Tag Archives: photography

A Dazzle of Zebra, a Journey of Giraffe and a Crash of Rhino

The journey was long, an 11 hour flight overnight and a three hour transfer into the Waterberg region in the North East of South Africa. We were particularly relieved to arrive at Ants Hill Safari Lodge not just because of the journey but due to a “mix up” with some paper work which could have seen on the next plane back home again without setting foot outside of the airport… I won’t go into detail here as I don’t want to get myself or anyone else into trouble but I will say that from now on I’m going to check, re-check and triple check all paperwork before I leave home. Thankfully the kindness of a stranger (and probably some middle class, married, white privilege) saw our holiday wasn’t ruined before it had started! And even more thankfully that was the only minor hiccup of what was otherwise the most perfect family adventure ever…

The welcome at Ant’s Hill at around 2 o’clock was warm, friendly and instantly relaxing. The weather was also warm, sweltering in fact and so some cool drinks and a light lunch was perfect. The kids were far too excited for sensible things like naps after the long journey so we had a dip in the pool before getting geared up for our first horseback safari that evening.

It was Rob’s first time ever sitting on a horse and luckily he loved it. The kids took to it too, although Alfie was a bit nervous as he still has a clear memory of our friend Angela getting kicked in the face by her own horse on our farm a couple of years ago… frankly I’m still pretty traumatised by that myself so it’s no wonder it’s well imprinted in Alfie’s mind! By the end our four days at Ant’s Hill Alfie was cantering.

On the first evening though it was a matter of easy going walks around the huge 12,500 acre reserve. Orla took to her mischievous and elderly pony and enjoyed riding so much that she started to fall asleep! I noticed from a few horses back that she was slowly slumping and sliding to the side… we had to keep her talking until we reached the sundowners.

Sundowners… drinks at sunset. Yes it is a slightly colonial concept but it’s also totally awesome to ride on horseback to a high spot for the best views over the South African mountains to watch the sunset with an ice cold glass of wine or gin and tonic. We were on holiday!! The other guests all meet at the same point so you can compare notes on animal sightings and horse riding experiences.

Us being us, we were rather relieved that there weren’t any other Brits staying for the first couple of days, although most guests were European, which, let’s face it, are rather embarrassing to be around these days whichever way one voted. At least Brexit wasn’t off bounds in conversation until other Brits turned up at which point it becomes a rather basil faulty-esque case of “don’t mention Brexit” lest we should disagree! Ahhhh… Brits abroad, all our funny ways are inflated and seem more comic than normal. Anyway, I digress…

After sundowners we get safari trucks back to the hotel, as we’ve let the horses go off into the wild to make their own way home. A bright torch scans the trees for elusive bushbabies and spots nightjars and mongoose. Dinner is superb; impala fillet, but we’re so exhausted it’s a struggle to get through and little Orla falls asleep at the table with her mouth full of impala. When Rob picked her up she woke up and carried on chewing!!

The days at Ant’s Hill are relaxed and don’t involve the traditional safari early starts; Breakfast at 7.30am-ish, hopping on the horse about 8am for a morning ride, getting right up among the zebra, giraffe, warthogs and antelope. Back for a swim about 10am and a leisurely lunch at 12ish either at the hotel or out in the South Africa bush. More pool time and parents taking turns for naps followed by another horse ride to the sundowners spot. What more could you ask of a holiday? Not a lot… but we certainly got more!

One evening instead of horse riding we climbed into the game drive vehicles and headed to the sister hotel, Ants Nest on the far side of the huge estate. The owner, Ant (obvs), is dedicated to the Save the Waterberg Rhino conservation project and to that end has a Rhino breeding programme on the reserve. At this time of year, the tail end of the dry season, they are feeding the rhinos and other animals on the reserve – an expensive necessity in this arid landscape. However, for us this meant we were able to get extraordinarily close to these magnificent, pre-historic beasts as they fed on hay just below the platform we were on. We also got to see the two week old baby rhino feeding from her fiercely protective mum. I’ll write more about the plight of the rhinos in a future post as it warrants awareness raising efforts all round.

The other incredible experience at Ant’s Hill was the opportunity to take part in a game capture. Within a managed reserve such as this it’s vital that an active game management strategy is employed to control populations and ensure the health of the various herds on the estate. There are a few leopards within the reserve but no lions or other major predators so it’s all the more important for humans to manage them. An old, lone, male buffalo was causing problems and given his genetics were already strong within the buffalo herd it was time for him to be moved to another reserve were he could sow a few more seeds. Also a male eland (the largest of the antelope) was unwell and needed to be assess by the vet and potentially isolated for a time. It was an earlier start and a picnic breakfast in the car that day as we set off in the direction of the helicopter noise. It was a rapid and bumpy drive up the mountain to where the buffalo in question had been spotted and by the time we got there the vet had already darted him (from a helicopter into exactly the right spot… IMPRESSIVE!). It takes a lot of strong men to get a buffalo onto a moving stretcher and then into a trailer. And it has to be done before the sedative wears off! It’s also important they keep his gigantic tongue out and a blindfold on him. The eland was next and after another speedy drive across the rugged terrain (because helicopters are a hell of a lot fast than cars!) we found him staggering around having just been darted again with incredible precision by the vet. This one was treated and hauled onto the stretcher but instead of going to a trailer he was moved onto a neighbours patch for a while and we got to see him being woken back up and wander off looking a bit confused.

Other highlights of our stay at Ant’s Hill include waking up to a noisy squirrel looking at me from our bathroom and watching a warthog wander past the bedroom window and then there was Craig… Craig the snake man whom our kids developed a major hero worship for. He keeps snakes; big snakes, little snakes, harmless snakes, highly poisonous snakes, fast snakes, slow snakes, friendly snakes and very unfriendly snakes… most of his snakes were a combination of those things. For example the brown house snake which is harmless, fast and friendly. Or the puff adder which is highly poisonous, very unfriendly but thankfully also slow! He brought us snakes to meet. It was an experience! The kids loved it… me? Not so much. But Craig was also great at catching lizards and geko and was an absolute font of knowledge and Patrick has decided he wants to be Craig when he grows up. He spent a fair proportion of the sundowners creating villages for the giant millipedes and then gathering millipedes to populate them faster than they could crawl away (pictured below was one that settled in his new house!).

It spoke volumes about the area that with so much on their door step Ant’s Hill was popular with people from Johannesburg as a weekend getaway and we were lucky enough to hit it off with a family whose son was Alfie’s age. I say lucky… basically they got my kids playing a game which involves rolling impala poo in your mouth and seeing  who can spit it the furthest and eating live giant flying ants. I didn’t (boring!) but the rest of them and Rob did!

Ant’s hill was only the first half of our trip, next we moved onto Madikwe Game Reserve which I’ll tell you about soon.

For all the photos from the trip follow me on Instagram @MumaDean or on Twitter or Facebook.

 

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The majestic Sable antelope was the logo for Ant’s Hill

 

Canoeing and Wild Camping

To celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary this year Rob and I left the kids with the grandparents and embarked on a canoe expedition course to learn the necessary skills to head off on our own adventures. In that week we fell in love with canoeing and on our return invested in two canoes and the various paraphernalia required such as life jackets, dry bags and so on. The kids have been desperate to get out on the water with us but I’m in the final stages of dissertation writing for my MSc and with weather and tide considerations a couple of weeks passed before we had a chance. That chance came last weekend and we went for it, full bore!

We could have fit way more stuff but this is all we needed for the five of us overnight

We could have fit way more stuff but this is all we needed for the five of us overnight

We set off just before high tide going up stream with the flow which made for easy initial paddling. Although as we rounded a corner the wind caught us and with only my 8 year old in the front of mine we were much lighter than I had anticipated and we kept getting turned. Even with the camping kit there wasn’t a lot of weight in the canoe and it was very much in the middle (kit) and back (me)… first lesson learned in terms of kit positioning.

drifting paddling

Eventually after spinning in the water for a while and even walking along a stretch of shore until we were past the bend in the river that was catching the wind, we were back on route and arrived at our camping spot.

tide going out drying sicks high tide

Traffic on the river was busy around high tide and we didn’t want to draw too much attention so we didn’t set up the tarp until much later but we set about collecting and processing firewood. We lit the fire with a flint and steel using tinder we found around us and the kids played in the water before the tide went too far out. Rob strung them up a simple rope swing which proved fun for hours (and also caused irritating “my turn” arguments!!)

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Boys processing wood for a fire

rope swing water fun summer fun whittling

Dinner was a basic chicken curry and here I learned another lesson… when taking curry powder in a pot seal the pot in bag or decent container… the curry powder spilt in one of the dry sacks and covered EVERYTHING! I salvaged enough for dinner and sucked up the lesson. We had taken about 10 litres of water with us but actually on such a hot day and with cooking dinner and washing up this was only just enough. On our course we had learned about finding water on an expedition, filtering and sterilising but the river we were on is largely salt water so that wasn’t an option. There was a stream feeding into the river nearby that we could have got water from had we been desperate and next time we’ll take a suitable filtration system in case we need it.

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Cooking dinner on the fire

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Curry with a view

After dinner and some bird watching we set up the tarp and as the sun set we got the kids to bed and us shortly after… we had to be up at 5am to catch the outgoing tide back home or we would be stranded until mid-afternoon!

bird watching setting up tarp camp sleepign babies

The early start was brilliant, we had the camp packed down and ready to set off in half an hour and we made sure that we left no trace that we had been there… an important principle we are pressing hard on the children!

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Up and ready to set off at 5.30am

The trip back was effortless on a mirror still river drifting with the tide. Of course at 5.30am we were the only human life on the river but it was teeming with bird life and the beauty of a canoe is that you can silently drift along without disturbing them.

morning shot misty morning one of me still waters

We were back at the car by 7am and heading home for a big old breakfast and a nap.

heading home for breakfast

heading home for some breakfast

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day!

sunrise

Since our amazing trip to America I’ve had very little time for more adventure and travel. Instead I published two books, expanded the Charity I run including opening an office on our farm and taking on a full time employee and I’ve embarked on an MSc in Clinical Research at Plymouth University… So I’ve been a bit too busy to blog!

But this year, to stretch myself further I’m going to try to get back into it. We’ve got loads of adventures planned and booked, from staying in a shepherds hut on Bodmin Moor this spring to a Safari in South Africa in October!

I’m also hoping to get my camera back out as it’s not had a lot of use since our big trip and I miss it! I didn’t actually decide this until after this weekend though so this post is rather lacking decent pictures, sorry.

Bushcraft is a major passion of mine and this year has various bushcraft adventures in store including attending the Bushcraft Show in May and a week-long canoeing and bushcraft course in July for Rob and My 10 year wedding anniversary.

We kicked off our bushcraft fun this weekend with an Encounter Cornwall Kayak trip from Golant to Lerryn where we scouted out some ideal spots for a bit of wild camping later in the year. The kids loved it and Alfie and Patrick are both pretty good with a paddle. It was pretty cold so Orla was wrapped up in a blanket.

When we got home we cooked a rabbit stew on a fire that Alfie and I lit with a flint and steel. I’ll post the recipe soon. We slept out under a tarp in the garden that night and although it was cold it was also good fun. We have a tree that seems to be a key spot for owls to declare their territory and I was woken up about 6 times alternately by barn owls and tawny owls declaring their presence a matter of feet from our camp.

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Alf and I sleeping under a tarp in January

The next day we had a go at making a little stove from an aluminium drinks can which we had seen on a friends blog, Chasing Wilderness. It worked brilliantly and Alfie is planning to make a little video for his own blog on how to make one yourself. Check his blog out at www.bushcraftalfie.co.uk

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A little stove made from a drinks can… Alfie is going to blog about how we made this

Once we’d tried it we headed out into some local woods to cook lunch. If I’m honest it’s more suited to cooking for 1-2 people rather than a family of five but we managed it and cooked pasta in the woods while the boys whittled. Then we had a little fire to warm water for tea as the mini stove wasn’t likely to cope with another 5 cup brew. Alfie is intending to blog about all sorts of bushcraft stuff like how to clear up a fire to leave no trace, so I’ll leave that for him to cover.

Finally we spent the evening on Sunday watching Survival Lilly videos on You Tube and planning were we could build our own “bug out camp”.

I can’t promise that I’m going to be great at keeping this blog up to date in any regular kind of way… I’m mid-way through my MSc and am as busy as ever but I really enjoy blogging about our adventures and it’s a great way of storing memories for the kids so I’ll do my best, feel free to follow and I expect that will inspire me to provide more!

Happy Tuesday folks!

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Mighty Montana

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We drove out of Yellowstone through the North East entrance in order to experience the Bear Tooth Mountain range. It was a good decision! The snow covered mountains, even now in mid-June are other worldly beautiful. The interesting winding roads taking you to the remote mountain tops past the odd hard core skier and plenty of yellow-bellied marmots. Frozen lakes and three metre walls of snow line the road as you hairpin your way up, up, up the ear popping heights.

Bear tooth mountain range, Rob Dean

Rob in the Bear Tooth Mountain Range

But the decent, again along treacherous zigzag passes is very different indeed. The side that gets the sun is lined with waterfalls and grassy meadows between the patches of tumbling rock held back by giant girders holding vast nets. Then suddenly you’re in the valley. Lush and green with a wide river providing fantastic habitat for eagles and osprey.

So on we drove to Bozeman for the night to get our clothes and bodies clean before the next adventure… WWOOFing on a ranch in Montana.

Thanks to a minor disaster involving a red crayon in the tumble dryer which somewhat slowed our morning, we arrived at Sabo Ranch at lunch time and had a wonderfully warm welcome from our host Jenny. The boys were instantly delighted with their two, older, boys; Reilly and Kiril, respectively 14 and 11 years old… Alfie’s idea of heroes. Later Mark arrived home and we set to talking through the ranch and it’s routines. Branding calves was to be the big task over the weekend and then moving the cattle during the week.

Then the pitter patter of rain drops started falling on the roof of their beautiful straw bale home and our cosy cabin and we found ourselves in a parallel universe… one in which rain is welcomed and rejoiced. “ Oh this rain is just so wonderful” and “this is great, all this rain” were phrases muttered from our delighted hosts peering out at the grey sky with bucket loads of water lashing against the windows, bolts of lightening crashing around us and and vegetable sized hail pounding the ground.

And so these two world collided as we tried to imagine living and farming in a place so dry that you pray for rain, where two days of steady rain can mean an entire extra month of grazing. And they tried to imagine our horror at wishing for water… our world where the rain bolts our crops and wrecks our hay. We relayed stories of late nights with a new born baby bringing bales to the barn to save them from the rain which was starting at 4am – we missed two in the darkness… that’s fine as we saved the rest. They shared stories of dry summer after dry summer and methods for irrigating whole fields of grass and their worry for getting enough feed to see them through the winter.

By Monday however the rain presented a problem. We were there to help with the branding of the calves and for this task it was essential that the calves are dry… stamping a wet calf with a red hot iron results in cooling of the iron and scalding with steam, rather than burning which seals the mark up. We’ve never branded cattle before, it’s not really done in the UK. We’ve de-horned, ear tagged, castrated, tattoo’d piglets, rung lambs and plenty other brutal procedures essential to modern farming, but branding was new to us. And you know what, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting! The calves are restrained on a table with a couple of strong men and clearly it hurts while it’s done. But they recover straight away and I suspect the full thickness burn doesn’t actually hurt that much after (not that I ever want to test that theory). Lambs seem much more put out by a tight rubber band round their testicles!

Branding in pictures:

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The rest of the week saw Rob getting out and helping with various tasks on the farm which he enjoyed and the kids enjoyed playing with the Sabo children and helping with their pig and turkey chores, Patrick even became a qualified Turkey Nurse! I enjoyed having the evenings to work on my book. Speaking of which, is the reason my blogging here is far less prolific. The book needs to take priority at the moment and this needs to take a back burner for a while.

At the end of the week Jenny had her sister and nephew come to stay for the weekend so we decamped to make room and had the incredible opportunity to stay in their renovated original settlers cabin. A beautiful one bed cabin in the middle of 6,500 private acres where at night no other human lights can be seen, resulting in the most incredible starry nights.

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It was while staying in this lovely isolation we made plans and decisions about the next step. We weighted up our journey so far, the things we’d seen and the people we’d met. We talked about our plans for when we returned home and we evaluated what is important to us here and now. We assess the impact of the time difference and the struggle of juggling poor internet connection. We discussed options and searched for what we really wanted.

And so on the Sunday evening I sent some emails and rearranged our flights… next stop, the UK. We’re not going home to Cornwall just yet, we’re buying a van to tour the UK, see friends old and new, and to work from… I need to work. And I need to be in at least vaguely the same time zone as my colleagues and peers. The book I’ve written is getting close to release and the time is ripe. So I’m returning to the UK for some shameless self promotion and and hard work. It’s the next adventure, being published and changing the experience of women suffering an obscure medical condition.

We are heading back across America now, via North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin then down past Chicago and onto Washington DC where we fly from next week.

I will continue to blog about our adventures but perhaps not as prolifically while I’m getting the book finalised and the PR for it organised. It’s such a lot of work and it needs to take priority. It’s my next big adventure. Once the book is released I’ll come back to this and we have loads more adventures planned for the coming months around the UK, Europe and beyond.

Oh and I’ve yet to tell you about Bruce and Pat… that’s coming soon.

Perfect Yellowstone

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After our disappointment at Yosemite we had lowered our expectations for Yellowstone, the mightiest and most famous of all the National Parks in America. It was probably wise as we had previously had very high hopes for this “Serengeti” of the Northern Hemisphere, having watched numerous spectacular nature and geology programs about the place. It was, however, unnecessary. Yellowstone did not disappoint. Far from it, our expectations, pre-Yosemite were easily surpassed and we were utterly blown away but the most incredible landscape, fascinating features, wonderful wildlife and fantastic people.

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Rob and Alfie using the scopes

One aspect of Yellowstone no-one can prepare you for is the smell! Boy O Boy does that place stink of rotten eggs and burnt matches. But that’s as wonderfully weird and interesting as all the other geological features of this super-volcano. I can’t capture the smell in photographs for you I’m afraid (although we did consider trying to bottle some for a particular Derby-dwelling, smelly bottomed friend back home). So you’ll have to settle instead for photographs of boiling mud pots, vast water squirting geysers and bottomless hot pools of magical colours.

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Stinky boiling mud pots

Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone

Old Faithful Geyser erupting

Morning Glory pool at Yellowstone National Park

Morning Glory pool – it has to be seen to be believed!

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake

The wildlife in Yellowstone is unsurpassed anywhere else in North America. We had a list of “would like to see” animals and very few were creatures we actually expected to see. Well we were just ticking them off almost hourly for the first couple of days! On expanding our list to things we never thought we would get a chance to view, Yellowstone continued to perform, tick tick tick! Now, don’t think you can just rock on up and see grizzlies, wolves and mountain goats. You need to actually look for them and be in the right place at the right time… ie. The Lamar Valley at 5am. Indeed we Deans did rise at 5am (hardcore right?), bundled the sleeping children into the car with blankets and set off to see the wolves. And it paid off, we saw two separate black wolves and a big grey fellow. You also need to stay up at dusk to see more of your bucket list species but it’s the mornings that really pay off. From coyotes and badgers to birds of prey and yellow-bellied marmots, they all rise with the sun to be seen by the hard core nature watchers.

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Loading the kids in the car at 5am, Orla was surprisingly cheerful!

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A little note on rising early for parents – If you are planning to drive a long way from your base camp for the entire day then remember to take clothes and shoes for your children to wear once the sun is up… My children may have seen the spectacular geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone National Park but they did it in their pyjama’s and with utterly inappropriate foot wear which I ended up carrying for most of the way.

Sunrise at Yellowstone

Getting up early means spectacular misty sunrises

Sunset at Yellowstone

And staying up late means even more incredible fiery sunsets!

There are parts of Yellowstone which are particularly busy, around old faithful and anywhere a bear is hanging out near a road, thereby creating a “bear jam” as the hoards swarm to get photos. But, if you take a few of the tracks off the main roads, boy does it pay off. There is a 6 mile track between Mammoth village and Tower, where our campsite was, which was particularly quiet in the evenings and provided incredible encounters, such as a coyote hanging out with a badger right there in front of us. We also found secluded yet accessible fishing spots with no one else around and (with bear spray on Rob’s belt) we caught 6 brook trout which we ate for dinner back at the camp ground.

Fishing at Joffee Lake, Yellowstone National Park

Alfie fishing at peaceful Joffee Lake

Brook trout caught at Yellowstone

And the Brook Trout he and Rob caught which we had for dinner, yum!

The camp ground at tower was ideal for us, most of the park was easily accessible, particularly Lamar Valley where a lot of wildlife is easily spotable. All the campsites here have great fire pits and nice flat places to pitch the tent. Shady from the trees but with enough sunlight to warm up the air, we warmed water on the fire to bath the kids a couple of mornings and we all slept snuggly. Although getting out for a wee in the night in grizzly territory is a whole different experience.

bathing the baby in Yellowstone National Park

The best thing for us about the campsite was the people we met in the pitches near by. A slight disappointment for this trip for myself and Rob has been the lack of new people we have met along the way. We had imagined meeting all sorts of interesting and diverse people at campsites and in the National Parks. Admittedly we’ve met some lovely people at our wwoof placements and friends we’ve stayed with whom we already knew a little but at the campsites people have very much kept themselves to themselves. Until Yellowstone that it. The first night we arrived the children were invited to a s’mores campfire party which they loved and the next few nights we happened to find ourselves next to one of the most interesting and fun couples we could have hoped for. Bruce and Pat – wolf educators, film makers and authors, also brilliant with kids. Having lived with a wolf for 16 years they had fascinating stories and interesting takes on current hot topics. I shall tell you more about Bruce and Pat after we stay with them at the end of June at their Montana home but on returning to our tent after a late night wildlife watching we discovered our tent decorated with fairy-lights, lighting the way for our sleeping babies safely to their beds. Kind gestures make the best memories.

Camping at Yellowstone

Coming home to find the fairies had been

Everyone we met in Yellowstone were fantastic and interesting and helpful except for one nutty lady who wouldn’t shut up, convinced that there were both Bison and Buffalo there, two separate species, hard to tell apart… “you’ll have to ask an American Indian to know the difference”. Oh and “the brown coloured black bears are actually brown bears”… Right Oh! Apart from her (there’s always one!) people shared tips, stories and experiences as soon as there was a clear interest and everyone was helpful and kind to the children. We went to see the ranger, Jim, who we had met a month ago in Canyonlands National Park and got more fantastic tips about where to see our tick list species, and the harder things to spot… though a live skunk still eludes us.

So here is our list of what we saw in Yellowstone (there are plenty more things we’ve seen elsewhere in the States but that list will come at the end of the trip). It’s not totally exhaustive and there are plenty more birds which we didn’t positively identify but this is the vast majority:

Mammals and reptiles

Grizzly Bears

Wolves

Black Bears

Big horn sheep

Mountain goats

Elk

Moose

Bison

Unita ground squirrel

Beaver

Badger

White tail deer

Mule deer

Red fox

Yellow-bellied marmot

Coyote

Bull snake

Chipmunk

Jack rabbit

Common muskrat

Pronghorn

 

Birds and waterfowl

Osprey

Mountain bluebird

Red tailed hawk

Swainson’s hawk

Scaup

Trumpeter swan

American kestrel

Western tanager

Yellow rumped warbler

Northern flicker

Stellers jay

Brown headed cow bird

Brewer’s blackbird

Common loon

Sandhill crane

Common Merganser

Blue winged teal

Western meadow lark

Cliff swallow

Violet-green swallow

Tree swallow

American white pelican

Buffle head

Golden eye

Raven

Magpie

Killdeer

Rough grouse

Williamson’s sapsucker

Red-winged blackbird

Red breasted nuthatch

Canada goose

Great blue heron

It’s almost impossible for me to explain the magic of Yellowstone in a blog post and my amateur photographs really don’t do it justice. If you have even a vague interest in wildlife or geology then you must put this place on your bucket list. Save up, do it on a budget in a tent, get up at 4.30 or 5am to make the most of it and just do it. You’ll never forget the massive bear tracks in the mud crossing your path or the experience of seeing wolves eating a bull elk carcass. The incredible fire like sunsets will burn in your memories along with the vast sky with ever changing clouds casting shadows on the most incredible and diverse landscape. The revolting yet fascinating smells will linger in your nose to remind you of the volcanic activity bubbling away below you as you live and breath forever touched by perfect Yellowstone.

Black bear at Yellowstone

Black bear

Bison at Yellowstone

Bison

bison with calf at Yellowstone

Muma bison feeding her baby

Beaver at Yellowstone

Beaver munching some branches

Bull elk at Yellowstone

A regal bull elk from a distance

Trumpeter swan at Yellowstone

Trumpter swan

Coyote at Yellowstone

Camouflaged coyote

Yellow-bellied marmot at Yellowstone

Yellow bellied marmot with a snowy backdrop

Bear tracks at Yellowstone

Fresh bear tracks in the mud by the board walk around the hot springs and geysers

Hot spring at Yellowstone

One of the magical hot springs bubbling and boiling away

Boiling mud pots at Yellowstone

Vast and stinky, boiling mud pots

A small geyser at Yellowstone

A small geyser erupting and spluttering over us

Beaver at Yellowstone

And finally, here is the beaver from Joffee Lake again

The bear experience

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My exhausted eyes and strained neck were not the worst part of the unsuccessful bear spotting expeditions we had spent the last weeks, indeed months, doing. Since we arrived in America and left New York City I have been on constant watch, scouring the endless forests as we drove deserted roads. But the worst part was the pessimism creeping in on me. I had been fighting Rob’s naturally gloomy outlook for the last few days but the negativity was starting to win as I heard a “we’re not going to see one here” from the drivers side once more. The kids were beginning to chime in too and my mood was grumping rapidly.

Until that moment… “STOP! A bear… Definitely a bear”. And rob swerved the car to the curb, hazards on and we backed up cautiously along the mountain road. I knew it the split second I caught a glimpse. The large black figure was moving sideways through the dense undergrowth in the greening deciduous woodland of the Shenandoah National Park. And there she was, with two tiny cubs following behind. Our nature programme dreams right there in front of us.

Her direction meant we could back right up to a pull in area to watch as the little family snuffled around and ambled peacefully on their route through the season. With the boys on the roof and us out of the sunroof with our binoculars and camera it was obvious we were watching something so it wasn’t long before a small crowd gathered, mainly consisting of a large family who, utterly disregarding the guidelines and courtesy of wildlife watching immediately jumped out of their car and swarmed towards the woodland. The effect of such inconsiderate disrespect was that the bear and cubs immediately changed course away from the clearing they would otherwise have passed through so that neither they nor I got a really great picture.

But no matter, I got enough for my memory and the encounter was so perfect for us that we were happy to move on, reeling and beaming from ear to ear. Hungry we stopped for lunch and talked endlessly of the muma bear and the cubs and how our tired eyes were worth it, and of course, how I’d been right all along.

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Bears bears everywhere but not a bear to see

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For the last few days we took a chill pill and holed up in a log cabin on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Complete with hot tub, wonderfully comfortable bed, dishwasher and DVD player we’ve had an easy week of wildlife and thunderstorm watching. Internet connection was less favourable though so we’ve felt frustrated by that, particularly as I had hoped it would be an opportunity to catch up with some work. Instead we enjoyed fishing in the trout stocked Tribal waters of the Cherokee Reservation (although unsuccessfully) and we watched the entire third season of Game of Thrones once the kids were in bed.

We are also seriously frustrated by the lack of bear sightings. Despite a ratio of two black bears per square mile in the National Park and our 4×4 vehicle allowing us to access some of the quieter roads in the park (honestly – there is more traffic jams in the National Parks than in the big cities!), my poor strained neck and exhausted eyes have yet to be rewarded with a bear. We scoured the forest floor and the tree tops too, we creeped and we waited and I gained great views by standing out of the sunroof on the off road tracks… but not views of bears.

Today we have driven the stunning Blue Ridge Parkway through an empty national forest at dusk, passing only a handful of other motorists for over 60 miles of remote mountain roads. The bear proof bins mocked our inability to actually see one as all we spotted were deer, albeit beautiful white tailed ones and impressive views over Virginia and the Appalachian Mountain range framed by rainbows with thunderous sound effects.

We head to Yellowstone next week and then to Montana and Canada so there’s plenty of time yet to catch a glimpse of our elusive Black Bears.

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