Leaving Green Valley was not easy. Breathtaking scenery, perfect temps, and posh accommodations are hard to leave behind. On the other hand, leaving Green Valley was necessary in order to tour new (to us) parts of beautiful, southern Arizona and visit more hotspots of birding fame. Our route for the morning would basically circle the Santa Rita Mountains taking us all the way down to the border at Nogales and back up north via Patagonia and Sonoita. Then it would be back to Maricopa.
Sitting outside on the patio that morning, I was not focused on birding. I was having a slow morning after the epic Huachuca madness from the day before, a birding hangover if you will. Sure, visions of Violet-crowned Hummingbirds and Barn Owls danced through my head, but it was the thought of breakfast that was winning the war for my mind as I waited for my family to pack, assemble, powder, puff, etc. Not even an unfamiliar bird song was getting me to move. Meh, I’ve seen it all around here, I thought. But then, the bird song that sounds like a motor that won’t start actually got my birding motor started for the day. Thank you, Honorable Cactus Wren. This ability to coax even the most reluctant into birding and into beautiful Arizona deserts must be how you got your title of State Bird.
It didn’t take me long to realize the desert scrub around the hotel was quite birdy. It was simply hopping with birds. I could hardly believe it when I pulled up the binoculars on one of the first birds–Rock Wren a.k.a. the day’s first lifer. And I almost didn’t even bird here.
I really, really like the pot-bellied appearance of this bird. This may be my favorite photo from the trip. And is it just me, or does ROWR bear an uncanny resemblance to our 27th President?
President William Howard Taft Source: National Archives and Records Administration
Turns out the Taft Wren wasn’t the only delightful surprise of this little foray beyond the parking lot. A pair of Cassin’s Kingbirds gave a second lifer of the morning. And yes, I did peek under their undergarments to look for white tail edges to make sure they weren’t Western Kingbirds, though once you see them in real life, they are obviously different.
High on two completely unexpected lifers, I continued to scope out the fun birds around the hotel, not the least of which were numerous Lark Sparrows. I have not seen enough Lark Sparrows yet.
What I have seen plenty of in recent years are Say’s Phoebes, and I already have plenty of photos to prove it. But these birds just know how to pose…
It was also fun to see a prickly-looking Curve-billed Thrasher. I’m glad they didn’t choose him for state bird.
Eventually the family was assembled and ready for breakfast, and the parking lot birding was over. But what a gem of a spot. Last spring I had Hooded Orioles, Great Horned Owls, and Black-throated Sparrows here too. I’ve got a nice little patch list going.
I know I promised Patagonia in this post, but we’ll pick up this story in the next one and get it started off right with a BARN OWL search. But first, breakfast.
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.
Coming home from vacation is always a mixed-bag. There is the unbeatable comforts of sleeping in one’s own bed and seeing the family dog again, which is only off-set by the reality of reality–unpacked bags, piles of mail, and employment. But, it’s still the weekend and the mail and bags can wait; it’s time to unpack the bird photos and stories from a very birdy spring-break trip to visit my snowbird parents in Arizona.
Unlike last year, I woke up that first morning in Arizona this year with zero birding anxiety. Partly this was due to the fact that last year we had pretty much conquered all the birds that could be had in the suburbia environment of Maricopa. It was also due to the knowledge that the next two days in SE AZ would provide plenty of birding excitement. So in this calm before the storm, there was nothing to do but relax, hang out, and do some casual birdwatching. There were also lizards.
As fun as lizard-wrangling can be, one must never pass up an opportunity to visit Burrowing Owls especially when they are less than a mile from the house. It was great to see the same pair in the same burrow as last year.
The reunion tour continued at a municipal park where I discovered a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers last year. Evan and I were pleasantly surprised to find not just one pair there this year, but two. Seeing the males do their pot-bellied flight displays is a real treat.
Good birds can be had in my parents’ yard and just beyond. My dad had been seeing a Greater Roadrunner around the house recently. Evan and I were going to set out to see if we could find it. As I was literally walking out to get Evan in the back yard, I caught a fast glimpse of the Roadrunner himself on the fence! While I was able to finally put this lifer to rest, Evan still didn’t see it–something that would become a common theme for the trip…
The search for the Roadrunner provided many opportunities to enjoy birds we don’t normally get to see. Western Kingbirds–anywhere–never get old. We had several this year. How did we miss them last year?!
The Maricopa WEKIs are quite cooperative and unashamed, allowing a couple out-of-towners to do intimate checks for the similar-looking Cassin’s Kingbirds.
Say’s Phoebe is a bird I have not yet added to my Minnesota list. For now, these Maricopa birds will have to fill the Say’s Phoebe void.
The same can be said of Northern Mockingbirds. The name of this species ironically mocks us northern birders since it is a much easier bird down south.
Continuing in this vein of ironic names is that while the Common Grackle is not so common in Arizona, the Great-tailed Grackle is common but not so great to Arizona birders. Needless to say, this is a fun bird for us vagrant birders both in the visual and audio sense.
No trip to Arizona is complete without seeing the bodacious and skittish Gambel’s Quail.
Not only was it fun to visit all these old friends again, but Evan also got to add a big lifer within Maricopa’s city limits. It was definitely a surprise to bump into a Western Grebe in one of the scuzzy man-made ponds of reclaimed water. Though I was hoping it was a Clark’s, it was nice that Evan could finally tally this bird, one that he has had lingering soreness over me seeing and not him.
These nasty ponds have given us some good birds the past couple years, but it’s important to remember that no matter how hot it gets in AZ and how thirsty one gets…no beber.
Consider this post an appetizer of great things to come from our Arizona trip. The main course(s), the filet mignon of birds, is yet to come. There will be a whole new cast of characters, birds and otherwise, for your viewing and reading pleasure.
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.