Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Coyotes and a Pronghorn in Lamar Valley

 Yellowstone 2016 cont:

After leaving the Blacktail Plateau and seeing the mule deer and black bear, we passed through Little America without seeing any activity--no cars pulled off the road, no critters. Past Slough Creek the road dips south and the valley opens up to the right. There are several pull outs there, before you reach the Yellowstone Association Institute, and we could see all were busy, with some cars parked on the side of the road. We found a spot and parked, and unloaded chairs and scopes and snacks.

Lamar Valley, Wednesday, September 21st. There's wolves in dem dar hills!

We learned that a Scottish couple had spotted four wolves early that morning, but that they hadn't been seen in about an hour. They had bedded down above a bench on the far side of the Lamar River, and were hidden from view. We also learned that a bison had been hit by a car and killed the night before just past the next pull out, and that park employees were moving the carcass down the hill and away from the road, knowing that all sorts of critters would be on it. Coyotes had already been at the carcass overnight, and it's possible the wolves had too.

As we were unloading, we heard some howling. A fellow who was getting out of a car next to me was talking to someone and I sushed him. When I realized it was coyotes and not wolves, I apologized, saying I'd wanted to hear who was calling. He said no big deal, he got that all the time. Turns out it was Rick McIntyre, the head of the wolf study in Yellowstone. Can't say I've been much more embarrassed than in that moment!

With not much activity we had lots of time to chat with folks. A fellow photographer pulled up in this rig, of which I'm insanely jealous. Not many places that can't go!

Me want!

After a while a few things happened, though none involved wolves. First, a pack of coyotes made their way across the valley. One approached the bison carcass but then trotted away. No doubt the scent of man was still fresh on it, and that may have spooked them.

Coyotes and old bones

Then I noticed a pronghorn moving from the west, right towards the coyotes. He paused to take them in.

Pronghorn assessing the 'yotes.

The pronghorn moved cautiously towards the 'yotes. I have no idea what was going on here--coyote can't catch a healthy pronghorn, which can reach speeds of 70 mph, and I suppose the pronghorn knows that. But coyotes also bedevil pronghorn by going after their young--and a pronghorn who's not in tiptop shape may not best a pack of six 'yotes. So I watched with great interest.

Not really sure what that pronghorn is doing.

As the pronghorn drew near, one of the coyote began to take interest...

...and as the second coyote rose, the pronghorn decided maybe it was time to put a little space between them.

But after moving away, the pronghorn once again approached the coyotes, before ultimately trotting off to the east.

We were also treated to a grizzly sighting. A large bruin turned up directly across the valley, coming down off the bench several hundred yards from where the wolves were bedded down. He moved deliberately down towards the river, clearly seeming to be headed somewhere in particular. But as he neared the valley floor he stopped, and stood up on hind legs, and looked to the west. He held that pose for 10-20 seconds, then turned, dropped to all fours, and began running in the opposite direction. He didn't stop running--back up the hill, across the bench, into a copse of trees and gone. I have no idea what spooked that bear. There was nothing to see in the direction he'd been looking, but I guess it's possible he smelled the wolves and decided he wanted no part of them.

After about an hour we decided to pack up our gear and drive all the way back through Mammoth and out of the park to Gardiner, where we were told the folks at the Yellowstone Association headquarters would have info about wolf sightings throughout the park. Before we left I walked down to take a look at the bison. It would just be a matter of time before the carcass brought out the wolves.

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: www.marierust.com.  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.