There’s a rhythm to the seasonal movements of Yellowstone’s wildlife. Different animals tend to rotate through different areas of the park in somewhat consistent patterns, most of which I’m still learning. Bighorn sheep, for example, usually appear on the cliffs overlooking Hitching Post and Confluence around mid-winter, and this year was no exception. Starting in January I began spotting at least one ram grazing on the hillsides every time I drove by.
Most mornings the sheep stay higher up, but as the day goes along they often come closer to the road, and one afternoon in February I happened to be at Confluence when a couple of rams dropped all the way down to graze by the Lamar River. After a while they took a break from grazing for a friendly round of head-butting, and I was in a good spot to catch the instigator flashing some stink-eye at his buddy before making a horns-first lunge.
Later that month two bighorn sheep carcasses appeared on consecutive days at Confluence, where they attracted coyotes and a pair of golden eagles. I’ve heard that golden eagles sometimes kill bighorn sheep by knocking them off high ledges, but there was speculation that disease – maybe pneumonia – was responsible for those two kills.
Temperatures in February dropped to lows I’d ever experienced. Just after sunrise one morning my car said it was -38F in Lamar Valley, which wasn’t cold enough to deter a group of three otters from popping out of their den at Confluence to find breakfast. Their whiskers froze into icicles whenever they left the water. I’d apparently just missed one of the otters catching a goldeneye duck, which it proceeded to devour on the edge of the Lamar River. Up until that point I’d only ever seen otters eat fish.
My fingers and toes handled the extreme cold better than I expected that morning, but my normally-trustworthy camera refused to cooperate. I’m not sure if it was condensation, or frozen auto-focus mechanisms, or some kind of user error, but 99% of my shots were slightly out of focus. Thankfully -38F photo shoots are few and far between.
Moose continued to appear regularly at Round Prairie throughout February. I love trying to catch them surrounded by frozen willows.
As my mom is quick to point out, I may be getting a little spoiled by having so much wildlife nearby. One afternoon I went looking for otters at Confluence, where I ran into Jort, a photographer friend. Jort said the otters had been out earlier but were now back in their den. I decided to wait, and before long a lone otter came swimming up from the west but vanished into the den almost immediately. I felt disappointed at seeing so little. Thankfully I caught myself and administered a little reality check. I’d just seen a river otter, which by itself is amazing. Several bighorn sheep were grazing on the hillside above me. Earlier a coyote had approached the river near us, tested the ice with its paw, carefully padded across, and then trotted along the riverbank. On the drive to Confluence I’d passed several moose at Round Prairie. All of that in the space of about an hour. And I felt disappointed? Come on! You gotta be careful or Yellowstone will knock your expectations completely out of balance…
Marie and I tried to get out on the snow whenever it was relatively warm. One afternoon the two of us snowshoed around Trout Lake, and later I decided to test my cross-country skiing skills on the Baronette trail. Those skills, I’m sorry to report, were found lacking. My previous cross-country skiing experiences had been on flat, easy terrain. Baronette, on the other hand, was frequently cut by drainage gullies that – while small in scale – dipped steeply down and just as steeply back up. I lost count of how many times I wiped out. A couple days later Marie and I were watching an action movie where some poor chump kept getting body slammed, over and over again, and I complained that it was triggering Baronette flashbacks.
Despite what has seemed to me and Marie like plenty of snow and cold, most of the locals we’ve spoken with claim this has been the mildest winter they can remember. It’s nice of Yellowstone to welcome us to our new home with a softball, although I can’t help but shiver a little when I consider what a bad winter will be like…