Most mornings Thunder and I drive into Yellowstone just before sunrise. In mid-winter, it’s not unusual for the temperature to drop to negative double-digits in Lamar Valley, where – on especially cold days – icy fog sometimes coats the cottonwood trees with a strikingly beautiful layer of hoarfrost.
Moose were everywhere in January. One morning I counted nine of them in Round Prairie alone. Four of those nine moose wandered very close to the road and generously posed for photos as they grazed on frozen willows.
Unfortunately the sight of four bull moose so close to the road inevitably attracted a horde of other photographers, and eventually the presence of so many loud people spooked them. I’ve been surprised by what feels like a dramatic spike in the number of tour groups patrolling the park this winter. I understand that the pandemic has increased the popularity of domestic outdoor activities, and I’m glad so many people are getting to experience Yellowstone, but it’s disheartening to see a mob of thirty frantic tourists chase after a moose.
Bull moose shed their antlers this time of year, and one morning near Warm Creek I saw a one-antlered moose with a bloody red circle where his other antler must have fallen off just a short time earlier.
In mid-January a photographer named Cole somehow managed to find a Boreal owl perched on the branch of a fallen tree near Tower Junction. It was incredible that Cole was able to spot the relatively small, almost motionless owl such a good distance from the road. I’d never seen a Boreal owl before, and I eagerly joined Cole and the constantly-growing crowd of other photographers.
“Is that blood on the tip of its wing?” someone asked. At first we thought it might be blood from prey the owl had recently killed, but eventually it became clear that the owl was injured. There was speculation that it had collided with a car, and – given the strong possibility that the injury was not natural – a decision was made to take the owl to a wildlife rehabilitation center.
In late January a bison carcass appeared by the Specimen pullout and nobody seemed quite sure what had killed it – possibly just the winter cold. Bald eagles, ravens, and a coyote fed on the carcass until park rangers moved it away from the road.
Later that afternoon I returned to the carcass site, thinking there was a chance wolves might stop by to investigate, and I found that there was now a coyote carcass on the other side of the road. I’m not sure if it was the same coyote that had been feeding on the bison carcass earlier, but if so the circle of life had spun quickly. It’s harsh when that happens to any animal, but I especially hate to see any canids go down. Four bald eagles were feeding on the carcass. If you’d rather not see that side of Yellowstone, skip the next two photos.
I ran into my photographer friend Deby at the coyote carcass, and I predicted that a wolf would show up right after I left. As I learned later from a photo Deby posted, that’s exactly what happened, of course.
Winter life in a remote mountain town isn’t for everyone, no doubt, but Marie and I are beginning to get into the rhythm. (It helps that it didn’t snow very much in January, giving my back a break from shoveling the driveway…) Every morning as Thunder and I drive into Yellowstone I feel incredibly grateful to be where we are, doing what we’re doing.