Sigrid Sanders
All photos ©2009 Clate Sanders - All rights reserved.  
 Winter Wildlife in Yellowstone

Page 4 of 5

Mountain Chickadee

Rest stops were always welcome. Sometimes the facilities were heated, with modern conveniences. More often not. At one stop where we waited outside breezy outhouses with long lines of snowmobilers as well as members of our own group, I was particularly conscious of how long it took me to get free enough from my gear – gloves, scarf, jacket, bibs, long underwear – and then get back into it all, with a line of others waiting outside the whole time. Not that anyone ever seemed impatient.

In this case, the long lines also meant time enough to walk around for a while afterwards. I heard a call that was familiar enough to recognize, and saw a small bird fly into a group of tall pines. It was a Mountain Chickadee – another life bird for me – with a black stripe through the eye, a white eyebrow and white cheeks, black cap and black throat. While our Carolina chickadees have a fairly crisp, clear chick-a-dee-dee-dee call, the mountain chickadee’s call was similar in pattern but sounded lower and much more hoarse or scratchy, with an almost hissing quality, especially toward the end.

Late in the afternoon, we stopped at West Thumb Geyser Basin, on the shore of the “west thumb” of Yellowstone Lake. A boardwalk made it easy to weave among colorful hot springs, geysers and mud pots, passing through clouds of sulphurous steam and through the fantastical shapes of trees covered in dream-like rime. The hot springs here, as at Mammoth Hot Springs, were brightly colored by cyanobacteria and other heat-loving microbes.

Driving on, after passing over the Continental Divide, we arrived at the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful just in time to see an eruption of the most famous geyser. We had planned to catch the next one too, around sunset, but we misjudged the time and missed it.

Upper Geyser Basin Walk

After a brief introduction to Yellowstone’s unique geology and geothermal features the next morning, we stepped out of the lodge into a world of freshly fallen snow that had come overnight. Under a soft gray sky, with light snow still drifting down, we followed our guides on trails that wound around Old Faithful and through the geyser basin.

As we walked, the sky cleared and by mid morning became intensely blue, but it remained very cold – with a strong wind that made the cold biting. It was hard to look around and appreciate what we were seeing because we had to keep our eyes glued to the path beneath our feet. Stepping off the hard-packed trail – as I and others did more than once – meant sinking thigh-deep into treacherously soft, clinging snow. So we followed like bison in the tracks of our leaders.

It felt like being on another planet or walking in a dream – the misty white of the snow, the biting cold and wind, the intense and immense quiet, and the steam rising all around from blue and green hot springs, sometimes walking through its warm, wet feel and smelling the whiff of sulphur, the springs ringed in clay-red and yellow and bruised purple, and small geysers erupting with a hissing sound, sending up roiling clouds of pale brown steam. I don’t remember the names of most. Castle Geyser, a large, lumpy brown hulk, was quiet as we passed it. Lion Geyser erupted with a low, rumbling, hissing roar.

On the whole, I was less attentive to the information about geothermal features and the unique geological forces at work here – and more captivated by the strange and fascinating experience of simply being here. In retrospect, I regret that I did not read more about the geology before coming, so that I would have been better prepared to absorb it. As it was, I enjoyed it greatly, but I’m sure I missed a lot.

Several bison were scattered around the hot springs and geysers, perhaps because the warm ground made browsing more accessible. One was old, gaunt and ragged, its heavy head hanging toward the warm, wet steam.

We stopped to watch four ravens soaring over a tree-covered, snowy ridge, silent, though many other times we heard their hoarse, guttural calls.

Clark’s Nutcracker

As we headed back to the lodge, nearing the end of a full morning’s walk, a bird that looked something like a jay, but flashing white and black, flew across an expanse of snow. It perched in the top of an evergreen tree and seemed almost to pose there – a Clark’s Nutcracker. Turning its head into profile, it showed a long, sharp, dark bill, pearl-gray head, breast and belly, black wings – and then it flew, giving us another striking view of it in flight – long, strong wings and a spread tail that was white on the edges, black in the middle.

After lunch at the lodge and a short rest, we spent the afternoon snowshoeing with a few others from our group through the woods around the Old Faithful Lodge. At the end of the day I was so tired I could barely hold my head up through dinner, and definitely didn’t do very well at holding up my end of a conversation – but it was worth it. That couple of hours of being on foot in the hushed, snowy woods was different from any other experience on the trip, because here we were out in the woods just having a good time – sort of in the picture, rather than watching or looking at it.

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