September 30 to Oct 3 – I left the Okanagan Valley on Sept 29 and flew to Saskatoon several days prior to my tour so that I could scout out the birds of the area. This is the first time time I had done this particular trip as a tour and my group of 6 from Canada were my guinea pigs. In the four days prior to their arrival I drove well over a thousand km and put in many hours of scouting. I think it all paid off.
September 30 was my first day out in the field and it was a lovely day with sunny skies and temperatures over 20 degrees Celsius. I headed east of Saskatoon, spending the first couple of hours of the day exploring an area around Cheviot and Crawford lakes. Geese and waterfowl were abundant, as were flocks of migrant Lapland Longspurs, American
Pipits and Horned Larks. My goal today was to locate a Whooping Crane and eventually, near the town of Meacham, I did. In with a large flock of Sandhills, a single Whooping Crane flew in and landed in the stubble field with them. Now, this crane had better stick around for 4 more days I told myself! All the cranes flew into the air with a great accompanying noise, and all the cranes returned to the field, except the Whooping Crane. I watched him fly off to the east until it disappeared.
In the late afternoon I had a nice stroll along the South Saskatchewan River at Cosmopolitan Park. In this nice little strip of native habitat I found some good birds, such as Clay-colored, Lincoln’s and Harris’s sparrows, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped warblers, Common Grackle, Blue Jay and Downy Woodpecker. To finish off the day, I
made an hours drive south to Outlook to see the cranes coming in to roost along the South Saskatchewan River. As the sun disappeared over the horizon, the cranes began to come in flock, after flock, until about 4000 covered the sandbars along the river.
October 1, I spent the day down in the Last Mountain Lake area, where again massive numbers of geese, waterfowl and Sandhill Cranes were mind-blowing. I popped into the village of Govan, passing by the town mascot, Walter the Whooping Crane, on the way into town. I had lunch in the old Govan Cafe, an experience in itself. An American hunter, decked out in camo, and cleaning his guns, sat in a corner of the cafe and bragged on the phone about how many Sandhill Cranes he’d shot earlier this morning. I cringed as I listened to the conversation. Why would you want to shoot a crane! Geese, I can see, but cranes, makes no sense to me. For the drive back to Saskatoon I traveled through the Allan Hills, an area of crops dotted with bluffs and wetlands. At one particular wetland there were literally tens of thousands of geese about, in addition to flocks of noisy Sandhill Cranes. I spotted a Great Horned Owl sitting on a fence post here, and enjoyed scope views of a Harris’s Sparrow. Wetlands in the area were teeming with Blue-winged Teal and I saw a few Wilson’s Snipe.
October 2 the weather changed and there was a very strong wind accompanied by occasional rain showers. I headed up towards Radisson Lake, north of Saskatoon today. I found nothing out of the ordinary here, and decided I wasn’t going to bring my group up this way anyhow.
October 3 was the day the group arrived, but I headed out to do some more scouting south of Saskatoon, stopping first at Pike Lake Provincial Park. Due to the inclement weather, there were a lot of migrants around, such as Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped warblers, a Common Yellowthroat, various sparrows, Hermit Thrush and more. Two Wood Ducks flew past, my only ones during the 9 days I spent here. In the evening I met up with my group, and we had dinner and discussed the plans for the following day.
October 4 – The first morning of the trip and we returned to that area east of Saskatoon where I had found a crane several days earlier. Weather was fantastic today with sunshine and comfortable temperatures. We made our way first up towards Muskiki Lake, pausing along the way to view our first massive flocks of geese. Snow Geese make
up the bulk of these sky-darkening flocks, and a high percentage of the birds are ‘Blue’ phase geese. Among the Snow Geese a few smaller Ross’s Geese could be picked out, and other species such as Cackling, Canada and Greater White-fronted geese also were peppered in with the large flocks. We made it to the west side of Muskiki Lake and I spotted something white in the distance. I aimed the scope on the white shape and sure enough it was our first Whooping Crane! Excitement rippled through the group as we took turns looking through the scope at one of the world’s rarest birds. Suddenly, we noticed three more Whooping Cranes nearby, for a total of 5 and then three more flew in and landed in a hollow where we couldn’t see them. We were unsure if we had 8 or 10
birds here, but either way, it was a great sighting. We headed for Colonsay where we had lunch at the Tin Shack Cafe, which had great food, and was literally a tin shack. As we were leaving the town after lunch, I spotted a group of Cedar Waxwings and some American Robins feasting on some mountain ash berries.
We then explored the area around Crawford Lake, which began similarly to our experience at Muskiki Lake. Soon after turning onto our desired road, I spotted something white in a field, so we stopped and up went the scope. Whooping Cranes! Three of them. A juvenile and two adults. With a possible 13 Whoopers on our first day, we were feeling pretty jazzed. Waterfowl of all sorts was noted along the route around Crawford Lake. Numbers of Tundra Swans rested on the shore of the lake, and ducks of all types were tallied. I think it was Josh who pointed out a raptor flying low to the ground, and I had just a good enough look at the bird to identify it as an immature Northern Goshawk, our only for the tour. At one pond we had a nice Black-bellied Plover,
our only for the tour, and a flock of about 75 American Golden-Plovers flew past, though I had to convince the members of the group that that is what they were. Along another pond, we got several Rusty Blackbirds in the scope. All in all, it was an excellent first day of birding for the group.
October 5 – We stopped in at Subway to pick up lunch this morning and were greeted with a very friendly, smiling young lady behind the counter and, you know, sometimes that just starts your day off in the right direction. With lunches in hand we began the journey south along Hwy 11 and then east along Hwy 15 towards Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Area. This park was the first national wildlife area established in North America, back in 1887. Once we turned onto Hwy 15, which is a rather bumpy road, with many wetlands begging for our attention along the way. Raptors were particularly numerous and we saw Northern Harriers, Bald Eagle, Sharp-shinned Hawk and dozens of Red-tailed Hawks along this route today. A Northern Shrike was seen briefly at the top of a roadside shrub, but disappeared quickly. Wetlands were stuffed full of birds, with
waterfowl of all sorts tallied; Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup and more were included. As we neared Last Mountain, we paused to scan through a field where we finally got decent looks at Lapland Longspur and Horned Larks. These two species, as well as American Pipit, were often seen in flocks as they sped by, but seeing the birds well is a much harder feat. In the same area were 30 or so American Golden-Plovers, resting on a pond. Waves of geese, with Snow, Ross’s, Canada and Cackling darkened the skies and their calls rang out across the prairie. As we neared the park headquarters, I spotted a couple of ground-squirrels out in a field and after consulting some references, I decided they were most likely Richardson’s Ground-Squirrels, out enjoying one last warm day for 2017. At the park headquarters we strolled through the shelter trees and
found a few nice birds such as Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Downy Woodpecker and an American Tree Sparrow. We had lunch at the picnic tables here and were serenaded by the bugling calls of hundreds of Sandhill Cranes as they sailed overhead. After lunch we did the short driving loop, which took us past several arms of the lake where we added some new species to our trip list; Great Blue Heron, American White Pelican, Western Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Redhead and more. A Sharp-tailed Grouse appeared at the roadside in front of our van and paused briefly before flying off into the sea of grass. A stop at the regional park on the east side of the lake produced a couple of immature Harris’s Sparrows, a species I’d had here when I was scouting, and was very pleased they were still there. We carried on, pausing in the village of Govan where we had coffee in the local cafe / hotel. At the entrance to Govan we acknowledged Walter the Whooping Crane, of course. From Govan we began the trek back to Saskatoon, which took us up
Hwy 2 to Hwy 16 and then west to town. This evening we had a delicious meal at a local Chinese establishment, though we did end up ordering way too much food.
October 6 – From Saskatoon, under sunny skies, once again, we made our way south toward the Blackstrap Reservoir, beginning at the provincial park. On the lake were several species of duck, with the most common being Bufflehead. Red-necked Grebes, Pied-billed Grebes, Common Goldeneye, and 3 female type Surf Scoters were also seen here on the water. In the deciduous woodlands of the park we located some good birds such as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, a lovely Blue Jay and finally had good looks at White-throated Sparrows. Up to 4 Harris’s Sparrows, all immatures, showed very well here at Blackstrap today. Once we had explored the park we then headed for the south end of the reservoir and from the dam we had good views of a group of American White Pelicans. We then explored the dirt roads surrounding Indi Lake, with hopes of finding some more big goose flocks. We did find one or two very large clouds of geese, but they were a bit far away. The best sighting we made on this road was a couple of Moose in an aspen bluff. The Moose were grazing the leaves off of the Red Osier Dogwoods. Another
interesting sighting was that of the pale ‘prairie’ race of Merlin. This particular individual was on a fence post and it was eating the last few bites of a small bird it had caught. Other interesting raptors here included our first Rough-legged Hawk of the tour, a bird that was hovering effortlessly over the prairie. At the north end of the reservoir we scanned a nearby pond that had big numbers of Redheads, Lesser Scaup and quite a few Canvasbacks. On the reservoir, we added our only Eared Grebes of the tour, as several bobbed up and down on the small waves. We made our way back towards Saskatoon in order to cross the river and head down to the Berry Barn where we had a reservation for lunch. We watched as the other patrons of this popular restaurant piled whip cream and saskatoon berries and maple syrup a mile high atop their waffles. We had more modest food for our lunch, but I would be lying if I said we all didn’t have something for dessert, because we did. Everything was smothered in delicious Saskatoon berries!
After lunch we headed for Pike Lake Provincial Park, a nice spot on an oxbow lake of the S. Saskatchewan River. Since I had visited the previous week doing some scouting, things had really changed. The leaves, which were colorful and blowing in the breeze on my first visit, had now nearly all fallen off. Along with the leaves, it seems a bunch of the migrant songbirds have also left the area. We had a few Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black-capped Chickadees, a White-crowned Sparrow and American Robins here, but not much else. Out on the lake in a protected marshy bay was a massive flock of Canada and Cackling geese and they all leapt into the air when a Bald Eagle sailed overhead. A Northern Harrier patrolled the marsh as well and as usual it was a pleasure to watch one of the most graceful birds of prey in its element. On our way back to Saskatoon we stopped at the edge of a large field to watch as hundreds of Sandhill Cranes came in to feed. In all there were probably about 2000 cranes in the field and the sight and sound of them was very memorable indeed. This evening we ventured out to an Indian restaurant, and I think everyone will agree it was delicious!
October 7 – Our last morning of birding in Saskatchewan and we decided we’d like to head back out the east of Saskatoon in hopes of finding more Whooping Cranes. It was another sunny morning, though there had been some rain overnight and the wind was cool today. We traveled east on Hwy 5, and then north of Hwy 2 to Muskiki Lake. We went back down to the exact same spot where we had first seen the cranes several days ago, and there they were again, 8 of them. We watched for some time, before heading off towards Meacham to the south. Following a tip from a friend I turned down a road and we bumped along the gravel surface for a couple of kilometers before I spotted three
Whooping Cranes flying to the south of us. It was a juvenile bird and two adults, and easily could have been the same three Whooping Cranes we’d had near Crawford Lake a few days earlier. Feeling quite happy about having seen 11 Whooping Cranes today, we made our way back towards Saskatoon to go and visit the Forestry Farm Park. This park was historically a forestry farm and there are all sorts of trees and shrubs planted that attract migrant birds. The first new species we tallied for the trip was a Hermit Thrush, followed quickly by Orange-crowned Warbler. As I scanned through the Yellow-rumped Warblers I spotted a fall plumage Blackpoll Warbler and most of us managed pretty good looks at this tardy southbound migrant. We had one more lunch together as a group before heading back to the airport area and saying our goodbyes. It was a fantastic trip and I thank those who came along for making it so enjoyable for me to show you around Saskatchewan. Our final tally appears to be 90 species, and I’ll update this posting if the numbers change one way or the other.
Day 1, September 12 – I met up with the group of 3 ladies from various locations in the U.K. at the arrivals hall of the Vancouver Airport this evening. We drove from the airport to our first hotel and headed off for some rest.
Day 2, September 13 – After breakfast we loaded up the Suburban and headed for the difficult to pronounce Tsawwassen Ferry Jetty. Since we ended up there a few minutes early we took the opportunity to do some birding. It’s always exciting on the first morning of a tour, since all the birds, even the common ones, are new. We had good views of both Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants here, as well as Surf Scoters, Black Oystercatchers and a line of Great Blue Herons. About a dozen Caspian Terns loafed on the beach, and an assortment of gulls including Glaucous-winged, Ring-billed and California were studied. We boarded the ferry, which was to depart for Vancouver Island
at 9 AM. Though we didn’t see a lot of birds, the scenery as we made our way through the Gulf Islands, was quite spectacular. We did see some birds though, including Bonaparte’s Gulls, Turkey Vulture and more cormorants. Once on Vancouver Island we stopped briefly at the Victoria Airport where our first Anna’s Hummingbird put on a nice show, and we picked up our first of many Savannah Sparrows as well as a single immature White-crowned Sparrow. Though this is a good place, and the only place in North America, to see Eurasian Sky Lark, we did not find any today.
At Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary we had lunch, which was interrupted by the sighting of a nearby immature Red-tailed Hawk. Migrant passerines were moving through the area today, with several Orange-crowned Warblers, a Yellow Warbler, some Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Hermit Thrush and Western Tanagers all found in the bushes. We located a little group of Chestnut-backed
Chickadees, the only chickadee species found on Vancouver Island, and in with them was a lovely Brown Creeper. Our first Bewick’s Wren of the tour hopped into view showing off its bright white supercilium. Out on the water were some distant Pied-billed Grebes as well as Mallard, Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal. A female Downy Woodpecker showed very nicely, as did a male Northern Flicker. A small garter snake slithered across the path in front of me, but disappeared before members of the group could see it.
We then drove through the heart of Victoria and headed for Clover Point, one of a number of rocky headlands that jut out into the Salish Sea in Victoria. Upon arrival we immediately focused our attention on some gorgeous Harlequin Ducks, including one or two males that were nearly in full plumage. It was hard to go from Harlequins to gulls, but we did, and we were rewarded with quite a nice gull, the Heermann’s Gull. We spent
the rest of the time trying to avoid a man that was feeding about 200 Rock Pigeons! Next stop at Kitty Island was also productive and produced some distant sightings of Rhinoceros Auklets and Pigeon Guillemots. We had good views of Black Turnstone here, as well as single Greater Yellowlegs and single Western Sandpiper. An Osprey flew overhead and with that we headed back into town where we had a short drive around the harbor to see the parliament buildings and the Empress Hotel, before heading to our hotel for the evening.
Day 3, September 14 – Prior to breakfast we headed down to Clover Point where we watched the sunrise. Being that we had arrived before many of the locals who come to this place to enjoy the beach, there were quite a few birds around. New species this morning included a single Least Sandpiper, as well as a very good view of an American Pipit on the rocks below us. A few Black Turnstones and Black Oystercatchers foraged
along the rocky shoreline, and otherwise we saw the usual assortment of gulls and Harlequin Ducks.
After a delicious breakfast, where one or two waffles with maple syrup may have been devoured, we headed back out into the field, stopping in at the Ogden Point Breakwater. The gorgeous sunny and warm weather brought out the locals and the tourists alike and quite a few folks were out walking along the jetty. We located 20 or so Black Turnstones foraging along the shore and in with them were 3 Surfbirds, always a nice find. Louise pointed out a Harbour Seal that was gliding through the clear water down below us. We then had a good cup of coffee before venturing off to Beacon Hill Park. This lovely park is dotted with giant trees and small
ponds, quite attractive to birds. The ponds had Mallards, American Wigeon and one sleepy female Blue-winged Teal. Sunning themselves on the logs were Painted Turtles and Red-eared Sliders. I entered one particular grove of large cedar trees, hoping to spot a roosting Barred Owl, and as luck would have it, I found two of them! Then, it seemed like everyone in the park came in to see what we were staring up at. One lady, who seemed to know the owls on a first name basis, gave us the entire story of their lives. Other goodies found in the park included Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Dark-eyed Juncos, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Downy Woodpecker and more. Several Eastern Gray Squirrels appeared, some of them gray and others very much black.
We picked up lunch and took it with us to Oak Bay where we had a lovely picnic next to the marina. A few shorebirds, including Black Oystercatcher, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer and Greater Yellowlegs were loafing on the islands just offshore. A Belted Kingfisher was desperately trying to attack its own reflection in the window of a building here, calling loudly the whole time. In the distance we could see the snow capped peak of
Mount Baker in Washington State.
After lunch, we headed for Esquimalt Lagoon, and on the way I said to the group that we had to find at least 3 new species for the trip list here. We did succeed in this matter, adding some ‘icterids’ to the list including Brown-headed Cowbird, Brewer’s Blackbird and a locally rare Yellow-headed Blackbird. There were many gulls and a few Black Oystercatchers here, and in a dead tree across the lagoon I pointed out an Osprey. Feeling as though we had accomplished our goal, we returned to our hotel in Victoria.
Day 4, September 15 – Reluctantly we left the beautiful city of Victoria this morning, and headed north on the Trans Canada Hwy, stopping in at Goldstream Provincial Park along the way. It was yet another lovely morning with beautiful sunny skies. At first, the mixed
forest here seemed very quiet, but eventually the bird activity picked up. It took us a while, but we did finally find three American Dippers frolicking in the stream, one of the birds even singing his beautiful song. A flurry of activity alerted us to a dead tree where Louise picked out a little ball of fluff up in the branches, a Northern Pygmy-Owl! The pygmy owl put on a nice show for us as he was constantly mobbed by other birds. Several Anna’s Hummingbirds dive bombed at the owl, while Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Hutton’s Vireo, Steller’s Jays and Fox Sparrows all were very agitated by its presence. Woodpeckers, such as Hairy and
Downy, as well as Red-breasted Sapsuckers were seen well. Louise spotted a Belted Kingfisher on a snag in the distance, proving to us she does have very good eye sight. On the way back to the Suburban, we had very close encounters with a couple of Pacific Wrens in the mossy understory.
Up and over the Malahat Hwy we went, and then we stopped in Duncan at Second Street where a Northern Mockingbird had spent much of the year. Just as we pulled up to the spot, the mockingbird was seen atop a tree beside the road. We hopped out and watched as this local rarity hopped from the fence down to the grass and then flew off behind the houses. ‘This was about the easiest ‘twitch’ I’d ever done’, said one tour participant. Next up we took a stroll at the boardwalk at Somenos Marsh. We spent about half an hour here, and saw quite a few species such as a Purple Finch and both ‘Myrtle’ and ‘Audubon’s’ Yellow-rumped Warblers. Our first Golden-crowned Sparrow, an immature with no gold in the crown, appeared at the edge of a bush here, and three Band-tailed Pigeons flew by.
We traveled on to Coombs and visited the Goats on the Roof Market where we had lunch. We paused outside as we left and photographed the goats as they nibbled on the grassy roof. Our next stop was at Cathedral Grove, an area of old growth rainforest at the west end of Cameron Lake. The giant Western Red Cedars, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock and Douglas Maple trees were very impressive. Birds were few and far between here, but we
did see another Red-breasted Sapsucker. Perhaps the highlight was finding a nice specimen of the fungus Chicken of the Woods, or Sulphur Shelf. Another highlight came in the form of the tiny Douglas’s Squirrel, our first for the trip. The scenery was spectacular as we carried on across the island, through the city of Port Alberni and along the shores of Sproat Lake and Kennedy Lake. Once at our hotel on Mackenzie Beach near Tofino I think we all admired the idyllic and picturesque setting.
Day 5, September 16 – After breakfast we emerged into the soupy morning fog that often cloaks the Clayoquot Sound area. We headed for the Long Beach Airport where a little ‘pishing and tooting’ as I call it, brought in quite a few birds. ‘Sooty’ Fox Sparrows popped up from nearly every direction. A Hutton’s Vireo showed quite nicely, as did Pacific Wren. A Gray Catbird, found by my friend Ian, was another nice addition to our trip list, as this is a species not often seen on Vancouver Island. Suddenly a Northern Pygmy-Owl appeared and we had fantastic views, counting ourselves as lucky for having found a pygmy-owl two days in a row. At the actual airport, up to three American Kestrels were present, and at one point a Merlin appeared and chased one of the Kestrels away.
A short stop at Long Beach provided us with our first views of the open Pacific Ocean and the big waves rolling in. Surfers hung about on the water waiting for the perfect waves. Birds were not common, but at one puddle we did have nice views of Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers. The next stop was at Wickanninish Beach where, again beach goers and surfers were enjoying the sunshine. We carried on towards Ucluelet where we visited the harbor, in hopes of finding an interesting gull or mammal. We succeeded in both actually, adding an adult Western Gull to the list and we spotted two new mammals, River Otters and Steller’s Sea-Lions. The otters were playing about on the dock, putting on a fantastic show for us. The sea lion flapped his flipper against the water, showed us its large domed head and then disappeared.
Lunch was enjoyed at the Gray Whale Cafe, and then we visited the Amphitrite Point Lighthouse and the Wild Pacific Trail. Views of the rugged coast were spectacular here, and perhaps overshadowed the birds, though we did have some goodies such as three Red-necked Phalaropes swimming on the ocean beyond a kelp bed, and a Peregrine Falcon zooming overhead.
Closer back to Tofino we visited the mudflats at the end of Sharp Road. Frustratingly a very large flock of several hundred sandpipers were whirling over the flats, but would never come close enough to identify, though the general consensus was they were mostly Western Sandpipers. Other birds waded about on the mudflats including several Great Blue Herons and amongst the other regular gulls, a few locally uncommon Ring-billed Gulls.
Day 6, September 17 – Our luck with the good weather decided to end this morning. We boarded a boat for some whale watching out of Tofino, and though the boat was covered, it rained and it poured. Before we left the dock we noted two Bald Eagles in the trees on the small islands nearby. Those who wanted to be outside felt the elements, but we were rewarded for our efforts with sightings of 3 Gray Whales, two adults and a youngster. As an added bonus we were fortunate to see as many as 7 Sea Otters in the channel as we made our way back to dock. Birds were not numerous, though we did see Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants, Red-necked Grebes and an assortment of gulls. Back on dry land we had hot drinks in the office before returning our hotel to dry ourselves out for a while.
We gathered once again to go for lunch, after which we visited a lovely place called Chesterman Beach. It was quite breezy as we strolled along the sandy beach, but the sun had finally come out and it was pleasant. Pools on the beach had shorebirds such as Western and Least sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings, Greater Yellowlegs and best of all a Marbled Godwit. We watched an Osprey fishing in the bay for about 10
minutes, and eventually he caught himself a fish and disappeared into the hills to eat his breakfast in peace. A stroll back through the heavily treed neighborhood on Chesterman Beach Road added a few passerines to our list; ‘Sooty’ Fox Sparrow, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper and Pacific Wren, all species we regularly ran into on the island during our visit. Leaving the beach behind, we stopped again at the Tofino Airport, finding it rather more quiet than it was the previous day. An American Kestrel sat on the runway, and a few White-crowned, Savannah and Song sparrows skulked in the brush. On the golf course a group of American Robins foraged on the short green grass. At the airport we met up with my friend Ian Cruickshank, who has been working in the Tofino area this summer. Ian took us to Grice Bay, where not many birds were present this afternoon and then we went to the mudflats behind Jamie’s Rainforest Inn, where we again watched shimmering flocks of Western Sandpipers over the flats. A distant Black-bellied Plover was pointed out by Ian, who also showed us some Ring-billed Gulls. New for our trip list were two species of waterfowl, Common Merganser and Greater Scaup. In a distant tree, a Bald Eagle sat watching the bay.
Day 7, September 18 – It was still pitch black outside when we arrived at the dock in Tofino this morning. Blackness ensued as we boarded the boat and anxiously awaited the departure of the vessel. To continue on the black theme, we were out searching for Black Bears roaming the shores of remote beaches at low tide, in search of crabs, clams and other delights. Again this morning it was raining pretty hard, and continued to do so as we steamed our way out of the harbor in the slowly emerging dawn light. As we navigated up narrow passage ways and past tree clad islets we caught quick glimpses of the elusive Harbor Porpoises as they surfaced for air. I spotted a Black Bear foraging on a beach in front of the boat and we were soon thereafter staring a at a good sized adult Black Bear turning over boulders in search of food. We watched this bear for 20 minutes
or so before continuing on to another beach where a second, even larger Black Bear was seen. This bear however, didn’t feel like preforming, and he quickly retreated into the forest. On to another beach, and our best bruin sighting of the day was a large mother with a cub feeding by her side. Four bears in one morning goes down as a success in my books.
Back at our hotel we had breakfast before venturing out once again, as the weather had cleared up somewhat. We headed for the mudflats at Sharp Road to find the tide was too high to be of much use there. We then did a lovely walk through the rainforest at Comber’s Beach. Large rolling waves were coming in today as the wind was quite strong. At the local sewage lagoons we had an assortment of waterfowl including some beautiful Wood Ducks, and a group of Green-winged Teal with one Blue-winged Teal mixed in with them.
At the ‘Kwisitis’ visitor’s center’s viewing platform, we were greeted by a large group of Sanderlings that were chasing waves on the high tide below us. A couple of dozen Western Sandpipers were also in with the Sanderlings, and one of the Western Sands was a very interesting individual. The bird had all the structural features of a Western Sandpiper, but the legs were bright orange and the bill was bright orange. The cap of the bright was bright white, as were all of the wing feathers on both wings. The tail was extensively white as well, though the scapular and mantle feathers matched a Western Sandpiper. It was a very interesting bird indeed, and its white coloration most likely makes it a target for predators. Out on the sea were the usual Surf Scoters, Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants and Common Loons. New for the trip list were Horned Grebes, White-winged Scoter and Marbled Murrelet. Ian had told me about a pebbly beach nearby that could have Wandering Tattler so we wandered in that general direction ourselves. We first found a group of three ‘unspotted’ Spotted Sandpipers, and then I spotted a Wandering Tattler snoozing on the rocks. We approached for a closer look and viola, another Wandering Tattler appeared, and this one foraged about on the beach not far from us. Yet another, making for three Wandering Tattlers, was found as it sat on the shore not far away. Add into the mix a Least Sandpiper and a Black Turnstone and we had four species of shorebirds feeding right in front of us on the beach. It began to rain once again so we headed back in the direction of Tofino, stopping in for the second time today, at the mudflats on Sharp Road, just to realize that the water was too high. Coffee at the Common Loaf was enjoyable and the caffeine helped us head back out into the elements for a couple of more stops. At mudflats we stopped first at Jamie’s where the tide was heading out. Some Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintails were noted on the flats, as were various gulls. Sanderlings, Least Sandpiper and Western Sandpiper whizzed past as they headed out to the mud to feed. Overhead, a Peregrine Falcon sailed by, and sharp-eyed Louise spotted a Merlin in a tree above us. Playing hide and seek with us, a Pacific-slope Flycatcher was seen by just myself and Sue before it got swallowed up by the vegetation. Our final birding stop of the day was back at Sharp Road one more time. A single Bonaparte’s Gull foraged on the mudflats with Glaucous-winged, Mew, California and Ring-billed gulls. A group of male Greater Scaup posed for scope views, and Belted Kingfisher rattled off its noisy call. We had dinner at Jamie’s where the waitress confessed to us she was a closet birder.
Day 8, September 19 – It wasn’t easy to leave Tofino and the Pacific Rim this morning, but we did just that, though we made a few stops prior to heading east across island. We visited Radar Hill where the sweeping views were breathtaking. A Northern Pygmy-Owl,
our third for the tour, was here, calling repeatedly and being constantly mobbed by American Robins. A few Varied Thrushes were here as well, but were very secretive, unlike a Hermit Thrush which popped up and sat in the open for a few seconds. We returned one last time to the airport, where again we quickly found the local rarity, a Gray Catbird. In addition to the catbird were a few migrant passerines such as Yellow and Orange-crowned warblers, American Pipits, and various sparrows. A Varied Thrush finally posed long enough for distant, backlit scope views, and Red-breasted Sapsucker made a cameo appearance. A Merlin sat perched atop a conifer, where it surveyed the airfield below.
In Ucluelet we paid one last visit to Amphitrite Point where the surf was quite impressive. Out on the ocean were Rhinoceros Auklet, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Harlequin Ducks, Pelagic Cormorants and Surf Scoters. A male Varied Thrush popped up in a pine tree, allowing excellent scope views of this classic west coast specialty. On our way into town Judy spotted a Black-tailed Deer munching on grass in somebodies garden. Also in town, a Bald Eagle sat in a giant cedar next to the road and we had our closest
view of this majestic species yet. We had lunch at Zoe’s Cafe in Ucluelet, before making the drive across island to Parksville, where we made another stop at the Englishman River Estuary. It was almost immediately evident that there was a higher diversity of birds on the east side of the island as compared to the west side. The bushes along the path to the estuary were filled with birds including Cassin’s Vireo and Willow Flycatcher, both new species for the tour. We had excellent views of male and female Purple Finches here, along with American Goldfinches and a flyover flock of Pine Siskins. Sparrows were numerous with White-crowned, Golden-crowned, Song, Fox, Lincoln’s and Savannah all noted here. On the flats were a few shorebirds including Semipalmated Plovers, Killdeer, Least Sandpipers and our first Wilson’s Snipe of the trip. Waterfowl such as Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Mallard and Common Merganser were noted. A look at the straight from a beach access provided some distant Pacific Loons, as well as Common Loons and Red-necked Grebes. An Anna’s Hummingbird visited a feeder in someone’s front garden. Black clouds threatened so we began our return trip to the vehicle, arriving just in time as the skies opened up and rain came down a few moments later. We carried on into Nanaimo where our hotel is situated on the harbour.
Day 9, September 20 – From the harbour we headed for Buttertubs Marsh this morning, and the weather cooperated for the most part, other than a brief shower. We walked the entire pathway around the marsh, and in the process we saw close to 50 species of birds. As soon as we began the walk we were surprised to encounter a covey of California Quail. Several males and a group of females, both sexes sporting comical topknots on their heads, scurried about on the path. Sparrows were particularly numerous along the
brushy edges of the trail, with Golden-crowned, White-crowned, Song, Savannah, Fox and Lincoln’s all accounted for. Out on the water were several Ring-necked Ducks, as well as Wood Duck, Blue-winged and Green-winged teal, American Wigeon and our first Hooded Merganser of the tour. A single American Coot was our first for the trip as well. Raptors showed off nicely, as Turkey Vultures kettled in thermals, Red-tailed Hawks sailed by, we saw our first Northern Harrier and two Cooper’s Hawks chased each other to and fro. In the warbler department, we had the usual suspects with Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped and Yellow warblers, as well as Common Yellowthroat. Groups of Band-tailed Pigeons steamed by at top speed above the treetops, but wouldn’t settle for scope views. Another highlight along the trail here, a Brown Creeper landed on a trunk mere feet away from us, offering up about the best view possible of this species.
We enjoyed a cup of coffee at Duke Point, south of Nanaimo, as we waited for our ferry to arrive. Once on board we had lunch and then headed out to watch the sea for birds and animals. This particular crossing did not produce much in the way of bird sightings, but it did produce sightings of a pod of Orcas! Thanks to the captain of the boat for pointing the pod out to all the passengers. We arrived at Tsawwassen at 2:45 and were then on our way to Boundary Bay to watch birds on the flats on the rising tide. We stood watch at the foot of 96th St, and watched as the water came closer and closer to shore. There were not huge numbers of shorebirds present this evening, but there were still quite a few. The best sighting of all was that of a Willet, a locally rare shorebird that rarely strays north into British Columbia. Other highlights included our first Baird’s Sandpipers of the tour, four juveniles that were busily feeding in close to shore. Small numbers of Black-bellied Plovers, Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, Dunlin, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Pectoral Sandpipers were also noted foraging on the flats. Numbers of waterfowl were impressive with masses of American Wigeon and Northern Pintail. Raptors also showed nicely as several Northern Harriers were noted, including a young male that sat in the grasses not far from us for quite some time. An American Kestrel was a nice sighting and locally uncommon in the Vancouver area. We had been commenting on the lack of swallows throughout the trip, but today we caught up with some as dozens of Barn Swallows appeared, including a single Bank Swallow mixed in with them. We had dinner tonight in the ice rink at the local pub while we watched a hockey team practice, which impressed the ladies from the U.K.
Day 10, September 21 – It was a lovely morning, with bright sunshine and pleasant temperatures in Vancouver. We began at Iona Beach and the Iona Sewage Ponds, where a couple of hours of exploration was most enjoyable. The tide was quite high and we scanned from the beach, spotting our first Western Grebes of the tour. A flock of beautiful Snow Geese suddenly appeared, with a single Greater White-fronted Goose thrown in for good measure! The geese circled around for a moment and then settled on the beach, offering up scope views. We encountered many Great Blue Herons today, at pretty much all the locations we visited. At the sewage ponds there were assorted shorebirds including Long-billed Dowitchers, Killdeer, Pectoral and Baird’s sandpipers, Least and Western sandpipers and Wilson’s Snipe. Sparrows were abundant around the edge of the ponds with scattering groups of Song, White-crowned, Savannah, Lincoln’s, Fox and Golden-crowned sparrows all throughout the walk. Our first Black-capped Chickadees of the tour were found this morning as well.
Next on the agenda was Queen Elizabeth Park, a lovely park situated on a hill overlooking the city. The views of Vancouver, North Vancouver and surrounding areas are rather spectacular here. The park is covered in gardens and forest, providing good habitat for migrant birds. We staked out an area with holly berries and found quite a nice variety of species in the area; Hutton’s Vireo, Hermit Thrushes, Orange-crowned Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and best of all two White-throated Sparrows. I scanned the tops of the cedar trees nearby and counted a total of 6 Anna’s Hummingbirds sitting atop the trees. A Red-breasted Sapsucker sat out in the open in the sunshine and all this while three noisy Cooper’s Hawks were terrorizing the peace in the woods nearby.
We picked up lunch and took it with us to Terra Nova, an area along the Fraser River near the Vancouver Airport. A White-winged Dove had been present here several days earlier, so we took a look for it, but our search came up empty handed. The site made for an excellent picnic area however. We drove to Surrey, with hopes of finding a couple of
uncommon shorebirds that had been in the area recently, first stopping at Elgin Park. I followed some directions to a site where an American Avocet had been seen, and there it was just as advertised. Next up was Blackie Spit, where a Long-billed Curlew often can be found. After a bit of searching I did spot the curlew and he was snoozing. I trained the scope on him and he began to awaken, lifting his wings into the air and doing a bit of preening. The other highlight here was seeing 3 Lapland Longspurs feeding nearby along the beach, while another flew overhead and called. Common Loons were noted in impressive numbers, with 15-20 estimated on the waters off Blackie Spit.
To finish off the day we returned to 96th St on Boundary Bay for one more crack at the rising tide. There were significantly more birds present tonight as compared to the previous night. Several hundred Black-bellied Plovers trotted ahead of the tide, and we saw two juvenile American Golden-Plovers as well. Pectoral Sandpipers were about in numbers, as were juvenile Baird’s Sandpipers. Three Marbled Godwits were found, though the recently sighted Hudsonian and Bar-tailed godwits did not come out. The same as the night before, waterfowl were abundant and the raptors, in particular the Northern Harriers put on a nice show. We headed back to our hotel and then went out for the last dinner of the tour, and it was very enjoyable.
Day 11, September 22 – Our final morning in Canada…..well not mine, but for the four ladies it was their final morning in the country. We began at the famous Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Ladner. As we crossed the Fraser River, Sue spotted two Mute Swans resting on a dock below the bridge. These particular Mute Swans are some of the only individuals in British Columbia that can officially be counted ones list. We had a quick look in some coniferous trees near the Canadian Wildlife Service Office and could not find any owls, though we did find some Barn Owl feathers. At Reifel we were inundated with the usual mobs of Canada Geese, Mallards, Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows, all searching for food. The pond at the entrance to the reserve had a nice variety of birds on
it including dozens of Long-billed Dowitchers and a single Short-billed Dowitcher, our only for the tour. Also here, our only Lesser Yellowlegs of the trip, alongside quite a few Greater Yellowlegs. On the outer ponds were more Long-billed Dowitchers and Greater Yellowlegs, along with a pair of juvenile Stilt Sandpipers! Waterfowl were plentiful with most dabbling duck species represented; Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Wood Duck, and Mallard. Following us along the paths were little groups of Black-capped Chickadees, all searching for sunflower seed handouts, and there were sparrows all over the paths; Fox Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow and Lincoln’s Sparrow. Other migrant passerines included Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Warbling Vireo and some overhead Violet-green Swallows. We were treated to views of a Virginia Rail as it flew across a pond and disappeared into the cattails. Several Northern Harriers patrolled the skies over the refuge, as did a clever Peregrine Falcon, an adult Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk and Merlin.
It was early afternoon by this point and we were in need of some sustenance so we popped into Denny’s for lunch. After lunch we made one more birding stop, a return visit to the Iona Sewage Ponds and Iona Beach. The sewage ponds again were excellent for shorebirds with good numbers of Pectoral Sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitchers present. A short walk down to the beach provided us with one final new species for the tour, 4 Western Meadowlarks! This was the 148th species we recorded on the tour, which is a great total. We headed to Vancouver International where I said goodbye to the ladies and wished them safe travels back to London and points beyond.
Day 1, August 29 – The first day of our Southern California tour was a travel day for most people. We met as a group at our hotel in Orange County in the evening for dinner, however Clive Keen and Ellen did a little hotel birding, finding an exotic Japanese White-eye outside their rooms. Otherwise, in the bird department, we had little else, except an American Kestrel atop a telephone pole and a Killdeer calling after dark. We got some much needed rest this evening in preparation for a big day of birding ahead.
Day 2, August 30 – We left our hotel at 7 AM and fought our way through some morning traffic down to the scenic and prosperous areas of southern Orange County at Laguna Beach. The birders were vibrating with excitement in the van as we pulled into the parking space at Heisler Park. Almost as soon as we got our gear around our necks, the first exciting bird of the tour appeared, a young male Allen’s Hummingbird. The hummingbird was soon followed by more excitement; Black Phoebe, Brown Pelican,
Western Gulls, Song Sparrow and an Orange-crowned Warbler. On offshore rocks were Brandt’s Cormorants, Heermann’s Gulls and a Willet that almost got snagged by a marauding Peregrine Falcon. The Willet resorted to swimming in the ocean for a few minutes which proved to be a useful tactic to avoid being caught by the falcon. Down on a little patch of rocky beach below us we saw our first Spotted Sandpiper of the trip, and this sighting was soon eclipsed by the appearance of a much more sought-after shorebird, a nice juvenile Wandering Tattler. In addition to nice birds this location was very lovely with sweeping views of the Pacific. Our next stop was nearby at Crescent Beach where we saw a large group of Brandt’s Cormorants on an island not far offshore. On the rocky shoreline here we picked up a Black Oystercatcher, as well as Whimbrel and more Willets. An Osprey made a pass overhead, while out over the ocean were Caspian Terns and a single distant Elegant Tern.
Allen’s Hummingbirds were fairly numerous here, zipping about amongst the flowers in the gardens. Some rather scruffy looking Northern Mockingbirds were the first for the trip.
Next on the agenda was a visit to Crystal Cove State Park where, even before we had left the parking lot, we’d had stunning views of California Thrasher and California Towhee. Two Wrentits also appeared in the scrub next to the parking lot, and our first California Ground-Squirrels of the tour were noted here as well. A scan of the beach below produced our first Black Turnstone of the tour. Excitement broke out as soon as I heard the kitten-like mewing of another of California’s specialty species, a California Gnatcatcher. The tiny bird flitted about in the chaparral, showing nicely for us, as another bird ‘mewed’ in the distance.
Ahead of schedule we made our way to Newport Bay, otherwise known as Back Bay, where we followed a nice drive alongside the estuary. Birds were abundant here, especially shorebirds, and we tallied Western and Least sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitcher, Black-bellied Plovers, Marbled Godwits, Killdeer and a nice Long-billed Curlew. Our first Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets were noted here, and we had scope views of ‘Belding’s’ Savannah Sparrows here. Try as we might, Ridgway’s Rails were uncooperative. We heard one calling very loudly from the wetland right in front of us, but only Ian managed to get a view of the top of its head. In the bushes alongside the road were Common Yellowthroats, Bushtits, a Lesser Goldfinch and some exotics including a group of Scaly-breasted Munias, and a female Pin-tailed Whydah, the latter of which, while a nice bird, is not yet officially countable on the ABA checklist. Before we vacated Newport Bay we paused to look down upon a nice assembly of Black Skimmers on the mudflats.
After lunch we headed for San Joaquin Sanctuary in Irvine. In the parking area we had some of our nicest birds including a Cassin’s Kingbird, Yellow Warblers, and best of all a singing ‘Least’ Bell’s Vireo. We walked the trails, checking various ponds along the way, some of which were teeming with shorebirds. In addition to the species we had already seen today, we added Semipalmated Plovers, Long-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts and a locally uncommon Solitary Sandpiper at San Joaquin. On one of the ponds we had nice comparisons of Western and Clark’s grebes together. Nobody was more visibly excited than Clive when two Red-shouldered Hawks sailed by overhead showing off all their field marks. As we departed San Joaquin, a family of Raccoons crossed the road in front of us, which was a little surprising seeing that it was 3 PM and 35 degrees Celsius.
Our final stop of the day, at the Imperial Highway Bridge over the Santa Ana River, produced the avian highlight of the day, a long-staying Ruff, and it was a North American lifer for all present….except me. The bird was rather stunning, appearing to be a molting male, and had lovely blotched plumage as well as an orange and black bill and bright orange legs. High fives and lifer dances followed. In addition to the Ruff, many other shorebirds were present, with another new species being Greater Yellowlegs. Clive pointed out an immature White-faced Ibis as well. We returned to our hotel for a little break before dinner. We tallied up our list and found we had seen over 80 species today!
Day 3, August 31 – Reluctantly we left the coast this morning and made our way towards the desert, pausing in the city of Escondido to pick up some lunch. The temperature gradually increased as we headed inland as did the famed ‘Santa Ana winds’. Birds seen on the first part of our drive were mostly the common city dwellers, but we did see a couple of nice Red-shouldered Hawks and two large kettles of Turkey Vultures. A stop at the Inaja Memorial Park produced little, mostly because of the howling wind. We had distant views of a California Scrub-Jay here, and we could hear an Acorn Woodpecker calling up the hill.
We stopped at Tamarisk Grove Campground in Anza-Borrego Park, where we found a shady picnic table and had our lunch. While birds were not abundant, we did have some nice ones here including Ash-throated Flycatcher, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, MacGillivray’s Warbler and two female Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. Our first White-tailed Antelope Squirrel of the trip, a tiny and rather adorable critter, scurried past on the hot desert sands. We carried on to Borrego Springs, pausing briefly at the Anza-
Borrego Visitor’s Center, where the highlight was seeing several dapper Black-throated Sparrows, mostly hiding in the shade. The heat was becoming almost too much to handle, as the temperatures had soared to over 40 degrees Celsius so our next stop was a much appreciated one, for ice cream. We then cruised around the Roadrunner Club, a golf course and trailer park, with irrigated greens and ponds, where we found over 20 species of birds. New for our list were Common Ground-Doves, White-winged Dove, a Say’s Phoebe, and several Greater Roadrunners! Locally uncommon, a Bank Swallow made a brief pass by, and an incredibly large snouted Long-billed Curlew wandered about at the edge of a pond. The afternoon was getting on so we continued on our journey, eventually catching a glimpse of the Salton Sea. Our final destination for the evening was the city of El Centro where we checked into our hotel and then went for dinner at a nearby establishment.
Day 4, September 1 – Our morning began early today, as we wanted to take advantage of the relative cool of the morning. As luck would have it, this was also the opening day of dove hunting season, so all the hunters had the same idea as us. In the murky light of dawn we made our way towards the south end of the famous Salton Sea. Fields full of Cattle Egrets and White-faced Ibis, both numbering into the thousands, made for a spectacle. Our first birding spot was at the Wister Unit, where legendary San Diego
birder Guy McCaskie had told me to go to find two of our target species; Least Bittern and the ‘Yuma’ race of the Ridgway’s Rail. It didn’t take us long to find both of these target species, and they put on a nice show for us indeed. The ‘pop, pop, pop’ sound of guns echoed through the air as the hunters took their quotas of doves. We later found out by chatting with one hunter that they can shoot 15 Mourning Doves and unlimited numbers of Eurasian Collared-Doves per day for a two week period. As we cruised along the roads at the southeast corner of the sea this morning we tallied an impressive 22 Burrowing Owls! Also about in good numbers were American Kestrels, Loggerhead Shrikes and Greater Roadrunners.
A short stop at Red Hill Marina produced two roosting Lesser Nighthawks as well as our first Abert’s Towhee, a Yellow Warbler and quite a long Glossy Snake! Flooded fields here
and there delayed our arrival to the actual see, but that was ok because we saw some nice birds including huge numbers of American White Pelicans, Forster’s Terns, Black Terns and various shorebirds. At Obsidian Butte we finally reached the shores of the sea and we were rewarded with sightings of up to 20 adult Yellow-footed Gulls, the real specialty species of the Salton Sea. In addition to the Yellow-footeds, we saw several Laughing Gulls here. Shorebirds were abundant and we tallied Marbled Godwits, Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, Long-billed Dowitchers, Least and Western sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers and a nice bonus, a Snowy Plover. A visit to the headquarters of the Sonny Bono NWR was very productive as migrant birds including Nashville, Wilson’s and Black-throated Gray warblers, Bullock’s Orioles,
Western Tanager, Willow Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo and more were feasting around a patch of mud. The songbirds were scattered when an adult Cooper’s Hawk appeared on the scene however. A small number of Gambel’s Quail played hide and seek with us through the underbrush, while a female Phainopepla showed quite nicely up in a palm.
Temperatures now nearing 40 degrees Celsius, we returned to Brawley and had lunch before taking a look for hummingbird feeders along Willard Ave in the pleasant residential area of town. We were not disappointed as within a few minutes of our arrival we tallied singles of Anna’s, Black-chinned and Costa’s hummingbirds. Our final birding destination of the day was Cattle Call Park. The big target species here was Gila Woodpecker and again within a few seconds of our arrival we were looking at a pair of them through the scope. A few migrants were about in the trees with Nashville Warbler, Warbling Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and best of all a molting ‘tail-less’ Lucy’s Warbler, locally quite uncommon. Ann spotted a Lark Sparrow foraging on the ground, our first of that species for the tour. We headed back to El Centro and had an afternoon siesta before venturing out for a delicious dinner at Chili’s. We tallied up our bird list for the day to find we’d seen 99 species!
Day 5, September 2 – Another early start ensured we were on site bright and early at the Riverview Cemetery in Brawley, where our highlight was two Vermilion Flycatchers. First we spotted a rather drab, but still attractive female and then the main event, a lovely male. Other species seen included a brief encounter with a Townsend’s Warbler, a flyover Gila Woodpecker and a few other bits and pieces. As we made our way up Hwy
111 towards the S.E corner of the Salton Sea, we paused to scan through a flooded field that was absolutely full of Cattle Egrets and White-faced Ibis. Quite a few shorebirds were also mixed in and we managed to add three new species here; Baird’s Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper and a Wilson’s Phalarope. Our first sighting of Western Meadowlark came from this area as well. We then headed for Ramer Lake, where the ‘pop pop’ of dove hunters’ guns echoed through the air. We picked out a couple of Neotropic Cormorants among the many Double-cresteds here, and added some other goodies such as Ruddy Duck and Yellow-headed Blackbird. One each of Western and Clark’s grebe was good to see again today. We carried on up the eastern side of the sea, pausing to pick up lunch before we began our ascent of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Our first stop in the mountains provided somewhat cooler temperatures and some excellent birds like White-throated Swift, Oak Titmouse, Pygmy Nuthatch, Mountain Chickakdee, Western Bluebird, and best of all a stunning female White-headed Woodpecker. Clive was beside himself, as this was one of, if not the bird he wanted most on this trip! Next up at Hurkey Creek Park we had some lunch and then explored the area which was packed with Labour Day Weekend campers and such. Birding was good
nonetheless and it didn’t take us long to amass quite a list including Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Acorn Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Steller’s Jay, Lazuli Bunting, Black-headed Grosbeak, Vaux’s Swift, and a fleeting Hermit Warbler. In Idyllwild we paused for refreshments before exploring a little bit near the school of arts, where we saw our first ‘Oregon’ race Dark-eyed Juncos of the tour, as well as our first Spotted Towhee. A very long, yet scraggly tailed Western Gray Squirrel was the first of that species we encountered on the trip. We then began the drive to 29 Palms, and Ellen and Ann spotted a Golden Eagle from the van on the journey. Dinner, at the Rib Co. was yummy as usual.
Day 6, September 3 – As we emerged from our hotel the sun was just rising and the desert temperatures were comfortable this morning. We headed for the 29 Palms Oasis Visitor’s Center where we had our first views of the big and boisterous Cactus Wren, about 6 of them to be exact. Other residents of the oasis included a nice Greater Roadrunner, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Verdin. Though we saw Barn Owl pellets, we saw no Barn Owl. We then entered Joshua Tree National Park where we spent the rest of the morning. Our first stop, a formidable rock formation, produced our first Rock Wrens
of the tour. As we proceeded farther into the park the bizarre Joshua Trees got bigger and more twisted and contorted. Loggerhead Shrikes perched on the tops of the trees and we must have seen close to half a dozen of them. Another stop yielded the bird of the day for us, a flock of up to 35 Pinyon Jays! The noisy, sociable jays put on a nice show for us amongst the pinyon pines this morning. A walk to Barker Dam was pleasant, though we couldn’t stir up any Canyon Wrens. We did see California Scrub-Jay, Black-throated Sparrows, Warbling Vireo, Lazuli Bunting, Chipping Sparrow and Clive nailed his 500th ABA bird, a lovely little Brewer’s Sparrow! Congratulations Clive. New for the mammal list was a California Chipmunk.
We picked up lunch in Joshua Tree and took it with us to Covington Park where just as we pulled into the parking space a male Vermilion Flycatcher briefly appeared. After we ate our lunch we searched for, and found Summer Tanagers. We had a female and a young splotchy red and yellow male in the eucalyptus trees here. Score! We then headed over to Big Morongo Preserve where we watched the hummingbird feeders for a half an hour or so. Visitors to the feeders including Anna’s, Allen’s, Black-chinned and several gorgeous female and male Costa’s hummingbirds. We then drove on to Mojave where we are to spend the next two nights.
Day 7, September 4 – After breakfast we made our way east from Mojave to Jawbone Canyon, where we spent the better part of two hours walking in the desert looking for an elusive and sought-after species, the Le Conte’s Thrasher. Just as we were about to give up I spotted one of them atop a Creosote bush near the big Los Angeles aqueduct pipe. Ellen spotted a second bird, running along the ground with its long tail held up in a wren
like fashion. We enjoyed lengthy scope views of the thrashers and a sigh of relief could be heard throughout the group, and from me as well. Other goodies in the canyon included several ‘canescens’ race Bell’s Sparrows and some Rock Wrens. In the trees at the rangers station I spotted a roosting Great Horned Owl, and Ian got another lifer, as a group of 5 Chukar scurried up a hill nearby.
Feeling as though we had done quite well at Jawbone we headed for California City where we picked up lunch and took it with us to the Silver Saddle Resort. Out in the middle of the barren and scorched Mojave Desert this resort provides green trees, water features and respite for the migrant birds. We did quite well here with migrants adding several species to the trip list such as Lincoln’s Sparrow, Gray Flycatcher, Pacific-slope Flycatcher and a Vesper Sparrow. Around the ponds we found our first Belted Kingfisher of the tour, as well as Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, Spotted Sandpiper and a group of 10 Black-necked Stilts. Two roosting Great Horned Owls were a nice surprise in the trees
here, with one of the pair being significantly paler than the other. In the trees, Say’s Phoebes, Black Phoebes, Western Wood-Pewees and Willow Flycatcher were quite common. Around the patio were a dozen or so very ratty looking molting Great-tailed Grackles. Warblers were not numerous but we did find an Orange-crowned Warbler and a Wilson’s Warbler, the latter of which, a male, that was hopping about foraging for insects on the ground right in front of us. We enjoyed some ice cold water in the resort lobby before making the short journey back to Mojave for a little afternoon downtime.
Day 8, September 5 – From Mojave we made our way south to Lancaster and Apollo County Park, via the ‘Singing Road’. Once at the park we got out the scopes and scanned through a flock of geese, adding several new species to the trip list. Canada Goose was in fact a new trip bird, as were singles of Ross’s, Snow and Greater White-fronted geese as well. We picked up lunch in Lancaster and then began our ascent into the San Gabriel Mountains. Our first stop was at Monte Cristo Campground where there was quite a bit of bird activity this morning. There were Western Bluebirds, Oak Titmouse, Bushtit, and
best of all a good number of Larwrence’s Goldfinches here. We estimated upwards of 20 goldfinches at this location. We carried on farther up into the pine trees, stopping next at the Chilao Visitor’s Center. Here, there were again quite a number of Lawrence’s Goldfinches. This surprised me since in about 8 tours that I have done to the area, I have never seen a single Lawrence’s Goldfinch in the San Gabriels. This must be a bumper year for these beautiful finches. Also at Chilao were Acorn, Nuttall’s and the show stopper, White-headed Woodpeckers. Next stop on the agenda was at the Buckhorn Campground, where as we drove down into the area we encountered a Coyote right beside the van. We had lunch in the lovely shade and slightly cooler temperatures that the higher elevation provided to us. After lunch a stroll produced some good birds including our first Brown Creeper, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Cassin’s Vireo, the latter of which was a nice find by Ellen. Several ‘Thick-billed’ Fox Sparrows called in the area, and briefly
appeared, but left us wanting better views. Up towards the 7000 ft Cloudburst Summit we made several stops and I tried to attract a Northern Pygmy-Owl, without any luck. In the process of whistling for the owl I did attract what must have been at least 100 Mountain Chickadees, as well as a variety of other species such as White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, Orange-crowned and Wilson’s warblers, Oak Titmouse, Spotted Towhee, Cassin’s Finches and several Clark’s Nutcrackers. We had singles of Pacific-slope Flycatcher and our one and only Hammond’s Flycatcher of the tour here. At this point in the afternoon we began our drive which took us along the northern edge of the Los Angeles basin to the 101 Hwy which in turn led us to our destination of Carpinteria where we will stay for the next three nights.
Day 9, September 6 – After breakfast we headed for the Santa Barbara Marina where we met up with our boat, the Condor Express, which took us out into Santa Barbara Channel for the morning in search of whales and seabirds. Before we’d even left the shore we’d seen some nice birds including a flock of Black Skimmers, along with a few Heermann’s Gulls and Royal Terns. As we headed out of the marina we paused briefly to look at a group of lounging California Sea-Lions on a buoy. As we steamed out farther in the channel we did see some interesting birds including a Parasitic Jaeger, several Elegant Terns, Brown Pelicans, Red-necked Phalaropes, Brandt’s Cormorants and even farther out, Black-vented Shearwaters. Several of us had reasonable views of Black Storm-Petrels out here today as well, but surely the highlight must have been the sighting of several Blue Whales, the largest creature to ever inhabit the earth. In addition to the whales we had nice encounters with Common Dolphins out here today. Back on dry land, and not soon enough for a couple of us, we discovered that our van had been the target of a pooping Black-crowned Night-Heron that was roosting in the tree overhead. Now with distinctive field marks on our vehicle we headed to Devereux Slough, but the tide was out so there were really not many birds present. In the trees near the slough were Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets, but little else. I decided to go and try another location nearby, Los Carneros Lake, and this proved to be quite a productive stop. Soon after arriving we located a Hutton’s Vireo, our first for the
tour and not long after that we had lovely views of two White-tailed Kites sitting in the trees nearby. Also present were California Thrashers, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, California Towhee, Cassin’s Kingbird, Scaly-breasted Munia and a variety of other passerines. On the lake were a lot of Mallards, along with some Gadwall and a nice comparison of both Western and Clark’s grebes. We made our way back to Carpinteria, feeling a bit exhausted after a day on the water.
Day 10, September 7 – This morning we split into two groups including those that wanted to head off to Santa Cruz Island and those that did not want to head out onto the seas, as they were forecast to be quite rough. Two people opted to head for Santa Cruz Island, Ian and Ann, and they were rewarded by the efforts, with excellent sightings of the endemic Island Scrub-Jays that live there.
Myself, Clive and Ellen opted to explore birding sites in the Ventura area. We began at Ventura Harbor where the beach provided some nice sightings, especially in the shorebird department. There were Sanderlings here, our first for the tour, along with Black Turnstones and Surfbirds, as well as Willets. Also of note here was a distant
Wandering Tattler and two oystercatchers, one a classic Black Oystercatcher, and the other a hybrid between that species and American Oystercatcher. Out over the waves were a dozen or so Elegant Terns and the usual Brown Pelicans, Heermann’s Gulls and Brandt’s Cormorants were also tallied for the day list.
Our next stop was at the Oxnard Plain, a flat area with a lot of agriculture, which especially featured strawberries as we found out. A short walk down to a sandy beach provided sightings of Whimbrel, and a lot of Marbled Godwit, including a leucistic bird that we labeled a ‘Snowy Godwit’. There was a recycling plant here and we could see blackbirds disappearing into the complex where we couldn’t see them, which was
frustrating since our target species was Tricolored Blackbird. We decided we’d tried for long enough and headed off to our next destination which was Sycamore Canyon at Point Mugu State Park. We found this to be quite a lovely location, with a good number of birds, one of which, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, thanks to running into Jon Dunn and his tour group. Little groups of birds roaming about the campground included Oak Titmouse, Bewick’s Wren, Western Bluebird, Spotted Towhee, California Towhee and White-breasted Nuthatch. We walked farther into the canyon stumbling upon a group of 10 or so California Quail. The raucous calls of parakeets suddenly filled the canyon and to our surprise we were surrounded by a noisy group of Nanday Parakeets! This species, native to Brazil and Argentina, has recently made inroads as an established breeding species in Southern California, and we were treated to quite a show by the birds. Forty-seven of them were included in the group by estimate, and they fed, called and preened one another as we watched.
Our next stop was at McGrath State Beach, which was closed, though the park warden let us in, saying, ‘I didn’t see you’. Our visit was fairly quick as we scrambled over the sand dunes, flushing up a few Horned Larks as we went along. At the beach we scanned the shore finding the usual suspects, and on a tidal lagoon we had good views of Pied-billed and Clark’s grebes. A Peregrine Falcon posed nicely on a piece of wood near the shore, and then it was flushed by a photographer that just got a little too close.
I decided one more try for the Tricolored Blackbird was in order and as luck would have it we were rewarded with the sighting of a mixed group of Tricolored, Red-winged and Brewer’s blackbirds on a turf farm. We returned to the Ventura Harbor where we met up with the other two who had just returned from the island. Our final dinner of the tour, at a local Italian joint was quite nice.
Day 11, September 8 – It was our final morning in sunny California and we made our way from Carpinteria north, along the 101 Hwy to Alisal Road, an area of ranches and rolling, oak tree dotted hillsides about an hour from our hotel. It didn’t take us long, once we had arrived in the proper habitat, to find the target bird for the morning, the Yellow-billed Magpie. There were about 30 of them foraging in the area. A group of California
Quail were good to see as well, alongside the road, as they too picked up seeds from the ground. At Nojoqui Falls County Park we were impressed by the numbers of Acorn Woodpeckers present. An American Robin, only our second for the tour, was seen on the grass in the park, and we added our one and only Purple Finch for the tour here. Our only Mule Deer of the trip were noted in this area too.
Our final birding stop of the trip was at Refugio State Beach and here we added two more species to our trip list, a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Pelagic Cormorant, bringing the tally for the trip to 219, not counting heard birds or uncountable exotics such as Japanese White-Eye and Pin-tailed Whydah. We dropped off Ann at the airport in Santa Barbara, and then carried on via busy freeways to L.A.X. where the other remaining folks were dropped off. It was a fantastic tour, complete with great birds and great company.
Day 1, May 29 – At YYC the group of 5 familiar faces and 2 more that classify as ‘new blood’ all from the U.K., this evening. We headed for our hotel in Calgary and went off pretty much straight to bed. The time change had them beaten tonight.
Day 2, May 30 – After breakfast we headed south from Calgary to High River where we had a short pit stop before making our way to Frank Lake. Along the way to Frank Lake we were side-tracked by several ponds and puddles, most of them teeming with shorebirds, waterfowl and the likes. Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Mallard, Blue-winged and Cinnamon teal and Lesser Scaup dabbled and dove for food
, while along the shore Willet, American Avocet, Spotted Sandpiper and lovely breeding plumage Wilson’s Phalaropes foraged. Our first Red-winged Blackbirds were seen, though soon thereafter we had all but forgotten their beauty before a steel, blue male Tree Swallows stole the show. A few less spectacular, but still charismatic birds followed, such as Clay-colored and Savannah Sparrows and overhead groups of calling Franklin’s Gulls. A walk along the shore of the lake was very enjoyable this morning, partly due to the lovely sunny and calm weather, and partly due to the sheer number of birds present. Waterfowl on the lake included Canvasback, Redhead, Bufflhead, Ring-necked Duck, and Ruddy Duck, the latter always a bird that folks from the U.K. like to see. Ruddy Ducks, are an introduced bird and species considered invasive in Europe. This is due to the fact that Ruddy Ducks interbreed with the rare White-headed Duck in Spain, so authorities have shot and killed all but a very few of them in the U.K. Grebes including dozens of Eared
Grebes and up to a dozen elegant Western Grebes provided us with entertainment. White-faced Ibis numbers increased through the morning, nearing 15 by the time we went for lunch. Several Black-crowned Night-Herons slowly flapped as they went by, and the sky was abuzz with noisy Franklin’s Gulls. Forster’s Terns foraged around the perimeter of the lake, while in the marshes ringing the water there was a cacophony of songs permeating the air as Yellow-headed and Red-winged blackbirds chattered and Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats sang. A lonely American White Pelican floated out on the lake, and a couple of Great Blue Herons were nice to see this fine morning. Soras called, but remained, as usual, hidden in the reeds. We returned to High River for lunch and after that we had a look around the parking lot, finding our only Common Grackles for the tour. A female and brood of Common Mergansers, or Goosanders as the Brits call them, were on a small wastewater pond.
After lunch we returned to Frank Lake area, this time exploring a range road north of the lake itself. In the farm fields were Vesper Sparrows and a few singing Horned Larks. Gray Partridge scurried across the road in front of us, and by the end of the day we had seen quite a few of them. Swainson’s Hawks were numerous this afternoon and we saw several sitting on nests. Another bonus sighting was a fluffy young Great Horned Owl sitting in a nest in a hedge row. Lucky for ‘The Brits’ I had been through this area the previous week with my own tour group as we covered Southern Alberta, so I knew where a few things were hiding. Richardson’s Ground-Squirrels scampered about, keeping watchful eyes to the sky for raptors. We returned to the blind at the lake where we enjoyed lovely views of Marbled Godwits and a rather ungainly Black-necked Stilt. It had been a lovely day, we all agreed, as we made our way back to Calgary.
Day 3, May 31 – Again, a sunny morning greeted us for our morning drive, which today, took us through the western suburbs of Calgary to Cochrane. From here we explored a couple of roads, which I won’t name, but I’ll describe what we found. Along the first road we cruised into the forested habitat, interspersed with open fields, where Great Gray Owls could be found. I told the group to keep their eyes on the fence posts for potential owls, and not long after this advice, Jean shouted ‘there!’ It was a Great Gray Owl, and he
was hunting from a fence line in an open meadow. We watched him searching for prey and eventually he leapt from his perch into the grass, but seemed to come up empty handed. This, no doubt, will remain the bird of the tour for many, if not all, on the trip. After drinking in the magnificent sighting of the Great Gray we carried on searching for birds and we found some nice ones such as Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a nice Boreal Chickadee. We focused on finding ‘eastern’ species today and did quite well; Tennessee Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Blue Jays, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole, White-throated Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Le Conte’s Sparrow and Upland Sandpiper to name a few. We heard several Yellow Rails, but did not see them. The same goes for Sora. Mammal of the day was a cow Moose with her calf, trotting, in an ungainly manner, up a wooded gully. We then drove on to Canmore,
nestled in amongst the Rocky Mountains.
Day 4, June 1 – At 6 AM we left our hotel and headed for Banff, spotting a herd of Elk along the way. We explored Vermilion Lakes this morning, and our first bird was perhaps our best bird, a lovely male Blackpoll Warbler. Warbling Vireos, White-crowned Sparrow, American Redstart and Willow Flycatcher all showed nicely, as did an obliging ‘Slate-colored’ Fox Sparrow. Paul D. spotted one of the best mammals of the day, a Beaver, as it slowly drifted about in the water. Throughout this tour over and over again, the participants commented on the sheer beauty of the locations I took them to. Vermilion Lakes, with its placid waters and stunning views of Mount Rundle, certainly did not disappoint.
The nagging feeling of hunger and the dull and steady shakes of coffee withdrawl drove us into a Melissa’s Missteak, a restaurant in Banff, where we had breakfast. The weather was very much off and on today and we experienced a bit of everything from cold rain
and wind, with temperatures just a few degrees above freezing, to warm and sunny periods. We slowly cruised down roads, hoping for wildlife to appear and it did. We saw Mule and White-tailed deer, the latter of which were wagging their stunning white tails in the air as they dashed away. Up on a grassy slope above us I put the scope on a herd of Bighorn Sheep as they grazed. We stopped to do some birding at various view points and picnic areas today, with our first such a stop yielding views of Bufflehead, Common Loon and Ring-necked Duck on a distant wetland. A lovely male Rufous Hummingbird sat atop a young Douglas Fir right next to the busy railway track as massive trains barreled past. We were plagued this day, by ‘looky loos’, people that just have to stop and ask what you are looking at. Perhaps they don’t speak English so they get themselves right into the
middle of the group to make sure they’re not missing anything. Whenever our van pulled over, there was immediately a mini traffic jam behind us, as people stopped to see what we had found. Most of the time it was a bird, and we found many today, with Wilson’s Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Townsend’s Warbler and Hammond’s Flycatcher to name just a few.
At Muleshoe Picnic Area we were entertained by a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers that were poking around in the aspens. A pair of Hairy Woodpeckers showed nicely here as well, and just as we were about to leave I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker peering out of a nest hole! Next, we had lunch and then hiked up into Johnston Canyon, where water levels were unexpectedly high. This is probably the reason we saw no dippers here today, and the rushing water also made it rather hard to pick out the calls of other birds nearby. The scenery in the canyon was spectacular, and this alone, if nothing else, made the walk very worthwhile.
At Lake Louise we joined the throngs of tourists as they admired one of Canada’s more
scenic lakes. It was cold up here today, and a light rain fell as we visited the area. That didn’t stop us from enjoying the entertaining tactics of the Clark’s Nutcrackers as they swooped about in the parking lot for scraps. Also lingering around the edges of the parking lot were Gray Jays and Black-billed Magpies. Before we got back into the van I located an American Porcupine as it munched on grasses on a roadside hill. After snapping as many photos as we wanted of the porcupine, a creature we all decided was rather un-photogenic to begin with, we made the return trip to Canmore.
Day 5, June 2 – To finish off our Rockies experience we set off for Moraine Lake, one of the region’s most beautiful lakes and certainly one of the best known scenic areas in the country. It was cold, with mixed overcast skies and there was a breeze. Much of the lake was still covered in ice, though we did see several Barrow’s Goldeneye about. There were a few birds about, including Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Dark-eyed Juncos, Boreal Chickadee, and a couple of Pine Grosbeaks that disappeared before they could be officially tallied to the list. Along the way up here this morning we saw a lovely Snowshoe Hare, sporting nifty white ‘socks’.
The next portion of our journey took us along Hwy 1, through Golden, where we paused for lunch, and on to the Beaver Valley. We had some exceptional sightings at Beaver Valley, with the best for me being a male Magnolia Warbler, an eastern species that inhabits moist, wooded forests in the Rocky Mountains. Other nice warblers today included our first views of MacGillivray’s Warbler, which was a skulking little so and so, as is so often the case. We had nice looks at a showy male American Redstart as he pranced about through the trees. Three Chestnut-backed Chickadees came down to check us out, perhaps stealing ‘award’ for the most attractive North American chickadee species. We scoured the hillsides and forests for bears, but came only as close as several piles of bear dung. The wildflowers were lovely, and Penny
went to great effort to identify as many of them as possible. Some of the more prevalent flowers in the mountains included milk-vetch, lupines, Arrow-leaved Balsam Root, Heart-leaved Arnica and one of the more attractive varieties, an orchid known as a Fairyslipper.
Following the winding highway from the Kicking Horse pass, and back up into Rogers Pass, we eventually found ourselves on the outskirts of Revelstoke at the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk. The bird was exceptional as usual at this location, with birds in full song including American Redstarts, Common Yellowthroats, Northern Waterthrush, Varied Thrush, Gray Catbird, Veery, Warbling Vireo and Song Sparrow all adding to the cacophony. Rufous Hummingbirds put on a lovely show here, zipping too and fro, buzzing noisily as they sped by. Males were engaged in aerial displays, where they climbed high into the sky and then plummeted straight down
towards the ground, pulling up at the last moment with an emphatic buzzy call at the end. Giant Skunk Cabbage plants covered the ground beneath the boardwalk, which took us through a flooded forest of cedars, willow and alder. Fluff balls from cottonwood trees drifted through the air, giving the effect of snowfall drifting down on a warm, breezy spring day. Following the Eagle River down through Sicamous, we soon found ourselves driving along the south shore of Shuswap Lake, where we found our next port of call, Salmon Arm. We visited a local pub for dinner this evening, and we had a great time. In fact, this group meshed so well together, providing excellent company throughout the holiday. Paul C. is ridiculously funny and had us in stitches whenever there was a break in the birding.
Day 6, June 3 – Before breakfast we made our way down to the pier in Salmon Arm to check out the birds on Shuswap Lake. Before we even left the parking lot we had seen Cedar Waxwings, House Finches, Northern Rough-winged Swallow and American Goldfinch. Down at the pier it was a lovely morning. We scanned through dozens of elegant Western Grebes and I found a single Clark’s Grebe after a bit of searching. The Clark’s was paired up with a Western Grebe and the two swimming side by side together made for an excellent comparison. Other birds noted here included a locally rare Sanderling, spotting by Isabel, and a pair of Caspian Terns, also an uncommon species in the B.C. interior. From the pier we walked a short distance down a little boardwalk
towards a wetland where Pied-billed Grebes were nesting. Other waterfowl nestled away at this wetland included Blue-winged and Cinnamon teal, Hooded Merganser, Gadwall and American Wigeon. Yellow-headed Blackbirds were constantly within earshot, and we decided that this bird would not win the prize for the best songster of the local avifauna. We returned to our hotel on the hill for breakfast, then loaded up the van with our luggage, before returning to the waterfront of Salmon Arm to carry on with our explorations. A stop at Peter Jannink Nature Park provided us with a different perspective on the bay, and there were songbird tucked away in the shrubs such as Willow Flycatcher, House Finch, Common Yellowthroat, Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing and American Goldfinch. We watched a Muskrat devour some vegetation, our only one for the entire tour, and at one point today a Water Vole dashed across the trail in front of us. Ospreys seemed to be everywhere
around Salmon Arm, and we saw a few Bald Eagles today as well. Our walk to Christmas Island got cut a little short by flooding, as this year proved over and over again to be the wettest on record. Luckily for us, however, we enjoyed mostly fantastic weather throughout our entire tour! A colony of Ring-billed Gulls had been displaced by the flooding and they were gathered on the busy railway and on the viewing platform that no person in their right mind would attempt to climb onto at this stage.
A pub patio on the lake shore provided the backdrop for our lunch today, and we were routinely interrupted by sightings of Osprey, Great Blue Heron and other species. After lunch we began the journey to Kamloops, which only took about 1.5 hours, and was very scenic as the Trans Canada Hwy took us along the Thompson River. The habitat changed quickly, from wet forest to sage covered grasslands around Kamloops, but many of the group may have missed this rather sudden change as a few appeared to be snoozing in
the back of the van. Once in Kamloops we made our way to an area of grasslands near town where we saw the usual residents of semi-arid desert habitat, such as Western Meadowlarks, Clay-colored and Vesper sparrows, American Kestrel, Mountain Bluebird and Black-billed Magpies. Farther along we found some patches of aspens where birds were numerous. Dusky Flycatchers sang and eventually perched long enough for everyone to get scope views. We had our first rather stunning Red-naped Sapsuckers here, as well as Western Tanager and a gorgeous male Lazuli Bunting. We finished off the day with tasty meal at Boston Pizza. As usual, nobody
starved on this trip and we enjoyed good meals at 99% of the places we went to eat.
Day 7, June 4 – Our luck with the weather continued as we enjoyed mostly sunny conditions today, once again. We made our way to Tranquille, an area along the N.E. corner of Kamloops Lake. Upon arrival the gate was locked so we parked and walked in along the dirt track. Just as we were pulling up to the gate, I spotted a Peregrine Falcon chasing pigeons near an old barn. Not a bad start! Though the mosquitoes were quite hungry here this morning, we still enjoyed the walk, along which we found birds including Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Downy Woodpecker, and our first Say’s Phoebes of the tour. Several chunky Yellow-bellied Marmots entertained us as well as they peeked at us from their hiding spots along the road. Next, we picked up lunch and took it with us up the Paul Lake Road. Our first stop, along the creekside habitat at the Paul Creek Trail, produced views of Veery, Red-eyed Vireo and a cheeky little Nashville Warbler. Farther along the road we found some ponds and lakes where we had Barrow’s
Goldeneye, Ruddy Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks and other wetland species. We had lunch at Louis Lake, where we watched loons diving in the placid waters.
After lunch we headed up to Harper Mountain Ski area. It was the middle of the day and birds were not overly active, however I did pique the interest of Mountain Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos and our first Cassin’s Vireo of the tour. I had planned on heading to the ski slopes to look for bears but when we arrived we found hundreds of people had gathered there for mountain bike races. Abandoning Harper Mountain we found ourselves next at Paul
Lake Campground, where a stroll through the mixed forest produced some nice birds. We had great looks at warblers here including Nashville, Orange-crowned, and the usually quite elusive MacGillivray’s Warbler. This particular MacGillivay’s had obviously not read the manual on being a member of that species and staying hidden in the thick bushes. We returned to Kamloops and enjoyed Indian food at a buffet restaurant with an incredible view over the city.
Day 8, June 5 – From Kamloops we climbed up and out of the Thompson River Valley and made our way onto the plateau of grasslands, dotted with lakes and wetlands. Our first stop was at Separation Lake, where we found it to be rather cool and breezy this morning. There were a few ducks around; Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Duck and Redhead, as
well as Spotted Sandpiper and Killdeer. On a distant fence post we found our 4th species of owl, a Short-eared Owl, and another new addition to our growing list was a singing male Horned Lark. Our next stop was along Planet Mine Road, where towering Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir dot the grassland landscape, making for perfect habitat for Lewis’s Woodpeckers. We found a pair of nesting Lewis’s in an old pine snag, and watched for 20 minutes or so, as the adults came in to feed young. Also nesting in the same tree was a Pygmy Nuthatch and each time the nuthatch approached, the woodpecker swiftly saw it off. Gliding over the hills, I spotted our only Black Swifts of the tour, and though they were a bit distant, they counted nonetheless. A Common Nighthawk, surprisingly the only one seen by our group on this tour, flapped by over the horizon. At Beaver Ranch Flats, always a great stop, we watched a M
arsh Wren build a nest at close range to us, every now and again nipping up to the top of the reeds to let out some noisy chatter. Common Yellowthroat, a bird we saw over and over again on this trip, showed nicely. Numbers of waterbirds seemed to be down from what I remember in recent years, perhaps due to the high water levels. Nonetheless, there were dozens of Eared Grebes, several Pied-billed Grebes, American Coot, Redhead, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler and Lesser Scaup to name a few species present. A stop at Quilchena for Vaux’s Swift was successful, but ended abruptly as we noticed the mosquitoes were extremely thirsty here, so we carried on a little farther along the shore of Nicola Lake and had lunch. As we ate, up to 4 Common Loons played in the calm waters, while a Pileated Woodpecker whacked away at the trunk of a large cottonwood, before flying off up the
hillside, calling all the way. We left Hwy 5A at Merritt and followed the Okanagan Connector back towards Kelowna, our destination for the next two nights. Along the way, we popped in to say hi to my better half Cindy, and our one year old boy Carsen. Always on point, Cindy had coffee and cookies out for us to snack on while we checked out what was visiting our feeders. Black-chinned and Rufous hummingbirds jostled for position at the hummingbird feeders, while Pine Siskins nibbled thistles. At the seed feeder were Cassin’s Finches and best of all several Evening Grosbeaks, the only ones we saw on the entire tour it turns out. Carrying on into Kelowna, we crossed Okanagan Lake via the Bennett Bridge and headed for our hotel via a rather roundabout and scenic route that took us into the downtown and along the waterfront, up and over Dilworth Mtn. We had dinner, along with Cindy and Carsen, at Montana’s, where the ribs were scrumptious.
Day 9, June 6 – Before breakfast we headed out to Sutherland Hills Park, a pine-clad forest along the edge of Mission Creek in Kelowna. This is the area I grew up in and these hills I have visited many times before, so I knew exactly where to look for a roosting Western Screech-Owl, though the bird wasn’t in the tree I thought it might be. After a little searching, and we could hear two birds calling, a male and a female, and we saw the female of the pair. Everyone had lovely scope views and we let them be in peace. Up into Sutherland Hills, I led the group to a tree where a male Calliope Hummingbird has
sat every June in the last 15 years, and there he was again today, glowing in the morning sunlight. Not a bad start to the day.
We returned to the hotel, had breakfast, and then began exploring the Joe Rich Valley and Big White area, east of Kelowna. Our first stop was a bit of grassland along Hwy 33 where we had Western Kingbirds, Western Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbirds and Red-tailed Hawk. Along Goudie Road we saw a gorgeous male Western Bluebird, potentially nesting in one of the next boxes along the fence line. Quite a few other open country bird species appeared here as well such as Lazuli Bunting, Vesper Sparrow and Tree Swallows. In the coniferous forests along Sun Valley Road we encountered our first Steller’s Jays of the tour, along with a mob of other passerines such as Townsend’s Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Western Tanager and Dark-eyed Juncos. A Pileated
Woodpecker showed nicely at the top of a dead cedar tree, calling loudly before flying off. We took a detour down Philpott Road, hoping for Ruffed Grouse or N. Pygmy Owl, but we didn’t find either of them. We did find a lovely nest of Townsend’s Solitaire with 4 eggs in it however. Also, we had a Hairy Woodpecker coming and going from a nest hole in an aspen.
We had lunch where Mission Creek and Belgo Creek converge on Three Forks Road. Isabel and Peter perched themselves right on the edge of the rushing creek, which proved to be a smart move since they spotted the American Dipper first. There were two adults and they appeared to be foraging for food for young. As soon as they caught some larva or other insects the adults would fly upstream towards the bridge under which they nest. With the dipper ‘in the bag’, so to speak, we carried on towards Big White, the local ski hill. A little exploration of the spruce / fir forest near the ski village, turned up some goodies such as Boreal Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Wilson’s Warbler and Fox Sparrow, but best of all a singing male Varied Thrush, a target bird for several people on the tour. Once at the ski village of Big White, everyone was shocked to find a city up in
the middle of nowhere. We had a look at some feeders where Steller’s Jays, Dark-eyed Juncos, Mountain Chickadees and the likes were coming in to gather any leftovers. On the ground beneath the feeders were Red Squirrels, Columbian Ground-Squirrels and several cute little Yellow Pine Chipmunks. We had a much needed cup of coffee before making the descent of the mountain. Dinner in Kelowna at an Asian buffet was excellent, and we were joined again by Cindy and Carsen, as well as my two brothers, Connor and Cory.
Day 10, June 7 – This morning we left Kelowna and after stopping to pick up lunch in West Kelowna, we carried on south to White Lake Road. Our first stop was at Three Gates
Farm where my friend Doreen let us watch feeders that had Black-chinned, Calliope and Rufous hummingbirds, Cassin’s Finches, Spotted Towhees, Pine Siskins and our first looks at the rather attractive Black-headed Grosbeak. All three nuthatches, White-breasted, Pygmy and the omnipresent Red-breasted Nuthatch, were tallied in the pine trees at Doreen’s place.
We then took in the sagebrush habitat around White Lake itself. It didn’t take us long to find a couple of uncommon and local target species including Brewer’s Sparrows and the nationally endangered Sage Thrasher. The thrashers (we saw two of them), were singing from the tops of the sage and from fence posts, and posing nicely for scope views. After White Lake we stopped at Mahoney Lake where a short walk produced another of the day’s target bird species, a Gray Flycatcher. After a short stop in Okanagan Falls we ventured up a bumpy logging road that climbs into the mountains east of town. We found a quiet, cool and shady spot along Dutton Creek to have lunch. I imitated a Northern Pygmy-Owl, since the habitat looked promising, and it didn’t take long for the tiny owl to respond and come in to check me out. As if that weren’t already enough, a Barred Owl started calling
and we tracked him down in his roosting spot. Owls number 6 and 7 for the tour! Vying for our attention, our first Pacific Wren, a tiny buffy colored wren that inhabits the west coast of North America, bobbed up and down on fallen branches along the little creek.
A brief stop along Road 22 to scan through the hay fields turned up a couple of distant male Bobolinks, as well as all the other usual suspects. We headed to Osoyoos, checked in to our hotel, and then went for a delicious dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, Campo Marina.
Our day wasn’t finished yet, as several of us made our way back out to Road 22 at dusk to do some owling. We saw an adult Great Horned Owl twice along the telephone wires, but we decided it was probably two sightings of the same bird. Water was everywhere, with all the usual fields and meadows covered in feet of it. As a result, mosquito populations had exploded at Road 22. The bugs chased us off and we headed for Kilpoola Lake Road, on the west side of town. Scanning the road for Common Poorwills as we bumped up the dirt road, produced no sightings, but whenever we got out of the vehicle we could hear poorwills calling. We heard the soft ‘boot’ calls of a Flammulated Owl high in the trees and after about 30 minutes of trying to see the bird, we were finally rewarded as the tiny, cryptically colored owl, perched on bare branches and flew from tree to tree as we watched in the moonlight. Our 8th species of owl for the tour was special indeed!
Day 11, June 8 – We returned to Road 22 this morning, and found it to be quite pleasant as cool morning temperatures and a breeze kept the mozzies away, for the most part. A
walk to the arid cliffs of ‘The Throne’ was very enjoyable. We had excellent luck with the cliff dwelling birds this morning, as Canyon and Rock wren both appeared and let us enjoy scope views. A Chukar perched on a boulder, also cooperating enough so we could scope him. A nesting pair of Peregrine Falcons gave us plenty of entertainment, and high above the cliffs we found White-throated Swifts sailing by. Not only were the birds fantastic, but the flowers and plants were also stunning.
Back at the hay field on Road 22 we had even better looks this morning at Bobolink, as several males engaged in flight songs over the swaying grasses. We were treated to great views of a Yellow-breasted Chat, the odd man out, when it comes to North American warblers. In a little corner of marsh we finally got the views of Sora that we had been hoping for. As if that wasn’t already enough, we had views of a Virginia Rail as it skulked about in the reeds.
Leaving Road 22, we stopped to pick up lunch in Osoyoos before climbing up to Anarchist Mountain. The weather began to change as we arrived at our destination, and a light rain, accompanied by strong winds kept us on our toes. Several big branches began falling off trees so we decided to get out of the forest before anything else started to come down. From the road we could hear our target species, a Williamson’s Sapsucker, calling in the larch trees. Eventually the male Williamson’s, an attractive study in black, white, yellow and red, appeared on an open trunk next to us. OOohhs and ahhhhs ensued. As if we weren’t already feeling lucky enough, Paul and Sue D shouted, ‘Stop!’, as we drove back towards Osoyoos. I backed up the van and in the side of a large dirt mound there were 3
American Badgers peering out of a den. Wow, my first sighting in B.C. We enjoyed dinner so much the previous night at Campo Marina, we returned again tonight.
Day 12, June 9 – It was not easy leaving the Okanagan Valley this morning, as the lovely sunshine bathed the lakes and vineyards, but that’s exactly what we did. We stopped at the Nighthawk Border Crossing for just one last taste of sagebrush birding. Vesper, Lark and Brewer’s sparrows were all of note, and we saw our last Western Meadowlark and Mountain bluebirds of the tour. As we neared Princeton, along the Similkameen River, a few of us caught a glimpse of a female Harlequin Duck as she raced towards shore in the rapids. The Beaver Pond in Manning Park kept us occupied for about half an hour, and we really enjoyed the excellent views
of several species of swallow feeding low over the water. Violet-green Swallows were particularly stunning, with some lovely colors, as the name implies. A Song Sparrow fed a baby Brown-headed Cowbird chick, the latter species, of course, being parasitic. In the trees overhead were Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s and Townsend’s warblers, Warbling Vireos, Chipping Sparrows and more. An Olive-sided Flycatcher put on a nice show as it returned several times to the same perch after sallying out for insects. At the Manning Park Lodge we had lunch with, while the Clark’s Nutcackers, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Common Ravens and Columbian Ground-Squirrels all try and steal your attention, or even try to steal your lunch if you’re not careful. We
took a drive down to Strawberry Flats, finding a large pile of bear poop, but unfortunately, no bear. A little exploration of the trails at Strawberry Flats proved to be exciting. There was still snow on the trails, and I decided to wear my sandals today. Sightings of note included a gorgeous Red-breasted Sapsucker as well as a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Hermit Thrush, and some very tame Gray Jays. This species, now widely regarded as Canada’s national bird, often comes in to beg for scraps and that is exactly what they did to us. Wrapping things up in Manning Park, we carried on to Hope, where we had a short coffee break, before completing the final leg of the journey to our hotel in Richmond. Dinner tonight, at the hockey arena, was very Canadian (it’s called Stanley’s Grill).
Day 13, June 10 – From Richmond we took advantage of a weekend morning and drove right smack dab through the middle of downtown Vancouver. It was yet another sunny morning and we enjoyed the scenery as we crossed English Bay on the impressive Lions Gate Bridge. The drive out to West Vancouver’s Lighthouse Park was very nice, with good views of the ocean and some impressive houses to daydream about. Not long after we had left the van and started walking the trail a young man asked, ‘Would you like to see a big owl?’. ‘Yes, of course’, we replied, and he pointed out a Barred Owl perched atop a stump not far from the edge of the path. We soon found that there was a fledged chick
sitting nearby as well, explaining the adults daytime hunting behavior. Typical west coast temperate rainforest species were present this morning; Pacific Wrens, Brown Creeper, Townsend’s Warbler, Hutton’s Vireo, Spotted Towhee, Swainson’s Thrush, etc. By the lighthouse itself we were treated to excellent views of both Rufous and Anna’s hummingbirds, the latter, our fourth species of hummingbird for the tour. New for the mammal list was a Douglas’s Squirrel, the coastal equivalent to the Red Squirrel.
We picked up lunch at Safeway and took it down with us to Ambleside Park where we sat on the driftwood on the beach and ate. Glaucous-winged Gulls and Northwestern Crows eyed up our lunches. Jean made a scientific discovery, that Northwestern Crows don’t like salt and vinegar chips. Out on the ocean we had our first good views of Pelagic Cormorant, a slighter bird than the nearby Double-crested Cormorants. Five Harlequin Ducks were seen at Ambleside Park, as were our first Bushtits, as a little group of them foraged in trees next to a little pond. Harbor Seals poked their heads out from the water, investigating all the happenings on the shore. The view from Ambleside was also rather nice, with the city in the background, and large tankers entering the bay underneath the Lions Gate Bridge.
After lunch we visited Maplewood Flats, a Wild Bird Trust property, in North Vancouver. Some feeders at the park entrance had our first Purple Finch of the trip, as well as Black-capped Chickadee, America Goldfinch and Bushtit. We scanned the poles out in the water for Purple Martins, but didn’t find any. There was, however, an Osprey and its mate sitting on a nest. I found our one and only Pigeon Guillemot for the tour, here, and we got even better looks at the ‘shag-like’ Pelagic Cormorant. Continuing on our loop walk of the property, we ran into a few little groups of Black-capped Chickadees, Bushtits and Song Sparrows, and eventually I found our one and only Black-throated Gray Warbler of the tour here. Tonight marked the final dinner of the tour, and we celebrated an excellent trip over good foods, good drinks and good company at Boston Pizza. Sounds a bit like an advertisement doesn’t it?
Day 14, June 11 – Our final day of birding in Canada, and we set out with an ambitious goal, to find 7 new species for the trip and bring the list to 220 birds. We began at Tsawwassen Ferry Jetty where several Black Oystercatchers showed very nicely, one pair
with a couple of cute, little, fuzzy and black chicks. Scanning through the Glaucous-winged, California and Ring-billed gulls I was able to pick out a single immature Mew Gull, and out on the water we scoped both Surf and White-winged scoters. With just three more birds to go, and most of the day to find them, we headed the Reifel Refuge with confidence. On the way we stopped in to look for a Barn Owl that was not home. However, we were rewarded with our 5th new bird of the day, a Bewick’s Wren. Once at Reifel we hoped for some lingering shorebirds, and we succeeded, finding a couple of Greater Yellowlegs, new bird number 6. The final bird of the tour, and a lovely one at that, was Purple Martin. Several were at nestboxes in the marshes of Reifel, and we later enjoyed up close and personal views of martins at Iona in Richmond before I took the group to the airport and we said our goodbyes. 220 species of birds is a new high count for me on the Rockies tour. We saw over 20 species of mammals as well. Thanks to everyone for coming along and making this a really enjoyable trip.
Day 1, May 20 – Myself and a group of 7 tours from British Columbia, Alberta, Switzerland and Massachusetts gathered this evening and we went out for dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant in the vicinity of the Calgary Airport, before heading to bed.
Day 2, May 21 – Chomping at the bit to get some prairie birding in, we made our way south through Calgary via the Deerfoot Trail to High River. We then headed east towards Frank Lake, pausing along the way to check out various pools and puddles which held a
number of different ducks; Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Mallard, Gadwall and more. Our first Wilson’s Phalaropes were tallied on these pools, as were American Avocets, Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper. We turned off towards Frank Lake and sparrows kept interrupting our progress as we made our way to the bird blind. Most were Clay-colored Sparrows, with Savannah Sparrows mixed in for good measure. Brown-headed Cowbirds and Yellow-headed Blackbirds were common along the approach to the blind. Franklin’s Gulls, White-faced Ibis and Forster’s Terns flew about, while swarms of Tree Swallows with a few Barn Swallows caught bugs on the wing. Two or three Gray Partridge burst into flight from the grass, one landing nice and close to us, a lifer for Lin. In the marsh were chattering Marsh Wrens, and whinnying Soras, as well as singing Common Yellowthroats. By now the wind had picked up so we happily took shelter in the blind for a while, as we scanned the lake. Ruddy
Ducks were seen not far away, as were both Western and Eared grebes. A few Black Terns were seen feeding in a distant corner of the lake, barely visible through the scope. Bird of the day, in my books, was a Prairie Falcon that passed by our van quite closely, as it flew along with some large prey, which, unfortunately, it dropped.
After lunch in High River, we chased down a Lincoln’s Sparrow behind the parking lot, and then we headed back out towards Frank Lake. Along a range road north of the lake we searched for raptors, having some luck, as we found several nesting Swainson’s Hawks. Also, Red-tailed Hawks were noted flying overhead and I spotted a nest with an adult and two fluffy young Great Horned Owls. Vesper Sparrows and Western Kingbirds were new trip birds as well. Janet suggested we try an area out toward Brant, so off we
went. We didn’t make it far, however, since I nearly ran over an Upland Sandpiper, so I stopped, backed up, and low and behold, there were 5 of the little suckers out in a field. Great scope views were had by all. Down the road towards Brant, spotting our first Northern Harriers of the tour. Later, a Coyote dashed across the road far in front of us, and Monica spotted a pair of lovely baby Great Horned Owls roosting in the trees not far from the road. Back to Calgary we headed, and as we had dinner, we tallied up our species list for the day. We had seen just under 70 species, a formidable total.
Day 3, May 22 – From ‘Cowtown’ we headed west towards the towering Rocky Mountains to the city of Cochrane. We picked up lunch and drove north on the Horse Creek Road to wetlands, excellent for birding. These wetlands are rich in birds, especially sparrows, and we had half a dozen or so species of sparrows here including Le Conte’s, Swamp and White-throated sparrows. Yellow Rails were ticking from various points in the marsh, but of course, we didn’t see any. Soras were also calling intermittently, while Wilson’s Snipe seemed to be everywhere. Cinnamon Teal and Blue-winged Teal both showed off well, with the male Blue-winged in perfect lighting, showing a lovely purplish sheen to its head. Other species noted included Yellow
Warbler, Least Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee and a nice adult Peregrine Falcon perched in a nearby aspen. We carried on down the road, and I spotted a large cow Moose trotting across a field. Mule Deer were also new for the trip mammal list. We stopped near a community center to look for Eastern Phoebe and as soon as we got out of the vehicle we heard one singing. We got side-tracked by other things like Tennessee Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Mountain Chickadee, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a stunning male Cape May Warbler. By the time we refocused on finding the phoebe it was not to be seen again. Down at a little boggy area we stopped again and were treated to nice views of White-throated Sparrow, and a distant male Purple Finch. We had lunch and then made our way west towards Grand Valley.
Along Grand Valley Road our main objective was to find a Great Gray Owl. Despite a good effort, we did not find one today. We did, however get a number of other nice species such as Townsend’s Solitaire, a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and a lifer for Josh, a Boreal Chickadee. I caught a glimpse of a Snowshoe Hare dashing across an open lane in the forest. A couple of Solitary Sandpipers flew over the treetops, calling, our first and only for the tour. Before we left the area we tried one more time for the phoebe, but it was nowhere to be found. We took a walk through an aspen forest and got three new additions to the trip list, Warbling Vireo, Hermit Thrush and ‘Red-shafted’ Northern Flicker.
Day 4, May 23 – This morning we left Calgary behind us and followed the Trans Canada Hwy east to the prairie farm town of Brooks. As we stood in the restaurant picking up
our lunch, a group of 13 American White Pelicans sailed by outside. We headed south of Brooks and explored some prairie range roads where the birding was very good. Our first Ferruginous Hawk, otherwise coined a Ferengi, by other members of the group, was a nice surprise as it circled above. Clay-colored, Savannah and Vesper sparrows, sang loudly, along with Western Meadowlarks from all directions. Overhead I could hear the jingling song of a Sprague’s Pipit and after a little searching we spotted it doing a flight song high overhead. Just after I finished saying ‘that’s about the best look you’ll get at a Sprague’s Pipit’, the bird dropped like a stone from the sky and landed about 30 feet from us in plain view, while foraging for about 5 minutes.
The marsh at the entrance to Kinbrook Island Provincial Park was teeming with activity this morning. Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, Song Sparrow and Common Yellowthroat all sang loudly from the reeds. The first Red-necked Grebes we’ve seen thus far were here this morning, and the usual variety of ducks with Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Redhead, Canvasback, and Lesser Scaup were observed. In the campground we had lunch and then went for a stroll through the cottonwoods where we found several smashing Baltimore Orioles. Both Eastern and Western kingbirds were common and as Art commented, it was nice to see
them side by side. Yellow Warblers, House Wrens, Common Grackles and a few Swainson’s Thrushes were spotted by our group members, and Art found the first White-crowned Sparrow of the tour.
Following the Trans Canada east to Tilley, we checked a range road, excellent for prairie birds, and we were not disappointed. We must have seen and heard about 15 Chestnut-collared Longspurs here this afternoon. Just as we arrived a handsome Ferruginous Hawk flew by, showing off all its regal features. We walked down towards a wetland and upon arrival noted another Sprague’s Pipit, this one drinking from the edge of the pond. Also drinking from the pond were Chestnut-collared Longspurs. Shorebirds were the real highlight here, with 20+ Wilson’s Phalaropes and close to a dozen Red-necked Phalaropes being the real treats, along with a breeding
plumage adult Black-bellied Plover. Semipalmated Sandpipers numbered close to 2 dozen, as did Marbled Godwits. There were several American Avocets about, and Spotted Sandpipers were calling. Two Pronghorn, North America’s fastest land mammal, somewhere in between an antelope and a deer, lazed about in the grasses, while Richardson’s Ground-Squirrels popped in and out of their burrows.
Our last stop of the day was at Tillebrook Provincial Park. It was a lovely afternoon with sunshine and temperatures in the upper 30 degrees Celsius. We hoped to find a Brown Thrasher here, and after a short walk, we did just that! I heard, and shortly thereafter spotted, a singing male Blackpoll Warbler in the trees, a nice late migrant. American Goldfinches eventually showed themselves, and we had a lovely pure male ‘Yellow-shafted’ Northern Flicker here. We headed to Brooks, checked in to our hotel and had a tasty dinner at Boston Pizza.
Day 5, May 24 – Our first birding destination this morning was Dinosaur Provincial Park, north of Brooks. Along the way we had our first Loggerhead Shrike of the tour, and our first Say’s Phoebe. When approaching Dinosaur Park from the south over the prairie, one would never know there was an area of stunning badlands tucked away down along the
Red Deer River. We stopped first at the top of the park to drink in the scenery from a viewpoint. Our first Rock Wren of the tour sang from the peak of a rock, and both Vesper and Lark sparrows hopped about on the path next to us. Ominous weather finally caught up with us and we birded from the car for a bit as we drove through the badlands, spotting Mountain Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks, Violet-green Swallows, and Lark Sparrows. The rain let up a bit so we ventured out along the Cottonwood Flats Trail. A few sprinkles, and a steady wind, made finding birds a little difficult, but we did see our first Spotted Towhees of the tour here, along with Yellow Warbler, Least Flycatcher and Brown Thrasher. Before we left the area we had one last little stroll along a creek where we enjoyed lovely views of a male Common Yellowthroat.
We had lunch in the van, during another shower, at the rest stop along Hwy 1, just E. of Tilley. After we were done munching, the rain had mostly stopped so we walked over to the edge of the fence to scan Tilley ‘O’ Marsh. There were quite a few birds here
including Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, Wilson’s and Red-necked phalarope, Willet, Marbled Godwit, and best of all, a group of 40 or so Red Knots in stunning breeding plumage! Nice sighting Josh.
We made the drive east to Medicine Hat and then turned south towards our next destination, Cypress Hills Provincial Park. Along the way, two Long-billed Curlews vlew over the van and up a hill, new for the trip list. Upon arrival in Elkwater we stopped to check out a little pond and there were 6 species of swallows foraging here, including Barn, Bank, N. Rough-winged, Cliff, Violet-green and Tree swallows! A pair of Bufflehead were seen each time we passed by this pond as well. We explored the Spruce Coulee area this afternoon, and it was decidedly quiet out there, perhaps because of the wind. Nonetheless we did find some interesting birds, including Dusky Flycatchers, a species that reaches it’s easternmost Canadian range in Cypress Hills. A male American Redstart played hide and seek with us, eventually being seen by most of the group. While up on a trail I found several group members a Red Crossbill, and down by the reservoir Josh, Art and Monica had some White-winged Crossbills. A Ruffed Grouse was heard drumming in the woods along a small creek, and Monica caught a glimpse of the bird as it flew across the road. This evening we had a lovely dinner at the Camp Cook House restaurant.
Day 6, May 25 – Planned pre-breakfast birding at 5:30 AM did not go ahead this morning due to high winds and rain. We had breakfast and then started off towards the S.E.
corner of Alberta and the Wild Horse area. The rain let up as we drove south, and we spotted several Ferruginous Hawks, as well as Swainson’s Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks, along the way. Pronghorn were also very common today and we probably saw 20-30 of these mammals out on their native habitat, the plains. As we turned off the highway onto a gravel range road, we began seeing interesting birds; Horned Larks, several Chestnut-collared Longspurs and eventually Monica spotted a McCown’s Longspur at the edge of a pond. Soon thereafter a male came and sat on the road right in front of the van. We carried on down the road, ‘kicking sparrows out from our boots’ as we went along, with Clay-colored, Savannah and Vesper sparrows everywhere, as well as Western Meadowlarks. We braved the strong winds and walked through the grasses in search of more sparrows and after a little searching we were rewarded with great views of both
Baird’s Sparrow and Brewer’s Sparrows. Lark Buntings seemed to be everywhere today, on fence lines, on bushes, foraging on the ground and doing flight displays over the fields. A single Bobolink was the one and only one we had on the tour this year. In a wetland area there were great numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds. At the end of the day today we had tallied close to 100 species of birds!
Day 7, May 26 – At 5:30 AM several of us gathered for some early morning birding in the Cypress Hills area. We began with a trip out to the Fire Rock Campground where after a little searching we found our target, a Wild Turkey. The male strutted and gobbled away as he retreated into the woods. White-winged Crossbills again appeared in the spruce forests here, and we saw several Red-naped Sapsuckers noisily arguing with one another. On our way back towards town, we spotted a Belted Kingfisher along the lake, and we heard a Lazuli Bunting, but it wouldn’t show itself. Bird of the morning was a local rarity, a Sedge Wren, singing in the marsh next to Elkwater Lake. We had incredible views of this usually elusive species as it sang from the bushes next to the boardwalk. In
talking to local birders, this could be just the third record for the Cypress Hills area. As we were about to head to our next stop, a Caspian Tern flew high over the lake, new for our trip list. To finish off our morning we headed out towards Reesor Lake, spotting several Mountain Bluebirds along the way. Once there we had a few more new species such as a Veery and a very nice Alder Flycatcher.
After breakfast we returned briefly to the edge of Elkwater Lake, so the rest of the crew could see the Sedge Wren, and they all did. We left the Cypress Hills, and took gravel roads west through the rolling hills towards the towns of Manyberries and Etzikom. We stopped in at the north end of Pakowki Lake where there was quite a bit of action. Waterfowl were abundant, with Ring-necked Duck, Canvasback and Cinnamon Teal being highlights. Shorebirds were numerous, and we tallied our first Sanderlings of the
tour, though they were a bit distant. We had lunch at Pakowki before continuing on towards Writing on Stone Provincial Park. The scenery here, with the Milk River and magnificently eroded banks, was stunning on this sunny afternoon. The Sweetgrass Hills in Montana added a fine backdrop to the scene. There were not a load of birds here, and all of them we had already seen, but nonetheless there were Rock Wren, House Wren, Least Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, American Goldfinch, Gray Catbird and several Northern Harriers sailing over the grasslands. Several Ring-necked Pheasants could be heard calling in the distance, and on our way out of the park, a male was spotting trotting along the fence beside the van. Also in the same area were two Gray Partridge. On our way to Lethbridge we stopped at a little side of the road pond where there were shorebirds, including 3 Dunlin, locally uncommon, and the only ones we got on our entire tour. We had dinner at the Casino in Lethbridge tonight, always an experience.
Day 8, May 27 – Our first stop this lovely morning was at Stirling Lake, south of Lethbridge. We stood on the viewing platform and amassed quite a nice list of birds. One species, new for the trip list, was Snow Goose. Three of them hid in the reeds at the edge of the lake. Other waterfowl were abundant here and we found a Blue-winged Teal nest with 5 eggs right beside the path. Shorebirds were scoped in a distant corner of the lake, and included Black-bellied Plover, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Sanderling, Wilson’s Phalarope and an unidentified dowitcher. Quite a few White-faced Ibis were noted here, and Soras, again, could be heard whinnying from the marsh nearby, but remained elusive.
As we drove towards Waterton Park, the majestic Rocky Mountains got larger and larger as we neared them. A stop in Mountain View was entertaining, not only because we got our first House Finch of the tour, but also because a cattle drive came parading down the main street of town. Once at Waterton Park, we headed for a viewpoint overlooking
Maskinonge Lake. Here, we had our first Common Loons, a pair in gorgeous breeding plumage, as well as distant Sandhill Crane and Black Tern. A drive through the bison paddock provided views of about 8 American Bison of pure stock. Lakes and ponds here had a few Barrow’s Goldeneye, and fence lines had Mountain Bluebirds. In the town of Waterton we visited Cameron Falls where a pair of American Dippers tended to a nest. Also here were our only Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels of the tour. Driving through town we encountered several groups of ‘Rocky Mountain’ Bighorn Sheep during our stay. We had lunch and then explored the bottom half of the Cameron Lake Road, since the top portion was closed, most likely due to lingering snow. We found four Black Bears on our drive, a rather large brown colored individual that was traveling along the side of the road as it grazed grass and dandelions, and a sow with two cubs. In the avian department, we enjoyed our first views of Townsend’s Warbler,
Cassin’s Finch and Northern Waterthrush, and then our visit was interrupted by the appearance of a Black Bear that came quite close to us. Our final stop was at the Fire Rock Campground where, after a little patience, we finally got a nice view of a male MacGillivray’s Warbler. Also new here was Wilson’s Warbler, and we got repeat views of Mountain Chickadee, Warbling Vireo, Pine Siskin and Red-breasted Nuthatch. Our last full day in Alberta was topped off with a nice dinner before heading off for some well deserved rest.
Day 9, May 28 – Our morning began early as we revisited Cameron Lake Road, targeting a few high elevation species. Our efforts were paid off with the likes of White-winged Crossbill, Pine Grosbeak, Boreal Chickadee, ‘Slate-co’ Fox Sparrow and some nice Varied Thrushes. We then headed for the Red Rocks Parkway, where a number of excellent bird species were noted including a male Calliope Hummingbird and a gorgeous male Lazuli
Bunting. We got back into the van and began our return trip to town for breakfast. A brown colored Black Bear dashed across the road in front of us, exactly where we had walked 3 minutes before!
After breakfast we gathered our luggage and returned to Red Rocks, however we found the road was closed for a cycling event. Plan b took us to the Hay Barn area, a nice old growth patch of cottonwood bottomland forest. Veeries sang and one appeared for us, while a lovely male Black-headed Grosbeak sang from a high perch in a cottonwood, illuminate by the sun. Least Flycatchers were singing everywhere, as were Yellow Warblers and American Redstarts. It was really quite active with birds so we were well entertained for an hour while we waited for the parkway to open up. Once the cycling was done we headed up towards Red Rocks Canyon. On the way we paused so everyone, including any who didn’t come along for the pre-breakfast session, got to see the male Calliope Hummingbird,
since he was still sitting on the same perch. A little farther up the road we found a stunning male Rufous Hummingbird sitting high on a cottonwood, watching over his patch of territory. High overhead, a Golden Eagle sailed by. We walked up the path at Red Rocks Canyon, admiring the inspiring scenery. A few last species, such as Western Tanager and a Pacific Wren were tallied here before we left the Rockies and made our way back to Calgary. We had seen close to 190 species on the trip and I think all of us would agree the trip was unforgettable.
Day 1, May 3 – This evening, I greeted 7 birders from the U.K. at the arrivals hall of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. We made the short transfer from the airport back to our hotel and some of use went for dinner, while others disappeared into their rooms to get some rest after a long day of travel.
Day 2, May 4 – Our first day of birding in Arizona was exceptional, with the usual Arizona standard of gorgeous blue sky and warm temperatures throughout. At our hotel many of the group had assembled and were already ticking off birds, including Great-tailed Grackle, White-winged Dove, American Kestrel and Black-crowned Night-Heron, before we had even left the parking lot. Our first official birding stop was at the Gilbert Water Ranch where, at a little grove of Saguaro Cactus, we ticked off some nice species
including several Gila Woodpeckers, a Gambel’s Quail, Curve-billed Thrasher, and tiny Verdins. We carried on along the trails and checked out a number of puddles and ponds where waterfowl included Mallards with young, a pair of male Cinnamon Teal and a female Ruddy Duck pointed out by David. Shorebirds, or what the ‘Brits’ call waders, were about in small numbers with American Avocet, Black-necked Stilts, Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper and Long-billed Dowitcher noted. Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and Snowy Egret were all about, though I was surprised to see no Great Egret and Great Blue Heron here. In numbers were Neotropic Cormorants, and we saw a few American Coots. Patrolling the skies above the ponds were N. Rough-winged Swallow, Cliff Swallow,
Barn Swallow and a couple of Bank Swallows. Formations of White-winged Doves sped by, and we had good views of several diminutive Inca Doves along the trails edge. A few migrant passerines were hiding in the bushes along the edges of the trail, including White-crowned Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhee, Wilson’s Warbler, a hybrid Myrtle X Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler and Western Wood-Pewee. We watched the pewee catch and devour a white butterfly of some sort. Also doing a fair amount of flycatching were Anna’s and Black-chinned hummingbirds! For our mammal tally we saw the first of many Desert Cottontails today, and for the reptile list we saw a number of Red-eared Sliders basking in the sun.
As we drove towards Globe we paused to look for raptors several times, getting excellent views of Red-tailed Hawks. A tiny and adorable Round-tailed Ground-Squirrel won over the group as it peered at us from beside the road. A little group of Black-tailed
Gnatcatchers showed briefly in a Palo Verde tree before flying off. After lunch in Globe, we carried on down Hwy 77, and turned in towards Aravaipa Canyon. The scenery here with rugged canyons and hillsides studded in giant Saguaros was rather spectacular. I spotted a pair of Harris’s Hawks, with one bird sitting on a nest in a cactus. Farther into the canyon we stopped and showed the group a Common Black-Hawk sitting on a nest, a rather uncommon species here despite its name. Colorful birds popped out us from the greenery of the canyon with a male Northern Cardinal, a lovely Yellow-breasted Chat and a stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher some of the real treats. Western Kingbird and Olive-sided Flycatcher were seen in tall dead trees, and a Gray Hawk posed nicely on a bare branch for extended scope views. After checking through dozens of Turkey Vultures today, our scrutiny was finally rewarded with the sighting of a Zone-tailed Hawk sailing above the canyon. Another new mammal, the Rock Squirrel, was an added to the list, and
our first butterflies, American Snout and Red-spotted Purple, were discovered here. On our way out of the canyon, one of the most sought-after species of the tour ran straight in front of our van and disappeared into the desert. It was a Greater Roadrunner, a bird a number of the members of the group had told me they would not leave Arizona without seeing. Pressure off on the first day, phew! The drive into Tucson was quite lovely as we followed the jagged peaks of the Santa Catalina Mountains. We checked into our accommodations and then went for a
delicious dinner nearby at the Texas Roadhouse.
Day 3, May 5 – Bright eyed and bushy tailed, everyone gathered for some pre-breakfast birding at 6AM. We made our way to Tucson’s Agua Caliente Park where we enjoyed some very nice birds. The morning weather was sunny and a comfortable temperature, and the wind picked up increasingly as we went along. Lucy’s Warblers showed well as adults fed begging youngsters in the mesquite trees. Northern Beardless Tyrannulet cooperated nicely as well, foraging at eye level on a couple of occasions. A stunning male Hooded Oriole sat up in a tree in the morning sunshine, and sharp-eyed Cyndy spotted a male Vermilion Flycatcher. We saw
several female Vermilions and a couple of youngsters as well this morning. All went quiet in the passerine department when a male Cooper’s Hawk sailed overhead. It didn’t take long for the birds to gain confidence again and carry on with their morning activities. Big and boisterous Brown-crested Flycatchers appeared and allowed us nice views through the scope. A pair of male Western Tanagers exploded with color atop a dead tree as we drooled while looking through the scope. Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Yellow Warbler all appeared, but very briefly, leaving us wanting more. Our first Phainopeplas provided the usual pronunciation problems associated with this species, while a pair of Cactus Wrens sang from a perch for a lengthy period of time. Along the edge of a man-made lake, three Spotted Sandpipers poked along while a female Purple Martin flew overhead. Even before breakfast we felt we’d already seen a full day’s worth of birds!
After breakfast we began our ascent of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The scenery was stunning with jagged and bizarre rock formations and sweeping views of Tucson below. Our first stop was at Chihuahua Pines picnic area where we encountered a nice selection of birds; Grace’s Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, White-breasted Nuthatch, Hutton’s Vireo, Spotted Towhee, and the comical Acorn Woodpeckers. Lovely butterflies
called Arizona Sister were about today at various locations. We next explored the shady confines of Bear Wallow, an excellent place to find warblers and other coniferous forest species. We were not disappointed and had fantastic views of several stunning Red-faced Warblers, as well as the uncommon Olive Warbler. American Robins gathered nesting material, while House Wrens sang their bubbly songs from every corner of the little gully. We had a picnic lunch at Bear Wallow and then continued on, almost being overwhelmed with excellent birds. Hermit Thrush, Brown Creeper, Pygmy and Red-breasted nuthatches and Mountain Chickadee all appeared, as if on cue.
We carried on up towards Mt. Lemmon where we hiked around at close to 9000 feet elevation. Violet-green Swallows appeared from out of nowhere and began buzzing about all around us. One of them perched on a snag long enough for some of us to get a scope view. Northern Flickers were noted here, along with a male Hairy Woodpecker. A male Broad-tailed Hummingbird was engaged in an impressive aerial display of diving from a dizzying height and swooping back up again. Male and female Western Bluebirds were a highlight, and it was very impressive to watch Red-tailed
Hawks hover in the wind almost at eye level in the stiff wind. A Steller’s Jay gave its raucous call from a snag in the distance and I got him in the scope for the group. We then went to the Cookie Cabin in Summerhaven, the ski village atop Mt. Lemmon, and had coffee while American Robins, Yellow-eyed Juncos and other birds kept us occupied. A walk back through the village along a creek produced Warbling Vireo, American Robins, Black-headed Grosbeak and more Acorn Woodpeckers. Up at a feeding station we watched as over a dozen Pine Siskins, several Black-headed Grosbeaks, Lesser Goldfinch and Pygmy Nuthatch came in to the feeders. Cliff Chipmunk also fed on the seeds beneath. Before we left Summerhaven I showed the group a lovely Virginia’s Warbler, and feeling very happy with our Santa Catalina experience we headed back down to Tucson. We had enjoyed the restaurant so much the night before we returned to the Texas Roadhouse once again for a delicious supper. Back at our hotel we tallied up the bird list for the day, and it came out to 69 species.
Day 4, May 6 – It was another sunny and hot day, as is the norm in Arizona, as we headed over to Sabino Canyon. As we waited for the first tram to depart and take us up into the canyon we were entertained by the antics of the Round-tailed Ground-Squirrels. Alastair pointed out a rather large Desert Spiny Lizard that was basking in the morning sun. The ride up to the top of the canyon was pleasant and was narrated by the driver, who pointed out various trees, landmarks and and told us the history of the canyon. As we strolled back down the canyon we saw some nice birds including an immature male Summer Tanager, decked out in yellow and red as he sang from a perch in a large cottonwood. Desert species including Black-throated Sparrow, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Verdin, and the like were seen quite well. High over a large cliff known as the Acropolis Wall, we watched through the scope as a Peregrine Falcon dive bombed a Prairie Falcon several times! White-throated Swifts also made a brief appearance as did a Cooper’s Hawk that swooped past right at eye level, making his way down the middle of the road. A few new butterflies encountered included Empress Leila, Sleepy Orange, Checkered White and Southern Dogface, and we had a nice Black-necked Garter Snake slithering
through a tree. I spotted two venomous critters on a dirt back, a rather impressive Giant Centipede, decked out in black, red and yellow, that was about 8 inches long, and a pair of Black Widow spiders, the shiny black female sitting next to her adoring mate, a small, unasuming looking spider with no idea about what his lady had planned for him. We had lunch near the visitor’s center and a couple of Round-tailed Ground Squirrels mooched scraps off us, one female being very pregnant.
The drive over to the Sonoran Desert Museum took about 45 minutes and once we arrived we explored various parts of this splendid exhibit. A few wild birds were noted, including a young male Costa’s Hummingbird, several Cactus Wrens, and some very nice Black-tailed Gnatcatchers. We had a little break for ice cream before setting off to look for a Gilded Flicker that I had discovered. The flicker didn’t want to give itself up to us, so we had to settle for a flight view as it disappeared into the giant Saguaros. It was very windy at this point in the afternoon so I decided to call it a day and we drove on to Green Valley. We had dinner and then retired for some well deserved rest.
Day 5, May 7 – We met early for breakfast today, and then made our way up into the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Canyon. With hopes of finding one of the more sought-after species of this canyon, the Elegant Trogon, we set off on a hike up into the mixed pine / oak forest where this species can be found. Though we heard one ‘barking’ we never did see it today, as was the case with most other birders we met on the trails. A couple of lucky souls proclaimed they had seen the bird, frustratingly. In the process of
trogon hunting we did see quite a nice selection of birds nonetheless, including a pair of Painted Redstarts that were building a nest right below us in a bank, seemingly not at all worried about our presence. Other birds we encountered included Plumbeous Vireo, Hutton’s Vireo, White-breasted Nuthatch, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mexican Jays, a Townsend’s Warbler and Yellow-eyed Juncos. We got back down to the parking lot and found it to be overrun with bikers, making for an interesting combination (birders and bikers). Down at the Kubo Cabin feeders we watched as the birds zipped in and out to feed. There were quite a few hummingbirds, including our first Magnificent
Hummingbirds, as well as Broad-billed Hummingbirds and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. Mexican Jays came in to feed and drink along the small creek and hordes of House Finches and Black-headed Grosbeaks fed voraciously on the seeds. A female Hepatic Tanager appeared several times, our first sighting of this species. Western Gray Squirrels and a few Rock Squirrels picked up seeds from the ground beneath the feeders.
We had lunch at the Madera Picnic area, which was quite a popular location with the locals today on this fine Sunday. A short walk after lunch provided sightings of Hermit Thrush, and a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, as well as a lovely male Hepatic Tanager. An Arizona Woodpecker appeared briefly but didn’t hang around long enough for the group to get on to. We then visited the Santa Rita Lodge feeders which were abuzz with activity. Hummingbirds were particularly numerous and we had great views of the Black-chinned Hummingbirds here. A group of Wild Turkeys were feeding away under the
feeders and at one point several of the males erupted into a display, puffing all their feathers up and strutting around. Acorn Woodpeckers came and went, while flocks of Lesser Goldfinches jostled for position on thistle feeders. A male Blue Grosbeak appeared briefly, but did not show himself for the group. Another group of birders arrived and exclaimed they had seen a trogon up at the Kubo, we piled back into the van and returned to the area that it had been seen. No luck for us, so we turned around and visited Proctor Road, in search of gnatcatchers, and we did find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Also here was a singing American Robin. On our way back to Green Valley, Cyndy spotted a Swainson’s Hawk soaring.
In the evening, after dinner, we returned to Madera Canyon, hoping for some nocturnal birds and perhaps even some mammals. We succeeded in both, with fantastic views of an Elf Owl at its nest hole near the Santa Rita Lodge. Later, we enjoyed crippling views of a Whiskered Screech-Owl, and we had quick but good views of a Western Screech-Owl. In the mammal department we saw several ‘Coue’s’ White-tailed Deer alongside the road in the canyon this evening. On our way back to Green Valley, I showed the group several Lesser Nighthawks feeding beneath the street lights. What a night!
Day 6, May 8 – It was a lovely morning today; cool, mostly sunny and fairly calm. We began birding at Florida Wash where I spotted one of the best birds of the day, a Crissal Thrasher, as it sat atop a Mesquite and sang in the morning sunshine. We also had great looks at some nice sparrows here including Black-throated, Botteri’s and Rufous-winged sparrows, the latter two new for the trip list. Swainson’s Hawk was seen quite well this morning and I screeched the van to a halt to show the group a nice Loggerhead Shrike on the telephone wire beside the road. Not a bad start to the day.
Over in Florida Canyon we hiked up the somewhat rugged trails, thinking just maybe we’d see the rare Rufous-capped Warbler, but luck wasn’t on our side. We met a fellow up there who had been ‘camped out’ in the spot for two hours and had not seen or heard the bird, so we didn’t feel too bad about missing it. In the process of searching we did
find some other goodies however; Ash-throated Flycatcher, Scott’s Oriole, Hooded Oriole, and Summer and Hepatic tanagers. We watched a male Hepatic Tanager feasting on a giant hawk moth here. Alastair identified a couple of new butterflies for the trip list; Tiny Checkerspot and Marine Blues, and we all saw a couple of impressive Giant Swallowtails as well.
Back in Madera Canyon we had a picnic lunch and then took a stroll through the pine / oak forest, dreaming of the Elegant Trogon once again. I overhead several members of the group say ‘I think the trogon is just a myth’, so now I really have to find them one. Today was not the day however. A few Plumbeous and Hutton’s vireos, Painted Redstart, Brown Creeper and Dusky-capped Flycatcher singing in the canyon this afternoon, but not at all easy to see. We headed for the relative ease of watching the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge and this was a good move. Many of the same birds we had seen here the previous day were again present, such as Wild Turkeys, Mexican Jays, Acorn Woodpeckers, Lesser Goldfinch and White-breasted Nuthatch. A lovely male and immature male Scott’s Oriole came in to feed on orange halves and our first Rufous-
crowned Sparrow of the tour hopped about near a brush pile. At the water feature a Lincoln’s Sparrow paused for a drink. Hummingbird feeders were bustling with Black-chinned, Broad-billed, Broad-tailed and aptly name Magnificent hummingbirds. I heard the squeaky calls of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak in a tree nearby so after a little searching I located the bird, a female, and showed this local rarity to my group. Quite a few other birds were also jumping about in the same tree including Black-headed Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers and soon I discovered why. There was a Northern Pygmy-Owl nestled away in the branches of the juniper tree! We had fantastic views of this tiny, yet vicious diurnal hunter. Beneath the feeders, yet another mammal to add to the trip list, a Hispid
Before calling it a day we took a stroll around Proctor Road, again hoping for gnatcatchers with little black caps, but no luck there. Roger spotted another good bird here, a Red-naped Sapsucker. The cool weather seemed to have knocked a few migrants down this afternoon, with good numbers of Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, Wilson’s Warblers and Pacific-slope Flycatchers about. A Cassin’s Kingbird was another new addition to the trip list here, and we also saw just our third Gray Hawk of the tour.
Day 7, May 9 – Today was the coldest day I have ever experienced in Arizona and I’ve done 10 tours here now. The temperature hovered between 6 and 15 degrees Celsius and we encountered a bit of everything with sun, clouds, rain and wind. Cyndy excitedly reported she had found a Greater Roadrunner outside of our Nogales hotel so everyone
headed outside and watched the roadrunner collecting various bits of food from the road. Nice start! We then headed to Rio Rico to see if there were any flooded fields this year and we were in luck as there was a little strip of water along the edge of some fields. In the water were 16 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and several ‘Mexican’ Mallards. A pair of Swainson’s Hawks perched nicely in a cottonwood in the morning sun, and the first of a number of Vermilion Flycatchers for the day, were found along the fence line.
Next stop was at Patagonia Lake State Park, and this was a very productive location this morning with a good number of resident birds present as well as a healthy number of migrants knocked down by the weather. Most common migrants included Western Tanagers, Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers, Townsend’s Warblers and Pacific-slope Flycatcher. Smaller numbers of Lincoln’s Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, MacGillivray’s Warbler and various swallows also were tallied. We had an impressive count of Vermilion Flycatchers here, with several family groups about, and also we had Say’s Phoebes feeding young. Other nests discovered included a White-winged Dove and a Gila Woodpecker. Bright splashes of color came in the form of Summer Tanagers and Northern Cardinals and we enjoyed watching a male Common Yellowthroat put on a nice performance for us. Bell’s Vireo, Lucy’s Warbler, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, and
Cassin’s Kingbird also put in appearances. After hearing a number of Dusky-capped Flycatchers we were happy to finally get a view of a pair of them in the mesquites. A Yellow-breasted Chat appeared in the tree above our head, showing rather nicely, especially for this normally somewhat elusive species. Out on Patagonia Lake were the usual American Coots, with broods of cute little red headed babies, as well as a single Pied-billed Grebe. A group of 25 or so Neotropic Cormorants rested on a sand bar while a single immature Double-crested Cormorant was the first for our trip list. In the mud along the edge of the lake were several White-faced Ibis, as well as a Great Blue Heron, Spotted Sandpiper and Killdeer. Green Heron and Black-crowned Night-Heron were seen as they flew past. All in all, it was a very birdy visit to Patagonia Lake Park.
Lunch at the Gathering Grounds in Patagonia was lovely as usual and after we finished we took half an hour to explore the artsy little village before heading over to the Paton’s Center for Hummingbirds. It was nice to run into fellow BC birder Thor Manson here,
and he pointed out to us which feeders to keep our eyes on for the local area specialty, Violet-crowned Hummingbird. No longer than he had just pointed out the feeder and bird arrived showing off its lovely violet crown and gleaming white underparts. Other hummers here included Black-chinned, Anna’s, Broad-tailed and Broad-billed hummingbirds. Seed feeders attracted the usual hordes of Lesser Goldfinches and House Finches. On the ground were White-crowned Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Curve-billed Thrasher, Inca Doves and Gambel’s Quail. Just as we left the Paton’s the rain began so we drove down towards Sonoita Creek Preserve and just birded the road from the car. We didn’t see too much, but we did find an Olive-sided Flycatcher and Graham spotted a Black Phoebe.
The rains carried on as we birded at the Patagonia Roadside Rest Stop, though after a short ‘rain delay’ in the van, we headed back out into the field to find some goodies. Our target species, Thick-billed Kingbird, appeared as if on cue and showed well through the scope. We hoped for a Rock Wren on the cliffs here, but only came up with Canyon Wren instead. The mequite trees had migrants in them; Western Tanagers, Warbling Vireo,
Yellow, Wilson’s and Townsend’s Warblers. Ash-throated and Brown-crested flycatchers showed themselves here and we finally saw two Black Vultures sitting high up in a giant sycamore drying off their wings. A couple of Gray Hawks appeared, one sitting in a bush on a hillside, allowing nice scope views. The rain fell even harder as we drove back to Nogales where we had a little break before heading out for dinner at a local Italian establishment called Orenccio’s.
Day 8, May 10 – The Greater Roadrunner made an appearance at our hotel in Nogales again this morning before we left, as did Curve-billed Thrasher, and nesting Cliff Swallows. We took a short detour down to the Mexican border for photo ops before heading off to Pena Blanca Lake, west of Nogales. Along the way we had a Collared Peccary scoot across the road in front of the van, our first for the trip. The drive to Pena Blanca was very scenic and the sky was crisp and clear after overnight rains. As we neared the lake, a male Bronzed Cowbird sat obligingly in a tree near the van, another new species for the tour. Birding was very enjoyable at Pena Blanca with nice mixed
flocks of sparrows about, including Lark, Rufous-winged, Chipping and Song sparrows. Violet-green Swallows were abundant as they foraged low over the water and perched on wires and on mesquite trees for scope views. In the lakeside bushes were migrants with the likes of Olive-sided Flycatcher, Wilson’s Warbler, Warbling Vireo and Western Tanagers fattening up. We had our first Nashville Warbler of the tour here, along with Yellow Warblers and Lucy’s Warblers. Vermilion Flycatchers continued to light up the desert with their magically bright plumage, and other comparatively drab flycatchers like Brown-crested, Dusky-capped and Western-Wood Pewee also put in appearances. Not much was about out on the lake itself, other than a few Mallards (one of them a ‘big-bottomed’ girl), a couple of American Coots and along the shore a Spotted Sandpiper.
Another stop at the Patagonia Roadside Rest was starkly different than when we had stopped the previous day, when it was cold and rainy. Today the temperature was perfect and the sky was blue. Our best sightings included a lovely Canyon Wren that sang right in front of us. Also, an adult Gray Hawk showed nicely while an immature bird sailed
overhead. We had another delicious lunch at my favorite cafe in all of Arizona, the Gathering Grounds, in Patagonia. A Phainopepla greeted us from a tree overhead as we headed in to have lunch. Then, we headed off to check the grasslands around Sonoita and found the access road I normally take in was closed due to a fire. I found an alternate route into the grasslands, though the habitat wasn’t quite as nice as I would have liked. Turns out, it still produced most of the birds I was after, ‘Lilian’s’ Eastern Meadowlark, Horned Lark, Chihuahuan Raven and a lovely little Grasshopper Sparrow. From the front seat of the van, Janice spotted Pronghorn Antelope out in the grasslands.
Once we arrived in Sierra Vista we checked in to our hotel and then made our way to the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains at Ash Canyon B & B. We sat in the chairs and indulged in some ‘lazy mans’ birding as hummingbirds, jays, woodpeckers, grosbeaks, finches and more came in to feed. A Wild Turkey sneaked up behind us and let out a loud ‘gobble gobble gobble’, and I’ve never seen a group of birders jump faster with fright
than I did at that moment. Broad-billed, Anna’s, Broad-tailed, Black-chinned and Magnificent hummingbirds all came in to feed, but the Lucifer Hummingbird, our most wanted hummer, made us wait for a long time before he finally made an appearance. It was definitely worth the wait let me tell you. After the Lucifer appeared, Cyndy led the cheer as we let out a group ‘Texas Yeeehaw’. Several mammal species were noted here including a Pocket Gopher, a Hispid Cotton Rat and the usual Western Gray Squirrels. We enjoyed another great Arizona meal this evening at Applebee’s.
Day 9, May 11 – Another picture perfect morning in Arizona today, as we headed for Subway to pick up our lunch. Upon arrival at the restaurant, a Greater Roadrunner was giving it’s ‘whining dog’ call atop a bed and mattress store roof. The girl behind the counter at Subway was very friendly and efficient today and had us on our way in no time. We bumped and bounced our way up the Carr Canyon Road, pausing briefly at the bottom to search for Eastern Bluebird. No bluebird here, but we did see quite a variety of species including Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Bridled Titmouse, Bewick’s Wren and Hutton’s Vireo. After a bumpy ride up, we were happy to get out of the van and do some birding at about 7000 feet elevation around the Reef Townsite Campground. It didn’t take us too long to find some of our target species including over a dozen Buff-breasted Flycatchers, a species that breeds only in the Huachuca Mountains in the USA. The ‘Jose Maria’ call of the Greater Pewee was heard incessantly this morning and we enjoyed several good views of them as well. Eastern
Bluebirds thankfully appeared at the campground, showing nicely, as did a nice male Arizona Woodpecker. Other species that put on a nice show this morning included several Painted Redstarts, as well as Grace’s Warblers, Hermit Thrush, Brown Creeper and American Robin. Cyndy spotted a couple of distant Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays on a ridge above the road. We had a nice picnic lunch in the forest before we began our descent. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when we were finally on flat ground and paved road at the bottom of Carr Canyon Rd.
The latter part of the afternoon was spent in the cool, shady confines of Ramsey Canyon. Being the early afternoon, bird activity was a bit slow, though nonetheless, we did find some interesting species amongst the oaks and sycamores. Painted Redstarts, Western and Hepatic tanagers, Mexican Jays and other usual canyon suspects were noted, along
with Acorn Woodpeckers, and a very noisy Northern Flicker that we eventually got great views of in the scope. The sighting of a Northern Pygmy-Owl was a highlight at Ramsey Canyon. While there were some nice birds in the canyon, the butterflies were even better, with the likes of Red-spotted Purple, Arizona Sister, Mourning Cloak, Two-tailed Swallowtail and others putting on quite a show. We watched some feeders where hummingbirds included Broad-tailed, Magnificent, Black-chinned and Broad-billed. Back down in Sierra Vista we went out for dinner and later tried our luck at finding Common Poorwills in lower Miller Canyon. We did find one or two, though they were a bit distant. With the help of my flashlight we could see the red eye shine of one individual as it leapt up into the air several times, presumably to catch bugs, and then returned to the same perch. The ‘poorwill’ calls of about 4 birds could be heard this evening.
Day 10, May 12 – This morning we returned to Ramsey Canyon. Up at the Bledsoe Loop we were ecstatic to hear and soon after see, a male Elegant Trogon. The bird posed nicely for scope views and photo ops and this was easily one of the top bird moments of the
trip. Here, our group split up, with some opting to hang out in Lower Ramsey Canyon to see what they could see, and the rest heading up into Upper Ramsey Canyon, a bit of a grueling hike, with elevation gains of over 1000 feet. It was a lovely hike, and we saw quite a few interesting species along the way, though none as exciting as the Tufted Flycatcher, the sole bird that urged us to do this march. The tiny Tufted Flycatcher is a Central and South American species, and it has only occurred north of the Mexican border a handful of times. I first detected the bird by call and soon thereafter we were enjoying views through the scope. A couple who was also there at the same time spotted the nest of the Tufted Flycatcher, tucked up against the trunk of a large deciduous tree. Our walk back down to Lower Ramsey Canyon was comparatively easy and we all had big smiles on our faces.
After lunch we began the journey towards Portal and the Chiricahua Mountains,
stopping along the way at San Pedro House. I hoped we might find a Common Ground-Dove here, a species still missing from our list. There were quite a few birds around the house in the large cottonwood trees and at feeders. Blue Grosbeaks were seen well here, and we had brief views of a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, locally fairly rare. We were directed to the location of a roosting Western Screech-Owl in a cottonwood and the bird, half hidden in the trees, played hide and seek with us as we searched for the best possible gap in the leaves to view the bird through. Later, we bumped into a birder from Texas who pointed out to me a Common Ground-Dove! I thanked him and asked if he would like a Western Screech-Owl in return.
He said yes, of course, so off we went to show him the owl. As luck would have it, the bird had moved and I couldn’t spot it anywhere, so feeling a bit embarrassed I explained that it had just been there. Soon thereafter we noticed the owl had repositioned itself and was now showing better than ever as it sat the entrance to a cavity in the trunk. We carried on through the dusty border city of Douglas, making our way eventually across the New Mexico border, where for just a brief moment, David’s wrist watch was finally on the correct hour. We swung back into Arizona and before we knew it we were at Portal. I showed the group a nest of Great Horned Owls and they watched the fluffy chick peering out of its nest as I checked us into the lodge. After dinner we took a little stroll down the main street and had very good views of an Elf Owl.
Day 11, May 13 – Pre-breakfast we made our way out towards the New Mexico border at State Line Road where it didn’t take us too long to find our target species, Bendire’s Thrasher. A pair of them, first perched on a post on the New Mexico side of the border, later flew west into Arizona, so it was a tick on both state lists. Also in this area this morning were our first Scaled Quail. With some time to spare before breakfast we tried our luck with finding two more species; Black-chinned Sparrow and Juniper Titmouse, both often found in the juniper habitats around Paradise. We heard a Black-chinned Sparrow, but despite our efforts it just wouldn’t show itself. Luckily, all was not lost, since
we had fantastic views of a pair of Juniper Titmouse this morning. We headed back to Portal and had a delicious breakfast.
Eight happy birders with full bellies jumped back into the van and we began our ascent of the Chiricahua Mountains. We tried again for the Black-chinned Sparrow on the way up, with no luck, so we carried on up to the upper elevations at around 7000 feet. The views of the desert below and the mountains in the distance was breathtaking. We stopped at Rustler Park to use the bathrooms, and as luck would have it, Alastair spotted a couple of Mexican Chickadees here. This excellent sighting, no doubt, saved us quite a bit of time searching for the chickadee. Our next stop was in Pinery Canyon where we
had lunch in the shade of, you guessed it, the pine trees. After we ate, I put the scope on another new species for our trip list, a Cordilleran Flycatcher. There were several of them singing in the canyon. We searched for a previously reported Slate-throated Redstart, and had no luck finding it, but did see quite a few other birds in the process; Yellow-eyed Junco, Painted Redstart, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Hermit Thrush to name a few.
Back down to Portal we headed, via the very scenic Cave Creek Canyon. Once in Portal we strolled along the main street towards some feeders and it didn’t take us too long to find another of our target species, North America’s largest hummingbird, the Blue-throated Hummingbird. A swarm of bees had us retreating from this location rather quickly, so we headed for another popular feeding station not far from town. The Rodriguez feeders were quite
busy this afternoon. At orange halves were stunning and colorful birds like Bullock’s Orioles, alongside Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers and Pyrrhuloxias. Somewhat more drab feeder visitors included Canyon Towhee, Black-throated Sparrow, and best of all a Crissal Thrasher! Hummingbirds of several species were busy at the feeders as well. We headed back to Portal, had dinner and enjoyed the funky sounds from a local musician on the outdoor stage.
Day 12, May 14 – Before breakfast we headed out one last time to try for the rather elusive Black-chinned Sparrow. Unfortunately, we didn’t find one this morning, though of course, there were plenty of other birds to be seen. We had breakfast at Portal and then began the drive back towards Phoenix. The first hour or so of the journey took us through a rather remote portion of western New Mexico. We entered back into Arizona and soon thereafter stopped in at Willcox. No birding tour would be complete without at least one visit to some good old fashioned sewage ponds, so we spent about an hour scanning through the birds at the Willcox lagoons. New birds tallied for the trip list included waterfowl such as American Wigeon, Gadwall and Lesser Scaup. A flock of about 40 Wilson’s Phalaropes were fantastic to find, and even better once we discovered there were two Red-necked Phalaropes mixed in with them. As we left the area, I spotted a female Lark Bunting on the grass next to the road, our one and only member of this species spotted on the entire tour. We paused for lunch at Benson, and then carried on through Tucson to the Santa Cruz flats. Following up on a tip from a friend of mine, I was on the hunt for one last bird to add to our trip list, a Burrowing Owl. We got to the spot and sure enough there were two Burrowing Owls posing for us in the afternoon sun. This was a fantastic bird to end the trip on, and we drove on into Phoenix, where I said goodbye to the group at Sky Harbor Airport.
Day 1, April 22 – I met up with the group of 5 folks from the U.K on this Limosa tour this afternoon. Two people currently live in the U.K. One lives in Melbourne, Australia and the other two live in Calgary, Canada. We went out for dinner at the Olive Garden and then got a good night’s rest before all the excitement begins tomorrow morning.
Day 2, April 23 – A cold front arrived overnight bringing with it cool temperatures and northerly winds, so as we emerged from the hotel we reached for our warm fleeces. The sun was shining all day and by noon it was a comfortable temperature in the low 20 degrees Celsius range. Before we had left the parking lot a few species were added to the
trip list such as House Finch, White Ibis and Little Blue Heron. We drove north to W.G. Jones State Forest where the birding was very good this morning amongst the Loblolly Pines. It didn’t take us too long to find our big target species for the day, a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, foraging on the trunk of a large pine tree. Woodpeckers in general were quite cooperative here this morning with lovely views of both Red-bellied and Red-headed woodpeckers as well. A Pileated Woodpecker called in the distance, but remained unseen. Eastern Bluebirds appeared as if on cue, and paused long enough for me to get them in the scope for all to enjoy. Other goodies that performed for us included two studies in red; Northern Cardinal and Summer Tanagers, and studies in yellow; Yellow-breasted Chat and Pine Warbler. Carolina Wrens sang from every corner of the woods and eventually we laid eyes on one, pointed out by Aiden. Flitting in the pines were both Brown-headed Nuthatches and Carolina Chickadees, while overhead,
Turkey and Black vultures, and Broad-winged Hawk sailed by. A group of Cedar Waxwings posed nicely in the morning sun, and Blue Jays were numerous, their calls ringing throughout the woods.
We took a short break to use some nearby facilities and pick up some lunch before venturing out on the Middle Lake Trail, where the good birds continued to roll in. Two lovely warbler species appeared and showed quite well in the undergrowth, a male
Hooded Warbler and a male Kentucky Warbler. As we watched for birds in the undergrowth, the shadows of passing Turkey Vultures overhead kept us raising our eyes towards the sky, and this paid off with sightings of several Red-shouldered Hawks, one of which was carrying a snake, and one or two Mississippi Kites sailing over. Some of the first butterflies of the trip began to appear as the day warmed up with Painted Lady and Black Swallowtail noted on our pre-lunch walk. Also, the first mammal was seen, a pair of Eastern Fox Squirrels squabbling along an old fence. We had a picnic lunch, and then piled back into the van
and made our way to Jesse Jones Nature Park, not far from our hotel in the area just north of Houston. We attempted, and failed, to find a reported Swainson’s Warbler here, though as a consolation prize we were rewarded with lovely views of a singing male Prothonotary Warbler. A Green Heron called as it came in for a landing in the lovely cypress trees at a little swamp, and Red-eared Sliders popped up from the murky water. A Wood Thrush sang its lovely song from the forest, but only Joan got a glimpse of the bird. A short stop at the visitor’s center provided us with views of several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, including a male, as they fed on flowers and feeders. House Finch, White-winged Dove and Northern Cardinal patronized seed feeders nearby. Flowers attracted more butterflies as well with Gulf Fritillary, Pipevine Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail and an
unidentified duskywing appearing. Our first Eastern Gray Squirrel, not the most popular mammal for many, appeared in Jesse Jones Park this afternoon. To finish off our exploration of the park we strolled along the Cypress Boardwalk trail, catching a glimpse of another gorgeous male Prothonotary Warbler. Northern Parulas sang from high in the trees, and eventually we got a view of a male as he bobbed about amongst the leaves. Several Indigo Buntings skulked in the underbrush along with our first Gray Catbird of the trip. Feeling as though we’d had a very productive day we returned to our hotel, and took a little rest before venturing out for a tasty dinner.
Day 3, April 24 – We left Houston this morning, joining the rush hour, and made our way down to Winnie in fairly good time. After a short stop at our hotel to drop off luggage, and then a stop at the grocery store to pick up provisions for lunch we headed out to do some birding. It was a lovely sunny day with pleasantly warm temperatures as we began our birding along FM 1941. The first bird we encountered were a couple of stunning Scissor-tailed Flycatchers along a fence line next to our van. Next, Eastern Meadowlarks appreared, followed by Eastern Kingbirds and Savannah Sparrows. A little farther along I noticed a group of about 4 Dickcissels in the shrubbery next to our van. A grassy field, where the previous week I had Upland Sandpipers, again produced the birds, with up to a dozen appearing. However, the sandpipers seemed a bit skittish and when we got out for a look, most of them flew back to the far end of the field. Christine spotted a pair of Common Nighthawks roosting on a metal bar, and a little farther along I paused to show the group their first Crested Caracara of the tour. We stopped at a little bridge over a ditch and scanned through the Cliff Swallows, eventually picking out several Cave Swallows. Next, we turned down Pear Orchard Road where the previous week we had American Golden-Plovers. This was not the case today as a crop dusting plane was buzzing over the fields at about 20 feet elevation. The Gull-billed Terns were still there, however. Once we reached the entrance to Anahuac, we stopped to view a flooded field with good numbers of shorebirds. The lighting made things a bit tricky, but a nice little group of birds were huddled in the corner close to where we stood in reasonable light. There were Semipalmated Sandpipers, as well as up to 8 White-rumped Sandpipers. An adult Stilt Sandpiper, coming into breeding plumage foraged next to a Lesser Yellowlegs, and a few Least Sandpipers scurried about on the mud. Farther out in the deeper water, a Dunlin probed about, as did Black-necked Stilts and a Willet. A single Semipalmated Plover also showed nicely for us. At the Anahuac visitor’s center we found a male Bronzed Cowbird, and a short walk produced a little group of White-crowned Sparrows. Our first Giant Swallowtail, an impressive butterfly, was found in flowers near the visitor’s center as well. Warbling and Red-eyed vireos appeared rather briefly in the trees, and a nice male Orchard Oriole showed well. We had a picnic lunch under a shelter where Cliff Swallows and Barn Swallows were nesting, and then we headed off on a drive around Shoveler
Pond. Herons and egrets were numerous with Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Tricolored Heron and Little Blue Heron found, as well as many White-faced Ibis, White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbills. An American Bittern was probably our best catch at Anahuac this afternoon, as it sat frozen near the edge of the pond. American Coots, Common Gallinules and lovely Purple Gallinules were seen well, while a Sora was just briefly seen and King Rail heard only. Waterfowl noted included both Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, Mottled Ducks and a single Northern Shoveler called out by Joan. A Marsh Wren sat atop the reeds long enough for us to get scope views of the
little skulker, while a female Common Yellowthroat only briefly appeared and left us wanting more. As we drove around the pond, we saw several American Alligators of various sizes, as well as Red-eared Sliders and several unidentified fishes.
The afternoon was getting on so we began the short drive over to High Island and we visited Boy Scout Woods, which was quite active with migrant birds. In the parking lot a Mulberry tree attracted several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, both Summer and Scarlet tanagers and a group of Cedar Waxwings. As we neared the park’s entrance, we were distracted by a lovely Baltimore Oriole. We watched the drip for quite some time this afternoon, and we were rewarded with sightings of Wood Thrush, many Swainson’s Thrushes and some nice Gray-cheeked Thrushes. Warblers that appeared included Hooded and Tennessee and several American Redstarts. Though there was a lack of warblers, the larger migrants were very numerous, especially Scarlet Tanagers, Summer Tanagers, thrushes, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Gray Catbirds, Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles. A short stroll through the woods produced an Eastern Wood-Pewee, as well as a Northern Waterthrush at another little pond. We heard a Painted Bunting singing away, but it just wouldn’t appear for us,
though a few Indigo Buntings did cooperate. I pointed out a female American Redstart flitting about in a bush and Christine pointed out a lovely male foraging on the other side of the same bush. Also spotted by sharp-eyed Christine, was our first Red-tailed Hawk of the tour. On our way back to the van after a very productive session at Boy Scout Woods, an Inca Dove diverted our attention as it displayed from a power line. We had dinner at Tony’s BBQ this evening, which was quite good, and tallied up our bird list which had reached over 90 species for the day.
Day 4, April 25 – The calm, serene surroundings of Taylors Bayou provided the backdrop for our first birding destination this morning. As we made our way into the bayou I spotted a Fish Crow flapping alongside the van, and thankfully the bird let out its croaky
call, confirming its identity. A pair of Wood Ducks were precariously perched atop a snag next to the bayou, allowing us have a look at them, the male in his spectacular breeding garb. Joan spotted a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron along a ditch as we drove along, and once we stopped the van and got out we found there to be quite a number of the night-herons in some cypress trees nearby. A lovely surprise was finding a group of up to 4 River Otters playing in the waters of the bayou this morning! After a little searching we found a lovely singing male Yellow-throated Warbler here, and we had scope views of a female Prothonotary Warbler. Northern Parulas sang their buzzy songs from the trees around us, but remained hidden.
We then drove east to Sabine Pass, where we paused to use the facilities before heading off to explore Pilot Station Road and associated wetland habitats. In this area we tallied an impressive list of over 70 species of birds! In the wetlands we had fantastic views of a
Seaside Sparrow as it sang from sedge grasses just in front of us. Shorebirds were well represented with Dunlin, Least and Semipalmated sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Sanderling, Spotted Sandpiper and Black-bellied Plovers all in the mix. On the beach were assorted gulls and terns includng both Forster’s and Common terns, as well as Royal, Sandwich, Black and the diminutive Least Tern and a single Black Skimmer, picked out by Christine. Clapper Rails were making a great racket all around us, but remained hidden until we came to a nice clearing where one bird came down to the edge of the
water and allowed us fantastic scope views. A Sora also crossed the road, though it wasn’t seen by everyone in the group. Other species that were tallied this morning included a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers, and migrants including Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting and Eastern Kingbirds. A treat for our mammal list today was the sighting of several Bottlenose Dolphins riding the bow of a giant tanker out in the waters of Sabine Pass.
After a delicious lunch at Tammy’s Diner in Sabine Pass we headed for Sea Rim State Park. On the lagoons near the parking area the same male Redhead that was present for my Canadian group the previous week was still there today, along with Blue-winged Teal,
Northern Shoveler, Mottled Duck and American Coot. We walked out to the beach and enjoyed a plover bonanza with several Black-bellied Plovers and Semipalmated Plovers, and singles each of Wilson’s, Piping and Snowy plovers. Other shorebirds noted here included Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Willets and Dunlin. Two interesting gulls were sighted, a first year Lesser Black-backed Gull and an adult Franklin’s Gull.
Reluctantly we left the beach and headed for Sabine Woods, where I hoped we would find a rarity that had been present for a few days, a Yellow-green Vireo. The rather elusive vireo, even though it was sighted several times while we were in the park, eluded us. Lots of other goodies were seen here this afternoon, however, including large
numbers of the bigger migrants such as Summer and Scarlet tanagers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, and thrushes including Veery, Gray-cheeked, Swainson’s and Wood. Only a few warblers were about, including Northern Waterthrush, American Redstarts, Hooded Warbler, and Canada Warbler, though unfortunately the latter species disappeared before anyone in the group could get onto it. Also a highlight in the warbler department this afternoon were two Ovenbirds. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo briefly dashed through the leaves behind the drip, but again eluded us for a better look. Though we couldn’t track down the rare Yellow-green Vireo, there
were several Red-eyed Vireos lurking about in the canopy, and a few Eastern Wood-Pewees made appearances as well. Our first Brown Thrashers of the tour were tallied in the woods this afternoon as well. The drive back to Winnie, through the extensive oil refineries of Port Arthur, went fairly swiftly and after a little rest we headed out for a tasty dinner at a local Mexican establishment.
Day 5, April 26 – First things first, we stopped and picked up lunch in Winnie this morning, before visiting a flooded field along Hwy 124 south of town. This field produced some fantastic birds including a couple of Hudsonian Godwits and two Buff-breasted Sandpipers. We took a spin down Oilfield Road and enjoyed close up views of Least and Semipalmated sandpipers, Black-necked Stilts, Dunlin, egrets, ibis and a Sora. Once we made it to the Bolivar Peninsula we stopped in at Rollover Pass where we added an
American Oystercatcher to our trip list, as it strolled right in front of us. Otherwise, we enjoyed nice studies of terns and gulls there. Along Yacht Basin Road we got scope views of a Nelson’s Sparrow out in the marsh, and a Crested Caracara flew past.
After a short pit-stop we checked out Gregory Park in Crystal Beach where we got great views of a Long-billed Curlew probing away into the grass. At Bolivar Flats we scanned the beach where hundreds of shorebirds were feeding, with species such as Dunlin, Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Ruddy Turnstone, Willet and Semipalmated Plover the dominant ones. We did add a few new birds here including a non-breeding plumage Red Knot and a couple of Reddish Egrets, with both white and dark morph birds present. In the dunes along the edge of the beach we had nice scope views of a Horned Lark as well, another new species for the bulging
trip list. Waterfowl included three birds new for us; Greater and Lesser scaup and the continuing Long-tailed Duck. A Nothern Harrier did its stooping display over a large open field, another first for the tour. A light rain began to fall as we made our way back to the van. We drove back to Gregory Park where had lunch under the sheltered picnic area, though by then the rain had stopped.
The afternoon was spent strolling about the High Island area looking for migrants, and they were plentiful. We had upwards of 17 species of warblers including several new ones; a rather elusive Canada Warbler, a stunning male Blackburnian Warbler, several Yellow Warblers, a male Black-and-white Warbler, a male Blackpoll Warbler spotted by Malcolm, a male Magnolia Warbler and several Black-throated Green Warblers. I had a
male Mourning Warbler, but it disappeared before anyone else could get on it. American Redstarts were common, along with Tennessee Warblers and Common Yellowthroats. A Yellow-breasted Chat sang periodically. Vireos were well represented with multiples of Yellow-throated, Philadelphia, Warbling, Red-eyed and White-eyed. Painted Buntings were numerous today and we had good views of several males. I spotted a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and we had fantastic and lengthy scope views of the bird. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore Orioles, Orchard Orioles, Scarlet and Summer tanagers, Gray Catbirds and Eastern Kingbirds were abundant. Eastern Wood-Pewees were quite common and a few thrushes remained including Veery, Gray-cheeked and
Swainson’s. It really was quite a bonanza of migrants at Smith Oaks this afternoon. We saw a rather large Yellow-bellied Water Snake beside the path, our first snake for this particular trip. Before we left the High Island area we headed over to Boy Scout Woods to check out a report of a Cape May Warbler in a bottle brush near the entrance. As soon as we arrived somebody called out, ‘here it is’, and they were right. A gorgeous male Cape May Warbler put on a lovely show for us in an attractive bottle brush. Other birds were also flocking to the same tree; Tennessee Warblers, Orchard Orioles, Baltimore Orioles and several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. On our way back to Winnie, I spotted a Peregrine Falcon on a tall radio tower, our first for the tour. What a day! We tallied up our list at dinner
and we’d seen close to 130 species of birds. After dark we headed out to Taylors Bayou and managed to hear a pair of Barred Owls, but they wouldn’t show themselves. It was great to take in the sights and sounds of the night, with several species of frogs calling, including a very noisy Bullfrog that John imitated quite well. Fireflies danced through the sky and the stars were stunning.
Day 6, April 27 – Our day began lovely and sunny, though a bit cool, and it remained very nice throughout the entire time we were out. We began along FM 1941 south of Winnie where in the grassy fields we enjoyed watching a group of 20 or so Upland Sandpipers. Also at this grassy field, a flock of upwards of 50 Buff-breasted Sandpipers circled overhead, looking for somewhere to land. This is the largest gathering of this species I have ever encountered. The usual Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Eastern Kingbirds, Dickcissels, and Loggerhead Shrikes were also seen, in addition to a Western Kingbird
which was a new bird for the tour list. A Lincoln’s Sparrow briefly popped into view, but disappeared before the participants could get a good view. Also in the category of leader only was a Merlin that sailed through a flock of assorted swallows, containing our first trip Bank Swallows. We turned down S. Pear Orchard Road, seeing another couple of Western Kingbirds, and happening upon a nice flooded rice field. In the rice field were several American Golden-Plovers, our first for the tour, as well as Black-bellied and Semipalmated plovers, Stilt Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet and our first Solitary Sandpiper of the trip. Joan exclaimed she had seen something resembling a Northern Bobwhite so we backed up the van and were ecstatic when a pair of bobwhites erupted out of the grass and flew a short distance ahead of us. One of the birds, a stunning male, ran back towards the van,
trotting just a few meters from us, right out in the open! If only the camera had been ready.
At Anahuac NWR we headed for Skillern Tract where it didn’t take us too long to find our target species. A Least Bittern was spotted as it lurked in the reeds and we had great views through the scope. A trio of Black-crowned Night-Herons flapped lazily overhead, two new ticks for the trip list. After a short stop at the Anahuac visitors center we drove around Shoveler Pond, this time with two species in our sights; Glossy Ibis and King Rail. We scanned through dozens of White-faced Ibis until eventually we picked out a couple of adult Glossy Ibis. Success! King Rails, however did not want to ‘play ball’ and we only heard them calling from the marsh once again. A Sora came out into the open however. Purple Gallinules were numerous and we had some very impressive American Alligators out basking in the sun. From Anahuac we made our way back into our home base of Winnie where we had lunch, and then we re-visited High Island in the afternoon. First thing we did was head on over to the rookery at Smith Oaks where the usual commotion of nesting and rearing young was in full swing for Great and Snowy egrets, Roseate Spoonbills and Neotropic Cormorants. Hungry Alligators waited beneath the rookery, in case an unlucky youngster got shoved out of its nest.Once we’d had our fill of nesting herons, we headed out in
search of passerine migrants. It was very slow for the first half hour or so of our explorations, but it didn’t take too long for the birds to begin to drop in. A smattering of warblers were present this afternoon with Black-and-white, Hooded, Kentucky, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian and our first and only Wilson’s Warbler of the tour noted. I heard a locally rare Buff-bellied Hummingbird chipping away in the woods here, but unfortunately it wouldn’t come out to show itself. With the afternoon fading we made our way over the Boy Scout Woods for a look and I chatted with John Coons who told me of a Bay-breasted Warbler in a large oak nearby. Off we trotted, and it didn’t take long for me to spot the lovely male
Bay-breasted Warbler foraging in the tree, alongside a beautiful male Magnolia Warbler. We watched a flurry of activity at a little cypress swamp next, where a variety of warblers, tanagers and thrushes came down to the water to drink and bath. Back at Purky’s Pond and the drip we spent the final half hour of the day watching, as mostly Gray Catbirds came and went. All in all it was a good day, and we tallied about 110 species.
Day 7, April 28 – Our last full day on the Upper Coast I decided to deviate from the usual schedule of returning to areas we’d already been, and try something new instead. We drove to Silsbee and the lower end of the Big Thicket. I set myself the goal of finding the group four new species, and we did pretty well, finding three out of four. First new addition was one of the more sought-after warbler species on the Upper Coast, a Swainson’s Warbler. The bird sang and called from deep within the thickets alongside
Gore Store Road and after a bit of effort most of us had acquired a pretty good view of the little skulker. At a nearby creek crossing we found the second target species, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, flitting in tall trees next to the road. We drove on, searching for short, regenerating pine forests and when I found suitable habitat it didn’t take me long to locate a singing male Prairie Warbler and get us all onto the little beauty. Feeling pretty good about our haul of new birds we began the journey back towards the coast, stopping in at Sabine Pass for lunch at Tammie’s Diner. After lunch we made our way to Sabine Woods. It was a slow day for migrants here, though we did add one more bird, a very obliging Louisiana Waterthrush. Otherwise, we just had the usual common migrant species here such as Orchard Oriole, Summer and Scarlet tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Hooded Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Wood-Pewee etc. We returned to Winnie and went out for Mexican food.
Day 8, April 29 – With one last morning to try and add a few species to our trip list, we bid adieu to Aiden and then headed south towards the Bolivar Peninsula. A storm was whipping up and the waves were coming right up over the hwy, and bringing with them a lot of debris. We almost turned around, but decided to brave it and go through, which worked out fine as it was not as bad as it looked. Shortly thereafter I spotted the target
bird for this destination, a White-tailed Kite, sailing over a field near the highway. We had a quick look at Rollover Pass, where there was very little due to the high water, and made our way back to High Island. We strolled around Boy Scout Woods, which was decidedly quiet. Only a very few migrants were about; a Northern Waterthrush, a Swainson’s Thrush, Orchard Oriole and some Chimney Swifts. One of the few Red-tailed Hawks of the tour flew over the woods.
Thinking of plan b, Joan suggested we go look for shorebirds so off we headed towards Anahuac. A flooded rice field along the way looked promising so we stopped and low and behold, we added two more birds to the trip list, a fabulous female Wilson’s Phalarope and a Pectoral Sandpiper! At Anahuac, after a quick coffee stop at the headquarters, we saw the usual things, including Least Bittern, White-faced Ibis, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Long-billed Dowitcher, amongst others. We heard several King Rails and one of the group got lucky and caught a glimpse of the bird lurking in the reeds. This was our 204th bird species for the trip, which was a very respectable total. We tried for Monk Parakeet on the way back to Houston, without luck. I dropped the tour members off at the airport and local hotel and it was all over. This was another fantastic group, providing excellent company, and easy atmosphere and superb birding skills. Thanks for the good times.
Tales and photographs of the adventures of Avocet Tours