My love affair with the state of Wyoming has ended, snuffed out by the horizon of the road swallowing the mountains in my rear view mirror. What started as an escape plan from dismal winter birding in Colorado turned into a whirlwind of birding adventures, new friends, and being immersed within the local community of Lander. On the avian side, it took only a few short days for a squat rotund bird of a sagebrush sea to spark my curiosity and throw me into an all-consuming pursuit of everything the Greater Sage Grouse had to offer.
My fascination with this bird is grandiose, and deserves its own blog post. Just wait, it's coming.
Let me share with you a little about my adventure in Wyoming, a state that wasn't on my intended birding path at all this year. It took me stumbling upon the website of an optics company earlier this year to realize that good people and quality optics are both products of Wyoming. Earlier in the year I read a blurb in Outside magazine about "top-of-the-line" Maven binoculars, which as a birder, I'd never heard of. I did some more research, and quickly became intrigued by reviews, seeing they got the nod from Field and Stream too. I got my hands on a pair of Maven binoculars, and after testing them out I decided that these were among the top binoculars I'd ever used as a birder, and I've been a connoisseur of Zeiss, Leica, and Swarovski for nearly a dozen years. I adjusted my plans in Colorado to detour up to Lander, Wyoming and meet the guys behind the glass.
For the next several days I spent time with the Maven crew in between my birding trips to see Sage Grouse. I spent as much time as I could learning about the Sage Grouse, which were so abundant and easy to find, compared to my efforts to find the "other" sage grouse species- the Gunnison Sage Grouse in Colorado and Utah. (Unsuccessfully, I humbly admit)
Lander got some snow throughout the night, which changed my birding plans the first morning. By some snow, I mean enough to close the highway, keeping everyone in town until the drifts were plowed and the road re-opened. Needless to say, I wasn't going to see Sage Grouse that day. After breakfast I made a local effort to clean up on some birds I'd missed in Colorado, spotting the American Dipper, Northern Shrike, and Evening Grosbeak. In the afternoon, I stopped by Wyoming Fish and Game and interviewed some folks in order to better understand the role technology plays in managing Sage Grouse populations in Wyoming, amidst energy development, cattle ranching, and other human activities. I'll weave some of those elements into the Sage Grouse post, and like many other things I've learned this year- likely my book as well! I had the privilege of birding with Del in the afternoon, and together we found Black Rosy-finch, a bird I had never seen before- a life bird! For me it was a perfect moment: Sitting in the truck of a man who an hour ago was a complete stranger, looking at a new species of bird I've never seen before while hearing his birding stories of birding with Marlin Perkins in Kenya.
I started the morning off right... birding. The snow we got yesterday was partially melted, and on dirt roads that didn't even have names, attempted travel was going to be a recipe for getting stuck. I checked out a nearby Sage Grouse lek which was visible from the highway. This was a perfect opportunity to take Maven's new scope out for a test run. I used it side by side with my Swarovski ATX 90 spotting scope, and to say I'm impressed is an understatement. I'll save the technical comparison for a separate post or a review, but I was wowed by the clarity, brightness, and compact size of Maven's new scope. I can't wait until they're through production and I can test it in a greater variety of lighting scenarios.
I had the opportunity to go to lunch at the Lander Rotary Club. Upon receiving the invitation, I was a little unclear about what a Rotary Club was, but all of my uncertainty melted away when I walked through the door and was warmly greeted by dozens of smiling people, hands outstretched. This was the first time in my travels I had felt welcomed and included by a community of complete strangers. Not only was I fed, but I was entertained- the trivia, songs, and speaker were all engaging and a fun part of this new experience. I could see how tightly-knit the community here in Lander is, and it's my hope that I can live and contribute to a community like this someday.
This morning the road conditions had improved enough to get into one of the closer grouse leks. This was a perfect opportunity to get out into the field with Stan, the local Fish and Game biologist who I wanted to interview for The Birding Project. Craig from Maven came along too. I borrowed my friend Mike's 4X4 Chevy and plowed down the snow-covered road, barely staying on top of the soft mud beneath. After nearly a half mile of oil field roads, I managed to get the truck stuck, despite using 4 wheel drive and driving as carefully as I could. While Stan went back to get his truck (which he wisely left at the beginning of the road) I sat there kind of feeling bad, but knowing at the same time that this was a good story to put in my blog. In 15 minutes, Stan pulled up in his truck, and we attached a tow rope and the Ford pulled out the stuck Chevy. We arrived at the lek and the grouse were already in full swing, and they didn't mind us rolling up and observing them on the snow-covered lek. It was a magical morning.
This morning began at 4am, early enough that the local McDonalds wasn't open so I had to boil water on the hood of my car for my morning oatmeal. It started snowing. Hopefully the roads across the rolling sagebrush hills wouldn't be covered yet, I needed to drive about 30 miles to meet the team of researchers I was accompanying this morning into their research site to watch Greater Sage Grouse. It was going to be an exciting day!
The road conditions were passable, and I met Alan Krakauer from Gail Patricelli's lab at UC Davis. They were doing some really cool research using cutting-edge robotics, and I couldn't wait to see what they were up to and meet Gail after spending the morning in a blind with Alan. The research camp was nothing more than a cluster of trailers out in the sage, backlit by the lights of an oil rig miles away. We loaded up the trucks and headed down the snowy road. Setting up the blind in the dark, Alan was optimistic about the day, as this was his first day in the blind this season. We both were in for a treat- the birds began lekking before dawn, and we witnessed numerous fights, mating, chases, and every behavior imaginable. I was pleased with some of the images I made too, although improvement can always be made! After the birds had left, maybe around 11am, we headed back to camp and I interviewed Gail. I'll create a separate post specifically about Sage Grouse... it's already in the works!
Overall, it was a fantastic visit to Wyoming. I loved every view, each meal, the new friends I made, and the dose of winter weather. Now I can happily say I can't wait to go back!