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Posts Tagged ‘American Three-toed Woodpecker’

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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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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Huge liquid black eyes encircled by thick red rings. Light-tipped black bill with perfect white spots at the base. Black hood, red legs and lovely black-tipped wings. And, the tail – the gorgeous white u-shaped tail. The Swallow-tailed Gull is widely considered to be the most beautiful gull on earth. Never in a million years would I have expected to see this bird on my trip to Washington, but let me start at the beginning.

Those big beautiful eyes facilitate hunting at night. Swallow-tailed Gulls are the only nocturnal gulls in the world.

Those big beautiful eyes facilitate hunting at night. Swallow-tailed Gulls are the only nocturnal gulls in the world.

My friends Phil and Mary Dickinson moved across the country from North Carolina to Washington in December 2015.  I expected very few life birds in Washington, but I wanted to visit my friends and I thought that it would be fun to see the Pacific Northwest and a new state.  Phil suggested that late August/early September would have nice weather, so I flew to Seattle on August 28.

On our first full day, Phil took me to Big Four Ice Caves where I got my first life bird of the trip, Black Swift. I also had an introduction to the beautiful Washington landscape.

The beautiful but dangerous ice caves. Phil and I heeded the warnings to stay on the trail, but many did not. There have been four deaths here since 1998.

The beautiful but dangerous ice caves. Phil and I heeded the warnings to stay on the trail, but many did not. There have been four deaths there since 1998.

 

Fireweed at Big Four is beautiful even when past its prime.

Fireweed at Big Four is beautiful even when past its prime.

The next day, Phil, Mary, and I drove to Mount Rainier National Park.  We took our time with a stop for a picnic lunch and walk at Federation Forest State Park.  We arrived at Crystal Mountain Resort mid-afternoon and had a nice dinner after acquainting ourselves with the Sunrise area of the park where we would be spending our time.

A Clark's Nutcracker greeted us in the Sunrise Visitor's Center parking lot.

A Clark’s Nutcracker greeted us in the Sunrise Visitor’s Center parking lot.

The following morning, Phil met some birders from home in the parking lot just before we started our hike.  They mentioned that a Swallow-tailed Gull had been found early that morning in north Seattle.  I received a text from a friend in North Carolina also notifying us of the gull.  What?  A Swallow-tailed Gull is a pelagic bird of the southern hemisphere that comes to land only to nest, mainly on the Galapagos Islands.  Other times of the year, it cruises the off-shore waters of South America’s Pacific coast from Colombia to Chile.  A Swallow-tailed Gull has been seen in North America only twice before, and in California, not nearly so far north.  This was a mega-rarity!  Some crazed birders would have abandoned plans for Mt. Rainier and sacrificed the advance payments we had made for our rooms that night to chase this bird.  We didn’t consider that option and hoped that the bird would stick around until we got back home.

A Yellow Pine Chipmunk posed near the Sunrise Visitor's Center.

A Yellow Pine Chipmunk posed near the Sunrise Visitor’s Center.

One of our target birds on the Mount Freemont Lookout Trail was Prairie Falcon, which had been seen there the previous day.  The three of us walked the first mile and a half of the trail, which was labeled “moderate,” before Mary turned back.  Phil and I continued on the “strenuous” trail for another 1.3 miles and I soon became scared.  Parts of the trail were just a narrow scree path with an abrupt steep drop-off for hundreds of feet down the side of the mountain.  Phil was kind, patient and encouraging as I slowly conquered my fears and made my way.  Finally, we reached the lookout where we found raptors in the distance, but they turned out to be Red-tailed Hawks.  However, Mountain Goats, a Pika, and a feeling of accomplishment rewarded our efforts.

Phil and I conquered Mt. Fremont.

Phil and I conquered Mt. Fremont.

On Friday morning, Phil and I went out to look for birds before breakfast.  We drove to the campground and kept a sharp eye out for grouse on the side of the road, but we did not see any.  We decided to check the trail at Sunrise Point, where we were rewarded with a Red-breasted Nuthatch loudly calling as soon as we opened the car doors.  We started down the trail and had not gone more than a few yards when Phil said, “Shelley, there’s your grouse.”  And, there it was on the side of the trail walking towards us.  A Sooty Grouse – life bird #2 for the trip!  We continued to watch the grouse, an adult male, for 10 minutes as he kept an eye on us, but foraged very close by.  Finally, we decided that it was time to go have breakfast with Mary.

This male Sage Grouse was waiting for us at Sunrise Point.

This male Sage Grouse was waiting for us at Sunrise Point.

But, our wonderful, birdy morning was not quite over yet.  About a mile from Sunrise Point, Phil spied a woodpecker flying across the road and quickly stopped the car.  And, then we saw a second bird and quickly realized that it was a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers, a species that each of us had only seen once before.

The yellow crown on this American Three-toed Woodpecker isn't visible in this photo, but you can clearly see that he has only three toes. Except for the Three-toed and Black-backed, all North American woodpeckers have four toes.

The yellow crown on this American Three-toed Woodpecker isn’t visible in this photo, but you can clearly see that he has only three toes. Except for the Three-toed and Black-backed, all North American woodpeckers have four toes.

The three of us had a good breakfast and then started the drive home.  We had been watching the local birding listserv, Tweeters, and the Western Washington Birders Facebook group for updates on the Swallow-tailed Gull, but as of mid-afternoon, it had not been re-sighted.  We started to think that it might be a “one day wonder.”  Finally, in the late afternoon, it was found a few miles north of the original location.  Reports said that this new location was very difficult to access and required a dangerous and possibly illegal trek across active railroad tracks to get a good look.  We hoped that the bird would stay a third day.

Western Sandpipers foraged at the Everett Sewage Lagoons, some in deeper water up to their bellies. Occasionally a bird would submerge its head completely under water.

Western Sandpipers foraged at the Everett Sewage Lagoons, some in deeper water up to their bellies. Occasionally a bird would submerge its head completely under water.

On Saturday morning, Phil and I went birding in his home county.  Again, we watched for news of the gull and were ready for the chase if it was found.  We mostly birded coastal areas with a foray to the sewage treatment plant in the middle of the day.  After a quick drive-thru at Burger King for a very late lunch, we drove to the Everett marina on the Puget Sound, mainly because we didn’t have time to go anywhere else.  I had wanted to get good looks at California Gulls, which are common there.  They were there as expected, but one gull was different.  We both felt absolute disbelief as we realized that we had found the Swallow-tailed Gull.

The gull showed off its swallowtail while preening.

The gull showed off its swallowtail while preening.

Phil got the word out that we had found the gull and 10 minutes later other birders started arriving.  We continued to watch the gull in close waters, happy with our good views, when the impossible happened.  The Swallow-tailed Gull flew right in front of us on the two-foot wide strip of dirt between the parking lot and the water, no more than 20 feet away.  We had incredible looks at the bird at it stretched its wings and picked at pebbles.  After a few minutes, a truck drove by and the gulls flew back into the water.

Courtship includes the male offering the female pebbles for the nest. Hmm. Does this beauty want to make more Swallow-tailed Gulls?

Courtship includes the male offering the female pebbles for the nest. Hmm. Does this beauty want to make more Swallow-tailed Gulls?

I then turned my attention to the small group of birders who had shared this amazing experience with us.  I heard someone say that a guy had flown in from Chicago.  I introduced myself and the man replied that his name was Amar Ayyash.  I don’t know of anyone in North American who knows gulls better or loves them more.  If I could have chosen any person in the world to share this experience with it would have been Amar.  This gull was a super star and it had also drawn Shawneen Finnegan and Dave Irons from Portland, Oregon.  Alex Sundvall had flown in from Minnesota.  I’m sure there were others from out of state, too, but it wasn’t possible to meet the 80 or so birders who were there when we left.  Others had already come and gone and more would arrive after we went home to celebrate with Mary.

A close-up of the amazing Swallow-tailed Gull in breeding plumage. Outside breeding season, the head is white and the eye ring is black.

A close-up of the amazing Swallow-tailed Gull in breeding plumage. Outside breeding season, the head is white and the eye ring is black.

As I write this, the Swallow-tailed Gull is still being seen in Edmonds, about 15 miles south of where Phil and I discovered it.  This is day 10.  Will it stay longer?  Perhaps.  Squid, the gull’s primary food, has been plentiful in the area.

An "Oregon" Dark-eyed Junco cooled off on a hot day in the Dickinson bath while we relaxed on the deck.

An “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco cooled off on a hot day in the Dickinson bath while we relaxed on the deck.

Phil and I had some pleasant birding for the next two and a half days, but I did not get any additional life birds.  Regardless, it was fun to see some of his local birding locations and enjoy the birds in his backyard.  Spending time with friends, seeing spectacular landscape of the Pacific Northwest, and the thrill of finding a rare bird will keep memories of this trip sharp in my mind for a very long time.

Phil’s story, Beauty and a Surprise Highlight Washington Birding, is on the Forsyth Audubon blog.  For another fun story and amazing photos, see Amar’s post,  Swallow-tailed Gull Twitch, on his blog, Anything Larus.  More of my photos are on Flickr in the Swallow-tailed Gull album and Washington – 2017.

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