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If you rode shotgun with me on my big trip, thank you!  It was great to have your company and your comments encouraged me along the way.  My longest road trip yet began on May 16 and ended on June 11, 2018.  That was 27 days away from home and 7,114 miles driven in my wilderness green Subaru Outback.  Montana and Nebraska were brand new states for me that I had never visited before.  I had not been in Wyoming since a 1971 trip to Yellowstone National Park.

My approximate route for the trip. I continued on home from Tellico Plains, TN.

My approximate route for the trip. I continued on home from Tellico Plains, TN.

Birds provided the structure for the trip and I observed 171 avian species, including a few in the North Carolina mountains during the Cherohala Challenge part of the trip.  The life birds that I hoped to find were all challenging; I got eleven of my 20 targets.  Birds that I was thrilled to find by myself were Mountain Plover, Greater Sage-Grouse, Baird’s Sparrow, McCown’s Longspur, and Gray Flycatcher.  All of those are prairie birds and I found that I enjoyed birding in that habitat best.

I would have liked to see more mammals, but I did enjoy the Pronghorn, Richardson’s Ground Squirrels, Prairie Dogs, and especially an adorable little Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel.  Snakes and lizards would have been interesting, too, but I saw none.

A Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel at a rest stop in Wisconsin.

A Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel at a rest stop in Wisconsin.

Other life birds found with a little help were Gray Partridge, Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Flammulated Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, and Sage Thrasher.  I can’t pick a favorite bird of those, but my favorite moment was standing all alone on the prairie in Grasslands National Park watching my life Baird’s Sparrow and listening to him sing.  The moment probably lasted close to an hour and I tried to just soak in the beauty of the time and place and take a few photos.

My life Baird's Sparrow at Grasslands National Park

My life Baird’s Sparrow at Grasslands National Park

I missed other birds for various reasons.  My poor vision and hearing are most likely what cost me Sprague’s Pipit.  I even stood next to someone one day who said that she was hearing them in the distance.  When I arrived at Waterton Park and learned that many of the trails and roads were closed due to last year’s fires, I knew that I was unlikely to find Spruce Grouse as that was the only location in my itinerary where there was any chance for it.  It was also the best location for Dusky Grouse, so I missed it, too.  I’m not totally certain why I could not find a Prairie Falcon.  Before the trip, several folks had said that they expected I would find one, but perhaps it was a little too late in the season as the birds were nesting.  Once in Montana, people said that it would have been easier earlier in the year.  Northern Goshawk is always a difficult bird to find, so it’s no surprise that I missed it.

With a little more time, I probably could have found Cordilleran Flycatcher, especially if I’d had another day in Helena with Stephen’s help.  He and Bob had seen them earlier in the day that I arrived.  But, we spent our time focusing on the woodpeckers and owls, birds that are more fun and we had wonderful success with those.  I lost half my chances to look for Sagebrush Sparrow when I got rained out on Bannack Bench Road in Montana.  I tried to find it on Bear Canyon Road, but had no luck there.  Black Rosy-Finch was missed because I wimped out on driving the steepest part of the Beartooth Highway.  Next time!  And, lastly, Virginia’s Warbler just did not want to be seen in Roby Canyon in South Dakota.  Even the top local birders had no luck the day that I was there.  My late husband used to say “Always leave something for next time” and I certainly did just that.

A Yellow Warbler peeks around the tree to watch me. One of my favorite photos!

A Yellow Warbler peeks around the tree to watch me. One of my favorite photos!

Photographing birds can be challenging due to poor light, the birds being too far away, and various other difficulties, but I did my best.  I posted 155 photos to my eBird lists, some only good enough for identification and some that make me very happy.  Sometimes it was the simple shots of common species that made me smile.

All that driving turned out to be relatively easy, especially since I planned my route to miss major cities.  Getting over 400 miles on a tank of gas helped, so most of my stops on big travel days were at rest areas.  I took food from home for lunch and dinner and replenished perishables at grocery stores a couple of times.  I started each day with two canteens full of fresh cold water, so I had everything that I needed in my car.  These strategies enabled me to drive 1,300 miles in the first two days, to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, northwest of Duluth.  From there, I had no more especially long days until heading back home at the end of the trip.

A nice rest stop bird, a male Blackpoll Warbler. They were so much easier to see in Minnesota than at home!

A nice rest stop bird, a male Blackpoll Warbler. They were so much easier to see in Minnesota than at home!

There is little traffic on many of the western roads and what you have heard about high speed limits is true.  I drove many two-lane roads with speed limits of 70 MPH.  Most of those roads had a feature to facilitate safety – rumble strips on the center line.  A lot of the roads in Canada were gravel and relatively wide, which made it easy to stop for birds.

In parts of Saskatchewan there were only Card Lock fueling stations rather than typical gas stations.  Their purpose is mainly to serve commercial vehicles and some only have diesel fuel, but the ones that I encountered also had regular gasoline.  They are always unattended and always open.  You go into the little house, insert your credit card and specify a dollar amount greater than what you will use.  After approval, you go out and pump your gas.  And, then you go back into the little house and insert your credit card again to get a receipt.  And, don’t forget to shut the door behind yourself (the sign reminds you).

The Card Lock station in Val Marie, Saskatchewan

The Card Lock station in Val Marie, Saskatchewan

My trip took me through much of the current Greater Sage-Grouse range.  Historically, Sage-Grouse occurred in at least 16 states within the western U.S. and three provinces in Canada.  Experts estimate that the population was as high as 16 million before European settlement; today there are only a few hundred thousand.  The decline has continued relentlessly, by 60% in just the last five decades.  Sage-Grouse are now extirpated from British Columbia and five U.S. states.  In 2015, a fierce political battle about listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) resulted in the decision to not list the grouse.  They face many threats, the most serious being habitat loss.  But even without ESA listing, serious efforts are underway to protect the species.

A Greater Sage-Grouse that I found in Montana

A Greater Sage-Grouse that I found in Montana

As a casual observer driving through Montana, none of this was obvious to me.  It looks like immense areas of sagebrush remain almost pristine, but that was an illusion.  The recovery efforts are addressing various threats to the grouse.  The one that I heard about from a local rancher is fence line flagging – clipping small reflective markers along the top row of barbed wire fences every three to four feet.  The markers help the low-flying grouse see the wires and avoid collisions which result in injury or death.  He told me about his conversations with a biologist studying the birds and said that he readily agreed to have the fence on his land flagged.

In Canada, the total population of Sage-Grouse declined by 98% between 1988 and 2012.  A total of only 93 to 138 adult birds were estimated for Alberta and Saskatchewan combined in 2012.  The species has been listed as Endangered in Canada since 1998.  Nature Canada has a nice summary of the species status and recovery efforts.

See the Cornell All About Birds site for more basic information on the fascinating Greater Sage-Grouse.

One of my favorite experiences on the trip was finding an American Three-toed Woodpecker nest at Cypress Hills.

Nestling American Three-toed Woodpecker

Nestling American Three-toed Woodpecker

Papa Three-toed flew to a nearby tree to preen after leaving the nest cavity.

Papa Three-toed flew to a nearby tree to preen after leaving the nest cavity.

Did I get lonely on the road traveling alone for so many days?  No, not at all.  Actually, I met some wonderful people and feel like I made a few new friends.  First, was Allison Henderson.  Allison and her family were packing their car after camping at Two Trees in Grasslands National Park just as I arrived.  In an amazing coincidence, I was looking for Baird’s Sparrow and McCown’s Longspur and Allison is a wildlife biologist who studied grassland songbirds for her PhD.  She gave me a few tips and we stayed in touch with phone calls and text messages.  Thanks for the alert on the Long-billed Curlew, Allison!

Next was PJ Chudleigh at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.  PJ is in charge of maintenance at The Resort at Cypress Hills (where I stayed) and is passionate about the natural habitat.  PJ and a buddy saw me birdwatching when they were riding their bikes.  I always feel dorky when I’ve got my binoculars and am out looking for birds when “normal” people are doing other things.  But, they thought it was cool that someone was paying attention to the wildlife.  We felt an instant connection and could have talked for hours.

And, then there was the rancher I met on Bannack Bench Road, the nice couple walking by the lake at Waterton National Park, and many others.  Some conversations were short, but when I told someone what I was doing, I always got “Good for you!” in response.

I was impressed with the beauty of Devils Tower in Wyoming - 867 feet from its base to its 1-1/2 acre summit.

I was impressed with the beauty of Devils Tower in Wyoming – 867 feet from its base to its 1-1/2 acre summit.

In addition to these surprise encounters, I enjoyed spending some time with the birders whom I had contacted before the trip, Stephen Turner (and his wife, Patty) in Helena and Ron Farmer in Bozeman.

I loved meeting new people, seeing new parts of the country, and finding my own way through it all.  My goals to see a few new birds and new landscapes were accomplished.  But, more than that, I gained confidence in myself and I feel stronger than ever.  I might not be ready to backpack through Europe alone yet, but I’m ready for another road trip!

More photos can be seen in my Flickr album for this trip, Prairie Road Trip 2018.  As of June, it’s not complete, but I will add more photos and label them all correctly soon.

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Driving through Nebraska was monotonous compared to the more western states.  The view from the highways was nothing but agricultural fields for mile after mile.  I did not even see birds from the road as I had in other areas.  However, beautiful rest areas along the Platte River were like little oases in this hot and dry land.  They had lovely trees, birds, and each one came with a history lesson about the Oregon Trail.  Here are a couple of photos taken at O’Fallon’s Bluff rest area on Interstate 80.

Crossing The Overland Trail

Crossing The Overland Trail

The Great Platte River Road

The Great Platte River Road

Late in the afternoon, I also made an unplanned stop at the Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Buffalo.  The center is most well-known for Sandhill Crane viewing on the Platte River in the spring.  It is a lovely spot along the river and even on a hot June afternoon, I easily found birds.

It was fun to see Dickcissels where they are common. These guys seem to sing all day!

It was fun to see Dickcissels where they are common. These guys seem to sing all day!

An Eastern Kingbird enjoys its perch over the Platte River.

An Eastern Kingbird enjoys its perch over the Platte River.

On Wednesday, it was on to the next state – Missouri. Again, it took most of a day to drive through one state. But, I did start the morning at Loess Bluffs NWR, which I suspect may be one of the best wildlife refuges in the country.  I was pleased with the 32 species that I found in two hours without getting out of the car.  But when I checked eBird, I saw that the previous day two guys had recorded 97 species!  Loess Bluffs is definitely on my list of places to go again.

An adult Bald Eagle at Loess Bluffs NWR in Missouri.

An adult Bald Eagle at Loess Bluffs NWR in Missouri.

My third and last big travel day towards home was mostly through Tennessee.  It was one of the few days that I did not do any birding at all.  I needed to be in Tellico Plains on Thursday night to help my friend, David, with his adventure – The Cherohala Challenge, a road bike event.  David successfully completed the 62-mile ride last year.  This year he would be participating in the longest ride, 115 miles up the Cherohala Skyway, through The Tail of The Dragon, an 11-mile stretch of US-129 with 318 curves, and then back to Tellico Plains.

David stopping to pose with the dragon during the ride on Saturday.

David stopping to pose with the dragon during the ride on Saturday.

On Friday, we drove the route in the car and I marked every stop in my GPS.  We had a very nice time and finished with a few hours to spare, so we went in search of Tennessee birds for my list obsession.  I randomly choose an eBird hotspot not too far away.  At first it appeared to be a dead-end road with a path to the river at the end.  We walked the path and were lucky to see both White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos as well as an Orchard Oriole.  Those birds helped me reach one of my goals – over 50 species for Tennessee.  The path led to Chota Memorial,  a full scale representation of the townhouse, or council house, originally erected by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, a completely unexpected and interesting surprise.

Chota Memorial lies along Little Tellico River.

Chota Memorial lies along Little Tellico River.

We were up at 5:00 AM on Saturday, the day of the big ride.  I dropped David off at the starting line and headed to the first rest stop to wait.  The volunteer was just setting up and gratefully accepted my offer to help.  I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut up fruit, and put out other goodies for the riders for an hour.  Then, it was off to the next stop to wait for David.  For over 10 hours, he rode and I did what I could to help my friend and others with food, water, and encouragement.

Coming into a rest stop on the Cherohala Skyway.

Coming into a rest stop on the Cherohala Skyway.

At the toughest part of the ride – 8 miles at a very steep grade to the highest point – I even gave one guy a ride because he was cramping too badly to ride that stretch of road.  Fortunately, David’s hard work training paid off and he got to the top under his own power.  After another 31 miles, he reached the finish line – tired, but extremely happy.

David was happy and smiling after riding 115 miles!

David was happy and smiling after riding 115 miles!

Sunday was a recovery day, so we did a little birding in the NC mountains. We were able to add a few birds to my county lists and see more beautiful scenery. After all my traveling this past month, I still love North Carolina.  I drove home yesterday, June 11, and that’s the end of the trail. Stay tuned for a few numbers (miles driven, species observed, etc.) and reflections on the adventure in a few days.

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On Sunday morning, I headed back to Bear Canyon Road to look for Sagebrush Sparrow again.  Remember, I was looking for these birds instead of Black Rosy-Finches because I was scared to drive the Beartooth Highway.  I got to the road several hours earlier than the previous day, but I found even fewer species and did not find my target bird.

After two hours of serious searching along the two-mile stretch of road, I set my GPS for Tellico Plains and started driving.  I was soon in Wyoming and enjoying the beautiful landscape, even prettier than Montana if possible.  The distant mountains were gorgeous and before I knew it, I was driving up into those mountains.  The road became narrow and steep with sharp drop-offs and hairpin turns.  A sign at a scenic overlook told me that I was in Bighorn National Forest.  Another sign a short time later stated that the elevation was 9430 feet.

I talked with a guy who had ridden his motorcycle up and he told me that the Beartooth was “a piece of cake” compared to what I had just driven.  I’m not sure that’s true, but I did drive one of Wyoming’s scenic mountain roads that had not even opened for traffic until May 20.  I had been somewhat uncomfortable driving WY 14A, but not terrified.  There was no time to anticipate the road ahead and I had no choice but to keep driving.

After discovering that I can drive mountain roads, my only regret of the trip is not driving the Beartooth Highway to look for Black Rosy-Finches and, of course, enjoy the views on one of the most beautiful roads in America.  Next time …

After I finally got out of the mountains, I drove to Devils Tower.  I was stunned that a piece of rock could be so captivating.  The entire park around the landmark is absolutely gorgeous and easily worth a full or half day to hike the trails.  I walked a short way on one trail and saw this young guy.

And, the park had a prairie dog town! Who doesn’t love prairie dogs?  This time I heard them “talking.”

Update: The prairie dogs at Devils Tower are the same species that I saw at Grasslands National Park, Black-tailed prairie dogs.

Update: The prairie dogs at Devils Tower are the same species that I saw at Grasslands National Park, Black-tailed prairie dogs.

Yesterday, I started the day by crossing the state line just into South Dakota to look for Virginia’s Warbler in Roby Canyon.  It’s an isolated location where you don’t expect to run into anyone else, but I met two other birders.  Together, we searched for a couple of hours without seeing our target bird.  I was disappointed, but at least I could blame the miss on luck rather than lack of birding skill when two top local birders could not find it either.  They described the Virginia’s as one of the warblers that just does not want to be seen.

Here is a pretty female Mountain Bluebird that I did see on the way to Roby Canyon.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

I spent most of the afternoon driving through Wyoming and crossed into Nebraska just before I stopped for the night.  Before I left home, I had read about half of “The Oregon Trail” by Rinker Buck, a modern-day adventure with lots of history.  As a child, I was fascinated with the story of pioneers who moved west and now I am seeing the country through which they traveled.

I’ll leave you with a Lark Sparrow that I saw yesterday when I detoured down a random dirt road.  And, now I’m back on the trail, slowly heading home.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

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On Thursday morning, I got “permission” from a local Montana birder to try Bannack Bench Road again when I called for advice.  “The roads dry quickly and the storms don’t usually come until late afternoon.”  So, I hoped to hit a sweet spot in the middle of the day.  The beginning of the road was great, but it soon starting getting sticky.  But, I heard birdsong, so I just pulled over and shut the engine.  I continued to hear the bird and then I found him at the top of a distant bush with his head thrown back in full song.  I hoped that this was a Gray Flycatcher, so I made a couple of quick voice recordings and tried to get a photo, but my camera wouldn’t focus.

Before had time to play with camera settings, a local rancher came by and stopped to see if I was OK.  He said I should be OK for another mile or so, but that I should turn around at the next cattle guard.  Then we talked for a while, about how he loved Montana, how he is trying to save the Greater Sage-Grouse on the land he uses, the local roads.  I showed him an illustration of a Prairie Falcon and he was sure they were “just over the ridge there.”  But, of course, that was an inaccessible location for me.  I can’t regret the 20 minutes or so we talked, but after he left, I could not re-find my singing bird.  Also, storm clouds gathered while we were talking and he left me with instructions to turn around right then.  If I got stuck he would have helped me, but I would have been embarrassed by my foolishness.  The rancher told stories of people calling for a tow truck and being asked if they had a good book.  At least one person was stuck for over 24 hours.  Friends, you may have worried about people, bears, or rattlesnakes, but the real danger out here is the roads.

I reluctantly left Bannack and headed to Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, where I arrived mid-afternoon.  The park is beautiful and I wish that I’d had the time and energy to hike some of the trails or take the tour of the caverns.  I explored just a little of the park before it started raining.  I headed to Bozeman for the night.

It was raining when I woke up yesterday morning and I half-way expected a call from Ron Farmer cancelling our birding.  But, Ron picked me up as planned and we spent several hours birding from the car.  Ron took me to his reliable Sage Thrasher spot and we did see one bird.  The bird was wet and I didn’t really get a great look, but it was a lifer.  We spent the rest of our time looking for Prairie Falcons to no avail.

Ron dropped me back at my hotel and I took a nap.  When I awoke, the skies looked a little less rainy, so I headed back to the spots that Ron had showed me that morning.  After watching for Prairie Falcons for over two hours (mostly in the rain), I decided to go look for the thrashers again.  I drove up and back the road in intermittent rain with just one brief sighting.  I started for a second round and immediately saw this Sage Thrasher perched on a fence post in a brief moment of sun.

Sage Thrasher

Thrilled that I finally had a photo, I headed back to my hotel and started thinking about today.  I had planned to drive the Beartooth Highway and look for Black Rosy-Finches at the pass, about 10,000 feet of elevation.  I expected them to be right by the road.  But, I started thinking about whether or not I would be comfortable driving the road and googled “Is driving the Beartooth Highway scary”?  Well, the answer is that yes, for me, it would be as I am terrified of cliff edges.  I have no idea why I did not think about the narrow mountain road with steep ascents and decents and hairpin turns before the trip.  I fell asleep with no plan for today.

This morning, I decided that I would check Bear Canyon Road in the Pryor Mountains for Sagebrush Sparrows.  It took a while to drive from Bozeman, so I started down the road at 12:30 PM.  I did not find the sparrows, but I did receive confirmation from an expert that my recording from Thursday was indeed a Gray Flycatcher, another life bird.  Bear Canyon Road was another of those isolated spots that I love and I enjoyed it.  Here are a few images from this afternoon.

Common Raven on nest

A bird that reminded me of the Southeast US.

Loggerhead Shrike

A little sparrow that I believe is a Brewer’s Sparrow, or maybe it’s a Clay-colored Sparrow.  Birder friends, can any of you identify this bird for me?  (Update: the sparrow has been confirmed as a Brewer’s.)

Brewer's Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow

A view of the Pryor Mountains. Yes, that is snow on the peaks.

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It was sad to leave Canada on Tuesday, but I was also excited to head back to Montana, a state that I immediately liked when I first arrived earlier in my trip.  Back home in North Carolina a few weeks ago, I had sent a message to Last Chance Audubon in Helena about the possibility of observing Flammulated Owls.  Webmaster Stephen Turner replied to my message.  Not only would he take me to try for the owls, Stephen and his wife, Patty, invited me to stay at their house.

I arrived at the Turner’s home about 3:30 PM, just enough time before dinner for Stephen to take me to look for Gray Partridge at a restricted access property owned by a local land trust.  Two birds flushed from almost under our feet shortly after we started walking down the dirt path.  It was too fast for a photo, but I did see the birds.  That happened so quickly that we still had time for a quick trip to Mount Helena City Park.  I got my life Calliope Hummingbird in North Carolina earlier this year, but I wanted to see an adult male and Stephen knew a spot.  Just as promised, the little beauty was sitting on his favorite perch.  He was just a little too far for good photos, but we did get great looks.

Calliope Hummingbird

Stephen’s birding buddy, Bob Martinka, joined us for a lovely dinner of Patty’s jambalaya, a wonderful change from road food.  We headed out for more birding and went to the Flammulated Owl spot just as it was getting dark.  The birds are heard here every year, but previously they had not been reported before June.  We were happy to hear two Flams calling as soon as it got dark.  And, then another owl starting calling – Northern Pygmy-Owl.  They had never heard it at that location before.  What a fantastic surprise!  One bird flew in to the tree right where we were standing.  While we were not able to see the bird, it was exciting to hear it so close.

The next morning Stephen and Bob took me out to look for Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers.  The Red-naped Sapsucker was supposed to be the easy bird of my targets in Helena, but we worked hard for both woodpeckers.  But, we did see both and I even got a photo of my life female Williamson’s Sapsucker.  It’s a really bad photo, but special because it’s my lifer and, amazingly, I was even the first to see her.

Williamson’s Sapsucker (female)

With help from Stephen and Bob, I had FIVE life birds in less than 24 hours!  Birders talk about the importance of local knowledge and this proved it for me.  I never would have found any of these birds without their help.  They knew exactly where to go for each of these species.

I am now stuck in Dillon, where I learned late yesterday afternoon what happens to the nice gravel roads when it rains.  I drove to Bannack Bench Road to check it out and nearly got stuck in the glue-like muck.  I had planned to spend the morning on that road, but more rain is forecast, so I’m looking for Plan B.  It’s all part of the adventure!

 

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Monday evening, May 28

It’s about a 5-hour drive from Cypress Hills to Waterton Lakes, but I wanted to stop at Elkwater Lake in the West block of the provincial park, so I spent most of the day yesterday leisurely traveling.  My GPS seems to have a preference for gravel roads.  I was puzzled by some of her choices, but obeyed and had no complaints when she took me by a lovely little shallow lake by the side of the road soon after leaving the resort.  The nice thing about dirt and gravel roads is that you can stop, so I pulled over when I saw the White Pelicans.  Even though I had just seen them a few weeks ago in North Carolina, I couldn’t just drive by.  The pelicans were joined by Western Grebes, several species of ducks, and, of course, Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  These little lakes are magical surprises and one of the wonderful pleasures of driving the rural roads.

Waterton Lakes National Park. The view from the entrance.

I arrived at Waterton Lakes National Park to learn that there were extensive fires here last year and, as a result, many of the roads and trails are still closed.  This makes it unlikely that I would be able to find my target birds, Spruce and Dusky Grouse.  So, without the pressure of finding life birds, I just enjoyed the birding and the spectacular scenery.

A Common Loon was on her nest at the entrance ponds.

Common Loon on nest

Marsh Wrens at the same location allowed me to take their photos, something that has never happened before today.

Marsh Wren

I saw more pretty wildflowers on a walk this morning.  The flowers are getting more common as I go west, or as each day is closer to summer.  I learned that the wildflower festival here is the middle of June, so it’s still a few weeks from peak bloom time.

Update: I think this is Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Update: I think this is Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Tree Swallows are everywhere out here.  And, I never get tired of them.  I saw this pretty female on a beautiful walk this morning.

Tree Swallow

But, my best sighting today was this guy, immediately identified by the owner of the motel where I am staying as “the 3-year old male.”  He was just casually walking around the lake in town.  I tried to keep a safe and respectful distance rather than try for the best photo.  This is a black bear, but they have grizzly bears here, too.

The three-year-old black bear casually walks around Waterton Lake.

The past few days have been rather leisurely, but I am learning to pace myself. Every day cannot be an intensive birding day for 23 straight days. My time in Canada has gone too quickly and I have thoroughly enjoyed the birds, the landscape, and meeting some interesting and friendly people. Tomorrow I head back to Montana where more birds and adventures await.

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Well, friends, I knew it would happen some time.  I just accidentally hit an unknown shortcut key and published a post with only one sentence.  I apologize for any confusion.  So, back to my story…  I left The Crossing at Grasslands in Val Marie late in the morning on Thursday, May 24.  It could have been a short 2-1/2 hour drive to Cypress Hills, but I detoured to Eastend to look for Prairie Falcon, which would be a sure thing at Jones Peak (yeah, right).  It was another of those long dirt and gravel roads, but it did lead up and up to a spectacular view of the valley below.  I believe that Prairie Falcons do breed there, but I should have known by the zero photos in eBird for that location that not many people get a really good look.  It was so windy that I could barely keep myself upright.  I did not set up the scope because I knew it would blow over.  So, I did not add Prairie Falcon to my life list, but I did see some pretty Tree Swallows and Mountain Bluebirds.

Mountain Bluebird

I arrived at The Resort at Cypress Hills that afternoon and walked around the lake before settling in for the night.  The park is beautiful and the trees are a lovely change from the prairie.  However, I headed out to the prairie again the next morning.  On Friday, I drove over 1-1/2 hours towards Wild Horse, Alberta, to look for McCown’s Longspur again.  I loved the first 11 miles of the gravel road and did not encounter another vehicle.  Nor did I encounter any McCown’s Longspurs.  I did, however, see a few American Avocets in breeding plumage, the color of dreamsicles, a friend used to say.

American Avocet

The next 10 miles were pretty good, too, and I met another birder coming from the opposite direction.  He greeted me with “What do you need?”  I replied, “McCown’s Longspur.”  “I just pushed three of them your way.  Just wait here five minutes and they will be here.”  Well, we talked 10 or 15 minutes and another truck came by.  Birds don’t always keep hopping straight down the road, either, so I missed them.  I continued on down the road and was at the border station before I realized that my target road had ended.  It was good fortune, though, because they have rest rooms at the border station (travel tip).  Plus, I found the most cooperative Upland Sandpiper just before the end of the road.  I think this bird would have let me look at him all day.

Upland Sandpiper

I could have made a loop back to Cypress Hills, but I liked the first 11 miles of the road I was on so much that I decided to return the same way.  I don’t know what changed, other than my luck, but I found EIGHT adult male McCown’s Longspurs on the way back!  My mediocre photos make me happy, proof that I finally found these little beauties.

McCown’s Longspur

Yesterday’s mammal of the day is Richardson’s ground squirrel.

Richardson’s ground squirrel

Today’s highlight happened when I went out to get in my car.  Yesterday, I had discovered a woodpecker nest on the edge of the parking lot and got a photo of a nestling poking his head out of the hole.  I suspected it was a Three-toed Woodpecker, but I wasn’t sure.

American Three-toed Woodpecker

Today, I saw Papa Three-toe leave the nest and fly to a close tree, where he preened for five minutes.  It was such a privilege to watch these birds, a species that I have not seen often.

American Three-toed Woodpecker (adult male)

I drove to the West Block of the park, over the roughest gravel roads yet.  I did not see a lot of birds there, but did enjoy the scenery and had a nice walk.  I finally saw the first significant prairie flowers of the trip.

Update:  One of the two Shooting Stars native to Saskatchewan, genus Dodecatheon, but I did not measure the leaves or petals, so cannot determine which species.

Update: One of the two Shooting Stars native to Saskatchewan, genus Dodecatheon, but I did not measure the leaves or petals, so cannot determine which species.

On the way back, I stopped on the side of the road to watch a Golden Eagle.  Another raptor was attacking it, so I started taking photos.  When I looked at them, I realized that the eagle had stolen the Swainson’s Hawk’s lunch.  There is nothing like a little raptor drama to liven up the day.

Golden Eagle and Swainson’s Hawk

Today’s mammal was this red squirrel who did not want me to take his picture. He didn’t even want me in his woods.

Red Squirrel

Tomorrow, I’m on the road again, heading to Waterton Lake National Park.

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