Anna’s World Revisited   Recently updated !

Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle recently published this enhanced version of my essay about Anna’s Hummingbirds entitled Anna’s World :

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Incredibly, Our Public Lands Are Under Assault   Recently updated !

pompey and vicinity 001

Pompey’s Pillar National  Mounument


Mt. St. Helens National Monument


It is astounding that I even had to write the piece below to defend our public lands, but such are the times we find ourselves in today. The current U.S. political administration wants to rescind more than two dozen national monuments.  These are places that had already been “saved” for present and future generations.

I encourage all of you who care about public lands to make your opinions known:

pompey and vicinity 014

View of Missouri River from Pompey’s Pillar


Otherwise, as Joni Mitchell  said in her song lyric: “you won’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

To the Department of Interior:

One of the things I am most proud and patriotic about is our public lands. Public lands are our sacred lands. They are our most important natural, cultural and historical places. Conceived by Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot for the benefit of all, they represent a profoundly forward-thinking approach. It speaks well of us when we seek to protect our public lands; it speaks poorly of us when we seek to destroy them for short-term economic gain.

We were all horrified when we heard about ISIS intentionally destroying historic and religious landmarks in Syria. Now our administration proposes to do the same in the name of quick cash for oil, gas and mining.


Vermilion Cliffs National Monument – photo by Arizona Highways

I visit on average more than 25 different public lands per year. My livelihood depends upon them. So too do the economies of most western states that have tourism as one of their top industries. Millions of Americans who hunt, fish, hike, ski, bird-watch, bicycle, ride trails on motorized vehicles, botanize, study geology, learn about our history and culture, honor their relatives or just get away to enjoy the peaceful, beautiful places we are blessed to have — all cherish our public lands. I lead tours for groups of Americans as well as people from other countries who come here to see our amazing public lands. They are in awe of them and inspired by our enlightened efforts to safeguard them.

As Montana-based author Rick Bass said: “These lands are our outdoor churches, our cathedrals — and keeping them that way is the real economic foundation of the West. Open spaces attract new, high-paying industries and yield billions of dollars in tourism and recreation. When we are young, we hunt, hike, fish, camp, backpack, paddle, horseback ride, walk, run, raft and bicycle on our shared lands, and when we are old we stare out at their undiminished beauty.”

Brown's Canyon

I am completely opposed to any effort to compromise our public lands. Public lands are American birth rights. They make our country special and are the envy of the world. We need to conserve not destroy them.

“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” Teddy Roosevelt

RX for Life: Go Outside More Often

Feeling glum, listless, low on energy and/or ideas? You might be suffering from “nature-deficit-disorder” as Richard Louv called it, or from an “epidemic dislocation from the outdoors” as Florence Williams refers to it in her new book.

Lori in Ravenna Pk

My wife, Lori enjoying a walk in our neighborhood park

Here’s a simple remedy: Take one 15-20 minute dose of walking through a park, natural area or other green space in your neighborhood daily and you will feel better.  Does this sound too good to be true?  Not according to Williams’ new book The Nature Fix – Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.

Jason Mark wrote in his recent New York Times review of this book: “Imagine a miracle drug that could ease many of the stresses of modern life – a combination mood enhancer and smart pill that might even encourage the remission of cancer.  Now imagine that this cure-all was an old-fashioned folk remedy: Just take a hike in the woods or a walk in the park.  No prescription necessary.”

Although I have not read this book yet (I will), the title rings true. My book Look Up! Birds and Other Natural Wonders Just Outside Your Window preaches the same gospel.

I practiced what Williams and I both preach today. It was a cold, rainy, dreary day here in Seattle.  I had been preparing for upcoming tours and classes when the rain finally broke near dusk.  I threw on my coat and hustled outside for a short walk in the remaining light.  I was glad that I did.


Ravenna Park bike and pedestrian bridge

In the course of my 20 minute walk through Ravenna Park, along a tree-lined boulevard designed by the Olmsted Brothers, and back through a historic neighborhood to my house, I encountered multiple sensations that made this gray day brighter.

Pac Wren 1

Pacific Wren

While crossing the pedestrian and bicycle-only bridge that spans Ravenna Park, I heard the full song of a Pacific Wren sung several times.  This is no ordinary tune.  It is the longest bird song in North America, with a trilling assortment of 40+ notes. The singer is a bird that only weighs 4 ounces. This was a virtuoso performance and an harbinger of spring.

Another sign of spring was just around the corner: a blooming Pieris Shrub .  A cloud of its sweet fragrance filled the air.

As I circled back home through a neighborhood of well-maintained historic wood homes with quirky and artistic statements scattered about, I P1080163came across a yard filled with little ceramic figurines.  It looked as if they were swarming to an event of some sort. I grinned in appreciation of this whimsical artistic statement.

Dusk was falling as my stroll came to a close.  It brought a bit of magic into the day along with relaxation and exercise.  It helped me gain perspective and find joy during a time when the dark days have not only been due to the weather.

As Jason Mark pointed out in his review “Fortunately, getting a dose of nature doesn’t have to be hard.  Most people get a lot of benefit fromravenna forest city parks and as little as five hours a month does the trick.”

This is one of the great secrets in life, yet many never discover it.  And it is free. The more you do it, the more you gain appreciation for what there is to see, smell, hear and discover.  You get ideas, you find inspiration, you become calmer and happier.  It works.


Birder’s Ode to a Dead Tree

Recently, a wonderful surprise appeared in the mail: A poem and painting from Patricia Freres Stinger who said in her letter “I thought you might enjoy this poem (and painting) I wrote last fall. It was inspired in part by the discussion, Woody, in your book, “Look Up,” about snagscaping” 
and the importance of leaving snags in place for the benefit of birds and other wildlife.”

Patricia’s Birder’s Ode to a Dead Tree was recently accepted for publication in the 2018 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar.  I also thought that it was suitable for framing.P1070970

You never know when an idea will take root. At least six wildlife trees that I know of have been created/saved since I wrote my book. May there be many more. 



Name Dropping at the Dunn Gardens – Guest Blog by Beth Weir, Executive Director of Dunn Gardens

Note:  Beth Weir is hosting a birding class I am teaching at Dunn Gardens on April 11, 2017.  This blog is about her remarkable family connection to the name of one of the birds that inhabits Dunn Gardens during Spring and Summer.

I unexpectedly found the name of someone I am related to in the Seattle Times and felt odd. Reading my family name, Swainson, instantly conjured up a knot of childhood memories. Most notable was an image of my father, gardening with his pet pigeon on his shoulder. That particular memory popped up because the article was about the effect of habitat loss on birds. In particular, the difficulties of breeding of a beloved songbird in urban areas was explained.

The bird was Swainson’s Thrush.

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush photo by Woody Wheeler

Swainson’s Thrush Catharus ustulatus) is a small, brown specimen and is named after my great-great-grandfather, William Swainson. He was a British naturalist of some renown, with a cranky disposition besides, if historic (and family) accounts are to be believed.

After seeing the article I emailed Woody Wheeler, also a noted naturalist, but one without the cranky disposition, to ask if participants in his April 11 bird watching class at the Dunn would see Swainson’s Thrush. “Not really,” he told me. “You’ll have to wait till May when there is a chance of hearing one, even if we don’t see it. “ (The call is described as upward-spiraling and flutelike by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


Woody Guiding Naturalist Journey Tour at Big Bend National Park

Woody should know. He has given bird identification classes at the Dunn before and they are always well attended. With good reason. The man has a long resumé that testifies to his passion and knowledge, plus an ability to share both with others. He has traveled the US and eight countries in tours related to birding and will have just returned from Peru as a guide on an Amazon River cruise when the Dunn class is held. So, even if you have been to a class at the Gardens before, there is much you can learn.

Genetic variation being what it is, I haven’t shared my ancestor’s passion for birds, but I enjoy traveling, as did he. And so does the thrush that bears Swainson’s name.

Swainson's Thrush Range Map

The little brown birds travel up and down the Americas in response to the seasons. I am hopeful one or two of them will choose to stop in the Dunn Gardens when they return in May. I will also welcome class members back to spot, or at the very least, to hear one over the summer.

Swainson's Thrush Cornell Photo

Swainson’s Thrush photo from

But, if I have failed to keep up academically with the recognized scholar in my family, I am proud of working to maintain an urban forest, otherwise named The Dunn Gardens. It is an oasis where birds that lose their habitats to urban development can breed and sing. And for Swainson’s Thrush, along with many other birds, that is critical if we want to keep them in our midst. And who can argue against an upward-spiraling and flute-like sound welcoming a spring morning. Doubtless that would have soothed even my cranky great-great-grandfather.

Saving America’s Icon

p1070533I never saw a Bald Eagle during my childhood in Illinois in the 1950s – 1960s.  Not because I was not observant, I was. It was because they had been extirpated in Illinois by 1918, meaning eliminated from this part of their range.  Illinois was not the only state where this occurred.  According to the Center for Biological Diversity,  Bald Eagles were also extirpated in 15 other states:  Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas Nebraska, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and South Dakota.  The state of Colorado only had one pair of Bald Eagles left in 1974.

Here is the good news:  All of these states and the rest of the
United States now have Bald Eagles.  Instead of destroying our national icon; we restored its population.


My home state of Illinois now has 135 pairs of Bald Eagles.  The Bald Eagle population in the lower-48 United States has increased from a low point of 417 pairs in 1963 to 9,789 pairs in 2007, which led to their de-listing.  In the words of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “It (the Bald Eagle) no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act because its population is protected, healthy and growing.”

The recovery of Bald Eagles is a great national success story.  We brought back our national icon from a downward spiral that could have resulted in its extinction.  In the words of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology “The Bald Eagle’s recovery is a spectacular conservation success story…once endangered by hunting and pesticides, Bald Eagles have flourished under protection.”


Nesting Bald Eagle – Skagit County, WA

The Bald Eagle’s recovery is personal to me.  After moving to the West from the Midwest and eventually settling in Seattle, I recall when a pair of Bald Eagles established one of the city’s first nests at Discovery Park  – the other was in Seward Park – in the 1980s.  My wife and I held our wedding ceremony in Discovery park not far from the nest site.  At Seward Park, I helped establish the Audubon Center that now operates there.  Apparently, I was drawn to the same large parks in the city as the eagles were.  Now Seattle has at least 12 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles within its city limits.  Two pairs nest within two miles of my house.  After growing up in a place where Bald Eagles did not exist, I now see them flying over our back yard.


Wintering Bald Eagles in Skagit County, WA



While I was working for The Nature Conservancy in the 1980s – 1990s, we were part of the Bald Eagle recovery process.  The Conservancy purchased and protected lands for Bald Eagle nesting, roosting, wintering and feeding sites in Western Washington.  This work, along with many other state, federal, tribal, nonprofit and for profit company efforts led to a major increase in the state’s Bald Eagle population, from 104 pairs in 1980 to 835 pairs in 2007.


Washington now ranks fifth among states with the highest Bald Eagle Populations.  The top five are:  1.  Alaska (15,000 pairs); 2. Minnesota (1310 pairs); 3. Florida (1,166 pairs); 4. Wisconsin (1,065 pairs); and 5. Washington (835 pairs).

The demise and recovery of Bald Eagles begs two questions:  What caused their decline? And how did they recover from it?


Jeff Larsen photograph – 2 adult Bald Eagles

The decline of Bald Eagles was summarized by Cornell Lab of Ornithology: “Bald Eagles were victims of trapping, shooting, poisoning as well as pesticide-caused reproductive failures.”  The widespread use of the pesticide DDT (they used to spray it in my childhood neighborhood, and then suggest that we not play out doors for a one-day period!) caused egg shell thinning in a number of bird species at the top of the food chain, including:  Bald Eagle, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon and Brown and American White Pelicans.  The weakened eggs hatched pre-maturely causing the young to die.

How did Bald Eagle populations recover?  Through a combination of policies and actions, including:

  • Banning the use DDT (1972)
  • Listing them as Endangered Species (Endangered Species Act or ESA 1978)
  • Protecting Bald Eagle Nest Sites (Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act, amended 1962)
  • Making it illegal to shoot or “take” them (Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act, amended 1962)
  • Restoring Bald Eagles to the areas where they had been eliminated (ongoing for decades)
  • Cleaning up formerly contaminated streams, lakes and coastal areas (Clean Water Act, 1970 and Superfund Act 1980)

Bald Eagle perches on light fixture above Lake Washington, Seattle

Due to these collective and effective conservation efforts, the Bald Eagle is back.  Regulations along with concerted efforts by all sectors made this happen.  Bald Eagles are not the only ones we have brought back from the brink of extinction.  Peregrine Falcons, Brown and American White Pelicans, California Condors, Whooping Cranes, Grizzly Bears, Gray Wolves, American Alligators, and, Humpback Whales are among the species that have also been saved in the past few decades.  The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 227 plant and animal species would likely have gone extinct if we had not passed and implemented the ESA.


Eagles soar over our back yard

Why save species? E.O. Wilson, a Harvard entomologist and a southern Baptist raised in Alabama said it best: “This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve.  It has eaten the storms – folded them into its genes – and created the world that creates us.  It keeps the world steady.”

In the final analysis, saving species and the environment equates to saving ourselves.  We are a species too; we need clean air, clean water and a healthy ecosystem in order to survive.



Immature Bald Eagle

We have made great strides in protecting the environment since the 1960s.  I know; I was there.  You could not go swimming in many lakes and rivers; there were massive fish die offs.  The air made your eyes water.  Pollution was rampant.  Species were going extinct.  People threw trash out of car windows.  Nobody recycled.

Let’s not go back to these bad old days of mindlessly trashing the environment.
We have too much at stake and have come too far.

The Bald Eagle’s recovery shows what good people can do to save a fellow species, and in the process, make the environment cleaner and healthier for all of us.


  • Alaska Department of Fish and Game
  • Center for Biological Diversity
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology 
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Washington State Department of Wildlife

 – photos all taken by author except one as noted by Jeff Larsen

Patriotic About Public Lands   Recently updated !


Sunset through “The Window,” Big Bend National Park

Fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, mountain biking, mountain climbing, snowmobiling, rafting, kayaking, bird and wildlife-watching, taking scenic drives, vacations and just taking in the peace and beauty of these remarkable places…this is an incomplete list of the many ways that people benefit from our public lands.

public-lands-eventWhen short-sighted politicians say that they want to sell off our public lands, as they are today, some Americans fail to grasp what this would actually mean.  It might help to provide place names to help people understand what is at stake:


Mt. Rainier National Park

Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Grand Tetons, Everglades, Great Smoky Mountains, Mt. Rushmore, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Whitney, Denali, Little Big Horn, Gettysburg, Ding Darling, Mount Vernon, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Joshua Tree, every National Forest, National Monument and all of the Bureau of Land Management lands.  These are only a very few of the many public lands we have thanks to visionary people like Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot who helped establish them.


Yakima Canyon, Bureau of Land Management

Who goes to these public lands?  Tens of millions do.  In 2013 our National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, monuments and other public lands had 407 million visits, contributing $41 billion to the regional economies that support 355,000 jobs according to a Department of Interior report.


Grand Teton National Park

Public lands are the great outdoors in America.  As a natural history tour guide, I often take foreign tourists to our public lands.  They are astounded by the scale, beauty and wildness of these places.They visit here specifically because we still have these amazing places.  Few countries have lands that compare to these; they are national treasures.


Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Public lands enrich our daily lives even if we do not visit them on a daily basis.  As Wallace Stegner so eloquently said: “We simply need to know that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

American Pika in Beartooth Mountains, Shoshone National Forest

It is up to us to pass this land legacy on to our children and grandchildren.  What will our legacy be?

Consider supporting these two organizations that advocate for our public lands:

  1. Public Lands Alliance:
  2. National Parks Foundation:

When Yards Go Native


Yard prior to landscaping

Last month I mowed the front yard for the last time because we just went native in our front yard.  That is, we replaced our grass lawn with a diverse landscape comprised of 70 native plants.  As it grows in, it will be increasingly attractive to the eye as well as to birds and wildlife.

What prompted us to do this?  Maybe it was the ghost of my great grandfather landscape architect, Jens Jensen, whispering in my ear.  Jensen advocated tirelessly for native plants and used them extensively in his own landscapes of parks, gardens, and private yards back in the mid-1900s. He thought native plants were under-utilized and denigrated: “It is often remarked that native plants are coarse.  How humiliating to hear an American speak so of plants with which the Great Master has decorated his land!” he fumed.

In addition to my great grandfather’s influence, going native is the right thing to do.  Native plants are specifically adapted to the soils and climate of the area.  Except for the first year of establishment care, they do not require watering nor do they require fertilizers or pesticides.  A native plant landscape is a sustainable landscape.


Back yard landscape, installed 10 years ago

Yes, there is still maintenance required, including weeding, mulching and trimming, but not much else.  Since replacing the grass in our back yard with mostly native plants, we spend more time there and are motivated to take care of it.  We enjoy the birds, wildflowers, edible berries and other native plants that now occupy our yard.  At least ten new species of birds frequent our back yard since we have gone native.  As my friend, Hilary Hilscher says: “Plant them (natives) and they (birds and wildlife) will come.”



Interested in going native?  Here is a recipe:

  1. woodyloricolorCreate a thoughtful Design. If you can, hire a landscape architect who has designed native plant landscapes.  We did and are very happy with the results. Landscape architects incorporate practical with aesthetic considerations in their designs. Or, if that is not an option for you, research and plan your own design starting with the resources provided at the end of this blog.  In Jens Jensen’s words: “Every plant has a fitness and must be placed in its proper surroundings so as to bring out its full beauty.  Therein lies the art of landscaping.”
  2. p1070251Remove sod. You can do so forcibly with a shovel – a back-breaking job, or via a sod-cutting machine – available for rent or hire.  You can also place cardboard on top of the sod for several months, then remove it to dig up the sod.  We did this in our back yard, and hired a crew with sod-cutting machine for our front yard.  The crew and their machine did our entire yard in several hours, saving time and our backs.
  3. p1070254Stir in topsoil and compost. The mixing part is best done with a roto-tiller but can also be done with a shovel.  Keep ibuprofen handy if you choose the second option.
  4. p1070258Install pathways for access. Paving stones, cedar chips or gravel walkways provide access to your new landscape.  These can be done artistically with the use of attractive paving stones and winding routes.
  5. Plant the natives. More and more nurseries stock native plants.  Be certain to buy actual native species as there are similar sounding names that are not native species. Jens Jensen would be pleased/amazed by the availability of native plants today.  Planting them is the fun part.  Space them properly to ensure their long-term survival and to maximize their beauty.p1070266
  6. Mulch around the new plants to hold in moisture and nutrients while suppressing weeds.
  7. Watch your new landscape grow. You will find that a diverse, native plant landscape draws you outside more often to check for blooms, to see plants undergo seasonal changes and to watch for birds.  Please do try this at home!

Landscape Architect:  Windrose Landscape Architecture

Site preparation, paving stone and plant installation: EcoYards

Native Plantings:

Creeping Oregon Grape Mahonia Repens
Red Columbine Aquilegia Formosama
Tiger Lily Lilea Columbianum
Deer Fern Blechnum Spicant
Maidenhair Fern Adiantun Alueticum
Trillium Trillium Ovatum
Blue Camas Camassia Quamash
Dwarf Redtwig Dogwood Cornus Stolonifera
Bearberry/Kinnickinnick Arctostaphylos Uva Ursi
Mock Orange Philidelphus virginalis



Audubon’s Plants for Birds program:

Find native plants for your area:

Make your yard more bird-friendly:


Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Arthur R. Kruckeberg

Gardening for Life – An Inspirational Guide to Creating Healthy Habitat by Seattle Audubon Society

Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest by Russell Link

NOTE: There are probably equivalent guides to the last three listed above for other geographical areas

Looking for Accidentals in All the Right Places


Puyallup River at Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands – photo by

Birders enjoy searching for “accidentals”–  species found outside of their normal geographic ranges.  I chase them too, but only if they are within a reasonable distance from home.

So why do we do this?  Because it is fun, interesting and novel to find them.  Searching for them takes us to unusual places that often feature other natural and cultural wonders as well.  Witness our last two attempts to find accidental gulls.

One began on an overcast fall day in Puget Sound country.  Although we departed from Seattle in the early afternoon, it already resembled evening! According to E-Bird posts, people had been seeing a Slaty-backed Gull, an accidental gull normally found in the Bering Sea that was found in Tacoma’s industrial waterfront.  Its range is described in the National Geographic Birds of North America guide as “…very rare in winter south through the Pacific States.”  The place where this bird had been found was Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands.


My wife Lori, who only recently started appreciating gulls, joined me on this quest.  As a former EPA Superfund Director, she was familiar with Gog-le-hi-te.  This 12-acre restored wetland on the Puyallup River Delta is a former city landfill.  It now hosts more than 100 species of birds along with as an array of mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians.  Gog-le-hi-te derives from the Puyallup Tribe; it means “Where the land and waters meet.”





Photo by Port of Tacoma

On our drive to this site, the clouds formed a menacing stew to the southwest.  We headed into the industrial port of Tacoma, a world where semi-trucks and other heavy equipment are the norm and birders in Subaru’s are not.

After route finding through various wood products and shipping container storing sites, we found the subtly marked empty small parking area for Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands.  A police car stopped by to investigate us and our vehicle.  Then a recently-scarred young woman with jagged missing teeth walked over to ask us what we were doing.  When we told her what we were up to, she replied “Oh, birds? There are lots of them down there.” (pointing to the river).


Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands photo by Port of Tacoma

In this setting we felt slightly on guard, the sounds and sights of industry all around, yet grateful that nature in any form still exists here.

We saw a Mallards and American Wigeon on the large pond in the wetlands along with an assortment of Glaucous-winged and Glaucous-winged/Western Hybrid gulls on their way to the Puyallup River.

We finally scanned the shipping containers — the place where the last sighting of a Slaty-backed Gull had occurred several days before.  We sorted through myriad gulls on the multi-colored, and multi-layered containers but alas, no Slaty-backed Gulls.

Meanwhile the rain intensified, the daylight diminished and the wind picked up.  At 3:30 PM it looked like sunset.  We called it a day (night?). Yes, we came up empty this time on our search for an accidental, but outings like these make life interesting.

p1070064This brings me back to our second gull search to another odd place between the Renton, Washington airport and a huge Boeing plant.  Sandwiched between them is the mouth of the Cedar River as it enters Lake Washington.  A long green corridor with a 17 -mile bicycle walking trail extending along the river creates a riparian habitat zone that often draws rare birds to this area. Remarkably, salmon still spawn here as evidenced by the one I saw one wriggling upstream.  Gulls and other birds gather to feed on their carcasses.

We were searching for a Sabine’s Gull, a common migrant off the west coast that is seldom seen on the mainland where we were looking for it.


So many gulls, so little time…

There were at least 100 gulls of multiple species to sort through, but the petite Sabine’s Gull stood out clearly in contrast to the hulking Glaucous-winged Gulls around it.  It was a “life” bird for us.


Sabine’s Gull


What a fine way in which to spend a part of a day!


The entire experience was free of charges except for the price of gas and the initial investment in a car and optics. You can attend movies, plays, sporting events and the like, pay tens to hundreds of dollars to do so, and have very mixed experiences.  When you go out in nature – even restored nature in places like these – you almost never have a bad day.  In our consumer-oriented, human-centered society, it may come as a surprise that the best show on earth is free.  The ticket price is a little time, your senses engaged, patience, and a pair of binoculars.

Fall is Golden in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem   Recently updated !

When it comes to fall colors, the eastern half of our country has the reputation for the most colorful displays. Another less-heralded display occurs in the west that combines brilliant fall colors with a major river, abundant wildlife, a backdrop of spectacular mountains and more than half of the world’s thermal features.

The 22.5 million acres that comprise the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem include Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, but also seven national forests, three wildlife refuges and three major mountain ranges.  This is what makes it so special, so wild, and so beautiful.  Lit by fall colors, but minus the crush of summer tourists and insects, September is a wonderful time there.

Here is a taste of what we experienced on a Naturalist Journeys tour I led with Greg Smith this fall:

p1060277Stupendous views opened up along nearly every turn of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. Golden-green – rosy hues of Aspen, Willow and Cottonwood trees were illuminated by an ever-changing cloudscape with the Grand Tetons as a backdrop.

p1060308At Oxbow Bend, the astounding fall colors reflected in the Snake River in impressionistic fashion creating a view that Ansel Adams would have probably photographed and Claude Monet would have likely been inspired to paint.

p1060889We awoke in Yellowstone to the haunting sounds of elk bugling.  Later, we saw the buglers in action:  a bull elk herding his small harem of four cow elk.  On the way to Hayden Valley, we met a lone Bison calmly wap1060666lking toward us in the opposite lane of the road.  He continued strolling beside our vehicle, unperturbed by our presence.

At our first Hayden Valley viewpoint we once again heard elk bugling and then saw a herd of 20+ elk on a high bench across the Yellowstone River.  A was coyote hunting on the hillside just below us – he would walk a few steps, side-step, pounce, sniff, dig and then repeat in its never-ending search for food. We then moved to another viewpoint in sight of a known wolf den.  We found two in the scope:   a black and a gray morph wolf.  What a treat to see them on our second day out!


Hayden Valley

Acting on a tip from other wildlife watchers, we headed to Bridge Creek in search of a Great Gray Owl.  Soon, we were watching in amazement as one perched, flew, hunted, pounced to the ground and at one point flew to a perch within ten feet of us.  Seeing this, the largest of p1060442all North American Owls, was a life bird for most in our group, including me.

Moving on, we walked to several viewpoints above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, including the upper and lower falls with their 100-p1060436300 foot drops into the multi-colored canyon.  It is so vast and beautiful that photos and paintings cannot do it justice.  Thomas Moran, renowned national park painter and promoter said that it “was beyond the realm of human art.”

Continuing into the center of Yellowstone and its huge super p1060537volcano caldera, the animals just kept on coming:  Big-horned Sheep seen on a hike and along the roadside; Elk lounging on the hot water and travertine formations at Mammoth as if it were there personal spa;



a large cinnamon-colored Black Bear foraged on a hillside near the Tower area, walking and balancing on logs with the grace of a gymnast.



Lamar Valley



Heading east we entered Lamar Valley where thousands of Bison were joined by Pronghorns, Coyotes and other birds and wildlife.  This valley, along with Hayden Valley, offer a glimpse of how the west might have appeared to Native Americans and early settlers.  These valleys have been referred to as North America’s Serengeti due to the abundance of wildlife they host.

Indian summer weather prevailed as we continued northeast from Yellowstone Park to the Beartooth highway which the late great television journalist Charles Kurault said was “America’s most beautiful.”


Beartooth Mountains

Our group described the Beartooths as: “Indescribable, majestic, sublime, overwhelming, intoxicating, fantastic, beautifully brutal, awesome, humbling, breathtaking, expansive, spiritual, ineffable, stark/beautiful, dazzling, joyous, and unbelievable. “

p1060573At Beartooth Pass, just below 11,000 feet, we searched for Pikas on a rocky scree slope.  It did not take long for us to find them.  First we heard a nasal “beep!” and then saw one perched on a rock.  Other beeps!”  and more Pika sightings followed.

p1060720Our last stop in Yellowstone was Old Faithful geyser basin.  There we hiked to the iconic Morning Glory pool that resembles a giant piece of Southwestern Indian jewelry with its deep tones of blue, green and yellow.

As we reluctantly departed from Yellowstone, the fall colors increased in intensity in Grand Teton National Park along the Snake River valley, reaching a crescendo at Oxbow Bend. Everyone departed from Jackson with fond memories of the natural wonders of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem embellished by brilliant fall colors.  This is a magical time in which to visit a magical place.


Oxbow Bend on Snake River with Grand Tetons behind



The Guides:  Greg Smith and Woody Wheeler

Photos by Lori Cohen & Woody Wheeler