USA - EPIC MID-WEST CLEAN-UP TOUR Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho & Utah

Day 1   ARRIVAL IN SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - 9th June 2023
Following our afternoon arrival in Salt Lake City we will check in to a conveniently located motel before heading out to the nearby arid valleys. It's going to be a great time of day to try and nail a few of the local specialities such as Grey Flycatcher, Juniper Titmouse and  Grey Vireo. If we aren't too tired, there are a couple of good sites to try for Flammulated Owl in the nearby hills. Night in Salt Lake City.

We have a full day to explore numerous sites all within an hour's drive from our hotel. High on our priority list could well be Northern Pygmy Owl, which breeds high up in the mountains above Salt Lake City. If the cable car is working we could well take a ride and make our first attempt at Black Rosy-Finch which breeds amidst some of the most dramatic scenery of the entire tour. 

Depending on which other species are our priorities we have a fine supporting cast to look for including Calliope, Rufous, Black-chinned and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Western Kingbird, Ash-throated Flycatcher,  Green-tailed Towhee, American Black Swift, Plumbeous Vireo, Rock Wren, Pinyon Jay, Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay, Virginia's and Black-throated Grey Warblers, Sagebrush and Brewer's Sparrow. If we didn't go for Flammulated Owl last night we will tonight, and we'll also go to a desert-like valley for  Common Poorwill as well. N
ight in Salt Lake City.

It's worth spending the early morning chasing up a few species that don't stray further north along our route before setting out on the 3 hour drive to Burley in Idaho. Our destination this afternoon will be the Albion Mountains just south of Burley and in particular one area that holds the recently split Cassia Crossbill. Split from Red Crossbill they favour older stands of lodgepole pine but are usually found in low density, so we will have to work for this bird. But we have a Plan B and Plan C, just in case.... Another good bird in these hills is the stunning looking Williamson's Sapsucker, which although is found over a very wide area throughout our tour, this is possibly the best site for us to see it. Another great bird we have several sites for is Lewis's Woodpecker, potentially the most beautiful of it's species in North America. Other species we should expect to see include Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Western Wood Pewee, Audubon's Warbler, Cedar Waxwing, Mountain Bluebird, Pine Siskin, Western Tanager and Cassin's Finch amongst others.  Once we've had dinner and a little rest we will drive just under an hour to a series of low hills and make our first attempt at Northern Saw-Whet Owl, and again if needed, Flammulated Owl.  Night in Burley, Idaho.

We've a spare morning depending on which species we still need in this area. Regardless, we will leave mid morning and drive 4.5 hours to Big Sky and our afternoon date with another chairlift and another shot at Black Rosy-Finch at Lone Mountain, perhaps one of the easiest places anywhere to see this species.  Night at Big Sky, Montana.

This could be a very early morning as we head up towards Glacier National Park. There are options however, if we aren't in a rush, such as Bridger Bowl Road for Evening Grosbeak or we could take the rough track towards Sacagawea Peak where Dusky Grouse, Rock Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Mountain Bluebirds reside, and there's another chance of Black Rosy-Finch, which requires hiking. But getting to Ridgwater early enough means we can visit North Crow Creek, another good site for Northern Pygmy Owl. Nearby, there are a couple of reservoirs which hold both Western and Clark's Grebes, a variety of wildfowl such as Canvasback, Redhead, American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal, Trumpeter Swan, as well as Bullock's Oriole and Lazuli Bunting. If we haven't seen it yet we can attempt to see Western Screech-Owl tonight. Night at Ridgwater.

We will be leaving super early this first morning and heading into Glacier National Park. There are exciting species to see here set amidst the most spectacular scenery of the tour. Lofty, snow-capped mountains dominate a landscape of alpine meadows, dense coniferous forest, fast-flowing rivers and tumbling streams and we will explore numerous trails, side-roads and campgrounds in search of a tremendous variety of species. The birdlist here is almost like an avian Who's-Who and we will look for Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck, White-tailed Ptarmigan (and we hope the road is open to drive high enough), Spruce Grouse, Dusky Grouse, Northern Pygmy Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Flammulated Owl, Rufous Hummingbird, Black-backed Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Mountain Bluebird, Cordilleran FlycatcherBorealMountain and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Varied Thrush, Pacific Wren, Evening Grosbeak, White-winged Crossbill and Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch amongst many other possibilities. Nights at Whitefish.

It's a long drive to Glasgow this morning, but we aim to get the 7 hour drive over and done with as early as possible and have a chance of a siesta in the early afternoon to catch up on some much-needed sleep. We will head to nearby Bentonite Road in the late afternoon and it is here that we have really pinned our hopes on seeing a number of key species. This dirt road goes a long way out into the desert and takes us into perfect habitat for a number of special birds. It's a very reliable spot for Greater Sage Grouse and we expect to see several of them patrolling the roadside areas. Another bird high on our wish list is Mountain Plover and we will spend some time scanning the valley floors for this nomadic species. There's also the rare Baird's Saprrow present in small numbers, whilst both Chestnut-collared and a few Thick-billed Longspurs occur, but Lark Buntings will probably outnumber all of these!  There should be one or two Upland Sandpipers displaying in the area, along with Marbled Godwits and Long-billed Curlews, whilst several small ponds may well have a few shorebirds such as Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary or Spotted Sandpipers, as well as some ducks. Sparrows are well represented with Lark, Brewer's and Vesper all present. Other species present in this habitat include Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon (although it is sparsely distributed), Loggerhead Shrike and Say's Phoebe. If we haven't seen one already, we will head to another area at dusk to look for Common Poorwill.  Night in Glasgow. 

Another long drive beckons, but we will spend most of the morning around Glasgow. A nearby site has an auto-tour route around a huge lake that literally hosts thousands of Wilson's Phalaropes, plus other shorebirds that stop off on their northwards migration. But this site is one of the best for Baird's Sparrow and it is worth the effort of doing the 15-mile auto-tour loop to see this often exceedingly tricky and shy species. We'll probably also see Grasshopper Sparrow here too. Or we might return to Bentonite Road, hitting it at daybreak when species are more active. 

Once we are finished here we will drive towards our next base at Jamestown in North Dakota where we will spend the next two nights. There's going to be plenty of potential and random stops along the way as we drive across the prairies. 
 Night in Jamestown.

Birding the prairies isn't quite what you might expect as there are many birds inhabiting the grassland, and numerous lakes and marshes that dot the landscape. Key species to find here are Sprague’s Pipit, Grasshopper Sparrow, Baird’s Sparrow & Nelson's Sparrow,  Lark Bunting and Chestnut-collared Longspur. We also have good chances of Sharp-tailed Grouse in this area and from here on eastwards we get a better shot at seeing Greater Prairie Chicken too. In between searching for our targets we will explore several great spots that hold species such as Western, Clark's, Red-necked and Eared Grebes, American White Pelican, American Bittern, Sora & Virginia Rails reside here, Franklin's Gulls look stunning in breeding plumage, and we'll also visit an area where a colony of American Black Terns give point-blank views. Meanwhile,  Sedge and Marsh Wrens are numerous, Bobolinks are common but no less stunning, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds could give you a headache with their raucous calls! The marshes and wetlands literally teem with birds and there's Marbled Godwits, Willets and Wilson's Phalaropes breeding here, and we may well pick up a few northbound migrants somewhere. Raptors can include Northern Harrier and Red-tailed, Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawks, whilst for anyone interested in bumping up their USA list we might see Grey Partridge too! Night at Jamestown. 

Depending on how well we've done around Jamestown will determine our programme for today and tomorrow morning. We’ll most likely visit Kelly’s Slough National Wildlife Refuge for species such as American Avocet or Marbled Godwit and even Nelson’s & LeConte’s Sparrows.  Another site is good for Greater Prairie Chicken and Short-eared Owl,  whilst this is pretty much the western range limit for Eastern Whip-poor-will, but we will have better chances in a few days. There's a vast network of dirt roads that crisscross the prairies so we may well just randomly bump into a Greater Prairie Chicken, Sharp-tailed Grouse or Nelson's Sparrow. We may also pass through Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge, just to the north of town, where we will hope to find Grasshopper Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper, Dickcissel and perhaps more migrant shorebirds and there is a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek here. This area is the epicentre for Yellow Rail, although the chances of seeing one are extremely small but we could well hear one calling. Night in Grand Forks. 

We will make use of the first couple hours of daylight to revist areas around Grand Forks before setting out on the 5 hour drive to Duluth. Our final stop in Grand Forks will be a local park to see the stunning Red-headed Woodpecker. This is such a great birding area and warrants several days as the prairie birding can be that good! If our timing is good we may well visit nearby Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge, whose deciduous woodlands and scrubby grasslands hold species such as Black-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Clay-coloured Sparrow. There’s also Rothsay State Wildlife Management Area that has Swamp, Clay-coloured, Grasshopper, Henslow’s and Le Conte’s Sparrows, as well as more Bobolinks. By the time we reach our secluded accommoation in the middle of Sax Zim Bog, we could all be in need of a nice ice-cold beer!  Night in Sax Zim.

Days 14 - 15   SAX ZIM BOG
One bird is synonymous with SaxZim Bog in the late springtime, and that is Connecticut Warbler. This is the nemesis of many, many birders but from late May there should be several males singing high up from their perches in the conifers - hopefully not too far away from the road. Wellies will most definitely be required! But there's plenty more to see here amidst the forests of northern Minnesota and high on our list of priorities will be Great Grey Owl,  Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Canada Jay and LeConte's Sparrow. Warblers are well represented and we could see around 20 species including such stunners as  Golden-wingedMourning, Canada,  Blackburnian and Chestnut-sided amongst others.

Other species present include Ruffed Grouse, Bald EagleMourning Dove, Cooper’s Hawk, Wilson’s Snipe, Hairy Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Eastern Wood Pewee, Olive-sided, Alder & Least Flycatchers, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird, Tree Swallow, Blue-headed Vireo, Eastern Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Cliff Swallow, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Sedge Wren, Veery, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Brown ThrasherSong, Swamp, Chipping, Clay-coloured, Lincoln’s & White-throated Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbird, Purple Finch, American Goldfinch, Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Cape May, Magnolia, Bay-breasted, Yellow and Black-throated Green Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Brown-headed Cowbird. On one of these evenings we can take the 90 minute drive across the state border into Wisconsin where we hope to get excellent views of Eastern Whip-poor-will, as well as breeding-plumaged Common LoonAmerican Woodcock, American Nighthawk and Cedar WaxwingNights in Duluth

Again it depends on what our main targets are now. But today could well be our best chance of finding Henslow's Sparrow and we might make this our priority. It's only a short couple of hours drive down to Minneapolis, so we can spend all day visiting a variety of sites en-route, which is a particularly productive route and should enable us to find Trumpeter Swan, Bald Eagle, Black-billed Cuckoo, Belted Kingfisher, Sandhill Crane, Great Crested Flycatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Cedar Waxwing, Swamp Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, Northern Cardinal and Indigo Bunting amongst many others. 

We might want to get to our hotel a little earlier tonight as there's owling to be done! Not too far from the motel we can try and find Great Horned, Barred, Barred Owl and Eastern Screech OwlsNight in Minneapolis

Day 17    End of Tour – 25th  June  2023
This morning we will visit Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve - our last chance for Henslow's Sparrow. It's a great site for an early morning walk as we can add a number of more easterly species to our lists and one of the best ones is Cerulean Warbler, another tricky North American bird to find. We could also find Hooded Merganser, Wood Duck, Canada GooseRed-shouldered Hawk, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Red-bellied and Pileated WoodpeckersVaux's Swift, Eastern KingbirdAcadian Flycatcher, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, Hooded Warbler (the only breeding site in the state), Eastern Towhee, Black-capped Chickadee, Orchard Oriole and Field Sparrow amongst others. 

By mid-morning we will be finished and there will be time for a quick dash back to the motel for a shower and final packing in readiness for our international flights back to the UK this afternoon and conclusion of an epic 6-state birdathon!  


All photos copyright Nick Bray/Zoothera Birding unless otherwise stated.

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