Before we started our recent van road trip we had certain expectations and goals. One of the goals I set was the wildlife I expected to see.
My list included buffalo, elk, moose, wolves, bears, magpies, mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
Okay, so one of those doesn’t quite fit with all the others but ever since I read a book about the Lewis & Clark Expedition and learned that they actually sent LIVE animals back to President Thomas Jefferson, I wanted to see a Magpie. The Magpie was one of the few animals that survived the journey back to Washington DC.
I think we were probably more than a week into the trip and somewhere in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota when I spotted my first Magpie. It was very exciting. For me. Jenni didn’t quite understand my geekiness. Then, as we traveled on, Magpies became a common sight. In fact, Jenni noted that they really weren’t that different from the Grackles that permeate the Southeast. When I saw a pair eating some skunk roadkill on an Idaho highway I sort of lost my fascination for them.
Jenni looked forward to seeing the buffalo. (I have to technically refer to them as BISON at least once so I don’t get into trouble with any technical experts reading this blog.) Our first opportunity was outside Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. Jenni said “Look! Those are buffalo in the distance.” I said “No, pretty sure those are black cows.” and I kept driving. Oops. Turns out I was wrong. I said not to worry because there would be plenty more closer to the road. Oops. Turns out I was wrong about that too, at least at Wind Cave.
The next day or two we spent considerable time in Custer State Park (SD) where they have a carefully managed herd of 1,400 buffalo. Even though Wildlife Loop Road had construction and was no longer a ‘loop’, we drove it to see the wildlife. Just before the forced turnaround we saw the buffalo herd in the distance. Turns out the park had started their annual roundup a couple weeks early and had all the buffalo packed into a single valley—requiring binoculars to get a good look. We disappointedly turned around on No-Wildlife Loop and drove to our campsite for the night. I knew we would get more chances at national parks yet to come.
That opportunity came two days later at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Much to our satisfaction there were buffalo all over the place—near and far. We got to watch them take dust baths, jump guard rails, and block traffic! Our dog Annie did her best to keep them in check from her front seat perch. If you want to see buffalo, this is the place to go. Even Yellowstone NP couldn’t provide the opportunities we experienced here.
Other notable, unexpected wildlife sightings included porcupines. Neither of us had ever seen a live porcupine in the wild. We still haven’t. But they seem to have some of the same issues armadillos have on the highways in Texas because we saw three roadkill porcupines.
Listening to Elk call each other was fascinating….especially when Jenni would mimic them, driving Annie into a barking frenzy. Watching a bull rub his antlers on tree branches and then join his harem in the river for refreshments was an unforgettable experience.
We saw more Pronghorn Antelope on the trip than we do deer back home. We always seemed to remark on how cute their butts were because that was what we usually saw first. Big Horn Sheep were plentiful as well but the big rams with the curled horns stayed out of sight. We were able to catch several Mountain Goats high up on a mountain when we first entered Yellowstone. And don’t get me started on the Prairie Dogs!
Basically to see wildlife in the parks you watch other people. As we entered Yellowstone, we asked one ranger if there were any carcasses attracting bears or wolves. (Obviously by her reaction it wasn’t the first time she had been asked such a thing.) She gave us directions to a kill from a few days before but wouldn’t make any promises. Her words: “Just watch the people. If they’re stopped, there is probably something to see.” That’s how we found a Bald Eagle.
And, I like to think that’s probably how I helped a few people see their first Magpie!