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Posts Tagged ‘American Avocet’

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.

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Well, friends, I knew it would happen some time.  I just accidentally hit an unknown shortcut key and published a post with only one sentence.  I apologize for any confusion.  So, back to my story…  I left The Crossing at Grasslands in Val Marie late in the morning on Thursday, May 24.  It could have been a short 2-1/2 hour drive to Cypress Hills, but I detoured to Eastend to look for Prairie Falcon, which would be a sure thing at Jones Peak (yeah, right).  It was another of those long dirt and gravel roads, but it did lead up and up to a spectacular view of the valley below.  I believe that Prairie Falcons do breed there, but I should have known by the zero photos in eBird for that location that not many people get a really good look.  It was so windy that I could barely keep myself upright.  I did not set up the scope because I knew it would blow over.  So, I did not add Prairie Falcon to my life list, but I did see some pretty Tree Swallows and Mountain Bluebirds.

Mountain Bluebird

I arrived at The Resort at Cypress Hills that afternoon and walked around the lake before settling in for the night.  The park is beautiful and the trees are a lovely change from the prairie.  However, I headed out to the prairie again the next morning.  On Friday, I drove over 1-1/2 hours towards Wild Horse, Alberta, to look for McCown’s Longspur again.  I loved the first 11 miles of the gravel road and did not encounter another vehicle.  Nor did I encounter any McCown’s Longspurs.  I did, however, see a few American Avocets in breeding plumage, the color of dreamsicles, a friend used to say.

American Avocet

The next 10 miles were pretty good, too, and I met another birder coming from the opposite direction.  He greeted me with “What do you need?”  I replied, “McCown’s Longspur.”  “I just pushed three of them your way.  Just wait here five minutes and they will be here.”  Well, we talked 10 or 15 minutes and another truck came by.  Birds don’t always keep hopping straight down the road, either, so I missed them.  I continued on down the road and was at the border station before I realized that my target road had ended.  It was good fortune, though, because they have rest rooms at the border station (travel tip).  Plus, I found the most cooperative Upland Sandpiper just before the end of the road.  I think this bird would have let me look at him all day.

Upland Sandpiper

I could have made a loop back to Cypress Hills, but I liked the first 11 miles of the road I was on so much that I decided to return the same way.  I don’t know what changed, other than my luck, but I found EIGHT adult male McCown’s Longspurs on the way back!  My mediocre photos make me happy, proof that I finally found these little beauties.

McCown’s Longspur

Yesterday’s mammal of the day is Richardson’s ground squirrel.

Richardson’s ground squirrel

Today’s highlight happened when I went out to get in my car.  Yesterday, I had discovered a woodpecker nest on the edge of the parking lot and got a photo of a nestling poking his head out of the hole.  I suspected it was a Three-toed Woodpecker, but I wasn’t sure.

American Three-toed Woodpecker

Today, I saw Papa Three-toe leave the nest and fly to a close tree, where he preened for five minutes.  It was such a privilege to watch these birds, a species that I have not seen often.

American Three-toed Woodpecker (adult male)

I drove to the West Block of the park, over the roughest gravel roads yet.  I did not see a lot of birds there, but did enjoy the scenery and had a nice walk.  I finally saw the first significant prairie flowers of the trip.

Update:  One of the two Shooting Stars native to Saskatchewan, genus Dodecatheon, but I did not measure the leaves or petals, so cannot determine which species.

Update: One of the two Shooting Stars native to Saskatchewan, genus Dodecatheon, but I did not measure the leaves or petals, so cannot determine which species.

On the way back, I stopped on the side of the road to watch a Golden Eagle.  Another raptor was attacking it, so I started taking photos.  When I looked at them, I realized that the eagle had stolen the Swainson’s Hawk’s lunch.  There is nothing like a little raptor drama to liven up the day.

Golden Eagle and Swainson’s Hawk

Today’s mammal was this red squirrel who did not want me to take his picture. He didn’t even want me in his woods.

Red Squirrel

Tomorrow, I’m on the road again, heading to Waterton Lake National Park.

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The Rookery at Smith Oaks at High Island

The Rookery at Smith Oaks at High Island

“You should have been here yesterday.”  That’s how my trip in April started out.  Two friends and I drove from North Carolina to Dauphin Island, Alabama, and High Island, Texas, before meeting the rest of our group near San Antonio.  I learned that hot spots aren’t hot every day, even at the right time of the year.

Common Loon - a surprising find at Dauphin Island

Common Loon – a surprising find at Dauphin Island

I don’t have much to say about Dauphin Island except that it did provide my best view ever of a very beautiful Kentucky Warbler.  We also saw so many Prothonotary Warblers that they almost became trash birds.  And, take your own food!  Perhaps being there Easter weekend didn’t contribute to the availability of dining options, but it was so bad that the last night we voted for the hamburgers at the gas station as our best bet for dinner.

At High Island, the bird story was similar to Dauphin Island; we missed the big days before and after our visit.  But High Island did give me my first life bird of the trip, a very cooperative Swainson’s Warbler.  On our first morning at Boy Scout Woods, I asked about finding the warbler and headed in the direction where one had been seen the day before.  After searching a short time, I noticed two men intently peering into the thick underbrush.  I knew that they were looking at a Swainson’s Warbler.  I slowly walked over to the men; they warmly greeted me and then showed me where the warbler was turning over leaves on the ground.  Over the next 20 minutes, a crowd of 10 or so slowly gathered and our local expert did not leave until he was sure that every person there had seen the Swainson’s Warbler.

A rookery is an amazing place with hundreds of birds packed in so tightly that they almost step on each other.  I took the photo at the top of this post at The Rookery at Smith Oaks in High Island.  At the time of our visit, nesting birds were predominately Roseate Spoonbills and Neotropic Cormorants with a few Great and Snowy Egrets.  The Roseate Spoonbills were dazzling with their deep pink shoulders, orange tail, and tuft of pink feathers in the center of their breasts.

Do you remember Dreamsicles?  My friend Susan describes the color of American Avocets in breeding plumage as deamsicle.  The thousand plus Avocets we discovered at Bollivar Flats looked like a colorful sea of dreamsicle, black and white.  What an awesome moment it was to soak in all that beauty and see one of our favorite birds doing so well that they could congregate in groups of thousands.  I have since learned that the American Avocet does indeed have a NatureServe conservation status of G5 (secure) and an IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) status of Least Concern.  The global population is estimated at 450,000 adults.

Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge provided a wonderful break on our drive to meet the rest of our group.  We had only a couple of hours to spare, but could easily have spent an entire day there.  Everything was wonderful – the habitat, birds, butterflies, flowers, visitor’s center.  During our short visit, we were pleased to see the only White-tailed Hawk of the trip, a close-up Crested Caracara, Loggerhead Shrike and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers along with ducks, waders, and meadowlarks.  We all noted Attwater NWR as a place we would like to visit again as we headed west to continue our Texas adventure.

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