It's that time of year again. The hawthorne trees have ripened and several Black Bear families have descended on the Moose-Wilson road to vacuum feed on berries until it's time for the long winter nap. Bears are common this time of year on this road, so we were not surprised to see a bear but seeing a bear cub walk out of the woods, casually collect a road-killed chipmunk and return to the woods is not a common sight. There was no mother in sight, nor any siblings, just a young bear exploring the world and finding food alone, which is how it will spend most of its life. Of all the bears that I saw along that road this year I do believe this was the only bear that I saw eating meat. A great sighting that yielded great photos for guests thanks to the custom roof hatches on our Mercedes Sprinter.
The day that we all have been waiting for has come and gone. Truly an unforgettable experience. I can still see that glowing ring in the sky if I think about it. WTOW led its first daytime astronomy program from the roof of the Teton Mountain Lodge. We had about 50 ppl. in attendance and some guests had seen several eclipses before. I spent the first half of partiality making sure everyone's cameras were set how they wanted and gave some tips about what to do during totality. We were privileged to have a real NASA scientist in the crowd, she was kind enough to share her expertise about telescopes with the other guests on the roof. As totality approached we felt the air cool down and an eerie twilight came over the entirety of Jackson Hole. The air began to refract light and make it sparkle like it does on the bottom of a swimming pool. Then it happened, a loud roar from the crowd punctuated totality as all in attendance stared upward, their gaze transfixed on the glowing ring in the sky. Before long, a burst of light came from the edge of the sun. At this moment, you could hear a clatter of continuous camera shutter noise coming from the roof. Most guests spent the second half of the eclipse popping bottles and reminiscing about the recent event. After the eclipse had passed I headed home with surprisingly light traffic.
In 2014 the NPS released several Trumpeter Swans into Hayden Valley in hopes that they would like it enough to bring back mates the following year. It ended up working and for the last 2 years there have been successful swan broods. We always stop for a few moments to see the swans of Hayden if they are visible, they are beautiful creatures with a wonderful story. However, guest rarely go nuts over the cygnets. Babies of most other species will elicit some sort of high pitched, squeaky, animal cuteness noise from the back of the van, but cygnets rarely do. They have a bit of an awkward teenager look to them at all times. Today, like most days we focused on getting great images of the adults and largely left the cygnets alone. The swans in this part of the park are quite used to sharing their space with humans and will let visitors get fairly close without showing any change in their behavior. Each year there seems to be more Trumpeter Swans in YNP, I'm hoping this trend continues.
Seeing the big ticket items during the busy season can be a challenge. There has always been a good way to beat the crowds and parking disasters associated with Grand Prismatic Spring. You park south of the spring and take the Fairy Falls trail to a short scramble and a wonderful view. This season the trail has been closed as the NPS finishes a more formal trail to an improved observation platform. I must say it was worth the wait. The new trail has a nice manageable grade that makes it possible for everyone visitors to enjoy this vista. The platform is a little small, but they did a great job of picking a location. The stroll took us about 40 minutes round trip and was very well received by todays guests who volunteered to test out the new trail with me.
Todays trip was a photo safari. We had a cool morning of patchy clouds and ethereal sunbeams. After shooting some inspiring images of the Teton range in morning light, we headed to the National Elk Refuge to get images of ground squirrels and birds in flight. Swallows are moving northbound in flocks this time of year and were feeding like crazy on small flies that were hatching on Flat Creek. The overcast sky made the water seem smooth and oily with the fast shutter speeds needed to freeze the swallows in flight. We saw five different species of swallow today and all three guests on this private excursion got great images of them in flight!
Though winter is my favorite season, mid-June is one of the finest times of year to be in Yellowstone country. Rivers are flowing high, animals are moving into their summer ranges, and early season wildflowers are about to peak. On tour today we made an especially long stop at a pullout in Hayden Valley, overlooking the Yellowstone River. Large groups of elk were swimming across the flooded river moving southbound. Waterfowl and raptors were flying in every direction we looked. So we just sat and looked at it for a really long time; and by "it", I mean everything. We just soaked in the amazing show that the life of this planet was putting on. Sometimes at this point in the day guests are eager to have lunch or hurry off to Old Faithful. Not today's group. We watched small and large bands of elk appear one after the other and swim to the other side of the swollen Yellowstone. It was like many small trains were all coming down the same track. By June 18th the park is busy, there's no doubt about that, but you can almost always find a good show and some peace of mind right next to the road.
Ran a special trip of both the lower and upper loops of YNP today. We were on a mission to see a wolf den along Slough Creek that was giving some wonderful views of pups playing on the front porch. Spring was in the air. Mother bison had their new babies out on display, with several large groups spread all throughout Lamar Valley. We must have stopped a half dozen times for adorable baby bison moments in Lamar alone. We made it to the den site where several other wolf watchers were gathered. One of the black adults was sitting near the den site, but there were no pups visible when we arrived. I got the scopes set up, served a round of drinks and reminded the guests that waiting around for an hour would probably yield some nice views of the pups. It took about 45 minutes for the pups to emerge from the den, but we ended up getting about 15 minutes of puppy playtime before they went back down below. We only saw three that day but they were playing an adorable pouncing and wrestling game that involved an elk antler chew toy that an adult wolf had brought to the den site. Lots of great baby sightings of many species on this day, so nice when you get to see both loops in a single day.
Uinta Ground Squirrels are a becoming a common sight in Jackson Hole these days. They have awoken after nearly 7 months of hibernation and are running about looking for mates and establishing territories. I often tell folks that this little rodent is possibly the most important animal in the entire GYE, why? Because everything eats it. Red-tailed Hawks plan their nesting cycle around them, Coyote mothers enrich their milk with them, and weasels like the Badger survive on a diet of mostly Ground Squirrel. In fact, 80% of all Uinta Ground Squirrels die in their first year. Because of this they are always ready to run to their burrows at the first sign of danger and can often be seen standing lookout on top of Sagebrush ready to sound the alarm.
Recent rains and warm temperatures have melted all of the snow on the floor of Jackson Hole. Elk that have stayed close by to the feeding areas for the last 2 months have begun to spread out and explore new areas to forage on the refuge. Bull Elk have started to shed their antlers as well. These massive hunks of discarded bone are becoming a frequent sight as are elk that are sporting only one antler on their head. The number of wintering Elk using the refuge was above average this year and refuge managers are hoping that this early thaw will encourage Elk to move away from areas that have become littered with a thick layer of droppings that could cause potential infections for some individuals. The Majority of the Elk on the refuge seem to be using the Poverty Flats area to forage, an area that they must share with several hundred Bison.
After two weeks of above average temperatures winter weather returns to Jackson Hole. Much of the open water on the NER has refrozen and left the waterfowl with less room to forage. Many of the Trumpeter Swans that were near the highway just a week ago are now gathered together in the ponds next to the Miller House. Trumpeter Swans, Barrow's Goldeneyes, Mallards, and Gadwall are all a common sight on the refuge this week. Trumpeter Swans are just about the heaviest bird that can still lift off the ground and all of that extra meat and feathers go a long way to keeping these birds warm on the cold nights in late winter.
Muskrats are not rats at all they are actually the largest member of the vole family. They are also not an animal that we are specifically hunting for on our safaris. However, when cute mammals are nearby we will always stop and have a look. This pair of Muskrats were feeding on Cattail stems near the Flat Creek turnout. They also spent some time grooming themselves and each other before swimming off to gather more food. The warm weather in Jackson Hole this February has melted the ice on flat creek. Swans, ducks, and other critters have returned to take advantage of the open water.
On this evenings tour we spotted 9 Wolves near Kelly Warm Springs. They were resting on a snow covered hillside near the edge of a thin aspen stand. We watched through the spotting scope for a while and eventually noticed that there appeared to be a solid line of tracks running from the wolves to our location. Our group took a small walk on the snow to see if the line of tracks nearby was that of the Wolves. We were rewarded with some great looks at enormous paw prints crossing over packed snow. It gave everyone a very special and wild feeling to be standing where Wolves had recently been.
The USFWS began its supplemental feeding program a little early this year. Heavy snow, cold temps, and a nasty ice layer in the snowpack were the justification. The NER gives the Elk about half of the forage they need per day which leaves time extra curricular activities like sparring. Many of the bull Elk seen on the refuge today were killing time by practicing their sparring skills with a partner. They are not very aggressive in the winter like you would see during the fall rut, instead they are just practicing the basics and conserving energy for the long road ahead. Todays tour included a ride on a sleigh which brought us up close and personal with some of the bigger bull Elk wintering on the refuge
The winter of 2016/17 has been especially harsh thus far. Above average snowfall and extremely cold temperatures have taken a toll on the ungulates wintering in Jackson Hole. The National Elk Refuge is littered with the remains of Elk, Sheep, and Pronghorn who were not strong enough to survive. This is a boon to Eagles, Ravens, and Magpies who now have easy to access protein buffet laid out on the valley floor. On todays trip there were over 50 Bald Eagles seen feeding and flying about on the Elk Refuge. Eagles don't really play nice so scenes like the one in the photo were common. Eagles attacking Eagles, Ravens waiting their turn, and Coyotes moving around from carcass to carcass to get the freshest pieces of meat to feed on. There were many carcasses within 50 yards of Elk Refuge Rd. making for incredible viewing with binoculars and naked eyes.
The up close Moose sighting. It makes you feel small, it makes you feel a little wilder than you did just a moment before. This is what we strive for on every trip! Seeing the wildlife of GTNP and YNP up close but far enough away that they are behave naturally. We watched a mother Moose and her calf feeding on twigs and brush for quite a while. We approached in a slow and non-threatening manner and once we established a little trust we opened our custom roof hatches and captured great images of this pair bathed in the golden evening sunlight. Moose calves rely on their mother heavily their first year. Cow Moose show their calves where to feed, how to avoid predators, and they even share specialized digestive bacteria from their stomachs by putting saliva on branches their calf is about to feed on. Everyone can appreciate a good mother, because just like Moose we needed help surviving in our early years as well.