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Posts Tagged ‘Cackling Goose’

My friend, David, and I have shared a few adventures consisting of his bicycle riding and my birding. It’s been fun, so we are always alert to more opportunities, but David is naive about the distribution and seasonality of birds. He thinks that there are lots of birds everywhere all the time. When he suggested Utah in March for the Skinny Tire Festival, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wouldn’t see many birds. But, such a trip would hopefully allow me to make some progress towards my geographic goal of 50 birds in 50 states and I would see some spectacular scenery.

It’s difficult to fly to Moab, which has only one flight a day, so we decided to meet in Albuquerque. I would drive there, David would fly, and then we would drive to Moab together. I started from Florida on March 6 and just drove for the first couple of days. It got more interesting in Texas. I headed towards Lubbock where a Mexican Duck, a species that I still needed for my life list, was being seen regularly. Shortly before I got there, I saw a pond with Canada Geese on the side of the road. Surprisingly, I still needed the goose for my Texas list, so I stopped and spent some time in little Post City Park. The Canada Goose and a pair of Bufflehead brought my Texas list to 285. Quite a few Brewer’s Blackbirds drank and bathed with the geese and ducks.

It was late when I got into Lubbock and I went straight to my hotel. The following morning, I went to Leroy Elmore Park to look for the Mexican Duck. Like many city parks, there were lots of domestic mallards and geese and all the waterfowl seemed habituated to humans. I was just taking my time surveying the variety of ducks when suddenly there he was – the handsome male Mexican Duck. It was one of the easiest lifers ever! You may think that he looks like a female Mallard, and Mexican Duck was previously considered a subspecies of Mallard, but it was accepted as a full species a few years ago. One of the most obvious physical differences is the dull yellowish bill, but there are other differences in appearance as well as genetic differences.

Cackling Geese at Leroy Elmore Park were a bonus. I have seen them many times before in other states, but they were new for Texas.

Next on my itinerary was Los Poblanos Open Space in Albuquerque the next day, March 10, before I picked up David at the airport. I had hoped for a second lifer, Western Screech-Owl, which had been reported by many birders until a few days before my arrival. I repeatedly checked all the boxes where he had been seen by others, but there was no sign of the owl. The most entertaining birds that I found where three Greater Roadrunners. One of them caught a House Mouse and ran around with it while making soft mewing sounds.

I finally gave up on the owl and went to Rio Grande Nature Center State Park to wait for David’s arrival. I immediately loved this pretty park. It had more vegetation than I’d seen since I had left the southeast and it had bird feeders! Some birders prefer to see birds in a more natural environment, but I want to see them up close. I enjoyed the White-crowned Sparrows, Red-shafted Flicker, Spotted Towhee, and others at the feeder area and the Wood Ducks in the lake. A ranger told me that there were porcupines in trees on one of the longer trails, but I didn’t have time that day. I remembered Burt’s words “Always leave something for next time.”

David’s flights had gone smoothly and he arrived on time. We loaded his bike into the car and headed towards Bloomfield, New Mexico, where we would spend the night. The next morning as we were loading the car, David found a Turkey Vulture. It doesn’t sound very notable, but it was flagged by eBird as “rare” and required documentation. We were both puzzled, but quickly discovered that it was just a few days earlier than usual. Traveling always reminds you that “location, location, location” doesn’t just apply to real estate. Location (and time of year) are two big determinants of what birds to expect at any given time and place.

As soon as we started driving north the scenery changed just as I’d hoped. This was David’s first trip west since he was too young to remember. I was thrilled that he was getting a nice introduction to the American West.

We enjoyed our drive to Moab, Utah, where the Skinny Tire Festival would begin the next day. Stay turned for Part 2.

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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.

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