Yellowstone Reports

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2008 Slough Creek backpack

Badgered badger
by Mike O'Connell

Feb. 22, 2009

Friday, June 13

Three mule deer does, probably still pregnant, stood by the Slough Creek Trail. Not far from them, we met a woman carrying two antlers back toward the trailhead. Emily told her taking these is illegal, but we don't know whether she dropped them after we passed.

Along the trail, we spotted a black bear's front track and a grizzly's hind track as well as faint coyote footsteps. Six bison grazed or rested on the backside of the First Meadow, and between the meadows, a merlin alighted on a dead snag looking for a meal. Nearby, a robin chased a red-tailed hawk from its nesting area.

At the treeline across the creek from camp, four elk and a bison were bedded. Several times, a raven flew to the meadow and returned to the forest with food in its beak (possibly baby birds) to feed its young. The merlin soared by northward.

In the evening, a cinnamon black bear ambled into view near the waterfall up from the fourth campsite. Another cinnamon bear walked high along Anderson Ridge, and a third below this one in a forest clearing. Both of these bears were moving left to right and roughly towards the first, which was more than half a mile away.

To the south, a cow moose browsed her way through the willows as chorus frogs, snipe, cranes and soras called throughout the valley. As some of the robins sang nearby, others yanked late-evening worms from the soil.

Emily spotted two cranes chasing something in the sagebrush below camp. They had cornered the animal in a hole and peered into it with their wings held out. Sage obscured the hole, but the animal must have been striking out at the cranes as every now and then, they would spring into the air and float back down. One crane lost interest in the animal fairly soon, but the other spent at least 10 minutes keeping it at bay before walking away. Soon, we saw the striped face of a badger emerge from behind the sage and carry on with his evening hunting. Whether it had tried to grab an egg or colt (tonight or in the past), the cranes clearly saw it as a threat.

At dusk, eight wolves appeared on the other side of the creek traveling southwest. They stopped briefly and rested, though two grays, probably yearlings, played together. Seven of the wolves then rallied and trotted off to meet the lead gray, who had bedded alone. In the fading light, the two blacks became invisible, and soon, the six grays disappeared into the night, as well.

Saturday, June 14

In the still, clear air, frost clung to the vegetation by camp and in the valley. Up by the waterfall, a bear grazed again, and to the south a bull moose ran a short distance from two bull bison. Two white-tailed does walked along the creek by the fourth campsite.

Down along the "S" curve in the creek, jumping trout made popping sounds as they broke the water's surface. Ravens foraged in the top crook of the "S" probing for worms and insects in the moist soil. Along the creek, scaup, mallards and a pair of geese swam. The mud along the creek registered the meanderings of cranes, moose and coyotes; and from the meadow, cranes trumpeted as common yellowthroats and spotted sandpipers called.

Four cow elk moved uphill from the creek, and a coyote crossed the trail to the northeast. A goldfinch and then a red-tailed hawk flew over camp as nuthatches sang from conifers.

The air grew warmer and gustier as the day lengthened. Light rain fell at times and thunder boomed in the late afternoon.

A bison and three cow elk moved across the hill below the waterfall, and a white-tailed doe walked through the flats east of the trail. The sounds of cranes, snipe and frogs filled the evening air.

Behind the sage where the cranes had cornered the badger last night, we found wolf tracks in the mound of soil that had been flung from the hole.

A lone cow elk nervously crossed the valley in the fading light. Maybe she went to feed a hidden calf or was seeking a hiding place to give birth? Whatever the case, odds are my eyes weren't the only ones watching.

Sunday, June 15

Fog hung over the creek to the southwest, and frost had formed again during the cloudless night.

A grizzly leisurely made his way below the waterfall stopping often to dig and to sniff the air. He later made a beeline north, possibly having caught the scent of a meal or maybe just looking to bed for the day.

Though not as bold as last year, the ground squirrels made forays to the campfire ring.

A kestrel alit on a lodgepole beyond camp. The head of a lone cow elk poked out from some thick sage on the hillside across the creek. She stood in this spot for at least an hour, trancelike, sometimes slowly licking her lips. The tall vegetation obscured all but her head and chest, yet she might have been delivering a calf. Later, she grazed close to the spot for a good part of the morning.

At least four pairs of cranes trumpeted and hunted in the meadow. In camp, two yellow-rumped warblers fought over a female. Robins, chipping sparrows, juncos, mountain chickadees, ruby-crowned kinglets, a hairy woodpecker and a Clark's nutcracker also visited camp.

Kestrels called from nearby as we walked north towards the Bliss Pass Trail.

Once on that trail, fresh coyote and deer tracks stood out in the moist soil, and a white-tailed doe watched us from the forest's edge as we passed. We also saw grizzly tracks, moose scat and trees scratched by bears.

Further along in the dense forest, a gray jay floated through the trees. A dusky grouse and western tanagers called from nearby. About three kilometers towards Bliss Pass, a flock of Cassin's finches foraged in a small, high meadow, and a mourning dove loudly took flight from us. Mourning doves are rare in the park, and seeing one at this elevation was even more of a surprise.

From this opening, avalanche chutes could be seen on the adjacent mountainside, and the First Meadow was visible far below to the southwest.

Moist meadows, recently thawed, showed the trails of pocket gophers and grizzlies and were adorned by spring beauties.

Hiking down, squirrels chattered at us, and a female hairy woodpecker knocked on trees searching for insects.

By the fourth campsite, two female buffleheads flew from the creek. Another pair (a male and female this time) and a wigeon floated on an ephemeral pond not far from camp.

In the evening, two black wolves appeared about a quarter of a mile from camp, likely saw us and jogged uphill away from the creek. On the opposite side of the water from the wolves, a bull elk stood motionless for a long while. Eventually, he relaxed some and cleaned himself. And later yet, he tentatively walked a few steps and grazed. About dark, he bedded along the creek.

It's likely the wolves had chased this bull into the water and either found him too fit, too difficult to attack in the creek or they abandoned him when they spotted us.

Monday, June 16

Neither the bull nor the cow (and possible new calf) were visible this morning. All was quiet and warmer as winter had finally ceded to spring less than a week from summer.

All the vegetation in the Yellowstone ecosystem was at least two weeks behind this year after a snowy winter and cool spring. Around camp, the usually tall monument plants had only grown to about six inches. Often, they're a few feet tall by this point.

Three bison and some cranes foraged to the northwest, and many worms wriggled on the trail as eager robins gulped them down and collected them for their young. The nearest cranes stood tail to tail as dawn broke (and as night had fallen yesterday). In this way, they apparently keep watch during the night.

I followed old bear and wolf tracks along the trail before turning down towards the creek to look for the spot where the bull had bedded the night before, but I got mired in the mud. As I plucked myself from this usually drier meadow, three bull elk appeared across the creek. Bulls are usually high on Anderson Ridge this time of year, but not seeing anything near them (as we had the night before), I turned and headed back to camp.

I turned around to look one more time while still on the valley floor and saw five gray and two black wolves charging the bunched elk from the south. Even though the bulls had the high ground, they ran southeast and split into a pair and a single. One of the grays chased the lone elk before racing through a gap in the hills and rejoining its pack. Another gray closed in on one of the other bulls, who kicked it with a hind leg. Dazed, the wolf stopped briefly but began running again.

Splash! The two bulls jumped into the water. Just their heads with velvety new antlers could be seen bobbing down the creek as the wolves watched from shore. The water ran too deep for the wolves to get any purchase on the bulls, but they soon remembered they'd left one behind.

They turned and fanned out uphill after him. As the wolves surrounded the bull, he raced downhill on an angle toward the safety of the creek. A few of the wolves almost caught up to him before he loudly splashed into the water and worked his way down to the others.

The elk stayed in the cold water along the "S" curve for an hour even after the wolves had moved uphill into the conifers and out of sight. A while after the wolves had left, their howls from the forest reminded the elk why they remained in the frigid waters, which were fed by melting snow trickling down from the mountains around them.

Researchers in two yellow planes had missed all this action (as had Emily who came down from the tent as the wolves jogged away). One flight was for wolves; the other for bears. We found out later that the bear researcher had been looking down on a grizzly on a carcass not far from us. High hills, however, between camp and the kill kept us oblivious to that activity.

Later in the morning, the wolves howled again to the north (and possibly from the forest across from camp). Two gray wolves and a black trotted briefly into view to the left of the waterfall. Back in the meadow, the three bulls tenuously walk along the "S" curve and above the horseshoe pond before crossing the creek and slowly making their way back into the forest.

On the hike out, we heard an olive-sided flycatcher for the first time this season, and four gray jays mimicked a red-tailed hawk call. A real red tail soared into view further along the hike as did the shadow of an osprey--and then the bird itself.

A buck, doe and yearling mule deer stood near the trail about a mile from the parking area. The doe chased the yearling several times before the younger one finally stotted away. The buck showed no interest in any of this or in the doe sneaking off into the forest, possibly to nurse a newborn fawn now that she was free from last year's charge.

Back near the road, a herd of about 30 elk and five calves ran down to the Lamar River in Little America. Nothing appeared to be chasing them, but the cows likely were nervous about their new calves. Some of the elk waded into the swollen river and were swept away a short distance before regaining their footing. Elk repeatedly entered and retreated from the water until one finally made it across. Several more soon swam to the other side, but none of the calves. They and the other more cautious ones eventually walked back uphill towards Slough Creek.


View slide show

Fox skull?

Tree scratched by bear

Anderson Ridge in the evening