Journal 211 - May 14-19 (Road Trip Report)

Bird Heaven - Part II - Bear River Encore

After our magnificent visit to magical Malheur, it was hard to imagine another comparable experience. But, quite literally, the Bear River Refuge north of the Great Salt Lake blew the lens right off my camera. 75,000 acres of undisturbed estuary marsh and wetlands - the ideal habitat for migrating and breeding birds from both the Pacific and Central Flyways. The estuary is intersected by a 15 mile dike and gravel road, carefully planned to control water levels to maintain optimum habitat conditions, and making the estuary accessible for fishermen, hunters, birders and photographers. With accomplished photographer and woodcarver, Kelly Thurgood, at the wheel, we were treated to an incredible close-up smorgasbord of waterfowl and shorebirds. I was in the back seat of his truck, bouncing left and right depending on which window had the best view: Snowy Egrets, Blue-winged Teal, American White Pelicans, Clark's Grebes, and many other elusive birds closer than I ever imagined. Kelly did an incredible job of locating birds and manoeuvering as close as possible without disturbing the birds. Of course, some of the birds flew but I managed to get a lot of pictures in the three hours we spent there.

Bear River was fantastic, but there was more to come. Kelly had mentioned Eared Grebes at Antelope Island, and I had never seen them in breeding plumage. I wasn't disappointed. There were 15,000 Eared Grebes just out from the causeway! They were just a bit too far out for photos so Kelly offered to show us a few treats on the Island: Raven in a nest, Chukar on a rock, Burrowing Owl on a burrow, Great Horned Owls in a nest, Long-eared owls in a tree, Buffalo in the field, and Antelopes on the salt. I wasn't upset that the Long-eared Owls were a no-show, but as compensation, Kelly found a Lark Sparrow, got me close-up views of a Willet, and threw in a Say's Phoebe for good measure. He didn't promise Snowy Plovers, but we did see a couple of passing flocks. I also got my Eared Grebe photos when leaving Antelope Island.

It goes without saying that you can't beat having a knowledgeable local guide for the optimum birding experience. Knowing where to look makes all the difference in the world especially when you're in a new area. Kelly, thanks again for your time and expertise in providing us with a remarkable birding experience.

We saw our first Western Kingbird at the rest stop just north of Yakima. After that they were with us for most of the trip. Now I know why Kenn Kaufmann used the title, "Kingbird Highway." Kingbirds were with us on the way into the refuge but not in the estuary.

This Kingbird kept a close eye on us as we were close to its nest.

Another familiar bird that chaperoned our approach to the reguge was the Ring-necked Pheasant. We even saw several in the estuary.

Several Long-billed Curlews were foraging in the fields before the refuge.

Kelly had warned us that Snowy Egrets might be scarce. He was right. We only saw about 100 which was about 98 more than he had seen before!

The Snowy Egret has yellow lores to match its yellow feet.

Line dancing? Not quite, but they were working together stirring up the mud with their feet to expose any hiding gourmet snacks.

Just like the Great Blue Heron, the Snowy Egret was a patient hunter, silently waiting for some unsuspecting prey to swim by.

Gotcha! The little fish makes a tasty appetizer.

The American Avocet is one of my favorites. I just love its colour, shape, and little upcurved bill.

Rather than probing into the mud like the ibis, the Avocet seems to sweep the mud to stir up its prey.

The Avocet is very graceful as it dances through the shallow waters.

In the past 4 years there was actually one American Avocet sighted on Vancouver Island.

The first pelican we saw flew straight towards us then banked for a perfect picture.

It wasn't surprising to see a lot of pelicans as there are large breeding colonies in the area.

The pelicans are lovable looking birds. I could take pictures of them all day.

The closest I had ever been to a Western Grebe prior to today was about 100 feet. I can now say that the closest have been to a Western Grebe is 20 feet.

We were hoping to see the grebes dance, but that never happened. Were we too late or too early?

It was easy to distinguish the Clark's Grebe with its bright orange bill compared to the greenish-yellow bill of the Western.

Another difference is that the black cap doesn't cover the eye on the Clark's like it does on the Western.

The Gadwall seemed to be the second wariest ducks we saw. The Blue-winged Teal were the wariest.

The closest we came to the Gadwall was when it was standing guard near its nest.

It's always a challenge to get decent flight shots of birds like the Forster's Tern. They never came close enough for a good opportunity.

We saw many Night-crowns, but most of them disappeared in the marsh before we could get a picture. Finally one landed close enough for a record photo.

The Black-necked Stilts were another of my favorites. I think its the big eyes that get me. I like the pink legs too.

The Stilts look quite fragile but they are powerful fliers.

Outhouse bird - Yes, that's where the Cliff Swallows were building their nests.

Most of the nests seemed to be finished, but there were a few just being started.

Flight shot - Not quite the soaring flight shot I'd like to have, but hovering at the nest is the next best thing.

We only saw a handful of Sandhills, but I don't think we were close to any breeding areas.

With all the ravens we have on Vancouver Island, I had to go all the way down to Antelope Island to see a Raven's nest. Actually, someone in Port Hardy mentioned they had a nest in their backyard, but I haven't been past Telegraph Cove yet.

You won't believe it - this is my first Chukar. I know Derrick has reported them around Cowichan Bay, but I've never seen them.

I think the Mourning Doves like soaking in the sun. Normally, my photo opportunities are on hydro lines or fences. Mourning Doves "on the rocks" is much better.

The buffalo were almost extinct in North America when someone had the foresight to establish a herd on Antelope Island. They now maintain a herd of about 600 animals which is what the Island can sustain.

The Great Horned Owl nest in the barn at Garr Ranch is a regular annual tourist highlight.

There were actually 3 chicks in the nest, but the 3rd one was sleeping.

Momma Great Horned was sleeping in a giant cottonwood while the babies entertained the tourists.

The Say's Phoebe also had a nest in the barn. It was busy dashing in and out with food in its bill.

American Kestrels were quite regular during most of our trip. There was a pair right at Garr Ranch.

Most of the birds we'd been seeing were larger ones. It was refreshing to catch up with a little Lark Sparrow. I did see a lot of small birds on the trip but had very few photo opportunities.

In four years of birding, I had one Eared Grebe to my name. Now I've got 15,001!

The Eared Grebe in breeding plumage was dazzling. There is a large breeding population in the Great Salt Lake where they like to feed on brine shrimp.

I had given up trying for a Willet picture as I thought we were finished with Willet habitat. Was I ever surprised to see a couple at the edge of the causeway, foraging along the margin of the Great Salt Lake. Maybe they like brine shrimp just like the Eared Grebes.

There were Yellow-headed Blackbirds everywhere around Malheur and Bear River.

They didn't have the best voice, but that didn't keep them from singing - "There's a yellow bird in Texas ..."

Most of the Blue-winged Teal flew when we were within a hundred feet. I finally got a close peek at one through a tall clump of grass.

A few for the road - Although Malheur and bear River were our main birding destinations, we did find a few other bird on our travels.

Western Scrub Jays seemed to be lurking at the edge of Salt Lake City. Am I right in assuming they are urban birds?

I almost passed up the Cassin's Finch as a House Finch. Luckily, the park attendent at Jordanelle told us they were Cassin's.

Yes, the Cassin's was another new bird as was the Scrub Jay. I have a clearer shot on the feeders, but I prefer the natural.

Something to crow about - What's so special about this bird? Take a closer look. It's an American Crow. Yes, another new bird. How can I tell? I can't, but I did take this picture in southern Idaho.

I think we've seen this one before.

The Chukar at the Birds of Prey Center near Boise was too close to resist a picture.

This Horned lark didn't seem to mind hanging around the Birds of Prey facility.

We had 40 minutes to kill before the centre opened. Within 2 minutes we found a Swainson's Hawk.

We had seen hundreds of hawks on our trip, but this was the first Swainson's.

We actually saw the hawk twice as it had returned to its stump 40 minutes after it had flown.

Finally, my 6th swallow species. It only took 3,000 kilometers to find my first Bank Swallows. Sibley considers them as rare on Vancouver Island (so do I), but they are reported regularly by birders.

Actually it was my wife who spotted the swallows collecting nesting material and then she located their nearby nesting site. That's why I like to take her along with me. She has better eyes than I do.

Jail bird - Just before we headed back to the Birds of Prey Center, we spotted an owl on a stop sign by the correctional institute. It was a Burrowing Owl that looks like it had a rumble with an inmate.











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