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.
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!