Sunday, May 14, 2023
We arrived yesterday, anxious to see what entering the Park through Gardiner would look like. The new “temporary” road into the Park winds sharply and steeply up to Mammoth. Nicely paved and smooth, it’s constructed west of the old road; so far west there are only a few places where the Gardiner River can be seen, and there is no access to the Hot Springs, an area that’s been closed our last few trips.
Elk grazed in the meadows just outside the north entrance as we drove along the road toward Silver Gate. We stopped first to check the great horned owls’ nest in Mammoth and spotted one adult deep in the branches and twigs staring straight at us. We stopped at Slough Creek also to check the Junction Butte den site. This spring the Junction Butte wolves have denned in their old site on the north side of the road. Tim spotted one gray wolf, but I didn’t see any. The puppies should be making an appearance any day now.
Crossing Lamar Canyon for the first time since last year’s flood, I was shocked by the erosion. The hillside seems to fall away into the river, leaving a steep cliff. The slope on the north side is bare where it should be covered with arrow leaf balsam root and the osprey nest on the south side of the canyon is obscured by construction vehicles. Traffic is delayed here going to and from Lamar Valley; either a pilot car leads vehicles through or traffic is stopped by a timed traffic light. We were lucky, arriving at just the right time and breezed through.
In Lamar Valley, bison and calves were scattered everywhere. A dark grizzly grazed on the hills north of Fisherman’s pullout and two sub-adults foraged in the willows at the Confluence. Approaching Trout Lake and Pebble Creek, the dramatic damage and effects of the flood are striking. The woods at the end of Soda Butte Valley, where we often saw moose, have disappeared, washed into the creek or piled up along the road. There is a mountain of sandy soil at the entrance to Pebble Creek campground, the road and bathroom washed away. All along the road to Soda Butte picnic area – my very favorite picnic area – trees, logs, and brush form walls of debris. Soda Butte picnic area is a marsh. Such a beautiful place. Gone. A little farther down the road a cow moose and her yearling calf grazed along the creek in the willows and brush.
Today we managed to get out the door before 8 a.m. We’re hoping to see the Shrimp Lake Pack who has been seen on and off in Round Prairie and the Soda Butte Valley, but we were too late this morning, if they were there. We headed straight to Lamar Valley and were stopped by a huge crowd at Hitching Post where cars were parked almost on top of each other. A grizzly was grazing in the willows across the creek and another grizzly was sleeping at the base of a tree in the hills overlooking the Confluence. Both grizzlies appeared large even from our distance; the grizzly in the willows continued to munch while the other continued to sleep.
After watching the bears for a while, we hurried toward Slough Creek where a crowd was gathered along the road, scopes pointed north and south. People were watching the wolf den north of the road and a grizzly sow with two 2-year-olds on the south side. There was only one black wolf visible at the den, but the view from the road was quite good. Watching wolves is always a waiting game, and it was easy to watch the wolf for a while, then switch to the bears across the road.
The black bears at Tower are out and crowds lined the road hoping to see them. There were no places to park when we drove up and down the road, but we were able to catch a glimpse of one bear and a cub up a tree. Later this afternoon we tried again and had the same parking problem. A ranger kept strict watch on the crowd making everyone keep their distance. Last spring, crowds began to stress the same bear and her cubs and park rangers shut down all parking for a day or two.
We continued up the road and stopped to look for the peregrine falcon, but found no evidence of a nest. We did see two bighorn sheep ewes lying on the cliffs above the Yellowstone River, their coats a pale pink from shedding. We drove as far as Blacktail Ponds before turning around and heading back toward Slough Creek, passing a black bear grazing on the slopes near Phantom Lake and stopping at Hellroaring where three pikas scampered over and in between the rocks. The pikas were fairly close so we got good views of their little bunny faces. They didn’t seem disturbed by us; they even seemed curious.
When we arrived at Slough Creek close to noon, the den site was quiet. We scanned the meadows with our binoculars for a while, not seeing anything but bison. Then I noticed a black wolf trotting toward the den carrying something in its mouth. It was almost to the den site when four more wolves came trotting in from the west, two blacks and two grays, all wagging their tails. A black and a gray went into the den briefly and came out, and I thought I noticed a gray come out – possibly 907F. Though it wasn’t a large group, wolves were coming and going so I’m not sure exactly how many I saw, or who I saw before the wolves bedded in the grass above the sage. After that we only saw wolves when one raised a head or sat up.
We drove back and forth between Tower and Slough Creek before heading east. A large grizzly was at the Confluence foraging in the willows and the meadows along the road. I’m not sure if this was the same bear we saw this morning as a few different grizzlies are frequenting that area. As we watched from the car, the bear marched toward the road, stopping several times to grab a few more bites. Then he walked straight to the road and crossed to the north side, even with a crowd of people watching along the road.
Our day finished with a sharp-shinned hawk hunting in Round Prairie. What a pretty bird with dark gray head and feathers and white underside with a touch of rust. We also saw our first coyote in Lamar Valley trotting in the flats south of Coyote pullout.