Fall is easily the most magical time in the Tetons. Nights cool off, tourists go home, and animals start preparing themselves for the long winter ahead. To celebrate the end of summer, and a couple very needed days off, I drove through GTNP at sunset to see the changing phenology and enjoy the nice weather.
Migratory birds have been flocking up – congregating into large groups and gaining fat before they head off south. Waterfowl, especially the Canada Geese around my house, have been practicing flying in formation across the valley. I found these geese at the wetlands behind the National Elk Refuge visitor center.
My personal favorite part of the fall are the colors. Even though we don’t have a lot of deciduous trees here, the aspen alone are enough to keep me happy. Their golden warmth and flittering leaves catch the fading autumn sun in the most perfect way. I love looking across dense, dark green hillsides and seeing patches of yellow and orange.
For bears, fall means entering a phase called ‘hyperphagia’ where they eat as much as they possibly can before settling down to hibernate. Chris, who has been wildlife guiding all summer, tipped me off to a big male grizzly that had been hanging out on a carcass behind Jackson Lake lodge all week. When I got there, I was so surprised to see how close to the hotel he was! I joined the crowd of wildlife watchers on the terrace, waiting for the bruin to lift his head from his meal so we could snap our perfect pictures.
Driving back south from the damn on the park road, I even saw two red foxes! One of my favorite middle-fauna animals. Unfortunately, this is when my camera started the battle between aperture and shutter, so the pictures turned out a little fuzzy. I think it’s a little reminiscent of seeing a wild fox though; they’re always on the move and never give you a very long look, just a flash of orange in the underbrush.
Finally I reached the hotbed of elk activity in the park right now. The monarchs of the valley, bull elk in full rut have started gathering and defending their harems of cows. I passed a couple different harems, listening to the males bugle and call each other out across the meadows. Living in the migration path for a whole year in Kelly, I grew pretty accustomed to what these animals look like in the winter and spring: ratty, thin, and all together scraggly. However, at the end of the fall elk are in their best shape of the year: sleek, strong, healthy. Always a treat to see.
After my very successful drive, Chris and I camped out in Curtis Canyon under a full supermoon. Not a bad life. On the drive out the next morning, I spotted a Red-Tailed Hawk gliding above a hillside, perfectly in front of the Grand Teton. It’ll be a few more weeks before the hawks and eagles leave us for Central America. But when the Red-Tails and Swainson’s leave, the Rough Legged Hawks come in from the north, as nature tries to keep nitches filled across seasons and continents.