Friday, August 6, 2010

Life Mammal at Long Range

Friday, August 6, 2010
After a delightful week in North Dakota at The Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival (yes, you should go), the family and I headed west into the Rocky Mountains. Our ultimate destination was to be Yellowstone National Park, a place none of us had ever visited. I will be sharing some of the highlights of that trip, but they will not always be in chronological order. This is due to a few reasons:

1. My brain does not always work chronologically.
3. Some stories demand to be told NOW.
2. My brain does not always work chronologically.

We were told by friends that we should enter the park through Beartooth Pass, which sounded ominous enough in name only. When this bit of travel advice was followed by the phrase "if the road is plowed and open this early in June," it added an additional schpritz of foreboding to the mix.

It took a long time to drive from Medora, North Dakota to Beartooth Pass in Montana. Along the way we stopped at a national historic site: Pompey's Pillar. I'll save that post for another day. Today I want to talk about starting out in the flatlands of North Dakota and driving along a highway through the snow-capped mountains.

This was not a casual lah-tee-dah drive along a mountain road. This was The Beartooth Highway, one of the most challenging high-elevation drives in North America. The Beartooth Highway cuts across and around parts of the Absaroka and Beartooth mountains which have many, many peaks topping 12,000 feet (which is an elevation that is palpable in the head and lungs for us relative flatlanders).

We were headed for Yellowstone National Park and our primary targeted species were not birds, but mammals. I'd never seen a live, wild bear of any species and YNP promised a chance to see two: grizzly and black bear. But before we could get to the park's entrance, we had to traverse Beartooth Pass.

Ears popping and lungs gasping both at the scenery and at the thin mountain air, we climbed ever upward on the snaky mountain two-lane. Soon we were hitting patches of roadside snow—sometimes the snow was piled so high it formed eight-foot-high walls on either side of the road. American pipits and mountain bluebirds drank from melt pools. The croaks of ravens could be heard when our vehicle slowed to navigate a turn. Yellow-bellied marmots (lifers for the kids) stared at us with eyes both wary and weary. I spied a distant Clark's nutcracker flying away over a canyon—everyone else missed it. So we pulled into a roadside rest and scenic overlook to empty our bladders and fill our eyes with purple mountains majesty.

Julie and Liam scan for a small flock of mountain bluebirds.

While Julie and the kids sought relief, I got my spotting scope out and began scanning a distant hillside where a sole patch of white seemed out of place. There was no snow anywhere else on the west-facing mountainside, which struck me as odd. What WAS that thing? Did I just see it move?

One scope glance mostly confirmed my hunch—that this was a mountain goat grazing on the tundra-like meadow. Yes, it was moving—and casting a shadow.
A digiscoped image of the mysterious white spot.

Then a second glance revealed one large white dot and two smaller ones—mountain goat kids!!!
One big white blob and two small ones!

I quickly shouted for Julie and our own kids to come and see. "Wow! Awesome! Ohhh they're SO CUTE!" were the reactions I got. Within seconds we had a half-circle of strangers around us asking for a look in the scope. This was a scene that was to be repeated many times in Yellowstone during the ensuing days. I'd see something, or Julie would, or Phoebe would, or Liam would—we'd train the Leica spotting scope on the creature and, because we could not help remarking, gasping, or high-five-ing, our fellow travelers would notice and come to see what all the commotion was about. Most folks were nice and asked politely for a look. Others just walked up, shouldered their way in, and grabbed a look. Presumably these people thought that we were Park Service employees sent out into the field to spot and identify wildlife for the touristy public. It was fine with us.
A cropped view of what is presumably an adult female and her two kids.

The mountain goats were a life mammal for 75 percent of our family unit (I'd seen them poorly in Alaska in the late 1990s). Though they were at a great distance, we still got a nice look thanks to our trusty scope. And if we hadn't had all that water to drink along the way, who knows, we might not have pulled over near the top of Beartooth Pass.

Posing with Liam and Phoebe for an áprés-goat shot.


On August 6, 2010 at 4:28 PM Kim said...

our first mountain goat was in SD at MT. Rushmore. My daughter (5 at the time), was thrilled at the mom and young one grazing by the side of the road. But the best was her reaction to the mom "this is my first encounter with a radio collared animal" Seriously, her words, not mine. It was too cute.

On August 7, 2010 at 8:15 PM Anne said...

Hey, so you made it to Wyoming!! In all of my trips out that way, I've never driven the Beartooth Highway. But I'm planning on it now. Don't tell me you went to Yellowstone and didn't get down to the Tetons?

On August 8, 2010 at 12:52 PM sciencedude said...

Don't forget that life is not linear but cyclic. Not to mention that time is not a linear fixed construct. Thanks Einstein!

On August 9, 2010 at 11:57 AM littleorangeguy said...

My first trip ever to BC I saw a juvenile eagle very close by, elk all along the highway, and mountain goats (pretty darn close up ) coming through the Kootenay Pass.

Swear to God, as I came through the pass en route back to the airport I thought to myself, "all I've missed on this trip was a bear." Thirty feet ahead, BANG. Well, not quite bang, you get the idea. That was a magical trip.

I hope --I trust-- you got your bear.

On August 11, 2010 at 8:47 PM Nita said...

The only road that is close to comparing to the Beartooth is Going to the Sun in Glacier NP.Both are totally awesome!Glad you got to travel it.

On August 13, 2010 at 10:48 PM DJB's Photo Adventures said...

If you ever come down to Colorado after your North Dakota adventures, Mount Evans, has lots of close up views of Mountains Goats with kids and you can also see Big Horn Sheep near the top. There is also, for the lucky birder White-tailed Ptarmigan.

On August 16, 2010 at 7:33 PM Anonymous said...

Looking foward to your pictures of Yellowstone.
Love the picture of you with Phoebe and Liam.
Thanks for sharing.
Lynda in Michigan.