Day 1 SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH
After picking up Pete and Graham from Salt Lake City Airport our intrepid group headed over to Antelope Island State Park for our first birding of what would prove to be an epic trip! Antelope Island is a fascinating mix of habitats, starting when you cross the vast salt lake on a long causeway, bound on either side by salt flats and varying areas of water. Our first Killdeers, Western Kingbirds, Black-necked Stilts, Red-winged Blackbirds, Western Meadowlark, a cracking male Northern Harrier, and even a close Coyote. Further along were some Franklin’s Gulls along the shoreline, with a few Ring-billed and lots of California Gulls. Further along the causeway we found 5 Wilson’s Phalaropes in fine breeding plumage amongst the hundreds of American Avocets, plus there was our Black-necked (Eared) Grebes, plus the first Willet and Forster’s Terns. At the end of the causeway we veered left and headed over to the Garr Ranch, stopping along the way to scan a hillside where we found Brewer’s and Lark Sparrows singing close to the road. We also saw Northern Mockingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, and scoped some American White Pelicans perched amongst a flock of Double-crested Cormorants. And then a little further on we scoped a distant Rock Wren. Possibly the highlight was a herd of 50+ Bison feeding on the flats below the road, with a Pronghorn in the grassland behind us.
At the ranch we wandered along the trails and found 2 adults and 2 juvenile Great Horned Owls high up in a large tree, with a diminutive Least Flycatcher lower down. We also found Say’s Phoebe, Song Sparrow, Audubon’s, Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers,Warbling Vireo, Bullock’s Oriole, Western Wood Pewee, and a group of at least 3 Western Tanagers and a Mule Deer. Not a bad start to the tour indeed!
With the weather warming up to the high 70’s we headed back to the mainland seeing our first Horned Larks, but we needed a better view of Rock Wren so tried a different area and sure enough we found another one a lot closer. Back on the causeway a nice selection of roosting birds on some rocky islands comprised Forster’s and 2 Caspian Terns, 3 Redheads, Cinnamon, Green-winged and Blue-winged Teals, Common Goldeneye, Northern Shoveller, and a flock of breeding plumaged Sanderlings.
From here we drove up into the beautiful snow-capped mountains and visited Little Cottonwood Canyon where unfortunately the feeders that I’d visited just a few days ago had been taken down! But a flock of White-crowned Sparrows, a few Steller’s Jays and a couple of Pine Siskins were still hanging around. A short walk up the valley was a little quiet but we did find a displaying Broad-tailed Hummingbird, an American Robin sitting on a nest, Mountain Chickadee, Cassin’s Finch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Northern Flicker. So with that done we returned to the motel at 6.30pm for a short rest before heading out to dinner and then visiting Squaw Peak Road… We heard Flammulated Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl and Common Poorwill… But none of them came close enough to see.
Day 2 SALT LAKE CITY
Headed over to Soldiers Pass Road for a bunch of desert specialities after a later than intended start! We picked up a few Brewer’s and Lark Sparrows on the drive in, but more importantly, our first and only Black-throated Sparrow of the trip. Once at the right spot we began searching for Grey Vireo and eventually found a singing bird that showed quite well, if not as close as we would have liked! We then spent quite a while looking for Sagebrush Sparrow, which involved walking out into the vast open plains that were covered in sagebrush. Eventually Pete picked one up and we all had great views of at least 3 birds. During our search for the always problematical sparrow we found a Juniper Titmouse feeding in a….. Juniper tree!
Moving on to a campground I visited last week via some close Long-billed Curlews, we tried in vain for 20 mins to see a ridiculously skulky Plumbeous Vireo before notching great views of a different individual nearby. We also saw Chipping Sparrow and House Finches before walking into the campground where Dusky Flycatcher, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, lots of Yellow Warblers, and as luck would have it a Northern Pygmy Owl perched high up in a bare tree. Wow! Last year we tried numerous sites for this bird but at our first attempt this year we nailed it… !! That’s birding.
So we left after a very successful morning and headed back to the motel, stopping for lunch along the way. After a little rest we drove up into the mountains… And scored with great views of Virginia’s Warbler, Black-capped Chickadee, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Bullock’s Oriole, and a displaying pair of Cooper’s Hawks. After dinner we again headed out in the evening and this time had close views of 3 Common Poorwills, with one hovering right above us and a pair of Flammulated Owls. A calling Northern Saw-wet Owl never showed.
Day 3 BEAR CREEK - ALBION HILLS, IDAHO
Left the Salt Lake City area early doors and drove to Bear Creek Migratory Bird Reserve where a quick check of the Visitor Centre resulted in 7 Sandhill Cranes (a key target for my group), a displaying Common Yellowthroat, lots of Yellow-headed Blackbirdsand a pair of Great-tailed Grackles. Then we drove over to the auto tour loop and began with very close views of Clark’s and Western Grebes right beside us. On the loop, Cinnamon Teals were numerous, several Pied-billed Grebes were seen, Marsh Wrens showed repeatedly along with Savannah Sparrow, Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, Northern Harrier, American Coot, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and a very late Trumpeter Swan.
Then we drove a couple of hours into Idaho and headed up into the Albion Hills where snow was still causing the road to be closed up into the campground where I had hoped to visit. As we headed up, a roadside stop produced Orange-crowned Warbler, Mountain Bluebird, and a pair of Black-headed Grosbeaks. However, despite the closed road we nailed Cassia Crossbilleasily and we also saw Mountain Chickadee, very close Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskin, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a Slate-coloured Junco. Walking up the road to the snowline and a Dusky Flycatcher showed well, with another Cassia Crossbill seen as we walked back downhill. Lower down we found a pair of cracking Red-naped Sapsuckers, along with Cassin’s Finches, Willow Flycatcher, Northern Flicker, and some confiding Western Tanagers. One final stop a the base of the hills gave us Hairy Woodpecker and a pair of Hammond’s Flycatchers before we drove to our next motel around 30 minutes away. And tonight we decided to have a night off from owling and catch up on some much-needed sleep.
Day 4 IDAHO - BIG SKY - BOZEMAN, MONTANA
We left Burley, Idaho after a 6am breakfast and headed to a site around 25 minutes away where a Lewis’s Woodpecker had been reported, but this turned out to be not so good. So instead of wasting any time we promptly departed and headed to a lake around 2 hours away, seeing our first Bald Eagle and Swainson’s Hawks along the way. Amidst a vast open landscape of marsh, lakes, tall grasses and ponds we found our first Canvasback, as well as a Trumpeter Swan. I think we will all remember this site for the numerous and close Northern Harriers and Swainson’s Hawks that entertained us. Leaving here we saw a pair of Sandhill Cranes much closer than before and a field of White-faced Ibis feeding amongst bright yellow flowers before driving just a few miles away to Sage Crossroads where we duly nailed Sage Thrasher before continuing on another 90 minute drive. After a quick coffee stop and picking up some sandwiches we arrived at Henry Lake around 1.30pm. What a place this proved to be as we scoped flocks of wildfowl out on the glassy calm lake that consisted of American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, numerous Lesser Scaups, Canvasback, Redhead, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Northern Shoveller, Cinnamon Teal, Green-winged Teal. This was probably the best mixed wildfowl flock any of us had ever seen! Also saw another Bald Eagle, several Red-necked Grebes in fine breeding dress, a Trumpeter Swan on a nest, a Sandhill Crane on what appeared to be a nest, Caspian Tern, Western Osprey, Audubon’s Warblers, and a very confiding Vesper Sparrow.
It was another 75 minutes driving past Yellowstone amidst stunningly beautiful scenery of snow-capped mountains and steep-sided river valleys to Big Sky, where we were full of anticipation to find the water treatment works and the reported Barrow’s Goldeneye. Well, we found one pair of these much-wanted beasts immediately and then another pair on the pond across the road and amidst much excitement we tried to settle down to enjoy watching them. We couldn’t of had any better views in the sunshine and we lapped up the gorgeous purple sheen of the males head, his white crescent face marking and broad white flank streaks, with the females head shape and yellow bill very noticeably different from its commoner cousin! Buoyed by our success we drove 10 minutes further up the mountain to the ski resort in the forlorn hope of bumping into Black Rosyfinch, which we knew we were doomed to fail but at least we tried. By the time we arrived at our motel in Bozeman we were all suitably tired but rather pleased with the day’s haul.
Day 5 MISSOULA - FLATHEAD LAKE
We had a couple of hours to look for Black Rosy-Finch so headed over to Bridger Bowl Road in the rain and, no surprise, we dipped. A little compensation came with stunning views of a Pileated Woodpecker that flew around us before landing in a nearby tree. So we decided to call it quits and head north towards Flathead Lake but en-route decided to call into Missoula (some 3 hours along our route) and twitch the reported drake Hooded Merganser, which duly showed well on our arrival. There was an exceptional number of Evening Grosbeaks around the town and after a couple false starts we finally caught up with a flock of over 14 along a leafy suburban lane. Moving on, we had a very enjoyable walk around a forest for a couple of hours notching up Olive-sided Flycatcher, Calliope Hummingbird, Western Bluebird and Pygmy Nuthatch quite easily. Further on we heard Williamson’s Sapsucker but it failed to show. However a little judicious pygmy owl call brought in dozens of Red Crossbills, Cassin’s Finches, Pine Siskins, Audubon’s Warblers and two more Evening Grosbeaks, with several Vesper Sparrows out in the grassland. All that was left was to drive to Polson at Flathead Lake for an early night.
Day 6 GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
A tough day inside Glacier National Park started with a 4.30am departure, arriving in the park a little before 6am. Things started pretty well with a Downy Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Townsend’s Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Hammond’s Flycatcher, some decent looks at a singing Varied Thrush we lured into view, followed by a pair of displaying Lewis’s Woodpeckers, our first Swainson’s Thrush, pretty cool scope view of a perched Calliope Hummingbird, Lazuli Bunting and an obliging singing Pacific Wren. And that little lot was before 8am when we drove to Lake Macdonald Lodge where a pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Vaux’s Swift, Violet-green Swallows, Western Tanager and Black-headed Grosbeak performed well.
From then on we struggled finding anything else new despite intensive searching, especially at my site for Boreal Chickadee where a displaying Wilson’s Snipe, a pair of Canada Jays, and ten million mosquito’s got in our way! So we left the park, drove to our next motel where we’d be staying for 3 nights and had a siesta. Afterwards we tried another trail outside the park for American Three-toed Woodpecker but again drew a blank, apart from a superb male American Redstart, so went for dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town. Who knew?!
Day 7 GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Another early start to get into Glacier National Park and it started off brilliantly with a Boreal Chickadee eventually tracked down along a quiet stretch of road. A singing Cassin’s Vireo was not so obliging and only showed fleetingly. We then drove back down to the main valley and checked along the fast-flowing river that was awash with debris that the snowmelt had sent tumbling. A pair of Harlequin Ducks were found on a long sweeping bend of the river and the drake was absolutely gorgeous! But just down the road a Varied Thrush teed up in the scope as it sang from the top of a dead tree was equally as impressive. We called into Lake Macdonald shop for coffee and spent a few minutes watching some confiding Black-headed Grosbeaks, as well as Slate-coloured Junco and Western Tanagers. The rest of the morning was spent searching for woodpeckers without any new ones being found apart from a Downy Woodpecker, although Red-naped Sapsucker and Hairy Woodpecker were seen well. We also saw Macgillivray’s Warbler, Calliope Hummingbird and Lazuli Bunting here as well. We then decided to leave the park and head to a site for American Three-toed Woodpecker which remained elusive, although a fantastic male Williamson’s Sapsucker showed really well. Returning to the hotel at 4.30pm and then leaving at 7pm for dinner and owling… but minus the owls! However, instead of owls we did have a pair of Pine Grosbeaks fly in and land right next to us as we stood on a bridge waiting for dark. They remained in view for several minutes and either seemed to have a roost site or had just come to the river for a drink and before it was dark they took flight and flew a long way back up the valley and out of sight. Wow!
Day 8 KOOTENAI STATE PARK - EUREKA
Took the bold decision to go to Kootenai State Forest today as there had been a report of a nesting pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers within the last few days. The drive to the great named town of Eureka only took 45 minutes but once in the forest the winding dirt forest roads the going was slow but eventually we reached the site high up in the hills. The habitat was perfect and was an open patch of forest with plenty of obvious woodpecker activity but after chasing these reported birds recently my hopes weren’t that high. Unbelievably we found a freshly excavated woodpecker hole right beside the forest road and after a few minutes Jo heard tapping coming from inside the hole. And yes, suddenly a male American Three-toed Woodpecker poked his head out of the hole briefly before dropping back inside. He poked his head out several more times when all of a sudden the female appeared and took over excavating duties and the male flew off. Wow! We watched the female for several more minutes before leaving her in peace and driving further into the hills. We found a few White-winged Crossbills, Neil saw a Clark’s Nutcracker and there were also plenty of other common species. After a few hours we returned to Eureka for a big lunch before heading to a lake where some Hooded Mergansers had been seen a few days ago. Google Maps didn’t want to take us the 4.5 miles and it took over an hour before we found the lake, but alas no mergs. There were 21 Ring-necked Ducks, a pair of Lesser Scaups and 4 Buffleheads here, so we walked back to the car through the forest and bumped into a Ruffed Grouse walking along the track before heading up the slope where we followed it and had great views. Elated with this we decided to push our luck and go to an area that a Dusky Grouse had been seen several weeks ago. Well, you know your luck is in when the grouse was found displaying and pretty oblivious to our presence. What a day! And it wasn’t over yet as we saw a Vaux’s Swift and our first Townsend’s Solitaire singing away from the top of a conifer right next to the road! Not too shabby!
Day 9 EAST GLACIER - GLASGOW
Headed over to East Glacier on our way to Glasgow this morning, stopping to look for Clark’s Nutcracker that unfortunately only Brian saw. However, a large marshy area along the road was pretty phenomenal as it held maybe a dozen calling Sora’s and we saw a couple of them quite easily. In the early morning sunshine with distant snow-capped peaks the setting was stunning and add in a few breeding-plumaged Wilson’s Phalaropes as well, you could say it was an idyllic spot.
Next up was a long drive east for around 4 hours towards Glasgow, veering off into the wilderness we drove along a gravel road in the middle of nowhere to look for Mountain Plover. This was where things went decidedly off the rails as we had 2 flat tyres within 10 minutes, however despite this we well and truly nailed Mountain Plover amidst a vast open scenery of prairies and gently rolling hills. We didn’t get too close as we suspected this was a female who had a nest somewhere so we scoped her at several hundred metres range, but the views were cracking through the scope. So what to do with 2 flats? Fortunately we were just 5 miles from a farmhouse and we limped in on a flat trye and asked for assistance. The help we received was amazing and truly heart-warming. The upshot was we had a lift to the small town of Malta and found some rooms in a motel where we spent the night, hoping that our car would be brought to us the following morning…... The motel turned out to be one of the best we stayed in and served cold beers and delicious food. Everyone was pretty upbeat despite our bad luck with the tyres and I’m truly thankful that I had such an understanding group. Fortunately, I could arrange to rebook our night in Glasgow so we could hit the famous Bentonite Road at a good time of day and cut out a night in Jamestown in a few days so we wouldn’t miss out on any of our key target species.
Day 10 GLASGOW
Well we eventually got our rental SUV back by 11am, but before that we walked up to a local park in search of a reported Wood Duck. Alas, there were no ducks but we did find Alder and Least Flycatchers, a few Red-eyed Vireos, Cedar Waxwings and many Grey Catbirds. Once we had loaded the car we headed over to Bowdoin NWR and drove the loop trail searching for Baird’s Sparrow but despite a few close calls all we got were numerous Grasshopper, Song, Vesper, Savannah and Clay-coloured Sparrows. We also saw plenty of Wilson’s Phalaropes, California Gulls, Willet, American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, a Burrowing Owl, both Western and Eastern Kingbirds, a distant Prairie Falcon, several superb Lark Buntings and other common birds. On the drive out we flushed a Sharp-tailed Grouse. We left here and drove to our hotel in Glasgow – we were meant to be in Jamestown tonight but after the car fiasco still needed some very important birds here. After a quick dinner we drove some 30 minutes out into the prairies in search of Thick-billed Longspur, which we eventually found coming to drink at a roadside pool. With the sun setting way too quickly for our liking we managed to scope several birds coming in to drink and it was a really superb experience watching these tricky-to-find birds in this vast, open landscape.
Day 11 BENTONITE ROAD - JAMESTOWN
Well, finally we found ourselves out on the famous Bentonite Road shortly after sunrise. Our list of targets was small to be honest and we quickly nailed Ferruginous Hawk, which despite numerous reports all along our route, was the only confirmed sighting of the entire trip. Phew! A couple of Brown Thrashers were a surprise here and a new addition to our list but it wasn’t until we were driving back towards the motel that Graham spotted our other main target along here, with a pair of Greater Sage Grouse skulking about 200m away. Scope views followed and another ‘chicken’ safely tucked under the belt.
Headed out on yet another long drive, stopping to look for a reported Wood Duck without any luck. And then we headed further east towards Jamestown, calling in to the wonderful landscape of Theodore Roosevelt National park where American Bison stole the show. Or maybe the stunning Red-headed Woodpecker that was continually flycatching high in the air above us. Amazing! We walked a little bit and saw an Alder Flycatcher, Orchard Oriole and heard a Great Horned Owl calling. So we left and drove to Jamestown, calling into great prairie habitat where our main target was Baird’s Sparrow. We tried a few places and had a number of false starts you might say but when it was just about time to leave as we still had 3 hours left of the journey, a superb little Baird’s Sparrow decided to sing from a low fence wire and I screeched to a halt when I heard the song, half expecting it to be a Savannah Sparrow but no! There it was. Almost a Holy Grail bird in the breeding season. We had chased a few without luck but here managed to find our own. Result! We were very tired but exceedingly happy when our motel was finally reached I can assure you…!
Day 12 JAMESTOWN - GRAND FORKS
Left at 5.30am on our Sprague’s Pipit hunt. Had some recent info from a friend and headed off in search of the correct site, and after a slight error caused by Google Maps taking us 14 miles the wrong way we eventually arrived a little later than we should have! This section of shortgrass prairie looked perfect but I was a little worried we couldn’t hear any pipits singing when we pulled up. So we decided to split up and walk across the prairie in search of this ever-elusive pipit , as this was one of the few areas that we had come across that wasn’t fenced off. Within a few minutes a pipit began songflighting and it proceeded to fly right overhead before dropping like a stone into the grass in front of us. We had pretty decent views of it skulking in the grass before it flew around us twice and then rose high overhead for another songflighting session. Wow what a result!
During the morning we were amazed at the sheer number of ponds and lakes out here in the prairies and saw good numbers of all the usual wildfowl, as well as an American Bittern, Great Egret, a late lingering Snow Goose, with another in a northbound migrating flock of Canada Geese flying overhead. So we then drove to a Nelson’s Sparrow site but drew a blank, although our second American Bittern of the morning was seen feeding right out in the open. We had thoroughly enjoyed driving round the prairies seeing numerous species on the multitude of lakes and ponds that dominate the prairie landscape here.
We drove a couple of hours to Grand Forks for the night and headed out into the prairie in search of Nelson’s Sparrow once again, but this time we had much more success and finally tracked down a singing bird at 9pm with the sun just about to set below the horizon to round off a good day.
Day 13 GRAND FORKS - SAX-ZIM BOG
Headed out into the prairies once again, this time our main focus was on finding Greater Prairie Chicken in the vast open landscapes of prairie, dotted with lakes. It’s no mean feat but we actually scoped a pair of males at a good distance displaying and could hear their calls. What a show they put on and we celebrated our major find vigorously with high fives and even hugs! The lake beside us held drake Wood Duck (much to Brian’s delight) and a cracking drake Hooded Merganser right in front of us, with a group of Ring-necked Ducks, a few Canvasbacks and the usual assortment of other wildfowl, which made for quite a spectacle. Skeins of Canada Gees flew overhead migrating to more northern climes, whilst we watched a family of Canada Geese below us with 6 cygnets. Weird huh? Buoyed by our success we spent some time driving and birding the prairies without finding anything new before returning to the hotel for breakfast.
Our next stop was some 3 hours away amidst a fantastic mixture of conifer and alder forest, dotted with lakes. One such body of water held over 30 Common Loons, making for quite a spectacle. At the appointed place we parked and straight away saw American Goldfinch, Eastern Phoebe, Sand Martin and Ruby-throated Hummingbird – the latter showing well perched on a telegraph wire in the scope. A short walk was productive with a few Red-eyed Vireos, Swamp Sparrow, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Great Crested Flycatcher and a Green Heron. Back at the car, a Veery called and was lured into view for very nice scope views – a much-wanted lifer for Graham. And then we were off to Sax-Zim Bog, a little short of 90 minutes away where the grounds of our lodge had several Purple Finches visiting the feeders, plus a flock of Cedar Waxwings was present. A good day!
Day 14 SAX-ZIM BOG
Today was one of the big days of the tour as we went in search of the mythical Connecticut Warbler. We headed to one of the dirt roads that runs through SaxZIm Bog with our good friend and local guide Judd Brink. There have been a couple of singing males present here for a few days but upon our arrival it was silent, so we staked the road out and split up, listening for the distinctive song. We even put our rubber boots on and waded into the forest for a walk but that didn’t produce anything. So we returned to the main forest road and waited. After a few hours we eventually heard a distant Connecticut Warbler singing and it seemed to be coming closer. This bird hadn’t yet staked out a definite territory and was roving around the area hoping for a female. So we donned wellies again and walked into the forest. It’s a weird sensation as you’re walking on a carpet of thick, moist moss and you feel like you will fall through it but you won’t. Anyway, after many minutes of manoeuvring we located the singing male high up in a conifer and managed pretty decent views. It’s always so surprising to see this usually invisible skulker so high up but that’s what they do in the summer! Amazing!
The rest of the day was spent visiting numerous other areas that Judd knows well around the bog, including some feeders and one particularly good marsh where a super confiding LeConte’s Sparrow came in close to check us out! We were also fortunate to find a Great Grey Owl perched about 75m away despite being obscured by some bushes along the roadside, but climbing onto the roof of the SUV helped a bit! This summer these owls have proved elusive to find, so we did indeed count ourselves fortunate to find one.
Other species seen today included Trumpeter Swan, Northern Harrier, Sandhill Crane, our only Black-billed Cuckoo gave multiple sightings in the same area of low bushes this afternoon, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher at last, Downy Woodpecker, Least Flycatcher, Tree Swallow, Grey Catbird, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Ovenbird, Golden-winged Warbler, Nashville Warbler, American Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Myrtle Warbler and a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. What a day!
Day 15 SAX-ZIM BOG
Day 16 JOHNSON ROAD - SAX-ZIM BOG
Day 17 SAX-ZIM BOG - MINNEAPOLIS