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"Where the Hell Are All the Bear?" - Tetons and Yellowstone (wildlife)

As one woman's shirt aptly put it, most people are here to see the bears. There is so much more than just bears here. We missed out on some of the smaller mammals. We did not see any badger nor porcupine; although we met people who had seen both. We did see Moose and Elk. We had distant Mountain Goats and close Big Horn Sheep. Pronghorn and Black-tailed Deer roamed the area. The iconic Bison and their little cinnamon-colored calves roamed the ranges and the roads. Gray Wolf stalked the hills. Coyote and Red Fox slinked through the grass. In the grass, the chirping chatter of Uinta Ground-Squirrels could be heard. Least and Uinta Chipmunks scurried about, and a few fat Yellow-bellied Marmot lounged on the rocks. Even in early June, Spring was just arriving in Yellowstone. We had hoped to add a few butterflies to our list, but we saw few. And, yes, we did see some bears.


While the place is beautiful, I cannot say that we walked away with the best photos. It was pretty much a common theme of "no light" or "harsh light". Different equipment and a tripod would have helped a lot. A lot of times, you are pretty limited in how close you can/want to get to things, and you also don't have the option to move around to better lighting. In our experience, at least, you took what you got, and you made the best of it. Here's what we managed:


"American" Elk-

We started with some chilly and rainy days down in the Tetons. The elk down here had much larger antlers than the ones up on Yellowstone. We also had our worst-behaved tourist here. The elk were peacefully grazing and lounging until some tourist with a tiny PNS camera and ugg boots tried walking out into the field. The elk got up and moved immediately. In spite of me yelling at her and warning her that she was running the elk off, the tourist kept walking out. We were pretty much out of light anyway. We saw quite a few more elk up at the north gate of Yellowstone. The ones there attracted Brown-headed Cowbirds, and it was fun to watch them interact.

Regarding elk, we had one particularly interesting experience with a mother who led her calf up within 10' of the boardwalk. People, of course, packed right against the rail. In all honesty, she seemed okay with that. She fed; the youngster nursed. Some people were not happy with this arrangement and insisted on trying to reach out closer to the pair. Crossing the handrail got mother's attention, and it nearly got one guy a hoof to the face. She did not come all the way at him, but she snapped up and raised a hoof menacingly towards him. He corrected behavior and decided to leave shortly after that. Carmen and I hung back a bit down rail and snapped as best we could. The lighting was not the best, and there was a smoking pool of water nearby that kept sending fog across the area. I particularly enjoyed the part where mom insisted on cleaning the calf's face after a feeding. Poor little guy looked really unhappy about it.


"Northwestern" Moose -

Moose was a lifer for us, and we were eager to see one. It's probably not an uncommon experience, but our first view of one was an individual, in Tetons NP, buried in a thicket of willow in a creek bed. You could make out it's outline and some fur. It laid there, and that was pretty much it. Things got better after that. We did return the next day and found a couple more out in the open. Just outside Yellowstone, we wandered into Silver Gate and had a pair of baby Moose feeding on someone's lawn. They did not stay long and moved off behind some houses. Not far from there, in Yellowstone, we had a lone Moose calmly feeding in the creek near Warm Creek. Sadly, the next morning, there was a dead moose in the same area. Rumor was that it had been hit by a car, but we also heard that it'd died giving birth. We only saw one moose with any size of antlers. It was about a mile away, though, and photos were poor, at best. Moose are massive and gangly animals, and we were happy to finally see some.


Mountain Goat-

Yes, there are two in there! Mountain Goat remained quite distant. However, they were a lifer for Carmen, and she was excited to see one - even at this distance.


Big Horn Sheep-

We got closer looks at Big Horn Sheep. It was usually about midday, when the lighting was awful, but we saw these guys a few times at Specimen Ridge.


Pronghorn-

Not an antelope; although it is commonly called one. It's the only surviving member in it's family; its closest relatives are the giraffe and okapi (an animal we both hope to see some day). Pronghorn are pretty fascinating looking animals.

We were fortunate to witness the "Dandelion Skirmish" one day. A pair of Prongorn were peacefully grazing away on dandelions (which everything out there ate) when they decided to start sparring a bit. One finally "won" and then they both started grazing again. This, however, attracted the attention of a larger pronghorn, who then came and challenged the winner from earlier. The previous winner was quite outmatched.


American Bison (Buffalo)-

We'd seen bison down in the Tetons, but our first classic "Yellowstone Buffalo" experience happened in Hayden Valley. We were driving along and suddenly there is a bison in the road. We pulled over to photograph it, and another just came walking down the road and right by the car. Amazing experience. They are huge - and shaggy. Itchy, too, I guess. We saw quite a few rolling about, and quite a few trees had most of the bark rubbed off of them. Calves were everywhere. Not that cute in my opinion, but Carmen thought they were.

I almost had an interesting encounter right after stopping to photograph Eared Grebe in Hayden Valley. I saw the grebe swimming in the river and got out to try and get photos. They were not far from the car (about 100'), and I did take a moment to look around before exiting the car. Everything looked fine. I shot for five or so minutes and then got back in the car. Right afterwards, I looked back to where I had just been standing. There was a buffalo standing there, and neither of us saw it coming. He was quite wound up, too.


Gray Wolf-

Reintroduced to Yellowstone in the '90s, Gray Wolf now roam the park, again. The "wolf people" turn out in droves to search for them every morning in Lamar Valley. Wolves occur everywhere in the park, but they are easier to find in the valley. Our first day in Lamar, we arrived and found cars lined for miles at every pulloff. We finally found a spot to park and got out to see what was going on. We'd found the wolf people, and they were really great and friendly. A guy immediately started filling us in on what was going on and insisted we look through his scope several times. We were very lucky. A pack of four wolves were slowly prowling about a mile and a half out across the valley. They were hunting bison calves. We spent quite a while watching through binocs as they walked around and positioned themselves. Then they'd spring into action as they attempted to separate a calf from the herd. The bison, for their part, would circle the calves for protection. In the end, the wolves were unsuccessful. But, it was our first time seeing a wolf, and we were quite excited about it.

I said they were distant. All four - one black, one gray, and two intermediate.

Coyote-

The much-maligned coyote. We saw several. Most were pretty shy. On our last day, as we were travelling back to Bozeman, we lucked across a den near the highway. Of course, I had my camera packed away. I quickly dug it out while Carmen snapped away, but the pack of four pups had pretty much spread out by then. I snapped a few shots and enjoyed the scene. We were parked on the edge of the interstate, though, and we could not stay long.


Red Fox-

We also saw several fox. None were overly cooperative, but they are still a beautiful animal.


Chipmunks, Ground-Squirrels, and Marmots-

Honestly, I did not pay much attention to most of them. I'm not sure why. The Uninta Ground-Squirrels were everywhere in the northern part of the park. Chipmunks are always difficult to ID, but we did manage to find a lifer Uinta Chipmunk. I had not even thought about marmots until I saw one poking his head up from a pile or rocks. Oddly (maybe not...), even the marmots are not immune to harassment, here. While photographing one, another photographer insisted on bumbling out into the trees to approach the rock the Yellow-bellied Marmot was sunning itself on. Yes, it seemed like an odd location for a marmot. Anyway, not surprisingly, the marmot was not having any of it and scurried off to cover. I'm not sure exactly what the other person photographing the marmot said, but the intent was quite clear. We both agreed that the other guy was an idiot.



"Other"-

Like I said, we'd hoped to see some new butterflies, but we only walked away with a few that we'd seen before. I think it was early. And, we are not experts; so, we usually need photos to ID what we see. We saw more than we captured. The only other insect I photographed was a bee of some sort (I'm guessing Bumblebee) that had something attached to it's back. I'm guessing these are wasp eggs(?), but I don't actually know. Pictured: Painted Lady, Common Ringlet, Field Crescent, and a species of bee (again, feeding on dandelion - everything loves these "weeds").


Bee with "things" attached

Black Bear-

Yes, yes... the bears. We were not doing well with bears at the beginning of the trip. We did not see any in Tetons NP. We did not see any our first couple days in Yellowstone NP. It was not until we got up to the northern part of the park that our luck changed. We saw both the black and "cinnamon" colored Black Bear. One of our first encounters actually involved a set of rangers shooting one with a pellet gun to scare it off. Too close to the road and people.... On the other hand, some of our best experiences came while standing next to the volunteers that help manage things in the park. We saw several yearling bears; bears that were a year old and had been run-off by their mother to start life on their own. We had one sleeping in a tree and another one eating dandelions right next to the road. We also had one rolling in the dirt at the edge of a pond. We ran into various larger individuals throughout the far end of Lamar Valley; including a pair consisting of one black and one cinnamon. In one day, we had three sleeping in various spots along the road north of Tower Junction. Most were distant, and the lighting was usually a challenge. You take what you can get.

Sadly, this is also the intersection of a couple other stories from this entry and the previous blog entry. After shooting all night, we headed back to Warm Creek to take a quick nap before starting to look for wildlife. Although it was light, the sun would not rise for another hour, and it would take a little longer to peek above the surrounding mountains. We'd seen a moose here the day before. As we rounded the curve, we could see there was already a large group of photographers lined up at a pulloff. A moose (the moose we saw the day before?) had died, and a black bear was there feeding on it. We parked, and I mounted my camera to the flimsy tripod I use for night photography to hold my mirrorless camera. The tripod was hardly up to the job, but the ballhead is a RRS ballhead, and it held the weight of the large well. Still, I could have used a lot more light. I set the ISO to 6400 and did the best I could. As the sunlight creeped closer, Carmen asked when the bear was going to have had enough to eat. About 15 minutes before the sun reached the spot, Carmen got her answer - and the bear wandered off.

Later that day (and still nap-free), we had a mother Black Bear and two cubs crawling in a pine tree. For their size, they were quite mobile and quick. You would not escape one in a tree. They eventually crawled down and started feeding among the willows. The cubs would race around chasing each other while mom fed on the grass. It's easy to see how large traffic jams develop later in the year. Not far from Phantom Lake, we are on a bend in a two-lane road with very little shoulder. I got the car pulled all the way off the road. Others were not so considerate. Many just stopped and took cell phone pics out the window. One guy parked his motorcycle right in the road; until his wife convinced him he needed to go back and move it. Interestingly, you would occasionally have a car drive by with a heavy scent of air freshner coming from it. Each time, the mother bear would stop what she was doing and point her nose in the air. We shot here for a while (with bad lighting and sleep deprived) before finally getting back in the car and making it back to the room for a much-needed nap.

Grizzly Bear-

Best for last? This was a lifer for both of us. I'd seen Black Bear as a teen up in MI, and both Carmen and I saw some together in NC. Grizzly was a new experience. Our first grizzly was up in the willow flats area west of Mammoth. There, a kill had been made, and a large, lone grizzly was feeding about a quarter to half mile out. We could not see much of the bear as it wandered around in the sage. When it looked up, you could make out the bloody muzzle on the bear. It started raining, and we left; only to find out that the rain cleared later and two grizzly wandered down out of the hills to bed down there for the night. The next morning, we were there at sunrise, but they had already fed and left. Oddly, grizzly was the only bear we found on our own. Early morning out near Silver Gate, Carmen spotted a lone bear about 150 yards away from the road. We watched, and cars slowly piled up; including a tour bus. The bear wandered around feeding on grass but never got closer than about 100 years. It was a young, second-year bear. We were pretty excited that we'd found it on our own.

Our experiences did not end there. After running into the photo group at Warm Creek the morning after we were up doing astrophotography, we were driving back out through Lamar Valley. Shortly before Specimen Ridge, we ran into another huge line of cars that could only indicate bear. We'd seen a mother and two cubs in this area the day before. They were about 2 miles out and racing around the hill like madmen. The cubs were bolting about at speeds that were pretty unbelievable. If you think you can outrun a less-than-a-year old cub, you are wrong. Poor mom was trying to keep up and corral them. Thinking this was what was going on that morning, I suggested we drive on. Carmen said we should stop. Luckily, this brought us toward the end of the line of cars instead of the beginning. We parked and walked across the road. The two volunteers we had at another bear the day before were there, and we were pretty happy about that. They were nice. As we watched, the bears approached. Mom even stopped to nurse the young. And then they started walking closer. When they got to about a half mile out, the volunteers made people move cars to open a "window" where the bears could cross the road. I got the car parked further down the road and raced back; making sure Carmen and I positioned on the side with the sun to our backs. The bears disappeared behind a ridge and then suddenly crested one not far away. They were about 70 yards out. The volunteers moved us back a bit. Mother and cubs surveyed the line of cars and considered their options before turning and walking parallel to the road and right in front of us. The were never closer than about 70 yards, but that was okay. We watched until they disappeared behind a ridge. We ran up the road a bit to get a final look. The were outpacing us easily though. We called the experience good enough and walked back to the car. I was thinking of a nap (not realizing I had another set of mother and cubs to deal with) while others were racing to cars to get back ahead of the grizzlies.

Heat distortion fuzzed quite a few of the photos, but I was happy with what I got and happier for the experience. The volunteers did a wonderful job; even when I joked about how I wasn't going to move my car a second time when it became apparent that the bears did not approve of the window we'd opened.


We'd planned this trip with wildlife in mind. I think we did okay.


Thanks for reading,

Mike



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