Trail Cam Delights

Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.

~Boris Pasternak

The heat of summer seems to have slowed the activity around the trail cameras in our woods, but sometimes, amid all the images of squirrels, raccoons, and wind blown leafy branches, there is is a jewel that really makes me appreciate the 24-hour a day presence of those eyes on the trees.

This first one is from a while back and is a very quick clip showing one of the opossums that uses the root ball den site carrying some leaves back to the ‘possum hole with its tail. Who among us couldn’t use an extra hand now and then?

A Virginia Opossum carrying leaves in its tightly curled tail

One of the things I have been surprised by recently is the lack of trail camera images of deer fawns. I have been seeing them along the roads here in the neighborhood for a few months, but they have not been recorded on a trail camera until this week.

Doe and fawn mosey by the Raccoon den tree

This next one is the video that I have been waiting for…a Bobcat in our woods! The video is cropped a little so it is not as sharp as some, but this is a clip of a nice-sized Bobcat walking down the now dry stream bed in our woods. I have long hoped to see one here in the neighborhood. We have plenty of woods and potential prey, and being near the Haw River corridor, there is ample habitat for these majestic animals.

Bobcat walking down the creek bottom one morning last week

I have admired the mystique of these secretive wild cats for many years. My first sighting was probably back when I worked for NC State Parks and I spotted a Bobcat and her kittens walking down the road at Goose Creek State Park. Since then, I have seen them mainly at wildlife refuges in our Coastal Plain – Alligator River, Mattamuskeet, and at Pocosin Lakes NWR. Most have been quick glimpses of one as it slinked off into the vegetation. Only a few have been recorded with a camera. Here is a brief list of some of those photographed encounters…

A distant view of a Red Wolf (right) tucking its tail and scurrying by a Bobcat at Pocosin Lakes NWR. The wolf was trotting down the road when it encountered the Bobcat in the brush, which assumed the typical cat pose of arched back. The wolf moved to the other side of the road, keeping an eye on the feline as it went past, and then hurried on down the road.
A pre-dawn encounter on a Christmas Bird Count at Pocosin Lakes…a Bobcat carrying a Snow Goose. When we stopped the car, the Bobcat dropped to the ground and crawled across the field to a wind row of trees and disappeared.
I went to the other end of the windrow, assuming the Bobcat would go down and cross onto the woods. As I stood there, some birds flushed out of the trees in the wind row, and then I saw it, sitting there in the thick brush staring at me. I’m not sure how long it had been there, and just as quickly, it disappeared.
I had just photographed a bear across a canal at Pocosin Lakes and was going to do a three-point turn and go the opposite way on the road. When I looked in my rear view mirror, a Bobcat was in the road behind me! I spent several minutes watching this beautiful animal as it eased on down the road and into the woods. More photos on this sighting can be seen here.

Note the white patches on the back of the ear in the photo above. Look at the video clip again and you can clearly see these distinctive white marks on the back of the ears. My only other Bobcat sighting in the Piedmont was one at Mason Farm Biological Reserve in Chapel Hill many years ago. When I returned to the parking lot I saw what looked like a large cat sitting in the adjacent field. It was looking away from me and I saw those white patches and it was then that I knew it was a Bobcat!

My most memorable encounter was when Melissa and I spotted a Bobcat walking down a road at Pocosin Lakes one hot September afternoon. It went into the brush when we drove toward it. We went a little farther, parked, and got out and sat behind the car and waited. The Bobcat finally came back out and walked up, sat down, and looked at us for a bit before walking off into the thick pocosin vegetation…magical! More on this encounter in a previous post.

Though I have been lucky to witness Bobcats in the wild several times, there is something extra special about knowing there was one in our woods. I just hope one day I will be lucky enough to see one for myself in our personal refuge.

More of the Little Things in Life

If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves.

~Emily Dickinson

I’ve been wandering around the yard again, camera in hand, looking for the little things that might be living alongside us. The heat of summer tends to make a lot of the big things (like me) a bit less energetic. But this is the time for the smaller life forms to excel, to achieve their life purpose, before the cold weather returns. There are a lot of familiar neighbors out there, and always something new to see as well, be it a different species, a different life stage, or some interesting behavior. All it takes is a little time and a slow meander through the greenery. Here are a few of the latest little things that make life in the woods so interesting…

Common True Katydid, Pterophylla camellifolia (iPhone photo). The raspy calls of these leaf mimics are heard from now until autumn in our treetops. Both males and females stridulate. Females (like this one) will use their sword-like ovipositer to insert eggs into the loose bark of trees where the eggs will overwinter and hatch next spring to start the cycle anew. (click photos to enlarge)
Green Cone-headed Planthopper, Acanalonia conica. I wrote about these tiny leaf mimics a few years ago in another blog post.
This relatively large green guy is always a delight to find – a Green Treefrog, Hyla cinerea. It seems we find one of these in the yard every summer, often clinging onto the stem of a Jewelweed.
A mating pair of Large Milkweed Bugs, Oncopeltus fasciatus. They feed on the seeds and sap of milkweed plants in all stages of their life cycle, acquiring the toxins of the plant and making them unpalatable to most predators (hence the bright orange and black warning coloration). Females can lay up to 2000 eggs in their one month life span, so our milkweed plants will soon be covered in the bright orange nymphs.
A ghostly nymph of some sort of planthopper (perhaps after a fresh molt)
A spiky larva of the Banded Tussock Moth, Halysidota tessellaris (iPhone photo). Varying in color from yellow-orange to gray, these caterpillars feed on a variety of trees and shrubs. They are often found on the tops of leaves out in the open, indicating their potential distastefulness to many predators (due to a combination of the stiff hairs and some chemicals acquired from their host plants).
A species of Rose Chafer Beetle, Macrodactylus sp. Whenever I got close with the camera, it raised its long hind legs in what might be some sort of defensive posture.
A Tiger Bee Fly (Xenox tigrinus) sitting on a green acorn cap. I’m always glad to see these around our wood-siding house as they are parasites on Carpenter Bees, which love to drill into our fascia boards. Adult Tiger Bee Flies feed on nectar and females seek out Carpenter Bee nest cavities and lay eggs in them where her young hatch and feed on the bee larvae.
False Bee-killer, Promachus bastardii (iPhone photo). This large robber fly can be seen (and heard) buzzing around the yard waiting for a chance to pounce on unsuspecting flying insects (often some type of bee) which it then sucks dry.
Underside of a female Arrow-shaped Micrathena, Micrathena sagittata, showing the prominent spines on her abdomen (males are tiny, seldom seen, and, well, spineless).
Juvenile Black-and-yellow Garden Spider, Argiope aurantia, with a planthopper prey.
I think this is a male Bronze Jumping Spider, Eris militaris. It was crawling around on an ironweed next to our kitchen door. It allowed me to get several portrait shots as it scrutinized my big white flash diffuser moving in on it as I tried to focus on those magnificent eyes.

Glimpses of Life in the Woods

Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.

~John Muir

There is so much we see when we spend time in nature, but having a few trail cameras set out shows how much we miss. Here are a few of the wildlife happenings our three cameras caught over the past couple of months, vignettes of the life in our woods when we are not there to witness.

A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk sets off a chipmunk alarm call (turn up volume to hear the clucking sound). Chipmunks have different alarms for aerial versus ground predators. I wonder which one it uses for a hawk sitting on the ground?
A pair of Opossums running along the den log. Not sure what is happening here – courtship?; territorial dispute?; practicing crossing a road?
Maybe it is a courtship thing after all, and one party is not thrilled with the idea…
A mother Raccoon teaching her three young about the ways of the woods
Back at the den tree, there may only be two young Raccoons now (not sure)
A young deer escaping the heat with a dash in our wet weather stream after a heavy rain
A Coyote searching for breakfast
Two times last month, the camera caught a quick glimpse of a Coyote carrying something (presumably back to a den). I can’t quite tell what it is (this is the best of the two clips). Can you? A rabbit perhaps?

It’s the Small Things

Nothing is more humbling than to look with a strong magnifying glass at an insect so tiny that the naked eye sees only the barest speck and to discover that nevertheless it is sculpted and articulated and striped with the same care and imagination.

~Rudolf Arnheim

A view of the the native plant jungle that is our yard…there really is a walkway to the door, I promise (click photos to enlarge)

I’m blaming it on our month-long trip out West back in May. At least that’s what I will tell anyone that wonders why our yard is so, well, jungle-like. Over the years, I’ve kind of let plants do what they wanted to do, in violation of most standard gardening practices. There are tall Joe-Pye-Weeds in front of shorter plants, a couple of species of ferns have run amok and taken over large portions of beds, and the tree canopy has grown so much that most wildflowers are abnormally tall and leggy and therefore often fall over without adding plant supports. But, it helps keep the invasives, especially Microstegium, at bay (a little). And then there are the rabbits that like to munch on the species I truly prize (like Cardinal Flower and Rosinweed), so the garden definitely has a mind of its own in terms of species make-up and arrangement. But, it provides food and shelter for a pretty amazing array of creatures, big and small, that keep me company when I wander with my camera. The past few days, I have not had much energy for yard chores due to the heat (another reason it looks this way) but I have managed to stroll through the jungle, looking for some of our tiniest of neighbors.

On of the reasons we have so many insect and spider neighbors is the abundance of native plants like this Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a favorite of both day and night-time pollinators.

Below are some of the small things we see on our meanders through the greenery…

One of the most abundant group of insects right now are the planthoppers. I believe this is a nymph of a Northern Flatid Planthopper, Flatormenis proxima. The waxy filaments may serve a protective function.
An adult Northern Flatid Planthopper. Most planthoppers (and other members of the Hemipiteran suborder Auchenorrhyncha) have piercing-sucking mouthparts for feeding on plant sap. They also have powerful legs for jumping, making some rather difficult to photograph.
Another common planthopper species in our yard, the Citrus Flatid Planthopper (the adult in lower right of image). The nymph above it may be a Two-striped Planthopper.
The SEEK app identifies this as a Two-striped Planthopper nymph, Acanalonia bivittata. It looks to me like some sort of armored creature from a Star Wars movie.
A very tiny insect that SEEK identifies as a Coppery Leafhopper, Jikradia olitoria. I tried to confirm these ID’s using online resources like Bug Guide and the Hoppers of North Carolina, but if anyone knows what they are for sure, please let me know.
A very persistent mating pair of Versute Sharpshooters, Graphocephala versuta.
A beautiful Broad-headed Sharpshooter, Oncometopia orbona. Sharpshooters filter huge amounts of liquid from plants through their digestive system in order to obtain nutrients. They frequently must forcibly eject the excess water in a fine stream, hence their unusual common name.
One of my favorite insects to photograph, a wandering Red-headed Bush Cricket (aka Handsome Trig) nymph, Phyllopalpus pulchellus.
A tiny nymph of one of the Lesser Meadow Katydids (Conocephalus sp) sprouts an impressive pair of antenna.
One of the bigger challenges for a macro photograph, a species of quick-on-its-feet-and-wings Long-legged Fly. These come in a variety of metallic colors and often jump out of the frame when the flash goes off and then return to the leaf. I discovered this when I kept getting blank photos but they were still on the leaf when I looked after taking the picture.
A common small moth that I frequently scare up when walking through the yard, a Double-banded Grass Veneer, Crambus agitatellus.
These little dots of debris are very common right now. They slowly waddle along the vegetation, and cause you to do a double-take when you see that lichen or that tuft of fuzz move..
Beneath all that debris is a voracious predator of small insects, especially aphids and planthoppers, a larval form of one of the species of Green Lacewing. They have spines on their back that they attach material like lichens or the waxy remains of their victims (like planthopper nymphs) to as camouflage. Check out those mandibles on this one!
A tiny Crab Spider (perhaps a White-banded Crab Spider) awaits its next meal on the head of a Purple Coneflower
Another tiny predator is fairly abundant this week, a Spined Assassin Bug, Sinea sp. This aptly named little terror is covered with stout spines and has huge raptorial front legs it uses to grasp prey.
Once it catches an insect (in this case a hapless ant), it pierces it with its needle-like proboscis, injects a toxin and a digestive enzyme, and then sucks out the nutrients. This one also had a Freeloader Fly (tiny winged insect on the ant’s head) along to lap up any spilled juices.

Homeward Bound

We should come home from adventures, and perils and discoveries every day with new experience and character.

~Henry David Thoreau

NOTE – This is the final post from our 7200 mile truck camping trip in May.

Leaving Yellowstone was the start of our long journey home. Time on the road passes so quickly and we tend to not think of home much until we turn the truck toward the East. Then, we realize the adventure must soon come to an end and we (or at least I) start to wonder how things have fared while we were away or what tasks lie ahead. My thoughts are soon bought back to the immediate as we drive through the beautiful and varied landscapes of Wyoming. You go from snow-capped mountains one minute to desert or vast areas of sagebrush and grasslands the next. Along much of our drive we saw the brilliant red “flowers” of Indian Paintbrush. The tips of the plant look like they have been dipped in red paint. The bright red is not really the flower parts, but rather flower-like bracts (a modified leaf or scale on a plant). It is a semi-parasitic plant, its roots penetrating other nearby plants to rob some of their nutrients and water.

Indian Paintbrush, also called Prairie-fire, is Wyoming’s state flower (photo by Melissa Dowland) (click photos to enlarge)

I steered toward one of our favorite national forests in the Bighorn Mountains. We camped there on our last two trips and have been very pleased with the number and variety of camping options. We hoped to camp in a site from our first extended truck camping trip last year, one along a small stream on a rocky outcrop in a high meadow. As we drove through, we soon realized things were a bit different now as snow still covered much of the slopes at this elevation. Indeed, the road to that campsite was closed due to deep snow, so we proceeded down in elevation looking for drier ground.

Another outstanding campsite in the Bighorns…what a view

After driving a couple of roads that didn’t quite satisfy us, Melissa found a route with open meadows, streams, some ponds, and potential views of high mountains in the distance. When we pulled into the area, we knew this was it. We passed only a few RVs on a long stretch of dirt road with patches of conifers, open grasslands, and plenty of beaver ponds and creeks. With a strong wind blowing, we pulled into the lee side of a forest grove to set up camp. The meadow was covered in wildflowers and we soon found ourselves on the ground taking a closer look.

Pasqueflower, also known as Prairie Crocus (and you can see why)
Shooting Stars, one of my favorite western wildflowers. The flowers on these 4-inch tall plants are bell-shaped when they first open, but the petals then reflex backwards, giving them the appearance of a shooting star

Before starting the campfire, we hiked down to a pond about a half mile across the meadows. With our faces close to the water, we could see numerous water beetles and fairy shrimp, those upside-down one-inch long lobster relatives that are often found in ephemeral pools.

Large, shallow pool at the far end of the meadow
Our sunrise view from the truck with temperatures hovering around 32 degrees F
Pasqueflowers close at night and in inclement weather

Our next days’ drive went from long stretches on Interstate 90 to some scenic country roads that took us through part of Badlands National Park and the adjacent Pine Ridge Reservation and eventually into the Sandhills of northern Nebraska. On the back roads, we saw some familiar wildlife like Pronghorn and vast prairie dog towns, along with two new species, both of which I had on my radar as something I really wanted to see.

Pronghorn buck running across grasslands near the road

There were so many prairie dog towns along this route and some were huge with what looked like hundreds of mounds. We had discussed looking for Burrowing Owls when we saw prairie dog habitat as these diminutive birds frequently use abandoned prairie dog burrows as roost and nest sites. Burrowing Owls range from Canada to Mexico and parts of Central and South America. There are populations in Florida and some islands in the Caribbean as well. Throughout much of their range, their numbers are declining due to habitat loss and decline in the populations of burrowing mammals. We kept scanning as we drove, but I finally pulled over at a large roadside prairie dog town and told Melissa to find me an owl. Lo and behold, after only a couple of minutes, she spotted one. It was way back away from the road sitting on a mound.

Suddenly, another one flew toward the road and landed on a fence post a few hundred yards from us. We jumped in the truck and slowly approached. It was on my side so I stopped and took a few pictures from across two lanes and then had to drive on as a car was coming up behind us. We turned and drove back and pulled as best we could off the side of the road.

A long sought after species for me – the curious Burrowing Owl

Now the owl was much closer and on Melissa’s side. She started taking pics as the bird looked our way. I was trying to hold my telephoto and shoot past her head, but it was tough. Luckily, she caught an amazing sequence of what the owl did next. It leaned forward and looked like it was gagging and then up came a pellet!

The owl leans forward and looks like it wants to do something… (this photo sequence by Melissa Dowland)
The beak opens wide…
It looks like a lot of effort…
Out comes the pellet!
Whew, that was tough

Owls and other raptors must regularly cough up pellets consisting of indigestible parts of their diet such as feathers, fur, bones, and insect exoskeletons. It is rare to witness this behavior, yet alone photograph it! I was very happy she got this sequence (and a little jealous, I must admit:) Finally, the bird flew off and landed on the ground quite some distance from us.

Melissa then suggested we should go look for the pellet (this is how truly nerdy we are, in case you didn’t know). We found a couple of pellets at this post indicating it is an often used perch. Their diet is mainly made up of insects (it looked like a lot of beetles), and small vertebrates like lizards and mice.

Two owl pellets beneath a fence post

Driving through this habitat for the next hour or so, we saw many Burrowing Owls associated with various prairie dog towns with several sitting on fence posts (the only high points in the landscape). I would love to go back and just hang out for a few days watching these comical and endearing birds.

We stopped and helped this gorgeous Ornate Box Turtle (another new species for us) across the road

Melissa guided us to Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest in the north-central Sandhills region of Nebraska. There really aren’t that many “forests” here (except for a Ponderosa Pine forest planted many years ago) but plenty of expansive rolling grasslands and an amazing abundance of ponds and lakes. In fact, there were temporary signs all along the route indicating high water may be on the road. That had us a little worried about mosquitoes, but we found the non-biting midges to be the dominant insect as we looked for a non-flooded refuge road to take for a campsite. We finally found one late in the day and set up camp in a small gap between high grass-covered dunes. Once again, we found the Sandhills are apparently maintained by grazing cattle and our site had plenty of evidence that cows had frequented the area (luckily, there were none anywhere nearby at that time). But there were plenty of wildflowers and a surprising amount of poison ivy scattered about, so we took our time walking up the hill above camp. Once on top, a fantastic vista unfolded of seemingly endless rolling grasslands bathed in the golden fading daylight.

Late afternoon sunlight highlights some distant ridges in the Sandhills
A beautiful beardtongue in flower
Hairy Puccoon (one of the puccoon species at least) – hairy because of the “hairs” present on the leaves and stem; puccoon is an American Indian word for plants that produce a dye. Various parts of the puccoons produce a red, yellow, or purple dye
The prairie grasses take on a golden hue in the late day sun
Melissa enjoys a spectacular sunset over the Sandhills

Our next stop was originally going to be a familiar one, Brickyard Hills Conservation Area in Missouri. But I really wanted to revisit Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge (where we saw all the Monarch butterflies last Fall) and that was a full 30 minutes or so past Brickyard Hills. We didn’t want to backtrack so we settled on another conservation area near the refuge in order to drive the auto tour late in the day before heading to our last campsite. The iffy weather (cloudy and windy) made for less than ideal conditions, but we did see a few straggler Snow Geese, some American White Pelicans, a Coyote, some Muskrats, and lots of Dicksissels and Red-winged Blackbirds.

One of many male Red-winged Blackbirds belting out their konk-a-ree call along the refuge roads
A huge Snapping Turtle was out on a short bridge across a canal. I got out and took one photo, then turned to get back in the truck when I heard a huge splash. Though it remained motionless when I approached for the photo, Melissa said it pushed itself off the bridge and fell the 10+ feet to the water when I turned around

Leaving the refuge and looking at the weather forecast, we decided to make this conservation area our last camping spot to avoid predicted heavy rains the next night. That meant a marathon last day drive of about 18 hours from Missouri to home. A beautiful sunset and some deer, Coyote calls, and the distant hoots of a Barred Owl were a good way to spend our last night on this epic road trip. The next day we crossed portion of four more states and finally rolled into our home woods at about 2:30 a.m., a bit tired, but glad to be home. Now, where to next?

Our last sunset

All Roads Lead To…

To those who know it and love it, Yellowstone is not so much a place as it is a concept—it is a bastion of wilderness and a beautiful,… reminder of all that once was pristine, bold, and untamed.

~Bob Sihler

This is the next to last in the series of reports on our truck camping trip in the month of May. No surprise to those that know us, we ended up heading toward Yellowstone by way of Grand Teton National Park, staying with friends that have recently moved to Jackson. Sam and Bright are wildlife watchers and photographers extraordinaire so it was great hearing about their plans and the many incredible things they have observed after moving west this spring. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating as we headed out the next morning in conditions of gray skies, occasional rain and snow flurries, and lots of visitors on the park roads.

The Tetons are majestic even in gray skies (black and white photo) – click photos to enlarge

We spent the one full day in the Tetons going down some familiar roads looking for wildlife and then exploring a few dirt roads we had never traveled. A pair of Moose were being watched by 50+ people near Taggart Lake, so we stopped to take a look.

Moose yearling and mother resting in the vegetation

This is the type of image you get when you don’t have time to wait an hour or more for the critters to stand up and move around after a big breakfast, but we needed to move on. One of our highlights was a drive down a bumpy gravel road to Spalding Bay on Jackson Lake. Near the end of that road was a sharp curve with a pullout. A path up a swale seemed to lead to a potential nice view of the mountains so off we went. Elk scat was abundant and we soon found ourselves going to that next hill top to take a look. There, we saw a small pond and heard calling Boreal Chorus Frogs, so, naturally, we had to walk a bit further.

View from a small pond on our short hike near Spalding Bay

Later that evening, we had dinner with a former college classmate of Melissa’s that has lived in Jackson for many years. Our discussions included some of the realities of living in such an idyllic and desirable setting as Jackson – extremely high real estate prices and very long winters are a couple of the less pleasant things you have to deal with if you want to live in this paradise.

We bid our friends farewell the next morning and headed north to that place we think of as our second home, Yellowstone. While the previous day produced very few wildlife sightings, the drive out of Grand Teton National Park gave us two separate Grizzly Bear sightings and one of a family of Black Bears.

One of two grizzlies foraging across the Snake River at the famous Oxbow Bend turnout
A bear jam

When you see this many cars (the line of parked cars stretched over a quarter of a mile), it is generally for a bear, and this time of year in the Tetons, generally a grizzly. Traffic had come to a stop, so Melissa got out and walked ahead to see if she could see anything. She finally was able to look ahead and saw two sub-adult grizzlies out along the road edge with a crowd of people waaaay too close to them. At that point, a ranger vehicle arrived, turned on its siren while driving toward the bears, and hazed them back into the woods. Rangers then started to attempt to control the crowd (it is often easier to control the bear than the people). I picked up Melissa while our truck crawled through the cars and people. She managed to snap a quick pic of one of the bears (which had walked back out closer to the road) as we drove by under the watchful eyes of two rangers.

One of the grizzlies that was the focus of the bear jam

So, that was our experience in the Tetons, bad weather, beautiful scenery, and hordes of visitors. We anticipated even larger crowds at Yellowstone, but were pleasantly surprised. After a few stops to take in some scenic views, we pulled over along the Yellowstone River to try to photograph one of my favorite birds in the park, Eared Grebes. A stunning bird, with their dark plumage, golden ear swag, and scarlet red eyes, Eared Grebes are known nesters in the park. This was a group of a dozen or so swimming upstream in the river. Most of them had their heads tucked and their rump feathers raised (which is one way they increase their body temperature, allowing sunlight to reach their dark skin beneath the feathers). Below the waterline, their legs were paddling away to help maintain their position or move them slightly upstream over time. We sat down on a boulder upstream of the birds and waited, taking way too many photos as they gradually swam past us.

Eared Grebe on the Yellowstone River
Why, yes, I do look good

We called our friend, Beth, an education ranger in the park, to try to arrange a short visit. We met her at the old schoolhouse in Mammoth Hot Springs where she was wrapping up a meeting. A few cow Elk were grazing in the lawn (Mammoth is one of the best places in the park to see Elk). Beth had seen a calf with one of the cows before we arrived, but when we went around to the back of the building, it was nowhere to be found, no doubt hidden in the sparse sagebrush on the hill. When we rounded the corner, one cow raised her head and stared at us and then glanced up the hill, probably in the direction of her hidden calf. We stood and talked for several minutes and the cow resumed grazing, occasionally looking our way and back up the hill. I kept scanning the slope and finally found the calf, given away only by a flick of its ear.

A cow Elk watches us to make sure we don’t move any closer to her calf
The hidden Elk calf..can you see it?

We ended up going into the gateway community of Gardiner to visit with Beth and her family for a little while and to dream of some day living here. On our return to the park, we spotted a group of young bighorn sheep in Gardiner Canyon (a fairly predictable place to see them). A few of the younger sheep started playing and ran across the steep slope, causing dirt and rocks to tumble down. It always amazes me what these gravity-defying mammals can do on these cliffs.

Young Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep running across a cliff face, causing loose rock and dirt to break free

Being a holiday weekend, we had made lodging arrangements in Silver Gate, outside the northeast entrance, as we figured the few Forest Service dispersed camping areas near the park would be crowded. We spent the late afternoon driving through my favorite part of Yellowstone and seeing many of the park’s iconic wildlife. One of the highlights of this time of year is the abundance of baby animals, especially the baby bison, or “red dogs”.

Baby bison are orange-red in color for the first few months of their lives
They are either up and running and playing, pestering mom, or flat out on the ground asleep
A bull Elk in velvet

Passing through Little America and into Lamar Valley feels like being home. We had been in the park for only a few hours and already seen Coyotes, Wolves, Elk, Bison, Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Rocky Mountain Goats, and lots of birds from Ravens to Bald Eagles. And, to our surprise, there were no crowds! As we drove through the upper end of Lamar Valley, a car going in our direction in front of us was driving slowly on the opposite side of the road. It was following what I at first thought was a Coyote off the side of road, down a slight incline. As we got closer, I realized it was a pale-colored Red Fox (giving us a “3 Dog Day” – seeing all three of Yellowstone’s canid species in one day). I attempted a pic as we drove by, but didn’t want to stop in the middle of the road with other cars nearby. We continued down the road about a half mile and pulled out at a parking area. We got out and walked over to a low ridge overlooking a small stream. We were still within sight of the road, should the fox continue along that route. The fox was trotting along at a good pace and then crossed to our side of the road and took a path along the stream. It stopped and caught a small mammal of some sort and ate it, and I figured it would continue along the waterway, looking for more furry snacks. But, it crossed over and disappeared beneath the crest of the ridge we were on. Suddenly, it popped up just below us. It paused, glanced our way, and then continued along the ridge line, passing within about 20 feet of us, seemingly unconcerned.

The fox came up the ridge and then trotted by us, giving us the highlight of our wildlife encounters for the trip
After a brief pause, the fox continued on its way, passing very close to us as we watched
What a beautiful animal!
After passing us, the fox stopped, looked around, and then continued on across the valley

That was a magical moment, just us and the fox out in our favorite place on Earth, with no one else around. A short distance up the road, we watched as a small herd of Bison waded across the creek. I always stop and watch whenever I see these magnificent beasts crossing waterways. This was an easy place to wade across, but there have been times when we have seen them struggle against the swift current of a snow-melt swollen river.

Bison crossing Soda Butte Creek

The next morning, as we drove through Lamar, we could not believe how few cars we saw. This was Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in one of the most popular parks in the nation, and the pullouts in Lamar Valley were virtually empty! We stopped and enjoyed watching a sow Grizzly and two cubs of the year playing and rolling on a snow bank on a high ridge across the valley (spotting scopes are a must in Lamar). Someone else with a scope mentioned seeing a Gray Wolf on the shoreline of the river across the valley. We scanned, and sure enough, a collared wolf was tugging at a carcass (probably a bison). For the next 15 minutes or so the wolf pulled off chunks of meat with a squadron of Ravens overseeing the operation. When she was done, she began to trot across the valley in our direction, and toward where we knew the wolf den at Slough Creek was located, about 3 miles behind us. Based on online images of collared wolves of the Junction Butte Pack, we think this was the female wolf called 907F. Once the alpha female, she has been replaced in that pack position by another wolf.

Collared wolf heading back across Lamar Valley with a full belly

Somehow, the wolf managed to cross the road without anyone near us seeing it (a local guide drove down and said he saw it from another pullout as it crossed the road just beyond us). We turned, and there she was, headed up the steep slope and over the ridge. We drove over to the Slough Creek den site and pulled into a location away from the groups of wolf watchers, hoping to see her come across the road and swim the creek to head up to the den. The den is easily visible through spotting scopes, about a mile away from where you park along the Slough Creek dirt road. While we waited, we observed several pups playing with a few of the adult wolves around the den. I noticed some people just down the road looking back behind us toward a low area hidden from our view by a small hill. I thought the wolf might appear, but she did not. We later learned that those people had indeed seen the wolf come down that gap. She must have seen the people on the road and turned around. The next thing we know she is magically across Slough Creek and regurgitating a meal for the excited pups! I spoke to several of the wolf watchers and they did not see her cross the road or the creek. These wolves are very good at avoiding people. We stayed a while longer enjoying the view of the wolves, and then headed back toward Lamar Valley.

On our trip through the valley that morning we saw a small group of people sitting along the road with cameras pointing down-slope toward a large burrow. We paused and asked and they said it was a badger den. On our way back, a larger crowd had gathered and we could see the badger was out. Since there was no place to stop, we just drove by slowly and Melissa took several photos out her window. The one below is my favorite as it shows one of the cubs looking up at the adult.

Badger den in Lamar Valley – just look at those claws on the adult! (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Though it was very windy, we did a couple of short walks to get away from the road and were, as is almost always the case, totally alone in our favorite place.

Wolf tracks in the sagebrush flats
Uinta Ground Squirrel giving us the side eye as we walk by its burrow

After dinner in Silver Gate, we came back into the park and saw a couple of cars pulled over at a bridge across Soda Butte Creek. A young bull Moose was the attraction. We go out and spent a few minutes admiring it from the bridge until one person decided to walk towards it and spooked it.

Young bull Moose in the northeast portion of the park, the best area to see these magnificent animals

Our one full day in Yellowstone had been full of wildlife sightings. We even had an elusive “octo-ungulate” day, seeing all eight of the ungulate (hoofed mammal) species in the park – Bison, Elk, Moose, Mule Deer, White-tailed Deer, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Rocky Mountain Goat, and Pronghorn (Moose, and especially White-tailed Deer, are the toughest to see). In less than 24-hours, we watched wolves at their den, enjoyed seeing baby bison frolic in the sagebrush, had an amazing encounter with a fox, and saw almost every other type of wildlife the park offers. We wanted to make this day stretch on as long as possible as we knew we were headed East the next morning. As has happened so many times in the past, Lamar Valley put on a stunning show for us as the daylight waned. I always like to think the park is somehow thanking us for the visit and reminding us to return. And we can’t wait until we do…

Reflections of Lamar in a roadside pool
Sunset over the Lamar River

Bear River

For me, it always come back to the land, respecting the land, the wildlife, the plants, the rivers, mountains, and deserts, the absolute essential bedrock of our lives. This is the source of where my power lies, the source of where all our power lies.

~Terry Tempest Williams

It was hard to leave Boulder Mountain, but the road beckoned. Weather patterns were holding us back from heading to Jackson, WY, to see friends as a large rain and snow system seemed to be sitting on the Teton-Yellowstone area. We considered a trip farther west to a very under-utilized national park, Great Basin, in Nevada. But the lack of very many camping options deterred us, so we opted instead for a complete turn-around and got an Airbnb in Springville, UT (we agreed we finally needed a night in a place with a nice shower). We were very impressed by the mountainous areas of Utah as we drove through and we will certainly be back.

The high meadows, aspens, and conifers of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest (click photos to enlarge)

Melissa found some good-looking areas in the nearby Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, so we headed there the next morning, exploring some high elevation meadows with somewhat muddy roads and scattered pockets of snow, before settling on a lower elevation campsite.

Glacier Lilies and Spring Beauties in a high meadow
Fields of Glacier Lilies at an elevation of about 9000 ft in the Uinta Mountains
Our beautiful campsite at about 7800 ft off the Mirror Lake Highway

We checked a couple of spots off the Mirror Lake Hwy before picking a relatively open site at the edge of a small drop-off with distant views of mountains. The rocky ledge was home to a few ground squirrels and I managed to convince them I was harmless by sitting still for many minutes.

A Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel having a morning snack

A less cooperative resident was a new species for me, a Green-tailed Towhee, that was singing from s small shrub snag until I would try to approach for a photo. We noticed a pattern in its behavior – shortly after I would retreat, the bird would return to the same snag and start singing again. So, I finally just sat down at a distance and heavily cropped the image you see below.

I looked at the field guide description online and was impressed that the author must have known this particular bird as they said “one of the best ways to find them is to visit a shrubby mountainside or sage flat during spring or early summer. Males will spend long periods perched at the tops of shrubs and singing.”

A Green-tailed Towhee laying claim to the mountain

The next day we headed to a destination I was eager to visit – Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near Salt Lake City. This is a large wetlands complex that is home to huge numbers of waterfowl during migration as well as a variety of other birds throughout the year.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is a sea of wetlands with a beautiful snow-capped mountain backdrop

Two species I particularly hoped to see were American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts, both of which nest on the refuge. At the refuge entrance, an American Avocet obliged and was feeding right next to the road at a boat ramp. Birds of the World Online discusses the meanings of the names for this beauty – the generic name, Recurvirostra, comes from the Avocet’s long recurved, or up-turned bill. The name Avocet is from the Italian avosetta, which means ‘graceful bird’.

The American Avocets are in their breeding plumage now, with a nice cinnamon hue to their head and neck.

We spent the next couple of hours slowly driving the 10-mile auto tour and taking in the thousands of birds scattered throughout the varied wetlands that comprise this impressive refuge. Here are some of the highlights…

The refuge web site states that it is home to the largest White-faced Ibis colony in North America (and I can believe it as we saw so many of these birds feeding in the shallows).
This time of year, the waterfowl are not the stars of the refuge, but we did see a few species such as this Gadwall, plus Blue-winged Teal (probably the most numerous duck we saw), Mallards, and…
Always a delight to see Cinnamon Teal. Northern Utah’s wetlands provide habitat for over 50% of the breeding population of this beautiful bird
We were thrilled to see our first Long-billed Curlew in the short grasslands on the refuge. The generic name, Numenius, is from the Greek noumenios meaning “of the new moon”, since their 8-inch long curved bill is reminiscent of the crescent new moon.
We watched avocets at every stop, sometimes not living up to their “graceful bird” moniker
Avocet yoga
An American Avocet with a trio of White-faced Ibis
Another stunning long-legged wader, the Black-necked Stilt. The refuge hosts about 3% of the breeding population of these beautiful birds, but an estimated 80% of their migratory population passes through the refuge and surrounding wetlands each year
We see these birds on our Outer Banks, but seeing so many and being able to spend so much time observing them was a real treat
They look like a child was given a black and white sock and some pink pipe cleaners and black wire and told to assemble a bird
Western Grebes were feeding along many of the roadside ponds and canals. They can be recognized by their red eye being surrounded by dark feathers, a thicker dark line down their neck, and a somewhat dark yellow bill
Similar in appearance to the Western Grebe, but the red eye of this Clark’s Grebe is surrounded by white feathers, the dark line down the neck is quite thin, and the bill is bright yellow
Black-crowned Night Herons were quite common on the refuge and were out feeding along the marsh edges
Small flocks of American White Pelicans were seen all along the auto tour road
A male Yellow-headed Blackbird belting out his “song” among a picturesque (but hugely problematic) stand of Phragmites grass
Our last bird on the refuge was a surprise, a male Ring-necked Pheasant. This species, originally from Asia, has been successfully introduced to many parts of the word as a game bird, including the U.S., where it is common in the Midwest

As is usual, we spent more time than we planned on the refuge, enjoying the continuous display of bird behaviors. It was a windy, gray day, which gave me reason to want to come back on a sunny day and spend an early morning and late afternoon photographing the amazing variety of birds in this special place. Plus, I would love to be here when many of these species have their young. And then there are the thousands of waterfowl in migration…so many birds, so little time.

New Parks and More

If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.

~President Lyndon B. Johnson

Just a reminder, these latest posts (and the next few) are about our truck camping adventure this past May, a month-long wandering across some of the beautiful public lands of our country, taking in what we could as we traveled. The last post highlighted one of our best hikes of our entire trip, Buckskin Gulch in Utah. It was a bonus hike in that it was high on Melissa’s bucket list and it happened on our anniversary (due, in part, to a one day delay for minor truck repairs). We ended our anniversary day on another high note with a perfect campsite on the north rim of Grand Canyon!

Our phenomenal campsite along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Kaibab National Forest (click photos to enlarge)

This iconic national park was not on our original itinerary, but when we found ourselves only an hour and a half from the north rim, we decided to go since I had never been to the park and Melissa had only been to the “Disneyland-esque” south rim. So, once we got cell service, she started googling national forest roads in Kaibab National Forest. She found what looked liked dispersed camping opportunities right on the north rim if you were wiling to drive 20+ miles of dirt roads off the main entrance road to the park. We always take a deep breath when heading out on unknown roads, especially long stretches, but they turned out to be fine. There were a few choices for turns that looked like they got close to the rim, so she picked one, and we found ourselves parked about 50 feet from the edge of an incredible view point. Not a bad way to end an already spectacular day. Once again, we were relatively isolated with only one tent camper within hearing distance (we could not see him, but we heard him occasionally close his car door). Farther down the road was the main view point with a few other campers, but we basically had this incredible vista of the Grand Canyon to ourselves! We admired a wonderful sunset and sunrise from our camp chairs on the rim, marveling at the vast story laid bare in the rocky landscape that stretched before us to the far horizon.

Sunset over the Grand Canyon from our campsite
Sunrise the next morning
Mountain Phlox on the rim

The north rim receives only about 10% of the approximately 6 million visitors the park receives each year (last year was about half that due to the pandemic) so we were pleased to have relatively small crowds at the lookouts we visited the next morning.

The layers of rock represent millions of years of change from tropical seas to sand dunes to mud flats, all recorded in the stories told by their structure and the fossils and minerals they contain.
A quote on an exhibit panel from John Strong Newberry – a physician, geologist and paleontologist that explored this region in the 1800’s – Nowhere on the Earth’s surface…are the secrets of its structure so revealed as here.

Visiting the Grand Canyon and gazing out upon its vastness, and realizing the millions of years of Earth’s history that it represents, is a humbling experience. And to do it in a place that was relatively uncrowded and to spend the night on its rim is something that will stick with us for a long time and that will no doubt beckon us to explore this grand landscape further in the future.

That afternoon, we debated returning to our rim campsite, but, with no guarantee it would still be available, and wanting to get an early start the next day (which meant not driving the entire 22 miles of dirt road) back to the paved highway we settled for a closer campsite in the national forest in a large meadow surrounded by conifers and aspens.

Aspen trunks distorted by snow in Kaibab NF

In talking with a woman in an outdoor store in Kanab, AZ, Melissa was torn between her desire to visit Zion National Park (it was so close) and this woman’s suggestion to skip it because it was so crowded. In the end, we opted to bypass the crowds and go directly to Bryce Canyon, another park that would be new for both of us. The drive there is incredible with beautiful vistas all along the way, including a stop at the wonderful Red Canyon Visitor Center in Dixie National Forest, not far from the entrance too Bryce Canyon. This area looks like another place we will need to explore more in future visits.

Red Canyon spires

As we entered Bryce Canyon we felt the pressure of crowds at every turn, long lines at the shuttle tops, and road access to two of the major view points closed due to lack of parking (we were glad we skipped the more popular Zion, if these were the crowds here). We drove through the park on the 18-mile primary road route, stopping to take in the strange geology that has made this park so famous.

In the 1870’s, a geologist (Clarence Dutton) first came up with the idea that the geology of this vast region resembled a staircase, going from the ancient rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and proceeding through Zion and into Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bryce Canyon with a series of cliff formations (the steps) of younger and younger rocks. Bryce Canyon is the top step of that sedimentary staircase and its famed hoodoos have been created by a variety of erosional forces from the edges of the high plateau in a series of processes that proceeds from plateau edge to wall to window (or arch) to hoodoo.

Bryce Canyon is actually a series of amphitheaters (not a canyon) eroded from the edge of a high plateau

A hoodoo is a tall, thin spire of rock formed by natural weathering forces (in Bryce Canyon it is mainly ice and rain). The area experiences over 200 days a year where temperatures average above freezing in the day and below freezing at night, leading to a large potential for so-called ice wedging, where water seeps into cracks in the rock and then freezes (and expands), putting tremendous pressure on the rocks and causing them to split apart. As a result of this weathering and the geology of the rocks here, Bryce Canyon has the largest concentration of hoodoos in the world.

Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon NP
Natural Bridge, Bryce Canyon NP
Ponderosa Canyon, Bryce Canyon NP
Near Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon NP

Parking areas for the popular view points were still closed when we came back down the main road but we drove up to the lodge and parked which gave us access to some of the more scenic vistas (they always put lodges close to the most iconic areas in the park). It was another very windy day, but we managed a short hike down into some of the hoodoos for a different perspective of this unusual landscape.

That night, we went to a place recommended by that same woman in the outdoor store for a take-out dinner – Hell’s Backbone Grill, a James Beard-recognized restaurant in Boulder, Utah, a town of 236 people. It was delicious and we highly recommend it, as well as the quirky, artistic Burr Trail Grill and Outpost next door. We dined in our truck (due to the wind) and camped on a desert road off the incredibly scenic nearby Burr Trail Road. The next morning, we headed for Capitol Reef National Park (another new one for us) and spent the day stopping at various view points and hiking the 2-mile round trip down the Capitol Gorge Trail to a unique geologic formation called The Tanks.

The Fluted Wall, Capitol Reef NP
Tree man along the trail, Capitol Reef NP

The Tanks are potholes formed by scouring action of rocks and water (they contain water most of the year I have read) in a narrow drainage down into Capitol Gorge, When they contain water they house a unique ecosystem of tadpoles, fairy shrimp, and algae.

The Tanks, Capitol Reef NP
Capitol Gorge Trail, Capitol Reef NP

That night we drove up onto a rocky forest service road on Boulder Mountain and found a great campsite in the aspens with a creek and meadow in view. The next morning we headed for another spot recommended by that chance acquaintance in the outdoor store, the Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail. This is a well-known easy to moderate hike (6-miles round trip) to a beautiful waterfall. You are walking along a somewhat rare perennial water source, Calf Creek, along the way. The trail starts at the far end of a beautiful (but full when we were there) campground along the creek.

The dark streaks on the canyon walls are so-called desert varnish, formed when wind blown dust and rain leave behind trace amounts of iron and manganese. The resulting oxides created by rainwater and bacterial action harden to form thick layers of dark color.

The water leads to a diverse riparian habitat in the desert with beaver ponds, sizeable trout, and a host of wildflowers and bird life along the trail. We saw another new species for us, Black-headed Grosbeaks, flitting in and out of the shrub thickets as well as Yellow warblers and Spotted Towhees.

Beaver ponds and lush greenery along Calf Creek

Finally, you hear the waterfall and squeals of delight as the braver hikers venture into the cold pool at its base. This stunning waterfall is 126 high and drops down through a slit in a semi-circular canyon wall, forming a true desert oasis.

Lower Calf Creek Falls, part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

After soaking in the cool spray, we headed back along the same trail, taking in the diversity of life along the creek. I need to brush up on my desert/riparian plants before our next trip as there was quite a variety in bloom as we headed back to the car. By the way, the parking lot here (and at many of the popular spots we stopped) is quite small, so we ended up parking a 1/2 mile or so above the trailhead on the main road. Best advice is to plan ahead and get there as early as you can.

Cactus flowers along the trail
A Globemallow of some sort (perhaps Smallflower Globemallow?)
A delicate wildflower along the trail (perhaps an aster or fleabane)

We returned to our campsite in the aspens (we had left a chair and table there to claim it) and relaxed the rest of the afternoon and thought about where our destination might be as we head out the next morning…

Note – Now that we are back and hearing the news of the extreme heat, drought conditions, and huge crowds of tourists descending on our Western parks and public lands, we feel extremely fortunate to have had the wonderful experiences we did back in May. It looks like another tough summer in many Western states for abnormally high temperatures (though this may become the new norm due to climate change) and wild fires. I just saw a news release stating that the entirety of Kaibab National Forest is closed to the public effective today due to drought conditions and fire danger. The Forest Service is evacuating campers and closing all roads for the foreseeable future. Here’s hoping for better conditions soon.

Desert Seclusion

I will fill myself with the desert and the sky. I will be stone and stars, unchanging and strong and safe. The desert is complete; it is spare and alone, but perfect in its solitude. I will be the desert.

~Kiersten White

Much of our time in the Southwest was spent under red flag warnings of high winds, and our first afternoon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was no exception. Luckily, the wind tends to ease up as sundown approaches.

Late day sun turns the cliffs a golden yellow in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (click photos to enlarge)

We had a good night in the high desert and headed out very early the next morning for one of Melissa’s main goals for the trip – to hike in a slot canyon. A slot canyon is a long, narrow, deep, and meandering drainage carved through sedimentary rock (usually). The epicenter of slot canyons is southern Utah and northern Arizona where there are many famous ones visited by hordes of tourists each year. We had picked Buckskin Gulch as our destination based on a friend’s recommendation, but fate had other plans for us that morning. As we were driving the 8 miles of dirt road out to the highway, our trusty truck started making some loud noises from the rear. Melissa got out and listened and the problem was in the right rear tire, a metallic clanging when the tire rotated. It wasn’t impacting the brakes or anything else, so we initially thought it might be a rock caught in the brake cylinder area. We continued to drive and the sound varied. Once we reached the highway, it didn’t sound as bad, so we thought, let’s try it. But, as we turned off to head down the dirt road to the Wire Pass Trailhead, the sound became worse, causing us to turn around and head for the only place with any hope of auto repair, Page, AZ, a distance of more than 30 miles. Melissa called and talked her way into an early check-in at a hotel in Page and we found an auto repair place that would open at 8 a.m. near the hotel. We checked into our room (having no idea how long a repair might take) and I took the truck over to the auto shop. They took me in right away and gave me the news that the parking brake on this 18-year old truck had just come apart, and it was pieces of metal causing that terrible noise. He also said it would be 2 or 3 days to get a part, but he could just take it out and we would be good to go (just don’t park on a steep hill). So, an hour later, we decided to take in the local sights and head to Buckskin Gulch early the next morning.

The famous Horseshoe Bend in the Colorado River below the Glen Canyon Dam

Our first stop was Horseshoe Bend, a famous meander in the Colorado River not far below Glen Canyon Dam. It was a circus of tourists, but certainly is a beautiful sight. Not being used to crowds of any type, we didn’t stay long. Melissa had called the Bureau of Land Management office and got some tips from a ranger the day before who had shared a location of another slot canyon in the area that she said we would likely have to ourselves. So, we headed out and hiked in a “private” slot canyon for a couple of hours.

Our private slot canyon near Page, AZ
When we found this carcass in the bottom of the canyon, I had to wonder, what type of critter is bad enough to kill a Great Horned Owl? (I don’t want to meet it!)

The same person that told Melissa about Buckskin Gulch had also shared her enthusiasm at seeing California Condors near Page at a place called the Navajo Bridge. This is an area where several condors had been released into the wild during restoration efforts and is known as a place where these huge birds return to the bridge and surrounding canyon walls to roost in the evening (especially in the spring).

View of Marble Canyon from the Navajo Bridge. There are two bridges here, one for people, one for cars.

The California Condor is North America’s largest land bird, weighing up to 25 lbs and having a wingspan of almost 10 ft. It is critically endangered and became extinct in the wild in 1987 when the known remaining 22 (or 27, depending on which reference you use) birds were captured for a captive breeding program aimed to help recover the species. Captive reared birds started being released back into the wild in 1991, and today, the condor population numbers over 500 birds, with around 300 flying free in California, northern Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. One of the release sites is the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness adjacent to the Navajo Bridge. Condors prefer steep cliffs for roosting and nesting so they can launch their huge bodies into the air, and online reports mentioned they also roost on the bridge structures in this location. So, we arrived close to 5:30 p.m. and started watching and waiting. Melissa walked across the bridge and saw a woman with binoculars and a camera and struck up a conversation. She was there for the condors as well, and assured us they would be there at some point this evening. We kept scanning the canyon, expecting to see them fly in from one direction or another, but only swifts and an occasional hawk flew by. After about 30 minutes on the bridge I looked over and saw the woman with binoculars walking toward us pointing up into the sky. I turned and looked straight up, and there it was, a condor! It dropped rapidly as if descending from heaven (Melissa commented that she understood how many Native Americans incorporated this giant bird into their mythology with this type of grand appearance) and soared underneath and landed on our bridge. Over the next few minutes, three more condors came in, one landing on the bridge and two more on the cliffs.

The first California Condor descended rapidly from a great height and landed beneath the bridge

Each California Condor has a numbered or lettered tag and some carry radio transmitters on their wings for tracking so biologists can learn more about their habits and potential threats to the population (lead poisoning from feeding on carcasses shot with lead ammunition is one of the biggest threats to birds in the wild). The bird above is V7. The Peregrine Fund is one of the participating organizations in the condor recovery program and has an online database that gives you more information on each bird. According to that database, V7 is a juvenile bird (condors reach maturity at around 6 years) as indicated by the dark gray head and lack of bright white patches under the wings. It is a male, hatched in May of 2017 in the wild in Utah.

A second condor swept in and landed on the cliffs of the canyon. The huge wing span gives this bird amazing control as it twists and turns to come in for a landing.

This bird soared beneath me with a clear view of its tag, #12. This bird is a female, hatched in 2016. She is attaining the pink skin on the head and has started to develop the white under-wing patches.

We can see the numbered wing tag clearly as she passes beneath us.
This bird landed quite a distance downstream, but a heavy crop of the image shows the number is 54.

The only fully adult bird we saw landed a long way from us on the cliffs. It is a male reared in captivity that hatched in 2004, making it 17 years old. California Condors are one of the world’s longest-living birds and can live up to 60 years. This was, indeed, a magical evening in a stunning landscape.

Early the next morning, we headed to Buckskin Gulch. There is a fee that you must pay and obtain a permit online before going. We drove to the Wire Pass trailhead, which is also the trailhead for another popular hike to a geologic feature called The Wave, but permits are hard to get for that hike with a maximum of only 64 people allowed each day.

You reach the entrance to the narrows of Wire Pass slot canyon a little over a mile from the trailhead.
The canyon walls are shaped by thousands of flash floods over the millennia that carve the Navajo Sandstone into beautiful shapes and patterns

After entering the narrow slot, you are immersed in a fantastical world of swirls, lines, and light. We soon realized that by arriving early, we had avoided many of the people that do this popular day hike, so we had long stretches of the slot canyon to ourselves. After a mile or so, you reach a more open area that is the juncture with the Buckskin Gulch slot canyon. You want to take the trail to the right to continue down the more narrow slot canyon.

At the juncture of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch, look for petroglyphs of bighorn sheep on the canyon walls

We hiked at least a couple more miles from the juncture, taking in the magic of this place and marveling at how such a feature can form. There are an average of 7 or 8 flash floods through the canyon each year, typically in July and August, that can send walls of water as high as 100 feet through the narrow canyons, so hikers are advised to check the weather before going and to not hike if rain is predicted anywhere in the region. At times, you may have to walk through water or mud, but conditions were very dry when we hiked through.

The average width of the channel is 10 feet, but it is barely shoulder width in a few spots with walls towering a hundred feet or more above
Sunlight bouncing off the canyon walls reveals the detailed layering and smooth curves
This log jam above Melissa is some of the evidence of the power of flash floods that periodically surge through the canyon
The colors change dramatically as the angle and intensity of light changes
In places, you cannot see the sky when looking straight up due to the convoluted shapes of the canyon walls
Much of the trail we hiked consisted of cobbles and small boulders with occasional deep sand or dried and cracked mud beds
A rare wide spot in the canyon with huge walls vaulting skyward
This beautiful Firecracker Penstemon was one of several plant species found in the wider, more open areas
An unforgettable hike

Buckskin Gulch is one of the most popular hikes in the Southwest and rightfully so. It is the longest and deepest slot canyon in North America (and perhaps the longest in the world) at almost 14 miles in length with walls soaring 500 feet above you in parts of the canyon. As we hiked out, we started passing the wave of visitors coming in we had heard we might expect. This is a very special trail and well worth a visit if you are anywhere near. And it was a special way to spend our anniversary and check off one of the few big items we had planned from our to-do list for this trip.

Looking at the maps, we decided to go ahead and make this day extra special with a couple of hour drive to the a park I had surprisingly never visited – Grand Canyon National Park. And we lucked into a very special campsite…more on that next time.

North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Onward to New Mexico

Travel is still the most intense mode of learning.

~Kevin Kelly

After leaving Arkansas, we headed toward Palo Duro State Park in the panhandle of Texas. We had learned of this canyon from a couple camped near us at Natchez Trace State Park in TN (they were moving from TX to KY and had brought their pet dogs and birds with them and had a separate outdoor enclosure at the campsite for their birds, so, naturally, i had to ask some questions). They said Palo Duro was a beautiful canyon worthy of a visit. It’s a long drive from AR so we spent a night at a forgettable state park in Oklahoma (our first couple of state park visits really made me appreciate even more the beautiful and well-maintained state parks back in North Carolina). Melissa steered us toward a couple more wildlife refuges and we once again, had some great birds (including more Scissor-tailed Flycatchers) at Sequoyah NWR in OK.

A Dicksissel singing by the roadside (click photos to enlarge)
A male Indigo Bunting with some lingering molt splotchiness
This refuge provided us with another round of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers near the road. This is a male (note the bright side colors and very long tail).
Another quick shot of one in flight (he dove to the ground for an insect).

I’m beginning to think I understand Texans a bit more now after visiting the exhibits at Palo Duro (they are really proud of Texas, and everything is better there). This canyon is deemed the second largest canyon in the United States (only Grand Canyon is bigger they say). After visiting and googling a bit, I think it is the second longest canyon at about 120 miles (you don’t sense that when you visit for as short a time as we did). It certainly is beautiful, and you can actually drive from the rim down to the floor of the canyon in the park. With threatening weather, we snagged an Airbnb on the rim of the canyon just outside the park entrance (a tiny house in an RV Park, this seems to be a trend). The next morning, you could barely see into the canyon due to clouds, wind, and rain, so we headed out with the general thought of heading to some national parks we have never seen – Bryce, Zion, and Capitol Reef.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

We took in two more wildlife refuges without much detour – Buffalo Lake and Las Vegas NWRs. And though the weather was iffy (a mix of sun and clouds and very gusty winds), we managed a few interesting species, including two new ones for us, Lark Buntings and Bullock’s Orioles.

Though we were some distance away in our truck, this Great Horned Owl wasn’t thrilled at our presence
A new species for us, a male Bullock’s Oriole. They were abundant in the scattered groves of Cottonwoods.
Another new species, the Lark Bunting, was seen in small flocks along the fence line

I should mention that we really had no specific itinerary as we went along, other than looking for national forests with what looked like decent dispersed camping, and then hitting some sights along the way, especially areas that had interesting hikes. We usually planned each day no more than one day ahead and often made decisions on the fly, based on what Melissa was finding as she worked her navigation mojo. That is how we ended up heading toward Bandelier National Monument. She saw it was in the general direction we were headed and the images online looked interesting. Plus, the online information mentioned there were Abert’s Squirrels there, and we both really wanted to see one of those tufted-eared rodents (unfortunately, we never saw one).

Looking out at the remaining structures of the village of Tyuonyi of the Ancestral Pueblo people at Bandelier National Monument

We visited the main archeological sites along the Pueblo Loop Trail and then did a side trip to the Alcove House. The village site is down on the valley floor but there are hand dug cavates (cave dwellings) on the face of the cliffs above with stone steps leading to several for easy viewing. The creek is one of the few permanent sources of water in the region, so I can see why the Ancestral Pueblo chose this site – a strip of green in an otherwise parched landscape.

View from below of the Alcove House, an ancient dwelling for an estimated 25 Ancient Pueblo people, high above the floor of Frijoles Canyon
Melissa on one of the four ladders and numerous stone steps used to climb the 140 feet up to the Alcove House

Nearby is Valles Caldera National Preserve, and the online images reminded us of another caldera we love – Yellowstone. So, naturally, we had to head in that direction. We arrived late in the day and saw that this NPS unit has some different rules from the usual park – hunting of elk and turkey is allowed (elk were reintroduced into New Mexico here in the mid-1900’s and this area now has the second largest elk herd in the state), the hours are shorter than most parks, and, as it turned out, they were opening the back country roads to 35 vehicles (first come-first serve) the next morning for the season. So, we went in to the office to get some information, and while were talking to a volunteer, a park vehicle drove up, and out gets a ranger we knew from Yellowstone (she had given our museum groups programs at Old Faithful for several years). She had just started here at Valles Caldera, so it was great catching up and getting a few insider tips.

Our campsite among the boulders in Santa Fe National Forest

Melissa always feels the stress of trying to find just the right campsite – ideally on or near water, high elevation, scenic views, and maybe a combination of meadows and forest. But, even though she researches the maps and satellite images, and looks for online reviews of various areas, you often can’t tell what it is really like until you drive down a potentially bumpy road and see for yourself. We had picked one site that looked good and was on the edge of a steep gorge, but as we stood along what looked like a hiking trail at the edge of the rim, two dirt bikes blasted through the site. Turns out the path was a designated dirt bike trail, so we decided to look elsewhere for a campsite. We finally came upon a forested site surrounded by huge boulders. There were several fire rings, indicating this was a popular spot, so we settled in for the evening.

Without going into too much detail, I’ll share what I saw that afternoon as I was out on “bucket patrol”. As I returned to the truck, walking between two of the boulders, something moved on the ground. It was a very impressive (and totally harmless) Bull Snake about 6 feet in length. I admired its beautiful color and pattern and took a quick video clip as it went on its way.

On our way to this location, we had passed a trailhead along the main road that looked promising, so we headed back down for a look. Being a weekday, it was not very crowded, so we hiked in and we were so glad we did. Las Conchas Trail is an absolutely gorgeous hike along the East Fork of the Jemez River with fantastic rock outcrops and a mix of meadows and conifers all along its length. Elevation here is about 8400 ft but the hike is an easy 4 mile (out and back) stroll with plenty of natural beauty to observe.

Las Conchas Trail, a truly beautiful hike
Small waterfall at the end of the Las Conchas Trail
Rocky Mountain Iris along the trail

The water is crystal clear and allowed us some great fish watching. At a few points along the trail we saw groups of these fish (I believe they are Rio Grande Suckers) in what is probably spawning behavior. Groups of smaller ones (presumably males) in an area, sometimes moving gravel in the stream bottom, and then converging on a larger individual when it would come into the picture (I guess that is a female). We sat at one spot and watched them for about 20 minutes as they glided back and forth in the creek.

The next morning we were in line at the gate of Valles Caldera to secure one of the back country road passes. Most of the people in line were fishermen, although I was later amazed at how tiny the creeks were that these folks were trying to catch trout in. This is one of the newest NPS units, having been officially turned over to the Federal Government in 2014. The terrain reminded us of parts of Yellowstone with vast mountain meadows and conifers. The landscape was shaped by a massive volcanic eruption about 1.25 million years ago followed by a collapse of the volcano (the caldera). Like Yellowstone, early people were drawn to this area for the abundant wildlife and obsidian which was used and widely traded for projectile points and other tools. The land was granted to private ranchers in the late 1800’s and for decades was an active cattle and sheep ranch and used for logging, hunting, geothermal energy exploration, and more. Preserve managers are now working to restore the natural processes n this unique ecosystem.

The view from the entrance of Valles Caldera National Preserve
This is part of the historic cabin district at the preserve. One of the cabins was used in the filming of Longmire, one of our favorite TV shows. This was the sheriff’s cabin in the show.
One of hundreds of Gunnison Prairie Dogs we saw at Valles Caldera
I stopped the truck to ID and take a quick photo of this Swainson’s Hawk
Suddenly, another hawk flew into the scene…
…and mated with the first one! The time stamp on my images showed that the mating only took 20 seconds before the male flew away.
A small herd of Elk leaving the meadow at Valles Caldera
We had to remove all our gear and wipe down the back of the truck after spending all day on the dusty back country roads of Valles Caldera

After spending a couple of days in the high mountains, we packed up and headed into the dry desert environments of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a vast and amazing land that offer such a different take on the West. The beauty and strange (to us) landscapes of Arizona and Utah await…

Sunset at our campsite in Cottonwood Canyon at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument