Wednesday, 26 August 2015

12th August - Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming - Day Two

Up at 5.00 am, away by 5.30, we headed back into the park not expecting to encounter much traffic, but ended up behind a low rider carrying construction equipment.  The road from Norris to Mammoth is under construction, and closed overnight, and this truck and trailer was headed there.

The sun does not rise until around 6.00 am, so it was dark as we followed the truck to the Madison Junction, but after that I was able to get past it, and we were able to move a little easier.  We were heading for the Lamar Valley, another area of open grassland that is considered to be the top wildlife viewing spot in the park.  Early morning is the best time to be there, as there is always the chance of seeing any of the big animals at that time.  It is though, at least 50 - 60 miles from the west entrance, so with a speed limit of 45 mph the early start was essential.  The weather though was a little disappointing with overcast skies, but a little warmer than the day before.

To Norris the road follows the Gibbon River, opening out in places to wide lush meadows, and then past steaming sulphur geysers.  From Norris we headed east to Canyon Junction where we turned north, past Mount Washburn, and over the Dunraven Pass at 8,859 feet, and then down towards Tower and the Roosevelt Junction.  As we came over the pass the sun was rising, and red light was making its way through the gaps in the cloud.



At the bottom of the valley is Antelope Creek, and the area is a prime Grizzly Bear site, but needless to say we never saw any sign of a single bear.

At the Junction we turn right and into a initial hilly landscape that consists of several kettle ponds, small lakes formed by the glaciers, but after some winding turns the road joins the mixed sage and grasslands of the Lamar Valley.  This is home to large herds of Bison, and Elk, along with the Pronghorn Antelope, but the bigger attraction is the possibility of seeing one of the several wolf packs that have set up territories.

However it was the Bison we first encountered close to the side of the road.



Feeding in the grass around the Bison were juvenile Cowbirds.  They pick up the seeds the Bison disturb as the make their way through the grass.


The rutting, or mating, season lasts from June through September, with peak activity in July and August. At this time, the older bulls rejoin the herd, and fights often take place between bulls. As we pulled over and I got out of the car, you could hear the grunts of the male Bison, as they pursued the many females.


Many of the females had young calves with them, and many of these had to move away as the older males moved in.



The herd we were watching was very restless, something that is encountered during the breeding season. The animals appeared belligerent, and possibly unpredictable, this is known as the time when they can be at their most dangerous.



It appeared that head dress was the fashion of the day, several bulls wearing flowers behind their horns and ears.  They probably picked them up while scraping the ground.



Some of the males could be seen wallowing on the ground in the dirt. 



 A bison wallow is a shallow depression in the soil, either wet or dry. Bison roll in these depressions, covering themselves with mud or dust. One of the explanations suggested for wallowing behaviour is a grooming behaviour associated with male-male interaction (typically rutting behaviour).



Some of the large bulls moved about the females, snorting and scrubbing the ground with their horns.  The Cowbirds stayed close in these situations some taking the opportunity to ride the Bison's backs in a manner similar to the ox-peckers in Africa, but for different reasons, the Cowbirds looking to pick up the seeds not ticks on the animals



Other bulls were sticking close to their chosen females.



We moved on but there were plenty of Bison now crossing the road, and slowing the traffic down to a crawl, as the number of cars increased as the morning wore on.  The bulls were not going to be moved as the strode defiantly along the middle of the road.



With animals on both sides of us it did give the opportunity for some close up shots of these impressive animals.  There is a certain look of sadness in the Bison's eye.



And a majesty when the animal is seen head on.




Among Native American tribes, especially the Plains Indians, tribes of which moved through these lands, the Bison is considered a sacred animal and religious symbol.  The creation stories of where buffalo came from put them in a very spiritual place among many tribes. The buffalo crossed many different areas and functions, and it was utilized in many ways, not just as meat. It was used in ceremonies, as well as to make tipi covers that provided homes for people, utensils, shields, weapons and parts were used for sewing with the sinew.


We finally managed to get past the Bison on the road, and headed on to one of the turnout spots that overlooks the valley, and the Lamar River.


Here Bison could be seen feeding on the open grassland, and wading across the shallow river.  We scanned the distant hills and forest edge for signs of anything else, but we were not lucky, Helen did though find a small group of Pronghorn Antelope lying down on the top of a rock ridge, our first encounter with this species.  Though not an Antelope it is sometimes known as an Antelope because it closely resembles the antelopes from the old world, and in fact behaves in a similar way.


As we scanned the area we had breakfast, but once we had finished moved on, the number of cars was increasing once again.  A little further along the road, a Yellow-bellied Marmot ran across the road and away across the sage from us.

The road turns away from the Lamar River and into Soda Butte Canyon, following Pebble Creek.  The canyon takes its name from Soda Butte, which is the cone of the only thermal feature in the north east corner of the park.  Just before we passed the butte we noticed many cars parked along the road and in a turnout.  Down below in the valley people were gathering on a bluff above the creek.  Rather than carry on to the park exit we decided to turn around and check what all the fuss was about.  Parking was limited but I managed to find a spot.  We changed shoes and with telescope as well as the usual camera and binoculars we set off to cross the creek and make our way to the view point.  We were told that there were wolves in the area, so we walked along not knowing to be excited or not.

When we reached the view point there were quite a few people present, and we were told the area to look in.  Apparently the wolves had drifted away into the after having fed on the remains of a kill, however one or two were still returning.  We stood and watched, then a black mark appeared that through the scope you could clearly see to be a young Wolf cub.  The photo shows only the location and the smudge, but please believe me it was a Wolf.


We watched using binoculars and the scope, and were finally rewarded by a second animal, this time a definite older and grey Wolf that joined the young one.  Both gave clear views, but unfortunately only through the scope, and were not close enough for my camera.

When Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, Grey Wolf populations were already in decline in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The creation of the national park did not provide protection for wolves or other predators, and government predator control programs in the first decades of the 1900s essentially helped eliminate the Grey Wolf from Yellowstone. The last wolves were killed in Yellowstone in 1926. After that time, sporadic reports of wolves still occurred, but scientists confirmed that sustainable wolf populations had been removed and they were absent from Yellowstone during the mid-1900s.

 In 1995, Grey wolves were first reintroduced into Yellowstone in the Lamar Valley, and numbers peaked in 2007 at 171 individuals in eleven packs.  In 2009 the wolf was removed from the endangered list and could now be legally hunted.  In 2013 there were estimated to be just under 100 wolves in the park with 10 active packs.  Wolf population numbers are subject to natural fluctuations but although wolves within the park boundaries were still fully protected, wolves that ventured outside the boundaries of the park into Idaho or Montana can now be legally hunted. During these hunts, Montana hunters legally killed a number of wolves in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness known to frequent the north-east corner of the park.

We were very lucky to get the views we did, and after a further wait we decided that was as good as it would get so we headed back to the car.  We headed back to the Roosevelt junction, and then left towards Tower where we were able to get a cup of coffee.  

Just before the Tower Junction there is the Calcite Springs overlook which provides views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone in an area called the Narrows.


In the picture you can see the vertical basalt columns that were part of a 25 foot lava flow that covered the area 1.3 million years ago, and below that are glacial deposits, the lava having exploded through these.  Above the basalt columns is volcanic ash that was deposited from the same volcanic action that produced the lava.


The Yellowstone River has then cut through the area revealing the past.


We finally reached the Tower General Stores where we were able to get our coffee.  We had passed through here earlier and the car park was empty, as we pulled in now the area was full of cars.  After coffee we then walked to the Tower Falls overlook.  This is where Tower Creek falls over 130 feet down into the Yellowstone River.


The Falls get their name from volcanic towers that surround the falls, that make it look like a fortress, and has earned the name Devil's Den.


We were then back on the road, and joining the many vehicles that had now appeared in the park.  Despite the fact it was only 19 miles to the Canyon Junction it took some time in the traffic.  Driving past the junction we turned off onto the North Rim drive, stopping at the first view point, at the brink of the Lower Falls.  Looking down you could see the falls.


From here we walked down to a viewpoint where it was possible to get closer views of the falls, and views down the valley.


The sides of the valley covered in a yellow ochre coloured rocks


Where the water was creating spray this was covering the sides of the valley, and from the green patches you could see the reach of the spray.


The walk back up was an effort in the altitude, we decided to turn off and walk the North Rim Trail.  Gaps in the trees revealed views of the spray being generated by the Upper Falls, again the spray generating vegetation on the sides of the adjoining rock.


The trail abruptly ended and we were not able to reach the Upper Falls, so we headed back, and then from there we continued along the drive, pulling over at the Lookout Point for further views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.


In a way we were fortunate that the sky was overcast, and sometimes there was even rain, as the colours in the rock were not washed out by the midday sun.  The reds, and yellows contrasting with the greens of the conifers.


It was here we encountered a father and his sons, the boys could not have been more than three or four years old, and they looked quite perplexed when they were told by their father that he had not heard any of them pointing out any hydro-thermal activity in the area!

Looking back towards where we have come from you could see the Upper Falls away in the distance.


The last view point was tantalisingly called Inspiration point, you descended a few steps, but unfortunately the final two were closed as the area was still eroding.  From here, further views along the canyon, and the one piece of wildlife that was always present where people gathered, the Raven.


The North Rim Drive then carries on through the Lodgepole Pines, and comes out at the Canyon Village.  We took the opportunity to have lunch here.

The weather conditions had been overcast for most of the morning with some rain falling in places, so we decided to head south through the Hayden Valley towards the Lake.  As we approached there were signs of blue sky to the southern shore of the lake, but as we crossed the Fishing Bridge it was still raining slightly.  We passed the camp sites and through a wooded are, coming out into the open at a place called Pelican Creek.  We drove across the bridge and pulled over to scan the marsh and grasses that surround the creek as it meandered down to the lake.  This apparently is a good place to spot Grizzly in the spring time.



Looking across to the lake I picked out three American White Pelicans on a sand bar in the water, so we decided to head back across the bridge to the car park where there was the start of a small trail that led down to the lake and beach.

The trail wound its way through a small copse of pines, and then across a marshy piece, emerging on the beach.  We walked down to the waters edge to get a better view of the Pelicans.



The sand bars apparently appear when the water in the lake is low, and there were plenty of other signs of low water, with pools showing along the beach.  There were five juvenile Franklin's Gulls in the water.



Plus an adult Ring-billed Gull that was dancing through the shallow water in order to disturb the mud, and hopefully a meal.



Two more Pelicans flew in, circling the sand bar before dropping from the sky using their large webbed feed as air brakes to perform a perfect landing.



There was also the obligatory Ravens on the beach foraging close to the shoreline.  We turned and made our way to the edge of the trees.  The bank here has been eroded away by the water, and as a result many trees have fallen and died, the wood being bleached white by the sun and the water.  Another Pelican was fishing just off shore, plunging it enormous bill it the water, and then lifting its head high as it squeezed out the water, while hopefully leaving something to eat.



There were calls from the top of the trees that I thought could be Jays of some sort, but then one of the owners flew down to one of the fallen trees, and made its way to the water to drink.  Similar to a Jay and a member of the crow family this is Clark's Nutcracker.



Like jays the Clark's Nutcracker caches seeds for later consumption, and is in fact crucial to the survival of the Whitebark Pine, a tree seen in the area.  This Pine tree is in decline due to rust infections and beetles, the Nutcracker is playing an important part in that recovery with the two very dependent on each other.  No Whitebark Pines no Clark's Nutcracker in the area.

The weather had now changed with blue skies and sunshine, looking along the beach to the east you could see clearly the Absaroka Mountain range.



We started to make our way back to the trail, stopping again though to take in the views over the creek away to the distant mountains.



There had been the calls of a young Bald Eagle, and I had managed to find a brown shape in one of the distant pines that looked like a juvenile bird, but as we reached the car and I scanned again I picked out a distant adult bird at the top of a pine, the white "bald" head clearly visible.



In contrast to the early view we had of the creek, now, with the sun out, and a very blue sky it looked quite spectacular.



This had been a lovely spot, and we had managed to escape the crowds and cars, but now it was time to make our way back.  It was mid afternoon and the peak time for vehicles in the park, and on the journey back through the Hayden Valley we were brought to a stop in queuing traffic on several occasions.  For some the Bison were the attraction and they did not care if they blocked the cars to get the views, for us we were beginning to get quite annoyed with the Bison.

Leaving the Hayden Valley we drove alongside the Yellowstone River, and Helen called for a Dipper on one of the rocks in the river.  I pulled over, and walked back to see if I could get a good view, I could make out the bird but it was difficult to photograph.  Then from the other side of the river two Red-tailed Hawks came out of the trees and circled above the river calling.



The journey back passed though areas of cloud again, and then back into sunshine as we approached the West Entrance, however we were pulled up about a couple of miles from the gate in a traffic queue due to an accident that had happened just on the park side of the gate, two cars, somehow hitting each other front on, it was quite a mess but thankfully we found out later that no one was hurt.  Once past the gate it was back into West Yellowstone and the hotel, and dinner.

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