Thursday, July 31, 2014

July 30 (Day 211) - Great wildlife day in Teton National Park!

Today was slated as a day to chase down two specific birds: Black-backed woodpecker and Great gray owl. I first returned to the spot from yesterday for the owl. A single bird has been seen on and off in a particular area of Grand Teton National Park for most of the summer. The bird is by no means reliable, but as the habitat looked really good and I am really lacking any other solid leads, it was my best bet. Although two hours of searching yielded no owl, I did run into some cool stuff otherwise. First was a pair on Sandhill cranes foraging in a sage field of all places. Second, was a Beaver, my first of the trip. Third was a trio of moose. I saw a lone cow foraging in a swampy area, and two minutes later I saw a different cow and calf crossing a field a sage just to my right. These two are pictured below. I also heard a Sora which I thought was a bit unusual. Wood duck, Red crosbill, Pine siskin and assorted others also made appearances this morning. Despite the Great gray no-show, it was a really beautiful morning. I walked along a cliff edge with a lush meadow below me to the east and the field of sage and the mountains to the west.

Lush meadow downslope to the east - 
this is where the owl has been seen

Sage and mountains to the west

Wait for me mom! 2 of 5 moose I saw today.

Once the sun got a high in the sky (around 11am), I abandoned the owl hunt and switched my focus to the woodpecker. There are several eBird reports of Black-backed woodpecker in the vicinity of the Death Canyon trailhead. From the satellite imagery, I could see that there was a decent sized burn where these reports originated. Black-backed woodpeckers (like Three-toed and White-headed woodpeckers) really like burned areas, so this looked really promising.

Burn can be seen along left hand side of
road leading to Death Canyon Trailhead

Inside the burn

What I am willing to bet my life is a recently
vacated Black-backed nesting cavity

Probable Calliope from this morning.....

Woodpeckering is fun because one needs to walk around in the burn and listen for the tap-tap-tapping characteristic of the birds. Once the tapping is heard, it's exciting to track it down and ascertain which species is making it. Each time I heard the tapping I would get excited that it could be the Black-backed, and each time on my first pass through the burn I was disappointed; I found only 3 Hairy woodpecker, 3 Flickers, and 1 Williamson's sapsucker (a nice consolation). Doubt started to creep into my mind as to whether or not I was going to find this bird today. However, these are the times one must continue birding, and bird on I did. Cutting further into the burn, I headed back downslope towards where I had ditched my bike. TAP TAP TAP - another opportunity! I crept towards the sound and with fairly little effort laid eyes on a single Black-backed woodpecker for #511. Another bird soon rounded the tree. These two were exceptionally cooperative, and I spent the better part of half an hour following them around as they did their thing. I have seen this species only once before (in Maine in the Bigelow Wilderness in 2006 or so), so it was really sweet to see them this well today!

Williamson's sapsucker

Took a while to get a shot without 
a million branches in it

The above alluded to "million branches"

The woodpecker was a huge find for me and now leaves the ever-problematic owl as the biggest potential prize here in Jackson. As I said yesterday, I think there are folks around who have decent leads on this bird, but they like to keep this information close to the vest. This is because owls are very loyal to their particular haunts, and once the location of these haunts in made public, the areas are inundated with people who want to see the owls. This can cause great disturbance to the birds, so people often keep their locations husk-hush to prevent this. I was this afternoon feeling a bit discouraged about my prospects of finding the owl, but it looks as though something might break for me on the information front tomorrow (I am being deliberately vague). Fingers crossed.......

Just 40 miles today.....legs and ass feel good!

Oh snap.....I almost forgot! I saw a life animal today! It wasn't the best view and the sun was already behind the mountains, but I got my life view of a porcupine this evening. He had climbed up in a bush and was gorging himself on berries.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

July 29 (Day 210) - Arrival in Jackson, Trumpeter swan for #510

The ride from Alpine, WY to Jackson WY was fantastic! The first ~25 miles of the ride paralleled the Snake River as it wound it way West beneath me. Route 26 was perched high on the mountain slope and afforded sweeping views of the valley and the river with its countless rafters. Bald eagles were spotted at several locations, and red crossbills could be heard buzzing overhead throughout the ride. Once I got closer to Jackson, the valley flattened out. Steep slopes were replaced with lush meadows dotted with ponds. It was in one of these roadside ponds that I was able to find year bird #510 in the form of a family of 4 Trumpeter swans. They were quite a bit back from the road, but the fuzzy little cygnets looked quite cute even from this large distance. As It was raining most of the day, I decided to forgo photos. I found 2 more swans closer to Teton Village; I am hopeful I will get some with shooting distance when its not raining at some point. 

Rafters on Snake River

Trumpeter swan was the most crucial bird here in Jackson as this is the only crack I would have at it. The irony is that it is by far the easiest of the birds I would like to find here. After the heavy afternoon rain cleared, I searched without success for Black-backed woodpecker and Great gray owl in Teton National Park. Both of these species can be seen in the Jackson area, but both will take luck to find in the 2-4 days I am willing to spend here. I visited a good looking burned area from which the woodpeckers has recently been eBirded, and I will revisit this spot tomorrow. There are evidently several owls hanging around, but the people who know exactly where are being understandably protective of the birds; It only takes a few morons to ruin it for everyone.  It turns out that Boreal owl is also a possibility around here, but I am not 100% comfortable being out at night on a bike by myself in a remote area with a sizable bear population (For unbirders - Great gray owl can be reliably found during the day, Boreal owl cannot). It would be nice to get some local help, but I think I am going to be on my own for the next few days. We'll see how it goes......

A meadow where a Great gray owl has supposedly been seen

Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28 (Day 209) - Lots of miles in my return to Wyoming

My ride today originated in Bloomington, ID and terminated 92 miles later in Alpine, WY. This ride was designed to put me into position to reach Jackson, WY tomorrow. I will probably spend 2-3 days birding in the Jackson area before I head west into and eventually across Idaho. Today's ride was really nice as there was good scenery and good quality roads for the duration. Unfortunately, since I had so much ground to cover, I really didn't do any birding today. I did manage a few shots of the scenery along the road for your enjoyment!

92 miles today - I think I am finally further north
that where I started in New England

Route 89 this morning

This WY sign is much better than the one I 
photographed earlier in the trip

View from the top of the second pass I climbed

Elkhorn arch in Afton, WY this afternoon

I have a very short list of birds I would like to find in/around Jackson. Trumpeter swan is my main reason for being here, and I think this will be the easiest of my sought species to find. I fully expect to find the swan tomorrow. I will also spend some time birding along the Moose-Wilson road looking for Great gray owl, Black-backed woodpecker and Ruffed grouse. I will have more chances at each of these 3 birds, but knocking a few of them here would be great. The owl is the most important of these 3 as I have only Le Grande, OR as a backup. I should be able to get the woodpecker and the grouse somewhere. If anyone has birding contacts in/around Jackson and would't mind passing that info along to me, I would really appreciate it. I am a bit thin on local knowledge at the moment!

I need to keep this on the short side tonight as I am busily updating my contact list for my remaining states: ID, OR, WA, CA, southern AZ (again), southern NM (again), and Texas (southern/LRGV this time around). If you live in these areas (or have friends in those areas) and want to be a part of Biking for Birds through birding with me, housing me, or most importantly feeding me, please drop me a note at! The more people I can meet along the way the better!

I hope to have some more bird news for you tomorrow!

July 27 (Day 208) - Idahizzle? Fo' shizzle! Thoughts on listing, a teaser for gull aficionados,

If Calvin Broadus aka Snoop Dogg were to visit Idaho, this might be how he would announce his arrival. My rather muted entrance into the state was made this afternoon along the eastern shore of Bear Lake. Idaho represents state #25 on the Biking for Birds national bird finding tour. I will only be in Idaho for a single night before I cross into Wyoming en route to Jackson. I will, after birding Jackson, return to Idaho near Idaho Falls. From there I plan to head west to Boise and then into Oregon and probably Washington. 
Obligatory bike shot 

Today's ride was more challenging than I expected. The first 32 miles (yes, 32) were all uphill as I navigated through Logan Canyon. Over this distance I climbed almost 3,500'. What made the ride so tough was that the pitch of the road kept increasing along these 32 miles. I thought the grade was going to be fairly steady, so the very steep and difficult top third of the climb was a big surprise. Needless to say I wasn't in the best mood during this stretch of things. There were some really nice alpine meadows along the last few miles of the climb, but given how my legs were aching and how hungry I was, I didn't even bother to scan them for hummingbirds. All I wanted to do was reach the top and begin the decent on the other side. The second part of the ride was either downhill or flat, so my tired legs were able to manage the remaining 24 miles without incident.

The view of Bear Lake from the top of Logan Canyon.
Idaho is off to the left hand side of the photo.

A tough 56 miles today.

This region of Idaho is famous for raspberries, and
my hosts for the night have a huge berry patch in their yard.
And yes, I did pick and eat the whole 1-quart jar!

OK, since birding related news is nonexistent today, I'll touch on a topic that I think will interest many birders: bird listing. I think we can all understand the thrill of adding new birds to our ever-growing life lists. This thrill is compounded when the bird being added is out of its normal range. Why then are so many birders so cagey when it comes their own lists and listing proclivities? Why do so many birders want to avoid being labeled "listers"?

***Note, I realize that I am GENERALIZING below based on my own experience/observations***

There is not one specific answer to this question, but this is how I think about biases towards listers.  I suspect that many people feel that being a lister and a student of birds are mutually exclusive. A lister is thought, in my mind, to be someone who is concerned primarily with adding birds to his or her list. This person will often chase, or as I like to say "poach", high quality birds found by others rather than methodically birding the same areas over and over with the goal of thoroughly learning and enjoying the birds of a particular locale. I think that there is a feeling among some in the birding community that the second approach is nobler than the first, and because of this, listers are often thought to be in the birding game for the wrong reasons.

What many people fail to realize is that these two pursuits are not mutually exclusive.  For example, I am an unabashed lister. I have always been so, and likely always will be. However, as my Biking for Birds should prove to everyone, I am also very serious about bird conservation and bird education. This is my current mechanism to enjoy birds, and it encompasses many facets and motivations. When I return from this year, I am sure I will fall back into my photography-centric view of birds (I will also touch on the ongoing birder vs. bird photographer war at some point!). The point is that there is no right and wrong way to enjoy birds. The important thing is that people do what interests them with an eye towards understanding, appreciating, and conserving the birds they enjoy so much (you can donate to bird conservation here!). The more people who watch, list, learn about, and photograph birds, the larger our collective voice will be when we fight to protect the birds we love so much. We should focus on our common appreciation of birds, rather than delineating the rather minute differences between various bird-focused pursuits. 

Anyway, these are just some of my personal thoughts. I expect a flurry of emails and blogpost comments in response to this!

Lastly, since we are on the topic of listing. Here is a photo of a bird I took in Massachusetts in April of 2011. I have another photo (to which I do not have access as it in on my other computer) that shows a large window on the outer-most primary and a tiny window on the next primary; There were no other primary windows. 

This bird (I am deliberately being vague on the name/ID) was not accepted by the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee (MARC). I did not count it on my official ABA list. I have been torn for 3 years what to do about this bird with regards to my list. Should I add it despite the MARC decision? Should I wait for to find a bird that has been OK'd by the requisite birding bodies?  Should I stop worrying so much about the technicalities of my list? I am sure other folks have had similar experiences, so I am curious to hear what folks have to say! Comments in the blog would be preferable to emails since everyone can read these. It would be great to get some more discussion going between readers, not just between individual readers and me! Depending on how this little experiment goes, I may try to throw out more discussion points in upcoming weeks. For example, in a Wrestlemania-styled Battle Royale between North America's top birders, who do you think would emerge victorious? My money is on Debbie Shearwater! "If you're gonna throw up, throw up over the SIDE of the ring, not in the ring!" There are few hardcore birders in North America who haven't heard that speech. You know I love you Debbie! 

For those unfortunates not well-versed in
professional wresting, this is a Battle Royale!

Kenn "The Macho Man" Kaufman back in the 80s

I mean c'mon, who wouldn't want to see David Sibley in this?
You see that warbler over there?  - WOOOOOOOOO!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

July 26 (Day 207) - More roadside kindness, hard ride for Calliope!

I had several route choices to get from South Ogden, UT to Logan, UT. Each of these was roughly 50 miles, and each had advantages and headaches associated with them.

Option 1: Slow, mellow climb into mountains followed by additional VERY steep climb on dirt road. Long, slow decent on dirt road into Logan.

Option 2: Steep climb into mountains followed steep decent. I would then have to do the same additional VERY steep climb on the dirt road in Option 1 and the same long, slow decent on dirt road into Logan.

Option 3: Parallel the mountains on flat ground to Brigham City, then cut over them to the northeast with a moderate climb to reach Logan - all paved roads.

Option 2 was the most challenging and would probably going to be too hard for me given what I did yesterday. Option 3 would clearly be the easiest, but would give me the least time in the mountains where I would look for Calliope hummingbird. Given this, I settled on Option 1 even though I was not at all looking forward to the steep dirt road climb. This climb proved to be short but brutal. The road was incredibly rough. It was closer to a two-track than a graded dirt road. I was forced to push the bike for some of the climb. It was not fun - at all. I eventually reached the top and began the long slow decent north towards Logan. The road was still a bit rough, but at least it was downhill. 

I had hoped to find some nice alpine meadows with wildflowers where I could look for Calliope hummingbird. There were very few flowers all morning, and unfortunately since the road was so bad for so long, my attention was focused on not crashing versus bird finding. It was a really frustrating first half of the day.

A stretch of decent road at the top of the climb

Everything changed when I rejoined the paved road as I could start looking for birds again. At around 1:30pm, I passed a house in the foothills with a hummingbird feeder out front. Several birds scattered as I went by. I slammed on the brakes and set up shop in the street to do a bit of feeder watching. After about a 1/2 hour the homeowner appeared. Marlene was incredibly nice and said I should sit in the shaded yard instead of standing in the hot, sunny street. For the next 3.5 hours I feeder-watched as Marlene and her husband Robert kept me company. We had a very nice conversation that spanned politics, the environment, our respective lives, and so and so forth. It was great to have company as the hummingbirding ebbed and flowed over the afternoon. This was yet another example of extreme kindness shown to me by complete strangers. I was completely blown away by the generosity and hospitality demonstrated by Marlene and Robert. It is really reassuring to know such warm people exist in a world that sometimes can appear scary and intimidating. Bad news seems to get so much attention that it is easy to forget that there is much individual good in the world.

The most exciting moment of the afternoon came when a very small hummingbird buzzed the feeder. It momentarily flashed a very short tail with only a bit of white before it was chased off by a Broad-tailed. I was fairly certain it was a Calliope, but I really hoped it would return to confirm this diagnosis. About five minutes later what I presume was the same bird returned. I got a decent look this time as it perched right next to a male Black-chinned. The Black-chinned looked much larger than this bird. I managed a few photos showing both birds. The smaller front bird in the photos is the presumed Calliope with tiny beak and wings projecting beyond the short tail. This bird was minuscule. I counted this as Calliope hummingbird for #509. The bird did not return after these two brief appearances.

Marlene and me

Robert, Dog Marty, Marlene again

Afternoon stew provided by Marlene!
See mom, I am eating my vegetables.......

 I also managed to shoot a few of the other species a bit later in the day. There were lots of Black-chinneds and Broad-taileds! I am calling these all females, but I guess that it is possible that some of them are immatures.

Female Black-chinned

Same female Black-chinned as above

Female Broad-tailed

Another small hummingbird that I
think is a Broad-tailed.  It tail was on 
the short side though.

Another confusing bird......probably Broad-tailed

Same bird as above, but perched

Tomorrow I will head into state #25, Idaho! I hope to find Trumpeter Swan in the subsequent days as I cross back into Wyoming en route to Jackson.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

July 25 (Day 206) - Year bird hat trick at Antelope Island!

Today was going to be one of those very challenging days when I both look for birds and move a fair distance. This means I had to be very efficient as I biked and birded today. The morning ride took me ~45 miles from Sandy, UT to Syracuse, UT. From here I turned West and headed out into the Great Salt Lake over the Antelope Island Causeway. The main purpose of this western spur was to look for Chukar on Antelope Island. This is about the most reliable place around to find this species, so I made the big detour out there today.

~ 84 miles today

These days Antelope Island is a bit of a misnomer. Water levels in the lake are about as low as they have ever been according to die hard Utah birder Tim Avery. In fact, it took five miles on the causeway before I reached any water. Until that point it was basically salt flats on either side of the road for as far as I could see. This could have major repercussions during fall shorebird migration. The southbound birds need flooded flats to feed and refuel, and right now these are essentially nonexistent. 

Tim Avery and me. I actually stayed at Tim's 
house the last two nights.

The view of Antelope Island to the south
of the causeway. You can see the lightly colored, 
dry salt flats where often there is water instead.

View looking north from the causeway. This is not
snow, it is precipitated, crystalized salt. The "water"
you see is more like a salt slurry than anything else.

As soon as I did reach the water, I was treated to two 'free' year birds (free meaning I did not have to ride out of my way at all to find them). The first of these was Red-necked phalarope. This is a species I have seen many times before, but nothing has ever approached the numbers I saw today. Tim, who joined me for a few hours this afternoon, estimated that there were upwards of 20,000 of these little guys along the causeway. They were all very busy chomping down brine shimp and flies. It was really cool to see thousands of these birds turning every which way as they stalked prey. The second free bird I found today was Long-billed curlew, the largest shorebird in North America. I probably saw 6-8 of these scattered along the causeway on my way to and from Antelope. I was able to obtain distant photos of both of these birds, and I have included some additional photos to give you a better idea of what each of these species actually looks like.

Red-necked phalaropes from today for #506

Breeding female Red-necked phalarope from my collection.
Interestingly, female phalaropes are more brightly
colored than their male counterparts!
Taken at Plum Island, Massachusetts

Winter plumage Red-necked phalarope from my collection.
Taken in Monterey, California

Long-billed curlew from today for #507.
The black dots on the water behind him are flies.

Long-billed curlew from my collection, also from California.
The feathers on their backs are so pretty.

After these two freebies, I could turn my attention squarely towards the Chukar. There is a healthy population of these birds that lives in the rocky environs that surround the Antelope Island Visitor's Center. It took a bit of searching, but after about 1.5 hours I saw a bird standing on a rock in the distance. In approaching this bird, I found 2-3 other adult birds that were shepparding around what seemed like 12-15 chicks! This meant I actually saw between 15 and 20 Chukars today. This is a species I have seen only once before (in Oregon, and poorly at that), so this was a real treat. The light was terrible, but I squeezed out a few shots for your viewing enjoyment!

Chukar for #508!
F#$%^&ing midday light.
This would have been cash-money if was taken at 7pm!

Chukar chick!

Outside of the above mentioned birds, the birding around Antelope was fairly entertaining. There were thousands of Eared grebes, hundreds of Franklin's gulls, and lots of Willets, Killdeer, California gulls, and American white pelicans. There were also a handful of Loggerhead shrikes and a few Burrowing owls. Salt Lake reminds me a lot of the Salton Sea, a place I have birded many times before and will do so again in November of this year. Both landscapes are beautifully desolate, and they both hold an incredible number of birds at the right time of year. I would love to make it back to Salt Lake during migration to see the avian biomass than is here concentrated.

OK, I am beat. I am going to bed. Tomorrow I will ride the ~55 miles to Logan, UT. I'll leave you with two shots I took of a particularly cooperative American avocet today.