The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know… Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard…To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.
I just returned from eight days in my favorite place, Yellowstone National Park. If you follow this blog, you know I have a love affair with this park and its wildness. I have been to the park over 40 times in the last 30 years, in every season, and still can’t get enough of the scenery, wildlife, and the big skies of Wyoming and Montana (a small part of the park is also in Idaho). Melissa is out there right now with a group of educators on a museum trip, and I know she feels the same way.
I arrived a couple of days ahead of a group of friends and their family, and we spent the first part of our trip in the wildlife-rich area of the Northern Range. My first day, I soon encountered what turned out to be a bear jam at the bridge over the Gardner River. The next morning, there was another bear jam at this same location. Now, look at the first two images and decide what type of bears I saw.
So, what did you decide? The first sighting was a grizzly bear. Note the shoulder hump and dished facial profile. The second bear is a cinnamon-colored black bear. The facial profile is much straighter from the forehead to the nose, and there is a lack of a shoulder hump (although that can be tricky depending on the angle you see the bear and how it is standing). Unlike here in North Carolina, black bears in Yellowstone vary quite a bit in color. The park web site states that “about 50% of black bears are black in color, others are brown, blond, and cinnamon”. Later in the week we saw a black bear sow (black in color) that had two cubs of the year that were cinnamon.
It turned out to be a very good week for fox sightings with a total of 8 (one or two may have been the same fox on different days). The reduction in coyotes after the reintroduction of wolves in 1995 has apparently led to an increase in the red fox population. Again, from the park web site – there are 3 native subspecies of red foxes in the western United States. Most foxes in the lower 48 states (especially in the eastern and plain states) are a subspecies of fox introduced into this country from Europe in the 1700s and 1800s for fox hunts and fur farms. As luck would have it, a couple of us had the sought-after “three dog day”, where we saw a fox, coyote, and wolf on the same day. Several of us saw the pups at the wolf den along Slough Creek, and I watched the Junction pack chase a herd of bison (but give up after failing to catch a calf twice). But all the wolves were too far away for decent photos.
The population of pronghorns seems to have increased in the 30 years I have been visiting the park, especially in the Lamar Valley and Little America areas. This time of year, bands of bucks tend to hang out together in small groups, often practicing their skills for future battles for females. Both sexes have horns, but bucks have longer horns, a black cheek patch, and black nose.
Pronghorn does are giving birth now and we saw a few females with fawns, most often twins. Mothers nurse their young a few times each day, then leave them laying in cover, in grass or sagebrush areas, and go off to feed, usually staying within a hundred yards or so of the young. Young pronghorn supposedly have no scent and will lay still until you almost step on them before running off. This particular doe may have lost one fawn to a predator (coyotes, wolves, and bears, among others, prey on pronghorn young) as we saw only one young with her later in the week (she was using a particular stretch of sagebrush near the road all week). Adult pronghorns use their keen eyesight and running ability (they can run up to 60 miles per hour) to escape predators.
One of the most abundant mammals in the park is the Uinta ground squirrel. These little rodents inhabit open habitats throughout the park and are particularly common in the Mammoth area and out in the sagebrush flats of Lamar. They live in burrows and you see the holes they make scattered throughout the sagebrush flats. Larger holes indicate where something, often a badger, has dug out a ground squirrel for a meal. I think everything preys on these little guys (raptors, snakes, coyotes, badgers, foxes, bears, wolves, and anything else with a taste for meat). That may be why they often perch atop a prominent rock or bush and scan for danger. When they see something, they let out a high-pitched squeak or trill. The fellow above certainly did not approve of me parking so close to his boulder, and he let me, and the rest of the world, know it.
A case in point was a coyote I spotted one afternoon near the road in Lamar Valley. When I slowed for a look, one of the teenagers in our group spotted a badger trailing close behind. These two predators will sometimes work in tandem, one taking advantage of anything scared up or missed by the other. We watched the badger for several minutes as it furiously dug a hole in the bank and disappeared. They often dig a new sleeping den every night, and can make short work of that, or digging out a ground squirrel, using their powerful shoulders and claws.
Another, larger, rodent in the park is the yellow-bellied marmot. It looks and acts somewhat like our groundhog, but prefers rockier terrain. This one had spotted a hunting red fox and alerted the area with a sharp whistle, and this somewhat laid back pose.
This fox had caused the marmot to be on alert, but did manage to catch a small rodent (probably a ground squirrel or vole) while we watched. It gulped down its catch and then trotted off. We saw it again a few minutes later with something else in its mouth, which it proceeded to cache by burying it in the dirt. After digging a hole with its front legs and stashing the prize, it used its long nose to scoop and shovel dirt into the hole. The fox even used its nose to pound down the disturbed soil to help hide its future meal. Unfortunately, we also saw foxes that were being fed in one of the towns just outside the park. As is usually the case, this often leads to tragedy as the animals become habituated to humans.
I admit, I have a preference for the northern part of the park and its wide open vistas, waterways, and abundant wildlife. Once you head into one of the more developed sections around the famed thermal features, life can get a bit more (actually, a lot more) hectic. But, as a ranger once told our group, no matter what you thought you came to see in Yellowstone – the wildlife, the scenery, the incredible skies – you actually came to see the geology. That’s because the incredible geologic past (and present) of this landscape is what has created all of these features and allowed them to be preserved for us to enjoy as the worlds’ first national park. As we headed south, we did, indeed, pick up more crowds, although our stop at Canyon was rather tranquil due to a light rain keeping most people away. In fact, this was probably the second wettest trip in all my years of going to the park. We even had two days with snow! I would definitely trade this NC heat for some of that cool June weather.
Our day in the geyser basins proved more typical of summer – large crowds, limited parking, and some not-so-great visitor behavior including walking off boardwalks in thermal areas and getting way too close to large animals for selfies.
Fountain Paint Pots continues to impress me, partly due to my fascination with the mud pots and my obsession to photograph interesting shapes as the mud bubbles pop. I was unable to walk my favorite thermal feature, Grand Prismatic, because there was no parking, so I had to drop off my folks and let them walk while I waited down the road to return and pick them up. Still, even from several hundred yards away, the prismatic pool lives up to its name with rainbow colors rising in the dense steam above this, the largest hot spring in the park.
This is the first of a couple of posts about this trip that I will try to get to this week. Looking through the images helps me to relive those moments, to find peace in knowing that these wild creatures and wild places still exist. And, in spite of the crowds, Yellowstone is a place where we can all find something we need now more than ever – a chance to experience the best that our planet offers to those willing to just take the time to walk, watch, and listen. Below are a few of the other wild creatures we encountered last week. I’ll post something about the birds and the ubiquitous bison soon.