Frogs 0, Grizzlies 5, Osprey 2, Bighorn 21, Bison & Elk >100

My quest in Yellowstone today--a search for the boreal chorus and columbia spotted frogs. I ventured out to Lamar Valley and wandered around dozens of wetlands and ponds. Those little guys remained elusive--at least by sight--as I listened to the distinctive call of the chorus frog at several ponds.

Despite the lack of frog sightings, my travels in the park were not in vain as my photo diary below demonstrates. I encountered five grizzly bears, observed bighorn and bison mingling, watched a red-winged blackbird bathing, and an osprey fly over the Lamar River. I also spent a delightful hour watching the most adorable bison calves play together--you can view the video below, but beware as you may overdose on cuteness!

Bison Fun

Video: Bison Friends Playing in Yellowstone

Spring in Lamar Valley

Grizzly Near Slough Creek

Bee on Wyoming Kitten-Tails

Bison Skull and Horn

Beartooth Range

American Coot

Osprey in Flight

Red-winged Blackbird Bathing

Mr. Bluebird in Yellowstone

Mountain Bluebird in Yellowstone, April 25, 2009“O bluebird, welcome back again

Thy azure coat and ruddy vest

Are hues that April loveth best...”

John Burroughs, The Bluebird

Numerous birds flock to Yellowstone in spring, but none announce the impending end—or at least near end—of winter with such flourish as the mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides).   The rich, cerulean blue feathers of the mountain bluebird paint the first colors of spring on a landscape that has been dominated by dull grey and whites—indeed, it’s as if the birds bring pieces of a blue summer sky down to earth.

Yesterday I walked up Old Gardiner Road and witnessed dozens of mountain bluebirds arriving in Yellowstone from a journey that likely started in Mexico or the Southwest. Their breeding ground ranges from Arizona to Alaska; most bluebirds flock to Yellowstone from March to April, but some “early” birds arrive in the park in late February.

A Colorful CombinationMountain bluebirds prefer open, mountainous terrain, and I enjoy watching them hover in place while scouting above the sagebrush for insects. Once an insect has been spotted, they drop suddenly to retrieve their prize. Nature adorned them with splendid color, but stinted a bit on their musical ability—the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes their call as a “nasal, non-musical tew” and their song as a “series of burry whistles.”

Last night another snowstorm blanketed the Yellowstone landscape in white. When I gazed out my window this morning, I despaired that spring would never arrive. Then I caught sight of a flock of bluebirds flying through the storm and was cheered—even the snowflakes couldn’t banish that hopeful, vibrant blue. 

A Spring Hike in Yellowstone: A Photo Essay

Spring is earned in Yellowstone, and both the people and wildlife alike greet the melting of the snow and the rising of the temperatures with a sense of accomplishment. For us humans, winter’s chill poses discomfort; for the animals of Yellowstone, it can threaten their survival—especially for its ungulate populations. Foraging for food underneath the deep cover of snow is tough even in the mildest of winters; Dr. James Halfpenny, in one of his classes, compared it to eating cereal all summer, then having to survive on the cereal box all winter.

This past Sunday I took a hike along the Rescue Creek trail and encountered an abundance of wildlife also appreciating the warm sunshine.

An Early Spring Drive Through Yellowstone

I recently drove though the early season quietude of Yellowstone. The semi-plowed roads are open only to administrative traffic, and wildlife still roam freely, looking surprised at any intruding vehicle. Although the calendar indicates spring, the interior of Yellowstone still appears firmly entrenched in winter. Below are a selection of photos from my trip.

Beaver Ponds Trail

wildflowers on beaver pond trail.jpg.jpg John Muir is a ubiquitous presence in Yosemite and I often joked about the world not needing another John Muir book when I worked there. Yet he remains one of my heroes and his voice has followed me to Yellowstone. When he visited the park in 1885, he described the landscape I traveled along today: “beaver meadows are outspread with charming effect along the banks of the streams, parklike expanses in the woods, and innumerable small gardens in rocky recesses of the mountains...while the whole wilderness is enlivened with happy animals.”

My footsteps carried me along a series of forests and grasslands in the Mammoth Hot Springs area that passed by several small beaver ponds. Although I was not lucky enough to see beavers, I did observe their handiwork of impressive dams.

larkspur.jpg.jpgThe wildflowers dared to blossom today, perhaps finally sensing the end of winter (I hope!) and I encountered larkspur, primrose, balsamroot, woodland star, and many other colorful flowers I could not name. I have to admit to using my friend Jack's Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada to help identify some species--his book is just easier to use and I never tire at looking at his beautiful illustrations.

duck and ducklings.jpg.jpgA mother duck and her ducklings paddled along the water on one pond. I also found some large wolf tracks, but saw no wolves. Two mule deer munched on grass in a small forested alcove, and clark's nutcrackers loudly alerted me to their whereabouts.

In one of those “it’s a small world encounters,” a family stopped me on the trail to alert me about a bear and her two cubs playing ahead; the family turned out to be Chip and Laurie Jenkins and their two boys, who I worked with in Yosemite. Last week at the new Canyon Visitor Center, I met a past employee of mine from Yosemite as I gazed at the wonderful new exhibits. In the national park community, it truly is a small world.

At the end of my hike, I stopped quickly as this incredibly long snake slithered across the trail. At first I though it was the biggest rattlesnake I had ever seen, but I later found out from my guidebook this is a common mistake. I had encountered pituophis catenifer sayi (common name bull snake), Yellowstone’s largest reptile, which can grow up to six feet.

Canada Goose & Goslings

canadian geese family.jpg.jpgIs it Canadian Goose, Canadian Geese, or Canada Goose? Birding friends—please help! And the rest of you please excuse my incorrect usage until I obtain guidance from my trusty, freaky birder-friend experts.

Whatever the proper nomenclature, every day on my drive to and from work, I pass a goose family strolling happily along the banks of the Gardiner River.

Hayden Valley

hayden valley.jpg.jpgTuolumne Meadows in Yosemite remains my favorite place on earth, but Hayden Valley in Yellowstone definitely ranks a close second. Imagine Tuolumne cubed, and you’ll be able to visualize the scale of Hayden Valley. My one complaint about Hayden is I won’t be able to wander aimlessly (vigilantly, yes, aimlessly, no) through its soft green meadows and hillsides—not with grizzly bears around! Yet its peaceful, pastoral landscape literally brought tears to my eyes.

grizzly in hayden.jpg copy.jpgDuring my brief walk in Hayden, I observed a grizzly far off on a snow-covered hillside digging intently; a herd of bison munching on the spring grass; and, a white pelican paddling in the Yellowstone River.

According to Lee Whittlesey’s excellent book Yellowstone Place Names, the valley’s namesake, Ferdinand V. Hayden, was “as much as any other individual…responsible for the creation of Yellowstone.” A medical doctor who later became a geologist, Hayden conducted three government surveys of the Yellowstone area in the late 1870s and has “at least 44 genera and species of various organisms ‘from a living moth to a fossil dinosaur’ named for him.”

white pelican 2.jpg.jpg

Wildlife of Yellowstone's Northern Range

Wildlife%20Watchers%202.JPG.jpgWhat do mountain goats, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, bison and bison calves, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, sandhill cranes, red-tailed hawks, wolves and wolf pups, elk and mule deer all have in common? We observed all of these animals today in Yellowstone.

For my family’s visit to Yellowstone, I scheduled a custom wildlife tour of the northern part of the park through the wonderful non-profit the Yellowstone Association. Barbara and Ariana, our excellent and fun guides, greeted us at 6:00 am this morning with coffee and hot cocoa, and we boarded our own bus to head to Lamar Valley. Some highlights of our trip:

Redtailed%20Hawk.JPG%20copy.jpg6:15 am: Grizzly bear traffic jam just fifteen minutes into our trip as we passed over the bridge spanning the Yellowstone river. We observed from the relative safety of our bus as the bear rambled along the road.

6:45 am: It’s never too early for a dose of cuteness. A large herd of bison with about five drowsy baby calves rested in a meadow near Roosevelt.

6:50 am: At Floating Island Lake, our guide shows us a nesting sandhill crane, which on my own I might have taken for a small rock. After a short time the feathered mass stands and through our binoculars we are able to see her eggs. Just for affect a red-tailed hawk soars overhead.

Sandhill%20Crane%20on%20Nest%202.JPG.jpg7:15 am: We arrive in Lamar Valley and quickly find the yellow X-terra of Rick McIntyre, the wolf guru of Yellowstone. Where his SUV is parked is a sure sign of wolf activity. We settle at Slough Creek Campground and focus our spotting scopes on a den site of the Slough Creek pack. We are rewarded with an appearance of a female and a pup—the cuteness quotient of our morning suddenly increases exponentially

9:00 am-11:00 am: Barbara, our guide, spots a lone collared black wolf sitting by the river, which is later identified as female 526. Coyote%20Glance.JPG.jpgRick, via the radio wolf network, credits the Yellowstone Association with the sighting, which is akin to being thanked by Audubon for a spotting a bird. Suddenly 526 dashes down the bank of the river, meets up with five other wolves, and after chasing a pregnant cow elk in the river, they take her down. After the hunt, one wolf trots off with her unborn fetus—a grisly reminder of the indifference of Mother Nature. While we watch the wolves, a coyote trots among us searching for food.

1:00 pm: Barbara scouts the snow-covered ridges of Barronette Peak, searching for mountain goats and within a few minutes has found some scurrying on the perilous cliffs. On an opposite facing ridge, we find four bighorn sheep.

wolf and two coyotes 2.jpg.jpg1:30 pm: On our return drive through Lamar Valley, Ariana notices four red-tailed hawks soaring low over a meadow, and a herd of pronghorn dashing down from a ridge. We stop and spot a lone dark wolf and three coyotes giving chase to each other, a truly mesmerizing sight. Although the game could have deadly consequences, the two species appear at play, teasing each other with feints and charges. At one point they call a truce and rest, and one coyote gives a loud howl.
wolf coyote chase 2.jpg.jpgwolf and howling coyote.jpg.jpgwolf in lamar.jpg.jpg

Mr. Bluebird, continued

bluebird 4.jpg.jpgOn my run today dozens of bluebirds greeted me again-and this time I had my camera. The friendly birds even cooperated and posed for several photographs. Note to Pete Devine--I might even become a birder after this experience.

Living on the migratory path of so many animals--bluebirds, elk, pronghorn, and bison just to name a few--certainly makes for a constant supply of unforgettable wildlife encounters!
multiple bluebirds 3.jpg.jpgthree bluebirds.jpg.jpg

The Bluebirds Are Coming! The Bluebirds Are Coming!

On my run up the Old Road in Gardiner today, vibrant blue color suddenly emerged against the gloomy grey sky. Dozens of mountain bluebirds danced in the air; a stunning sight as I have never seen more than a single bluebird in one place. Their appearance reminded me that spring will someday arrive despite the current snowy weather. Some of the beautiful birds landed and I halted my run to watch them. When they resumed their flight, the bluebirds glistened amidst the winter landscape like pieces of a lost summer sky.

Grazing%20Deer.jpgMountain bluebirds spend their winters from Oregon to Colorado southward, and can journey as far as central Alaska in the summer months. Mountain bluebirds feast on insects and have longer wings than similar species, making it easier for them to hover in the search for food since their mountain meadow habitat does not provide an abundance of perches.

No bluebird photos unfortunately--I didn't take my camera on my run--but here's a photo of mule deer grazing in my front yard this afternoon.