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Why Oh, Wyoming

August 11, 2008

Immediately following a long day at work last Saturday I headed to the airport to travel west, to Denver, the gateway to the mountains. I’d be meeting up with my family for a trip to the Great Parks of Wyoming, and the next day, bright and early, we’d make the long drive across that state to get there. I’ve only done a small bit of birding west of the Great Plains. An immersion at Camp Chiricahua in Southeast Arizona 14 years ago was the extent of my experience. And while I’d picked up a few of the regular western birds there, the vast majority of the avifauna of the western part of the continent was completely foreign to me.

As much as I would have loved to completely throw myself into a week of hard core birding, it simply wasn’t an option. The trip as a whole was a family one, with extended as well as immediate waiting for us at our destination. And for the the time being, my non-birding mother and sister were along for the ride as well, so any hopes of getting off the beaten track in the central part of the state to dig a little bit for such Wyoming specialties as Mountain Plover and Greater Sage Grouse were met with eye-rolling at best and outright hostility at worst. My dad and I had to pick and choose our moments, and hope that what target species could be found on the road were easy to spot at 80 mph.

But I wanted to get a decent shot at some of the short-grass prairie birds one could find in eastern Wyoming. With the help of the ABA birdfinding guide I targeted a spot just south of Laramie, right of the highway, that was supposed to hold the Plovers, but also other birds worth stopping for as well. Against the vocal protests of my sister we pulled off the highway and into an area in the shadow of the mountains we’d soon be driving through. The horizon here was vast and the Pronghorn, the first of approximately forty million we’d see (more or less…probably less, but not by much), were plentiful.

It wasn’t long before we spotted my first lifer of the trip, a soaring Golden Eagle, which was immediately joined in the sky by my second, a juvenile Ferruginous Hawk. Not a bad start at all. Before we left we’d also spot a gorgeous adult dark-phase Ferruginous Hawk. In fact, I saw far more dark phase hawks on this trip, not only Ferruginous but also Red-tailed and Swainson’s, than I’d ever seen in my life. In 12 years of birding in Missouri and and 4 in North Carolina I’ve seen only one dark Red-tail in Mo. Is this a western thing? And if so, what is it about the west that selects for dark-phases more than in the east? In any case, here’s a shot of the Eagle and of my mom, who occasionally likes looking at especially cool birds, and me checking it out.

This was really our only true stop for birding on the way up, but I managed to find California Gulls, another lifer, in the ponds off the highway. A quick pull off at one also netted us shorebirds like Marbled Godwits and Wilson’s Phalaropes among others, presumably moving back south. But it was in the vast sage prairies of the central valley, at a otherwise innocuous highway rest stop, that we stumbled into some luck.

It’s nice to be able to innocently claim that a birding outing is actually a restroom stop. No sooner had my dad and I stepped out of the car then a couple sparrows on a fence row drew us in. They ended up being a pair of Brewer’s Sparrows, a life bird for both of us, and foraging under a pine tree with a group of Brewer’s Blackbirds, was a juvenile Sage Thrasher, another lifer. By this time, everyone was finished with bathroom breaks and we could move on, two lifers in the bag and no time lost.

When we arrived just outside Grand Tetons National Park it was time to reconnect with family, but one doesn’t just stop birding. A family of Mountain Chickadees closed the book on a productive day, both in life birds and miles driven. The next couple days we’d get into the park itself, and the incredible sights therein.

All photos by Greg Swick


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