Feathers and Fur – Part 2 of 2…by Brad Marks

Body hurts, eyes red and very exhausted, I must be in Sin City! Most of that condition is due to non-stop birding since we arrived – the rest of the time, well, as the say, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. The birding front has been incredible. Already +22 for the Average Year (link here – not updated yet) with a number of lifers in the mix, all of which will assuredly be featured here sometime in the future. Meanwhile, I wanted to get the 2nd part of Brad’s Yellowstone adventure out to you.

Take it away Brad…

In the last episode our intrepid travelers had arrived in Yellowstone National Park in June.  It was June . . . remember that.  There was a blizzard on the first night.  They scraped snow from cars, endured closed roads, saw geysers, bison, birds, rotten egg smells, etc. 

Now you are up to date.  Time to continue on after our second of three nights in the park.  This is our  last full day at Yellowstone.  Here’s the map to help set the stage again. (It’s a big one a takes a few seconds to open.)

It is still mid-June in Yellowstone.  Another 4” of new snow fell overnight (second night in a row) at Lake Lodge, though much more snow fell in the higher elevations.  Again.  All of the park roads were closed until about 10am.  When some of the roads were finally opened and the car was cleared of snow (same benefit card snow scraper) we headed to Fishing Bridge a few miles up the road.  However, when we arrived, there was only one car in sight with the ranger inside her car frantically waving and yelling for us to stay in our car.  After about 10 minutes, she came out of the car to check the area.  She motioned it was OK for us to get out now.  We learned she was in her car because a grizzly sow and her cub had ambled through about 30 seconds before we arrived.  Their tracks were still visible in the early morning snow.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park by Brad Marks

We walked out onto Fishing Bridge to get a view up and down the waterline.  We’d only been there a few moments when this pair of American white pelicans went flying by.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park by Brad Marks

Hit the jump to learn more about Brad’s Yellowstone adventure.

After seeing the pelicans, we drove to Yellowstone’s Lower Falls.  After turning off the “8” we bumped into a small combination “bison/bear” jam.  Tourists will usually clog the roads when a heard of bison or a bear is nearby so they can take a selfie (Brad’s advice — Don’t do it! No selfies with 2,000-pound wild animals that have horns or very sharp and large teeth).  I found a safe place to park just after the “jam”.  Once we were out of the car I set up my camera.  We then noticed that only about 10 yards away was a sleeping bison.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park by Brad Marks

Now, don’t chastise me for being too close to a bison bull.  Well, yes, it was very close, maybe 30 feet away.  But what you don’t see is the park ranger just out of frame even closer than I was standing.  Park rangers have a very difficult job keeping both the animals safe from tourists, and tourists safe from being, well, tourists getting too close to the animals.  She said we were safe as long as he was sleeping.  We could see the steam from his breath while he was snoring. 

But as we approached, we noticed the “crowd” (10 people) was looking in the distance at a small brown furry object.  About 100 yards away was a bear snacking on berries or treats left by trail runners. 

Shots from Yellowstone National Park by Brad Marks

It’s a cinnamon bear, a variable color morph of a black bear.  At first glance, we thought it was a grizzly, but the ranger pointed out the lack of a hump (grizzly hallmark).  Grizzlies also have smaller ears (hard to tell at this distance) and a much larger head than black bears (again, not getting close enough to make that comparison).  Please pardon the softness of the photo.  I was using my 200-500mm lens at 500mm and my Jan-pod.  This was as close as the ranger would let us get to the bear.  Ironic, with a sleeping bison 10 yards to my left.  The older couple next to us had pulled out their 600mm lenses (yes, both had their own pro camera bodies with a 600mm lenses, one white and one with a camo cover).  Each was also using stacked teleconverters:  two 2.0x teleconverters plus another 1.4x converter for total effective reach of about 2900mm.  These monstrosities were sitting on industrial tripods that could hold up a pickup truck.  They asked if I wanted to look through the viewfinder and of course I said YES!  I could see the bear’s entire face filling the field of view.  At that point, a story from way back popped into my mind about what happens when you encounter bears.  I didn’t have to worry about outrunning the bear if came in our direction; I just had to outrun the slowest tourist.  I felt pretty safe in that crowd.

I know the rangers told us the bear’s name.  But in my excitement of seeing a LIVE FREAKING BEAR IN YELLOWSTONE!!! I completely forgot the name.  Once I had about two hundred small blurry photos of a fuzzy bear, we drove the short distance to the Lower Falls parking area.  A light snow was falling and slightly swirling among the stately Lodgepole pines.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park by Brad Marks

I took this photo while dodging snowflakes during a momentary pause in the snow.  The yellow stone (no, not where the park got its name) is rhyolite lava which is normally quite striking in full sunshine (see notes below for full story).   Being quite cold at this point, with poor visibility and snow falling, we jumped back into a mostly warm car and drove to Norris Geyser Basin to see what we could see.  The Norris basin is in the hottest, oldest and most thermally active area in the park.  Very few thermal features here are below the boiling point (199 degrees Fahrenheit at this elevation).

By this time, Allyson seemed to be warming up to the all of “the rocks”.  We hiked the trails twisting around the geysers until we saw this little brown furry thing scurry across the path.  At first it looked very lopsided, having a very large bushy front end.  But when it paused for a second, we found out why.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park by Brad Marks

This is a Red squirrel.  His normally bushy tail is soaked because of the puddle he just ran through to avoid a young tourist (not Allyson) chasing him off the boardwalk.  He (or truthfully it should be a she) is carrying bedding material in its mouth.  Red squirrels are a bit bigger than the standard ground squirrel or chipmunk, but not quite as large as Eastern grey squirrels found in the Midwest.

As we wandered around the trail a bit further, we spotted these much larger furry regulars in a meadow near the walking trail.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park by Brad Marks

Yes, it looks like a peaceful meadow, but just out of frame is a geyser bubbling and spitting a handful of feet away.  The geysers are real hazards for both two- and four-legged visitors.  In addition to the boiling water and steam coming from the geysers are large amounts of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a colorless and odorless gas and normally diluted enough to be no danger to man or beast.  Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is colorless, flammable and has that distinctive rotten-egg smell permeating geyser basins.  Both gases are heavier than air.  In most cases, wind will dilute CO2 and H2S to low enough concentrations to render them harmless to people or animals.  In certain, very stable atmospheric conditions, these relatively heavy gases can accumulate in low-lying areas and pose a serious health hazard.  There was a case in 2004 when dead bison were found in Norris Geyser Basin after an unusually cold and still night.  The atmospheric conditions allowed the gases to build up near the ground, setting up a lethal environment for the grazing animals.  And for any tourists that would have been hanging around.  Fortunately for us there was a stiff breeze the day of our visit.

As we left the bison behind, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye in the short grasses next to the trail.  I had to look a few times before I saw it.  Actually, Allyson had to point it out for me.  Look close because we sure had to.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park by Brad Marks

It’s a Yellow Pine chipmunk (not named a ground squirrel as the rest are).  This little guy is only a few inches long and as you can tell, not quite as tall as the grasses.  According to the habitat maps we were near the very eastern edge of its range. After a day walking among the geysers, we just had to stop by Old Faithful one more time on the way back to the lodge.  I think it’s required with your park admission, or should be.

Shots from Yellowstone National Park by Brad Marks

By now, the sun was sinking low, so we headed back to the lodge for dinner and an early bedtime.  We had a very long drive the next day to Moab, UT, almost 600 miles away.

During our entire stay, we had only seen the sun for a few minutes over three days.  On our last day, the sky was crystal clear.  And since it was so clear, I just had to try Lower Falls again for a non-snowy “money shot”.

Nailed it!

Just after we made our last pitstops and bought a few snacks we headed back for the park exit at West Yellowstone, MT.  We made one last stop for a photo-op and Allyson asked if we could stay longer.  This is where I mentioned that it was “just a bunch of rocks”.  She replied, “Yes, but they are really cool rocks!”

Our parting photo.  Same road and no-parking zone.  Same Jan-pod.  Same shiver whenever I see one looking majestic.

Thanks for reading.  If you are interested in more Yellowstone photos, please visit here.  See if you agree with Allyson’s assessment of the “rocks”.


Thanks again to Jan and Allyson for proofreading and editing.  Thanks to Jan and Allyson for some of the photos in this article, and for spotting the animals.

Thanks to the National Park Service website for helping with maps and critter details. 

Some facts about Yellowstone

  • Yellowstone has 10,000 thermal features (no, I didn’t count them):  hot springs, mud pots, steam vents and 500 geysers (half of the geysers in the entire world). 
  • Even with all of those “thermal features” the place is overflowing with wildlife (not counting tourists). 
  • Ironically Lake Yellowstone, in the middle of it all, averages 41 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.  The surface will freeze solid; a stark contrast to active thermal features on the bottom of the lake.
  • Did I mention the park is BIG!?  2.2 million acres big (of 3,472 square miles, larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined). 
  • Yellowstone is mostly in Wyoming, but spills over into Montana and a tiny bit in Idaho. 
  • It was the country’s first National Park, established in 1872 by President Grant. 
  • Oh, I forgot to mention, Yellowstone is one of, if not the largest volcano caldera in the US (depending on how you group its many caldera throughout history).  The caldera is nearly a third of the entire park (30 x 45 miles).  See the shaded boundary on this map (same one as at the beginning of the story).
  • Three of the largest eruption/explosions in the Lower 48 happened here:  approx. 2.1 million years ago, about 1.3 million years ago, and close to 640,000 years ago.  Yup, I know.  You did the math and figured out there is an average of about 640,000 years between events.  Tick, tick, tick . . .  Each of these events was 10,000 times larger than the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980 (visual representation).
  • Yellowstone Lake is the largest high elevation lake in North America.
  • The name “Yellowstone” is from a Native American reference to the color of the sandstone (loosely translated to “rock yellow river”) found along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana.

Other feathers and fur seen but not featured:  Yellow-rumped warbler (bad photo), many mallards, an (as yet to be identified) LBJ, and a common magpie (parking lot shot).  Actual grizzly bears were not featured, just their tracks in the snow.

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