Monday, May 21, 2012

Montana magic - a week in Yellowstone
2nd -9th May

We’re struggling to keep on top of the blog again - this holidaying is hard work - alarms set for 4.30 am and long days that don’t see us back into camp until after 9pm. So why would you do this you might ask? The see the wolves, and the bears, and the bison, and the coyotes and the...... Wow! This is the closest one gets to the African wildlife experience, with plains strewn with grazing animals and predators descending out of the hills (although the birds are somewhat lacking at this time of year). 
Within 10 minutes of entering the park, we were confronted with a herd of bison descending the hill slopes to then swim across the swirling river. It resembled the scenes of African wildebeest river-crossings, although on this occasion, no crocodiles to impede their journey!
Our first morning out in the park involved setting off in the dark with the snow swirling against the windscreen. With first light, we encountered our first bear - two in fact - one, a grizzly, chasing the other, a black bear across the river flats until the grizzly was only 20m from our car. This was the most informative introduction to bears that one could get. Their speed and endurance was astounding - a full gallop for over a kilometer - eliminating any notion that one could run away from a bear. We quickly moved the bear spray that we had bought in the Tetons to a more handy position. 
A little further down the road we had our next encounter - a pack of 5 wolves feeding on the carcass of an elk that they had killed during the night - a remarkable opportunity to watch the dynamics of the pack as the dominant animals took primacy and the others tried their most submissive strategies to gain access to the kill. 
Wolf on the move
Our next wolf encounter was a pack of at least 15. As we watched they moved leisurely across the other side of the valley from where we were watching, spread out about half a kilometer from the lead to the rear and 250 meters from the uppermost to the lowest on the slope. Their pathway brought them to a group of bison that started to form a huddle as the wolves approached and then with no apparent signal, all of the wolves were running and the bison took flight. One of the wolves caught up with a bison and went for its heels as a couple of others came up from behind but the bison, and a couple of its mates turned back on the wolves and started charging their attackers. After a standoff lasting about 5 minutes the wolves gave up and loped off and the bison resumed their grazing.
Our next bear encounter was a female black bear that had brought the traffic to a halt by repeatedly passing across the road, disappearing into a drainage culvert, emerging at the other end and then recrossing the road. This happened several times until she then re-emerged carrying a very young cub in her mouth which she took across the road and down to an adjoining river flat where the youngster practiced its tree-climbing skills under her close supervision. 
The next morning was yet another wolf interaction - this time a single  animal by the roadside which we watched for a while until it settled in among some fallen logs by the riverside. Others soon started to appear and it became apparent that they had another kill, only a few hundred meters away from that of the previous day. 
Mother and cubs - click to enlarge!
So, alternating the bear and wolf observations, our next bear was another black which we spotted while out hiking. It was perched precariously on a cliff that rose precipitously above a roaring stream and billowing sulfurous vents that are typical of Yellowstone. As we watched, it became apparent that it was a female with two newly born cubs. The mother was feeding them when we arrived but, when she had finished, she moved off across the rocks, where there was no obvious route. One of the cubs followed confidently, with stones and dust displaced by its steps rattling down into the abyss below. The other cub, on the other hand, wasn’t having a bar of it and remained firmly in its place in spite of the entreaties of its mother who eventually returned with the other cub. At this stage the snow and wind set in and we were forced off our ridge as the mother settled in again with the cubs on their rock eyrie. 
Next morning, we returned to the cliff to watch the ongoing saga as the mother and the bolder cub set off over and over again, trying to lure the smaller, less confident cub from its perch, coming and going over a dozen times, to no avail. From our position on the other side of the gorge we could hear the distressed call of the cub that didn’t want to go. It made one desperate attempt, clinging to the slippery slope with it front legs whilst its little back legs flailed about, failing to get a grip.  Eventually the mother returned to feed the distressed young and they looked like they were settling in once again, so we decided to leave for a lunch break. 

I returned an hour later to find that they were no longer on the cliff. I anxiously  scoured the bottom of the precipice with my binoculars looking for a small black body but fortunately nothing to be seen. Then, off to the side of the cliff I saw some movement in the trees - one cub, then the mother and then, after several minutes, the second cub came lolloping out of the bushes and tumbled about with its sibling before following mum off into the scrub as the light faded.
And then, when you’ve had enough of the wildlife, its time to go and take in all the bubbling, gurgling, farting, spurting antics of the geothermals that contribute to Yellowstone’s fame, including of course, Old Faithful which, while somewhat of a cliche, is still impressive when you get to see it in the flesh against the setting sun.  

Then another snowy morning with steaming bison covered in frosty ice crystals, giving way to a glorious day as the sun breaks through revealing ospreys and great horned owls on their nests and broad valleys scattered with elk and deer with freshly snow-covered mountains in the background. It’s hard to imaging how it could get better than this!
Blue Grouse strutting his stuff

Yellowstone falls

Curious River Otter - specially for Helena


  1. Bode would like for you to bring him back a play friend - perhaps a bison or a nice otter! Great photos!

    1. Plenty of bears - would he fancy one of them?