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Black-backed Woodpecker is one of the most highly desired birds in the Adirondacks.  These woodpeckers are boreal specialists with most of their range in Canada.  They feed mainly on the larvae of wood-boring beetles which they can actually hear in the depths of the tree.  Their long bills allow them to reach deep under the bark to reach their prey.  Bloomingdale Bog has many reports of the woodpecker and it is also a good place to see other boreal species like Boreal Chickadee and Canada Jay.

A Canada Jay surveys the area

A Canada Jay surveys the area.

Derek and I spent all morning in this area on Wednesday.  It is nice easy birding with dirt roads and well-maintained wide trails.  We were not successful with our search for Black-backed Woodpecker, but we thoroughly enjoyed birding this area.  We saw Canada Jays and other northern breeding birds – Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush, and Black-capped Chickadees.

Canadian Bunchberry, a member of the dogwood family, was abundant along the roadsides in the bog

Canadian Bunchberry, a member of the dogwood family, was abundant along the roadsides in the bog.

We also saw pretty Bottle Gentian along the roadsides

We also saw pretty Bottle Gentian along the roadsides.

Canada Jays may be one of my favorite birds; they certainly rank high on the list of birds that are fun.  These jays are naturally inquisitive, but 20 years of hand feeding at Bloomingdale Bog has resulted in especially tame birds.  At this location, Canada Jays will eat out of your hand.  Here is Derek with an offering of raisins, a favorite food of the jays.

Offering accepted

Offering accepted

After we finished playing with the Canada Jays, we headed north on the trail towards a small wetland. We ran into our first warbler wave of the day, which was a mixed flock of birds ranging from Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches to a Nashville Warbler, Blue-headed Vireos, and Magnolia Warblers.

We then had a quick lunch and checked out nearby Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC).  The hiking trails were gorgeous.

Along the Boreal Trail at Paul Smith's Visitor Interpretation Center

Along the Boreal Trail at Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretation Center

An interesting woodland wildflower we saw there was Indian Pipe, also called Ghost Pipe or Ghost Plant, which grows in mature moist shaded forests throughout most of North America.  This plant is unusual in that it is entirely white and able to survive without the green pigment chlorophyll.  Instead of generating energy from sunlight, it is parasitic.  Its hosts are certain fungi that are mycorrhizal with tree roots.

Indian Pipe

Indian Pipe

The Boreal Trail at Paul Smith’s VIC leads to a lovely bog where we saw Pitcher Plants.

Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia purpurea, at the VIC

Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia purpurea, at the VIC

The friendly folks at the VIC identified several wildflowers that Derek photographed.  We enjoyed chatting with them before and after our walks about the local birds, plants, and the Adirondacks and found them very helpful.

Derek and I really liked this area of the Adirondacks and we were happy that we would have two and a half more days here.

Red squirrel at Paul Smith's Visitor Interpretation Center

Red squirrel at Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretation Center

Derek and I spent Monday and Tuesday driving around the north end of Lake Champlain, first north up through Vermont, then across Quebec and finally south into New York.  Our first major stop on Monday morning was Dead Creek WMA IBA in Vermont.  We hoped the birds we saw there would include shorebirds, but this stop was the first of many that was not what we expected.  It was beautiful, but we did not even see any shorebird habitat.  We tallied only 13 species, all birds that we see at home in North Carolina or Maryland – robins, goldfinches, an Osprey.

We saw shrubs with red berries everywhere like this one with a Song Sparrow at Dead Creek WMA IBA.

We saw shrubs with red berries everywhere like this one with a Song Sparrow at Dead Creek WMA IBA.

Our next stop was Charlotte Town Beach which proved to be an even bigger surprise.  This tiny beach on the edge of the lake with more trees than sand is an eBird hotspot with 226 species reported from over 2,600 checklists.  It is renowned by the local birding community as one of the best places on Lake Champlain for lake watching.  A Little Gull had been reported here recently and I need it for a life bird.  However, we saw just a few Ring-billed Gulls and only four other species.

The view from Charlotte Town Beach. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The view from Charlotte Town Beach. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The north end of Lake Champlain contains several islands and we thought it would be fun to drive through them.  Again, we were surprised and mildly disappointed as the islands were so large we could not see water except when crossing the bridges from one island to the next.  Our longest stop was at South Hero Marsh Trail.  We had our first of several experiences trying to track down the bird making sounds that we could not identify.  After ten minutes of careful searching, we found the source of the sounds under dense vegetation on the edge of a wetland – a chipmunk!

Green Heron in the swamp along the South Hero Marsh Trail

Green Heron in the swamp along the South Hero Marsh Trail

A real bird that we saw was a Merlin who flew in as we were heading back.  She landed on top of a snag and began eating dinner.  We waited until she was finished before we continued along the trail so that we would not flush her and cause her to lose her meal.  Later scrutiny of our photos showed that her “dinner” was only an appetizer or dessert – a dragonfly!

Merlin on the South Hero Marsh Trail

Merlin on the South Hero Marsh Trail

We finished the day with an American White Pelican at Campbell Bay, a rare bird for Vermont.  We were lucky to get good looks at the bird in intermittent drizzle and still enough light that we could see Canada across the bay.

On Tuesday morning, we birded at St. Albans Bay Town Park, Vermont.  We finally found a few shorebirds, two Least Sandpipers and five Semipalmated Plovers.  This helped me reach my goal of 50 species for Vermont.

Semipalmated Plover in early morning light at St. Albans Bay Town Park

Semipalmated Plover in early morning light at St. Albans Bay Town Park

 

American Redstart at St. Albans Bay Town Park

American Redstart at St. Albans Bay Town Park

We continued north into Canada where our first birding stop was Philipsburg Bird Sanctuary, just across the border.  The entrance to the park was so overgrown with weeds that I drove by it twice before I could find it.  The parking area and trails were also overgrown, but this mostly boreal forest park is beautiful.  We observed a good variety of birds ranging from southern birds such as Red-bellied Woodpecker to more northern breeders like an American Bittern that Derek found.  We also saw an Osprey and our only Bald Eagle for the trip so far.

Part of a beautiful large field in the middle of Philipsburg Bird Sanctuary

Part of a beautiful large field in the middle of Philipsburg Bird Sanctuary

A quick stop at Parc Jamison to look for shorebirds produced no shorebirds, but surprised us with a Great Egret.

McFee Brook Interpretive Center was next, with signs only in French “Centre d’interprétation du ruisseau McFee.” This was a small park with a long boardwalk over a wetland.  I imagined that it must be an excellent place to see birds on a spring morning.

A Great Blue Heron in a small pond at McFee Brook Interpretive Center

A Great Blue Heron in a small pond at McFee Brook Interpretive Center

We had lunch at Cantine Lolo in Lacolle before leaving Canada.  We ate a simple meal while we sat outside at a picnic table and added a few more birds to our Canada list.  The menu was in French only and the person taking our orders did not have good English.  However, another customer overheard Derek placing our order and came to his aid.

After eating we turned south and back into the US.  Beekmantown Rest Area provided a nice welcome home with clean restrooms and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak at its feeders.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at a New York rest area. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) at a New York rest area. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Our last stop of the day and was Noblewood Park where we looked for a Little Gull that had been reported.  This park is almost directly across Lake Champlain from Charlotte Town Beach where we had looked for the gull the previous day.  The entrance is through thick woods and after parking it’s about a half-mile walk to the beach through more trees.  The gull had been seen much closer here but we did not see one among the 180 Bonaparte’s Gulls resting on the sand bar not too far from shore.  Little Gull is an uncommon but annual visitor to the lake, so I still hope to see one before the trip is over.

The sandbar seen from the beach at Noblewood Park. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The sandbar seen from the beach at Noblewood Park. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We finished the day with a drive to Tupper Lake, deep in the Adirondacks, where we would spend the next four nights.

 

My friend David will begin participating in Cycle Adirondacks’s Ultimate Cycling Vacation in a few days.  When he signed up nearly a year ago, he asked if I’d like to come along to give him a little extra support in case it’s needed.  He suggested that I might also see a few birds.  So, of course, I said “yes.”  And then a couple of weeks ago the birding part of the plan really came together when my birding buddy, Derek, said that he would like to go for a few days, too.

House Wren

House Wren

I left home yesterday morning, Saturday, August 10, and drove to Derek’s place just north of Baltimore.  It was mainly a travel day, but I did make a few stops to look for birds in new counties.  First was the lovely Walrond Park in Roanoke, Virginia, that Derek suggested.  The beautiful park had wonderful habitat and looked as if it should have been teeming with birds, but it was rather quiet late on a hot August morning.  I didn’t see much other than Gray Catbirds and a little House Wren family.

I had somewhat better luck at McCormick’s Farms farther north in Virginia, finding three Green Herons in one little pond along with a Great Blue Heron and a Belted Kingfisher.

The old mill at McCormick Farms

The old mill at McCormick’s Farms

My final stop yesterday was to look for a Pectoral Sandpiper behind a Chick-fil-A in West Virginia, but my search was unsuccessful.  However, I did enjoy these butterflies (Cloudless Sulphurs?  Or perhaps Clouded Sulphurs?) “puddling” in wet areas of the mostly dried-up pond.

One of several kaleidoscopes of butterflies behind the Chick-fil-A in Ranson, West Virginia

One of several kaleidoscopes of butterflies behind the Chick-fil-A in Ranson, West Virginia

Today was another travel day as Derek and I drove north.  But there were a couple of significant differences.  First, the weather was just perfect today, a very welcome relief from the hot temps at home.  Second, I got birds in THREE new states! I added New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to the list of states that I have birded.

In Connecticut we walked a converted railroad path over a wetland and through some woods where we saw many Gray Catbirds, Cedar Waxwings, oodles of American Goldfinches, and a young Great Blue Heron on top of an electrical post.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Our first stop in Massachusetts was the delightful Bartholomew’s Cobble, nationally recognized for one of the greatest diversities of ferns in North America.  We saw no ferns, and while we saw some nice birds, the highlight was gorgeous Giant Swallowtail Butterflies.

The Bartholomew’s Cobble Visitor Center

The Bartholomew’s Cobble Visitor Center

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

Tonight we are on the north side of Albany, New York.  Tomorrow we keep heading north.  Will we find more butterflies?  More birds?  Other critters?  Follow us and share our adventure.

A Cottontail seen in Connecticut today

A Cottontail seen in Connecticut today

After the Zoothera Birding trip to Yunnan, I flew to Shenzhen on February 2 to visit with my son Dave and his girlfriend Rachel.  The timing was perfect as it allowed me to join Rachel’s family for the celebration of Chinese New Year, the quintessential food and family holiday.  Many stores and businesses close for the week-long holiday, commonly called Spring Festival in China, so that people can return to their home towns to celebrate with their families.  The holiday starts with a huge meal on New Year’s Eve.  Our table was overflowing with plain boiled chicken served with ginger-green onion dip, braised prawns, roasted goose, sautéed Chinese cabbage with vermicelli, steamed Turbot fish, stir-fry vegetables, fried oysters, and chicken soup.  Everything was delicious, but we could not eat it all.  I later learned that it’s part of the tradition to have leftovers so that there is plenty to eat without any cooking or other work on the first day of the new year.

Dazzling decorations in Shenzhen celebrate Spring Festival

Dazzling decorations in Shenzhen celebrate Spring Festival

When I was not spending time with Dave or Rachel, I was free to go birding in Shenzhen’s parks.  This was my fifth trip to China and I have become very comfortable going out by myself.  I don’t see a lot of species, but it’s very satisfying to find them myself.  And, I love those birds!  It’s like visiting old friends. Continue Reading »

Derek and I planned two days after the official Field Guides trip to bird on our own so that we could look for a few extra birds.  We ventured quite far from Denver, but since we were starting and ending those two days in Denver, Derek had been referring to them as “Denver Days” throughout the trip.  There were a lot of possibilities – try for slightly early Virginia’s Warbler or Lark Bunting, search for a Northern Goshawk, chase the vagrant Pacific Wren or Mexican Duck that had been reported, or try to get better views and photos of the Williamson’s Sapsucker.  We finally decided to head towards New Mexico where we had a chance for both new birds and a new state for me plus a couple of spots where we could look for Western Screech-Owl on our way.

We started by heading south from Denver to Memorial Park & Prospect Lake near Colorado Springs to look for a Greater White-fronted Goose that had been reported there for several days.  The goose was rare for that date and location, so it sounded like a fun stop.  In one and a half hours at the park we found 30 species of birds including the Greater White-fronted Goose.

Greater White-fronted Goose. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Greater White-fronted Goose. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

As a bonus, we also saw two “rare” Cackling Geese plus two geese that we couldn’t confidently ascribe to either species.  Later we noted that other birders had also reported two as “Cackling/Canada Goose.”  As much as we like to pin down all our sightings to species, sometimes it just isn’t possible.

Cackling Geese with a Canada Goose in the foreground. Once considered the same species, Canada and Cackling Goose were split in 2004.

Cackling Geese with a Canada Goose in the foreground. Once considered the same species, Canada and Cackling Goose were split in 2004.

The prettiest birds there were a group of American Avocets in colorful breeding plumage.  In the East, we see them more frequently in their black-and-white winter plumage.

American Avocets. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

American Avocets. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We also saw several gulls at the park, including California Gulls, which are rare in the East, so neither of us see them often.  The bird’s dark eye compared to a Ring-billed Gull’s light eye is a holy grail for Eastern gullwatchers picking through massive flocks of the latter species every winter.

Adult California Gull

Adult California Gull

Next it was on to Clear Springs Ranch to look for the Western Screech-Owl that we missed on the very first stop of the Field Guides tour ten days earlier.  Despite an hour of searching in much better weather, we failed to find the owl.

We continued south and a little west to another location that had recent reports of a Western Screech-Owl.  This time we had exact directions right to the tree where the owl roosted, so we were feeling more confident.  Did I mention that this would be a life bird for both Derek and me?  We really wanted this bird.  The location was the lovely Cañon City Riverwalk along the Arkansas River.  We found the tree right away, but the owl did not have his head poking out of his hole in the tree.  After a few minutes, Derek went to check the other end of the trail and I stayed and kept my eye on the tree.  A walker came by and told me that she had seen the owl within the past week.

We saw the Audubon's subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler with their bright yellow throats frequently during our trip. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We saw the Audubon’s subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler with their bright yellow throats frequently during our trip. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Derek came back and we decided to bird around the other end of the trail and check for the Screech-Owl again before dark.  I couldn’t decide whether or not I needed my sweater in the cool evening air, so on my second trip to the car, Derek looked around little Sell Lake to kill time while waiting for me.  I got my sweater and walked over to Derek.  He instructed me to look in the branches of a fallen tree on the edge of the pond and tell him what I saw.  “A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron,” I replied.  Derek knew what the bird was, but he could barely believe his eyes.  This is an eastern and coastal species with only a handful of reports west of the Rockies except for California.  Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is a Colorado review species; there were fewer than 40 reports ever for the state and a sighting should be reported formally to the Colorado Bird Records Committee.  We got some poor photos and quickly submitted an eBird checklist.

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on the morning after our discovery. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on the morning after our discovery. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We then checked for the Western Screech-Owl again with no luck.  But, we did see a Great Horned Owl put on a little show.  Blue Jays mobbed the owl who gave chase to the jays and then flew into a branch.  He flopped to the ground, flew back up, preened, and finally flew away.  My photo is not the best quality due to the low light, but it was clear that this particular owl looked different than the ones we were used to seeing in the East.  Birds of North American Online says “Geographic variation in appearance moderate and complex.”  It also states that there are 15 subspecies and “moderately pale populations occur in the s. Rocky Mts.”  So, it wasn’t our much-wanted Western Screech-Owl, but it was fun to see a new variation and learn more about this widespread owl that occurs in all 49 continental states and parts of Central and South America.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

We had lingered on the trail well into darkness, so we decided to stay in Cañon City for the night so that we could have one more chance to look for the screech-owl again in the morning.  Alas, we did not have any luck with the owl then either, but Derek did get a much better photo of the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.  We also met a couple of local birders who had received eBird alerts for the night-heron and were very appreciative of our timely report.  I’m sure it was a new county bird for them and perhaps a new species for their state lists.  Over the next week and a half, the night-heron would be seen by twenty other birders.

So, now we had less than a day to get to New Mexico, find some birds, and get back to the Denver airport that evening for our flight back to Baltimore.  After birding the Cañon City Riverwalk again, we headed to Maxwell NWR in New Mexico.  We drove around Lake 13 and saw quite a few nice birds including this Franklin’s Gull.

Franklin's Gull in gorgeous breeding plumage. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Franklin’s Gull in gorgeous breeding plumage. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

At a little drier part of the NWR, we had a couple of exciting sightings.  First was a Cassin’s Kingbird, a life bird for Derek and a completely unexpected surprise.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird

The kingbird was quickly followed by a life mammal for me, Black-tailed Jackrabbit.  I was thrilled to finally see this rabbit, especially since most of the Field Guides group had seen one darting through the brush at a rest stop.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Vesper Sparrows are very common in the West and we had one in this area.

Vesper Sparrow. Can you see why this bird was once called the Bay-winged Bunting? Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Vesper Sparrow. Can you see why this bird was once called the Bay-winged Bunting? Photo by Derek Hudgins.

After leaving Maxwell NWR, we started the drive north, but made one more stop in New Mexico at Climax Canyon Park & Nature Trail.

The trail at Climax Canyon Park & Nature Trail is up the side of a mountain. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The trail at Climax Canyon Park & Nature Trail is up the side of a mountain. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

As we started up the mountain, I caught a glimpse of something on the side of the trail.  He is camouflaged so well that I doubt I would have seen this little lizard if he hadn’t displayed his dewlap.  After we got home, Derek and I tried to identify him to species, but there is too little difference between several closely related species in this genus, Sceloporus, to be sure.  Whether it’s a Prairie Lizard, Southwest Fence Lizard, or a Plateau Fence Lizard, it’s a life lizard for both of us.

A male lizard in the genus Sceloporus. You can just barely see his blue belly.

A male lizard in the genus Sceloporus. You can just barely see his blue belly.

There were not a lot of birds here in the middle of the day, but we were happy to see a Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay and a Bushtit.  Bushtits are busy little birds who never hold still.  I am still waiting to get a decent photo, but Derek was quick enough to get a shot of this one.

Bushtit. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Bushtit. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

What an encore for the amazing Field Guides grouse trip!  Derek and I tallied our Denver Days bonuses as we drove to the airport – forty New Mexico birds for Shelley, 23 new NM birds for Derek (who had previously visited the state), a Cassin’s Kingbird life bird for Derek, Black-tailed Jackrabbit life mammal for Shelley, a fascinating lizard, and a Colorado Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.  We were thankful to have had two more days to appreciate the incredible wildlife and scenery of the American West.

American Red Squirrel. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

American Red Squirrel. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The morning of April 20 started by driving around a Grand Junction residential neighborhood in search of Gambel’s Quail.  While we were stopped in the road in front of a house, the owner came out and talked to one of the guides.  We could not hear the discussion, but the outcome was clear – we were invited into his backyard.  The yard was perfect with several well-placed feeders and I soon had another life bird – a Juniper Titmouse that came in for suet.

Juniper Titmouse, a pinyon-juniper habitat specialist found only in the West.

Juniper Titmouse, a pinyon-juniper habitat specialist found only in the West.

We had a pleasant conversation with the generous homeowner-birder and quickly discovered that the coincidence didn’t end with our vans randomly stopping in front of a birder’s house.  He shared stories about his parents’ international birding trips with us.  Together, we were able to figure out from what he remembered that his parents had traveled with Field Guides and its founders many years ago.  Shortly after saying goodbye to our new friend, we had a good look at several Gambel’s Quail.

Next on the agenda was more incredible scenery at Colorado National Monument.

Each layer of rock was created at a different time as the relentless forces of water, ice, wind, thunderstorms, and heat formed the colorful spires and steep canyon walls. At the bottom is Precambrian rock which is over 1.7 billion years old.

Each layer of rock was created at a different time as the relentless forces of water, ice, wind, thunderstorms, and heat formed the colorful spires and steep canyon walls. At the bottom is Precambrian rock which is over 1.7 billion years old.

The birding at Colorado National Monument was pretty good, too.  We all had excellent looks at a perennial birder favorite, Black-throated Sparrow.

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow

We also saw White-throated Swifts, Aeronautes saxatalis, one of the fastest flying birds in North America.  The generic name of this species, Aeronautes, which means “sky sailor,” is particularly apt for these birds that achieve breathtaking speeds and then quickly change direction with lightning-fast precision as they streak between steep canyon walls.  They were too fast for me, but Derek was able to get the photo below as a swift whizzed quickly by.

White-throated Swift. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

White-throated Swift. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Perhaps most exciting was the very early (April 20) Gray Vireo that Cory found on the Devil’s Kitchen Trail.  We all saw the bird, one of the ten earliest sightings ever for Colorado.

Birding on the beautiful Devil's Kitchen Trail in Colorado National Monument.

Birding on the beautiful Devil’s Kitchen Trail in Colorado National Monument.

That afternoon we birded some reservoirs, but 20+ knot winds hampered our ability to see much.  The weather was so bad that I gave up and waited in the van part of the time.  However, we still had some good sightings, particularly when we were expertly guided precisely to a Prairie Falcon spot that also had Wyoming Ground Squirrels.

One of the many Pronghorn that we saw throughout the trip. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

One of the many Pronghorn that we saw throughout the trip. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Our tour was nearing the end with only two days and two grouse species left.  Sharp-tailed Grouse also use the lek mating system, but it’s harder to find a reliable lek.  On the morning of April 21, we visited a roadside lek where the grouse had been observed just a week earlier by the first Field Guides Grouse Tour, but we did not have their luck.  We could hear the birds displaying on the other side of the ridgeline, but it took quite a while to find three distant birds.  While searching for the grouse, we were serenaded by a group of five Sandhill Cranes.  As we left the area, we finally had a good look at a Sharp-tailed Grouse on the side of the road.

Like all the other Sharp-tailed Grouse we saw, this one wasn’t displaying either.

Like all the other Sharp-tailed Grouse we saw, this one wasn’t displaying either.

Another side-of-the-road bird that pleased us all was a Rough-legged Hawk perched on top of a telephone pole as we neared Walden.  We checked into our hotel, had lunch, and then headed out for more birding.  Walden is smaller and has a more rugged feel than the upscale ski towns that we stayed in for much of the tour.  Its remote location draws visitors for camping, fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing.  The hotels and restaurants here were basic, but we enjoyed the quiet change of pace.  In this town that advertises itself as the “Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado,” we did see a moose just outside of town.  And, a Golden Eagle!

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

The afternoon brought rain, so we took cover at the Colorado State Forest Moose Visitor Center.  The birds were not deterred by the weather and we had a wonderful time watching them from the covered patio at the back of the Visitor Center.  I think that everyone’s favorite birds here were the Cassin’s Finches, present in good numbers and cooperative photographic subjects.

Male Cassin's Finch

Male Cassin’s Finch

Female Cassin's Finch

Female Cassin’s Finch

Our last day of birding, April 22, was one of the best.  We started early again to visit a spectacular Greater Sage-Grouse lek which was close to the road and gave us great views.  These birds were very different from the prairie-chickens, but just as impressive as we observed their ancient rituals.

Greater Sage-Grouse (male)

Greater Sage-Grouse (male)

Sadly, this is another species of conservation concern. I wrote about the plight of the Greater Sage-Grouse in my story last year, Prairie Road Trip: 7,114 Miles, 27 Days, 171 Avian Species. But, this day we just enjoyed the birds. Many words come to mind when watching the big males trying to impress the girls – majestic, comical, obscene.

Displaying male Greater Sage-Grouse

Displaying male Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse (male). Note less white barring on the tail than on Gunnison Sage-Grouse.

Greater Sage-Grouse (male). Note less white barring on the tail than on Gunnison Sage-Grouse.

The day would have been a success if we didn’t see another bird, but we were not done yet.  Stops at reservoirs and other spots on our drive gave us Barrow’s Goldeneye, Marbled Godwit, and Canada Jay as new trip birds.  We headed to Genesee Mountain Park near Denver.  Our target here was Williamson’s Sapsucker and again we had great luck with a gorgeous adult male flying in to land almost over our heads.  The fog and drizzle prevented good photos, but we had excellent looks at this wonderful and much-wanted woodpecker.

On the trail to see Williamson's Sapsucker. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

On the trail to see Williamson’s Sapsucker. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Our last birding stop was Robert A. Easton Regional Park to see a continuing rarity, a Neotropic Cormorant. The area around the lake at the park gave us 46 species of birds including a surprise Mew Gull and five new trip birds.  It was a nice review of many of the duck species we had seen during the previous 10 days.

It was an amazing tour.  We observed a total of 186 species of birds and 26 mammal species.  For the complete list, see Cory’s trip report for Field Guides.  But, Derek and I were not ready to go home yet.  We enjoyed our last dinner at a nice Italian restaurant near our Denver hotel and said goodbye to our wonderful guides, Doug Gochfeld and Cory Gregory, and the other trip participants.  And then we turned in for an early night because we had more birds to see the following day.  Watch for a story about our “Denver Days” bonus birding next.

After wonderful experiences viewing both Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens on their leks, we turned our attention to finding Colorado’s other grouse species.  On our drive west from Wheat Ridge on April 17, we witnessed dramatic shifts in the landscape as our elevation increased from 5,400 feet to 12,000 and we climbed above the tree line.  We hoped to find the elusive White-tailed Ptarmigan, the smallest grouse in North America.  But first we had a totally unexpected surprise just before Loveland Pass. “What’s he doing here?” one of our guides exclaimed as we saw a Dusky Grouse on the side of the road.

Dusky Grouse on the side of the road as we approached the Continental Divide.

Dusky Grouse on the side of the road as we approached the Continental Divide.

The Dusky Grouse was my first life bird of the trip and I was thrilled.  Our good fortune that day continued.  In late April, it can be impossible to find birds at Loveland Pass due to high winds or blinding snow, but we were very lucky with clear weather.  We parked the vans in the little area at the pass and walked a short distance along the icy trail.  Snow covered the ground and I couldn’t imagine how we would ever find a small white bird.  After 45 minutes of rigorous searching, our guides using their scopes, Doug pulled two distant birds out of the snow-covered mountainside.  But I couldn’t make out the bird in the scope; all I saw was snow.  I was ready to give up, but Cory would not let me quit.  Finally, I saw the black dots of eyes and beak.  I would have liked the bird closer, but I was happy to see this difficult bird at all.

Another unexpected sight at the pass was this red fox that appeared to be playing in the snow. 

Another unexpected sight at the pass was this red fox that appeared to be playing in the snow.

I didn't get a photo of the White-tailed Ptarmigan, so Derek and I posed to mark the occasion.

I didn’t get a photo of the White-tailed Ptarmigan, so Derek and I posed to mark the occasion.

That afternoon we enjoyed more mountain birding as we drove south.  It wasn’t long until Derek and I had more life birds, Black and Brown-capped Rosy-Finches.  I have no photos from that sighting, but we would see them incredibly close the following day.

The ever-changing landscape turned to the utterly different dry forest of San Isabel National Forest just a few hours after we left Loveland Pass.  Pinyon Jays were the stars here with good looks at these nomadic birds that can be very challenging to find.

Lunch was at the delightful Eddyline Restaurant in Buena Vista.  As an appetizer, we shared a couple of Wild Game Sausage Samplers which included Jackelope (rabbit and antelope) sausage, one of our most distinct culinary ventures.

After lunch, we climbed back to higher elevations and heavy snow which led to my favorite “weather” photo of the trip, a Clark’s Nutcracker at Monarch Pass.

Clark's Nutcracker

Clark’s Nutcracker

This American Three-toed Woodpecker, also seen at Monarch Pass, was a life bird for some in our group and pleased us all by being exceptionally cooperative.

American Three-toed Woodpecker

American Three-toed Woodpecker

And, I was happy to get my first really good looks at Mountain Chickadee.

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

We continued our westward journey to look for Gunnison Sage-Grouse.  Scientists first noticed differences in the sage-grouse inhabiting the Gunnison Basin in southwest Colorado and eastern Utah in the late 1970’s.  One of the first clues was that the northern sage-grouse consistently pop their air sacs twice in each of the many brief strut displays they perform, but the Gunnison birds pop their air sacs nine times.  The Gunnison birds are smaller and have shorter tails with more distinct white barring.  The males have longer and thicker filoplumes on the neck and perform a different sort of strut.  In 1999, even more definitive evidence piled up when detailed studies of the two groups’ DNA showed that they were far too distantly related to be considered the same species.

Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Photo by Bob Gress.

Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Photo by Bob Gress.

Gunnison Sage-Grouse was officially recognized as a full species in 2000 and it was already in trouble.  Its population and range have never been large, but it is now reduced to about ten percent of its historical range: seven populations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah with a total number of birds under 5,000, the majority in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin.  In November 2014, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse was listed as Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  While there are efforts to save the species, there are also the usual political battles while the birds face threats from habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation as well as the roads and power lines associated with development, improper grazing management, global warming, low levels of genetic diversity, and more.

We saw Gunnison Sage-Grouse well enough to distinguish them from the similar, but somewhat larger Greater Sage-Grouse, but the birds were distant.  We focused on movement and behavior rather than plumage and field marks.  When the males filled their air sacs and forcefully threw their bodies forward, some of us thought it looked like they were trying to hock a loogie.  Here is a video from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Eric Hynes, a Field Guides trip leader who lives in Telluride, spent the afternoon with us, a great bonus and an experience that would have been impossible if we had been birding on our own.  Eric said that he would take us to his house where he promised Rosy-Finches “right at your feet.”  On our way to Eric’s house, we spotted these Bighorn Sheep on the red rocks by the side of the road.

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

The Rosy-Finches in Eric’s backyard did not disappoint us; they were so close we could almost touch them.

Black-Rosy-Finch, a life bird for Derek and me. I missed this species on my big trip West last summer, so it was especially sweet to have such incredible close views.

Black Rosy-Finch, a life bird for Derek and me. I missed this species on my big trip West last summer, so it was especially sweet to have such incredible close views.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, another life bird for me.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, another life bird for me and nearly endemic to Colorado.

Some of the Rosy-Finches were not easy to identify. This one is probably a Gray-crowned, but I wouldn't bet my life on it.

Some of the Rosy-Finches were not easy to identify. This one is probably a Gray-crowned, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

This gorgeous male Evening Grosbeak was another guest at the Casa Hynes feeding table.

This gorgeous male Evening Grosbeak was another guest at the Casa Hynes feeding table.

I could have stayed here all day and the guides did not rush us, but after nearly an hour in Eric’s backyard, it was time to look for other birds.  We walked along the lovely creek that runs through downtown Telluride.  Our target was American Dipper, which we watched perched on the rocks and repeatedly diving under the water to forage.

An American Dipper with a little fish in its bill. This was one of Derek's most wanted birds.

An American Dipper with a little fish in its bill. This was one of Derek’s most wanted birds.

We also saw a Savannah Sparrow by the stream (surprise!), both Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, and Cinnamon Teal and an unexpected White-faced Ibis at a nearby pond.  We had another great lunch (I could write an entire post just about the fabulous food on this trip) and said goodbye to Eric.

It had been an outstanding day that Derek summed up like this: “This was one of my favorite days of birding ever.  I had two lifers in Gunnison Sage-Grouse and American Dipper, one of which is extremely difficult and endangered while the other represents a new, distinct family, coming within touching distance of rosy-finches plus the Evening Grosbeak, just the length of the Dipper sighting as it foraged, mating Peregrines, being one of two to spot a last-second Golden Eagle, stunning scenery, and two charismatic mammal lifers in the Bighorn Sheep and Yellow-bellied Marmot, plus maybe a lifer chipmunk.”

The next morning, April 19, we started with a visit to the spectacular Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  The key feature of this park is the deep narrow canyon with walls that plunge an awe-inspiring 2,700 feet to the Gunnison River below.  Black Canyon gets its name because some parts of the gorge receive only 33 total minutes of sunlight per day.  This gem is one of the least visited national parks and worth a visit for its incredible scenery.

The Painted Wall, a popular feature of the NWR. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

The Painted Wall, a popular feature in the National Park. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Our first target was Dusky Grouse, usually found in the campground area.  Dusky Grouse are not known to utilize leks for courtship displays.  Rather, a male will display to any female that he finds and probably mates with more than one female each season.  After mating, the female leaves the male’s territory to build a nest and raise a clutch of chicks by herself.  We saw a couple of birds near the campsites, and then when driving out of the area, we found a distant displaying male.

As we traveled through Colorado, we were delighted to see mammals of all sizes in addition to birds and the fantastic landscapes.  Here’s a cute little ground-squirrel who posed nicely for our cameras.

Golden-mantled Ground-Squirrel

Golden-mantled Ground-Squirrel

After leaving the National Park, we drove to the Utah state line in the afternoon to look for Sagebrush Sparrow.  I loved the solitude of the gravel BLM roads without much other traffic.  Doug and Cory listened for birds and stopped when they heard singing.  We were actually on a road that marked the state line, so we got to count birds on both sides of the road and I got a bonus of another new state.  We had excellent views of Sagebrush Sparrow, another life bird that I had missed last summer.

Sagebrush Sparrow, a much-desired life bird

Sagebrush Sparrow, a much-desired life bird

Other birds here were Sage Thrasher (which politely flew across the state line for the listers in our group), Common Raven, Brewer’s Sparrow, Golden Eagle, and even a distant Ferruginous Hawk spotted by one of the trip participants.  Shortly after we started heading to our hotel for the night, another sighting was a first for all of us – a Great Blue Heron rookery on a cell tower!

Goodbye Utah. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Goodbye Utah. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Stay tuned for more Colorado grouse adventures.