What an Owlmazing May

May was, quite frankly, Owlmazing. Or OwlMayzing perhaps?  Who cares about terminology--especially when it's me just combining words on the fly.  Anyways, it was an interesting month.  My tour company, Mountain West Birding Company, led 5 owling trips on the month and logged a whopping 43 FLAMMULATED OWLS on said trips.  I even managed to capture a pretty good shot of one of the 6" tall beasts as it stared me down...

What a Flammtastic Flammy!

But it wasn't just the Flammy's that made May, Owlmazing.  How about the 8 NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWLS encountered while out?  Most were audibles--I heard at least 4 different call types including the typical song, the alarm call, a short series of hoots, and a chatter I had never heard before.  Would you believe that the latest encounter, happened to pose so I could snap a few close-ups?

Say what? Saw what? Saw-whet!

The trips also led to 2 audible NORTHERN PYGMY-OWLS.  Typically I hear a few randoms during the Flammulated Owl trips every summer, but don't have my best encounters until August and September when the birds really start piping up.

In the middle of the month, my buddy Jeff Bilsky came to visit and co-lead the Marathon Birding Trip for the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival.  We decided to do some last minute owling scouting, just in case we needed an ace up our sleeve to tie/break our previous record.  We ended up not needing to since we fell well short, but the scouting did provide incredible looks at a resident WESTERN SCREECH-OWL in the city.

The death stare from this Screech-Owl

During the Marathon Birding Trip we had lovely looks at a couple of daytime owls.  The first was a confiding BURROWING OWL standing watch over its burrow at Antelope Island State Park.  The bird was so inconspicuous at first we didn't notice him for a few moments when we arrived.

Why so serious?

A short time later we had great looks at a GREAT HORNED OWL at a roost site.  I also had several GHOW at night calling--on tours and while leisure owling.  I even managed a decent recording of a distant one at Lytle Ranch near the end of the month.

Sheesh, these owls are all pretty serious...

This months owl quarry also included looks a BARN OWLS, and an audible LONG-EARED OWL at a desert nest site where I've had the birds the last few years.  The best owl of the month was a hooting SPOTTED OWL in the Kolob area of Zion National Park--a wonderful find albeit far off trail in an off-limits area so we couldn't track it down.  Perhaps the most intriguing sound was a possible ELF OWL singing in the Beaver Dam Wash.  I had gone looking with no luck, but later in the night heard what sounded like the distinctive chatter of the tiny desert owl twice. Looks like I might need to head back south to look again sooner than later.

9 species of owl in the month of May in Utah is a pretty good haul (and a possible 10th with the Elf!).  That's 2/3 of all the species of owl that have been recorded in Utah.  And I've seen 2 of the other 4 this year meaning that with some luck I could have a complete Utah owl sweep in 2017! Here's to 7 more owlmazing months!

2017 Marathon Birding Recap

I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that for the 3rd straight year, it looked like we might get rained on during the Marathon Birding Trip at the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival. We weren't too worried about the 30% chance of rain for about an hour around 11:00 AM. As usual Jeff Bilsky and I arrived well before the group and got settled in. As we did we watched the ominously dark skies over the Great Salt Lake. We had a feeling 30% was about to be 100%...


Marathon Birders checking out some waterfowl

Our co-leaders and fantastic drivers Mike Hearell and Taylor Abbott settled in, and by 6:05 (a few minutes behind schedule as usual) we were finally in the vehicles and on our way--luckily the clock in our van read 6:00 AM on the dot--so we used that as our official timekeeper for the day. Our morning start kept its usual itinerary and pace--first was Glovers Lane and the ponds--nothing out of the ordinary but 25 species in just under 10 minutes kicks things off well. Great looks at CLARK'S GREBE, the soon-to-be-split WESTERN WILLET, and the solo NORTHERN PINTAIL for the day had us firing on all cylinders.

This Great Blue Heron greeted us at Farmington Bay

We raced over to Farmington Bay WMA where the dominoes continued to fall. BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON, WILSON'S SNIPE, and SNOWY EGRET are all expected, and we got them out of the way quickly. Very surprisingly we had 2 flyover GREAT EGRET, a bird we often struggle to tie down for the day. This was followed up with our usual VIRGINIA RAIL and SORA audibles, and a list of nearly 50 other species that followed. Our only BLUE-WINGED TEAL of the day, as well as a surprise group of 5 BUFFLEHEAD were great finds--as was our only SAVANNAH SPARROW for the trip. And the rain arrived on the tail of a full double rainbow--it was official--100% chance of rain...

An amazing Double Rainbow that was followed by a downpour

By 7:00 AM we were headed north with more than 60 species in tow. Quick pickups between stops included CASPIAN TERN along I-15 which we didn't have elsewhere for the day; ROCK PIGEON under an overpass which we didn't bother to look for after; and one AMERICAN CROW fly over in Kaysville, that would be our only of the day. Our usual stop for BOBOLINK showed us 4 males displaying and singing on a distant fence line. We snagged a pair of migrant DUSKY FLYCATCHER at the stop as well. We raced onwards, making our way to Antelope Island Causeway where a GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE flew across the road--surprisingly the only one of the day--a theme repeated by many species over the following 14 hours...

2 Male Bobolink on a fence in Kaysville

The causeway was dismal. We did snag 3 SNOWY PLOVER near a nest site. 2 adults and one youngster were running around in the rocks which was enjoyable to watch. The rain followed--it was a downpour, and the group was mostly besieged in the vehicles as we journeyed the 6 miles across. Shorebirds were scant as we expected with a later than usual trip date. But how scant was surprising. 2 BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER and 1 SANDERLING were the highlights--on a trip that regularly ticks 15+ shorebirds this was super disappointing. All the vagrants that had been present at some point in the previous 10 days were gone--and some of the common stuff was nowhere to be found.

Burrowing Owl keeping watch over the burrow

On the island our luck was a little better as in short order we tallied off LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE, NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD, SAGE THRASHER, ROCK WREN, and several crowd-pleasing CHUKAR. This was followed up by a BURROWING OWL keeping watch over its burrow, and a cooperative GRASSHOPPER SPARROW that perched long enough for scope views for the whole group. GREAT HORNED OWL, HORNED LARK, and LARK SPARROW completed a sweep of the typical island species we needed.

Great Horned Owl doing its best at having a lazy Sunday

We raced to Garr Ranch with a short break in the rain that allowed us to spend over an hour scouring what areas were open with the spring still being a disaster from last falls wind storm.

The lone Hammond's Flycatcher for the day

We couldn't have asked for mush more in terms of migrants--HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHER, WILSON'S and MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER, HERMIT THRUSH, PLUMBEOUS VIREO, WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE, and lots of WESTERN TANAGER provided good looks for most of the group.

Sorry folks, it's official, no bird in the states compares to the Western Tanager

We missed a few regulars that are usually mainstays during migration here, but with limited access, it seemed like we had done pretty well. We slipped back into the vans and headed out as the rain came slamming into the island. It was beginning to look like it was going to be a wet day--all day.

Even when you miss the focus the Western Tanager is still a stunning blur

We crossed the causeway back to the mainland in a torrential downpour. We stopped once so I could get out to scan the flocks of RED-NECKED PHALAROPE covering the shallows. Nothing mixed in, but I was soaked pretty good. We were more than an hour ahead of schedule as we departed, and several species north of 100 for the day. Despite our shorebird failings, things were looking promising--our arrival at Jimmy Johns for lunch should have been a sign of things changing--as a teen girls dance team from Idaho was ordering lunch and took more than 15 minutes while we waited--just to pay for our already made and waiting sandwiches. It was enough to make me pull at the non-existent hair on my recently shaved head. By the time we got our sandwiches I rushed the tour back into the vans to eat while we traveled south. We had wasted our entire lunch time waiting on the group ahead of us--something that had never happened to us before. Next year, we'll charge the order, and skip the line.

Still, we didn't waste any time--we adjusted our itinerary, skipping a planned stop at Bountiful Pond, and instead venturing out to 3200 West north of the airport--this unexpected changed netted us a few new birds for the day--notably our only WILSON'S PHALAROPE, and the closest thing we got to a Glossy Ibis with a HYBRID WFIB x GLIB. We hurried onto Lee Kay Ponds gladly picking up the continuing GREATER SCAUP, RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, and COMMON LOON that all proved to be our only ones of the day. We also cleaned up our tern list, adding BLACK TERN that Jeff and I found on Friday, as well as the continuing COMMON TERN. And of course, how can we forget to mention the NEOTROPIC CORMORANT that have become a mainstay at the ponds. They must really like the aromatics that drove us away as quickly as we arrived--for some reason, birding next to a landfill never is as satisfying as the quality of birds should make it.

L to R: Lesser Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser, and Greater Scaup at Lee Kay Ponds

Being ahead of schedule we decided to throw in a couple stops at migrant traps in the Magna area. First is an old house on 8000 west that seemingly attracts migrants in spring and fall. The only HOUSE WREN of the day would be heard singing here. While on 8400 West and the Bacchus Highway we failed to add any new species, despite having Blue Grosbeak here 40 hours earlier.

The big adjustment for 2017 was instead of heading into the mountains after lunch, we headed out to the desert. For the first time in our 10 years, we visited a juniper woodland in the Lake Mountains on the eastern edge of the Great Basin. Hopes were high, but the drive out and back would eat almost 2 hours. It was a big risk that could pay off huge--or really hurt us if we failed to turn up any specialties. The rain picked up as we traveled south--again coming down in droves. But, as we neared our destination, the skies parted, and the sun shined down on us. As we drove up the gravel track into the hills the radio crackled on as Jeff shared that they had PURPLE MARTINS. We stopped in time to see 15+ martins circling overhead and moving north. They were gone in mere minutes, but it was a huge find--arguably the best bird of the day.

Tail end of a northbound Purple Martin

In the mountains, our birding would be made difficult, annoying, and at times somewhat scary as a small number of Utah's "patriots" took to the hills, to rapid fire whatever firearms they could get their hands on, at a variety of targets--mostly left to litter the hills. The open use of these wild lands by people who often fight to take these lands from the feds is ironic. As a native Utahn, I am disgusted with the way these people trash the thing they will eventually lose access to because of their beliefs and actions combined.

Sorry, off my soapbox. Despite the horrendous noise, the trash, and the muddy road, we made out like bandits. We got almost every target species, despite mostly audibles, taking what we could get in the afternoon sun. A small flock of PINYON JAY was a major highlight for the group, and first ever for the marathon trip. In addition, GRAY VIREO was also a trip first and lifer for several people. BUSHTIT was either a trip first or second--Jeff and I couldn't remember whether or not we had them at Rockport one year. And BEWICK'S WREN, WOODHOUSE'S SCRUB-JAY, and BREWER'S SPARROW cleaned up most of our needs. Despite a couple of misses, we were almost right on track species wise with 130-some-odd species as we left the desert.

Pinyon Jay was a Marathon Birding first in our ten years

With time to burn, we added in a stop to look for the Little Gull that had been at Utah Lake 24 hours earlier. No luck. But our only EASTERN KINGBIRDS of the day were picked up. We headed back north into Salt Lake City, now falling behind our schedule--the biggest fear of this itinerary. WE got mired down in Sandy along the foothills when I spotted a GOLDEN EAGLE soaring over the mountains above. We stopped for about 10 minutes to get the group on the birds and were quickly rewarded with WHITE-THROATED SWIFT and VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW, as well as calling CALIFORNIA QUAIL and LESSER GOLDFINCH. Falling behind schedule wasn't too big of a deal given the pickups we would have missed otherwise.

We skipped a stop at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and instead opted to head straight to the town of Alta sitting at 8,560'. We had an opportunity to clean up a variety of high elevation species, including at least one we'd never had on the trip. Given our harsh winter, the town still had feeders up, and this meant several species of birds were still visiting. We arrived and were not thrilled to find no birds at the feeders--with the exception of the local WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS. Luckily this quickly changed as PINE SISKIN and CASSIN'S FINCH arrived. But more importantly, several BLACK ROSY-FINCH joined the fray. We officially had another new species for the first time in trip history.

Black Rosy-Finch was a great find for May 21st

Not to be outdone the needs continued to be filled. FOX SPARROW, CLARK'S NUTCRACKER, MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, STELLER'S JAY, and MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD were all picked up in quick succession. Pretty soon we had most of our targets, and back ahead of schedule left the canyon. We stopped at the mouth to pick up a few missing species and gladly added the festival highlight species, SPOTTED TOWHEE, as well as a much needed BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD, and with a little coaxing, a CANYON WREN from high on the cliffs above.

Vesper Sparrow providing killer looks for the group

WE had less than 2 hours of daylight and were headed to our last couple stops--but the weather was waiting. We caught up to the storms that had passed us earlier in the day and were greeted by cold winds, and rain as we tried to pick up a few montane riparian species we still needed. The first couple stops turned up no birds. We made a stop to try for VESPER SPARROW on a reliable hillside. It looked like we were going to strikeout when we could hear a distant buzzy song--it was the sparrow. We worked our way towards it, and eventually got great looks for the group. The winds subsided a little, and the rain held off long enough for us to pick up GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE, GRAY CATBIRD, and the fan favorite AMERICAN DIPPER.

This American Dipper posed on this log for at least 5 minutes

We were running out of light quickly, and the rains picked back up. We spent most of the last 45 minutes sitting in the cars, just waiting. Eventually, the rain passed and things calmed down just in time to go owling. As we started a couple FLAMMULATED OWLS piped up from the nearby forest. But despite trying several stops, no owls were being too responsive. We could hear a distant bird on a nearby hillside and made our way towards it. I decided to play one last set of calls to see if we could pull it in. It worked--gorgeous little thing landed on a limb right over the group--with excellent looks for everyone.

With temps hovering in the high 30's we figured we'd leave the flammy's alone and try for other species elsewhere. Further up the road mimicking a Saw-whet Owl, I was able to hear a NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL respond with 3-4 single hoots from a distant hillside. Unfortunately, I'm not sure anyone else heard it. And at our last stop of the night, a NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL (again, I think everyone else missed it) responded with a short burst of hoots, as did a COMMON POORWILL that luckily the group heard. It was cold, windy, and everyone was pretty tired--we also knew we were a few birds short of our previous record, so we called it a night.

Unofficially, we have between 159-161 species. I had several birds that were only seen/ heard by me. One member of the group reported a Cedar Waxing, and Mike Hearell had an unidentified accipiter over a ridge top at one point.  I think the group tally will end up being 161 species, which ties us for our 3rd best.

Despite the heavy setbacks with the weather and the shorebird situation, things still turned out pretty darn good. A testament to the fact that no matter what route we take, and how the weather effects our trip, we still manage to get a lot of birds in a very small area of northern Utah! I want to thank Mike, Taylor, and Jeff for their continued help leading the tour--and the 8 birders who joined us for an insane 17 hours racing around. As usual, I had a great time, and will just keep thinking about how we can top 170--next year!

Texas Here I Come

A week from this morning at about the same time I am writing this post, I'll be standing along the banks of the Rio Grande at Salineño scanning up and down river for Muscovy, Red-billed Pigeon, White-collared Seedeater, and Audubon's Oriole on my first venture to the Lower Rio Grande Valley. All 4 birds I've seen outside of our borders, but never in the U.S.A.

A White-collared Seedeater--in Costa Rica

Along with 4 friends, we'll have about 90 hours to make our way through the hot spots and rack up as many lifers and new ABA species as possible. For me, that means 15-20 life bird and potentially 35-45 new ABA species. South Texas, along with south Florida, and Alaska are the 3 big holes I still haven't filled for North America.

A Clay-colored Thrush--in Panama

For years I always wanted to go Brownsville and McAllen for birds--but after having traveled to a number of destinations south of the border, my fascination with southern birding in the states dwindled. I am not an ABA lister, and the only reason I know my tally is because of eBird. After my first trip internationally, I realized how much more there was out there to see than what was within a set of borders defined via war, purchase, treaties, and downright theft.

A Ringed Kingfisher--in Costa Rica

Political borders are an innocuous thing--especially when it comes to wildlife. Birds and other animals have natural borders. Lakes, river, mountains, valleys, oceans, forests, etc. What defines where a bird goes and doesn't is far more complex than a line drawn in the sand and a proverbial money pit border wall that won't solve the issue of illegal immigration. South Texas is a mecca of sorts for birders who care about ABA listing. You have to go here to see a chunk of birds you won't get anywhere else in America. For birders who aren't so quick to worry about seeing 700 in the ABA, it's affordable, relatively safe, and a close to home option to see things with a flair of the tropics.

I fall into that latter category. If I only saw 650 birds in the ABA area before I died that would be okay with me, especially if I saw 6,500 species in the world. But, it's not all about the lifers, and the lists. Birding the LRGV from what I've heard from others is an experience in itself. It's as much about the journey as it is about the birds. And this trek will involve a group of friends that have experienced a lot of birds together. From Salineño we'll follow the course of the river southeast to places like Bentsen State Park, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Estero Llano Grande, South Padre Island, Laguna Atascosa, and the famed King Ranch.

A Plain Chachalaca--from the Yucatan, Mexico

These places evoke strong feelings amongst birders when you mention them. They are sites that have seen some of the rarest finds in North America--birds from 100's of miles south popping up on this side of the Rio Grande and flocked to by birders for a glimpse within this political border. Things like: Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Crane Hawk, Mottled Owl, Amazon Kingfisher, Collared Forest-Falcon, Variegated Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Blue Mockingbird, Gray Silky-flycatcher, and Red-legged Honeycreeper.

A Red-legged Honeycreeper from Panama

They are also the best places in America to see birds typical of northeast Mexico where their range limits. Green Jay, Olive Sparrow, Plain Chachalaca, Altamira Oriole, Ringed Kingfisher, White-tipped Dove, and Common Pauraque are all common here. Then there are birds like the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, which can currently only be seen on King Ranch on this side of the border.

A White-tipped Dove--from Costa Rica

These are the things that draw birders here. And despite my desire fading in the last decade, this trip has sparked an interest for me again. As my departure and arrival approach, I'm excited for the opportunity to photograph some birds I haven't, see a few I've missed over the years, and experience the LRGV the way so many other birders have. Hopefully, I'll have a story to share here in the aftermath!

Papyrus Must Die

For the love of everything holy, please do me a favor. If you use the font, Papyrus, go into your fonts folder right now, and send that bad boy to the recycle bin. Give it an honorable death. A quick death. And then promptly forget it ever existed. It is a font that never should have been but instead has become the go-to for anyone--from your grandmother to your brother--when they get the urge to "create" something with an "earthy" feel. It is for lack of a better word, an abomination. And for designers like myself it has become a joke, often referenced when clients send their idea of what an "earthy", "natural", or "wild" font looks like. It is lazy. If you are a bird or wildlife photographer that uses it for your watermark, you are perpetuating the idea that this font "matches" your photographs. Maybe it does in some cases. But if you think your work deserves better, read on.



For those maybe not aware of what I am talking about, here is a little background. Papyrus is a widely available typeface designed by artist Chris Costello in 1982. Chris spent 6 months designing the font, by hand using a calligraphy pen on textured paper. The distinct font is adorned with "rough edges, irregular curves, and high horizontal strokes in the capitals" (from Wikipedia). The concept for the font is that it should represent what English writing would look like 2,000 years ago on papyrus paper.

The popularity of the font is in part due to its inclusion in many versions of Windows and iOs in the standard font set. Readily available and with a unique look it has become so popular and overused, that even it's own designer has gone on record criticizing the overuse. The design community generally frown upon its use. We mock, point, curl our noses in disgust, and occasionally become visibly ill when confronted with it in the real world.

I follow a lot of photographers of all things wild on Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr and am part of groups where photographers--professional and amateur post with regularity. On any given day I am accosted by no less than a handful of photos so willfully shellacked with this font so that its owners may "copyright" its usage, that I recoil and scroll on shaking my head and asking, "why why why?".

As a side note, your photos are already copyrighted. You don’t need to submit a form, and you don’t have to use that “©” symbol or a watermark — those are just customary ways of identifying the copyright owner. But alas, if you must, you don't have to be one of "those" photographers. You can be unique (somewhat). You can be original (more so than most). You can use another font! That's right there are a whole slew of fonts out there you can use for your fancy little "©" watermark you insist on plastering on every single image you share.

To help you get started here are 5 fonts with that "earthy", "natural", or "wild" feel you seem to love with Papyrus.

Cabin Sketch



IM Fell English


Octin Vintage


Sketchetik


Xenophone


And here are 5 fonts that are clean, easy to read, and will give you that professional look you want and need.

Aleo


Caviar Dreams


Montserrat


Quicksand


Raleway


And as my gift to you, here are all 10 of these fonts available zipped and ready to use. Just tap the very ironic download button below! Please use them, please share this. Please help us do the right thing, and put Papyrus to death in the genera of bird and wildlife photography!



Thanks for listening to me rant, I hope you enjoyed!


The Mountain West Most Wanted Tour


Okay, so about a year ago I was talking with my buddy Kenny Frisch about the most requested tours I get each summer.  Besides the obvious Flammulated Owl trips which are the majority of my tours, I also get a fair number of requests to see Black Rosy-Finch and Chukar.  These 3 species easily account for like 99% of my trips nowadays.  But I also get a few requests each year to see Black Swift and Himalayan Snowcock.  These 5 birds come up in more emails and requests than anything else.  I had the idea for a tour that brought these 5 birds together, as well as more than 140 other species.  It would be a quick tour--5 days and 4 nights out of Salt Lake City.

Kenny quipped something to the effect of, "The Most Wanted Tour". Boom! Mountain West Most Wanted.  It flows so nicely.  So after thinking about it for the better part of the last year and working on an itinerary, I've finally got this tour ready to go.  The 1st ever Mountain West Most Wanted Tour kicks off July 20, 2017!  Here is the teaser from our website:

Himalayan Snowcock, Black Rosy-Finch, Black Swift, Chukar, Flammulated Owl and More! This is the mother of all mountain west birding trips. This intensive 5-day tour will focus on the most highly sought after birds of the mountain west, the BIG 5 as we call them. Fast-paced bird-filled days should have you in and out in a weekend with a list full of life birds!

And the itinerary:

Day 1 (THU): Arrive in Salt Lake City by 5:00 pm and transfer to hotel. At 6:00 pm we'll have a brief overview of the coming days trip, complete with a catered dinner. By 7:00 pm we'll be on our way to a nearby canyon and waterfall where we'll scan the skies above for the elusive and amazing BLACK SWIFT. We'll also see the more common White-throated Swift, along with Violet-green Swallow and possibly Golden Eagle soaring overhead. As darkness descends on the mountain west we'll visit a nearby forest to look for our second target of the trip--the tiny, moth-eating, black-eyed, flame-streaked wonder of the mountain west--the FLAMMULATED OWL. We should be able to track these beauties down while also finding Common Poorwill and Ruffed Grouse. Night in Salt Lake City, Utah


Day 2 (FRI): If we missed out swift the night before we'll try again this morning before making our way into the mountains to look for our third target of the trip. Arriving in the Uinta National Forest, we'll climb to 11,000'. Here we might encounter American Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Clark's Nutcracker, and Pine Grosbeak. After a short hike to the barren tundra above, we'll seek out a North American endemic in the BLACK ROSY-FINCH. In recent years White-tailed Ptarmigan have expanded to the area from further east and are always a possibility. Mountain Bluebird often flycatch over the open grass and rocks above the tree line. The views from up here are incredible and will create memories to last a lifetime. We'll play the rest of the morning and afternoon by ear as we need to leave Salt Lake City by 3:00 pm for our 4-hour drive into Nevada. We should arrive before dark and will have a hearty dinner before turning in early for the night. Night in Elko, Nevada



Day 3 (SAT): Leaving the warmth of our beds in the dark we'll head into the nearby mountains to be at a trailhead 90 minutes before sunrise. In the dark, we'll make our way up the trail towards Island Lake and the easiest spot for HIMALAYAN SNOWCOCK viewing in the United States. This highly sought after introduced species spends the summers high on the ridges of the Ruby Mountains, and most mornings can be heard calling, and often seen as it forages among the rocks. We'll spend the first few hours of daylight here before retreating to the desert below. Despite being in the middle of summer we'll try to turn up Sagebrush Sparrow and Sage Thrasher nearby. The afternoon will be relaxed with another early evening. Night in Elko, Nevada


Day 4 (SUN): Today is a backup day for the snowcock. If we didn't have great views on Saturday or had weather issues, we'll head back into the mountains for a second round, before packing up in the afternoon and heading back to Salt Lake City. If we had good fortune on Saturday, this morning we'll bird the surrounding desert before heading back to Utah. We'll plan birding accordingly to fit in with either scenario. We'll enjoy a great dinner tonight at one of Utah's best Mexican restaurants before watching the sunset on the Great Salt Lake. If for some reason the weather was inclement on our first night, we’ll use tonight for swifts and owls again. Night in Salt Lake City, Utah


Day 5 (MON): On your last day in the mountain west, we'll kick things off at the world famous Great Salt Lake. We'll take a tour of a local island where our 5th and final target of the trip resides--another introduced game bird, the CHUKAR. Other birds we often encounter while on this day include Burrowing Owl, Barn Owl, Rock Wren, Long-billed Curlew, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Say's Phoebe. On the shores of the lake, it's the time of year for the very first southbound shorebird migrants to show up with Wilson's and Red-necked Phalarope both possible. We'll finish off the trip with one last visit to the mountains where Western Tanager, Lincoln's Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, and MacGillivray's Warbler are possible. In the afternoon we'll drop you off to continue the rest of your visit or for your outbound flights (after 5:00 pm).

We can expect to see around 150 species of birds during this tour, as well as more than 10 species of mammals. We'll be hiking at elevations between 4,200' and 12,000' with hikes up to 2 miles each way possible. Please be sure you are in the right physical condition to take part in this adventure!

Sound like something you want to do? Click here or on any of the images in this post to get more information or to sign up!

It's a Cackler, look at the bill, vol. 2, the video

Just a video I shot of that Cackling Goose last week.  Look at the bill...


Death From Above: Peregrines Killing Vagrants

This Peregrine tried unsuccessfully to take out a Cattle Egret in the desert

If you're tuned into the national rare bird scene, you might be aware of something that happened in San Francisco this past week.  Here, I can't tell it better than those who saw it happen:

The Ross's Gull was just taken by a pair of Peregrine's, 2:10 PM today, Saturday, from the same muddy field reported earlier. The actual hunt lasted no more than 30 s. The Peregrine's got it in the air, and then the gull didn't stand a chance.  
We were all stunned.  
Lynn Miller/Patrick Temple

Yeah! That's right, a vagrant Ross's Gull in San Francisco was taken out by a Peregrine Falcon in front of birders who were watching the stunning bird.  What a way to go!  So I'm not going to lie, when I read this I thought to myself, "this is freaking awesome!".  You might be thinking that's kind of a dick thing to think, but come one, think about it.  This bird that is 1,000's of miles from where it normally is found had been around a day and a half in California and boom! Finished.  What are the odds? Really, think about that, out of the 1,000's of gulls present along the coast, the Peregrine managed to get the rarest of them all.  How? Why?  Is there a reason?

I've found it interesting that over the years I've heard several stories and seen for myself, Peregrine Falcon's going after birds that are seemingly out of place.  This begs two questions:

Is this normal? Do predators regularly go after birds that are out of place?

or

Is it just that people tend to be paying closer attention to vagrants, so when one is picked off by a predator, we tend to notice?

And maybe it's a little bit of both.  Here's a look at some of my favorite vagrant meet Peregrine stories.

Peregrine v.s Parasitic

Peregrine Falcon chasing Parasitic Jaeger

So this is from my personal file.  In the fall of 2005 an emaciated Parasitic Jaeger showed up in northern Utah.  My friend Colby Neuman and I were the first people to chase the bird the morning following the report.  As we watched the bird and I was taking photographs, a dark streak flashed through my lens, and then the jaeger was gone.  Colby was freaking out and let me know a Peregrine had just attacked! I got out of the car and watched the falcon chasing the jaeger out over the Great Salt Lake until both bird disappeared out of sight.  I thought for sure the jaeger was a goner, but about 10 minutes later it drifted back on to the beach and landed right where it had been before.  The falcon lost this battle, but the jaeger died a couple days later on its own.

Peregrine v.s. Purple

Check out the orange feet of a Purple Sandpiper

So this story is strictly anecdotal.  I don't know the facts but was told this by a birder while I lived in Indiana in 2006.  Every winter Purple Sandpiper show up on Lake Michigan.  Usually in relatively small numbers if at all.  If you know PUSA, you know they like rocks, and the best places to look tend to be break walls and jetties.  In Michigan City, there is a great break wall where these birds have been reported sporadically in the past.  As the story goes a birded ventured out around Thanksgiving one year following the report of a sandpiper.  They arrived at the break wall and were scoping it when they found a Peregrine Falcon sitting on the wall.  Upon closer inspection they noticed two bright orange feet sticking out from underneath the falcon.  The sandpiper wasn't reported again and the assumption is that is was breakfast.  Whether or not there is any truth to this story, it remains one of my favorites.

Peregrine v.s Egret

One lucky Cattle Egret avoids the Peregrine Falcon Attack

This is another one from the personal archives and involves a pair of Cattle Egrets in Washington, Utah.  Wath remains of this farming community rests on the edge of the Mojave Desert and isn't a great place for birds like Cattle Egrets.  They do pass through during migration, but this was only the 2nd time I had seen them in the county.  In a flooded field were a handful of shorebirds, ibis, ducks, and the pair of egrets going about their business as usual.  As my friend Kenny Frisch and I watched the birds a Peregrine Falcon slammed into one and attempted to take off--but the egret fought back.  For several minutes the Peregrine tried to stoop on the egret as it worked on hiding in some tall grass, finally managing to do so and leaving the falcon empty handed.  The ibis eventually flew right past us, looking a bit unkempt, but alive.

For those keeping score, it's tied 2-2 Peregrine v.s. "Vagrants".  So here's the tie-breaker, and perhaps the best story--mainly because there is video...

Peregrine v.s. Ibis

On April 26, 2011, a White-faced ibis that had been seen for most of the previous week at Plum Island, Massachusetts was being watched by a class from Green Mountain College.  While the class was watching, and video was being taken explaining that this was a rare bird for Massachusetts, a Peregrine Falcon enters scene right.  I'll let the video take it from here:



Make that Peregrine 3 - "Vagrants" 2...  The clear winner the Peregrine Falcon.  The ibis video while amazing, and sensational because of the college kids and their reactions, is just another example of a Peregrine taking out a bird that is seemingly out of place.

But, that still doesn't answer the why?  In each case above there are other far more common birds the falcon could have taken instead. In each case, the rarity is what was attacked.  Predatorial birds and animals are well known to go after the weakest, often injured and sick individuals because it poses the least challenge with the greatest chance of reward.  In many cases are these out of place birds obviously the weakest link to the predators?  Whatever it is, it's an interesting topic, and one that I think about a lot when I see falcons.  Now whenever I see a rare bird I'm always keeping one eye to the sky so I can see the next attack coming!

Have you witnessed a Peregrine attacking an out of place bird?  If so share below!