Birds & Beasts of the Great Parks
July 23-31, 2016
TAS Leaders: Brian Rapoza and Bill Boeringer
Participants: Helen and Joe Barros, Barbara and Ted Center, Paula Lane, Mark Lopez, Ron Neuhring, Jean St. John, Becky Smith and Ann Wiley
Trip report by Brian RapozaOn the road in Montana, photo courtesy of Mark Lopez
During our nine-day, eight-night tour, beginning and ending in Billings, Montana, we birded in and around three of the American West's most iconic National Parks: Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. The national park system celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2016, so these three parks, immensely popular tourist destinations in most years, were exponentially more so this summer. Parking was at a premium throughout, but traffic, surprisingly, was never really an issue. We never encountered a single bear-jam, so sadly, no bears were seen during the tour, but we encountered tons (literally) of other big mammals. The weather was hot and dry for the most part, with brief rain showers only on our last full day. The scenery was spectacular, all of it collectively captured by the group in hundreds of photos, a few of which are included in this report. Many of the birds we encountered during the tour were either juveniles or in post-breeding plumage, so examination of photos taken was often the only way to correctly identify some of them. Virtually all of the waterfowl we saw were in eclipse plumage and many songbirds, especially sparrows, were in various confusing stages of molt. By trip's end, though, we still managed to find and identify 148 species of birds along with 21 species of mammals.
Glacier National Park, photo courtesy of Mark Lopez
Day 1: Saturday, July 23
Though this was the tour's official arrival day, eight of the participants arrived in Billings at least one day early. For the other two participants and the two leaders, stormy weather in Minneapolis delayed our arrival in Billings by a couple of hours. After getting everyone checked into our hotel, we drove out to Molt, a tiny town west of Billings, to search for shortgrass prairie species. Though we only had a few hours of daylight to work with, we still managed to find 25 species of birds, including Gray Partridge, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Say's Phoebe, Western and Eastern Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Rock Wren, Mountain Bluebird, Clay-colored, Brewer's, Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Western Meadowlark, Brewer's Blackbird and Bullock's Oriole. We were also off and running with mammals, spotting Mule Deer, Pronghorn, White-tailed Jackrabbit, Yellow-bellied Marmot and Black-tailed Prairie Dog. Our first dinner of the tour was at a steakhouse back in Billings.
Gray Partridge, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Pronghorn, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Day 2: Sunday, July 24
During our first full day in Montana, we continued our search for prairie birds, this time at Lake Mason National Wildlife Refuge, about an hour's drive north of Billings. Our first Canada Geese were seen just north of town. We spotted our first Ferruginous Hawk on a power pole as we continued north to the refuge. Great Blue Heron, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow Warbler, Song Sparrow and House Finch were in a marshy area just before the town of Roundup, where we stopped for a restroom break. The refuge, a few miles north of Roundup, was accessed via Snowy Mountain Road, a dirt road that headed west from the highway for several miles. Mountain Plover are sometimes seen along this road, but we were unable to find any during a full morning of searching. We had much better luck locating Chestnut-collared and McCown's Longspur, eventually spotting several of each. Northern Harrier, Swainson's Hawk, Short-eared Owl and Prairie Falcon were among the birds of prey encountered. Horned Lark and Vesper Sparrow were abundant along the road; we picked out a single Sprague's Pipit among them. Many Chipping and Savannah Sparrow were also seen. Upon returning to the highway, we came upon our only Golden Eagle of the trip, perched, once again, on a power pole.
Horned Lark, photo courtesy of Ted Center
After lunch in Lewistown, we headed west towards Great Falls. Along the way, we stopped at a roadside pond occupied by Killdeer, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Wilson's Phalarope, Wilson's Snipe and our only Baird's Sandpiper of the trip. Our first Black-billed Magpies were also seen along the way. Upon reaching Great Falls, we drove north a few miles to Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Several Richardson's Ground Squirrels were seen along the entrance road. The lake was occupied by a number of ducks, mosly Mallard and Gadwall but also including Northern Pintail and Ruddy Duck. Also present on the lake were Eared Grebe, American White Pelican, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White-faced Ibis, American Coot, several shorebirds including Marbled Godwit, Franklin's, Ring-billed and California Gull and Black Tern. Bill's van spotted several Sharp-tailed Grouse that darted across the road and flew into cattails in the lake; they eventually came back out into the road for all to see. Other birds seen along the road as we circumnavigated the lake included Long-billed Curlew, Marsh Wren and Yellow-headed Blackbird. A Coyote was also seen along the road just before we returned to our starting point.
Sharp-tailed Grouse, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Coyote, photo courtesy of Ted Center
From Benton Lake, we headed north via the interstate. Our lodging tonight was in Shelby, a small prairie town at the intersection of the interstate and the Great Northern Railroad's main east-west line. It's about 80 miles north of Great Falls, 35 miles south of the Canadian border and 75 miles east of Glacier National Park, positioning us for tomorrow's drive through the park. Our first Common Nighthawk of the trip was seen over town. The railroad tracks were located directly across the road from our hotel, but if a train passed through during the night, no one in the group claimed they heard it. Dining options on a Sunday night were limited to a truck stop diner with an even more limited menu. Our experience there would become a topic of discussion for the duration of the tour.
Day 3: Monday, July 25
Today's itinerary included dramatic changes in scenery as we transitioned from dry, open prairie to the snow-capped mountains of Glacier National Park. Before we began our ascent into the mountains, we paused briefly at Kipp Lake, near Browning, where we found a Western Grebe among other water birds on the lake. Blue-winged Teal and Northern Shoveler were in a roadside pond just before the turnoff to the lake. White-crowned Sparrow was added in the parking lot at the St. Mary Visitor Center near the national park's eastern entrance. As we climbed higher and higher into the mountains on the park's spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road, it quickly became apparent that we would be competing with throngs of tourists for a limited number of parking spaces at roadside stops. We pulled over at a couple of overlooks where space was available; Clark's Nutcracker (a split-second look), Yellow-rumped and MacGillivray's Warbler, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak and Pine Siskin were among the species seen there. At Logan Pass, the highest point along the road and home to target species like White-tailed Ptarmigan and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, we weren't able to find a single place to park, even in areas well below the pass. We paused to photograph a Mountain Goat in one parking area before making our way down to lower elevations on the western side of the mountains. Distant Bighorn Sheep were also spotted near the pass.
Pine Siskin, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Mountain Goat, photo courtesy of Mark Lopez
At Avalanche Creek campground, we found a place to park at what for the moment was an unoccupied campsite. The mournful songs of Varied Thrush could be heard from somewhere in the canopy, but we weren't able to track any of them down. We spotted several other good birds, though, while searching, including Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper and Pacific Wren. Before long, the occupants of the campsite where we were parked arrived, and we had to move on. At our lunch stop near Lake McDonald Lodge, where parking was once again a challenge, Violet-green Swallows and a Steller's Jay were present, as were several Columbian Ground Squirrels. After a leisurely lunch, we drove back up toward Avalanche Creek, stopping briefly at a couple of creek overlooks along the way. A female Harlequin Duck was hauled up on a boulder at one of the stops. The Avalance Creek area was still packed with other visitors, so we drove back downslope, stopping to bird at Sprague Creek Campground on Lake McDonald. In an hour or so of meandering around the campground and picnic area, we found Calliope Hummingbird, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Swainson's Thrush, American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush and Dark-eyed Junco. After a much-needed ice cream break at Apgar Village, near the park's western entrance, we continued on the Kalispell, where we spent the night. Dinner was at a nice Irish pub in town, which offered a much more crowd-pleasing selection of entrees and celebratory libations than yesterday's dinner stop.
Columbian Ground Squirrel, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Day 4: Tuesday, July 26
From Kalispell, we drove south through the Flathead Valley to the National Bison Range, one of the nation's oldest big-game refuges. We began our exploration of the 18,500-acre refuge at the picnic area near the visitor center. Trails provided access to ponds and riparian habitat, where we found Sora, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, Western Wood-Pewee, Willow Flycatcher, Eastern and Western Kingbird, House Wren, Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow Warbler, Song Sparrow, House Finch and American Goldfinch, among others. A Muskrat was seen by some in one of the ponds. We spent the rest of the morning on the Red Sleep Mountain Drive, a 19-mile loop road that gains 2000 feet in elevation, providing access to both grassland and mountain forest habitat. The road passed through streamside thickets at lower elevations, where we spotted Lazuli Bunting, Spotted Towhee and Bullock's Oriole. As the road began to climb uphill, we came upon a closed gate and we immediately realized why. Refuge personnel were directing a large herd of Bison through the area and dust flew as the herd charged across the road directly behind the gate. Once the bulk of the herd was past, the gate was reopened and we were allowed to pass through. We encountered a couple of stragglers just beyond the gate, including one big bull who sedately strolled directly in front of our van!
Northern Flicker (red-shafted), photo courtesy of Mark Lopez
Bison, photo courtesy of Mark Lopez
As the road twisted and turned on its way to the top of the mountain, grassland eventually gave way to a forest of Douglas fir and Ponderosa Pine. We pulled over at one point near the peak to observe a group of juvenile Red Crossbills feeding in the road. Other birds seen in this area included Least Flycatcher, Black-capped and Mountain Chickadee, American Robin, Western Tanager and Pine Siskin. We also had up-close looks at several Bighorn Sheep. On our way back down the mountain, we found several Rock Wrens perched, appropriately, on roadside boulders. More Bison, as well as a few Pronghorn were also seen on this back stretch. It was early afternoon when we left the refuge; a Bald Eagle was seen overhead not long after we hit the road. A long drive of over 250 miles to Gardiner, just outside Yellowstone National Park, consumed the rest of our day. A Moose was spotted in a wetland area somewhere along the interstate between Butte and Bozeman, but was only seen by a couple of participants. Once in Gardiner, our proximity to Yellowstone became obvious; Elk grazed casually right in town and we even encountered a couple of Mule Deer snacking on potted flowers outside our hotel lobby. A booking error at our hotel left us short one room for the next two nights, but fortunately, we were able to find a replacement room at another hotel. With that crisis averted, all that was left to do was to find a restaurant in town that could accomodate all of us for dinner. We finally settled on a burger joint right across the street from the hotel.
Red Crossbill (juveniles), photo courtesy of Ted Center
Bighorn Sheep, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Day 5: Wednesday, July 27
We entered Yellowstone National Park this morning through the legendary Roosevelt Arch and headed south, over the 45th Parallel Bridge, to Mammoth Hot Springs. Before breakfast at the Mammoth Terrace Grill, we took a short hike along a trail adjacent to the spectacular hot spring terraces, pausing first to observe the Elk that kept the lawns well-manicured. Killdeer were scurrying around the hot springs; Violet-green Swallows, Mountain Bluebirds and Brewers Blackbirds were also conspicuous. Chipping Sparrows were common along the trail; Western Tanager and Lazuli Bunting were also seen and Warbling Vireo was heard. We also enjoyed much more satisfying looks at Clark's Nutcracker than the individual seen briefly at Glacier. From Mammoth, we drove east towards Tower-Roosevelt. Our plan was to visit as many locations as time and parking availability allowed on the upper loop of the park's road system. Our first stop was at Lava Creek; American Dipper often nest under the bridge there. A quick check of the bridge came up empty, so we hiked upstream for a hundred yards or so until we finally spotted our target. We also found a Hammond's Flycatcher and White-breasted Nuthatch during the short hike. When we returned to the bridge, we discovered that a dipper was there all along, this one much more photographically cooperative than the one found upstream.
Elk, photo courtesy of Mark Lopez
American Dipper, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Continuing east, we stopped briefly at a pond on the north side of the road, where we found Canada Geese and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Sandhill Cranes were heard in the distance; eventually two were spotted flying over the pond. Our next destination was Blacktail Plateau Drive, an off-the-beaten-path location that turned out to be just as popular with tourists as everywhere else in the park. We still managed to find a few good birds, including Williamson's Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Dark-eyed Junco, Cassin's Finch and Red Crossbill. Our final stop before lunch was at Petrified Tree, just west of Tower-Roosevelt Junction. While the tourists were there to view the petrified tree, we headed down a trail in the opposite direction. A half mile hike to a pond proved productive as a half-dozen Barrow's Goldeneye were discovered there. Hairy Woodpeckers and Mountain Chickadees were seen on the way back.
Williamson's Sapsucker (juvenile male), photo courtesy of Ted Center
Cassin's Finch, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Upon learning that the wait for a table at the small restaurant at Tower-Roosevelt would be interminable, we purchased sandwiches and drinks at the general store next door and headed for the nearest picnic area. Red-breasted Nuthatches were observed in the trees above us as we ate. We then drove south to Mt. Washburn, which at over 10,000 feet is the highest point accessible by road in Yellowstone. Mountain Bluebirds were common in this chilly, treeless, boulder-strewn landscape. Prairie Falcon and White-crowned Sparrow were also found there. Continuing south over Dunraven Pass, we made quick stops at two picnic areas just north of Canyon Village; our first Gray Jays of the tour were seen at the second picnic area.
Red-breasted Nuthatch, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Mountain Bluebird, photo courtesy of Ted Center
We couldn't drive through the Canyon area without stopping to view the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the most popular destinations in the park. We found parking spaces at Lookout Point, which provides an excellent vantage point for viewing the Lower Falls, the taller of the two spectacular waterfalls in the canyon. While there, we discovered an Osprey chick in a nest built on a pinnacle of rock far below our vantage point. As it was getting late in the day, we soon hit the road again, west to Norris and then north back to Mammoth. A few miles before reaching Mammoth, we stopped at Swan Lake, a reliable place to see Trumpeter Swan. Sure enough, a pair of swans were waiting for us on the lake. At the end of this very productive day, we enjoyed a satisfying dinner at the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room before heading back to Gardiner for the night.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Lower Falls, photo courtesy of Ted Center
The group at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, photo courtesy of Brian Rapoza
Day 6: Thursday, July 28
Mammoth was again our starting point for a day that would take us beyond Yellowstone to the Grand Tetons and eventually, Jackson Hole. We checked out Mammoth's upper hot spring terraces before breakfast, then headed south to the Old Faithful area. We stopped at a picnic area along the Gibbon River between Norris and Madison where we found Spotted Sandpipers, Common Raven and Gray Jay. A couple of miles south at Gibbon Falls, a White-throated Swift was spotted among the abundant Violet-green Swallows. We arrived at Old Faithful just a few minutes before the legendary geyser erupted; the group spent the rest of the morning exploring other thermal features before meeting for lunch at the Old Faithful Lodge cafeteria. Few birds were seen in this area, but we did find a Yellow-bellied Marmot. River Otters were rumored to be frolicking in the Firehole River, which flows through the geyser basin, but we failed to find them. Continuing south, we made one final stop before leaving Yellowstone, at Lewis Falls. Before we even began the short walk up to the falls overlook, a Red-naped Sapsucker was spotted across the road from our parked vans.
Thermal features at Old Faithful geyser basin, photos courtesy of Mark Lopez
Crossing into Grand Teton National Park, we made a stop at a Jackson Lake overlook, where we found Common Mergansers, Common Loon, American White Pelican and Bald Eagle. We also enjoyed our first views of the magnificent mountain range that gives the national park its name. Willow Flats overlook near Jackson Lake Lodge, was also a productive stop. Birds seen there included Willow Flycatcher, Gray Catbird, Green-tailed Towhee, and Brewer's, Lark and Fox Sparrows. Just before entering Jackson, we made our final birding stop of the day, at the Flat Creek overlook, where we found Trumpeter Swans with cygnets and large numbers of other waterfowl, including Canada Geese, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon and Ring-necked Duck. After checking into our hotel and learning that getting the group seated at a restaurant in town wasn't going to happen, we opted for dinner at a bar and grill right next door to the hotel.
Trumpeter Swans, photo courtesy of Mark Lopez
Day 7: Friday, July 29
After breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we made a quick stop at Flat Creek overlook; most of the waterfowl seen yesterday were still present. We continued north to sagebrush and riparian habitat along the Gros Ventre River, which forms the southeastern border of Grand Teton National Park. Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel were among the raptors seen over sagebrush habitat during our drive through this area. Gros Ventre campground, located right on the river, provided access to excellent riparian habitat. Here, we found several Dusky Flycatchers, along with Black-capped Chickadee, Orange-crowned and Yellow Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee and Fox Sparrow. At Teton Science School, located in mixed forest foothill habitat, we walked along a road that was lined with colorful wildflowers, but we were disappointed to find not a single hummingbird. Birds seen there included Red-naped Sapsucker, Western Wood-Pewee, Warbling Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Swainson's Thrush. Returning to the highway, we made a quick stop at Blacktail Ponds overlook, which normally provides unobstructed views of the snow-capped peaks of the Grand Tetons. Though hazy conditions caused by a forest fire somewhere in the area made the view somewhat less spectacular than usual, it's still a sight to behold.
Grand Tetons, photo courtesy of Mark Lopez
After lunch and a stop at the Grand Teton visitor center at Moose junction, we spent the afternoon exploring trails in the park's scenic Jenny Lake area. We hiked a short section of the Lupine Meadows trail, located on the south side of the lake and one of many trails that provide access to montane habitat above the lake. A highlight of this walk was the Long-tailed Weasel seen scurrying beside the trail. Clark's Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Western Tanager, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Dark-eyed Junco were among the birds seen. Members of the group who only birded the area around the parking lot found Red Crossbill there. We also hiked another trail at String Lake that led us to the north end of Jenny Lake. This trail passes through a burn area that was once attractive to woodpeckers like Three-toed and Black-backed, but we saw neither of those species during our walk. Birds we did find included Osprey (on a nest), Townsend's Solitaire and MacGillivray's Warbler. We also had up-close views of a Mule Deer as it nervously crossed the stream that connects String Lake to Jenny Lake.
Western Tanager, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Mule Deer, photo courtesy of Mark Lopez
We returned to Jackson the "back way" via Moose-Wilson Road, which provides access to the Teton Village ski resort. We stopped at a pull-out near the beginning of the road to find out what a crowd of people were looking at: it was a Great Blue Heron. A roadside Elk with enormous antlers slowed traffic to a crawl farther down the road. Moose are sometimes seen along this road, but we couldn't count either of the two full-sized wooden moose cutouts we encountered in "Slow for Moose" zones along the road. Once back at the hotel, the group split into two dinner parties; one that went to the hotel restaurant and another that went back to yesterday's bar and grill next door.
Day 8: Saturday, July 30
After breakfast, again at the hotel's restaurant, we returned to sagebrush habitat north of Jackson, hoping to find Greater Sage-Grouse and other sagebrush specialties. On the road to Gros Ventre Campground, we stopped where a crowd was gathered; they were looking at three Moose, two males and a female, feeding in vegetation between the road and the river. After everyone obtained satisfactory looks, we continued to Mormon Row, a 19th century Morman settlement that is now an historic site within the national park. The settlement's irrigation ditches still hold water, making the area an oasis for wildlife. One had to be careful not to step on any of the Uinta Ground Squirrels scurrying about. Mountain Bluebirds and sparrows, mostly Vesper with a few White-crowned mixed in, were everywhere we looked. We thought we had a Sagebrush Sparrow, but photographs later determined it to be another Vesper. As we walked past the settlement, down a dirt road to an area of sagebrush beyond, a large bird flushed in the distance and flew low but clearly visable for at least a hundred yards before settling back down and disappearing. It was a Greater Sage Grouse! A few of us walked out into the great expanse of sagebrush and before long found more, almost stepping on some before they exploded in a mighty whirr of wings. By the time we returned to the dirt road where the rest of the group was waiting, some of the grouse had walked out into the road just a few yards ahead of us! In all, we saw between fifteen and twenty grouse, a nice mix of both males and females.
Moose, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Greater Sage Grouse, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Our next target was Dusky Grouse, so we headed to Signal Mountain, at the southern end of Jackson Lake. This 7,727-foot mountain is road-accessable all the way to to the summit and Dusky Grouse are sometimes seen along the road near the top. During a previous TAS tour, we had one waiting for us at the summit observation area! This time, though, we were not as lucky, most likely because it was already late morning by the time we arrived. All we found were Clark's Nutcrackers and a few Yellow-rumped Warblers. Moving on, we bid farewell to the Grand Tetons and headed back into Yellowstone. After a relaxing lunch at a restaurant overlooking Yellowstone Lake in Grant Village, we continued our drive north, past the lake to Fishing Bridge, through the Hayden Valley to Canyon then back over Dunraven Pass to Tower-Roosevelt. We encountered our first significant rain of the tour while passing through the Hayden Valley, so wildlife, mostly Canada Geese and a few Bison, were viewed from the vans. A bison bonanza was waiting for us when we arrived in the Lamar Valley, between Tower-Roosevelt and the park's northeast entrance. Large groups of Bison were scattered on both sides of the road throughout the valley. One large bull walked into the road directly in front of Bill's van, duplicating our van's bison experience at National Bison Range. Sadly, though, this bison was apparently suffering from a broken leg; it would likely be just a matter of time before the valley's population of wolves put this individual out of its misery.
Clark's Nutcracker, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Bison, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Leaving Yellowstone behind, our last day's only remaining obstacle before returning to our starting point in Billings was the Beartooth Plateau. The highway switchbacks through several miles of alpine habitat around Beartooth Pass, at an elevation of over 10,000 feet. Our avian targets at the pass were American Pipit and Black Rosy-Finch, which both breed only above treeline. We saw several pipits right along the road, but a check of lingering snowfields failed to produce any rosy-finches. We did better with adorable mammals, adding American Pika and Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, plus Yellow-bellied Marmot and a small herd of Mountain Goats, including several kids. The views from the pass were spectacular, definitely a memorable way to end the tour. The sun was setting when we finally reached Billings; a Wild Turkey seen along the road a few miles south of the interstate was our 148th and final new bird of the tour. After a long day on the road, the group opted for a fast-food dinner and early bedtime, as many of us had early flights the next morning.
American Pika, photo courtesy of Ted Center
Mountain Goats, photo courtesy of Mark Lopez
Following are lists of the 148 bird species and 21 mammal species tallied during the tour:
Greater Sage Grouse
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Northern Flicker (red-shafted)
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Varied Thrush (heard only)
Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler
Fox Sparrow (slate-colored)
Dark-eyed Junco (pink-sided)
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
Richardson's Ground Squirrel
Columbian Ground Squirrel
Uinta Ground Squirrel
Black-tailed Prairie Dog