Going to the Birds

Some of the valley’s smallest animals are its most interesting.

By Whitney Royster
Bird photography by Thomas Stanton

Sage grouse

Sage grouse

FEA_Birds_02IN JACKSON HOLE, creatures that form gangs and chase invaders live in places many of us overlook. They would eat us, if given the chance. These animals are not glamorous predators like wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions. Nor are they the microscopic bacterium and worms that have evolved to live in Yellowstone’s thermal waters. They are birds, and this valley is home to about three hundred species of them.

With their egg-laying abilities and feathers, birds are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs, and some breeds are capable of amazing things. The Swainson’s hawk migrates up to 14,000 miles, which often takes two months. Peregrine falcons can reach speeds of up to 240 miles per hour. A great gray owl can hear and capture tiny prey beneath two feet of snow. Even the seemingly innocuous robin—male robins, at least—may fight another robin to the death in a bid for territory. That territory could be your backyard.

“Birds have evolved to occupy every niche there is on the planet, from Antarctica to deserts, ” says Bert Raynes, who long ago established himself as the valley’s bird guru. He has written seven books on bird and wildlife watching, and writes a related column for the local Jackson Hole News&Guide newspaper. He’s done the latter for more than thirty years.

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IT’S NATURAL THAT residents and visitors alike notice the valley’s larger animals first. There are only a handful of places in the world you can see moose, elk, bison, black and grizzly bears, and wolves in the same area. And, as Raynes says, birds are everywhere. For those with the patience and curiosity, Jackson Hole has unique birds as well as high concentrations of common birds to watch.

Take magpies—the large black, white, and shimmering-green birds seen and heard (their call sounds like a staccato laugh) around the valley. These birds, which usually grow to have a wingspan of up to twenty-four inches and can live to be six years old, are thought to be among the animal kingdom’s most intelligent creatures (not just among the most intelligent birds). Their brain-to-body ratio is similar to that of apes and dolphins. To thwart other birds that would steal their caches of food, magpies often set up fake ones.

Susan Patla is one of four nongame biologists for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. For nearly twenty years she has focused on nesting populations of bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Patla has also studied the northern goshawk, Canada lynx, and harlequin duck. Magpies, in particular, fascinate her. “They form gangs so they can invade territories,” she says. These “gangs” are typically made up of young males, and they have a hierarchy, including an alpha male responsible for chasing away predators like hawks. Patla says magpies recognize individuals within their group, and sometimes gather around one that has died. They have been observed having funeral-like rituals.

It’s the observation of behaviors like this in birds that most often captivates bird-watchers. Ben Hahn, who considers himself a “novice to journeyman” birder, recounts the time he fed a black-capped chickadee in his yard from his hand. This bird, common in the valley, has a gray body and distinctive black cap and bib. “This chickadee just starts beaking the side of my hand,” Hahn says. He later called Raynes and asked what the bird was doing: “Bert said, ‘He’s testing to see if you’re edible.’ ”

This boldness of character—a half-pound bird testing an adult human as food—is part of what makes bird watching so rewarding for people like Hahn. “They can be noble, they can be scary, they can be goofy, they can be very anthropomorphic,” he says. “I don’t see it as an option not to love them. Once you become aware of them, it’s impossible to ignore them.”

BIRDS ARE JUST about everywhere—from the urban streets of Manhattan to the high altitudes of the Tetons. In his 1995 book, Valley So Sweet, Raynes describes birding: “I suppose, for me, it’s a great excuse to be outdoors. It also compels me, almost literally, to look at other aspects of natural history: weather, seasons, trees, shrubs, streams, ponds, elevations, daily cycles, migration, predator/prey relationships, population dynamics. On and on.”
Throughout North America, there are about nine hundred species of birds. The best time for birders in Jackson Hole is late spring and early summer.
Many species migrate through; some stay for the summer.

“We are unique because we are in a boreal forest habitat,” Patla says. A boreal forest is coniferous, with rivers and lakes, and spreads to Canada just south of the Arctic and down the Rocky Mountains.

Because of the vertical rise of the Tetons and Gros Ventres, the valley is also home to birds that are “elevational migrants,” like the black rosy finch and even the mountain chickadee (similar to the black-capped chickadee but with a stripe of white near its cap). Elevational migrants live in the same area year-round, but spend summers high in the mountains and winters down in the valley. The black rosy finch—about six inches long with a dark brown back, breast, and neck, pink on its belly and wings and gray on its crown—spends summers and nests at altitudes above 10,000 feet. When the weather turns harsh in winter, the finch migrates lower and lives in cracks in rocks in the valley. It is FEA_Birds_04one of the least-studied birds because of the inaccessibility of its habitat. (Studies have begun on it in the Teton Range, though.)

Watching for the arrival and departure of birds puts people in tune with the changing of the seasons. Patla likes to look for mountain bluebirds, which stop in to the valley in February, on their way from Mexico to their spring/summer homes in the U.S. and Canada. In late winter you can see them in the bird boxes along the fence between the National Elk Refuge and Highway 89/191. In spring she watches for yellow and yellow-rumped warblers. The latter—which live on the edges of forests, like up Cache Creek—have bright yellow just above their tail feathers, on their throats, and under their wings.

Osprey migrate to the valley in summer from as far away as Mexico and Central and South America. See their nests atop telephone poles near the Snake River at the junction of Highways 22 and 190. Along the Snake River’s banks, watch spotted sandpipers bobbing and walking with their long bills in the tall grasses. The valley’s hummingbirds—about four species summer here—can live as far away as Central America in the winter.

Bernie McHugh, who is active in the Jackson Hole Bird and Nature Club and has served on wildlife conservation boards, got into bird watching to spend time with his wife, a botanist. He likes to watch for western tanagers in spring, as they are a harbinger of summer. These bright yellow birds, similar to warblers because of the color on their bodies, winter in Mexico and Central America and show up in the valley sometime in May, a time of year when they stand out in the reawakening landscape. (They are bigger than a warbler, have more yellow on their bodies, and bands of yellow on their wings. Males have a red head.) Tanagers like the forest, too, and are often high in trees and above the valley floor. They stick around through the summer and usually begin their trip south in September.

McHugh grew up as a city kid. “I literally thought all the wildlife was in the Arctic or Africa,” he says. “For me to discover birds was a way for me to be comfortable in the outdoors.”

LIKE THE BIRDS they watch, birders, too, migrate, for the chance to nourish their hobby. While it is the big mammals that most people come here to see, there is a subset that focuses on the keystone species of our winged wildlife: trumpeter swans, sage grouse, bald eagles, and the great gray owl. The latter is one of the biggest members of the owl family, with a wingspan that can reach more than four feet. Its preferred habitat is trees next to open meadows or bogs, like the areas around the banks of the Snake River. Great grays, like most owls, are secretive and nocturnal; they hunt at dusk and dawn.

Many people think the bald eagle, our national symbol, is the most exciting bird to spot in the valley. These birds, on the brink of extinction in the early twentieth century, were put on the endangered species list in most of the Lower 48 in 1978. By the turn of the twenty-first century, though, there were upwards of 8,000 nesting pairs (from a low of about 400). In 2007 they were removed from the endangered species list. The Snake River corridor is dense with a year-round bald eagle population. Look for the birds, which can have wingspans up to eight feet, in dead trees along the river. They are distinguishable because of their white heads. There are about seventy nesting pairs of bald eagles in western Wyoming, mostly along the Snake and Green rivers.

Golden eagles also live here. They prefer open areas, usually nest in rocks, and don’t have the white head that bald eagles do. Because they are true hunters—versus bald eagles, which do more scavenging than hunting—their beaks are huge. Golden eagles are bigger than bald eagles. These fierce predators prey on mammals like marmots and hares. It’s been reported by ranchers that they have taken newborn calves.

And then there are trumpeter swans. These giant white birds—North America’s largest waterfowl, they can have a wingspan up to seven feet, be as tall as four feet, and weigh up to thirty-eight pounds—were hunted to near-extinction in the early twentieth century. (Swanskins were used to make ladies’ powder puffs, and feathers were used for details on fine hats.) In Jackson Hole, conservation projects have focused on acquiring shallow wetlands, the preferred habitat for trumpeters. The valley’s population of these birds in 2015 was 212 adults; more are here in winter than summer. (Some migrate to the interior of Canada for summer, while others stay in the valley.) The best places to see them in summer are on the ponds near the entrance of Rafter J, a subdivision between Jackson and Hoback Junction, and off South Park Loop Road.

The greater sage grouse, recently considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, mates and lives in Jackson Hole. These birds live year-round in open sage fields, like those off U.S. 191 around Jackson Hole Airport. They are famous for their elaborate mating ritual, which happens in early spring: Males put on a strutting display, puffing out their chest and fanning their pointed tail feathers.

It’s not just the variety of birds found in Jackson Hole that makes the area unique, but that these birds live in their natural environment. Hahn says the environment “has not been utterly disrupted and destroyed. They’re living in harmony with an ecosystem that’s relatively intact.”

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COMMON TO ALL birders seems to be this: It’s not important to know every species you watch or to know every behavior. What’s important is that you notice. “You need to be able to slow down and describe for yourself what’s going on,” Hahn says. “You need to cultivate patience.”

Raynes likes to watch birds come and go at his feeder. The chickadees, he says, almost never miss a perch—in wind, quiet, or storms. They select a viable seed in a moment, pluck it, and fly off. “It’s so casual,” he says. “And I think to myself, I can’t do that.”

“I can think of very few other wildlife observation opportunities like coming on some birds or having some birds come to a window feeder,” Raynes says. “You get a chance to watch the little critter exhibit all sorts of behavior, from recognition of a source of food to competition.” Patla says: “When you become a listener, you realize how much people in modern society block out sounds. We are exposed to a lot of sounds. What we don’t know, we tend to miss. This world is going on around you almost all the time. You have to open yourself up to it.”

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Birds to Watch For
At your feeder: mountain and black-capped chickadees, nuthatches
In aspen trees: woodpeckers, chickadees, house wrens
In sagebrush: sage grouse, Brewer’s sparrows
By the river: American dippers, osprey, eagles
Taggart Lake trail: woodpeckers, tree swallows, mountain bluebirds
Antelope Flats: raptors like kestrels, hawks, and falcons
GTNP Visitor Center ponds: common and Barrow’s goldeneye ducks, trumpeter swans, mergansers
Gros Ventre Campground: yellow and yellow-rumped warblers, black-headed grosbeaks, sparrows
Oxbow Bend: white pelicans

Nature Mapping
For wildlife and bird-watchers, what you notice can be valuable information. Nature Mapping Jackson Hole began seven years ago and encourages “citizen scientists” in the community to report what, when, and where they observe wildlife. This information is then collected and shared with wildlife biologists and land managers to make better land-use decisions to protect wildlife.

People need to be trained to become a nature mapper, including how to upload observations to a database form. Information gathered includes species, location, and observation (sex, age, quantity, and activity). The three-hour training is offered about every month.

Past projects include casual observations of moose in the area, and larger, more coordinated projects, like an organized moose-counting day and observations along the Snake River.

Nature Mapping is a project of the Meg and Bert Raynes Wildlife Fund and, since 2011, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation.
naturemappingjh.org

 

Feed Your New Feathery Friends
Installing a backyard bird feeder is one of the single best things you can do to get started birding. Full disclosure: This can be expensive. Black oil sunflower seeds are often the best food source, and birds can devour $100 worth of them a month. If you live in Jackson Hole, or other areas frequented by bears, learn the protocol for hanging a bird feeder. General guidelines are that feeders should be at least ten feet off the ground and four feet out from any trunk. Improperly hung bird feeders can allow bears to get at the easy food source. Such bears often begin hanging around neighborhoods, and Game & Fish departments are left with no choice but to either relocate or kill them.

Feeders should be either three or thirty feet from any window. Keeping the feeder close assures a bird won’t have much speed if it does happen to hit the window. Keeping a feeder thirty feet away gives birds time to recognize a window as a solid thing.

 

Birding Basics
Don’t expect to name every species. Often you may know more about birds than you think. An American robin? The white head of an adult bald eagle? Familiar birds are a great place to start.

Get a bird book. Everyone has a favorite, from Sibley’s to National Geographic or Audubon. Local resources include Bert Raynes’ Finding the Birds of Jackson Hole and Birds of Grand Teton National Park.

Invest in binoculars. “The best you can afford,” says local birder Bernie McHugh. Maven binoculars are a Wyoming brand.

Be mindful of not disturbing birds, as you would other wildlife. If a bird flies off a nest, or is screeching at you, you are too close.

 

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