Saturday 17th June
Watching a cowboy film on board our flight to the American West is an extremely appropriate coincidence, though British Airway’s choice of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ proves to be a little controversial; the magnificent deep-blues waters and starkly contrasting whiteness of the Hudson Bay ice flows, 30,000 feet below our Boeing 777, provide an additional break from the tedium of a 9½-hour flight.
Surprisingly soon after touching down on the outskirts of Colorado’s state capital, where the parched brown grass of the flat prairies meets the grey concrete sprawl of Denver, we are taking delivery of our smart new Chevrolet Sebring from the Dollar car rental company. We have booked a ‘compact’ car and the fact that such a vehicle comes complete with a 2.7 litre V6 engine is testament to the USA’s low fuel prices and a sadly prevalent lack of concern for CO2 emissions and resultant global warming. Victoria, with a copy of the indispensable DeLormie Road Atlas on her lap, takes the navigator’s seat and we set off north into the humid Colorado night.
The Longmont Super 8 Motel is our destination for the first evening and despite the establishment’s best attempts to remain concealed at the rear of a conglomeration of more up-market accommodation we eventually track it down; let’s hope that the bears and the birds are more obliging!
Sunday 18th June
Our internal clocks are clearly still set to UK time and by 05.00 we are wide awake and soon making the most of Super 8’s complimentary coffee and bagels. From Longmont we head briefly north and then west, towards the Rocky Mountains whose snow-capped peaks rapidly grow larger below a cloudless blue sky. The cultivated lowlands give way to pine-clad grassy foothills and after we have passed through the tourist-gateway of Estes Park the road begins to zigzag steeply up the hillside amidst the most breathtaking of scenery. Flower-filled meadows alternate with stands of light green Aspens and dark Lodgepole Pines, periodically sliced by the churning waters of a clear mountain stream or mirror-like lake.
A $50 National Parks Pass is purchased at the entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park, which will cover us both for all National Park fees over the next two weeks at a bargain price. Climbing ever higher we pass an occasional Elk, with stags showing magnificent sets of antlers still covered in the velvet of springtime growth. Dazzlingly bright Mountain Bluebirds cling to prominent roadside perches against a backdrop of steep craggy peaks, dotted with stark white snowfields, set in vistas retreating to a distant horizon.
Once we have cleared the tree line on the famous Trail Ridge, the road sweeps in wide curves through a beautiful alpine landscape that is sparsely vegetated and strewn with dark grey lichen-encrusted boulders. Based on information kindly forwarded by Park Ranger Don Irwin our first port of call is the Medicine Bow Curve, from where a trail heads across the alpine landscape at an altitude of 11,640 feet.
From the pull-off a mercifully flat trail leads through the most beautiful of alpine flora, as the short grassy tundra is carpeted in flowering plants that hug the ground in a multi-coloured botanical sea. American Pipits perform their song-flights all around and Horned Larks feed beside the pathway. After the trail peters out we have to tread carefully in order to avail disturbing this delicate environment as we search the mountainsides for today’s target bird. We have been walking for less than thirty minutes when a distant wind-borne call and a rounded outline atop a far-off rock attract suspicion. The thin air prevents too rapid a pursuit, but within minutes we are standing just metres from a fantastic breeding-plumaged male White-tailed Ptarmigan. The fearless bird, whose plumage is a gorgeous combination of snowy white underparts that slowly blend into cryptically barred rufous-and-grey breast, head and back, nonchalantly picks at favoured flower heads beside our very feet!
It’s a fantastic start to the trip, as this species is regarded as one of the most elusive in the State, and after photographing our prize from every angle we sit back to soak in the fresh mountain air and savour the incredible panoramic view. As we gaze down into the wide green valleys far below it is easy to imagine the awe and wonder of the pioneering settlers who first ventured into this uncharted ‘Promised Land’ some 150 years previously.
Our return walk pulls in more dazzling aquamarine Mountain Bluebirds, humbug-headed White-crowned Sparrows and our first American Robins, destined to become the most ubiquitous bird of the trip. We also spot our first Yellow-bellied Marmots, huge high-altitude squirrels that sport long chocolate-brown upperparts and bushy tail. Though somewhat timid within Rocky Mountain National Park, this endearing species is very approachable at a number of other sites visited and with its lolloping gait and flowing tail make it one of our favourite mammalian characters during the course our travels.
Our late morning descent along the Trail Ridge Road is accompanied by an ever-increasing volume of traffic as the visiting hordes converge on this popular National Park and by the time we reach the Rainbow Curve pull-off we are virtually shoulder-to-shoulder with the other admirers of this favoured viewpoint and mammal-watching location. Although feeding wildlife is strictly outlawed within all National Parks this guideline is often ignored at this spot and visitors are closely approached by delightful little Least Chipmunks and Golden-mantled Ground-Squirrels that search for titbits. The round-eared, tail-less American Pika is another welcome high altitude mammal at this site, while the bold Clarke’s Nutcracker is common and will fearlessly approach visitors.
In an attempt to escape the ever-increasing crowds and burning sunshine we descend further, to the Endovalley Picnic Area to commandeer one of the last available picnic tables for an improvised lunch. Birds are few and far between in the heat of the afternoon, but Steller’s Jay, Mountain Chickadee, White-throated Swift and Warbling Vireo are added to the list. A combination of jetlag and high temperatures result in a siesta taken beside the ice-cold waters of the Fall River, serenaded by the sound of bubbling water and the squeaks of Wyoming Ground Squirrels. The breathtaking scenery more than compensates for the absence of any more new birds.
Our exit from the Park, accompanied by an entourage of Harley Davidsons and SUVs, includes a brief stop in the Moraine Park area before we head back east and make a steady descent to the cultivated lowlands. Supplies and a pizza are purchased in the town of Loveland, en route to our evening’s accommodation in the excellent Greeley Super 8 Motel.
Monday 19th June
Another early start, fuelled by coffee and toasted bagels, sees us heading north to the Pawnee Grasslands. Fast, straight roads convey us rapidly through vast cultivated fields, tended by immense tractors and irrigated by huge overhead spray systems; this area would have been prairie grassland a hundred years previously. As we approach the settlement of Briggsdale the green arable fields give way to a gently undulating sea of parched yellow natural grassland, gridded out into a chequerboard by straight gravel roads.
The Pawnee Grassland is a large protected area where the prairie ecosystems, which once encompassed huge swathes of the Mid West lowlands, still flourish. Our chosen route takes us first to the Murphy’s Meadow area, accessed from County Road 96. Lark Buntings and Horned Larks abound in this area and it doesn’t take long before we have located the first of many McCown’s Longspurs, our first main target at the site. These large attractive buntings show grey upperparts with distinctive black cap and moustachial stripes plus a deep sooty chest band, all set off by a bright chestnut wingbar. Many birds are engaged in display flight, when the characteristic black-and-white tail pattern, reminiscent of our Northern Wheatear, can be seen. The area favoured by the McCown’s Longspurs is a habitat of almost bare ground, populated by the sparsest of grasses and ground-hugging cactus clumps, though as we travel through the prairies it is interesting to note that other similar areas are mysteriously devoid of the same species, making distributions of these discrete populations difficult to explain.
After the montane splendour of the previous day, the flat horizons and huge skies of the prairies could not form a sharper contrast but the large populations of both avian and mammalian grassland specialists make this a fascinating area. Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows are quite numerous in more densely vegetated areas, while Western Meadowlarks sing from the timber fenceposts that line the dusty road.
Black-tailed Jackrabbits, with huge dark-tipped ears and ink-dipped tail-tips lurk nervously close to the track. Beautifully marked Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels and more subtle Spotted Ground Squirrels scurry back to boltholes, while gregarious Black-tailed Prairie Dogs sit upright to survey their surroundings from spoil-piles that betray the location of their ‘towns’. We also encounter our first Pronghorns, a species which will be seen almost daily during the course of our travels, but which will always be admired. Contrasting sandy upperparts with white fore-neck and belly make North America’s only antelope a particularly striking creature, especially the males which also show contrasting black facial marks and thick backward-sweeping horns.
An occasional Burrowing Owl and Swainson’s Hawk are located as we make our way around the network of gravel roads, closely following directions kindly provided by Norm Lewis, President of the Colorado Field Ornithologists. Apparently our other big target species, Chestnut-collared Longspur, is much reduced in numbers this season and some pinpoint directions are therefore required. Nearing the ‘x’ on our atlas a dark bird larking beside the road shows a flash of chestnut and brings about an emergency stop.
An examination of the area of marginally longer grass in the shallow valley reveals that four or five males of this exquisite species are singing in close proximity, and prove to be our only sightings of the entire six hours spent in the prairie habitat. Male Chestnut-collared Longspurs are absolute stunners, essentially jet-black with pale yellowish facial marking and a large chestnut nape patch, certainly making this species one of the highlights of the entire trip.
Our next destination takes us on another venture into prairie grassland at the Central Plains Experimental Range north east of the town of Nunn. Here McCown’s Longspurs are more numerous and photogenic, but in spite of checking every raptor encountered, the closest we come to a Ferruginous Hawk is a pair of the pale ‘Kridler’s’ variant of Red-tailed Hawk. It is now extremely hot in the arid lowlands and we set off on a long drive north, delighted with the morning’s work and our brace of longspurs.
Our long northward haul takes us initially through more arable lands, then low rolling hills turned over to pasture. Finally we run into huge expanses of pale grey-green sage, all the time with a snow-capped mountaintop peeping over the horizon and a cloudless blue sky above. With the cruise control engaged we make our way rapidly past immense long-nosed trucks, churning dark fumes from vertical chrome-plated exhausts, and monstrous bus-sized Winnebagos that are often towing large 4WDs! The pleasures of our journey are rapidly brought to a halt, however, when the flashing blue lights of the Sweetwater County Highway Patrol appear in the rear view mirror. Past experience in such situations has revealed a little leniency in the case of the British tourist, but Officer Huffman shows no such compassion. 87 mph in a 75 mph zone means an on-the-spot $110 fine in this County and the day’s travelling expenses take a sudden upward leap!
We arrive in the sprawling ill-planned oil town of Rock Springs in a somewhat subdued state, which turns increasingly towards frustration as we discover that all of the cheap hotels are booked full of oil and gas workers and that we are destined to pay $100 for a night’s accommodation in this grotty little outpost. After heeding advice that Pinedale, to the north, is likely to be equally as full of riggerboot-toting itinerants we reluctantly book into the local Econolodge. In an attempt to boost morale we take a short ride to the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, but in the strong wind and fading light only Mountain Bluebirds and rusty-necked Mountain Cottontails make the notebook. Even the local diner is a real dive of swirling cigarette smoke and greasy food; tomorrow can only be better!
Tuesday 20th June
After a rather laid-back start to the day, with breakfast in our well-accommodated room, we head north out of Rock Springs and into a land of endless low sage-covered hills, punctuated with an occasional wind pump or unsightly gas well. Here a chance stop to photograph Pronghorns at a waterhole produces a female Greater Sage Grouse accompanied by eight tiny youngsters and a brief Sage Thrasher.
It takes us nearly two hours to reach Pinedale, a rather scenic little town situated in a lush green valley with snow-capped peaks rising all around. We also note an apparent profusion of motels and bemoan our choice of accommodation location for the previous night.
In a large wet meadow on the northern outskirts of Pinedale we come across our first Sandhill Crane, a magnificent bird with rusty-stained grey plumage and a blood-red crown. Six miles further north we make a right turn onto State Route 352, the road that leads to Green River Lakes. This is a rather opportunistic move, yet it proves to be one of the best decisions we make. The route, which follows a wide green river valley, is one of breathtaking beauty yet it seems undiscovered by all but a handful of fishermen and hikers.
Red-naped Sapsucker, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Canvasbacks and the first of many ‘Oregon’ Juncos are noted as we follow the lengthy winding dirt road east. Our journey terminates beside Green River Lake, described in some literature as the most spectacular outlook in the whole of Wyoming State, and it is easy to see how this reputation was derived.
While Vic takes up a lakeside reading position I head into the open coniferous woodland which surrounds the parking area and soon notch up Dusky Flycatcher, Great Horned Owl, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Northern Goshawk. The first of many American Red Squirrels is also seen. A lakeside picnic follows, as the sparking blue waters reflect lush green meadows, conifer-clad hillsides and high granite peaks; though the lake invites a paddle, the icy cold temperature of the melt water takes the breath away!
It is mid-afternoon when we reluctantly prise ourselves from this idyllic setting and commence the last leg of our journey north to Jackson. After passing through more sage flats and grazing land we begin the ascent into the foothills of the Teton Range, where the road winds between steep grassy hills and blocks of pine forest and our first Bald Eagle floats down a valley.
Jackson is a lively tourist town and the gateway to both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The town’s deserved popularity as a base for travelling into the fantastic landscapes beyond make advance booking of accommodation essential, and we have chosen the very competitively priced El Rancho Motel. Though somewhat shabby-looking from the exterior our small but perfectly formed 1950s room is more than adequate for our three-night stay.
Not wanting to waste any of our precious time in this magnificent setting we drop off our bags and head north out of the town. The extensive wetlands of Flat Creek and the National Elk Refuge commence as the conurbation terminates, with attendant feeding Sandhill Cranes, while further along the road the wetland gives way to the flat sage-covered valley known as Jackson Hole. Towering high to the west of the valley are the wonderfully rugged dark-grey granite peaks of the Teton Range, still splashed liberally with contrasting white snowfields.
This evening’s destination is the Moose-Wilson Road and by the time we arrive at the Sawmill Pond the sun has already dipped behind the 13,000’ Teton peaks. The Pond actually consists of a meandering beaver-dammed stream running through open pine woodland and grassland, in a spot between the sage flats and Teton foothills. The largest water body is home to Common Goldeneye and Cinnamon Teal, amongst more widespread wildfowl, while Hairy Woodpecker and Red-naped Sapsucker are nesting close by and Song Sparrows make their presence heard in considerable numbers. Cedar Waxwing is another notable resident.
We are actually here on a Great Gray Owl tip-off, but are destined to draw a blank in this department. All is not lost, however, as a huge female Moose appears from the woods and begins to graze in the shallow waters. The Moose attracts, in turn, a rapidly increasing crowd of onlookers who soon block the narrow lane in their quest to get close to the unconcerned beast. When the Moose finally crosses the road to depart she walks within a few metres of the excited throngs and watching the reaction of the excitable onlookers is almost as interesting as watching the mammal itself.
After the crowd has departed and dusk is gathering fast the final surprise of the evening comes in the form of an American Beaver which swims right past our waterside vantage point, carrying his dinner of fresh greenery in his mouth as he goes!
Returning to Jackson rather late in the evening, and after most restaurants have closed, we find ourselves in the very welcoming Cadillac Bar where some fine local cuisine plus celebratory beer and cocktails provide a fine end to a fantastic day.
Wednesday 21st June
Rising with the sun to beat the crowds and the heat we retrace yesterdays steps out of town. First stop is Flat Creek, still shrouded in mist for part of its length, to get a decent look at a pair of Trumpeter Swans glimpsed in yesterday evening’s half-light. Whilst watching a pair upend to feed just metres away, it is hard to believe what a truly rare bird this is.
Entering the Grand Teton National Park proper we head straight for the String Lake parking area, via a number of stately female Elk. Our chosen trail leads over the bridged crossing of the serpentine String Lake and immediately into a recent ‘burn’, an area of Lodgepole Pine killed during recent forest fires. Such burns are favoured by two of the areas most sought-after woodpecker species, the main targets at this site.
The superbly scenic riverside trail brings us Western Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrush, and a couple of MacGuillivray’s Warblers amongst the numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers. Making our way around the western edge of Jenny Lake the scenic splendour is heightened by the reflections in the glass-like surface; views really don’t get any better than this.
Though Yellow-bellied Marmots feed at our feet and Mule Deer graze beside the track, the woodpeckers remain elusive. At the furthest point of our walk, just where the burn reverts to green pine forest, a distinctive drumming high up the hillside calls for desperate action. Climbing a 45-degree timber-strewn hillside is extremely hard work at 8,000 feet and when one of a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers alights on a nearby tree my breathing is so heavy that I have no chance of holding the camera still! I have, however, got myself a new bird and this is rapidly followed by a second in the shape of a dazzling blue-and-orange male Lazuli Bunting. The walk back holds yet more excitement as a ‘tap-tap-tap’ and sharp call note leads to a foraging female Black-backed Woodpecker. Sadly she rapidly disappears over the brow of the hill and recent exertions mean that pursuit is not an option, thus totally scuppering my plans to obtain a photographic record of every new bird seen in the course of the trip. One mustn’t complain however, as three ticks in an hour in North America doesn’t happen too frequently these days!
We vacate the parking lot in a feat of perfect timing, just as the late morning hikers descend en mass. Brunch is taken in Jackson’s excellent Bunnery Restaurant, which produces the perfect bacon omelette and waffles, after which a bout of souvenir shopping precedes our early afternoon siesta.
A mid afternoon return to Grand Teton National Park seems unlikely to produce any new birds, but Chris Michelson’s directions to a Calliope Hummingbird territory at Taggart Lake are absolutely perfect and within minutes of our arrival we have this little gem filling the telescope. North America’s smallest bird, the male Calliope perches on low willow twigs where he displays a vivid starburst of metallic rosy-pink on his throat below a diagnostic white gape line. Simultaneously a Cordilleran Flycatcher appears on the scene, and though the bird fails to call the extended white ‘tear drop’ behind each eye and wholly yellow lower mandible make identification fairly straightforward.
An early dinner at the excellent Merry Piglets Mexican Restaurant back in Jackson is next on the agenda, where the first class cuisine is washed down by locally brewed Snake River Pale Ale that bears a Trumpeter Swan logo on the label! Late evening sees us back at Sawmill Ponds, where the highlights are Black-headed Grosbeak, more Cedar Waxwings and no less than three American Beavers. We find an endless stream of traffic down this narrow country road and every time bins are raised a car stops to enquire as to what unusual mammal we have detected. The congestion on the road combined with our late season efforts make attempts to tape out a Northern Saw-Whet Owl predictably futile.
Thursday 22nd June
While Vic takes a lie-in I venture out with the rising sun to an area of Aspen woodland at Blacktail Butte. Though Black-capped Chickadee is a new bird, the site proves to be rather unproductive and I wish that I had stayed in bed too. The only high point of the early morning foray is a session with the camera around the highly photogenic Mormon Row barns. The ageing timber of these keel-shaped landmarks makes for a classic image set against a backdrop of grey-green sage and the dark granite of the Teton Peaks. Yellow Pine Chipmunk and Uinta Ground Squirrel are new to the mammal list at this site, with both Vesper and Brewers Sparrows frequenting the sage.
Picking up Vic at Jackson we make our way via the Moose-Wilson Road to Teton Village, where we are quite shocked to turn a corner in a pretty green valley and be confronted by the conglomeration of multi-storey hotels and restaurants that make up this modern ski resort. After finding a slot on the huge tarmaced car park we take a cooked breakfast at the foot of the aerial tramway, before boarding the spacious gondola for the ascent.
Commencing at 6,500’, the operator announces that we will be propelled to the 10,500’ summit of Mount Rendezvous in just fifteen minutes. As we rapidly climb, the views across the adjacent peaks and down to the ‘Hole’ below grow progressively more spectacular. At the mid point in the ride a hefty black, white and yellow finch alights on the tip of a Lodgepole Pine below the tramway. It is a male Evening Grosbeak and causes immense frustration as an emergency stop to admire this gaudy beauty is clearly out of the question!
When we are finally deposited at the summit station we find ourselves well above the tree line and in the cooler atmosphere of the alpine zone. I quiz the resident guide and he pretty much tells me to forget about trying to find Black Rosy-Finch up here, as we set off into a scene of dazzlingly white snow patches liberally dotted about pale granite scree slopes. Below the intensely blue sky the panorama across the Totons is simply breathtaking and worth the fare alone.
We have walked along the mountaintop trail for no more than two minutes when three dark, bulky finches whiz past us and over the brow of the hill. Following their trajectory we arrive at a large patch of slowly melting snow right below the main tourist walkway and immediately find three gorgeous Black Rosy-Finches hopping around the snowfield margins. A brief snatch of ‘Birding Tourette’s Syndrome’ ensues as I struggle to control my excitement, though hopefully the majority of the crowd of sightseers fail to understand my descriptive expletives in a broad Leicestershire accent.
These little beauties are a real high altitude prize that can easily be missed at this season. Our group consists of two males and a female, the former being dark sooty-black overall, with a delicate pink mottling to the flanks and lower breast, pale grey supercillium and rear crown and two small white spots above the bill typical of this family. As one of the main target birds of the trip I am ecstatic to have tracked them down with such ease and settle down to fill a few Compact Flash Cards with images as the group allows approach to within a few feet.
Our Rosy-Finches are toasted with hot chocolate and cookies at the high altitude restaurant before we sit back and enjoy a stunning display of paragliding from a precession of fearless young pilots who queue up to hurtle themselves from the mountaintop below luminous wing-like canopies. The spectacle of the bright reds, blues and oranges against the dark granite and pure white snow is truly memorable and immensely photogenic.
Following the main trail down hill to just below the tree line we find White-crowned Sparrows, Rock Wrens and numerous ‘Oregon’ Juncos. At such an altitude physical activity is quite exhausting and we spend the hottest period of the day in a Lodgepole-shaded siesta, breathing pine-scented air and listening to the tuneful song of Townsend’s Solitaires drift across the valley.
In the late afternoon our route is retraced all the way back to Jackson, where we cannot resist another encounter with the mouth-watering Mexican cuisine of the Merry Piglets Restaurant. After dinner we take a drive back into Grant Teton National Park, this time travelling as far north as the Spalding Bay Road, which leads to the shores of the immense Jackson Lake. A hasty mosquito-ridden walk through the grassy meadows and Lodgepole stands ensues, but predictably a Great Grey Owl fails to show.
Our final act during the stay in Jackson is to call for a beer in the Log Cabin Saloon. This rustic bar has a great atmosphere with locals sipping on bottles of Budweiser and pitchers of Snake River Pale Ale; there are even real swinging saloon doors to walk through!
Friday 23rd June
The last three days have seen us grow very attached to the lively town of Jackson and our homely little room but it’s time to move on and bags are loaded into the car for the next leg of our Rocky Mountain adventure. It takes over an hour to reach Emma Matilda Lake, via a couple of wrong turns, but the constantly changing mountain outlook makes travel in this area an absolute pleasure. The wildlife is always willing to surprise too, and we pass our first magnificent roadside American Bison in the course of the journey.
Parking beside the placid waters of Two Ocean Lake we follow a trail through first pinewoods then flower-strewn meads to the Emma Matilda Lake circular trail. It goes without saying that the scenic outlook is outstanding, with the Teton Peaks still dominating the western horizon and the calm waters of Emma Matilda clearly mirroring the deep blue sky and all that lies below it. What is also particularly appealing about this site is the total absence of any other human visitors.
We have scarcely covered our first mile when a Black Bear is spotted, several hundred yards below our vantage point, nonchalantly wandering through a meadow. Though distant, this ‘bear moment’ remains one of the most abiding of the trip as we enjoy it in perfect solitude, as opposed to the traffic-jammed, camera-waving hysteria that is the main disadvantage of mammal viewing in Yellowstone.
Birds are also well represented in the area and in the course of our circuit we note both Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Red Crossbills, a pair of Gray Jays and the only pair of Pine Grosbeaks of the whole trip. A full circuit of this beautifully undisturbed lake is quite a test of physical stamina, as the route is a full twelve miles if one counts the Two Ocean Lake connecting trail. It can also be a test of nerve at times, for we find a fair amount of fresh bear pooh and recently made bark scratches in the course of our journey; this certainly focuses the mind on checking carefully around each bend for large furry hikers! It is with quite a sense of achievement that we sit down beside our car for an early afternoon picnic, as we would certainly not claim to be big walkers and have found the full twelve miles quite a challenge.
From Emma Matilda it is only a short ride north to the Yellowstone entrance gates, where we pass into what is the oldest and possibly the most famous national park in the world. True to form we find the area to be almost instantly thronged with holidaymakers who swarm around both beauty spots and roadside wildlife and clog roads with oversized trucks and Winnebagos. It is also apparent that the diversity of habitat is much reduced within the two million acre Park, as Lodgepole Pine stands clearly dominate vast areas of this staggeringly large region.
Our first task is to secure a horse riding session during the course of our stay, as we have been amazed to find that booking is virtually impossible from outside the park. We also attempt to glean a little up-to-date wildlife information from various visitors’ centres but are disappointed to find a distinct lack of worthwhile ecological knowledge amongst the staff we quiz.
These setbacks aside, Yellowstone rapidly proves to be the supreme mammal-viewing region for which it is widely proclaimed. Roadside American Bison and Elk abound, and as we pass through the famous Hayden Valley our first Grizzly Bear is spotted on a rather distant sage-covered hillside. We set up the telescope and join our first ‘bear jam’, standing with thirty-or-more onlookers to watch this enormous brown beast lumber across a windy summit.
Descending into the Antelope Creek area we join another small group in a roadside pull-in, who are all armed with expensive optics and clearly intent on studying some distant quarry. This chance encounter proves to be our lucky break, as we soon become acquainted with some of Yellowstone’s ardent and vastly knowledgeable wolf-watches. They describe to us how the Agate Gray Wolf Pack has six ten-week-old pups that are currently encamped on a distant hillside. Occasionally an animal can be seen to move between the pines but the distances are so great that any individual actions are hard to make out. The group are so passionate and well versed on the history and behavioural ecology of their Wolves, however, that merely to stand in their company is an immensely rewarding experience; they even find us another distant Grizzly.
When we hear that Black Bears are beside the road just half a mile away we have to drag ourselves away from the vantage point and are rewarded by tremendous views of a mother and two young cubs who playfully fight in a glade amongst the pines. It is almost dark when we leave them, and although we have yet to check into our hotel we cannot resist a return to the Agate Wolves. It’s just as well that we do, for two of the adults, the dark grey Alpha Female 472F and black year-old male 525M, are leading the pups to a new denning area considerably closer to the road. The view of the line of pups, four black and two grey, strung out between the two adults as they trot across a lush green meadow, will live in the minds eye for a long, long time.
We almost make it back Mammoth Hot Springs and our hotel without incident, but another crowd on the bridge over the Gardiner River directs to a superb blonde Grizzly Bear which is feeding on the slopes not far below. Although we are aware that the mammal watching in Yellowstone can be exceptional, seeing three Grizzlies, three Black Bears and eight Gray Wolves within our first few hours in the park certainly exceeds all expectations.
The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel has a very grand exterior but it has to be said that facilities could be much better. We share one shower with a dozen other rooms and find it impossible to get a meal after 10.00 pm or to find a laundry service. A strange situation exists in Yellowstone whereby a company called Xanterra have a complete monopoly on all in-park accommodation, dining and recreational activities. This allows them to charge as they feel fit and although our room is relatively cheap by in-park standards it is still considerably more expensive than much better appointed accommodation found in the course of our travels beyond the park confines. We find this monopoly an unhealthy situation and a considerable source of annoyance, thereafter making a point of taking every meal in the much better restaurants and bars of the nearby town of Gardiner, beyond the Park boundary.
Friday 24th June
The Lamar Valley has a reputation of being one of Yellowstone’s main mammal-watching centres, so it is in this direction that we head soon after sunrise. First mammal of the day stops us before we have even reached the Lamar turning, however, as a large brown male Black Bear searches for food in the meadows adjacent to Roosevelt Lodge. Pleased to have secured some good bear images we proceed up the Lamar Valley, where the scene of large herds of American Bison grazing along the wide valley base seems like it has not changed for millennia.
We discover that the Lamar Valley has its own set of wolf-watchers, but this bunch lack the hospitality and will to divulge knowledge of our Antelope Creek friends, so our visit lasts just long enough to view a distant Grizzly with cub and a female Coyote tending a group of pups. Along with numerous American Bison and Pronghorns, the valley also produces our only adult Bald Eagle of the trip.
Back at Antelope Creek we find that three Gray Wolf pups are lingering beside a meadow and a distant Grizzly climbs a hillside, though it is apparent that this site is best for evening viewing as one must look towards the sun during the early part of the day.
Last stop of the morning is made at the scenic Tower Falls overlook. Here the Tower Creek tumbles spectacularly down to the level of the Yellowstone River that has cut a deep gorge through the colourful pale rocks that predominate the geology in this area. We obtain some close photographic views of Uinta Ground Squirrel and Uinta Chipmunk plus a wonderfully obliging Cordilleran Flycatcher who facilitates the definitive frame-filling shots whilst kindly uttering his disyllabic call.
Lunch is taken during the heat of the day at the excellent Sawtooth Deli in the little town of Gardiner, just beyond the park gates and only ten minutes drive from our hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs. Fully revitalised it is now time for Vic’s long–awaited holiday treat and my nervous first encounter. It’s horse-riding time!
The Roosevelt Corral is the venue and by 15.30 our group of a dozen-or-so would-be cowboys and girls are lining up for an induction. The whole experience is actually extremely professionally conducted and after receiving the necessary instruction we are allocated a horse to match our physical size. I am mounted on a docile donkey by the name of Ratchet and Vic gets a feisty little fellow called Roscoe.
We leave the Corral in convoy and drop straight in at the deep end, traversing a steep hillside through the pines that goes on to lead around the rim of a deep valley and out into lush meadows well beyond the reach of Yellowstone’s sightseeing hordes. I have to admit that I am instantly captivated by the experience, which allows one to soak up the stunning scenery and abundant wildlife from a totally different perspective. We see a Black Bear on a hillside soon after setting out and also discover the one-and-only Muskrat of the trip on a remote lake, all the time with an ever-changing backdrop of rolling hills and snow-capped peaks.
Much as it is an exhilarating experience, after a full two hours in the saddle one’s delicate hindquarters are crying out for mercy and it is at this point that we dismount for an appropriately timed cookout. The camp cooks have already prepared a superb steak barbeque in a sheltered valley beside the sage flats and we enjoy the fine food in the great company of some newfound Texan friends. After dining it is less than an hour’s ride back to Roosevelt, a distance just about bearable in spite of one’s saddle-sore predicament. Although we both walk back to the car in a manner reminiscent of John Wayne after a week on the range it has been an un-missable experience; memories of my first horse ride will live long after my tender bum has healed!
We end the day at the traditional Alpine Creek wolf lookout, where a couple of the Agate pups are seen distantly before we have our closest encounter yet, as Gray Wolf 525M moves onto a meadow directly below our watch point to stalk small mammals in the long grass. Back at Mammoth we call into the bar at the Lodge opposite our hotel, but in true Xanterra fashion find it to be lacking in character and very much overpriced.
Saturday 25th June
This morning’s lie-in is instigated by the fact that the low fuel light is illuminated in the car and Mammoth’s gas station does not open until 07.00. Gassed up, we drive east to the Blacktail Plateau Road that remains locked until later in the morning. This gives us a great opportunity to take a good walk through some fine habitat, unmolested by Yellowstone’s SUV-bound masses; experience has proven the fact that one only has to walk a ¼ mile beyond the car park to lose all but a handful of the vehicle-dependant sightseers.
The majority of Yellowstone National Park is actually dominated by stands of Lodgepole Pine, a habitat very limited in terms of biodiversity. We have found it difficult to get access to any mixed woodland, but at the western end of the Blacktail Plateau Road just such a mixture of Aspen and coniferous woodland exists. Parking outside the locked barrier we following the dirt road as it meanders through blocks of mixed woodland, colourful wild flower meadows and banks of sage. The birding as well as the scenery is excellent and a two-hour walk notches up Cassin’s Finches, Cordilleran Flycatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch and an incredible density of Williamson’s Sapsuckers with at least three pairs of the latter located. Highlight is, without doubt, a fantastic Northern Pygmy Owl that lands in a pine not far above my head to first survey his surroundings and then to preen for nearly half an hour. This is a superb bonus, just when I am starting to think that I will return home without a single new nightbird!
Another visit to the Tower Falls area again fails to produce the elusive Bighorn Sheep, supposedly resident in the area, but a brief scan of the Blacktail Ponds adds Clark’s Grebe and American Wigeon to the list. Rumbling stomachs lead us back to Gardiner, where we are fortunate to stumble across the K-Bar, a fine local hostelry complete with pool tables, country music jukebox and the finest pizza in Montana. The selection of local draft beers and welcoming staff make for one of our favourite venues to date.
The draft ‘Moose Drool’ beer necessitates a siesta back at Mammoth, before we take our late afternoon mammal-watching drive. Continuing further north along the Lamar Valley than on our previous visit, the large herds of grazing American Bison appear superbly atmospheric. Groups of the majestic beasts graze on the flat green valley floor, from which steep pine-covered slopes and rocky peaks rise to the east and rolling sage-shrouded hills to the west. Set against gathering storm clouds it makes for a fantastically primeval panorama.
The evening would not be complete without a visit to the Agate Wolves at Antelope Creek and they oblige with the best display yet. As we arrive our old friend 525M is trotting in across the meadow, to be greeted by all six pups, clearly very hungry and expecting. He duly regurgitates a meal of semi-digested meaty mush, over which the youngsters frantically squabble. As the more aggressive youngsters fight for the scraps our boy attentively visits the pups that appear to be missing out and coughs up a small meal for each in turn. It really is amazing to be able to watch such social interaction within the pack and we depart feeling immensely privileged to be able to witness such a performance; for me this will be one of the most abiding memories of the whole trip.
Yellowstone is never short of surprises and the journey back produces a large male Black Bear feeding photogenically close to the road and just a mile further on we have our closest Grizzly encounter yet, as a mighty tan-coloured animal makes his way through an open burn area and at last allows some photographic evidence of this species. In spite of Mammoth’s inadequate hostelry a celebratory beer is an absolute necessity!
Sunday 26th June
An early start pays off in a big way as we are rewarded with an unparalleled Black Bear experience close to Roosevelt. A mother and a single small cub are working their way through a roadside burn, ripping apart rotting logs to search for insect morsels. At the time of our arrival there is just one other photographer on the scene and not a ranger in sight, while the bears seem totally unconcerned about their small audience. They work their way closer to the road and our vantage point, before finally crossing the tarmac just thirty feet from where we stand! Now with the light behind us we have the perfect photographic position and definitive full-frame images of the mother and her endearing offspring fill progressive Flashcards. Unforgettable.
Another stop at Tower Falls finally produces our Bighorn Sheep, eleven of which doze on a seemingly inaccessible cliff slope on the opposite side of the gorge. Next excitement is a male Dusky Grouse (recently split from ‘Blue Grouse’) that appears on the road in front of our car in full display! We stop and follow him into an adjacent gully where he mounts a log to fan his tail, puff out his chest and let out a series of incredible deep hoots.
Our actual destination is Mount Washburn, but this series of very welcome distractions, plus another distant Grizzly, mean that it takes us until 09.00 to arrive at the trail car park. From here a dirt track leads upwards and ultimately to the peak’s 10,245-foot summit, giving unrivalled views across the park and to the distant Teton Range.
Following the trail we steadily climb through meadows brimming full of a fantastic assemblage of wild flowers and bouncing with butterflies. We pass through large stands of bleached tree skeletons and smaller clumps of green spruce in more isolated valleys that escaped the devastating fires of recent summers. Birds are typically thin on the ground at this altitude but we still find Cassin’s Finch, Rock Wrens, Clark’s Nutcrackers, American Pipits and a pair of Red Crossbills.
Two miles into the three-mile hike we find our goal, in the form of the Bighorn Sheep for which Mount Washburn is famous. Unlike their Tower Falls cousins these animals seem quite unafraid of onlookers and the magnificent and supremely hardy creatures allow camera approach to within a matter of metres. Mission accomplished, we conclude that the remainder of the climb is surplus to our requirements as it is already getting very warm and the trail is filling with sightseers.
For the afternoon we have a visit to the famous Old Faithful geyser written into the itinerary. As soon as we start to wind our way south of Mammoth it becomes apparent that Yellowstone’s geothermal features form its main tourist draw as the roads rapidly become clogged with traffic. The scenery in this section of the park is much less spectacular, being completely dominated by Lodgepole Pine and lacking the rugged peaks and wide imposing vistas of the north east. We pass various steaming roadside features, but each is surrounded by onlookers and the only stop we make en route is to watch an obliging American Dipper that bobs from rock to rock on the Firehole River.
The actual approach to Old Faithful comes as quite a shock, as we appear to have arrived at a large out-of-town shopping centre. Literally acres of paved tarmac car park provide space for thousands of SUVs, where the cafes and overpriced gift shops outnumber the pine trees. Following the signs and walkways we make our way to Old Faithful itself, which we find to be surrounded on three sides by banks of permanent seating which make the whole scene reminiscent of some sort of outdoor concert venue. Trying to make the most of a desperate situation we line up with the ranks of ‘fans’ and await the imminent eruption. A large spout of steaming white water shoots out of the ground for a few minutes, everyone takes a photo, and then the geyser stops and everyone slopes off to the shopping malls and ice-cream parlours. It is all a supreme anticlimax in the most un-natural of settings.
Next we pay a visit to what we find to be the one saving grace of the site, the enchanting Old Faithful Inn. This fantastic six-storey timber structure was constructed in 1904 and claims to be one of the world’s largest log-built buildings. We also manage to catch up with the extremely helpful Katie Duffey, Park Ranger and recognised bird expert. Katie confirms that Great Gray Owls are in extremely short supply this year with no recent sighting; this may be due to it being a bad season for Pocket Gophers, the owl’s principal prey item in this area. After dining in one of Xanterra’s rip-off cafes we set off in search of solitude and an outlook free of tarmac.
Our route back takes in the appropriately named Duck Lake, which is hosting a flock of 120 Barrow’s Goldeneye, a roadside group of magnificent full-antlered stag Elk at Canyon and the breathtaking sight of the huge creamy-coloured scar of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Highlight of the return journey comes when a large Grizzly Bear decides to cross the road right where we are driving. An emergency stop results, with the bear stopping just long enough to look over his shoulder in a very annoyed manner.
Monday 27th June
Sadly today brings our departure from Yellowstone, though we feel that our allotted time in the park has been quite adequate to soak up its unrivalled profusion of mammals and we are now ready for a rest from the crowds. For the first time during our stay the morning ride, retracing our tracks towards the Sound Entrance, fails to produce a bear sighting. We do encounter a radio-collared Coyote that refuses to leave the road, however, plus another female with three playful cubs at Mary Bay.
It is at the latter site where we make our bagel and jam breakfast-stop, at an overlook of the vast Yellowstone Lake, which provides our only Double-crested Cormorants and Common Loons of the visit plus numerous inshore Barrow’s Goldeneye that perform for the camera. The marshland of nearby Pelican Creek supports a good variety of waterfowl including Common Merganser and Cinnamon Teal but is particularly noteworthy for its Wilson’s Snipe that are watched both in aerial display and singing from terrestrial posts. We also stop briefly in the mixed open woodland of Sheffield Creek, just south of the Park entrance, where a brief stroll by the stream finds Olive-sided and Dusky Flycatchers plus a nesting Mountain Chickadee.
Continuing our drive south we are soon back in the familiar surroundings of the magnificent Tetons, where we make our way through the Hole to our favourite town of Jackson. At the adjoining Flat Creek Sandhill Cranes stalk the wet grassland and above the marshes thirty summer plumaged Franklin’s Gulls are hawking for insects like oversized marsh terns. A fine lunch is consumed in the Bunnery and after a final tour of a few choice shops we continue our southward journey.
A lack of viable alternatives has lead us to book another night in the unappealing town of Rock Springs, but we figure that if we don’t arrive until after dark we can pretend we are somewhere else! With this in mind we pick a random gravel County Road cut through the vast sage flats south of Pinedale, in which to spend the last couple of hours of daylight. Our chosen venue is CR113, the Muddy Speedway Road; presumably this name refers to its winter condition as today it couldn’t be drier and more dusty.
Our potluck selection proves to be a great location, supporting a fantastic selection of birds and mammals that specialise in this wonderful habitat, though presumably any one of the dozens of roads that bisect the area would support the same range of species. Brewer’s Sparrows and Horned Larks are common, with Sage Sparrow and Sage Thrasher seemingly much thinner on the ground. Ground Squirrels, presumably Uinta, are widespread, as are Mountain Cottontails. Best mammals seen are White-tailed Jackrabbits, large agile hares which race through the sagebrush with antelope-like leaps when disturbed, though we have to admit that the Pronghorns take some beating as one of North America’s most striking mammals.
A pair of Burrowing Owls hunts close to the track but prize bird is a female Greater Sage Grouse which crosses the track with her single youngster and continues to feed close by. Our return walk to the car gives us one of the most memorable panoramas of our travels, as the silver-green sage meets a huge horizon in a purple-tinted sunset that is periodically sliced by the fork lightning of an approaching thunderstorm.
The Rock Springs plan also pays off and when we arrive at the Econolodge it is pitch black, so we convince ourselves that we are falling to sleep in the shadow of the mountains in a quaint log cabin!
Tuesday 28th June
While Vic takes a lie-in I head off at sunup with my directions and tape recorder, for a return trip to the Flaming Gorse Recreation Area. Following the directions in the ABA guide I walk the pipeline trail off Little Firehole Road though extensive sagebrush and then Juniper woodland, all set in a wonderful arid landscape of orange sandstone.
Brewer’s Sparrows are plentiful in the sage, along with an occasional Sage Sparrow, while Gray Flycatcher and Bushtit are the most numerous species in the Juniper woodland, with the latter moving through the vivid green bushes in small vocal parties. Bewick’s Wrens and Least Chipmunks are not uncommon and after around thirty minutes of searching a male Plumbeous Vireo, target bird at this site, sits atop a bare Juniper bough in song.
Having secured my goal nice and early I now have time to explore a second site and rapidly relocate to a spot a couple of miles further down the road where David McDonald had discovered Gray Vireos some weeks before. This is an unusual species in Wyoming, on the very edge of its range, and has caused more than a little local excitement.
At this point I am struck by an amazing coincidence of fortune as a Jeep pulls up, driven by a familiar-looking fellow sporting a pair of bins. One has to bear in mind that I haven’t seen one other birder in the course of my travels, so I am quite surprised to be greeted by another vireo-watcher. The Jeep driver recognises me and turns out to be Stuart Healy, a tour guide who resides in Arizona (URL: www.aztrogon.com). I have only visited The States three times and I have coincidentally met Stuart on two of them, the other being in California in 2000! Stuart has kindly offered information on both occasions and I remain indebted for his help. After a chat we go our separate ways, keen to make the most of prime birding time before the sun gets high.
My directions are precise and within minutes a Gray Vireo is singing from the top of a close Juniper; I could get used to this 100% success rate! A well-marked male Virginia’s Warbler in an adjoining canyon is an added bonus and I even manage to get back to the Econolodge on time for our breakfast rendezvous.
Today we will need to cover a good few miles, but the roads out here are made for driving and with REM cranked up high on the CD player, passing through the ever-changing scenery is an extremely pleasurable part of the trip. Our route takes us south from Grand Junction, first over parched yellow-brown grassy uplands and, for the first time, into the State of Utah. Descending to the level of the vast Flaming Gorge Reservoir we make a stop at the Flaming Gorge Dam visitors’ centre, which purports the environmental benefits brought by the 1950s hydro-electric scheme and associated wholesale inundation of vast swathes of land!
Next we head into the pine forests of the Uinta Mountains, before again losing altitude to cross the starkly beautiful arid badlands beyond. It is an impromptu detour that takes us to Dinosaur National Monument, but it is only a few miles off our chosen route and sounds rather intriguing. It is stiflingly hot when we leave the comfort of our vehicular air-conditioning in the sun-baked Utah foothills and soon an open-backed courtesy bus is whisking us off uphill to an unknown destination!
We are deposited at a large visitors’ centre built onto one of the pale rock faces, which we soon realise serves the double purpose of protecting the fossil-bearing ground from the ravages of the natural elements. Inside, an informative talk tells the tale of Earl Douglass’s discovery of the ‘dinosaur quarry’ as he hunted fossils for the Carnegie Museum in 1909. Although dozens of fossilised dinosaur bones were excavated and removed, the site is now protected and has a remarkable number of these huge artefacts still insitu.
Satisfied with our newfound geological knowledge we continue our journey, back into Colorado and south again through a landscape that holds surprises around every bend. As we descend into the Gunnison/Colorado River valley lowlands, Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs begin to appear at the roadsides and the red rocks of Colorado National Monument rise in the distance. We make our way through the large town of Grand Junction, picking the very reasonably priced Value Lodge as our night’s accommodation, which will give very easy access to Colorado National Monument in the morning.
The evening meal is quite an adventure, as we try to figure out the dining etiquette in the Golden Corral’s ‘eat all you can for $12’ buffet. Although we manage four courses they actually consist of some relatively healthy cuisine and anyway, we haven’t eaten since breakfast! Such comforting words cannot be repeated for some of our fellow diners. The fact that the USA is blessed with a frighteningly large number of grossly overweight people cannot be ignored and nowhere is it more apparent than in such establishments that positively encourage gluttony. Through the eyes of the foreign traveller such health problems stand out as a ticking cholesterol time-bomb, while American society is clearly accepting of their affliction; one cannot help but think of the misery of ill-health and early death which seems set to plague this nation of wanton obesity in the near future.
Destination for our evening walk is the Uncompahgre Plateau, located around twelve miles south of Grand Junction. We reach the ‘x’ on the map of Rich Levad’s owling spot in time for a walk in the cool evening air, but a subsequent hour of tape recital and intent listening predictably fails to produce a murmur from either the Flammulated or Northern Saw-Whet Owls that are known to be present in the area. The stars put on a fantastic consolation display, however, in the clear light pollution-free sky and we have had chance to walk off some of those excess calories!
Wednesday 29th June
Again I steal off early, this time to Colorado National Monument, while Vic stays at the Value Lodge with the intention of having a swim; our hotel actually has a small pool! It takes just ten minutes to drive to the Devil’s Kitchen area of Colorado National Monument, which is just beyond the entrance gate. It is a fantastic setting, so very different from anything we have visited to date, a landscape of weathered orange sandstone where wind sculpted cliffs and buttes tower into the bluest of sky.
Taking the narrow trail that runs from behind the picnic area it is soon apparent that the area supports a rich and markedly different avifauna. Handsome Black-throated Sparrows sing from Juniper perches and subtle Black-chinned Hummingbirds survey their territories. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Canyon Wren, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Juniper Titmouse, Say’s Phoebe and Western Scrub Jay are all new additions to the trip list. A family of Gray Vireos is found in a lower canyon, well beyond the picnic area, but the highlight for me is the density of the delightful little Gambel’s Quail, at least ten of which are located. The males are essentially grey birds with a creamy breast patch, chestnut flanks, black face and a bizarre forward-facing black head plume. Often relatively fearless, they sit on top of tall bushes and rock pinnacles to proclaim their territories.
Mammals are very apparent too, with Hopi Chipmunk being the common representatives of the family in this arid part of the country. Rabbits have now changed to Desert Cottontails, whose noticeably larger ears are clearly adapted as a cooling system in this extreme climate. Northern Plateau Lizards are also quite numerous, and prove to be the only herps we encounter on the entire trip.
Back at the hotel Vic hasn’t been quite so successful as the staff won’t uncover the pool until mid morning, so after a bagel breakfast on the balcony we head back up to Colorado National Monument to make the full scenic drive. A walk down the Devil’s Kitchen Trail soon establishes that it is already too hot for physical exertion and we continue by car, stopping at various spectacular viewpoints to admire the stark beauty of the arid orange landscape. Vertically eroded canyons drop hundreds of feet to distant valley floors and everywhere the colourful rock has been eroded into natural sculptures by the eroding forces of wind, water and ice. At one lookout we note the rather strange sight of a Rock Squirrel that scampers up a vertical cliff face.
Lunch is taken in a convenient Subway sandwich bar back at Grand Junction, before we continue our journey south. After a couple of hours at the wheel the arid hills become irrigated green pasture, then pine-covered hillsides. Once in the pretty little holiday town of Ouray we follow signs to our destination of Box Canyon Falls, which is clearly something of a local tourist attraction. We really don’t know what to expect, but presently find ourselves at a small reception hut/gift shop where a friendly old lady takes $3 off us for the privilege of viewing the falls. A pathway leads to a spectacularly beautiful steep wooded river valley, from where we overlook the quaint town of Ouray which has a rather Swiss feel to it as it nestles beneath the rugged peaks.
An open mesh steel walkway has been secured to one of the sheer walls of the narrow canyon, which is cut like a vertical letterbox into the hard grey granite. Following the walkway we move into a damp, cool world, where a turbulent Canyon Creek river rushes past below, we approach a violently thundering waterfall at the canyon head. This damp and gloomy environment is the chosen nesting site of the scarce Black Swift and we are delighted to find a single nesting bird directly opposite the sign announcing ‘Look out for the rare Black Swifts’! The bird has built a tiny mossy nest, glued to the wall with saliva, and is sitting tight in a very exposed position just twenty feet away from our vantage point. A couple of other unoccupied nests are located in less accessible nooks and crannies, but this is clearly the only bird present at the time of our visit and it couldn’t be better positioned for great viewing and flash photography. Widely known as the most accessible site for Black Swift in the USA, and possibly the world, Box Canyon not only guarantees a very rare bird but also a spectacularly different perspective on a truly impressive waterfall.
A second vantage point, this time high above the falls and accessed by a steep pathway, provides equally spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and at least one more Black Swift hawking over the treetops with the much more common White-throated Swifts. Close to the reception hut feeders attract Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, while approachable Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels and Colorado Chipmunks feed below.
Very pleased with our afternoon detour, we resume the journey by first retracing our steps north to Madison and then east into the sage country which flanks our route to the town of Gunnison. Passing the huge Blue Mesa Reservoir, as the low sun casts a warm glow over the surrounding rugged hillsides, we remark on the strange similarity of the area to the English Lake District. As we approach Gunnison the light is starting to fade, but we take the opportunity to investigate a County Road through the sage on which the highly sought-after Gunnison Sage Grouse has occasionally been seen outside the spring lekking season. It is soon apparent that these birds frequent a vast amount of suitable habitat and the phrase ‘needle in a haystack’ is one that springs to mind.
Somewhat disillusioned about the prospects of locating our quarry the following morning we return to town to locate some accommodation. The first motel we try proves to be a real jackpot as the Long Holiday Motel, run by a delightful Polish lady, proves to be one our favourite overnight venues of the tour. After a quick wash and brush up we drive a short way to the superb Fiesta Mexicana, where we receive what is voted to be the best meal of our entire trip. Washed down by a few Coronas, we build up a great rapport with the restaurant staff who captivate us with stimulating conversation well into the night.
Thursday 30th June
With the alarm set early I am driving the County Road, where we had carried out the previous evening’s recce, before the sun has cleared the sage-cloaked hills. Though the habitat is clearly ideal, the fact that it stretches to the horizon does not raise ones hopes of finding a handful of well-camouflaged gamebirds. At precisely 06.00 I round a bend on the dirt track to be confronted by a group of five female Gunnison Sage Grouse; I have found the needle in the haystack! Unfortunately the birds flush as soon as they see my car and fly off over the sage, but it remains a moment of elation as I have just seen the bird that everyone told me I had such a slim chance of finding at this time of year.
I have driven for just another ¼ mile when I encounter what must be the most unexpected avian sight of the trip. In a narrow strip of low grassland, which surrounds a small valley-bottom stream, is a group of no less than twenty-two male Gunnison Sage Grouse, some within 100 feet of the car! The sun had now cleared the horizon to create the most wonderful backlit effect on these fantastic birds and though not ideal for photography the whole scene of golden grasses and a sagebrush background make the setting unforgettable.
This is clearly a post-breeding gathering of male birds and as I sit silently and view from my ready-made hide the grouse go about the business of feeding, preening and slowly making their way through the low grasses and surrounding sage totally oblivious of my presence. Although past their breeding prime the birds are still impressive creatures, with deep heavy bills and an elongated rear-end reminiscent of a bulky sandgrouse. Although bellies are still jet black they have lost the white throat of full breeding plumage, with this area being mottled white. Bellies are dusky grey instead of pure white, with heavy black mottling around the lower throat, and faces remain well-marked with dark ear coverts plus a pale supersillium and eyering. When preening the birds occasionally raise the spiked tail feathers characteristic of the species, giving a taste of what full display must look like.
I spend a full hour-and-a-half engrossed in my unprecedented views of what is certainly one of the USA’s rarest birds. Classed as ‘Endangered’ by Birdlife International, Gunnison Sage Grouse has a population of fewer than 4,000 birds that occupy a tiny and fragmented range in just two Counties of Colorado. Although photography has been difficult with the constantly backlit situation I depart in a state of euphoria which I do my best to convey to Vic upon my return to the motel!
Before the temperature rises too high we travel a few miles west to a small protected area of riparian Cottonwoods known as Neversink, which forms part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area. It has been recommended to me by Greg Schrott, who found breeding Least Flycatchers here earlier in the season. This is a totally different habitat from any visited previously and it makes a refreshing change to walk through lush deciduous woodland. A Least Flycatcher is soon located by its persistent ‘che-bek’ call, though obtaining a decent photograph is a more difficult proposition, as the bird prefers to hunt from mid-canopy perches. Black-capped Chickadee and an abundance of Yellow Warblers are also noteworthy at this great little site, as are the beaver dams on the small river and numerous neatly gnawed waterside treestumps that are a sure sign of recent American Beaver activity.
Back in Gunnison we procure the essentials for our picnic and bid farewell to our excellent host at the Long Holiday Motel; what a shame our holiday here has been such a short one! The Pioneer’s Point trail lies just beyond the western end of the Blue Mesa Reservoir and presents the ideal location for a scenic late morning walk. A steep trail winds its way down the canyon through blocks of sage inlaid with beautiful wildflowers, and stands of mixed woodland where Aspen, Juniper, Oak and Ponderosa Pine grow in harmony. The latter species is adorned with clumps of long wispy pine needles and fantastically patterned red-brown bark that upon close inspection resembles a huge rustic jigsaw puzzle.
Bird sightings are limited to Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker and Townsend’s Solitaire, but we are here for the scenery and exercise and not the birding. Returning to the canyon rim we take advantage of one of the Ponderosa Pine-shaded picnic tables to consume a fine outdoor lunch.
We have a long drive to the evening’s accommodation, but cannot resist the detour to the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. On arriving at the Chasm View observation platform we are awestruck at the scene before us, as a half-mile high vertical wall of dark rock falls to the turbulent Gunnison River far below. The area is so named because the canyon is so sheer and narrow that very little sunlight can penetrate, making it a shadow-shrouded and foreboding sight to early travellers. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison certainly makes for one of the scenic wonders of our trip and must certainly be included on any itinerary to this area.
The remainder of the day is taken up with the long hard drive through valleys and passes to Georgetown, in the heart of Rocky Mountain ski-country, not far west of Denver. Unfortunately we find the Georgetown Super 8 Motel to be the worst accommodation of the whole trip, with an impolite Asian owner and very shabby rooms. Equally poor is our choice of restaurant, the Raven Hill Mining Company, where the very mediocre cuisine is extortionately priced. It is a shame to end on such a note, as until now the standard of rooms has been faultless and the majority of meals very good indeed.
Saturday 31st June
We’re up early to make the most of our final day in Colorado, driving east down the I90 for a couple of junctions before turning off and following the signs to Mount Evans. A pair of Red Foxes appears at the roadside, unconcerned about the passing traffic and posing for photographs; they appear to be a much lighter sandy-red than our British animals. The road climbs steeply amongst the Lodgepoles and eventually breaks through the trees and into the alpine tundra, affording views across dark snow-dotted peaks to a far horizon.
We drive up as far as the spectacularly beautiful Summit Lake, at an altitude of 12,830 feet, where mirror-like waters reflect the scree slopes and snowfields beyond. After a twenty-minute search in the vicinity of the near shore of the lake a distinctive dark bird is caught in silhouette against a white snowfield and we have located the final target bird of the trip, Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. Initially the flighty pair of birds leads us on a run-around, but then a group of three males flies over the lake and lands close by. Like the Black Rosy-Finches seen earlier in the trip they seem totally unconcerned about human presence and feed amongst the rocks and beautiful flowering alpine plants which carpet the ground just a few yards from our feet. They really are stunning finches, with warm brown upperparts, contrastingly darker cap and again those distinctive white spots above the bill. Lower belly, flanks and rump are a gorgeous warm pink that is also found on the wing coverts. It really is the rosy icing on an incredibly successful trip.
Two snowy-white Mountain Goats are also found on the rocks above Summit Lake, but a Park Ranger advises us to drive up to the summit car park if we want some really close looks at these endearing mammals. The highest paved road in North America takes us to the 14,260-foot summit of Mount Evans and true to form a group of eight Mountain Goats are waiting for us beside the car park! These supremely hardy mammals inhabit only the highest of the Rocky Mountains and are pure white with contrasting black curved horns, eyes and muzzle. The group includes two young kids, which remain close to their mothers’ sides.
The summit car park affords fantastic views all the way to Denver and the flat prairies beyond, and also plays host to very obliging Yellow-bellied Marmots and a single American Pika. It is also a popular tourist attraction which soon fills with hoards of sightseers, at which point both us and the Mountain Goats decide to head for less populated parts.
Our descent is blocked for some time when we are confronted by a profusion of flashing lights and a helicopter parked in the middle of the road. The road to the summit is extremely popular with cyclists and one unfortunate rider has had a nasty fall that has necessitated his helicopter evacuation to hospital. A high black cloud has materialised in the previously clear blue sky over the last hour and we move further down the mountain in an attempt to escape the brewing storm. A picnic site on the Squaw Pass Road keeps us out of range of a soaking as we consume our final meal in the fresh maintain air. The final walk of the trip is along a trail to Squaw Mountain Lookout, where Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red Crossbill and a pair of Gray Jays are noteworthy. The trail also throws up a new trip bird and one that would have been ticked as a full species some years previously, ‘Gray-headed’ Junco. Singing from the very top of a Lodgepole, this attractive bird is slate grey with a pale yellow bill and bright rufous mantle.
Sadly it is time to leave the mountains and head east for a mid-afternoon rendezvous with British Airways. We take the scenic route via the winding road that passes through the pretty little towns of Evergreen, Kittredge and Idledale, before hitting the urban sprawl of Denver. Final excitement of the trip is a huge electric storm which hits the airport at the time of our arrival, putting several inches of water down on the tarmac, our only rainfall experienced in the whole two-week, 3352 mile adventure.
In terms of connecting with target bird species it has been an incredibly successful trip, with a total of twenty-four new birds added to the World List in spite of extensive trips to Texas and California in the past; many of these sightings would not have been possible if it were not for the large amount of information freely given by local American birders and for this I am indebted. Mammal watching has been a particular highlight, with an outstanding total of 35 species identified, though none more impressive than the bears and wolves of Yellowstone.
The scenery of Colorado and Wyoming is as fine as anywhere on the planet, with constantly changing and highly diverse landscapes making driving the long distances that are inevitably covered a joy rather than a hindrance. All is made doubly pleasurable by the highly civilised infrastructure and facilities found throughout and in particular the extremely warm and welcoming nature of the American people. The Rocky Mountains of the Midwest seem to be a rather neglected destination for travellers from outside the United States, though for me it has been my finest North American experience to date and I would urge anyone with a taste for fresh mountain air, bears and rosy finches to follow in the footsteps of our most memorable ‘vacation’.
Ian Merrill, July 2006