“For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” ~ Yellowstone National Park, inscribed at the entrance
Click here to read the previous post, the first of this series.
Yellowstone National Park is one of our nation’s oldest, brought under protection by the federal government in 1872 in a healing and post-Civil War America. It boasts within its boundaries:
- The largest collection of hot water phenomena in the world
- Over 300 geysers, the most famous of which being Old Faithful
- A large caldera on which the west side sits created from the last eruption around 640,000 years ago
- The nation’s only super-volcano (a/k/a/ ticking time bomb)
- Large herds of wild bison, wandering brown and black bear, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, cougar, wolves, and mountain goats
- Spectacular water falls and geologic wonders
- Miles upon miles of wide open valley spaces
- One of the most popular international destinations in America
We learned of that last statistic first-hand when we visited the park in the height of summer last year. This time, we thought it better to avoid the more tourist-y west side of the park; we’d already been there and done all that anyway. With only two days on our budget, we would take the road lesser traveled to the east, deepening our appreciation of nature through the unending valleys within it.
Following a three-day long road trip, sleeping in was a top priority, particularly for Dad who did all of the driving. Mom finally got a hot bath and got the coffee going, but when we eventually lumbered down to the restaurant lobby, it was just about to close. Thankfully, a lot happy, furry faces greeted us, watched us while we ate our not-so-vegan meal.
Yellowstone is not for people with attention deficit issues. Before making it into the park and just a short stretch from the iconic entrance, it is one striking visual distraction after another, be it a pronghorn grazing, a fox or coyote darting across the prairie, or a group of bighorn sheep defying gravity up the side of a shear-faced cliff.
And oh, the view! It is an absolute requirement that you forget about hurrying for once and just keep your eyes open all the time.
Slow down and enjoy is the only motto here.
I call that eye candy.
Between the kids and me, something on the order of 1,000 pictures were taken here. Most were pretty good captures even with the lousy amateur exposures; you just can’t take bad photos in a place like this. Sometimes, I would forget to roll down the window as I would capture a particularly scenic shot from the passenger seat. Oops.
We had only one thing on our agenda today: bag the American Dipper and pad our Big Year list with new bird species.
Following advice from an older couple from our lodge who had spent the better part of two months in the park already, we should focus on stream crossings along the road. They had seen many waterfowl and little birds in those places; we should have our bird by the end of the day, they told us.
On our first road stop, there was no dipper to be found, but we chased and took photos of a Yellow-rumped Warbler couple (here and here) in their west plumage (“myrtle” variation), Pine Siskin foraging seeds (here), and were surprised when the American Robin (here) flew to our feet, oblivious to our existence. These had already made our list sometime back, so we moved on.
The girls spotted a nursing bighorn sheep and his mother along Yellowstone canyon. The bystanders there were all certain these were mountain goats, but my kids knew better.
Our destination is the Lamar Valley, away from geothermal activity and the crowds of tourists, bumping elbows instead with photographers and nature-lovers. The east side of the park is known for its abundant wildlife, “where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play,” as the song goes. As soon as we turned off the main road, there were substantially fewer cars along the miles upon miles of wide open spaces.
Oh, give me a home!
We happened by a conspicuous outcrop of trees tucked into a sagebrush plain — perfect for birding — so we parked and hiked, everyone armed with a field lens or a camera. The quiet of this sanctuary was deafening, broken only by the wind through the conifers and the occasional whining of a 12-year-old who didn’t want to be there. (We ignored him of course.) A male Mountain Bluebird (here) flitted from sage to sage, keeping his distance from my camera lens, busily entertaining us no less.
My kids know to keep their eyes open and look beyond the obvious. Always an observant and a vigilant “spotter,” Ginny found a small bird nest off the trail.
We chased and added the Northern Flicker (here) and Cassin’s Vireo to our list, and relied instead on photos and a recording with the iPhone’s voice memo to later ID a Sage Thrasher (here) with a collection of field guides. Like many of the birds here, he was too far off to get details with binoculars, so we on rested a big rock and listened to him sing for a good long while.
His opera could not would not be ignored. Music to my city ears.
Another rare bird was sighted and shot by a child with the Olympus camera. It was the non-feathered, two-legged variety with her offspring.
We would definitely be coming back here tomorrow. A great place to “shop” for bird species it is, but the middle of the day is apparently not the best time.
Weather changes drastically in this place that literally makes its own climate. Sunny days turn quickly into cloudy ones, sometimes producing unexpected snow. The locals really mean it when they say, “There are only two seasons: winter, and July.” In the span of only a couple of hours, it would appear that our outdoor fun today might be cut short.
As it started to rain, we stopped for small herds of bison slowly crossing the road and enjoyed the nature traffic jam. This is nothing at all like our usual Houston pile-ups.
Now in the heart of the Lamar Valley, we turn our field lenses instead to looking for water fowl and large animals. We heard the unmistakable call of a lone Sandhill Crane off in the distance as the Great Blue Heron hunted along the shorelines of the stream.
This is bear country. The
bear bait kids got out and romped between the rain drops while Mom and Dad kept a watchful eye for large animals in the distance. Armed only with bear spray, we hiked a few hundred yards to the stream where we could feel even smaller and less significant. We were clearly out of our element here in this wild, vast space meant for tougher, less domesticated species.
And you can only coop kids in a car so long.
Rain it did — long and hard — for the rest of the day, everywhere we went in the park. This day was a wash, literally. We threw in the wet towel early in the evening and settled into our hotel room instead for some dinner, cartoons, and few beers (us, not the kids). We didn’t get many new bird species, but we did get a good lay of the land.
Tomorrow: Hayden Valley.
We’ll get that American Dipper tomorrow, kids.
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birds only in this post.