Migration Photo Dump

Given that the recent material on this blog has covered events from over a month ago, you may begin to think that the birding has stopped.  Any birder will tell you the birding never stops.  Since returning from Montana, there has been a lot of local action as I’ve tried to keep up with migration while blogging, holding down a job, being a dad/husband, etc. Anyhow, here is post that will largely be pictorial with some commentary as needed.  The birds pictured will follow the taxonomic order of how birds are listed with ornithologists unions, eBird, etc.  This is not an exhaustive run-down of all the birds I’ve seen this spring, but rather just the more photogenic ones. Some are migrants; some are residents who have returned for the breeding season.

Waterfowl

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

Wood Duck

Wood Duck

Mallards

Mallards

Blue-winged Teal and Wood Duck

Blue-winged Teal and Wood Duck

Greater Scaup

Greater Scaup

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup and Greater Scaup

Lesser Scaup and Greater Scaup

Herons, Ibis, and Allies

About a month ago, I traveled to Miller-Richter WMA in Yellow Medicine County to join forces with my birding friend, Garrett Wee, to look for my lifer Willet and Short-billed Dowitcher.  Willets had been popping up left and right, but somehow I was always in the middle.  This day with Garrett would prove to be the same.  As we studied the shorebirds on Miller Lake, Garrett and I got talking about White-faced Ibises.  He was telling me how it was probably his favorite bird.  He’s seen them in southern states but never here in Minnesota.  White-faced Ibis is a rare-regular bird for MN.  He missed the group of five last year in his home county at Black Rush Lake because he was at prom.  Fair enough I suppose.

Our next stop after Miller-Richter was Spellman and Miedd Lakes.  Right away at Miedd, Garrett spotted some birds faraway on the opposite shore that looked different.  I zoomed my camera to the max and snapped a crummy photo so Garrett and I could see what they were.  Even though it was super blurry, we could tell by the coloration and sheen on the wings that they were Ibises! We immediately hoofed it nearly 3/4 of a mile around the shoreline to get a closer view.  And there were eight birds in all! It was awesome that Garrett got his Minnesota White-faced Ibises on the very day we talked about it.  As a bonus, no one has ever submitted an official MOU record of White-faced Ibises for Yellow Medicine County.

White-faced Ibises

White-faced Ibises

White-faced Ibises

Shorebirds

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

Wilson's Phalarope

Wilson’s Phalarope

Owls

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Kingfishers

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Vireos

Yellow-throated Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo

Gnatcatchers

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Catbirds, Mockingbirds, and Thrashers

I’ve been on very good terms with Brown Thrashers this spring.  It’s a balm of sorts for the Sage Thrasher burn.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher

Wood-Warblers

Don’t let the lack of photos fool you; I’ve seen a great variety of Warblers this spring.  They just haven’t been very photogenic.  Best non-pictured species included Golden-winged, Canada, Magnolia, and Northern Parula.  American Redstarts are resident this far south in the summer, and they have been especially ubiquitous during migration.

American Redstart

American Redstart

This next photo is included only because it is a photographic first and only the third time I have seen a Bay-breasted Warbler.  Thanks for the call, Steve.

Bay-breasted Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler

Sparrows and other Emberizids

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

Blackbirds

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Other Cool Stuff

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtle

There are two special birds I have left out of this post.  Both are big birds and both are BIG birds.  One was just a county bird; the other was a county/life bird.  These birds will either be combined in the next post or each have their own post. Stay tuned!

None Greater–The Story of Our Sage-Grouse Lifer (The Epilogue – Bonus Lifers and Other Good Birds)

When I planned the trip to Montana to see Greater Sage-Grouse with my dad, I had blinders on.  I was fixated on one bird and rightly so considering its significance.  Somewhere along the way, even as I was making birding plans for Arizona and a late winter trip to northern MN, curiosity got the best of me regarding central Montana. I began to wonder what other cool birds we could get.  Studying eBird bar charts for the Billings area, I started to realize there was a unique chunk of birds we could add to our life lists that would be difficult to find where we normally bird in MN and AZ. The prospect of bonus lifers was indeed exciting.  Not only could we pick up life birds, but we could pick up all kinds of other western goodies as well.  In both regards we were successful and had a lot of fun.  Here’s the run-down.

Good Non-Lifer Western Birds

1. Say’s Phoebe – still need one in MN and therefore still like seeing them everywhere else, even if that’s at a rest stop on I-94.

Say's Phoebe

2. Sharp-tailed Grouse – I’ve seen and shot my fill; a quick interstate sighting filled any remaining Sharptail void for the time being.

3. American Avocet – I’ve got better photos in the archives. This is probably the only shot I’ll get at seeing them for 2015, so it’s getting posted.

American Avocet

4. Swainson’s Hawk – If the big sky and rugged terrain don’t remind you that you’re out west, freeway fly-overs of this raptor will.

5. Mountain Bluebird – even when it’s a blur, this bird is a welcome flash of color on the monochrome landscape of early spring.

Mountain Bluebird

6. Burrowing Owl – never, ever gets old.  Hunting for them among the similar-sized, shaped, and colored prairie dogs in a dog town is a fresh take on owling.  The challenge is accentuated by the whack-a-mole behavior of both species.

Evan Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

John Carlson, the facilitator of our Sage-Grouse adventure, told us that he worries that people who shoot Prairie Dogs for sport may inadvertently shoot Burrowing Owls – a terrible, but possible scenario.

Burrowing Owl

John also pointed out the vocalizations of Burrowing Owls.  I’ve seen several Burowing Owls in Arizona, but I’ve never heard one before.  It was pretty cool and distinctive.  You can bet I’ll be listening for that sound whenever I bird in western Minnesota.

7. Ferruginous Hawk – perhaps an even a better western hawk than Swainson’s Hawk and one heckuva a mother, finding time to rear a brood and decorate.  The word ‘nesting’ to describe the preparatory behavior of expectant mothers was taken from this bird’s efforts.

Ferrugionous Hawk

I never noticed the trash and Christmas lights until I got home and looked at my photos.  It’s not like someone left them on this tree, either.  We were in the middle of nowhere. John had spotted this nest for us and asked us if we wanted to see a Ferruginous Hawk nest.  I asked him later if he had this nest scoped out from a previous trip, and he told us it was his first time seeing this particular nest–he said a nest in a lone, short tree on the prairie was typical for this species.

Ferruginous Hawk

John then spotted the male nearby.

Ferruginous HawkIt was fun to see the male exhibiting the behavior described in the field guide, which is sitting out in the open on the ground and always in a perfect western setting.

Ferruginous Hawk

8. Western Meadowlark – a regular sight back home in MN, but a crazy ubiquitous sight out West.  I have never seen more Meadowlarks.  Therefore, the law of large numbers in birding says that eventually even I will get a good photo of one.  And considering this is Dad’s favorite bird from his childhood days on the North Dakota prairie, I had to post some photos of this bird from our special trip.

Western Meadowlark

Their song is beautiful and could be heard constantly from all directions.

Western Meadowlark

It is the song that my Dad enjoys most about them. Have a listen for yourself.

The only thing better than that is watching my dad’s favorite bird photo-bomb his research bird, singing the whole time.

The Bonus Lifers

1. Sage Thrasher – we saw one. Barely. John pointed out a bird that flew away.  Since we were still on the hunt for Greater Sage-Grouse, we didn’t take time to poke around for it.  It was positively identified by John and seen by us–those are the minimum requirements for a lifer but by no means make for a satisfying lifering experience.  It was an upgrade from a similar sighting with Laurence Butler in the Sonoran Desert last year; in that situation Laurence was pretty sure a bird that flew by was a Sage Thrasher.  We held off on counting it then.  It’s counted now, but better looks are required in the future.

2. California Gull – a very good-looking Gull with that dark eye and red orbital ring.  John found us a smattering of them at the Yellow Water Reservoir in the Yellow Water Triangle where Dad worked in the 1970s.

California Gull

Seeing this Gull has given me confidence in knowing what to look for when we comb through the hundreds of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls at the county landfill back home in hopes of finally turning up a county record.

California Gull

3. Chestnut-collared Longspur – a lifer for Evan.  This is a tough, tough bird in Minnesota.  Last year Steve Gardner and I traveled to Felton Prairie to successfully track down one of only a handful of birds in the whole state.  Here in central Montana, where there are seas of prairie grass, they are way more common.

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared LongspurI don’t recall the name of the road we traveled where we saw this Chestnut-collared Longspur, but whatever it’s called, I’ve dubbed it Longspur Road.

Longspur Road

Why Longspur Road?

4. McCown’s Longspur – gobs upon gobs of this hoped-for bird were seen pecking grit off the road in the 40 mph wind. We literally saw hundreds.  John figures we were witnessing a large migration movement and not just birds on territory.

McCown's Longspur

This Longspur has such a limited range in the west/central part of the U.S. with most of its summer territory being in Montana.  Not only were we in the right part of the country, but we were there at the right time of year to see these awesome Longspurs in their breeding plumage.

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur

5. Long-billed Curlew – this was another hoped-for bird that is a summer resident to the grasslands of the Great Plains.  I had the pleasure of spotting this lifer myself as this strange-looking creature seemed out of place as it strolled through the grassland interspersed with sagebrush.

Long-billed Curlew

It seemed so bizzare to see this giant shorebird out in the sea of grass and sage with no water in sight.  It reminded me of seeing the resident Marbled Godwits at Felton Prairie back in Minnesota.Long-billed CurlewWe ended up seeing a second Curlew a little later, but neither were very photogenic.

We had a couple life bird misses, but no one is complaining here.  In addition to the big lifer of the Greater Sage-Grouse, Evan picked up five additional lifers and I picked up four new ones.  These birds were the icing on an already delicious cake.

The Ducks of North Dakota

On our way back home, we again spent the night in Bismarck.  The next day I decided to make a quick stop east of town to look for some reported Hudsonian Godwits.  There were no Godwits around, but one thing North Dakota is never short on is ducks.  Certainly this state has to have the highest duck to person ratio in the nation.  Try to not see a duck in North Dakota.  The highlight duck for me was seeing hundreds of Northern Pintails.  They are usually just a single digit bird back home and seen only during migration. Despite their numbers, I had trouble finding any that weren’t shy for photos.

Northern Pintail

With thousands of ducks you’re bound to get a good photo opportunity or two, even if they are common species like the Gadwall and Blue-winged Teal.

Gadwall

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

Shenanigans in Minnesota

On our trip, we saw three giant bird statues: Sandy, the 40-ft tall Sandhill Crane in Steele, ND; the world’s largest American Crow in Belgrade, MN; and the world’s largest Greater Prairie Chicken in Rothsay, MN.  In hindsight, I should have stopped at all three for photo ops, but at least we made the stop in Rothsay.  We were on a Grouse high after our big trip, so it only seemed fitting that we should stop for this one.  It wasn’t long before this trip that we were birding in Arizona with Tommy DeBardeleben and learning to inject more fun in our outings.

Greater Prairie Chicken EvanThis next photo was not completely orchestrated by me.  Evan really did discover the lesser end of a Greater Prairie Chicken all on his own.  The smiles are 100% natural. Oh, to be 8 again.

Evan Greater Prairie Chicken

Here’s one the grandmas can approve of.

Evan Greater Prairie Chicken

After seeing Greater Sage-Grouse do their mating display, Evan and I decided it would be fun to reserve one of the Minnesota DNR’s blinds this upcoming spring to watch booming Greater Prairie Chickens near Rothsay.  And eventually, I’d like to see all the Grouse species do their respective, springtime mating rituals.  There is no better way to see Grouse.

As our trip was drawing to a rapid close as we were racing to get back in time for a piano lesson, we squeezed in one more quick stop.  We simply had to.

Evan Evansville

This was a monumental trip for Evan and me filled with good memories, great birds, and new and old friends. There will no doubt be more birding adventures, both little and grand, but none will top this. I hope you enjoyed tagging along through these posts.

The story of our Montana Greater Sage-Grouse Lifer with Rick Wallestad is made up of four parts: 1) The Prologue–The Impetus, 2) Part 1, 3) Part 2, and 4) The Epilogue–Bonus Lifers.

“The Sagebrush Sea” — TONIGHT!

The timing couldn’t be more perfect–tonight at 7:00 CST on PBS be sure to check out “The Sagebrush Sea,” a documentary by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on the vast sagebrush land and its inhabitants.  The Greater Sage-Grouse will play a prominent role in this film.  If you want to see what Evan and I got to watch live last month with Dad, be sure to tune in tonight!  Special thanks to readers Shalese Sands and Brad Nelson for the heads up on this documentary.

Cornell’s Trailer

PBS’s Trailer

P.S. I’m almost done with the Epilogue to our Montana Sage-Grouse trip which highlights all our bonus lifers and other cool birds from the Sagebrush Sea or Big Empty.

To read the story about our recent Montana Greater Sage-Grouse Lifer with my dad, Rick Wallestad, who researched Sage-Grouse in the 1970s, check out the following:  1) The Prologue–The Impetus, 2) Part 1, 3) Part 2, and 4) The Epilogue–Bonus Lifers.

None Greater–The Story of Our Sage-Grouse Lifer (Part 2 of 2)

All that separated months of planning and anticipation from our biggest lifer was the chasm of a few hours of restless sleep. Finally, after multiple disappointing checks of the clock through the night, 3:00 was here.  It was go time! As is usually the case for big events like this, Evan was easy to wake up.  Before long the three of us were out of the house and at our rendezvous point with John Carlson and Charlie Eustace on the north side of Billings.

It was a nice addition to have dad’s former colleague, Charlie, along with us.  Since Charlie had obligations later that day, he drove separately up to Lavina.  Dad seized the opportunity to catch up with his old friend and fellow biologist by hopping in with Charlie.  Meanwhile, Evan and I rode up with John for the 45-minute ride in the darkness.  Evan dozed in and out of sleep, but John and I were wide awake and excitedly talking birds, amped up by the adventure that was about to happen.  In no time, we were at Lavina where we picked up Dad and Charlie.  In minutes we were off the tar and on East Red Hill Road which would take us to the lek that John had selected for us.  As John drove through the desolate sagebrush country in the dark, Charlie entertained us with one more story from Dad’s former days with the Fish & Game Department.  I knew that cell phone technology originated in the 70s, but what I did not know was that Dad had one of the first ones.  He used it to call into field offices when he was out doing research.  According to Charlie, Dad was only the second person in Montana who had a cell phone at the time.  When the other person, the *ahem* Governor, found out he did not have exclusive rights to this cutting-edge technology and that a lowly field biologist also had a cell phone, the governor’s ego was greatly bruised. And as a result, my dad, like so many students in my classroom over the years, got his phone taken away. Charlie laughed and laughed (and so did we) as he told the story.

Don’t ask me how, but John eventually discerned our stopping point in the darkness along East Red Rill Road.  He confirmed the location by checking his GPS.  Many life birds are happenstance.  Many are searched for and sought out. This one was pinpointed down to the degree, minute, and second–a field technician that works under John had placed a blind in the optimal viewing location for the lek and then given John the coordinates.  John took off walking into the black, sagebrush abyss armed only with a headlamp and his GPS.  John still had to set up the blind that was waiting for us somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. As he walked, we could hear him flushing Sage-Grouse off the lek, which he told us would happen.  I’ve flushed many, many gamebirds over the years, but I could tell that these sounded different.  They sounded bigger.

The rest of us gathered our things and then went in the direction of John’s headlamp.  Setting out into utter darkness distorts the perception of distance.  It felt like we had walked a mile, but in reality it was probably a quarter mile or so.  I’ll never forget taking a look back to the east where the sun was still well below the horizon but already showing the contours of the hills as a bright orange line that stretched as far as you could see.  Even in the darkness, you could tell we were in Big Sky country.

We eventually made it out to John who was finishing setting up the blind which is no easy task under optimal conditions, let alone when it’s dark and there is a strong wind.  Once we were out there, we realized that we were a couple chairs short, so I went back to John’s Suburban to get more.  On my hike back, I flushed about a dozen Sage-Grouse.  All were heard-only flushes until three birds flushed in front of me giving me my life look as large, long-tailed silhouettes illuminated by the orange glow to the east.  Awesome.  Once I made it back to the blind, the task was now to get the four of us inside. John opted to go view a different lek since we couldn’t all fit in the blind. None of us knew where the door was or how it operated, so everybody shimmied underneath the walls to get inside.  Only afterward in the daylight hours did I realize there were cacti all over the place.  But the four of us eventually got inside and got situated as best we could as human sardines.

Once the rustling stopped and we all could sit still, it didn’t take long to hear the popping sound of the Sage-Grouse doing their crazy, head-bobbing, air-sac pumping display.  It is an eery sound that could be heard all around us.  I never realized until just a year ago that they did this dynamic motion and made this unearthly noise.  Utter darkness slowly transitioned into a dimly lit landscape finally allowing us to see monstrous blobs on the landscape.  And they were close. Eventually we could make out the large, white collars of the birds and see them as they thrust their heads while popping out their two large, yellow air-sacs.  Evan and I had the front row and were excitedly looking to see more and more birds being revealed as the light began turning silhouettes into our target.  It was so cool to finally be here, seeing this bird, and seeing it in just this way with just the right company.  Here is the first photo that I took, which was quite awhile after we had started seeing and hearing the birds.  It gives you a sense of the mystique of seeing these incredible birds when it is just light enough to discern your own hands out of the darkness.

Greater Sage-GrouseEven though the sun wasn’t up high enough for good photos, we were fascinated by what was going on all around us.  Not only did we have roughly 30 males in front of us, but we could hear another large group of Sage-Grouse behind us–right where we had walked through.  Sunrise was still a ways off, but the light was finally good enough to get some pictures.

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse

John told us that the black, hair-like feathers at the back of the neck are called filoplumes.

Greater Sage-Grouse

The Snowy Mountains which were living up to their namesake on this day made a nice backdrop for watching displaying Greater Sage-Grouse.Greater Sage-GrouseThe birds pictured above were all fairly close in front of us, to the west and north.  Behind us to the southeast we could finally make out the more distant birds as the light increased.  This group was close to 40 birds!  Here you can see how the Sage-Grouse choose a flat area with no sagebrush for their courtship display.

Greater Sage-GrouseDad told us that, despite all these males, only one or two will mate with all the hens.  They are competing and working their hardest to be that stud.  The group of hens will work their way onto the lek and then choose the candidate with the best genetic makeup, determined by whomever puts on the best display.  Below you can see two hens sitting by the stud of this lek.  Dad, being the biologist he is, was not entranced and distracted like we were by the myriad of males simultaneously doing their strut all around us.  Instead he knew what to look for and was watching intently through his binoculars for copulation which he saw and then announced to the rest of us.

Greater Sage-Grouse lek

You will see this later in the video at the end of this post, but these males do their air-sac pumping display, pivot, and then do it over again in a different direction.  Undoubtedly they are broadcasting their sound in all directions in an effort to attract the attention of the hens. If you compare the above photo to the photo below taken just a couple seconds later, you will see how some of the males are facing a new direction.  You will also see birds at different stages in the very rapid air-sac pumping display.Greater Sage-Grouse lek

Dad taught us how the birds on the periphery of the main strutting area are the juvenile birds.  In fact, some of these juveniles are relegated to do their strutting off the lek in the most undesirable of all places, the sagebrush itself.  Occasionally one of these young bucks would test his mettle and wander through the main part of the strutting ground only to be chased off by the big boys.  This never failed to elicit laughter from Dad and Charlie.  It was fascinating to observe all these things Dad has talked about for years which were fairly abstract concepts to us until this point.

In addition to watching the courtship and mating antics, photography was also a priority for me, so I turned my attention back to the closer birds and eagerly awaited the sun to peak over the horizon.  That didn’t stop me from photographing as I waited, though.  This photo was as close as I got to capturing the split-second where the air-sacs are fully deployed.

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse

I was eager to get the photo above in the perfect morning sun which was coming in just a couple minutes.  That wasn’t in the cards, though.  Dad and Charlie started discussing what we’d do in the cramped blind if someone had to relieve himself.  Then, after months of planning and careful preparation, I realized I made a fateful mistake: I did not make sure Evan went to the bathroom that morning.  All the talk of waterworks was enough for Evan to realize this now too.  I told him to quietly slip under the back corner of the blind (we still hadn’t found the door) so the close birds wouldn’t spook.  When he was successfully out without flushing any Grouse, I whispered for him to go right next to the blind so he was still out of view of the birds. Well, he didn’t understand what I was saying and tromped out about 15 feet.  That was it.  The birds got out of there in a hurry.

Hope was not gone, though, as the two most prominent males held their ground.  There were girls on the line, after all, or so they thought.  Their thunder was gone, though, as they slowly started to realize there were no females to impress and no young whipper-snappers to beat off their turf.  There was nothing to get pumped up for–literally or figuratively.

Greater Sage-Grouse

They instead mailed it in and pretended to still care by doing a non-threatening stand-off– in perfect light.

Greater Sage-Grouse

It turns out that Evan just accelerated what would have happened naturally anyway.  Moments after this picture was taken, a Golden Eagle came in low and scared these two birds off also.

Golden Eagle

The Eagle then flew directly over the blind just 30 feet up, giving us our best looks ever at this species.  I could see the golden nape with my naked eye. We watched out the back window of the blind as the Eagle proceeded to fly over the larger group of Sage-Grouse to our rear.  Instantly they all took off, and the show was completely over.  The time of day was 7:00.

I called up John so he could come and get us.  We had a good 15 minutes to wait for him to show up, so we packed up the blind and chairs and started trekking back to East Red Hill Road.

L-R: Charlie and Dad

L-R: Charlie and Dad

It was a fast, intense morning and much shorter than I hoped.  For Dad it was probably just about right.  Having seen this bird and this courtship display many times he had said that viewing Sage-Grouse from a blind for a few hours might be overkill.  I disagree, but then again, I also haven’t spent as many cold, dark mornings in the sagebrush-covered landscape as he has!  But for me, there’s not enough sagebrush or its Grouse in my life.

Snowy Mountains

Once John arrived, we took some time for some group shots to commemorate the morning’s outing. In the distance we could hear male Sage-Grouse firing it up again in the places to which they had dispersed.

The old biologists: Rick Wallestad and Charlie Eustace

The old  biologists: Rick Wallestad and Charlie Eustace  -Photo courtesy of John Carlson

L-R: Dad, Me, Evan, John Carlson, Charlie Eustace

L-R: Dad, Me, Evan, John Carlson, Charlie Eustace

Since the day was still very young even though we’d been up for four hours, we went to the smaller lek on Emory Road that John had been viewing that morning to see if any of those birds were still around.  On the way we dropped Charlie off at his car in Lavina and said our goodbyes to him.

As we cruised down Emory I was watching for Sage Thrashers when I was startled to see a few Greater Sage-Grouse in full display mode on the left side of the road.  John told us we were very near the lek he was at, so these birds had probably just come from there. I was happy to have a second chance at photographing them.

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse

One of the protective efforts landowners and government agencies are taking to conserve  Greater Sage-Grouse is to mark fences near active leks.  When the Sage-Grouse fly into the lek in the pre-dawn, they have been known to be killed by collisions with barb-wire fences.  John explained that these markers are meant to reflect the light from the rising sun, helping the Grouse see the fence and avoid hitting it.  So, if you are out West in sagebrush country and you see these white markers, you are likely near a Greater Sage-Grouse lek.  According to the pamphlet I picked up at the Montana FWP office, only fences in high-risk areas are marked, which is 6-14% of all fences in Sage-Grouse habitat.  These marked fences can reduce collisions by 83%.

Fences in high-risk areas of Sage-Grouse habitat are marked to reduce collisions.

Fences in high-risk areas of Sage-Grouse habitat are marked to reduce collisions.

After enjoying these bonus Sage-Grouse for a bit as well as some other fun birds, we headed up to an area north of Roundup known as the Yellow Water Triangle.  This is the area where Dad conducted his research on Greater Sage-Grouse in the 1970s.  We were going to tour it and hopefully see some Sage-Grouse there as well, though it was getting to be too late in the morning for birds to still be on leks.

Dad brought one of his original maps along so he could point things out.  It’s a pretty cool relic.

Yellow Water Triangle mapI believe the circles mark locations of leks, which Dad always called strutting grounds, that he knew of in the 1970s.

Yellow Water Triangle

As we drove through the trails on the BLM land, Dad would tell us when we’d go by an area where he had a lek.  Sure enough, the barb wire fences were marked with the white markers, meaning that birds are likely still using those grounds today, nearly 40 years after Dad worked in this area.

In retrospect I wish we would have taken more time to get out of the vehicle and explore some of these places, but the ferocious winds (40 mph!) were making for a miserable day for being outside and taking pictures.  About the only picture I got of the landscape of the Yellow Water Triangle was in this picture I took of a buck Antelope.

Antelope

Pictures or not, it was nice to see this land where Dad spent so much time as a younger man than myself.  He was my age when he left the Fish & Game for the entrepreneurial life.  Now I at least have a frame of reference for the stories Dad has told and likely will retell. John Carlson told me later by email that he really enjoyed driving Dad through the Triangle and hearing his reactions to how the landscape has changed.

The rest of the day we continued to drive around central Montana on the quest for more life birds that are resident birds in this area.  We were quite successful in that regard, but I’ll save all that for the epilogue to the Greater Sage-Grouse story.  In reality, those birds were just icing on the best and most memorable bird trip we’ve done.  I want to send out a huge thank you to John Carlson who facilitated the whole thing, making it an effortless and remarkable experience.

The Feather Story

When we were riding in John’s Suburban after our successful Sage-Grouse viewing, John gave Evan a special Sage-Grouse feather he found that morning.  This feather is one of those black feathers with the white tips that you see on the back side of the fanned-tail.  Several can be seen in the photos above.  Evan cherished this gift from John, but like a typical 8 year-old, he wasn’t too careful about storing it in the vehicle.  He’s usually pretty good about always knowing where his stuff is, so I didn’t think much of it.

Late that night, long after our 12-hour birding adventure was over, I was finally tucking Evan in to bed to get some sleep before our return trip the next day.  It was at this time that he broke down sobbing telling me how at one point when we all had the windows down looking at birds, his special feather blew out the window (remember the 40 mph wind?).  The kid was inconsolable.

That next morning I was planning to do some more Montana birding before we left for Bismarck where we’d again be spending the night.  I was considering everything from looking for an American Dipper down at Red Lodge to going back to Lavina to try to get video of the Greater Sage Grouse–an opportunity I didn’t get because our time with the Grouse was cut short.  Anyhow, when I heard Evan crying his heart out, I knew what I’d do.  I’d head back to Lavina to view the Sage-Grouse and then go feather-hunting.  I told Evan my plan, and it was the only thing that calmed him down.

I planned to go alone so Evan could sleep in.  I didn’t expect my dad would be interested, but I was pleasantly surprised when he asked if I wanted company on the trip back to Lavina.  A bonus was that Leo Jurica decided to join us too.  So the three of us set off for the lek we viewed the day before.  We got a later start this time since we didn’t have a blind we were trying to reach in the dark.

Getting there around 7:00 AM, there were still around 20 or so Greater Sage-Grouse males strutting on the lek.  The views were considerably more distant this day since we were on the road. The Sage-Grouse are scattered across the middle of the photo, all the way from the left side to the right side.  There are cattle in the background on the right.

Greater Sage Grouse lek

Though I wasn’t close enough for audio or the best video quality, I was able to document the very unique courtship display.  This first video is an up-close look at two males doing their thing.  Junior high boys or those that still think like them should not watch.

 

 The next video shows a larger group of male Greater Sage-Grouse doing their strut.

    

Around 8:00, the birds started to disperse off the lek for the cover of sagebrush.  Once they were gone, we went to work looking for a replacement feather for Evan.  Apparently there were a couple of stragglers that popped out of the sagebrush on the periphery of the lek. I seized upon an unplanned photo opportunity that screamed out at me.

Dad Sage-Grouse Seeing Sage-Grouse was unforgettable.  Seeing them with Dad was even better.  Now I had a photo of both together which I hadn’t planned but now cherish.  Serendipity.

Dad Sage-GrouseBack to the feather search, we looked and looked and looked.  I foolishly thought the previous evening that this would be an easy task.  Dad, Leo, and I combed the entire lek looking hard for one of those feathers.  We were all dads and 2/3 of us were granddads, so we all searched with due diligence as we all understood how such a matter could make or break a kid’s day and trip.  We went to ground-zero on the lek which is determined by the greatest concentration of bird droppings.  We would find the occasional feather, but they were never the right feathers nor interesting ones for that matter either.  Now finding a feather became something of a treasure hunt where the rarity of the feather enhanced its desirability.  Despite our desire, we could not turn one up.  We finally called it quits for searching at this lek.

There was only one other option–to return to the lek on Emory Road where John found the original feather. There were no birds left on that lek by the time we got there.  That was good because then we could start searching right away.  This lek was smaller, and its ground-zero was even more concentrated with droppings.  Again, there were oddball feathers, even a clump of feathers with skin attached from a Sage-Grouse brawl, but not the right feather.  After a long time of searching but coming up empty, I was feeling really frustrated.  How could it be so hard to find one of these feathers?   I was just about to give up and was thinking I’d write to John to see if he could get me another, when I spied the object I sought, sticking straight up in the air with the quill stuck in a mud crack!  I couldn’t believe it–this was as big a thrill as any rare bird I’ve found.

Sage-Grouse feather

With the coveted feather in hand, we headed back to Billings.  The Sage-Grouse saga truly was over now and was most fulfilling.  As we pulled into the Juricas’ driveway, Evan was outside and ran up to the vehicle immediately asking, “Did you get it?!”  Though it was something I already knew, the question revealed to Dad and Leo just how much this mattered to Evan.  As dads we sometimes go the extra mile to make our kids’ wishes come true and make them happy….Thanks for the trip, Dad, and all the memories Evan and I will carry with us forever.

Josh Dad EvanThe story of our Montana Greater Sage-Grouse Lifer with Rick Wallestad is made up of four parts: 1) The Prologue–The Impetus, 2) Part 1, 3) Part 2, and 4) The Epilogue–Bonus Lifers.

None Greater–The Story of our Sage-Grouse Lifer (Part 1 of 2)

When I was young boy I was mystified by a picture that hung on the wall of my dad’s study.  It was a print of the same picture you see on the cover of the book my dad wrote on Greater Sage-Grouse shown on the left.  At the time I didn’t even know what I was looking at; it didn’t look like a bird to me at all until one day my dad pointed out the beak and I could finally discern a bird face.  Still, it was a bothersome picture, and as a kid I thought this creature was weird and ugly. Oh, little did I know how my opinion would one day change.  What I once did not want to look at even in a picture, I was now yearning to see in the flesh. Life was coming full circle in a way–a relatively new hobby was now colliding with my family’s history.  As I mentioned in the last post, the Greater Sage-Grouse had been the center of much of my dad’s work at the Montana Department of Fish and Game in the 1970s.  I grew up listening to my dad’s stories of this bird’s behavior, stories of him working with this bird, and stories of life in general from my family’s time of living in Montana.  Undoubtedly the Greater Sage-Grouse was a key factor in the Big Sky state becoming the birthplace for me and my siblings. Going to see the Greater Sage-Grouse was more than just adding a life bird; it was a chance to see living history.  And there would be no better way to do that than in the company of my dad, Rick Wallestad.

Serendipity via the World Wide Web

In the last post I mentioned how the interview I did with my dad was a pivotal post.  It resonated with many people and sparked the idea for going to Montana to see Sage-Grouse with Dad.  One of the best by-products to come of the post was a thoughtful blog comment by John Carlson that showed up out of the blue, long after the interview post was written.  I’ll let John’s authoritative words speak for themselves, but they validated both my dad’s past work with Sage-Grouse and my current efforts to chronicle our birding adventures today.

Hi Josh,
I discovered your blog while looking at sage-grouse photos on Google. I saw the cover of your father’s monograph and I had to click on the link. The reason I clicked on it was that book has been in my library since I was a child and I continue to use it to this day. In fact, I used a similar photo in a presentation earlier this summer to describe the important work that Montana has done for sage-grouse over the years. I was much like Evan growing up and I am now working for the BLM in Billings, Montana on sage-grouse with two young boys of my own. I am not sure that I ever met your father when I was growing up in Fort Peck, but I do know Bob Eng and Bob Martinka. Please tell your father how important his work continues to be in our efforts on sage-grouse and he might be interested to know that sage-grouse research is continuing today in the same area he worked (along with research on other grassland and sage associated birds). This time investigating the response to changes in grazing regimes. Anyway, thank you for sharing the discoveries you and Evan are making. As I sat at my cubicle in between meetings and phone calls, it made my day to be reminded of the joys I had as a child when I was birding with my father and I look forward to seeing more. If you ever get this far west, please let me know. I would love to show both of you some of my favorite birds.

It turns out that John is a Conservation Biologist for the federal Bureau of Land Management, Montana Dakotas division. John is the primary BLM person for proactive conservation actions, planning, integration, guidance, and implementation of management for sagebrush dependent special status species in Montana, North and South Dakota with an emphasis on Sage-Grouse.  In other words, he’s a modern-day authority on the bird my dad spent so much time with.   So as Dad and I talked of going to Montana, we got in touch with John since he would have current intel on active Sage-Grouse leks since my goal was to see strutting Sage-Grouse males. John was more than willing and able to oblige us, and plans started taking shape over this past winter.

 Heading West

The whole time I was teaching on Thursday, April 17th, I thought I was absolutely crazy for beginning a trip to Montana at the end of a full day’s work that day.  I picked up Evan from school, and by 5:00 we were finally on the road, Bismarck-bound.  The North Dakota capital would be our stop for the night, roughly the halfway point of the 775-mile drive to Billings. The landscape of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota is bleak, and at the time we were traveling, also dark.  As Evan coped with the nothingness by watching videos and playing iPad, I was left alone with my thoughts.  One such thought was that our travel was symbolic as it was bringing through Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana–the respective birth states of Evan, Dad, and myself.

After spending a night in a dismal room reserved especially for Priceline customers, I was eager to get back on I-94 and head west again.  We were now traveling in the better half of North Dakota, enjoying the rugged hills and breaks in all of morning’s glory as the rising sun was at our backs.  Passing through Theodore Roosevelt National Park was especially inspiring.  Evan and I were anxious to cross into Montana, though.  For him it was a new state.  For me it was a reunion with my past and with a state I don’t get to see often enough.  Big Sky country did not fail to leave us in awe.  There’s just something about that state that’s so good for the soul.

In Billings we would be meeting up with my parents who were home-bound from wintering in Arizona. Together we would all be staying with long-time family friends, Leo and Jo Jurica.  Getting to see the Juricas was a wonderful bonus to what was sure to be a trip of a lifetime.  Since Evan and I got to Billings mid-afternoon, I decided to poke around Lake Elmo State Park in the hopes of picking up a lifer California Gull.  No Gulls were around, but it was a fitting and pleasant surprise to unexpectedly come across a Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, & Parks office.  The moniker may be a bit different today, but this was still Dad’s former employer and worth checking out, especially considering the focus of our trip.

Montana FWP

Offices such as these are always fun to visit.  There are educational displays and numerous mounts of birds and mammals to check out.  One mount stood out among the rest.

Sage Grouse Taxidermy

There are numerous free publications at these offices.  In addition to a nice, free road-map of Montana (score!), one pamphlet in particular caught my eye.

Sage Grouse pamphlet

It was a reminder that the fate of the Greater Sage-Grouse is currently under intense scrutiny.  As a sagebrush dependent species, there has long been a concern over the protection of this unique bird’s habitat.  Ever since settlers first carved out farms from the native prairies, man has sought the removal and destruction of sagebrush in order to convert the land into grassland for cattle grazing.  According to my dad’s book, this habitat decimation reached its heyday in the 1950s when planes started being used to spray the herbicide 2,4-D.  By the time wildlife agencies caught on to this effective technique, millions of sagebrush acres had already been lost.  Dad’s work with the Greater Sage-Grouse was part of a 10-year joint study between the Montana Department of Fish & Game and the Bureau of Land Management to determine the effects of sagebrush control on sagebrush dependent species, like the Sage-Grouse.  Though the spraying of sagebrush eventually stopped, the alarm bells are still ringing loudly as the USFWS designated the Greater Sage-Grouse as a candidate for being listed as an endangered species, a fate which will be determined by the fall of 2015.  John Carlson told us how they are working hard to keep it off the “List” as such a designation would have huge implications on the economy and everyday life of people sharing the land with these birds.  Because of this, many landowners are voluntarily cooperating with state and federal agencies to promote the conservation of this species.  Sadly, John told us other landowners are now tilling under their sagebrush in anticipation of the listing to avoid the hassles associated with owning prime habitat for an endangered species.

Not only were Evan and I about to see a bird that is important to our family’s history, but we were about to see an important bird period.  The trip was becoming more and more significant.

The Meeting

Once in Billings, I got in touch with John Carlson.  John wanted to have a face-to-face meeting that night to go over plans for the big adventure that would happen the following morning.  We decided to meet up at a local McDonald’s where John, Dad, and I were joined by one of Dad’s Fish & Game biologist colleagues, Charlie Eustace.  Evan stayed back at Juricas’ house with Grandma since it was late and we’d be getting up very early the next morning.

It was fun to finally meet John as well as Charlie, whose name I have often heard in Dad’s stories and recollections of his Fish & Game days.  The hour-long conversation that followed was one of my favorite and most memorable parts of the trip.  John, Charlie, and Dad reminisced over mutual friends and acquaintances.  These three biologists also shared stories and misadventures of work in the field, creating much laughter and sore cheeks–I even got to hear some new stories from Dad.  It was also fun to watch the old guard listen to John talk about about new studies and capture techniques for Sage-Grouse.  Dad seemed to be in awe of the ability to monitor movements of live birds on a computer in an office because of satellite tracking.  Likewise, it was interesting to learn that radio telemetry, which was cutting edge in Dad’s day, is still a very common and inexpensive means of keeping tabs on Sage-Grouse today.  One of the more poingnant moments in the conversation was when John told Dad that much of Dad’s work was foundational for studies that are being done today, and then John went on to thank Dad for his work.  It was pretty cool to witness.

We did, of course, discuss plans for the next morning.  John had picked a large, active Sage-Grouse lek for us to go see about 45 minutes northwest of Billings near Lavina.  After watching the courtship display from a blind on the edge of a lek in the pre-dawn and early morning hours, the plan was to then go visit the Yellow Water Triangle north of Roundup where Dad conducted his Sage-Grouse studies.

 John told us we needed to leave Billings by 4:00 AM to get to the blind well before daylight.  So we all parted company and went home so we could get some rest before the next day. The clock said it would be a short night, but as visions of seeing this bird the next morning flashed through my head, it would prove to be one of the longest nights I can remember.

The story of our Montana Greater Sage-Grouse Lifer with Rick Wallestad is made up of four parts: 1) The Prologue–The Impetus, 2) Part 1, 3) Part 2, and 4) The Epilogue–Bonus Lifers.

None Greater–The Story of Our Sage Grouse Lifer (The Prologue)

Two-and-a-half years ago the birding stories were welling up inside me and bursting to get out–stories of a passion for birds shared between my dad and Evan, stories of Evan’s remarkable eye and identification skills as a then 5-year-old, and the story of how a Chestnut-sided Warbler instantly transformed me into a birder and completed the three-generation team of birders.  Thus the blog was born.  At the time I had no idea that bird blogging was even a thing, let alone a popular and prolific thing at that; I simply wanted a platform on which I could share these stories.  A blog made sense. I never could have imagined the adventures and people that this hobby would bring into my life.  Those initial stories gave way to more and more and more stories.  Many of those old posts I cherish; some I regret as I look back.  One story, though, that has and will stand the test of time is one that I did very early on well before my life list cracked 100.  It is an interview piece I did with my dad, the eldest of this generational birding team, who has long had a fascination with birds and wildlife as he was a research biologist for the Montana Department of Fish and Game in the 1970s.  The interview focused largely on my dad’s extensive research of the Greater Sage Grouse.

The impact of the piece was profound.  First, I learned a lot about my dad’s work which is something I wanted to preserve for myself and my kids by doing the blog post.  Second, it was one of the most popular posts ever on this blog as people from every stage of my dad’s life connected with the piece, expressing their sentiments via comments, email, etc.  I was shocked by the outpouring of peoples’ memories and feelings.  In fact, one person that reached out became instrumental in setting up our biggest adventure.  Finally, the interview gave me an epiphany.  As an emerging birder I realized that someday, I, too, would want to see this bird my dad worked with so closely, this Greater Sage Grouse.  Instantly I had a vision of myself making it out west some day far in the future to see this bird, perhaps long after my dad’s days are done.  It was an unbearable thought.

I knew what I had to do–I had to see the Greater Sage Grouse with my dad.  Moreover, I had to see the males doing their mating display on the lek, something my dad has talked about and described for years. Plans were initially set to do so that very spring, in April of 2013.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), the plan was postponed a year because a frenetic, last-minute, cross-state trip to get our Great Gray Owl lifer usurped the Sage Grouse plans.  Plans for 2014 were put off because my parents had recently transitioned to the snowbird life, wintering in Arizona, and we just weren’t able to squeeze it in with their new migration schedule.  Finally, though, we were deliberate for the spring of 2015 and made it happen this year.  Coming up will be what I am billing as the pinnacle post of the blog detailing the story of the recent trip Evan and I took to central Montana to watch displaying Greater Sage Grouse with my dad.  It is an exciting post that gets back to the heart and soul of this blog. Until that post comes out, here is the very interview that generated the idea for the adventure of a lifetime.  Many new readers have joined the fold since the inception of ABWCH, so this will be a fresh read.  But even if it’s not, I’m sure you’ll find the re-read just as entertaining as the first time, especially knowing what is to come…

Meet My Dad-The Biologist and Birder

In this blog post I have interviewed my dad, Rick Wallestad, about his history with birds – both official work as a wildlife biologist for the Montana Department of Fish and Game in the 1970s and his unofficial work as an emerging birder like Evan and me. Whether you know him or he’s a complete stranger to you, I think you will find the following interview with my dad to be a fascinating read. If you are a pure birder and have no connection to us personally, there is some great “bird stuff” in here. If you’ve known him in any capacity, then you will now have a more in-depth knowledge of his story. I was familiar with several of his answers, but I also learned a lot of new things in doing this project. It was important for me to document and preserve this information for Evan’s sake. A secondary goal would be that you would find this to be an enjoyable read.

How did your interest in birds begin?

As a young boy in Rolette, North Dakota, my buddy Joey Fox and I would scout out any nest we found to see what kind of eggs were there, and how many. It’s just something we did often.

What are the facts of your education and employment history with the Montana Department of Fish and Game? Editor’s Note: This state department is now called the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

I got my B.S. in Wildlife Management from the University of Minnesota in 1966. While there I worked one year for the Fisheries Department, reading fish scales to determine the age of the fish. Then I spent one quarter at the Cloquet Research Center assisting a research student trapping and radio-tagging snowshoe hares. I spent another summer at Cloquet assisting a PhD student researching Ruffed Grouse broods using radio telemetry, also. These telemetry projects were some of the first in the country. My adviser, Dr. William Marshall, was a pioneer in the development of radio telemetry. As a result of this experience in telemetry, it paved the way to get a job in Montana studying the effects of DDT on Blue Grouse in western Montana.

I attended graduate school at Montana State University, studying habitat requirements and movements of Sage Grouse hens and their broods. Upon completion of my M.S. degree in Wildlife Management in 1970, I went to work for the Montana Fish and Game Department as a research biologist studying effects of sagebrush removal on the Sage Grouse. Editor’s Note: “Sage Grouse” in Rick’s responses refer to the Greater Sage Grouse. In the 1990s it was determined that sage grouse found in the Gunnison Basin of southwest Colorado were a distinct species. Nearly identical looking but 2/3 the size of the Greater, it is called the Gunnison Sage Grouse. During that three-year period that I was a research biologist, I published five articles on Sage Grouse in the Journal of Wildlife Management and one technical bulletin titled “Life History and Habitat Requirements of Sage Grouse in Central Montana” published in 1975 (pictured at right). I also worked as a management biologist in Broadus, Montana for three years and managed four Wildlife Management Areas around Sidney, Montana for three years.

You mentioned working in Cloquet, Minnesota studying the Ruffed Grouse. Did you work with Gordon Gullion, arguably the foremost authority on the Ruffed Grouse?

He was there and I visited with him a lot, but I was working for Geoff Godfrey who was a graduate student of Bill Marshall. Gordy was permanent staff and also worked under Bill Marshall because Cloquet was a year-round research station for the University.

How did you capture Ruffed Grouse?

We captured them with a clover-leaf trap. It was chicken wire arranged like a 4-leaf clover. Each circle of the clover was about 4-feet in diameter. There were two leads of 18-inch high chicken wire, each 100-feet long stretched out into the swamps. Since Ruffed Grouse broods travel by walking, the hen would walk up to the this 100-foot section of chicken wire and being blocked, would lead her brood along it until they walked right around one of the clover circles at the end and were then funneled into the trap.

What are some fun or interesting facts you can tell us about the Greater Sage Grouse?

It’s one of the few birds that is totally dependent on sage brush for survival. Without sage brush there would be no Sage Grouse. The entire overall 10-year study, a cooperative study with the Bureau of Land Management, was instrumental in stopping the practice of spraying sage brush.

On the strutting ground (breeding ground) with 20 or more males, only one or two males will do the breeding. The average clutch size for a yearling bird is 5-6 eggs, and for 2+ years is 7-8 eggs. Most Sage Grouse hens nest within 1-2 miles of the strutting ground.

Editor’s Note: All photos of Greater Sage-Grouse and Sharp-Tailed Grouse on this post, with the exception of the photo of the radio-tagged Greater Sage Grouse taken from Rick’s aforementioned technical bulletin, are courtesy of Bob Martinka, a former colleague of Rick at the Montana Department of Fish and Game. Bob has graciously allowed me to use these photos. He has his own bird blog at BirdManBob, and his amazing bird photography can be viewed at his Flickr Photo Site. Thanks, Bob!

Describe how you captured Greater Sage Grouse.

We would catch them on the strutting ground using cannon nets which were set with explosive charges. The two 100-foot cannon nets running parallel were set about 40 feet apart. These would cover the main part of the strutting ground, which was identified by the droppings and feathers. When a big group of males assembled and were strutting, a cluster of hens would come onto the ground. The net charges would be deployed and the nets would spread out overlapping each other, floating down on the grouse, holding them to the ground. (Google cannon nets to see some pictures. You can also Google clover-leaf traps to get an idea, even though the ones we found were fish traps.)

 

Another method of catching Sage Grouse hens was to drive through sage brush areas. When we saw a hen with a brood, Dr. Bob Eng would get out and whistle like a chick which would draw the hen in. Then with a telescoping noose pole, which would extend from 6 feet to 20 feet with a noose on the end, the noose would be slipped over the hen’s head and tightened just enough to bring the hen in so it could be fixed with a leg band and a radio tracking device.

What kind of expert advice do you have in locating and viewing Greater Sage Grouse?

They can be located by driving through sagebrush country, but they are hard to see because they are brown and blend in to the surroundings. Bob Eng would spot them by looking for the eye. They can also be found by listening for the sound of the birds as they are strutting in the early morning, often for a distance of about a half mile.

The distribution of Sage Grouse is found only where there is sage brush. It would be in the west…Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, Wyoming, eastern Colorado, parts of Nevada and New Mexico.

 

 

How do you locate a strutting ground for Sage Grouse?

Contact a biologist in any of those states’ fish and wildlife departments to ask the location of a strutting ground.

 

Besides your extensive studies of the Greater Sage Grouse, what other official duties did you have to perform regarding birds?

We did roadside crowing counts for Ring-Necked Pheasants, strutting ground surveys for Sage Grouse, and dancing ground surveys for Sharp-Tailed Grouse.

 

What fun or interesting facts can you tell us about the Sharp-Tailed Grouse?

I’ve had very little experience with “sharptails.” Their grounds are called “dancing grounds” compared to “strutting grounds” for Sage Grouse. They are usually located on the top of a hill. I experienced seeing some of these in grassland areas like Kenny Simonsen’s ranch near Sidney, Montana. There are generally not as many males on the dancing grounds, maybe 6 to 15 per ground.

 

Do you have any fun or interesting bird stories you can share from your days with the Montana Department of Fish and Game?

I was contacted by some birders one spring who had never seen Sage Grouse, and I took them out to a strutting ground. I was able to drive into the middle of the strutting ground with Sage Grouse strutting on all sides of the truck. They were very thrilled because it was another bird on their life list.

We referred to birds in two ways: game birds and “dickie” birds – small songbirds.

What is your favorite bird of all time? Why?

The Western Meadowlark because of the beautiful song, and it reminds me of the prairie where I grew up.

What is the “best” bird you have ever seen? Why?

The Trumpeter Swan because of the rarity of it. As I recall, the only place I’ve ever seen one is in Saunders Bay on Pelican Lake near Orr, Minnesota.

What are your target birds in 2013 that you want to add to your life list?

I’d like to identify all the warblers on our farm in northern Minnesota.

Give us an update on your birding in Arizona. Seeing other snowbirds does not count.

We saw a Red-Tailed Hawk near Maricopa and Common Egrets near Gila Bend. In Oak Creek we saw a large blue bird that we haven’t identified yet. We also saw a bird high up in a tree that had an incredibly beautiful song, but we also haven’t identified it.

What are your impressions of Evan’s birding abilities, and what lasting birding advice can you give him?

Evan’s abilities are amazing in the way he can pick out minor differences in birds. It has been impressive to see his powers of observation. His enthusiasm is contagious. As far as giving him advice, I’d say I’ve learned a lot from this 5-year-old, and it has encouraged my interest in birding.

To see what Rick is talking about regarding Evan’s “powers of observation” read More Than Just a Name.

If you want to see an amazing Ruffed Grouse video that I shot that includes male grouse on display and Evan as a 2-year old birder with Grandpa Rick, click here. I couldn’t believe this video that I shot six years ago and how it foretells the adventures we’re having today!

The story of our Montana Greater Sage-Grouse Lifer with Rick Wallestad is made up of four parts: 1) The Prologue–The Impetus, 2) Part 1, 3) Part 2, and 4) The Epilogue–Bonus Lifers.

Arizona 2015: The Rise and Fall of Evan’s Unlikely Arizona Nemesis

Nemesis Bird.  All serious birders are familiar with this concept, which is a bird, uncommon yet not rare, that eludes, evades, and generally thwarts all of a birder’s attempts to see it.  Another qualification is that the bird in question seemingly mocks the pursuer by flaunting itself in front of anybody and everybody but the one person who wants to see it.  Adding to this aggravation is that it often disappears at just the last minute after many repeated trips of many miles. Such former nemesis birds of mine have included the Golden-crowned Kinglet and Blue-headed Vireo.  Nothing is more frustrating than hunting a nemesis; nothing is sweeter than finally laying waste to that bird.

So what is Evan’s nemesis bird? It is none other than the same nemesis of Wiley E. Coyote–the Roadrunner.  No bird is more iconic of Arizona to outsiders, birders and otherwise, than the Greater Roadrunner.  It’s on postcards, t-shirts, and on all kinds of overpriced and dust-collecting shlock.  Who knows how this bird rose to such fame.  Perhaps it’s because of Looney Tunes.  Perhaps it’s because it is so readily identifiable. Perhaps it’s because EVERYONE who goes to Arizona sees one.

When we traveled to Arizona in 2014, we expected this bird. We counted on it like the Republicans count on Arizona to be a red state. It was a sure thing.  Well, in this case, Arizona turned blue and so did we because we left the state that year completely missing on the Roadrunner.  Like a typical nemesis bird, it did show itself to at least one person in our birding party.  Laurence Butler was leading our single-file procession through the desert and called out that he spotted one.  Though we were just a few yards behind Laurence, it gave all of us the slip.  The loss was all the more agonizing because Laurence told us it had a lizard in its bill.

Anyhow, we were in a new year and on a new trip back to Arizona.  In between trips, my parents would tell us here and there about how they’d see a Roadrunner in their yard or neighborhood. Figures. Our first day in Arizona this year, Evan and I decided to go looking for this bird.  I was literally walking into the back yard to get Evan for this jaunt when I spied the Roadrunner for a second on top of the fence!  We hustled up and over the fence to look for it, but it was gone.  My parents’ back fence as well as the back fence of the entire neighborhood is bordered by a dike.  In between the dike and the wall is ditch that is landscaped in a desert fashion–perfect habitat for a roadrunner.  On the other side of the dike is a large run-off basin on the edge of an agricultural field.  Evan and I took several walks along the dike to look for the Roadrunner.  Success continued to elude us.

Evan

During the SE AZ odyssey, the Roadrunner’s nemesis-status rose to new heights.  While I was birding up on Mt. Lemmon, Evan was back at Grandma and Grandpa’s. My died spied the neighborhood Roadrunner out the window in the front yard, but it disappeared before Evan could get on it.  Then, while traveling home from our getaway to Green Valley, my dad was driving and hollered that a Roadrunner crossed the highway right in front of the van! After many, many times of calling out wildlife sightings while driving and sending Evan into a frantic state to see the wildlife and then have him burst into tears when he missed his split-second opportunity, I have learned to keep my mouth shut.  My wife has helped me learn this lesson.  My dad has not learned this lesson.  The waterworks started up.  I had to remind Evan how super lucky he has been to see a Great Gray, a Garganey, and an Elegant Trogon–three highly coveted birds that not many grown birders have seen; I told him it really was okay if other people saw the Roadrunner and he didn’t.

We had one last chance to find a Greater Roadrunner.  Nothing was scheduled for our last day of vacation on April 2nd, so it was a day to hang out around the house.  Evan and I took one more walk.  Almost immediately, I saw the bugger squirt across the dike and disappear into…nothing.  Evan again missed.  I didn’t understand where it could have gone. Then, at the same time we both saw it as it popped up again across the street and hopped up on top of a wall! Evan finally got his bird.  And I got my photo of a Roadrunner classically posed on a fence with a lizard!!

Greater Roadrunner

Greater Roadrunner

Then, as is the case with all nemesis birds, once they are finally found, they become easy, showing themselves often and/or in great numbers.  Evan had more fun hunting this bird and spotting it after it would disappear over walls, across empty lots, in the landscaping, etc.

IMG_3057

I was content to let the Roadrunner find me.

Greater Roadrunner

Evan loved the Roadrunner, even calling it his favorite bird of the trip if you can believe that.  A couple hours after the outing above, he begged me to go looking for it again. I obliged. And, according to the law of former nemesis birds, we had no problem finding it (it’s on the very right edge of the dike in front of the white tree trunk). Note the erect, confident posture of the man-child who has now seen the Trogon and the Roadrunner.

Evan

Evan’s excitement came from literally chasing after this bird as he would try to continually refind it after it would do its Houdini thing.

Evan

Evan was remarkable at spotting it and helping me get more opportunities to photograph it.

Greater Roadrunner

Conquering this nemesis and seeing Evan have so much fun and excitement with a bird was the best possible way to close our 2015 Arizona trip.  It was a back-to-origins outing where I caught a glimpse of the same excitement he showed so many years ago when he would see our feeder filled with American Goldfinches. You are right Evan, this was your best bird of the trip.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

Going off on a Tangent–er, Tanager Hunt

No, this is not Evan’s nemesis–the final AZ piece will be out soon. Until then, here’s a distraction.  Life is full of distractions.  Some of those distractions happen to be of the Tanager variety.  They are worth the time they steal–

Western Tanager

–because there are never enough Western Tanagers on this blog;

Western Tanager

–because my Minnesota list included precisely 0 WETA.

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Today I remedied one of those problems.

Western Tanager

Lots of fun stuff will be coming at you on this blog in the upcoming weeks. In addition to putting the lid on Arizona, Evan and I recently went on the most important and rewarding birding expedition we’ve ever done or will ever do.  The post from our Montana adventure of a lifetime will be the pinnacle post of this blog.

Arizona 2015: NIGHT Owling at the Coon Bluff Recreation Site on the Salt River

Though the SE AZ adventure took me an inordinate amount of time to write about and you multiple posts to slog through, the reality is that all of these experiences AND the adventure I’m about to lay before you all transpired in less than 48 hours time.  Intense doesn’t even begin to describe it.  Typical stories have rising action reaching a climax and then giving way to falling action.  That’s not what happened–we redefined the plot diagram. Each thrill one-upped its predecessor.  So without further adieu, here is the exciting and jaw-dropping finish to the day that began with an Elegant Trogon lifer.

After a leisurely, sight-seeing drive from Green Valley on April 1st, my family and I made it back to Maricopa around 4:00.  Since Evan, Dad, and I were going owling late that evening with Tommy DeBardeleben, the girls of the group (Melissa, Marin, Mom) decided to make it a girls night and see some princess-something-or-other movie.  Perfect.  Once back at the Maricopa house, the gender-segregated groups went to their respective destinations immediately.

I wanted to get to the Coon Bluff Recreation Site on the Salt River before dark anyhow as I was hoping to pull out a couple more lifers.  Mainly I had a gaping Phoebe-hole in my list–the Black Phoebe, which is best Phoebe of all.  As we waited for Tommy near the Coon Bluff entrance, we soaked up the last rays and views of an incredible day that began in Madera Canyon.

Coon Bluff

Cactus Wrens, despite sounding like a motor that won’t start, have motors that are always running as they could be constantly heard throughout the desert.

Cactus WrenBut no bird dominates the desert habitat near Coon Bluff like the Phainopepla.  Try to not see one if you go to Coon Bluff.

PhainopeplaOnce Tommy arrived, we all went down to the mesquite-bosque near the river to look for some of our pre-dusk targets.

Coon Bluff mesquite bosque

Right away we saw some Vermilion Flycatchers and encountered two Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.  The Ladder-backed was a lifer for Evan.  The Woodpeckers of Arizona were generally an unfriendly lot to us, snubbing photo attempts and giving poor looks in general.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Once we got next to the Salt River itself, Tommy found us a couple of our Black Phoebe targets.  The tail-bobbing and water’s-edge perching behavior was gratifyingly reminiscent of our lone Phoebe species back East.

Black Phoebe

Shortly after this, Tommy found Evan a Lucy’s Warbler lifer.

Lucy's Warbler

But after that tidy-lifering, it was time to head out to the entrance road and wait for darkness to fall.

Tommy EvannnnnDarkness and owl hoots weren’t the only thing we were waiting for–bird blogger Laurence Butler of the famed Butler’s Birds was set to join us for some nighttime owl escapades.  Whenever a herd of bird nerds gathers, especially of the blogging variety, there is bound to be magic.  Tonight was no exception.  In fact, once we were all together and started walking the road pictured above in the twilight, Laurence got the night off to the right start by spotting a Great Horned Owl atop a Saguaro.

Great Horned Owl Cactus

As we walked along, the nighttime sounds were immediate, omnipresent, and subtle to the untrained owler {me}.  Common Poorwills could be heard, and one gave us our life look as it buzzed our heads.  Western Screech-Owls proved to be a frustrating lot as we would hear one and head in its direction only to have it mock us by suddenly shutting up.  We’d give up and walk away and later hear it back in the same location.  This scene replayed many times with different Western Screech-Owls.

Giving up on WESO, Tommy was now hunting Elf Owls.  It didn’t take him long to hear one of the tiny guys barking.  The hunt was on.  Tommy had the Elf confined to a large mesquite tree.  Flashlights were immediately bathing the tree from all directions.  Then, Tommy called out that he spotted it! As I was heading toward him, Laurence called out that he too had it from the other side with an unobstructed view!  So I headed over to Laurence.  Nice guy that he is, he waited to take his own pictures and held up the light so I could get my life look and photograph of the Elf Owl.  Too bad I was a nighttime-owling novice and blew this gift by not using flash!  I distinctly remember watching the yellow blur of the eyes through the viewfinder as it swiveled its head at the last second.  And then it flushed further into the tree disappearing altogether.

Elf Owl

So now the hunt was on again for the 6 in. owl in the large tree.  I may have thrown away an incredible photographic opportunity, but I somewhat made up for it by making my only contribution to the owl efforts that night as I refound the sparrow-sized Elf buried deep in the branches.

Elf Owl

Elf Owl

This Elf Owl never did give us any more good lucks, though Laurence found and crushed a second bird in a different location.  At least Evan was with him and got good looks at that bird.  With crush in hand, the punctual Laurence departed from us at his preordained time.  This decision was both foolish and sacrificial, for whenever one leaves a birding party prematurely, it all but guarantees that greatness will happen for those who persevere.  And indeed, that is exactly what happened.

Dad and Evan decided to rest back at the van in the parking lot while Tommy and I were going to take one more crack at the owls.  With just the two of us, we could haul and cover a lot of ground quickly.  It turns out that covering lots of ground was not necessary since we once again had a calling Western Screech-Owl.  We set after it immediately.  The sound was subtle and quiet to me, so I was baffled when Tommy said it was really close.  I thought for sure it was a long way off.  However, we heard it in front of us, walked a short distance, and then heard it behind us!  We now had the Screech confined to one tree!  We shined our lights on the tree and in seconds Tommy hollered, “Josh! I got it!”

There, there on a branch in the middle of the tree with nothing blocking our view was the amazing Western Screech-Owl!  It was stunning.

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

After we each got several nice photographs, it dawned on me that this Owl was very content.  So I left Tommy to go back and get Dad and Evan so they could see this cool bird too.  Though in my excitement and in the darkness, I ran up to the wrong van.  Thankful to not be shot by the camping inhabitants or see the goings-on behind the blanket curtain that hung from the open lift-gate, I collected myself enough to find the correct van.  After startling my dad awake and hopping in, we punched it to get back to Tommy.

I needn’t have hurried because the Screech was exactly as I left him, and Evan and Dad got great looks at their lifer too.  Then, inspired by Tommy, the only birder I’ve heard of taking selfies with birds, hilarity ensued as we each found ourselves posing with the Owl.  Intoxicated with some good owling luck as well the thrill that comes from good, clean fun selfie antics, we could not stop laughing.Josh owl selfieObviously, Tommy is much more experienced at this, and therefore much better at the bird selfies than I.  One thing I have learned from Tommy is the importance of having fun while doing this hobby.  It is clear that I still have much to learn this owl Jedi.

Tommy selfie owl

By this point we had completely lost our minds and were attempting the GREATEST OWL SELFIE OF ALL TIME–both of us posing together directly underneath the bird.  Maybe it was the giggles, maybe it was that we didn’t have a mint, or maybe it was that the owl was just fed up with the freak show because it left just as we were almost in position.  Oh well. It was still the coolest and most hilarious owling I’ve ever experienced.  And I’ve owled a LOT.

Finally it was time to go.  We said our goodbyes to Tommy until we have a frosty reunion Up North next winter.  Then we headed back to my parents’ place in Maricopa for a much-needed night of sleep after an Elegant Trogon lifer at dawn and wild Western-Screech party well after dusk.

Evan sleeping

I long to return to the desert for more nightime owling.  Next time, though, I’ll be prepared with a better flashlight, a well-rehearsed selfie pose, and my leather boots…

shoe

It was an unforgettable night with Evan, Dad, Laurence, and Tommy.   We padded the life list with a few more birds which pushed Evan up and over the big 300.  More importantly we had a lot of fun doing it.  Oh, and if you’re feeling sorry for Laurence for missing the big party at the end, don’t.  Our WESO shots gnawed at him enough to get him back out there for a second and very successful photo shoot.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

Arizona 2015: Evan’s Big Discovery at Green Valley

The birding on March 31st was like drinking water from a fire hose.  Not to belabor a point, but I was also super sick and just wanted to rest after lifering 23 times earlier in the day with Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre.  As I was resting in the hotel room, Evan jolted me back into birding mode when he hollered, “Dad, I see a Barn Owl!”  I was skeptical but his voice was rising, “Yeah, yeah, I do!”  I went over to the window he was looking through and saw the distant silhouette on another roof of the hotel complex a couple hundred yards away.  Zooming in with the camera I saw that Evan indeed saw an owl, but it was the Great Horned variety.

Great Horned Owl

Any owl is a fun find, even a GHOW in SE AZ.  No, it wasn’t our Barn Owl lifer, but it was still a great sighting.  At least Evan was cognizant that we were in the right country for Barn Owl as it’s not a bird we are likely to ever get back home. We saw the owl fly a short distance into a third-story alcove, so Evan and I raced out the door to see if we could get closer looks at the owl.  We realized that we could actually ride an elevator to the third floor and look out a window right by where the owl landed.  Excitement stirred as we crept up to the window, expecting to look down at the owl just a couple feet away on the roof below.  Somehow the owl gave us the slip, but look what we found!  The figure in the background is a very fresh owlet–you can see its tiny gray beak by the stucco wall.  The other white blob may be an owlet or part of the food cache.

GHOW nest

We finally located the adult perched on a light pole in the middle of the parking lot in the middle of the day, giving us our best ever views of a Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned OwlWhenever owls are involved, one should always give credit where credit is due.  Here is the discoverer admiring his prize.

Evan Great Horned Owl

What a gorgeous creature this was and a cherry on top of one heck of a day of birding in SE AZ.

Great Horned Owl

It surprised me to see a Great Horned Owl in the day like this and so unafraid.  Putting up with tourists is just one of the prices you pay for choosing such a posh and scenic home.

Great Horned Owl hotel

Having a resident owl at our accommodations always made going out to the parking lot enjoyable as you could play ‘Where’s Waldo?’ each time.  One time we found it in a palm tree.  Look at those talons!

Great Horned Owl

It was really windy that night. Can you tell?

Great Horned OwlThe Great Horned Owl wasn’t the only great bird at the hotel.  I managed to find a Black-throated Sparrow, Cactus Wren, and even a lifer Hooded Oriole or three for Evan!

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole female

The Hooded Orioles were that much sweeter as we enjoyed them poolside while enjoying  other sweet views.

Green Valley

After our grand Elegant Trogon adventure on the morning of April 1st, Tommy and Gordon dropped us off at the hotel but took some time to look for Evan’s owls.  Unfortunately, Tommy and Gordon just could not get on the owl.

Tommy Gordon Great Horned Owl

They had been so obsessed with the fact that my bird photo-list on the blog is missing a Rock Pigeon picture, that they could focus on nothing but finding me Pigeons and failed to see the owl.  I was told that in this photo, Tommy had sighted a tidy group of four Pigeons.

The truth is, Tommy and Gordon just weren’t used to owling VIP-style. We brought them to the elevator that took us up three flights.  Then the doors opened, giving them this immediate and direct view:

Great Horned Owl

 

Great Horned OwlTommy and Gordon actually contributed to the owl discovery as they found the male tucked up into a palm tree!  We now had two adults in view!

Great Horned Owl

It was fun to watch these Arizona birders, who by all rights should be jaded to all common birds, enjoy this pair of nationally common GHOWs along with us.  Perhaps, after now having seen such birds as the Painted Redstart and Elegant Trogon, Evan is the one who’s jaded…

Josh Evan Great Horned Owl

The only cure for such a hardened-heart toward the owls would be an infusion of multiple owl lifers on one of the most thrilling owl-prowls we’ve ever had.  Coming up next is some exciting NIGHT owling we had that very night back in the Phoenix area along the Salt River.  Stay tuned.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.