American safari, part two
Our first road trip out West, we saw coyotes and foxes, in addition to various other more commonplace animals. Part of the joy of spending time outdoors, of course, is encountering animals in their natural habitats. Although no predators deigned to show themselves during our recent road trip through the American Southwest, the wildlife encounters we did have – some a little too close for comfort, even – left us feeling incredibly fortunate.
Our first day out, we saw a large herd of American bison enjoying the vast expanse of the Great Salt Lake. In the early years of the United States, millions of bison roamed the American plains, but overhunting reduced their numbers to the point of near-extinction. Conservation efforts and bison farming have allowed the species to rebound somewhat, though it still felt like an enormous privilege to come face to face with these massive beasts.
Just as exciting was our bighorn sheep sighting in Zion National Park. Like the bison, the bighorn population was decimated by overhunting and driven to near extinction before rebounding in the twentieth century. We had known before heading out to the Great Salt Lake that park rangers tracked the movement of a herd of bison there, so the chances of seeing them were good. The bighorn sighting, on the other hand, was a stroke of pure luck. We had seen numerous rock art panels featuring these nimble creatures — in Capitol Reef, Escalante, and further south in Nevada. To find one in the wild, springing nonchalantly up a steep rock wall, brought us mentally back to earlier times, when the West was still wild.
We saw many mule deer, which are larger than the white-tailed deer found on the East Coast. One buck nearly crashed into our car as we were leaving the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park.
Squirrels are so commonplace in the United States that one hardly ever gives them a passing thought. It turns out, however, that there are almost three hundred different squirrel species in the world, and some of them are truly unique. The Kaibab squirrels we saw running around the North Rim of the Grand Canyon are a case in point. Tufted ears. Enormous, bushy, white tail. These squirrels are an everyday sight around the Kaibab Plateau of Northern Arizona, but thanks to an evolutionary quirk occur nowhere else in the world.
Not all of the animals we met in the wild were a welcome sight. Descending into the Grand Canyon, we saw a colorful snake slither across our path. Not knowing anything about snakes and unable to tell whether this one posed a danger, we froze until it had disappeared into the grass. We later learned that this was a California mountain kingsnake, a harmless mimic of a similarly-colored coral snake that is considered among the most venomous in North America.
Our previous U.S. road trip took place in the spring, which provided great opportunities for birding. This time, we hit the road well into the fall, and the avian pickings were slim. We only spotted a handful of birds we hadn’t seen before; barely even worth mentioning. But then on our last day in Utah, we saw two California condors.
These majestic birds were declared extinct in the wild in 1987. There were so few of them left – 27 to be exact – that the U.S. government decided that the only way to preserve the species was to capture the remaining individuals and attempt to increase their population through captive breeding. The plan worked, and four years later some condors were reintroduced into the wild. Listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, the California condor remains one of the world’s rarest bird species, with their total population numbering barely 400.
Note: A few of the birds in this slide show are from our travels in Ireland, which directly preceded this trip.