Max’s Fall Trip Report, Days 2 & 3: September 24 & 25
A couple of patterns are emerging on this trip: fairly quiet mornings followed by exciting afternoons. Though we’re not seeing a high volume of animals, our days are punctuated by great encounters with more elusive species. If the whole week goes this way, it will be pretty remarkable. Unlikely, but a boy can dream. Yesterday was a perfect example of the way things have gone. The morning drive out to the NW corner of the park–Upper Terrace Drive, Swan Lake Flat, Sheepeater Cliff, Boundary Road–offered little in the way of excitement.We lunched at the Yellowstone Picnic Area before returning to the Lamar Valley. Finally, we had an excuse to stop. A sizable herd of pronghorn was in the middle of the valley near the Institute. Large herds of bison grazed nearby. The golden cottonwoods on the valley floor provided a nice backdrop for photos, and the pronghorns were active. Two bucks spent the majority of their time rounding up females, pursuing them with amorous intentions and occasionally getting in a tussle with each other.
We were pleased with the diversion, since we were planning a hike to Trout Lake but wanted to hold off until later in the afternoon. After the pronghorn show, we drove all the way to Round Prairie, in search of the moose trio that had been seen there in recent days. We stopped to chat with Jim C (who posts here on occasion) before turning back to commence with the Trout Lake hike.Expectations were low. It’s well after the peak otter activity there, and at this point I had not seen an otter at the lake since 2007(!), even though I keep trying every year in spring and fall when I’m in the park.We huffed and puffed and made it to the top of the trail. Out on the lake, several fisherman were in their small inflatable watercraft, casting away. Ryan and I took the usual circuit, starting the loop to the left and working our way around the shore. On the far side of the lake, we found a frog, notable only because it’s the first frog I’ve seen in the park in a decade. While we were shooting a few pictures, Ryan overheard one of the fishermen telling some other hikers on the far bank about an otter.
A peek through the camera lens confirmed that there was indeed an otter resting on a log below the trail! Slowly, we continued the loop until we approached it. As with most Trout Lake otters, this one was self-assured and paid us and the other onlookers very little heed. It spent most of its time preening. Unfortunately, the angle for photos was pretty poor, so we moved up the trail until we had a view down on its resting place.
The otter napped and preened… and never looked up at the camera, much to my chagrin. At last, it roused itself and slipped into the water. But it didn’t go far. Tiny bubbles quickly rose to the surface, and we could tell that the otter was swimming about under the log. It surfaced and submerged several times. The otter appeared to be scavenging or hunting, but I wasn’t sure what its prey was until it plopped onto the log and laid three small snails out for a snack. The otter proceeded to down them quickly and crunchily.
Though photos from the encounter weren’t great, it was a pleasure simply to see one at the lake again. Like our badger from the previous day, it was an unexpected treat this late in the year.
The whole time we were up at the lake, thunder echoed in the distance and an occasional lightning flash danced across the sky. We hustled down the trail in case the storm decided to head our way. Next, we stopped again at Round Prairie. The moose were out, but far off, and a ranger wasn’t allowing the group of photographers and visitors to approach the creek (which still would have left folks 50 yards away, at best, on the opposite side of the water from the moose). So we spent our time chatting, trading stories and sharing what few sightings we’d had in recent days. We were told that someone had just seen a great gray owl down near the usual meadow spot south of Canyon two days prior. This piqued our interest, since we were considering a drive toward Hayden soon, and it had been some time since I’d seen a great gray.
We departed for home, trying to plan when we’d trek south and look for the owl in the coming days. As we approached Upper Barronette, I thought I spied something in the tall grass on the left side of the road. I slowed down as we entered the clearing, searching in vain for the mystery shape that had caught my attention. Luckily, Ryan happened to glance at the opposite meadow. There, perched on a snag out in the meadow… a great gray owl!
Pretty exciting. It was Ryan’s first, and my first in three years. We set up in the meadow to wait it out and see if it would pounce on anything. We waited for some time, and it got darker and darker. I had snapped plenty of perching pictures, so I switched over to video mode briefly to get some footage. Naturally, that’s when the owl took off. It swooped slowly into the grass, a slow motion pounce that I failed to get any photos of.
The owl didn’t catch anything, and it soon flew up to a new perch. We waited again. It continued to get darker. At this point, I was cranking the camera’s ISO to 4000, in hopes of getting some semi-sharp photos of the owl in flight. This was a good test for my new camera body, the 1DX, which is purportedly Canon’s best high ISO performer to date. At this point, we were distracted by a coyote that entered the scene. I knew the coyote would likely spook the owl and cause it to fly, but why this had to happen the moment I looked down at the coyote, I don’t know.
So the owl moved on to another perch. Finally, I set the camera to ISO 6400 and waited for one more flight. The great gray finally obliged, and launched itself into the air.
I did get a couple shots from the sequence, but the owl swooped within 10 feet of our heads before circling around, so most of the sequence was blurry from being too close! Quite a moment nonetheless, and we finally left the meadow relishing the experience.
We chose to forgo a 4AM start that would be required to head down to Hayden Valley, instead opting for a return to the Beartooth Highway this morning. Mountain goats are still on my wishlist, and we also hoped for another weasel encounter.
My alarm didn’t go off, but the later-than-expected start didn’t matter. Yesterday’s thunderstorm had passed through in the night and the skies were gray all the way up the pass. Occasional sprinkles rained down on us, but the conditions didn’t seem too bad. Mountain goats had been seen by others over the last two days, so we figured we had a good shot. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out. We stopped at nearly every pullout near the top of the pass, peering over nearly every steep cliff face. Goatless!
Our backup plan was to return to our weasel spot from two days ago. We settled in among the multi-colored, lichen-covered boulders, and were almost instantly surrounded by a lot of pikas. Though I wasn’t itching for more pika pics, this spot makes it impossible not to take photos. The pink, gray and black rocks and variety of lichens and plant life make for a very colorful palette to work with. It’s definitely become my favorite spot for pikas from now on.
We stood there for over two hours, even being hailed on at one point, but our weasel never showed up. With memory cards full of pikas, we returned to Silver Gate for lunch. Pulled pork sandwiches at the Stop the Car Trading Post sure hit the spot on a cool, damp day.
Our afternoon session didn’t involve a lot of activity, but it went quite well. We rounded the bend past the Confluence in the Lamar and saw a line of photographers with their lenses trained downward toward the river. I thought maybe they had an otter on the shore, but instead it was another weasel!
We settled in for the next several hours, waiting for the sun (which was at a bad angle) and the wind to go away while the weasel hid under the rocks. Clouds rolled in and the weasel occasionally peeked out from its hiding spot. It sometimes ventured out cautiously into the surrounding grasses, nearly impossible to shoot from above during its brief forays. We were also briefly entertained by a garter snake that was lounging in the river, swimming about and even tolerating a trout that swam through its coils.
Finally, after a few hours, the weasel went on an extended excursion. It stuck mainly to the shore, largely out of sight, but occasionally came back to its “den” site. It was nice enough to pose out in the open briefly, giving us some decent close-ups.
Certainly my best weasel encounter to date, and a fantastic way to spend the afternoon. What goodies will tomorrow bring?