Saturday, October 31, 2015

Windows of Opportunity

Candle burning, map, water and laptop to plan for the next day
Every moment is an opportunity. If you don't use it, you miss out.

Micheal hiding behind some grasses looking for....whatever!
On these far away treks, a lot of mapping and planning go into the search for new birds. Sometimes there are also rare birds that can be found in the various states that are extremely rare to find in Arizona.  Such was the case of the Lesser Black-backed Gull. 

How do you find that one gull within hundreds?  Walk slow so that you don't make them fly.  Then I begin from left to right counting looking at each individual gull.  In the case of the LBBG, I looked for a larger sized gull against the much smaller surrounding gulls.  
With the little time we had left in Utah, our windows were closing to find two new birds to add to that ever growing life list. Our first mission took us to Utah Lake which is south of Salt Lake City.  It was there we were hoping to find the LBBG.  These gulls are common in Europe, but here in Utah, they are a reliable rare visitor. However, this particular gull was an early winter arrival.  Their numbers seem to be increasing each year in the US. Will they eventually become the next House Sparrow or European Starling?  I love gull ID, but my other half, Micheal does not.  So while I sifted through the large numbers of gulls, Micheal spoke with his brother on the phone.

Lesser Black-backed Gull surrounded by the smaller Ring-billed Gulls
Once I found the gull, I tried to get as close as I could without disturbing the birds.  The gull was much larger than the surrounding Ring-billed Gulls.  The legs had a unique yellow color and there was that trademark red spot on the lower mandible.  They are tricky to ID and it's a delicious challenge. Utah Lake was also a great place to ebird.  It was a beautiful ride to the lake through a farmland full of pumpkins. 

Clark's Grebe-not a great photo but one good for an ID
Then it was onto the Bear Migratory Bird Refuge located north of Salt Lake City. This was an AWESOME place and I think my favorite spot to bird.  Here we needed to find Short-eared Owls and Clark's Grebes.  It was a tad early for the Short-eared Owls but one can hope, right?:)  While we struck out on this owl, we did have a great study session ID'ing yet another tricky species.  The Clark's Grebe.  There were hundreds of these birds still present.  These grebes look very similar to the Western Grebes.  So like any good teacher, I sat in the car and had Micheal do ID's on the birds with me.  He's pretty good! Although after awhile, he started mocking me and used my field mark quotes against me. Point taken:)

Western Grebe
During this time of year, it can be somewhat difficult to distinguish between the Western and Clark's Grebes as they can appear similar in the wrong light in their non-breeding plumage.  Let's take an ID look.  Above is the Western Grebe.  The bill is slightly darker and thinner than the Clark's Grebe. The black shading also goes to and below the eye. 

Clark's Grebe
The Clark's Grebe has a stronger and brighter bill.  The first picture on this blog post clearly shows the white above the eye making the ID a snap. For this photo(above), it wasn't so clear to me right away.  However the bright and stronger bill, overall whiter plumage and slight white spot between the eye and bill point to a non-breeding plumaged Clark's Grebe.  The birds have also been known to hybridize.  Oh oh! Fun, right?:) 

California Quail
We had one last window left in Salt Lake City.  It would be the last place we could find the California Quail.  I researched and mapped everything out the night before.  I had three plans, but I wanted to take the one that had interesting things to do around it.  And so we went to Liberty Park in Salt Lake City.  

What a gem of a city park! 

While we walked around this park, we enjoyed the good breezes and lovely pond area.  

California Quail

And while we had a lot of great birds, we weren't seeing our target, the California Quail. 

So on a hunch, and overall curiosity, we explored the Tracy Aviary next door. This is a lovely area for families to explore and learn about Utah's amazing birds.  There were several birds from other countries, but overall, the aviary does highlight the local waterfowl, raptors and owls.  As for my hunch, it paid off.  Working at the Tucson Botanical Gardens years ago, I remembered that Gambel's Quail loved to hang out in our native gardens.  Tracy's Aviary had that same perfect habitat for these quail. When I heard that typical quail cluck clucking, I knew we were going to hit the jackpot. 

Northern Pintail
We had a whole covey run back and forth between the vegetation.  At one point, during their Raptor Free Flight Program, their Red-tailed Hawk swooped down at one of the quail.  WOW!  

Of course, birds are the main reason why we explore.  But don't think for one minute that we didn't enjoy a glass of wine or visit a place to have dinner or just....explore.  People have told me, including my family, that I exhaust them during a vacation. Again, there's always so much to see in such little time! (I have a very strong wanderlust.:) 

White-faced Ibis
Utah was an experience and one that we'll remember for a long time.  I'm not sure we'll ever return, but it was fun exploring their interesting culture. For people who love rock formations, etc, this is a great state to explore. Rocks can be fascinating, but I love the wildlife that live around these areas more.  And one of my favorite birds, the Ring-necked Pheasant was on almost every count!  LOVE those birds. 

Either way, we both were looking forward to our visits in Colorado and New Mexico.  We both love these two states very much. Colorado is an American favorite.  And New Mexico is America's best kept secret.  Every time we go, we explore a new location and just fall in love with the state even more. 

Monument Valley National Park-pretty but not very birdy and full of tourists. 
We drove through the rocky canyons of Utah and headed towards our next destination, Gunnison, Colorado. Until next time friends.....

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Antelope Island

Bison at Antelope Island State Park
We wandered further North into the state of Utah searching for the Chukar. This bird originally hails from Pakistan but was introduced into the US as a game bird.  The bird prefers rocky and arid landscape which was exactly the reason why we had to go to Utah.

Helping us find this bird was none other than Mia McPherson.  She is one of the best wildlife photographers out there.  And it turns out that she's also a wonderful person to get to know!  Our main target was the exploration of Antelope Island State Park near Salt Lake City.  It's located within the glassy waters of the Great Salt Lake.

Thousands of American Avocets hang out near the causeway
As we scanned the causeway onto the island, we saw thousands of birds covering the patchy stretches of water around the Great Salt Lake. Today that "lake" is disappearing due to drought conditions and water usage. Waterless piers that once held skimmers are now void of any traffic.  Hopefully, Utah will benefit from the wet El Niño winter pattern that has begun to take hold for many of the Western states.  

Western Meadowlark near the empty piers
And yet, there are still areas that have larger patches of water. It's strangely a beautiful sight to see.  There were so many water birds around this island that I forgot we were exploring a drier area of the US. 

Phalaropes fly over our heads from out of nowhere!
Once on the island, I kept my eyes and ears open for the Chukar.

Several moments later, I heard "different" birds making an unusual chatty sound nearby the visitor center.  My eyes focused on the various rock outcroppings and boulders in the area.  And then...... happened!  I saw Chukars sitting on top of rocks.  And not just one or two but MANY!  I quietly walked down the path and turned the corner of a large boulder.  As I did, a pair of Chukars faced me only several feet away.  And in that moment of quiet, we watched each other carefully.

Antelope Island is truly a magical space that doesn't feel anything at all like Utah.  Or maybe it does feel like Utah? I don't know.  I haven't visited enough of Utah to make a judgement, but I can tell you that I loved it. I highly recommend this state park for a visit. There were RV's parked in their camping areas and I was a bit envious that people were able to spend several nights on this island.

Sage Thrasher
The golden light of the Utah sun made for wonderful photo opportunities. A pair of Sage Thrashers popped up on greasewood for some lovely views.

Horned Lark
While Mia navigated around the island, we were always careful to keep an eye open for the many bison walking around the roads and paths.

We stopped along the way investigating unusual habitat on the island.  At this particular stop(below), Mia showed us an older Black-billed Magpie nest.  This dome creation is a piece of art!

At one point, I had my window open and almost fell asleep.  I was SO relaxed. The urban sprawl of Salt Lake City stopped at the the entrance to the causeway.  And the island was a sanctuary of peaceful thoughts.

The golden browns of the landscape can make bird spotting a challenge.  Take for example this Wilson's Snipe below.  Mia spotted the bird along a riparian area and it took me several minutes to find her snipe!!!  It was only a couple feet away from my face!  Camouflage!

Wilson's Snipe
Our adventures in Utah would continue one more day.

I'd like to thank Mia for her friendship and also for her time showing us around the natural spaces of Salt Lake City.  I will never forget this trip out to Antelope Island. 

On our final voyage into Utah, there was one other bird I so badly needed to find.  Stay tuned for more......

Saturday, October 24, 2015


The Paiutes called it Mukuntuweap. It is a park known for its beautiful vistas.  And we were there. Micheal wanted to climb the difficult Angel's Landing and I was looking for....birds:)

Together, we hiked 10 grueling miles that day up a steep and often scary trail:)  It was worth it. 

Lincoln's Sparrow
Along the way, I found cool sparrows like this Lincoln's Sparrow(above).  Sometimes, I would keep my head down on the path because I am not a fan of heights. If you look closely at the pic below, you'll notice the "little dots" climbing up several rock edges! 

Then I had to look down to show you the view from that top spot to give you an idea how steep this hike was! Yes, I got a little vertigo. And why was I doing this crazy hike?  Well to support Micheal of course!:)  Or maybe it was to find a rare California Condor in Utah?  I get my priorities mixed up sometimes:)

But hey, you only live once so make the most of it.  We had a great time climbing to the top. 

Plateau Lizard
There were SO MANY people at the park that it was difficult at times safely crossing narrow paths without bumping someone.  But it was at the top where my birding adventures began......

There was a Park Ranger at the top doing a Condor presentation for the folks.  I spoke with him one-on-one about the details of the nesting pair of Condors at this national park.  So far, it has not been successful because of the lead poisoning.  In fact, the two Condors who had the chick a couple years ago both have passed away.  So I was a bit bummed. He had seen a condor about two weeks ago but there weren't any sightings since that time.  Did I hike for nothing?:)  I watched him present to a couple French tourists before moving to another location on the cliff.  There I sat in the shade watching the skies. I was not giving up.  

And then it happened!  I saw a large bird swing from out of nowhere next to a cliff!  I made out the ID tag as J6 and watched for awhile.  There was a group sitting around me and I quickly got their attention on the bird in the sky.  One of the tourists asked me about the tag on the wings and before I knew it, I was "acting" park ranger!  Someday I will wear that awesome cap and uniform. Anyhow, I saw that the Park Ranger hadn't seen the bird so I carefully ran along the cliff to get his attention.  

Everyone at his presentation was super excited to see the bird and before I knew it, there were click click clicks.  I gave the ID to the ranger knowing he'd probably know the condor's info.  When I did, he said to me, "How in the world???!!!"  I'm a serious birder and this is a cool bird:)  He told us all that the 6 year old condor was a female who had been released into the wild during the 2011 year.  I believe this bird also laid a egg in the wild but it never hatched.   

So after a successful hike and bird find, it was time to find the American Dipper hanging out along the river of the Mukuntuweap lands. We watched couples along the river help one another cross the rocky river. 

Rock Squirrel
It took us another 2 miles of a walk to locate the bird, but when we did, it was amazing.  We had very satisfying views of the Dipper doing what Dippers do best......hopping and swimming around the rocks. 

By the time we had found the dipper, the light in the canyon had already begun to diminish. 

It was a fantastic trek discovering these beautiful canyons of Southern Utah. 

I can see why the Paiute Indians made this place home.  Our adventures into rock and canyon continue.  Until next time friends....

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Between Rocks and Statues

On a road trip into rock, canyon and absolute nothingness, we have discovered strange life (or no life at all) in the most barren and remote regions of the Utah and Nevada deserts.  

Townsend's Warbler-How does a warbler get here?
The birding hotspots are few and far between in these hostile environments.  I normally don't prefer these kinds of treks(the DRIVE!) but the life bird challenge continues and forces me into new regions.  There are places you can't avoid for certain birds.

Great Blue Heron along a waterway
In a way, it's good because it forces me to see the beauty of those places. While in Utah, we were also very responsible birders. I remember there was a bit of time involved several months ago as we planned our trek through this conservative state. I'm not a big fan of any organized religion. While everyone was polite and all smiles in Utah, there was a plastic feel to it all.  So we used our own plastic to support the small businesses that we felt made a positive impact for ALL. I have not forgotten Proposition 8 and it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. When we bird in various locations, we also try to support the birding establishments or conservation efforts happening in that locale. 

Like any trek, we found a lot of amazing things in the many various habitats.  There were rocks.  Rocks with trees.  Rocks with streams.  A weird need for grass lawns that don't belong in a desert full of rocks.  And so on and so forth.....

There were wonderful slot canyons that we explored just for fun.  I loved that they were dark and cooler.  The heat in the West has still been a bit much.  Temps hit the 90's while we were in Southern Utah. 

We visited places like the Hoover Dam(above) and Arches National Monument(below) while surveying these areas for birds. 

Over the next several weeks, we'll take a look at several stunning places during our visit.  I am thankful we had a friend in Salt Lake City show us some of the incredible birding hotspots around the lake.  

Winged Figures of the Republic
The most exciting part of this particular trip was discovering my first wild Bighorn Sheep in southern Nevada.  We nearly got into an accident as we approached this often difficult to see mammal. I've been in Arizona for 18 years and have never seen one of these it was as Donald Trump says, "HUGE!".  When you see a barren rocky landscape and think to yourself, "What lives here?"; you'll now know the answer:)

The Hoover Dam was the Hoover Dam.  It was interesting but I could only find a couple coots(the bird kind:) and like a billion tourists. We didn't stay long.  

And somehow we found wildlife in these desolate or overcrowded areas. Most people never even noticed the few critters that stayed hidden in the shadows. Part of that had to do with the heat!  Everyone was on the move.  But the critters knew best:)

Townsend's Warbler
We kick off next week in a spectacular fashion.  Please join us as we'll explore an amazing park located in Southern Utah.