November 2, 2016:
Now we get to what is probably our favorite facet of Yellowstone, the wildlife! Yellowstone has some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities we’ve ever seen. There are no guarantees that you’ll see any animals, as they go where they want, when they want. But if you are patient and keep an eye out, you’re likely to see some critters. In a single day during our visit we saw bison, multiple coyotes, a fox, a black bear, a grizzly bear, bugling elk, trumpeter swans, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and a several bird species.
As mentioned, we’ve seen American Bison (not actually a type of buffalo) in North and South Dakota already this summer, but not in the numbers you routinely see in Yellowstone. It is estimated that there were about 30 million bison in North America when European settlers arrived. That number dwindled to just a few hundred by 1900 and the American bison was on the verge of extinction. The Yellowstone herd, due largely to poaching, was down to only about 2 dozen animals in 1902. Today, bison are back; there are nearly 5000 in the park. [click photos to enlarge]
These animals look big, slow and docile. It’s true that they are big, bulls can weigh 2000 lbs (907 kg). But they are also surprisingly fast – adults can run up to 30 mph (48 kph) over short distances, and they can be quite aggressive.
A couple of males butting heads: [click to enlarge]
There are also lots of elk in Yellowstone. Sometimes you encounter one or two; other times you find a whole herd. [click photos to enlarge]
We happened to be in the park during the rut (their mating season). Attempting to attract a mate, male elk make a noise called bugling. We’re not sure it sounds like a bugle, but it is a strange spectacle, especially coming from an animal that can weigh 1000 pounds (454 kg). We tried to capture the sound of the male’s bugling, probably weren’t equipped properly. You can probably find better examples on Youtube. It’s a really unexpected sound coming from such a large animal:
There are, of course, an amazing variety of birds in Yellowstone. Unfortunately, we aren’t very experienced birders, so we didn’t catalog much. But here are some ravens, trumpeter swans, and a merganser. [click to enlarge]
We used to call these animals pronghorn antelope. But apparently they are not genetically antelope and so now they’re just called pronghorn. We’ve spotted them all over the West recently, particularly in Custer State Park and Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
Yes, you can even watch fish in Yellowstone.
This is another animal we have seen all over the West this year, from New Mexico to Montana. These moms and youngsters were not at all concerned that they were blocking traffic. [click to enlarge]
We came upon this coyote, hunting (successfully) small prey in a meadow. [click to enlarge sequence]
Coincidentally, very shortly after the coyote, we encountered a red fox hunting hunting. Also successfully. He was surprisingly unconcerned about the 20 or more people who stopped to take in the show. [click to enlarge sequence]
Here’s a bit of video of the fox:
We were lucky enough to see a grizzly close up (but not too close) right before the sun went down. He was close enough that as he headed slightly in our direction, the small group of us stopped to watch silently and almost subconsciously started drifting closer to the doors of our vehicles. [click to enlarge]
When we saw this group of animals enjoying the last remnants of a bison carcass, we thought they might be wolves. [click to enlarge]
But further magnification lead us to the conclusion that they are coyotes. Carcasses attract lots of hungry visitors, and when a big animal goes down in view of a road, there will be days of traffic jams as people line up to see some of the park’s more elusive animals go to work. Grizzlies are at the top of the food chain, of course. Then wolves, coyotes, vultures, ravens, and others take their turns feeding. It’s a rare opportunity to see these behaviors in the wild, and it takes just the right location. If a carcass is off in the woods or on the other side of a hill, of course, no one will know it’s there unless they are on foot, and then the Park Service goes to great lengths to identify and close trails and otherwise warn hikers. These sites are very dangerous for humans. Likewise, if an animal dies near the road, or suffers a fatal fall into a thermal feature (it happens) the Park Service will move the carcass, so as not to lure bears and wolves into close proximity with people.
We have only seen two carcass sites including the one above, which is obviously near the end of it’s attractive powers. The other was fresher, but even farther away, so we could only see the vague forms of grizzlies moving around. If you’re in the park, and you hear of a bison or elk going down somewhere in sight of the road, make getting their a priority.
That’s it for Yellowstone, and that’s it for September. (Yes, we are a bit behind.) We hope you enjoyed the photos. We are on our way further west. Come back and see us again soon!