There was rustling in the tall grass aside a lazy stream. A Great Blue Heron had led me here, after I had failed in a few attempts to get close to the elegant bird. I had followed its flight from take-off to landing three times now, walking quickly and quietly along the banks of these Snake River backwaters. On this third episode of the chase, the heron swooped low and banked left around some dense vegetation and, for the first time in an hour, left my view. Undeterred, I walked through the brush in the direction of the heron’s flight and zeroed in on its likely landing area. I thought I was close when I saw the rustling of the stream-side grasses. The rustling rose to what sounded like ripping and tearing, and from the vegetation emerged a moose. A clever trick by the heron to lead me to this distraction. My curious, observing eyes had found a new subject. Heron exits stage. Moose steps up to her mark.
Throughout all of this, I hadn’t seen any other people. These side channels are quiet, save for the low hush of the Snake River’s current murmuring beyond. The interactions with wildlife here are intimate. This moose and I were alone in this great theater. I watched her turn her head repeatedly to tear chutes of grass. As the early afternoon sun intensified, she slowly – very slowly – took a step into the water, and then another. And then a long pause as she stood in water that reached nearly to her belly. I could feel her demeanor change as she entered the water – its cooling effect clearly relaxing her and enticing me.
What a joy to observe all of this. After a good while, she moved farther into the backwater and I moved from observation to reflection. What am I learning? What is she sharing with me?
I had come to this place to learn more about birds. I had my bird guide with me and a field notebook. I’ve become familiar with perhaps a few dozen birds by sight and sound this summer, and once that gate was opened, the search has become relentless and exciting. Every day seems to reveal a new bird, and what a gift that is. It’s strange to think that all these birds have always been there, but I never really noticed them.
Before the heron, and long before the moose on this day, I had identified the American Goldfinch for the first time. To those who know this common bird, it’s a fairly ordinary occurrence, however delightful. It’s such an exceptionally beautiful bird to observe. I first saw the goldfinch through my binoculars as it perched in a cottonwood tree. Glancing back and forth between my bird guide and the bird in the tree, I couldn’t identify it with
certainty. But then it flew! And what a distinctive flight it is! Singing as it flies upward, then pinning its wings back for a joyous little dive. Up and down. Up and down, reminiscent of the motion we repeat when we stick our hand outside a car window and ride the air waves. I’ve since been told by an expert birder that the American Goldfinch is the “rollercoaster bird.” Perfect. What an awesome bird!
As this new world of birds has opened to me, so has my desire to record what I observe. I go back to the same place at least weekly – more often if I could – and so far I’ve never failed to see something new. I enter all of my observations into the Nature Mapping Jackson Hole database. By doing so, I contribute to our collective experience of living in this wild place. The data can be useful to local species knowledge and even to planning efforts, but maybe the greater thrill is to feel a part of a community that connects with wildlife in this meaningful way. Once I’ve committed to recording what I observe, the wonderful interactions and beautiful experiences seem to multiply many times. We share with wildlife. We share with each other. This sharing might be the essence of living in this remarkable place.
This valley is filled with some of the world’s finest biologists, birders and experts of every ecological field. While I’m not among these talented folks, my love for wildlife and gratitude for the beauty of a place like Jackson Hole is something that I want to share. Many people feel as I do, and Nature Mapping Jackson Hole is one place where we come together, around a shared appreciation for a place and the wild things we love.
Written by Jon Mobeck, Executive Director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, and enthusiastic new Nature Mapper