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Swans, Eagles and Yellowstone's Other Birds

Winter in Yellowstone National Park offers harsh weather, adventurous travel and incredible birding.

Louann W. Murray & Victor Leipzig

Bald Eagle

Large mammals, geysers and hot springs generally define Yellowstone National Park. We wanted a different Yellowstone experience, so we decided to look for birds in the dead of winter.

"You're crazy," our friends insisted.

"But," we explained, "we're going to be with park ranger Terry McEneaney on snowmobiles all day." Now they were sure we were nuts.

We volunteered to help Terry census the park's Trumpeter Swans. Later, we would go with him on his weekly Bald Eagle survey.

Our friends tried to dissuade us. They warned us that Yellowstone doesn't just freeze in the winter; it blasts visitors with temperatures down to 30 degrees below zero, to say nothing of the wind-chill factor on a snowmobile.

This would definitely be an adventure of a lifetime — if we survived.

Yellowstone: Weather & All
We checked the weather report before we left. Yellowstone received a couple feet of fresh snow, and a series of major winter storms were headed out of the Arctic. The first was due to hit the night we arrived.

We bid farewell to a balmy Southern California day and hopped on a Delta flight to Bozeman, Montana. When we stepped onto the tarmac of the Gallatin Field Airport in Bozeman, an icy wind laced with snowflakes greeted us. We gasped in shock, but the locals remarked how warm it was. That's when I really began to worry.

We had booked our first night in the historic Murray Hotel in Livingstone, a half-hour from Bozeman. The garish neon sign didn't look very historic, but the lobby dripped with old West ambiance. We rode the ancient glassed-in, hand-crank elevator vvto our room — a spacious Victorian dream. Before turning in, we soaked in the hot tub on the snowy hotel roof. We felt quite brave to be outdoors in 25-degree weather.

The next day, we arrived at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel about noon. We planned to practice snowmobiling before heading out with Terry the next day. Finding high-waisted overalls, jackets, boots, gloves and helmets that fit took longer than we expected, but we reasoned that taking the extra time now to find the right size would pay off in comfort later.

After a quick run around the hut, we took off on the bright blue Yamaha Venture, Vic driving, me in back. He had a heater for his feet plus heated handlegrips. I had him as a wind-break. We were astonished at how comfortably warm we were, and we were pleased to find that the snowmobile "trails" were actually the park's well-marked, snow-packed road system.

We ate breakfast before the first light touched the elk grazing outside the window. In the pre-dawn cold, steam swirled skyward off Mammoth Terrace with furious intensity. We set off for the rental hut and donned snowmobile suits over turtlenecks, sweatshirts and insulated pants.

Terry approached us wearing a ranger-green snowmobile suit. Every week during the winter, Terry surveys the park's swan population. As Yellowstone's bird biologist, Terry also keeps track of 16 Peregrine Falcon eyries during the summer (reaching one involves a 52-mile, round-trip hike), monitors the park's Great Blue Herons and other species of "special concern," and conducts breeding bird censuses and point counts. He also keeps track of the Bald Eagles in the area.

Most of the park's swans are Trumpeters, but a few smaller Tundra Swans are occasionally present. Numbers peak in the fall with migration, then taper off as the rivers and creeks freeze over. The migratory population moves on to Idaho until only the small resident breeding population remains.

Although Trumpeter Swans were never listed as endangered, their population dipped to about 100 individuals in the 1930s. Since then, the population has rebounded, with most individuals breeding in Alaska. An important part of Terry's job is monitoring the population that passes through the park. He said the winter population is usually in the hundreds but can reach 1,500. Terry planned to cover the Madison, Firehole and Yellowstone Rivers on this run, which meant that we would be out all day.

"All the rangers who spend any time on snowmobiles hate them," he said. "We all wear back braces. I look at these guys in their 60s who are still snowmobiling. In a few years, they're all going to have back trouble." Snowmobiles are fun for occasional use, but constant travel over moguls can take a toll on the joints.

Terry told us to stay behind him but not too close and, when he moved to the left side of the road, to follow. He had one additional nugget of wisdom for us before we set off on our adventure: "Never pass up a restroom or a chance to gas up."

Knowing that this was our first trip to Yellowstone in winter, Terry stopped at all the scenic highlights. We turned off our noisy machines at Frying Pan Springs to hear the pop and sizzle of the gas bubbles in the shallow spring. We roared past elk and bison, geese and goldeneyes but stopped to enjoy the magnificent cascade of Gibbon Falls.

The days of unrestricted snowmobiles in Yellowstone by the public might be limited. "We're working on ways to limit snowmobiles in the park," Terry said. "The noise is awful, and they pollute a hundred times worse than automobiles." For him, though, they are a necessary evil to get him where he needs to be for his swan censuses.

The birding along the Madison River was great. Rafts of Common and Barrow's Goldeneyes floated down the river while herds of bison grazed in the snow meadows behind them. While I watched the bison sweep aside snow to make their feeding craters, two Bald Eagles and one Golden flew by. But we found only three Trumpeters on the river, fewer than usual.

After lunch, we headed down the Firehole River on a narrow, heavily wooded side road. We found more swans and goldeneyes by spectacular Firehole Falls, with an unexpected bonus of a female Bald Eagle drying her feathers in a tree directly above us. After a morning of fishing, she fluffed and preened in a gently falling snow.

We proceeded to the forest edge and looked out over the snowy hell of Lower Geyser Basin. The landscape was strikingly monochrome, with a uniformly gray sky, stark white meadows bisected by black streams, and seemingly endless stands of evergreens so dark they appeared black. The 1988 fires of Yellowstone had left vast expanses of tree skeletons. They stood straight in the face of the gathering storm. Across the frozen expanse of meadow, an occasional tan stem of dried grass saluted weakly in the wind.

It was well into the afternoon, and we had miles yet to cover. We left Firehole and headed east to Canyon Village on a kidney-mashing, mogul-jumping, high-speed dash across the Central Plateau. After gassing up at Canyon, we headed south down the magnificent Hayden Valley and the Yellowstone River. This area promised more swans.

At Lower Yellowstone Falls, we hiked to an overlook for a stunning winter view of the partially frozen cascade. The snowfall muted the hot ochers and umbers of the canyon wall to a subdued peach tone.

Terry said he normally gets about 20 swans on the Madison and 100 on the Yellowstone River this time of year. The numbers on the Madison had been low, but the Yellowstone made up for it. Scores of white adults and gray cygnets gracefully dipped their heads under the frigid waters of the river while snowflakes drifted onto their backs. The air was filled with soft honking. More swans floated with their heads tucked under their wings.

The really great swan area on the Yellowstone involves a strenuous hike down a steep and snowy slope. Vic and Terry scrambled down the slope and were rewarded with a view of 140 Trumpeters! Terry attributed the large number of swans this late in the year to El Nino. The warmer-than-usual winter resulted in more water staying open later in the season, and the swans were taking advantage of it. They wouldn't leave until the river had frozen over completely.

On the way back, we passed through the warm and pleasantly steamy sulfur smell of the Black Cauldron. The wan afternoon light and intensifying snowstorm reduced visibility. We could see that the bison in the meadow now had a solid coat of snow on their backs. As we raced against the setting sun, our spines jammed back and forth and up and down like accordions playing "Lady of Spain" in double time.

It was now dark, and we were outrunning our headlights, speeding through the driving snow. We hit moguls at a bone-jarring 55 mph, and my arms ached from holding onto the handles beneath me. The temperatures were in the low 20s, with a wind chill in the -30s.

Incredibly, we weren't all that cold. Our insulated jackets, pants, gloves and boots were fabulous. It was well after dark when we pulled in to the rental hut compound. Vic calculated that with all our scenic detours, we had traveled 158 miles.

We arranged to meet Terry in two days to help him with his Bald Eagle survey. Although we thoroughly enjoyed our snowmobile adventure, we were relieved to learn that the eagle count would be done from a park service Chevy Suburban.

One Last Bird
At the end of the valley, we headed home, thinking our birding was over. But on the way back, Adrienne yelled out, "Pygmy-owl!" Terry slid to a halt, got out the spotting scope and, sure enough, there was a Northern Pygmy-owl. The cute little thing just perched there dozing while we took turns looking through the scope. What an incredibly rare find and a wonderful way to end an incredible day.

The next morning was our last at Yellowstone, so we decided to ride the hotel shuttle to the top of Mammoth Hot Springs and hike down in the gently falling snow. Steam from the springs had frosted every branch, every pine needle and every blade of grass in the area. Winter wonderland didn't come close to describing the incredible beauty of the scene.

Yellowstone during snow season doesn't offer huge numbers of birds or a large variety of species. The greatest diversity of birds in the park occurs from early June to mid-July and again from mid-August to mid-September; the greatest number of birds is found from mid-July to early September. For truly exciting and spectacularly beautiful birding, though, go in the dead of winter. You'd be crazy not to.

Check out more birding hotspots here.

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Posted: November 1, 2013, 5:15 p.m. PDT

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