Watching Courting Bears and Bison and Their Calves

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Day 6

Friday, May  19, 2023

Today was filled with scattered sightings as we traveled back and forth from Soda Butte Valley to Blacktail Ponds.  It was 28º when we left the cabin this morning, warming up to 73 later in the day.  A bull moose grazing in Round Prairie crossed the road in front of us as we passed Pebble Creek campground.  In Soda Butte Valley, a grizzly boar chased a sow on the south side of the creek, running along the tree line under Norris. It’s the beginning of mating season for bears and several courting pairs have been seen throughout the valley.  A coyote was scavenging on yesterday’s elk carcass, but it seemed like there wasn’t much left for him.

At the Junction Butte den, wolves were milling around the den site, walking up to the entrance and looking in, then bedding down in the sage.  The pups are about four or five weeks old now and it’s currently believed there are six, though no one can say exactly how many pups there are.  The pups stay put in the den with only brief glimpses of tiny feet and tails.  Visibility was better today with clear weather, but I wish we’d seen more of the pups.  We spent a lot of time scanning the sage around the den and trying to show other visitors the wolves.  In between watching the den site and waiting for pups to appear, we checked on the sandhill crane, who was still on her nest, and watched the bison and their calves wade in the bends of Slough Creek where the water is not deep.  Some of the calves hesitate; they are not used to crossing water, but with some gentle encouragement, a nudge from their mother’s nose, they cross to the opposite bank.

After spending the early morning at Slough Creek, we drove through Little America toward Hellroaring, hoping we might see the black bear sow and her cubs, and were stopped by a crowd near Yellowstone picnic area where bighorn sheep rams were grazing in the meadows under Junction Butte.  Their curled horns are huge and they are shedding their wooly winter coats, giving them a scruffy appearance.  The rams weaved through tall grass, closer and closer to the road, wanting to cross, but were kept back by the crowd of people and vehicles along the road.  One large ram gradually led the herd toward the slopes of Junction Butte where they could graze in peace.

Road Construction at Yellowstone Bridge stopped us for about fifteen minutes, but the delay gave us an opportunity to enjoy a red fox hunting in the tall grass along the road.  The fox trotted along the road and then crossed, oblivious to the line of cars waiting at the bridge.  Continuing west, we stopped at Floating Island Lake where yellow-headed blackbirds hunted in the reeds and ruddy ducks and American coots swam along its marshy edge.  The lake’s name comes from an island in the middle of the lake which moves around, changing its place over time.  Sandhill cranes have nested here in past years and today the lake was a great place to watch birds.

We turned around at Blacktail Ponds, stopping at Hellroaring to scan the mountain slopes and look for pikas and wildflowers.  We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering from Slough Creek to Lamar Valley to Round Prairie.  Visibility at the den site was good, but with the heat of the day, there was little wolf activity and only sporadic sightings of pups.

In late afternoon, we went back to Lamar Valley, stopping at Fisherman’s pullout to walk along the river and at various pullouts to scan the valley.  Tim spotted a grizzly foraging on Amethyst Bench and a mountain goat on the cliffs above Buffalo Ranch.  Near the Confluence, a coyote hunted in the meadows and crossed the Lamar River to the narrow, rocky banks on the other side, right next to our vehicle.  Further down the road, Tim found a grizzly playing in a snow bank on the slopes of Mt. Norris.

We’ve seen a lot of bears this week, and when we reached Round Prairie, we got especially lucky; a large grizzly foraged in the willows and in and out of the trees across the creek.  The bear was not that far away, but still at a safe distance and close enough to provide some really good viewing.  He ambled in and out of view, aware of the crowd watching, but seemingly undisturbed.

The sun was beginning to set as we headed back to the cabin.  The red fox was out hunting again at Barronette Peak.  He stepped through the grass carefully, concentrating on his task.  He pounced, catching a ground squirrel and quickly devoured it.

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