What is summer without an adventurous vacation? After batting around several possible destinations for my travels over break, I took up my parents invitation to meet them out in the Greater Yellowstone Area at the end of July. Miriam had this corner of the world marked on her must-see list for a long time, so she was eager to join me on my journey. We elected to fly out rather than ride in the family RV for the entirety of the journey. Even our layover at the Denver airport provided excitement, with Miriam’s first glimpse of real mountains, including a distant view of Pike’s Peak, and her first lifer of the trip, Western Kingbird. Once we landed in Bozeman, we enjoyed a scenery photoshoot with a Vesper Sparrow singing at the edge of the parking lot. My parents picked us up in a rental car and we began the drive south towards Wyoming. I recognized many of the vistas along the way, especially once we reached the banks of the Yellowstone River.
Before we even entered the park, we were treated to close-up looks at families of Bighorn Sheep and Pronghorn. Its been years since I last observed either of the distinctive ungulates, and these sightings were the first of several welcome reunions with local wildlife.
Once we reached Gardiner, we paused to take some pictures at the famous Roosevelt Arch which serves as the northern gateway to the park. We continued to Mammoth Hot Springs, where I led Miriam out on the trails while Mom and Dad cooked up dinner in the picnic area. We explored the terraces and pools lining the boardwalk, taking note of local birds like Violet-green Swallow, Black-billed Magpie, and Western Tanager. With the sun sinking lower in the sky and our bellies full, we continued south along the Firehole River.
Photo opps and critter sightings were plentiful on the drive between Mammoth and our campsite. The mighty American Bison were the stars of the show, but we also came across a number of Elk grazing along the edges of the riverside pullouts. Miriam was the first to spot a Grizzly Bear, calling out a cub which the rest of us glimpsed disappearing into the trees when we turned back to look. We were treated to a performance by a displaying pair of Sandhill Cranes dancing with one another in the fields adjacent to the road. The concentrations and closeness of animals in Yellowstone, in addition to the great variety of species present, make the park a truly special place.
After stopping by the Old Faithful Geyser Basin at sunset, we headed to our campground at Bridge Bay and settled in for the night. When we awoke, Miriam and I set out to explore the area and look for birds. White-crowned Sparrows and “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere, and Miriam was delighted when we noted a pair of Red Crossbills passing overhead. We found a Gray Jay and a few Clark’s Nutcrackers poking around the picnic tables in search of breakfast, and after taking in a meal of our own we set out into the park again.
We took the rental car on an extensive driving tour of Yellowstone’s best. Chittenden Bridge, Canyon Village, Artist’s Point on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the Dunraven Pass were among the stops we made as we worked our way north. We added American White Pelican, Swainson’s Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, and more to Miriam’s life list and my year list.
We eventually reached the Lamar Valley, a renowned wildlife viewing site even by the lofty standards of Yellowstone. We kept a sharp eye out for Gray Wolves, which frequently use this region, but couldn’t locate them or their attendant crowds of admirers. I did, however, spot my first new bird of the trip: a briefly-glimpsed Sage Thrasher that flushed to avoid an oncoming adult bison. We could see huge herds of buffalo dotting the landscape, and once we reached Soda Butte we came face to face with a massive group of the majestic megafauna. No matter how many times I see these creatures, I never get tired of them. They are simply superlative, incredible animals.
After dinner and before bed, we made a quick trip up to the Hayden Valley. A huge crowd with scopes trained on the forest’s edge told us that we had just missed an evening show from the resident wolf pack. One of the pups, a little black one, briefly bounced back into view before returning to the den, but all we saw was a dark smudge on the screen of a phone that one watcher had attached to his optics. Some of the locals informed us that this family, the Wapiti Lake Pack, was consistently visible from this overlook on a daily basis, so we all agreed that we should return the next day.
After another night in the camper, we awoke to find morning mist shrouding the landscape. We passed a few grazing Elk as we headed north towards the Hayden Valley, and there were several other individuals feeding on the banks of the Yellowstone River when we reached the vantage point where the wolf watchers were already stationed.
Shortly after we settled in at the observation pullover, someone said that they spotted something moving in the fog. While we strained to catch a glimpse, one of the veteran observers raised a hand and urgently hushed the crowd. “They’re howling…” he whispered, reverently. The entire congregation went totally silent, and we listened, awestruck, to the ghostly wails of the Wapiti Lake wolves. I’ve been fortunate enough to see these legendary predators on several occasions, but this was the first time I was able to hear their howling. When the mist faded, the wolves were finally visible as they trotted across the vast plains. We spotted three adults, two males that dispersed from the famous Mollie’s Pack and a female known as 1091, and a yearling individual. The Elk foraging in the valley were very wary of the hunters, giving them a wide berth as they passed by. The yearling seemingly couldn’t resist messing with the potential prey, stalking close to a pair of females and getting them riled up. We spent most of the morning watching the wolves from afar, and it was a morning well-spent.
Mom let us know about a distant Grizzly Bear that she observed from the restroom parking lot, so we peeled ourselves away from the Wapiti Lake Pack to have a look. We continued onward to the Dragon’s Mouth and the Mud Volcano, passing a few roadblock bison along the way. I picked up my first Cassin’s Finches, and we also found Least Chipmunks and both Golden-mantled and Uinta Ground-Squirrels. We revisited the Old Faithful Area for a daylight performance, and we made the Midway Geyser Basin our final stop in Yellowstone for the day. We still had to drive south to Grand Teton before nightfall, but there was no way we were leaving until Miriam got to see the Grand Prismatic Spring. After a lifetime of biology coursework using the colorful image of this spectacular feature for lessons about extremophiles, one might think that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Like most of Yellowstone, however, it does. It absolutely does.
Year List Update, July 24 – 332 Species (+ Western Kingbird, Vesper Sparrow, Brewer’s Blackbird, Black-billed Magpie, Violet-green Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, Western Tanager, Sandhill Crane, White-crowned Sparrow, Clark’s Nutcracker, American White Pelican, California Gull, Swainson’s Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, Sage Thrasher, Cassin’s Finch, Wilson’s Snipe)