Call me a curmudgeon, but I just have not been pumped up for migration this spring and often let the world of birds buzz around me without taking notice.
Maybe it’s work, maybe it’s my unfinished taxes, maybe it’s the fact that the regulars have become blasé, but my obliviousness is mostly due to my OCD over ESOWs for TOBY (Tommy’s Owl Big Year). Nights are filled with mining the data, pumping the contacts, and even prowling the woods. There has been little time for the ordinary. This indifference should not be mistaken for a lack of awareness of my surroundings or of the current events in the birding world.
Sometimes things do catch my attention requiring me to investigate matters further.
As I’ve been Screeching lately, some of the ordinary birds have stopped me cold–only because I thought I was taking machine gun fire. Turns out it was just a Good God Bird.
Screech-Owls love tree cavities. So do Wood Ducks. Still, I was astonished to find no fewer than six pairs of Wood Ducks in the treetops in two small city parks.
The Eastern Screech-Owl focus has been pretty laser-like, but I am still doing my due diligence when it comes to listing/chasing.
I recently went after a lifer Red-throated Loon in Brainerd which had a decidedly not-red throat and even more decidedly un-Loonlike appearance, as in it didn’t appear at all. The consolation was a small flock of Bohemian Waxwings under a blue sky.
Also in recent birding adventures, I picked up MN #299, Mountain Bluebird, after two attempts. I even have a crappy photo to prove it.
A nearby American Tree Sparrow was slightly more accommodating.
At the county level, progress on the list has been steady, albeit unexciting. Ross’s Goose was a solid add and bonus points were earned for a three-Goose photo.
Another overdue addition was American Woodcock, peenting style. (Turn the volume way up)
Though not a new county bird, I continue to document the rare ones, like the Mute Swan, for eBird.
One only knows what more will show up this migration. One bird that migration won’t drop in my lap is the Eastern Screech-Owl. For that I must fight the good fight and play the numbers game. I’ve got two months to figure it out. The truth is I love the focus of a singular goal, even more so when it’s a challenging one. Bring it on, Screech.
2015 wasn’t supposed to include a Colorado trip. After our visit last summer, I wasn’t planning to go back for a long time. Life had other plans as it so often does, and on May 29th I found myself on an airplane heading back to Colorado to say a final goodbye to my Aunt Carol who lost her fight with cancer. This mountain valley had now lost some of its beauty and charm.
Aunt Carol meant a great deal to many, many people. I have many fond memories of staying at Uncle Jon and Aunt Carol’s house as kid and then visiting them a few times as an adult. She had a zest for life and was always game for something fun and spontaneous, especially if it involved having a good time with people she loved. In these ways she embodied the things I enjoy most about birding. Speaking of birding, Aunt Carol has always been a big fan of birds. Long, long before I was a birder, I remember her raving about the beauty of the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that would visit their Minnesota home. I remember thinking that was something I had to see.
In her Colorado home, Aunt Carol spoke fondly of the Mountain Bluebirds which are common at their mountain residence. Carol had quite the special relationship with these birds as a pair would nest right outside her bedroom. Last year she showed us how she could give a whistle and the male would fly in. It was pretty neat.
Aunt Carol’s “pet” Mountain Bluebird
On this trip to Colorado my cousin Danny pointed out decorations Carol put on her patio doors to help these Bluebirds avert window strikes.
Another bird that reminds me of Aunt Carol is the Bushtit. Last year she got quite a kick out of the bird’s humorous name, laughingly saying, “I think I’d like to see some of those Bushtits for myself!”
This trip was not a birding trip, but you can’t go to Colorado without seeing cool birds. Since we were flying in late at night on a Friday, busy with family most of Saturday, and flying home around noon on Sunday, there was only the slightest of margins to see these birds. However, don’t confuse birding the margins with marginal birding. Regardless of one’s time budget, good birds can easily be had in this state. I have a lot of birding left to do in Colorado that will require more trips, but knowing I wouldn’t have much time on this trip, I took a precision approach. I would focus on just one bird–a very common and very conspicuous bird I had never seen: the Bullock’s Oriole. It was very doable.
My brother, Jason, and I flew into Denver together and spent Friday night there. The next morning we would be joining my cousin, Karin, for the three-hour drive down to Westcliffe. With the help of eBird, I found Sondermann Park which was convenient stop in Colorado Springs just two blocks off I-25 at exit 144 where several Bullock’s Orioles had recently been reported. With trails that were short and right by the parking area, I convinced Karin and Jason that this would be a good stretch break.
Western birds were readily apparent with a Spotted Towhee being the first bird we saw/heard.
I was practically racing along the paths looking for my Oriole since we were short on time. In the meantime, it was fun to run into several Western Tanagers. I promise there’s one in this photo.
I did have better looks later on at some other WETAs, but I did something I don’t normally do–I enjoyed them through binoculars only. Other birds adding to the western flavor were a couple of Western Wood Pewees and a lone Bushtit. Eventually, though, I finally heard the familiar ratcheting call of a Bullock’s Oriole which sounds nearly identical to our Baltimore Oriole back home. The Bullock’s and Baltimore were once considered a single species known as the Northern Oriole. Genetic studies caused the species to be split into two in the 1990s. Despite hearing the bird, I either saw it in bad light or briefly as an orange streak in good light. Very unsatisfying, but a life bird nonetheless. We had to get back on the highway, though, so better looks would have to wait until some future date.
What did give great looks were some appropriately named Violet-green Swallows at our hotel in Westcliffe.
The trip was quite a whirlwind as Aunt Carol’s memorial service and a memorable family/friend gathering back at her house filled out the rest of the day. Before I knew it, it was time to wake up and hit the road back to Denver. I woke before my two traveling companions to see what birds might be around the hotel and to enjoy the refreshing morning.
Birds or no birds, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at sunrise are pretty spectacular.
I did see one last pair of Mountain Bluebirds. Fitting.
A short walk in the neighborhood gave me my second, equally unsatisfying, lifer of the trip. In the dim morning light I glassed a bird with a white chin, rufous cap, and long tail. It was a Green-tailed Towhee. I was also surprised to find a White-crowned Sparrow; I didn’t know they were summer residents here.
Shortly thereafter, Karin, Jason, and I hit the road. As we were coming through the Hardscrabble Pass of the Wet Mountains, Jason slammed on the brakes startling us all. There was a flock of sheep on the road. Wait, those sheep had some big, curled horns–Big Horn Sheep!!
In all, there were 11 of them. I was surprised at how little they were. I suppose, though, they look much bigger when they are up on a mountain cliff.
This was a very fun encounter once our hearts stopped racing. We completed the grand slam of big game mammals on our drive by also seeing a buck Pronghorn, three cow Elk, and a couple of Mule Deer.
Once we got Karin to the airport, Jason and I had an hour-and-a-half to kill before we had to be at the airport ourselves. Guess what is right next door to Denver International Airport? Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge! It is a massive area and the perfect place to kill an hour. Stopping in at the visitor’s center, I saw Say’s Phoebes and Western Kingbirds and learned the best place to find Bullock’s Orioles in a short time frame. Additionally, the docent told us about a secret exit from the Refuge for getting back to the airport quickly. If you want to do some birding before your flight and are crunched for time like we were, stop in the visitors’ center and ask about this exit.
Jason and I went straight for the tree-lined 7th Ave. Most people head this way to see the resident Buffalo herd. That’s old hat for us. I was after a small, orange bird. As I scanned the Cottonwoods lining the road while we cruised, Black-billed Magpies could be seen periodically. We had seen quite a few on the trip, especially coming through Colorado Springs. The ones at Rocky Mountain Arsenal are skilled at doing Common Nighthawk impressions.
In no time I spotted the orange bird I was after and redeemed my initial sighting of the Bullock’s Oriole the day before. Success.
After a little bit more exploring, Jason and I took the secret exit out of the Refuge. And there on the exit road was a sad, symbolic reminder of the reason for our trip: a drake Mallard was standing vigil over his freshly killed mate. I’ve never seen anything like it.
You will always be in our hearts, Aunt Carol. We will miss you!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
John then spotted the male nearby.
It 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.
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.
Their song is beautiful and could be heard constantly from all directions.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.We 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.
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.
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.
This 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.
Here’s one the grandmas can approve of.
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.
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.
After racking up 11 lifers from a mere two hours of dedicated birding and even less time from happenstance birding along the highways and biways, this trip had already been phenomenal. Now if the opposite were true, one could use the oft-quoted phrase, “There’s nowhere to go but up.” But this is Colorado, after all, so that phrase is still applicable whether you’re on a mountain-top high of birding or just on an actual mountain-top. And we proved it so in Custer County where my Aunt Carol and Uncle Jon live, our final Colorado destination.
As I had done previously, I did a fair amount of eBird scouting for this new terrain we were about to traverse. In particular I wanted one bird more than any other – the Western Tanager. A bright yellow and black bird with a red face is something I just had to see for myself. Some life birds are more than just checks on a list; their mind-blowing beauty haunts you until you’ve finally put them to rest. Though I tried, I could not spot this conifer forest dweller in the Blackhills of South Dakota. My next attempt would have to be in the mountains of south-central Colorado.
It turns out that one eBird report by Rich Miller of two Western Tanagers was conveniently located along the Greenwood Road which paralled our highway as we made our way through the Wet Mountains along the Hardscrabble Pass. I nearly missed this unassuming road but saw it at the last minute and did what any birder would do – swerve hard and jolt the non-birding occupants. As we puttered along this road, I really didn’t expect to see the tanager. It was just a chance I was taking. I knew that I’d probably have to search for it properly once we got settled at my aunt and uncle’s place. But then it magically happened – almost too perfect. A flash of brilliant yellow and black cut across the road interrupting – or rather accentuating – our sky blue and forest green vista. Unbelievable! The car was immediately rendered immobile and the hunt was on. I hopped out and watched and watched where it landed but did not see it. Evan was still in the car at this point waiting for me to do the heavy-lifting of finding the bird. He wanted to see it bad too, but he apparently needed a sure thing in order to take his attention off his iPad. As luck would have it, though, the bird flew back to the other side of the road! I motioned for Evan to come out. Now I had to do two things at once – point out the bird and try to get a photo. I was not very successful at either.
How does a bird hide in a dead tree? Moreover, how did I not see a yellow, red, and black bird leave a dead tree with a blue sky background? Evan claimed he could still see it up there and I believed him. But five minutes later after I couldn’t find it and he still claimed he was looking at it in the exact same spot, I had to break the news to him that he was not looking at the bird or even a bird at all. Then the tears set in – not necessarily because he didn’t see it, but because Dad had seen it and he didn’t. That’s a stinging feeling that every birder has felt at some point. The “You should have been here 5-minutes ago” or “You just missed it” phenomenon. We’ve all been there. Evan is at least honest enough to cry about it like the rest of us want to but can’t.
But we were moving on and moving upward and Evan calmed down. On this same road I saw an interesting bird checking out a hole in a dead tree. I had seen reports of Lewis’s Woodpeckers here, but I was really hoping it wasn’t a Lewis’s Woodpecker. Getting one that easy would have been frustrating since I woke up at 2 AM to make a 14-hour round-trip to the Canadian border to see one last November. Looking through the binoculars, I saw that it wasn’t! Even better was that it was a Western Bluebird lifer. Unfortunately Evan didn’t get a look and I couldn’t get a photo before it was gone. This one didn’t seem to bother him. Funny. Perhaps I’d been hyping that Western Tanager a little too much.
We eventually did make it to that lovely mountain home where the accomodations, the company, and the birding would all prove to be excellent. Oh, and the constant view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains across the Wet Mountain Valley wasn’t bad either.
The yard-birding was fantastic here. I smiled as I heard and saw more Spotted Towhees than I could count, many of them cheerfully hopping just a few feet from me. Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were heard more often than seen as their metallic buzzing would alert you to their presence.
I was excited to get up early that next morning and poke around to see what I could find. Excited isn’t really the right word. I was like a 5-year-old on Christmas Eve. Morning finally came after a short, fitful sleep. The sounds were everywhere and new! I heard a grosbeak-like song and found its source at the top of a Ponderosa Pine, another Black-headed Grosbeak. The Spotted Towhees were sounding off everywhere. I tracked down one of the metallic buzzers to get this photo of the Broad-tailed Hummer who sat still long enough for me to get a couple shots.
Among the many Broad-taileds doing aerial acrobatics, there was an orange-looking dude that was getting chased by the others. Hello! It was a Rufous Hummingbird! I got a quick look at one in Arizona last March, but this fella obliged me by letting snag a couple of up-close photos of him. I won’t even complain that the sun didn’t shine on his glorious red-throat. To see what that looks like, check out the header image at Butler’s Birds.
Its throat is really not black. To show you what I mean, here is another shot of that same Broad-tailed pictured above. It looks black here, but you can see above how red it really is when the sun hits it.
But in this land of flashy birds, there is also a dark side that tempers the excitement. I’m, of course, referring to those drab, confusing, hard-to-ID flycatchers. Based on vocalization and ruling out empids, I’m pretty sure I’ve got a Western Wood Pewee here. I hope any western readers will correct me if I’m wrong; I’m not proud.
Western Wood Pewee
I did get an empid that I felt was a pretty solid ID with that yellow tinge and tear-drop eye-ring. This one is a Cordilleran Flycatcher. Life bird.
Then there was a life bird that was not hard to ID and whose name is not soon forgotten by birders or non-birders alike – the Bushtit! And the bushes, or Pinyon Pines rather, were hopping with these tiny Bushtits.
Bushtit – It’s okay to giggle.
Aunt Carol kept giggling over the name when she asked what birds I saw. She even said she wanted to see some Bushtits for herself. At this point I’d like to take an aside to say that I’m glad Evan is learning all the “dirty” bird names now before he hits upper elementary. Names like Bushtits, Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Boobies, and some others are just bird names to him, no different than Northern Cardinal or Pine Siskin. Some day the dam will break, and he will soon be giggling too. But for now it’s just science to him. I’d like to take a second aside to say that I’ve never seen such Boobies, just Dickcissels. Sad, no?
Anyhow, venturing out that morning and driving around a small mountain, I saw an eagle perched on a snag up near the top of the mountain. It looked like a great candidate for my Golden Eagle lifer, but one must always exercise due caution with a Golden Eagle ID as juvenile Bald Eagles are all brown in their first year. The differences can usually be seen when examining wings and tails during flight. This bird wasn’t flying, though. So I grabbed some pictures, filed it away as a “maybe” Golden, and birded on.
When I got home I sent my pictures off to Randy. He wasn’t comfortable making the call. Then I sent them off to the big guns at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota. Education director Scott Mehus excitedly confirmed that I had, in fact, got my Golden Eagle lifer! More than that, he went on to explain subtle differences in beak coloration, leg feathers, and nape color that distinguish a Golden Eagle from the look-alike life stage of a Bald Eagle. Awesome! That made for three big (literally and figuratively speaking) lifer raptors for the trip!
Evan was sound asleep while I was spotting and photographing these birds in the early morning. You can’t sleep in and expect to see the same things. I knew he wanted to see some of these birds, but birds move on. He seems okay with it. But when I told him I was waking up early the next morning to hunt for Western Tanagers again, he said he was in. He wasn’t going to miss another chance at this cool bird. I had another eBird report by Rich Miller of six of them on one forest service road in the San Isabel National Forest just north of Bishop’s Castle about 45 minutes away.
It was nearly impossible to wake Evan up that morning, and he promptly fell asleep in the car for the entire drive. The ride was incredible as I made my way south along a curving, climbing Highway 165. Conifer-studded mountains rose steeply on both sides of this road. I almost forgot I was bird-watching. In fact, I missed Forest Service Road 383 and had to turn around to find it.
I was excited to take this road. With a report of six individuals, the Western Tanager would have to be a sure thing. I decided to let Evan sleep until I saw one or something else that was good. The optimism of seeing one of these gorgeous birds started slipping the further I drove and the higher in elevation I went. I wasn’t seeing anything. Eventually I decided to give up and turn around. I stopped to check out some bird activity near a streambed. A roving flock of Mountain Chickadees was noisly chattering as they foraged for food. I woke Evan up so he could get this lifer. He lifted his head, saw one fly about 100 feet away, and said, “Yep, I saw it.” A similar scene played out later back at the yard when we picked up our Lesser Goldfinch lifer. Evan seems to be content with check marks for the sake of check marks instead of getting a good look at a bird. Not me.
Moving on from this spot I kept up hope that we would see the tanagers on the way out. One bird I stopped to check out was interesting for me to see here in Colorado even though I’ve seen hundreds in northern Minnesota, a female Evening Grosbeak.
Evening Grosbeak Female
As cool as this was, Evan and I really just wanted to see that red-faced bird. Despite probability being in our favor by being on this road, it was not meant to be. Now hope was slipping that there would be no more Western Tanagers for this trip. As fun as it was to watch birds back at my aunt and uncle’s yard, like my aunt’s Mountain Bluebird pair that nest under the eaves and come out when she whistles, the habitat just wasn’t right for WETA.
Aunt Carol’s “pet” Mountain Bluebird
But just when nearly all hope was gone and the car was all loaded to leave Colorado for good, Custer County saved its most exciting birding for the very end when we drove away from Jon and Carol’s house. So hang on for a wild ride (figuratively speaking, of course) in the next and final Colorado post.
Finally. After an eight-year hiatus, the great American road-trip was reborn in our family. There’s something liberating about heading out on the open road putting hundreds of miles under our seats, crossing numerous state lines and seeing new sights. Our kids are to the age where they are now able to tolerate such intense travel and enjoy it too. This summer we were headed to the mountains of Colorado to visit my aunt and uncle in their beautiful mountain home.
Though not the quickest route, we opted to head to Colorado via Rapid City so we could see Mt. Rushmore. It would be a first for Melissa and the kids, so it was a must-stop. The scenery and the birding was most unimpressive until we crossed the Missouri River at Chamberlain. But then, as soon as we made it to South Dakota’s better half, a western bird ambassador was there to welcome us. A gorgeous, no-doubt-about-it Swainson’s Hawk soared over the freeway while I was cruising along at 75 MPH. I involuntarily hollered, “Swainson’s Hawk!” Of course, soaring birds and speeding cars do not lend themselves to photo ops or good viewing. Evan panickingly asked, “Where?!” But it was too late and he didn’t see it. Then the porch-lip came out in the back seat, and I was reminded by my wife to not draw attention to wildlife sightings on the road because the kids inevitably miss them. We’ve been down this road before. Though I could now firmly claim this lifer, I tried to console Evan by assuring him that there would be more Swainson’s Hawks on this trip. Boy, was I right, but that’s for another post.
Though not part of the original travel plans, we opted last-minute to dip south of I-90 to drive through Badlands National Park. Growing up in Montana and then moving to Minnesota, I don’t know how many times I’ve traveled the I-90 stretch, but I have no memory of ever driving through the Badlands and seeing them up close. I only remember distant views from the interstate. I am so glad we decided to take this detour. The Badlands are truly impressive with their beauty and other-wordly look. And we were there on a beautiful day with cool temps.
The expanse of the Badlands goes for miles, and I could have photographed them all day, but I was distracted by the birds. When we stopped at one of the first scenic overlooks I caught sight of a blue bird. It turned out to be our Mountain Bluebird lifer.
This was a hoped-for lifer and not one that I expected to get so soon in the trip. It turns out that there would be even more life birds at this little stop. Buzzing around the cliffs and rocky outcroppings were several Violet-green Swallows. My photo in the harsh afternoon sun doesn’t fairly show its namesake, but I can assure you that this is probably the finest-looking swallow there is.
I expected this bird and was able to identify it easily because of my eBird scouting. That scouting also helped me identify another fast-flier, the White-throated Swift! Photographing swallows and swifts is a daunting task under normal conditions, even more so when you are trying to keep children frum plummeting to their deaths. Needless to say, I didn’t get any photos of the swifts.
I could not believe how accessible death was at this place. Sure there are fun hills to climb like pictured above, but the other side is a doozy. This canyon was well over 100 feet down.It was fun to look at the bottom of this barren piece of earth and see a family of Say’s Phoebes, another good western bird.
What a good little stop this was – three quick lifers and a fun place to stretch the legs after a long drive. But we had more Badlands to see and hopefully more birds too, so we continued on our drive through the park. We spied Western Kingbirds wherever there were trees on which they could perch. Such a fun bird.
As we made our way out of the park on Sage Creek Road, I was watching the fences for more WEKIs as well as Lark Buntings. This potential lifer was reported as “ubiquitous” on this road in one eBird report. I was very hopeful. We did stop to be entertained by the myriad of Prairie Dogs as they popped up and disappeared like a real-life whack-a-mole game for as far as the eye could see. The whole family enjoyed the antics of these cute, pudgy rodents.
But doggone it, I completely forgot to check out the Prairie Dog Town for Burrowing Owls. I had seen reports of them being with the Prairie Dogs. One of those dogs poking its head up could just as easily been one of the Burrowers. We’ve seen them before in Arizona, but one should never pass up an opportunity to look for a Burrowing Owl.
We continued our drive, and I was getting frustrated that we were not seeing the “ubiquitous” Lark Buntings. Finally as we pulled out of the park, Evan pointed to a group of birds on the fence and asked what they were. Mixed in with dozens of Mourning Doves were two Lark Buntings! But they were a long way off and not letting themselves be photographed well.
It didn’t matter because as we kept driving on Sage Creek Road on the outside of the park, the Lark Buntings truly were ubiquitous. I guess I should have read that report a little more carefully. In case you are a birder and are looking for the Lark Bunting, the birds were on the wires on the north-south stretch.
After securing a tidy haul of life birds and enjoying the scenery, it was time to make our way to the Black Hills of South Dakota to meet up with the presidents at Keystone. The most notable bird seen along the way was a Red-headed Woodpecker – always a treat to find.
The stop to see Mt. Rushmore was brief. It was basically a tick on the bucket list for many in our party and nothing more. To us it just did not compare to the natural beauty of the area and its wildlife.
With their pine covered mini-mountains, the Black Hills are absolutely gorgeous. Our destination for the night was Hot Springs, a great small-town without the tourist trappings of Keystone. But on the way to Hot Springs we passed through Wind Caves National Park. Nothing new in terms of birds, but this guy right by the road was startling, a little scary, and very cool!
We eventually made it to Hot Springs where we settled in for the night. But being in new lands with new birds does not lend itself to getting rest. I was up and at ’em at first light to check out a local city park, Lower Chautauqua Park, located near a water park called – get this – Evans Plunge. I was going to this park because it was very near our hotel and there had been eBird reports of Black-headed Grosbeaks among other notable western birds.
The first bird I heard and saw was the Spotted Towhee. It was quite a thrill to catch up with this old friend after finding my lifer as a Kandiyohi County first official record back home in April. In the early morning light I was only able to moderately improve my photograph of this species.
Eventually I had the good fortune of bumping into the reported Black-headed Grosbeaks. Despite my best efforts of following them through the trees, I only managed to get one decent photo. Regardless, I was pretty excited to get this lifer. It was such a cool-looking bird. I don’t think I’ve met a grosbeak I didn’t like.
I wish I could have hung out longer to get more photos of these birds in better light, but I had to head back to the hotel so we could get ready to venture through Wyoming on our way to Colorado. South Dakota was good to us with several lifers and spectacular beauty, but it was time to get to Colorado to see what avian treasures awaited us.
Editor’s Note: This is a guest submission from my dad, Rick Wallestad, who is referred to as “The Guide” on the bio page of this blog. That title comes from his background as a wildlife biologist for the state of Montana where he studied Greater Sage Grouse extensively.
Montana Sage Grouse – a bulletin for the Montana Department of Fish and Game written by Richard Wallestad
As I read your post “From Europe with Love” I experienced several different emotions. The first was one of pride in my son who has taken a hobby and turned it into a passion that he shares with his family using an incredible writing ability.
The second was one of remembrance. You are turning 35 this summer—35 years ago I was 35 and on the day you were born I walked away from a 10-year career with the Montana Fish and Game Department as a research biologist. One of my regrets is that during my 10 years of field work in Montana I did not take time to go birding. All my work was with game birds, other birds were referred to as dicky birds or small brown birds.
When I was working in the sagebrush grasslands of central Montana, a group of birders contacted me and wanted to see sage grouse. Their visit was during the breeding season and I took them out to a strutting ground. We drove to the center of the ground and male sage grouse were strutting on all sides of the truck. The visitors were beyond excited as they snapped picture after picture. One of the birders said it was his 440th life bird. I now know what a life bird is thanks to your blog.
Keep up the good work!
Mountain Bluebird – definitely not a brown bird but one of those “dicky” birds that the Guide finally stopped to see recently when passing through Colorado