Monday, June 28, 2010

Can You Say Boreal Owls!

Yesterday after having a nice mexican breakfast in Boulder with our friends, my friend from Austin and I drove up to the Indian Peaks area west of Boulder to do a later afternoon hike. The parking area at the trailhead was jammed with Sunday hikers. The 1st mile up the trail was constant side-stepping to let people and lots of dogs pass. Once we made the left turn onto another trail, it was much less busy. The 2 mile hike climbed about 1000 ft from our starting point of 9,000 ft. Our destination was Diamond Lake which still had some snow patches around it. It threatened rain, but none came. We have been seeing lots of elk on our hikes, so I decided to add the top photo above to today's post.

We had initially planned to camp out up at the campground at the trailhead, but found out we needed a permit. Instead we made the drive to Cameron Pass to listen again for the boreal owl. Enroute we found several slate-colored fox sparrows--a new year bird. We arrived near the summit of the pass at midnite, and proceeded to play the boreal owl call, and then listen for a response.

By 12:45 AM we had reached the summit of the pass, but had heard nary a hoot. I decided to drive over the pass to try one more time. We stopped and played the call. My friend said, "hey I think I heard a response." So I played the call again. A boreal owl replied from across the highway. Then a second called back up a ways towards the summit, then a 3rd did also. Finally, a 4th called in the direction of the 1st call we had heard so faintly. We listened as this chorus of boreal owls kept chiming in. Wow!

After high 5's, we drove back over the pass and down a short way to a parking area where we slept in the truck--me in the back inside the camper cap, and my friend opted for the passenger side front seat that reclines.

The sun coming over the mountains woke us up at 6 AM. We drove down the Cache la Poudre river canyon, thru Ft. Collins and out to the Pawnee Grasslands to do some prairie birding. It was sunny and breezy on the prairie when we arrived about 8:30. For the next 3 hours we enjoyed seeing the prairie birds including the many lark buntings (middle and bottom photos) and horned larks (bottom photo). We also saw several cassin's sparrows including a male doing the flight display ending in a singing landing on a fence post.

We drove back to Ft. Collins where the Star of India beckoned for lunch. This time we did the buffet which proved to be as good as the 2 other ordered meals I have eaten here. Now we are checked into our motel in Estes Park to be ready to do 1 more hike early tomorrow morning before I take my friend to catch his plane.

The past 2 days added 35 more new birds for the week. The owl, and the fox and cassin's sparrows being new year birds raised the YTD number to 631. I will be heading to western Colorado tomorrow afternoon. Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Yesterday morning we were up at 6 AM to join some friends who live here for a hike on the Mesa Trail. This trail is part of the extensive hiking trails that Boulder has developed in the public lands the city has purchased as greenbelt space to the west of the city. As you walk along you have views out to the east of the plains and the city, as well as views back to the west and north of the mountains. We had a very nice 6 mile hike thru woodlands and open areas. I found a couple of lazuli buntings, a new bird for the year, singing at the tops of pine trees. I was not able to get a photo of one, so instead the photo above is of a mountain bluebird.

We got back, had breakfast and watched the U.S. men's soccer team lose 2-1 to Ghana in overtime, thus ending a pretty exciting World Cup for the U.S. 4 years ago Ghana knocked the U.S. out of that World Cup with the identical score.

Last night our friends with whom we have been staying, and my friend from Austin and I went to a restaurant called Arugula. It is mostly Italian in its food offerings. Its specialty is gnocchi, and I was looking forward to having some. They have a regular menu and then daily specials. We arrived at 7:30 only to find when we got ready to order that they had already run out of gnocchi. Bummer!

I did enjoy a nice cured meats starter plate of speck, hot coppa and bresaola with bruschetta. I then had some excellent fresh mozzarella with cherry tomatoes that had been marinated in balsamic vinegar. My friends had arugula salad, and house salads to start. They followed that with trout and roasted potatoes, and orecchiette pasta with a bison bolognese sauce.

For my main course I ordered hanger steak with gorgonzola dolce, and what was supposed to be sauteed tuscan kale and turnip greens. Instead all I got was turnip greens, and when the waitress asked the kitchen about it, they claimed that the local farm had told them it was tuscan kale. Having lived in Italy for a year, I knew there was no tuscan kale, which is called cavalo nero in Italy, in the sauteed greens. So either the kitchen did not know its vegies, or they were not being honest with the wait person. I told the waitress I was offended that the kitchen would tell her and me that there was tuscan kale in the side dish when clearly there was none.

With the meal we had a nice bottle of '08 soave from Inama followed by the '07 pinot noir from Baileyana. The latter I had in Tucson earlier this year, and last nite's was equally enjoyable. My venting about the tuscan kale resulted in a complimentary dessert. We ordered 3--a flourless chocolate cake with an orange cream sauce, a molten lava chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce, and a spiced mascarpone with sliced fruit and berries. All 3 were quite good. We returned home and had some '03 Dow LBV port before turning in.

Yesterday's hike added only 2 more new birds for the week with the bunting raising the YTD up to 628. Today my friend and I are going back up into the mountains near here to do some hiking. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Man Do I Love Birding in the Mountains of Colorado

Yesterday afternoon and all day today my friend and I reveled in the low humidity, bright blue sky, 80's weather of Rocky Mountain NP. The birding has been a real treat also. We were up at 5 AM to make the 45 minute drive from Estes Park up trail ridge rd. to medicine bow curve in order to search for white-tailed ptarmigan. Back in March I spent a total of 5 hours over 3 different days at Loveland Pass trying to find one in its all white winter plumage. I had no success.

We arrived to the sun coming up, temp probably around 50, and windy given that we were above the tree line and over 11,000 ft in elevation. We came to medicine bow curve because the ptarmigan likes the tundra there to breed. The young men I mentioned recently said they had seen them just this past Sunday. My friend and I had not walked 5 minutes down the trail when I spied one moving not far below us. The top photo above is of the bird we found. 5 minutes, 5 hours--this is how it can go with birding.

We drove back down the mountain to an area called endovalley to see what else we might find, including williamson's sapsuckers. The middle photo is of a female at her nest hole, and the bottom photo is of her mate. We found this pair because we noticed a man and a woman unloading high powered cameras on tripods, and asked them what they were going to photograph. They were up from Kerrville, TX and the husband said there was a dead aspen tree not 100 yards from his truck that had 4 different bird species nesting in the various cavities. The williamson's was one of the nesters. The others were mountain bluebird, house wren and tree swallow. We had a nice time chatting with the fellow while we all took photos.

Since we had not had breakfast, at 10 AM we decided to go into Estes Park to eat. The breakfast was nothing to write home about, so I won't. We then went over to the fern lake trailhead and had a very nice hike up to fern falls where we sat in the spray coming off the falls. We hiked back down the trail, and are now back in Boulder at our friends looking forward to helping them make a home cooked meal, and to drink some interesting wines.

Week #26 starts out with only 26 birds seen, but the ptarmigan and sapsucker are new year birds raising the YTD to 627. Tomorrow morning we are going for a hike with some friends here in the Boulder area. Who knows what might show up birdwise. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Black Swifts

Last nite we stayed in Boulder with friends, and went to eat dinner at The Kitchen. It was quite noisy, so the conversation was a bit difficult, but the food was very good. We tried a variety of dishes including a California produced buratta (a mozzarella like cheese generally found throughout Italy), beet salad, sauteed squid, mussels in wine, tagliatelle with morel mushrooms and peas, and smoked duck breast. We drank a very nice verdejo from Spain, and a true to type '07 nebbiolo from Cantina del Pino. Dessert was a toffee sticky pudding, 2000 LBV port from Sandeman, and moscato from La Spinetta. Back at our friends we opened a '97 brunello di Montalcino that they had brought back from Italy. It proved to be an excellent nightcap.

I dropped my wife at the Denver airport mid-day, and picked up my friend from Austin. We drove up to Rocky Mountain NP to bird the Wild Basin area of the park in hopes of seeing some black swifts fly over late in the afternoon on their way back to their nesting area. It was generally pretty quiet bird-wise except for seeing a few red-naped sapsuckers (photo above--click on it to enlarge). We walked back and forth between 2 open areas, constantly scanning the sky for the swifts. After watching many tree swallows for 3 hours, about 7:15 three black swifts flew right over our heads on their way home.

Week #25 is now completed. Only 2 more birds were added for the week, but the swift was a new year bird, bringing the YTD up to 625. Tomorrow my friend and I will be up at 5 AM to drive up to the really high country to look for white-tailed ptarmigans. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Bandlands, Mt Rushmore and RMNP

Yesterday we were on the road at 6 AM to make our drive thru Badlands NP (top photo above) and then for a drive-by of Mt Rushmore (middle photo). It was another beautiful day, and we enjoyed ourselves as we wound our way thru the scenery of the Badlands, and then mostly avoided the tourist feel of Mt Rushmore.

We arrived in Ft. Collins about 5 PM, and went to the Star of India for a fine meal. Back in March my sister and I had discovered this restaurant, and liked it very much. So I decided that my wife and I should try it again. I think it was even better a second time. Tandoori chicken, dal mahkani, sag paneer, and nan were all delicious, and actually a bit too much food.

After dinner my wife settled into our motel room, and I started to make the drive up to Cameron Pass. I stopped briefly at the Watson Lake Fish Hatchery to look for lazuli buntings, but found mostly yellow warblers, and lots of bank and northern rough-winged swallows. So I headed on up Rt. 14 to get up near the pass by 10 PM when it was finally dark. Once there, I proceeded to stop every 1/2 mile to play the call of the boreal owl and listen to see if I got any answer. I worked my way up 7 miles to the pass summit, and then repeated the process back over the same 7 miles. It took an hour and 1/2, and no owls responded. It is pretty late in the breeding season for them to be calling so I was not surprised at the result. I also saw not one car or truck during that time. I made the late night drive back to the motel, and was asleep by 1 AM.

5 AM rolled around all too quickly, but we needed to be up that early to make the hour drive up to Rocky Mountain NP, our morning destination for birding. We first parked at the Fern Lake trailhead to check for dusky grouse and then to walk up the trail. Within the 1st quarter mile we had found both macgillivray's and virginia warblers singing. The mac was a new year bird, and the virginia's was a nice find since I had only heard it calling down in Arizona back in May.

We then went back down the road a mile to the Cub Lake trail. We were taking this trail in search of the dusky grouse and also dusky flycatchers. We went about a mile without seeing either, but did find 2 red-naped sapsuckers--a new year bird. We began to backtrack when we met up with a woman and 3 young men to whom we had spoken briefly back at the Fern Lake parking area. The woman was the mother of 2 of the boys, and the 3rd young fellow was a birding friend in from LA. Since there is nothing as good as local intel, we decided to join them as they walked up the trail to Cub Lake.

We soon stopped and one of the boys noticed a raptor circling high above us. We all studied it and saw that it was a goshawk--a fairly secretive and often hard to find bird of deep forests and mountains. This was another new year bird for me and a life bird for 2 of the fellows. We also heard and then saw a dusky flycatcher (new year bird).

As we walked it became obvious thru talking with the mother and observing the young men that these 3 were already exceptionally fine birders. They were also into butterflies and dragon flies. The older brother and the fellow from LA had met as part of the American Birding Association's young birders program in Texas this spring when they competed in the big day event put on by the ABA.

Fairly quickly we had the good fortune to flush a male dusky grouse, and luckily for us it landed nearby. We spent the next 30 minutes watching and photographing it. In the bottom photo above you can see that it partially has its air sacs blown out (remember to click on photo to enlarge). This was the 1st male dusky I had seen--all the others had been females with chicks. It was the day's 5th new bird of the year. It was also a life bird for 2 or 3 of the young men.

As my wife and I walked back to our truck, we both agreed that it was one of the best birding days of my big year. Yes, seeing 5 new year birds was very nice, but it was far more than that. Being able to walk in such a beautiful place, and spend time with those 3 young birders and the mother was what the big year is really all about.

Our morning and yesterday added 26 more new birds for the week, and the 5 new year birds brought the YTD up to 624. The travel map has been updated. Tomorrow my wife flies back home to NC, ready for a break from so many early mornings. A good friend is flying up from Austin to spend the next few days with me. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Beautiful Day in the Dakotas

We slept in this morning meaning that we did not get up until 7 AM. I went off to get the oil changed on the truck (another 5,000 miles racked up since leaving NC on June 6th). We then left about 9 to drive up to the Audubon NWR about an hour north of Bismarck. I had never been to this refuge, and was hoping to see some breeding plumage eared grebes on their floating nests. Not only did we not see them on their nests, we did not see any! But we did see lots of other birds including the yellow-headed blackbird (top photo above) and tree swallow (bottom photo).

We then pointed the truck south toward the other Dakota. The day was mostly sunny, breezy, low humidity and in the high 70's. We wound our way thru some beautiful parts of SW North Dakota, and NW South Dakota. It was a treat to see so many prairie birds as we drove down the highway. We regularly passed lark buntings, redwing and yellow-headed blackbirds, cowbirds, upland sandpipers, chestnut-collared longspurs, western meadowlarks, and eastern and western kingbirds. We also saw a couple of dickcissels, a red-headed woodpecker, a long-billed curlew, and when we crossed the Cheyenne River, there must have been well over a 1000 cliff swallows swooping around the bridge.

While we saw no new year birds, we did add 7 more new birds for the week. It was just a very nice day of travel with birds all along the way. We are now in Wall SD, home of the famous (since 1931) Wall Drug. We went in for some "homemade" ice cream (a sundae with strawberry ice cream and hot fudge shared). This was to make up for the very mediocre pizza we half finished at the Badlands Bar across the street. At least the pitcher of Fat Tire beer was satisfying.

We will be driving thru Badlands NP, and then over to the Black Hills to visit Mt. Rushmore tomorrow before heading on down to Colorado. I will be trying again tomorrow nite for a boreal owl. Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day

Today is father's day, and because of that plus the birding results to follow, I am going to call this another red letter day. This morning my wife and I were out on the road by 5:30 heading back west to Kidder county. We got off I-94 at the Pettibone exit to drive the gravel farm roads in hopes of actually seeing and not just hearing a gray partridge. After about 30 minutes sure enough a pair flushed off the roadside.

We then got back on I-94 to go a bit further west to exit at ND 3 which takes you to the town of Tuttle. This has been the area where baird's sparrows have been regularly seen over the past few years. There are other reliable places to find it in northwestern ND, but the Tuttle area requires less driving. The couple from Massachusetts told us specifically where to look. Enroute we stopped at one location to listen for nelson's sparrows and yellow rails, but heard neither. We did see a wilson's phalarope feeding in the road ditch (top photo above).

We finally arrived about 7:30 and walked out into the large grassy area that was the place to look, or so we thought. We found western meadowlarks, lots of chestnut-collared longspurs (bottom photo above), savannah, clay-colored and grasshopper sparrows, but no baird's. There was even a short-eared owl flying around looking for a meal. The Mass couple had told us they had seen the same birds. After an hour of roaming the grassland, we decided to go back down to listen for the nelson's again but to no avail.

We returned to the baird's spot and found other birders had arrived. One was a local guy with a big camera who had stopped because as he drove by he heard sprague's pipits. The other car had 3 birders in from Pennsylvania who were also hunting for a baird's. The camera fellow told us that we needed to move to the adjacent field and try there. So we did, and after 10 minutes we heard a baird's singing. We quickly found it just above ground level singing over and over again. We signaled to the 3 PA birders to come over, and they too saw the bird while the photog captured it digitally. He then told us where to go nearby to find nelson's sparrows.

We followed his directions to Horsehead Lake. I walked out thru the grass and heard the call of the nelson's over in the reeds. I went to the edge of the reeds where it was calling, and pished it up to the top of the reeds where it gave me a nice side view of its gray nape, and orange facial and throat features. Finding the baird's and nelson's put a big smile on my face because they were both new year birds and I had completed my target list for North Dakota.

After such a successful morning of birding, we decided to head on over to Bismarck to check into a motel. Along I-94 we kept enjoying the unique landscape here in North Dakota--a pothole marsh pond/lake at least every half mile with invariably some waterfowl resting upon it; and mostly green fields with the occasional pile of glacier rocks mounded up by the farmer.

After a nice mexican meal we have settled into the motel to read and watch the final round of the US Open golf tournament. The week's count of birds seen is up to 98, and the 2 sparrows bring the YTD total to 619. The next couple of days will be more about visiting the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore than birding, but you never know what we might find. Stay tuned!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

North Dakota Prairie Potholes and All

Yesterday evening I went over to Kelly's Slough NWR which is only 10 miles outside of Grand Forks, ND. I had been there back in 2006, and really liked birding the area. The refuge is surrounded by a mixture of marsh/wetlands and farmland. The top photo above was taken as the sun was setting over the slough.

I returned to the slough this morning before dawn to drive the gravel roads around it looking for a gray partridge. I heard one calling just off the road in some reeds. It called continuously for about 5 minutes and then stopped. I hoped it would walk out on the road, but it did not. I waited for more light before getting out of my truck to see if I could flush the bird, but my search was not successful so this will go down as a heard only bird for now.

As I was driving out of the area I found another short eared owl sitting on a dead snag. I was able to get close enough to actually see the very short "ears" on top of its round head. Before I could get my camera out to try to capture those ears the bird took flight.

I returned to our motel to pick up my wife who had slept in. We then drove to Arrowwood NWR only to find the auto tour route was closed because of a breach in the roadway. We decided to go onto Jamestown and check into our motel. After getting organized and working on the possible birding options for the next couple of days, I got back in the truck and went west into Kidder county which is well known as a good place in North Dakota to look for key prairie birds like baird's sparrow.

I wandered around on the grid of gravel roads north of I-94 and south of ND 36 for 3 hours. The bottom photo above is of an upland sandpiper posing just for me. Actually, it is quite common to find them perched on top of a pole or post here where they breed. I also found several chestnut-collared longspurs which was a new year bird.

Last nite and today added 26 more new birds for this week, and the YTD is now at 617. There is an updated travel map. Tomorrow we will be up very early to go back to Kidder county in search of both the baird's and nelson's sparrows. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Can You Say Black-backed Woodpecker?

We awoke about 6 AM to a sunny but very windy day. We were on the road by 6:30, and arrived back at Atasca SP (the Atasca Lake is the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River) about 7:30 to find that the road we needed to drive down was still not open. My wife agreed to stay with our truck since there was no parking area at the closure location. I took off walking down the closed road to reach the Bohall trail which was about a mile away. I enjoyed birding along the way, mostly by ear, and was at the trailhead in 20 minutes.

I had not walked more than 400 yards down the trail when I heard a woodpecker. I looked around to find a fine male black-backed woodpecker working its way up a tree trunk. It flew to a second tree and continued to hunt for food. I wanted to watch it a bit longer, but was concerned about my wife waiting back at the truck, so in my haste, I took off back down the trail before thinking about getting a photo. On my way back I saw 2 yellow-bellied sapsuckers. I arrived back at our truck at 8:30, and we started our 2+ hour drive to Agassiz NWR.

We arrived about 11 AM and the wind was blowing very hard. We chatted with the ranger, picked up a key to unlock the gates, and headed off to see what might be around on such an inhospitable day for birding. The photos above are of a male blue-winged teal, and a group of white pelicans that we flushed coming around a turn (remember to click on the photos to enlarge them). We saw many birds, including a few sparrows, but no nelson's sparrows which had been reported at the refuge in the past week. The high winds did not help matters.

We finally departed from the refuge area about 3 PM to make the drive over to Grand Forks, ND. I am going out now to a place near here called Kelly's Slough to see what might be about. For the 1st day of week #25 we have already seen or heard 62 species, and the black-backed woodpecker raises the YTD total to 615. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

End of Week #24

It is Thursday afternoon, June 17th, the end of week #24 of this big year travel adventure. The prediction of high winds and possible tornadoes dramatically shortened our afternoon of birding. But again I am ahead of myself.

Yesterday afternoon we drove an hour to visit Rice Lake NWR which is just south of the small town of McGregor, MN. The sun finally came out, and the wind was not much. The refuge proved to be very quiet, so after about an hour we drove back into McGregor to check into our motel. Before leaving Duluth we had a big lunch/breakfast, so we were not all that hungry at 6 PM when it was time to make the drive up to county rd 18 in Aitkin county. We opted for some dairy queen soft serve before starting our drive.

Our goal was to see the great gray owl which is a permanent resident along this road. We also were hoping for a leconte's sparrow which is found along the same road. We arrived about 7:30 on as pretty a late spring afternoon as you could want. As we drove down the gravel road we saw up ahead a bird on a sign. Hoping for a great gray, we had to settle for the short eared owl in the top photo above. We got to watch it and its mate hunt the marsh/grasslands.

As we were watching them my wife looked in the grass close by and said, "there's a small bird." I quickly swung my binocs up to find a singing leconte's sparrow sitting on a small green plant. My view lasted maybe 15 seconds before the bird as is its habit dropped back down into the thick grass. We sat there for another 10 minutes hoping it would pop back up, but it just kept itself hidden, singing its frustrating to hear quiet buzzy whistle song.

As 8:30 rolled around we decided to make our way back down county rd 18 to a small cemetery where the great gray was most recently reported being seen. Ground fog was starting to form in places, and the sun was just setting to the west. We slowly drove the road but found no owl, so we turned down Pietz's side road looking there as well. The second photo above was an attempt to capture the ground fog that was increasing as darkness approached. Another short eared owl flew over high above us giving a short thrill thinking it might be a great gray until we got a better look at it in the dusk. Scanning the power lines for the great gray we instead found a ruby throated hummer sitting on the wire.

After a few more passes up and down the 2 roads, at 9:45 we called it a nite and drove back to McGregor. I dropped my wife at the motel, and I went the short 2 miles over to the marsh to check for calling yellow rails. I heard one fairly quickly, and then noticed further out in the marsh several flashlights and birders tromping around trying to see a yellow rail. Having seen one in Texas in April, I was content to listen to the constant rail calling that sounds like 2 stones tapping lightly against each other. My bed beckoned, so off I went.

This morning I awoke at 5:30 and decided to check the marsh again. I found 2 birders sloshing around out there, and ended up speaking with one of them. He told me that yesterday morning they had seen the great gray owl on county rd 18 twice--early and again mid morning. I raced back to get my wife up. While she was showering I grabbed some breakfast at the motel and ran into last nite's rail hunters--a group from the tropical audubon society in southern Florida. I also saw a couple from Massachusetts that I had crossed paths with yesterday morning in Sax-Zim bog.

My wife and I drove back to county rd 18, and retraced our driving path only to not find a great gray. By then the couple from Mass. had arrived and we all decided to walk down a ski mobile trail in search of connecticut warblers. We heard one calling after 15 minutes, and homed in on its position. We then headed into the spruce/tamarack trees, walking on the sphagnum bog moss which was actually drier than the ski-mobile trail. We soon sighted the elusive warbler slowly walking around on tree branches looking for food. Now I can move the connecticut warbler to the seen list.

My wife and I walked back to our car to try for the owl again. As we were walking out the Florida group was walking in. We told them where to look for the connecticut. We once again did not see a great gray, but we did find another short eared owl. As we drove back by the ski mobile trail entrance, we saw one of the Florida birders who I recognized from birding there back in March. I had met her when I went to her house in search of spot-breasted orioles. I was not surprised to see her since these kind of encounters happen regularly among avid birders.

The birders from Massachusetts then came back to tell us that they had found a great gray owl after we had left them when they walked much further down the ski mobile trail. They had seen a large bird fly by at a distance, and then soon after it dropped down next to them momentarily before flying off. This is also a typical occurrence when birding where you or someone else just misses the chance to see a "good" bird.

My wife and I looked at each other and decided not to walk out the wet, tick infested ski mobile trail again, figuring that we missed our chance. Instead we drove over to Itasca State Park to look for a black-backed woodpecker only to discover that the road to get to the hiking trail we wanted to use to search for a reported bird was closed the rest of the day because of the aforementioned high wind/tornado warnings. Thus our early check in to a motel.

Week #24 is now in the books with a total of 95 birds seen for the week, and the YTD is now up to 614 with the addition of the leconte's sparrow. My wife is thrilled to have only a partial day of birding, and hopefully early tomorrow we will be able to locate the black-backed. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Northern Minnesota--Gunflint Trail and Lake County

It is Wednesday morning and I am just back from another pass thru Sax-Zim bog. The bobolink above was one of this morning's few highlight birds (click on photo to enlarge). It was overcast, cool and not as active as last Saturday morning when I birded there. This time I did not even hear a connecticut warbler singing. I also stopped to check a black-backed woodpecker site from this past winter to discover that it had been logged since then. But I am ahead of myself.

After birding Sax-Zim last Saturday, my family headed up route 61 to Grand Marais, and then took the Gunflint Trail (Cook county rd 12) up to the Gunflint Lodge on Gunflint lake. We stayed there Sunday and Monday nites. We had a nice cabin with an indoor hot tub and a large sauna. Gunflint lake is 1 mile wide and 7 miles long. The other side of the lake is Canada.

The sunset Sunday evening was quite nice and included several common loons calling. Monday morning I was out at 4:45 in the mist to hunt for a black-backed woodpecker in the burn area near the lodge. It was a very nice early morning of birding even tho I did not see any woodpeckers, and only heard the rapping of one far off in the distance. I did see a few mourning warblers along with various species of flycatchers, and white-throated sparrows. I heard a couple of winter wrens singing.

After lunch the sun came out, so we took 2 canoes out onto the lake. It was a bit windy, but not so much so that it made the paddling difficult. We crossed the lake and stood briefly on Canadian soil/rock. My 28 year old son and 20 year old daughter even took a short swim. After a couple of hours of paddling around we returned to the dock.

Yesterday we began our trip back to Duluth about 10 AM. I had birded the same burn area early but again saw no woodpeckers, but heard a pileated woodpecker calling in the distance. The sun came out briefly on our drive back down the Gunflint trail, but at Grand Marais on Lake Superior it clouded up, and rained on us off and on as we drove to Duluth.

We had a late lunch at the Lake Avenue Cafe in Duluth. The deconstructed fish and chips proved to be a big winner. Sauteed Lake Superior whitefish laid on top of cole slaw with small tempura batter pieces and roasted potatoes on the side. The 2008 torrontes--a white wine from Argentina that is becoming pretty popular--was an excellent match for our fish.

Our children departed for Minneapolis soon after our meal, and I got back in the truck to drive up to an area above Two Harbors in Lake county to search for a great gray owl. I missed finding this bird back in January, and 1 had been seen in this area last week. I arrived at the reported site about 7:45 PM and began my stake-out. Unfortunately it was raining some, but not so much that it was a problem. I soon saw a owl fly down from a perch. It did not seem like a great gray, and sure enough when it returned to its perch I could see that it was a northern hawk owl which are pretty rare in this area in the summer. I saw several back in January. It hung around for about 15 minutes before disappearing.

By 9:30 it was almost dark, so I headed back to Duluth without having seen a great gray. I did flush several woodcock off the dirt road as I drove home. I also had a short eared owl fly down out of a boggy area, and land on the side of the road. This was also a bit surprising since this owl tends to move up towards the Canadian border and more to the west in Minnesota for the summer. I was pleased since this is a new year bird.

The week's count of new birds seen is now 78, and the YTD is up to 613. We are going over to the Mcgregor marsh area and Aitkin county this evening to try again for the great gray owl. Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Crex Meadows and Sax-Zim

Today is Sunday and the family is about to load into the truck for the drive up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area where we will stay the next 2 nites. Friday was all about getting the various family members to Minneapolis. The day's highlight was a fine meal at a place called 112 Eatery in downtown Minneapolis. It was one of those menus where you are doomed because you want to try everything, but of course can only eat so much food. We did our best to make a dent by ordering starters like burrata with poached maine lobster, steak tartare, artichoke salad with goat cheese cream dressing, lamb scottadita with goat's milk yogurt and pan-fried gnocchi with parmesan.

Main courses were an incredible bone-in pork loin with cherries and port, a less successsful stuffed chicken wings, spicy sausage, prawns mixed grill over white and fava beans, and a delicate spinach and ricotta rotolo. We managed to eat a side of french fries with the entrees. The opening wines were single glasses of Pine Ridge chenin blanc, a picoul from France, and "anthilia", a white blend made by Donnafugata in Sicily. A very well made 2007 barbara del alba from Vietti accompanied the main dishes.  Dessert was vanilla panna cotta with berry sangria, lemon cream tart with candied almonds, cocoa nib chocolate cake with raspberry vanilla ice cream, and a glass of 2003 Taylor LBV port.
Yesterday morning my wife and I were out of the motel by 5:15 to make the 90 minute drive to Crex Meadows, a wonderful wildlife refuge in Wisconsin northeast of Minneapolis. I had made my first visit there last spring, and loved birding this very large, very habitat diverse area. Yesterday was an overcast, cool morning, and other than a guy on a bike, we had the place to ourselves. The 2 photos of black tern (above) and common loon were taken there. We saw several loons, and heard them calling often. 
Another highlight species was trumpeter swan which I recorded initially for my big year back in May in Ohio, but should have waited until now since I learned later that the Ohio birds are not accepted as wild by the Ohio bird committee.  Other good birds included sandhill cranes, bald eagles, and a new year bird--the alder flycatcher--asking us regularly if we wanted free beer. For non-birders, the song of the alder sounds like it is saying free beer.

We left Crex about 10 AM to work our way up thru the western side of Wisconsin. Our target birds were leconte's sparrow which we did not see or hear at Crex, and the elusive connecticut warbler. We visited several promising birding sites over the next 6 hours, but to no avail.
We met up with our children in Duluth for dinner and a movie (Robin Hood) before checking into our motel for the nite.

This morning I slipped out at 5 AM without waking my wife to bird at the well known Saz-Zim bog area. I was still hunting for our first connecticut warbler of the big year. Lots of birds were singing on a bit foggy morning. About 8 AM I finally heard a single connecticut singing, but it was not near the road, and I could not get it to come out of its dense hiding place. So for now the connecticut will go down as a heard only bird.

After 2 days of birding the weekly total is at 67 birds, and the YTD is now up to 612. Where we are going the next 2 days has some promising birding. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What a Difference a Month Can Make

Today is the end of week #23, and I am sitting on my bed in a motel in Minneapolis, MN. I just drove 1600 miles over the past 3 days from outside of Boston, MA. I made several stops along the way.

On Tuesday about 10:30 AM I pulled into Shady Glen in Manchester, CT to try one of its reknowned burgers called the Bernice original which was first created in 1949, my birth year. Having lived in nearby West Hartford in high school, I thought it only appropriate as part of my big year hamburger component to try the Bernice. It's claim to fame is that the 4 oz burger has 4 slices of cheese that become crispy on the grill and are curled up by the grillman making the finished burger look like it has a cheese crown. My burger came with fries and cole slaw, and was even cooked medium rare. I enjoyed eating it but I can not say that I am now a diehard convert.

Since I was heading west on I-84 towards Pennsylvania, I stopped in to see some friends who live near Port Jervis, NY. I have known them since high school/college, and they say I am the only person they know who has visited them everywhere that they have lived since being married. Whenever driving by their current home in my travels over the past 20 years I just drop in unannounced, and only once have they not been there. Tuesday was no exception, and we spent some time catching up.

I finally pulled myself away so that I could make it to Clarion, PA by dusk to check out the henslow's sparrow spot that my wife and I visited back in early May. The sparrows were still singing away. I was hoping that some owls might show up at dusk, but none did.

On Wednesday I was up early enough to get over to Magee Marsh by late morning when the rain had stopped. When my wife and I spent 5 days here in mid May, it was like grand central station for birders taking in the spring migration. Yesterday I pulled in as a couple was departing on a motorcycle, leaving the place entirely to myself. I spent the next hour walking the boardwalk, listening to the breeding birds, and thinking what a difference a month can make. Instead of throngs of people, and lots of migrating birds, the boardwalk was covered with some kind of flying insect that I had never seen before. It's body resembled a 1 inch worm but it had wings and a long hairlike tail. There were literally 10's of 1,000's of these creatures. They would fly up, hitting me in the face, or land on my pants and stick there until I flicked them off.

After an hour of mostly hearing birds, and dealing with the constant bombardment of the flying insect, I got back in my truck to head on west toward Minnesota. The sun was beginning to break thru the clouds as I was leaving Magee, and I passed 3 cars coming in.

I unfortunately arrived in the greater Chicago area at rush hour, so it took over an hour to get past downtown on my way up to Milwaukee. I was headed to Solly's Grille to try the famous Wisconsin butter burger. I had mine with grilled onions, cheese and bacon. Butter burgers are a Wisconsin thing, and Solly's supposedly makes one of the best. I have to say for my taste, the burger with the big dollop of butter on it is way too rich, and not to my liking.

This morning at 8:30 I arrived at Horicon Marsh, which is about an hour north of Milwaukee. This is one of the country's premier marshes, and one of the places that Roger Tory Peterson particularly liked to visit. I came here for the first time back in 2006, and was looking forward to birding here again. The photos above are of a mama american coot with chicks (top) and a fully plumaged male ruddy duck (bottom)--how about that blue bill. Remember to click on the photo to enlarge it.

I had a totally satisfying morning birding this very large area, but I needed to leave about 1 PM in order to make it over to Minneapolis in time to see a friend. I am heading out the door of my motel room right now to do that, and will finish this posting when I return.

I am just back from seeing another long time friend who lives in Wisconsin, but was in Minneapolis today doing some work. We had not been able to get together since 2006, so we were both glad to be able to see each other for a long overdue sharing of our lives since then.

With so many good new birds at Horicon today, the week's bird count ended with 120 birds seen. There were no new year birds since the last posting, so the YTD is still at 610. There is an updated travel map at the top. Tomorrow my wife and children arrive for a long family weekend, but there will be some birding involved. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 7, 2010

1100 Miles and 3 Days Later

I left my house about 1 PM on Saturday in order to make the 5 hour drive up to the Virginia part of the Delmarva peninsula. I wanted to reach Saxis Marsh, which is near the Maryland border, by late afternoon in hopes of finding both a black rail and a saltmarsh sparrow. I arrived about 6:30 and spent the next 3 hours listening for both birds. For my effort I fought off green headed and deer flies, and mosquitoes, but to no avail.

I was back at the marsh at 5:15 the next morning in a second attempt on both birds, but once again saw nor heard neither. I did get the photo above of the black-crowned night-heron looking skeptically at the 2 snowy egrets. At 8 AM I decided to head up to Brigantine near Atlantic City to see if maybe a saltmarsh sparrow was hanging out there. I decided to take the ferry that runs between Lewes, De and Cape May, NJ which proved to be faster than driving up to Philly and then over toward Atlantic City. When I arrived at the refuge, the wind was blowing pretty hard, so I was not optimistic, but to my relief I found a saltmarsh sparrow about 1/2 way around the 8 mile loop drive.

At 1 PM I began the drive to the Catskills in New York state where I was hoping to find a bicknell's thrush. This is the rarest/hardest to see of our thrushes because it breeds only in New England and eastern Canada in spruce forests on mountains that rise above 3500 feet. I had done some research back in 2008 and found that the closest place to North Carolina is in the Catskill mountains. So I tried Plateau Mountain near Phoenicia, NY and late one afternoon I found a pair. It was almost dark, and it was beginning to rain lightly when I started back down the trail. It was only 1.5 miles back to my car, but on the slippery, very steep trail I felt fortunate to make it down without mishap.

Based on my experience back in 2008, yesterday I planned to camp on the mountain. I stopped briefly in Phoenicia, a small resort town, to pick up a wood-fired pizza at Brio's. Even in the boonies it is now possible to find really good pizza places. After gobbling down the pepperoni pizza, I began my climb up the trail about 6:45 PM. It had rained earlier that day, so the trail was a bit wet, but mainly very steep. The 1st 1/2 mile is constant switchbacks, and in places it is so steep that there are steps built with stones. Late singing wood thrushes and a calling yellow-bellied sapsucker energized my climb.

I had wanted to camp at the lookout point, but as 8:30 PM approached, and a cloud was settling on the mountain, I decided to camp under a large rock overhang that was about 200 yards below the lookout point. The wind was blowing quite hard, but I was well protected and went to sleep immediately.

This morning I woke up to the birds singing at 4:45. I wanted to take a photo of my campsite but found that the batteries in my camera had died. In my hurry to get up the mountain before dark I had forgotten to put extra batteries in my pack. So I quickly packed up, and climbed up to the lookout point where I left my pack. As I was climbing I heard a swainson's thrush singing.

Once up on the flat top of Plateau Mountain, I began to walk thru the dense spruce and birch woodland. I heard my first bicknell's singing about 5:30 but it stopped before I could locate it. I heard it again, or another bird about 6:30, but it too stopped quickly. I think that even though the sun was shining brightly, the high winds were not to the thrushes liking. I did flush off the ground a singing swainson's about 7:30. That was the last singing thrush I heard until I hiked back down when the wood thrush chimed in at lower elevation. Most of the birds this morning were heard rather than seen because of the dense trees and undergrowth.

I got back to my truck at 10 AM, and drove the short distance into Tannersville for breakfast. I am a big fan of eggs benedict, but only when done well. At Maggie's Krooked Cafe I took a flyer on their eggs benedict to find not only was it top notch, but the curried home fries, and small green salad made for a very nice start to my food day.

While eating, I decided to make the 4 hour drive over to Plum Island near Newburyport outside of Boston. 2 black rails were found calling there in the past week. This is a rare occurrence at Parker River NWR since it is much further north than the usual range for black rails. Since this year I had tried in Texas at 2 different sites, at Everglades NP, and at Saxis Marsh, I figured I would make one more effort to hear the rail before it was no longer breeding season.

I arrived in time to stop at the visitor center to get the scoop on exactly where to look. Since it was only 4 PM, I headed over to the Clam Box in nearby Ipswich to enjoy some of their reknowned fried clams. I was not able to have any back in January when I was birding in the area because they are only open during the summer. Their reputation proved to be well deserved. I also got a lobster roll to go in hopes of being able to celebrate hearing a black rail.

You may have noticed that I keep writing about hearing a black rail as opposed to seeing one. That is because they are very difficult to see except in rare high tide situations, or if you tromp thru the marsh with alot of other people in order to scare them to fly a short distance before disappearing into the marsh grasses. I have only seen one by doing just that one morning with 80 other birders at Anahuac NWR in Texas.

I got back to the refuge about 5 PM to find several birders were already gathering to listen for the rail. The wind was still pretty stiff at times, and the sun was out strongly, but about 6 a black rail called out 3 times. At 6:30 it called about 5 times, and at 6:50 it called 9 or 10 times. It was fairly close to us as we stood on the road, and was easily heard even in the wind. At 7:10, another black rail further out in the marsh began calling. It was not as loud because of the distance, but it called 20-30 times in succession. I left the marsh one very happy birder, and was looking forward to munching down on my lobster roll back at my motel.

After 1100 miles of driving over the past 3 days, I managed to find 3 more new year birds: saltmarsh sparrow seen; and bicknell's thrush and black rail only heard. After 4 days in week #23 a total of 87 birds species have been seen or heard. I begin my drive towards Minnesota tomorrow. I will be checking out a few places on the way. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Start of Week 23

The photo above is of a least tern that I took down on the Bolivar peninsula in Texas back in April. I really like this small tern, and decided today was a good time to share this bird on the blog.

Today is Friday June 4th, the start of week #23. I have not actively birded the past 3 days while I have been attending to some things here back home. I have not slept in my own bed even 12 nites since January 1, and I leave again tomorrow and won't return to Chapel Hill until mid July.

After going back and forth on whether to go out on 1 more pelagic trip this Sunday from Hatteras, I finally decided to stick with my original plan to begin driving towards New York state. I will be stopping at Saxis marsh in the Virginia section of the Delmarva peninsula tomorrow evening to listen for black rails. Sunday I will be driving on up to the Catskills to climb up a small mountain in search of bicknell's thrush. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Final Day of 4 Pelagic Trips

It is 11:30 PM on June 1, and I am just back from my drive home from Hatteras. Today's pelagic trip started out very slowly under overcast skies, choppy seas and more wind than yesterday. We had to travel almost 40 miles to reach the gulf stream and deep water (3000 ft) where we would hope to find some "good" birds. The rare birds hang out in warmer waters (generally 80 degrees and above), so it is critical to be able to reach the gulf stream. Some days it is only 20 or 25 miles from shore, but other days it might be 70 miles out. On those days you are just plain unhappy because it is too far to travel, so you generally will not find very interesting birds, or even many birds at all.

About mid-day the sun broke thru for awhile, but then it clouded over again. This made for less sunburn, and a bit cooler birding. We still were not seeing very many birds, when suddenly Brian's voice booms over the intercom, "red-billed tropicbird just came up off the water in front of the boat!". Since Brian, the captain of the boat and leader of the trips, is not normally what you would call a very demonstrative guy, it is always a surprise when he gets fired up announcing a special bird. The red-billed--a 1st year bird which meant its bill was actually yellow--landed close by 2 more times, giving us a chance to study it a bit before it flew off.

Within an hour we had found another small group of birds, and were looking at a cory's and a greater shearwater, and a black-capped petrel arcing around the boat when Brian's voice boomed again, "Fea's petrel coming down the port side!". The bird circled the boat once, giving everyone a pretty good look. This bird is one of the very rare gadfly petrels that are seen off of Hatteras. It was the 1st of the season, and made for some very happy birders. One in particular, a fellow from South Carolina, took out a small bottle of red wine to toast seeing a life bird--the tropicbird in this case. I had noticed yesterday afternoon he had done the same thing after seeing the european storm-petrel. He told me he began this tradition of celebrating a new life bird many years earlier, and was obviously maintaining it. Too bad he didn't have a bigger bottle to share with others, nevertheless--Cheers!

As is always the case with the fish oil dripping off the back of the boat, we had many wilson's storm petrels following us. The photo above is of a few of them with a pomarine jeager in their midst (double click on photo to enlarge). The pomarine is the largest of the jeagers at 18 inches in length, and obviously dwarfs the much smaller wilson's.

The day's birding added 5 more new birds for the week, and the Fea's and red-billed tropicbird were both new year birds raising the YTD total to 607. I feel very good about the 4 days of pelagic trips since I had 19 target birds, 6 of which were rare, and ended up with 15 new year birds overall with 4 being in the rare category. I am home now until Saturday when I head out again, possibly back to Hatteras for 1 more day of seabirding. Stay tuned!