Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Wildlife of Yellowstone

After visiting Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Laura and I realized we had a passion for photographing wildlife. I wondered if it was just because the Serengeti was such an amazing place and once you lose the opportunity to photograph lions, leopards, etc., would you want to photograph anything else? My question was quickly answered when I realized the number of wildlife photos we were taking in Yellowstone National Park. We started off photographing every bison that we saw along the roadside. We soon realized that elk and bison in Yellowstone are like giraffe and zebra in the Serengeti. They are everywhere and one just starts to ignore them. There were times when they didn’t let you ignore them.

One day leaving the Old Faithful Inn to go to our dorm room, we ran into a Bull Elk with his harem.

They were just yards away and he decided it was time to round up all of his straggling females. He pranced around grunting at each straggler and pushing each female back into the pack. He got close enough a few times that I thought he was going to add a new female and round up Laura. I didn’t want to have to go toe-to-toe with this Bull.

Grazing elk seem to love the lush grass of Mammoth Hot Springs. At times, there would be 5 or 6 bull elk with their harems within view. These bulls were quite busy, having to aggressively protect their harems from the other bulls and patriotically pose for new park visitors.

Some bulls weren’t up to the task as they had too much to drink the night before.

Bison herds were a common site throughout the park. Many of the herds make their way towards the upper geyser basin for the winter months. The hot springs and geysers clear grazing lands to allow them to find food.

We found a couple bulls dueling for territory on one of our drives.

Mule deer and white-tailed deer frequent the upper geyser basin also. My father hunts white-tailed deer each year in the New England forests. For many years now, he’s seen numerous white tails without being able to identify if the deer has a rack or not (Vermont only allows hunters to kill male deer unless a special doe license is purchased). I’ve always had difficulty picturing what he was seeing until this white-tail in Teton National Park was kind enough to show me.

Many visitors to the park are especially interested in seeing one of the great predators, the wolf, the black or grizzly bear, the lynx, or the mountain lion. Many are interested in the elusive bull moose, who keeps well hidden. We spent much of our time looking for bears. Our first choice for viewing bears was Lamar valley in the northeastern section of the park. The valley contains the Lamar river and is an extremely wide and long valley providing lots of viewing area. The valley contains a roadway through much of it making it easily accessible. Lamar valley is also where wolves were first successfully introduced back into Yellowstone in 1995.

We visited Lamar valley two times, on our first free day and on one of our last free days. During the first visit, we initially traveled through the valley by car and came upon a beautiful female moose with her calf attempting to cross the road. She showed her nervousness towards us before making a successful road crossing.

We decided for more up-close wildlife viewing away from the road, we would hike along the Lamar river into the Yellowstone backcountry. During our hike, we were able to watch two pronghorns, the fastest land mammal in the world besides a cheetah, chase each other in the valley. Talk about spinning up some dust.

Badger holes were everywhere, and we finally scared a foraging badger into his hole. He was curious enough to keep an eye on the newcomers.

Most enjoyable to view were the patrolling coyotes. We saw two of them monitoring the ground as they travelled through the valley. An occasional curious pause or pounce would make us wonder what they had seen.

As we left the valley the first time, we were dissappointed in not seeing any wolves and only a single grizzly via a spotting scope from more than a mile away. We decided a second visit would be necessary and went back early in the morning about a month later.This time cars were lined up on the side of the road to watch the Lamar valley wolf pack. They were deep in the valley along the tree line and therefore, we needed to borrow spotting scopes to watch them. They played, rested, and cleaned each other. A truly unique experience that we were able to share with one of Yellowstone’s wolf experts. He was describing to all the tourists how the wolf pack interacts with other wildlife, other wolfpacks, and within itself. Eventually, four yearlings decided to practice their hunting skills on a limping adult bison. The bison was able to return to its herd despite the annoying wolf nips, and it made for exciting viewing. The wolf expert told us if the pack was serious about taking the bison down, the adults would be active in the hunt.

We were also told that the Druid Peak wolfpack was further into the valley. We investigated this information and found the 18-strong pack minus one resting in the valley. They were inactive for most of the time, except when another wolf or coyote made his howling presence known. Once the Druid pack heard this, they all howled in unison notifying the intruder what he stood against. The sound and view of the howl of an entire wolfpack was impressive!

During both Lamar valley visits, we did see grizzlies via a spotting scope but way too far to be able to capture with our camera. After numerous questions at the ranger station, we decided that Pelican valley was the place where we would find our elusive bear.

We went to Pelican valley two times during our stay in Yellowstone. Both times, we were lucky enough to see the great gray owl. The first time, a great gray owl couple was kind enough to let us photograph them (see earlier post) from about 20 feet away. Here’s a picture of the male great grey owl.

During the second visit, we initially got fleeting glimpses of his large soaring body as he escaped from us. Then, as we exited the valley disappointed that we had not found him, we spotted him perched on a tree limb 10 feet from us. He seemed to be content to let us walk by until our stares met his. That was his time to say goodbye and we saw him soar away for the last time.

Our visits to Pelican valley gave us beautiful scenery and sounds of Yellowstone.Bison grunted, coyotes howled, and wind whistled through the lodgepoles. Gray jays weaved through the lodgepole pines and took time to stop and view the curious visitors.

In the end, the bears only left us signs, scat, claw marks, diggings, and tracks.

They saw us but we never saw them.

Our hike to photograph osprey falls for the waterfall post gave us a unique opportunity to see the recovering Yellowstone beaver population. This guy surprised us in a small pond right next to the roadside near Bunsen Peak.

Our road drives gave us a number of wildlife opportunities. On our way to Jackson Hole, a traffic jam was caused by the Yellowstone paparazzi. We joined the crowd photographing a moose family.

The bull moose was attentive to the attention.

One day returning from West Yellowstone, we found this bald eagle couple enjoying a quiet moment in the fresh Yellowstone air.

On a trip to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, this coyote was causing unnecessary nervousness to the local elk.

He didn’t care too much for the paparazzi analyzing his every move.

The lazy bull elk was on the opposite side of the road , too exhausted to protect his harem from the badgering coyote.

Finally, at the Old Faithful Inn, we overheard the Yellowstone employee buzz. Employees who had not seen a bear during their employment would see one the day they left the park. Heck, after all these hikes, why not give it a try? Laura and I took our Polish friend, Piotr, to Bozeman on his last day in the park. As we travelled north towards Mammoth, we encountered a parked park ranger with 4 tourist cars parked next to him. This had to be it… our bear is here!
We stopped and exited our car. A tourist said a grizzly was in the woods just on the other side of the road and was moving this way. The ranger eventually drove 100 feet down the road and immediately returned. “The bear is coming this way. Please get next to your vehicle and do NOT walk that way.”As we all scanned the small pines, we finally saw a 250-pound grizzly come through the trees.

He caused a roar of tourist “oohs and aahs” as he crossed the road within 20 feet of the cars.

He passed through the field right next to the car pulloff, stopping only to sniff the air and take a curious glance at the Yellowstone paparazzi.

His heavy body whisked through the thick yellow grass towards a small lake and eventually into the timber.

We had finally seen a grizzly bear in Yellowstone. We could continue the employee buzz about employees’ last days.

See more pictures of the bear or all the other wildlife here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think your "bear tracks" belong to a mountain lion. It's got the more pointed and skinner size. Also, though it's hard to tell from the picture, they seem much too small to be a bear.