22-30 SEPTEMBER 2023
By Jacob Roalef
The group enjoyed American Dipper sightings on several days of the trip.
This nine-day birding, mammal, and geothermal adventure of “Big Sky Country” covered three different states (Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho) and two large national parks (Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park). We began in Bozeman, Montana and traveled south to West Yellowstone to explore Idaho and some of the western basin of Yellowstone NP. We continued south to the Grand Tetons for a few days before circling back north to complete our coverage of Yellowstone. From here we headed back to Bozeman for some nice birding before heading back to the airport for the trip’s conclusion. The tour explored some other great parks like Henry’s Lake State Park and Glen Lake Rotary Park as well as focusing on some of the amazing geothermal features and scenic views in the area like Old Faithful, Norris Geyser Basin, Oxbow Bend, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Grand Prismatic Spring, Artists Paintpots, Signal Mountain, Steamboat Geyser, LeHardys Rapids, Mud Volcano, and many others.
We enjoyed some nice bird sightings as fall migration was winding to an end for the region and we managed a fine list for our nine days in the mountainous west. Highlight species included Trumpeter Swan, Harlequin Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, American Dipper, Red-necked Grebe, Steller’s and Canada Jays, Clark’s Nutcracker, Black Rosy-Finch, Cassin’s Finch, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Merlin, Western Tanager, Wilson’s Warbler, and more.
A total of 93 bird species were seen, however the mammals for the trip might have been more impressive with a total of 18 species seen. The mammal highlights included Brown (Grizzly) Bear, Grey Wolf, American Bison, Pronghorn, American Pika, and Moose. Full bird and mammal checklists can be found at the end of the report.
The quintessential scene of Yellowstone National Park and the Lamar Valley.
Day 1, 22nd September 2023. Arrival and Henry’s Lake birding
Since all participants arrived in Bozeman the previous night, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and some extra sleep before loading up the vehicle and setting off to begin our trip. First stop was a grocery store to load up on snacks and lunch items for the next several days. We then headed off for a little birding around Story Mill Community Park in Bozeman. Despite the less-than-ideal weather, we managed to get on several nice birds to start off the trip, including Sharp-shinned Hawk, Grey Catbird, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. We also ticked our first mammals for the trip in the form of White-tailed Deer and North American Red Squirrel. After about an hour of birding, we began our journey south to the town of West Yellowstone, which we would make our home for the next two nights. The drive down was in and out of rain as we followed the Gallatin River. We made several stops to scan the river, proving fruitful with American Dipper and Common Merganser sightings.
Upon arrival in West Yellowstone, we checked into our hotel, dropped off our bags and enjoyed lunch at a local café. The weather was still quite gloomy with misty rain and fog lingering, however, we decided to give some afternoon birding a try. We headed off to the nearby Henry’s Lake State Park to scan for waterbirds as we figured they wouldn’t mind the wet conditions much. Equipped with scopes, we began our scan of the lake and quickly were onto a nice diversity of ducks which included Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, and Bufflehead. We also got onto a lovely Northern Harrier hunting in the grasslands nearby. We decided to continue and check from some other vantage points. Our efforts yielded Trumpeter Swan, Red-necked and Black-necked (Eared) Grebes, American White Pelican, Canvasback, Long-billed Dowitcher, California Gull, and more. All in all, it was a very successful first day of birding despite the lousy weather. We loaded up and headed back to West Yellowstone for dinner and rest.
Day 2, 23rd September 2023. Western Yellowstone National Park
We headed off early this morning to beat the traffic and get our first experience of Yellowstone National Park. Today was to be a nice mix of some of the impressive geothermal features plus searching for birds and mammals. First up was the Fountain Paint Pots which hosted an adorable Least Chipmunk in the parking lot. From here we headed to the Grand Prismatic Spring which was very impressive despite the misty fog lingering over it. A nearby Western Osprey made several passes hunting the river. It was then time to head to Old Faithful where we had some time to enjoy lunch and check out the visitor’s center as we waited for the impressive geyser to do its thing. After a nice showing, we loaded up and continued along the western road of Yellowstone until we reached Duck Lake. We made a quick scan and ticked our first Barrow’s Goldeneye and Clark’s Nutcracker.
Not far from Duck Lake was the West Thumb Geyser Basin where we were greeted in the parking area by a small group of Canada Jays. We quickly parked and followed them into the nearby picnic area where they gave us some very nice looks. As we walked the boardwalk here and checked out the neat paint pots and bubbling waters, a gorgeous adult Bald Eagle soared by. We also noted our first Cassin’s Finch and Dark-eyed Junco of the trip before continuing. The road now was headed north and followed the shore of Yellowstone Lake which offered some fantastic scenery for the drive. Towards the north end of lake, we spotted two Swainson’s Hawks as we drove. Eventually we reached LeHardys Rapids, which provided excellent views of 20+ Harlequin Ducks and an American Dipper. Following the Yellowstone River, we came upon the scenic Hayden Valley where we enjoyed our first large herds of American Bisons as well as a Sandhill Crane flyover. We stopped for dinner in Canyon Village before completing our first loop of Yellowstone and arriving back in West Yellowstone for some much-deserved rest.
This group of Harlequin Ducks took a break from the pounding rapids.
Day 3, 24th September 2023. Southern Yellowstone to the Grand Tetons
After a nice breakfast at a nearby café, we packed our things and headed back to Yellowstone. The morning greeted us with a thick layer of fog which we hoped would burn off soon. We spent a lot of the morning covering ground and passing by several areas we checked the previous day. However, once we reached West Thumb we headed south instead of north. Our first stop was near Lewis Canyon where we scored some fantastic views of American Pika, a top target for the trip and possibly North America’s cutest mammal! Luckily there were at least two animals still active despite the gloomy day and thick air. We continued south and stopped at the southern entrance gate to enjoy the view and take the needed photo of the “Welcome to Yellowstone” sign.
As we approached Grand Teton National Park, the weather began to break and blue skies could be seen which boded well for an afternoon of nice birding and exploration. We stopped along Jackson lake and scoped some waterbirds which included Common Loon, Trumpeter Swan, Northern Shoveler, and American Wigeon. After quickly checking out Colter Bay (our home base for the next two nights) we headed out to bird along some backroads and had a nice picnic lunch. We noted some nice birds including Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. The sun had come out by now and several butterflies were spotted at the puddles of water in the road. Back on the main road we spotted many vehicles stopped along the road, so we stopped as well to see what the commotion was about. There was a very distant Grizzly Bear that we managed to get our scopes on and enjoy before it disappeared into the trees. A great start to the Grand Tetons! The rest of the afternoon we spent driving up Signal Mountain and other roads searching for birds and mammals. Unfortunately, things were a bit slow with Mule Deer, American White Pelican, Common Merganser, and Red-tailed Hawk. After dinner in the town of Moose, we headed back to Colter Bay to settle in for the night.
American Pika is possibly the most adorable mammal in North America.
Day 4, 25th September 2023. Grand Tetons National Park
We began the morning before dawn in hopes of finding an owl along the dump road where we had lunch the day before. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be this morning, despite the habitat, but that is the way birding goes at times. We were not discouraged and continued our morning with a spectacular view of the Grand Tetons from Oxbow Bend, a fabulous location for early morning light. A pair of Trumpeter Swans was seen in the river and a Western Osprey flew by overhead. From here we headed back up Signal Mountain which yielded Cassin’s Finch and Green-tailed Towhee along with a gorgeous vista. It was now time for breakfast, so we headed back to Colter Bay and enjoyed the breakfast buffet there.
Towards the end of breakfast, we noticed that google maps were showing heavy traffic nearby which likely meant a mammal congestion! We quickly finished up breakfast, grabbed our gear and headed to the location. We were greeted by a proper “bear jam” blocking up traffic. The same female Grizzly Bear from yesterday afternoon’s sighting was now much closer to the road and allowed for excellent views and even some photos. After spending a long while with the bear, we continued our search along the Snake River. Our walk in some deciduous trees netted us Mountain Chickadee and a bull Elk. We followed the river to the dam where several Common Mergansers and American White Pelicans were navigating the rough waters. We continued heading south from here and spotted our first Coyote along the way.
After lunch in Moose, we continued south towards Jackson. We made a stop at the National Elk Refuge which had a small body of water near the road that hosted loads of waterfowl. We ticked Redhead (new for the trip) as well as Ring-necked Duck, Mallard, and Northern Shoveler. In the nearby reeds a Song Sparrow and Marsh Wren were playing hard to get, but with some patience we managed to get views of each of them. The afternoon was spent birding around some nearby neighborhoods which only turned up Black-billed Magpie, House Sparrow, and Common Starling. It was then time to head back towards Colter Bay. Along the way we stopped for a gorgeous Mountain Bluebird against the blue sky. In the early evening, together with many other park visitors, we enjoyed a distant cow Moose, before heading back to Colter Bay for dinner and to turn in for the night.
The view of the Grand Tetons from Oxbow Bend in the fall is unmatched.
Day 5, 26th September 2023. Colter Bay to Red Lodge
Today we had a lot of ground to cover to get north to Red Lodge, where we would spend the next two nights. We decided to give Signal Mountain one more visit after breakfast. This final visit resulted in several new trip birds which included Brown Creeper, Pine Grosbeak, and Hairy Woodpecker as well as a new mammal, Red Fox. We then took off to the north, back through the southern entrance of Yellowstone NP. Stops were few this morning but of course we had to make another visit to Lewis Canyon to see the American Pikas again. Eventually we made it to Gull Point Drive, which served as an excellent spot for a picnic lunch. Several Canada Jays and a pair of Clark’s Nutcrackers were interested in our lunch and stopped by to have a look.
We continued north of Yellowstone Lake and this time we took the road to the east to head out of the eastern entrance of the park. We climbed up the mountains and managed to spot our first Steller’s Jay at nearly 8,500 feet (2590m). The scenery just outside of the park was a more stark difference than any we had yet seen, with more jagged rock faces and few trees. Temperatures around Cody were nearly 80° F (27° C)! We stopped briefly in town for a short break and some refreshments before heading north towards Montana. The scenery changed again and now we were surrounded by cattle and farming fields. We spotted Western Meadowlark, American Goldfinch and Pronghorn in this new habitat. Eventually we rolled into Red Lodge where we checked in and headed off for a tasty pizza dinner.
The group enjoyed this female Brown (Grizzly) Bear as it prepared for the winter.
Day 6, 27th September 2023. Lamar Valley and Beartooth Pass
This morning required a very early, pre-dawn start. We loaded our gear into the vehicle and headed out in the dark to traverse the Beartooth Pass and arrive at Lamar Valley around dawn. After about two hours we made it over the 12,000-foot (3650m) pass and through several small towns to arrive at the grassy openness of the Lamar Valley. We quickly saw others with scopes out, so we scurried up the hill and got onto a pack of nine Grey Wolves! This was our main target and the reason for our early start, since the wolves typically become less active as the day warms up. In addition to the amazing pack of wolves, we spotted a herd of Pronghorns, American Bison, a distant Grizzly Bear, and a Bald Eagle perched regally in a nearby tree. We watched the wolves for a while before packing up our scopes to continue through the Lamar Valley. Here we saw several large herds of American Bison, both out in the distance and up close along the roadsides. We stopped for a few moments at the western edge of the valley and picked up White-crowned Sparrow and Cooper’s Hawk. After some long traffic stops due to road construction, we made it through the valley and arrived at Tower Falls. The impressive 132-foot (40m) falls are certainly worth the stop to see. In the surrounding area we also spotted our first Bighorn Sheep of the trip. These animals favor the rocky pinnacles in this region of the park.
We made it to Canyon Village where we stopped for lunch and a visit to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, another of the impressive canyons and waterfalls within the park. Yellowstone has no shortage of scenic vistas and amazing geological features. It was time to head back the way we had come, as Red Lodge was far away. We made it back through the construction and Lamar Valley. We made a stop at the Barronette Peak viewpoint, just inside the northeast entrance of the park. This cliff face almost always hosts groups of Mountain Goats and today was no different. The more we looked, the more white dots we found on the mountain. We left the park and began our climb up Beartooth Pass. Near the top we got onto a flock of stunning Black Rosy Finches as well as a lone Buff-bellied Pipit and Golden Eagle. A fantastic way to cap off an amazing day of birds, mammals, and scenery!
This sky-blue Mountain Bluebird blended in with the blue sky.
Day 7, 28th September 2023. Beartooth Pass to Mammoth Hot Springs
Since we had a long day and early start yesterday, we decided on a more leisurely start today. We had a nice breakfast at our lodge, and the trees surrounding the parking lot were loaded with birds. We spent an hour or so enjoying both the hot coffee/tea and the birds. Species included Red Crossbill, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Cedar Waxwing, American Robin, Evening Grosbeak, Pine Siskin, and Cassin’s Finch. It was tough to leave this pleasant birding and the neighboring areas but eventually we said goodbye to Red Lodge and headed back up the Beartooth Pass for the final time. Near the top we were again greeted by Black Rosy-Finches and this time they offered some more photographic opportunities. A Peregrine Falcon, Golden Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, and American Kestrel were flybys over the ridges. We made our way through a relatively quiet Lamar Valley with American Bison and a lone Coyote as highlights. After getting through the construction, we approached Mammoth.
Just outside of town was a small herd of Elk which included a huge bull with many cows. We soon learned that inside the town also hosted an even bigger herd of these large mammals, and they were not shy of people (or cars). After lunch at the café, we headed off for the Mammoth Hot Springs, another fantastic geothermal feature of the park. We decided to first walk the lower parts and burn off some of our lunch. It was funny to see a Killdeer on seemingly desolate thermal ground. From here we drove to the upper section of the hot springs, which featured a driving loop. We took in all the scenery and just before the exit we spotted a new bird, in the form of Townsend’s Solitaire, conveniently located next to a pull-off. After this we headed north and left the park to arrive in Gardiner, our base for the final two nights of the trip.
The contrast of this Black Rosy-Finch against the white snow was special.
Day 8, 29th September 2023. Final Yellowstone loop
Today was our final day to explore Yellowstone National Park. Our goals for the day were one last loop through the park to see Old Faithful against blue skies rather than the grey we had seen on the second day, and to visit the final geothermal highlights of the park. Our first stop was the Norris Geyser Basin, which was perhaps the most impressive of all the geothermal features within the park. The power and colors were incredible in the morning light. We then walked up to the other side of the basin to see Steamboat Geyser, the largest active geyser in the world. While it did not erupt, it still gave spurts of water to show what power was lurking beneath. From here we continued south and stopped at the Artist Paintpots, which were almost like a scene from a Tolkien novel.
We then made it to Old Faithful, but were just a few minutes late to catch its eruption. No big deal though as it was lunch time, so we enjoyed some food and ice cream dessert along with the Northern Ravens and Brewer’s Blackbirds. Eventually it was time again for Old Faithful to do its thing and today was a much better showing against the blue skies. The water blasted even higher than the first time as well. A fantastic showing! From here we continued our loop and passed by West Thumb again and just had to stop at LeHardys Rapids one last time. Who couldn’t resist and today we were treated to at least six American Dippers in addition to a few Harlequin Ducks! Our final stop was also our final geothermal feature to see, the Mud Volcano. The boardwalk area wreaked of sulfur as the mud and water was bubbling and gurgling up. What a strange area. Eventually we completed the loop and made it back to Mammoth, where we said goodbye to the Elk and to Yellowstone National Park. We thoroughly covered all the scenery, geothermal features, birds, and mammals during our time here. Back in Gardiner we enjoyed atasty dinner along the river before retiring for the evening.
Old Faithful erupting with blue skies in the background.
Day 9, 30th September 2023. Bozeman birding and departure
On our final day, we had some time before our scheduled departure flights out of Bozeman. We enjoyed another nice breakfast at our lodge before we packed our things and hit the road north. It was about an hour or so drive before we made it back to Bozeman. With time to spare, we decided on some birding at a nearby local park called Glen Lake Rotary Park. This morning’s birding proved very fruitful, as we continued to add new species to our list at every turn. First it was Myrtle and Wilson’s Warblers in a flock of mostly Audubon’s Warblers. Then we picked up Common Yellowthroat, Hermit Thrush, Western Tanager, Common Grackle, and Downy Woodpecker. A fantastic and pleasant final morning of birding to wrap up our trip. After we rearranged our bags and got our optics and camera gear stowed away, we headed off for the Bozeman airport. A final lunch inside and then it was time to say our goodbyes and call the trip to an end.
Top highlight species and moments of the trip included Old Faithful (the second time especially), Grizzly Bear, Grey Wolf, Trumpeter Swan, and Black Rosy-Finch.
The group enjoyed many Pronghorn, the second fastest land-mammal on Earth.
Bird List – Following IOC (13.1)
Birds ‘heard only’ are marked with (H) after the common name, all other species were seen. Species seen only on the pre-trip day of this trip are marked with (+) after the common name.
The following notation after species names is used to show conservation status following BirdLife International: CE = Critically Endangered, EN = Endangered, VU = Vulnerable, NT = Near Threatened.
|Ducks, Geese, Swans (Anatidae)
|Pigeons, Doves (Columbidae)
|Rock Pigeon (Introduced)
|Eurasian Collared-Dove (Introduced)
|Rails, Crakes & Coots (Rallidae)
|Eared Grebe (Black-necked)
|Sandpipers, Snipes (Scolopacidae)
|Gulls, Terns, Skimmers (Laridae)
|Great Northern Diver (Common Loon)
|Cormorants and Shags (Phalacrocoracidae)
|American White Pelican
|Herons, Bitterns (Ardeidae)
|Great Blue Heron
|New World Vultures (Cathartidae)
|Kites, Hawks, Eagles (Accipitridae)
|Caracaras, Falcons (Falconidae)
|Crows, Jays, and Magpies (Corvidae)
|Northern (Common) Raven
|Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice (Paridae)
|Starlings, Rhabdornis (Sturnidae)
|Common (European) Starling (Introduced)
|Mockingbirds, Thrashers (Mimidae)
|Old World Sparrows (Passeridae)
|House Sparrow (Introduced)
|Wagtails and Pipits (Motacillidae)
|Buff-bellied Pipit (American)
|Finches, Euphonias (Fringillidae)
|Evening Grosbeak – VU
|Black Rosy-Finch – EN
|New World Sparrows (Passerellidae)
|Oropendolas, Orioles, Blackbirds (Icteridae)
|New World Warblers (Parulidae)
|Cardinals and Allies (Cardinalidae)
|Rabbits and Hares (Leporidae)
|Squirrels and Allies (Sciuridae)
|North American Red Squirrel
|Uinta Ground Squirrel
|Brown Bear (Grizzly)
|True Deer (Cervidae)
|Cloven-hoofed Mammals (Bovidae)