Sunday, June 30, 2013

Birding Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the US, with a variety of landscapes ranging from temperate rainforests to alpine tundra and prairies.  This juxtaposition of habitats makes it a great place to find many species of birds I have never seen before.

I missed you, Glacier.

The Avalanche Lake trail, which works its way through a verdant cedar forest up to a spectacular mountain lake, was the first trail I hiked in the park on this trip.  The moist coniferous habitat is ideal for Pacific Northwest birds, and my goal on this hike was to spot some.

In the parking area, I spotted my 300th lifer, Vaux's Swift, the West's version of Chimney Swift.  The forested trail was alive with the alien calls of birds I have never heard before - Townsend's Warblers, Varied Thrush, and Pacific Wrens.  A Townsend's Solitaire, a drab, reclusive relative of the bluebird, lighted in a tree just off the trail.  I somehow managed to catch a glimpse of all of these species, and still arrive at the lake before the crowds.  Onshore, an inquisitive Steller's Jay flitted around, hoping to steal someone's snack.  Nearby, I spotted the western subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler, the "Audubon's Warbler"(the eastern subspecies is the "Myrtle Warbler").  New studies suggest that these two subspecies are and example of divergent evolution happening before our very eyes - these birds are becoming more and more genetically distinct as time progresses.

Audubon's Warbler at Avalanche Lake

Today I got my alpine fix by hiking up the snow-covered trail to Hidden Lake, climbing above 7,000 feet.  Few birds live up that high, but I did see several American Pipits, one of the biggest holes on my 2013 list.  The pipits were cool, but the highlight for me was a Gray-crowned Rosy-finch, high up on a snowfield.  I got the birding full package:  I heard it singing, saw it well, and photographed it!

Gray-crowned Rosy-finch above Logan Pass

A small pond off the trail to Hidden Lake

I'll end this entry with some non-birds:

A mountain goat up at Hidden Lake that started licking the sweat off of my binoculars.  We chased it away and I thoroughly wiped down my beloved optics...  definitely a unique experience!  

Two grizzly bears swimming in the Many Glacier area of the park.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Big Sky Country

I am back in Montana for the third time in my life, but this marks the first time I will actually bird in Big Sky Country.  Lucky for me, Montana is home to some of the continent's coolest birds (at least in my opinion).

Just take, for instance, this Lazuli Bunting in the National Bison Range north of Missoula.  This is the West's far more striking counterpart of the Indigo Bunting I am used to seeing back home.  Instead of solid blue, the Lazuli Bunting, named for the beautiful blue gemstone Lapis Lazuli, sports a combination of deep turquoise, white, black, and buffy orange.  A spectacular bird, any way you look at it.  

I've also seen some new sparrows - Clay-colored and Vesper, which were also both at the Bison Range.  Here is one of the Vespers I saw, singing his heart out from the roadside:

Oh yeah, I forgot the mention the spectacular view:  

So far I've seen many Willow Flycatchers, a tricky Empidonax that can only be reliably identified by its "fitz-bew" call.  I also saw a Dusky Flycatcher, another empid, this one of brushy mountain slopes.  Black-billed Magpies are virtually everywhere.  Brightly colored Bullock's Orioles have also made quite an appearance so far on my trip, with great views of two adult males.  Upon our arrival at the cabin we are renting for five days, I immediately heard the "veeru veeru veeruuuuu" call of the Veery.  A short evening stroll yielded Black Tern, Sora, and Marsh Wren, leaving my life list total at 299.  I have more days to come in Montana, and I can't wait.
Wilson's Snipe near my cabin. Not a lifer, but still one of my favorite birds.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Cane Ridge WMA

My last day in Indiana, and we had nothing planned.  I had seen good reports on eBird and on the ABA Indiana Birds listserv coming from Cane Ridge Wildlife Management Area (a part of the National Wildlife Refuge system).  Least Terns seemed like a guarantee, Black-necked Stilts and Bank Swallows were seen with frequency, and there was even a report of a Black-billed Cuckoo.  Any of these would be lifers for me.  I managed to convince my grandpa to take the hour-long drive with me up to the refuge, and we were off.

The roads into the refuge from the south get progressively worse as you near Cane Ridge.  We ended up on a one-lane gravel farm road running through a soybean field - needless to say there wasn't much traffic.  I was beginning to suspect the Google Maps app on my phone was leading us to nowhere when I spotted the Blue Goose sign for the refuge.

Cane Ridge WMA consists of roads traversing fields, with a few forests and ponds thrown in.  We immediately noticed the high numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds, and Dickcissels were calling from seemingly everywhere.  As we approached the observation platform for the lake, I saw a long, dull-brown bird flying low along the tree line.  Cuckoo-esque, but it seemed to have too dull of plumage. Hmmm.... I was too busy pulling into the parking area for this to fully register.  I immediately saw the Least Terns nesting on the island, and got pretty good views through the scope.  Least Terns are the smallest North American tern, and are just a little larger than the huge number of Cliff Swallows that were also feeding on the pond.

One of the Least Terns nesting at Cane Ridge - a member of the endangered "Interior" subspecies.

Then, I heard it: a cuckoo... only not quite "right".  It was a Black-billed, which explained the dull brown wings, in almost the exact same place one was seen earlier that week.   We left the platform after a swelteringly hot fifteen minutes of observation, and drove to explore the rest of the refuge.

A flash in my peripheral vision caught my attention, and I glanced over.  It was my first Black-necked Stilt, a beautiful, slender shorebird with ridiculously long pink legs and a striking black-and-white pattern.  Lucky for us, we saw two more flybys at the refuge and I managed to photograph one.

Black-necked Stilt flyby - I honestly never thought the first one I'd see would be in the Midwest instead of North Carolina.

We revisited the observation platform after driving around nearby Tern Bar Slough, hoping to see if anything else had shown up.  The huge mass of swallows had settled down and perched on the chain-link fence guarding the tern nesting grounds.  I began to pan my scope along the fenceline, hoping to see the dark breast band of the Bank Swallow, known as the Sand Martin in the Old World.  I counted four of them, though there were probably more.   Now there is only one species of (breeding) American swallow I haven't seen: Cave Swallow - I might try to find one at the NC coast this winter, where a few sometimes show up.

All in all, the spur-of-the-moment trip ended up being one of my most productive outings since February.  I got to spend time with my grandpa, see some awesome birds, and add four to my life list.  I leave for Montana next week, where I hope to get my 300th life bird... stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Indiana isn't exactly the first place one thinks of when they think "birding", but it does have its fair share of cool grassland species I can't find back in North Carolina.  I figured I could find some of these species on my visit to Evansville in the southwest corner of the state, where my grandpa lives and my mom grew up.  The first evening, in some farmland near my grandpa's house, I spotted over a dozen Dickcissels, a relative of the Cardinal and year bird #225.  They get their funny name from their song, which sounds like "dick-dick-dick cissel-cissel-cissel."  

Over the next few days, I spotted some other nice birds that were already on my year list:  two Yellow-billed Cuckoos, a Mississippi Kite flying over the town, and two Common Nighthawks as we were leaving dinner.   I tried to photograph a lightning storm one night, and ended up with this sub-par shot that definitely wouldn't satisfy a storm-chaser.  But hey, I'm a bird-chaser, so I have an excuse.

 Lightning storm over the corn fields.  I was hoping to hear an Eastern Whip-poor-will, but didn't (nemesis bird?)

 I still had two species I really wanted to find:  Bell's Vireo and Henslow's Sparrow.    Both are named for people, and both inhabit the Blue Grass Fish and Wildlife Area to the northeast of Evansville.  Of course, this was my next destination.  Blue Grass has miles of gravel roads traversing a bucolic prairie dotted with small lakes and willow thickets - which is also known as great bird habitat.  Within five minutes of my arrival, I heard the almost comical song of the Bell's Vireo.  Awesome.  But Henslow's Sparrow, I knew, would prove to be more of a challenge.  Ammodramus sparrows, like the Henslow's and its close cousin, the Grasshopper Sparrow, are notoriously secretive.  Blue Grass is perfect habitat for it, and I was optimistic about my chances of finding this secretive emberizid.

The rest of my family found the American Goldfinches to be quite interesting, and admittedly they are.  Thistles were everywhere, and each plant had its own goldfinch pair adorning it.  While watching some of these colorful guys, I heard another Bell's Vireo, and managed to glimpse through the willows.

One of the male American Goldfinches feeding on the thistles.

We continued up one of the roads, when I saw a small brown sparrow skirting along in front of us.  I grabbed my binoculars and dashed out, ignoring my mom's request that I park it in a nearby pull-off.  I can't afford to waste time when I may miss a lifer!  I worked my way up the trail, pishing, trying to coax the bird out.  I saw a Field Sparrow skirt up out of the grasses, but that wasn't what I was after.  Eventually, the sparrow I saw from the car the first time perched itself on a tall grass stem and I got great views.  I studied it completely - it sat still longer than sparrows usually do. The body shape was similar to a Grasshopper Sparrow, but with more obvious facial markings and an added dash of color.  A Henslow's!  I reached for my camera to get a picture for the blog, but realized it wasn't there - I had left it in the car.  I ran back and retrieved it, but by then it was too late - the elusive bird had disappeared from view. 

Over the next hour, I saw one Bobwhite (and heard several others), saw an Orchard Oriole, picked five ticks (not the bird kind) off of my legs, and spotted a vibrant Indigo Bunting.  A pretty solid day birding - I'm now only 18 birds away from reaching 300 on my life list (and 73 away from 300 on my year list).   The summer slump has fully settled in, but this excursion to Indiana has given me some pretty sweet prairie birds.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sweatin' it in the Sandhills

In one of my previous posts I wrote about my failed attempt to find the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker down in Weymouth Woods, and I pledged to return.   So, my dad and I awoke early to drive an hour south to the aptly named town of Southern Pines to revisit the nature preserve and (hopefully) tick this elusive bird.

Weymouth Woods is home to these woodpeckers because it is one of the only remaining stands of Longleaf Pine, a tree that once dominated the South's landscape.  The longleaf pine savanna is home to several amazing and unique species, including Fox Squirrel, Pine Barrens Tree Frog, Northern Pine Snake, and Bachman's Sparrow, as well as the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  Logging for naval stores sparked the initial destruction of the longleaf and its savannas, and decades of fire suppression continued to allow the forests to turn into a distant memory (or dense Loblolly Pine stands). Today, 97% of longleaf forests have disappeared.  A new understanding of fire management and its crucial role in the environment has led to a slight rebirth of the longleaf savanna, and Weymouth Woods is one such place.  The activities of Weymouth's woodpeckers are monitored to ensure the species' survival.

We arrived at the park around 9:00 AM, but the air was already heating up.  Optimistically, we made our way through the pine barrens, through a swampy area, and back up into another longleaf savanna.  Prairie and Pine warblers were loudly singing from the treetops, but there was no sign of the Red-cockaded woodpeckers.  We spotted some holes in a live longleaf, suggesting the presence of our prize, and sat on a bench to wait and see what flew our way.  Nothing did.

It was hot.  Real hot.  It felt as though all six inches of rain Tropical Storm Andrea dumped on us were suspended in the air, slowly roasting us like clams in a steamer.  Sweat was dripping from every pore on my body, and I was miserable.  "I'm really starting to hate this place" I groaned while staring up at a tree void of any of my Picid friends.  Ugghhhh.... hot....

After trudging through even more miserable heat, I was beginning to get discouraged.  We had glimpsed what we thought might have been a Red-cockaded, but after a second look it was obviously a Downy Woodpecker, a close (and far more abundant) cousin.  We then set off down the Pine Barrens trail, hoping the slight breeze would continue.  It didn't, but we did hear what may have been our woodpecker.  It never showed itself.

A small observation area has been constructed near the visitor center to provide an overview of the pine savanna, and we decided to sit there as a last-ditch effort to see the bird before we left the park.  Almost immediately, I saw a flash land on a tree trunk.  I brought up my binoculars - the white cheek and zebra-back pattern were a dead give away.

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker, at last! This is one of only a handful of bird species truly endemic to the United States.

"There it is!" I directed my dad to where it was, and we watched the woodpecker feed for a good five minutes before it flew out of sight.  I've now seen all of North Carolina's resident woodpecker species, but I sure had to work for it.

Next week will be Indiana for me - hopefully I'll tick off a few more species that I can't see in North Carolina.