As we navigate our stretch of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, Barker-Ewing guides are constantly on the lookout for wildlife. Moose, Mule Deer, and Elk make their homes in the spruce and cottonwood forests along the riverbank and are relatively easy to spot. I’ve frequently had Pronghorn Antelope, Bison, Otters and Beaver swim the river within sight of my boat, and I’ve been lucky to spot Grizzly and Black Bears about once a season.
Bald Eagles, Osprey, Red-tailed Hawks, Sand Hill Cranes, Great Blue Herons, Canada Geese, Mergansers, Ravens, all make appearances along the river, and are easy to identify. But we often float past smaller birds that pose an identification challenge. Luckily, we’ve got many resources in the Barker-Ewing boathouse to help us assign names to these UFOs.
With more than 25,000 river miles under my belt, I’ve gotten pretty good at IDing birds after just a quick glance. A distinctive flash of bright blue means I’ve seen a Mountain Bluebird; sunshine yellow means a Yellow Warbler. Killdeer are the shorebirds that drag their wings when our rafts get too close, and Bank Swallows swoop and dive while chasing insects near their cliffside nests. I’m proud of my skills, but they don’t hold a candle to boatman Hank McCurdy, who can ID dozens of birds by their songs alone.
On a recent hike in Yellowstone National Park, I caught sight of a UFO: a small bird, gray and iridescent green with a fine streak of reddish color at the crown of its head. With its long tail pulled slightly upright, it was scurrying along under the evergreen shrubs dotting a steep slope. With only the Stokes Beginners Guide to Birds on hand, I narrowed the search to the Sparrow family, but with no bars on my cellphone, a definitive match would have to wait.
Back at home after my day on the trail, I consulted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of my favorite online resources. This site hosts detailed descriptions, photos, habitat and range information and dozens of songs and calls recorded in a variety of seasons and settings. My UFO was around 7.5 inches, grayish, some greenish color on the wings and tail, and rufous crown; found in a brushy area in the Rockies – all data that helped narrow the search. The clincher: this little bird made a sound like a mewing kitten so could only be the Green-tailed Towhee.
Though Hank might have ID’d the Towhee by accessing the vast repertoire of bird songs stored in his memory palace, I’m no slouch either, and I’m hot on his heels. I’ve got the Chickadee, the Raven, the Flicker, and the Green-tailed Towhee.