Sunday, July 20, 2014

July 19 (Day 200) - 9,000 miles for 2014, BIG bird news too!

Last night I was plagued by indecision; I had no idea how I wanted to handle the birding and riding I would do today. There were any number of options, none of which struck me as particularly productive or appealing. I went to bed without any form of plan for the day. This is something I have not done often this year. There were essentially 3 options that I was considering last night.

1) Bike into the Colorado side of Dinosaur National Monument and look for Sage-grouse along the road. Several people suggested that I do exactly this. This would be 32 miles out of my way to get there, 32 miles to return to the main road, and then 32 miles to Vernal, UT for the night - 96 miles total. This was not terribly appealing. I am not a big fan of waiting for birds to cross roads. I would also rather go where there aren't other people and find the birds by getting into the habitat. 

2) Make a shorter, easier loop south of Dinosaur to reach Vernal. This would be an easier ride but the prospects of finding the Sage-grouse would not be as good. Sage Sparrow had been seen along this potential route, so that would be a a good consolation prize if the grouse was missed.

3) Have an easy morning, ride to vernal in the afternoon, and rest for a hard ride tomorrow. In selecting this option, I would forgo a decent chance at the sage-grouse in the Dinosaur/Vernal area.

There was a fourth option that presented itself very early this morning. There were a group of Sage-grouse sightings in eBird on a very high and isolated plateau north of Vernal. This would be ~72 miles to bird this spot and to reach Vernal (24 miles less than option 1). I figured this was the best option since it would give me a good crack at the bird. I also figured that were I to miss the bird, the 22-mile ride to Vernal from this spot would be much less painful than the 64-mile ride from the spot at Dinosaur. I always assume the worst.....

Amazingly, all these roads were paved! I thought 
many of them looked liked dirt from the satellite 
imagery. I really lucked out!
72 miles to go over 9,000 for 2014.

Goodbye Colorado..... for good this time!

Hello Utah......again (recall I was in Monument Valley
and Bluff, UT in early June)

Blue Mountain between Dinosaur and Vernal

Starting the climb outside Vernal

While biking on the above road, I noticed a house with several hummingbird feeders in the yard. As I approached, I saw a few of the little guys buzzing about. I noted one Black-chinned, and a bit later a female Rufous appeared for year bird #502! I got the camera ready in case the female Rufous returned. However, 2 males soon filled the void she left. I grabbed a quick shot of one of them before moving on again with newly raised hopes. Maybe today would turn out OK after all.....

Rufous hummingbird for #502

If you go back and look at the elevation profile on the map above, you can see a very steep climb up to and then a decent from what looks like a flat topped plateau. This rise represents my climb up to the plateau where the have been some recent reports of Sage-grouse. I have climbed some steep stuff this year, but the top 4 miles of this ride were the steepest I have seen yet. The sign at the plateau top claimed it was a 9% grade; I would not dispute this. I was totally gassed as I fought my way up these last 4 miles. I was a bit discouraged since these miles were lined with a pinyon/juinper mix - not ideal Sage-grouse habitat. However, when I reached the top, there were two beautiful sights. The first was Sonia with lunch. The second was miles and miles of perfect, open range sage habitat. 

Looking north across the plateau - 
taken with real camera!

Edge of plateau taken with iPhone

After lunch and an hour nap, Sonia and I started to scout out what we thought might be the most productive areas. Unfortunately, much of the land looked private, but we were able to find some areas where we could walk out into the sage. We designed a route along a ridge that would eventually loop us back to the car/bike past what looked like some sort of agricultural area with greener foliage. There appeared to be some heavy rain falling north and west of us, so I decided to leave the camera behind (ugh). The first half of the walk yielded nothing. We started back and BOOM! Two Sage-grouse busted out of the brush just to my right and headed to the ridge we just walked. HELL YES!!! As we were celebrating 2 more birds rose up and flew over to the same ridge. Sonia reached for her phone to get a picture of me celebrating when 3 more birds went up. She was able to get an iPhone snap of one of the birds! After this amazing encounter, I went back to the car, grabbed my camera, walked the ridge where the birds landed, flushed them again, and grabbed a very good record shot of one of them. 

Sonia's quick shot on iPhone

Thankfully I retrieved my real rig a bit later!

I think this moment bumps the White-tailed ptarmigan from the second spot on the list of bird highlights from this year so far (finding the Black-throated blue warbler is still #1). What made today so special was that Sonia was here to share it with me. It was really cool to watch each other get all fired up after the first two birds busted loose. She has been a real trooper the last few days, and it was really cool for her to taste victory today! There was no one else for miles around. It was our moment and we didn't have to share it with anyone. It was a really amazing.

There was time for clowning around after we found the birds!

With this find, a lot of pressure is released. This bird took quite a bit of time to find, and could have been a deep timesink had I not found it today. Tomorrow I am going to start making some distance west. I will keep my eyes and ears open for Sagebrush sparrow along the road!

Speaking of along the road, I found an interesting hummingbird perched along the roadside at the top the plateau today. I was able to creep up on it for a photo before a huge truck whipped by and scared it away. I wish I has seen another angle on it and/or a flight view. Try as I might, I could not relocate it. Curious to see what folks think.....

But wait....there's more! Speaking of IDs, does anyone know what kind of snake this is? Sonia nearly stepped on it today before I pointed it out!

I am sure I forgot some stuff but it's late, I'm tired, and I have another long ride tomorrow. That's all folks!


  1. I'm thinking Broad-tailed

  2. You are kicking grouse butts! Way to go!

  3. I agree on broad-tailed

  4. Great work Dorian and Sonia! Looks like a Gopher Snake.

  5. Awesome news. Keep up the hard work!

  6. Gopher snake? Possibly Bull snake?


  7. Bullsnake/Gopher Snake. They're the same species but different subspecies (if you think bird taxonomy is weird, you should check out herp taxonomy!)

    Based on your location, I think it's a Bullsnake but I'm not 100% certain.

  8. Glad that you could finally get your Greater Sage-grouse! I hope Utah keeps treating you well for the rest of your time here and that maybe I will get to bird with you out here.

  9. Sonya's dance made me think... from here on out, you should do your own funky dance every time you see a new bird. You know, just come up with a odd funky dance and get a shot of it so we know you got something new. Maybe incorporate your bike into it, I dunno. Congrats on the new birds today