Fifty with a Flammy – Finally!!

A part of my 50/50/50 Adventure that I usually enjoy is the logistics involved in planning my schedule and the individual days of birding.  Routes, hotels, companions, hotspots are all important since my trips involve multiple states each with its own set of details.  In the East where the states are small, travel times were easy to deal with.  Quite a different story in the West.  Distances within and between states are immense and even the distance between birding spots can present challenges.  At least the speed limits are a friendly 70 to even 80 mph, a big help.

Surviving and enjoying our combined birding and vacationing time when she met me in Ohio and Michigan, Cindy was going to meet me in Salt Lake City after I had birded in Idaho and Utah and then we would vacation and bird in Wyoming and Montana.  This was a welcomed but complicating addition to my normal birding logistics.  And I screwed it up somehow putting in an extra day in Salt Lake City for me before she arrived.  I can only hope that all my inevitable miscalculations in the future end up so well.  There have been many great times in this visit and I am going to share them all.  (If your only interest in my Flammulated Owl story – just skip to the end.)

As I related in my previous post, I had gotten ahead of schedule by first finishing my Idaho 50/50/50 day in the Lewiston area thanks to great guiding by Keith Carlson and Terry O’Halloran.   That enabled me to find the Cassia Crossbills in Southern Idaho at least a half day ahead of the initial plan.  That in turn gave me at least a half day jump on my schedule for Utah.  As I was driving south into Utah I picked up some birds here and there but since I knew I had two more full days including my Flammulated Owl trip, they were an afterthought.  An immediate thought was that I had some time to be a tourist and for no particular reason I remembered another of those Landmark Books from my childhood (see the reference to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys in my Vermont post

This memory was about the story of the Transcontinental Railroad.  I vaguely recalled that it had been completed at Promontory, Utah and wondered where that was.  Maybe it was a sign of good things to come, because when I googled “Promontory, UT” I found it was relatively close to where I was and – I am not making this up – driving directions said the exit was the next one on Interstate 84 – less than a half mile ahead.  At 75 mph, that was about 15 seconds.  Timing, timing, timing.

First Stop – Promontory, Utah and the Golden Spike

Promontory Utah.jpg

Promontory was about 25 miles west of me and the first part of the drive was through a minimally developed farming area which just happened to have some nice birds including my first of what would be many flyover flocks of White Faced Ibis.  The landscape opened up and there were more birds including a Swainson’s Hawk and a Western Kingbird.

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson's Hawk

By the time I got to Promontory, my species list was at 22 – interesting but I had come because of the Transcontinental Railroad.  This is where the actual final connection was made first linking the entire continent by rail.  In May 1869, the “Golden Spike” was driven to add the final rail connecting the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads – essentially connecting the East which had ended at Omaha, Nebraska with the West – Oakland and San Francisco Bay, California and changing the country forever as commerce and people settled across the prairies and the wilderness.

There is a small park and visitor center and shiny old steam engines, not all that impressive, but the historical significance is symbolically overwhelming and I was very pleased to add this experience to my 50/50/50 journey.  Doing such things was one of the objectives from the start.  And the coincidence that this was just a month after the celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Golden Spike was very cool.

Golden Spike National Historical Park

Golden Spike National Historical Park  Golden Spike Railroad

After a short visit I headed back towards the Interstate but when I found first a Long Billed Curlew and then some Sage Shrub species including Lark Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows and a Loggerhead Shrike, well it was getting very interesting from a birding perspective as well.

Long Billed Curlew

Long Billed Curlew  Long Billed Curlew Singing

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow Singing

Sage Thrasher

Sage Thrasher

A few more species at a little wetland and then a sign for a Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge changed my plans dramatically.  I was at 37 species without really having thought about trying for 50 species that day.  Now I would.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

I had never heard of Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and since my 50/50/50 planning had concentrated around Salt Lake City it was simply not on my radar screen.  It should have been.  Better during earlier Spring migration or later for migration in the fall, it is a wonderful place.  Over the next several hours I drove through its various habitats and covered more than 30 miles.  And I added another 22 species for the day getting me way past 50 – money in the bank so to speak taking all pressure off the next day to find 50 species although that was still the plan so as to include a Flammulated Owl – and hopefully its photo.

Without question the most impressive birds at the Refuge were the hundreds – make that thousands of White Faced Ibis.  They were in sloughs, fields, ponds and almost constantly overhead.  I know there were some Glossy Ibis mixed in, but especially without a scope (or the requisite patience) I did not search for any.

White Faced Ibis


Surprisingly the most common waterfowl were Cinnamon Teal.  I saw mostly adult males.  Maybe the females were on nests.  I am sure there were over 100 in small groups or alone.  Equally impressive was the large numbers of American Avocets.  I did not scope distant ponds of which there were many so I am sure my count of over 150 was way short.

Cinnamon Teal

Cinnamon Teal

American Avocet

American Avocet 12th

A much appreciated opportunity during my visit was the chance to see many Clark’s and Western Grebes up close making the identification much easier.  The best way to distinguish the less common Clark’s from the abundant Westerns is to see white completely surrounding the eye of the former as opposed to the black engulfing the eye of the latter.  The back of the Clark’s is also paler and its bill is orange not yellow/green.

Clark’s Grebe

Clark's Grebe

Western Grebe

Western Grebe

So my miscalculation had worked well for both history and birds, but I did not have a reservation in Salt Lake City for the night which I figured would be a simple matter of adding a night to my existing reservation.  Not so fast my friend.  I called the hotel where I had reservations for the next two nights.  They could not accommodate me.  Not because they were full – far from it.  They had a lot of empty rooms but not an uncommitted one that was clean or could be cleaned for me for that night.  It was 2:00 p.m. when I called.  There is a lot I do not know or understand about the hotel business. [Like why anyone would design bathroom light switches so that one switch turns on both the light and the NOISY fan at the same time.]  However, even when I said I would then have to cancel my reservation for the next two nights because I did not want to have to relocate, there was no solution.  OK – I cancelled and took my business elsewhere.  And oh yeah the original reservation was at a large national chain – not the same one I ended up at.

Even with the 50 plus species from the previous day, when I got up the next morning (in that new hotel room), I was still hopeful that with the aid of Tim Avery I could have my 50/50/50 day in Utah include a Flammulated Owl.  But I was not due to meet with Tim until 3:15.  Back to tourist mode.  Most definitely not my cup of tea and I have some issues…but…this is a big world with room for lots of ways to lead one’s life – as long as nobody else is hurt.  So…I visited the Mormon Temple – I was in Salt Lake City after all.  As I said in a Facebook post, SLC may well be the white shirt capital of the world – hundreds of mostly young men (and some officials as well) in suits, ties and white shirts in the 85 degree heat.  This used to be commonplace in the world of business, but standards have relaxed and changed – not for these folks.  I wonder if that will remain the case much longer with the impact of social media.  But as I said, it is a big world and if it works for a greater purpose, fine.  I did not go into the Temple itself but did hear a few minutes of an organ recital.  Had a couple of interesting conversations and departed.  Glad I went, do not think I will ever feel a need to return.

The Mormon Temple


On the way back to my hotel to work on posts etc before meeting up with Tim, I stopped by Liberty Park.  Found 16 species – a good start for what would hopefully be a very birdy remainder of the day.  Tim was at my hotel a few minutes early – that was nice.  We picked up another birder and headed off to Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area.  It was quickly evident that getting to 50 species this day would not be a problem.  Much of it was a repeat of species I had seen the previous day at Bear River.  My only new species for the State was a Bullock’s Oriole, but altogether we had 52 species there.  I did not know it at the time but a Blue Winged Teal that I was at least the first to see was uncommon, even moreso was a Cinnamon Teal x Blue Winged Teal hybrid that Tim found.

Without question the highlight of the visit at least for me was a pair of copulating Black Necked Stilts.  It was interesting to observe the pre-copulatory behavior as the female seemed to clearly communicate receptivity.  He was a little slow on the uptake but it all worked out.

Black Necked Stilts

Black Necked Stilts Copulating

A few more stories about Farmington.  You would think that with the abundance of Yellow Headed Blackbirds, it would be easy to get a great photo.  Somehow every time we tried there was a reed in front of out subject.  This was the best I could do.

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed Blackbird12th

Like every other stop on our trip, Tim knew important little details like that a particular Forster’s Tern favored a particular pond and would circle around, maybe perch for a rest but always return – providing good photo ops – of most interest to Rick Folkening and me.  This one of it on a Refuge speed limit sign (15 mph) as my favorite.

Forster’s Tern

Forster's Tern 1 12th

Early in our visit, a medium sized brownish bird flushed out of the reeds and flew off.  It was a juvenile Black Crowned Night Heron.  Tim told us that it was often misidentified on EBird as an American Bittern.  He said we would “probably” see another one – meaning we would for sure.  Shortly afterwards we did.  This became a running joke during our visit.  After each observation, Tim would repeat “probably another one”.  This maybe happened 6 times.  The last one was the best – an adult posing nicely.  It is a bonus when a guide has a good sense of humor – better yet when it is about getting his clients onto the birds.

Black Crowned Night Heron

Black Crowned Night Heron

So much for the marshes.  How about some mountains?  We picked up another birder and headed East into the foothills with a first stop at Little Cottonwood Canyon hoping for a Virginia’s Warbler – a lifer for Rick.  Almost all of my birding the previous day (and continuing at Farmington) was in wetland or open field habitats.  This was new and we quickly added eight new species to my day and State list.  We may have heard a Virginia’s Warbler but no response or appearance.  We definitely got both from a Plumbeous Vireo – the first I had seen since last year in Arizona and a species I have seen only a few times.  I had seen many Cassin’s Vireos earlier in the week in both Washington and Idaho and last month had seen many Blue Headed Vireos on my Eastern swing.  These three species split from the single Solitary Vireo.  Not a lot of difference visually although the songs are very different.  My photo from Utah is below and I add ones of the other two species.

Plumbeous Vireo

Plumbeous Vireo

Blue Headed Vireo (Connecticut) and Cassin’s Vireo (Washington)

Blue Headed Vireo 2  Cassin's Vireo

We were essentially working our way to the owl spot and to darkness.  At Little Dell Reservoir we quickly heard a Green Tailed Towhee and saw it fly in and as they often do bury itself in thick brush.  It flew to more brush and then more and finally gave us a 1.5 second look in the “almost open”.  I was not able to get a photo but I think Rick got enough of a look to count it as a life bird for him.  We heard two more at Big Mountain Pass where we met Dave and Melissa from California, who joined the group and where the target was a MacGillivray’s Warbler – a lifer for one of the partyThe warbler was heard immediately and there were decent looks although never completely in the open.

One more pre-owling stop – at a creek where Tim knew there would be a nesting pair of American Dippers.  The water seemed very high and fast to me, but the Dippers were there and we saw them – in a tree – a new experience for me.  Would this be the appetizer to the new experience that really mattered – a Flammulated Owl photo?  It was now time to find out and we returned to Big Mountain Pass.  My experience with Flamms had always been that they did not start hooting until it was completely dark.  It was not yet completely dark and there was a lot of moonlight.  Nonetheless we heard hoots shortly after we arrived.  It was Showtime for Tim Avery.

Prior to this trip, I had filed 15 Ebird reports which included Flammulated Owls. That included 40 individuals. I had only actually seen a single owl. All of the rest were heard only.  It had been very frustrating – even more than missing photos of the much rarer and harder to find Boreal Owls.  As Tim explained to the group, Utah is a great place to find and see Flamms in part because their favored habitat here is mostly in Aspens which are much farther apart than the pines/firs where they are most often found elsewhere. For a long time it had been thought that Flamms were only found in pines. Not so, all they need is a nest hole – provided by Flicker cavities – and food – primarily moths. Flickers are in the Aspens and provide nesting sites there and there are plenty of moths. The lighter color of the Aspens also provides an easier background for visuals.  Tim had us at a site that had lots of Aspens.

At least two owls were hooting.  Tim’s playback and his own hooting brought the owl closer.  I had had this experience many times in Washington without getting a visual.  This time we did … but then it was gone perhaps because we had made a small noise.  Another owl, more hooting, more playback, closer again, another visual.  This time it seemed to be more at ease.  Tim shined his LASER two feet below the owl.  I got a photo – a really lousy photo, but it was my first ever of this a Flammulated Owl and if that was all the night was going to provide sobeit and I would be happy.

Flammulated Owl First Photo

Laser Points the Way

But the night indeed would have more including one Flammulated Owl that was super cooperative and super photo friendly perching in the open and remaining there for several moments even though Tim’s spotlight remained on it the whole time.  Tim said his experience was that once an owl had a comfortable perch, it would remain there as long as there wasn’t sudden movement or noise from us.  I was overjoyed with the photos but I wish I had taken a video both to include the continued hooting in sound and also to show the effort the owl made with each hoot, thrusting its chest each time.

Flammulated Owl Photos

Flammulated Owl



One lesson that night was that Flamms are generally much closer when they are heard than I had thought . The hoots do carry, but not as far as I had believed. We had one owl that we thought was maybe 25 to 50 feet away and was only 8 feet above us. Tim said studies show that the owls hoot approximately 45 times in a minute. It actually seemed more frequent. By that average, one of our owls hooted almost 2000 times in the less than hour that we were in its territory and could hear it.

If you really want to learn more and experience them yourselves – go to Utah – better yet – contact Tim Avery.  (801) 440-3035.

We went to one more spot and heard both Flammulated and Saw Whet Owls.  We tried mostly for the Saw Whet and it never moved from a perch high in the canopy.  Sure it would have been nice, but I was already on cloud 9, so the Saw Whet’s only distinction was being the species number 75 for the day and number 95 for the State of Utah.  I would pick up 3 more species on my own the next day for 98 in the State.  Liking round numbers, I wish I had seen two more.  Maybe on another visit.

Having seen 59 species on my own the day before was gratifying but it was very special to be able to include my former nemesis Flammulated Owl for my 50/50/50 day in Utah.  It was ABA Life Photo #703 and Utah was State #40 for the 50/50/50 Adventure.  Wyoming and Montana are ahead on this trip.  Don’t think they will beat 50+ with a Flammy in Utah though.


4 thoughts on “Fifty with a Flammy – Finally!!

  1. I still remember my first encounter with Flammulated Owls. There is a professor at Colorado College who has been studying and banding them since the 80s, and in the summer he takes groups of birders at night to witness the banding. It was a night to remember.
    And while I have heard about the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, I have yet to visit it. I don’t know if you are familiar with Terry Tempest Williams. Her book “Refuge” deals both with a flood there, and with her mother’s cancer. It is a haunting story, and ever since I have read it I have wanted to travel there. Soon, I hope.


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