Posts Tagged ‘Sharp-tailed 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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Grasslands National Park is one of the quietest places in North America.  The peace and beauty of this place for the past three and a half days has been wonderful.  I am staying at The Crossing at Grasslands, which is adjacent to the park.  Here is the view from my balcony.  The other direction overlooks a little pond with ducks and Wilson’s Phalaropes.

My most important target bird here was Baird’s Sparrow, so I looked up the locations within the park where it had been reported in eBird.  On Monday morning, I headed to the closest of those locations, the road to Two Trees.  I heard it singing as I slowly drove the road, so I got a recording, but I wanted to see the little sparrow.  However, I felt intimidated by the huge grassy area with no landmarks and even with my scope, I could not find the bird.  Plus, I was distracted by the mosquitoes that swarmed all around.  I figured it might just have to join Black Rail on my life list as a heard-only bird. I continued with my day and the ecotour drive.

The next morning, I was more determined and confident about finding the Baird’s Sparrow.  I decided that it made the most sense to go back to where I had heard it.  It had to be there and it was close to where I was staying.  I went back to the road before breakfast to look for the sparrow.  Again, I heard it.  And, then I saw it.  I got a good look with the scope and then slowly walked into the field a few feet at a time.  The sparrow flitted from one bunch of grass to another, but I was able to keep track of him.  Finding my own Baird’s Sparrow was one of the highlights of my birding life and I will never forget that beautiful morning on the prairie.

Baird’s Sparrow

The rest of my time here is a jumble of birds and other wildlife, quiet and solitude, peace, and gorgeous scenery.  I was frequently alone on hikes or at stops along the roads.  But, when I have met others, everyone has been exceptionally friendly.  If birding can be a vacation, this is it.

I certainly was getting practice with common sparrows, like Vesper.  They were so numerous in spots that I worried I would hit one with the car.  Like the pretty little Horned Larks, they like to hop down the road in front of the car, staying just a few feet ahead.

Vesper Sparrow

Black-tailed prairie dogs were fun to see and I counted at least 30 at the dog town.  While their conservation is secure in the U.S., they are threatened in Canada and the government is taking steps to protect them.

Black-tailed prairie dog

I was also pleased to see a couple of beautiful Chestnut-collared Longspurs on the ecotour drive.

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Eastern Kingbirds are everywhere; they are much more abundant here than at home.  This morning, I even had a pair on my windowsill.  A Western Kingbird was the first bird that I saw after I crossed the border, but I have seen very few since then.

Eastern Kingbird

Swainson’s Hawks are fairly common here, too, and surprisingly they do not always flush from fence posts when I stop.

Swainson’s Hawk

And, a flight shot.

Swainson’s Hawk

Sharp-tailed Grouse seem to be easy to find. Here is the second or third that I’ve seen so far on this trip.

Sharp-tailed Grouse (female)

It has been wonderful to have a few days to relax and be a little lazy after pushing so hard at the start of the trip.  I had hoped to find Sprague’s Pipit and McCown’s Longspur here, too, but it wasn’t meant to be.  The longspur doesn’t appear to be as common as I’d hoped and I think that the pipit could turn into a nemesis bird for me.  The combination of my poor vision and hearing and desire to actually SEE the bird, field marks and all, before counting it makes it challenging.  However, I have more opportunities for both still on this trip.

Tomorrow I head to another Canada park, Cypress Hills Provincial Park.

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It was wonderful to go birding in Minnesota again, a state that has now given me 17 life birds and some great adventures.  I shared the trip with Diane Hoese, who I met birding in South Dakota with Doug Buri and Bob Janssen in 2010.  Diane provided the inspiration for this blog; my first post was about attending Bob and Doug’s Shorebird Workshop with her.  We both love learning from Bob, so we planned this trip around his Boreal Birding Workshop at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais.

High Falls on the Pigeon River.  Grand Portage State Park.

High Falls on the Pigeon River.  Grand Portage State Park.

Bob’s workshop took us to Judge CR Magney and Grand Portage state parks, Oberg Mountain, and nearby areas where we had great close-up views of 14 species of warblers.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Olive-sided Flycatcher.  Cook County, MN.

We drove up the nearby Gunflint Trail by ourselves and found a few more birds, including this Olive-sided Flycatcher.  This bird had huge white tufts on its lower back.  Back home, I searched extensively and could not find any reference to a connection between the size of the tufts and gender, breeding status, or time of year.

Diane, Bob Janssen, Shelley

Diane, Bob Janssen, Shelley.  Grand Marais, MN.

After birding with Bob for two days, Diane and I set off to Ely to bird on our own for a day.  The highlight there was breeding Cape May Warblers on territory.  We found at least three pairs on our own, without playing recorded songs to draw the birds in, and enjoyed the peace of the boreal forest.  The birds behaved as if we weren’t even there – males singing from the treetops, a lovely female working a spruce tree at nearly eye level.  For me, birding does not get any better.

Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk. Echo Trail, Ely, MN.

We also watched this Broad-winged Hawk attempt to catch an afternoon snack, but he missed his prey. Earlier in the day, we had watched a different Broad-winged being harassed by Blue Jays.

Juvenile Gray Jay

Juvenile Gray Jay. Lake County Road 2, MN.

On our way south to Duluth the next day, we found a family of Gray Jays along Lake County Road 2, one adult and at least two adorable juveniles.

Next was birding with Erik Bruhnke in Sax Zim Bog.  I had hoped to see a Connecticut Warbler, but it wasn’t meant to be.  We did find a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, though, which was one of my two life birds of the trip (the other was Alder Flycatcher).  It was a lovely day that started with great views of a LeConte’s Sparrow and this goofy looking Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Sharp-tailed Grouse. Sax Zim Bog, MN.

Sharp-tailed Grouse. Sax Zim Bog, MN.

American Kestrel.  Sax Zim Bog, MN.

American Kestrel (male). Sax Zim Bog, MN.

Erik showed me his beautiful photo of a male American Kestrel we had just watched together.  He pointed out the white outer tail feathers with black bars.  When I got home, I realized that I had also captured a clear shot of the bird’s tail showing this common trait that I’d never noticed before.

After a great dinner at Fitger’s in Duluth, we sadly sad goodbye to Erik and headed towards Diane’s home the next morning.

Shelley, Erik Bruhnke, Diane

Shelley, Erik Bruhnke, Diane. Duluth, MN.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker. Carver County, MN.

It was late afternoon and lightly raining when we arrived, but the birds were still coming to the feeders on Diane’s deck.  I was happy to capture a shot of this male Hairy Woodpecker showing a characteristic that is usually not mentioned in field guides – the vertical black line through the red patch on the back of the head.  Downy Woodpeckers do not have a line through the red patch.

My last birds of the trip were Diane’s lovely Baltimore Orioles.

Baltimore Oriole (male).  Carver County, MN.

Baltimore Oriole (male). Carver County, MN.

Baltimore Oriole (female).  Carver County, MN.

Baltimore Oriole (female). Carver County, MN.

Once again I had unintentionally taken the advice of my late husband, Burt.  I’d saved something for next time.  Now I’ve got both Connecticut Warbler and Boreal Owl to search for again.  After a wonderful trip like this, the idea of going birding again in Minnesota sounds pretty good.

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Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl hunting in the Superior National Forest. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

The Great Gray Owl was actively hunting in a bog in the Superior National Forest as we watched it from the side of Minnesota Highway 2 north of Two Harbors.  It sat in the tops of trees surveying the ground below in the early morning light.  Every couple of minutes the owl  flew to a different tree, always alert, but not seeming to care that we were watching.  The fifteen minutes that we stood there in the serene beauty of the north woods was a wonderful start to the five-day trip.  This owl was not in a known location, but Erik had found it simply by knowing the habitat and carefully watching.  The Great Gray Owl is the tallest North American owl with a height of 24 to 33 inches.  It has the largest wingspan of five feet, but it is just a big ball of fluff.  It preys mostly on rodents with its small feet and talons.  Both Great Horned and Snowy owls weigh half again as much and have larger feet and talons allowing them to capture lager prey.

Our group of birders

Our group of birders – Gary Ludi, Shelley Rutkin, Myrna Harris

Myrna Harris and I had flown to Minnesota the day before where we met our guide, Erik Bruhnke, and Gary Ludi from Atlanta, for the Partnership for International Birding trip.  On the first day, we birded a little in Minneapolis and then headed north where we saw the first owls of the trip, two Snowies at the Superior airport in Wisconsin.  We learned that it was definitely not an irruption year, but that owls were actually rather scarce.  Still, we could not stop ourselves from teasing Erik that we expected an owl every day.

After our Great Gray Owl flew deeper into the woods and out of sight, we continued north.  There were long stretches without any birds at all, but the ones that we did find were the northern specialties that had motivated us to travel to northern Minnesota in January when sane people were heading south.

Myrna - warming up in Isabella

Myrna – warming up in Isabella. The temp outside was -9 degrees F.

In Grand Marais, we found a flock of Red Crossbills and Common Redpolls with one Hoary Redpoll and one White-winged Crossbill.  Four finch species in one binocular view!  An even more exciting find was a flock of about 30 Bohemian Waxwings.

Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwings. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

They were close enough to see well with our naked eyes, but with bins and scopes we could see every feather. These are BIG birds! Bohemian Waxwings are only one inch longer than Cedar Waxwings, but they weigh almost twice as much (56 grams vs. 32 grams). Their breasts and bellies are gray rather than the gorgeous bronze of Cedar Waxwings, but their classic waxwing head and face, intricate markings on the wings, and Rufous undertail coverts make them just as beautiful.

Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwings eating snow. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Day three of the trip was spent entirely in Sax Zim Bog.

Sax Zim Bog

Sax Zim Bog

I recorded only 21 species that day, but three of them were lifers.  Our owl for the day was an extremely cooperative Northern Hawk Owl who allowed us excellent looks.

Northern Hawk Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Northern Hawk Owl. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

A common bird in the bog, but exciting for me was Ruffed Grouse – seven of them!  This grouse was close to becoming a nemesis bird, but I can now claim it as a lifer.  Most of them were adeptly clambering around in the tops of shrubs or trees, foraging on buds.  We also had a wonderful view of a Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Sharp-tailed Grouse. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

One of my favorite new birds is Pine Grosbeak – big, lovely, easy to identify, and very cooperative.


Male PineGrosbeak. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Boreal Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee – an adorable Minnesota specialty. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Next it was time to look for gulls.  But first we wanted one more look at a Snowy Owl, so we headed back to the Superior airport early on our fourth day.  This time we found a Snowy perched in the top of a tree.  This is not common behavior for a Snowy, but it allowed us to get the scope on it for a quality view.  Crows harassed the poor bird and we could see the Snowy hiss at them.

Snowy Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Snowy Owl being harassed by American Crows. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Satisfied, with our Owl encounter of the day, we headed to the Superior landfill and Wisconsin Point to look for gulls.  We found only Herring Gulls and fly-over Glaucous Gulls.  But back at Canal Park in Duluth, we walked to the water’s edge and discovered a beautiful Iceland Gull right in front of us.  This is the kind of gull that makes gull watching fun.  Erik also found a Thayer’s Gull, another lifer for Gary, Myrna, and me.

Iceland Gull.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Iceland Gull. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

We celebrated our life gulls with one last visit to Sax Zim Bog where we found Redpolls everywhere, including five Hoaries.  We also saw Pine Grosbeaks, two Northern Shrikes, and other bog birds including Bald Eagles, which we saw four of our five days in Minnesota.

Black-capped Chickadee and Hoary Redpoll

A Black-capped Chickadee checks out a Hoary Redpoll. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Common Redpolls

Common Redpolls were the most numerous feeder visitor. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Red Squirrel

Minnesota’s Red Squirrels were much cuter than our Gray Squirrels at home.

The last day of our trip came all too quickly, but we had seen most of the expected birds.  The Boreal Owl just wasn’t meant to be for this trip.  Ironically, they started showing up as soon as we returned home.  So, our main target for the drive back to Minneapolis was Rough-legged Hawk.  We finally found a distant dark morph Rough-legged Hawk at Crex Meadows in Wisconsin.  The distance was too great to see detailed field marks, but we could see the characteristic hovering behavior.  The Rough-legged Hawk is one of only two large raptors that hover regularly when hunting.  The other large raptor that hovers is the Osprey.  Although the bird was not close, it was exciting to see the special hunting behavior that makes it unique.  On that last day, our owl for the day was this beautiful Barred Owl.

Barred Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Barred Owl. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

We boarded our plane for home with happy memories of winter in Minnesota and dreams of returning in the warmth of spring.  This trip was January 16-20, 2013.  Partnership for International Birding sponsored the trip and Erik Bruhnke of Naturally Avian was our guide.  Many thanks for Erik for a wonderful trip and for granting permission to use his beautiful photos in this post.

Erik and Shelley - trying to stay warm!

Erik and Shelley – trying to stay warm!

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