Nat Hab travelers Lois O. Gray and Kay Gilmour recently journeyed on our Hidden Yellowstone Photo Safari, and they recount the first day of their wildlife adventure.
The first glorious day found us around 6 a.m. (before sunrise) expectantly lined up in front of the Grand Tetons with multiple cameras and binoculars focused on the shadowy and craggy faces of those iconic mountains. It was quite cold and, besides sharp reflections from the lenses, we also could see the breathy steam issuing from everyone! The sky was gray and cloud-filled with some curtains reaching down on the Tetons! Ah, but when the sun began to rise above the mountains, the scene became magical as the clouds were replaced with colors as pink as alpenglow turning to orange and violet and growing brighter and brighter. The fingers of the sun streaks picked out the details in the complex rocks composing the mountains. The scene more than satisfied the photographers and the binocular users! Our three guides wandered among us and very unobtrusively offered camera hints and tips for better shots.
Other highlights of this amazing first day included many animal sightings which called for more photographing. Cameras were clicking and snapping all day. Among the animals we watched was a beautiful black bear youngster eating chokeberries right at the roadside. Interestingly enough, the color of this bear was a lustrous cinnamon. The generous creature stayed with us quite a long time, munching and pawing through the shrubs for more berries. Our Expedition Leader Drew, our bear maven, told us that this is perfect bear behavior at this time of year as they should be packing on the pounds in anticipation of the winter. Many chokeberries must be consumed since each berry is worth only about one calorie. No wonder our beautiful bear paid more attention to the bushes than to us. It did oblige us by standing on two legs a few times so we could measure its full height.
The bison rutting season was almost over by the time of our visit, but we saw a few bulls who weren’t convinced of that timing. We watched some pushing and shoving between a couple of really big bulls and three males relentlessly chasing a lone female who apparently believed that the rut was over. She showed no interest whatever in any of the would-be swains!
Another wonderful sighting was a small herd of pronghorn which was racing across open grasslands. Our Expedition Leader Kurt told us that even though they are the fastest land animal in North America, we were not observing their third and speediest gear! Their fastest recorded speed is 61 miles an hour and, even more important, they can keep running at 30 mph for an incredible 20 miles. Though cheetahs are faster in the short run, they are capable of maintaining high speeds for only 700 yards. He also reminded us that pronghorns are very interesting in that they are not an antelope at all; nor are they related to antelopes in Africa. They are alone in their own species family. The last fun fact he told us: unlike other animals that grow horns that stay on their bodies for life, Pronghorns shed their horns, like antlered animals, every year.
As if these sightings were not enough, we also passed a pasture full of domestic horses with birds riding on their backs. We had never seen anything like that except in Africa where the oxpeckers ride many mammals like rhinos, elephants, zebras, giraffes and even hippos to rid them of ticks and other pests—but we have never seen one on a lion. The horses did not seem to mind the birds on their backs. A few had 20 or more birds hitching rides along their spines. Kurt told us these were European Starlings and this relationship between birds and horses is not unknown in these parts. What a surprise!
A new adventure that awaited us was an exhilarating raft trip on the Snake River. We floated along on a calm stretch of water for about two hours and it was fabulously beautiful. Mountains above us, clear green waters below us, common mergansers floating along with us and a female moose curled in sleep tucked underbrush along the route. A bald eagle appeared to greet us as well.
But our busy first day was not over yet! We next visited the Chapel of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal log church built in 1925. It is located in a particularly picturesque site, surrounded as it is by Tetons and set in a lovely valley in the little settlement of Moose. Photographers flock to get pictures of the Cathedral Peaks framed in the large window behind the altar.
How could a second day begin to equal that terrific first day? Stay tuned for stories from the next chapter of Lois’ and Kay’s nature adventure in Yellowstone next Saturday here on the Good Nature Travel blog.