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August 14, 2008

When I last left off in Wyoming, the family and I were rushing headlong in to the famous Yellowstone National Park. It’s hard to get an idea of how big the park really is until your faced with the prospect of crossing it in one day. As one who’s recently done it, let me say, it’s big, and it takes a long time to cross, especially when there are so many incredible sights and wildlife encounters there to distract you from your route. Yellowstone is, if nothing else, eminently photographable.

The birding during our time in the park was only so-so. Whether that has to do with the crowds, or the time of year, or the fact that our entrance into the park was marred by some serious road construction making the early mornings my dad and I had enjoyed in the Tetons impossible, its hard to say. I didn’t get any life birds in the park, though my dad picked up both Prairie Falcon and Cordilleran Flycatcher. The birds are not necessarily the draw at Yellowstone anyway, it’s the geological features and the big mammals. We saw all of those.

One of our first stops in the park was the famous Old Faithful, and we saw it go up sitting in what seem like bleachers a short walk from a vast parking lot. Not necessarily the quintessential nature experience. But you can take the option to walk though the geyser basin looking at the less famous geysers and some really cool hot pools. Below is your’s truly doing just that. Don’t fall in, it’s over 200 degrees Fahrenheit!

Some of the most impressive pools were those with populations of bacteria in them, the only organisms that could survive in the highly acidic, highly hot springs. The bacteria color the water, resulting in the bizarre sight of springs like the Mourning Glory Pool below.

And what of the wildlife? We had phenomenal luck in the Lamar Valley in the north side of the park. Some folks may recognize that spot as the very first area that Grey Wolves were reintroduced into the Yellowstone. We were lucky to find some members of the Slough Creek Pack about a half mile off the road tending to an Elk kill they’d made early one morning. For two mornings in a row this was our first stop, and we were not disappointed, finding upwards of nine wolves at a time in the surrounding fields.

The most excitement came when a Grizzly, who had apparently been following the wolf pack, walked out of the woods, heading in a roundabout way towards the Elk kill, by now manned only by a single wolf.

When it reached the kill it pushed the wolf off, not to mention the Magpies and Ravens crowding around, taking the remains for itself and stayed there until we left. The kill itself was obstructed by the riverbank, but the swirling Ravens belied the battle of wits that was occurring there. It’s pretty incredible to have a National Geographic special playing out before your eyes. And family members who roll eyes at the thought of getting up early to go birding were suddenly very thankful of the quality optics my dad and I had at our disposal to share.

All of this was in the shadow of the herds of Bison that live in the valley, several hundred of them. While not the impressive herds of the turn of the century, there’s something about watching the massive, strange animals moving around together than harkens to another era. We even had the experience of one particularly large bull walk not a foot from our car as it ambled on down the middle of the road. They run this place, and they seem to know it, which makes recent kills outside the park all the more disturbing.

Our trip wouldn’t have been complete without a look at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a testimony to the power of water and a reminder, if you hadn’t yet figured it out, of why they call this place Yellow Stone. However, with the exception of swallows and a daring Osprey nest on the wall of the canyon, the place was bird deficient.

That night we drove back to Jackson for one night before returning to Denver to catch my flight back to North Carolina. We saw nothing of note with the exception of a brief Prairie Falcon encounter and a surprising Say’s Phoebe on a highway detour, the last of my lifers for the trip.

I finished with 17 total, most rather common Western and Great Basin birds. A decent haul, though I was surprised to miss birds like Ruffed Grouse, Townsend’s Solitaire and Red Crossbill, and more disappointed than shocked at misses like Great Gray Owl (my #1 target before the trip). But you never ever get everything you target, which is convenient as it gives me an excuse to hopefully return.

Thanks to my family for a wonderful trip, and to my dad for handling the photo duties. Back to North Carolina now, and that Big Year monster.

all photos by Greg Swick

One Comment
  1. Greg permalink
    August 15, 2008 8:18 am

    Great post, thanks!

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