Monday, July 28, 2008

Mammals? You want Mammals? Well alright then...

...and now for something completely different...

For all you out there (and I just KNOW you're out there) who are not bird aficionados by nature, I will now acquiesce and discuss the plethora of the non-avian fauna to be found in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. (In other words; Here's your mammal fix!)

Say (for instance) you are more a fan of fur than of feather, and wonder where you would possibly find the creatures of your favorite persuasion; in short, they're EVERYWHERE! Get up early on any given day, get in the car and drive in any direction keeping an eye out for the other cars that are stopped along the road. If you see one car, stop, get out with your camera, walk over to the nearest tourist and ask, "What do you see?" (providing it's not already obvious). Two things I have noticed about human nature are; people want to be the ones who discovered something and to share that information with others, inserting into the briefest of conversations, claim for said discovery, and that people want to be included in the moment and share the hysteria of all cool/interesting/one-of-a-kind things. Only the noblest among us wouldn't jump at the chance to take credit for something perceived as "special" in the way of a discovery, even the most simplistic and meaningless; and furthermore, why else would anyone purchase one lottery ticket for a buck for the totally enormous (no way in hell could you crack the odds) grand prize drawings? To be a "part" of something really cool/interesting/one-of-a-kind, right? But take heed of this little courtesy tip; Park OFF the roadway please! I was driving down the road when a buffalo herd decided to cross in front of the cars and walk next to the shoulder. I stopped and waited as is intelligently safe and so did the cars in the oncoming lane. The beasts moved on and so did I, but the car facing me just SAT there. The driver had gotten out and was now shooting pictures of the behemoths while allowing his idling car to clog up the only lane! The beeping and honking that ensued would have been enough to shame even the most die hard selfish motorist into moving, but not this guy. He seemed oblivious to the cacophony that was raging in his rear view mirror...(sheesh!...must have been a foreigner, or a guy from Chicago) Damned if he was going to let this Kodak moment get away from him...screw the world! It's just that moments like that, remind me of one of my all-time worst motor vehicular pet peeves; right turn on red, without even touching the break! Most drivers I have witnessed never even slow down to make that turn at a red light, let alone come to a complete (law abiding) stop. They proceed as if it was their God-given right to whip around the corner come hell, high water, or the unwitting pedestrian who happens to be nimbly attempting their cross. But I digress...

OK, back to hairy mammals...the 4-legged ones. The list of ones "accidentally" seen by this birdwatcher are; Bison, Grizzly bear, Coyote, Red fox, Marmot, Mountain Chipmunk, 13-lined Ground Squirrel, Uinta Ground Squirrel, Pika, Mountain Goat, Pronghorn Antelope, Moose, Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, and Gray Wolf. Seeing these (admittedly magnificent) creatures while birding, is akin to watching a fight and a hockey game breaking out to me; the Birdstud, but I did manage to use a few digital images on them (just for practice, mind you). I even had to wait out a buffalo who decided that where my tripod and scope were sitting was a great place to loiter. Mr. Coyote graced my path with a stop and drop. He looked a bit ill at ease as I pointed my camera in his direction just as he squatted.

The moral of the story here is that Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons have much to offer everyone who fancies animal life of all kinds...just be kind, pull over and let EVERYONE enjoy their vacations, puleeze!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Ponca!? Ahhh...What's a Ponca?

Nebraska does not disappoint, as far as birds are concerned.

If you ever find yourself in the farthest northeast corner of Nebraska for any period of time, be sure and investigate the 1,400 acre State Park named Ponca. If the rest of the state leaves a person with one particular impression of what the majority of it is like, then Ponca, turns that on its head. There are barely enough ways to describe the versatile ecosystems that seem to have all congregated in this one area; Dense woodlands, prairie hilltops, the mighty Missouri river, and a plethora of tree species. I could sit here on this blog and re-describe the beauty and variety of the natural wonder that is Ponca, but I'm not going to. Check the link for the park and read all there is to read if you so choose, I (on the other hand) will merely scratch the surface of possibilities that the park has to offer in the next few paragraphs, regarding the many species of birds that inhabit (and visit) this grand oasis. Oh, and there's also a city named "Ponca" so you don't get confused...

Our campsite in Turkey Ridge offered us the special opportunity to watch the constant feedings and attention given to a new family of Baltimore Orioles be attended to by the male. Boysenberries seemed to be plentiful, and the doting father flew back and forth to the pendulous nest with a beak-full for his eagerly awaiting brood of chicks. The feedings went on all evening and resumed in the morning at dawn.

The view of the Missouri River from the lookout is stunning so make sure you check it out. The park has all the beauty and charm of one of the finest I have had the fortune to encounter. The birdlife all around was spectacular. My early morning walk to catch Ponca's unique dawn chorus yielded many species; Western and Eastern Meadowlark, Red-shafted Flicker, Downey Woodpecker, Eastern Wood Pewee, Baltimore Oriole, American Redstart, Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, American Robin, Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Cardinal, American Goldfinch, Common Grackle, Brewer's Blackbird, Blue jay, Chipping Sparrow and my first Lark Sparrow ever!

It wasn't too long before we had to pack it up and be on our way, but I promise to return someday as there is so much more to explore, and I don't want to miss a thing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Watch out for them Nettles!

At times you have to go TO the birds...

Nebraska has some fantastic birding! I learned this simple useful nugget of information in short order moments after the Jayco was setup within the Fort Robinson State Park's tidy campground (off Hwy 20, near Crawford, NE) on the western edge of the state. A late afternoon thunderstorm had been brewing on the horizon as we drove in from the Grand Tetons, and had finally let loose its supply of rain onto the surrounding prairie. The ground was moist and the insects were stirring once again as I strapped on the Bushnells for a quick fact-finding tour of the grounds. Many birds were singing and moving through the canopy of various trees as I walked towards a central feature of the campground; the ancient black wooden railroad bridge.

The grade near the tracks rose dramatically upward so I leaned forward, stayed low and trudged towards the railroad bed. From the top of the summit I could see across the prairie field to the west. Loosely shaped gray-black clouds hung in the sky with the threat of additional precipitation, undeterred I plunged into the waist-high wet grass. Birds flew in and out of the vegetation as I approached a central pile of dead tree trunks. A smallish blue bird alighted atop an upended treestump and began its staccato song as I spun bringing up my binoculars. No, it can't be! - It IS...a Lazuli Bunting, my first! As I watched my "lifelist prize" flit to and from its preferred perch, numerous other colorful winged creatures dissapeared into the surrounding greenery. Being too far from the speeding darting birds to do a positive ID, I waded closer to the deadfalls to get a better look. It was then I looked around at the "grass" I was moving my shorts-clad legs through and stopped dead in horror. NETTLES! and I had almost blundered straight into them. Good thing I had paid attention to the leaf pattern instead of my lightning-fast quarry, because if you have ever had the extreme displeasure of getting intimate with this toxic serrated-edged demon of the woods, you know what I mean. The burning sensation that follows exposure is maddening and painful. BUT, did that dissuage me in the slightest from my quest? NO! I gingerly picked my way through the non-infested areas until I could gain purchase onto the nearest link in the deadwood pile chain. Crawling low and slow, I was able to traverse the entire length of the "Pick-up Stix" arrangement to reach the best vantage point.

These particular birds were flying sorties back and forth from the tall grass and nettles with some important mission on their bird brains. "Just what were they?," I mused to myself as I repositioned myself on the logs so as not to topple off into the stinging masses below. Orioles! - yes definitely orioles, but WHICH orioles? I looked through the Bushnells again and again as they came and went, ignoring my attempts to ID them. (The Nerve!) Baltimore? - No too yellow...Bullocks? - No, wrong area of the country. Finally, after checking two different field guides, I had it. - Hooded...Yes, Hooded...BING! another lifebird for the Birdstud! Males and females were grabbing insects down in the grass and flying off to feed their young in the nearby trees on the ridge. Wow, this was sooo cool!

Some have said that it doesn't take much to impress me, and there's some truth to that, but heck, I don't care. I get pretty darn "jazzed-up" by the immense beauty and sheer variety of God's creations, and I make no apologies. There is much I don't know and have yet to see (and learn) so onward I go toward the unknown and unseen with my head held high and my binoculars at the ready...watching out for nettles.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Now Kids, Don't Try This At Home!

The reckless adventurer in me, made me do it. (honest!)

A day trip to the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park, WY located on the Firehole River between the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins was the perfect destination for the day's activities. Home to the Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser, it was definitely worth the drive from our home base in Canyon Village. The Grand Prismatic Spring is by far the largest hot spring in Yellowstone, and is thought to be the third largest in the world. In 1871, the Hayden Expedition named this spring as such because of its beauty, and artist Thomas Moran created water-color sketches mirroring its "rainbow-like" colors. Now, a geyser basin isn't exactly where a person is going to find a cornucopia of bird species, let alone any living creature other than the numerous boardwalk shuffling, deluxe motor coach disembarking, tourist. I took a chance anyway and strapped on the old Bushnells, and slung the Fuji Finepix 5200 around one shoulder, hoping for a chance to capture an image or two of a "frequent flyer

Other than the occasional Raven of which their were few, hopping along the tall grass next to the Firehole river bank and an overfly of an American Robin, apparently birds had no reason to visit the barren, boiling, roiling, landscape. I was lamenting this fact while traveling the plank pathway when things got interesting. Up ahead standing in the center of a loop of walkway two furry behemoths stood. The heat from the nearby spring and the smell of sulphur clashed with the bucolic backdrop against which the mighty bison are usually seen and photographed. "What the heck," I thought. "Why not take a couple of photos myself and maybe even a video, after all, I was not seeing any birds, and they were just standing there..."

The rest of my family (and anyone else within my reach) seemed to have vacated the immediate area for the opposite side of the loop from the drooling, snuffling, leviathans. I however did not see the mass human exodus as I was busy peering into the viewfinder of my camera at one of the beasts. I had set the device for a digital movie and was dutifully training the lens on an approaching bison. The dark brown, hoofed giant clip-clopped its way up onto, then lumbered slowly across the boardwalk as I panned. An excited warning shout from several family members barely registered in my head as I reasoned I had maintained plenty of distance from the subject of my feature film. I did too, from THAT bison. I had nearly forgotten its "buddy" and what it may have decided to do at that moment. before I knew it, too stunned to move I swung the camera around into the (far too near) face of the copy-cat friend as up onto the wood it clambered and across, it bulldozed to the other side as the high pitched squeals from the witnesses to my near-miss collision, sounded the alarm in my preoccupied brain. "Whew, that was close!" exclaimed someone. "He's nuts!" echoed somebody else. I'm thinking; "That was dumb, Joe."

Yeah, I guess that proves the old axiom; Better to be lucky than good!

Birdstud Takes Charge!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Go West Young Stud

Go West!
This year the big family trip was "out west" to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. I intend to blog a bit around that two-week period from June 20th to July 4th 2008. The next bunch of my written thoughts to hit this venue, will surround my impressions, experiences, and sightings of that section of the US of A.

The drive out (all 1400 miles pulling the camper) provided some great birding. In fact, I had an awesome series of treks onto the wild prairie while in South Dakota and Nebraska. (More to come on that)

Fortunately, we were able to spend 7 nights in the park allowing me to finally be able to tell the Lamar Valley from the Do Not Pass. The early riser (me) had a definite advantage seeing wildlife by getting going in the morning. With the thermal inversion layer of cool night air (it averaged about 40 degrees overnight) mixing with the warmer earth and water, mists and fog prevailed for the first hour or so of the day. Driving carefully along the roadway so as not to smack into a four-legged roadblock, I scanned the sides of the road for my smaller quarry. My quick overall impression of birding in Wyoming's two national parks is feast or famine. Unfortunately, I found the famine there. While I added a few "lifebirds" to my own "life-list," the number of actual birds in the vacinity of my binoculars was few, and far between. Yellowstone and the Tetons have built the reputation of being the place to see mammals, LOTS of mammals. Now don't get me wrong, I like mammals as much as the next hawaiian-shirt sporting, oversized sunglasses wearing, digital camera wielding, weekend tourist. However, I do admit to a severe bias dealing with all things avian, and a ho-hum response to "another" herd of glacially crossing roadway bison. Give me a flock of American Avocets, long legs trailing behind like the tail of a kite flying over the pavement any 'ol day. I spotted the flock at the left as it flew overhead one cool morning. I scrambled through tall wet grass and sage for about a 1/2 mile to get the long-distance photo. (A graceful pair of Sandhill Cranes were also originally present in the background, before I cropped the image for this blog. ) While the majority of those in my vacinity watched the countless enormous hairy beasts plod across the roadway, I had my binoculars trained on a faraway Cinnamon Teal. Some people just don't know true beauty do they? Go figure... (more to come)