"I can think of no better experience for the explorer." These are the words of Ferdinand Hayden, the leader of the first scientific expedition in Yellowstone in 1871.
We explored Yellowstone and especially Yellowstone In Winter and benefited from the fruits of our labor. The YIW tour materialized into a nice Field Guides experience, and one that will not be forgotten. The Yellowstone winter matra held true: "the worse the weather the better the birding, the milder the weather the less exciting it is." Most of the birds on this tour are usually found at lower elevations -- the Bozeman area was frozen up when we started the tour, and there was a blizzard in progress when we left Bozeman, leaving bird species numbers lower than normal. So we started and ended the tour with full-fledged snowstorms. The Gardiner/Paradise Valley was slow due to missing snow and mild temps, but in spite the mild conditions in the valleys we ended up tallying 45 species of birds and 14 species of mammals, just under average for our past tours.
Abundance numbers were good for both birds and mammals. We found the following of note: 60 American Dippers, super looks at a total of 12 Red Crossbills on one occasion, two to three dozen Pine Grosbeaks, and two Prairie Falcons. Other locally rare highlight birds included one Canvasback and one Tundra Swan. Bird counts of special note were: 148 Trumpeter Swans, 120 Barrow's Goldeneyes, 150 Common Goldeneyes, 30 Golden Eagles, 70 Bald Eagles, 45 Rough-legged Hawks,15 Red-tailed Hawks, 240 Eurasian Collared-Doves, 25 Townsend's Solitaires, and 300 Black-billed Magpies. And surprisingly, 3 Wild Turkeys in isolated Silver Gate, Montana, the second time ever in this heavy snow area (obviously being fed by locals).
Gray Wolves are on everyone's mind for this tour -- and especially for your guides! Happily, w did not disappoint. We found 14 gray wolves on this trip from two packs (6 from Junction Butte and 8 from Lamar Canyon). Wolves are fascinating to watch, especially in the winter when the prey is more concentrated and easier to kill in snow. Participants' eyes light up when we mention wolves, and while other groups relied on radio-telemetry, we were fortunate to discover wolves on our own rather than chasing other reports. It was a little easier finding wolves this year because the wolf population is up (110 wolves, 8 packs) compared to the recent past, so the Elk numbers may have leveled off and be climbing slightly. We enjoyed seeing these magnificent animals, and this experience made the trip.
In addition to the wolves, complete mammal list was quite impressive, with an added 18 Coyotes, 1100 elk, 260 Mule Deer, 1800 White-tails, 240 Pronghorn, 2000+ Bison, 5 White-tailed Jackrabbits, and 90 Bighorn Sheep. Our rarest mammals on the tour were two River Otters, a Pine Marten, and a whopping five Moose (4 bulls, 1 cow; exciting, since they are becoming a rarity). Very few groups came in contact with these last three species. We were all delighted by the River Otters -- they are becoming difficult to find. Bison were just starting to move out thru Gardiner; winter stress was just beginning.
We had some super encounters with wildlife: Golden Eagles feeding on a Coyote carcass; Ravens feeding on a large bull Elk and small bull Bison; Golden Eagles soaring repeatedly over a cliff; a White-tailed Jackrabbit coming out of hiding only to find itself less than 12 feet from our group.
It was an all-encompassing, delightful tour that can be summarized by a few of our experiences: erupting geysers; falling diamond dust (microscopic sparkling ice particles in the dry air); wolves on the move; otters in hot pursuit of fish; Red Crossbills feeding on Lodgepole Pine cone seeds in early morning light; Rough-legged Hawks following snowstorms in search of voles; American Dippers diving for submerged invertebrate prey; Bison heading out of the park due to unfavorable snow conditions; and Native Americans hunting Bison.
The food was great, the wildlife viewing exceptional, the winter experience unfathomable, and the camaraderie wonderful. Coupled with the very few visitors, it made this a Yellowstone In Winter tour not to be forgotten any time soon.
Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to show you our version of Yellowstone in Winter as we know it. We hope to see you again. Till then,
Safe travels! Slan Ahaile!
Terry and Karen McEneaney
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Totals for the tour: 45 bird taxa and 14 mammal taxa