Friday, August 1, 2014

July 31 (Day 212) - More Jackson birding highlighted by Great gray owl, Grizzly cub, and more moose

Today was another fantastic day around Jackson. The morning was crystal clear and very comfortable, and there was only a splash of rain in the afternoon despite the rather pessimistic projection of thunderstorms. I spent the entire day kicking around Grand Teton NP. I basically covered the same ground as I have the last two days, but today I got some much needed help in my search for the until-today very elusive Great gray owl. The day started out much like yesterday - with moose. I passed a cow/calf combo very early on. They were foraging just off the road. I managed a few shots, but the 400 non-IS f/5.6 lens wasn't the best tool to capture them (too long, too slow). Since they were so close I head to resort to head shots. Everything was really shaded, but I eeked out a nice portrait of the calf. I also saw my first bull moose of the trip, but he scampered into the forest before I could get a shot of him.

Mamma moose

Baby moose

Chipmunk snack time

I spent the remainder of the morning unsuccessfully searching the usual areas for the owl. To add insult to injury, I found out that the bird was seen last night on the opposite side of a stand of trees that I was birding. There was no way I could have known that the owl was putting on a great show just off the main road from which I had detoured. Ugh, but I guess this is how birding goes. You just can't be everywhere at one time! I folded my hand on the owl around 11am and headed for lunch. The popular spot to eat around Grand Teton NP appears to be Dornan's. The view from the deck explains why. The meatball sub wasn't bad either. After lunch I look a short ride to get a better view of the mountains. I then found a nice pine tree back near the owl spot and took a nice after lunch siesta in the shade.

The view from Dornan's

The sage plain below the Tetons

After my snooze, I met owl researcher Katherine G. She has been working to census, monitor, and study Great gray owls. She has an incredible finger on the owl pulse, so when she offered to escort me into some owl-rich areas on her own time this afternoon, I jumped at the chance. We waded into what looked like ideal Great gray habitat: Old growth Douglas fir-dominated, boreal forest. Here are two shots of the terrain through which we walked in search of owls.

Big trees!

Meadows punctuated the big trees.
The owls are often seen hunting in these meadows.

As we were walking around and chatting we walked under a lone tree adjacent to one of the above pictured meadows. Without making a sound, a Great gray launched itself from right above our heads and disappeared behind another stand of trees. It was a crappy view as we only saw the bird flying away from us, but it was nevertheless good enough to count the bird as #512 for 2014! We followed the bird around for a few minutes and we eventually got a decent perched view as it hunkered down behind some bushes in a tiny clearing. We left the bird be and headed off for celebratory ice cream. I must confess that I also had ice cream after lunch, so the funny looks I got from the woman running the ice cream booth were certainly warranted. Katherine deserves an incredible "Thank you". I may have found this bird without her help, but it certainly would have taken appreciably more time and effort than without her!

Great gray owl for #512!

Katherine is not at scary as my "smile" might suggest!

This is the 5th Great gray owl I have seen; the other 4 were seen in Ottawa in January of 2013. On that particular occasion I was able to get some slightly better shots!

With the owl present and accounted for, I spent the afternoon just loafing around the park seeing what I could find. I had lots of Red crossbills, and Olive-sided flycatchers were everywhere. I also heard a Virginia rail to complement the Sora that was still present from yesterday. Clark's nutcrackers were all over today as were Dusky flycatchers and Yellow warblers. The highlight of the afternoon did not come in avian form though. Around 5pm I had walked away form my bike (and my camera) when I heard a large splash in the swamp above which I was birding. I looked down the steep hill to see a Grizzly bear cub wading across the creek at the bottom. I figured he was far enough below me that even if mama was around I could watch him down in the creek from my high perch safely enough. I jogged back to my bike to grab my camera. What surprised me was that by the time I had returned to the spot from which I spotted the cub, he had managed to climb up the steep slope and was now looking right at me. He saw me coming and immediately disappeared back down the slope. I decided not to follow him. If he got up the hill that fast then mom could be just behind him. I had no desire to upset mama and her cubs. That being said, I did from a much greater distance, watch the slope and river for signs of other bears. I did not see anything, but I did not go back to bird that area again. The cub was about the size of a Golden retriever. I have no idea when they become independent from mama bear, but this guy seemed to be doing just fine. Sorry, no won out!

I have now found the most crucial birds in this area. I could still tick Ruffed grouse around here, and I think I will make an effort to find this bird at some point tomorrow. I am going to get some bear spray  so that I am ready in case I run into another bear at any point this summer. $30 is a good investment as far as I am concerned. 

Lastly, these last three days have really helped some ailing portions of my body to heal (particularly my ass). Today was the last day of July, a month in which I rode 1,839 miles. That's an average of 60 miles/day and makes this by far the heaviest riding month of the year to date (I averaged 50 miles/day in February, my next heaviest month - all on flat terrain). The terrain this month was very mountainous, and I spent lots of time bouncing on dirt roads. In short, it was a really tough month, but I did manage to add 22 high-quality bird species. We'll see what happens in August in the next few weeks! It looks as though I will have the time and energy to bow my route out to include Washington state, so if you live up that way and want to help or host me, please email me at!

Map from today. 23 + 4 unmapped miles for 27 total

*Bonus shot* Western wood-pewee from this morning!


  1. Wow, can't believe you got the Great Gray! Next stop: Time to walk some crop fields near Idaho Falls!

    1. Gotta find some good ones.....not sure what's private vs. public.

  2. D - that last photo you got up in Canada of that GGO is exactly the reason I got into birding. As a photographer, I love the challenge of capturing everything and anything. Typically people and sunsets, but it was looking around the internets when I saw some fantastic BIF owl photos coming at the camera that I told my wife, "Hey, I'm going to head out and get some owl photos real quick. Be back in a couple hours". Little did I realize that owls were nocturnal, but the last thing they're going to do is pose for you like this coming at the camera. I met up with a local ornithologist (Oct 2012) who was kind enough to lead me to a probable barn owl roost that she had been studying. I got some horrible photos of the owl, but then she said, "OH, check that out... a white-tailed kite!" "So." "Well, that bird is kind of rare in this area". "Really?". That right there made me think "how cool is it that some birds here are common, and others are rare or unusual." That lead me to my first field guide, and a long journey of learning calls, behaviors, patterns, guessing habitat, etc. It's like a treasure hunt where you don't always know what or where the treasure will be, but it's always a prize when you find it.

    Still don't have my owl shot. Congrats on the GGO.

  3. I passed you on my motorcycle when you were leaving the Logan, Utah area. I remember thinking that my way was much easier than yours. I did not know what you were up to until I saw a story about you in the local paper. My wife and I have spent many hours over many, many days and years in the search of the Great Grey. We photographed one in the area you were in and found a pair at Emma Matilda lake also. Have a safe birding ride. May pass you again but will wave next time!

  4. Don't forget to double-check the chipmunks if you haven't done it yet this far west. There are many different species in North America and that chipmunk is not an Eastern Chipmunk. Some easy mammals lifers possible.

  5. I'm glad you got to meet Katherine! She's such a wonderful person! I worked with her a couple summers ago and she was always so nice.