Owling on the other side of the mountainWhat a Day!
by Dan Hartman
April 10, 2016Every April we plan a trip that takes us to Livingston, Columbus, Red Lodge, Belfry and finally through Sunlight Basin to the foot of Cooke Pass. Ten miles from our cabin. It actually takes us 325 miles to get 10 miles from our home because Cooke Pass is still closed and will be until May. We do this so I can get an advanced look at my owl and eagle nests in Sunlight Basin and in the foothills of the Beartooths.
The evening before we left, Cindy looked out to spot a pygmy owl struggling to kill a pine grosbeak. (I'll post that story later.) Was this an omen for good things to come over the pass?
We left Thursday morning at dawn. We really didn't see anything unusual in the Park except a cow bison with afterbirth hanging in Little America. She was traveling with no calf in sight.
As we approached Black-tail Drive I remembered McNeal had told me of seeing a pygmy owl in the area a month or so ago. I had spotted one there back in February so we stopped for a listen. Sure enough, a sot whistle sounded every 5-6 seconds. I climbed up through the timber and eventually found him perched high in a pine. In theory, the nest will be nearby.
We drove along seeing our first meadow larks, ospreys and marmonts of the season. By mid afternoon we reached our first nest. It was a golden eagle nest I've photographed many times in the past. It was empty.
On over Dead Indian Pass and out into Sunlight Basin, we finally stopped beside the highway. I grabbed bear spray and startd up through the dense forest. I've found three different great gray owl nests in this stand of timber and also have had trouble with grizzlies here, so I continually watched the mud and snow for tracks. I was frustrated at all the new blow down. It made approaching my nest sites extremely difficult. I wasn't surprised when I found them one by one empty. There had been no sign (white-wash and pellets) on my way in.
An hour later I was back at the car, exhausted from wading through two feet of snow drifts and over endless deadfall.
We drove on towards Cooke Pass, stopping now and then to check out aspen groves for pygmy owls. The road was barracaded a mile or so down from Fox Creek so we headed up Highway 212 towards the Beartooths. After three miles or so, the road was covered with six inches to a foot of packed ice. We fish-tailed on up the steep grade. Finaly we reached our destination. As aspen covered slope that sided a forested ravine.
Once again I grabbed bear spray and started up. The first couple hundred yards wasn't bad with only occasional snow drifts. When I reached the first bench I encounterd a sea of two foot deep soap suds snow. The post holing made the going miserable. At times I considered turning back. Eventually I reached the familiar spot I always entered the timber. There ahead of me stood the spruce snag nest that raised a great gray family three different years.
It had been used the last two years. I've never had a great gray owl pair use a nest three consecutive years, so I wasn't really surprised. Still it would have been nice.
I looked to the tree tops and let out a low "hoo". Instantly a sharp "Yurp!" sounded just to my left!
"Well, the females here. I wonder if the male hasn't arrived yet", I thought.
I carefully picked my way through deadfall as she continued to beg just ahead of me. Then far down from the timbered flat below came a booming, "Woop!"
Instantly the confused female quieted her chirping and replaced them with soft peeps.
I quickly retraced my steps and got out of there! There was no reason to interrupt the courting pair. I'd found out what I needed to know. They were back for the third year.
We had planned on sticking around to listen for boreals, but that would be another two hours and we were also an hour away from our motel room in Cody. As we slowly drove east the shadows of evening were getting longer and darker. Kelly spotted a black bear lumbering up a sage covered slope. I picked out a bull moose moving through the trees. A horned owl perched in a pine. Suddenly I spied a great gray hunting along a grassy meadow. We pulled to the side of the deserted highway and watched. It soon changed perches and we pulled forward to keep him in sight. Suddenly he tensed up and floated to the ground. He sat there for a time and we thought he had missed when he reached down and picked up a vole.
Now the important part. Will he eat it or carry it to a waiting female.
Up into the forest it flew carrying the vole. We pulled forward and I jumped out to follow him the best I could. Well, I soon lost him in the gloom, but far upslope came the sounds of a begging female! I wanted to find her. There's a good chance she's already on the nest. However the forest was buried in two feet of soft snow and darkness was closing in. I found landmarks and walked back to the car. There's a nest for me to find when the road opens in May.
We drove on into Cody, reaching our motel at 9PM. What a day! It started out with a possible pygmy owl nest and ended with two great gray nests.
The next morning found us on our way north to check out Cindys favorite spot. A great blue heron rookery. Along the way we stopped at last years great horned owl nest. It was empty but Cindy soon spotted her in another hawk nest nearby.
At the rookery, two dozen herons were busy flying in with sticks to build up their existing nests.
We got back home by late afternoon Then went out owling as soon as it got dark.
Great Gray Owl
Whistling Pygmy Owl
Great Horned Owl Nest
Hunting Great Gray
Horned Owl At Dark