This was another case where a glitch in pre-planned logistics worked out well. I would be meeting Cindy at the Salt Lake City Airport on the afternoon of June 14th and from there we would drive to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The night of the 12th with the successful Flammulated Owl adventure meant a late night and a much later than usual start on the morning of the 13th, but there was an open day to do some exploring in Wyoming and if fortunate maybe even find 50 species. That would take pressure off the visit with Cindy but it also would mean birding without company – a deviation from the “Grand Plan” of my 50/50/50 Quest which was to have company on each day of birding. It worked out very well. So the first part of this blog is before the Tetons. For them you will just have to wait.
Evanston, Wyoming is just over the state line from Utah. Not a big town but sufficiently urban to give me Rock and Eurasian Collared Doves, House Sparrows and House Finches, European Starling and American Crow. Adding a kettle of Turkey Vultures, a surprise California Gull, some American Robins, American Goldfinches and Tree Swallows and I was at 11 species in short order. Other 50 species days had similar starts so it barely being after 9:00 a.m., I was very pleased.
That pleasure increased when a short way out of town I found some good sage habitat and easily found Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows and Sage Thrasher and had a small flock of White Pelicans and a few Common Nighthawks fly over. Both are always a treat and since I saw no water in the area, the Pelicans were a big surprise.
It was now just past 10:00 a.m. and I was at 24 species so going for 50 was definitely the goal. Moreover, though, it was just fun and relaxed birding in beautiful open country. As I have written before, this kind of birding energizes me – the combination of finding birds and being in such wonderful places without concerns for politics, bills to pay, even sports scores is consuming in a very positive way. I think that even subconsciously dealing with those every day matters creates a negative energy and being away from them allows the positive energy that is available to take over. I recognize that this is a luxury – especially being able to go on an adventure like this for days or even weeks at a time. Even in smaller doses, however, there is a restorative role played by following our passions and being immersed in them. I need to remind myself of that the next time the ugliness of much of the current state of affairs in America is in the news.
Tim Avery had recommended the Woodruff Narrows Reservoir and environs as a great birding stop. It was closer to Evanston than I had realized and even with much of the travel on a dirt/gravel road, I was there earlier than expected. Still surrounded by sage, the Reservoir itself was a wonderful new habitat – the key to any “listing” day. And now I understood where those White Pelicans had come from or were going as there were hundreds of them on the Lake/Reservoir. More importantly there were both Clark’s and Western Grebes, Spotted Sandpipers, Killdeer, Willets and one of my favorites – Wilson’s Phalaropes.
Both Caspian and Forster’s Terns added to the count but the reservoir seemed almost duck-free. I saw many Mallards but nothing else. This was one time I wondered if my decision not to bring a spotting scope would be proven to be a poor one. I expect that some of the distant specks may have other ducks or grebes but neither camera nor binoculars were able to show me that. I met some locals at the reservoir whose interests were more in their two huge Black Labrador Retrievers than birds although the woman had a large telephoto lens and was taking photos of some of the birdlife. She assured me they were “friendly” as the dogs came running to me. I was more worried about a drenching as both had been in the water. The visit with both the Labs and the couple was fun, with some input about hunting and birds in the area. If need be, I could stretch this into the requisite “intersection” with locals.
Adding a single Lark Sparrow, a Belted Kingfisher and a Bald Eagle brought my species count for Reservoir to 26 with 19 new for the day. Then it got a little weird. I thought there was a road on the north side of the Reservoir that would take me to Cokeville, WY another spot that Tim had suggested. Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t but my GPS was not up to the task. Fortunately the day was young, I did not really have a time limit and even more fortunately I found a little patch of forest where I found a House Wren, Dusky and Gray Flycatchers, a Northern Flicker and some Chipping Sparrows.
I had to backtrack and retrace my route along the Reservoir to get back onto the highway. At least there were two new species along the way as I saw a single Gadwall and watched a small group of 5 Common Mergansers, all male and all distant fly in. I expect I did miss other species without a scope but it was just noon and I was at 49 species for the day. I figured it would be easy to find another one without the hour long drive to Cokeville. It was but the problem was that I had not paid attention and realized that for half of the journey I would be back in Utah. The weather was good, I had no obligations, so no worries. Still it would have been nice to add the 8 new species I found along Highway 16 in Utah to my Wyoming list – especially the Sora. In fact I had not realized I was back in Utah and thought there was something wrong with Ebird which I was using to track my progress. It kept showing 49 species for Wyoming. The problem of course was with me.
When I realized that I had been in Utah, I decided just to carry on to the Cokeville area and almost as soon as crossing back over to Wyoming, a lovely male Northern Harrier flew by for species number 50 for the day. There would be 8 more new ones without having to go too far – so that goal was achieved – again money in the bank as had been the case in Utah two days earlier. I would be back in Salt Lake City with time to spare to catch up on photo editing and able to work on blog posts for earlier trips. Wyoming was now state number 41 with 50 species in a day. The hope, however, was to at least equal and perhaps surpass this day with Cindy in Grand Tetons.
On to the Grand Tetons
It would be almost 5 hours to get from the Salt Lake airport to our “home” for the next three days – the Snake River Park KOA and Cabin Village in Jackson, Wyoming. Cindy’s plane arrived a little early and we were on our way around 1:30 after a quick lunch. We would be retracing much of my route from the previous day without the stops for birds or a visit to the Reservoir. Cindy had flown out only a few days after returning from a 2 week trip to Portugal. I don’t think her body had any idea what time zone it was in. The last time I had seen her was at the Buffalo, NY airport after our visit to Niagara Falls which had followed biding at Magee Marsh and then in Tawas, Michigan (see ). That had been more than 3 weeks ago and it seemed much longer. It was nice to take a break from birding and just “catch up” on the long drive and watch as the scenery got better and better.
I can’t say that our cabin at the KOA was an idyllic riverfront retreat, but the river was nearby and the cabin was serviceable. I had last been in Jackson almost 50 years ago and my memories are probably flawed, but the town itself was overrun with tourists and it was hard to even find a parking place when we went out to dinner – not the quaint village I thought I remembered . We weren’t there for the town though, and maybe it is the same flawed memory, but the Grand Tetons were even more magnificent than expected and during the almost three days we were there, we never tired of spectacular views which changed with each new perspective.
Our first birding day began on June 15th – crystal clear blue skies with a few puffy clouds. Cold in the morning but warming as the day passed but never too hot. We started the day as I usually do trying to find those countable “junk bird” Starlings, House Sparrows, Collared Doves, Crows and Robins. All were in or round town, but we also found a few Trumpeter Swans, 5 Swallow species including some Bank Swallows, a Western Tanager and a Black Chinned Hummingbird. Within 7 miles of our cabin we had 20 species in less that 30 minutes. Our most photogenic bird was a squawking Common Raven that posed for us at coffee.
Our first official birding spot was at the Visitor Center at Flat Creek/National Elk Refuge. In about an hour, we had 20 species with the best being Sandhill Cranes that Cindy spotted in the distant field. It turned out that a volunteer had his scope trained on them when we got up to the observation tower. Our conversation with him was informative…and not. He asked if we knew what baby/young Sandhill Cranes were called. I had always assumed they were chicks. He told us that they were properly called “Colts”. That turned out to be correct and was the informative part. But he also told us that the two in the field had just “dropped” a youngster – like a mare might do with a foal. I suggested that they laid eggs like all other birds but he would have none of it. Not worth an argument and our later research confirmed that not only did they lay eggs, but that there was a fairly long incubation period (about 30 days) and that both parents do share in this duty. Once hatched the young are quite precocious and leave the nest in a day or so – but are hardly “dropped”.
Sandhill Crane (Seen later in the day)
Just before entering the Park itself we stopped by some nice mature sage and I immediately heard the buzzy song of a Brewer’s Sparrow. With a little coaxing it came right to us and posed nicely. I had always thought of this species, like other Spizella sparrows, as small and slim, but I had never focused on the long tail. It is quite apparent in the photo and will now be part of my identification process.
We also saw several Vesper Sparrows. I will pat myself on the back here, as I finally remembered their song and found our first one as we were driving by with open windows on a road through the sage. If I could remember other songs as well, I would find a lot more species.
Time for a pause from birding. Have I mentioned that the Grand Tetons are SPECTACULAR!! The scenery is truly overwhelming. The Teton Range is part of the Rocky Mountains and extends for over 40 miles. The Park itself was established in 1929 and is barely 10 miles south of Yellowstone National Park. Its name came from French trappers who saw the mountains as grand teats. I guess they were very lonely… Grand Teton Mountain is almost 14,000 feet and rises more than 7,000 feet above Jackson Hole, the valley floor along the Snake River. Especially with one of the lakes or rivers in the foreground, we were in awe the whole time.
In the Park itself, we first birded along Moose Wilson Road. Our 19 species there included three of our favorite photos: a Broad Tailed Hummingbird, a Warbling Vireo and a Red Naped Sapsucker. Finding the latter was one of those birding moments that is frustrating and rewarding at the same time. I had heard its distinctive drumming but could not locate it. After two moments I heard its “waah” call and looked up to find it on the backside of a tree right next to us. I “waahed” back and it posed in great light as you can see.
Broad Tailed Hummingbird
Red Naped Sapsucker
We now had 47 species for the day and had one more place to go . At the Visitor Center, one of the Volunteers (not our Sandhill Crane guy) had recommended a visit to Schwabacher Landing. It was great advice as it was probably our favorite place in the Park. Of the 14 species we saw there, 11 were new for the day. The first was heard before seen, as 4 Spotted Sandpipers along the river edge called “weet” “weet” “weet” and then flew by with their distinctive shallow wingbeats. Next were several female Goldeneyes. As I was trying to determine whether they were Common or Barrow’s, a beautiful male flew in and the crescent between its eye and bill left no doubt.
A hiker we met who was coming back to the parking lot, told us she had seen a group of Cutthroat Trout further along. Not more than a half mile along the trail which bordered the river, we found them in a shallow pool – at least 20. They looked like they had come from a mold as each was over 18 inches and in beautiful breeding color with the orange red of their “cut” throats tails and fins clearly visible. We would be fishing in a few days and I could only hope to find a pool waiting for us somewhere full of “Cutts”.
This seems as good a place to relate that among the most common birds we saw or heard – almost at every stop were Yellow Warblers. There were many at Schwabacher, often singing, chasing each other or just posing in the sun. Most that we saw were males so maybe the females were on eggs at their nests. The only other warblers seen were Common Yellowthroats and Orange Crowns.
Our 58 species equaled the count from my day alone, but the birds, scenery and company were definitely better on this day. We would return to Schwabacher Landing the next day just for a hike. On the way in we came upon a fun scene as Prairie Dogs (we think) were rolling around in what could best be described as a “Monkey Pile”, even if that is mixing metaphors in a way. Others departed but the two remaining seemed to be quite fond of each other.
Maybe this was a precursor of things to come. When we got to a spot that had been a favorite the previous day, a gentleman was there sitting on his lawn chair just enjoying the scenery and yet another beautiful day. A few minutes later, we heard several voices coming towards us. Hikers perhaps? Not exactly; this was a wedding party with bride and groom dressed appropriately and with at least another 20 guests etc. The gentleman vacated his spot and the very happy group commenced their ceremony. We later learned that this is a very popular spot for outdoor weddings.
A hoped for part of any visit to Wyoming and the National Parks is the chance to view wildlife. We had seen Pronghorns (Antelopes) and Buffalo on our birding day but had missed a Black Bear; and a Moose had been seen along Moose Wilson Road just before we drove past the pond where it had been grazing. On our non-birding second day (well, actually our “less birding” second day), we thought we would try the area again. When we got to the pond Park Rangers in the road directing traffic. Not an accident – a Moose sighting, We found a spot for the car and got a look moments before she headed off and disappeared in a thicket.
Wyoming was now officially state #41 with 50 species in a day. We would be heading off to Montana to visit friends, do some birding and try our hand at flyfishing. It had been a wonderful visit with the 50/50/50 quest being the catalyst for great times in a truly spectacular place. I saved the best picture for last – two happy birders at our favorite spot – Schwabacher Landing.
Epilogue – Yellowstone
In my head, I have always associated Yellowstone National Park with Montana, but the reality is that the vast majority of the Park is in Wyoming. After our great visit to the Grand Tetons, our net stop was to be Helena, Montana where we would visit friends and try for fifty species in a day. Even though it was 90 minutes longer (not including any stopping), we elected to go through Yellowstone. It turned out to be much longer due to slow traffic because there were lots of visitors and also a few stops to take in some of Yellowstone’s many wonders.
We did not visit Old Faithful or Yellowstone Falls – which had giant traffic backups. Maybe someday we will return and do so. I do want to include two photos from the drive, both taken from the car by phone camera. They show how close you get to nature just being in the park. At one point the Buffalo in the first was literally inches from the car. If Cindy had her arm out the passenger side, I think the Buffalo may have licked it for the salt. The second was as we neared the geyser basin and the line to Old Faithful. Yellowstone is famed for its displays of thermal activity. We saw steam from the geysers and the photo shows the outflow from one of the many hot springs which came within feet of the road.
I kept my eyes open for a possible Golden Eagle or Prairie Falcon as we drove through Yellowstone, but none were seen. The only bird we added for Wyoming was a Cedar Waxwing – seen during a bathroom stop. It was the 87th species for the trip. I did not think about it at the time, but it would have been nice to have 13 more species to get to 100. I have seen 100 or more species in 20 states and am very close to that in some others. Adding states to the 100 plus list could be a fun adventure. Maybe in a few years.