Wildlife Expeditions shares five wildlife watching tips to take your experience from ordinary to immersive. www.wildlifeexpeditions.org
The mountain panoramas of Grand Teton National Park provide a stunning backdrop for North American big-game viewing. Elk, moose, grizzlies and bison can all be found roaming free in this 485-square-mile park. The large mammals of Grand Teton are collectively known as “charismatic megafauna.” They are justifiably popular to look for, but as you do so, keep your eye out for these “charismatic microfauna.” Though they may be smaller in size than their mega-brethren, they have just as much star quality.
Look for a Great Gray Owl Hunting Mice in a Meadow
The great gray owl can be seen in Grand Teton National Park throughout most of the year, but deep snows forces it to look elsewhere for food in midwinter. It is most easily seen in summer when the chicks are growing. The male takes on most of the responsibility to feed the chicks, especially after they leave the nest. Look for him hunting for his hungry family in the early morning and just before sunset. The male will hunt in small meadows for meadow voles and other rodents while the female guards the nest. He will often perch down low on a snag or fencepost, using his impressive sense of hearing to pinpoint a rodent in the meadow.
Where to find them: The Moose-Wilson road and agricultural areas south of the park are good roadside places to look for a great gray owl. It can also be seen in meadows along hiking trails at the base of the Tetons. While this compelling species is a popular subject for wildlife photographers, please set a good example for other viewers. Great gray owls are reluctant to fly from humans, but the close presence of people is stressful nonetheless. Be as silent as possible and give the bird space to hunt. Use binoculars or a telephoto lens to view the owl from a respectful distance.
Watch the Dirt Fly as an American Badger Digs up a Pocket Gopher
The badger is an animal with a vicious reputation, but it would rather flee from humans than fight. Badgers prefer being left alone to dig up as many rodents as possible. Their nasty reputation stems from the days of trapping. Like many members of the weasel family, badgers will fight to protect themselves if cornered. You can see the holes made by hunting badgers across the sage flats of Grand Teton National Park. Sometimes badgers return to use these holes as a sleeping den, but they often remain unused for decades. The holes will occasionally be used as dens by other species such as red fox and burrowing owls.
Where to find them: The best places to find badgers in the park are open grasslands and sage flats. Look around the Mormon Row/Antelope Flats area, Elk Ranch Flats, and the National Elk Refuge just south of the park.
Listen for the Bubbling Song of the American Dipper
Though John Muir knew his favorite bird as the Ouzel, it is now called the American Dipper. At first appearance, it’s diminutive size and dull grey-brown coloring makes it fly under the radar. But if you take time to observe this interesting bird, it has an extreme-sports lifestyle that is unique in North American songbirds. Despite not having webbed feet, it will dive headfirst into ice-cold, rushing water and walk along the bottom in search of aquatic invertebrates. Dense, waterproof feathers, oxygen-rich blood and a slow metabolism help them survive their daily plunges. The American Dipper is fiercely territorial and its song can be heard along the creeks and rivers of GTNP all year long, even in the coldest days of winter.
Where to find them: The best roadside place in GTNP to find dippers is along the Gros Ventre River. They can also be seen from any creekside trail such as the hike to Inspiration Point/Hidden Falls.
Try to Spot the Pika as it Gathers Hay for the Long Alpine Winter
Pikas are easily heard, but their camouflage and rapid movements make them difficult to spot. Be patient. This tough-to-find animal is one of the most adorable in the park. Listen for their calls under the rocks. It may sound like someone blowing short blasts on a party favor for New Years. Pikas typically retreat to their cool underground burrows as the day gets warmer and sunnier. In fact, temperatures over 78 degrees F can be fatal.
Where to find them: While there are no roadside areas to view pikas in Grand Teton National Park, they can be seen along the popular hiking to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. Look in talus piles (large piles of rocks) up canyons and any trail that climbs the Tetons. Yellow-bellied marmots and golden-mantled ground squirrels are other small mammals that can be seen in these rock piles.
Float Alongside a River Otter
River otters are making a comeback in some parts of the the United States, but they are still a difficult animal to see in the wild. In Grand Teton, the population is doing well and can be seen occasionally, if unpredictably, in many bodies of water across the park. Otters are largely nocturnal and are best spotted in the early morning or an hour or two before sunset.
Where to find them: Look for river otters in ponds, lakes, and larger rivers. Scanning Oxbow Bend at sunrise or sunset offers the best chance of seeing otters, but they can also be seen in any lake or pond in Grand Teton National Park with a bit of luck. To see otters at their level, book a scenic float down the Snake River at www.tetonscience.org/programs/scenic-float-wildlife-tour/. Otters are comfortable with boats floating at the river’s pace. Because of this, scenic floats are a special way to glimpse the natural behavior of this playful but shy species.