Where do I start telling you about the animals? We saw so many different mammals and birds in this very rich, diverse environment and they were everywhere. At first, we were so excited to see anything. Spotting elk and bison was wonderful. By the time we turned the corner for home, we were saying “oh, it’s just a herd of bison or elk”. We spent lots of time pulled over to the side of the road, trying to get close up pictures along with everyone else. But it wasn’t long before we had a herd of bison all to ourselves, and wonderful encounters with bison calves. Bison sightings were frequent throughout both parks. It was fun to see the moms with their little ones sometimes nursing, more often resting among the sagebrush.
Elk were another common sight. In Jackson, there is a National Elk Refuge where the elk can reside during the harsh winter. They are fed there and the magnificent antlers they drop each year are collected and transformed into the wonderful arches in downtown Jackson. The males were beginning to grow new antlers and the longer we were there, the bigger those fuzzy horns grew. The animals were shedding their winter coats (as were the bison) and looked quite raggedy and scruffy.
Pronghorn antelope were also fairly common. We saw them in the parks but also in ranch fields as we headed home across Wyoming and South Dakota. They were easy to identify at a distance because of their relatively pale color, much more tan than the several kinds of deer that were about, and much smaller than the elk.
And then there were the moose. The first one was sitting along the side of the road, mostly obscured by the sagebrush. Later we saw several of them grazing in the field, several cows with young ones but not babies.
We thought we saw a wolf but in retrospect, I think it was probably a coyote. We saw several actually but only one at a time and usually at a distance. Our best encounter was one we spotted while driving along the road in the Hayden Valley area of Yellowstone. It was trotting along out in the fields. James positioned himself to take photos; the coyote was coming near to check him out. As James stood up, the coyote veered off but soon began hunting for meadow voles. We watched as it stalked, pounced and ate three of the little critters. And we attracted a crowd of passersby, often the only way to see wildlife, to stop and ask what everyone else is looking at and watching. The telltale sign of interesting stuff out in the fields is lots of cars parked along the road and photographers with giant lenses and cameras mounted on tripods. That’s how we got our pictures of bears.
The first bear we saw was on the road to Mammoth Hots Springs in Yellowstone. What we saw first were cars lining both sides of the road and everyone out of the cars. We stopped too by pulling into an opportune spot that someone had just pulled out of. It seemed the bear was sleeping but he woke up soon and started to wander around, scratching himself on trees and rocks. The park rangers arrived and advised us to move away a little since people are supposed to keep 100 feet away from all wildlife. We took photos and movies and enjoyed watching for a while. Then we moved on. Very fun. We’ve seen a bear.
A little farther on down the road, near the hoodoos we came upon more cars and more cameras. “What are we looking at?”, we inquired. “See that black thing way down there? Mother bear and 4 cubs.” We took the obligatory photos, making sure to put the black spot in the center so I could find it later. She was moving about and we did catch a glimpse of several of her cubs trailing after her. But she was so far away and we had no telephoto lens. As it turns out, we came back this same way the next day. More cars but the photographers were in a different place, looking from another angle. After much deliberation, I decided I really wanted to see the bears again just in case we could get a better view. When we walked down there, there was a very nice man with whom I struck up a conversation. He had a spotting scope set up and invited us to have a look. What a great view! They were so close. And he allowed me to take a photo with my little point-and-shoot through his spotting scope, which is how I got this photo so you can see them too. It’s unusual for the bears – this one is a grizzly – to have 4 cubs which is partly why so many were interested in her. But mostly it was just because she was a mother grizzly with cubs.
We saw a few other animals too. Smaller but equally exciting was the American Pika. It lives at elevation and is rather shy. It looks a bit like a smooth, short haired guinea pig, no tail and brown. No photos, but seeing it was pretty special. We met a cute little Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel that was very interested in us. It checked us out and posed for pictures for several minutes. It looks rather like a chipmunk but much bigger and no stripes on it’s face. We saw chipmunks too; there are several kinds in the parks but we didn’t determine which ones we saw. The Uinta Ground Squirrels were everywhere, especially in the Gros Ventre campground. What we think was a hoary marmot eluded our cameras at Inspiration Point, as did the pair of White-tailed Jackrabbits chasing each other through one of the geyser basins.
The birds also were varied and plentiful. The most exciting for me was the great horned owl. There happened to be one nesting in a tree in Gros Ventre campground and we could watch it often. We heard rumors that she had chicks in the nest but we never got to see them. One evening at dusk, her mate flew directly over our tent and lit on a tree a little distance away. We were able to get quite close to it and we got some great profile pictures before it flew on. These are the first owls I have ever seen in the wild.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the birds, but it was exciting for me, being from the east coast to see so many western birds that were new for my life list.
One last little movie: On our way out of Yellowstone National Park, we encountered a large herd of bison running down a hill and across the road. We stopped to take some video. What amazes me most about this particular encounter is the way that two large bison cross the road, then stop and turn around, waiting for some others to cross before going on their way. We weren’t in the right place to see why they waited but it really looked to me like it was a case of some looking out for the welfare of others. What a fun and fitting way to end our experience in Yellowstone.
And God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and every thing that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good. Genesis 1:25