Sunday, August 23, 2015

Anaconda to Spokane: Last Days in the Northwest

Georgetown Lake near Anaconda, Montana

The final two days of my trip are easily summarized.  I had heard that Great Gray Owls could be found at Georgetown Lake near Anaconda, Montana.  I was in Missoula, so the lake was about an hour away.  But that night I had to be in Spokane, Washington, about 300 miles to the west of the lake.  That meant that with birding miles added in, I would have about a 500 mile drive.  Still, Great Gray Owl was really high on my wish list, so I headed east on I-90 and south on MT 1.  I think I crossed Flint Creek a dozen times along the way, passing through a series of tiny towns and reaching the lake while the morning was still young.

Red-necked Grebes on a Family Outing
I began a counterclockwise circle of the lake and stopped at every picnic area and campground and turned in every side road I could find.  The birding was really good.  I tallied Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, Osprey, Spotted Sandpiper, Killdeer, Bald Eagle, Ring-billed Gull, Mountain Bluebird and a sparrow I really tried to turn into something special but it was most likely a Chipping Sparrow.  I got really good looks at a lot of Red-necked Grebes including one family group.  I watched the two parents dive repeatedly, come up with food, and feed a couple of very hungry chicks.  I added Yellow Warblers along the east side, ending the morning with about 22 species, but no owls.  Georgetown Lake turned out to be a gorgeous site with some nice birding spots, but I dipped on my target bird.

I headed back north on Route 1 intending to have lunch in Philipsburg, but the little town was hosting some kind of antique car festival.  The streets were packed with revelers and the only restaurant I could find was filled to overflowing.  I continued up the road, eventually landing in Drummond at Parker's Family Restaurant which advertised 135 different types of burgers.  I waded through a binder with the burger descriptions, picked something with roasted red peppers, and ordered it.  It was fantastic!  I ate a huge meal, left a nice tip for the friendly waitress, and bought some soft-serve ice cream at a stand next door.  When it was gone, I climbed back in the car and drove to Spokane.  I had one day left on my trip, and I hoped to make it a good one.

Immature Dark-eyed Junco
My final destination for the trip was Mount Spokane State Park in Mead, about an hour's drive from my hotel.  I got there before 9:00 AM the next morning.  At the base of the mountain I birded the edge of a stream, hoping for MacGillivray's Warbler that is supposed to breed in the park.  I found Song and Chipping Sparrows and a Warbling Vireo, but no MacGillivray's.  Along one trail I saw a juvenile bird that stumped me for a bit.  I did my best to turn it into something different, I believe it's a Dark-eyed Junco.  Farther up the mountain I found a nice spot where I watched Red-breasted Nuthatches play in the pines.  There was one bird that I followed for a little while until I finally got a nice look at a Chestnut-backed Chickadee!  At a picnic area I walked over to a place where I had seen some downed trees and bare snags.  I hoped for some woodpeckers, but I found none.  Then a little motion caught my eye.  It was a wren crawling around the ground among some dead branches.  It had a tiny tail and an all-dark belly, just like our Winter Wren, but here it was something different - a Pacific Wren, and a lifer, the sixth and last of the trip.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Finally, I reached the summit.  I saw another Red-breasted Nuthatch, a few Black-capped Chickadees, a Gray Catbird, a couple of Common Ravens and a bird that confused me for a long time but that I suspect was a juvenile Chipping sparrow.  I visited a nice stone cabin built by the CCC, ate a picnic lunch from the back of the SUV and enjoyed a breath-taking view of the valley below.  With nothing left to do, I decided it was time to call it a trip and get back to the hotel to repack for the flight home.

There were a lot of obstacles and surprises on this trip.  On the other hand, many of them turned into good opportunities.  The fires in Glacier altered that entire experience, but led me to stop at Nine-pipes and find my life Clark's Grebe.  The need to purchase a one-day state park pass at Walmart dramatically delayed everything on the first day, but led me to be in the Fields Spring parking lot at the precise moment my life Red-naped Sapsucker came down to eye-level to feed.  I was frustrated at times, but in retrospect, it was actually a very successful trip.  To be sure, I missed a number of my target birds including MacGillivray's Warbler and Spotted Owl.  But I had 104 species including six lifers.  If I had known those numbers going into the trip, I would have gladly taken them.

More importantly, I saw some extraordinary places, met some terrific people, and came away with a rich appreciation for a part of our country I had never seen.  And that alone made the trip worth while.

This is an adult Red-necked Grebe.
The view from the CCC cabin at the top of Mount Spokane.
Only a birder can know the excitement of seeing that brown back! It's my second-ever Chestnut-backed Chickadee,
This is an Aphrodite Fritillary, the first of its kind I've ever seen/
I think this is a Lorquin's Admiral, another butterfly I had never seen before.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Birding in the Footsteps of Sacajawea

The view toward the Salmon River Valley from the Lewis and Clark Birding Loop

While planning this trip, I seriously considered not making the drive to Salmon, Idaho, for one day's birding.  The drive was over five hours from Columbia Falls over the twisting curves of Chief Joseph Pass.  Would it be worth the effort to drive in late at night, bird the hills above Salmon the next day, and then make another drive over the pass to Missoula that same evening?  As it turned out, the answer was a resounding YES!  By far, this was the best birding day of the trip.

Willow Flycatcher
The Idaho Birding Trail Guidebook has a really impressive bird list for two driving loops near Salmon.  One is the Lemhi Backcountry Road Loop, and the other is called the Lewis and Clark Loop.  I knew I wouldn't have time to do both, so I did about half of each.  The loops take you through agricultural fields dotted with streams, marshes and brushy areas that are bird magnets.  I birded the area for about seven hours, stopping every time I saw interesting habitat, which was often.  And everywhere I stopped, I saw birds.

The first stop was a really active spot near the beginning of the route.  Tall brush lined the western side of the road, and a swampy area covered the east side.  Yellow Warblers seemed to be everywhere.  A couple of Black-capped Chickadees joined in the fun as well.  In the snags above me, a Downy Woodpecker worked its way up the trunk.  A Song Sparrow barked at me from the marshy side, a Kestrel darted past and a Common Nighthawk glided by a few moments later.  This was awesome!

Sage Thrasher
A little farther up the road I found Cliff and Bank Swallows, Rock Pigeons and Mourning Doves, and Red-winged Blackbirds.  There was a small branch of the Salmon River below me on the west side of the road.  Along it, the brush teemed with birds.  A persistent "fitzbew .... fitzbew" announced the presence of a Willow Flycatcher.  A gorgeous male Lazuli Bunting popped up a little bit down the road and Barn Swallows swooped above the fields.  Then I saw another bird on a fence rail.  I didn't recognize it at first, so I took a bunch of photos and pulled out my phone with its field guide app.  No doubt!  It was a Sage Thrasher and a life bird for me.

At another spot a California Quail sat in a dead tree and generally ignored me while I tried unsuccessfully to get a good angle for a photograph.  Meanwhile, a few Collared-Doves zipped past me followed a few seconds later by a Red-tailed Hawk.

Juvenile Bald Eagle
Just then a pickup truck coming in the opposite direction stopped.  The driver rolled down his window and asked, "You bird watching?"  I said yes and he said, "There's two Golden Eagles on the rocks just around that corner.  I thought you might want to take a look at them."  I certainly did!  I hopped in the car and quickly reached the place where two eagles perched above me, no more than 50 feet away.  As slowly as I could, I walked toward them, snapping photos along the way.  They certainly looked like Golden Eagles, but I wanted to see the golden hackles on the back of the neck.  Then one took flight.  I saw the tail pattern that suggested Golden ... but the rest?  It's a species I've only seen once (in Alaska) so I was on uncertain ground.  I circled the one that remained perched and took some more photos ... golden feathers on the wings, but I couldn't pick out any on the neck.  Then the bird called out.  Funny, I didn't know Goldens sound so much like Bald Eagles.  But the local guy was standing there, so sure of what he was saying, being really nice and enthusiastic about showing off a treasure to a visitor.  Then he added, "They're about a month early this year."  Yikes.  I said nothing and later I studied the field guide.  They were juvenile Bald Eagles.

Black-billed Magpie
Eventually I turned up the mountain, leaving the Lemhi Backcountry Road and heading toward the Continental Divide.  Near here, Lewis and Clark met the Lemhi Shoshone and a historical plaque marks the location.  We have all heard of Sacajawea, the Indian woman who acted as a guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition.  She was born near Salmon but taken hostage at about 12 by the Hidatsa.  She wound up in North Dakota where she was either purchased by a French trader or given to him to fulfill a gambling debt.  Eventually she was taken on by the Expedition and, as they crossed the Continental Divide, she recognized her homeland, reunited with her people and learned that her brother was now chief.  That reunion had a long-lasting and positive impact on the success of the mission.  And now, 210 years later, I was walking this same ground, seeing the same hills, and I like to imagine I was seeking the descendents of the same birds that witnessed that historic occasion.  Interestingly, one accepted interpretation of Sacajawea's name in the Hidatsa language is "Bird Woman."  And this birder felt a real connection to her and those events.

Brewer's Sparrow
As I drove higher, the terrain changed into a sagebrush habitat and the bird population seemed to thin out for a while.  Still, I saw a Northern Harrier hunting over the brush and some Vesper Sparrows in the dirt along the road's edge.  Higher up I entered an area of towering pines.  I stopped in one spot and was fortunate to find a Red Crossbill foraging in one tree, and a Clark's Nutcracker in another - two great birds!

That was when I saw approaching storm clouds and a light drizzle began to fall.  I looked at the time and realized I really needed to get on the road to Missoula where I was to spend the night.  It was already mid-afternoon, the drive ahead was just over three hours, and I had no desire to cross Chief Joseph Pass in the dark again.  I turned around and headed down the mountain.

On the way, I came to a very small park that I had barely noticed earlier.  The entire park was about the size of a school parking lot back home.  There was a parking area for maybe a half-dozen cars, a little circular courtyard, a picnic table, a tiny bathroom, a small changing room and two little pools.  The pools were just a bit bigger than a family-sized hot tub - and just as hot!  Fed by natural springs, hot water bubbled into the pools from below and ran out through an opening at the top and into a small stream nearby.  I stooped to feel the water when I heard a chip from just behind me.  A sparrow was perched there in the sagebrush.  I grabbed my camera, took one shot and then reached for my binoculars.  The bird was gone.  I had to get moving, so I forgot the incident until later when I looked at my photos.  It was a Brewer's Sparrow - the second life bird of the day!

Even in my hurry to get back to the highway, I still had time to see a few more birds - Mountain Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbirds, Chipping Sparrows and Canada Geese.  Finally I reached Salmon where I bought gas and stopped for just a moment to soak in this little town that was so charming and friendly.  I especially liked the fountain in the center of town (see the photo at the bottom).  It depicts a Grizzly standing in the Salmon River about to snag one of the tasty fish for his next meal.  That fountain and the surrounding flowers sum up my feelings for the town, the broader area, and the day I had had thus far.  It was wonderful, and I wished I had more time to stay there.  God willing, someday I'll go back.
Western Meadowlark

Perhaps it was karma, or the birding gods acknowledging my appreciation for a terrific day, but Salmon had one more surprise in store for me.  Just as I left town, I saw two small gray figures crossing the road ahead of me.  I swerved a little to miss them, and looked directly down on a Dusky Grouse!  I had searched all over three states for this species, failing miserably, and here were two of them standing in the middle of US 93.  I hit the brakes, did a u-turn and, feeling certain they would be gone, drove back to the spot.  They were still there, casually strolling across the road.  I snatched up my bins and got another look at my third lifer of the day!

It was a fitting end to a memorable birding day.  The drive to Missoula passed quickly, and the pass wasn't as daunting in the light of day as it had been the night before.  The next day was to be another long day behind the wheel, so I turned in early.  The day had ended, but its memories will stay with me forever.
Lazuli Bunting

Red Crossbill

Farms along the Lemhi Backcountry Road

Juvenile Bald Eagle (Darn It)

An Abandoned Farmhouse on the Lemhi Backcountry Road.

A Fountain in Downtown Salmon, Idaho

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Glacier, Nine-pipe and Bison

Bob's Gone Birding at National Bison Range
Glacier National Park

Lake MacDonald in Glacier National Park
As soon as I opened the door to my hotel room, I felt a foreboding.  Cold and wet, that's not my favorite kind of morning.  The "breakfast" in the lobby was another disappointment.  Coffee and some rolls.  I took some coffee and left the rolls in peace.  The rain picked up as I drove the last 12 miles to the park.  I pulled up to the gate to show my National Parks Senior Pass and was greeted by a ranger.

"You can go ahead.  Need a map? And the road is closed about 20 miles ahead.  There's a fire on the eastern side, so Logan Pass is closed."

Logan Pass was closed.  I had come to Glacier National Park from Florida to bird the Logan Pass area, and it was closed.  Still, I had nearly three days to bird one of the world's most beautiful places.  There was a lot to do and ground to cover, so I started up the road. 

On birding trips far from home, you have to be flexible.  Since I couldn't go to the top, I decided to start at the bottom and bird my way up the mountain as far as possible.  Maybe I could reach the Loop Trail and hike that, but on the way I would check out the Lake MacDonald area.  Good plan.

Song Sparrow near Mineral Creek
Lake MacDonald (above, right) is spectacular.  Ten miles long, about a mile wide, and about 500 feet deep, it's as beautiful a lake as you are ever likely to see.  But there were no birds on it that I could see.  For mile after mile I kept glancing at the lake to no avail.  Eventually I reached the lodge and pulled into the parking lot.

I was greeted by swarms of swallows above the lodge.  Many were Barn Swallows, but I saw a few bright white foreheads of Cliff Swallows.  There may have been others, but looking up at them through binoculars in the rain was a challenge.  Then I heard the familiar call of a Swainson's Thrush.  It wasn't hard to track it down, and I got some nice looks.

The rain continued to be a problem, so I made an impromptu decision to go into the lodge and have breakfast.  Now THAT was a breakfast buffet!  The food was excellent including some really tasty breakfast bison-antelope-elk sausage, French toast, 7-grain flapjacks, fresh fruit, and more.  I ate like a mad man, and despite the $15 price, I think they lost money on me.

Outside the rain had finally stopped and the day had warmed a bit.  I drove farther up the road until I reached a pull-off area.  Mineral Creek lined the north side of the road while a small pond graced the south.  This looked like a promising spot, and it turned out to be the best birding of the day.  First there was a Mountain Chickadee in the pines along the creek.  Then a Song Sparrow fed along a pile of logs on the water's edge.  That was followed by a brilliant flash of yellow and red - a gorgeous male Western Tanager in all its beauty.

Western Tanager
I walked over to small pond and was immediately rewarded with a blur of brown passing overhead.  I tracked it and thought, that's not a swallow.  Chimney Swift?  I checked the range map; no Chimney Swifts were in Glacier, but there were Vaux's Swifts!  I waited patiently and the bird soon came back with several friends - Vaux's Swifts to be sure!  I had only seen one other in my life and that was at a distance.  This was a very close and satisfying view.  It may not have been a lifer, but it felt like one.

I stayed in the area longer and watched Yellow Warblers skitter through dense brush.  A Red-naped Sapsucker hung out on a tall snag.  Cedar Waxwings seemed to be everywhere, and I never tire of looking at them.  A female Mallard and her children made a brief appearance at the back of the pond, and American Robins called raucously as they passed though the area.

This was really fun birding, but there was one downside.  I was birding along the only road in this part of the park, and it was jammed with traffic.  Red buses, groups of motorcycles, and an endless stream of cars flowed both up and down the road.  The noise was constant, and as more and more people decided to stop and check out this pretty little spot, the area began to feel crowded.  Eventually I decided to move on up the mountain.  The morning was passing and there was still a lot of territory to cover.

Mineral Creek, Glacier National Park
The rest of my time in Glacier National Park lasted more than a day and a half, but unfortunately it is very brief in the telling.  I drove all the way to the Weeping Wall, passing one filled parking lot after another.  With no room to stop, I kept moving up.  Even the parking area at the Big Bend near the Loop Trail was filled.  Finally I stopped at the Weeping Wall parking area where I set up my spotting scope and waited patiently as a long line of people looked through it at a white dot that was a Mountain Goat.  I saw one bird, but it was too far away to identify.  Back down the mountain I stopped again at the site where there were so many birds in the morning.  Most were still there, and some Violet-green Swallows had joined the party.  As evening approached I turned into a very crowded Apgar Village and was pleased to see a few White-collared Swifts.

My second day in the park was less successful in birding terms, but still very enjoyable.  This time both Logan Pass and the Big Bend were closed, so I couldn't hike either the Loop Trail or Logan Pass, and that ended any hope for some real alpine birding.  Instead, I hiked along Avalanche Creek where I was thrilled to find two American Dippers.  Then I made the three-mile climb to Avalanche Lake, gaining about 500 feet in elevation and dodging an endless crowd of hikers along the way.  I had heard there were Bohemian Waxwings and a loon up there.  What I found were Canada Geese, a Robin, some Vaux's Swifts, and a single Common Goldeneye.  Later I ate some pizza while watching the Columbian Ground Squirrels play on the lawn near the Lodge at Lake MacDonald, but I found no more birds.

Nine-pipe and National Bison Range 

Bad photo, but great bird - Clark's Grebe!
In two full days of birding in Glacier, I found only 19 species.  Yes, there were some really great birds, but very few of them.  So instead of returning to Glacier where the fire still had the road closed, I decided to go with Plan B.  I left Columbia Falls and turned south where I planned to search Nine-pipe NWR for some waterfowl and then take the wildlife drive at National Bison Range.

Before I even reached Nine-pipe, I saw a large pond on the west side of the road.  I pulled off across the street into a parking area with a historical marker describing the Mission Mountains.  Beyond it was a smaller pond that was teeming with life.  Cedar Waxwings and Cliff Swallows decorated the sky while Spotted Sandpipers, Killdeers, Black-necked Stilts, Greater Yellowlegs and a Long-billed Dowitcher grazed along the edge of the water.  On the pond were a Northern Shoveler, several American Coots and a group of what I believe were Lesser Scaup.  Across the highway there was more to be seen, but the distance made identifications difficult.  I saw Red-winged Blackbirds and a couple of Trumpeter Swans.

An American Bison
The ponds and potholes in Nine-pipe were equally productive.  Eastern Kingbirds seemed to be everywhere.  The large lake at the dam held hundreds of birds, but again distances and heat waves made viewing a challenge.  I saw one bird that really, really looked like a Red-breasted Merganser. but range maps suggest that the species shouldn't be in the area.  After some thought, my best guess is that it was a female Common Merganser and the bill only appeared to be longer in the shimmering heat.  There were a few Ruddy Ducks, lots of Canada Geese, and a few red-necked Grebes.  Then I saw two white birds swimming comparatively close to the dam.  I put my scope on one and saw a Western Grebe.  Excellent ... but not the grebe I was hoping for.  I swung to the other bird and waited until it turned its profile to me.  And there, entirely surrounded by white, was the brilliant red eye of a Clark's Grebe - a lifer and one of the prime targets of the trip.  I celebrated briefly, then got the scope back on the bird and watched it for a while.  Then I remembered I had a camera!  As the bird increased its distance I tried several times to get that diagnostic eye-in-the-white photo.  The shot I got wasn't the best, but it will do!

An elk taking a sip of water
Next I was on to National Bison Range.  While the birding wasn't spectacular, the landscape and the bison herds were.  Teddy Roosevelt was instrumental in establishing the park in 1908, and today the herd numbers close to 500.  It's managed through an annual roundup in which surplus animals are sold live - not hunted and killed.  Except in a few well-marked places, it is forbidden - and very unwise - to wander away from your car along the Red Sleep Mountain drive.  So nearly all of the birding was through car windows.  Still, I saw Western Meadowlark, Eastern Kingbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Warbling Vireo, Black-capped Chickadee, and American Kestrel.  Along one short trail I saw Lewis's and Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker and Red-tailed Hawk.  Back in the car, I added Mountain Bluebird and Swainson's Thrush to the day's total.  There was also a real treat along Mission Creek where deer and elk walked in the clear, cold water.

Finally I left the park to make the long, long trek to Salmon, Idaho, crossing Chief Joseph Pass in the dark on yet another white-knuckle drive.  As I drove, I reflected on the day.  I had 38 species including one lifer.  This was exactly double the number I had in two days in Glacier.  And I had seen herds of 50-60 bison grazing on the hillsides.  I had no idea what the Salmon area had to offer, but I wondered if it could possibly top this day?

In a word, yes!
I hiked 3 miles and up 500 feet to reach Avalanche Lake and the first bird I saw was a Robin - a winter resident at home.
Avalanche Lake.  The water is so clear you can't tell that it almost reached to the boulder in the foreground.
Columbian Ground Squirrel near Lake MacDonald, Glacier National Park
A mural covering the front of a building in Columbia Falls
Western Wood-Pewee at National Bison Range
A fawn enjoying Mission Creek.  Its mom was nearby.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Coeur D'Alene to Columbia Falls

The Clearwater River at Nez Perce National Historic Park

Nez Perce Rangers Erecting a Tepee
The second day of my trip promised to be a sizzler.  Local weather reporters predicted highs above 100 "with the chance of a few clouds passing through in the afternoon."  Undaunted, I pulled into Nez Perce National Historic Park in Spalding, Idaho, and encountered something I rarely see at such a beautiful place - an empty parking lot.

I hopped out of the car and was immediately buffeted by a stiff breeze.  I birded around the edge of the lot for a while and was rewarded with a nice little mixed flock of birds in the greenery just below where I was standing.  A flock of American Robins seemed to be playing Follow the Leader as they sprinted from one spot to another feeding on berries and calling raucously to each other.  I saw a quick flash of yellow and tried to follow its mad dash through a series of bushes.  Then there was a second flash of yellow.  One, I'm sure, was a Yellow Warbler but the other might have been a Wilson's.  I didn't get a good enough look at it, so despite the temptation, I didn't add it to my day list.  Then a familiar, harsh, rattling sound caught my attention as a Belted Kingfisher flew over my head and moved east along the river.  It was a nice start to the day.

"Red-shafted" Northern Flicker
The picnic area at Nez Perce NHP is gorgeous!  It's nestled under a mostly pine canopy that provides plenty of cover for meals in the shade, and some open space for play in the sun.  An ancient cemetery rests in one corner and the ruins of a building in another.  Here, late in November, 1839, Henry Spalding established the first mission to the Nez Perce and built what is thought to be the first white man's home in Idaho.  He Baptized many tribal leaders, taught them to irrigate fields and grow potatoes, brought the first printing press to the area, developed a written language for the Nez Perce, translated the Book of Matthew, printed it, and distributed copies among his parishioners.  He and his wife Eliza were remarkable people and their memory is still respected by the Nez Perce and preserved in their park.

The birding here was pretty good.  A Northern Flicker perched in a snag showing off the red in his tail.  Our Flicker is yellow, of course, so I enjoyed seeing the red.  A group of flycatchers fed on invisible bugs and happily displayed their aerial agility.  I could only identify a Western Wood-Pewee with any degree of confidence, but I suspect I missed a life bird somewhere in those trees.

An "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler was a special treat and proved how beautiful that species can be.  The washed-out version we see in Florida bears little resemblance to this really pretty bird.  And when the Yellow-rumps start to look good, they leave.  A Lesser Goldfinch was another treat, showing off its black and gold to full advantage.

Yellow Warbler Peeking at Me
I tried really hard to turn a Red-eyed Vireo into something else, but truth won out.  A Calliope Hummingbird investigated the park ranger's yellow and green cart, but eventually lost interest and flew off.  A Red-tailed Hawk hung around for a while, and a few Cedar Waxwings flitted about.  I searched through them to no avail hoping for one of their Bohemian cousins.  A little later I descended a small bank and walked to the water's edge.  I was stunned at how significantly the temperature dropped as I approached the river.  The water was very cold, and the air around it much cooler than that in the picnic area 20 yards away.  As I enjoyed the cool air I noticed a Yellow warbler peeking at me through the bushes.  It was nice enough to pose for a photo or two, but never gave a me a clean look.

Before leaving the park, I decide to try one more trail.  It was a mile-long loop with little shade, and the temperatures were nearing the century mark.  I debated for a bit, but curiosity won out.  I was rewarded with a distant look at a Western Kingbird and later, a bench in the shade.  As I sat there sipping some water, I heard an unfamiliar song above me.  At first, I thought it was a House Finch, but the song was wrong.  I hear House Finches every day, and this was wrong.  I looked more closely - Cassin's Finch!  A lifer!!  What a terrific way to end a very enjoyable birding day.

My Cassin's Finch Lifer!
 I spent that night in Coeur D'Alene.  The next morning I wanted to get an early start.  I knew it was going to be a very long day.  I had an ambitious birding plan.  The first stop was to be at Farragut State Park on the southern tip of Lake Pend Oreille before moving on to Sandpoint and Denton Slough on the lake's north and eastern sides.  Finally I would have to reach my hotel in Columbia Falls, Montana.  Point-to-point driving would be about 400 miles and birding mileage would get me very close to 500 miles for the day.  Unfortunately, the day would prove to be more exhausting than productive.

Lake Pend Oreille from Farragut State Park
Farragut State Park is really gorgeous, but I found very few birds.  A Calliope Hummingbird and a Black-capped Chickadee were enjoying an early morning breakfast outside the headquarters building, and that proved to be the best birding of the morning.  Near the lake, a sparrow was being a bit elusive, hiding in a brushy area along a very narrow foot path.  As I tried to get a decent look, a person on a bike suddenly clamored down the stairs.  The bird flew off, never to be seen again.  I do not mind stepping aside for mountain bikers if I'm on open access trail.  But this was a foot path with a narrow set of stairs.  He had no business being there, and I lost a good bird.  A Catbird popped up a little later, but that was it.  Later I chased a group of finches feeding along the road, but they were very skittish, flying off if I got too close and at the sound of every approaching vehicle - and there were many.  I never did ID them.  I saw a Mountain Bluebird, some Brewer's Blackbirds, a Song Sparrow, and Ring-billed Gull, but that was it.

I'm pretty sure this is a California Gull.
Sandpoint was a really cute and quaint town with wonderful park and marina on the lake.  There were a lot of birds, but most of them were Canada Geese or Ring-billed Gulls.  Still, I enjoyed an hour or so walking around the place.  I enjoyed watching Cliff Swallows playing in the spray of a sprinkler system, and what proved to be a California Gull confused me for a bit.  I took a bunch of photos of it for later study.

Next I drove to the fish hatchery, a small but very productive stop.  Cedar Waxwings, Pine Siskins, and California Quails were seen in the first few minutes.  An Eastern Kingbird hunted along the water's edge and an Osprey soared overhead.  Unfortunately, I had hoped to see a Clark's Grebe in the area, but there were none, so I turned toward Denton Slough.  The drive along the eastern edge of the lake was picturesque, but not very productive.  The thousands of breeding ducks and grebes that are known to spend the spring here were already gone, leaving very few of their friends behind.  I saw a Bald Eagle, a Wood Duck, a Great Blue Heron and the ever-present Canada Geese.  Finally, at Denton Slough I saw a few interesting grebes.  They all turned out to be Western Grebes, great birds to be sure, but not what I was seeking.

Finally, I gave it up and made the five and a half hour drive to Columbia Falls.  I arrived really late at night, so I made a quick stop at an A&W restaurant for some food and a diet root beer.  They didn't have any.  The A&W Root Beer place didn't have any diet root beer.  Really?  Then my hotel room proved to be ... well ... disappointing.  Still, I was in the shadow of Glacier National Park where I planned to spend the next two and a half days!  I collapsed into bed and thought excitedly about the wonderful days to come.  Yes, I was counting up those chickens ... but would they hatch?
Western Wood-Pewee
Gray Catbirds spend the entire winter in my yard, and this was one of the few birds I identified in Farragut.

A Song Sparrow hiding in the shadows

An Eastern Kingbird at the Fish Hatchery in Sandpoint, Idaho

The Yellow Warbler shows me its other profile.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Best Laid Plans

Seas of Wheat in the Palouse Area of Eastern Washington

The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

From "To a Mouse" by Robert Burns 
Standard English Translation by "Simple English" Wikipedia

Western Wood-Pewee
Every birding trip I have taken has been carefully planned.  Many hours are spent on researching birding sites, driving routes, bird lists, range maps, airline fares, hotel rates ... all designed to get the most birds for the fewest bucks.  Usually things work out for the best despite a few pitfalls here and there.  I missed the Hook-billed Kite in Texas, but got the White-collared Seedeater and other great birds in the subsequent days.  A snow storm made travel over Santiam Pass quite treacherous and placed me at the Oregon coast much later than I planned.  But when I got there I immediately got four lifers within 15 minutes.  If I had been on time, I might have missed them.  Who knows?

Certainly no 10-day trip - even the most successful - is without its rough spots.  The best birding trip of my life was to Arizona where I tallied a huge number of life birds, but a much-desired birding location on Fort Huachuca was closed when I got there necessitating a significant change in plans.  And there was the birding trip of a lifetime to Alaska that was tempered by broken glasses and the saltwater assassination of my camera.

With all of that in mind, I was prepared for a few glitches in the road on my most recent excursion - nine days of non-stop birding in Washington, Idaho and Montana, the crowning jewel of which was to be two days in Glacier National Park, especially on the trails at Logan Pass searching for Ptarmigans, Rosy-Finches and Crossbills!  I had a list of 39 lifers that inhabited those states during the summer, but I recognized that I had a legitimate shot at less than half of them - say, 19.  So, if I got half of that group - 10 lifers - I'd be thrilled.  Overall, I expected to see about 120 species.

Canada Geese on the Snake River
Not so fast, my friends.  We all know about those best laid plans, and I was about to get an object lesson in patience.

The first issue to overcome was the State of Washington and everyone's favorite supercenter, Walmart.  You see, due to budgetary considerations, Washington does not have rangers in every park, at least not full time rangers who collect an entry fee.  No big deal; the same is true in Florida where many parks have an honor system pay station.  Not so in Washington.  Instead, you have to go to Walmart, Fred Myers, or several other local outlets to purchase a one-day pass for $11!  So my first day in Washington was not spent with the morning chorus and spotting new birds.  Instead, it was spent with the morning shoppers at Walmart, trying to spot an employee who knew how to sell a Discover park pass.  It took 45 minutes.

Finally I was able to get out of Spokane and head south to my first birding destination, Fields Spring State Park in the southeast corner of the state.  My route took me south through the Palouse section of the state and its miles of wheat fields.  I stopped briefly at the site of an 1858 battlefield where Lt. Col. E. J. Steptoe got spanked by a large contingent of Spokane, Palouse and Coeur D'Alene Indians.  The historical marker indicated that the defeat was one result of unenlightened dealings with the Indians.  It quickly added that the Indians were "ruthlessly subjugated" later in the year by a "full-scale campaign."  It did not clarify if that was supposed to be a more enlightened strategy, but I thought not.

Rock Wren
The direct route between Spokane, Washington, and my intended destination in southeastern Washington goes through Idaho.  That little quirk turned out to be a lucky break, my first of the day.  I made a quick stop at a roadside scenic view that overlooked the twin towns of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington, along with the Clearwater and Snake Rivers.  It was a gorgeous spot and it provided my best-ever view of a Rock Wren which happily ignored the traffic above while gathering what looked to be nesting material.  Then a Red-tailed Hawk swooped overhead, reminding me that I wasn't in Florida anymore because it looked nothing like those that I see at home.

The road swung through Lewiston and then over a bridge to Clarkston and back into Washington.  On impulse, I pulled into what I think was called Riverside Park on the banks of the Snake River.  This turned out to be a good move and my second stroke of luck for the day.  It's a long, narrow park with a deciduous hammock, a few open fields, lots of brush along the river, and numerous sandbars just offshore.  There were Lesser and American Goldfinches in the trees, flycatchers near the fields, Yellow Warblers in the brush and gulls and shorebirds along the river.  I also saw Western Wood-Pewee, Canada Goose, Ring-billed and California Gulls, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper and Killdeer in just a few minutes of birding.  It was already late in the morning, but I thought it was a great appetizer to start off the day's serious birding.  Still, I wanted to get on my way because I had another 45 minutes or so before reaching Fields Spring.

A well-camouflaged femal Red-naped Sapsucker eating suet
Fields Spring State Park is listed as being in Anatone, Washington.  Anatone turned out to be the closest thing to a ghost town - while not yet actually being a ghost town - that I have ever seen.  A sign on the road indicates that it has a population of 38 people, 17 dogs and 11 cats.  I think they over-estimated the number of people.  I saw no one, and I saw very little that appeared to be habitable.  The park itself had a small parking area near a few picnic tables.  I must say the area held a good number of birds.  I saw a myiarchus flycatcher, probably an Ash-throated, but it got away before I could take a photo.  A Northern Flicker called loudly and darted between the pines while a White-breasted Nuthatch successfully avoided my camera by constantly circling a tree trunk, always a step ahead of me.  Then I caught sight of my first lifer for the trip, a pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers.  Of course, the more colorful male flew off before I could get a photo, but the female was more cooperative.

The plan was to eat lunch at the picnic tables while keeping an eye out for more birds.  A swarm of bees had other ideas, so lunch was eaten in the rental car.  Afterward, I drove around the park looking for another place to bird.  I found one small parking area with what looked like a trail through some pines, but the forest was utterly quiet.  I couldn't find a single bird in the vicinity, so I gave it up.  Maybe the birds hadn't gotten their Discover Passes at Walmart that morning?

Undaunted, I started toward my second destination, Craig Mountain WMA in Idaho.  But on the way I encountered a third stroke of luck.  I saw a wide pullout along the road and impulsively decided to check it out.  The field that bordered it had nothing, but again acting on impulse, I crossed the road to peer down into a depression in the land.  There was a pond teeming with life.  In just a couple of minutes I chalked off Mallard, Wilson's Snipe, American Coot, Killdeer, Osprey, Red-winged Blackbird and Brewer's Blackbird. 

I think this is a Lazuli Bunting, probably a juvenile.
The Idaho birding guide made Craig Mountain sound like a magnificent birding destination.  Maybe it is at the right time of year and in the early morning.  But it was a major disappointment on a late afternoon in July.  The road in was narrow, with no pull-outs for birding.  In fact, the road was dotted with signs warning me that both sides held private property and that I had to continue up the mountain to find public land.  Now, I've driven over some pretty tough roads in the past.  The "primitive" road that leads to Rustler Park high in the Chiricahuas comes to mind.  But nothing was quite like the drive up Craig Mountain.  I am not exaggerating when I say that at one point I thought I might have turned off what passed for a road and was now driving up a dried and rocky creek bed.  It was that awful.  And the places that were supposed to be there (according to the Idaho Birding Guide) were not to be found.  Eventually I located a tiny parking area with a stony trail leading down a hillside.  Desperate to do some real birding, I got out of the car and started down the path - and the first birds to greet me were Chipping Sparrows.  Maybe they were the same ones that were in my yard last winter back home in Florida.  Probably not, but I hadn't traveled thousands of miles to see Chippers.  A little further down the trail things got better.  I saw a group of birds flitting among some bushes.  One proved to be an immature Dark-eyed Junco.  Another was a young, drab Lazuli Bunting.  The latter would have been a lifer a month earlier, but I had seen one in Zion Canyon.  Still, it was a thrill.  This species has always been in my top-ten most desirable list, so even a dull-looking youngster was worthy of a celebration.  Then I saw an Olive-sided Flycatcher, only my second-ever of that species as well!

Mountain Bluebird
It was actually starting to get late and I had to return to Lewiston for the night.  Still, there was another site beckoning, a boat ramp and dam on nearby Lake Waha.  First I hit the boat ramp.  Not a single bird in sight -- not one.  Next I went to the dam.  There I met a delightful couple who were members of the Nez Perce tribe.  I heard stories of growing up on the reservation and camping in the wilderness.  While we were talking, a couple of Mountain Bluebirds lit in a tree right above me.  With the wind whipping around, it was tough getting a good photo, but I think patience was rewarded.

I assumed my birding day was ended, but Lady Luck had one more treat in store.  I drove quickly along Waha Road back toward Lewiston (always staying within the posted speed limits, of course).  Suddenly, a lump on a fencepost morphed into something that looked like a quail.  I stopped, did a 180, and pulled off a few feet up the road from a gorgeous California Quail that posed patiently for dozens of photos.  Unfortunately, all were in bad light, but a couple turned out well enough to post here.

And so ended the first birding day of my trip.  After some thought, I realized that the best birding of the day had nearly all occurred at unplanned stops, while the planned target areas were generally disappointing.  Then again, four birds saved the day for those major destinations including my second ever Olive-sided Flycatcher, Lazuli Bunting, and Mountain Bluebird and the one lifer, the Red-naped Sapsucker.  Only a month earlier it would have been a four-lifer day.  Still, I was happy and looking forward to a visit to the Nez Perce National Historic Park.

California Gull (Left) and Two Ring-billed Gulls at Riverside Park and the Snake River

I played peek-a-boo with this White-breasted Nuthatch and never got a clean shot.

Another View of a Mountain Bluebird

Lewiston and Clarkston from the Plane Going Home
Lewiston (L) and Clarkston (R) from the Overlook