Frosted Feathers

It’s not that I like ice Or freezin’ winds and snowy ground. It’s just sometimes it’s kind of nice To be the only bird in town.

~Shel Silverstein

This final post on our January Yellowstone trip shares a few highlights of the birds we encountered. There are certainly way fewer birds in this frozen land in winter, though the thermal features do keep some waterways open for the few waterfowl that remain (or gather there in winter, in the case of Trumpeter Swans). And the activities of wolves and the bottleneck of cold and food limitations do provide sustenance for the avian scavengers – the eagles, magpies, and ravens. Here are a few bird highlights from the trip…

Common Ravens are one of the most noticeable of the winter birds. They are large, noisy, and bold (will try to steal food if you are careless) (click photos to enlarge)

Recent surveys have estimated there are 200-300 ravens utilizing the northern part of the park as habitat. They are frequently seen near areas of concentrated human activity (pit stops, favorite pullouts, etc.) where they are very clever at taking advantage of any potential food items left unguarded. They are also abundant at any carcass, be it a roadkill or wolf kill.

This was my first time seeing a Raven with leg bands and a GPS backpack on in the park (Melissa has seen them on some of her previous trips the past couple of years). We learned that this is part of a study of Raven movements and interactions with wolves being conducted by researchers at the University of Washington.

The sight of Ravens wearing mini-backpacks (satellite transmitters) really peaked my curiosity. The one above was photographed at Tower Junction near the pit toilets and trash/recycling bins. We saw another one (maybe more) flying back and forth with chunks of meat at the bison carcass where we watched the wolves. When I got home I started searching for more information about this study, the Yellowstone Raven Project. The goal is to have about 70 ravens tagged in the park, all wearing solar-powered GPS backpacks with an antenna that submits the birds’ locations every 30 minutes throughout the day. Using this data, researchers are able to piece together the movement of Ravens from sunrise to sunset. There are many things they are investigating about these highly intelligent birds (how do Ravens consistently find wolf kills?; how far do they travel daily/monthly/yearly,?; where are they roosting?, etc.). I contacted Dr. Marzluff, the lead scientist, this week and asked about the Raven above, as I could not find the color code combination of leg bands on the Animal Tracker app, (this free app allows you to peek in on the movements of various tagged animals around the world, including the Yellowstone Raven Project). He promptly responded to let me know that this bird, a female, was captured and tagged on December 10, 2021, at Tower Junction, and has not yet been added to the app. In fact, he was watching that bird the day I emailed him! I’ll try to follow up with him in a few weeks to see what this bird has been up to. It is really amazing to be able to follow research going on in the park (and there is a lot of it!).

A gorgeous Stellar’s Jay at a friends tree stump feeder outside the park

One of the more unusual bird interactions was with a roadkill Ruffed Grouse. We passed it and Melissa radioed me asking if that thing in the road was an animal or just a mud blob or other inanimate object. I wasn’t sure, so when we came back through, I noticed it was, indeed, an animal. I radioed her and she stopped, exclaiming it was a bird, a grouse! We parked and everyone got out to do a spontaneous roadside necropsy. We saw the track trail of the bird approaching the road in the snow and then the tragic result. Melissa poked around and we could see the stomach contents, which included some rose hips (something I had ironically mentioned as a bird food source to the group on one of our snowshoe hikes when we passed one of the shrubs with its bright red fruit). This close up view also allowed us to admire the beautiful plumage and the amazing adaption of the bristles along the birds’ toes which act like grouse-sized snowshoes. Another unique Yellowstone teachable moment!

A roadkill Ruffed Grouse in the coniferous forest near the Northeast entrance (photo by Melissa Dowland)
A more fortunate Ruffed Grouse after it crossed the road in front of Melissa (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Bald Eagle perched along the Lamar River during a light snow fall
A distant leucistic Bald Eagle (leucism is a genetic mutation which reduces pigment in a bird’s feathers) – taken with an iPhone through a spotting scope by Melissa Dowland
A Golden Eagle at its favorite perch overlooking the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River
The most common duck we see in winter – a male Common Goldeneye

One of my favorite birds in the park, anytime of year, is the American Dipper. I sat along the river one day watching one feed from the edge of the ice.

An American Dipper on the edge of the ice along the Lamar River
I think this prey item ls a stonefly

— American Dipper feeding at the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River

I reviewed 7 video clips I made of athe dipper feeding and the average time spent underwater was 6 seconds (five 6’s, a 5, and a 7). The dipper was successful in bringing up a prey item in all seven instances. All were small invertebrates with the exception of one decent-sized macroinvertebrate that I think was a stonefly larva.

So, why do dippers dip? There are a few theories out there: 1) the repetitive bobbing against the backdrop of turbulent water may help conceal the bird’s profile from predators; 2) dipping in this and some other birds may helps it sight prey; 3) the one that an Audubon article I ran across thinks is the most likely is that dipping and the rhythmic batting of those bright white eyelids is a mode of visual communication with other dippers in their typically noisy environment where the usual calls might not be easily heard.

We also saw several other species that evaded a decent photo including Common Redpoll, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, Black-billed Magpie, Pine Grosbeak, Hairy Woodpecker, Clark’s Nutcracker, Gray Jay, and Red-breasted Nuthatch, Mallard, and Trumpeter Swan.

Thanks for following our winter adventure. Can’t wait to go back!

Moose Magic

Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old.

~Bill Bryson

For many years, Moose have been one of the more difficult of Yellowstone’s large mammals to find. The best place was usually at the Northeast entrance or in the small town of Silver Gate just beyond that gate. This trip had Moose aplenty, with sightings on almost every day we were in the park, ranging from the upper part of Lamar Valley to near the Northeast entrance. The area known as Round Prairie was particularly productive and we saw a record (for us) of seven of these magnificent creatures there one day. Unfortunately, our best views happened before our group of students arrived, though they also saw Moose, but at greater distances (except for one quick roadside spotting on our last full day in the park).

Needless to say, on our multi-moose day at Round Prairie, there was a crowd. We got lucky and pulled into a spot in the closest pullout as someone was leaving. Here are some images of the group of five Moose close to us (another two were far out in the meadow in another willow thicket).

A young bull tilts his head to thread his antlers between tree branches

At first glance, I thought we had two bulls and three cows feeding in front of us. When I looked with binoculars I could see that one of the largest animals was actually a bull that had dropped its antlers. Bull Moose shed their antlers annually anywhere from late November until March. Mature males tend to shed the earliest, soon after the fall mating season (the rut). That makes sense as you probably wouldn’t want to carry around those giant armaments (they can weigh over 50 pounds and span almost 5 feet) any longer than necessary.

Bulls start growing their new set of antlers a few weeks after dropping the old ones. A bull’s antlers increase in size (the number of points, span, and size of the palms – the flattened portions) each year until its prime (usually about 5 or 6 years of age). Young bulls start off with only a few points and small palms as a yearling. The number of points and the size of the palms will grow each season with the antlers usually forming a protective arch over the face during the prime years, preventing damage to the bull’s eyes when competing for mates. As he ages past his prime, the antlers tend to get smaller each year, with fewer points and smaller palms.

An antler-less bull feeding
The largest antlered bull showing how the antlers emerge from the head just above each eye. Antlers are a sign of rank and strength during the fall mating season. Younger bulls are usually scared off by the size of a mature bull’s rack, so fighting is avoided. Evenly matched bulls may lock antlers in a shoving match to fight for a female.
Here is a close-up of the bull that had already dropped his antlers. You can see the point of antler connection to the skull, called the pedicle, as a somewhat circle-shaped scar above the eye. After the rut, the male’s testosterone levels drop, activating specialized cells called osteoclasts. These weaken the connection of the antlers to the pedicle and the antlers eventually drop off.
Another view showing where the antlers were attached. When an antler first drops off, the pedicle may bleed a bit before clotting and drying up

At one point, three bulls started running toward the road as they shoved one another and acted a bit aggressive. There’s nothing like a running bull moose (weighing up to 1100 pounds, being nine feet from nose to tail, and 7 feet at the shoulders) to get a gang of photographers to move (although I thought a few of them did not clear out of the way fast enough for their own good considering there were three bull moose running toward them!). Two of the bulls went across the road and then returned to the willows to feed with apparently no more ill will between them. Moose tend to be solitary animals, but will congregate, especially in winter, at good food sources. The willow stands in Round Prairie offer that prized resource.

A group of Moose suddenly moved quickly toward the road (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Two bulls that crossed the road soon moved back and started feeding
A cow and calf feed near a bull in a willow thicket
Here you can clearly see the dangling triangle of skin below the chin called a dewlap (also called a bell). The dewlap’s function is not known though theories vary from heat exchange to communication during the rut. During courtship, a bull will rub the cow with his chin (called chinning) and the dewlap may transfer scent to the female.

A Moose’s winter diet consists almost entirely of twigs. In fact, the word moose comes from a Native American word that means “twig eater”. We watched them browsing the tips of the willow shrubs and a close look would show them both breaking off the twig tips to eat and pulling on them as if to strip off the bark.

A Moose browsing on the willow twigs

Here is a short video clip of Moose eating twigs. The falling snow made it difficult to get a sharp image but it is still interesting to watch them feed.

– Moose feeding on willows in Round Prairie

Our final Moose was one spotted by one of the students as we headed back through the northern part of the park on our last full day (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Though Moose look gangly and awkward to many, I am fascinated by this largest member of the deer family. I hope their population continues to grow in Yellowstone so other visitors may also marvel at these magical beasts.

Octo-Ungulates

Ungulates. The most boring animals on earth. All they do is stand around and chew their cud.

~Hal Brindley

It seems there are not a lot of quotes out there about ungulates (hoofed mammals) but I found this one in a clever blog post by someone that I know through social media. I agree with him, that ungulates often get overlooked by a lot of people when there are charismatic mega-fauna like wolves and bears around, but they shouldn’t be, as they are fascinating and beautiful in their own right. Yellowstone has eight species of ungulates (hence the title), seven native to the region (Elk, Bison, Mule Deer, White-tailed Deer, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Pronghorn, Moose) and one introduced to the area (Rocky Mountain Goats). On this trip, we managed to see the seven native species. It isn’t easy to spot a white goat high on a mountain slope in winter! Not many years ago, the toughest two of the ungulates to find in the park were Moose and White-tailed Deer (Mule Deer are the dominant of what are usually considered deer in the park). But, the past few years we have been seeing more of our familiar white-tails, and this year, was a relative banner year for Moose (more on them in a future post).

Here are some tales (and tails) of some ungulates we observed…

Many of these grazers move to lower elevations in winter due to the usual heavy snow in much of the park.They tend to congregate in the Northern Range due its lower snow pack and in areas near or beyond the North entrance at the town of Gardiner, MT. Indeed, one of the hazards of staying where we did, several miles north of Gardiner, was that we had to run the gauntlet of roadside Elk every morning and evening in darkness (definitely not a critter you want to encounter with your vehicle). These large members of the deer family undoubtedly gain another advantage by relocating to these areas in winter as there are probably fewer wolves due to the human presence (although that means they do encounter hunters).

We saw huge herds of Elk near Gardiner and out in Paradise Valley, north of the park (click photos to enlarge)
A magnificent bull Elk along the Old Yellowstone Trail Road

The town of Gardiner lies in a rain shadow area and is below 6000 ft in elevation, so it tends to have milder winters than most of the park. It is amazing to me how the wildlife adapts to the town (and vice versa). One example is the use of the school’s athletic field as a hangout and grazing spot for Elk, Bison, Pronghorn, and a variety of other critters. I like to think that one unique form of detention at this school involves going out to the field and removing the scat piles before a game.

Attracting wildlife to your school yard is probably not a teacher workshop they need in Gardiner

One ungulate, in particular, tends to leave all but the lowest elevations of the park (near the North entrance) every winter – the Pronghorn. Though they are common in Lamar Valley in summer, they all migrate over 25 miles to spend the winter near Gardiner or even farther north. Deep snow makes it difficult for them to browse and greatly diminishes their primary defense against predators – their speed. They are the fastest land mammal in North America, reaching burst speeds of a little over 60 mph and capable of sustained speeds of 45-50 mph. This makes them the second fastest mammal on Earth, second only to the Cheetah (but Pronghorns can keep up a fast speed longer than a Cheetah). Their large eyes are located on the sides of their head to allow for all-around viewing. And they have a large (for their size) heart, windpipe, and lungs, allowing them to get plenty of oxygen and blood supply for their high-octane movements.

There were large herds of Pronghorn on the Old Yellowstone Trail Road out of Gardiner
Male (top) and female (head down) Pronghorns. Males have prongs on their horns and a black patch along the jawline and neck area. Females can have horns (most do) but they are shorter and lack the prongs..

Since vision is such an important trait for Pronghorns, and since they live in herds in open habitats, they have another communication signal used to alert other herd members of danger. If a Pronghorn sees a predator, it raises the white hairs on its rump, making a large white patch visible for considerable distances. They also release an alarm odor from glands on the rump (it supposedly smells like buttered popcorn – probably why you never see Pronghorns at the movies…they would be freaked out all the time).

A buck Pronghorn watching a photographer who has left his car and is walking toward the animals

Below is a Pronghorn rump in action…

A calm rump patch
A “hey dude, why are you getting out of your car for a photo” rump patch
The aforementioned photographer crept closer to the Pronghorn, eliciting this displeased response (see how raised the white rump hairs are)

I stayed in my car and spent about 45 minutes watching the Pronghorn feed. This is what I really like to do – watch wildlife going about their daily lives. Staying in your vehicle or sitting quietly helps wildlife feel more at ease and allows them to continue feeding, or doing whatever, undisturbed.

Along the same road, there was a large group of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep grazing at the foot of the ridge-line. Many photographers stopped to get photos and one grpup, unfortunately, hiked over to the base of the ridge and obviously disturbed the herd as they moved up the slope. I saw this behavior way too often in the park this time.

On another drive down this road, I had to stop to let a small band of ewes and young cross the road in front of me. I managed one portrait as they sauntered across.

A bighorn ewe in the golden light of late afternoon

Among the most photographed animals I saw on this trip were a group of bighorn rams hanging out at the usual small cliff near the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River. This is consistently a good spot for sheep in the winter as I guess the small steep rock face provide just enough protection as an escape from potential predators like wolves. The cliff is a short walk from a pullout and you can get decent images from the roadside, which doesn’t seem to bother the rams at all. Here are a couple of examples…

The first ram I saw was lounging on a snow bank chewing its cud
This ram had everyone’s attention because of its perch on the top of the cliff. I walked down away from the small cluster of roadside photographers and found a spot where the ram was silhouetted against a patch of blue sky through the tree limbs
From another angle, the ram’s horn curl was on full display

More on the magnificent horns of these rams in a future post.

Finally, a few images of the iconic Bison, America’s National Mammal (designated as such with the passage of the Bison Legacy Act in 2016). It joins the Bald Eagle as a national symbol and represents an amazing comeback from the brink of extinction. Bison numbers went from an estimated 30-40 million roaming North America in the early 1800’s, to fewer than 1000 individuals less than 100 years ago. The causes of this precipitous decline included uncontrolled market hunting (Bison hides were highly valued) and a concerted effort by the U.S. military to remove Native American tribes from the land by taking away their main food source: Bison. Some Bison found protection on private ranches, In Yellowstone, the numbers dwindled to about 24 Bison that survived deep in the park’s interior. In one of the first efforts to try to restore a wild species, park officials in Yellowstone began to manage the remaining herd and enhanced it with wild Bison purchased from private owners. The herd was ranched in Mammoth and then in Lamar Valley at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Today, the park’s herd numbers about 5000. More information on Bison and the history of management in the park can be found here.

I have always had an affinity for Yellowstone Bison (I blame the movie Dances with Wolves), so I try to spend some time alone on each trip with these iconic creatures. I managed to spend over an hour one day with two large bulls, watching them feed in a picturesque valley below the towering Baronette Peak. Snow was falling, and then patches of blue sky would appear, and then more snow. None of it fazed the Bison as they plowed through the snow with their massive heads.

Two bull Bison in the lower Baronette area
This old bull was plowing snow with his head to reach grasses underneath
Here is the Bison carcass that had been picked clean by wolves and scavengers. You can see the thoracic vertebrae are long, giving the Bison the humped appearance. This provides attachment points for the massive neck and shoulder muscles Bison use to snow plow through deep snow to access dried grasses.
I watched this bull for about 15 minutes before it raised its head out of the snow for this pic
The other bull was covered in snow as it fed (these photos are cropped images from photos taken with a long lens from the roadside)

I’ll end with one of my favorite teacher quotes from my museum workshop days, penned by Donna, after spending time observing a herd in Lamar Valley…

What must it be like to be a Bison, to own nothing yet have everything?

Canid Capers

Let me tell you something about wolves, child. When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths.

~George R. R. Martin

One of the best things about Yellowstone in winter is the enhanced viewing opportunities for many species of wildlife (not bears, of course). The usual heavy snow at high elevations forces many animals down into the valleys, which include the major roadways, so they are closer to the usual viewing locations. Plus, most species are much easier to spot against a background of snow. This is especially true of the much sought after wolves. With so many packs in the park having at least a portion of their members being the black color, it helps spot them at even great distances in winter. And, where there are wolves, there are other creatures nearby – Ravens, Black-billed Magpies, and the other park canid cousins, Coyotes and Red Foxes.

We hoped to have a few days to figure out where the wolves were being seen before the students arrived since most visitors (especially first-timers) really want to see wolves as part of their Yellowstone experience. On the day we arrived, I saw a FB post showing an amazing roadside kill of an Elk by a pair of wolves in Lamar Valley. We drove out the next day and saw the blood-stained pavement and snow indicating the kill was made within about 20 feet of the highway! We were told that rangers had used a winch to remove the carcass and transport it to a more remote location where animals could feed undisturbed by the horde of humans that would undoubtedly congregate nearby if the carcass were to remain that close to a roadway.

The bloody scene of a wolf-killed Elk. We arrived a day too late to witness it (I can’t imagine what a chaotic scene it must have been with people striving for a better look/photo of the action) (click photos to enlarge)

The next morning had us back out on the road and before sunrise we saw a group of photographers on a hill. We managed to get a space a couple of hundred yards away and climbed a small knoll where we saw wolves headed up the hill away from an apparent carcass (the presence of lots of Ravens and Black-billed Magpies was the give-away even though we could not see the exact scene from our location). Others on our knoll confirmed there was a carcass just out of sight below a low ridge. It turned out, the growing number of people down the road could see the remains of a Bison and all the action, but we opted to stay put with only about a dozen watchers instead of the shoulder-to-shoulder group of 50+ on the other hill. Though the wolves were a bit too far for great photos, the views through the scope were amazing. We could see them wiping their blood-stained faces in the snow as they walked up the hill for a post-feeding siesta. A couple of the wolves played with each other as they went, and they treated us to a group howl when most were gathered far up on the slope.

Gray Wolf from the Junction Butte pack headed away from the carcass site to join the rest of the pack
A black wolf passes by two Bald Eagles waiting their turn for the carcass
Members of the Junction Butte pack resting high above the carcass site after a feeding
The Bison carcass with Ravens in attendance

Suddenly, we heard a group of Coyotes behind us, undoubtedly anxious for their turn at the Bison buffet, but forced to wait until their larger cousins all moved up the hill. The Coyotes were a bit hesitant to cross the road to the carcass because of so many humans. Unfortunately, some of the people exhibited bad behavior by closing in on the Coyotes and, in one case, howling back at them – I lost my cool and yelled at that person to stop as that is a clear violation of park regulations). Eventually, the Coyotes made it across.

— Melissa shot this video with her iPhone through a spotting scope while we were watching the wolves. Holding the phone exactly in the right spot without a dedicated phone mount is tough (especially when the temperature is less than 10 degrees F!) so that results in some of the moving dark edges you see. These Coyotes were waiting to cross the road a couple of hundred yards from a bison carcass where wolves from the Junction Butte pack were feeding.

A full week after we watched the wolves feeding on this carcass, it was picked clean. From the road, we saw numerous human tracks headed out to the carcass, so we figured it was okay to walk our group out to survey the scene (in general, you don’t want to approach a fresh carcass to avoid disturbing the site, but enough time had elapsed for the active feeding to have ceased).

Though we saw Coyotes on several occasions, we had a hard time encountering wolves once the students arrived, and we never saw a Red Fox.

A Coyote with a full belly headed away from the carcass site
A few days after the wolves had stopped feeding at the carcass, this coyote managed to haul away a chunk of it for some solitary chewing time…
…but a pair of Black-billed Magpies followed, hoping for a morsel
And another, apparently subordinate, Coyote soon arrived
Coyote, after crossing the road at Tower Junction
Distant Coyote at Fountain Paint Pots
Fresh Gray Wolf tracks on the boardwalk at Old Faithful

On our last couple of days, we worked hard to find wolves for our group. From Melissa’s contacts, we knew the Wolf Project team was going to be flying to track and dart some animals during our stay and we finally saw the spotter plane. Melissa then recognized one of the team member’s vehicles at a pullout so we stopped and climbed a knoll to join them. It was a very distant view, but our group was thrilled to witness the helicopter crew capturing a wolf. They do this in order to place tracking collars on them for research (about a third of Yellowstone’s wolves have collars). A young technician was on the ridge explaining everything that was happening and answering all the student’s questions. It wasn’t a great viewing, but it was a great learning moment for everyone.

We ended our time in Lamar in a memorable way. Late in the day, we were headed back through the valley and spotted some cars near the Buffalo Ranch with scopes and long lenses looking up on the hill. We slowed and asked, and they had wolves high on the ridge behind the facility. We pulled in and started searching. One of the people we had asked was kind enough to walk up the road and put our scopes on the wolves to ease our search. The late afternoon light was hitting a hilltop and on it were a couple of wolves resting. Then a couple more and some interactions, all clearly visible though the spotting scopes. One viewer told us the wolves were “yawning” and we shushed everyone…indeed, the wolves had started howling (due to the distance, there is a delay from when you see them start to howl and when you actually hear it, so it looks like a big yawn at first). They continued howling for a few minutes, quite a long howl! Soon, four more wolves joined the party. This was a magical last afternoon in the park – golden light on a group of wolves (members of the 8-mile pack we later learned) and our group was able to watch and listen to them without being surrounded by a crowd. The wolves eventually made their way into a patch of trees and disappeared from view.

This was all the more special given the current controversy over increased hunting and trapping pressure on wolves in many Western states. Management of wolves was turned over to the states about ten years ago when wolf numbers reached recovery goals set by the federal government. New legislation in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho has allowed for increased killing of wolves including those that wander out of the protected areas of the park. As of February 1, 24 wolves that usually live in packs inside Yellowstone National Park have been killed after they crossed the park boundary. This has huge implications for pack structure within the park and there is great concern among scientists about the impacts of this on their research and on local wolf populations. Many area businesses have also expressed concern as they understand the huge positive economic impact that wolves have for local communities from the thousands of tourists that come to see the wolves and other wildlife each year. As a result of issues raised from several law suits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to issue findings on their review of the status of re-listing of Gray Wolves in Western states later this fall.

Winter Wonderland

Through the weeks of deep snow, we walked above the ground on fallen sky…

~Wendell Berry

I alluded to this trip in our last post when I whined about missing our “big snow” at home while we were away. Well, we were away in our happy place, Yellowstone. And, even though it is experiencing a relative snow drought this winter, there was still plenty in most places. We were asked by a teacher friend at the NC School of Science and Mathematics last summer to lead a winter Yellowstone trip for high school juniors and seniors. With the ups and downs of Covid, we were unsure about the prospects for making the trip happen, but, eventually, it came to fruition with all participants fully vaccinated and everyone agreeing to adhere to Covid protocols before and during the adventure. Melissa and I went out a few days early to scout things out and make final arrangements for lodging and meals. Melissa managed to find lodging in a hostel so we were isolated as a group and we had all our meals but one catered to minimize being in crowded indoor spaces. I will admit we were both a bit nervous about our first flight since the start of the pandemic, but, we were careful and everything turned out fine.

This is the first of a few posts about the trip. We had a nice mix of snowy days and bright sunny days, so we experienced both the quiet beauty of snow falling from gray skies and the glistening allure of diamond dust. That latter phenomenon occurs when a ground-level “cloud” of tiny ice crystals sparkles in the sunlight. Diamond dust usually occurs only in temperatures well below freezing. It is one of my favorite atmospheric conditions in Yellowstone in winter.

Below are a few of the scenic highlights of the trip…

Lamar Valley (click photos to enlarge)
There’s always more snow in the northeast portions of the park
Icy morning in the interior (on our snow coach ride to Old Faithful)
An all but frozen Soda Butte Creek
It was a very good year for Snowshoe Hares. Their tracks were everywhere! (pop quiz – which way was this animal going?)
The group on a snowshoe hike on the Thunderer Trail
Rime ice on trees along a waterway impacted by a thermal feature
The steam phase of the eruption of Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest geyser. The impressive water phase had happened the day before our trip to the interior. The water phase can be major or minor in length, with the geyser height in a major eruption reaching over 300 feet. The steam phase can last from a few hours to several days. Over the years, Steamboat has been unpredictable in its schedule with intervals between eruption ranging from 4 days to 50 years. The largest number of recorded eruptions in a year occurred twice, with 48 eruptions in both 2019 and 2020. This is the first time we have ever seen Steamboat erupting and it was a thrill!
The nearby Cistern Spring is believed to be connected to Steamboat Geyser. Cistern’s discharge increased in 1965, when Steamboat’s major eruptions were becoming less frequent. This surge in heat and water was so great that all vegetation immediately south of Cistern was killed, The water level in Cistern changes when Steamboat erupts.
The Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as seen from Lookout Point. This waterfall is 308 feet high and, in winter, the ice mountain at the base of the falls can be over 100 feet tall.
Old Faithful geyser erupting. The beauty of this winter sunrise sighting was that only four other people besides our group were there to witness it. In summer, there can be several thousand people crowded on the boardwalks viewing an eruption.
Rime ice on trees in the Upper Geyser Basin

One of my favorite thermal hikes is the Fountain Paint Pots Trail where, in a short walk, you can see all four types of Yellowstone’s thermal features – geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles. My favorite are the mudpots. They are like a natural double boiler. Water collects in a shallow, impermeable depression (usually due to a lining of clay). Heated water under the depression causes steam to rise through the ground, heating the collected surface water. Hydrogen sulfide gas is usually present, and certain microorganisms use the smelly gas for energy. Microbes help convert the gas to sulfuric acid, which breaks down rock into clay. The result is a goopy mix where the gases gurgle and bubble. Minerals, like iron oxides,color the mudpots leading to the name “paint pots.” I find myself taking a ridiculously large number of photos here on every visit, hoping to capture an unusual shape as the mud erupts.

A spire of mud
Intricate patterns in an erupting mud bubble
A combination of spire and bubble
Grand Prismatic Spring from the boardwalk, the largest hot spring in Yellowstone, and the third largest in the world.
I love the incredible sunrises and sunsets in Yellowstone, especially in winter. Here is a flame orange sunset toward the end of our trip.
Melissa looking at wolves at sunrise

The next posts will cover some of the amazing wildlife we encountered during our adventure…

Endings

For this final post on our recent winter trip to Yellowstone, I share a poem that Melissa wrote on a previous trip and read to our group while snowshoeing one day. It seems like an appropriate ending for this incredible journey.

Yellowstone (a poem by Melissa Dowland)

            I want so much

To connect ever deeper

            With this place;

            Idolized,

                        But perhaps rightly so.

            I want to feel

Home

            To become part

            Of all that I see

                        And hope

            That this special place

            Embodies

                        And is.

Is it home? Not home maybe.

            I want to become the

                        Person who’s home this is.

Who knows intimately

            Who connects deeply

Who embodies the wild freedom

Who glories in the spectacular

            And the common

Who loves deeply

            (who never dulls)

                        who lives courageously

                                    who embraces wonder

and who teaches others

            as this place itself teaches,

to connect

            to glory

                        to live

in that same way:

something larger than oneself

something as big as the whole world.

People on boardwalk

The boardwalk at Grand Prismatic Spring (click photos to enlarge)

Ice-covered trees at Grand Prismatic 2

Icy trees at Grand Prismatic

Dead trees at Upper Geyser Basin

Dead trees in the Upper Geyser Basin

Ephydrid flies and eggs

Ephydrid flies and their salmon-colored eggs in one of the thermal areas

Bull moose in snow

Bull moose at Round Prairie

snowy cow elk

Elk cow near the North entrance

snowy bison 1

Snowy bison face

Baby bison - late calf

A late-born bison calf, still sporting its reddish-orange coat

Lamar hills

Snowy hills in Lamar Valley

Rocky moutain bighorn ram at confluence

Bighorn ram near the Confluence

coyote that was chased by ranger

A coyote that had apparently been fed and was being harassed by a park ranger (moving toward it in her vehicle with flashing lights) in an attempt to keep it away from people

Elk resting in snow - cow and bull

Elk resting in a snow storm

Mule deer buck

Mule deer buck

Golden eagle

Golden eagle

Almost mature bald eagloe

Bald eagle (about 3 1/2 years old based on plumage)

Hayden Valley Highlight

At this season Nature makes the most of every throb of life that can withstand her severity. How heartily she endorses this fox!

~John Burroughs, “The Snow-Walkers”, 1866

Hayden Valley is one of my favorite spots in winter, with its gently rolling hills covered in deep, smooth snow, interrupted only by an isolated tree here and there and the tracks of some animal wandering across a seemingly endless blanket of white. As our snow coach pulled away from the river’s edge and started to climb a hill, we saw another coach headed our way that had stopped, photographers out along the road. Moving steadily away from them (and us) was a gorgeous red fox in great low angle winter light. The other group was headed back to their vehicle as we jumped out, and I admit I was frustrated that this beauty was soon to disappear over the hill toward the river.

Red fox in Hayden Valley

Red fox in Hayden Valley (click photos to enlarge)

We waited, and watched. In a short while, the fox came trotting back over the hill toward us and then plopped down in the snow, eyes squinting against the bright light, looking incredibly regal in its luxuriant fur coat.

Red fox sitting

The fox sat for a few minutes, surveying the scene

Most red foxes in the lower 48 states (especially East of the Rockies), are believed to be a subspecies introduced from Europe in the 1700 and 1800’s for hunting and fur farming. But, there are also native subspecies that occur at high elevations in Yellowstone (generally above 8000 feet in the park) and other northern regions. The latter tend to be lighter in color and are known as mountain foxes. This fox was full-on red – an incredibly beautiful animal, and the scene we were lucky enough to see it in was equally stunning.

Red fox looking back

As it moved across the snow, the light brought out the rich colors of the fox’s fur

Red fox in deep snow

Though it usually was able to walk on top of the snow, the fox sank deep at one point and paused for a few seconds

As we walked along the road, the fox moved steadily across the snow field. Periodically, it paused, and I kept hoping for the classic fox snow pounce, an arching leap ending with a head plunge into the snow to grab an unsuspecting creature tunneling beneath the white surface. But, it never happened.

Red fox walking on snow

The fox continued walking, stopping occasionally to sniff and listen

The closest we got was a nose plunge, but I’ll take it. Fox sightings have increased over the years since the reintroduction of wolves. Wolves keep coyote numbers in check, Coyotes kept fox numbers down. Fewer coyotes, more foxes.

Red fox sticking snout in snow close up

It paused, looked down, and stuck its snout into the snow

Red fox sitting in snow

Finding nothing, the fox sat back and looked around

red fox strolling through snow as it leaves us

After glancing back our way, this beautiful animal headed back over the hill

These are the moments that stay with me, the chance to observe a beautiful wild creature going about its life, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. It is a rare treat enhanced by the fact that it happened in a spectacular location and was shared with good friends. How lucky for us all.

 

Sharing The Place We Love

Through the weeks of deep snow we walked above the ground on fallen sky…

~Wendell Berry

After a few days of hanging out with our friends in Gardiner and exploring the park on our own, we drove to Bozeman to pick up a group of friends from NC that would be joining us on our Yellowstone adventure. We both love sharing wild places with people and we have been fortunate to do it as part of our careers for many years. Sharing a love of place with others makes your own sense of place even stronger and more satisfying.

img_6440

Devil’s Slide just outside the northern entrance to Yellowstone (click photos to enlarge)

Cloudy skies and light snow greeted our group as we drove towards the park, but there is a stark beauty in this landscape that those conditions tend to intensify. The crisp air gives more detail to the land than we are used to back home and the vastness provides a humbling backdrop to any outdoor experience.

Pronghorn along dirt road

Pronghorn along the road into Yellowstone

We drove in on the dirt road that starts at the bridge over the Yellowstone River at Corwin Springs, a route we had never taken before, but that will probably be our go-to route in the future. It passes through some sagebrush and grasslands and is a haven for wildlife, like pronghorns, that migrate out of the park in winter to avoid the deep snow. You pass through some private property along the roadside and finally enter the park after a couple of miles. Right before we entered the park, we saw what would be our third ermine for the trip (amazing!). Unfortunately, we never managed a decent image of these beautiful little weasels as they are very fast and often disappear under the snow or in a log jam. One of our friends did grab a phone pic but all you see is a little white blur on the surrounding snow-free landscape.

rooseveltarch

Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance

We have a long tradition of driving through the iconic Roosevelt Arch on our first and last days in Yellowstone, stopping on the way in to admire its architecture and engraved words – For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People. Those words are from the National Parks Organic Act that established Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The arch rises 50 feet and is constructed of columnar basalt rocks quarried nearby. President Theodore Roosevelt was visiting the park while the arch was being built and ceremoniously laid the cornerstone in 1903 and was thereby honored by having it named after him. It is a dramatic feature on the landscape and a powerful emblem of the value of what Ken Burn’s called “America’s Best Idea”, our national parks. And this year was a particularly poignant one for the parks. I want to take this opportunity to thank all the park employees (and all other Federal workers) that were furloughed for so long in the government shutdown. By the time we arrived, many had been called back to duty without pay to maintain the safety of the parks’ resources and visitors. This is a dedicated group of people that performed professionally in spite of the crazy politics of our time.

Mule deer at entrance

Mule deer near Arch

Adjacent to the Arch were a few mule deer lying among the golden grasses, their huge ears surveying the scene. It is always a good sign to be greeted in such a beautiful fashion as you enter.

Snowy bison face

Snowy bison face

Our first full day with our friends was spent traveling the northern range looking for wildlife on our way to visit our friends in Silver Gate, the Hartman’s. The fresh snow made for some photogenic portraits of the wildlife we saw, mainly bison and herds of elk.

Bulll elk in snow

Large bull elk feeding in snow

A large bull elk drew a crowd at one point along the road. The down side of a fixed telephoto lens is you may have a hard time fitting it all in the frame if the animal is not off in the distance. A vehicle had run off the road at this point and was trying to shovel out so there was no place to park. We dropped our friends off to enjoy the view of this magnificent bull, drove a ways, turned around and picked them back up in time to see a furloughed park employee helping the stuck vehicle out of the ditch. In Silver Gate, I grabbed my camera as we walked up to our friends’ house as they often have a great variety of birds at their feeders in winter.

Pine grosbeak male

Male pine grosbeak

Once again, the fixed lens proved a difficult choice as the birds darted back and forth among the feeders a short distance away from the window where I stood.

Gray jay

Canada jay (formerly called gray jay)

Stellar's jay

Stellar’s jay

I did finally manage a decent image of the stunningly brilliant Stellar’s jay, a bird of the high elevation spruce-fir forests in this region.

Clark's nutcracker

Clark’s nutcracker

Red squirrel

Red squirrel

Other creatures also visit the feeder area, including red squirrels, the occasional wild turkey, red foxes, and pine martens. They also have flying squirrels and various owls checking out the area on occasion.

Snowshoeing

Friends snowshoeing behind Dan and Cindy’s house

After a show of some of Dan and Cindy’s incredible wildlife photos and videos, we headed out for the first of our snowshoe hikes on a trail behind the house. The fresh snow revealed tracks of martens, coyote, fox, ermine, and mice, along with some haystacks of pika up under some log overhangs.

weathered log in snow

Weathered log peeking out from the snow

The scenery in Silver Gate is breathtaking with high mountain peaks in every direction, coupled with small points of beauty all around.

Hike behind Dan's

Scene behind Dan and Cindy’s house

And snowshoeing is the perfect way to explore these woods, especially on a trail that has been walked before. It is easy and can be incredibly quiet when you stop to take it all in. Though it could be a tough life here, especially in winter, we all felt drawn to this place, to this lifestyle. Thank you, Dan and Cindy, for sharing it with us.

Next post…into the park’s interior.

The Place We Love

Sometimes you look at an empty valley like this, and suddenly the air is filled with snow. That is the way the whole world happened – there was nothing, and then…

~William Stafford

We have returned from our special place – Yellowstone. Not all of us is back. We seem to always leave a little of each of us there to soak it in, to be ready to relive it at the slightest opportunity. Winter in Yellowstone is truly magical and we were lucky to spend ten days in our paradise.

Cottonwoods in mist vertical

Winter scene with fog in Lamar Valley (click photos to enlarge)

The trip had been planned for over a year, with NC friends joining us for a while, and Melissa and I out there on our own a few days, spending some time with some of our Yellowstone friends. This is the first of a few posts on the trip, this one being the first few days before our NC friends joined us. The forecast looked snowy for most of our time, with only occasional breaks for sun. Forecasts can be iffy in Yellowstone, but this one turned out to be pretty accurate. The region needs snow, as it is only about 50% of the normal amount on the ground for this time of year in many places.

Dead snag at Hitching Post

Dead snag near Hitching Post on the edge of Lamar Valley

Our first few days were spent traveling the Northern Range from Gardiner, MT (where our friends live) to Silver Gate and Cooke City (where other friends live). This is the only roadway open to cars in winter due to the isolated communities outside the Northeast entrance that would otherwise be cut off due to deep snows in the mountain passes to the East.

Bull elk

A couple of big boys in a band of bull elk chillin’ in the snow

We saw the usual wildlife in the lower elevations – bison and elk – with larger herds of elk (especially cows, young bulls, and young of the year) than I have seen in a few years. As usual, we ran into a few bands of bulls peacefully hanging out together, even though they had battled fiercely for dominance just a few months ago.

ungulate paths

The snow reveals the well-worn paths of countless mammals that have moved through this valley over the years

Round Prairie

Round Prairie

 

Reports online had indicated this is a good year for moose, especially in the area known as Round Prairie, out past the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley.

Moose and calf lying down

A pair of moose relaxing in Round Prairie

Our first full day confirmed that – a total of five moose seen on out first visit out there. Two (possibly a cow and her calf from this year) were fairly close to the road bedded down. They seemed quite at ease until a young bull sporting only one antler (it is antler shedding time for moose) passed through, seemingly intent on something in the woods beyond the resting pair. They sprang up and stared in the direction he had disappeared.

Moose and calf standing

Something has their attention

We never saw the object of all their attention but they soon calmed down and moved on to browse on vegetation sticking up out of the deepening snow. We were standing along the roadside when a truck pulled up, said something about the moose out in the meadow and then mentioned, “you know you have a moose up on the hill behind you, don’t you?”.

Moose coming down hill

Indeed, there is a moose above us on the ridge

We looked behind us, and there it was, a huge moose standing along the ridge line, looking out toward Round Prairie. It was what one photographer out there called a “silver dollar moose” – a bull that has recently dropped its antlers, leaving two large circles of bone exposed on the head.

Moose coming down hill 2

Coming down the hill in deep snow

The moose quickly came down the hill, moving gracefully through the drifted snow. Large hooves, long legs, and a special gait (due to the ability to swing out their legs over the snow) allow moose to move through deep snow more efficiently than most ungulates (hoofed mammals). This one made its way down the hill, across the road, and into the forest in a matter of seconds.

One of Melissa’s goals on this trip was to cross country ski on our first few days, so we headed up the Tower Road, a groomed ski trail. My sore leg didn’t care for that activity, so she went solo on her next two trips, with me being her shuttle and waiting for wildlife in the interim.

Old bison in winter

An old bull bison that may not make it through this winter

I hung out for a time at Soda Butte, where an old bull bison seemed not long for this world. A visitor told me a coyote had been sitting with it most of the morning, waiting its turn for a possible buffet. When I arrived, the coyote was across the road trying to extract a morsel form an old wolf-killed elk carcass. A pair of magpies kept hopping up on the old bull, wondering when they might have a chance at feeding. When one hopped on its face (they often go for the eyes on a fresh carcass), the bull shook its head to let us all know he wasn’t through quite yet.

Coyote

This coyote came toward the old bison by walking right past a few of us

The coyote then decided to come back to the bison and check in. But, to our surprise, it chose a path that took it right past a small group of us standing at the pullout.

 

Coyote approaching road 1

Coyote made a bee line for the opposite side of the road, but we happened to be nearby

Coyote looking sideways

Something catches its attention away from us

Once across the road, it went over, checked on the bull, and then walked away, stopping to listen for unknown sounds in the snow.

Aspens in Little America

Aspens in Little America

The first few gray days were broken only occasionally by brief bursts of sunlight. The snow fell each day, a light, fluffy snow that accumulated faster than seemed possible.

Little America

Most days had at least a sliver of sunlight to illuminate the landscape for a few minutes

Bighorn ram

Bighorn sheep ram at the confluence (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We drove back and forth along the Northern Range, watching wildlife (including scope views of wolves in Lamar Valley), with Melissa skiing through some gorgeous scenery, and me taking in the features of the landscape, from huge mountains, to wildlife, to delicate plant stems posing above the increasingly thick white blanket covering the ground. More in the next post…

Cross country skiing

Melissa’s cross country skiing backdrop

Seed heads in snow

Even the small things are beautiful if you stop to look

Join me in Yellowstone this January

Yellowstone in the summer changed my life. Revisiting in the winter was like going back to an old friend’s house when all the guests have gone home and you get to sit in the den and have long quiet conversations with the residents.

~Mike Leonard, a teacher that experienced Yellowstone in both summer and winter

Hayden Valley

Hayden Valley in winter (click photos to enlarge)

Join me from January 15-21, 2015, for an unforgettable trip to Yellowstone National Park. Winter is my favorite season in the park – the snow-draped landscape is gorgeous, the wildlife is abundant and easier to see than in summer, and with fewer visitors, it is like having your on personal park. Don’t let the thought of the cold temperatures and snow deter you – participants will get detailed information on what to bring, and it really isn’t anything that special, just layers of what you might wear outdoors in winter in North Carolina. Time is short and space is limited. More details can be found on the trip page.

If you have any questions, please contact me at roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com.

Here are a few images from previous winter trips.

Bison in snow

Bison after plowing in snow for grasses

Firehole River remains ice free

Firehole River remains ice free all winter due to thermal runoff

Coyote along Madison River

Coyote along Madison River

Hikers in a geyser basin

Hikers in a geyser basin

Wolf pack in snow

Wolf pack in snow in Lamar Valley

Magic mist

Mist in Lamar Valley on an icy morning

Moose valley

Moose valley

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep ram

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep ram

Icy trees at Mud Volcano

Icy trees at Mud Volcano