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After a superb trip to neighouring Arizona and Utah some years earlier, a return to Colorado to explore the other side of the Rockies was always on the cards. When we looked at planning the itinerary, it became obvious that an inverted horseshoe route, taking in a more northerly area, was suited to our needs. This would then include the Rockies themselves, the Badlands of South Dakota, and most importantly, Yellowstone National Park. This meant an arrival at Denver in Colorado, and a departure from Salt Lake City. As usual in the States, distances are much greater than we are used to in the UK and even Europe as a whole, with the greatest journey being around 10 hours between Rapid City in South Dakota and Yellowstone. This did mean that we experienced a variety of impressive National Parks, with scenery and wildlife in general as the main target, and birds more or less seen as an incidental to this.
The bases used on our journey were Estes Park, which is a characterful small town right next to the entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park, Rapid City, a functional place plonked in the centre of the Custer National Park (or Mount Rushmore if you are in the typical tourist trail!) and the Badlands, and West Yellowstone for the first few days for Yellowstone National Park (again, better for the Old Faithful brigade and also Grand Teton National Park), with a finish off in Gardiner for the North Entrance of Yellowstone (better for access to the wildlife richer North loop). We hired our car beforehand, and the midsize we wanted was inexpensive and more than adequate for its task - don't believe the usual upgrade rubbish that offers a more powerful engine for the mountains. A sat nav unit was indispensable for driving - we bought an expansion SD card for North America for our own portable Garmin unit in the UK for around £45, which was a lot cheaper than hiring at the car firm.
June is probably an ideal time to visit the area. We noticed that many of the park roads, particularly in Yellowstone, are closed right up until May, presumably due to Winter snow, which was still evident in the peaks. We had been keeping a close eye in the weather before we left and expected it to be quite cool with variable precipitation. The variability in this became evident. We had almost unbroken sunshine throughout, with temperatures up to the 90'sC in the Rockies, and 80'sC elsewhere. However, we arrived at Yellowstone in sleet and the temperature gauge showing only a few degrees above freezing. A heavy rain shower fell in Rapid City one late evening. The watch word is to be prepared - the gloves, hat and mac may be necessary at this time of year on any given visit. We did experience a few minor bites from insects, but these were generally not a nuisance.
Denver - Embassy Suites. The airport seems to have been built fairly recently, and with it a clutch of attendant hotels with complementary shuttle services such as this. The free breakfast was immense, including freshly cooked omelettes and pancakes. The surroundings are worth a look prebreakfast, since the hotel is next to some open land.
Estes Park - Discovery Lodge. This is a privately run hotel, built at the start of a run of chain lodgings, which also means it is a closer walk to town. They have an emphasis on environmental awareness, and the rooms are very comfortable. Main downside is that this was the only place we stayed at which didn't include breakfast in our booking, and had no air conditioning. On the other hand, there was quite a bit of birdlife in the back yard to keep up interest. Estes Park is not only handy for Rocky Mountain National Park, but is not a bad place to stay in itself, offering an interesting array of restaurants.
Rapid City - Best Western Town & Country. Much like the rather soulless town itself, the hotel is purely a means to an end, and no better or worse than any of the other chains along this quite busy stretch of road. Breakfast was "included" with our booking after a fight, but is merely a $5 voucher towards breakfast at the adjoining diner.
Yellowstone. We originally booked all 5 nights at the Yellowstone Lodge in West Yellowstone, since this small town is next to the more popular West entrance to the park. The room we were given was large, and the location on the edge of town, only a short walk from the rather limited choice of restaurants (Bullwinkle's is probably the pick of them). After deciding on the Wolftracker day in the park, where the favoured entrance is the North one, we had 2 nights in the Yellowstone Village Inn on the outskirts of Gardiner. This was again absolutely fine, and I would recommend taking a meal at The Mine, a family grill just across and down the road.
Salt Lake City - Fairfield Suites and Hotel. Take your pick for one of the many airport hotels here. Complentary breakfast and free airport shuttle is probably a standard, and the location and lodging suited just fine.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Even before we left Denver, in fact not even outside of the perimeter of the overnight stop at the Embassy Suites Hotel near to the airport, there were some Stateside birds to be munched on, even if they were all fairly common. The new airport has also spawned a new hatchling clutch of servicing hotels nearby, so they look potentially stale from a birding point of view. Yet a short pre breakfast walk around the perimeter found a batch of Western Kingbirds, both noisy and approachable. Brewer's Blackbirds were in only slightly lower numbers, but were just as brash, and held the morning light well in the glossy sheen on the plumage. American Robins were a little more shy, but a couple of singing Western Meadowlarks were easily located in the low stubble.
The real holidaying began on arrival at Estes Park, our base of the Rocky Mountain National Park. Or to be exact, just before arriving here. Only a couple of miles short of the town, we pulled into a popular roadside stop. The main attraction for the populace was the performance by Least Chipmunks and Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels. A Red Squirrel skulked in the background. Mingling with these was a Steller's Jay, and a slightly more evasive Clark's Nutcracker.
From our accommodation at Discovery Lodge on Big Thomson Avenue, which seems to be the main "strip" of hotels in the town, the common residents of the area could be seen well even in the back yard - House Finch, Violet Green Swallow, and Broad-tailed Hummingbird were all noisy, boisterous, and easy to see. The 4 miles walk around Lake Estes is also on the doorstep from here, with most of the birds seen again being the expected ones - Common Grackles and Turkey Vultures in particular. The walk is pleasant and flat, although the herd of calving Elk presented something of a barrier at the time of our visit, with a portion of the walk cordoned off. Even more common than the Elk are numerous Wyoming Ground Squirrels, which are very hard to miss. The lake itself offered no more than common Mallard and Canada Goose, and these in low numbers. A sit down on the northern shore did turn up a pair of Spotted Sandpipers and lone Mountain Chickadee. Overhead was productive, with three different raptors in the form of Ferruginous Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and Prairie Falcon.
Pride of place in the Estes locale is the Rocky Mountain National Park. Even without the addition of wildlife it contains, this is worthy of a visit due to the stunning scenery throughout. Costing only $20 for a week long pass, this peach of a park has glades and loose forest at its lower end, which thins out to surround brilliant vistas from many lookouts and short trails, to the still snow-covered tops of the spartan alpine peaks. The Elk take pride place in the lower altitudes, and you must be extremely unlucky not to come across these on any given visit. Taking the route 34 first along the Trail Ridge Road means skirting the meadows of Horseshoe Park, where these beasts are more or less guaranteed. A closer inspection is also worthwhile, since Wyoming Ground Squirrels are also here. In one of the trees adjacent to the road, a male Mountain Bluebird shared a branch with an American Robin, and a Broad-tailed Hummingbird was busy feeding and occasionally resting, picked up by its high pitched trilling. The conifers are also the home of Pygmy Nuthatch.
One of the best stops was 3 miles short of the Alpine visitor centre, where a trail led to some impressive rocks. Yellow-bellied Marmots seem to be almost touchable here, with one sunning itself next to the toilets. Buff-bellied Pipits were performing song flights, with Shorelarks visible when their song was followed. Most impressive was a pair of Mountain Bluebirds building a nest - amongst the woodwork of the visitor centre itself! They were even watched and photographed through the window of the coffee shop.
Black Hills, South Dakota
We were based in Rapid City, whose main claim to fame is being on the doorstep of Mount Rushmore, and its less well known native American and ongoing carving of Crazy Horse. A sumptuous day can be had at both, I am sure, but the fees of $30 total for both can be saved by viewing from the main highways (it IS possible to do this for both), and make haste to Custer State Park, which is sandwiched between the two, and offers the delectable wildlife alternative. As with many of the locations within this large country, this park is a lot larger than it seems in planning. There are a few entry points, each charging the princely sum of $15 per car for a 7 day pass. The route 16A is the main access road, passes the Norbeck visitors centre, but is fairly quiet overall.
We entered from Keystone along the initial part of the 16A, which is a narrow byway, passing through mainly coniferous woodland. Stopping off at the Norbeck pullout was good for the localised white-winged race of Dark-eyed Junco, and also a well sized flock of Red Crossbills. After passing briefly through the visitor centre, we took the Needles Highway scenic drive, where we passed the first (lone) American Bison, and also marvelled at the great scenery at the top. The nearby Sylvan Lake was worth a circumnavigation. In addition to the common American Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds, with Violet-Green Swallows overhead, a couple of Cordilleran Flycatchers were found, and Pine Siskins were flying to and fro.
The Southern part of the park, which is enclosed by the Wildlife Loop road, is the best for mammals. The herds of American Bison are the most famed of these, with a stable population of 950 or so providing ample opportunity to come across them in collections on the grasslands. We even became part of a true "bison jam", with a small herd parking the bus across the road, preventing the traffic from moving. The two small towns of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs were a real treat, with many visible, and one in particular almost daring in its approach to our stationary vehicle. The only other big critter of note was Pronghorn, a most inelegant looking beast, but fascinating nevertheless. Most were singles or pairs at a distance, until a group of four were finally passed next to the road. Near to them, a pair of Mountain Bluebirds were using a nest box as home, with singing Western Meadowlarks as company. Apart from the numerous Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, the only other bird of note was a Swainson's Hawk which seemed to be doing a mini flight display.
Badlands National Park
At just over an hour's drive East of Rapid City, this park is well worth a visit for the day. $15 buys a 7 day pass to a stunning geological spectacle, where the elements have eroded some impressive rock formations. A map is handed out at the entrance station, and is really all that is needed for the visit. Covering the area is quite straight forward, since there is one main Road, the Badlands Loop, which runs the length, merging into the gravelled Rim Road. This in turn goes North as the route 502 and East as the Sage Creek Road. Most of the park is covered in the car, stopping for views and wildlife either at well signed lookout points on the way, or whenever wildlife appears. There are also some short trails at the Eastern end. The Cliff Shelf Trail turned up a Say's Phoebe, Chipping Sparrow, and Black- billed Magpie. The Door Trail offers a short wander into the badlands architecture, and also holds singing Rock Wren and Say's Phoebe, as well as breeding Cliff Swallows.
For much of the length of the Badlands Loop Road, the main birds are many Red-winged Blackbirds and Western Meadowlarks, although there are the odd Western Kingbirds and a single Loggerhead Shrike. The first interesting mammals were reached at the Homestead Overlook, where a couple of family parties of Bighorn Sheep were perched on rocky outcrops just below the road. These included lambs, presumably ewes which had shortish horns and were collared. A group of 6 rams in a "bachelor party", most sporting a fine pair of large horns, were a little further along, just beyond the start of the Rim Road. 4 miles along this road is the beginning of a very large Black-tailed Prairie Dog town, with many of the showy individuals right next to the track. Some were heard calling when a Prairie Falcon passed overhead. This part of the grassy prairie also held a large herd of American Bison.
The most interesting part of the park for birds is the route 502, turning East into the 590, or Sage Creek Road. It is at first gravelled, then tarmac, and passes through some excellent grassland. Shorelarks were the first to show in amongst the Prairie Dogs. Once the "town" was left behind, an Eastern Kingbird preceded some good grassland birds. Lark Buntings were quite regular, and one had Blue Grosbeaks for company. A Spotted Towhee was on the fence just before a small lake to the South, which held a handful of American White Pelicans.
Yellowstone National Park
Despite the number of visitors we encountered, the magnificence of this park dwarfs the human content. The entrance fee is only $25 per car for a 7 day pass, and as usual for this country, the size of the park is much larger than you would imagine. Covering only the South loop took us all day, and much of this was to take in the range of geysers and geothermal array of features that are a must when visiting here. After a very chilly arrival, with the sleet hitting the car windscreen in temperatures as low as 38C, the next day demonstrated the variation in weather systems here with highs of almost 70C, and unbroken clear skies. Driving is deliberately and thankfully slow, with top speeds allowed of 45mph, and this certainly lends itself to much greater scrutiny of passing wildlife. Examples were early Coyote and Western Tanager during our first few miles on the first day.
Not only are the geysers and lookouts worth seeing in themselves, they can also turn up birds. Waiting for Grand Geyser and Old Faithful to erupt in sequence, we found Mountain Bluebird, White-crowned & Chipping Sparrows, Brown-headed Cowbird, and Pine Siskin on the walkways between. Midway Geyser Basin had a successful fishing Osprey on the river next to it. One of the best areas was the base of the Yellowstone River, where it joined the Lake. Small numbers of Lesser Scaup had been seen on the shoreline, and a single Bald Eagle flew over Fisherman's Bridge, with a group of 22 Barrow's Goldeneye on the West Thumb. More Barrow's Goldeneye were on the river itself with a drake American Wigeon nearby. The LeHardy’s Rapids were interesting in their own right, but the group of 4 male Harlequin Ducks playing on the torrent were even more captivating.
The river followed along the Hayden Valley, which lived up to its reputation as a good spot for American Bison. The river and banks held copious Canada Geese, but amongst them was a group of 4 Goosanders, and White Pelican a little further up. Perhaps the most astonishing find was a Mountain Goat "jam", where a group of cars had pinpointed a lone Mountain Goat lying down on the upper almost vertical slopes above one of the smaller rivers early evening. Even leaving the park, on the road to the West exit, is worth vigilance - we saw a perched Bald Eagle and Osprey at the same spot at 7pm.
The North Loop, which also incorporates Lamar Valley, is reputed to be the best spot for wildlife viewing. We followed the road from Madison , stopping off at a couple of spots on the way and picking off Chipping & White-crowned Sparrows, Mountain Bluebird and a trio of male Elk on the way to Norris. We took the road North to Mammoth Hot Springs, where we passed a couple of Sandhill Cranes in a meadow, before spending some time on the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. Not only do these offer yet another form of geo-thermal wonder, but also held a pair of Mountain Bluebirds and Western Tanagers.
The Blacktail Plateau Drive was a gem for Black Bears. We were caught up in a bear jam for some time, spending up to half an hour watching a mother Black Bear with its 1 month old offspring down below. A huge male Moose was also in this small valley, with a Red-tailed Hawk flying in. On the way back along this road, a youngish lone Black Bear had been found, and we started off our own bear jam when we located a mother and almost full grown cub. Overhead, another Red-tailed Hawk was wheeling, with a Brewer’s Sparrow singing opposite a pond holding 5 Ruddy Duck. The coniferous forests along Black Plateau Drive hold Dusky Grouse, as witnessed by a female sat on the road one mid morning. A female Belted Kingfisher was watching over the river flowing down from Mammoth to the North Entrance to the park.
Since the introduction of Wolves back into the park in the mid 1990's, they have become one of the wildlife must sees in Yellowstone. However, they are still not great in numbers, and are generally difficult to see, often being in non accessible parts of the park from the road, or some distance away on the slopes. We decided to look for some assistance in this task and came across Wolftracker.com after a short search. They can organise anything from a day tour upwards, using a lot of expertise and knowledge in the park and its wildlife. While the cost is rather high at around $600 for the day, this is irrespective of the amount of people in the party, and the day we had with McNeil Lyons was certainly worth it. While wildlife cannot be guaranteed, we saw three dog species and both bears, and some excellent birds as almost incidentals in addition to this.
The day starts early, 5-5.30am, which is always the best time for this type of venture, and they prefer to pick up in Gardiner, since it lies next to the Northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, which is also the best area for wildlife. Our day, which went on until our return at 2.30pm, was wholly spent in the Blacktail Plateau Drive and Lamar Valley area. McNeil had planned to listen on the radio for any wolf sightings from others in the company, and had an idea of where he wanted to look. He also asked what our other preferences might be - the list was full! We had already passed a large herd of Elk on the outskirts of Mammoth, and picked up Sora on one of the roadside pools, when the message came through that Wolves had been seen at Slough Creek in the Lamar Valley. These were frequent visitors to a bison carcass, hidden on a distant hillside. After a short wait, we picked up a light and a dark Wolf around this spot, but two black Wolves from the same pack behind us were much closer on a nearby hillside. While waiting, Chipping & Brewer’s Sparrows tantalised from song posts in the sage brush.
We then made our way to the Lamar Valley, where among the herds of Bison and occasional Pronghorn, we were shown a den on a nearby hillside which had 4 playful Coyote pups outside. Our return later would follow one of the parents trying for some Uinta Ground Squirrels. In the distance, on a high slope just below the snowline, telescopes could just pick out a mother Grizzly Bear with her 2 cubs. A Sage Thrasher was singing from the sage brush, and Brewer’s Sparrow from a nearby perch.
We were taken on a short half mile hike (upwards) to Trout and Buck Lakes, ostensibly to look for the possibility of otter feeding on the spawning trout. None put in a show, but it proved an excellent spot. Top billing was an adult brown coloured Black Bear slowly making its way through the tree covered glade near to where we stood. Buck lake held Green-winged Teal and female Barrow's Goldeneye. The birdlife around this glade was in constant song. Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Audubon's Warblers were commonplace, with a couple of male Western Tanagers plying to and fro. A single Mountain Chickadee was above Trout Lake, and perhaps bird of the locale should go to the male Williamson's Sapsucker which passed through.
After a fulfilling morning with brilliant wildlife and beautiful scenery, the return was made all the more pleasant with stops at an Osprey nest, handily placed just below our eyeline next to the river below, and a Golden Eagle nest, with chick on a cliff face. Finale entrants were a Red Fox which insisted on its very own fox jam when it stopped for a pee on the road, and Elk which also caused a jam as we crawled back through Mammoth. All in all an excellent day out. Many passers by also benefited from our finding various animals and birds, but they didn't have the full experience which we had, including the knowledge and enthusiasm of McNeil, our guide.
Having had such a good day, and with late afternoon still to spare, we decided to go back ourselves to the Lamar Valley to check on an American Badger site McNeil had pointed out. The omens and a good day were with us, since we chanced on a Coyote with food plying its way along the road not far from Mammoth Hot Springs. After passing the regulation bear jam at Elk Creek, where the mother and cubs were apparently still performing, we headed straight for the badger sett next to the road and just short of the Lamar River bridge. Fortune was indeed with us yet again. As we pulled up, the Badger exited the sett, and ran along the scrub in front of us, took the underpass route, and was seen hot footing its way behind us to what looked like alternative burrows. To cap the day, 2 Bighorn Sheep were on the rocks above the road just down from Mammoth Hot Springs, and 2 Mule Deer, only our second pair for the park, were quietly grazing in a front yard in Gardiner as we left our restaurant in the evening.
Teton national Park
This is the place to go to for mountain views. Entrance is included with the Yellowstone National Park entrance fee, and the journey to it if you are staying in West Yellowstone as we were is 2 hours by park roads. Well paved roads run adjacent to the 40 miles long Teton range, which on a good sunny day as we had are stunning. This is backed by the large man made Jackson Lake, open grassland, and some areas of conifers. The area can be covered in a loop, which encloses part of the flow of the Snake River.
After picking up a pair of female Moose at the Jackson Lake junction, we tried for more at Oxbow Bend lookout, which is supposed to be more of a likely spot for them. They weren't party to this bit of info however, although American White Pelicans overflew and also landed on the spot, with Gadwall and American Wigeon on the river. A Yellow Warbler was close to the overlook, with a Song Sparrow singing in the brush and an Osprey over.
Taking the Teton Park Road first, the dam held a healthy population of Cliff Swallows under the bridge. Further along at the Jenny Lake lookout, a group of Red-breasted Nuthatches were overhead. Despite the crowds, the Jenny Lake visitor centre was quite good for birds on the short trails from it, which were overall also devoid of people. Yellow Warbler was again here, with singing Ruby-crowned Kinglet overhead, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. The centre buildings were busy with Violet-green & Tree Swallows, with Brown-headed Cowbirds eager for crumbs.
The moose overlook only a short way along the Willson Road provided just that - a mother and calf Moose, playing hide and seek in the bushes next to the pond. A Northern Flicker flew through with a couple of secretive Chipping Sparrows and not so shy Cordilleran Flycatcher just below the onlookers. For those not fortunate enough to see Bison as yet, herds were in the Antelope Flats and from Gros Ventre Road.
Salt Lake City
Our itinerary defined that it would be most practical to travel South from Yellowstone and fly from Salt Lake City, and see what delights we could dig up there. For those not wanting to partake in religious or city based activities, there is also the alternative platter on offer at Antelope Island. This is a rather barren island within the salt lake now joined to the mainland by a 7 mile causeway. However, there is enough vegetation and other food to support a herd of 800 or so Bison, introduced at the end of the 19th century, and antelope & deer in the form of Pronghorn & Mule. We saw all 3, as well as a Coyote wandering along the shoreline.
We didn't do the island justice at the end of some splendid wildlife viewing over the last two weeks, just popping into the visitor centre and driving to the ranch and back along the eastern shore. It appeared that some of the best birding to be had was on the causeway itself. After a Yellow-headed Blackbird flew across the start of the causeway, where an entrance fee of $9 per car is charged, each edge of the roadway belongs to hundreds of California Gulls, small groups of Black-necked Grebes, and a large collection of American Avocets. Many other waders were along here also, but were left to their own identities today.
The visitor centre itself was worth a stop, with small numbers of Cliff Swallows amongst the colony of Barn Swallows. A Western Meadowlark was singing just below, a Chukar on the boundary wall, and a pair of Rock Wrens on the rocks in front of the building.