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Great Greys, the Sacred Tree and the Fox

Guest Writer, John Michael Byrd
by Dan Hartman

Oct. 7, 2021

Three years ago John came with a group led by Dave Tonkyn with the Univeristy of Arkansas.  As luck would have it, he and his wife stopped by the gallery and dropped off a story that he had written about the trip he had three years earlier.  Hope you enjoy it.

    When I signed up for a class called Rocky Mountain Field Ecology at my university in Arkansas I had few but some expectations based on a few fond memories of a family trip to Yellowstone when I was 9 years old. A few days into our trip, we had already stayed in an impressive field station in the Tetons, seen wolves, grizzlies, moose, goats, sheep, ospreys, and more. So I was satisfied, I could have packed up and gone home happy. However, Dr.Tonkyn, our professor and leader of our trip, who had lived in the Beartooths as a student and has brought classes here for almost 20 years, had other plans for us that I could never have expected. When he said “We’re going to meet my good friend Dan who is going to take us out looking for Great Grey Owls.” I had no idea what we were getting into. We left Yellowstone through the Northeast entrance and stopped into a cabin with a sign that simply and succinctly said: “GALLERY.” We saw some incredible pictures, met Dan and Cindy Hartman, and set out on our owl search.
The First Day
    We began our hike into an area of woods with which Mr. Hartman was very familiar. He spent some time here on his honeymoon, hiked the meadows with his young daughter, and had observed other nests here with Dr. Tonkyn in past years. He was now with us 41 years after his honeymoon, the day before his wedding anniversary, taking the time to show us some owls. As we hiked into the hills we all hustled and even struggled to keep up, but we’ll blame that on the altitude. As we entered the meadows a red-tailed hawk screamed above us, and a ruffed grouse pounded his drums rattling our skulls. Suddenly, the setting came alive as Dan pointed out the signs of bears, moose, bison, pocket gophers, and of course owls. This included whitewash, scat, prints, and scratches from claws, horns, and antlers. He identified flowers, Fairy Slippers, Elephantheads, and every bird we heard singing, including the “most beautiful bird in the West” also known as the Western Tanager.
Though I pride myself in knowing a bit about animals I must admit I didn’t quite know the magnitude of finding a Great Grey Owl. That is until we spotted one and I saw the excitement on the man’s face who has watched these creatures for decades. Once we spotted the male, the game was on. We learned to watch the leaning trees for fledglings, to look in snags of broken trees, and Witches’ Broom for nests, and to listen for certain calls from the female. All the while we’re supposed to let the male hunt without letting him think we’re interested in him, because if he was onto our scheme, he would surely lead us on a fruitless trek into the mountains in the opposite direction of the nest. We saw him drop to the fields one more time before we knew it would soon be past his hunting time, but we would return in a few days’ time, with a new sense of purpose because now we knew the true thrill of the owl search.
The Second Day
We returned to our meeting point, this time we were on a mission with radios and a detailed plan for finding a nest. I, being one of the few that did not see the owl the previous day, was determined not to miss it. We walked through the hills but we didn’t take the time to stop for the ruffed grouse, the hawk, or the hoof prints. About 10 minutes into our walk we heard the alarm call of a male owl, and I looked up and saw one of the largest owls in the world take flight from one branch to the next, a great grey satellite dish of a face turned to look at me and disappeared into the forest. Those with a sharper eye than me followed him climbing over fallen trees with myself in fast pursuit. We split into groups, while Dan went towards where the nest was most likely to be, while looking in tree snags for signs like feathers and whitewash. Dan tells us “All you have to do to find a nest is eliminate 9/10ths of the world.” Various members of the group spotted the owl a few times but we believed he was leading us away from the nest so we sat and waited. A small group follows the sound of a robin “twirling”, and squirrels barking which is their response to a predatory owl flying around. The owl doesn’t seem to be hunting a lot, this is a sign that the eggs haven’t hatched yet as fledglings require a lot more food. We spend an hour or so sweeping the area but decide to come back in a few days because it’s getting too late for him to continue hunting.
The Third Day
    We went back out a few evenings later, one last time before we left for Arkansas. This time was similar to the last two, hustling through the meadows and patches of trees, feeling very prepared and knowing this time we would see the nest. However, nature had other plans for us. As we entered the meadows I believed I heard the ‘vvvooofff” of a female owl to my left, Dan sent me and a few more classmates in the direction of the sound. As we walked to the next opening, we saw a small but fierce predator, a fox who hadn’t a care in the world that we were all snapping pictures of her. She slowly meandered her way up to us and stared at us with curiosity but then continued her hunt. We then walked towards a spot where I heard a robin “twirling” and stumbled upon a pile of elk bones, not yet bleached by the sun, presumably stashed there by a bear. So we decided we better get back to the group. We returned to our classmates to see them enjoying some time with our friend, the fox. After a few more minutes of searching for owl signs, one of the most beautiful thunderstorms I’ve ever witnessed cut our search short. On our way out we stopped to look at a tree that had been marked by a Grizzly’s claws, scraped by a bison horn, and even undergone an infestation of bark beetles, but was still surviving. Dan told us that the sap of a Grizzly tree was holy in some Native American traditions, I will never forget the sacred tree in the long meadow. We left more than satisfied knowing Mr. Hartman would find their nest when the fledglings would soon hatch and call for food, and having seen a piece of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in a way that few people will ever see. This process provided us with more than a thrill but a sense of respect, inspiration and hope that the documentation of these animals’ magnificence would inspire others to get outside and take steps towards protecting and preserving the natural world.

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