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Posts Tagged ‘Song Sparrow’

“I learned that hot spots aren’t hot every day, even at the right time of the year.”  I wrote that about visits to Dauphin Island, Alabama, and High Island, Texas, during my big 2012 Texas trip.  It sounds like I learned a valuable lesson, right?  Wrong. I left for Minnesota in late October already counting my life Northern Goshawk that I would see at Duluth’s Hawk Ridge.  How could I miss?  “They fly right over your head” folks said when describing the wondrous spectacle of hawk migration in Duluth.  Well, I did miss the bird.  But, fortunately, I also had other goals for the trip.

I saw this pretty little Song Sparrow before I was out of North Carolina.

I saw this pretty little Song Sparrow before I was out of North Carolina.

Ever since I bought my new wilderness green Subaru Outback two years ago, I have been dreaming of birding road trips.  Until this fall, my longest trips had been to Florida, but now I had an opportunity to test drive a more adventurous trip.  I would also have a chance to indulge my growing obsession with state birding. I have had an interest in seeing the number of states on my birding lists grow for a long time, but the new eBird personal profile pages with maps fueled a need to fill in the blank states.  If I took the western route north and a more eastern route home, I could add five new states.

My first new state was Missouri.  I spent the night just the other side of St. Louis and checked the BirdsEye app on my phone.  Cuivre River State Park was just half an hour away and many birds had been reported there.  Perfect!  I drove to the park on the morning of Wednesday, October 26.  I quickly discovered that the park is huge (6,300 acres) and I didn’t have a clue about where to find the best birding spots.  I did not find many birds that morning, but I enjoyed driving around the park and walking a couple of short trails.  Note for my next trip: you can’t do too much research about birding locations.

A White-throated Sparrow in Iowa

A White-throated Sparrow in Iowa

The next state was Iowa, where I met Tom Dunkerton, an excellent photographer and naturalist who I met in Florida a few years ago.  Due to schedule constraints, we expected to have only one morning together, but Tom surprised me by calling Wednesday afternoon and saying that if I could get to Neal Smith NWR before dark, he would show me around.  That was incentive enough to drive there from Missouri without dawdling along the way with unnecessary stops.  We had about 45 minutes to drive around the immense NWR before dark, a place I will be sure to spend time on my next trip.

A young Harris's Sparrow sings in Jester Park.

A young Harris’s Sparrow sings in Jester Park.

Tom picked me up on Thursday morning and we headed to one of his favorite sparrow spots – Jester Park.  We saw several species, all up close, feeding on grass and weed seeds.  I could have stood there all day soaking in the beauty of these birds.  Tom captured the magic of the morning with this video of a young Harris’s Sparrow singing.

The best surprise of the trip was that LeConte’s Sparrows were still in the area.  I had assumed that they would all be south by then, but a few lingering birds were still around, so we left Jester Park to look for LeConte’s Sparrows.  I was thrilled to get wonderful close looks and even a few photographs.

Le Conte's Sparrow in Iowa

Le Conte’s Sparrow in Iowa

I wish that morning could have lasted for days, but Tom had to get to work and I needed to drive to Minnesota.

It was great to see Diane, one of my favorite birding buddies, and we enjoyed the chance to catch up during our drive to Duluth the next morning.  On Friday afternoon, we met Angie and the three of us went to Hawk Ridge, location of one of the best-known hawk watches in the country.  I was shocked to discover that they had seen very few raptors that morning.  The weather was awful so the prospects for the afternoon were no better.  The hawk counters advised us to come back in the morning at 7:45 AM.

Sax Zim Bog was less than an hour away, so we headed that way and spent the afternoon enjoying the simple pleasures of the bog.  Our favorite sight was a large field with a carcass that had attracted four Bald Eagles, three magpies, crows, and ravens.

My car at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

My car at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

The following morning we returned to Hawk Ridge.  I patiently watched the Goshawkless skies for over four hours before giving up.  The few raptors that had come by were too distant to see well, so I didn’t feel like we’d be giving up much if we left.  If I was going to see a Goshawk, I wanted to see it well.  They did have one juvenile Goshawk after we left, but I did not regret the lovely afternoon drive along the Lake Superior shoreline enjoying a gorgeous fall day with friends.

By this time, I had reconciled myself to missing the target bird of the trip, so when Angie told Diane and me that Sparky Stensaas, executive director of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, was leading a field trip at the bog on Sunday, we immediately decided that we wanted to go.  I was surprised to see about 25 birders show up the next morning.  It would have been worth it just to hear Sparky’s commentary on the bog and its birds.  We learned about Rough-legged Hawks.  The have tiny beaks because they eat small prey, mostly voles.  And, it’s suspected that they can see concentrations of vole urine.  Amazing!  And, we had great views of a Rough-legged Hawk hunting in the bog.

Red-breasted Nuthatches enjoy the feeders at the Sax-Zim bog Welcome Center.

Red-breasted Nuthatches enjoy the feeders at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

We also saw two Ruffed Grouse during Sparky’s trip, but I was unable to get a photo.  Sparky gave us directions for a route back to the highway with good chances for more grouse.  We saw one right away, but a passing truck flushed it into the woods.  And, then we saw another.  This was the most cooperative grouse ever, allowing us long indulgent looks and many photographs.  The bird did look at us with a wary eye, but then went back to feeding on the side of the road, and finally walked into the woods.  It was, as Diane called it, a sacred moment, and one we will always cherish.

A Ruffed Grouse in the Bog.

A Ruffed Grouse in the Bog.

Diane and I drove back to her house near Minneapolis that afternoon and I left for the long, slow drive home the next morning, on Halloween day.

The first stop on my way south was in Illinois, to stay the night and visit with my friend David’s mother, Darlene.  We discovered that Rock Cut State Park was just a couple of miles from her house, so I invited Darlene to go to the park with me on Tuesday morning.  We didn’t see many birds, but did find quite a few butterflies and enjoyed our walk on a gorgeous fall morning.

An Orange Sulphur at Rock Cut State Park

An Orange Sulphur at Rock Cut State Park

Our walk was longer than planned because I took the wrong trail.  We were lost, but we ran into a man walking his dog who gave us directions.  We walked a while longer, following his directions, and suddenly the man and dog were walking towards us.  He had come back to check on us and walked the rest of the trail with us.  He waited with us when we stopped to catch our breath and helped Darlene over a rough spot in the trail.

After this heart-warming start to the day, I drove almost to Indianapolis.  On Wednesday, I continued the pattern that was developing for travel days – visit a park in the morning and drive in the afternoon.  This time is was Indianapolis’ Eagle Creek Park, one of the largest city parks in the nation with 1,400 acres of water and 3,900 acres of forest.

Cedar Waxwing at Eagle Creek Park

Cedar Waxwing at Eagle Creek Park

On Thursday morning, I visited the last park of the trip, Hisle Farm Park, near Lexington, Kentucky.  I picked it because it looked like it wouldn’t be far out of my way, not because I expected much.  No one else was there when I arrived and I didn’t see or hear any birds.  I got out of my car anyway and soon heard meadowlarks singing.  I walked in their direction and soon heard more birds.  I walked about two miles through fields and along the wooded edges.  Song Sparrows were everywhere, Robins and Cedar Waxwings covered the treetops.  In one little spot in the sun, I watched Song, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows, Titmice, Chickadees, Goldfinches, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, and other birds all feeding on the ground and in the low berry-covered shrubs.  The temperature was just right; there was the slightest breeze.  It was a perfect end to the birding for my trip.

Another Harris's Sparrow from Iowa. Can't get enough of these beauties!

Another Harris’s Sparrow from Iowa. Can’t get enough of these beauties!

I really did not see a large number of birds on this trip, just 66 species, but I did add birds from five new states.  It could have been my poor vision and hearing, poor planning, or just plain laziness.  However, the Midwest in fall isn’t the birdiest time and place of the year.  There is a reason that birders love “north with the spring” trips.  Now that I’ve driven 3,760 miles and proven to myself that I like road trips, my next big trip just may be “north with the spring.”

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The birding trip with Bill Drummond and Dave Hursh was great, but it was rigorous with early starts and no down time.  I found myself looking forward more and more to the relaxing week with Diane on the Kenai Peninsula.  I didn’t expect to get any additional life birds, but it would be wonderful to spend time with a friend and we wouldn’t have to get up at 5:00 AM every morning.  After Diane and I both arrived at the Anchorage airport on June 27, she from Minneapolis and me from Barrow, we spent the afternoon birding close to the hotel.

To Homer and Seward

The next morning we set out for Homer.  It was only a little over four hours, but we had all day.  Our first stop was at Potter’s Marsh just outside of Anchorage, where the highlight was a Greater White-fronted Goose, a life bird for Diane.

Greater White-fronted Goose

Greater White-fronted Goose

We could have stayed there all day, but after a few hours, we got back on the road and continued on to the Kenai Peninsula.

Kenai Peninsula

The drive to Homer was breathtaking and ended with a warm welcome at Paula’s Place, our bed-and-breakfast home for the next two days.  We had the entire beautiful and comfortable lower floor to ourselves.  Paula’s warmth and hospitality made us want to stay forever.

Paula's Place, Homer, Alaska

Paula’s Place, Homer, Alaska

The following morning, June 29, was one of the best of the entire trip.  We spent the morning at Mossy Kilcher’s Seaside Farm.  It’s a real working farm with a hostel and guest cabins.  The place had a hippie atmosphere which made it feel a little like magically stepping back into the 1960’s.  Underlying it all was an incredible respect and love for all the animals who call the farm home.  We were especially touched by a very old horse who was given a large enclosure, food, and loving care even though he was too old to ride.

Seaside Farm

Seaside Farm

Mossy spent some time with us and we enjoyed meeting her as much as seeing her farm and birds.

Mossy and Shelley

Mossy Kilcher and me

She amazed us by knowing every bird and it’s history.  She pointed out one singing Fox Sparrow and told us where his nest was last year as well as this year.  She recognizes each individual bird by subtle differences in his song.  Mossy protects these birds by not allowing free-roaming cats or dogs on her property.

Bird Nest Habitat at Seaside Farm

Seaside Farm

We were delighted by baby birds everywhere.  Mossy told us that many Alaskans think of wild celery as a weed and cut it down, but she lets it grow because it’s good bird habitat.  We caught this pretty fledgling Hermit Thrush flitting around under wild celery.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

We were also treated to our best looks ever at Golden-crowned Sparrows.  Below is a cute baby followed by a photo of it with a parent.

Golden-crowned juvie

Juvenile Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrows

Golden-crowned Sparrows

After spending the entire morning at Mossy’s Seaside Farm, we tore ourselves away to check out some other birding spots near Homer.  After lunch, we went to Beluga Slough where we enjoyed a pair of Sandhill Cranes with their young colt.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Song Sparrows are common across North America, but the sub-species in Alaska is much darker than those in other parts of the county.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

We finished the day with dinner and a drive down the 4-mile Homer Spit, a world-famous birding hot spot.  The shorebirds for which it’s best known had passed through in May, but in June there were still many birds including thousands of gulls.  The photo below shows a flock of Black-legged Kittiwakes, a species we saw all over Alaska.

Black-legged Kittiwakes

Black-legged Kittiwakes

The Glaucous-winged Gulls in Homer were very accommodating photographic subjects.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Diane and I fell into bed that night tired and happy after an amazing first day in Homer.  We were up early the next morning for our boat trip with Karl Stoltzfus, owner and operator of Bay Excursions.  Karl is a serious birder and the local expert on Kachemak Bay wildlife. His small yellow boat was perfect for getting close to the birds. 

The Surfbird’s golden highlights glowed in the sun.

Surfbird

Surfbird

Sea otters were so cute floating on their backs.

Sea Otter

Sea Otter

It was great to get an up-close look at a pretty Black Guillemot.

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot

And, while I’d seen many Common Murres in Alaska, we got closest to them on Karl’s boat trip.

Common Murres

Common Murres

The three-hour Kachemak Bay trip was perfect.  Karl stayed close enough to land that the seas were smooth, a blessing for those of us who get seasick.  And, it was long enough to visit Gull Island and other highlights of the bay.  Most exciting for me was getting a good look at Kittlitz’s Murrelet, my last life bird in Alaska.  I had missed this bird on the Northwestern Fjord trip out of Seward, but with his small boat and excellent skills Karl got much closer to the birds.  Karl is very knowledgeable about the local wildlife and he shows respect for them by stopping his engine at a good distance and letting the boat drift towards the birds, and sea otters, so as not to endanger or alarm them.

Diane and Karl

Diane and Karl aboard the Torega.

Our time in Homer had been wonderful, but we had more places on the Kenai Peninsula to visit, so we packed up and headed on towards our next destination after lunch.  On the drive to Kenai, Diane and I both talked about our dreams of visiting Homer again.

Next story about my trip – Alaska 2015: Hello America!

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