Birding and Chasing Here and There…and Ending with an (Un)Common Ringed Plover.

This is a down period between my 50/50/50 trips which will not resume until I head off to some of the prairie states in September.  While not as goal oriented as in previous years, I have been filling in some Washington species not yet seen in 2019 and also chasing some special birds hoping to add to year or life lists for either Washington or the ABA area.  There have been some disappointments and some very happy successes.

On June 23rd, I had a chance to add Heerman’s Gull to my 2019 lists visiting the fishing pier in hometown Edmonds where they visit each summer.  Bonus photos were of a pair of Marbled Murrelets, one with a small fish in bill.  Not really a chase – just some nice birds.

Heerman’s Gull

Heerman's Gull

Marbled Murrelet

Marbled Murrelet with Fish2

Two days later there was a chase.  Cindy and I went over to Sequim to enjoy a beautiful place and a beautiful day and also to chase a Hudsonian Godwit that had been seen at two hotspots there that were close to each other – Three Crabs and Dungeness Landing Park.  We started at the latter and were not successful.  At Three Crabs, we learned we had missed it by less than an hour.  Maybe we should have started there.  We waited and were joined by others including Paul Baerny, John Gatchet and Judith White.  After another wait, we decided to head over to Dungeness Landing again with mutual promises to call if seen at either place.  Nothing at Dungeness Landing again, so we decided to visit Nash’s Store, a Sequim fixture with wonderful local organic produce.  Just as we neared it I got a call from Paul.  The Hudsonian Godwit had just flown in.  I raced over and we were able to see it – broken leg and all.

Hudsonian Godwit

 

Not a mega rarity but especially until recently, the Hudsonian Godwit is a rare bird in Washington, maybe seen once a year.  This was my first record for 2019 and only my fourth in the state ever.  Paul has been very helpful to me and many others sharing information.  He is having a great Big Year in Washington and I hope he has some big numbers.  We then did make it to Nash’s and got some fabulous berries.

On June 29th Jon Houghton and I visited Hayton Reserve and Wylie Slough in Skagit County hoping for some shorebirds.  None were found but we easily found both of the Black Phoebes there.  Ebird still treats them as a rarity but one or more have been there for several years and they have expanded their range into a number of locations in Washington.  I believe a nest may have been found at Wylie this year.

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe

Since we were in the area, we made a stop at Sunday Lake Road where a Least Flycatcher was being seen, or at least heard, regularly.  I had been there the week before and had a microsecond view only although it gave its “che-bek” call nonstop for 30 minutes.  It appeared we would have the same fate again, but with some maneuvering I was able to get a visual and a photo.  This was an “after thought” chase.

Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

There was one more day in June and there would be one more chase – unfortunately an unsuccessful one, and success would have been very sweet indeed.  A sighting of a Crested Auklet at Discovery Park was reported on Tweeters on the morning of the 30th.  Discovery Park is one of my least favorite places to bird.  It is hard to get to and to me (and some others) it is both very confusing and with limited and inconvenient access.  I had seen a number of Crested Auklets during my pelagic trip out of Adak with Jon Puschock in May 2016 but somehow had not gotten a photo.  I figured I would never see another one and certainly not in Washington.  I raced down to Discovery Park – or at least tried to race down given the morning traffic.  My GPS took me to a road without public access but not knowing how to get back to an open road, I went to the end figuring I would turn around there.  I stopped briefly to scan the waters and found a large group of Rhinoceros Auklets and was excited as the Crested Auklet had been seen in such a flock.  I got even more excited when one of the birds seemed smaller.  Alas, it was only the light and the angle and it was just another Rhino.  Had I been there 45 minutes earlier, I might have seen it.  There were no further reports that day or thereafter.

Crested Auklet – Internet Photo from Audubon

Crested Auklet

July started off a lot better.  Cindy and I visited Snoqualmie Falls and enjoyed the view and a brief look at a couple of Black Swifts – target birds often seen there.  I missed a great photo opportunity as one quick view of the Swift was as it was being chased by a Peregrine Falcon with the Falls as a background…way too fast for my reflexes.  The only photo was of the Peregrine, one of a pair, as it perched on an outcropping afterwards.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

The next day I made the trek down to Rainbow Falls SP to find a Hermit Warbler.  I heard one singing as soon as I arrived but there was a light rain and especially in the big trees favored by the Warbler, the lighting was terrible.  A Wilson’s Warbler was also singing – in fact non-stop.  The latter flew and perched all around me, but I could not get the Hermit to come down from the treetops.  So success finding a new year bird and then I had fun birding on Leudinghaus Road adding some new Lewis County birds (inadvertently) but a photo of the the Hermit would have been nice.

Hermit Warbler (from an earlier visit)

Hermit Warbler2

No more birds or birding until a real chase on July 8th.  A male Rose Breasted Grosbeak in breeding plumage was reported by Ed Swan, an excellent birder and nature writer.  It was coming to his feeder.  Forgetting that Ed had moved from Vashon Island to West Seattle, I had put off trying for it earlier not wanting to get hung up in the ferry traffic to Vashon over a holiday or weekend.  Jon Houghton had the right location and we got to Ed’s place around 9:30 a.m.  We waited and waited and waited watching the feeder from the comfortable shading and rain protection of Ed’s carport.  A small group of Band Tailed Pigeons flew in and seemed to finish off the seeds in the feeder.

Band Tailed Pigeon

Band Tailed Pigeon1

Some other birders joined our watching vigil.  One left after maybe 90 minutes.  Fortunately Ed came out and seeing that the feeder was empty, he added some seed.  We continued to see some birds – 20 species in all – but no Grosbeaks.  At 12:30, our patience was running thin and having been there almost 3 hours, Jon and I announced we would give it another 15 minutes but would have to leave at 12:45.  We had been hearing the call of a Pacific Slope Flycatcher but it had remained distant.  Now it made an appearance singing in the open for a moment, flycatching and then moving off to another branch or tree.  I was able to get a photo and figured that would be the consolation prize for our wait and failed chase.

Pacific Slope Flycatcher

Pacific Slope Flycatcher

I had tried much earlier without any result, but figured it would not hurt to play the song of the Rose Breasted Grosbeak one more time and did so around 12:35.  No immediate response but a few minutes later I heard what at least sounded like the “chink” call of the Grosbeak.  Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t but at exactly 12:43 with two minutes to go on our self imposed deadline, the Rose Breasted Grosbeak made an appearance at the feeder, staying for maybe 10 minutes.  If we had known it was “deadline aware” we would have issued our deadline two hours earlier.  Success!!  I have seen two other Rose Breasted Grosbeaks in Washington, but this was my first breeding plumaged male.  What a beauty!

Rose Breasted Grosbeak

Rose Breasted Grosbeak1r

Cindy and I had talked about a visit to Sun Mountain Lodge before.  Her birthday was coming up, the weather looked great … and I had not seen a Dusky Grouse yet this year.  Let’s go!!  It is a beautiful 4 hour drive to Sun Mountain Lodge just out of Winthrop, Washington.  Much of it is through the Cascades mountains and particularly through North Cascades National Park.  I hoped for an American Three Toed Woodpecker at Washington Pass, but had to settle for spectacular scenery.

North Cascades

North Cascades

The visit to Sun Mountain Lodge was as good as it gets.  The setting is gorgeous.  The Lodge is just right.  The food is exquisite.  The weather was perfect and there is excellent birding.  In years past, I have often had Dusky Grouse along the entrance road or in the parking area.  As we pulled into the latter, I heard a Lazuli Bunting singing and called it in for a stunning view.  No Grouse but that would be remedied soon.

Lazuli Bunting

Lazuli Bunting

After checking in and a brief moment to relax, we hiked down one of the trails below the parking area and found Dusky Grouse everywhere – at least 10 and maybe a dozen.  One was a female with 3 or 4 pretty sizable chicks.  Several were in the trees.  All were very approachable and photogenic.

Dusky Grouse

Dusky Grouse1

Dusky Grouse 3

There were no birds involved, but dinner that evening was excellent.  We had soups, a mushroom strudel starter, and two small plates (crab cakes and cornbread crusted sole), wine and shared a dessert.  Each dish was perfectly prepared and presented and yummy!!

Sun Mountain Dinner

Sun Mtn Dinner

Mushroom Strudel Starter

Mushroom Strudel

After dinner we drove up Thompson Ridge Road.  It was a beautiful night – perfect for night birds with a clear sky, no wind and just warm enough.  I have had Flammulated Owls there twice.  I heard only one in the far distance this night but we had lots of Common Poorwills and Common Nighthawks and also heard a Great Horned Owl and a Long Eared Owl.  We did not hear or see another human or car.  Wonderful!!

So that was a pretty fun two weeks of birding – a very fun two weeks of living.  Great food, great friends, great birds and great places.  A Crested Auklet in Washington with a photo would have been nice to be sure, but there was something just around the corner that would more than make up for that.

Just after 8 p.m. on the night of Sunday, July 14th I got a text from dear friend and super birder Melissa Hafting from Vancouver, B.C.  “I think I just found a Common Ringed Plover…need to review my photos but pretty sure!!  I’m so excited.”  It was followed by another text 15 minutes later: “Common Ringed Plover confirmed!!”  She didn’t use smiley faces or GIF’s but I could almost feel her excitement through the phone.  This was a big deal – a mega-rarity that was beyond expectation for British Columbia or Washington.

The Common Ringed Plover is a small shorebird common in the Eastern Hemisphere which is very closely related to and very hard to distinguish from the Semipalmated Plover which is common in the Western Hemisphere.  As of September 2017 there had been 15 observations of a Common Ringed Plover in the ABA area outside of Alaska including one in Washington in 2006.  An adult was seen in British Columbia on September 5, 2018.   All of the others had been from the Eastern United Sates or Canada.  Additionally, there have been a number of sightings in remote Alaska.

I had a lunch scheduled for the next day but it was with an understanding friend and could be rescheduled.  I had to go.  A few calls and emails notified others.  I posted it on Facebook and Tweeters and planned to make a try for the afternoon/evening of July 15th – heading to Beach Grove spit on Boundary Bay near Tsawwassen about 2.5 hours from Edmonds depending on the border crossing time.  A couple of invitees could not make it, but Ann Marie Wood, Jon Houghton and I headed north at 11:00 .am. planning to make the incoming high tide around 4 p.m.  We got to the parking area ahead of schedule and met a local birder who was coming out from his unsuccessful try for the bird.  He said the tide was extremely low and there were NO birds present.  It was about 2:50 p.m.

Rather than sit and stare at barren mudflats for a couple of hours, we headed off for a little sustenance and conversation returning to the area around 5:00 p.m.  Again we met a birder who was coming back to the parking lot.  It was one of the birders that had seen the Common Ringed Plover the previous evening.  He said the tide had come in very quickly and the area where the bird had been seen the day before was already covered.  He had not seen it this day.  Others were still out there looking.  Had we miscalculated and arrived too late?  Yes and no.  Maybe more than miscalculating, we had misunderstood.  The Common Ringed Plover had been seen the previous day on an outgoing high tide not an incoming one.  It looked like the prime time if the pattern held would be maybe a couple of hours later.  There was hope.

We hiked out on the trail maybe a third of a mile and encamped at a convenient bench.  There were a dozen or so Canadian birders stationed a bit further along the trail.  Over the next hour several more birders – all local – arrived and learned as we had that the Common Ringed Plover had not been seen – yet…  The prime area was a cove right in front of us with the spit maybe 120 yards further out.  We waited as the tide hits it peak and began to recede.  Sometime after 6:30 Melissa arrived with Ilya Povalyaev.  They were the ones who had first seen and identified it the night before and are our good friends.  If nothing else it would be great to visit with them again.  As everyone waited patiently (and considerately) on the path looking across to the spit and crossing fingers that the Common Ringed Plover would arrive as the water level fell, one birder hiked around and out to the spit in exactly the area that the few birds that were around were flying and which might be the likely place for our target to first arrive.  In fact a single small plover was seen flying into the area and then disappearing behind the raised area of the spit.  There was no way to identify it but it was near where this birder was walking.  Displeasure with this potential interference rose as the water level fell.  It hit a high point when the birder – on the far side of the spit and facing out to the water started taking photographs of … something,  Was it our bird?  Nobody knew and he was not communicating anything back.

Around 7:30 the birder returned to the masses with photos.  He was not sure of what but it was either a Semipalmated Plover or THE Common Ringed Plover.  It was definitely the single bird that had flown in maybe 30 minutes prior.  After discussion and debate of was it or wasn’t it, one of the birders decided it was time to trek out to the spit, hope it was still there and find out.  I think we had all hesitated doing so before as a courtesy to everyone else and a recognition that the previous observation had been inside the spit closer to the trail.  So much for hesitation.  Once one birder headed off, all followed.  This was a very wise decision as after the 5 minute walk, there was the bird, sitting on the wrack line on the far side of the spit, completely invisible to anyone who was watching from the trail.

I did a quick look through my scope and it sure looked like the same bird that had been seen the night before:  broad breast band, large and distinct supercilium, pale back, long bill with a dark tip.  Time for a photo as I had been the second person to the bird and now others were arriving.  Would it fly off as most Semipalmated Plovers I had seen on open beaches did?  Here is the first photo I took:

Common Ringed Plover

Common Ringed Plover First Photo

It definitely did not fly off and in fact remained almost as if glued to the spot for the next 20 minutes or more as everyone arrived, set up scopes and took photo after photo.  More discussion and debate.  What about the bill?  Did the black extend to the gape?  Was there a ring around the eye?  Could anyone see webbing on the toes?  Slowly a consensus built, driven by observation and analysis and not hope and desire.  This was the same bird seen the previous evening and most importantly, it was a Common Ringed Plover.  The final confirmation came with an amazing photo by Raymond Ng that showed no webbing between the middle and inner toe.

Common Ringed Plover – Foot

Common Ringed Plover Foot

Suddenly the bird flew off.  Was it gone?  It landed on the beach maybe 150 feet from its first perch and remained there for the next 20 minutes.  During the entire time it had been on the spit, it had never foraged, fed or associated with other birds.  It tolerated the group approaching fairly close and was unfazed by our noise or movement.  This behavior was unlike any I had seen from shorebirds before and supported an identification as a bird out of place and possibly not in good health.

I don’t know how many photos were taken by the birders – many thousands for sure.  Mine were mostly the same ones over and over although I moved trying for different perspectives of the subject.

Common Ringed Plover

Common Ringed Plover2

Common Ringed Plover Palmation

Common Ringed Plover

Ann Marie, being the trooper she is, was able to make it out onto the spit.  I pointed out the bird and she got a good view with her binoculars.  I retrieved my scope which I had set aside in my picture taking frenzy and lowered it for her to view this still immobile rarity.  This was a life bird for Ann Marie.  Jon and I had seen it in other countries in the Eastern Hemisphere and I even had a photograph from South Africa.  These were so much better.  And so much better too for it to be in the ABA area.  In those other places, “common” did hold true.  Not here.  In this neighborhood it should be called an Extremely UnCommon Ringed Plover.

We said our goodbyes and trekked back to the parking area and headed home.  Coming into Canada, the border control person was friendly, respectful, courteous and efficient.  Not the case returning to the U.S.  The control agent was rude, inefficient, unpleasant and disrespectful.  Reminded us of a certain loathsome person in Washington, D.C.  Another nice aspect of birding is that when doing so, that person and our attending problems are forgotten.  Sorry to end on that sad note.  Think I will go birding…

POSTSCRIPT

The Common Ringed Plover was seen for a brief moment the next morning but that evening 60+ birders waited for hours and it did not make an appearance.  Brings to mind Rule #1 for a chase:  “Go now!” We did.  We were fortunate.

 

 

Montana – 50/50/50 at Its Best – and A Summary of the Mountain State Trip

Introspection

50 species on 50 days in 50 states shared with great people, visiting great places and having fun.  That’s what this crazy idea of mine was supposed to be all about.  Before reaching Montana, I had been successful in achieving that in 41 states.  There had been a lot of planning and lots of good fortune – especially on the weather front where I had no rain or heavy wind that had interfered with any of the planning – with any of the birding.  Truly wonderful birds, people and places.  Planning for Montana was different than any of the previous states.  It included a “leap of faith” – not my strongest suit.

We would be visiting friends of Cindy’s in Helena that were interested in birding and had birded in the area.  I did some preliminary research for good birding spots in the vicinity and felt 50 species in a day should be doable if the weather cooperated.  But the weather reports were iffy and we would be relying on these friends to plan the day.  And it wasn’t clear even which day it would be as we would be visiting for several and there were non-birding things on the agenda.  I “needed” my 50 species, but these were to be important new friends because they were important to Cindy and also because they were very interesting folks as well.  I wanted to get to know them and for the visit to be successful and enjoyable.  Preliminary communications were positive although less specific and detailed than my hyper-focused attention to the birding were accustomed to.  Have faith Blair, have faith.  Ok, but I could not fully dampen concern about my own lesser preparation.

Great birds, great people, great places and having fun were the starting goals for the 50/50/50 adventure, but along the way I have learned that there is another one that might be more important.  Without losing my admitted intensity during this quest, I have tried to balance that with some elements of personal growth, faith in others, flexibility, patience and a greater appreciation of the journey and what it provides in addition to or maybe even in place of some numeric measurement of success.  My ability to do this had grown, but there was plenty of room for further growth.  All of this had occupied my mind before leaving Wyoming for Montana and I replaced worry with a strong belief that even if somehow 50 species were not found, other meaningful things would be and at worst, I would simply return to Montana at some other time – maybe tied in to a fishing trip or on the way to the Dakotas and that would be just fine.  As it turned out I needn’t have worried in the first place, but especially reflecting on this now, I rank this realization and attitude adjustment as one of the best parts of my 50/50/50 Adventure to date.

Back to Birding – Part 1 – Getting to Helena, Montana

Jackson Hole to Helena

So much for introspection and self analysis – on with the birding and the many other great parts of this visit to the Treasure State.  The drive from Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Helena, Montana through Yellowstone National Park was 315 miles and due mostly to low speed limits and slow traffic through the Park was projected to be 6 hours and 18 minutes.  Even with an early start (thank you Cindy), after the four hours it took us to get through the Park exiting at West Yellowstone, it was after 11:00 a.m.  It was another beautiful day and with a stop for lunch and some “casual birding” along the way, we projected arriving in Helena around 5:00 p.m.  Around Hebgen Lake in Montana we found 19 species with nothing of note.  We had a lunch at the Gravel Bar Restaurant in Ennis, Montana.  It looked like fun and it was – the kind of place that we would look for wherever we stopped, avoiding the fast food chains and generally being pleased with the quality and finding some little surprise on the menu.  Here it was that the Taco Salad included wagyu beef.  As we left, we noted a House Sparrow and an American Kestrel.

Gravel Bar Restaurant

Gravel Bar Restaurant

During my recent birding in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, I had often found a little county road just off the highway that had more of a small farm/ranch agricultural habitat which had added new species for the day.  There was no specific goal to look for 50 species that day as the plan was to go out the next day with friends Liz and Rick.  Speeding past North Meadow Creek Road just out of Ennis, I recalled the previous experience and thought the road looked interesting.  After a quick u-turn, we gave it a shot.  As had been the case in those forays in the other states previously, we found some nice new birds.  Of particular note were the numerous Eastern Kingbirds.  As had happened on many “non-birding” days before, species were starting to add up and now we had seen 32 for the day.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Our Garmin GPS – both a best friend and biggest enemy on this trip – sent us on a circular and then back tracking route that added 15 miles to our journey, but we were still in good shape time-wise.  About a half hour later we stopped at a tiny little wetland/marshy area alongside Highway 287 and added 6 more species including Common Yellowthroat, Marsh Wren and Great Blue Heron.  It was happening again.  Despite no planning and not much real habitat diversity, we now had seen 38 species.  Maybe 50 species was possible.  Given my introspective concern described at the start of this post, I thought that maybe we could find 50 this day and completely remove pressure for the visit with friends.  Maybe…

Maybe got closer when Cindy spotted a pair of Sandhill Cranes in a field another 20 minutes ahead.  It became closer again when a Mountain Bluebird flew across the field and then closer yet when I found a surprise Common Loon and a Northern Rough Winged Swallow in a small body of water a bit further along.  It was about 3:30 p.m.  We were about an hour and a half from Helena – right on time – and we had 43 species for the day.  What might be next?  Would the habitat change?

In another 20 minutes or so, we saw birds hanging around some cattle in the field.  Another quick u-turn enabled us to identify our first Brown Headed Cowbirds of the day and then, returning to our northward route, we saw a pair of Western Bluebirds, two more Sandhill Cranes and a Mourning Dove.  This had been the least focused, most casual and frankly uninteresting birding of the entire trip, but here we were at 46 species.  Soon we would be on Interstate 15.  We were only 45 minutes from Helena.  If we could just find a forested area, surely we could find 4 more species.  Fortunately you pass through just such an area in the mountains just before dropping down into Helena.

We took a detour off of I-15 onto Highway 282 and then onto Tizer Lake Road.  We stopped at very promising habitat at the Tizer Arboretum and Botanic Garden.  I heard songs that I could not identify but the place seemed to be mostly a commercial operation and we were not comfortable continuing onto the grounds.  A short way further down the road, we turned onto Silver Gate Lane and BINGO!!  “Peent, Peent, Peent”. I first heard and then saw a Common Nighthawk as soon as we got out of the car.  “Yank, yank, yank” a Red Breasted Nuthatch was upset at something and seconds later a Cooper’s Hawk screamed past us.  Maybe the Nuthatch’s call had given away its presence.  There had to be another species around.  And there was – a Mountain Chickadee joined the call of the Nuthatch and as I searched the canopy for either of these common denizens of the forest, I saw three or four Pine Siskins.  Fifty species with one to spare and then as a bonus a beautiful Western Tanager posed for us as well.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager1

We were a little late getting to Helena, but our hosts had been advised and dinner plans were casual and flexible.  I even added a House Finch at a neighbor’s feeder upon arrival so we had 53 species for the day, “money in the bank” so to speak.  It was time to relax, be on vacation, enjoy new friends and reflect on misplaced worries and how mighty damn fortunate I am to be able to participate in a world of wonder, beauty, surprises and lessons.

It had been another great day and the following ones would be even better.

I am pretty sure I had never been to Helena, Montana before and I knew very little about it.  Our directions to the home of our hosts included a turn onto “Last Chance Gulch”.  A colorful name for sure.  Having no idea where Rick and Liz lived, I wondered if we off to some gravel road.  Not at all, it is a major road coming into the city whose name is derived from the place where gold was discovered in 1864 and started the boom for this mining town that literally put it on the map.  Unlike many other boom towns, Helena survived the depletion of the gold and became the Territorial capital in 1875 and the State Capital in 1894 when Montana became the 41st state in the Union.  It remains the capital today with a population of 31,000 in a state whose population is just over one million.  Montana is a very big state with a very small population.  It also has a very large number of rivers full of trout and that will become important later in this post.

Liz Gans and Rick Newby were wonderful hosts with great life stories to share and an intimate knowledge of Helena and Montana having been fully involved in life there for many years.  Neither beginning nor expert but very capable birders, they were fully engaged in my quest for 50 species and were eager participants in what turned into a very fun day.  We compared notes and decided to concentrate on birding at the various ponds at Warm Springs with some stops at other habitat areas to pad our list.

Helena, Montana

Helena Montana

As had been the case in my other 50/50/50 days, I accumulated some common and more urban series early on.  Included on that list was one of what would be many Black Billed Magpies.  Usually found in rural areas, they were common in the neighborhoods in Helena itself.  I was very surprised to find one in the open on a rock pile close to our hosts home.

Black Billed Magpie

Magpie

We thus had 9 species before hitting the highway out of Helena.  Liz directed us to a forested spot just off Highway 12 hoping for a repeat of the experience Cindy and I had the previous day to get over 50 species.  It also a gave us a chance to find a species that would be a lifer for Liz, a MacGillivray’s Warbler.  It looked very promising when we found some Cassin’s Finches just before getting into the forest.  But otherwise at least at the start, it was surprisingly quiet except for some very noisy American Robins.

Cassin’s Finches

Cassin's Finches

Liz heard a call, over and over, that she did not know.  Unfortunately neither did I but it was definitely a new bird for the day.  Later after listening to a number of recordings, I am pretty sure it was a partial song of the Ruby Crowned Kinglet, a species I thought I had glimpsed briefly but never saw clearly.  Otherwise, silence.  In these situations, I often resort to a favorite birding standby – playing the continuing toots of a Pygmy Owl which often stirs small forest birds into noisy action, gathering to protest and challenge the owl’s presence.  After several minutes of toots – nothing.  We considered departing but then brought back the Pygmy Owl toots and now it worked.  Often a Red Breasted Nuthatch is the first to respond joined soon thereafter by Chickadees.  Neither responded here, but I began to hear calls including chip notes and the song of a warbler – a MacGillivray’s Warbler.  A very active skulker, it put on a real show circling us, teasing us with short views and then disappearing in dense foliage.  Liz was thrilled – especially when she was able to get a good enough view to see its bold white eye arcs.  The light was bad and the photo is even worse, but those arcs are visible and validates the observation, always nice for a life bird.

MacGillivray’s Warbler

macgillivrays-warbler1-2.jpg

The MacGillivray’s was not the only show.  One song we heard was like a Robin’s, but different.  I had learned to identify the song of the Warbling Vireo and called it out.  It seemed to be reacting to the Pygmy Owl but was distant.  Fortunately it did not take long to draw it in with playback of its own song and it gave us excellent if at first momentary views flying back and forth across our path before finally settling on an open perch where it continued to sing out its territorial imperative.  Cindy recalled a similar experience we had in Eastern Washington on one of her first birding trips.

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo1

One more show.  We had seen some sparrows low in the brush as the action heated up.  A White Crowned Sparrow came into the open and was easily identified.  But there was another sparrow as well and it was mostly hiding.  I got a sufficiently good look recognized it as a Lincoln’s Sparrow – very appropriate in this somewhat moist forested habitat.  I think this was a second lifer for Liz.  Being able to see the fieldmarks and the buffy facial cast of the face and breast in a quick photo was very helpful and may have pushed Liz closer to adding some bird photography as part of her future birding experience.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Lincoln Sparrow

Altogether we ended up with 11 species which after a slow start was terrific.  One of the species was an empidonax flycatcher that at first I thought was a Cordilleran Flycatcher.  Spending more time looking at photos and listening to songs at home, I am now changing my ID to a Dusky Flycatcher based on the absence of any crest and the length of the tail but could easily be convinced to change that ID again.

Possible Cordilleran Flycatcher turned into a Dusky Flycatcher

Possible Cordilleran Flycatcher

With the strong finish, we were now at 20 species and were back on U.S. 12 quickly picking up Common Grackle, Red Winged and Brewer’s Blackbirds, Brown Headed Cowbird, Barn and Cliff Swallows and Savannah Sparrow to get to 28 before hitting the Ponds.

savannah-sparrow.jpg

There are ponds on both sides of the road.  We started with the Ducks Unlimited Ponds at Warm Springs.  Although we did not get great looks, or any looks at all for a couple of species, we had very good birds including a Long Billed Curlew and a SoraMarsh Wrens, Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats were singing everywhere.  We spent an hour and a half in the area and with our list at 42 species, we gave in to hunger.

When Rick suggested we could find something good in Anaconda I probably winced.   In my mind Anaconda, Montana meant pollution.  Until 1980 when it was shut down, Anaconda was the home of a giant smelter that refined copper mined in nearby Butte and elsewhere.  It was owned by ARCO who undertook remediation and cleanup of the heavy metal lead and arsenic poisons that came along with the extensive tailings.  I had only a vague memory of the Environmental Protection Agency actions at the site – back in the days that the agency actually took on environmental problems – but that memory equated Anaconda with places I did not want to visit.  It is a small town without much economic vitality.  I envisioned bars and nothing more.

But Rick guided us to a really fun little place – a hidden fun gem – the Classic Cafe.  A throwback to the 1960’s when Anaconda was still in business, we were greeted by two of the most unique tables I have seen – literally inside two car bodies.  Very cute.  Rick is a tall guy and there was not room for his long legs, so we actually ate at a more normal table.  I do like the picture, though.

classic cafe1 Car Cafe

As with the Gravel Bar in Ennis and several restaurants that will come up later, this was another example of one of the joys of my 50 state adventure.  Maybe especially in smaller towns, there are surprise opportunities for the unusual, the fun, the expression of other people’s passions and talents.  The food was pretty classic American comfort food but was excellently prepared and served.  This was also another example of the values of joining with local people.  We never would have found this on our own.

Time to get back to the birds and we returned to Warm Springs – now on the other side of the highway – much more extensive and open ponds.  We had picked up two more species on our lunch trip and were soon to add many more as over the next two hours as we found 42 species at these ponds.

Warm Springs

Many classic wetland species – 9 duck species, Canada Goose, American Coot, Double Crested Cormorant, Red Necked Grebe, Great Blue Heron, American White Pelican, California Gull, the fish eating raptors – Osprey and Bald Eagle and Yellow Headed Blackbirds.

Cinnamon Teal

cinnamon-teal-1.jpg

Red Necked Grebe

red-necked-grebe.jpg

Osprey

Osprey

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed Blackbird2

We were all pleased to end the day with what we thought was 64 species.  When I looked at photos later and found that we had also seen a Yellow Rumped Warbler, especially Rick was even more pleased because this put Montana one species ahead of Wyoming!!  Now I have added the Ruby Crowned Kinglet so the official end count for the day was 66.   I was also paying some attention to my Montana state list.  I had birded Montana before on some fishing trip visits.  With the birds added on this day, my state list was at 97 species.  Additional incidental birding the next day with Liz and Rick when we visited Spring Meadow Lake and then later when Cindy and I were able to float the Bitterroot River brought that total to 103 – not a goal but a pleasing addition to the benefits of the trip.  The important goal was the 50 species in a day.  As had been the case in Utah and then Wyoming, 50 species were seen on each of two birding days in Montana as well.  This was the 42nd state where the goals of my adventure was reached.  It was going to get harder, but this was continued good momentum.

Anyone reading all of my blog posts might be tired of hearing it but I have not yet and hope I will never be tired of repeating that the best parts of my 50/50/50 Adventure are not about the birds, as great as many of those moments are.  The best part is how following my passion for birding gets me out into so many great places and situations and brings so many experiences that I would otherwise miss.  Liz and Rick had been terrific birding companions and we had seen the targeted 50 species.  Now their roles changed to Helena guides taking Cindy and me to one of their favorite spots, one unique to Helena and one we would never have known about without them – The Archie Bray Foundation.

As described on its website:

The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts is a public, nonprofit, educational institution founded in 1951 by brickmaker Archie Bray, who intended it to be “a place to make available for all who are seriously interested in any of the branches of the ceramic arts, a fine place to work.” Its primary mission is to provide an environment that stimulates creative work in ceramics.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Bray is located three miles from downtown Helena, Montana, on the site of the former Western Clay Manufacturing Company. Set against the wooded foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the 26-acre former brickyard is internationally recognized as a gathering place for emerging and established ceramic artists. The nearby mountains and brick factory ruins provide a backdrop for the creative environment; more important is the dynamic arts community created by the resident artists that come to the Bray to work, share experiences, and explore new ideas.”

Archie Bray Foundation

Our friends are deeply connected with this wonderful place, through their former work and continuing with support today and our visit to their home was also a visit to their collection of great ceramic pieces – a veritable museum itself.  Cindy and I joined them in visiting the Bray and had a chance to speak with a number of artists, see works in progress and see many finished pieces – some appealing and some not but all incredible creations and impressive statements of the passions of their creators.

One last comment on our visit with Rick and Liz and Helena.  On my own, food on these 50/50/50 trips is generally grabbed quickly and eaten but not savored or appreciated as anything other than sustenance.  Among the benefits traveling with Cindy is that where feasible, eating becomes dining and we have had some great meals in fun places.  We had been well hosted and fed by Rick and Liz and we had a small chance to reciprocate with a lovely meal at The Mediterranean Grill in Helena.  Excellent food that we would love to have available home in Edmonds.

mediterranean grill Helena

We left Helena headed for Hamilton, Montana on the Bitterroot River.  If Washington had more Blue Ribbon trout rivers, much of the time I have spent birding may have been spent flyfishing instead.  I could not pass on an opportunity for some fishing before returning to Washington and also to expose Cindy to one more activity I loved that I hoped she would as well.  We had a long float on the Bitterroot with excellent guide John Gould.  I always remind myself that it is called “fishing” and not “catching”.  The catching could have been better, but the fishing was pretty good and it was a lot of fun.

Cindy had done a lot of salmon fishing but had never cast a fly.  It is not the easiest thing to do.  She had lots of frustration and never quite found a consistent groove, but she also had lots of good moments including hooking and landing her first trout on a fly, a beautiful Cutthroat Trout, one of several she would catch.

Cindy’s Cutthroat Trout

Cindy's Trout

We never found a hoped for hatch so all of our action was on nymphs below the surface of the water.  Not as much fun as dry fly takes on the surface, but there is not much better than setting a hook, playing and landing a powerful fish in a gorgeous trout stream.  Not as often as I would have liked, but I had a dozen or so fish in the boat including some very nice Rainbow Trout.

Rainbow Trout

trout1

Maybe next year we will return for more fishing and more catching as well.

One last Montana story.  The night before going fishing, we were looking for a good dinner but every restaurant of interest was closing at 8:00 p.m.  What was with that?  One that was open later was the Skalkaho Steak House somewhat in the boonies about 10 miles from our hotel.  I called to see if we could get a reservation and was told it was not necessary – tables were open.  The drive up the Skalkaho Road was pretty and when we arrived we were not sure we were at the right place.  There were NO cars in the parking lot.  A sign said “Open”.  Hmmm?  A little girl was playing with a ball on the front porch and that was the only sign of life.  Hmmm?  By this time, it was fairly late and we knew that the only options would be fast food back in town.  Let’s try it.

The little girl was Chloe.  She was the daughter/granddaughter of the owners.  She was 8 years old.  She welcomed us to the restaurant, led us to a table, and brought us water, silverware and menus.  We were the only guests in the restaurant and it was not a small place.  The walls were lined with very serious, large, beautiful and professionally done trophies – not bowling or sports trophies – Elk, Deer, Antelope, Bighorns, Bear and Cougar.  This was the West and it was like being at a hunting lodge.  It was eerie being the only guests…but it was cool and fun.  Our interactions first with Chloe and then with her grandma and then with our good (and well priced) steaks were treasured little moments in our trip – unlike any experience either Cindy or I had had at any other restaurant in our lives.  No other diners arrived.  Grandma explained that it had been very cold (including snow further up the valley as we later found out) and that people just did not come when it was cold.  This was June 20th.  We had worried about it being too hot.  Not so.  A little slice of life in rural Montana.  Good times with good folks.

Skalkaho Steak House

Steak house

Summing Up the Mountain States

Montana was everything I could have asked for on a 50/50/50 birding trip…or any trip.  50+ species on a day – twice.  Great new friends.  Unexpected good food.  A deep look into the world of ceramics.  Flyfishing (and birding) with the new lady in my life on a beautiful river with some feisty trout.  Learning to have a bit more faith in others.  Montana was another confirmation that this birding adventure was so much more than just birds and that it was both workable and working, providing rewards far beyond the investment.

We got back to Edmonds after a very long drive on the 22nd.  On a brief detour to Turnbull NWR, we found some Black Terns – a FOY for Washington and the ABA area #293 for the former and #418 for the latter.  In Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Montana, on the trip I had a total of 156 species.  Adding those on the journey to and from Washington brought it to 176 species.  The Cassia Crossbill in Idaho was a new ABA  Life Bird and it and the Flammulated Owl in Utah were new ABA Life Photos.  It was a wonderful trip – 3700 miles of great birds, people and places.  Time for a little rest and then try to finish the adventure with 8 states in the middle of the county.  

Cassia Crossbill and Flammulated Owl – Best of the Birds

Cassia Crossbill3  Flammulated Owl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grand Birds in the Grand Tetons – A Second Day with 50+ Species

This was another case where a glitch in pre-planned logistics worked out well.  I would be meeting Cindy at the Salt Lake City Airport on the afternoon of June 14th and from there we would drive to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  The night of the 12th with the successful Flammulated Owl adventure meant a late night and a much later than usual start on the morning of the 13th, but there was an open day to do some exploring in Wyoming and if fortunate maybe even find 50 species.  That would take pressure off the visit with Cindy but it also would mean birding without company – a deviation from the “Grand Plan” of my 50/50/50 Quest which was to have company on each day of birding.  It worked out very well.  So the first part of this blog is before the Tetons.  For them you will just have to wait.

Prologue

Evanston, Wyoming is just over the state line from Utah.  Not a big town but sufficiently urban to give me Rock and Eurasian Collared Doves, House Sparrows and House Finches, European Starling and American Crow.  Adding a kettle of Turkey Vultures, a surprise California Gull, some American Robins, American Goldfinches and Tree Swallows and I was at 11 species in short order.  Other 50 species days had similar starts so it barely being after 9:00 a.m., I was very pleased.

That pleasure increased when a short way out of town I found some good sage habitat and easily found Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows and Sage Thrasher and had a small flock of White Pelicans and a few Common Nighthawks fly over.  Both are always a treat and since I saw no water in the area, the Pelicans were a big surprise.

 

Sage Thrasher

Sage Thrasher

It was now just past 10:00 a.m. and I was at 24 species so going for 50 was definitely the goal.  Moreover, though, it was just fun and relaxed birding in beautiful open country.  As I have written before, this kind of birding energizes me – the combination of finding birds and being in such wonderful places without concerns for politics, bills to pay, even sports scores is consuming in a very positive way.  I think that even subconsciously dealing with those every day matters creates a negative energy and being away from them allows the positive energy that is available to take over.  I recognize that this is a luxury – especially being able to go on an adventure like this for  days or even weeks at a time.  Even in smaller doses, however, there is a restorative role played by following our passions and being immersed in them.  I need to remind myself of that the next time the ugliness of much of the current state of affairs in America is in the news.

Tim Avery had recommended the Woodruff Narrows Reservoir and environs as a great birding stop.  It was closer to Evanston than I had realized and even with much of the travel on a dirt/gravel road, I was there earlier than expected.  Still surrounded by sage, the Reservoir itself was a wonderful new habitat – the key to any “listing” day.  And now I understood where those White Pelicans had come from or were going as there were hundreds of them on the Lake/Reservoir.  More importantly there were both Clark’s and Western Grebes, Spotted Sandpipers, Killdeer, Willets and one of my favorites – Wilson’s Phalaropes.  

Wilson’s Phalarope

Wilson's Phalarope

Willet

Willet

Both Caspian and Forster’s Terns added to the count but the reservoir seemed almost duck-free.  I saw many Mallards but nothing else.  This was one time I wondered if my decision not to bring a spotting scope would be proven to be a poor one.  I expect that some of the distant specks may have other ducks or grebes but neither camera nor binoculars were able to show me that.  I met some locals at the reservoir whose interests were more in their two huge Black Labrador Retrievers than birds although the woman had a large telephoto lens and was taking photos of some of the birdlife.  She assured me they were “friendly” as the dogs came running to me.  I was more worried about a drenching as both had been in the water.  The visit with both the Labs and the couple was fun, with some input about hunting and birds in the area.  If need be, I could stretch this into the requisite “intersection” with locals.

Adding a single Lark Sparrow, a Belted Kingfisher and a Bald Eagle brought my species count for Reservoir to 26 with 19 new for the day.  Then it got a little weird.  I thought there was a road on the north side of the Reservoir that would take me to Cokeville, WY another spot that Tim had suggested.  Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t but my GPS was not up to the task.  Fortunately the day was young, I did not really have a time limit and even more fortunately I found a little patch of forest where I found a House Wren, Dusky and Gray Flycatchers, a Northern Flicker and some Chipping Sparrows.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

I had to backtrack and retrace my route along the Reservoir to get back onto the highway.  At least there were two new species along the way as I saw a single Gadwall and watched a small group of 5 Common Mergansers, all male and all distant fly in.  I expect I did miss other species without a scope but it was just noon and I was at 49 species for the day.  I figured it would be easy to find another one without the hour long drive to Cokeville.  It was but the problem was that I had not paid attention and realized that for half of the journey I would be back in Utah.  The weather was good, I had no obligations, so no worries.  Still it would have been nice to add the 8 new species I found along Highway 16 in Utah to my Wyoming list – especially the Sora.  In fact I had not realized I was back in Utah and thought there was something wrong with Ebird which I was using to track my progress.  It kept showing 49 species for Wyoming.  The problem of course was with me.

When I realized that I had been in Utah, I decided just to carry on to the Cokeville area and almost as soon as crossing back over to Wyoming, a lovely male Northern Harrier flew by for species number 50 for the day.  There would be 8 more new ones without having to go too far – so that goal was achieved – again money in the bank as had been the case in Utah two days earlier.  I would be back in Salt Lake City with time to spare to catch up on photo editing and able to work on blog posts for earlier trips.  Wyoming was now state number 41 with 50 species in a day.  The hope, however, was to at least equal and perhaps surpass this day with Cindy in Grand Tetons.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier Male

On to the Grand Tetons

It would be almost 5 hours to get from the Salt Lake airport to our “home” for the next three days – the Snake River Park KOA and Cabin Village in Jackson, Wyoming.  Cindy’s plane arrived a little early and we were on our way around 1:30 after a quick lunch.  We would be retracing much of my route from the previous day without the stops for birds or a visit to the Reservoir.  Cindy had flown out only a few days after returning from a 2 week trip to Portugal.  I don’t think her body had any idea what time zone it was in.  The last time I had seen her was at the Buffalo, NY airport after our visit to Niagara Falls which had followed biding at Magee Marsh and then in Tawas, Michigan (see   ).  That had been more than 3 weeks ago and it seemed much longer.  It was nice to take a break from birding and just “catch up” on the long drive and watch as the scenery got better and better.

I can’t say that our cabin at the KOA was an idyllic riverfront retreat, but the river was nearby and the cabin was serviceable.  I had last been in Jackson almost 50 years ago and my memories are probably flawed, but the town itself was overrun with tourists and it was hard to even find a parking place when we went out to dinner – not the quaint village I thought I remembered .  We weren’t there for the town though, and maybe it is the same flawed memory, but the Grand Tetons were even more magnificent than expected and during the almost three days we were there, we never tired of spectacular views which changed with each new perspective.

Our first birding day began on June 15th – crystal clear blue skies with a few puffy clouds.  Cold in the morning but warming as the day passed but never too hot.  We started the day as I usually do trying to find those countable “junk bird” Starlings, House Sparrows, Collared Doves, Crows and Robins.  All were in or round town, but we also found a few Trumpeter Swans, 5 Swallow species including some Bank Swallows, a Western Tanager and a Black Chinned Hummingbird.  Within 7 miles of our cabin we had 20 species in less that 30 minutes.  Our most photogenic bird was a squawking Common Raven that posed for us at coffee.

Common Raven

Common Raven

Our first official birding spot was at the Visitor Center at Flat Creek/National Elk Refuge.  In about an hour, we had 20 species with the best being Sandhill Cranes that Cindy spotted in the distant field.  It turned out that a volunteer had his scope trained on them when we got up to the observation tower.  Our conversation with him was informative…and not.  He asked if we knew what baby/young Sandhill Cranes were called.  I had always assumed they were chicks.  He told us that they were properly called “Colts”.  That turned out to be correct and was the informative part.  But he also told us that the two in the field had just “dropped” a youngster – like a mare might do with a foal.  I suggested that they laid eggs like all other birds but he would have none of it.  Not worth an argument and our later research confirmed that not only did they lay eggs, but that there was a fairly long incubation period (about 30 days) and that both parents do share in this duty.  Once hatched the young are quite precocious and leave the nest in a day or so – but are hardly “dropped”.

Sandhill Crane (Seen later in the day)

Sandhill Crane1

Just before entering the Park itself we stopped by some nice mature sage and I immediately heard the buzzy song of a Brewer’s Sparrow.  With a little coaxing it came right to us and posed nicely.  I had always thought of this species, like other Spizella sparrows, as small and slim, but I had never focused on the long tail.  It is quite apparent in the photo and will now be part of my identification process.

Brewer’s Sparrow

Brewer's Sparrow1

We also saw several Vesper Sparrows.  I will pat myself on the back here, as I finally remembered their song and found our first one as we were driving by with open windows on a road through the sage.  If I could remember other songs as well, I would find a lot more species.

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow Singing

Time for a pause from birding.  Have I mentioned that the Grand Tetons are SPECTACULAR!!  The scenery is truly overwhelming.  The Teton Range is part of the Rocky Mountains and extends for over 40 miles.  The Park itself was established in 1929 and is barely 10 miles south of Yellowstone National Park.  Its name came from French trappers who saw the mountains as grand teats.  I guess they were very lonely… Grand Teton Mountain is almost 14,000 feet and rises more than 7,000 feet above Jackson Hole, the valley floor along the Snake River.  Especially with one of the lakes or rivers in the foreground, we were in awe the whole time.

tetons1

In the Park itself, we first birded along Moose Wilson Road.  Our 19 species there included three of our favorite photos: a Broad Tailed Hummingbird, a Warbling Vireo and a Red Naped Sapsucker.  Finding the latter was one of those birding moments that is frustrating and rewarding at the same time.  I had heard its distinctive drumming but could not locate it.  After two moments I heard its “waah” call and looked up to find it on the backside of a tree right next to us.  I “waahed” back and it posed in great light as you can see.

Broad Tailed Hummingbird

Broad Tailed Hummingbird1

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Red Naped Sapsucker

Red Naped Sapsucker1

We now had 47 species for the day and had one more place to go .  At the Visitor Center, one of the Volunteers (not our Sandhill Crane guy) had recommended a visit to Schwabacher Landing.  It was great advice as it was probably our favorite place in the Park.  Of the 14 species we saw there, 11 were new for the day.  The first was heard before seen, as 4 Spotted Sandpipers along the river edge called “weet” “weet” “weet” and then flew by with their distinctive shallow wingbeats.  Next were several female Goldeneyes.  As I was trying to determine whether they were Common or Barrow’s, a beautiful male flew in and the crescent between its eye and bill left no doubt.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Barrow’s Goldeneye

Barrow's Goldeneye

A hiker we met who was coming back to the parking lot, told us she had seen a group of Cutthroat Trout further along.  Not more than a half mile along the trail which bordered the river, we found them in a shallow pool – at least 20.  They looked like they had come from a mold as each was over 18 inches and in beautiful breeding color with the orange red of their “cut” throats tails and fins clearly visible.  We would be fishing in a few days and I could only hope to find a pool waiting for us somewhere full of “Cutts”.

Cutthroat Trout

Cutthroat.jpg

This seems as good a place to relate that among the most common birds we saw or heard – almost at every stop were Yellow Warblers.  There were many at Schwabacher, often singing, chasing each other or just posing in the sun.  Most that we saw were males so maybe the females were on eggs at their nests.  The only other warblers seen were Common Yellowthroats and Orange Crowns.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Our 58 species equaled the count from my day alone, but the birds, scenery and company were definitely better on this day.  We would return to Schwabacher Landing the next day just for a hike.  On the way in we came upon a fun scene as Prairie Dogs (we think) were rolling around in what could best be described as a “Monkey Pile”, even if that is mixing metaphors in a way.  Others departed but the two remaining seemed to be quite fond of each other.

squirrels

Maybe this was a precursor of things to come.  When we got to a spot that had been a favorite the previous day, a gentleman was there sitting on his lawn chair just enjoying the scenery and yet another beautiful day.  A few minutes later, we heard several voices coming towards us.  Hikers perhaps?  Not exactly; this was a wedding party with bride and groom dressed appropriately and with at least another 20 guests etc.  The gentleman vacated his spot and the very happy group commenced their ceremony.  We later learned that this is a very popular spot for outdoor weddings.

A hoped for part of any visit to Wyoming and the National Parks is the chance to view wildlife.  We had seen Pronghorns (Antelopes) and Buffalo on our birding day but had missed a Black Bear; and a Moose had been seen along Moose Wilson Road just before we drove past the pond where it had been grazing.  On our non-birding second day (well, actually our “less birding” second day), we thought we would try the area again.  When we got to the pond Park Rangers in the road directing traffic.  Not an accident – a Moose sighting,  We found a spot for the car and got a look moments before she headed off and disappeared in a thicket.

Moose

Moose1

Pronghorn Antelope

Antelope

Buffalo

Buffalo1

Wyoming was now officially state #41 with 50 species in a day.  We would be heading off to Montana to visit friends, do some birding and try our hand at flyfishing.  It had been a wonderful visit with the 50/50/50 quest being the catalyst for great times in a truly spectacular place.  I saved the best picture for last – two happy birders at our favorite spot – Schwabacher Landing.

Cindy and Blair

Epilogue – Yellowstone

In my head, I have always associated Yellowstone National Park with Montana, but the reality is that the vast majority of the Park is in Wyoming.  After our great visit to the Grand Tetons, our net stop was to be Helena, Montana where we would visit friends and try for fifty species in a day. Even though it was 90 minutes longer (not including any stopping), we elected to go through Yellowstone.  It turned out to be much longer due to slow traffic because there were lots of visitors and also a few stops to take in some of Yellowstone’s many wonders.

We did not visit Old Faithful or Yellowstone Falls – which had giant traffic backups.  Maybe someday we will return and do so.  I do want to include two photos from the drive, both taken from the car by phone camera.  They show how close you get to nature just being in the park.  At one point the Buffalo in the first was literally inches from the car.  If Cindy had her arm out the passenger side, I think the Buffalo may have licked it for the salt.  The second was as we neared the geyser basin and the line to Old Faithful.  Yellowstone is famed for its displays of thermal activity.  We saw steam from the geysers and the photo shows the outflow from one of the many hot springs which came within feet of the road.

Buffalo Close-up

buffalo-from-car.jpg

Hot Spring

Hotspring

I kept my eyes open for a possible Golden Eagle or Prairie Falcon as we drove through Yellowstone, but none were seen.  The only bird we added for Wyoming was a Cedar Waxwing – seen during a bathroom stop.  It was the 87th species for the trip.  I did not think about it at the time, but it would have been nice to have 13 more species to get to 100.  I have seen 100 or more species in 20 states and am very close to that in some others.  Adding states to the 100 plus list could be a fun adventure.  Maybe in a few years.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

 

 

 

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 wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/22093).

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

white-faced-ibis-vertical.jpg

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

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

Flam5

Flam8

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. tim@mwbirdco.com  (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.

 

Idaho with Keith and Terry -50/50/50 at Its Best

Whether in my blogs or in my conversations with those who are interested, I emphasize that while my 50/50/50 Adventure is definitely about birds, it is really about people – people who share my passion for birds and beautiful places and passion for being with other people who are out there enjoying these wonderful gifts from nature.  There is no better example of this than my birding in Idaho with Keith Carlson and Terry O’Halloran.  And this is especially so as it followed a similarly wonderful day of birding their beloved Walla Walla County with Mike and MerryLynn Denny.  That day also had more than 50 species in a beautiful place with great birders who are even better people.  It really is about people.

I got to know Keith Carlson as a resource for some of the great birds found in Asotin County and from a chase or two there and an extremely special bird across the Snake River in Idaho.  One was a Blue Jay in December 2015 and another was a Red Flanked Bluetail in January 2017.  Each time Keith went out of his way to make sure I saw birds he had already seen.  He was a great guide and great company then and even moreso on this occasion.

Red Flanked Bluetail

red-flanked-bluetail7

When I asked Keith if he could help with my 50/50/50 quest in Idaho, he jumped on it and not only came up with a plan for the day, he also came up with another birding companion, Terry O’Halloran and with breakfast and with lunch and then went out with Terry on a scouting trip to make sure we could find 50 species.   And then…

And then he and Terry found a Great Gray Owl.  When I got to Lewiston the day before the day of the quest, Keith said we had to get together and talk about a different option.  He told me of the Great Gray and asked if I wanted to go for it knowing it might make it harder to find 50 species since it was not part of the original logistics.  And also knowing it was not a sure thing.  My answer was easy – “Of course” and if we found it it would be a great addition and part of the story of the day.  If we didn’t find it, I was still confident we would find 50 species AND our search would still be a story for the day.  AND it is another part of this 50/50/50 adventure – the getting out and doing – trying, living fully with others and with spirit and a love, a passion for the activity itself.  Results are great, but the main result is participation itself.  Sure let’s go for the Owl.

Keith’s Great Great Gray Owl Photo (and the duplication is definitely intentional)

GGOW1

Keith picked me up at 5:30 a.m. and then we picked up Terry at his house.   It was about an hour to get to Craig Mountain where they had found the Great Gray.  I had learned from my other 50/50/50 trips that it was important to pick up some common species on the way to targeted birding hotspots – birds like House Sparrow and European Starling.  This morning was very productive in that respect.  Aided by some birds at Terry’s feeder including Lesser Goldfinch, we had 16 species within 10 miles of my hotel.  We also had a very photogenic California Quail.

Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch

California Quail

California Quail

There was high anticipation when we arrived at the meadow where the Great Gray had been seen.  Not going to hold readers in suspense.   The Great Gray did not make a repeat appearance.  Keith was disappointed.  Terry was disappointed.  Sure, so was I – but not as much as they were.  They actually felt more responsibility for the success of my day than I did.  Keith was particularly worried that we had “wasted” time – taken time away from my 50 species quest on this empty pursuit.  Not wasted at all – it was terrific.  We shared the energy and excitement of the chase.  We found many other birds including a completely unexpected Wilson’s Snipe that Keith flushed.  I used the Northern Pygmy Owl tooting call to attract a small flock that included Mountain, Black Capped and Chestnut Backed Chickadees, Red Breasted Nuthatches, Ruby Crowned Kinglet, Townsend’s Warbler and Western Tanager.

Townsend’s Warbler

Townsend's Warbler

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

We also had other birds in the area including Mountain and Western Bluebirds, Cassin’s Finch, Red Crossbills and a rare Lincoln’s Sparrow.  On the drive out of the area, we found a Townsend’s Solitaire – always a good find.

Western Bluebird

Western Bluebird1

Cassin’s Finch

Cassin's Finch1

Townsend’s Solitaire

Townsend's Solitaire1

By the time we left the area, we had 33 species from there and 48 altogether.  Not a waste at all – a highly productive and very fun visit and then the local expertise of Keith and Terry took us across the finish line as we visited Red Bird Lane where we had 27 species – 8 new for the day taking us past the 50 species threshold.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird1

Tree Swallow at Nest Box (I am including it here but it may have been at Craig Mountain)

Tree Swallow

Everything now would be gravy and we had lots of it.  We went to Mann Lake, a place I had heard about many times and seen in many great Ebird reports – famous for shorebirds and waterfowl and rarities.  Not its best time but we still had 7 new species including a Spotted Sandpiper that Keith knew had to be there and with diligence we found.  And then more local expertise and more caring participation because the reality was that as it has been on so many of my visits to other states, my adventure was a shared adventure, a joint activity and Keith and Terry not only wanted it to succeed by reaching some minimum but to be a full on engagement with ongoing meaning and enjoyment.

There had been a report by Carl Lundblad of a Least Flycatcher at a specific spot – with other good birds as well.  We had GPS coordinates and a description and a bird list.  There seemed to be some disconnect between the description and the GPS, but we got to what was almost certainly the right spot and we once again added new birds for the day – Lazuli Bunting, Yellow Breasted Chat, Black Headed Grosbeak, Vaux’s Swift and a Least Flycatcher – maybe…It looked mostly like one and it made all of the Least Flycatcher calls – except no che-bek.  It flew in in response to the che-bek calls but did not repeat them.  It did not respond to Willow Flycatcher calls – but a Willow Flycatcher did.  So maybe…

Our Mystery Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher1

One more stop both because it was a known Great Blue Heron roost spot and also because we needed to eat those lunches that Keith’s wife had prepared for us.  And fittingly there would be one more great bird as two Common Nighthawks flew over us with their loud and familiar “pe-ent” call.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

It was only 2 o’clock.  Keith and Terry were game for anything.  We had observed 77 species for the day.  We could continue and probably add another dozen or so.  My earlier planning had assumed it would take all day to get our 50 species so I would be staying at a hotel in Lewiston for another night.  Keith had already vetoed that plan inviting me to spend the night at his home.  Either way, I would then have made a long 8+ hour drive the next day to Twin Falls enabling me to try for Cassia Crossbills the next morning before heading off to Salt Lake City (another 4 hours away).  Now there was another option.  I could head south and stay at McCall, ID halfway to Twin Falls.  That would make it possible the next day to get to the Crossbills spot in the afternoon, find them if I got lucky or more likely scope out the area and make another try the next day.

The choice was mine.  Keith and Terry had been so giving of their time.  It was a Sunday and I was sure there were other things they could be doing.  Splitting the 8 hour drive in half was appealing – heck, Keith had done all the driving this day, so I was fresh.  And somehow it seemed fitting to end the day with the Nighthawk – newly arrived in the area just for me/us to see.  I decided to head south and the results of that decision have already been written up in another blog post on the Cassia Crossbills (yes I found them the next day – or rather they found me).

So another successful 50/50/50 day – great birds, great places and great people.  Idaho was state #39.  Time with Keith was great.  Meeting Terry was great.  Seeing new places that I had only read about was great.  Many thanks to Keith (and his wife) and Terry.   They even provided perfect weather.

Cassia Crossbills – Luck Was With Me

This will be a short and very focused post and will be followed later by a longer one covering my wonderful 50/50/50 time with Keith Carlson and Terry O’Halloran in Northern Idaho.  The original plan had been to do the 50 species day with them in and around Lewiston, ID on Sunday June 9 spending that night afterwards in Lewiston.  Then I would do the long 8+ hour drive to Twin Falls, ID spending the night of the 10th there and try for the Cassia Crossbills the next morning at the Diamondfield Jack Campground.

Keith and Terry were such fabulous “guides” that we had over 75 species before 2 p.m.  This enabled me to hit the road and get to McCall, ID where I spent the night of the 10th.  McCall is about halfway between Lewiston and Twin Falls.  With this head start I was able to drive through Twin Falls and get to the Diamondfield Jack Campground just after noon.  Even though I had been encouraged to try for the Cassia Crossbills early in the morning, I figured I might get lucky or if nothing else, I would be more familiar with the area increasing my odds for success on a return the next morning.

The drive along Rock Creek to the Campground was spectacular in beautiful weather.  Soaring cliffs and rock formations on both sides of the road.  The temptation was to stop and bird as I went since I was hearing Yellow Warblers and Yellow Breasted Chats.  But they would be there on the return.  I wanted to get to the Campground.

Rock Creek Scenery

Rock Creek Scenery

Word was that the Crossbills could be found near the parking area for the Campground.  This was my first “surprise”.  There was a huge and frankly quite ugly parking area.  Where to start?  I parked next to a picnic table and when I got out of the car I thought I heard some Crossbills.  I followed the sound and found a Red Breasted Nuthatch putting finishing touches on its nest hole but no Crossbills.  Then I heard some chatter at the other end of the parking area.  Off I went.  Several Yellow Rumped Warblers and some Cassin’s Finches but again no Crossbills.

Red Breasted Nuthatch

Red Breasted Nuthatch at Nest

OK, time to breathe.  I returned to my car, got my lunch and sat down at the picnic table.  Some say that they would rather be lucky than good.  Nope I would rather be good than lucky…but this day I happily made an exception.  As I sat with my lunch they came in one after another after another – Cassia Crossbills – almost at my feet.  I had expected them high up in the trees but here they were down low feasting on the cones that were everywhere for the taking including on the picnic tables.  One landed on the picnic table next to mine.  Snap…an ABA Lifer and an ABA Life Photo!

Cassia Crossbill – ABA Lifer and Life Photo

Cassia Crossbill Female

Cassia Crossbill Working on a Cone

Cassia Crossbill at Work

There was a small pile of remnant snow and that seemed to be a favorite spot as at one time there were 4 Crossbills on it and they were joined by Pine Siskins.

Cassia Crossbill 4

Cassia Crossbill

All told there were at least 22 Cassia Crossbills always on the ground or on low perches over an area of maybe 100 feet by 100 feet.  They seemed to act individually except for the bit of snow, but apparently there was some magic signal and as quickly as they had appeared – poof! and they were all gone.  The fun had lasted maybe 15 minutes.  I guess I picked the right time for my lunch.

Cassia Crossbills on a Low Perch

Cassia Crossbill3

Cassia Crossbill2

Elated does not begin to describe my feelings.  A beautiful place and wonderful birds and I had them both completely to myself.  I watched several of the Crossbills use those powerful crossed bills to pry the seed kernels out of the cones.  Their bills seem significantly larger than the crossed bills of the Red Crossbills.  The birds themselves seemed bigger as well, but without them being side to side, hard to say.  In any event this was a lucky day indeed.

The Cassia Crossbill was not recognized as a separate species until 2017.  Unlike the nomadic and widespread Red Crossbills, the Cassia Crossbills remain in their very limited habitat area in Cassia County.  They feed on the cones of the Lodgepole Pines which are plentiful in the Sawtooth National Forest.  I had great looks and a special opportunity to watch a behavior that I had not expected with them feeding on the cones ground.  A very lucky time indeed.

“Sufferin Succotash” – Birding Rhode Island

At 7:00 a.m. on May 3, 2019 my State List for the State of Rhode Island was 0.  Six hours and 10 minutes later it was 84.  Not bad.  Or as I at times say when impressed, “Wowsers”!!  For this accomplishment (and yes, I know I am dating myself), I will let Daffy Duck and Sylvester the Cat voice their opinion: “Sufferin Succotash”!!  Here’s the rest of the story…

Daffy Duck

First I am cutting myself some slack on the cartoon characters reference and their well known idiom, even if you don’t.  Rhode Island was the second of 13 states birded for 50 species in my Eastern Marathon, but this is the 13th Blog Post on the trip and I am a bit tired.  Second, it may be corny – actually doubly so, since succotash is a mixture of corn and lima beans – but the phrase has special application here as 23 of those 84 species were seen at Succotash Marsh.  Granted many more were seen at Trustom Pond, but the puns I came up with for “Trustom” using “trust ’em” just didn’t do it, so “sufferin succotash” it is.

Back to being serious.  There was no sufferin or suffering on this day.  Just lots of good birding in Rhode Island – again with my expert birder friend Mike Resch.  We knew it was going to be a good day when the first bird we saw as we started birding in Westerly, Rhode Island was a Wild Turkey at a busy intersection.  It actually looked like it was waiting for the “Walk” signal to cross the road.

Wild Turkey

2P5A0238

Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge is on Block Island Sound in Southern Rhode Island.  There is a large pond, the ocean coast and forested habitat – an excellent birding hotspot.  We would spend just over three hours there and record 64 species – chalk up another state for the 50/50/50 Adventure.  Surprisingly this included only two shorebirds, a Sanderling and a Willet.  But there was a good mix of everything including 6 duck species, 5 raptors, 5 warblers and some of these and some of those.  I got a nice photo of a Mute Swan in flight at least proving that these are not pinioned birds added as ornaments to some pond.

Mute Swan

Mute Swan Flight

The two Northern Gannets were too distant for a photo but they were the first I had seen in 2019, special treats for West Coast birders.  No Eiders but I would see some later.  Another new bird for 2019 was a Blue Winged Warbler.  I had seen one last year in Texas but had not for many years before that.  I would chase its close relative the Golden Winged Warbler later in several states hoping for a first ever photo.  Didn’t know it then but do now – it didn’t happen.

Blue Winged Warbler

Blue Winged Warbler

There were unfortunately no Eastern Bluebirds, Blue Grosbeaks or Black Throated Blue Warblers but we did see Blue Jays, Blue Gray Gnatcatchers, and Blue Headed Vireos.  A better vireo was a White Eyed Vireo.

Blue Headed Vireo

Blue Headed Vireo

White Eyed Vireo

White Eyed Vireo

It is always an adjustment for me that White Throated Sparrows are so common in the East and often much moreso than Song Sparrows which often seem to be everywhere back home.  Certainly fine looking birds, though.  The most common sparrow or sparrow-like bird was the Eastern Towhee, its song constantly reminding us to “Drink your tea.”  I well remember this as one of the first species I was aware of when I first returned as a birder to Maryland where I grew up.  At that time it was called a Rufous Sided Towhee only later being split away from the Western form the Spotted Towhee.

White Throated Sparrow

White Throated Sparrow1

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

Spotted Towhee (from Washington State) for Comparison

Spotted Towhee

There are many birders who think that Yellow Warblers may also be split – if not Eastern and Western forms, then at least the ones in Florida.  Until that happens, the one we saw here will continue to be the same species as ones I would see in Washington.  Even though listing is an important part of my birding, I really don’t care much about these splits.  Yellow Warblers are gorgeous – wherever found and whatever form they are.  The red chest streaks on this one were particularly bold and bright.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

We moved on from Trustom Pond to the Succotash Marsh.  Here we had lots of shorebirds, 10 different species with the most numerous being Least Sandpipers and Dunlin.  As had been the case in Connecticut, we also had both Semipalmated and Piping Plovers with even more of the latter at this spot – at least 10.  We also had the only Black Bellied Plovers of the trip.  None of the shorebirds were up close – that’s why a scope was so nice to have.  So no photos.  And the same was true for the 3 Least Terns and the Common Loon – all in the distance.  A little closer was a Fish Crow.  I was happy to hear its distinctive call – different from an American Crow – and to count it as a new species, but as with our “Northwestern Crow” in Washington, I wonder about it being a separate species or at least would be maybe more comfortable if they were all lumped together – no disrespect to any of them.  At least this one was eating a fish – well, a crab so a shellfish by some accounts.

Fish Crow

Fish Crow with Crab

Another fish eater we observed was an Osprey.  We later saw this one pluck a fish from the water.  I believe Ospreys join Barn Owls as the only or one of only a few species that are occur regularly without being introduced on every continent – except Antarctica.  I have seen them on 4 continents (not Europe or Asia) and in 25 states and believe they have been seen in all 50 although rarely in Hawaii.  A welcomed observation anywhere.

Osprey

Osprey

Since I am writing this after the blog posts for the other states, I want to include a bird that was seen frequently in all of the Eastern States – and heard even more commonly – often the first bird I heard in the morning as I left my hotel.  It is so common that I just put it out of mind and did not include it in any of the other posts.  It is the Northern Cardinal.  It may be one of the birds most recognizable by non-birders.  Gorgeous. Loud and deserving of having its picture included.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal Male

Our final stop was at Galilee Harbor where we finally saw some Common Eiders and such “rarities” as House Sparrow and Rock Pigeon.  Our day total was 84 species.  It was just a bit after 1 p.m.  Mike had been very generous with his time and had to rendezvous with family and attend a dance competition with his daughter.  I would spend the night in Rhode Island and then be off to New York.  I did some sightseeing and then got to my hotel early and crashed as I think the travel and jet lag finally got to me.

I met a birder on the trail (elsewhere) whose special project is to get his life list in each state to 100 species.  He has been working on it for a long time.  I am pretty sure that I could have continued birding that afternoon and gotten to 100 for the day.  It would have been my 20th state with that total or more.  Sure glad that is not my project.  And I am sure glad that I was able to spend more time with Mike Resch.  I would see him again in a few weeks in New Hampshire.  He really really knows New England.

With Mike Resch at Trustom Pond

Trustom Pond with Mike

 

 

 

Birds – Even in Brooklyn

The original plan had been to bird upstate New York on my way back from Michigan.  Fortunately I was able to change plans to instead do my birding in Brooklyn earlier in the trip and to try to join the Brooklyn Birding Club on a walk in Prospect Park on Sunday May 5th.  The really good part of this was that it would enable me to visit my son Alex who lives in Brooklyn.  He has a hectic travel schedule but not only would he be there but he would be able to join me for at least some of the birding.  He is not a birder so this was a major deal.  Specialty coffee has been his passion and I am sure he knows more about that than I do about birds – that is he knows A LOT.  So this was great news.

Brooklyn Birding Club

The Brooklyn Birding Club is a big deal.  It was founded in 1909 and has a large and active membership.  For me the best part was its many trips and walks in Prospect Park, a 585 acre mixed used park with a big lake in the heart of Brooklyn.  It is not quite but almost as famous for city birding as Central Park in Manhattan which is 50% larger.  On a good day in spring migration it could easily give me 50+ species.   I would get to New York after birding in Rhode Island probably arriving late on the 4th and having dinner with him and then do the birding the next day.  The bad news was that some pretty heavy rain was predicted for the 5th but the good news was that Rhode Island was easier than it might have been so I could get into Brooklyn early on the 4th and do the birding then.  Alex would not be able to join me that day but we could still have dinner and if the 4th didn’t work the 5th was available as Plan B – rain or not.

More bad news was that there was rain on the morning of the 4th as well.  A surprise was that I easily found a parking spot across from the park.  I had seen a half dozen birds including a surprise Merlin on my way into the City.  It was 8:00 a.m. and I was ready to go.  My only plan was to walk around and hopefully find some birders as well as birds.  I managed to do both but the birders were less welcoming than has been my general experience.  Not entirely and not all of them, and I maybe was less gregarious than usual as well.  I managed good visits with a few but mostly with birders who were on their way out.  In the wet morning, the birds also seemed to be less active and I heard few songs – not that I would have identified most of them alone anyhow.  I definitely could have used Mike Resch or a formal Birding Club Walk.

I did manage some birds though – 39 species including 9 warblers.  The best was a very brief look at a Blue Winged Warbler without a photo.  Second was probably a Northern Waterthrush.  I was being very careful to keep my camera dry so not tons of photos, but I was happy to get what I could.

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

Chipping Sparrow

chipping-sparrow.jpg

White Throated Sparrow

White Throated Sparrow

 

I am sure I missed birds on the Lake any many more in the trees but one I was glad to get was a Mute Swan.   Unlike in Washington, they are “countable” in the East.  I heard many stories though of why they are not a welcomed bird – doing a lot of damage.  Definitely a striking bird, however,

Mute Swan

Mute Swan

I spent 4 hours at Prospect Park – including more than 30 minutes being completely disoriented and heading off in the wrong direction.  I had wisely saved the intersection where I parked the car on my phone and GPS bailed me out.  The Park is heavily used including lots of runners, power walkers, strollers and birders.  Not surprisingly given its location, the users and the birders were of many ages, races, colors and nationalities.  I heard many languages.  English was predominant but I heard a lot of Spanish, Russian, Korean, Chinese and German in addition to many Eastern European and African languages that were not identifiable to me.  There were more non-white birders there than I think I saw at all other places I visited on my Eastern birding marathon combined.  A positive thing but telling in contrast to those other places.

Including the earlier birds seen I had 42 species.  I was hungry so I left the Park and grabbed some street food, found my car and headed off to Jamaica Bay.  The weather was improving and I wondered if maybe I would return to Prospect Park tomorrow after all.  On the North Channel Bridge to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife area I added 11 new species in the totally new habitat with a mix of ducks, shorebirds, waders and gulls and terns.  And the additions continued at the Refuge itself adding another 23 species with some more ducks, a Least Tern, some more shorebirds and a Clapper Rail plus numerous passerines.

By no means a rare bird, but a fun one to watch was a House Wren that seemed to be gathering material to build a nest.  I have no idea what it intended to do with this stick which was at least twice its size.

House Building House Wren

House Building House Wren

My favorite shot was of a White Eyed Vireo – easy to see where it gets its name.  Earlier I had seen Warbling and Blue Headed Vireos but not a Red Eyed which I had expected.  And there were some warblers as well including a Prairie Warbler which was new for the day.  I had seen Yellow Rumped and Yellow Warblers at Prospect Park but no photos in the wetness.  Much better here.

White Eyed Vireo

White Eyed Vireo1

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler1

Yellow Rumped Warbler – Myrtle

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

A species I was glad to see and photograph was the Brown Thrasher looking very brown indeed.  This guy was singing almost non-stop and stayed in the open most of the time.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher3

One more photo.  Nothing unusual but I loved this Tree Swallow – good light and a nice pose with everything in place – except one contrasting white feather.  What was that all about?

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

As it turned out I could have skipped Prospect Park altogether and just come to Jamaica Bay as I had 56 species there in less than 2.5 hours.  Many of the birds had been seen at Prospect Park earlier and I ended the day with 76 species.  The places were great but the local intersections were less than I would have liked and it was disappointing not to be able to include Alex in at least some of the birding – although that would be more than made up by visits later.  But there was going to be a great local intersection after all – one of my favorites on the whole trip.

As I was coming back to the parking area in now beautiful weather, a young family was walking towards me – dad, with an infant in a chest carrier, a mom and a toddler who was not much older than my grandson – maybe 18 months old.  Who know why these things happen, but the toddler was looking straight at me as we got closer and closer.  Maybe it was the binoculars.  Maybe the camera, maybe just the happiness that could have been apparent on my face as I had seen my 50 species for the day.  Maybe just my boyish charm (wink).  She walked away from her parents and straight towards me…and reached out her arms.  I learned long ago that the best thing to do with small kids is to bend down – get to their level.  So I did and asked her her name.  No answer, but now she actually grabbed my hand and clearly wanted to be lifted up.  I also learned a long time ago that you just do not pick up little kids you do not know.  By now Mom was next to us and she said she was dumbfounded as her little girl had never done that before.  The little girl then said “up”.  My eyes met mom’s and I got the OK approval.  I lifted her up and she gave me a hug which I reciprocated.  I told her how pretty she was and that I loved birds and wondered if she did too.  No response except for a smile.

After probably no more than 15 seconds I returned her to the ground.  Both Mom and Dad had big smiles, so I guess everything was ok.  I told them all to have a wonderful day and continued towards the car.  The toddler started to follow me away from her parents but Mom took her hand and they were off.  Not the local intersection I expected for a birding trip but it was as good as it gets.  I am almost teary remembering it.  A truly beautiful moment.

There was still time to visit Alex in his new apartment – his first one on his own in very expensive Brooklyn.  I had been apprehensive about that – just about safety, but although not luxurious and small, it was certainly safe and comfortable.  Later we went to dinner and again somehow i found a parking place on the street near the restaurant.   My son definitely knows his food.  The dinner was superb as tasty as any I can remember – clearly the work of a serious chef and a restaurant that is all about quality.  It was a good visit.

It did indeed rain the next day and with the success of the previous day, I skipped a return to Prospect Park.  I got to extend the visit with Alex and yes there was more good food, a great lunch.  And then I was off – heading to New Jersey where I would visit Cape May for the first time.  New York was the 3rd state on this trip – 10 more to go – and the 28th with 50 species in a day.  And fond memories of kids – my fine son and that lovely little toddler.  Maybe she will enjoy birds on her own someday.

A Spicy Start for the Eastern Marathon – Connecticut – The Nutmeg State

I had flown into Boston on April 29th and had a lovely visit with my daughter, son in law and grandson.  That was a great start to what was planned to be a very long trip lasting 30 days, visiting 15 states and birding in 13 of them – hopefully adding all 13 to to the “completed list” on my 50/50/50 Adventure.  The quest was simple – observing 50 species of birds on single days in each of those 13 states – with others – visiting new and interesting places and having fun.  It was now May 2nd and I would be meeting good birding friend Mike Resch in Willington, CT to start the birding part of the adventure.

Grandson Griffin – A Birder Someday?

Griffin

Mike had already been a big part of my project and his role would expand greatly on this trip.  We had birded together getting 50+ species in Massachusetts earlier.  Now Connecticut.  Then together to Rhode Island and at the end of this Marathon we would bird together again in New Hampshire.  I could not have been in better company or with a better birder.  I had learned from my other trips to look for “common birds” around my hotel before the hotspot birding began.  Species like House Sparrow, American Crow, Common Grackle etc would probably be seen later, but just in case not, get them and count them early.  If nothing else it would create some momentum.  I had 5 species in hand before Mike arrived.  Now we were off to one of Mike’s favorite areas – the Yale Forest and Boston Hollow and Kinney Hollow Roads – classic New England Forest.  I had checked out the area the previous afternoon and found it mostly quiet but still had 25 species including a Tom and Hen Wild Turkey – a very New England species to me – think Pilgrims and Thanksgiving.

Wild Turkey

Tom Turkey

We spent over three hours in the forest and aided enormously by Mike’s great skill and especially his encyclopedic knowledge of bird songs, we had 51 species.  It wasn’t the best light for photos and many of the birds were high up or buried in dense foliage but lots of good ones including 5 woodpecker species, 5 sparrow species and 7 warbler species.

Red Bellied Woodpecker

Red Bellied WP

White Throated Sparrow

White Throated Sparrow

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler

The best photos may have been of a White Breasted Nuthatch and we also had a Red Breasted Nuthatch, Black Capped Chickadee, Brown Creeper and Tufted Titmouse.

White Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch Vertical

Only two flycatchers – Least Flycatcher and Eastern Phoebe and a single vireo – Blue Headed – lousy photo but better one laterThere would also be a better photo later of one of my favorites – Rose Breasted Grosbeak.  Two species heard and seen briefly but sadly not photographed were Northern Waterthrush (2 individuals in still water just where Mike expected them) and Louisiana Waterthrush (in moving water, again just where Mike expected them).

Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher1

Eastern Phoebe

eastern-phoebe.jpg

It was now about 11:00 a.m.  I had 53 species for the morning.  Quit now?  No way; we had two more great stops ahead and would be joined by two of Mike’s friends.  It was a great start but truly the best was yet to come.  We picked up a couple of incidental species along the way and arrived at Sandy Point on the coast in New Haven County.  There were lots of Brant close to shore and we had some Red Breasted Mergansers.

Brant

Brant

Among the six shorebird species were numerous Piping Plovers – hard not to love.  We even saw one displaying.  Another favorite was the American Oystercatcher.  We have Sanderlings in Washington as well and I had seen many scurrying along the surf on the sand before I left, but they had been dressed in winter white.  These were in their very much different breeding plumage.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover1

Piping Plover

2P5A1008 (2)

American Oystercatcher

American ystercatcher

Sanderling

Sanderling

A species we do not have in Washington is the Great Black Backed Gull.  Big and with that very black back (or mantle) it is easy to see and identify.

Great Black Backed Gull

Greater Black Backed Gull Flight

We had 28 species in a bit over an hour and a half – many of them new for the day in this totally different habitat and our species day count was now at 79.  There would be more.   We got to Hammonasset Beach State Park at around 2:45 and heard birds as soon as we parked.  Then we saw birds – lots of birds – up close and personal birds – great birds – and many different types of birds.  Shorebirds, waders, gulls, flycatchers, vireos, warblers, sparrows and particularly thrushes.  Many trees had multiple birds and/or multiple species – maybe a mini fallout.  Lots of great photo ops.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

Great Crested Flycatcher

great-crested-flycatcher.jpg

Blue Headed Vireo

Blue Headed Vireo1

Warbling Vireo (We tried to make it into a Philadelphia Vireo)

Warbling Vireo1

Yellow Throated Vireo

Yellow Throated Vireo

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Black Throated Blue Warbler

Black Throated Blue Warbler1

Black Throated Green Warbler

Black Throated Green Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler1

Particularly amazing to me were the Rose Breasted Grosbeaks.  We had at least 10 of these beauties including 6 in one tree!!  And equally special were the many thrushes – 7 species:  American Robin, Swainson’s Thrush, Veery, Gray Catbird, Eastern Bluebird, Gray Cheeked Thrush and Hermit Thrush – awesome!!

Rose Breasted Grosbeak

Rose Breasted grosbeak wtih Flowers

Rose Breasted Grosbeak1.jpg

Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson's Thrush

Veery

Veery

Gray Cheeked Thrush

Gray Cheeked Thrush

We were there transfixed on the so called low hanging fruit for just under 3 hours slowly covering almost 3 miles.  It was seriously about as good as it gets in beautiful weather as well.  Fifty species in all of which 22 were new for the day.  We later added a Chimney Swift and ended the day with 102 species.  How nice it would be if there was some kind of carryover and I could put the species above 50 into a bank and withdraw them as needed in other states.  It is my “game” so I can make the rules, but that is one rule that just doesn’t work.  One really good rule would be to include Mike Resch on all trips.  We would bird together in Rhode Island the next day so I certainly felt good about that.  BUT…

BUT…when you are out on the road, there can always be curve balls/surprises and we got a big one.  Mike and I checked into our hotel and unloaded optics and baggage into the room and went out for a quick dinner.  When we got back the card reader on our locked room door would not read our cards and let us in.  I have had this happen before where  maybe the card was next to the phone in my pocket and got de-magnetized or whatever.  Off to the front desk to get new cards.  But they did not work either.  Uh-oh.  The person behind the desk had a “master key” of sorts – another card since there was no physical actual key to gain entry.

It did not work either.  Now understand – everything we had except for the clothes on our backs was in the room and we would be leaving early the next day to go to Rhode Island for the next day of birding.  An offer of “I can get you another room and will get someone to look at it tomorrow” had no value whatsoever.  I won’t go through the ensuing details but maybe 30 minutes after the initial problem was discovered, a manager arrived.  She fortunately lived nearby.  It was clear to her as it was to me that the ONLY solution was to break down the door.  She forcefully, for her, kicked the door extending her leg in front of her…nothing.  Time for action. With her consent I turned away from the door and then back kicked it open breaking the jamb of course in the process.  We gathered our stuff and then moved to that now useful other room.

The Door – After the Kick

Door

It is a little unnerving to know that there was no back up system to open the card reading lock.  If it was a bad battery, that could only be replaced if the door was open…no access from the front.  So a disaster was avoided even if we lost an hour or so and blood pressure was definitely raised.  We did receive an apology but maybe a comped room would have been in order.  Even at many chains, each hotel is individually owned by a franchisee.  Expressing displeasure on Facebook was considered…and then dropped as otherwise it had been a really good day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of Sync in Virginia

I guess it had to happen – one day when it just was really difficult.  From the start I had struggled with Virginia unsure where it would fit in my schedule and thus where I would bird.  As other plans solidified I decided to bird in the Alexandria area in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.  I researched the area and made plans accordingly.  This would allow me to leave Philadelphia early and make a stop in Baltimore, Maryland where I wanted to drive by St. Frances Academy, where I had taught for a year almost 50 years ago between college and Law School.  An amazing place, it was an all girls, all Catholic, all Black school in the Baltimore ghetto, founded by free Haitians before the Civil War and run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence an order of black nuns.  Quite a year, but not a story for this post.

St. Frances Academy – and Its Neighborhood – 2019

St Frances Academy

Neighborhood

It still should have been easy but some pieces were missing.  I would arrive there on a Sunday.  No field trips were scheduled for that day but there was one the next.  Rain was predicted and it had been raining the previous day as well.  My one contact, a great source of information, had commitments that would not let him join me until late afternoon on Monday.  It was too late to rearrange my schedule so I carried on following the leads from my contact and indications from EBird that suggested 50 species should be very doable.  I would see how Sunday went and then try again Monday if necessary.

On Sunday I arrived at 9:30 a.m. much later than I would normally want to start for the 50 species day and although it wasn’t a hard rain, it was enough to make a difference.  I first went to Belle Haven Park – along the Chesapeake River.  As I got out of my car I saw another birder getting ready to get into his.  I later learned he was one of the top birders in the area who had just finished a walk with some friends.  Other commitments meant he could not continue with me in tow, but he had seen a Prothonotary Warbler (always a treat) earlier and he took me to the spot in the Marina, shared some stories and supported my choices of other spots to go later.  Unfortunately we did not find the Warbler.  In fact it was very slow, wet and windy.  He took off and I contemplated “next”.

Five minutes later I heard the Prothonotary Warbler and was able to get a brief view and a poor photo in poor light.  Maybe things would improve.

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler.jpg

It was hard to tell where or whether Belle Haven Park turned into Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve – one of the areas that was part of my pre-trip planning.  I hiked on for over a mile and did find some birds – nothing of note but one of these and one of those and a couple of something else.  The rain continued lightly but I am sure it dampened the activity – literally.  Nonetheless, after a couple of hours I had 34 species.  My main birding spot was to be Huntley Meadows, where the walk would be on Monday and highly recommended by online source, my acquaintance of the morning and by Ebird.  But the former two had also recommended Monticello Park.  A Golden Winged Warbler had been seen there a few days earlier and Blackburnian Warbler was also a possibility and both were much desired by me.   Unfortunately in the continuing gloomy weather, bird activity was almost nil, visibility was poor and there was so much water on the paths that walking was a challenge.  Thirty minutes added only two new species for the day – neither a warbler.

It was now one o’clock.  I did not doubt I would eventually find the 50 species I sought, but for the first time, I really was not having fun.  I saw my first Rock Pigeons of the day – not exciting but at this point a new species was a new species.  It went on the list.  I made it to Huntley Meadows around 1:30 and spent just over an hour there.  The rain had slowed but it remained gray and gloomy, kind of like my home area just north of Seattle in March (and often in 6 or 7 other months of the year as well).  There were birds but only 11 were new for the day and I had expected twice that many.  It was still not even 3 o’clock and I had another good place to go, but were it not for the “need” to find my 50 species, I might have hung it up for the day.  It simply was not a day for photos and the best I could come up with was of an Eastern Kingbird –  at least you can see the white terminal band on the tail.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird1

 

Now I needed – just two more – Please!  This is where my local resource helped big time even if he was not physically present.  He had recommended the Occoquan Bay NWR in neighboring Prince William County.  Again nothing real exciting but in an hour I added 10 new species and then was at 58 for the day. Relief…

I was back at Huntley Meadows the next morning to join the walk at 7:00 a.m.  Maybe it was them.  Maybe it was me.  Maybe it was the rain that continued even if lightly.  Maybe I was just tired and thinking of “next” but there was no chemistry on the walk – no connection – and no local flavor.  But then there was one really good bird – a Red Headed Woodpecker – and the gloom disappeared.

Red Headed Woodpecker

Red Headed WP2

Red Headed WP

Even in the rain – visible in one of the photos, these were ok photos of a wonderful bird and were definitely the highlight of the trip.  I had 37 species in just over 2 hours but no new photos and only a handful of new species for the trip.  Since I had seen my 50 species on Sunday, I decided to forego returns to Occoquan and head to Manassas, Virginia and visit the Manassas National Battlefield Park.  I birded along the way and in the area around the Battlefield as well as at the Battlefield Park itself.  Altogether I had 52 species for the day – fewer than the day before but there had been a local intersection on the morning walk and now I would add an historical element at the Manassas National Battlefield Park.

Manassas National Battlefield Park

Manassas Visitor Center

Fence

The description of the First Battle of Manassas also known as the First Battle of Bull Run below is borrowed from History.com.  Visit that site for more information about this battle and the Second Battle of Manassas (Second Bull Run) and other battles of the American Civil War.

Prelude to the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas)
By July 1861, two months after Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War, the northern press and public were eager for the Union Army to make an advance on Richmond ahead of the planned meeting of the Confederate Congress there on July 20. Encouraged by early victories by Union troops in western Virginia, and by the war fever spreading through the North, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Brigadier General Irvin McDowell to mount an offensive that would hit quickly and decisively at the enemy and open the way to Richmond, thus bringing the war to a mercifully quick end. The offensive would begin with an attack on more than 20,000 Confederate troops under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard camped near Manassas Junction, Virginia (25 miles from Washington, D.C.) along a little river known as Bull Run.

On July 21, 1861, Union and Confederate armies clashed near Manassas Junction, Virginia, in the first major land battle of the American Civil War. Known as the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), the engagement began when about 35,000 Union troops marched from the federal capital in Washington, D.C. to strike a Confederate force of 20,000 along a small river known as Bull Run. After fighting on the defensive for most of the day, the rebels rallied and were able to break the Union right flank, sending the Federals into a chaotic retreat towards Washington. The Confederate victory gave the South a surge of confidence and shocked many in the North, who realized the war would not be won as easily as they had hoped.

The area was beautiful belying the carnage that had taken place.  Only a few buildings, some cannons and the wooden fences remain.  It felt peaceful – hardly like a place of bloodshed and war, but I guess that is how it is with all battlefields and they eventually return to nature and we forget…and make the same mistakes again.

Virginia was not the high point of my trip and I felt bad that I had not gotten more from the experience, maybe had not invested sufficiently in making it better.  I wish I had birded on the coast – maybe at Chincoteague, but that was the trade-off on my tight schedule.  I had to move on – west to West Virginia.  But in other respects this part of the trip worked well – giving me the chance to revisit St. Frances Academy and to see an important part of American history – and still find my birds.