Winter in Yellowstone, 2022

A wild grey wolf howls to packmates up-valley.

Just the photos: Winter in Yellowstone 2022 Gallery

January in Yellowstone National Park is known for frigid temperatures and deep snow. The towns that service the park are quiet and mostly shut down; the routes through the interior are only open to snowmobiles, snowcoaches, and skis. I exceeded my annual allowance of hamburgers in less than three days. A high pressure system during our visit led to dry air, bright skies, and very little precipitation, and the temperature differential could be up to 50 degrees—from as cold as -20 F to as warm as 30 F within a single day.

A couple of young bison bulls play sparring during breakfast.

In the Lamar Valley, our sightings were dominated by bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes, the inimitable American Dipper, and a few small groups of elk. One large bull elk holding an impressive set of antlers was resting in a hotspot, basking in the warmth of the geothermal feature that had melted away the snow. On the afternoon of the first day, we found a large group of pronghorn, sometimes called the “American antelope,” foraging in a field bordering the park outside of Gardiner, Montana. Pronghorn are one of the fastest extant land mammals, able to hit speeds up to 55 mph. Interestingly, no modern predator in the western hemisphere can reach speeds anywhere close. It’s thought that pronghorn evolved their impressive speed to evade extinct predators such as Miracinonyx, the American cheetahs, distant relatives of the cougar that once roamed the plains of western North America.

Close-ups from Mammoth Hot Springs.

The highlight of our second day in Lamar was spotting a few groups of moose feeding in willow thickets by Soda Butte Creek. Yellowstone moose (Alces alces shirasi), while large, are actually the smallest of the four subspecies of moose. Their population has been in decline since the fire in 1988, which burned huge swaths of old growth forest that the moose rely on for habitat. Most bull moose we observed had shed their antlers, but we were lucky to find one young bull still holding them as he traveled slowly through a clearing the valley, before disappearing back into the forest.

Perhaps the most desired classic wildlife sighting possible in all of Yellowstone, the American Dipper is a small songbird with an aquatic feeding habit, diving to river bottoms even in the cold of winter to search for small fish and invertebrates.

During the slow hours for big wildlife sightings, we sometimes spotted multiple different photographers along long stretches of the valley, crouched attentively by streams. It was sometimes only after a moment of observation that we realized they were after the dippers. Joke’s on us though, it takes resolve I don’t possess to not give in to their inherent drab grey charm.

Our last day in Lamar was the first day that either of us saw wild Yellowstone wolves… from about 1.5 miles away as they traveled at speed between the trees in the morning. We saw spotters with scopes out as we crawled up the valley, and after determining that they’d seen part of the Wapiti Lake pack traveling east several minutes past, we opted to continue east ourselves and see if we could spot them from further down the valley. That gamble paid off in the form of an extraordinary sighting of eleven or so tiny moving dots, some of which were distinguishable as wolves, and the haunting sound of a howl echoing across the wide flats. This photo, indiscriminately cropped, was taken at a whopping 1200mm! We were thrilled to have spotted them at all.

Probably the biggest bighorn ram I have ever seen.

Black-billed magpies, pictured at the top, are intelligent and opportunistic scavengers. We spotted a couple in the early morning hopping around a group of resting cow bison and calves. Like oxpeckers in Africa, they sometimes feed on parasites of the large animals in the area, occasionally welcomed, occasionally shaken off for their trouble.

The afternoon of our last day in the north, as we headed back towards Gardiner, we spotted a bachelor group of bighorn rams resting out on a flat. We opted to hike out to them (everyone had apparently forgotten our failed post-holing adventure of the morning looking for moose). We approached very cautiously, but the rams showed little inclination to even notice our presence, continuing to nap and chew cud in golden light until they one by one got up to feed again. Pictured is one of the biggest rams I have ever seen in my life, with a full curl of horn!

By the next morning we had transferred to West Yellowstone and were out in a snowcoach in the interior, crawling along the packed snow road along the Madison River. Trumpeter swans, common goldeneyes, common mergansers, and bald eagles winter on the Madison, which never freezes because it’s fed by hot water from geothermal features. Pictured are also a few scenes from Dragon’s Mouth hot spring and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Otter tracks can be seen at the snowy base of Yellowstone Falls, telling the story of some grand sliding action. Sadly, we had no otter sightings on this trip, though their distinctive belly-sliding tracks were easy to find.

Our big sighting of the day took only thirty seconds: a tiny ermine in winter coat poked his head out of a hole in the snow, curiously observing the snowcoach before disappearing down the tunnel, never to be seen again. We scoured that area every morning for the rest of the trip, but never saw more than his tiny tracks in the snow!

Nearly every parking area seemed to be the domain of one or two bold and noisy ravens. They were universally cooperative for photos, which provided me perhaps incomprehensible entertainment in lieu of working on my landscape photography skills… which are, and remain, nonexistent.

Our second day in the interior dawned on bison pressing their way through the snow, searching for fodder. Though they are well-adapted to the weather conditions, winter is still hard on them. Occasionally they make their own lives easier by utilizing the groomed roadways. Also pictured: swans in afternoon light, a coyote mousing along the river, trees, some snow formations that Matt observed “look like cauliflower,” and “diamond dust,” a clear sky phenomenon that forms at negative temperatures due to temperature inversion.

We did the requisite tour of the interior geyser basins, and caught a relatively private eruption of Old Faithful all things considered. My favorite features were in the mud volcano area. The pleasantly glooping mud bubbles may lack the drama of a large cone geyser, but they have charm!

In the late afternoon we had our closest viewing of a coyote of the trip, a beautiful individual in full winter coat who padded up a hill and continued off down the road.

Grey wolf vs coyote: a comparison. At many of our numerous coyote sightings during this trip, a common phrase we heard passing us by was, “It’s a wolf!” I was guilty of the opposite reaction as we came up on our actual wolf sighting on our last day in the park when I said, “There’s a coyote,” reflexively upon a split second glance at a distant canine in a field. I was never so surprised to be wrong!

Little did we know that our last day in the park would be an incredible “three dog day,” where we spotted all three native canine species, with coyotes (and common goldeneyes, which don’t add to the dog count) in the morning, our sole distant red fox sighting in the afternoon, and an incredible experience with grey wolves as the sun slipped behind the mountains at dusk. I don’t know if this pack has been solidly identified, but we believed it was another part of the Wapiti Lake pack, part of which we saw all the way north in the Lamar Valley. A pack of around eleven was traveling through a meadow at dusk and gave us incredible, breathtaking views of their interactions. Two among their number that I saw were collared, a very submissive gray and a black. I can’t imagine a more amazing sound than their howls echoing through the valley, from up on the ridge above and down in the meadow below.

Many thanks to D. Robert Franz, who was our guide for this trip. I’ve never met anyone with more facts in their head about the history, geography, and ecosystem of an area, except maybe Wikipedia.

Melanistic wolves owe their unique coloration to distant hybridization with domestic dogs. About a third of the wolves we spotted this week were black. This individual was last out of the valley as the rest of the pack climbed up onto a ridge and out of sight.

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  • VivekanandFebruary 3, 2022 - 04:25

    Wow! Painstaking photography….ReplyCancel