Friday, July 5, 2013

What a 4th of July This Was!

Not your typical 4th of July.  We are in Yellowstone at Tower Falls General Store.  This is our favorite part of the park and it has not let us down one bit.

Today's 4th of July celebration started off with a bang.  We got up at 4:30am and were out the door shortly after 5.  We wanted to get over to Lamar Valley as there has been a lot of bear and wolf activity recently.

Not even a mile after our departure we came across a moose!!  We have not seen one in the park since we honeymooned here almost 30 years ago.

The local story goes that the  great fires of 1988 drove the moose from the park.  They apparently decided that they liked where they went and so never returned.  Is that true?  Who knows.  All I can say is that all last season and for the past three weeks we have seen absolutely no evidence of moose in the park.  Outside the park - that's another story.  We have seen them just out the east gate towards Cody and also in the south near the Tetons.

We have heard a few visitors say they saw some moose.  Are the moose (mooses, meece?) returning?

Needless to say, we were shocked to see this young cow within a mile of our parking area.

We were crawling through the construction area that is redoing the main road this year and I looked over in a small clearing.  We have seen black bears a couple times in this particular clearing so I was not surprised to see something move.  I exclaimed to Robin "Is that a moose??!!"  We stopped in the middle of the road, a la regular tourists (visitor driving hi jinks could fill many blog posts some other time.) Fortunately, there were no other cars within miles so we knew we weren't going to obstruct any traffic.  I hadn't even gotten the camera out of its case yet.  We were caught completely unaware.

I jumped out and sure enough, it was a young cow.  She was not comfortable with our stopping and had begun trotting up the hill to our rear.  We only got to watch her for a couple moments but we "Ooohed and Awwwd" at our own 4th of July celebration.

We both commented that no one was going to believe us when we tell them.  You know what they say "No pictures?  It didn't happen..."

What an exciting beginning to the most incredible wildlife viewing day of our lives so far.

Bears, Ducks and Wolves.  Oh, My!!

We drove out to Lamar Valley. The spot where bears and wolves have recently been viewed is near the eastern end of the valley.  There is a bison carcass they have been feeding on for about a week.

We got to the area shortly after 5:30 and were surprised to see a considerable number of cars on the sides of the road.  The carcass lies in a spot that is marked "No Parking and No Standing." That forces  watchers to gather literally right on the edge of the boundaries with spotting scopes and huge camera lenses pointed as best they can at the carcass.  The no-access section is about a mile long.  The road winds along the base of a hill.  The terrain was formed by Soda Butte Creek.  The carcass is right on the creek bank about 50 yards off the road.

When we approached the carcass spot I could see a grizzly working on it.  Because we could not stop, we passed on about a mile and then turned around to return and join the many viewers.

We decided that there were really no good spots to park so we drove to the opposite boundary point.  We parked at a pullout a couple hundred yards from the main viewing crowd.  Robin opted to remain in the truck.  She knew what was coming - I was headed toward a group of strangers.  She knows they will not be strangers for long.  She likes me to warm up the crowd and then she joins a bit later.  She is initially a bit uncomfortable in crowds so she lets me work on them first.  Hey, no problem for me!!

I approached the crowd and started looking through my binoculars.  There was a rise that blocked the view of the carcass.  Rats!  Then low and behold, I saw a big grizz approaching from the south.  Uh oh!  One already on the carcass and another big guy approaching.  What are we going to see?  Will there be fur flying?  Will the smaller one (the first on the carcass) high tail it out?  Nope -- apparently these guys were buddies.

As I said, we could not actually see them working the carcass but a relatively short time later we saw them head upstream.  They walked together.  They stopped a couple times and seemed to be checking each other out.  They touched noses, they played a bit and then crossed the stream.  I watched all this through the binocs.  Sure wish I had a good telephoto lens.  When they crossed the creek the sun was reflecting on the water and they were silhouetted.  We watchers remarked that it was a great picture.

Anyway, we watched them amble about and mildly play for about an hour.

Many of the viewers were hard-core wolf watchers.  They said that part of the local pack had been there a bit earlier.  Rats again!  We missed them.

I was kind of eavesdropping on their conversation when one of them called another "Laurie."  I recently joined a web site that gives daily updates on wolf activity.  The main player is a gal named Laurie.  Hmmm.  Is this her?

I walked over and said I heard someone call her Laurie.  I asked if she was the wolf gal on the website.  It was!

This started an informative conversation about the wolf situation in the park.  Wolves were "delisted" fairly recently.  That means they are no longer on the endangered species list.  There has actually been a hunting season as a result.  This has had a significant impact on the local wolf population.  Needless to say, the passion of the wolfers is amazing.  Laurie gave a compelling discussion on the situation.  She is understanding of the hunt process and the efforts to control the population but she is also upset that wolves outside the park are being killed.  Park wolves know no boundaries.  Hence, there has been a strong impact on the park population which has also been severely lessened by some natural events such as disease in recent years.

I could go on but I don't want to get into the ethics of hunting and, frankly, I don't know enough about it to really present much.  I am sure that if I were to talk to local outfitters or ranchers, they could give equally good pointers supporting the process.  We'll save that for another day.  But, it really was fun meeting Laurie and observing her and her friends talk about the different wolves as if they are all family.

Wolves with electronic collars have been assigned identification numbers which have become their names, just as our Sadie, Ebony and Teddy had their names.

Watcher conversations go something like this:

"Hey, did you see 439 the other day?  He looked great and is really interested in 236."

Now, others that are not collared are typically referred to by a generic name.  Another snippet may go something like:

"I saw the Big Gray Alpha sniffing around little 462.  238 did not like it but what is he going to do?  Big Gray Alpha will take him in a heartbeat."

Fun stuff.  These are some really neat people.

"I'm Gonna Get Me A Duck."

The two grizzlies visited and romped for a while.  All the sudden the smaller one started chasing a duck.  The duck looked like it was injured.  It would flap on the water for a bit with Small Grizz in pursuit.  The duck kept a safe distance but would not fly away.  It just flapped on the water and appeared to be fleeing.  We thought it may have been injured.  Occasionally it would take flight for a moment.

Small Grizz pursued Duck for about 20 minutes, Duck all the time keeping a safety margin.  We all started asking if perhaps the duck was taunting the bear.  Maybe Duck had a nest somewhere and was luring Small Grizz away.

It got quite comical as Small Grizz seemed a bit slow in the head, if you get my drift.

For a while we thought we could hear him slowly saying "dum dum dee dum, I'm a gonna get me a duck!  Hee Hee".  Repeated times he got close only to have the duck flap away.  They even disappeared into the tall grass along the creek. The duck suddenly popped out in the air and you could see the grass moving as Small Grizz gave chase.

At one point the chase got within about 50 yards of where our group of around 30 people watched spell bound.

Park guidelines state that viewers should get no closer than 100 yards to a bear.  Apparently no one told the bear but he was so focused on his elusive duck that he paid us no mind.

A couple times he had to stop and catch his breath.  He was really trying to catch that duck.  You could almost see the wheels turning, albeit slowly, as he wondered what the heck was going on.

You could even hear the duck quacking at him. It was hilarious.  Laurie said she had never seen anything like it.

Eventually, Small Grizz gave up and Duck went on its way.

Lots of Bear Activity

Earlier in the morning while Big Grizz and Small Grizz were working on the carcass there was another grizzly sow and a young cub on a hillside about 1/2 mile away.  We watched them for a while but they disappeared into a thicket and we never saw them again.  We all hoped they would approach the carcass but alas, they did not.

Also, earlier on the same hillside we had observed a cinnamon colored black bear ambling about.  I suspect he moved on when the grizz sow and her cub approached.

And - Later after the duck episode we saw another black bear way off in the distance to the north.  It never even indicated an interest in the carcass.  Amazing stuff.  I have never seen so much bear activity.

Wolves - OH, My!!

Yesterday, I met an Interpretive Ranger named Bill who was giving an impromptu lecture on wolves at the picnic tables outside the store.  We briefly talked about Interpretive Ranger work and some other things.  He is a high school teacher and spends his summers here as an interp.  Cool.

Lo and behold. Who is working crowd control this morning but Bill!  He really had his hands full with people not adhering to the no access boundaries.

A bit later he walked by and whispered "Wolves!"

What? Where?  He said they were by the next pullout area up the road.  I headed for the truck.  I looked up and here came Robin - Yay!

See, I knew she'd come along.  She had been observing as best she could from the truck.  She had even climbed on top of the camper for a while - smart lady - probably one of the best vantage points there was.

I shared Bill's information.  We jumped in the truck and zipped over to the next pullout, about a mile away.  Sure enough, there were four wolves under a tree about 75 yards distant.  I say four, but we only saw two.  We were told there were four.  The crowd was growing so they moved over the ridge and that was that, but still, finally seeing wild wolves that close was really something.  The two we saw were one gray and one black.  Neat!

Breakfast and Another Grizz!!!

By now it was near 9:30 or 10am.  We had not eaten.  We were near the northeast entrance to the park so we headed out and over to the town of Silver Gate which is right on the boundary.  At the restaurant we visited first with a gal riding her Harley with some other women who are members of a large, women-only motorcycle organization.  She has traveled across the country on her 1998 retired police Harley.

When she left a family of three sat down at her vacated table.  Because we were sitting outside, the truck was parked closeby.  The father asked the surrounding tables who owned the truck and camper.   Well, you know what happened next...

We had a fun visit with them about their travels.  They are possibly interested in our camper when we are ready to sell it (BTW - that is another story - hang on!!)

They are visiting from Chattanooga, TN and thoroughly love the area - how could anyone not!

Encounters like this combined with a setting that leaves us speechless make us feel so blessed to be able to live and play as we do.  We are thankful every day.

After breakfast we headed back to the motorhome.  We wanted to put some water in the camper's fresh water tank and we needed to dump the camper's holding tanks.  I told Robin that there is convenient dump station at Canyon.  It is 15 miles south of us and we would get to go over Dunraven pass.  "Let's go!" she replied.

The wildflowers are nothing short of spectacular right now.  The drive was magnificent and the dump was, well - it was a dump - but we all felt better.

I observed that since we were so close to Hayden Valley, how about we head there and see what we can see.  I had heard that there was a grizz over there recently.  Off we went.

Again, we were treated to a spectacular grizzly.  He was HUGE and a very fluffy light brown color.

He was about 1/2 mile off the road in a sagebrush field.  He ambled about for a bit and then seemed to pick up the scent of something.  He pointed his nose to the north and started moving in that direction.  There were about 20 bison with some calves roughly 1/4 mile from him. They must have been watching because when he headed in their direction they took off.

He followed his nose for a hundred yards or so and then turned to the west and followed a stream until it wound behind a rise and we lost sight of him.

What a day!!!  Without a doubt our best wildlife day ever - so far.  Were we "Chasin' our Dreams?"  You betcha.

Sorry, no pictures.  I was so engrossed I did not get any.  Plus, the distances probably would not have borne good pics.  I'll try getting some tomorrow.  We are getting up even earlier so we can be back at the carcass when the sky lightens at 4:30am.  3:30am alarm - here we go!!

Stay tuned!!!