Thursday, April 24, 2008

Springtime in Yellowstone

Majestic mountains, cascading waterfalls, bears, wolves and buffalo are some of the reasons people travel to Yellowstone National Park, my wife Debbie and I were no exception. The purpose of our springtime journey to the Wyoming Park was to photograph the iconic wolf, moose, elk and antelope. They were all there, but to our surprise, we discovered and focused on a wonderful world of birds, flowers and smaller, more common animals.

We found late April into early May to be a great time to visit, just as the park is bursting with new life and color. In the cool breeze of Spring, we found unexpected treasures at a small freshwater lake in the mountains of northern Yellowstone. We had the good fortune so witness the courtship of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

In Yellowstone, tourists have a curious habit of stopping whenever they see wildlife anywhere near the road. They come to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road, make U-turns, and any number of other vehicle maneuvers to get a good view. Other tourists, in turn, stop behind, or pull into the other lane, scanning the surrounding woodland for any sign of life. It’s kind of like an animal version of the paparazzi hunting for a celebrity on Rodeo Drive. Often they yell out “whaddya lookin’ at?” if there isn’t an immediately recognizable large animal. If someone gets out of his or her car with a camera, it is the signal that there must be something great. Soon a small mob will form to approach whatever animal is nearby, shutters clicking as the strobes fill in the shadows.

On our second day we had just finished breakfast and were driving north, through the park toward Mammoth Hot Springs, when we sighted a car on the side of the road. Our excitement increased as we saw a man with a camera, and no other cars! A clear sign, in the Yellowstone tourist language, that something special must be visible. As we pulled over to the side of the road, we quickly scanned the horizon, a trick we learned while waiting in backups along the highway and watching other drivers. Other than a small lake with tall reeds we didn’t see any large animals. We checked to see if we could see which way the photographer was looking. Other cars were now starting to pull off both sides of the road around us at haphazard angles. The photographer began moving back to his car, camera down around his neck, when I rolled down my window I was about to join the Yellowstone paparazzi and yell “whaddaya lookin’ at?” he looked in my direction and shook his head side to side. He began walking back to his car.

Other cars caught the headshake and started to pull back onto the highway, hoping to be the lead car for the next sighting. As the last car was pulling out, my window was still down, I heard the beautiful sounds of a chorus whistling and tweeting down the embankment just ahead of me. As we listened to the variety of the bird’s calls, we saw flashes of yellow and black with streaks of white as a number of birds flew from reed to reed.

I glanced back to the road as the photographer who brought our attention to this area was pulling back onto the road. I checked the horizon again wondering what brought him out of the car when the sounds of the birds all around the small lake captivated me once again. I had never heard such wonderful sounds. I ventured out of the car mounting my camera on the tripod and moved quickly down the embankment. I was soon out of sight of the cars passing on the road, a good thing, since I had no idea what type of riot would ensue if people saw me with a camera and tripod outside of my car.

The male birds were so colorful and animated that they didn’t seem to notice my presence. At one point, a male Yellow-headed Blackbird landed on a reed directly in front of me. The bird was so close that my telephoto lens wouldn’t focus. While watching the male, I heard rustling noises in the undergrowth of the tall grasses near the edge of the water. After about 45 minutes, which seemed like only 10, I noticed a correlation between the arrival of the male on the reed and the rustling sounds from below. The male would hop from the reed to the ground and jump through the tall grasses in pursuit of a mate.

While I was enjoying the bird sounds and watching flashes of yellow bounce from reed to reed then out of sight, my wife was waiting patiently by the car, a clear signal for passersby to stop and ask the familiar question of what she was looking at. When she replied that, there were dozens of beautiful Yellow-headed Blackbirds they drove off. Some looked at her as if she was not all there as if to say, “Birds! You can see birds anywhere this is Yellowstone.”

I will always be grateful to the anonymous photographer who, for whatever reason, was near the lake and brought our attention to the wonderful birds and their Spring dance among the reeds.

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