2017 Marathon Birding Recap

Tuesday, May 23, 2017 2 Comments A+ a-

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!