American Birding Podcast



Wyoming 2012: The Hunt for Black Swift (part 2)

Thu August 1: Darby Wind Cave

Holy smokes…

I never sleep as hard as when I sleep outside or in a tent. I’ve never been able to figure that one out.

The night started a little chilly and restless; but after some start and stop sleeping I went into coma mode and slept for about eight hours total from maybe 11PM until 7 or 8AM. I can’t remember the last time I slept eight hours.

I had a cucumber and a tomato for breakfast and lazily broke camp. It was about 10AM when I made it to the Togwotee Overlook to see the Tetons for the first time. This is traditionally an event celebrated with a lager toast; but not at 10AM.

Down in the valley I took a stop and did payroll for my staff over the phone. I stopped at Dornan’s to get a signalling mirror. I did this at a mountaineering store since I’m pretty sure if I went into a Walgreen’s only looking to buy a small mirror I’d get written off as a narc addict. The mirror is to direct sunlight up into the cave that I was heading too — it acts like a billion candle flashlight.

I drove Moose-Wilson hearing a MacGillvray’s Warbler on the way and a couple Ruby-crowned Kinglets, both birds that are usually silent by now.

I popped into the Four Seasons to say hi to some folks and go get my Handlebar Frickle addiction assuaged. Then it was up and over Teton Pass for a quick stop at the Grand Teton Brewing Company — remember, I was working! This place is great — it looks like a Farm and Fleet store and yet makes several award winning beers. I took advantage of some tastings by trying their IPA called the Lost Continent Double IPA.

This was all preamble for my first of three real backcountry surveys. On the west slope of the Tetons way up in Darby Canyon was one of our hottest targets — the Darby Wind Cave. This place is a gaping maw of a cave with high relief, shaded aspect, very close to the western border of the state — Black Swifts almost HAD to go by this place on their way to more known northern spots in Montana. Jason Beason’s excitement about this location had me pretty jacked up. I got the draw on it since it was in the Tetons.

Normally I was aiming for 6 or 7PM to get to my place. This place I wanted to get to earlier; I wanted to really take the time to assess this spot.

Tucher and I drove the very narrow gravel road all the way back to the Darby Canyon trailhead. We were aiming for about a 3PM start. Here I did know the mileage — five miles round trip with some significant elevation gain. I also knew going in that this would be the only survey I did where I was coming out in the dark. Every place else would be overnights from here on out.

Because of the late start, I had to pack like I might end up spending the night up there which meant a little overpacking — layers and rain gear, scope, tripod, a water dish for Tuch, and a backcountry first aid necessity — IPAs. My pack would probably be even heavier for the overnights, so it was good practice anyway. I also switched to some other hiking shoes that were light and comfortable, but had grinded a bit on my heels in June. This would prove to be a stupid choice. By day’s end my right heel would be stripped.

So this trail gets lots of traffic even though it’s pretty remote. Of course, most of that traffic was doing what normal people do — finishing by now; get going early, get done by the afternoon. Those of us with undisclosed cerebral derangement like to just get started when everyone else is done.

The hike in was pleasant, but hot and in places fairly strenuous. Tucher is a disciplined off-leash hiker. When I put him in the “hold” position, he hikes behind me, which is what we did most of the day today. “OK, Tucher” means go on up in front and do those dog things dogs do (which mostly involves things we cannot print here…)

Always a pleasant surprise anywhere out here was this American Three-toed Woodpecker:

Here the namesake toes can be seen:

I was hoping to do the 2.5 miles in two hours — a decent uphill pace. Here was my first view of the Cave:

and then closer:

and then after a stair stepped stone ascent that was way too similar to Frodo and Sam’s ascent to Cirith Ungol, we got there:

Tucher and I went about 50 yards into the Cave. Here is looking out from there:

and closer to the entrance:

Here is my co-spelunker:

Company was few at this spot, although this Pika made for way too cute and curious little companionship:

LOOK…at this habitat:

Northeast facing so shaded; nooks and crannies with moss and plants; three-story relief to launch from;

Now we wait. Only this time it would be four hours instead of two. I had chilled from sweating on the way-up. I switched out top layers to try to get a little bit warmer. Being “almost warm” is ok if you have additional layers. Otherwise, it’s always a DefCon 4 — almost warm can become “I can’t get warm” quickly. As we sat there, my maternal genes were kicking in. My mom always worried too much — all she thought about was what and how could things go wrong. This was a good balance, though, to my Dad who always felt like why worry?

As I sat there, I kept thinking about not being quite warm, hiking out in the dark, was Tucher comfortable after yet another hardass hike. I got up, cracked a brew, and started redirecting my thoughts, as I took in this view:

Pine Siskins came to bath in the stream; a Broad-tailed Hummingbird and a Cordilleran Flycatcher were both likely nesting on the walls above me, but I could not find their nests. I went from worrying to wallowing in the glory of yet again being someplace randomly spectacular. I was warmed up; I’ve night-hiked for decades. And Tucher’s comfort?:

I did decide that I would depart closer to 8:30 than 9PM. No matter what light the sky or I had, it’s just not the best time to be mobilizing with haste through the meadows and woods.

This bust was the first that was painful. And there is always the chance that I missed them. Maybe on this night they came in closer to 9PM. But what they did not do was show up while I was there. Yet this spot would have to remain on the “A” List.

Tucher and I made haste on our way out. Light was OK initially but the second half of the hike was done in the growing darkness, and I started giving it a loud, “Coming through!!” every so often, while running monologues with Tucher. I did not use any light — I think it actually does more to blind a person from what is around them. Eyes adjusted, we found our way out to the trailhead at about 9:45PM.

My friends the Sassi’s live about 30 minutes from here; I had contacted Chris about the possibility of crashing there which was graciously accepted. Tuch and I hung out with Sassi until about 1AM getting caught up.

I awoke on my own around 6:30 AM and snuck out to start the new day. This is the view of the Tetons from the Sassi residence:

That’s a helluva way to start the day…

I usually do hard day hikes once or twice the whole time that I am out here. Tucher and I had done a three-for-three, and it was now time for a day of rest…