Slowly but surely I am catching up with my journals. This week Iím sharing a few bird photos that I took on my trip to visit the Black Swift in Box Canyon at Ouray, CO. After all, one canít travel a few thousand kilometers without seeing and photographing a few birds even if they were just on the roadside. Mind you, travelling in the heat of summer and the heat of the day wasnít the best time to look for birds, and I didnít have any specific destinations lined up. I was hoping that national parks and wildlife refuges would be productive, but I was slightly disappointed even though my expectations werenít high to start with because I would be mainly on busy roads. As it turned out, my best experiences were at a state park in Thermopolis, WY and the backroads of Montana.
There was never a doubt that I would encounter Common Grackles on my trip south. They are a long, slim member of the blackbird family and commonly seen in urban settings in parks, and gardens. Their year-round range covers the southeast quadrant of the US, but their breeding range extends north to Alberta and east to the Atlantic. Sightings on the west coast are extremely rare. I have never heard of a confirmed sighting on Vancouver Island, but there is a record of one on the outer coast of Washington. The photo above was taken in eastern Washington.
The Swainson's Hawk is another inland species that is uncommon on the west coast. There are usually a few reported during the fall hawk watches at Beechy Head and Little Mountain, but none that stay for any length of time. They are a common breeding species in eastern BC and the western half of the US except for coastal areas. The photo above was taken on a farm road in Wyoming.
It's always fun to see a breeding plumaged Ruddy Duck because it is rare on Vancouver Island. Just to contradict myself, breeding plumaged Ruddy Ducks were reported this spring in the Victoria region. The first was reported by Geoffreuy Newell on March 26/17 at Panama Flats and 2 were reported on Apr. 14 by Jeremy Tatum. There is a significant winter population at Quamichan Lake with occasional groups in the Victoria region, but breeding plumaged ducks have never been reported. I suspect that the Quamichan ducks deprt before they moult into breeding plumage, and the ducks reported at Panama Flats were migratory birds from the south. The Ruddy Duck's breeding range extends from the eastern half of BC to Saskatchewan and down the western half of the US away from coastal areas. This photo was taken in Colorado.
While the Ruddy Duck may be popular in North America, the same cannot be said in Europe. Apparentltly, the Ruddy Duck was introduced to the UK in the 1940's and soon became a thriving feral population. It didn't take long before it spread to mainland Europe in the 1960's and by 1984 it had spread to Spain where it readily bred and hybridized with the rare, indigenous, White-headed Duck. Programs have now been implemented to control and eradicate the Ruddy Duck in the UK and Europe.
When's the last time you went to a drive-in theatre? They used to be popular when a bottle of coke cost 5 cents. The last time I went to a drive-in on Vancouver Island was at the Stardust in Merville justh north of Courtenay. I was with my girlfriend, Mavis, but I can't remember the movie... (no snickering - it's just my failing memory). What's this got to do with my trip? Okay, just after visiting the Ruddy Duck and other birds at a conservation area near Monte Vista, CO we came across a BW which just happened to have a drive-in theatre and decided to spend the night there. Can you believe that? Yes, there are actually 2 such venues in the US. The other is in VT. Before your imagination gets the better of you, the movie was the first run of WONDER WOMAN, but that didn't happen until it was dark. Before dark I spent some time visiting with a few long-staying motel guests - the Say's Phoebes and Mountain Bluebirds.
After I checked into the motel I noticed some bird activity along the second storey of the motel and in the adjacent field. It didn't take long to identify a adult Say's Phoebe making regular foraging trips to the field then returning to the motel.
The Say's flew to the second floor walway where three juveniles waited impatiently for their dinner.
There were also some other birds foraging in the field. I managed to catch up to a male Mountain Bluebird with a mouthful of treats for its offspring.
It was fitting that the juvenile bluebirds were waiting on the picnic table.
While the male bluebird took its turn feeding the youngsters the female was foraging in the field.
Since it was illegal and ill-advised to stop on the freeways to photograph birds, my best opportunities were the quiet backroads. I was hoping to find some grassland birds as I passed through Wyoming, but on the day I had scheduled some extra birding the weather was a problem. It wasn't just a little rain and wind. It was a full-blown hurricane warning as we were heading south from Hulett to Cheyenne. Instead of a leisurely drive checking out the side roads we headed straight south until the sky darkened and the winds accelerated. We ducked into a towwn called Torrington and sought shelter and a late lunch at MacDonald's. While we were having lunch one of the workers advised us not to sit close to the windows and pointed out the recommended hurricane shelter in the men's room. I made up my mind right then to bunk into the Holiday Express next door and hunker down for the night until the hurricane alert was over. After we were safely lodged I went outside to watch the weather. Lightning was flashing menacingly in the western sky, and there was an ominous stillness in the air. Shortly afterwards a pickup truck limped into the parking lot. Its windhield was a mess of a million pieces of glass held loosely together like part of a stained glass sculpture, and its body was pock-marked with tennis ball sized dimples. The exasperated driver slowly opened the door and was shaking as he muttered, "Hail Storm 20 miles north." That was exactly where were an hour ago, and that was also where a hurricane touched down a few minutes later. It wasn't until I was heading home through Montana that I found a couple of dedicated hours for back road birding.
A short farm road near Kalispell proved to be most productive. The power lines were loaded with swalows, sparrows, and other birds. I would have preferred birds on a tree branch but I had to take what was offered. An Eastern Kingbird was my first target. It is an occasional visitor to Vancouver Island that is seen almost annually in the Victoria region.
I'm not going to take credit for this shot. At times I can time and capture a bird leaving its perch, but in this case it was accidental. The bird decided to leave just as I pressed the shutter release. As you will see later I had a run of accidental captures.
The Western Meadowlark is always a joy to hear and see. It was a common species on our trip. I don't think we were far enough east to to encounter Eastern Meadowlarks.
I've only seen Savannah Sparrows during the spring and fall migrations on Vancouver Island so it was a novelty to seen one in June. They are a very common grassland bird with an extensive breeding range from the middle latitudes of the US to the Arctic coast with the exception of the west coast from California to Vancouver Island.
Savannahs occupied every fence post on one of the backroads I checked.
I could say I timed it perfectly to get the flight shot of the Barn Swallow, but it was pure luck. The Barn Swallow was sitting on a Barbed wire fence when I stopped the car and poked my camera out of the window. Just as I pressed the shutter release it decided to fly. I was surprised that it was reasonably in focus.
Finally, a mature male Bobolink. Several times in the past I searched for a Bobolink at Malheur and once in Osoyoos to no avail. I did see one at a distance in eastern Montana on the way to Westby a few years ago, but it was too far for anything but the record shot. As I was heading east on a farm road I spotted an unmistakable black and white bird on a fence post. I stopped an was just pulling out the camera when it flew. I drove on then turned around. It was back on another fence post but flushed as I slowed down. I gave up and headed south on another road then east when I spotted another one. This one was more cooperative and allowed for some decent shots before it decided to leave.
As I was heading east on a farm road I spotted an unmistakable black and white bird on a fence post. I stopped and was just pulling out the camera when it flew. I drove on then turned around. It was back on another fence post but flushed as I slowed down. I gave up and headed south on another road then east when I spotted another one. This one was more cooperative and allowed for some decent shots before it decided to leave.
The Bobolink is an uncommon visitor to Vancouver Island. I saw one about 10 years ago (Nov. 26/08) at the bulb fields in Saanich. I don't recall any reports until this year when the #@$%&* hit the fan. It all started when Nancy Pitts spotted one at the Strathcona Dam west of Campbell River. Ian Cruikshance followed with one in Tofino on June 12 and not to be out done, Blair Dudeck discovered a pair at Panama Flats on Sept. 15. Three days later the Bobolinks underwent meiosis and morphed into 4 Bobolinks when Geoffrey Newell arrived on the scene. These are the ones I've heard of. I wonder if there were more reported on ebird or not reported at all.
The distinctive rufous shoulder patch distinguishes the Vesper Sparrow which is another grassland bird found in open fields and pastures. Unlike the Savannah Sparrow the Vesper's breeding range covers the northern 60% of the US and the southern half of Canada except for the western 10% of both countries. However, there is or was? a small endangered population of the coastal subspecies that utilized the Nanaimo airport fields during the breeding season. I used to check on them annually but haven't done so in about 5 years. I haven't heard of any reports in the past few years so maybe they are extirpated. With only a few breeding pairs survival was always extremely difficult.
The Wilson's Snipe is generally only stops during the spring and fall migration on Vancouver Island where it generally skulks in moist, grassy areas. It is not unusual to flush one on Fairwinds golf course while searching for a ball in the rough. I've only seen them on the ground on VI, but often seen them on fenceposts near their nesting habitats. I saw 2 on the 1 km stretch of farm road in Montana.
On the same stretch of road I encountered another Wilson's bird. This time it was a Wilson's Phalarope. At first I saw a few flying around the farm fields, but eventually one landed on the road in front of me. I wasn't sure if it was foraging for insects or maybe getting a salt fix.
There still several phalaropes flying in the field near the fence. It was a good chance to practice some flight shots.
The phalorpes were easy to track at a distance, but near the fence their flight was more erratic and less predictable. Quite often they would suddenly change their flight plans and dive behind the long grass (wheat?) where I suspected they were nesting.
Yellowstone National Park is a huge natural habitat for birds, but the busy roads aren't the best place to birds. Unfortunately, I didn't have much time so had to settle for roadside sightings which were mostly mammals and not birds. My favorite mammal scene was a group of elk in a flower filled meadow.
There was no problem finding grizzly bears. Whenever bears were around so were the huge lineup of cars, photographers, and curiosity seekers. The bears were usually a safe distance from the road and just a bit too far for a 500 mm lens with a 1.4x converter. On this trip we encountered 3 sets of sows with cubs.
Near the Yellowstone River we encountered another long lineup of cars. We thought it was another bear, but were pleasantly surprised to see an Osprey nest across the river. Although it was too far away for decent shots I joined the crowd anyway for a few record shots. There wasn't much going on as the pair was content to sit around the nest.
On one of my rare stops I decided to hike about 100 m along a trail with hopes of seeing a songbird or two. I actually found a Chipping Sparrow, but I was looking into the sun and didn't even get a decent record shot. The only other birds I saw were a couple of Brewer's Blackbirds foraging about 30 m off the path.
Thermopolis certainly doesn't sound like a town in the wild west of Wyoming, but it is. In fact, it is the site of the largest hot spring in the world which is located in Hot Springs State Park. Besides the hot springs the park boasts its own buffalo herd and features extensive grasslands that are the home to many grassland birds.
The first bird to attract my attention in the grasslands was a black and white creature that flew about 10 m in the air then fluttered down. From my browsing of Sibley's Field Guide I knew it was a Lark Bunting. They were quite abundant in the park and seemed to be everywhere just out of decent camera range. Once again I had to settle for the record shot, but I didn't mind since it was a new bird for me. I was surprised to learn that the lark Bunting is the state bird for Colorado.
I was hoping for the chance to photograph the upward flight and fluttering down, but had to settle for the perching on the weeds shot.
I'm not sure about this bird, but from the size and bill shape I'm assuming that it was a female Lark Bunting.
There were numerous birds in the park but only a few that cooperated for the camera. On of the few that cooperated was a House Finch that was busy extracting fibres from a plant.
I didn't bother photographing the buffalo in the park, but I couldn't pass up a pronghorn resting in the grass near the road. Although I saw many pronghorns on the trip this was the only one that cooperated for a close-up photo.
One bird that I expected to see was the Horned Lark and I did encounter several. One was a juvenile skulking near the information signs. I was busy foraging for insects and seeds and wasn't disturbed by our close proximity. In fact, I was too close and had to slowly back up to before my camera would focus.
Nearby was another Horned Lark lurking in the grass. I think the dark breast band indicates that it was a male.
It's always fun to hear and see the Western Meadowlark. Everytime we went by the fence near the entrance there was one on the same fence post. Because it was right next to the road it was fairly used to cars. I was able to park righ beside it for close up shots.
By far the most common bird was the Lark Sparrow. We saw them flying in the grass at all parts of the park. The rufous head markings are typical of the male and female adult. Immature birds are mostly brown.
One of the wildlife areas I wanted to check was the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge south of Moses Lake. Unfortunately, the office was closed, and there was no one around so we weren't able to get any information on where to look for any of the local specialties. We saw a few birds like the Rock Wren and Say's Phoebe, but the best was the Western Kingbird that did an aerial display right above my head for about 10 minutes. I suspect that it had a nest close by, and the display was a distraction to protect the nest.
When we were heading south it was raining and foggy in the Palouse region so I decided to visit again on the way back, and I'm glad I did. The gentle rolling hills have a magical quality that inspires the artistic senses and soothes distracted the mind.
The rolling hills were endless, and as I drove through the countryside enjoying the view I forgot to check the gas gauge. When I did I was down to my last bar, and the computer read 25 km. It was getting late, and I knew it was at least 50 km to our motel in Ritzville. I wasn't quite at the panic stage, but I was seriously concerned. The computer read 20 km when we came across a small one street village with a lonely gas station and general store. Unfortunately, it was closed but the gas pump looked to be operational for credit card use. The only problem was that my credit card didn't work at most US stations because I didn't have a US zip code. However, I didn't have anything to lose so I stuck the card in. Miraculously the card worked. I didn't question why or how. I was just thankful for the gas, and we made it to Ritzville with no further incident.
Ritzville was our final resting place on our lengthy journey to the Black Swift. It was interesting and memorable, but much too short. If I had more time I would have definitely tried to find a Black Rosy Finch at Jackson Hole and spent more time on the Wyoming grasslands looking for Ferruginous Hawks and specialties like the McCown's and Chestnut-collared Longspurs. Maybe next time.
My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)