EPIC MID-WEST USA CLEAN-UP TOUR REPORT Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho & Utah! 21st June - 5th July 2021

SUMMARY:
After a couple of weeks birding in Mexico, we were allowed to enter the USA for our mad dash across 6 states in search of some simply stunning birds. We began in Minnesota nailing Henslow's Sparrow at Murphy-Hanrehan Park, before visiting the famous SaxZim Bog, where Connecticut Warbler stole the show from Great Grey Owl, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Dickcissel and LeConte's Sparrow. A quick detour into Wisconsin for Easter Whip-poor-will followed before spending several days birding the magnificent prairies of North Dakota. Here, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Nelson's Sparrow, Sprague's Pipit, Bobolinks, Chestnut-collared Longspur and lakes full of shorebirds, American Black Terns and Franklin's Gulls were amongst the highlights.. Moving into the prairies of Montana we found Greater Sage Grouse and Baird's Sparrow, before reaching the majestic scenery of Glacier National Park. Where to begin! This is an awesome place where White-tailed Ptarmigan, Hooded Merganser, Harlequin Duck, Lewis's, Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers, Red-naped Sapsucker, Calliope Hummingbird, Pacific Wren and Boreal Chickadee were just some of the stars. Heading south we eventually found Dusky Grouse, Western Screech Owl and Evening Grosbeak before reaching Idaho. Here our main target was Cassia Crossbill, which we duly got in the Albion Mountains, along with Williamson's Sapsucker, Flammulated Owl and Northern Saw-Whet Owl. Finally, around Salt Lake City, Utah we got our bogey bird - Black Rosy-Finch, along with Grey Vireo, Grey Flycatcher and Juniper Titmouse to round off a superb and absolutely epic USA road trip!

Henslow's Sparrow

Day 1  MINNEAPOLIS - DULUTH
After all of our adventures in Mexico the previous fortnight, last night’s sleep was amazing and everyone woke up feeling the excitement and buzz of birding a new destination. Being just south of Minneapolis in Minnesota gives us chances of a few species we really have no chance of whatsoever as we travel west across this vast country. With that in mind we visited the sprawling Murphy-Hanrehan Park this morning with the aim of finding Henslow’s Sparrow and Cerulean Warbler. Well the warbler was a no-show, but Henslow’s Sparrow was duly nailed to say the least. Well it took a bit of searching and at one point I looked around the vast landscape wondering if we’d bitten off more than we could chew as this was a bird I had never seen and wasn’t entirely sure of its preferred habitat despite the field guide stating it’s in long grass prairie with weeds. We searched along one trail before seeing another birder across a grassy bank and after getting nothing positive from them decided to try the trail he was on but walk in the opposite direction. This took us out into some fields and after a bit of a walk that’s where we heard one and within a minute or two were eyeballing this distinctive sparrow. I’d first become aware of this species after being in Canada some 25 years ago and had never had a sniff of it until now, so this was a special moment. 

There were other good birds and some were lifers for the others, including a female Hooded Merganser with 4 chicks, Wood Duck, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, White-breasted Nuthatch, Vaux’s Swift, Eastern Wood Pewee, Eastern Kingbird, Tree Swallows attending their nest boxes in the fields, Black-capped Chickadee, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, American Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

With the wanted warbler looking unlikely we decided to try another site and set off for Sherburne NWR, some two hours away. Arriving early afternoon we checked out one trail that proved fruitless in the heat. However, the 7 mile wildlife drive was a little better as species such as Sandhill Cranes and Trumpeter Swans were numerous. More new trip birds followed with real wild Canada Goose, Ring-necked Duck,  Blue-winged Teal, several American Black Terns, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers, Eastern Towhee, Savannah Sparrow and Orchard Oriole. Not a bad first day in Minnesota and as it was late afternoon we headed north for just under 3 hours to Duluth - gateway to the famous Sax-Zim Bog.

Connecticut Warbler

Day 2   SAX ZIM BOG
This was a day I had long looked forward to as it gave me the opportunity to finally see my last US wood warbler - the one and only, near-mythical, certainly invisible Connecticut Warbler. But we had to leave the comforting bed at the La Quinta in Duluth at the ungodly hour of 3.30am in order to meet up with our local man in the know, Judd Brinckley. He’d regaled us with tales of the warbler and other special birds of his beloved Sax-sim bog and we were hooked! We met Judd at 4.30am and headed out along numerous dirt roads looking for a Great Grey Owl, but we drew a blank with that until the stunning sunrise gave is better light and we saw the first of several singing Dickcissels beside the road, along with some Savannah Sparrows and a displaying Bobolink. We didn’t dally too long however, as we were on a mission to see one of the most skulking warblers there is - Connecticut Warbler.  Pulling up amidst the pine forest bog we could hear it even before leaving the vehicles. We quickly pulled on wellies, crossed a ditch and were stood listening to its loud song where it seemed to emanate 30 feet up a spruce tree! And not amidst dense vegetation on a forest floor. Frustration set in as we scanned the conifers until BANG! there it was  in all its glory and it had only taken something like five minutes to locate the beast after putting the dreaded wellies on! Pure elation followed and we soaked up the views for maybe half an hour, It was so amazing to see this typically shy and retiring species so high up uttering its incredibly loud song. And this was my last US wood warbler. Yes!

Dragging ourselves away from this monster bird we headed to another area known to have had a Great Grey Owl and there was no way we could have known what was coming next. Pulling in to a side road, there was already another birder there and he wasn’t really looking at anything and was leaning against the hood of his car rather nonchalantly. As I turned the car around I saw what I thought was the head of another birder down the short slope and thought they must be on to something but that wasn’t true. I did a double-take and suddenly and unexpectedly realised it wasn’t a human head, but the back of the owl’s head! It was a Great Grey Owl sat on a metal pole next to a small stream just off the main road! It was just there! Stunned we looked at it and watched and took photographs - and it stared back at us with its huge round face and those penetrating eyes. After several minutes it took off and flew straight at us. bearing in mind we were only maybe 50 feet away it was quickly in our faces and missed us by inches, and being able to witness the silence of its flight sort of made you feel sorry for any nearby vole! But there literally was no sound form it at all and it flew just past us and onto another pole immediately behind us. Wow! And from this position you could truly appreciate the majesty and sheer size of this leviathan. The same thing happened a little later as it was not going to let a few excitable birders get in the way of its preferred flight path as it moved between its four favourite hunting perches. And it was actively hunting I can assure you. We saw it catch a small rodent on two occasions and were treated to another couple incredibly close fly by’s - and I do mean close. On another occasion it flew between us just a foot above the floor! This was such as incredible experience and something I will never forget. The calling Clay-coloured Sparrows all around us were almost ignored totally, but we did look at them eventually.

Dragging ourselves away, we went in search of LeConte’s Sparrow and after a bit of a search we found one singing from a small bush. It’s a cracking little bird and really quite distinctive, to me always looking big-headed on a small body. 

The rest of the day was spent driving various tracks and roads in the area and we racked up a nice list of new birds for the trip: Bald Eagle, Broad-winged Hawk, Brown Thrasher, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Black-billed Magpie, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Veery, Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, White-throated Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Purple Finch and American Goldfinch. We were back at our motel in Duluth around 4pm and had plenty of time to catch up on notes and research some sites for the coming days before rounding off a great day with some celebratory local beer. Cheers!

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Day 3  SAX ZIM BOG   
Our second day at Sax-Zim was inevitably slower and the temperature had risen dramatically which reduced bird activity significantly. Still we picked up plenty of new trip birds such as Golden-winged Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Canada Jay, Yellow-bellied and Alder Flycatchers, Eastern Phoebe, Blue-headed Vireo, Cedar Waxwing, Brown Thrasher and enjoyed a nice close up Bald Eagle too. By lunchtime we were done as it was so hot and drove back to Duluth where we had a siesta for several hours. Very nice!

We decided to go twitch Whip-Poor-Will 90 minutes away in Wisconsin at Birch Grove Campground, making this potentially the 6th US state we’d be visiting in two weeks. Hmmmm…. Anyway, we drove straight there and arrived at 8pm, giving us time to check out the area before dark. There were plenty of Cedar Waxwings around the place and both lakes had a Common Loon with a single chick, as well as our first Belted Kingfisher and an American Woodcock was flushed from one of the camp pitches too. As dusk settled our target species began calling and within a matter of seconds one came flying around us and landed not too far away. In all we had at least 4 flypasts and very nice looks in the spotlight. In fact the entire area seemed to have them calling from all directions. Very nice. On the drive out we stopped to spotlight a displaying Common Nighthawk and this was the first time i’ve ever heard the ‘boom’ call as it drops to the ground. A very surreal but nevertheless exciting experience. 

Black-billed Cuckoo

Day 4  DULUTH - GRAND FORKS    
We left Duluth behind at the pretty respectable time of 8am and headed out on the 4.5 hour drive to Grand Forks in Northern Dakota. Our first stop was at Splithand Lake where we hoped to find Black-billed Cuckoo, but we didn’t arrive there until nearly 09:30am and never really had a sniff of one. There was nowhere to walk, no trails, nothing so had to content ourselves with just walking the approach road. Several Ovenbirds were singing and we had decent views of them, along with Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-capped Chickadee and White-breasted Nuthatch. After about an hour we decided to leave and begin the long drive west but unbelievably a cuckoo flew in front of the car just as we pulled onto the main road. A quick burst of tape saw the bird fly in and land on telegraph wires right next to us. Thank you very much! 

The next few hours were taken up with the tedious drive to Grand Forks, where we checked in to the motel and had time for another siesta. Pizzas all round for dinner and then we were off for our first taste of prairie birding, which proved to be a bit tough and slow going. Our brash and brazen assault on a wide ranging target list came grinding to a halt as we visited several sites for Nelson’s Sparrow. The very dry and near-drought conditions have made the marsh-loving species very hard to come by this year. I’d pinpointed 5 sites all within a few miles of each other and we had very little at all of them, but near Kelly’s Slough NWR a confiding Virginia Rail raised our spirits and we also had our first Marsh Wren, with a couple of Northern Harriers thrown in for good measure. But boy was it slow. The only way to sort this out was with a few beers back at the motel bar and a new plan for the morning.

Nelson's Sparrow

Day 5  NORTH DAKOTA PRAIRIES
It’s funny how a quirk of fate can seemingly lead you to where you need to be, and this happened to us today as Google Maps decided not to take us to the place we wanted to go and where we’d visited yesterday evening. However, the section of prairie we were found ourselves on looked great and at 5.30am was alive with birdsong. We were after Greater Prairie Chicken but despite hearing some distant calls couldn’t locate the birds. A Short-eared Owl flying over the grassland, numerous Dickcissels and Savannah Sparrows were also present. There were several Nelson’s Sparrows calling but not visible or responsive, so a little deflated we headed to the other side of Fairfield Prairie and then things began to pickup as a pair of Sharp-tailed Grouse flew right over our heads. We then decided to retrace our steps and return to the section of prairie from earlier this morning and eventually enjoyed excellent views of our main target species - Nelson’s Sparrow. We had other target birds but we were all in agreement that our time was better spent further west, where the really good prairie species can be found. 

So a quick stop in town for an easy Red-headed Woodpecker was made for calling back into our motel and collecting luggage and then we were off on the drive to Jamestown. Of course we couldn’t just go straight there and a diversion of some 55 miles to another prairie area where we arrived at 1pm, thinking we might just be able to jam into a prairie chicken in the heat of the day. Stupid right? Yes of course. But we did find Grasshopper Sparrow, a species that had been eluding us so far. So, not wanting to waste time we headed west along the speedy highway to Jamestown, eating up the miles and arrived  late afternoon and even having time for a quick nap before heading out west for an hour. Our destination of Chase Lake turned into a mini-adventure as the first rains in Northern Dakota for a very long time made the dirt roads akin to a  skating rink in places. The whole area is dotted with lakes where Wilson’s Phalaropes, Willets and numerous wildfowl are breeding and a few stops to scan these areas proved fruitful as we picked up a single Snow Goose in a flock of Canada Geese. Our first Upland Sandpiper of the trip was a nice find as it perched up beautifully on a roadside post. But Chase Lake proved to be an amazing destination for a couple of hours as it is choc full of breeding birds. There’s stacks of Eared (Black-necked) and Western Grebes, Red-necked & Pied-billed Grebes, squadrons of American White Pelicans, Lesser Scaup, Green-winged Teal, Ruddy Duck, American Avocets, a single Solitary Sandpiper, lots of White-faced Ibis, Franklin’s Gulls and more. There were birds everywhere! But for me, the star of the show was the numerous American Black Terns that literally hover in your face and really put on a show. A Virginia Rail on the road was nice, bucket-loads of Yellow-headed Blackbirds made quite a noise, and the only bird missing was Sprague’s Pipit - one of our top target birds….. 

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Day 6  NORTH DAKOTA PRAIRIES   
Headed to Kunkell Prairie early doors and discovered a wide open pristine prairie with our first Chestnut-collared Longspurs, as well as Marbled Godwits on territory, Northern Harrier, Swainson’s Hawk, several Grasshopper Sparrows, and a song-flighting Sprague’s Pipit ‘doing its thing’ right over our heads (lifer no 3 of this US sojourn so far).

But that’s not the full story as the day dawned misty with poor visibility, hence the American Bittern stood on the side of the road at Tappen Slough as we drove in at first light. A nice Marsh Wren sang its heart out beside us, and out on the open water we scoped Canvasback, Redhead, Western and Eared Grebes. And that was pretty much our day as we decided to have the afternoon and evening off and chill in order to get us ready for the long drives and early starts to come. 

Greater Sage Grouse

Day 7  JAMESTOWN - GLASGOW, MONTANA
Set out on the loooong drive to Glasgow (around 7 hours) but first we hit some local prairie where our first Lark Buntings were appreciated by some in the car. We were looking for the increasingly problematical (or so it seemed to us at the time) Baird’s Sparrow and despite some up-to-date intel on the exact spot one had been seen a few days ago we again drew a blank. And there’s plenty more dips coming on this species in the next few days! We just can’t seem to nail it for some reason, maybe due to the heatwave affecting breeding or our own ineptitude? Who knows? Anyway, another Sprague’s Pipit was seen, as were Marbled Godwits in the prairie but after a couple of hours we had to leave on the drive to Glasgow. 

We did this in remarkably good time and once we had found the motel, set off on what appeared to be the legendary Bentonite Road - or the road of dreams as it has been dubbed by one comedian in the car as all of our prairie target birds are potentially here. The start of the road is only a few minutes away (and that makes a change) and we drove along it full of excitement at the goodies reported here. Well, this must be the easiest place to get Greater Sage Grouse in the world as they were seen all along the road and we counted at least 20 individuals. Other new US trip birds were Golden Eagle, Loggerhead Shrike, Vesper and Brewer’s Sparrows, and a Greater Yellowlegs in a small pond. Lark Buntings were exceedingly common here, and we saw a few Chestnut-collared Longspurs as well. Other birds seen included Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Upland Sandpiper, a flock of American Wigeon on one of the ponds and numerous Horned Larks. There should have been some Thick-billed (McCown's) Longspurs here but we couldn't find any! Alas, no Baird’s Sparrow, despite visiting a spot that had 3 birds just a day or so ago! They are either not here and moved on due to the excessive dry and arid conditions, or are not responding to the tape. Either way it’s not looking good for us to get this bird…..

MacGillivray's Warbler

Day 8   GLASGOW - GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Up and at ‘em again this morning and we hit Bentonite Road at daybreak driving some 10 miles to the spot that had several Baird’s Sparrow in the past few days. The vegetation was very sparse with low, spindly bushes and really nowhere for a sparrow to hide. We walked around the area and covered it pretty thoroughly but to no avail, so decided to drive slowly along the road watching and listening. We picked up our first Vesper and Brewer’s Sparrows and both species showed really well close to the car, and there were plenty of Clay-coloured and Savannah Sparrows, Chestnut-collared Longspurs and more Lark Buntings than you could wave a stick at! We spent some time scanning a couple key locations for Mountain Plover but never had a sniff, but 18 Greater Sage Grouse were noteworthy. A quick dash followed back to the motel for a late, late breakfast and check-out before heading west towards Glacier National Park. Still no Baird’s Sparrow and we were running out of options but a last throw of the dice resulted in us dashing into Bowdoin NWR and taking the auto-tour loop. 

It was hot by now and with steady resolve we slowly drove along, checking everything and anything that moved. Grasshopper Sparrow after Grasshopper Sparrow got our pulses racing during the first few miles of the 15-mile loop and it wasn’t looking good. We consoled ourselves with views of 1000’s of Wilson’s Phalaropes and lots of California Gulls loafing far out at the edge of the lake. Continuing on, the track followed a low hill dotted with bushes and some movement off to our left resulted in “Baird’s Sparrow” being called, first by one and then by two of our crew. Each time I was slow getting on the bird and just couldn’t believe we’d stumbled on one. We waited and waited but the bird had disappeared and I was gutted. So I drove on a short distance and another bird singing at the top of a small bush sounded different. Hitting the brake pedal too hard we came to an abrupt halt and raising binoculars resulted in views of a bird vaguely reminiscent of a Grasshopper Sparrow with a buffy face contrasting with a colder body. it was indeed a Baird’s Sparrow - what a runaround it had given us! Back of the net! And with that we hotfooted it around the rest of the auto loop and onto the start of the 5 hour drive to Glacier National Park.

It was an uneventful journey and apart from stopping in a grackle shop to buy some tat we got into the park as soon as we could. The scenery just kept getting better and better, and eventually we just had to stop and check out a couple nice looking car parks. The first one was dead but the second gave us our best looks at a MacGillivray’s Warbler bringing food to a nest hidden on a bank at the edge of the car park. The only other bird of note was a Swainson’s Thrush, but at least one of our crew got excited by some Rocky Mountain Goats nearby! Continuing our drive we eventually reached our motel at Whitefish and had time to get into the incredibly busy small town for dinner.

Black-Backed Woodpecker

Day 9   GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
It's about a 45 minute drive to the park gates and we enter just before daybreak, heading to Lake Macdonald Lodge, where we get a much-needed early morning coffee. The lodge is set amidst great forest and our wanderings produce several Chestnut-backd Chickadees, a singing Dark-eyed Junco and a Canada Jay. With so many great birds to find and the day warming up we're anxious to start nailing some of them, and with that in mind drive to the bridge over Upper Macdonald Creek. This proves to be one of our favourite spots for the duration of our time here and we will be making numerous return visits over the next few days. But today we loaf around the bridge, scanning in both directions notching up a flyby Hooded Merganser, as well as Common Merganser, a stunning Varied Thrush singing away from the top of a conifer, close Townsend’s Warbler, Western Tanager, American Dipper, Audubon’s Warbler, flyby Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Waterthrush and a fine Wilson’s Warbler. The road doesn’t go on that much further from here but we drove to the end car park as a passing vehicle stopped to tell us of a Black Bear being seen further on. So obviously we went looking for it and did in fact come face-to-face with the beast walking along the forest road towards us. Fortunately it veered off into the forest and headed away up the hillside. It was an impressive beast but we were already on a high having just seen a fine trio of Lewis’s Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker and American Three-toed Woodpecker all within half an hour of each other. Amazing! Now we really were cooking on gas having nailed three of our top targets so quickly and easily. As if that wasn’t enough a Red-naped Sapsucker flew in right next to us as we returned to the bridge. What a stunner!

After such a stunning start we drove deeper into the National Park along the Going To The Sun Road, admiring the stunning scenery. New birds were slow coming but we added Slate-coloured Fox Sparrow and Pine Siskin before heading back to the motel in the late afternoon. We had a short rest before heading out again to a site where Northern Saw-whet Owl had been reported. As the light began to fade we saw a Calliope Hummingbird perched at the top of a small conifer and it looked very cute in the scope. We also had some Red Crossbills flying over and another Audubon’s Warbler, but alas no owls tonight.

American Three-toed Woodpecker

Day 10   GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Today was the day we'd make an assault on Logan Pass and our only shot at seeing White-tailed Ptarmigan. The pass had only just opened up, which was rather late this year due to extremely heavy snowfall and we were prepared to see a lot of snow, but how wrong can you be. We entered the National Park at daybreak and it took around an hour to reach the pass along a very scenic, steep and winding road. Surprisingly there were loads of people up here already, probably from the intial flurry of cars racing to the pass to see the sunrise. We walked up a broad pathway until we reached a small snowfield that we tentatively walked across. We hadn't walked far at all  before a random scan resulted in a gorgeous White-tailed Ptarmigan was spotted several hundred metres away. Well that was too easy and we headed back down towards the car park, hoping for rosy-finches, but all we had were White-crowned Sparrows and Slate-coloured Fox Sparrows

So buoyed by our success we spent a little while enjoying the amazing scenery before driving a little lower and staking out an area for American Black Swift. After hanging around for a  while with nothing happening we got bored so drove back down to our favourite bridge along Upper Macdonald Creek again., where a Black Bear crossed the river not too far away from us! So by now it was afternoon and activity had quietened down a lot, so we headed out of the park and decided to have a short rest back at the motel. In the late afternoon we drove the short distance to the Viking Creek Nature Trail at the edge of town, as there had been earlier reports of Pacific Wren. This was a nice little spot, with a boardwalk across a forested bog and a nature trail that looked pefect for wrens, but we drew a blank. However, we did see Mountain Chickadee, Hammond's Flycatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a pair of American Redstarts. Dinner in town was excellent and another try for owls drew a blank, so we crawled into bed tired but happy with our day.

Stunning scenery in Glacier NP

Day 11   GLACIER NATIONAL PARK   
Up early again and straight into the National Park. This time we drove right past Macdonald Lake and checked out every parking area that overlooked the boulder-strewn fast-flowing river hoping for a Harlequin Duck. At the 4th or 5th stop we struck gold with a female perched midstream giving excellent views. Our next target bird had proved surprisingly and unexpectedly elusive so far, so we decided to check out a new area that had some historic records from a few years ago. Driving past the Visitor Centre the road headed uphill and went through a large swathe of burned forest and things didn't look too promising. But we crested the hill and in the valley below the forest looked perfect with some open, marshy grassland dotted amongst the trees. Parking up we explored the area and pretty quickly found our main target species - Boreal Chickadee. A sweet little bird with a brown cap, smart white cheeks and a black bib and dull, brown back. A proper birder's bird you might say! From here we checked out another trail but only saw another Hammond's Flycatcher

With Pacific Wren still a glaring omission on our list so far, we drove up to an abandoned campsite, ignoring the 'No Entry' signs on our way in! I'd been trawling with the song at most places we visited and this area was no exception, but this time we had a response and after a bit of a wait eventually saw the pesky blighter above us in a huge conifer. As we watched this bird overhead, we all saw an American Black Swift cross a wide gap in the canopy above us. Result! We ended the day with a Rufous Hummingbird and another short, duff owling session.

Dusky Grouse

Day 12   FLATHEAD LAKE - BIG SKY  
It’s getting busier everywhere in the build-up to Independence Day so it’s time to leave Glacier National Park and head further south in search of more target species. But first we drove around the eastern side of Flathead Lake to the Springer-Whitney Nature Trail about an hour away from our motel to look for Western Screech Owl. We arrived at 4am and walked a few hundred metres along the trail until it got to overgrown so retraced our steps, periodically playing the call very quietly. For nearly a hour there was no response until all of a sudden one responded and I wasn’t sure if it was far away or calling very quietly from nearby. The horizon began to lighten significantly and we didn’t have much time to locate them so three of us split up and we tried to triangulate the call. Fortunately the bird kept calling and after several minutes had moved to a different position and I was fortunate to be in the right spot to notice the silhouette of the owl from the side of a bare trunk some 30 feet off the ground. We had a minutes view before flying off and then we were off too, in search of Northern Pygmy Owl back at North Crow Creek. But again we drew a blank and after about 45 minutes we’d had enough so drove to nearby Pablo Reservoir where we saw our first Bullock’s Orioles and Lazuli Buntings of there trip.

It was time to leave by mid morning so headed 4 hours south towards our next destination of Big Sky where we hoped to find Black Rosy-Finch. We had three sites lined up and the first at Bridger Bowl Road looked like it was a winter site as we were way below the treeline, so didn’t linger long except to watch our first Evening Grosbeaks, as well as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Cordilleran Flycatcher and other common species. Only another 45 minutes away was the start of the track up to Sacagawea Peak where we had our first flat tyre and so putting an end to the rosy-finch quest, although a Dusky Grouse crossing the track was a surprise and an added bonus. When you’re 8 miles up a mountain track with a flat tyre and you find out the rental company didn’t bother putting in a wrench or anything to change the tyre with, well it’s not a good feeling. Fortunately another car appeared and they kindly stopped to help, but even they didn’t have the tyre iron required to get the wheel of. Another car came along a few moments later and they did have the kit we needed. So all was well and the banter over us Brits being here in the states over Independence Day was amusing and good natured. In fact all of there people we met during our time in the states were lovely. So with the ridiculously thin spare tyre on we decided to drive a further half a mile up to the end of the track, but still found ourselves well below the tree line and any hope of Black Rosy-finch were ended. Maybe if it was a lifer for me i’d have decided to hike up but it was 6pm and we needed to get down to the town of Bozeman and repair the tyre. The drive down was slow and tedious as I wasn’t taking any chances but we added Lincoln’s Sparrow to our list. Anyway, to cut a long story short most places had  shut so we drove an hour to our next motel at Big Sky, getting there just after 9pm and were able to get some dinner at a surprisingly raucous bar just before they stopped serving food. It had been some day to be honest.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Day 13   MONTANA - IDAHO
Our best attempt at seeing Black Rosy-Finch was going to be this morning as there’s a chairlift heading up into the mountains. I left the motel at 7am to drive the 45 miles to Bozeman to get the tyre changed and then hoping to rush back to head up the mountain. Simple right? Well no as it’s Independence Day holiday weekend so the first couple of places I tried were closed and I ended up getting all 4 tyres changed at Walmart and paying USD $500 - the rental companies breakdown service were conveniently unavailable for about the 10th time i’ve tried in the past 48 hours! Anyway, I was kept waiting 3.5 hours by the tyre change crew, and by the time I got back to the motel it was too late to go up the chairlift as we had another 4+ hour drive to Burley in Idaho.

This was last chance saloon for my most wanted bird - Northern Saw-Whet Owl. I’ve tried twice over the previous 23 years for this bird and not had a sniff. One time in Algonquin NP, Canada in May 1998 and another in Connecticut in about 2012 in the winter time. So I was about as desperate for this bird as you can be, but not that hopeful. I’d pinned my hopes on a place romantically called Magic Mountain, about an hour’s drive away and set out at 8.30pm after catching up on some much-needed zzzzzz’s. The first hurdle was….. there wasn’t a road up the mountain, or indeed a mountain as such. More like a hill. A small hill…! Ok no problem, there was a track up through the forest, except it had been logged and this didn’t look like it was worth trying. Still, we were here and off we went up the path. There were patches of forest, albeit it rather small, and with the light fading fast we kept walking and reached what looked like better and more dense forest just as we were enveloped in darkness. A few Independence Day fireworks exploding over the forest from the nearby campsite obviously didn’t help our cause but they didn’t stop a Flammulated Owl from calling nearby. OK good sign and with a little judicious playback it flew high over our heads and landed behind us. Nice! Must admit that gave me some much needed encouragement and a couple hundred metres higher up the track I played the Northern Saw-whet Owl call quietly and got an immediate response. It then somehow called behind us and I whistled the call, prompting the bird to fly down like a bullet and attack me, hitting me on the head and neck before scooting off into the darkness.  Some people will tick an egg but that wasn’t tickable for me! So we sat down on the path and waited to see what would happen. After a few minutes all was quiet, so covering my face protectively with my hands I whistled again but nothing happened. So we waited. And waited. After 20 minutes the bird called from uphill behind us some 50 metres away I guessed. Wondering just how I was going to nail this bird, another 10 minute wait followed during which time it called intermittently from the same spot. So I decided to scramble slowly off-road style up the dry leaf and branch strewn hillside after the bird. With just two of us the noise we made was minimal but we still cracked a few twigs as we walked up. Luckily the bird kept calling and we entered a dense grove of conifers where the floor was strewn with pine needles and our movements were much quieter. Waiting again, we expected the bird to have flown off never to be seen again. But no, it was still very close by. I tried the spotlight but the trees were just too dense. So I whistled and something brushed past my head. Wheeling around, spotlight ready I whispered to my mate to stand still. Clicking the light on, the beam was trained directly at the bird. Northern Saw-Whet Owl was on my list after a 23 year wait. I just stood there stunned, eye-balling this feathered beauty when my mate whispered “get a photo idiot…!” Damn, I was mesmerised and slowly raised my camera but the bird was too close, being maybe 10 feet away. It then flew behind me and landed closer! I tried to back away without making a sound and got 2 photos, neither of them good but it’s a record shot that I will cherish forever. And then the bird flew and we walked back to the path elated with high-fives all round! Even the fireworks seemed brighter and louder now! And that was the end of my Northern Saw-Whet Owl quest.

Cassia Crossbill

Day 14   IDAHO - UTAH
From our motel in Burley it was just an hours drive to Thompson Flat Campground in the Albion Mountains. Blurry eyed, we left at 5.30am after just a few hours sleep and drove straight there, pausing in some nice looking habitat to try for Sagebrush Sparrow. Alas, no sparrow but several Sage Thrashers were a much-wanted lifer for one of our crew. Then we were off up the winding road to the campground, expecting it to be crammed full of Independence Day revellers hungover from last night’s festivities. And yet, there were only a few campers and lots of birds! Almost immediately we had a pair of Cassia Crossbills feeding in a conifer right in front of us. When I say Cassia Crossbill, apparently the only way to reliably and confidently identify them is to take a sound recording but their call, to my usually reliable ear anyway, sounded a little more metallic and drawn out than Red Crossbill. You could almost believe the bill was a little longer and chunky as well…… Who knows? Anyway, this was Lifer No9 out of a possible 9 and I was elated. But we still had one more major target bird for the rest of the guys and once the crossbills had flown off I was sure the rasping call coming from just ahead was a Williamson’s Sapsucker. And sure enough we tracked a pair down to their favourite dead tree and enjoyed excellent views. I just couldn’t get a decent photo of the male as he always found a way to be right against the rising sun but we did get killer looks. As it was only something like 6.45am we wandered around the campsite and then explored the road slightly lower down and found this to be one of the ‘birdiest’ (hate that expression tbh) sites we’d visited in the states. A close Mountain Bluebird was very nice and our second sighting of Lewis’s Woodpecker was also pretty cool, whilst grit-feeding Cassin’s Finches and a tree with Cedar Waxwing, Pine Siskin and Audubon’s Warbler was great. And that was us done. We returned to the motel and packed up and set out on the 4 hour drive to Salt Lake City via a site to get our Covid tests done in readiness for our flights home in a day or so.

Grey Vireo

Day 15   SALT LAKE CITY   
Our last days birding started at Soldiers Pass Road just a mere 50 minutes away from the motel. One last early morning start in a month of early morning starts was possibly the hardest of them all. The dirt road went up into hills that were sparsely covered in Juniper trees and scrub, perfect habitat for Juniper Titmouse, Grey Vireo and Grey Flycatcher - all of which showed very well before 7.30am. After we had wrapped things up here, we headed down to check out the sagebrush flats in hopes of a Sage Sparrow  but my luck with this bird is poor and we drew a blank. So we decided to then head to another eBird location that showed Northern Pygmy Owl had been seen within the past couple of weeks. The route took us up into the mountains above Salt Lake City and it was such a beautiful area but the owl site seemed to be a long-since-past breeding site. A long rest at the motel was calling us, so we headed back down to Orem and the comforts of air-con & wifi for a few hours. In the late afternoon we headed higher up into even more dramatic scenery to Little Cottonwood Canyon for our last couple of hours birding. As luck would have it we passed a chairlift heading up the mountain so decided to give Black Rosy-Finch one last try and BANG! We managed to find a pair flitting around a rocky escarpment, as well as family group of Clark’s Nutcrackers providing a suitably fitting finale to end an epic couple of weeks.

LaLogan Pass