On our move day at Yellowstone National Park, we drove through seven miles of construction, which turned to mud due to recent rains. This was one of the reasons we chose to relocate, to avoid driving through construction zones more than once. And we wanted to be closer to the Lamar Valley in order to see more Yellowstone wildlife.
We stayed at the Mammoth Campground, near the North entrance to the park, which is the original entrance to the park. Read my review of the campground here.
In the morning, there was a herd of elk cows running through the campground. Mammoth Hot Springs is home to many elk, and they hang out around the town and nearby areas.
The bison create traffic jams all the time, as they basically ignore the cars stacking up behind them.
There is one particular bridge that crosses a river above a steep canyon on the way to Tower-Roosevelt that the bison use all the time. And it is best to sit back and enjoy the sights (and the bison) while they are crossing.
We spotted black bears right away, including sows with cubs. During this second half of our visit to the park, we saw at least four different sows with cubs, and that is assuming we saw a couple of the same ones more than once.
One sow had two tiny black cubs, just adorable. The three of them were a bit far off. These little cubs were born late this winter so were only about three months old.
I still remember mama walking out of the forest into a clearing, alone for a while. Then when she was about halfway out into the open the two little ones literally bounded out after her. They just bounced and rolled along after her. At one point, she sent them up a tree for a bit, then returned to get them. It was great fun to watch them.
The next sow we saw had three black cubs; yearlings. Cubs stay with their mothers for about a year and a half. These were not quite as playful as the other two, they were a more focused on eating, but every now and then two played together a bit. Mama ran a little and all three followed. I love the fact that the cubs stick really close to their mothers.
There were some media reports and a You-Tube video circulating recently that we think featured these four. Visitors had somehow come between the sow and her cubs and she was running around gathering them and making sure the people steered clear of them.
Some media reports named this an “attack” but if you look at the video the black bear does not ever run directly at anyone. Instead, she runs sideways next to them, it is simply a way to keep them separate from her cubs.
It is sad that people are careless and allow themselves to get between a bear and her cubs and also sad that it was reported as an attack.
Another animal that fascinates us are the pronghorn, also found throughout this area. Although thought of as a type of antelope, the pronghorn is the sole surviving species of a family of North American hoofed animals that dates back 20 million years.
They are the fastest land mammals in North America and thus have no predators. The now extinct North American cheetah used to be its main predator and hold the title of the fastest in North America.
The pronghorn also have a mass migration of 150 miles in the winter to slightly warmer weather.
More wildlife sightings included bighorn sheep, what looked like two very young ones, and mule deer, also known as black-tailed deer, including one that looked like a baby that ran off as Hector tried to photograph her.
We rose before dawn several mornings to go look for wolves. There is a dedicated group of people, some that visit every year looking for wolves and grizzly bears. Both wolves and grizzly bears had been spotted eating off a buffalo carcass over in Slough Creek in the Hayden Valley.
Our carcass watching did not pan out, but we did spot one gray wolf across the way one morning. There is a ranger that is the wolf specialist who is out at dawn with a scope who let me look through his scope at the beautiful gray wolf. She too was a bit far, but Hector managed a couple of photographs of this impressive animal. Unfortunately, this was the only wolf we saw.
But we did see the impact of the reintroduction of wolves all around us. Before the wolves, the elk were abundant and had grown lazy hanging around by the streams eating all day. After the wolves, suddenly they became elk again. Weaker animals were culled (lunch!) and they were on the move. This caused a “cascade” of impacts. The vegetation near the water grew taller, creating more habitat for songbirds. The taller vegetation cooled the water, bringing back more fish. Which brought back the osprey etc. The entire ecosystem benefited by the reintroduction of the top predator. This fascinating sequence is called a Trophic Cascade. Nature is so wonderful. Read a brief description here.
Heading further East in the Lamar Valley, we saw a big group of people looking out into the trees. There was a big bear, a grizzly based on his size, sleeping between two trees. I could barely make out his ears through my binoculars. Earlier reports of people who had seen him walking around said he was “Scarface” a very old grizzly who is collared. He caused much excitement.
On our return we watched an osprey hunting.
Photographers and wildlife watchers, I realized, are the “other wildlife” at the park. They gather along the roads and hills that are known to be good spots for wildlife with thousands and thousands of dollars worth of equipment. It is pretty astounding.
But those groups are great sources of information about where animals have been spotted, and that is how we found out about the great-horned owl and her babies. Turns out there is a great-horned owl nest that has been in a tree in the residential area of Mammoth Hot Springs for years. And she had babies once again.
This was exciting news and we made sure to stop there on our way back. And there was mama with her two owlets. Absolutely adorable. Since it was near our campground, we stopped several times, and most times the owlets were sitting up. Sometimes mama was there, sometimes not.
The second time we thought we spotted a marmot, further East on Lamar Valley, it turned out to be a badger, an animal we had never seen before.
On our last day at Yellowstone, we really wanted to see more bear cubs. No luck. Then towards the end of the day, we heard there were some cubs near Calcite Springs. We bumped into some nice folks we had met earlier at Slough Creek, and they told us the sow and cubs had just gone up hill and laid down, so we waited a while.
Black bears with cubs, grizzly bears, bison with calves, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, a wolf, a fox, coyote, marmot, badgers, eagles, osprey, hawks, ducks, sandhill cranes, herons, an owl with owlets, geese with goslings, mountain bluebirds – an embarrassment of riches!
A little later in spring might make for better weather, the elk have their babies later in May, and the wildflowers were just beginning to bloom, so a little later might also be prettier. But this was by far our best wildlife-viewing visit to this or any other national park.