Yellowstone June 2013 Trip, Last Installment

This entry is for June 15 & 16, 2013.

Day 9 was my last full day in the Park.

I had heard from Deby Dixon that the Blacktail Plateau Rd had opened the day before, so that was among the first things on my agenda for this day.

So, I headed north from the Norris CG.  It was quite cold on this morning, with freezing fog.  I stopped near the Indian Creek CG for some photos of the fog on Obsidian Creek (still no griz triplet family, by the way).

Morning Fog Along Obsidian Creek 2

Morning Fog Along Obsidian Creek 3

By the time I got to the Mammoth Upper Terrace drive, I was predicting a day of extreme temperature shift.  It was a chilly 21 degrees Fahrenheit, but the sun was rapidly burning off the fog.

A female mountain bluebird was puffed up in the cold, but soaking up the morning rays.

A female mountain bluebird perch atop the apex of a juniper

I took two trips through Blacktail Plateau Drive.  On the first, I saw a nursery herd of cow elk with lots of calves.  The were quite skittish.

I also saw my first ruffed grouse of the year.  I’ve been hearing their deep, subterranean sounding, rumbling drumming (reminiscent of a Harley being fired up underground) everywhere I go, but had not been able to lay eyes on any this year until this.

Townsend’s Daisies were blooming throughout the plateau, sometimes amongst cushion phlox.

Townsend daises and cushion phlox

On the Elk Creek side of the plateau, I saw a small bull moose (perhaps the same one as seen at Petrified Tree several days before – it’s the same area and it looked about the same) and a black bear.

On my second trip through, a badger cross the road in front of the car that was ahead of me on the road.  That visitor and I both followed the badger on foot, about 300 yards away from the road, to its den.  We both approached the den very slowly, stopping every few feet.  I stopped 25 yards or more shy of the den.  The same can’t be said of the other photographer.   He got down on the ground and slid closer and closer.  His proximity was such that the badger kept a close eye on him, but it didn’t hole up – at least not until another photographer joined me where I stood and the closest photographer stood up to move away.  In any event, we enjoyed a good long visit with it.

Badger at Den - Blacktail Plateau 10

badger at den

The next badger I saw on that day, just a short time later at the Antelope Aspen grove area, had a den only about 10 yards away from the main road, but seemed pretty relaxed despite its proximity to the road, traffic, and lots of onlookers and photographers, napping atop the den mound, grooming, etc.

badger laying on den mound

badger sitting atop den mound

Next on the agenda was a return visit to Trout Lake for another try for the trout lake otters.  This time, I set myself a limit of three hours to be spent there.

Upon arrival, I was greeted by a guardian on the cut log bridge over the outlet of the lake – a bull snake.

bull snake on a trail bridge

On this visit, I spent more time at the shady outlet end of the lake, enjoying the abundant wildflowers, such as this sugar bowl, while waiting for an otter appearance.

sugar bowl wild flower

After a couple hours of waiting, with no otters, I moved to the inlet end of the lake.  Whereas a week previously there had been trout visible in the lake, but none in the inlet, on this occasion there were dozens in the inlet.  So, I found myself photographing fish again.  If anyone had told me that I’d spend more time photographing fish than bears on this trip, I would have scoffed.  Now I’m thinking that photographing fish is so much fun that I need an underwater camera.

I enjoyed the almost abstract quality of the trout in the shallow water, sometimes camouflaged on the pebbled creek bottom.

A Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the inlet of Trout Lake, blending in with the streambed stones in an almost abstract fashion

The water there is shallow enough that the fish are exposed, at times, as they pass over shallow spots.

Yellowstone cutthroat trout skim over the pebbled stream bed in the shallow water of Trout Lake's inlet

But, no otters or other critters were taking advantage of the easy pickings. I overstayed the 3 hours I had allotted for this visit to Trout Lake but eventually made my way back around the lake, stopping for this tattered mourning cloak butterfly.

A tattered mourning cloak butterfly

Back to camp for my last night in the tent…

81 degrees was the high temperature that I observed that day.  21 was the lowest.  60 degree temperature swing.

The following morning I slept in a little bit so that the noise of my breaking camp and loading up would be made after quiet hours ended at 6:00am.  Nonetheless, I was on the road by about 6:30, making my final round trip north, then back south again, along Obsidian Creek to look for the grizzly triplet family.  I hoped the family that welcomed me to the Park for this trip would see me off, but no such luck.

This bull bison with Electric Peak as backdrop was more gracious.

bull bison with Electric Peak as backdrop

I never noticed before that, from this angle, Electric Peak’s outline is that of a bull bison.

Really… I never would have noticed it if they weren’t lined up so, but the outlines of Electric Peak and a bull bison are remarkably similar. See it?

head low on shoulders
hump – peak
sloping back

I exited the Park at West Yellowstone and went past Henry’s Lake and then toward the Centennial Valley.  I don’t recommend that route for passenger cars.  For the most part, the dirt road was fine.  However, there were some heavily rutted sections that would be utterly impassable to passenger cars if wet and muddy.  I was able to skirt one such section and get through others without event, but I was carefully negotiating my way through one such hazard (in my Toyota Camry Hybrid), riding on the top of the ruts, when I came over a rise to find the ruts were diagonally cut by a washout.  From where I was, there was no way out but through.   I scraped my car’s bottom though that section.  Ouch!  I haven’t heard any noises and there is no evident damage, but that’s the kind of thing that can do some real damage.   It would have been possible to tear a passenger car apart on those ruts if they weren’t navigated right or if a person got unlucky.   Knowing what I know now, I won’t take a passenger car on the road between Henry’s Lake and the Red Rocks Lake NWR.  The road between the Red Rock Lakes NWR office and Monida is an “improved” dirt road and fine for passenger cars.

I didn’t have much time to do any real birding, but I did enjoy some great looks at Swainson’s hawks and, of course, the scenery is great.

I did some searching north of Dillon, MT for a burrowing owl nest, but the harsh light and mirage about killed my eyes scoping, and I was not met with success.  I’ll have to make another trip there to look for burrowing owls.  It was time to continue home and get the car unloaded and for me to get a much needed shower.

The trip galleries with more photos from the trip are here:

Yellowstone June 2013 Trip, Part 4

This entry is for June 14 & 15, 2013.

On Day 8, I returned to LeHardy Rapids to try for more leaping Yellowstone cutthroat trout at LeHardy Rapids with better light. I’m pleased with the results.

A Yellowstone cutthroat trout, wearing the ruby tones of the spawning season, makes a leap upstream at LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River

A Yellowstone cutthroat trout, wearing the ruby tones of the spawning season, makes a leap upstream at LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River

I don’t think he was as pleased with his success as I was with mine.

A Yellowstone cutthroat trout, wearing the ruby tones of the spawning season, makes a leap upstream at LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River

I would estimate that the ratio of unsuccessful attempts to successful attempts was about 5:1.  Two techniques were employed – jumps, as illustrated above, and shimmying over the rocks but below the surface of the water, as below.

Yellowstone cutthroat trout attempting to shimmy up the rapids at LeHardy Rapids

In this video both techniques are demonstrated – neither successfully.

In this video, one leaper is successful, and one is not. Please pardon the shakes – a heavy footed person walked by on the boardwalk.

Some leap higher than others – and they are the ones that generally clear the obstacle.

A Yellowstone cutthroat trout, wearing the ruby tones of the spawning season, makes a leap upstream at LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River

Meanwhile, an American dipper kept living up to his species name, dipping for aquatic insects.

An American dipper living up to his name, as they so often do, dipping its head into the water for aquatic insects.

Other than a disappearing bear butt at the Fishing Bridge intersection, LeHardy Rapids action pretty much sums up the day.

Day 9 was my geyser day. Any time I spend more than a few days in the Park I spend the better part of one day in the geyser basins.

I started out at the West Thumb Geyser Basin, where the colors are always so incredible.

A scene from the West Thumb Geyser basin, along the shore of Yellowstone Lake

A scene from the West Thumb Geyser basin, along the shore of Yellowstone Lake

On the boardwalk, I came across a man bitterly balling out his wife about the bitter cold, as though it were her fault. He finds 40′s in summer ridiculous “it’s June, the middle of summer, for crying out loud.” No, I did not tell him that it is June – spring, and in the Rockies, for crying out loud. With Summer Solstice being a full week off, it was hardly the “middle of summer.” It was a pleasantly crisp spring morning.

Next up: the Upper Geyser Basin.
I had a bit of time before the next eruption of a predictable geyser, so I walked around the basin for a bit.

Chromatic Spring colors the surrounding area with colorful thermophile life

Chromatic Pool above and below.

Chromatic Spring colors the surrounding area with colorful thermophile life

I was struck by the reflected copper tones of the Anemone Geysers (with the Old Faithful Inn and the Snow Lodge in the background).

Anemone Geysers (Big & Little or North and South) shine with copper tones with Old Faithful Geyser, the Old Faithful Inn and the Snow Lodge visible in the background

I watched an eruption of Grand Geyser then waited for Beehive to perform. While waiting for Beehive, I enjoyed visiting with, for the second time on this trip, Steven Bumgardner, of Yosemite Nature Notes fame. If you haven’t watched any of his videos, you should. Awesome work. He was in Yellowstone working on a series of videos from Yellowstone similar to the Yosemite series. He is working as an NPS volunteer and his work will be in the public domain when complete to entertain and enlighten the public for years to come.

As I waited for Beehive to erupt, I came to agree with the man I encountered on the boardwalk at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. It WAS bitter cold. I wasn’t as cold as poor people who had the misfortune to watch Beehive from the lower viewing platform, though. The wind changed direction just at eruption time and blasted them with spray. Bitter cold wind…. *shivers*

There was pretty crappy light and sky for those two eruptions, so I’m not posting any photos of those.

At the end of Beehive’s eruption, Castle Geyser started to play. Castle Geyser has a good long eruption period (something like a 20 minute water phase plus a 20 minute steam phase), so I took my time walking over there. By the time I got there, the last black cloud was east of the cone and the sun low in the western sky was shining on the plume.

Castle Geyser performs against a storm dark sky with sunlight illuminating the water and steam of the eruption

Castle Geyser performs against a storm dark sky with sunlight illuminating the water and steam of the eruption

Visitors even got a rainbow out of the deal.

Castle Geyser performs against a storm dark sky with sunlight illuminating the water and steam of the eruption

I stopped with a view overlooking the Midway Geyser Basin to watch as the sun sunk behind plumes of steam as I ate dinner (a hot meal on a cold evening with no time invested in making it, as it heated as I drove in the RoadPro Stove – no this is not a paid endorsement).

Then I made a pass through Firehole Lake Drive. When I came out of the timber and could see the Fountain Paintpots area, I was greeted with an incredible sunset.

What a note on which to end the day!

Yellowstone June 2013 Trip, Part 3

This entry is for June 12 & 13, 2013.

Day 6 began much as the previous days, with a thorough slow check of the area along Obsidian Creek for the grizzly triplet family. Once again, they didn’t present themselves.

Once again, Electric Peak was looking particularly lovely, this time with mist/fog imparting a dreamy feel to the morning.

Electric Peak on a misty morning

I traveled through the Northern Range as far as Slough Creek, from where I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the first thunder boomer of the day.  My wish for weather had been granted!  I was pleased with that development, but I kept the fact that I had wished for weather under wraps around other visitors who were less pleased with the change.  I cruised as far east as Pebble Creek or thereabouts, but the Hayden Valley was tugging at me, so I turned back for Roosevelt and then up and over Dunraven Pass.

I cruised south through the Hayden Valley, as one thunder boomer after another blew through.
I turned east again at Fishing Bridge.  In the last few years I’ve done well, particularly in spring, with grizzlies along the East Entrance Road.  So, once again, I headed east.

There was a handsome full curl Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep ram with broomed horns on Sylvan Pass.

A full curl ram with broomed horns on Sylvan Pass in Yellowstone National Park

Once again, the Hayden Valley was tugging and me, so when I got back to the Fishing Bridge junction, I turned north.

I had already visited the harlequin ducks at LeHardy Rapids, but as I was approaching that area on this pass, so was a black thunder cloud.  I decided to use that black cloud to allow me to do some long exposures to smooth the water, hoping the ducks would hold still as statues to cooperate with my plans.  They were rather fidgety, but I got what I was after.

These delightfully colorful ducks spend their winters in the pounding surf and crashing waves of the rocky coastlines of the Pacific Ocean and their summers in the thundering white water of fast flowing streams of the Pacific Northwest, some as far east as LeHardy Rapids in Yellowstone National Park.

After dumping a good downpour on us (us being the ducks and me – it seems no one else wanted to be out in that weather), the black cloud passed, allowing the sun to shine.  The ducks got more active, and I quickly changed my camera settings for faster exposures.

A harlequin duck in his fancy breeding plumage in flight

A harlequin duck in his fancy breeding plumage in flight

I do so adore those fancy ducks!

On my previous visit to LeHardy Rapids, I had checked for spawning Yellowstone cutthroat trout jumping the rapids and had seen none.  A few days had passed, so I decided to check that out before leaving.  I’m glad I did.  They were just starting to jump.  The jumps were few and far between, but the spawn was starting.

An American dipper (water ouzel, if you prefer) was actively foraging around the rapids and distracting me from the fish.

American dipper with an insect in its beak

American Dipper with an insect in its beak

When the dipper flew off, presumably to take his catch to his nest, I focused my attention back on the Yellowstone cutthroat trout who were getting a jump on the spawning season.

A Yellowstone cutthroat trout gets a jump start on the seasonal spawn, one of the earliest to run the LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River

A Yellowstone cutthroat trout gets a jump start on the seasonal spawn, one of the earliest to run the LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River

A Yellowstone cutthroat trout gets a jump start on the seasonal spawn, one of the earliest to run the LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River

While I was standing with my camera on tripod and my finger on the shutter button, waiting for the next jump, I was appalled to hear a woman tell everyone around (the downpour was over so people were out again) that those are the fish that the Park Service wants people to kill. “No,” I said. “These are Yellowstone cutthroat trout. They are natives. The fish that are catch-and-kill are the introduced lake trout. Yellowstone cutthroat trout are protected. They are catch and release.”

“You’ve got it backwards,” she insisted. “They are hurting the lake trout population.”

Okay, normally I let people who insist on thinking a coyote is a wolf or a black bear is a grizzly or whatever hold on to their misconceptions – if they insist. However, since she was telling people that the Park Service wants these fish killed, I thought it was important to get it right.

“No, ma’am,” I said. “These are YELLOWSTONE (emphasizing that word) cutthroat trout. They are native. The lake trout were introduced. They were initially planted at Lewis Lake by the National Park Service, back in the day that such things were done for the entertainment of anglers. However, some were illegally transported and planted in Yellowstone Lake in the late 80′s, which was populated with NATIVE YELLOWSTONE cutthroat trout, a species on which 43 other organisms in the ecosystem depend – ospreys, bald eagles, bears just to name a few. They are even important to elk because if they are eliminated as a food source, bears might prey more on elk calves. They are a keystone species. YELLOWSTONE cutthroat trout are catch and release, where fishing is permitted. It is not permitted at this spot. The non-native lake trout prey on YELLOWSTONE cutthroat trout and do not fill the same ecological niche, as they inhabit deeper water where they are less available to other organisms. Where fishing is permitted, they are catch and kill. The Park Service is employing gill netting and electro-shocking spawing beds to reduce the non-native lake trout population that is decimating the native YELLOWSTONE cutthroat trout population.”

I emphasized the word YELLOWSTONE every time I said ‘Yellowstone cutthroat trout’ and included much additional information, hoping that depth of information would be persuasive.

A Ranger came shortly thereafter and I told him about the exchange. I told him that I think I ultimately convinced her, and am pretty sure I did convince those around here, but I wish he had been there earlier to lend his “authority” to the debate.

On my way back to camp at the Norris CG, I came upon a massive rolling bear jam – but no one was blocking the road.  Cars were leapfrogging from one pullout to the next, following the northward progress of a dark grizzly bear.  I was hopeful it might be the obsidian black grizzly bear that had been seen for several days from the Grizzly Overlook the previous September.  I put the scope on it and saw it was a dark griz, made darker by being wet, but not the obsidian black one.  This one had a brown snout and some variation in the color of his coat.  A young boy digiscoped some video of the griz using my scope and his iPad mini and declared “I can’t wait to go back to school and show this to my friends!”  His big brother seemed a big disgusted “We just got out of school last week!”  Both boys were thrilled by the close look afforded by the scope and were very enthusiastic and polite and expressed profuse thanks.

There was a break in the weather and clear sky overhead that I predicted would last long enough for me to cook a rib-eye steak on the Coleman propane stove.  I stopped at the Nez Perce picnic area.  After all, I didn’t want a repeat of my rib-eye/raven misadventure at the Norris CG from a year prior.  Well, this turned out to be a misadventure of a different sort.  It took for-damn-ever (an hour and a half, to be precise) to bring a cup and a half of water for my pasta side dish to come to a boil, by which time the next storm was incoming.  Grrr!!!!  I put the pan of pasta in the trunk, put the rib-eye in the RoadPro stove and pulled out.  I stopped at the Otter Creek picnic area to check on my steak.  It was overdone (I like medium-rare to rare and it was medium to well), but still quite tasty.  RoadPro to the rescue!  That darn Coleman stove might never see the light of day again.

Day 7 was a pretty quiet day as far as wildlife sightings are concerned, but it was, nonetheless, a very pretty day.  I started out, once again, with a double round trip through the grizzly triplet family’s range, with the the same results as the preceding days.

I took a trip through the Mammoth Upper Terraces Drive and stopped to watch a browsing white-tailed jackrabbit (which is really a hare, rather than a rabbit) wearing his summer coat.  White-tailed jackrabbits, like snowshoe hares, have a winter coat of white for camouflage in the snow, and a brown coat in summer.  I had initially misidentified this hare as a snowshoe.  Max Waugh suggested it was a white-tailed jackrabbit.  I wonder how many white-tailed rabbits I’ve assumed to be snowshoe hares in the past.  Always happy to learn!

A white-tailed jackrabbit hare is his (or her) summer coat

At “Antelope Aspens” (that’s my name for the spot because pronghorn antelope are so often present) I stopped to enjoy the view.

What should I see there, but…  a pronghorn antelope fawn, bedded down and well camouflaged.  Other people were stopped to watch a herd of agitated cow elk and didn’t even notice this fawn.  It being so close to the road, and yet far enough that silly iPad camera people would stomp up to it, I didn’t bring any attention to it.  In the photo, it doesn’t appear to be all that well camouflaged, but in situ it appeared, at first glance, to be the turned-earth mound around a ground squirrel hole, which abound at that spot.

Along Slough Creek I stopped to watch a Cassin’s finch dining on dandelion seeds (one of several species I observed enjoying that common delicacy).

Cassin's Finch Dining on Dandelion Seeds

I traveled as far east as the Warm Creek picnic area (just west of the Silvergate Entrance).  There, I stopped a few moments to enjoy Barronette Peak as a thin whispy cloud drifted by.

Headed back west, the Lamar Valley was living up to its “American Serengeti” moniker, with bison strung out in great numbers all through the valley.

Back at “Antelope Aspens,” a badger that was moving from one spot to another, furiously digging holes, had attracted a good crowd.  I noted that there were bitterroot flowers a week or two from bloom there on the west facing slope, so if you are there later in June, check them out.

I headed over Dunraven Pass for another visit to the Hayden Valley.  As the afternoon progressed, more thunder storms moved in.

The storms were flowing in a northerly direction.  I stopped and just watched them flow by for a while.  Here, 90 minutes are compressed into 11 seconds. I had intended to shoot a longer timelapse, but after 90 minutes I felt compelled to move on…


Yellowstone June 2013 Trip, Part 2

This entry is for June 10 & 11, 2013.

I started out the day by driving north from the Norris CG as far as the Golden Gate, back south again to a bit south of the Twin Lakes, back north again as far as Golden Gate and then south again to Norris Junction.  I used every pullout, crawled along the road (no one else was on it pre-sunrise, after all), walked out on paths to the lakes, etc., looking for the griz triplet family.  Okay, 2 slow round trips through that area with no luck was enough.  I turned east and headed up the Norris-Canyon Rd., taking the Virginia Cascades Route.

I stopped at the meadow above Virginia Cascades and took a good look throughout the meadow and the timber edge.  I just know some time I’m going to see something special wildlife there, but it wasn’t this morning.  The view is always a good one, though.

I stopped at the Grizzly Overlook in the Hayden Valley to see what the wolves might be up to.  The alpha female was bedded down, while a mangy yearling was being thoroughly harried by a male northern harrier.  I suspected the harriers had a nest nearby.  Sure enough, the wolf stopped to investigate a mound on the ground (norther harriers are  ground nesters).  The distance being great, and grass and sage obscuring the view, I couldn’t see any chicks and/or if the wolf did anything at the mound, but the harrying by the harrier intensified.  The harrier harried the wolf away from the mound, and then up the ridge, diving and swooping at the head of the wolf, keeping him on his guard and occasionally dancing in circles.

I turned east at Fishing Bridge and went up and over Sylvan Pass.

On the east side of Sylvan Pass, at a pullout with a pit vault, I saw a pair of marmots moving their offspring to a new den.  One adult stayed at the den while the other transported the young.  The marmot in charge of transport was road-wise.  He (I think it was the male) would stop and check for cars before crossing the road.

A yellow-bellied marmot carries its offspring from one den to a new one on Yellowstone's Sylvan Pass.

A yellow-belled marmot glistening golden in morning sunlight on Sylvan Pass in Yellowstone National Park

On my way back west I stopped to admire these handsome common mergansers at Sylvan Lake.

Next, I paid a visit to LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River in the Hayden Valley to check out the harlequin ducks that I love so much.

two male and one female harlequin duck at LeHardy Rapids - female launching off a rock

Upon my departure from LeHardy Rapids, I continued north and then up over Dunraven for a visit to the Northern Range.  Next stop was to check out the golden eagle nest on the cliff through the scope from Slough Creek Rd.  I could see white fluff and one face, but couldn’t tell if there was more than one check.  I wish them a successful nesting season.  I didn’t stay long.

I had not been up Beartooth Pass in while, so that was next on the agenda.

a scenic view of mountains from Beartooth Pass

About the time I reached Beartooth Lake, it was getting blustery and, I realized, rather late in the day.  So, that was my turnaround point.

Next up:  a grizzly sow with three cubs-of-the-year, watched through the scope from the pull out east of the Soda Butte Geyser cone.  I watched them for 30 minutes or so before continuing west toward camp.

Along the way, I saw a small bull moose at Petrified Tree.  Rutt?  or Tuke?  There are two young bull moose that hang out around the Petrified Tree / Elk Creek area or along the Blacktail Plateau Road (all the same area) that I have referred to as Rutt and Tuke.  I would imagine this fellow is one of that pair.  In years past, there has also been the “Big Dude,” a much larger bull moose.  I have not seen him in a while.  I hope he is still around.

Continuing west, I saw a black bear with a cinnamon colored cub of the year at Floating Island Lake.  I stopped there and exercised my shutter finger, but the light was terrible (they were in the shade) and the distance too great, so…  I put a single-serving piece of Stouffer’s frozen lasagna in the RoadPro stove so dinner would be ready when I arrived at camp.

I think I fell asleep the very moment my head hit the pillow.

On the morning of June 11, I repeated the two trips along the range of the grizzly with three cubs-of-the-year along Obsidian Creek before, once again, heading for the Hayden Valley.

It was a beautifully misty morning on the Yellowstone River.

A dreamy misty foggy morning in the predawn pink glow of the minutes before sunrise along the Yellowstone River as it makes its way through the Hayden Valley

At Fishing Bridge, I turned east for another trip along the East Entrance Road to look for griz.  At Indian Pond, there was a grizzly, which Sandy Sisti of Wild At Heart Images and I eventually tentatively determined to be Blaze.  Blaze (presumably) was on an elk calf carcass, with a hopeful coyote in attendance.  I enjoyed visiting with Sandy.  We both bemoaned the too-hot temperatures and cloudlessness of the preceding few days, and expressed hopes for some weather to roll in.

I drove up Sylvan Pass as far as the pullout from which I had observed the marmots moving their offspring previously and made a stop there to see if there was any activity there.  Being none, I turned around and headed back west.

When I arrived back at Indian Pond, the grizzly and the coyote were no longer present, but the mother of the elk calf that Blaze had taken earlier in the morning was at the spot on which her calf had been killed.  She was sniffing around the “scene of the crime,” giving voice to distressed bugles, and chasing ravens off.  It was a poignant scene.

I turned south when I got back to the Grand Loop Road.  I stopped along Gull Point Drive to admire the reflections of the trees and whispy clouds mirrored on the smooth-as-glass water on the west side of the causeway.

Reflections of the trees on the small water of Yellowstone Lake (on the other side of the causeway along Gull Point Drive).

Then I headed north and over Dunraven Pass for another visit to the Northern Range.  Coming out of the Lamar Narrows, I saw a great many people watching an elk cow that was spinning in circles.  Everyone was hoping for an imminent delivery of a calf.  I soon determined, however, that that was not the case.  Besides being too skinny for a soon-to-be-mother, this cow did not have a bagged out udder ready to nurse.  She was in distress – extreme distress.  There was much speculation about what was going on. I heard a theory that she’d been struck by a vehicle. I heard a theory that she had a neurological condition. Here’s what is known: she came down the slope (a steep one, at that) spinning around and stumbling, as is seen in this video. You can see a bulge on the side of her neck. A circular wound exposing flesh under her chin is concealed by her posture. The wounds were visible when she stood still if she was in the right posture.

My theory: she was in shock following whatever injury causing event she suffered, which, for what it’s worth, based on the fact that she came down the slope in this condition, I believe more likely occurred away from the road and was, thus, not a vehicle strike.

As time went one, the pace of her spinning slowed, her tongue hung out and the collapses became more frequent.  At one point, instead of merely collapsing, she fell over backward, in almost a backflip, and landed with her legs sticking straight up in the air.  She remained in that position for some time, and I and those near me were certain that was the end.  We settled in for the wait to see what predator/scavenger would find her.

But, then…  she got up.  She stopped spinning.  She started making her way, albeit with the stumbling, wavering gait of a drunk, off toward the east and tracking up the slope, stopping to graze along the way.  I was astounded.  This cow elk, for whom death seemed imminent just a short time before, seemed to be making a recovery.  Coming out of shock, perhaps?

About that time, 5 Rangers showed up and walked into the field toward her, presumably to investigate and determine if intervention might be appropriate (as in the case of a vehicle strike).

A team of Rangers heads out to investigate and possibly intervene in the fate of the distressed cow elk of the previous 3 videos.

Minute by minute, she gained strength, picked up speed, and moved away from the Rangers.  When last I saw her, she had put a mile or more between herself and the Rangers and was disappearing behind a ridge.  Is that the end of her story, a happy ending?  I can’t say.  Once she was out of view, I departed.  She was certainly still in a weakened state and would have been vulnerable to predators.  In any event, I can’t help but admire her spirit and will to live and wish her well.  When I drove past that spot again a few hours later, the area was vacant of elk, predators, Rangers and visitors.

From there, back to camp, I was in one traffic jam after another where there were black bears and people stopping on the road, first at Elk Creek, then at Phantom Lake, and last a cinnamon black bear across the canyon just barely east of the Blacktail Plateau Rd. entrance.  I was always just in time to see disappearing bear butts.


Yellowstone June 2013 Trip, Part 1

10 days in Yellowstone National Park, on my own and in my tent, were on tap for June 2013.  Friday, June 6 was my son’s last day of the school year, with 11:30 dismissal.  While he was at school, I loaded up the car with gear and supplies, hoping I’d have room for him and the things he would take with him to Anaconda, where he would spend the week with his grandparents, aunt and cousin..  It was a tight fit, but it worked out.  When my son got home, we hit the road for Anaconda directly.  I dropped him off in Anaconda, visited briefly with the family and then got back on the road.

I had forgotten that several campgrounds were opening later in the season than usual, thanks to sequestration and cuts to the NPS budget. Grrr….!!!  So, upon arrival at the Park, I was disappointed to see that my campground options were pretty limited, but at least sites were, at that time, still available at the Norris CG.  So, there I headed.  Along the way, I saw a grizzly sow with three cubs-of-the-year that has been frequenting the area along Obsidian Creek for a couple months.  They were at a distance from the road at that time, and I didn’t want to risk not getting a campsite, so I continued on to Norris CG, claimed a site, left behind my rubber box of fire materials to mark the site as occupied, and returned to the Grizzly Lake Trailhead, from where the grizzly family could be viewed.  They were beyond the range of my lens and the evening light was fading fast, but I got out the camera to scratch the itch in my shutter finger.  There were quite a number of kids there, so I got out my scope and set the tripod for it at kid height (making the adults who used it bend over).  Several kids put their camera phone lenses up to the scope and were thus able to take home some pictures of their first grizzly bear(s).  The trip was off to a good start!

grizzly bear sow mother with three cubs of the year

After a couple hours of watching the antics of the triplets, I returned to the Norris CG to make camp.   Before driving back to camp, I put a frozen breaded chicken cordon bleu and a foil pack of bell peppers, red onion and mushrooms into my RoadPro Portable Stove, a new addition to my “kit.”  Dinner was ready when I arrived at Norris.  The skeeters that I am usually spared on May and September camping trips inspired donning more clothes, though the night was warm and pleasant in a tank top and capris.

On Day 2 of this trip (first morning in the Park), I headed north, keeping an eye out for the grizzly family.  I drove back and forth through the stretch the grizzly family has been frequenting twice before continuing on to Mammoth, with a stop at Swan Lake Flats, where Electric Peak was looking particularly beautiful, reflected in a a seasonal pond on this crystal clear morning.

Electric Peak of Yellowstone National Park reflected in a seasonal pond on a clear morning

From there, I continued north, then east as far as Pebble Creek before parking at the Trout Lake Trailhead.  I walked in to Trout Lake and spent nine hours there waiting and hoping on otters.  No such luck, as far as that is concerned, as all I got was a .5 second glimpse of an otter head briefly breaking the surface of the water.  However, there are far worse ways to spend a day than enjoying a beautiful day at Trout Lake.

Trout Lake, and it's inlet, in Yellowstone National Park

I enjoyed the abundant wildflowers, including sugar bowls.

A trio of sugar bowl wild flowers

I was pleasantly surprised when this pair of Barrow’s goldeneyes came over to rest on this log, quite closer than they are prone to getting.

pair of Barrow's goldeneyes - male and female - on a log in a lake

I spent most of that time at the inlet end of the lake, where I could see trout swimming back and forth along the log which the Trout Lake otters frequently use as a dining table, but there were none, as yet, in the inlet.

log in Yellowstone National Park's Trout Lake

I spent only a short time at the opposite end of the lake, where the otters seem to den.  However, I was delighted to find this trio of calypso orchids near the grassy log that the otters frequent.

Calypso orchids growing at Trout Lake in Yellowstone National Park

Heading back west, I enjoyed seeing a black bear sow with two second year cinnamon cubs at Petrified Tree.  The same family, I’m sure, that I enjoyed watching romp and play and play there last May.  It’s wonderful to watch them grow up!

Black bear sow mother with two second year cinnamon cubs

Two second year cinnamon colored black bear cubs on/around a fallen log

I stopped on my way back to camp to wrap up a fresh bacon wrapped & mushroom stuffed chicken breast in aluminum foil, twisting the ends like a Tootsie roll, and putting it in the RoadPro Stove to cook for dinner.  I ate it with a broccoli salad with cranberries, bacon and pine nuts.  What a dinner!  Yum!  I won’t always report my meals, but at this point, I was so happy with how things are working out with the new addition to my gear…

Day 3, I awoke to a migraine.  It’s inevitable that I have at least one on a trip, I guess.  Fortunately, I was able to address it soon enough for meds to be effective.  I broke camp and loaded my gear into the car, with the intention of moving camp to the Lewis Lake CG and spending a couple days in the Tetons and the southern section of Yellowstone.  I detoured out the East Entrance Road as far as Sylvan Lake and made a stop at Lake Butte Overlook.  It was a crystal clear day and the Teton Range was beautifully visible across the sapphire blue water of Yellowstone Lake.

Teton Range as viewed over Yellowstone Lake from Lake Butte Overlook on a clear day

I had proceeded about as far south as West Thumb when I received a text message from my dad informing me that the Lewis Lake CG wasn’t scheduled to open for several days.  Darn!  Back to the Norris CG I went, and made camp all over again.

I next visited a location which was good for pika and weasels in both May and September of last year.  It was mid-day by this time, and HOT.  Furthermore, a red-tailed hawk was circling and crying over Pikaville, and I’ve observed that pika wisely hole up when raptors are overhead.  The odds, then, of seeing pika and/or weasels hunting pika seemed slim, so I didn’t linger overlong before departing.

I headed to the Upper Geyser Basin and pulled in to use the 3G Verizon service available there to pull up the website and check geyser eruption predictions.  Well, none of the predictable geysers, except for Great Fountain (which is on the Firehole Lake Drive) were coming up soon (and that predicted for several hours out), so I headed over toward Great Fountain to take a nap and sleep off the lingering effects of the migraine.  Predictions for Great Fountain are posted with a +/- 2 hour either direction prediction window.  Well, the end of the prediction window would coincide with sunset.  I crossed my fingers for a late eruption but set my alarm for the beginning of the eruption window.  When the alarm went off, I got out of the car to check it out.  I could see, by the full pool and water trickling over the terraces, that the eruption would be at the beginning of the eruption window.  Other visitors, who were debating waiting (not wanting to wait the possible 4 hours posted on the sign), were glad I voiced my observations and prediction that eruption would occur within 30 minutes.

Afternoon eruption of Great Fountain Geyser on a sunny day

Following the eruption, I slowly made my way back to the Norris CG to have some dinner (chili dogs cooked on the Coleman propane stove this time) and download and backup photos.

While doing so, I kept my eye on three ornery bull bison who were snorting, pawing the ground, gurgling, and wallowing at the edge of the campground.  Their behavior kept me alert.  Then, they charged through the CG, shredding trees with their horns, pawing the ground, roaring, huffing, and menacing tents.  Campers around campfires scurried for vehicles, except for one man, who cautiously, closely watching the closest bull, went to his tent, insanely close to a bison with tail raised.  I thought he was nuts.  He emerged from the tent with a sleeping infant and hustled to his family’s van.  Whoa!!!  I almost had a heart attack and it wasn’t my baby!  The bison pawed the ground and stood near their now-empty tent for several minutes.

Tell Congress to Stop Holding the National Park Service Hostage!

I urge all National Parks supporters to write to your representatives in Congress and tell them to stop holding the National Park Service hostage every time there is a budget crisis. The NPS budget is barely a drop in the bucket.

My letter to Montana’s Congressmen (subject: “Stop Holding National Parks Hostage”)

“Dear Sir, The National Park Service budget represents just 1/14th of 1 percent of the overall federal budget. Meanwhile, National Parks support $31 billion in private-sector spending and 258,000 jobs each year. Obviously, the National Parks are critical to the tourism industry in the state of Montana that you represent.

Given that the NPS budget is such an infinitesimal portion of the federal budget, budget cuts to the NPS will not have any measurable effect on the federal budget. On the other hand, the $218 million cut to the NPS budget on the table represents a very significant 8.2% of the NPS budget. Such cuts, leading to shorter open seasons, campground closures, visitors centers being closed, reduced staff (staff that is critical to protect and preserve our Parks for future generations), or even Parks not being open to the public, are not acceptable consequences!

Every time there is a budget crisis, the National Parks are threatened. Insist that your colleagues stop holding the National Park Service hostage! Fix the budget, making meaningful changes, without breaking the National Park Service!

Katie LaSalle-Lowery”

Adding more birds to the year list…

On Jan 5 & 6, I made a couple more trips to add more birds to my year list – and enjoy whatever other sights were encountered along the way.  This doe sure kept a close eye on me as I walked one of the trails at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.

There was little open water at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, but the water birds were making due and the light was just right for displaying the colors in plumage that often looks black, as with this common goldeneye. The head of this species often appears to be black.  In this light we can see there is more color there.

The tail-up posture of nothern pintails gives them a proud appearance, does it not?

This pair of pileated woodpeckers chased each other in a dance around the cottonwood tree trunk.

2 pileated woodpeckers

The dance concluded, the two flew to separate trees and one landed close to me on a burned snag.

The following day I birded the Mission Valley.  With rough-legged hawks seemingly being present on every power pole or fence post, I suppose it was inevitable that eventually I would roll up on one, using my car as a blind, and have one sit still, despite how flighty these birds are.  I think that’s because I interrupted her meal.

48 bird species on the year list, and counting…


Getting the year bird list started…

I got started a little later than I had planned on Jan 1 to get my 2013 year bird list started.  Darn champagne!

Nonetheless, it was a great day.  I saw 37 species, to get my list off to a good start.  I was surprised to find 4 western meadowlarks in falling snow on Airport Road in the Mission Valley, as they are “summer” residents of Montana.

The last two birds of the day were a short-eared owl and a great horned owl.

I saw those two species after the colorful first sunset of 2013, over the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.

Lewis & Clark Caverns Candlelight Tour 2012

For several years I’ve wanted to do the Lewis & Clark Caverns Candlelight Tour. This year it worked out. I’m so glad it did! It had been many years since last I visited the caverns, and I had forgotten how fantastic that subterranean wonderland is!

More photos from that tour are here:

It turned out to be a great day, after all…

Today my sister and I met a truck driver friend at the rest area near Opportunity, MT to show him around the Deer Lodge Valley.  We were sure, just sure, that we’d be able to find some good raptors along the East River Road in the Deer Lodge Valley, or bighorn sheep in the valley west of Anaconda, or great gray owls at Georgetown Lake.  We got skunked all around and soon our friend’s free time was expired.  We returned him to his truck, but we weren’t quite ready to call it a day just yet.  So, we headed west again.  We saw distant bighorn sheep, then, at Georgetown Lake, our luck REALLY turned around, when we came upon a most cooperative great gray owl.

When I first spotted him, he was at the top of a tree about 35-40 yards away from the road.  We did not leave the road both not to trespass on private property and not to trespass on the owl’s personal space and send him flying.

After some time, he flew to a tree closer to the road, and there he stayed until our fingers and toes were numb.

It was a clear, bright, cold day and the wind was blowing. If you are familiar with the area, you just said “no surprise, that!”

On the way home, we found a small herd of bighorn sheep 20 yards off a road, in the front yard of a home in the Anaconda West Valley.

If only we had been able to share those sights with our friend!