It all started around the dinner table one night. We were at the beach with friends and started talking about travel destinations still on our bucket list when Jackson Hole, Wyoming came up. Of the four of us, I was the only one who’d been to Wyoming but that was years ago and I really looked forward to the return trip.
I’m usually more of a warm-weather girl, but there’s something magical about winter in Wyoming. Snow is measured in feet, icicles hang from every rooftop, and wildlife is all around. With only six people per square mile in Wyoming (South Carolina averages 154 in case you’re wondering) the quiet, wide open spaces have a way of melting away your stress.
My husband and friends were excited to see Yellowstone National Park, to go snowmobiling, and of course to see the town of Jackson. For me, my first thought was birds! Which birds would be spending the winter in Wyoming that were not yet on my life list?
We were there only a few hours when I found a new lifer – the Black-billed Magpie. A combination of black and white, with a blue gloss on the wings and long tail, their flashy appearance was very eye-catching, and they were everywhere! Like the crows of SC, you didn’t have to look very far to spot one in the trees or along the roadside.
Day two took us to Yellowstone National Park on a snow coach tour. Since Yellowstone is closed to cars in the winter, snowmobiles and snow coaches are the best way to see the park. And I must admit a 12 hour day in 20 degrees is much more comfortable inside a coach. Bison and coyotes were the first of our wildlife sightings that day and the birds du jour were the Common Raven and Common Merganser. Raven calls filled the air and soon became a familiar sound. Two Coyotes ran alongside us for a bit before drifting off through the trees, and a family of bison decided we could stop and wait for them to cross the road. Yellowstone is a true highlight and well worth the long day.
On the drive back to Jackson we saw two elegant Trumpeter Swans swimming in a nearby river. Unfortunately, there was no time to take a picture but a good look at them from the car gave me another addition to my life list.
Gros Ventre was the next area to explore. We spent seven hours on snow mobiles riding through pristine trails surrounded by the Gros Ventre mountains and only saw three other people all day. Total and complete silence – we were definitely off the grid. We passed several private ranches and realized life is very different here. Satellite phones and internet are the primary forms of communication and calling 911 gets you a helicopter, weather permitting, and maybe even Harrison Ford! He lives in the area and generously volunteers with local emergency rescue teams. Can you imagine Indiana Jones coming to your rescue?! As for the wildlife, sheep and rams clinging to the sides of mountains were the order of the day and the only bird we saw was a magnificent Golden Eagle circling over the river. It was another new lifer for me so I was thrilled.
Our last full day included a sleigh ride through the National Elk Refuge. An estimated 6000 elk were wintering on the refuge the day we were there and while they’re wary of people they completely ignore the horse drawn sleighs, making it a convenient way to see them up close. As for the feathered residents we saw Common Goldeneye ducks, the ever-present Ravens, and two Bald Eagles, who kept a close eye on us from a nearby tree.
If you find yourself in the area be sure and stop by the National Elk Refuge & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center. The naturalists and park rangers who work there are a wonderful resource and even offer free nature tours of the area during the winter. Garrett Moon is the birding expert and was extremely helpful in giving us information about the best places, and times, to find local birds. Here’s a tip – the best time to see migrating birds in Wyoming is mid May.
Our long weekend flew by and it was soon time to come home. Was I disappointed that I didn’t see more birds? Not really. We were blessed to have beautiful weather, to spend time with good friends, and thankful to see as much as we did. And now I have a good excuse to go back in May.
To learn more, check out this link for the Visitor Center.
Submitted by: Gina Sanders
Photes by: Gina Sanders