Northern Flicker, American Kestrel, Mountain Bluebirds, Dark-eyed Junco.

Mammals not mentioned above: Uinta Ground Squirrel, Bison, Pronghorn, Elk, Moose, Coyote

Day 8

Long drive home...

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Aimee said...

Thank you for the blog on Yellowstone. It was an easy, interesting read. My family(husband and 3 kids) and I plan on traveling out there in May/June 2008. We are very interested in wolves, and found your blog helpful in letting us know where to go for a peak at the packs. I enjoyed your pictures and wondered what camera you were using. I plan on bringing a 35mm and a digital. What lenses did you use the most??????? Thanks again.

wolf21m said...

Aimee, All pictures on the blog over the past year were taken with a Canon Digital Rebel XTi with a Canon IS 100-400mm Lens. The Rebel has a lens factor of 1.6x making it really a 160-640mm equivelent lens.

MedicineGirl said...

We are going to Yellowstone this May and reading your blog is really getting my psyched for the trip. It will be our first time out there. Hopefully the weather will cooperate.