Nuptial Ants

This is a spring nature phenomenon that I find fascinating: the nuptial ant flight. It is subtle and short-lived…and a wonder to witness.

It looks like a lot of small moths flying in random directions. But on closer look, it is ants with wings. Thousands of them. And they are all emerging from the same spot in the ground.

If you look closely at the bug on the lizard’s mouth, below, you see it is an ant with wings. You can also see how the lizard has strategically positioned himself at the feast, all around him are the winged ants.

The ants with wings, also known as alates, have been selected by their ant society to perpetuate the colony. There are thousands of them because many of them will end up in a predator’s mouth, like this lucky lizard’s.

It is an important phase in insect reproduction and occurs in ants, termites, and some bee species. (I have only witnessed it in ants.)

More info: antkeepers.com

Here is a photo of a carpenter ant nest on a normal day. Worker ants doing their job. Every black dot is a busy ant.

And here is a close-up of a nest hole.

Down below and out of our sight is a highly organized ant colony, millions of ants. Their social system is elaborate with various castes of workers, soldiers and more.

It’s a different scene on the Big Day when the colony releases winged fertile males (drones) and females (queens) to mate, form new colonies. They come shooting out of the hole by the thousands.

On earth we have 22,000 different species of ants. One of the world’s leading experts on ants, E. O. Wilson, estimated that the total biomass of all the ants in the world is approximately equal to the total biomass of the entire human race.

The success of their species is attributed to their social organization and drive to collectively work to support the colony.

On the day of their nuptial flight, a day they have been building toward, the winged reproductive ants leave the nest in a powerful pursuit.

It is a perilous journey. Predators will gobble up many of them.

Lizards have long tongues they can rapidly flick out and snatch up prey, and this little guy was very practiced at the art.

Here you can see his tongue. And his little legs are stretched out in his feeding frenzy.

I have seen so many of these emergences that when I see warblers or swallows or other creatures behaving erratically and in large numbers, I stop whatever I am doing and investigate.

The emergence is fast. The flying ants come spewing out of a hole, sometimes a crack in a rock…and in a few minutes it is over.

Lizards scurry, birds swoop — all the wildlife get lined up to partake of this delicious opportunity.

Here in Northern California I have seen it the most in April, often a day or so after it has rained. But I’ve also seen it on warm fall days. It’s different for every ant species.

Last week we were enjoying tea on the deck when swallows started congregating just above us.

On most spring or summer days we see one violet-green swallow, or a pair, in some nest activity.

That day there were 20 or 30 swallows within minutes– circling and diving and air-catching the flying ants. This photo shows numerous swallows in pursuit; the ants are so tiny they cannot be seen here.

Usually the event is so chaotic that you wouldn’t guess it was an ant thing, especially since it is airborne and involves so many wings. What you see is a flurry of diaphanous wings fluttering in hundreds of different directions.

The emergence is partly based on weather conditions: not too windy or cold, and wet but not too wet.

Every black dot on these rocks is an alate or winged ant.

It never lasts more than ten minutes.

When the flying ants are no longer spewing from the ground, the predators leave, the show is over.

The males mate with the queens and their life is over. The queen chews off her wings and begins the excavation of her new chamber where she will begin laying eggs.

What a species!

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

New Backyard Friends

I moved recently, have a new backyard, and I’m happy to share a few of my new backyard friends.

I’ll start with the most thrilling: the Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin).

My new residence is only a 25-minute drive down the mountain from where I previously lived, so you would think the birds would be the same. But there are some differences.

In our new location, we have breeding Allen’s hummingbirds; they were only rare visitors to our mountain domain, presumably because of the altitude. The breeding range of Allen’s hummingbirds is very small in the U.S., it is a thin ribbon on the California-Oregon coast. Range map link.

They are still the same little intense package that all hummingbirds are, but now we have the pleasure of witnessing the Allen’s breeding dance.

A tiny orange and green bird, the male during his breeding dance has a loud sizzling buzz. Additionally, there are shimmery flashes of coppery gold, swooping dives, and an elaborate rhythmic display of pendulous arcs. It’s a grand show.

And that’s only the beginning. The new house is situated between a forest and an oak woodland, we are surrounded by many bird species. Occasional ducks and waders fly overhead, Canada geese roost nearby, raptors, woodpeckers and lots of songbirds join us.

Acorn woodpeckers abound. One of my favorite woodpeckers, Melanerpes formicivorus are very entertaining to watch with their bold colors, bright markings, flashing flight, and vocal presence.

Last week I spotted a large dead oak tree in a neighbor’s yard. The tree, known as a granary, hosts dozens of acorn woodpeckers…it is wonderful. Here they excavate holes to store their acorns. This highly social bird congregates there, but when they want a refreshing sip of water, they gather at our bird bath.

We acquired that bird bath from the previous owner. The stem of it is textured like a tree, and at least one woodpecker thought it WAS a tree, hopping up the stem in a circling pattern.

Wild turkeys roam the neighborhood, too, they roost in the adjacent forest. Their loud gobbling throughout the day always brings a smile to my face. Some nights around sunset they meander through the grass behind our fence.

And on several occasions, we have had the supreme pleasure of watching the toms (males) display for the females.

One night four black-tailed deer came by. They are a subspecies of the mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus. This is a young buck, evident by the start of antlers.

I’ve been told by my new neighbors that in June a shepherd and his flock will come to our back woodland. The shepherd leaves the sheep here in a fenced enclosure and the wooly ruminants eat all the tall grass. It will be very interesting to see how all this plays out.

One day I watched a red-shouldered hawk swoop into our yard, snatch up a lizard, and then land in a big oak limb while he ate the lizard.

I love lizards. The excitement of the predator on prey was fun, but I especially enjoy watching the lizards bask on the rocks and skitter across our dirt.

There are also several California ground squirrels. Otospermophilus beecheyi. Apparently they have created an extensive tunnel system beneath our garden. This cheeky but cute one, below, is eating a red rose bud.

Then this past weekend we watched a yellow daisy abruptly shake like we were in an earthquake, and then it suddenly disappeared, vanishing below the soil. That cheeky ground squirrel was down there sucking up the flower as if it was spaghetti.

Other ground-dwelling friends include the white-crowned and gold-crowned sparrows, two towhee species (California and Spotted), and several pairs of California quail (Callipepla californica).

I was surprised and delighted to see one of my favorite butterflies, the pipevine swallowtail. In the last three decades, I have seen this butterfly species about five times. So imagine my delight in seeing them come to the backyard all day long.

Battus philenor have iridescent blue hindwings and their ventral (under) side has bright orange spots.

My friends the Corvids surround us too–crows, ravens, and scrub jays–and I’m especially interested right now in what I am sure is a baby crow on a nest in one of the nearby oak trees. I hear a crow nestling whine strongly, see a parent crow fly overhead, then hear the whining stop.

I spent the past 21 years on a mountaintop, my former home, and most days were highlighted with a sweet wildlife encounter. So it is with true awe and relief that I can say: the enchantment continues.

And not only do I have the adventure of new backyard friends, but I now have the added pleasure of your visit, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Looking Ahead

From the galaxies above…

to the sea floor below…

and everything in between.

Let us find the tools to see past the noise of the day,

and recognize the heroes and miracles

that surround us every day.

Happy New Year, dear Readers.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Year of Abbotts Lagoon

As we reach the final weeks of 2021, here is a four-season review of a coastal lagoon in one of my favorite parks, Point Reyes, in Northern California.

There are 70,000 acres (300 sq. km.) of protected land on the Point Reyes Peninsula. Abbotts Lagoon is just one small section, located on the northwestern coast of the peninsula.

More info: Point Reyes Wikipedia and Abbotts Lagoon Wikipedia.

This year, like many people, we did less out-of-state traveling and stayed closer to home. We enjoyed day trips to Abbotts Lagoon almost every month.

It was enlightening to watch the flora and fauna shift as the seasons changed and gave us an intimacy with the lagoon area as never before.

The brisk months of early spring–February, March and April–brought displaying birds and a profusion of wildflowers.

An easy trail takes the hiker through northern coastal scrub, like this yellow bush lupine, where ground birds flourish. In spring and summer this bush is vibrant with blooms.

The gravel trail leads hikers between rolling fields and the lagoon, until eventually we reach sand dunes and the ocean. The seaside offers bracing coastal winds, frequent fog, and briny sea air. We often escaped inland heat waves here this past summer with the cool marine layer.

We discovered a pocket of land further down the road that almost always had mammals, and in May had the thrill of seeing this new fawn and mother.

By summertime the grass had turned brown, our usual summer look in Northern California. The coastal fog, however, provided moisture for native wildflowers. Hummingbirds could often be seen extracting nectar from this Coastal Hedge-Nettle.

Brush rabbits greeted us on every visit this year. One June day we observed this relaxed brush rabbit stretched out on the trail. At first we thought the rabbit might be injured, but it quickly dashed away as we approached.

Summer also brought the new generation of birds.

A white-crowned sparrow adult discussed the ways of life with his progeny.

Nearly a dozen immature quail chicks were a pleasant surprise; we watched this covey grow up. They were always skittish, with good reason.

Every Abbotts Lagoon visit this year (ten) we saw coyote. They had lustrous coats and full bellies from plenty of prey.

Dragonflies, butterflies, birds and bees punctuated all our summer visits.

A few miles north up the road is a tule elk preserve. By mid-August the tule elk males were bugling their dominance.

And as summer turned to fall, the new young coyotes were out on their own.

Late autumn rains returned the hillsides to verdant splendor, and ground-dwelling gophers and voles multiplied. This attracted more predators and raptors.

Winter birds greeted us, like this Say’s phoebe who is never here in spring or summer.

This molting elk’s coat is not at its finest in the winter, and he only had one antler, having shed the other one already.

There’s something sacred about watching the seasons change–the wildlife, the earth beneath our feet, the light, and temperatures.

Very soon the early spring will be upon us, and a new year of cycles will begin again.

I can hardly wait to get back to Abbotts Lagoon to see who will greet us.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Taking a short holiday break, dear friends, see you in January.

Courtesy Wikipedia.

Georgia Insects

Visiting an unfamiliar region yields a plethora of new wildlife species to discover. Here are a dozen insect species we came upon recently while adventuring in the State of Georgia.

In many places in the northern hemisphere, the weather in October brings increasingly cold weather and less insects. But in the southern states the cold weather is often not as extreme or as long-lasting.

Last month in southeast Georgia, it was in the Fahrenheit 80s and 90s (27-32 Celsius) and insects were still abundant.

Butterflies are one of our planet’s most decorated insects, and the numerous species in Georgia did not disappoint.

The Gulf Fritillary, photographed above, appeared often, lighting on a variety of flowers. Like so many butterflies, the markings on the dorsal (top) side and the ventral (underside) are different, boasting two unique looks on the same individual.

Another exotic southern butterfly is the Zebra Longwing.

I have seen this species in Texas and Florida on previous trips, and was delighted to find about a dozen of them fluttering among the weeds behind the Dairy Queen. I’ve read they roost in groups of up to 60 at night, for protection.

The insect I was most fascinated with on this trip was the Cattail Toothpick Grasshopper. They have unusually pointy heads and long, thin bodies, much like a toothpick.

One day I had the joy of watching this grasshopper species in the marsh grass. I was walking along the dock when I noticed one effortlessly sail from one thin marsh reed to another. I was mesmerized as it danced across the reeds and out of sight.

Dragonflies, like butterflies, are insects that offer a kaleidoscope of bright colors and interesting markings. Add to that their compound eyes and shimmery wings, and you have one of Earth’s masterpieces.

We were spotting birds at a stagnant-looking pond covered with duckweed, when this flamboyant pink dragonfly, below, greeted us. A roseate skimmer.

Then minutes after the Roseate Dragonfly visit, a Roseate Spoonbill flew overhead. What a rosy day.

While on a boat tour in the Okefenokee Swamp, this Eastern Pondhawk Dragonfly, below, kept landing next to my feet. The boat was fiberglass with a flat bottom, and I cannot imagine the dragonfly particularly liked the fiberglass. So maybe she liked the boat’s vibration, or maybe she just felt like hitching a ride.

Other Georgia dragonflies that greeted us were the Eastern Amberwing with its dazzling gossamer red wings…

… and the dashing blue dasher.

One day for about five minutes, this handsome grasshopper landed on the patio. The vertical brown body part is his wings.

I found this wasp especially beautiful in its striking geometric markings.

And here are a few more butterflies, because we can never have too many butterflies in this world.

A pair of mating Cassius Blue Butterflies and, in the subsequent photo, a Cloudless Sulphur.

Lastly, one of my favorite butterflies while in Georgia: the Palamedes Swallowtail Butterfly. You can see how big it is in comparison to the Plumbago flowers. Swallowtail butterflies, from the Papilionidae family, are some of the largest butterflies on our planet.

Insects are integral to our planet. Some resources say that insects comprise 80-90% of the animal life forms on Earth.

I still have Georgia reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals to share with you. But for now, we can find glory in these most amazing insects.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

The Beauty of Moths

With the first day of summer approaching in the northern hemisphere, now is a good time to take a look at moths. We still have a few warm months to marvel at the beauty of these ghostly insects.

Moths make up the vast majority of the Lepidoptera family, with 160,000 worldwide species. In contrast, there are about 15,000 species of butterflies.

Just like butterflies, moths go through metamorphosis, and feed on plant nectar. They’re marvelous pollinators.

Unlike butterflies, moths are primarily nocturnal.

More moth info: Moth Wikipedia and Lepidoptera Wikipedia

I first started appreciating moths while traveling in the tropics. Frequently prowling at night, looking for owls and other creatures, we have found some extraordinary moths. In Africa some moths are as big as your hand.

Here is a moth who landed on our bungalow steps in Belize. This elegant individual cooperatively transferred onto a white envelope for better photographing.

But you don’t need to travel to exotic places to see moths.

All you need are warm temperatures and night scenes.

Light attracts moths. So there are many ways to observe them, from the simplest way of leaving your porch light on, to more scientific methods with UV lights and trapping techniques.

If you’re really into it, there are recipes for making a sugar mixture. You cool the syrup and paint it onto a tree with a paint brush.

There are also safe ways to build a trap, to gently funnel the moths into a vessel. Then you release the moths when you’re done observing.

There are many variations of DIY mothing methods, I have included several website links below.

But personally, I find the more complicated something like this gets, the less frequently I will do it. So we stick to simple mothing methods and keep it a spontaneous adventure that can be quickly assembled.

Here are two different mothing set-ups in our backyard.

The two main tools we use are: a UV light and a white surface.

We use an extension cord near an electrical outlet, grab the UV light and prop it on top of a box. It only takes a few minutes.

Our set-up costs about $20. I ordered a party “black” light from Amazon.

Turning on the light beforehand, at dusk, helps to increase the insect collection. Then we come out with flashlights in the dark and the show begins.

I use my close-focus binoculars, can see great details, while Athena photographs.

I was amazed at the beautiful flying insects that came into our light. We’d been living here nearly two decades before discovering our night insects.

Different moths cycle through in different seasons, just like birds.

This is a plume moth we first saw in the fall, but have not yet seen this summer.

I didn’t know what the “plumes” actually looked like, until I found this 17th Century drawing.

Plume moth drawing by Robert Hooke, 1635-1703, from Nat’l. Library of Wales. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Most of our moths are small, the size of a coin, and dark colored. But there are always variations, like the Darwin’s Green Moth featured earlier.

And it’s not just moths who come to the light.

Other insects join the party too.

Afterwards, it’s important to turn out the light and put away the sheet, otherwise birds will eat the insects in the morning.

A unique way for people of all ages to enjoy the outdoors on a summer night. Have fun celebrating the summer.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Mothing Links:

Citizen Science Organization on Mothing

Moth Lights from calnature.org

Hummingbird Moths and Mothing from baynature.org

UK website on Butterflies and Moths

Birds of the Rainbow

There are many scientific discussions about the brightly colored birds on our planet. But instead of getting bogged down with melanin, refraction, and mating theories, let’s just look and admire today.

This is a day to relax into the rainbow.

We will start with the first color of the rainbow: red. The summer tanager and vermillion flycatcher, both found in North America and elsewhere, begin the rainbow with a hot start.

Shades of red vary in the avian world, these two birds are red-orange.

Pink birds, a variation of red, are not seen as commonly.

Next on the spectrum, orange in birds is often paired with brown. But this azure kingfisher sports a very bright orange breast and legs (and dazzling azure head and back).

This orange and black grosbeak breeds in our backyard every summer. The male’s colors flash conspicuously as he flies.

Since many forests have green leaves that turn to yellow, yellow birds can be found in many places.

Green is a color often seen in parrot species.

This violet-green swallow, a bird who nests in our nest boxes, swoops through the air showing off his elegant emerald finery.

Blue and indigo are both colors of the rainbow, and in birds there are numerous shades of blue.

This so-called green honeycreeper appears more turquoise.

While this turquois jay is adorned with several shades of blue.

The greater blue-eared glossy starling provides a blue spectacle all its own.

The aptly-named resplendent quetzal gets my vote for the most beautiful bird on the planet. The blue-green shades shimmer in the light, and the long streamer tail floating behind the bird stops you in your tracks.

We traveled to a very remote village in a Central American cloud forest to see this bird. We met our guide at 5 a.m. and he took us to the wild avocado trees where the quetzals eat. At one point there was actually a traffic jam in the forest because truck drivers, potato farmers and anyone passing by abandoned their vehicles to join our admiration club.

The peacock, a native of India with a long swag of green and blue, is incredibly eye-catching with a tail full of eyes.

Violet birds. The Costa’s hummingbird looks black in some light. But its throat and head vibrantly come alive with iridescent purple in the right light.

And this purple honeycreeper is so garishly purple it is difficult to look anywhere else.

Although the lilac-breasted roller has a lilac-colored breast, the bird showcases a rainbow kaleidoscope, especially when the bird spins through the air.

This leads us to a few sensational birds who grace the world with all the colors of the rainbow.

The rainbow bee-eater, a marvel to behold.

The painted bunting effortlessly showcases all the colors on the artist’s palette.

And lastly, the remarkable rainbow lorikeet, boasting the colors of the rainbow like no other bird on this planet.

Birders and photographers know well the game of light when it comes to the outdoors. If a brightly colored subject isn’t in good light, the color doesn’t stand out.

But there are those marvelous days when the light is just right: a day to celebrate the colors of the rainbow and all the glory on this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

A Great Day at Point Reyes

I had the pure joy of spending the day at Point Reyes last week. It is a National Seashore park on a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. One of my favorite spots in the whole world.

Even though we only covered a small part of this vast park, we were greeted by an exciting cast of characters.

The first friend we met was a coyote. Canis latrans was far back in a field at first, just a dot on the horizon. It seems more often than not, when we see a wild mammal they are heading away from us. But for a refreshing change, this coyote was coming closer.

S/he was moving quickly, a steady gait with occasional sniffing stops.

We used the car as a blind and the coyote came relatively close, didn’t even notice us.

We watched appreciatively for about ten minutes. The coyote cocked its head to the side, keenly listening to the rustle of underground rodents.

Then it pounced on something, and instantly came up with prey–bigger than a mouse, and dark. Probably a mole. With a few jerks of the head, the coyote ate the mole and continued on its way.

Usually there is long grass in this field, and a large herd of cattle; not much going on. But this fine day we hit it lucky with the mown grass and hunting wildlife easily visible. The field had been recently mowed, stirring up insects and rodents, drawing in predators.

A great blue heron was busy in the grassy field, and ravens landed frequently. California quail were scurrying about, white-crowned sparrows were in abundance.

Down by the pond, a black-tailed deer quietly chewed.

A Wilson’s snipe even made an appearance. They spend the winter here.

Further down the road we came upon this bobcat. Just like the coyote, its grass-colored coat blended into the terrain, but didn’t slip our notice.

Point Reyes has a tule elk reserve, it’s the only national park unit where tule elk can be found. The population is currently thought to be averaging about 420 individuals.

We had seen the tule elk here dozens and dozens of times, and knew it was rather late in the day to see them. Usually they move far back into the hills by late afternoon.

But again we hit it lucky, and saw about a dozen individuals. We knew where to look. They were distant at first, about the size of a grain of rice.

A group of females, a harem, were on a ridge grazing. They were molting, growing their winter coats.

Just behind the elk harem, a male Northern Harrier was kiting, i.e., flying in place, hovering. Hunting.

Out in the distance, the Pacific Ocean reached to the horizon. A long stretch of sea, a separate world of its own rhythms.

The briny scent, the incoming fog, the gathering storm clouds and the glory of safe, fresh air calmed our frayed nerves.

Despite the election tension, the Covid surges, and the park’s recent 5,000 burned acres, there was nothing really different here. Turns out, that was just what we were looking for.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Creatures of the Night

When the sun goes down and the night turns black this Halloween, there are plenty of wildlife creatures to send shivers up the spine.

Owls, our most famous nocturnal creature, have serrated feathers for silent flight. They can glide right past you invisibly and soundlessly…all you know is a faint breeze on your face.

The shadows of the rainforest can make the small creatures large…

and the large creatures gigantic.

And where would our scary nights be without bats? In Australia the bats are so big their scientific name is megabats. Here are two species of megabats.

In the Trinidad rainforest we discovered a steady stream of these Long-tongued Bats shooting out of the lodge basement every night at cocktail hour, like clockwork.

A walk through the Australian rainforest brings out animals most of us have never heard of like brushtail possums and sugar-gliders.

Even creatures who are not nocturnal, like this lizard, lurk in the night…they have to sleep somewhere.

One night while Athena was photographing sugar gliders, cicadas came in, attracted to the lodge’s yard light.

I was admiring their bright green color and thinking how much bigger their cicadas were here in Australia, than ours at home. Bigger than my thumb.

I thought they were very cool…until one landed in my hair.

I screamed. Panicked and beat my hands through my hair like a crazy person.

And Africa has a very animated night life when it comes to wildlife. Moths as big as birds; and of course all the nocturnal mammals that are out hunting–lions, leopards, hyenas, to name a few.

The African savanna at night is like no other place on earth. Bumping along in a jeep past the black expanse, at first you see nothing. But then you start to see eerie eyes shining back at you. Pairs of eyes. Everywhere.

The eye shine has to do with a reflective layer behind the retina that helps the animal see better in the dark.

We were cruising along when we heard a lot of sloshing. The guide whispered for us to get our cameras ready.

Here’s what the light revealed.

The most terrifying night sound I have ever heard was in the Amazon rainforest: the howler monkeys. I’ve mentioned it before, but will include a sound clip again.

Howler monkeys are territorial so when one starts howling, announcing its supreme existence, they all start up. It has a stereo effect that permeates the forest in the most haunting way, sounds like a combination of tornado winds and deep-voiced gorillas.

Imagine hearing this in the dark as you’re walking to the bathroom.

Howler Monkey Vocalization

Wild monkeys, hyenas, leopards, owls, bats…a great way to get your Halloween sufficiently spooky. And while these animals may get your heart jumping, erratically even, they’re really not interested in hurting you…well, some aren’t.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Wildlife in Yellowstone and the Tetons

Pronghorn and bison, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Moose cow, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

Elk cow, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

In the northwest corner of Wyoming in the American West is a large complex of parkland which includes both Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.

 

The two parks and surrounding forest and mountains comprise a large outdoor complex: the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

 

We were on a two-week road trip from California to Wyoming in early September, 2014.

Bison, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone River, Yellowstone NP

We saw over one hundred wild bison in our first five minutes in Yellowstone, and would continue to see large herds throughout the visit. They are the featured star of Yellowstone–have free range to roam wherever they want within park boundaries.

 

It is a miraculous success story that there are any bison today. North America’s American bison populations have fluctuated dramatically from over 60 million in the late 18th century, to only 541 individuals by 1889.

 

Reintroduction efforts were successful and today there are approximately 31,000 bison on the continent, with 5,000 in Yellowstone.

 

Bison were by far the most prevalent megafauna we saw in Yellowstone.

American Bison, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

A good close-up opportunity often occurred when a bison decided to cross the road, stopping traffic, sometimes for miles. Sometimes they sauntered so close to the car that we could hear their breathing.

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

Bison crossing road, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Large herds were frequently seen in the distance.

Bison herd, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP

 

Other megafauna were not easy to find. We searched for days before we found one moose, in the distance (two photos, the same individual). There were so many people in the park, the mammals stayed as far away as possible.

Moose cow, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

One day we had a picnic at Jackson Lake, and new friends quietly joined us.

Jackson Lake and Tetons, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Least Chipmunk, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

Beetle, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Hairy Woodpecker, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

We sat across from these giant beaver lodges, hoping to see beavers. No beavers revealed themselves, but we spotted trumpeter swans in the distance, a bird lifer (never before seen) for us.

Beaver Lodges at Jackson Lake, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

On the way to see Old Faithful early one morning, we had a closer view of trumpeter swans.

Trumpeter Swan, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Here’s Old Faithful…so magnificent.

Old Faithful, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Some nights we heard coyotes howling, oh how I love that.

 

A flock of mountain bluebirds were busy at an abandoned homestead we found.

Mountain Bluebird, Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

 

Another spectacular attraction unique to Yellowstone are the geothermal features; there are over 10,000. We spent many hours marveling at the geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles.

Morning Glory Pool, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

This American dipper was busy feeding beside the river, not far from thermal features.

American Dipper, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

One day we ventured far out on gravel roads, on our own safari drive. I drove while Athena stood up and photographed from the sun roof. Using the car as a blind was the only way we could sneak up on skittish pronghorn.

Pronghorn antelope, Yellowstone NP, Montana

We also came upon magpies in a meadow.

Black-billed Magpie, Yellowstone NP, Montana

 

America’s first national park, Yellowstone hosted Native Americans 11,000 years ago and continues embracing park enthusiasts today with its vast open space, mountains and grasslands, rivers and waterfalls.

 

You could spend a lifetime exploring this area and still never know all of what’s here, but I’m grateful I had a good start.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Great Spangled Fritillary (female), Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

Elk cow grazing in Mammoth Village, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming