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Posts Tagged ‘Clark’s Nutcracker’

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.

 

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Huge liquid black eyes encircled by thick red rings. Light-tipped black bill with perfect white spots at the base. Black hood, red legs and lovely black-tipped wings. And, the tail – the gorgeous white u-shaped tail. The Swallow-tailed Gull is widely considered to be the most beautiful gull on earth. Never in a million years would I have expected to see this bird on my trip to Washington, but let me start at the beginning.

Those big beautiful eyes facilitate hunting at night. Swallow-tailed Gulls are the only nocturnal gulls in the world.

Those big beautiful eyes facilitate hunting at night. Swallow-tailed Gulls are the only nocturnal gulls in the world.

My friends Phil and Mary Dickinson moved across the country from North Carolina to Washington in December 2015.  I expected very few life birds in Washington, but I wanted to visit my friends and I thought that it would be fun to see the Pacific Northwest and a new state.  Phil suggested that late August/early September would have nice weather, so I flew to Seattle on August 28.

On our first full day, Phil took me to Big Four Ice Caves where I got my first life bird of the trip, Black Swift. I also had an introduction to the beautiful Washington landscape.

The beautiful but dangerous ice caves. Phil and I heeded the warnings to stay on the trail, but many did not. There have been four deaths here since 1998.

The beautiful but dangerous ice caves. Phil and I heeded the warnings to stay on the trail, but many did not. There have been four deaths there since 1998.

 

Fireweed at Big Four is beautiful even when past its prime.

Fireweed at Big Four is beautiful even when past its prime.

The next day, Phil, Mary, and I drove to Mount Rainier National Park.  We took our time with a stop for a picnic lunch and walk at Federation Forest State Park.  We arrived at Crystal Mountain Resort mid-afternoon and had a nice dinner after acquainting ourselves with the Sunrise area of the park where we would be spending our time.

A Clark's Nutcracker greeted us in the Sunrise Visitor's Center parking lot.

A Clark’s Nutcracker greeted us in the Sunrise Visitor’s Center parking lot.

The following morning, Phil met some birders from home in the parking lot just before we started our hike.  They mentioned that a Swallow-tailed Gull had been found early that morning in north Seattle.  I received a text from a friend in North Carolina also notifying us of the gull.  What?  A Swallow-tailed Gull is a pelagic bird of the southern hemisphere that comes to land only to nest, mainly on the Galapagos Islands.  Other times of the year, it cruises the off-shore waters of South America’s Pacific coast from Colombia to Chile.  A Swallow-tailed Gull has been seen in North America only twice before, and in California, not nearly so far north.  This was a mega-rarity!  Some crazed birders would have abandoned plans for Mt. Rainier and sacrificed the advance payments we had made for our rooms that night to chase this bird.  We didn’t consider that option and hoped that the bird would stick around until we got back home.

A Yellow Pine Chipmunk posed near the Sunrise Visitor's Center.

A Yellow Pine Chipmunk posed near the Sunrise Visitor’s Center.

One of our target birds on the Mount Freemont Lookout Trail was Prairie Falcon, which had been seen there the previous day.  The three of us walked the first mile and a half of the trail, which was labeled “moderate,” before Mary turned back.  Phil and I continued on the “strenuous” trail for another 1.3 miles and I soon became scared.  Parts of the trail were just a narrow scree path with an abrupt steep drop-off for hundreds of feet down the side of the mountain.  Phil was kind, patient and encouraging as I slowly conquered my fears and made my way.  Finally, we reached the lookout where we found raptors in the distance, but they turned out to be Red-tailed Hawks.  However, Mountain Goats, a Pika, and a feeling of accomplishment rewarded our efforts.

Phil and I conquered Mt. Fremont.

Phil and I conquered Mt. Fremont.

On Friday morning, Phil and I went out to look for birds before breakfast.  We drove to the campground and kept a sharp eye out for grouse on the side of the road, but we did not see any.  We decided to check the trail at Sunrise Point, where we were rewarded with a Red-breasted Nuthatch loudly calling as soon as we opened the car doors.  We started down the trail and had not gone more than a few yards when Phil said, “Shelley, there’s your grouse.”  And, there it was on the side of the trail walking towards us.  A Sooty Grouse – life bird #2 for the trip!  We continued to watch the grouse, an adult male, for 10 minutes as he kept an eye on us, but foraged very close by.  Finally, we decided that it was time to go have breakfast with Mary.

This male Sage Grouse was waiting for us at Sunrise Point.

This male Sage Grouse was waiting for us at Sunrise Point.

But, our wonderful, birdy morning was not quite over yet.  About a mile from Sunrise Point, Phil spied a woodpecker flying across the road and quickly stopped the car.  And, then we saw a second bird and quickly realized that it was a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers, a species that each of us had only seen once before.

The yellow crown on this American Three-toed Woodpecker isn't visible in this photo, but you can clearly see that he has only three toes. Except for the Three-toed and Black-backed, all North American woodpeckers have four toes.

The yellow crown on this American Three-toed Woodpecker isn’t visible in this photo, but you can clearly see that he has only three toes. Except for the Three-toed and Black-backed, all North American woodpeckers have four toes.

The three of us had a good breakfast and then started the drive home.  We had been watching the local birding listserv, Tweeters, and the Western Washington Birders Facebook group for updates on the Swallow-tailed Gull, but as of mid-afternoon, it had not been re-sighted.  We started to think that it might be a “one day wonder.”  Finally, in the late afternoon, it was found a few miles north of the original location.  Reports said that this new location was very difficult to access and required a dangerous and possibly illegal trek across active railroad tracks to get a good look.  We hoped that the bird would stay a third day.

Western Sandpipers foraged at the Everett Sewage Lagoons, some in deeper water up to their bellies. Occasionally a bird would submerge its head completely under water.

Western Sandpipers foraged at the Everett Sewage Lagoons, some in deeper water up to their bellies. Occasionally a bird would submerge its head completely under water.

On Saturday morning, Phil and I went birding in his home county.  Again, we watched for news of the gull and were ready for the chase if it was found.  We mostly birded coastal areas with a foray to the sewage treatment plant in the middle of the day.  After a quick drive-thru at Burger King for a very late lunch, we drove to the Everett marina on the Puget Sound, mainly because we didn’t have time to go anywhere else.  I had wanted to get good looks at California Gulls, which are common there.  They were there as expected, but one gull was different.  We both felt absolute disbelief as we realized that we had found the Swallow-tailed Gull.

The gull showed off its swallowtail while preening.

The gull showed off its swallowtail while preening.

Phil got the word out that we had found the gull and 10 minutes later other birders started arriving.  We continued to watch the gull in close waters, happy with our good views, when the impossible happened.  The Swallow-tailed Gull flew right in front of us on the two-foot wide strip of dirt between the parking lot and the water, no more than 20 feet away.  We had incredible looks at the bird at it stretched its wings and picked at pebbles.  After a few minutes, a truck drove by and the gulls flew back into the water.

Courtship includes the male offering the female pebbles for the nest. Hmm. Does this beauty want to make more Swallow-tailed Gulls?

Courtship includes the male offering the female pebbles for the nest. Hmm. Does this beauty want to make more Swallow-tailed Gulls?

I then turned my attention to the small group of birders who had shared this amazing experience with us.  I heard someone say that a guy had flown in from Chicago.  I introduced myself and the man replied that his name was Amar Ayyash.  I don’t know of anyone in North American who knows gulls better or loves them more.  If I could have chosen any person in the world to share this experience with it would have been Amar.  This gull was a super star and it had also drawn Shawneen Finnegan and Dave Irons from Portland, Oregon.  Alex Sundvall had flown in from Minnesota.  I’m sure there were others from out of state, too, but it wasn’t possible to meet the 80 or so birders who were there when we left.  Others had already come and gone and more would arrive after we went home to celebrate with Mary.

A close-up of the amazing Swallow-tailed Gull in breeding plumage. Outside breeding season, the head is white and the eye ring is black.

A close-up of the amazing Swallow-tailed Gull in breeding plumage. Outside breeding season, the head is white and the eye ring is black.

As I write this, the Swallow-tailed Gull is still being seen in Edmonds, about 15 miles south of where Phil and I discovered it.  This is day 10.  Will it stay longer?  Perhaps.  Squid, the gull’s primary food, has been plentiful in the area.

An "Oregon" Dark-eyed Junco cooled off on a hot day in the Dickinson bath while we relaxed on the deck.

An “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco cooled off on a hot day in the Dickinson bath while we relaxed on the deck.

Phil and I had some pleasant birding for the next two and a half days, but I did not get any additional life birds.  Regardless, it was fun to see some of his local birding locations and enjoy the birds in his backyard.  Spending time with friends, seeing spectacular landscape of the Pacific Northwest, and the thrill of finding a rare bird will keep memories of this trip sharp in my mind for a very long time.

Phil’s story, Beauty and a Surprise Highlight Washington Birding, is on the Forsyth Audubon blog.  For another fun story and amazing photos, see Amar’s post,  Swallow-tailed Gull Twitch, on his blog, Anything Larus.  More of my photos are on Flickr in the Swallow-tailed Gull album and Washington – 2017.

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