Sigrid Sanders
All photos ©2009 Clate Sanders - All rights reserved.  
 Winter Wildlife in Yellowstone

Page 3 of 5

Golden Eagles

Late in the morning Betsy spotted two golden eagles perched in a small group of bare trees in the distance. A raven sat in another tree nearby. For several minutes they remained in these trees – long enough for us to set up a scope and for everyone in our group to see them. They were impressive, though still rather far away, both adults, dark golden-brown, with the head glowing in a lighter shade of warm gold.

Then they flew. One went behind a slope and out of our sight, but the other, to our amazement, flew directly toward us and almost over us, very low and close. It was awesome, in the purest sense of the word. The eagle looked quite dark and patterned in different shades of brown as it passed over and flew out of sight behind the snowy slope or ridge, where one member of our group could see that it had perched in a tree. Then the other golden eagle came flying back over the ridge-top low and fairly close – and calling in a chattering way, very clearly. Then it, too, disappeared. Suddenly they were gone. The snow and the sky and the valley seemed empty and quiet.

The Howl of a Wolf

Still later in the morning, on our way back to the lodge, one or two vans in our group stopped again when someone spotted a lone female gray wolf, considerably closer than the wolves we had seen earlier in the morning, slightly downhill from where we stood on the side of the road. The light was softer here, shadowy where the wolf sat in an open spot on the snow, facing into a densely wooded area. Though still a good way in the distance, she was close enough so that through a scope we could see her in much more detail. She looked handsome, strong, with thick fur in fine tones of silver and gray.

I had just stepped away from the scope, letting someone else look, when Betsy said quietly, “Listen. She’s howling.” And I heard it. I looked through the scope again, and as I watched, she lifted her head, nose pointed up, and howled again – a haunting, muffled, echoing sound – much more expressive and crooning than “howl” might imply. Several more times she howled, and I watched, then backed away to let others see too, though there were only a few of us there. I think most of the group had already gone on ahead, back toward the lodge.

Against a soft, enveloping quiet, the wild, strange music hung suspended, and dispersed into the snow and mist, the cold, the wind, the mountains, and the dark blurry shadows of the trees.

Travertine Terraces

After a late lunch and brief rest at the lodge, we joined the group for a walk around the hot springs that give Mammoth Hot Springs its name, and the step-like “travertine terraces” that form around the springs. The terraces are formed by water heated by the geologic forces below the Yellowstone region, which combines with gasses to form an acidic solution that dissolves limestone deposits and carries them to the surface. There they solidify in the form of travertine, a sedimentary rock.

So after a morning of watching wildlife, the afternoon was devoted more to the geological wonders of Yellowstone. Our guides explained the process as we walked – but I have to admit that at the time I didn’t pay full attention because I was mainly just enjoying the beautiful day, the walk in the snow – and watching my feet, because wandering off the trail even a few inches usually meant sinking into thigh-deep snow drifts – something I did several times.

We had it easy, really. A snow-coach had taken us up to a point high above the lodge complex, and from there we followed a winding trail around the springs and down. At the top we began with a splendid panoramic view. Gradually making our way down – the group strung out so that listening to the guides was sort of hit and miss – we ambled around the hot springs and terraces, many of which are brightly colored by the presence of cyanobacteria and algae. Clay-red, turquoise, green, saffron, indigo, orange, cream, yellow, white and many other colors created a striking scene, with majestic snow-covered mountains in the distance and steam rising from the springs around us, often blowing over us. The steam also condenses on the trees around the springs and freezes into thick, creamy coats of rime in fantastic curled, whirled and feathered shapes.

Red Fox in the Hayden Valley

The next morning we climbed into snow coaches – passenger vehicles designed to travel over snow and ice – for a day of sightseeing on the way from Mammoth Hot Springs to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. We headed out around 8:00 into another beautiful, sunny, very cold day, and bounced along through valleys and mountains covered in snow, passing steam from hot springs here and there, ridges lined with dark fir, spruce and lodgepole pine, scattered elk and bison, and somewhere along the way a pair of American dippers flying low over a stream, and mallards, buffleheads and goldeneye ducks.

About mid-morning, we arrived at an overlook from which we could see the lower and upper falls of the Yellowstone River – frozen into massive, pale green cascades rimmed with icicles and delicate crystalline sprays, with milky-gray water still pouring from cracks in the ice-sculptured falls – and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, its cavernous yellow rock walls and cliffs clotted with thick accumulations of snow, and the chalk-green river flowing at the bottom far below.

From there, we followed the Yellowstone River into and through the Hayden Valley, a large, wide, open valley with mountains all around, rolling hills and – like the Lamar Valley – known as a popular area for wildlife, including bison, elk, moose, wolves and – in season – grizzlies. Here we passed three coyotes curled up on a snowy slope in the sun, scattered groups of elk, many bison, and two wolves of the Swan Lake pack crossing the top of a snowy ridge. They were a long way away, but because it was so clear and sunny, and they were outlined against the sky, we had a brief but distinct view of them.

My favorite sighting of the day, though, was a curious red fox crossing deep snow on the slope of a very large, long, sweeping ridge. Its thick, tawny-red fur, long bushy tail and expressive “fox face” stood out cleanly against the snow. We watched as it moved quickly and neatly, paused, pounced up and down in an arc, and dug into the snow in pursuit of a small mammal. Then it suddenly paused again and looked around toward us – though we were very far away – ran several lengths across the slope, stopped again and just sat and watched us for some time, looking directly toward us, ears turning, head now and then cocked to one side, as if trying to figure out what exactly we were going to do. We watched it watching us watching it for a few more minutes – then took down our scopes and tripods and drove on, leaving the fox still sitting there in the snow, watching us go.

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