Watching the ducks on a cold morning in Yellowstone
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“Look at the plastic ducks on those rocks,” a young boy exclaimed to his mother as they walked on the boardwalk at LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River in the Yellowstone National Park last Monday.
“They are not fake, but are real wood ducks,” the mom from Minnesota instructed her son as they were joined by other members of their family. “They are probably as cold as we are and don’t want to go swimming.”
I joined the conversation and asked the mom to look up Harlequin ducks on her smartphone as we watched the 12 male Harlequins about 12 feet away from us. The 28-degree air temperature made the Yellowstone River spew out a heavy mist as two-by-two the ducks left their roosting rocks and flew out into the raging rapids to feed and to play.
“I still think they could be fake and are really robots,” the boy teasingly said to his mom as she read aloud about them.
I had left Rexburg at 4:30 a.m. with the temperature at 52 degrees so I could be in the park before the line formed at the West Yellowstone gate. At West Yellowstone it was a balmy 31 and as I entered the park I was met by a thick fog along the along the Madison River. The first animals I saw was a small herd of cow elk in the thick fog at Elk Park in the Upper Gibbon Meadows. I was able to stop for a picture without creating an “elk jam” as I was the only vehicle on the road.
My first destination was the LeHardy Rapids for pictures of the Harlequin ducks and the nesting American dippers that can usually be found there. After the Harlequins migrate from the Oregon/Washington Pacific coast in early spring, the females establish their nests and usually by July 15, the males head back to the coast to lounge on the beach. I wanted to get some pictures of the males before they left for the season and I was successful as I saw a total of 18 males as they fished and played in the water with a few tourists “ooo-ing and awing” about them.
Kyle, an educational and information volunteer for Yellowstone, later told me that 90 percent of people visiting the park never stop at LeHardy and enjoy watching the Harlequins and the American dippers that use the rapids.
I met Kyle where an elk carcass had been attracting bears for three days along the East Entrance road, but I had stayed 10 minutes too long watching the ducks and had missed a single male bear that had been there. After visiting with Kyle I continued up the road toward Sylvan Pass and located a large grizzly along the Clear Creek just below Sylvan Lake. It did not stay very long as it was headed somewhere fast into the thick timber.
“This area is my favorite area to see bears,” Kyle told me after I came back. “From Yellowstone Lake to Sylvan Pass there are a lot of wilderness areas that are full of bears. Yesterday on the carcass we had a female here with her third boyfriend since she lost her cub and I think we will see her again next spring with another little one.”
On my way past LeHardy Rapids, I had to stop for one more check on the Harlequins before fighting the traffic and the bison and elk jams. The birds entertained me with what appeared to be races between the ducks as they fought their way through the swift water to get a preferred spot on a rock.
If you are headed to Yellowstone, it is crowded by 8 a.m. so going in early and leaving by noon is what I prefer to do – even if it is chilly. I will be headed in again to target bears and maybe wolves – and hopefully see the female Harlequins with their little broods.
CORRECTION: In last week’s article, I wrote that the lure Mike Bruton was holding was called a “swing blade.” It was not a swing blade but a Kokabow dodger. The owner of Kokabow Fishing Tackle, Alan Greenhalgh from Boise recognized the lure as one of his “Bubblegum Kokabow” dodgers. “We are an Idaho company that makes and sells quality Kokabow tackle that are very effective in catching kokanee,” Greenhalgh told me when I called and visited with him.