Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Park: Yellowstone in winter part 1

Okay, enough about getting there.  What about Yellowstone, made famous by Yogi Bear (remember Jellystone Park?) and an awesome BBC 3 part documentary (basically the reason we went).  

A few quick facts:
- Created in 1872 it was the first national park in the US, and the world.
- At 3,500 square miles it is about 4 times the size of the Lake District
- It sits on what was once the biggest volcano in North America and acts like a giant deep freeze in winter
- Its northern mountain ranges and valleys are (pretty much accurately as it turns out) described as the 'Serengeti of North America'

(WARNING: Look away now if you aren't interested in detailed nerdy wildlife spotting descriptions, read on if you love knowing how to tell bison boys from bison girls...)

The first afternoon

What are they eating up there?
The huge stone gate welcomed us to the Park and within about 4 minutes we spotted our first wildlife; a small group of Bighorn Sheep grazing (though I'm not sure on what) on the steep rockfaces right by the road.  Much more powerful looking than domestic sheep, they didn't seem phased by us, but lucky we stopped for as long as we did as the other times we saw them they were specks in the distance. 

He followed in our footsteps
Feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, we took a short walk from the car in the snow to check out a nearby valley.  We disturbed a large herd of elk (basically red deer but also a bit stockier and with thicker coats) grazing and, as we turned back to the car, a coyote was sneaking over our tracks to a nearby viewpoint.  Our first carnivore!  No photo (don't worry, you'll see them later) but the first of many animal prints in snow of the trip.

Mark was only allowed about 5 minutes to drink coffee when we checked into the hotel in case we missed any other wildlife action.  But as we'd be leaving straight after our wildlife tour we thought we should check out one of the parks 'thermal features' (it has half of all the world's geysers, hot springs, mud pools etc).  The terrace of springs right by the hotel was awesome, huge clouds of steam in the cold air and funky thermophile bacteria coating everything in pyschadelic colours...

Then it was back on the wildlife tour.  Our next encounter was with a group of bison, photos later.  If you've seen buffalo in Africa, think of something bigger, shaggier and with a huge shoulder hump comprised not of muscle but bony fins extending up from the spine.  The hump helps them sway their huge heads through the snow to clear patches to get at the grass underneath.  Seeing them in the falling snow was magic. 

Look hard and you'll see him centre left
But let's be honest, you all know the real reason we were there; to catch a glimpse, just a glimpse, of a wolf as it is supposed to be the best place in the world to see them.  And that's exactly what we did next.  Turns out that there are group of wolf watching devotees in Yellowstone, and if you see their vehicles you are pretty much guaranteed a sighting.  

A much better, but not mine, piccie
Not knowing this, we casually stopped at a roadside pullout and quietly asked the people with huge telephoto lenses if there was much around.  'Have you seen the wolves yet' they replied, pointing at a black and a grey wolf lounging in the snow just two or three hundred metres away... Awesome.  Okay, my photo is rubbish, but you could seem super well through binos!    

to be continued....

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