Conventional Yellowstone Wisdom has it that the best way to find wildlife is to look for a gaggle of folks along the road with really good spotting scopes and long lenses on their cameras. And it’s true; you will certainly be guaranteed a good sighting that way. (In fact, if you’re in the Lamar Valley and see a schoolbus yellow XTerra with Montana plates and radio antennae on the roof – stop. That’s Rick McIntyre of the Wolf Project, and he’ll know where the wolves are if anyone does. And he’s a really nice guy, too, who will be glad to share his wisdom with you.)
But if you have the patience to sit and watch just to see what happens, and if you’d prefer to do that watching without the crowd, there are a few places that I think are the best spots to spend a morning or evening just hanging out.
1. My favorite, hands down, is on a knoll overlooking Slough Creek. It’s above the second pullout on the Slough Creek Campground Road, and the view over the Slough Creek valley is wide and expansive and perfect for looking for critters.
We’ve watched wolves hunting elk, pronghorn chasing each other madly through the meadows, grizzlies digging roots, coyotes hunting voles, sandhill cranes, and hawks, ducks and geese. This past weekend we spent a whole morning watching a bison herd. Bison are so common in the park that they’re often overlooked, but their interactions can be fascinating, especially during mating season. We watched one particular bull shadow a female all morning. He was practically glued to her side, and didn’t leave her alone for a second: when she turned, he turned, when she went to get water, he was right with her. She had no personal space at all, but she didn’t seem to mind – at least that I could tell. He stayed between her and the other males, and got pretty agitated when another male tried to approach the female. I did a little research, and learned that this behavior is called “tending” – the male chooses a female, and will tend her for anywhere from a few minutes to several days before mating.
See the two bison right next to each other near the top of the picture? That’s the courting pair. We watched this lone pronghorn graze his way right into the middle of the herd. He seemed shocked to be there when he finally looked up, and took off like a shot.
2. Another good spot is on a hillside overlooking Round Prairie. Round Prairie is a large meadow just opposite the Pebble Creek Campground. If you park at the Pebble Creek picnic area and walk down the road toward the Lamar Valley, there’s a little trail up the hillside that leads to a nice flat spot that overlooks the whole meadow. Soda Butte Creek flows through the meadow, and it’s a favorite hangout for moose, elk, and bison. This weekend we spotted a bull moose who was hanging around a cow moose and her calf. I’m assuming that the bull was doing the moose equivalent of “tending” the cow, but I haven’t found information about this behavior. Any biologist out there who can help?
3. Swan Flats is another grand spot to hang out and watch. The Flats are a large meadow with a number of shallow lakes, above Mammoth Hot Springs and off the road to Norris Hot Springs. You can either set up close to the road, or hike out the Glen Springs trail for as far as you want. Swan Flats is frequented by trumpeter swans and other migrating water birds in the spring, and we’ve regularly seen wolves, bears, and coyotes there. And it’s just a gorgeous spot in any season.
4. The Blacktail Road is a 6 mile gravel road that takes off from the road between Mammoth and Tower Junction. It’s very lightly travelled, and you can pull off at a number of spots and just sit and watch. We’ve seen bears there a number of times, and have had wonderful afternoons watching coyotes and hawks and eagles hunt. And it’s especially beautiful in the fall.
5. Of course, anywhere along the Lamar or Hayden Valleys provides prime opportunities for wildlife watching. Sit quietly and patiently, and you’ll be rewarded.