The summer season is about to begin and with it attendance at our National Parks will swell. Yellowstone National Park is the 5th most visited of all 59 National Parks. Personally, I’m shocked it isn’t number one – but that goes to Great Smokey Mountains National Park. This may be partly due to its location in the eastern U.S. which is closest to the greatest populations.
Yellowstone is by far and away my most favorite park. I consider it our Serengeti – it is the only place where you can go and be guaranteed to see vast herds of bison and elk, roaming the land freely as they did before the European settlers arrived. It also contains all of the predators that were part of the original ecosystem and almost every
possible hooved, herbivore on the continent. The scenery is massive and awe inspiring, no matter how many times I see it. My son lives in Bozeman, Montana and so every time we visit him, we make a pilgrimage into the Park and May is the best time, because there are so many baby animals being born and the big tourist crowds are yet to arrive. It is also a volatile month, when clouds cover the mountains, then part to reveal newly snow covered peaks.
As much as we enjoy the mammals, as birdwatchers we go to be inspired and thrilled by the bird life too. This most recent trip did not disappoint.
We were stopped along the side of the road watching a herd of bison down below us in a wet valley. Then we heard a strange call overhead. We turned our binoculars to the sky and saw a Bald Eagle being chased by a ……..Long-billed Curlew! This is a shorebird known for its very long, curved bill. It lives and nests in shallow wetlands, like that down below us where
the bison were grazing. We’re not sure whether the Curlew was trying to chase the Eagle away from its nest or if the Eagle had already been there and caused damage, but this shorebird was upset either way. Never in all our years of birding would we have imagined such a scene.
The Curlew has a wingspan of 35”, while the Eagle’s is 80”. The Eagle weighs 9.5lbs and the Curlew weighs just 1.3lbs! There is no way that Eagle was frightened by the Curlew and we could only compare it to us being bothered by a mosquito. Still the smaller bird did not give up on its pursuit and harassment of the larger bird.
This is one example of the unexpected thrills and delights of birdwatching. It was our hearing that alerted us to this unusual encounter and it was our hearing that also led to our next wonderful sighting.
We were walking on a trail that parallels Soda Butte Creek in the Lamar Valley. We saw a Sandhill Crane in the distance searching for invertebrates in the soggy soil and we watched a swallow swooping through the air, but it was the crazy call of a Sora Rail that drew us on. The calls were coming from a wetland area of taller grass. Rails are
notoriously hard to see in their heavily vegetated habitat and their secretive nature of movement. But on this day we were standing on a ridge slightly above the wetland. My husband has an App called Merlin on his phone and he was able to play the Sora Rail’s call. Almost immediately, this small member of the Rail family appeared. It snuck from one clump of leaves to the next trying to find the interloper. It was the best look I’ve ever had of this species. We left then and as we walked away we heard three more Sora’s calling from the same area.
Remember to bring your binoculars when you travel this summer and use all your senses to fully appreciate and experience our great outdoor spaces.
By Kate Crowley