Monday, July 22, 2013

Notes from Yellowstone and Wyoming -- Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2This part focuses on the wildlife I saw during the trip. In Part 1, I’ve already mentioned prolific herds of bison, which are easily spotted in Yellowstone and take center stage. Here I list other, more subtle experiences:

1) Grasshoppers were our constant companions throughout the trip. Perhaps August – mid to late summer – is when they are most active. When flying, they made constantly spaced sounds -- one every half second -- loud enough to be clearly audible more than a hundred feet away, each note like a small, flat-sounding firework. On the ground, these drab brown grasshoppers were quiet and hardly noticeable. But when in flight, I noticed that their bodies had a touch of bright yellow. 

2) While driving from Cody to Riverton, we passed by the Wind River Canyon. On the slope of a high mountain adjacent to the road, we saw three male bighorn sheep, grazing along with deer, looking cautiously at us, although both distance and a steep slope separated us. We had seen female bighorn sheep before, in Zion National Park, Utah, and some in Yellowstone, but never any males with their signature curved horns. 

The writer and naturalist, Joe Hutto, who raised wild turkey chicks to adulthood in a forest in Florida – his experience has been reenacted in the PBS Nature documentary My Life as a Turkey – now lives in this area. He disappears for months at a time in the Wind River mountain wilderness, following populations of bighorn sheep as part of a research study. His new book, The Light in High Places, is as much about mystical and solitary engagement with high and wild places, as it is about the causes of decline in bighorn sheep numbers. 
4) Approaching Jackson from the south, you come to the National Elk Refuge. Elk are active here only in the winter. But right before the road enters town is a marsh, where we saw a pair of trumpeter swans (see center of picture below), whose numbers have declined in the last century.
5) Other significant sights: (a) a pair of resting ravens, probably a couple, completely still as if frozen, on a fallen log by the side of a lonely road in Yellowstone, the head and beak of one tilted upward; their jet black color – something I've always admired – contrasting sharply with the bright hue of the grass around them; (b) a red fox, caught in the headlights late in the evening, moving discreetly along the side of the main road in Yellowstone; (c) an osprey (a brown bird of prey, with a white head; see picture below) perched on a branch of a tree; and (d) pelicans soaring in the sky above Hayden Valley.  

3) At the edge of the Grand Teton National Park, not far from the Jackson airport (which, strangely, is also within the park), a mother black bear and two cubs crossed a major road and made their way to the wooded hills on the other side. They moved at a deceptively steady pace, but in the end covered ground very quickly. But for a pair of binoculars – amazing how an intelligent arrangement of lenses/glasses can bring the distant so vividly and breathtakingly close – we would have missed them. They would have been two black specks on the horizon not worth commenting about. Instead, it was an absolute delight to see their languid, unstructured and carefree walk towards the hills, now disappearing behind a thicket or tree, now reemerging again, before finally fading away on the forested slopes.