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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.

 

I woke up on March 21 to find a text message from my birding pal Derek.  Two spots were available on the Field Guides grouse tour in April; would I like to go?  Well, yes, of course, I would like to go!  I know several people who have done the “chicken run” on their own, but I had no desire to find the best locations, make the arrangements, and then drive 2,500 miles getting to all the leks.  I had not planned to take another birding trip so soon after China, but this was too good to pass up.  I responded “Yes!” to Derek and a couple of hours later we were both officially signed up for the trip.

I had never been to Colorado and I was looking forward to seeing rugged landscapes like this.

I had never been to Colorado and I was looking forward to seeing rugged landscapes like this.

The focus of the trip would be viewing Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens and three additional species of grouse on their leks.  You might be wondering “What’s a lek?”  While a dictionary defines a lek simply as a “communal area in which two or more males of a species perform courtship displays,” they are far more.  Leks are hotbeds of social activity excitingly described in the Audubon article, What the Heck Is a Lek? The Quirkiest Mating Party on Earth.  In between the leks, we would search for several other uncommon species of birds that are highly-sought by birders.  Additionally, this trip usually provides interesting sightings of mammals.

Here’s a preview of the Greater Prairie-Chickens that we would soon be watching on a lek at a cattle ranch in Colorado.

Derek and I wanted to stay a couple of extra days in Colorado after the tour to look for any species that we might have missed or just get in a little more birding.  We spent two hours on the phone searching for flights from Baltimore for Derek and compatible flights from Greensboro for me.  We couldn’t seem to make it work, so we decided that I would just drive up to Baltimore and we’d fly to Denver together from there.

A Bald Eagle, our national bird, in our nation's capital

A Bald Eagle, our national bird, in our nation’s capital

I arrived in Maryland a day early, supposedly to take it easy and rest for the big trip.  But, of course, our birding obsessions would not allow any downtime.  I’m currently trying to get birds in all of the lower 48 states.  Derek assured me that the District of Columbia counts as a state-level entity, so we spent our first day there.  We had fun despite the intermittent rain and I got 43 species, not bad considering that the expected waterfowl were absent.  Derek even got two new D.C. birds, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Vesper Sparrow.

The next morning, April 13, we caught an early flight to Denver and rented a car so that we could do a little birding before officially starting the tour later that afternoon.  We checked out nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR where we had a nice transition to Western birds.  It was fun seeing Black-billed Magpie, Say’s Phoebe, and Western Meadowlark alongside many birds that we also see in the East like American Avocets.  We were also excited to see the first of three prairie dog species that we would encounter during the trip.

I had a close view of a Red-tailed Hawk on our first afternoon in Colorado. They were very common and we would see too many to count during the coming days.

I had a close view of a Red-tailed Hawk on our first afternoon in Colorado. They were very common and we would see too many to count during the coming days.

At 2:30 PM, we met the other eleven participants and our trip leaders, Cory Gregory and Doug Gochfeld. We piled into the two fifteen-passenger vans that would be home for the next 10 days and after quick introductions we were on our way towards Kansas.  I was happy that Cory was one of the leaders as I had met him in Alaska (Alaska 2015: “The Pit Stop is Cancelled”) and knew that he was a great guy in addition to an expert birder.  On our way to Pueblo, Colorado, where we spent the first night, we stopped to look for Western Screech-Owl in a driving rain that eventually turned to snow.  We joked about the weather throughout the trip, saying that we experienced everything except a tornado.  Sadly, we did not have any luck with the Screech-Owl; this was one of the few misses of the trip.

Curve-billed Thrasher in the early morning fog. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Curve-billed Thrasher in the early morning fog. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

On the first full day of the trip, we enjoyed many stops for birding as we continued to head east towards Kansas.  Our first stop was magical, almost spiritual, as we listened to a Curve-billed Thrasher singing in the early morning light.  No other vehicles were on our section of the gravel road and we heard no sounds of civilization; it was just us and the birds.

As the fog dissipated, we continued down the road, getting our first of many excellent views of Pronghorn, an iconic symbol of the West.  Suddenly Derek called out a bird that had been missed.  We backed up and saw a singing Scaled Quail on a cholla cactus on the side of the road.  In this awesome encounter, the bird stayed in that spot for a while, then hopped down, ran across the road, and perched up on a barbed-wire fence where he continued to sing.  We were all thrilled with close looks at this gorgeous bird, which was later voted one of the group favorites for the trip.

Scaled Quail. Can you see why he’s sometimes called “cotton top”?

Scaled Quail. Can you see why he’s sometimes called “cotton top”?

Later that day, we picked up more classic Western species like Yellow-headed Blackbird, Clark’s Grebe, and Lewis’s Woodpecker.  The best part of the afternoon was birding at Neenoshe Reservoir, where we met Colorado birding legend Tony Leukering and Derek got life bird #1,000 – Long-billed Curlew.

Derek's photo of his 1,000th life bird, Long-billed Curlew at Neenoshe Reservoir.

Derek’s photo of his 1,000th life bird, Long-billed Curlew at Neenoshe Reservoir.

The following day, April 15, we visited our first lek, on a Nature Conservancy property in Kansas, to observe Lesser Prairie-Chickens.  We followed the usual protocol for lek viewing and arrived at the blind well before dawn.  We settled into our places on the bench in the metal blind and sat as quietly as possible for the next few hours.  We heard the chickens in the darkness before we saw them.  With the rising sun, silhouettes became visible.  Finally, we saw the entire drama play out before our eyes as the prairie-chickens danced the same dances and observed the same mating rituals as they have for thousands of years.

Female Lesser Prairie-Chickens

Female Lesser Prairie-Chickens

Sadly, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken has suffered huge population declines since the 1800’s.  The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists the species as “vulnerable” due to its restricted and patchy range.  In 2014, it was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, but that ruling was overturned the following year.  Legal battles to protect the Lesser Prairie-Chicken have continued since with a lawsuit to make a decision on listing the species as endangered or threatened likely to be filed soon.  Here is the most current information that I could find, which includes both a biological and legal history.  Regardless of legal status, the prairie-chickens are clearly losing ground due to habitat loss with global warming looming as another threat to their survival.  Cory mused that the Lesser Prairie-Chicken is the most likely bird in the lower 48 states to go extinct in our lifetimes.

Male Lesser Prairie-Chicken displaying on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Male Lesser Prairie-Chicken displaying on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

After viewing the Lesser Prairie-Chickens, we turned back West and birded along the way to Wray, Colorado, with a quick stop in Nebraska, which gave one participant her last state to be visited.  After checking into our hotel, we headed over to the Bledsoe Cattle Ranch for a warm welcome from Bob Bledsoe, a partner in the family-run business.  The ranch has won many awards, but we were also impressed by the Bledsoe’s good stewardship of the land which hosts about 100 Greater Prairie-Chicken leks on its 75,000 acres according to Bob’s estimate. Bob was a good representative for the fascinating Bledsoe family; we enjoyed Bob’s stories and our Q&A session.

On April 16, we arose in the wee hours again, this time to see Greater Prairie-Chickens on the Bledsoe ranch.  The routine was similar, arriving before dawn, but this time we watched the birds from the vans and two pick-up trucks.  Derek and I were lucky to get one truck to ourselves, a great help in getting photos.  As with the Lesser Prairie-Chickens, the birds displayed mere feet from us as we quietly watched.

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens challenge each other on the lek.

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens challenge each other on the lek.

Greater Prairie-Chickens are very similar to Lesser Prairie-Chickens, but slightly larger.  The most noticeable difference is that the gular air sac on the side of the neck is orange to yellow during the breeding season while the air sac of the male Lesser Prairie-Chicken is red.  Although numbers of Greater Prairie-Chickens have declined, they have a wider range and larger, more secure population than Lesser Prairie-Chickens.

A male Greater Prairie-Chicken booming on the lek.

A male Greater Prairie-Chicken booming on the lek.

This charismatic species was my favorite member of the grouse family.  Not only were they beautiful and interesting birds, but the males put on the best vocal show with their booming, cackling, and whooping while dancing and strutting.  Greater Prairie-Chickens are so well-known for their booming sounds that their leks are often referred to as “booming grounds.”

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens step up their game as they fight for the best territories on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Male Greater Prairie-Chickens step up their game as they fight for the best territories on the lek. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the bizarre lek mating system evolved.  Darwin’s theory of natural selection, commonly referred to as survival of the fittest, explains much about evolution, but it can’t explain how non-adaptive characteristics arise.  Features such as the peacock’s long tail actually harm survival by making it difficult to flee from predators.  Darwin realized this and developed his second theory, sexual selection, to explain the emergence of traits which do not aid and may even hinder survival, but give one individual an advantage over other individuals of the same species in obtaining mates.  Darwin suggested two mechanisms of sexual selection: mate choice and competition for mates.  Competition for mates (especially among males) is obvious and generally accepted by scientists as a function of sexual selection.  But mate selection is more complicated.  In his popular book, The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum passionately argues that it’s the female’s innate sense of beauty that explains mate choice, but other scientists disagree.  Many questions remain and grouse are frequently studied in ongoing research on sexual selection.  During the ten days of the grouse tour, we would simply thrill in the displays of the males strutting their stuff and the discerning females making their choices.

Two female Lesser Prairie-Chickens evaluate their choices. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Two female Lesser Prairie-Chickens evaluate their choices. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We saw a few females at both prairie-chicken leks and several others in our group observed mating.  They reported that all the females choose the same male.  This is typical; the dominant couple of males in a given lek will likely mate with about 90% of the females.  The females then leave to build a nest, incubate their eggs, and raise the chicks on their own without any help from the male.

Great Horned Owl. Photo by Derek.

Great Horned Owl. Photo by Derek.

We continued to enjoy sightings of many other species as we drove back to Denver.  The group liked this Great Horned Owl on her nest that we stopped to observe on our way out of the Bledsoe ranch.  Highlights later that day were Mountain Plovers, Burrowing Owls, and a large flock of 150 McCown’s Longspurs at Pawnee National Grassland.  The longspurs were more distant than we would have liked, but, along with the Mountain Plovers, they were life birds for several in our group.

Next on this wonderful trip – grouse leks!  Stay tuned for more Colorado grouse tour adventures.

 

Driving through Pawnee National Grassland. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Driving through Pawnee National Grassland. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

 

 

 

After our last session of birding the blinds at Baihualing and lunch, we drove for three hours to Tengchong.  The next morning, January 27, we birded Laifengshan National Forest Park.  The first birds we saw were two Bar-tailed Treecreepers, which I thought looked an awful lot like my Brown Creepers at home.

Bar-tailed Treecreeper

Bar-tailed Treecreeper

Laifengshan is a popular park and visitors that day included several Chinese bird photographers.   A young Chinese woman with a camera excitedly showed me a Slender-billed Oriole, one of our targets here.  When I had asked Nick about field marks for the oriole, he said that the black mask goes all the way around the nape.  Like so often happens, I didn’t realize how beautiful the bird is until I actually saw it.

Slender-billed Oriole.  Photo by John Hopkins.

Slender-billed Oriole. Photo by John Hopkins.

The park was very pretty and it was a gorgeous sunny day.  While walking up to the temple we saw some nice birds including Rufous-bellied and Darjeeling Woodpeckers.

The entrance at the paved path that leads to the temple

The entrance at the paved path that leads to the temple

We also saw this Davison’s Leaf Warbler.  Asian warblers are rather drab for the most part compared to our colorful North American jewels, however, I was still happy to get identifiable photos of several warbler species during our Yunnan trip.

Davison's Leaf Warbler

Davison’s Leaf Warbler

Shortly after noon, we left Tengchong for the drive to Nabang, where would spend the next 2-1/2 days.

One of my favorite experiences in the Nabang area was time spent at a recently established photo blind/feeding station.  We were walking along a forest trail when two young women on a motorcycle came by and said “Come see our blind.”  The first half hour seemed to be a total waste of time as we saw absolutely no birds at all.  Then, suddenly, birds began to arrive.

White-crowned Forktail

White-crowned Forktail

I was very, very happy to get wonderful close views of two gorgeous White-crowned Forktails that came in to the feeding area.  This Rufous-bellied Niltava was another of my favorites.

Rufous-bellied Niltava

Rufous-bellied Niltava

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Little Pied Flycatcher, and White-tailed Robin were among other species seen well at the blind.

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch

One our way back to the hotel that evening, the Asian Emerald Dove below was in the road in front of the bus.  The others could not believe that this was a life bird for me.  They seriously thought that I must have seen it before as it seemed a very common Asian bird to them.  My bird was special, though, as it had extra white feathers.  This species normally has white only on the face and front of the shoulder.

Asian Emerald Dove, photographed through the bus window

Asian Emerald Dove, photographed through the bus window

We continued birding in the Nabang area for the next day and a half.  On our last morning, we enjoyed this displaying Crested Goshawk, with the distinctive white undertail coverts fluffed up across the rump.  In one of those quirks of birding, I have now seen this species three times, but I’m still looking for my life Northern Goshawk at home.

Crested Goshawk

Crested Goshawk

It was then on to Ruili, the last destination of our birding tour.  Early on our first morning there, we birded the trail to Moli Waterfalls, part of the Moli Scenic Area, one of the most beautiful locations we visited during the entire trip.  One of our main targets was Streaked Wren-Babbler, a sneaky little bird as one would expect with both “wren” and “babbler” in its name.  But, due to Nick’s patience and perseverance, I saw the little brown bird.

Streaked Wren-Babbler

Streaked Wren-Babbler

Nick loves those skulky little brown birds, but I prefer big colorful birds like this Red-headed Trogon.  Before this trip, I thought of Trogons as primarily Central American birds, but I learned that they are residents of tropical forests worldwide. The greatest diversity is in the Neotropics, where 24 species occur, but there are also three African species and 12 species of Trogon found in southeast Asia.

Red-headed Trogon.  Photo by John Hopkins.

Red-headed Trogon. Photo by John Hopkins.

February first was the last day of birding for the tour.  We started at a ridge-top road just outside of Ruili.  I picked up a few more life birds, including Black-crested Bulbul.

Black-crested Bulbul

Black-crested Bulbul

But mostly, I just remember a lovely morning with pleasant companions, friendly farmers, and sunshine.  I also remember watching drongos that morning, common birds in Yunnan with five different species seen during our two weeks there.  I got 104 life birds on the trip, but I would have had more if I hadn’t missed so many birds due to my poor vision.  Sometimes, when the others were focused on some distant or skulky bird that I couldn’t find, I just watched drongos, gracefully sallying out for insects and then resettling in the treetops.  I was mesmerized by the graceful flights of these birds.  I thought that if you could cross a flycatcher with a swallow, you would get a drongo.

Bronzed Drongo

Bronzed Drongo

And, then the morning was over and we piled back into the bus to start towards the airport.  We stopped for lunch on the way at a lovely outside restaurant.  While waiting for our food, someone noticed Asian Palm-Swifts flying low over the palm trees at the edge of the parking lot.  This seemed like a bonus bird and very appropriate for my last China life bird.  After lunch, we drove to the airport for our flight to Kunming.  The next morning, the others would start their journeys home and I would fly to Shenzhen where I would visit my son, Dave, and his girlfriend, Rachel.

I love Barn Swallows with their white bellies in this part of the world.

I love Barn Swallows with their white bellies in this part of the world.

Parts of the trip were challenging, but I have no regrets.  I saw a beautiful part of the world and many gorgeous birds.  I enjoyed the company of birders far more accomplished than I will ever be.  The other birders and our Zoothera Birding guide, Nick Bray, were fun and wonderfully kind about helping me see as many birds as possible.  Near the end when I was getting tired, I thought that it would be my last trip to China, but now I don’t know if I can bear the thought of never again seeing the spectacular beauty of China’s birds.

 

If I’d died and gone to birding heaven, it couldn’t have been much better than Baihualing.  If you have been to South America and seen antpittas and other shy forest birds come to worms when called, imagine that.  Except that it lasts all day rather than five minutes.  The bird blinds/feeding stations at Baihualing are amazing.  Each blind (or “hide” as the Brits say) is owned by a local who created and manages it.  A good location is identified and then the blind owner creates a stage for the birds with water features, logs and stumps that can be filled with suet or worms, places to perch, etc.  On one side is the hide – a narrow rectangular tent-like structure with either a long window or portholes for binoculars and cameras and little plastic stools for sitting.

Everyone needs a drink, even shy species like these Mountain Bamboo-Partridges.

Everyone needs a drink, even shy species like these Mountain Bamboo-Partridges.

I envision the creation process is much like that of a male bowerbird who looks at his stage from various perspectives.  Will the birds find it appealing and come?  Will the birders and photographers in the blind have good views?  Ongoing management consists of chauffeuring birders back and forth between the hotel and the blind, feeding the birds throughout the day, and collecting the modest fees that birders and photographers pay for the privilege of wonderful close looks at birds that would otherwise be very difficult to find and see well.  It’s a winning situation for everyone, including the birds.

We arrived at this wonderful place late in the afternoon of January 23th and spent nearly two hours in Blind #8.  Here are some of the gorgeous birds we saw that first day.

Red-billed Leiothrix. I missed this beautiful little bird on previous trips to China, so I was thrilled to finally get such a wonderful close look this time.

Red-billed Leiothrix. I missed this beautiful little bird on previous trips to China, so I was thrilled to finally get such a wonderful close look this time.

Red-tailed Laughingthrush. It's hard to believe, but these beauties were common at the blinds with half a dozen or so frequently in the feeding areas.

Red-tailed Laughingthrush. It’s hard to believe, but these beauties were common at the blinds with half a dozen or so frequently in the feeding areas.

Chestnut-headed Tesia. What a little charmer! This is a species that would have been difficult to see well "in the wild."

Chestnut-headed Tesia. What a little charmer! This is a species that would have been difficult to see well “in the wild.”

Rusty-capped Fulvettas. These little cuties were fun to watch.

Rusty-capped Fulvettas. These little cuties were fun to watch.

Space prohibits displaying all of my photos from that afternoon, so here is a link to my eBird checklist.

The next morning we walked a nearby trail for over six hours.  It was advertised as “flat,” but several of us thought it was a bit steep and I didn’t stay with the group the entire time.  I didn’t see many birds on the trail, but I did see a beautiful Black Giant Squirrel which was so big that I didn’t even realize it was a squirrel at first.

Black Giant Squirrel.  Photo by John Hopkins.

Black Giant Squirrel. Photo by John Hopkins.

Later that afternoon, I was happy to spend two hours in Blind #77.  In that short time, I got eight life birds!  Here are a few of my favorite photos from the afternoon.

Red-tailed Minla. Such a smart and sophisticated-looking bird. I can't help assigning human-like personalities to some of these exotic Asian birds.

Red-tailed Minla. Such a smart and sophisticated-looking bird. I can’t help assigning human-like personalities to some of these exotic Asian birds.

Black-streaked Scimitar-Babbler. I have been awed by scimitar-babblers ever since I first saw a Gray-sided Scimitar-Babbler in 2012. And, what a struggle it was to see that first one. Scimitar-Babblers are normally very shy birds.

Black-streaked Scimitar-Babbler. I have been awed by scimitar-babblers ever since I first saw a Gray-sided Scimitar-Babbler in 2012. And, what a struggle it was to see that first one. Scimitar-Babblers are normally very shy birds.

Yellow-cheeked Tit. Punk bird?

Yellow-cheeked Tit. Punk bird?

Scarlet-faced Liocichla. These gorgeous birds were fairly common and we frequently saw them with Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

Scarlet-faced Liocichla. These gorgeous birds were fairly common and we frequently saw them with Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

And, here is my eBird checklist from that session with more photos.

The next day, January 25, we spent the entire day in the blinds starting with #35 in the morning.  Some species seem to be constantly present at a blind and others come and go throughout the day.  Some of the shyer birds may only come once or twice a day – or skip a day entirely.  A few photos from that session:

Blue-winged Lauthingthrush. Gorgeous and a little scary looking. Very shy compared to Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

Blue-winged Lauthingthrush. Gorgeous and a little scary looking. Very shy compared to Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

Ashy Drongo. He came into the feeding area like he owned it, with grace and confidence, but no arrogance. Yep, I can't help those human comparisons. Drongos are common in China and the others didn't get excited over them, but I loved them, especially this species.

Ashy Drongo. He came into the feeding area like he owned it, with grace and confidence, but no arrogance. Yep, I can’t help those human comparisons. Drongos are common in China and the others didn’t get excited over them, but I loved them, especially this species.

Flavescent Bulbuls enjoying an apple.

Flavescent Bulbuls enjoying an apple.

Streaked Spiderhunter is a species that we enjoyed seeing from the blinds, but this is one that we also saw well several times “in the wild.” Presumably, these birds do feed on spiders and insects, but that long curved bill is adapted for obtaining nectar. National Geographic even includes them in its list of Top 25 Birds with a Sugar Rush.

Streaked Spiderhunter

Silver-eared Mesia. These beautiful little birds are currently doing well in the wild, however, the population is under pressure from trapping for the caged bird trade.

Silver-eared Mesia. These beautiful little birds are currently doing well in the wild, however, the population is under pressure from trapping for the caged bird trade.

Long-tailed Sibia. One of the many species that enjoyed the apples at the feeding stations.

Long-tailed Sibia. One of the many species that enjoyed the apples at the feeding stations.

Large Niltava. This individual is a female. I think that she is just as gorgeous as her mate.

Large Niltava. This individual is a female. I think that she is just as gorgeous as her mate.

Pallas's Squirrel. These and Northern Tree Shrew were common visitors to the feeding stations.

Pallas’s Squirrel. These and Northern Tree Shrew were common visitors to the feeding stations.

Here is my eBird checklist from the morning.

We spent the afternoon in Blind #11, at a little higher elevation than the others we had visited, which produced a few new species.  Each blind has its specialties.  At this one, new birds were Hill Partridge and Gray-sided Laughingthrush.  This blind was the only location where we saw either of these species.

Hill Partridge

Hill Partridge

Gray-sided Laughingthrush

Gray-sided Laughingthrush

Himalayan Bluetail. Amazingly, we saw many of these beautiful birds. This one is a male.

Himalayan Bluetail. Amazingly, we saw many of these beautiful birds. This one is a male.

My eBird checklist from Blind #11 has more photos.

On our final morning at Baihualing, we all had a choice – walk the trails to search for species that don’t come to the blinds or have another session at a blind.  You can guess which option I choose.  It turned out to be a good decision as the others dipped again on their second try for Gould’s Shortwing, a difficult species to find.  Additionally, our little group in the blind had wonderful looks at eight Mountain Bamboo-Partridges, the only good sighting of this species during the trip.

Mountain Bamboo-Partridge (male)

Mountain Bamboo-Partridge (male)

That last morning, we also had excellent looks at many species seen during the previous few days.  A few of my favorites were the birds below.

Large Niltava (male)

Large Niltava (male)

Great Barbet

Great Barbet

Mr. Orange-bellied Leafbird. I had seen these gorgeous birds on previous trips, but I was thrilled to get much closer looks this time.

Mr. Orange-bellied Leafbird. I had seen these gorgeous birds on previous trips, but I was thrilled to get much closer looks this time.

Mrs. Orange-bellied Leafbird

Mrs. Orange-bellied Leafbird

Here is my last eBird checklist from Baihualing, but there are six more days in the Zoothera Birding trip and then a week in Shenzhen, so I’ll be back with more stories.

My son Dave visited Yunnan shortly after he moved to China in 2008.  For years, he has urged me to see this province of China that is often considered the most beautiful.  So, when Nick Bray, who led my birding trip in 2012, posted on Facebook that he was planning Zoothera Birding‘s first trip to Yunnan, I immediately signed up.

Common Kingfishers are widespread in Asia and I have seen them on every trip, this time in both Yunnan and later in Shenzhen.

Common Kingfishers are widespread in Asia and I have seen them on every trip, this time in both Yunnan and later in Shenzhen.

I arrived in Kunming in the wee hours of January 16th, a full day before the others so that I wouldn’t be starting the trip with jet lag.  I planned to sleep late and then do a little birding on my first day.  I thought that I was so smart when I was preparing for the trip and found a little park not far from the hotel.  I printed the map so that I could show it to a taxi driver as no taxi drivers in China speak any English.  The hotel called a taxi for me and, as planned, I showed my little map to the driver.  I assumed that he would take me to the park, but after a few minutes he showed me his phone with a translation app.  It said “That park is old and depressed.  Why do you want to go there?  Guandu Forest Park is new and beautiful and it’s free.”  I tried to ask how far the suggested park was, but the translation app turned “How far is the park?” into profanity.  I vigorously shook my head “no” and gave up.  So, of course, the driver took me to the suggested park, 45 minutes away and $15.00 rather than 10 minutes and the $3.00 fare that I expected.  I was frustrated, but I should have known better.  After four previous trips to China, I have learned that communication is difficult and misunderstandings are frequent, even when simply trying to get from Point A to Point B.

Yellow-billed Grosbeak

Yellow-billed Grosbeak

The park was a typical Chinese city park – full of people, even a band playing – beautiful, but not conducive to productive birding.  But, I quickly relaxed and enjoyed the lovely afternoon for a couple of hours.  Even with all the activity, I found a little flock of Yellow-billed Grosbeaks, a species that the Zoothera group would not see at all.

Back at the hotel, I found a few birds on the edge of the parking area, including several White Wagtails.  I find Wagtails very interesting and always try to photograph them.  This was the first time that I saw an alboides subspecies and I thought that he was a rather snazzy looking bird, even in winter plumage.

White Wagtail, Motacilla alba alboides

White Wagtail, Motacilla alba alboides

That evening I enjoyed dinner with John Hopkins, another birder who had arrived early.  The next day we met up with the rest of the group at the airport – ten participants and three guides.  There was one other woman in the group, from Germany, and one man from Sweden.  The rest of the group consisted of males from the UK except for our two Chinese guides.  After a quick lunch, we were off on our adventure.  Our first destination was Zixishan, a mountain park near Chuxiong, about three hours from Kunming.  We arrived in time for a little birding before checking into our hotel and we found our two target birds right away – the endemic Yunnan Nuthatch and Giant Nuthatch.  The Yunnan Nuthatch posed quite nicely for us at a close distance, not typical behavior we were told.

Yunnan Nuthatch

Yunnan Nuthatch

The following day, we started birding at Zixishan before sunrise.  It was a nice morning and we saw a good number of birds.  This Chinese Thrush sat on the side of the road and never moved, even as we moved closer and closer for photos.  It was still sitting there when we left to look for other species.

Chinese Thrush

Chinese Thrush

The afternoon brought a 6-hour drive to Lijiang where we hoped to see Biet’s Laughingthrush, my most wanted bird of the trip.  But, alas, our good fortune at Zixishan did not continue at Lijiang.  Despite several hours of intensive searching in the areas where the laughingthrush has historically been seen, we neither heard nor saw one.  We learned that this rare bird is becoming increasingly difficult to find, perhaps in part due to illegal poaching for the caged bird trade.

The best birds at Lijiang were a pair of Rufous-tailed Babblers bouncing around the top of a big trash pile, singing almost constantly.  Several of us just sat in the grass a few yards away with our cameras and click-click-clicked as these normally shy birds put on a fantastic close-up show for us.

Rufous-tailed Babbler

Rufous-tailed Babbler

The others in our group had started teasing me about ducks almost as soon as our trip started.  Apparently I was the only waterfowl enthusiast, or maybe ducks were just too easy for the more serious birders with life lists of over 6,000 species.  I got my wish to see ducks on the morning that we left Lijiang with a quick stop at Lijiang Wetland Park.  I loved it!  There were hundreds of birds on the lake.  I got much better looks at beautiful Ferruginous Ducks than I’d had previously.  And, I even got three life birds.  Surprisingly, I had never seen a real wild Graylag Goose before.  Red-crested Pochard and Smew were also new.

Ferruginous Ducks

Ferruginous Ducks

It seemed that everyone enjoyed our short time at the wetland despite their earlier claims that they didn’t care about ducks.  I think that we could have stayed for hours and everyone would have been happy.  But, we had a long drive ahead, so we couldn’t savor the ducks and wetland birds for long.  Back in the van, the more experienced birders gave me a good lesson in separating Black-headed and Brown-headed Gulls.  With their expert knowledge and my photos, I quickly learned that it really was easy to differentiate these two species.

Brown-headed and Black-headed Gulls with Graylag Geese. Even in this rather poor photo, you can easily note the larger size of the Brown-headed Gulls, the dark wingtips, and huge mirrors in the outermost primaries.

Brown-headed and Black-headed Gulls with Graylag Geese. Even in this rather poor photo, you can easily note the larger size of the Brown-headed Gulls, the dark wingtips, and huge mirrors in the outermost primaries.

After leaving the Lijiang wetland, we drove 8 hours to Lushui.  The next morning we continued through part of Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve, over Pianma Pass (3,100 meters), and to the small town of Pianma near the Myanmar border where we would spend the next two nights.  The first morning in this area started with one of the most thrilling sightings of the entire trip – and it was not a bird.  It was a Red Panda sleeping in the sunshine in a bare tree!  This charismatic little mammal (about the size of a house cat) is fascinating.  It has thick fur on the soles of its feet.  It uses that fluffy 18-inch tail to wrap around itself for warmth.  The Smithsonian has more interesting facts about the Red Panda, a species classified as endangered with a population of less than 10,000 remaining in the wild.

The Red Panda as seen from the road.

The Red Panda as seen from the road.

A close-up of the adorable Red Panda. This is the view that we got through the scope. Photo by John Hopkins.

A close-up of the adorable Red Panda. This is the view that we got through the scope. Photo by John Hopkins.

After the panda sighting, things were pretty slow.  Actually, they were very slow and this was my least favorite part of the trip.  The hotel was awful, it was cold, and we didn’t find our main target birds.  For two full days, we traveled back and forth over Pianma Pass and birded along the road, which was always covered in a thin layer of ice except in sunny spots.  On the second day, several of the others found some good birds by climbing up the side of the mountain on rough rather steep trails.  I stayed on the road not wanting to wear myself out or trigger an asthma attack by too much activity at 3,100 meters.  OK, I was a little lazy.  But, my vision is so bad that I don’t think that I would have seen the birds anyway, even if I had scrambled up the mountainside.  Just like on my 2012 trip with Nick, most of the others were in better physical shape and were much more experienced and skillful birders than me.  But I didn’t miss one of the best birds of the day when late that afternoon we found this spectacular little bird, a Fire-tailed Myzornis.

Fire-tailed Myzornis. Photo by John Hopkins.

Fire-tailed Myzornis. Photo by John Hopkins.

The following morning, we left for Baihualing and it’s many bird blinds, where I would be in birding heaven.  Stay tuned.