Sunday, July 12, 2015

Oregon Bound

A solo cross-country drive is bound to be an interesting experience - and my 2750-mile journey from central North Carolina to southeastern Oregon in mid-May certainly was. I reached my end destination, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in a little under a week's time (I'm interning there for the summer). Along the way, I managed to spot some pretty sweet birds and got to see some incredible things. I got caught in a snowstorm, picked up 6 lifers, and did a bunch of county listing. All in all, an eventful week spent behind the wheel of my Subaru.

My first leg was also my longest - the 11-hour drive from Raleigh to my grandfather's house in Evansville, Indiana, who had promised to go along for some birding the next day. Aside from my jaunt through the Appalachians, it was a pretty boring drive, but I made good time. I spent the next day hitting some birding spots around southern Indiana, getting a few birds with a slightly western, or at least Mid-western, flair. Bell's Vireo was a good find at Blue Grass FWA, one of the easternmost breeding localities for this species (and a place I visited a few years back)

Bell's Vireo
Dickcissel was another target bird, a species with a rather unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your taste in humor) four-letter AOU code. One can never see too many DICKs. I even took a few DICK pics. 
Dickcissel singin' away at Bluegrass FWA
My Indiana list was nearing the one hundred mark, so we opted to continue birding around the Evansville area. Eagle Slough, a birdy stretch of bottomland forest along the Ohio River, got me my first ever views of an alternate-plumaged Magnolia Warbler (I've only seen them in the fall before). I ended up rounding out the day patrolling the edges of my grandpa's corn fields, hoping the strips of forest would provide decent enough migrant traps. Sure enough, they did. Some interesting migrants like Least Flycatcher, Swainson's Thrush, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak, along with a random flyover Common Loon, got me to that 100 mark for the state, and around 90 species for the day. Not a bad total at all.

The next day was a long and boring drive from Evansville to Lincoln, Nebraska, mostly through Missouri. I had hoped to spot a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher sitting on a wire along I-70, but none were to be seen. I pulled into Lincoln exhausted, but with some daylight to spare. I decided to drive across town to hit the Lincoln Saline Wetlands, a nice little park with some good bird activity. The winds were a bit strong, but I did spot a flock of Franklin's Gulls, a lifer, along with my FOY Western Kingbird and a nice Lincoln's Sparrow.

Lincoln's Sparrow. I like Lincoln's Sparrows, despite their disdain for posing for photos.
 The next day was arguably my biggest adventure bird-wise for the drive out. I had the relatively short (six-and-a-half hour) drive from Lincoln to Cheyenne, Wyoming, so I thought I'd use my extra free time to search out some Great Plains species. High on the list was Lark Bunting, an unusual species of sparrow only found across the midsection of the country. I was also hoping for the long-shot Mountain Plover, a sporadic and rare resident of western Nebraska. Following up on a few old eBird reports of this shorebird species, I decided to check out some roads off the highway south of Kimball, near the Wyoming and Colorado borderlands. I took the exit off I-80 and headed south down a straight road through an endless expanse of nothingness. Then I did what only a birder would do - turned off on a random dirt road, rolled down the windows, and started cruising.

It only took about three minutes for me to spot my first, and probably easiest, target - a handful of striking male Lark Buntings flew up onto a wire above the road. Horned Larks were everywhere, and I also managed to spot a migrant White-crowned Sparrow. 

Now it was Mountain Plover time. I had a vague idea of where to look - barren fallow fields with exposed soil are their preferred habitat. Unfortunately for me, there were vast expanses of this habitat in the area. I picked a few more dirt roads and cruised slowly trying to spot one. No luck, and I was starting to feel a little down. Finally, I saw what I assumed would be perfect plover hab. A few minutes of waiting and, to my complete surprise, a Mountain Plover appeared about fifty feet away.
Success in southwest Nebraska
Mountain Plovers are by no means common - Sibley puts their world population at around only 20,000 birds. Excited with the successful little detour, I got back on the interstate and arrived safely to visit family in Cheyenne.

The next morning was the long and desolate drive to Idaho, broken up only by a stop to see McCown's Longspurs off a highway exit near Laramie. I saw about a dozen males displaying, flying energetically toward the sky, then outstretching their wings in a v-formation and parachuting back to earth, all while singing a complex song. An amazing sight.

McCown's mid-display
There wasn't much in the way of birds between there and Oregon. A surprise snowstorm here, lifer Ring-necked Pheasant there. I had a nice visit with Chuck Trost, an over-5,000 species lister and a retired ornithology prof from Idaho State, who showed me around a few Idaho birding patches. I pulled into Burns, Oregon on the 17th, ready to start my internship and work on my Harney County list. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, home for the next ten weeks.