This week marks a bittersweet fifth anniversary of the last time I visited Yellowstone National Park. I’d love to have gone back by now, but life has conspired to keep me out of the northern Rockies.
As the host of the birding column here at National Parks Traveler, I haven’t mentioned this most iconic of national parks very much. The fact is, Yellowstone just isn’t on a typical birder’s radar. Nevertheless, it holds a special spot in my birding heart.
Most birders have what we like to call a “spark bird.” That’s the bird that showed itself to you in a serendipitous moment that led to your life-long love affair with watching all things feathered. I can tell you the spark bird of a lot of famous birders. It’s one of their vital statistics, like the batting average on the back of a baseball card.
The odd thing is, when someone asks me about my spark bird, I have trouble coming up with an answer.
There wasn’t one single sighting that stands out, but when pressed, I can say a road trip from Michigan to Seattle in 2008 stands out. One stop on that trip was an all-too-brief drive through Yellowstone. We stopped at Tower Fall and a funny thing happened. A diminutive green, white, and purple bird perched on the branch of a dead snag right along the edge of the crowded viewing area for the waterfall. I knew it was a bird I’d never seen before. And then I turned my back to one of the West’s most splendid waterfalls and I watched the bird. Approximately 1,000 people (it seemed) were facing one direction while I looked the opposite way to admire a little bird.
In the gorge near the falls we spied several Osprey nests, one inhabited by an adult bird. I knew this bird from Michigan, but something about seeing it across a narrow, yellow-stoned canyon made it very much a different experience. Apparently an Osprey is not always just an Osprey.
Getting back to our car, my wife and I looked in a field guide we’d picked up earlier at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It turns out our little bird was a Violet-green Swallow. They’re as common as chunks of granite in the Rockies, but that didn’t matter to us. We’d seen a bird we didn’t know and we’d identified it.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were becoming birders. A little further along the road in Yellowstone, we stopped to admire some grazing bison. Between us and the park’s signature megafauna was a flooded pond filled with geese and six white pelicans. Pelicans?
In the middle of the continent? At the time, my idea of pelicans had them on the warm coasts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and that would be correct if Brown Pelicans were the pelicans worth thinking about.
But we had just stumbled across the species of pelican that nests in the high plains and mountain plateaus, the American White Pelican. I now know that some of the most robust pelican colonies in North America can be found in North Dakota, smack in the geographic center of the continent.
At the time, however, I was astonished to be looking at them cavorting with bison.
My wife and I often muse about how many other birds we likely saw in Yellowstone on that drive. Some that probably aren’t even on our official life list yet, but we took no notice of them five years ago, not being birders then.
Still, the Violet-green Swallow, Osprey, and American White Pelicans of Yellowstone did their job on that fateful day. They lit a fire that is burning brighter than ever today.
Looking at pictures of them right now, I can’t help but want to revisit Yellowstone. It may not be the birdiest of the parks, but I feel like there’s some unfinished business there.
I bet we saw a Clark’s Nutcracker in 2008. If so, it didn’t make the list.