MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - As I wrote last week, our driving vacation allowed us to see beautiful vistas, historic landmarks, waterfalls, and lots of animals -- wild horses, grizzly and black bears, moose, elk, pronghorns, bison, prairie dogs, and new species of birds. While the first half of the trip that I wrote about last week was awesome, the second half was even better.
Our drive took us through parts of 15 states and to three national parks: Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, and Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.
Last week's column focused on the trip to North Dakota. This week I'll pick up with leaving North Dakota on our way to Yellowstone National Park.
Montana and the Yellowstone River. Time constraints forced us to use Interstate 94 through Montana to get to Yellowstone NP, but it proved to be a beautiful drive. Many stretches of the interstate ran along the Yellowstone River and the valley is formed. The drive underscored the role that the river and irrigation play in the economy of the area. To the river side of the interstate, we could see large fields of green ripe with agriculture; the other side was arid, dry and brown, beautiful in its own way but standing in stark contrast to the irrigated areas. From the interstate, we spotted White Pelicans and Sandhill Cranes along the river below.
Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is a favorite of ours, and this is our third visit there. Like almost everyone, we enjoy the thermal features -- Old Faithful and other geysers and the mud pots. The vistas are impressive, and my favorite waterfall anywhere (sorry, Niagara) is the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River (see photo).
If you visit Yellowstone, don't miss the Lower Falls vista. My recommendation is to go just after sunrise when the early morning sunlight is likely to create a rainbow on the mist rising from the falls and its 308-foot drop. But if it's cloudy, never fear -- with or without the rainbow, the Lower Falls is awesome.
But the animals of Yellowstone are the real magnets that keep drawing us back to the park. Julie and I love to sit on overlooks in Lamar and Hayden valleys, watching huge herds of bison feeding and hoping to spot grizzlies, elk, and other wildlife.
This trip we were able to see a large grizzly feeding on a bison carcass; we watched through my spotting scope from about 100 yards -- as close as I want to get to a grizzly, especially one feeding. At another location, we spent a half-hour watching a distant Black Bear climbing a pine tree to get cones for the pine nuts inside. Then, after straining to see this one through the binoculars, we got into the car and drove 50 yards only to have another Black Bear zip across the road a few yards in front of us.
One evening just before sunset we sat at an overlook at Hayden Valley with a British couple we had met earlier in the day. We then did what has become a ritual for us at Yellowstone visits -- we pulled out our folding chairs, got our binoculars, set up our spotting scope, poured glasses of wine, and sat back to watch for wildlife in the hour and a half before sunset.
A couple of large bisons, probably old bulls, entertained us by swimming the Yellowstone River. I let other tourists, many of whom spoke little or no English, share the views of wildlife in our spotting scope or binoculars. A Bald Eagle sat on a distant tree, while a Northern Harrier hunted over the fields. Then, as the light faded, a couple of elk appeared near the tree line across the valley, hundreds of yards away. One was one of the most handsome I've seen, with a tan body that almost glowed in the dying light, a dark neck and head, and a huge rack of antlers. I allowed everyone views through the scope, and then took a cell phone photo through the scope of the distant elk. (See photos.) As always, Hayden Valley did not disappoint.
Grand Teton National Park. It would be a sacrilege to visit Yellowstone NP without including Grand Teton NP just to the south. The view from the plains of the rugged crags of the Grand Teton range rising abruptly just past the Snake River is one of the more magnificent vistas our nation has to offer. Sadly, however, distant forest fires created a haze that made photographs of the mountains difficult. But that in no way stopped us from enjoying the trip.
Grand Teton is where I saw my first moose in the wild several years ago, and "moosing", looking for moose to photograph, has become a ritual on return trips. We saw three this time: two bulls and a cow.
Our first sighting was a little close for comfort. We were walking on a path near a creek that feeds into the Snake River when a young bull emerged from the willows straight in front of us. We froze, except for using our cameras, but he walked directly toward us. About 25 yards away he finally stopped, stared at us for a while, and then turned to leisurely cross the creek. Moose are so big that they fear nothing. Bulls can approach 7 feet tall at the shoulder, and weigh up to 1,500 pounds. This one appeared to be more than six feet tall at the shoulder.
We later spotted an even bigger male, judging by its rack, but thankfully it was at a more comfortable distance.
The Snake River. This trip we did something we have talked about doing on past trips -- we took a raft ride down the Snake River with the Tetons looming in the background. This was in no way a knuckle-whitening, hold-on-for-dear-life experience. There were a few mild rapids during the 10-mile, two-hour trip, but none were threatening in the slightest.
Our guide and oarsman was knowledgeable and entertaining. He even helped me spot a few Violet-Green Swallows, a life bird for me, but unfortunately, they were much too fast for photos. We saw four Bald Eagles, both adults, and a juvenile. Common Mergansers were everywhere. And we saw our third moose, a cow, on the bank of the river.
Our guide, Jim, is a year-round resident of Jackson Hole. In the summer he is a rafting guide, and in the winter he leads snowmobile excursions. A native of New York State, he became enamored of the national parks after seeing the Ken Burns documentary and came to the Tetons for summer work.
"But that fall," he said, "my friends were all talking about skiing in the winter. I had the choice of returning to New York State to shovel snow, or staying to ski on it. Wasn't a tough decision."
Jackson, Wyoming, is a touristy town, but delightful nonetheless. If you go, try Bubba's for breakfast. The pancakes are delicious, but the coffee is delightful. Bubba's roasts and grinds the beans, and the coffee alone is worth going there. But you won't be disappointed in the food, either.
Space won't allow me to spend much time on the trip home, except to say that much of it was delightful as well. We detoured west to Bear Lake, a natural freshwater lake that straddles the Idaho-Utah line. The turquoise blue waters of this huge lake, more than 100 square miles in size, are stunning.
We had driven by the lake before, but this trip we made time for a quick drive-by Beadrive-national Wildlife Refuge, where we spotted White Pelicans and I added White-Faced Ibis to my list of life birds.
Another quick stop was at Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas. Here I added the Western Kingbird to my life list, but we failed to see Prairie-Chickens I had hoped to see. But Kirwin is a special spot for birders, and is now a must-stop anytime we are anywhere near northern Kansas.
All in all, it was an amazing trip. And now we get to plan where next year's trip will take us.
The Alabama Ornithological Society holds its fall meeting each year on Dauphin Island, one of the best sites to see fall and spring migratory birds and shorebirds in the United States. This year the meeting is Oct. 13 through 15.
While the meeting is for AOS members, it only costs $25 per year to join. That entitles birders to attend AOS fall and spring meetings on Dauphin Island and a winter meeting elsewhere around the state. Registration and banquet fees for the meetings are modest as well.
Each of those meetings includes several birding field trips and knowledgeable speakers. Membership also entitles you to a copy of the group's newsletter, The Yellowhammer, as well as other occasional publications on birding. Best of all, it allows those interested in birding to interact with some of the best informed birders in Alabama and to be part of an organization that promotes birding and nature protection.
The featured speaker for this year's meeting will be Dr. Frank R. Moore, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Southern Mississippi University. He will speak on bird migration, as well as lead a field trip to Fort Morgan. Other field trips during the weekend will be led by Andrew Haffenden, who leads birding trips around the world and who makes Dauphin Island his home. Sign up for the meeting at the AOS website.
- The North Alabama Birdwatchers Society has announced its full schedule of field trips from now through May 2018.
- The Birmingham Audubon Society also has many field trips each year, and several of them are well out of the Birmingham area. Despite its name, Birmingham Audubon is really a statewide organization, supporting ornithological research around Alabama. It also has several outstanding seminars on nature and birding during the year. Its website is: birminghamaudubon.org
- The Alabama Birding Trails webpage has a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature-related activities around the state that is much more detailed than space allows here. Most of the activities are open to the public and many are free. See it at alabamabirdingtrails.com
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org. To see other columns, go to Ken's Page.