Tuesday, September 26, 2017
We made it out this morning shortly after sunrise, cloud cover buying us a few more minutes of darkness. We wanted to make it to Hayden Valley and Grizzly Overlook in time to get a parking space.
On the way we passed a large bird perched on a branch of a dead tree before Otters Creek. It looked like an osprey at first, but its head was dark. After some investigation, we decided it was an immature red-tailed hawk. Large and brown with a white speckled breast, it could pass for an adult bird.
The morning is calm without the early morning fog over the Yellowstone River in previous mornings. Swans float in the river across from Mary Mountain Trailhead. Grizzly Overlook is jammed with cars and visitors. It is the norm now. We find a spot along the road and set up the scope just in time to see the Wapiti Pack making their way south across the slopes of Hayden Valley. They stop a few times to rally, tails wagging, wolves piling on top of each other. Their howls echo across the river. In a long line they march and stop, march and stop.
As the pack disappears behind ridges and trees we follow them down the valley, waiting at turnouts along the river. What we think the wolves will do and what happens can be two different things. A couple from Fort Worth joins us, Tim climbing the hillside while we man the road. Across the river, a large bull guards his harem; he bugles, calling the cows toward safety. A black wolf appears on top of a sage covered ridge. I grab the spotting scope and he disappears. Elk heads pop up from behind the curve of the ridge and then several cows blast out from behind the ridge. We can’t see the wolves chasing them, but know they are there.
The Wapitis appear, one by one, on the ridge. Some of them are smaller – pups who greet the white alpha female, licking her muzzle, soliciting food. The wolves pile on top of one another, a joyous group. Once more they reverse direction and walk back toward their rendezvous. This time when we follow them there are no available parking spaces, so we turn towards Lake and Lake Butte Overlook.
Yellowstone Lake is peaceful. At Mary Bay a bald eagle perched on top of a conifer watches bison enjoying the thermals. He remains there for a while before flying off across the Lake. As the beach curves around toward a rocky overlook, there is an unusual sight – a buck deer wading through the water along the shoreline. He walks up to his belly, not fleeing, or being followed or chased. He might be trying to free himself from insects, though cold as it is that seems unlikely.
At the elk carcass another crowd is gathered. The carcass has been moved again, this time to the slope opposite the turnout and is easily seen from the overlook. A coyote steals bites while ravens look on. Soon a second coyote appears. At first the two coyotes seem to be a pair until the first approaches the second, tail tucked. Then the fight begins, the coyotes rolling in the snow and chasing each other up the slope into the trees.
We drive east as far as Sylvan Lake. It seems like it is always winter in this part of the Park – the silence, the peace, the stark beauty of pristine snow everywhere. This is not a part of the Park we visit much and it seems lonely and wilder.
This afternoon, we hiked the trail to Natural Bridge, a trail that begins at Bridge Bay Marina. In previous years when we visited, the trail was closed because grizzly bears frequent the area in spring and early summer, fishing for spawning trout in Bridge Creek. Most of the trail is flat, following an old, paved road and covered by snow and ice in some places, making it slick and muddy. The trail passes through a wooded area that leads up to a view of the bridge, an arch carved by Bridge Creek flowing over the edge of a rhyolite plateau. There are warnings posted not to walk on the bridge which is only about 4 feet wide. The best views are from behind Natural Bridge which can be reached by continuing on the trail up the steep cliff and is well worth the effort.
Later we walked along Otter Creek and the Yellowstone River at Nez Perce Picnic Area. Cygnet swans float in the Yellowstone; they are slightly smaller versions of their parents, only gray. While we sat near the edge of the river enjoying the swans, two bison bulls ambled down Mary Mountain Trail, crossed the road and waded into the river. They swam across, the water almost over their heads.