2017 Summer Trip to Northern Arizona–The Best of the Non-Lifers

An unfortunate consequence of visiting a place like Arizona multiple times is that some birds lose that ‘wow’ factor from when they were first seen.  The excitement level for a bird is inversely proportional to the number of times that bird is seen. Take the Acorn Woodpecker, for instance.  I remember drooling over the thought of seeing one. Now on this trip, after having seen them on other trips, I didn’t even raise the camera. This is just birding reality.   It cannot be helped.  Some birds still bring it, though.  Some just haven’t been enjoyed enough or savored fully.  They still feel somewhat fresh and exciting when you bump into them.  This post highlights those birds for me on this latest trip.

Many of the these were fun mountain birds that I encountered right by our condo at the Wyndham Flagstaff Resort (great place if you go, btw). First up is the Steller’s Jay, a bird not known for its shyness. Before this trip I had only seen one on Mt. Lemmon, a brief sighting on a cloudy day.  Here, they were all over the place basking in the sun. And I looked at each one.Steller's JaySteller's JayAnother montane, neighborhood bird at the resort was the Black-headed Grosbeak.  Though I’ve seen them in Colorado and South Dakota, the views have always been fleeting and unsatisfying.  This encounter went a long way toward rectifying that.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Anywhere from the Wyndham Resort to the Schultz Pass Road, a mountain-loving bird that was seemingly ubiquitous around Flagstaff was the Western Tanager.  Even though I have seen this bird and photographed it in my home county in Minnesota, I continue to find myself in a state of face-melt when I see this bird, and I photograph it way too much.  It is illogical, really. Three individuals with varying amounts of red on their faces are shown below in three different species of trees.

Western TanagerWestern TanagerWestern TanagerLiterally a neighbor bird inhabiting the Ponderosa Pines right outside our balcony was the Pygmy Nuthatch.  These guys are industrious little busy-bodies. As such, my only other time seeing them in the past resulted in a poor photo op.  Not much changed on this trip despite being merely 5 feet away.  Pygmy Nuthatch could see blog time again.

Pygmy Nuthatch

The last bird from the resort was a parking lot bird but was by no means a trash bird. In fact, this papa Western Bluebird was a photographic lifer for me.Western BluebirdWestern BluebirdAway from the resort there were some other non-lifer favorites, like this American Three-toed Woodpecker along the Schultz Pass Road. Keep in mind that I had only ever seen one before just this past spring in Minnesota.  This bird very much still has lifer freshness associated with it.  While the unique drumming sound of this Woodpecker was the same as the one back home, its back was not.  Note how white the back is on this Rocky Mountains subspecies of the ATTW; the back of the East Taiga subspecies that we have in Minnesota is nearly all black with small white flecks.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerIn Oak Creek Canyon at Grasshopper Point Recreation Area, a Bridled Titmouse was a pleasant surprise.

Bridled TitmouseAnd the Grand Canyon is never more grand than when it serves as a backdrop from a rim-perching Black-throated Gray Warbler, a bird I have wished to have better photographs of for a long time.

Black-throated Gray WarblerBlack-throated Gray WarblerThat’s it for Arizona this time.  There will be more this winter.  For the next post we’re headed to Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands for some Warble action.

The Tanager Trifecta

Summer TanagerOne of the most popular birds in Minnesota this summer has been the Summer Tanager discovered by Wilmer Fernandez at the University of Minnesota’s Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen.  Summer Tanager is rare-regular in the state, but the fact that this bachelor bird was in the Twin Cities and singing endlessly on territory made it all the rage for the better part of a week.  Not even the Arboretum’s steep per person entry fee could keep birders away, including yours truly.

Summer TanagerIf you’ve been following ABWCH this past spring, you may recall that I already made a Summer Tanager chase to get my lifer.  So why did I go after another if I’m not a county lister? Two reasons: this bird was solid red, unlike that tye-died creature I saw earlier this year, and this bird was singing on territory.  I wanted the full SUTA experience.  That quick migrant sighting didn’t fill the void.  Plus this bird was relatively close to home, and I had the time off.

Summer TanagerA couple of others who had the time off were teaching colleagues Brad Nelson and Theresa Nelson. The mother-son Nelson duo joined me on this little excursion. Our semi-annual birding get-togethers are always productive and fun–the last time the three of us met up was over a Snowy Owl near one of the towns in our district. Just like we had no problem getting that Owl, seeing this Tanager was a piece of cake.  We could hear it singing immediately once we got out of the car at the nut trees section of the Arboretum where it apparently has set up shop for the season.  We spent the better part of an hour following it around as it sang endlessly from its various perches, not even stopping its song while it feasted on insects:

Summer TanagerSummer TanagerIt’s been the year of the Tanager here in MN. To close out this post, here’s a pic of each of the two rare-regular Tanagers and a brand new Scarlet Tanager all seen in state this year.  Sorry for turning the Scarlet into a trash bird on this blog. No, I’m not–they are still an exciting bird and this post celebrates all things Tanager.

Western TanagerSummer Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

The Call of the West

Several weeks ago the kids and I mulled over what we should do when some of Melissa’s work duties would require her to be absent most of this past weekend.  With warm weather at the time, I promised (stupid, I know) to take the kids camping. Frigid temps of late caused me to start thinking of a much more palatable and comfortable Plan B. Easy: move the camping to indoors, a.k.a. stay at a hotel.  My kids love hotels.  It would be an easy sell. The beauty of this plan is that it does not matter to them where a hotel is.  Birders know where I am going with this–might as well get a hotel next to a cool bird or two, right?! But where?

Vagrants have been few and far between or already seen; resident birds are just returning. Honestly there weren’t a lot of options on the table. One idea was to head to the Twin Cities to try for Henslow’s Sparrow and Louisiana Waterthrush lifers. Another option was to head to the northwest to Grand Forks, North Dakota to check out the Short-eared Owl scene.  The SEOW was not a lifer, but this option just had a lot of appeal in the fun department.  Meanwhile a third option presented itself in the non-lifer department as a stunning breeding plumage male Surf Scoter and his mate showed up in Duluth.  This last option was leading; all the Scoter species are annual in small numbers in Minnesota but we hardly ever get the mature, good-looking ones.  I was wracked with indecision. I could potentially head in three very different directions on the map. Even though we were set to depart Saturday morning, I still was having trouble pulling the trigger on anything even as the kids’ bedtimes loomed on Friday.

I paced and scratched my head. Then the phone rang. It was local birding friend Joel Schmidt (Willet guy). This is migration season–that phone call may just as well have been the President.

“Josh, I have a Western Tanager in my yard.”


This was one decision that required no thinking, just reaction.  I practically hung up on Joel while simultaneously herding the kids to the car for the 25-minute trip. We got there with plenty of daylight left and enjoyed a glorious county bird with Joel and his wife Amanda.

Western Tanager

Western TanagerOnly one or two WETAs show up in MN every year; lucky us that it was our turn to host. Here my two-hour one-way chase to add this state bird last year was for nought.  What a spectacular rarity and a beauty on top of that. This was a bird I yearned to see in the montane forests of Colorado two years ago (and eventually did); now luck dropped one on the doorstep, almost literally for Joel.Western TanagerSteve Gardner also came out to enjoy the Tanager.  As we discussed my travel dilemmas for the next day, Steve advised me to go the Scoter route. Settled.  Seeing a vivid, bright male bird made me want to see another. The best part was that I could ask some Duluth friends to check on the Scoter in the morning to even see if that was still a viable option come travel time.

Birding friend Clinton Nienhaus was planning to check the duck scene on Lake Superior by 9 AM. I had made the decision that the Twin Cities option was completely out; if the Scoter didn’t show, we’d go to Grand Forks. Not hearing anything from Clinton right away,  the kids and I got in the car and started driving north anyway.  We still didn’t know if we would end up in the Northwest or the Northeast. About ten minutes into our journey, we got the report from Clinton: no duck. Our direction was now crystal clear:

Evan Marin North Dakota

I made a detour around Rothsay, the self-proclaimed “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota,” to try to dig up that bird for Evan’s life list. It was the wrong time of day for Greater Prairie-Chickens, but we did manage to see our first Marbled Godwits in two years.  Prairie birds are so cool.

Marbled Godwit

Seeing as how I hastily decided a destination that morning, I didn’t have a chance to do my due diligence in hotel scouting for Grand Forks.  We’d have to do things the old fashioned way–walk into various places and check rates. Turns out Priceline’s got nothin’ on the “cute kid discount” thanks to North Dakota kindness manifested by a grandmotherly hotel manager.

Being in North Dakota felt right. I love the West and its birds.  Maybe that’s because I’m from the West. Or maybe, those western birds, like the Tanager, remind me of all the  remoteness and the beauty of big country. I know, it’s just Grand Forks, but it’s still a window into the wilds of the West.  And that’s what I was hoping to catch a glimpse of that evening.  While the kids played in the hotel pool that afternoon, I finalized arrangements for the kids and I to go Short-ear Owling with Sandy Aubol. With one foot in the North Dakota birding world and the other in Minnesota, Sandy is a well-respected birder on either side of the line who knows how to get the good birds. No one knows Short-ears better than she does; we were in good hands.

Minutes after we met Sandy and she hopped into the van with the kids, dog, and myself, we were already on the hunt for Short-ears, driving the remote grassland country around GF.  Perhaps we got too early of a start because the toast wasn’t popping up for us.  It’s always nice to see Sharp-tailed Grouse though.  This male was even putting on a bit of a late night show for the ladies.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sandy was frustrated that we weren’t seeing any Owls after nearly a half hour or more of searching. Truthfully I was okay with getting skunked; the kids and I were on an adventure and having fun.  However, Sandy knew I wanted to get redemptive looks at a Short-eared Owl and possibly even a photograph.  Her ceaseless scanning finally paid off when she spotted the floppy, erratic flight of a Short-eared Owl. And wouldn’t you know, it perched up on the side of the road!

Short-eared OwlThese birds don’t seem to perch for long (or at all). Rather shortly this one took to the air.  It was amazing how fast and how much ground it can cover and how unpredictable its flight path is. Amazingly this Owl came back for another, much closer roadside perch:

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

For previously only seeing this bird in a snowstorm at dusk at a distance, I was beyond tickled with this chance to view and photograph a perched bird especially when perches don’t last long:

Short-eared Owl

Sandy was not completely satisfied with the photo op or just seeing one Owl.  As a host, she wanted to show just how awesome this land could be. Having been in that position myself, I understood that feeling but was still very satisfied with the night already. Needless to say, we kept on Owling.  We ended up rendezvousing with Jeff Grotte, Tony Lau, and Russ Myrman who were in the area and came to look for Short-ears too. Maybe it was luck from Sandy’s lucky Owl charm or maybe it was from having Jeff, the Owl Whisperer, around, but the toast started popping up.  We couldn’t butter it fast enough. Sandy would spot one and get me on it, then have a couple more picked out.  It was crazy.  Sandy said it best when she said it can quickly change from nothing to everything with this bird.  The frustrating thing is that activity increases as daylight rapidly decreases.  Flight shots are about all one can hope for at this time of night.  If you do see one perched, it usually goes like this:

Short-eared OwlBut enjoying the hunting behavior of this Owl in this habitat is half the fun.

Short-eared OwlIt was really tough to keep track of the numbers of Short-ears we were seeing as they cover so much ground so quickly.  I conservatively eBirded 7 of them. It was a lot of fun to witness the Short-eared phenomenon in action.  Sandy was spotting all the birds, and I was hoping to get in on the fun and pick one out myself.  Eventually it happened.

Short-eared OwlAnd then it happened again as I flushed one from the side of the road in my headlights on  our way back to Grand Forks. I’m glad I didn’t hit it!

Experiences like this only whet the appetite for more.  I will definitely be back someday to go after these cool birds again.  It may not be a new bird or boost any list, but who cares.  This was fun, plain and simple, and that’s what birding should be.  Thanks, Sandy, for a great outing!

Flying Away

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.

Wet Mountain Valley

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.

Rose-breasted GrosbeakIn 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

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.

Spotted Towhee

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.

Western Tanager

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.

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

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.

Westcliffe Inn

Birds or no birds, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at sunrise are pretty spectacular.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains

I did see one last pair of Mountain Bluebirds.  Fitting.

Mountain Bluebird

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!!

Big Horn SheepIn 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.

Big Horn Sheep

Big Horn SheepThis 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.

Black-billed Magpie

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.

Bullock's Oriole

Bullock's Oriole

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!

Custer’s Last Stand

As I packed the car that last morning in Colorado, the Western Tanager was weighing heavily on my mind.  Yes, I had seen it earlier in the week, but the quick looks and obscured photos were unsatisfactory. Additionally Evan wanted it too.  There would be time for one last play. But I doubted that play and felt that Custer County was going to defeat us as it had us surrounded with Western Tanager-less mountains (or so it seemed).  Custer was the last option to see WETA as we’d be heading east out of Colorado into lower elevations and windswept grasslands.

I had been debating two options for that play – back to Forest Service Road 383 by Bishop’s Castle where six WETA had been reported or back to Greenwood Road where two had been reported.  I got skunked on 383 earlier, and it just didn’t give me a good vibe overall.  I finally settled on Greenwood Road; it wasn’t as much of a detour, and I had previous success there. Statistically speaking it was the worse bet, but sometimes a birder has to follow his gut.

With that decision made, we said our goodbyes and began descending the mountain to the Wet Mountain Valley below.  As I drove away, fear of not seeing the bird mixed with doubt about my decision.  All this was churning inside when I spotted a larger bird at the top of a Ponderosa while that mountain home was still visible and looming large up on the mountain behind us.  I had quickly become acclimated to the new species at Jon and Carol’s house and this one didn’t fit any of the profiles. Even as I reached for my binoculars on the floor of my car I had a strong suspicion of what I was about to see and could hardly get those bins up fast enough.  And my suspicion was right for I was looking at a Clark’s Nutcracker! Oh yeah!

Clark's Nutcracker

Clark’s Nutcracker

Evan looked up to get his check mark while I hopped out to follow this bird around a bit and get some photos.  I had hoped I would get this bird in Colorado, but I had read it’s a high elevation bird near the timberline.  Needless to say I was quite surprised and delighted to find one at 8,300 feet.  The whole time I observed it, it made this rasping, croaking sound.  I had heard that sound the past couple days but didn’t know what was making it.

Clark's NutcrackerClark's NutcrackerThis was quite the thrill seeing this cool bird.  Every new western species I find is a double bonus – it is one more for the life list and one less vagrant to chase in Minnesota.  I missed out on a Clark’s in Minnesota just before I really got serious about birding.

Now the prospect of potentially losing out on Western Tanager was easier to stomach. We eventually left the Clark’s to do his croaking and eating in peace, and we later arrived at the Greenwood Road for the moment of truth.  This road is a few miles long with very few inhabitants.  It was a nice, quiet, birdy-kind-of-road.  Not wanting to make this trip agonizingly long for the family, I was traveling around 25 mph – slow enough to bird but not too slow to keep us from making decent progress on our way home. Melissa then told me I’d never see anything going that fast.  (Isn’t she great?) Ok, then, so I dropped it down to 5 mph.  Melissa asked me what we were looking for so she could help.  Some of you may remember that she found all five of those Aitkin County Great Gray Owls and that bevy of Burrowing Owls in Arizona.  Anyhow, I explained the red, yellow, and black pattern to her of the tanager.  I no sooner said it and she pointed and said there was a bright yellow and black bird in the pine just ahead of us.  No binoculars were needed to see we already found the Western Tanager!  Of course, Evan couldn’t see it and the pressure or exhaustion was getting to him and the tears started coming.  I hopped out to grab a photo while Melissa was able to get him on the bird.  But that sneaky WETA was using his best goldfinch disguise.  I only got this shot before it flew across the road and down to the ground.

Western Tanager

I watched and watched the spot where it flew to the ground.  What in the world? They’re supposed to be birds who prefer the tops of conifers.  Eventually I figured it out as the now soggy Western Tanager flew up to a bush after bathing in the quiet mountain stream that was running alongside the road.

Western Tanager

The bird continued to sit in one spot, preening itself.  Even though it was still, the distance was too great and the bird too wet for any remarkable photo.

Western Tanager

Eventually it flew, and I couldn’t relocate it.  It was nice to get this one for Evan.  I was also able to improve my photo of the bird just a little, so I was content.  Even still, we kept birding.  There could be more Western Tanagers around.  We saw some empids, and based on eBird reports they were probably new birds for us.  I didn’t care though.  I will fight the empid identification battle in retirement when I have more time.  Time was precious right now, and I wanted to see more Western Tanagers with our last remaining minutes in the mountains.

Evan and I searching for WETA on foot on Greenwood Road, Custer County, Colorado

Evan and I searching for Western Tanagers along Greenwood Road, Custer County, Colorado

Reaching the end of the short Greenwood Road, we turned around to drive down it and back one more time.  Good thing we did because I saw another(?) Western Tanager fly across the road.  I got one photo before it was gone for good. Not a crush, but it was enough to defeat Custer.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

Though I was still ignoring empids and the like, there was a bird I couldn’t ignore because its size, its numbers, and its awesomeness wouldn’t allow it. From a streamside Willow Tree, a half dozen big birds flushed high into the pines above.  From the same eBird report I had read earlier, I knew these were Band-tailed Pigeons!  And they kept pouring out of that tree.  We must have seen 20.

Band-tailed Pigeons

Band-tailed Pigeon

Band-tailed Pigeon

Band-tailed Pigeon

Two big bonus lifers (three for Evan) and the number one target nailed – I think we beat you, Custer.  In the last post I had said this would be the final Colorado post, but leaving the mountains is a natural break in the story and a good place to stop.  The story of the rest of the journey home will be a short and sweet post and will truly be the last one. Colorado had one more big gift for Evan, and Nebraska surprised us.

Raising Birding to a Whole New Level in Custer County, Colorado

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.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

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.

JonThe 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.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

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.

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous HummingbirdIts 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

Western Wood Pewee

Western Wood PeweeI 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.

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Cordilleran FlycatcherThen 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.

Bushtit – It’s okay to giggle.

BushtitBushtitAunt 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.

Mystery Eagle

Mystery Eagle

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!

Golden Eagle!!

Golden Eagle!!

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.

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain ChickadeeMoving 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

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

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.