Friday, 4 September 2015

17th August - Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming - Day One

The spectacular nature of the scenery we had seen yesterday as we drove through the park had me considering an early start to get to the Oxbow Bend to capture the early morning reflections, but at the same time I was considering the possibility of finding a bird I have always wanted to see.  

Before we left in searching the internet I had found out that there was the possibility of seeing Great Grey Owl on the Moose - Wilson Road, which was about 10 mile from the hotel, and led into the park.  I had to way up the certainty of the scenery and its reflections against the distant possibility of seeing this magnificent owl.

In the end I decided a chance of the owl was better than the scenery, and so we were up early and out of the hotel just before 5.30 am.  It was dark but with a lightening of the sky to the east.  The sky though was clear and it was cool at about 50 degrees.

The journey took us over the Snake River, and then we turned right onto the Moose - Wilson road and drove past the Teton Village, which caters for the ski trade with a recently built village at the base of the ski lifts and mountains.  There were a few cars on the road, but these would turn off at the village.  As we entered the park we passed closed kiosks and a car passed us.  On a bend a pole with a mass on it emerged and we could just see see two Ospreys, one by the side of the nest.

It was dark, all we could see were dark shapes, but the camera at 6400 ISO was able to capture these images, the second bird being perched on a nearby power pole.

This area was very open, a wide valley with marshy pools and few trees.  The road then turned to gravel and headed up hill towards a forest of Aspen trees.  We slowed down and I let a car pass me as I wanted to ensure we were able to stop at any point.  As the car went on ahead Helen suddenly called out "I've got it, stop!"  I slowed and stopped and Helen pointed ahead of me to a patch of aspen trees shrouded in dark, "move forward slowly, there!  In the middle of the three trees".  Helen continued to point, and I reached behind for my binoculars, and there perched on a broken branch of the an aspen tree was a Great Grey Owl.  How Helen had seen it I will never know, she said it was the headlight of the car I had let pass me that caught the bird as it flew up, and she saw the white under the bill, whatever happened it was an amazing find, truly her best.

I switched off the engine, after letting the window down, and slowly reached behind me for the camera.  Fortunately I already had it already out, something I hadn't been doing, and the ISO was at 6400 but I stopped it back a bit I didn't want to over expose as this sometimes occurred, and as I was hand holding it I needed as fast a shutter speed as possible.

Seen like this it still amazes me how Helen saw it in the gloom.

As I fired away it moved.  I waited heart in mouth, I didn't want it to go just yet, but it just shifted position.

Then it turned to look at us, probably in response to the camera shutter.

It was constantly looking around, scanning the ground with those piercing yellow eyes, while adjusting the head position to allow it to listen with the huge facial disc.

A quick check above.

Then back to me, this time due to the fact that another car had approached.  I indicated to the car by holding my camera out of the window, and it stopped.  

The car then slowly eased along side me and asked what we had seen, when I told him it slipped back behind me and they started to photograph it.

It was then the owl flew down to the ground, but came back up and this time perched on a fallen tree.

It was getting lighter slowly, but it was also getting colder the car thermometer recording 32 degrees, freezing and there we were in shorts and flip flops.

Other cars would pass by, not bothering to stop, and the owl would continue to watch.

With the improving light you could now make out more detail of the bird, the white moustache standing out still the dark markings around the eyes and the yellow beak.  As I photographed I realised I was shaking this experience was beyond my belief, so much for mountain reflections!

The branch in front of it was annoying so we moved a little to get a clear view, at the same time several tour buses came through and because they could see we were looking stopped and looked, but I don't think they saw it as they quickly moved on.  This was the best view obtained.

Just after this a large white van passed us, and when it was gone so was the owl.  I didn't see it leave, but then I never saw it arrive.  The driver of the car behind us got out and remarked on how we had ever seen it in the first place.  Well it was down to the eagle eyes of my wife.  The driver also said he had been coming along here for 4 years and never seen one.  It was a wonderful start to the day, beyond my dreams, I never expected to see one, and we had watched a Great Grey Owl for over 30 minutes, absolutely incredible.

Time to regroup, what an amazing start to the day, we rolled on slowly along the gravel track, the sun was now coming over the mountain tops, and as we came out of the aspen forest we were greeted with the wonderful sight of the Teton range before us lit up in the golden sunlight.

We finally reached the Teton Park road and headed into the park, being caught for the fee at the kiosk which had just opened, leaving the kiosk in front of us the Tetons spread out before us.

We were heading for the Oxbow bend of the Snake River, which we had fortunately relegated to a lower position in the priorities this morning.  The journey was about 30 miles, but we were still able to get there while the morning sunlight was at its best.  Getting out of the car a White-crowned Sparrow sat in the sunshine 

This isn't truly an oxbow lake yet, but an area of the Snake River where it gets really wide and shallow, and as a result there are islands and sand bars that litter the area.  Eventually the Oxbow lake will detach itself from the main Snake River but for now they are connected.

Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National  Park is without a doubt the most photographed place in the entire park.  The image of the Snake River with Mount Moran's reflection is iconic and is probably the most recognized image of Grand Teton National Park throughout the world.  There have probably been millions of photographs taken, and I was not about to let the side down.  The image changes every moment with the change in the light.

Looking to the west though a mist was hanging over the water shrouding the Canada Geese as they fed.

Then one kindly added to the scene by reaching up and flapping its wings.

A wider view of the Oxbow bend takes in views of signal mountain to the left and the reflected Mount Moran.

A renowned spot for seeing Wildlife all we could find this morning was an American White Pelican drifting past us, the still clear water providing another perfect reflection.

While across the flats to the east there was a very distant Bald Eagle and two Ospreys hunting one of the back waters of the river.

Looking to make the most of the day we headed north, to Colter Bay, where there is a lodge, stores and a visitor centre, plus some reasonably moderate trails around some of the smaller lakes.  

We decided to take the Swan and Heron Lake trail, the first part of which followed the edge of and the eastern shore of Jackson Lake.  Where the trail came close to the water we were treated to further wonderful views of Mount Moran.

In this opening an Osprey also flew low over our heads heading out across the lake.

The trail then turns away from the lake and heads inland through sagebush, and small trees where there were again White-crowned Sparrows and this Dark-eyed Junco.

Coming out of the Lodgepole Pine trees we had our first view of Swan Lake, the majority of it covered in yellow pond lilies, but in areas of open water there were groups of Ring-necked Ducks.

the edge of the water was also busy with large Green Darner Dragonflies.

the trail continues along the side of the lake, winding through the pines, birds could be heard above us, the piping call of a Nuthatch, and the nasal calls of the Chickadees.  Helen suddenly stopped and slowly indicated a bird in the tree next to her, it was a Western Tanager, and probably from the wispy feathers a juvenile bird, distinctive is the bill shape and colour.

A little further there was some furious tapping, and the we quickly found the originator but surprisingly on the ground.  A Hairy Woodpecker was working its way through an old log.

As we tried to get closer it flew up to a nearby tree.

As is always the way once you come across some birds others seem to appear, and the metallic piping of a Red-breasted Nuthatch became closer and I then picked it out making its way along a pine tree trunk.

These are really delightful nuthatches and a bird I first saw in a gutter in Norfolk!  There call sounding just like a kids toy trumpet.

There are plenty of pines around in the area to keep them occupied.

the trail then moved away from the lake and into the pines.  Ahead two birds were moving through the trees, and eventually we got good views of a Grey Jay, a very placid looking bird unlike the more aggressive look of our Jay, and even the other North American Jays.

Another bird stayed close with them, this one a little shyer, and much duller.  I managed to get a photograph of one, and while it was not the best it did help to identify it, but I wasn't able to do that until I looked at this back home.

This  think is a Pine Grosbeak, again either a juvenile bird or a female.  It was about Blackbird size and the yellow green flecks in the plumage and the bill that has a slight tip to it being the main features I have gone on

The trail came out again by the lake, and we were able to get good views of what we consider to be a Beaver Lodge.

On a patch of open water a Pied-billed Grebe was diving in front of us, if just a little distant, hence the cropped view.

The trail then turned back on its self and headed up towards Heron Lake, another lily pond filled lake, but this time with Mount Moran as the backdrop.

In the grass around the lake several butterflies were appearing as the temperature was now quite warm.  This one i s I believe a Common Wood Nymph

While this one is a female Blue Copper.

We stood on the edge of the wood, with the grass running down to the lake, there was a dead tree ahead of us, and a Chipmunk appeared on the main trunk.  I turned to scan the lake, and Helen called out that there was a weasel.  The chipmunk, understandably, was no where to be seen, but as we watched the weasel appeared again on the tree.

It was then away, scurrying around the grass and the dead branches, popping up every so often to have a look around.

It was clearly searching out all the little nooks and cranny's in the hope of flushing something out and seemed to be unconcerned we were so close.

There was little activity on the lake, a Double-crested Cormorant was drying its wings and a Great Blue Heron flew in, but aside from that it was quiet.  The trail skirted the lake, and in the far damp marshy corner there was quite a lot of bird activity including Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows, Chickadees and this Hairy Woodpecker.

There was also a very attentive Red Squirrel.

The Mountain Chickadees were moving through the pine needles combing them for insects.

While a new sparrow appeared, a Chipping Sparrow.

Back at the lake shore there were juvenile Yellow-rumped Warblers catching flies from a dead tree on the shore of the lake.

The path then came out into the open, and there were several clumps of Mountain Daisies which were proving to be a major attraction for several species of butterfly.

This is I think a Mormon Fritillary

While this is a male Blue Copper

A clearer view of the Common Wood Nymph.

This butterfly has markings similar to that of a metalmark or a fritillary, but I have not been able to identify it.

Here we have a male and female Blue Copper.

An American Copper

A Nevada Skipper

And finally A Coronis Fritillary

It had been nice to get out for a walk, and it was good to see so many butterflies, but now it was time to find some lunch so we decided to drop into Jackson Lake Lodge, which was a mistake, it was full of people, all wanting to take in the huge observation window of the lofge that looks down across the willow tree meadows and then out across the lake towards Mout Moran.  There was no wildlife, and too many people so we brought some rolls and a drink and headed back to the car.  We followed a turnoff alongside Pilgrim Creek.  It was a gravel road that ended in a picnic area alongside the creek.

On the way down we saw two American Kestrels, but very distant, and on the way back we picked up a Cooper's Hawk, high in the sky above the road.

Our next area to explore was the Cattleman's Bridge site, a road that runs down to the Snake River just before it enters the Oxbow bend.  The area is named after the fact that at one time there was a bridge here, created to appease the ranchers that grazed cattle when the park was created in the 1950's.  However since then the area it linked stopped being used for grazing, and the bridge was finally taken down in 2001 after falling into disrepair.

As we drove up we were greeted with the calls of an adult Osprey and we watched it fly up into the pines.

The Snake River here falls into the shadow of Signal Mountain, and is quite wide and deep in places..

The adult Osprey had a juvenile bird close by in a tree, and appeared to enticing it to fly.  Every so often the adult would call and buzz the juvenile, but it showed no sign of moving.

We then thought that the adult was going to fish, as it would circle around the water, scanning below, but unfortunately would then fly off.

While waiting and watching we found another butterfly, this I think it is a Pine White.

It was then back to the Oxbow Bend, stopping at one of the laybys to look out across the water.  The Pelicans and cormorants were still there, and Helen found a distant Kildeer on one of the exposed mud flats.  Below us in the bushes by the water's edge were Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers, but a larger bird with them turned out to be a Cedar Waxwing.  The Cedar lacking the white tips on the wings seen on our Bohemian Waxwing.

The grand tour continued, the next stop was Signal Mountain, but unfortunately the smoke that we had heard of in Yellowstone was getting worse, the views of the Tetons were now very hazy, and from the top of Signal Mountain it was difficult to see too far, but we could make out the Snake River winding its way through the valley, the meanders giving it it's name.

Beating a retreat from the mountain we then stopped off at Jenny Lake, which was again a very popular spot, with many people by the shore and on the water in boats.  We followed a trail alongside String Lake, and then into the Leigh Lake area, it was a little quieter, but not that much wildlife about as you could expect.  On the water were a few Common Mergansers, and Mallard, and in the trees we found this Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Plus there were also several Mountain Chickadees.

We were now making our way back to Jackson, followingthe Teton Park Road to the Moose Junction and then onto the highway a short  distance, and then turning onto the Antelope Flats Road.  This is an area of sagebush and open land.

We could see distant Bison, and a Northern Harrier appeared above the bush for a short while, managing to avoid the camera.  We reached a "T" junction and I decided to turn back as I wanted to visit Mormon Row.

The groups of old farm buildings known as Mormon Row have withstood the elements for more than a century, since the farmland here was first homesteaded by the predominantly Mormon settlers in the early 1900s. After the Rockefellers Snake River Land Company bought the majority of the land and transferred it to the Park Service, the buildings were allowed to decay until the 1990s, when their cultural value was recognized and steps were taken to preserve them. Today, six homesteads and a single ruin provide visitors a glimpse into the past of Jackson Hole Valley.

These old barns are very popular with photographers due to the wonderful backdrop of the Teton Range, but as you can see, the Idaho fires had put paid to that!

Several birds were present on the fences and the posts, this is a Brewer's Blackbird, the substitute for Starlings around here.

Then we were fortunate to find a family party of Mountain Bluebirds, the plumage not in the best condition, but a very smart looking bird in flight.  They were also very confiding allowing me to get very close.

Our journey back to the hotel took us back down the Moose - Wilson road, which was this time a lot busier meaning we had to let cars pass, this proved to be a major problem when we got back to the hotel, but at least we were able to see a Hummingbird, but not identify it, and to acquire some souvenirs from Jackson!

A very busy day, but with an absolutely wonderful start, which to be fair was continued throughout the day, but maybe not to the same level.  It will be one of those days that we talk about for a very long time.

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