Wednesday, June 15, 2011
A memorable evening and morning then off to Yellowstone National Park
Last night I spent the night at Battle Ridge Campground well up into the Bridger Mountains, a pretty campground among tall pines and forest openings. I wrote my last post in my truck, in the rain and earlier than the end of the day. With computer packed away for the night, the rain subsided and I took a walk around an abandoned campground. After walking I secured the truck and was starting toward the tent. It was about 8:30 pm and the sleeping bag was looming very inviting.
Just about that time I heard yipping somewhat like a small dog. Curious I moved with binoculars in hand toward the sound. The yipping was spaced a couple of seconds apart and then a short rapid series of the same notes. As I walked and listened among the forest of pines I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. Instinctively I turned with binoculars ready. What I saw was what I thought was a raptor.
Then a shadow swept down from the pines about 50 yards away. I lifted my binoculars and confirmed what I knew was an owl. This wasn’t just any owl. It was the biggest in North America and certainly the most impressive Great Gray Owl. It glided about 10 feet off the ground in a clearing behind this stand of pine. It was a massive gray bird that seemed to light up the dimly lit evening forest. The owl disappeared.
I went to where I thought the owl might have landed. Great Gray Owls perch about 15 feet off the ground and hunt from and rest on these perches. I could not find the bird but I could hear the soft but resonating deep hoots of not just one but two different locations. This is the ultimate wild encounter. It is me in the home of, and at the mercy of this impressive predator. I never found the owl, and it was ok considering the view this bird had given me.
I was still troubled by the yipping. I knew it was related to the Great Gray Owl but nothing I have ever read about vocalization ever mentioned any such un-owl-like sound. I went to bed as the rain settled in once again from the notorious Bridger Range weather maker.
I got u early and broke camp. I finished packing the truck and was ready to leave when once again I was stopped dead in my tracks by the soft and faint hooting of the Great Gray Owl. I walked to the sound. Again I was surprised to see the Owl rise from the forest floor with a rodent in talons. It continued to climb in the dim morning light to the very top of a pine some 40 feet tall. In my binoculars I saw the bird land and then I saw the nest and the movement of a Great Gray Owl chick. The adult owl departed and perched about 150 yards away in another pine.
All I could think of was getting pictures, and of course, the camera was packed in the truck but not far away. I eased back to the truck, got the camera and returned to where I saw all this unfold. I found the adult. I took many pictures as if this opportunity may never come again. I never relocated the nest. I searched and searched. Yet, as intended for survival, the nest became invisible.
Now the yipping made sense. What I heard was the chick vocalizing. I think it is safe to say that this was Great Gray Owl language for “Mom, I’m hungry, feed me.”
Between the evening and morning I spent about 2 hours focusing on observing and learning about the Great Gray Owl. For those two hours I was consumed with this extraordinary opportunity. If ever there is a reason for spending time in the field, in the middle of nowhere, this is truly a classic justification. I am no bird expert. I am a student of nature. I now know, first hand, one of wildlife’s most impressive creatures not from an academic view but on a personal level.
On the way to Yellowstone I stopped in a little café in Wilsall and struck up a conversation with a young rancher, or a true modern cowboy that prefers horses to an all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) and is proud of his rich family history in this valley and the surrounding Bridger and Crazy Mountains. He is a welder by training but there is no doubt in my mind he is one of a dying breed. He learned to weld in Willoughby, Ohio but he learned to ranch by the “school of hard knocks” as he so well admitted. If only there was as much under my cowboy hat.
Along the way, I was still distracted by the owl episodes and thinking ahead about a strategy to glean as much as possible out of my forthcoming Yellowstone visit. The most notable event on the short trip was watching two Golden Eagles sparring in flight, locking talons, releasing, spinning away and heading out over the prairie.
Upon arriving at Yellowstone National Park I traveled from Mammoth Hot Springs to the heart of the park, Hayden Valley and Fishing Bridge. This was sort of an orientation day. I saw only 42 species of birds but I added one new bird, a nesting female Barrow’s Goldeneye. It was good to be back in Yellowstone and it is different this year. Yes, there is, as expected, lots of water….more than ever. There is also more snowpack and at lower elevations. The Yellowstone valley is about 7,500 ft. above sea level and by this date in June the snow is limited to only the higher elevations.
I saw some familiar friends as I traveled around. There were Elk at Mammoth, 8 bighorn ewes with 6 kids just inside the Park. A lone Coyote trotted right down the middle of a busy road, apparently, having not received the memo about traffic. Buffalo grazed lazily in the vast prairie grasses. A single Mule Deer stood at attention along the road. Many people were stopped to scan and see Mountain Goats, many with babies clinging to the adults on treacherous rocky outcroppings. I am quite sure they have no concept of falling. And they don’t. Is this the power of positive thinking?
Tomorrow I will be exploring northern Yellowstone in search of birds, mammals and memories.