SIB Travels: Bucket List Birding – Jackson Hole, Wyoming


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.
https://www.fws.gov/refuge/national-elk

Submitted by: Gina Sanders
Photes by: Gina Sanders

Flash of Red on a Gray Day

A flash of red in the trees on a drab, gray winter day catches your eye.  It’s the Northern Cardinal, one of the most recognizable birds in the US. 

A year-round resident in the eastern half of the lower 48 states and continuing south into Mexico, Cardinals make a statement, especially the males.  They’re beautiful, bright and bold.  They’re also the bird to inspire many artistic copies – tea towels, cards and calendars, even the ceramic statue on your grandmother’s coffee table.  

It’s the bird that kick-started the obsession of many future birders, long before you realized how addictive your new passion could be.  If you have feeders in your yard you’ll also notice the cardinal is the early bird – first at the feeders in the morning, and often the last at night.  

Northern Cardinal, Seabrook Island (Photo by Gina Sanders)

But did you ever stop to think about why male cardinals are so red?  And is it your imagination or do they seem to be a brighter red at certain times of the year than others?  

According to The Cornell Lab, Northern Cardinals molt their feathers and grow new ones in late summer and early fall.  The breeding season is over, food is abundant, their old feathers are looking tired and worn.  You may have noticed a Cardinal in the middle of a molt – they’re scruffy, have bare spots of exposed skin on their body, and some even go temporarily bald when they molt their head feathers all at once.  Not their finest moment.

But those ratty old feathers are soon replaced by beautiful new red feathers which reach their peak of brilliance by mid winter.  They definitely stand out on a gray day, or perched in snow covered branches.  

That refreshed brilliant red is also a benefit come breeding season.  One study found that brighter red cardinals tend to mate earlier and nest in higher quality habitats – factors usually associated with more offspring.  

So where does that brilliant red come from?  It comes from carotenoids in their foods – pigments that occur naturally in foods such as red and purple fruits and berries.  Native plants that produce carotenoid rich fruit are best as they also contains fat and proteins so necessary for proper health.  Studies like this remind us that we can help by providing native plants in our environment as they’re most adapted to the local climate, and they tend to have the most nutritious berries and seeds for our local feathered friends.

As for female cardinals, they don’t share the same vibrant red as the males but they’re just as beautiful in their own right with fawn brown feathering and the signature red accents.  The female also does something that many other female songbirds don’t – they sing!  They often sing while on the nest, most likely to communicate with the male as he forages for food.  In fact, the female’s song is often longer and more complex than the male’s.  With all their beauty it’s no wonder the Northern Cardinal was chosen as the state bird for seven states.  

What does the Cardinal mean to you?

For more information about these fabulous birds, check out the sites that inspired this post.

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/overview#

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/are-cardinals-brighter-in-winter

Article Submitted by: Gina Sanders

Calling all Shutterbugs!

If you have photos or short videos of birds taken anywhere on Seabrook Island, we would love to feature them on our Instagram and Facebook pages!

Please include any details you’d like to share – especially the date the image was taken, the species of bird/birds in your photo (or if you need help identifying), the location, and your name so we can give credit where credit is due.

You can email them directly to Gina Sanders at gabbygirl29455@gmail.com, or text to Gina at (864) 979-6181. We try to post at least one photo a day and will post them in the order they’re received.

Thank you everyone, we can’t wait to see your pictures!

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