Sunday, November 27, 2016

Up Before Dawn--Mule Deer, Black Bear and Waiting for Wolves

We arose long before dawn, gobbled a quick breakfast, donned winter coats and hats and gloves, gathered equipment, and drove out to the parking lot for the self-guided tour of the Blacktail Plateau. Already there were many folks gathered with spotting scopes trained on what is known as the wolves' rendezvous--the place where the pack gathers in the morning to check in and say hello. This is very common behavior as wolves are highly social and dependent of the pack for survival and well-being. The Junction Buttes were special to wolf watchers as their morning meet-up happened in a place where it was visible from the parking lot.

Map with location of the trail in relation to the northern range of YNP.

We set up scopes alongside the others, then listened in on some conversations. No wolves had yet been seen or heard, and Rick McIntyre, the man who tracks their movements via radio collar, was not there. But even if the wolves had been present, we would probably not have seen them thanks to a thick blanket of fog that rolled in over the plateau. It wasn't long, however, before one of Rick's assistants got word that Rick was getting signals from the Little America region of Lamar Valley--an area east of Tower Junction where large glacial erratics dominate the landscape. We gathered our gear and joined the caravan.

Lori and Lisa on the left with other wolf watcher at Blacktail Plateau

We had a few delays on the way. Not far from the trailhead we came across two young mule deer bucks having at it about 50 feet from the road. The sun was not yet up and the lighting terrible, but I shot away anyhow. I had never seen bucks sparring before. The clatter of their antlers filled the dark morning as grass flew and pebbles clattered down the hillside.

Mule deer sparring within sight of the road!

While the thought of wolves pulled me back to the van, I just had to spend a little time with these two bucks, who were hopped up on testosterone and charging across the hillside.

Farther down the road, as the sun began to climb, Lisa spotted a black bear ambling along behind some pines. We stopped again, thrilled to see this beautiful beast.

Black bear!
This was such a blessing--in 48 hours we'd seen grizzly, mule deer, elk, bison, coyote, pronghorn, and now black bear. All we had left on our list of animals we really wanted to see were moose, Great Grey Owl, and, of course, wolves.

As we made our way towards the Lamar Valley, the landscape opened up to show us the sunrise.

Next: Lamar, Gardiner, and back to Lamar.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Mammoth to Pebble Creek and Back Again: Day Two In Yellowstone National Park

Our first full day in Yellowstone dawned bright and sunny. With no particular place to be, we were able to sleep in a bit for the first time on our trip. We had decided to drive back to Lamar Valley to look for wolves, then on to the Pebble Creek area for lunch, and work our way back to Mammoth late in the day.

On the way out we stopped at the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. I've realized, looking at the map, that I haven't ever seen the actual hot spring here--it's off the auto drive, which I haven't done either time I've been here. Oops. In any case, the lower terraces are amazing, and the boardwalks allow you to get quite close.

Lower terraces at Mammoth Hot Spring

A sign at the terraces states that they change a lot over time, as the springs migrate, or become closed off altogether. It was certainly much different than when I was there nine years ago--there seemed to be a much smaller active area. Nonetheless it didn't disappoint. The terraces still shone with white, grey, orange and green. Steam rose and the springs drip drip dripped.

I'm quite taken with the stark beauty of this place. It's so unlike anything I've ever seen, so otherworldly. The dead and broken trees seem so surreal in this landscape.

Around the backside a small group of elk cows and calves were gathered. There are a lot of elk in the Mammoth area--it's one of the few places occupied by people year-round, and the presence of people tends to keep the wolves away. The elk know this and so congregate there.

Elk at Mammoth Hot Springs

Ravens were everywhere in the park. I love ravens. We don't have them here in Southeast Michigan, so I soak them up whenever I find them. Not sure what this bird was doing--maybe getting a drink? Is the water even potable? I have no idea, but she posed nicely for a few shots before hopping away.

From Mammoth we drove east to the Lamar Valley, hoping to see some wolves. Past Tower Junction we came across a few pronghorn, very close to the road. What a treat to see them so close. They are fascinating animals, which I talked about in one of the Badlands posts (which you can see here). I believe both sexes have horns, so I assume this was a young one.

When we first came across this big guy, he had quite the tangle of dead vegetation stuck in his horns.

He did manage to free himself, and set about grazing near the van.

I look at the thin legs of these animals and am amazed that they can run like they do without snapping a femur.

We pulled into one of the turnouts in Lamar and unloaded chairs and scopes and snacks, and hoped to catch a glimpse of some canines. We didn't see any, but we did get some really good information. One of the fellows who was watching told us that some wolves had been seen early that morning, but not since. It was thought that these were wolves from the Prospect Peak pack, which normally hung out in the Blacktail Plateau area, about 12 miles to the west, near Mammoth. He told us Rick McIntyre, who leads the Yellowstone Wolf Project, is usually at the Blacktail Plateau self-guided tour parking lot each morning, as the Prospect's rendezvous area is across the road from there, and suggested we join them the following morning.

I don't follow the lives and times of the Yellowstone wolf packs, but I need to make some time to do so. It's fascinating stuff, and one person we talked to likened it to a soap opera. We didn't have time to do any investigating prior to leaving on our trip, so we were at the mercy of those on site to fill us in.
But everyone we talked to was eager to share what they knew of the wolves. We decided we would get up early the next day and join the onlookers at Blacktail Plateau.

Willows in Lamar Valley

From there we drove east to Pebble Creek and had lunch, and I was finally able to do some birding. I added a Mountain Chickadee to my life list, though I did not get a photo of it. I somehow managed to not take any photos of the area at all.

On the way back towards Mammoth we paused in Lamar Valley, but there still wasn't any action. Past Tower Junction we turned onto the Blacktail Plateau Drive, a bumpy, rutted dirt road with a posted speed limit of 25 mph. We bounced along at around 10 mph, and I kept having to pull over to let others zip by. I honestly don't understand why one would bother with a scenic drive, off the main drag where one might see, oh, I dunno, WOLVES, if they are just gonna blast through it. But to each his own, I guess.

Being off the main road allowed us to slow down, stop often, and really enjoy the scenery.

Along the Blacktail Plateau Drive

The clouds, the afternoon sun, the golden glow of willow and aspen. It was almost too much to take in.

Along the way we spotted a few bighorn sheep on the side of a rock cliff. Can you see them?

Can you find the sheep? There are three, I believe.

Passing through a small wooded area we came across this jaunty fellow, filling up on seeds.

Sweet face of red squirrel. 

The photo below shows clearly the regrowth of the forests that were destroyed in past fires. It was remarkable, the change from nine years ago. Once barren hillsides were resplendent in green, with their forebears, ghostly grey, beginning to topple.

As we made our way back to Mammoth, we found ourselves in another bison jam. This one got us some good, close up looks.

What a beauty! 

A couple of bison, including this calf, were taking dust baths.

Back in Mammoth, the huge bull elk was laying down a short distance from his harem. The park ranger I spoke to said he's been in quite a fight earlier with another bull elk, and while exhausted, had emerged the victor. His neck and the sides of his face were matted with dried saliva, either his or his rival's.

Another gorgeous animal! I'm seeing some new art in here!

Back at camp Lori sat outside to write while Lisa took the van and headed into Gardiner for a cell signal and to pick up a few groceries while I did dishes. There were a couple cows with a calf milling around the campground. That's the thing about Yellowstone--you are never far from some wild critter.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Upcoming Art Shows

Tomorrow morning I am headed south for two weekends of art festivals, so the Yellowstone blogs will have to be put on hold until the middle of the month. I've been busting my tail getting lots of reproductions matted, and have the Pileated Woodpecker family all ready to go.

First up, November 4-5-6, is the Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival in Pensacola, Florida. It's a great event that kicks off the Florida show season. The weather looks like it's going to be FABULOUS! Booth is in row Picasso Place, #36.

From there I'll travel to Covington, Louisiana for the Three Rivers Art Festival, a new one for me. I'll be in booth #240 for this show.

So if you're in the area, stop on by and say hello!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Artwork: "Family Tree"

I realized recently that it's been a while since I posted any new artwork. I just finished this piece today, and am getting the files set up for prints, so am taking the opportunity to throw it up here. I'll be doing prints in the next day or two, in preparation for two shows down south--Pensacola's Great Gulf Coast Art Fair, November 4-6, and Covington, Louisiana's Three Rivers Art Festival November 12-13.

"Family Tree"
Pileated Woodpeckers
14 x 11, framed to 20 x 16

This is a family of Pileated Woodpeckers I photographed this spring at Kensington Metropark. They nested very close to a nature trail, and many folks took advantage of the proximity to watch and photograph this family. There were actually three nestlings, who all fledged, but I felt that would be a bit too crowed, composition-wise.

As for the tree, I have decided, for the time being, to do most background/foreground in black and white stippling. I settled on this for depicting water as it is subtle and I can easily create the effect I'm looking for without overpowering the subject. That can be seen on the last piece I posted, "Splish Splash," of a Green-winged Teal. Since that post I've completed seven new pieces, and updated another, but instead of posting that here, I will shamelessly direct you to my website:  I've done a Horned Puffin, grey wolf, Common Mergansers and a river otter as well as an assortment of other birds. Oh, and the site is ALL NEW, so take a moment to take a look!

Monday, October 24, 2016

First Day in Yellowstone: Bison and the Lamar Valley

We rolled into Yellowstone National Park around 9:00 am, a bit later than we wanted. Our plan had been to camp at Pebble Creek, a small rustic campground in the northeast corner of the park. But on the way in we checked the availability on Lisa's iPad (while we still had a signal) and found that it was full. All the campgrounds that were still open for the season were in the north and west sides of the park, so we had over an hour drive to reach any one of them. We wanted to spend at least part of our time in the Lamar Valley area, so we headed north on the Grand Loop Road towards Tower Falls.

This route takes you up and around Mt. Washburn and across Dunraven Pass. This is an area that typically sees the earliest and latest snowfall in the park, and I think it had already been closed once this year but had reopened. In any case, it's a bit of a harrowing drive when you're pulling a camper, though I saw folks with MUCH bigger rigs than us.

For those of you who have never been to Yellowstone, the place is huge. Approximately 63 miles by 54 miles, it is over 2.2 million acres. The speed limit is 45 mph, (slower in busy places), and the roads wind around geologic features, so it takes a long time to get anywhere. Of course the scenery is amazing, so that's not a problem, but it's certainly something you have to prepare for. Many of the campgrounds are first come/first served, which is why we didn't have reservations--that and the fact we weren't sure when we were going to arrive. We thought coming in on a Monday would mean a better chance of getting a site. We were quite surprised to find that not to be the case, as the park was still very busy.

We made it to the Tower Falls campground some time after 10 am, and there were no sites available. We were told there were still sites at Mammoth, 45 minutes away in the northeast corner of the park, so we headed up. Until we secured a site, I was going to be a nervous wreck. I shouldn't have worried--there were still six sites at Mammoth when we arrived. I was so relieved. We got camp set up, and our site had a beautiful view of the mountains in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. We ended up staying three nights at Mammoth, spending most of that time in the Lamar Valley.

Setting up camp in Mammoth. What a view!

By 1:00 we were back on the road and ready to explore. Our first stop was Lava Creek, a little bump out in the road where there's a picnic area and trail. With the dogs along we couldn't go more than 100 feet from any developed area, (or someone had to stay back with them), so we weren't able to explore as much as I would have liked. The general rule about Yellowstone is that over 90% of people never leave their cars, or venture past developed areas. So if you've avoided the park because of its crowed, bear-jammed reputation, try planning some day hikes, or backpack. Walk more than about a quarter mile down a trail and you may not see another person all day. (But be sure to pack bear spray!!)

Lava Creek

At Tower Junction we continued east along the NE Entrance Road and into Lamar Valley. If you're looking for wildlife in Yellowstone, this is the place to be. While you can reasonably expect to see critters just about anywhere, this is where they gather in the greatest numbers. The famed Druid Pack of wolves made their home here. Bison, pronghorn, elk, all frequent the valley, and nine years ago we saw two bull moose there, although moose are now rarely seen in Yellowstone.

NE Entrance Road crosses first the Yellowstone River, then the Lamar River. We pulled over on the far side of the bridge over the Lamar to poke around and take some photos. Finally feeling freed from the confines of the van and the constant travel, I climbed down to the river's edge. The view wasn't all that great from down there, but I sat for a bit, enjoying the sun, marveling at the huge boulders in the river.

The Lamar River near the NE Entrance Rd overpass

We had timed the trip perfectly with the park's peak color. In this part of the country there's little more than yellow to set the park ablaze, but by golly, it's enough.

Fall color near the Lamar River

Willows ablaze

Even though the day use area and campground were closed, we paid a visit to the Slough Creek area anyway. The Buffalo Creek fire was still burning somewhere over the ridge, and while we could not see or smell smoke on Monday, we did on Tuesday morning when we returned to wolf watch. The Junction Butte pack had denned on the south side of the hills north of the road, and apparently provided quite a show to many folks this year as the pack was clearly visible. Their den area burned, but the pack survived.

(They did not, however, survive Montana hunters. Since being delisted, all the states around Yellowstone have a wolf hunting season. This pack, so close to the border, was hard hit--the day the season opened, three members were shot, JUST outside the border. Hunters learn the pack's habits, then lay in wait, and as soon as the animals cross the invisible line, they're shot dead. This happened the day we left for home at the end of our trip. The pack had lost its Alpha male on September 15th. He was injured, but had taken an elk down in the Lamar River. He had sustained further injury, and was then killed himself by the Prospect Peak pack. Whether the Junction Buttes survive and rebuild, or disperse, remains to be seen. It's not an easy life, being a wolf.)

Bison were plentiful. In 2007 we did not see nearly this many bison, but it could be that this year they were already moving down into the valleys for winter. I could write an entire post--or three--about bison, but I decided to pick a handful of images for this post instead. Such massive animals, they still have a grace about them. And to see them on the plains in Yellowstone, you could imagine what it looked like before we nearly wiped them out.

Bison near Slough Creek

This big bull stood sentinel, the west wind blowing through his thick hair.

Female bison horns tend to curve inward less than the male's, so I am guessing this is a young-ish male, with a European Starling along for the ride. This is typically where you'd see Brown-headed Cowbirds, a species that evolved along with bison and developed nomadic tendencies. This meant they could not incubate their own eggs and raise their own young, so they learned to lay an egg in another bird's nest, and let them do the work.

Bison and starling.

There were mamma's with calves too, though the calves by now were a pretty good size and already growing their horns.

Bison calf

We drove all the way out to the Pebble Creek campground to check it out, then drove back through the Lamar Valley. We stopped at Tower Falls and at the Narrows. I wasn't all that impressed with the view of the falls, but loved the view of the Yellowstone River as it approaches the falls.

Classic West--fast, rocky rivers, spruce-covered hills, and bare buttes.

We stopped a few more times on the way back to camp, including this spot along Yancy Creek to see the basalt cliffs.

Basalt cliffs along Yancy Creek

The warm day brought with it some late pop-up storms. The sky threatened but we did not get any rain where we were. The clouds to the north sure made for a dramatic backdrop for the light of the lowering sun.

And better yet? A Yellowstone rainbow.

Back at camp we had several elk cows wander by. There were two big bull elk in Mammoth, one with a large harem. It's not unusual for them to congregate in areas populated by humans. Elk in the park are not hunted, so they feel safe with us, especially because wolves tend to avoid us. The same thing happens on Isle Royale with the moose, where cows and calves like to hang out near Rock Harbor.

Elk cow in Mammoth campground.

We ended the day with this gorgeous view above the campground. Already, I didn't want to leave. And later that evening, I heard my first elk bugle.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Buffalo Bill State Park and Grizzlies in Wyoming

The moon was still flying high when we left Badlands National Park. We made a quick stop at the gift shop for some souvenirs and ice, then drove north to I-90. The refrigerator in the camper had quit working, so we were cooling our food the old fashioned way. The RV dump station at the park was busy but we remembered seeing dump stations at previous rest areas, and sure enough, the next one down I-90 had one too. That's a really nice feature some states' rest areas have, (hint hint, Michigan!), and I'd like to see more of them.

The moon riding high above the Badlands Sunday morning. (iPhone panoramic)

Our goal for the day was to cross Wyoming, ending up at Buffalo Bill State Park, about a half hour from the Yellowstone border. We would then get up early the next morning and drive into YNP, and secure a campsite somewhere. We were aware that all of the campgrounds that were still open (I think two had closed for the season, and the Slough Creek was closed because of the Buffalo Creek fire) were filling by around 11 am, and so we needed to get in as soon as possible.

People talk about the Plains and Upper Midwest to be flat, barren wastelands. I had not found that to be the case in my travels through the Dakotas, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma. Of course, we had been in the eastern half of those states. All that changes when you hit the arid steppes of Wyoming. The rolling terrain gradually gains elevation, and the sagebrush steppes are virtually empty save for pronghorn and oil wells. Of course, that's all you see at 70-80 mph down the highway--there are lots of animals that call this place home, but for a Michigander who has spent her life surrounded by trees, this was a truly alien landscape.

The treeless sagebrush steppes of central Wyoming, with the Bighorn Mountains in the distance.

We had several options for getting to Yellowstone's border. One was to take I-90 up to Billings, then come down the Bear Tooth Highway and into the park at the Northeast Entrance. But that seemed really out of the way, and the Bear Tooth Pass freaked me out--I'd never pulled a camper through the mountains, and wasn't sure I was ready to tackle that. It had already been closed twice this year because of snow. The other options then were to go through the Bighorn Mountains, either on US 14 to the north, or US 16 to the south. In Buffalo we saw signs saying it was an easier drive to take US 16, and we decided to trust them and go that route. It was a beautiful drive, and we got our first taste of the golden hues of aspen and willow as they began to change into their autumn colors. The van did pretty well chugging up the mountains, but I couldn't look around much. When I came to an empty pull-out on the downside I stopped to stretch and take a few photos.

Bighorn Mountains along US 16

From the Bighorns it's another 1.5 hours or so to Cody. We didn't have time to linger there, though it looked like a really neat town. We needed to get to Buffalo Bill and get a campsite before dark, which we only JUST managed to do. There was weather in the area, rain to the south and snow to the north over the Absarokas, but it didn't rain on us until well after dark. While we didn't have time to explore the park, we did make it in time to stroll along the banks of the reservoir, and watch the sun set.

Snow in the distance did not reach us here at Buffalo Bill State Park

Wild sunflowers on the beach

Looking east along the Buffalo Bill Reservoir

We were up before sunrise and ready to go as the sun painted the hills gold and red. But before we could reach the park entrance, we had our second wildlife close encounter.

Sunrise on the buttes in western Wyoming

As we made our way east towards the East Entrance of Yellowstone, we came across a few cars pulled over on the shoulder. There was room for us so I stopped too. Lisa got out to investigate, and she thought at first there was a moose in the shrubs along the road. But then she jumped back in the van, slamming the door, and said, "Oh my God, it's a bear!" So I, of course, jumped out.

Standing up against the back corner of the camper, I watched as this magnificent creature browsed its way through the shrubbery. Not even to Yellowstone and we had us a grizzly encounter!

A big griz grazing on berries along US 14 in the Shoshone National Forest, just outside YNP.

The bear wasn't interested in us in the least. I wish I had grabbed my other (better) camera with the other (better) lens, but it was buried somewhere and I didn't want to chance not getting any photos while I searched for my gear. I also didn't dare get any closer. There were other cars closer to the bear, but the folks had enough sense to shoot from their vehicles. I felt confident that if the bear started coming my way I could get back into the van quickly. But I needn't have worried--the bear was only interested in eating fruit.

Oh sweet face!

The bear eventually emerged from the shrubs to feed some more...

...then turned and headed around the far side. What I wouldn't give to have been on the other side of this image!

Thanks to the bear jam, we were a little later getting to into the park than we had planned. Once inside the park we still had an hour or two to drive before arriving at an open campground. Would we find a place to camp? Hmmm...

Requisite selfie at the entrance sign--Lisa, Lori and me.