Let’s start with my favorite, the gray jay, formerly known as the Canada jay. They are also known as “camp robbers” because they are bold. Turn your back for a few seconds and watch that chunk of tortilla disappear into the nearest pine tree! Gray jays are also graceful fliers, and they inhabit one of my favorite habitats, Yellowstone’s high elevation forests of spruce, fir and lodge-pole pine. On most of our Yellowstone guided hikes, you will encounter gray jays, prototypical residents of the vast boreal forest that stretches across Canada and into Alaska, with analogous forest habitat extending south to northern New Mexico at increasingly higher elevations in the mountains.
A close relative of the gray jay is the Clark’s nutcracker, which thrives nearly entirely on conifer cone seeds, particularly those of the high-elevation white-bark pine. This loud squawking mountain bird is also a member of the Corvidae family (jays, crows, ravens, magpies). It makes its living by burying seed caches all over the landscape for later consumption. And when these birds don’t retrieve a cache for one reason or another, the seed caches often sprout into individual trees or groves of trees.
There are so many interesting kinds of birds you are likely to encounter while backpacking in Yellowstone, too many to cover in this limited space. But some of my other favorites include the deep blue Stellar’s jay (if you’re getting the impression I like jays, that would be correct), the sky-blue mountain bluebird, the majestic sand-hill crane and the spectacular white pelican. Not to mention bald and golden eagles and an occasional peregrine falcon. Waterfowl are common on Yellowstone’s waters, with the Barrows golden-eye probably being the most abundant duck in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. But my favorite is the rarely seen harlequin duck, a shy denizen of swift cold streams in Canada and the Northern Rockies. And then there’s the amazing dipper, or “water ouzel” a relative of wrens and a bird that scoops up invertebrate prey while walking along the bottom of cold mountain streams, entirely submerged!
So many birds, so much to see. And despite my backpacking in Yellowstone for over 40 years, I’m always seeing something new. And I never leave for a Yellowstone backpacking trek without my bird-book, securely stored in my backpack.