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Posts Tagged ‘Greater Sage-Grouse’

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.

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If you rode shotgun with me on my big trip, thank you!  It was great to have your company and your comments encouraged me along the way.  My longest road trip yet began on May 16 and ended on June 11, 2018.  That was 27 days away from home and 7,114 miles driven in my wilderness green Subaru Outback.  Montana and Nebraska were brand new states for me that I had never visited before.  I had not been in Wyoming since a 1971 trip to Yellowstone National Park.

My approximate route for the trip. I continued on home from Tellico Plains, TN.

My approximate route for the trip. I continued on home from Tellico Plains, TN.

Birds provided the structure for the trip and I observed 171 avian species, including a few in the North Carolina mountains during the Cherohala Challenge part of the trip.  The life birds that I hoped to find were all challenging; I got eleven of my 20 targets.  Birds that I was thrilled to find by myself were Mountain Plover, Greater Sage-Grouse, Baird’s Sparrow, McCown’s Longspur, and Gray Flycatcher.  All of those are prairie birds and I found that I enjoyed birding in that habitat best.

I would have liked to see more mammals, but I did enjoy the Pronghorn, Richardson’s Ground Squirrels, Prairie Dogs, and especially an adorable little Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel.  Snakes and lizards would have been interesting, too, but I saw none.

A Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel at a rest stop in Wisconsin.

A Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel at a rest stop in Wisconsin.

Other life birds found with a little help were Gray Partridge, Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Flammulated Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, and Sage Thrasher.  I can’t pick a favorite bird of those, but my favorite moment was standing all alone on the prairie in Grasslands National Park watching my life Baird’s Sparrow and listening to him sing.  The moment probably lasted close to an hour and I tried to just soak in the beauty of the time and place and take a few photos.

My life Baird's Sparrow at Grasslands National Park

My life Baird’s Sparrow at Grasslands National Park

I missed other birds for various reasons.  My poor vision and hearing are most likely what cost me Sprague’s Pipit.  I even stood next to someone one day who said that she was hearing them in the distance.  When I arrived at Waterton Park and learned that many of the trails and roads were closed due to last year’s fires, I knew that I was unlikely to find Spruce Grouse as that was the only location in my itinerary where there was any chance for it.  It was also the best location for Dusky Grouse, so I missed it, too.  I’m not totally certain why I could not find a Prairie Falcon.  Before the trip, several folks had said that they expected I would find one, but perhaps it was a little too late in the season as the birds were nesting.  Once in Montana, people said that it would have been easier earlier in the year.  Northern Goshawk is always a difficult bird to find, so it’s no surprise that I missed it.

With a little more time, I probably could have found Cordilleran Flycatcher, especially if I’d had another day in Helena with Stephen’s help.  He and Bob had seen them earlier in the day that I arrived.  But, we spent our time focusing on the woodpeckers and owls, birds that are more fun and we had wonderful success with those.  I lost half my chances to look for Sagebrush Sparrow when I got rained out on Bannack Bench Road in Montana.  I tried to find it on Bear Canyon Road, but had no luck there.  Black Rosy-Finch was missed because I wimped out on driving the steepest part of the Beartooth Highway.  Next time!  And, lastly, Virginia’s Warbler just did not want to be seen in Roby Canyon in South Dakota.  Even the top local birders had no luck the day that I was there.  My late husband used to say “Always leave something for next time” and I certainly did just that.

A Yellow Warbler peeks around the tree to watch me. One of my favorite photos!

A Yellow Warbler peeks around the tree to watch me. One of my favorite photos!

Photographing birds can be challenging due to poor light, the birds being too far away, and various other difficulties, but I did my best.  I posted 155 photos to my eBird lists, some only good enough for identification and some that make me very happy.  Sometimes it was the simple shots of common species that made me smile.

All that driving turned out to be relatively easy, especially since I planned my route to miss major cities.  Getting over 400 miles on a tank of gas helped, so most of my stops on big travel days were at rest areas.  I took food from home for lunch and dinner and replenished perishables at grocery stores a couple of times.  I started each day with two canteens full of fresh cold water, so I had everything that I needed in my car.  These strategies enabled me to drive 1,300 miles in the first two days, to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, northwest of Duluth.  From there, I had no more especially long days until heading back home at the end of the trip.

A nice rest stop bird, a male Blackpoll Warbler. They were so much easier to see in Minnesota than at home!

A nice rest stop bird, a male Blackpoll Warbler. They were so much easier to see in Minnesota than at home!

There is little traffic on many of the western roads and what you have heard about high speed limits is true.  I drove many two-lane roads with speed limits of 70 MPH.  Most of those roads had a feature to facilitate safety – rumble strips on the center line.  A lot of the roads in Canada were gravel and relatively wide, which made it easy to stop for birds.

In parts of Saskatchewan there were only Card Lock fueling stations rather than typical gas stations.  Their purpose is mainly to serve commercial vehicles and some only have diesel fuel, but the ones that I encountered also had regular gasoline.  They are always unattended and always open.  You go into the little house, insert your credit card and specify a dollar amount greater than what you will use.  After approval, you go out and pump your gas.  And, then you go back into the little house and insert your credit card again to get a receipt.  And, don’t forget to shut the door behind yourself (the sign reminds you).

The Card Lock station in Val Marie, Saskatchewan

The Card Lock station in Val Marie, Saskatchewan

My trip took me through much of the current Greater Sage-Grouse range.  Historically, Sage-Grouse occurred in at least 16 states within the western U.S. and three provinces in Canada.  Experts estimate that the population was as high as 16 million before European settlement; today there are only a few hundred thousand.  The decline has continued relentlessly, by 60% in just the last five decades.  Sage-Grouse are now extirpated from British Columbia and five U.S. states.  In 2015, a fierce political battle about listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) resulted in the decision to not list the grouse.  They face many threats, the most serious being habitat loss.  But even without ESA listing, serious efforts are underway to protect the species.

A Greater Sage-Grouse that I found in Montana

A Greater Sage-Grouse that I found in Montana

As a casual observer driving through Montana, none of this was obvious to me.  It looks like immense areas of sagebrush remain almost pristine, but that was an illusion.  The recovery efforts are addressing various threats to the grouse.  The one that I heard about from a local rancher is fence line flagging – clipping small reflective markers along the top row of barbed wire fences every three to four feet.  The markers help the low-flying grouse see the wires and avoid collisions which result in injury or death.  He told me about his conversations with a biologist studying the birds and said that he readily agreed to have the fence on his land flagged.

In Canada, the total population of Sage-Grouse declined by 98% between 1988 and 2012.  A total of only 93 to 138 adult birds were estimated for Alberta and Saskatchewan combined in 2012.  The species has been listed as Endangered in Canada since 1998.  Nature Canada has a nice summary of the species status and recovery efforts.

See the Cornell All About Birds site for more basic information on the fascinating Greater Sage-Grouse.

One of my favorite experiences on the trip was finding an American Three-toed Woodpecker nest at Cypress Hills.

Nestling American Three-toed Woodpecker

Nestling American Three-toed Woodpecker

Papa Three-toed flew to a nearby tree to preen after leaving the nest cavity.

Papa Three-toed flew to a nearby tree to preen after leaving the nest cavity.

Did I get lonely on the road traveling alone for so many days?  No, not at all.  Actually, I met some wonderful people and feel like I made a few new friends.  First, was Allison Henderson.  Allison and her family were packing their car after camping at Two Trees in Grasslands National Park just as I arrived.  In an amazing coincidence, I was looking for Baird’s Sparrow and McCown’s Longspur and Allison is a wildlife biologist who studied grassland songbirds for her PhD.  She gave me a few tips and we stayed in touch with phone calls and text messages.  Thanks for the alert on the Long-billed Curlew, Allison!

Next was PJ Chudleigh at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.  PJ is in charge of maintenance at The Resort at Cypress Hills (where I stayed) and is passionate about the natural habitat.  PJ and a buddy saw me birdwatching when they were riding their bikes.  I always feel dorky when I’ve got my binoculars and am out looking for birds when “normal” people are doing other things.  But, they thought it was cool that someone was paying attention to the wildlife.  We felt an instant connection and could have talked for hours.

And, then there was the rancher I met on Bannack Bench Road, the nice couple walking by the lake at Waterton National Park, and many others.  Some conversations were short, but when I told someone what I was doing, I always got “Good for you!” in response.

I was impressed with the beauty of Devils Tower in Wyoming - 867 feet from its base to its 1-1/2 acre summit.

I was impressed with the beauty of Devils Tower in Wyoming – 867 feet from its base to its 1-1/2 acre summit.

In addition to these surprise encounters, I enjoyed spending some time with the birders whom I had contacted before the trip, Stephen Turner (and his wife, Patty) in Helena and Ron Farmer in Bozeman.

I loved meeting new people, seeing new parts of the country, and finding my own way through it all.  My goals to see a few new birds and new landscapes were accomplished.  But, more than that, I gained confidence in myself and I feel stronger than ever.  I might not be ready to backpack through Europe alone yet, but I’m ready for another road trip!

More photos can be seen in my Flickr album for this trip, Prairie Road Trip 2018.  As of June, it’s not complete, but I will add more photos and label them all correctly soon.

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I left Minot yesterday morning and headed to Lostwood NWR as planned.  I loved the quiet and solitude of the gently rolling grasslands.  I did not see anyone on the entire 8-mile wildlife drive.  The only sounds were birds and the gentle breeze.  I didn’t see anything unusual there, but I am enjoying the common western birds.  Meadowlarks are everywhere and they seem to sing non-stop.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

After Lostwood, my day did not go as planned because I could not resist more birding.  I soon saw a little lake on the side of the road with 150 Franklin’s Gulls.  How could I not stop for these beauties?  Many had the beautiful pink blush of fresh breeding plumage and all were gorgeous.

Franklin's Gull

Franklin’s Gull

This little lake also contained about 100 Ring-billed Gulls, ducks, grebes, and phalaropes.  Yellow-headed Blackbirds were busy singing and nest building on the side of the lake closest to where I stood.  And, none of the birds seemed to mind my presence at all.  The weather was absolutely perfect, sunny and just the right temperature.  It was one of those magic moments and I could have stayed there forever.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird

So, now I was behind schedule and I really needed to drive to Glasgow, Montana. But, no.  I passed the entrance to Medicine Lake NWR and I just could not drive by without doing another 9-mile wildlife drive.  Again, I did not see anything unusual, but it was enjoyable.  This time I saw one other vehicle on the drive.  It was fun to see a bird in breeding plumage that I usually see only in winter, Forster’s Tern, right by the side of the road.

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

It was turning out to be a long day, but I was determined to check out Bentonite Road outside of Glasgow when I arrived.  This would be my best opportunity for Mountain Plover and I wanted two chances to drive the road.  It was 7:15 PM when I started down the rough gravel road.  And, I would have to drive 17 miles on this road to get to the first place that the plovers are usually seen.  It was difficult to even be sure that I was on the right road, but I managed to do it.  And, just at mile 17, a lovely, graceful Mountain Plover flew in close to the side of the road.  I had a great look and then he was gone.  I drove another mile and then turned around, hoping to be back at the hotel by dark.

I was thrilled to have seen the plover on my first attempt, but my luck for the day was not over yet.  While hurrying to get back, I flushed a female Greater Sage-Grouse from the side of the road.  She flew just a little way and then froze, so I got photos.

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse

This was another bird on my most wanted list and I could not believe my luck in getting it right away.  Just as I was almost back to town, I saw a pair of Ring-necked Pheasants right on the road.  What a day!  I fell into bed very tired and very happy.

This morning, I drove Bentonite Road again and saw two plovers today.  This time, I got photos.

Mountain Plover

Mountain Plover

Wilson's Phalarope

Wilson’s Phalarope

Wilson’s Phalaropes are very common out here I enjoyed close of views of several on my way back to the hotel.  Like all phalaropes, the females are the pretty ones.

I checked out of my Glasgow hotel at 11:00 AM this morning and drove north to Canada.  After crossing the border, I drove through the East Block of Grasslands National Park over to the west side, where I am staying.  My targets here may prove more challenging – Sprague’s Pipit and Baird’s Sparrow.  The birds are plentiful here, but not easy to find.  Also, McCown’s Longspur was not as easy as I’d hoped, so I need to find it here also.  But, I will be here for four nights and I am sure that I will enjoy my time, whether I get my target birds or not.  What will I see here?

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