Yellowstone in May
Bears, bears, and more bears – in May the park was as full of bears as I’ve ever seen it. I must have spotted at least one grizzly or black bear every time I visited the park this month. Conditions for photos weren’t always good – often the bears were too far away, or the light was bad, or they vanished into the trees – but every now and then I had good luck.
On one of my first visits of the season to Hayden Valley I ran across a grizzly mom with a mostly-grown cub walking towards me on the road. I happened to be near a pullout, thankfully, so I stopped to watch them pass from the safety of my car.
When the bears came up perpendicular to me, no more than 10 feet away, the cub stopped abruptly, sniffed the air, and started trotting right towards my car. Startled, for a split second I considered just rolling up the window and staying put. But the less contact bears have with people the better, so I drove forward slowly before the cub reached the car. Thwarted, the cub stood up on his hind legs and waved his arms, clearly protesting the rudeness of my departure. The only food I had in my car was a bag of cashews, but apparently that had been enough to attract his attention.
Only a few days into May I flew to Mountain View for a week-long visit with Marie. It was great to see her, of course, and it was a relief to take a break from all the driving. On the days I visit Yellowstone I’m in the car for at least four hours, and while I often mix things up with some hiking I still get burned out from that much time behind the wheel.
Arriving back in Livingston I was amazed at how much things had changed in just one week. The days were significantly warmer, the grass was suddenly green, and the Yellowstone River was running far higher than I’d ever seen it. What had been a lazy shallow stream was now a raging brown torrent. Large uprooted trees shot by like wooden torpedoes. Later in the month there were flood warnings as the river threatened to reach its highest level in recorded history.
May in Yellowstone means bears, and it also means babies. Bison led the way by starting to give birth in April, and by May there were bison calves kicking up their heels all over the park.
Bear cubs-of-the-year also began popping up, and in mid-May a black bear mom (nicknamed Rosie) with three brand new cubs began putting on semi-regular shows near Tower Junction. Huge crowds of tourists lined the road as the three cubs wrestled each other, rolled down hillsides, climbed trees, and continually harassed their mom.
Later in the month a badger mom with four babies set up a den near the road in Lamar Valley. Tipped off by a line of photographers pointing oversized lenses at a mound of dirt one morning, I caught a quick look at the mom and one of her kits before the mom crossed the road to go hunting for the day.
I returned to the den the next afternoon, hoping for better light, and stood watching the dirt mound alongside a handful of other photographers. For many Yellowstone regulars the badger den was the most exciting wildlife event of the month, but the average tourist appeared unimpressed. A car would stop on the road and the driver would yell, “What are you looking at?”
“A badger den,” we’d say in hushed voices, “right there.”
“Oh nice,” they’d comment politely, and then continue looking for bears.
After less than an hour of waiting I was rewarded when the badger mom returned to the den with dinner – a ground squirrel she’d just caught. The mom paused briefly at the entrance of the den as the rapid-fire whirring of shutter clicks filled the air. About 10 minutes later the mom reappeared with a couple of her kits and granted us a solid viewing before vanishing back underground. This was the first badger I’d ever seen in Yellowstone and it was a thrill.
Later at my apartment in Livingston my neighbor Carole saw me on my back porch and called down, “Have you seen the owls?”
“No! What owls?”
Apparently a Great Horned Owl with two owlets was nesting in a tree right in front of a local school. My neighbor, knowing I like photographing wildlife, was kind enough to pass along the tip. The next day I went over to the school and found the owls right where Carole said they’d be. I’d spent so much time in Yellowstone without ever seeing an owl, and here they were just a mile from my apartment.
I’d been out for a run in Livingston the day before when a guy in his 60s called me over to the bank of the Yellowstone River and pointed to some movement in the water. “A muskrat family,” he said happily. I didn’t have a camera with me, unfortunately, but it was fun to watch them swim. I couldn’t help but wonder, how much other local wildlife have I been missing?
A lot, apparently. My next tip came when I was back photographing the owls again. I ran into a woman I’d spoken with briefly the first time I was there. She said she’d been watching the owls for two weeks, and that she’d also been seeing some other interesting wildlife around. “But I don’t like sharing my sightings,” she said. “Too many people want to hurt the animals.”
“Good for you,” I agreed. “It’s tough to understand the mindset of those people but there are a lot of them.”
“Seems like you’re just interested in photos, though,” she said with a wry smile. “Have you seen the bald eagle nest?”
Her directions were perfect and the next morning, just a few miles outside of Livingston, I was training my lens on a bald eagle patrolling a spacious nest near the top of a tall tree. Eventually the heads of two small eaglets popped up, and I managed to get a shot of one before they dropped out of sight again. How amazing to have owlets and eaglets so close!
It was too good to last, I guess. I’d posted a photo of one of the owlets on Instagram, and towards the end of the month someone left a comment that said, “I don’t know if you heard that the mama was killed. The babies are saved and put in the Raptor Rescue in Bozeman. Pretty big reward for the jerk who hurt the mama.” I’d just been out to see the owls the previous evening! Apparently that same night someone threw rocks at the mom and fatally wounded her.
What a stupid, senseless gut punch. I’ll never understand people. It reminded me of the book A Wolf Called Romeo, a true story about a wild wolf that visited the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska in the mid-2000s and came to a bad end at the hands of a morally reprehensible idiot who seemed to take pleasure in destroying something beautiful. I just can’t wrap my head around it. What’s wrong with us?
Rest in peace, owl mom. I’m definitely not telling anyone where to find the eagle’s nest.