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Our latest thoughts, photos, trip reports, and updates on future tours, as well as any interesting birding related topics we decide to write about!


2021 Most Wanted Tour 2 Recap

Posted: January 23, 2022

August 5-9, 2021 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

It’s not uncommon for a birding tour to have some adversity. Be it the weather, uncooperative birds, traffic noise or any number of other things that can come up. Over the course of the past 5 years our Most Wanted Tours have for the most part run super smoothly. Leading up to our 2nd Most Wanted Tour of 2021 we had our first major itinerary issues in 10 tours. If you read my previous recap about our 2021 Himalayan Snowcock Expedition you find out that at the end of our tour, flash floods caused mudslides that closed Lamoille Canyon in the Ruby Mountains. This canyon is THE best location in the range to access and see Himalayan Snowcock. While I crossed my fingers that maybe the canyon would open so that we could still make a run at the birds, that was not the case—it remained closed for a month and a half before reopening. With the knowledge that the snowcock was out, one tour member opted to cancel, leaving us with a group of 6 that still wanted to try for everything else. With that in mind I made some quick changes to our itinerary and we got right to birding.

This Swainson's Hawk eating was an incredible sight!

The tour would start off as usual looking for Black Swift and Flammulated Owl, followed up with a visit to the Sage and Juniper specialists habitats near SLC. But instead of going to Nevada, we stayed in Utah for some high elevation birding that afternoon, before birding the Great Salt Lake on day 3 and continuing to Idaho for Cassia Crossbill. Day 4 was spent birding round Twin Falls and birding a shorebird hotspot we had never visited before, before wrapping things up on day 5 with more birding around Twin Falls and the Great Salt Lake on the way back to the airport. Species wise we actually saw more birds than our normal Most Wanted Tour, but obviously no Snowcock.

The summer of the Tundra Swan continued in Salt Lake

On August 5th I picked our group up from the airport and headed east to Millcreek Canyon to pick up Tundra Swan for the last time this summer. The birds that had been present were still there, and actually continued through the writing of this post in January 2022. We got the swans and found a very quiet canyon on this summer afternoon. The breeders had stopped being active and while we managed Cordilleran Flycatcher and Warbling Vireo, it was otherwise quiet. A surprise American Dipper along the creek was a great addition to get things started though!

Swift Watching at Bridal Veil Falls

After dinner we headed south for Black Swift. Our usual location in Salt Lake had been a dud as of late so we took our chances at Bridal Veil Falls where for the first time in my 25+ years birding this Sumer had been reliable for these birds. Tonight, at least 2 Black Swifts were circling overhead, but not nearly as cooperative as some other nights this summer. We also added Osprey and Peregrine Falcon here while we waited on the sun to set.

We made our way up in elevation for owls. I warned the group that things had been quite difficult in recent trips here as the birds were already quiet for the season, and we may not have a good opportunity tonight. As it turned out, that was the case. We heard 5 Flammulated Owl audibles and had a bird fly through the headlights, but that was it. Not wanting to be out all night, we called it early, knowing we would have another chance in Idaho.

Peregrine Falcon leaving the water hole

Early the next morning we visited the desert an hour outside of Salt Lake City. Again, things were quieter than normal. We did manage to track down a Gray Vireo and a pari of Gray Flycatchers. Additionally we had a couple cooperative Juniper Titmouse, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, and Loggerhead Shrike. Recent rains had created a pool where one typically forms each spring. Much to our surprise a Peregrine Falcon was sitting at the waters edge as we drove past!

Golden Eagle on a power tower

Richard showing off his Golden Eagles shirt

Having a full day to bird in Utah I took the group through a tour of some agricultural areas. Right away we had a pair of cooperative Golden Eagles. It was a fitting bird given 2 members of the group worked at Tennessee Tech University—the Golden Eagles! Richard even happened to be wearing a Golden Eagles shirt—a fortuitous coincidence!

Western Kingbird posing next to the road

Our drive through the farm fields turned up good numbers of Western Kingbird, Lark Sparrows, Mountain Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks, and Swainson’s Hawks. Eventually after eating up most of the morning we headed back to Salt Lake for lunch and short afternoon break before heading to higher elevation to escape the heat and see what local montane birds we could find since we wouldn’t be getting to treelike in Nevada!

The unexpected White-winged Crossbill

The plan was to visit some hummingbird feeders and make our way through a mixed aspen and coniferous forest. As we started walking I heard a whirling trill and immediately perked up, I told the group to come with me, there were White-winged Crossbills singing ahead! We found the birds quickly and realized there were 5 birds moving about the tops of the trees feasting on the cones. We spend 20 minutes taking photos, making recording and videos and enjoying the great looks at these birds we don’t normally see on tour since they are generally rare in Utah

Young Orange-crowned Warbler in a baby Aspen

We continued walking after the crossbill show adding Red Crossbill, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and a cooperative Red-named Sapsucker. The birding was pretty good despite being quieter than usual. One interesting thing was the lack of hummingbirds. The feeders we visit had a lone Rufous Hummingbird visiting and nothing else! Super weird for this time of year

Young Warbling Vireo waiting for its feeding

The rest of our loop turned up a lot of young birds. We saw several young Orange-crowned Warblers as well a few Warbling Vireos, including one bird interacting with a parent that we were able to watch for several minutes. Cooperative Hermit Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Mountain Chickadee all made for a good afternoon of birding. With an early and long day ahead we called it a night.

Stunning America Bison at Antelope Island

Our third morning started early to put us on Antelope Island on the Great Salt Lake at Sunrise. We proceeded to the spot we’d had luck with Chukar all year and in no time found a group of 8. The key as with other successful outings this year had been to be there at first light. Our afternoon and evening visits had all come up empty. Besides birds we had an incredibly photogenic American Bison!

Wilson's Phalarope relocation

Aside from the Chukar we found our usual Rock Wren, and a single Burrowing Owl. There were a whopping 8 Sage Thrashers out and about at various stops as well. As we were driving our loop around the island we spotted a Wilson’s Phalarope in the road. It appears to have a slightly doomed wing. I got out and approached and was able to corral the bird. We transported ti to the causeway and let it go at the water edge. At least here it had a chance to find food before it was likely predated or run over on the road.

We hurried back to the island and picked up Great Horned Owl before finding a big family group of Burrowing Owls. We spent some time enjoying watching the owls as they were quite cooperative and close for great views.

Red-necked Phalarope flock... with 1 Wilson's Phalarope

Back on the causeway and making our way out of the park we encounter good numbers of phalarope. Roughly 10,000 Wilson’s Phalarope and 40,000 Red-necked Phalarope in tight flocks on the shallow water. Picking through the shorebirds we found 5 Wester Sandpiper, a single Baird’s Sandpiper, a Lesser Yellowlegs, 2 Spotted Sandpipers, 1 Long-billed Dowitcher, 2 Long-billed Curlew, and a handful of Willet. It wasn’t the most diverse shorebird list, but a good start. We also had nice looks at a few of the 5,000 Eared Grebe present.

A lovely Clark's Grebe

With the entire day ahead of us we headed to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and drove the auto tour loop. The refuge was in a sad state, as the drought had dried up most of the ponds and canals. In just over an hour we still managed around 40 species with great looks ad huge numbers of Western Grebe and Clark’s Grebe on the main impoundment which still had water.

Various waterfowl, waders, and divers were all present here including American White Pelican, White-faced Ibis, and Caspian Tern. For me, the highlight was a pari of Solitary Sandpiper. We see these every once on a while on our Most Wanted Tours as they migrate south for the fall, but by no means is it expected on most tours. We wrapped things up at the refuge, grabbed lunch and hit the road to Idaho. We checked into our hotel in late afternoon and took a short break before dinner.

Probably a Pygmy Short-horned Lizard

After grabbing dinner we headed towards the South Hills. The plan was to maybe get an evening look at Cassia Crossbill, and hopefully track down a cooperative Flammulated Owl after dark. We arrived at Diamondfield Jack Campground at 7:00 pm and spent the better part of the next 2 hours wandering the trails through the forest. We hiked to a Ridgeline I hadn’t visited before, and the Tennessee Tech duo uncovered a Horned Lizard under a rock. After some discussion and consulting the interwebs we settled on Pygmy Short-horned Lizard. A first on a tour!

Some species of "Evening Bat" in the South Hills

We picked up many of the typical species here like Western Tanager, Brown Creeper, Hairy Woodpecker, and Violet-green Swallow. And while we had short looks and flyover Cassia Crossbill calling, we would return the next day for better views. As we got back to the parking area, several Common Nighthawk were flying around as well as a number of large bats. Based on the photos I took I'm still not sure of the species, though I suspect they were Big Brown Myotis.

Stunning views of a Flammulated Owl

As darkness settled I got a little concerned. There was some sort of concert happening at Magic Mountain Ski Area and the speakers could be heard for miles away—would this undo our owling??? My fears quickly evaporated as the road I had been using all summer here worked wonders as we tracked down 2 Flammulated Owls. The second bird being nothing less than a perfect subject to watch and photograph! By 11:00 pm we were back at the hotel for the night!

Barn Owl to start the morning off

We kicked off the day visiting the agricultural areas south of town. Despite spending almost 2 hours on the backroads here we had no luck with Gray Partridge—a common theme for the summer of 2021 where we were 3 for 6 here. Prior to this year we had gotten this species on every tour to Idaho with the exception of our first trip when it wasn’t a focus. As a consolation we had an incredible 12 Barn Owls at one of our regular stakeouts..

Gorgeous Great Horned Owl

There was also a Great Horned Owl hanging out in the same patch of trees and nearby 3 Burrowing Owls were at one of their usual burrows. Several of our Southern Idaho targets were present in good numbers with 30 Western Meadowlark, 20 Swainson’s Hawks, and 5 Northern Harrier. We also tracked down Sage Thrasher, Vesper Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike, and a single Brewer’s Sparrow. Incredible numbers of doves were present near the municipal airport where we tallied 28 Rock Pigeon, 14 Eurasian Collared-Dove, and 125 Mourning Dove!!!

One of the cooperative Cassia Crossbills

We finally made our way up into the South Hills again, this time to focus on finding the endemic Cassia Crossbill. Walking the same trail as the previous day our luck was much improved when a flock of birds flying over calling had a few individuals come into trees and spend a decent amount of time perched out in the open for great views and photographs. We were able to put scopes on the birds in several spots allowing lots of time to study and enjoy this interesting species.

Crossbill Success!

We ventured across the range, finding 4 Lewis’s Woodpeckers along the Burn trail. This location was incredibly quiet. With the early spring and hot summer we had the common theme at the end of July and beginning of August was that most of the breeders were quiet, and many species were much harder to track down. Continuing towards Brockman’s we added Mountain Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, and American Kestrel for the day.

A very early migrant Merlin—a first on this tour.

As we pulled into the area near the feeders there was a small raptor perched on a dead snag in the distance. I dismissed the bird as a Sharp-shinned Hawk initially. Luckily the bird took flight and Lyle (form Michigan), said it looks like a Merlin. Sure enough as soon as the bird started sprinting it was apparent that it was indeed a Merlin! An early migrant and firs for this tour!

A young Calliope Hummingbird

Brockman’s was nothing less than a zoo on this morning. This summer that had also been a common and unusual theme—one reason we rearranged our tour dates for 2022, to try and make sure we visited any day but a weekend! We drove to the secondary feeder site and ran into several local birders. We spent the first bit here and then once the crowds moved on headed to the main feeders. The entire production was fabulous as usual. We estimated around 20 Black-chinned Hummingbirds were running the show, while a pair of young Calliope Hummingbirds joined the handful of Rufous Hummingbirds and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds also present.

Mmmmm! Lunch! This Swainson's Hawk was enjoying it!

After a picnic lunch, we headed back towards Twin Falls, again driving the southern fields hoping for some Gray Partridge luck. While that didn’t happen we found a hatch year Swainson’s Hawk at a buffet on a hay bale. I am 90% sure this was the same young bird from our Georgia Audubon Tour earlier a few weeks earlier, sticking really close to its nest. We watched as the young bird shredded its prey, and then took the fleshy parts and devoured them. It was both disgusting and incredible to watch and provided an awesome photo op!

Digiscoped Baird's Sandpiper in Idaho

We took an afternoon break before driving out towards the town of Hansen and a flurry of eBird pins on what appeared to be a couple of holding ponds on a a farm. Sure enough we found two ponds with extremely low water, covered in waterfowl and shorebirds. Despite years of tours here during the summer shorebirds and other waterbirds were always a hard get—but not today. We spent an hour scanning to find anything out of the ordinary. 13 species of shorebird were highlighted by 1 Semipalmated Sandpiper, 3 Baird’s Sandpiper, 175 Western Sandpiper, both Wilson’s Phalarope and Red-necked Phalarope, and both Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs.

Waterfowl wise we saw huge numbers of Cinnamon Teal, and various counts of Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, and several other species. Along the power lines around the ponds were 750 Bank Swallow with Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, and Cliff Swallow mixed in. We had a 6-species sweep for Idaho all in the same day. These ponds were a major highlight and never on my radar due to their location and the general timing of my tours. I think in the future we might have to take some time to continue to check them out though!

In the evening we decided to try a local park for screech-owl. Surprisingly, the water and traffic noise made it difficult—and the mosquitoes made it almost unbearable to be outside. We did add a Canyon Wren just before dark, but struck out on owls!

One last group photo at the Cassia County line

Our last morning started off like the previous day in the southern fields. Not much changes overnight as we found many of the same species, but none of the game birds we hoped to target. We checked out of the hotel and made our way over to Shoshone Falls Park where the theme of “quiet” continued. We did track down a couple of California Quail, one Lazuli Bunting, and a single Yellow-breast Chat. We also had both Canyon Wren and Rock Wren before wrapping things up and heading back towards Utah. Quick stops in Idaho grand Great-tailed Grackle in Burley, and an Osprey in Idaho along the Snake River.

Sora peeking back at us

Back in Utah mid-afternoon we headed to Farmington Bay WMA to see if there was anything else new we could add before wrapping things up. We added Neotropic Cormorant, Wood Duck, Sora, and Virginia Rail for the week, and had a decent number of birds despite the hot August day. And just like that our 10th Most anted Tour came to an end. Despite the disappointment about being able to go to Nevada and track down Himalayan Snowcock, we made the best of the week and still tallied 148 species. A very good number for 4 days of birding here in late July or early August. I offered for the entire group to join me the following summer on one of our future tours as tagalongs so they have an opportunity to see their lifer snowcock. We’ll be seeing them this July and August when we are back at it!

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2021 Himalayan Snowcock Expedition Tour Recap

Posted: January 21, 2022

July 30 - August 1, 2021 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

In 2021, we offered a standalone Himalayan Snowcock Tour for the first time in addition to our regularly scheduled Most Wanted Tours. It just so happened that when we setup a tour with Georgia Audubon for the week before, that most of their group wanted to continue and join our Snowcock Expedition. A few others opted to join the tour as well, so Taylor stayed on to help guide and drive our 2nd van—and just like that we were off to Nevada.

Our Group checking out the Himalayan Snowcock

As always, a quick stop at the Bonneville Salt Flats was a nice way to break up the drive. By late afternoon we arrived in Elko, checked in to our hotel, and grabbed dinner. Then it started to rain. This was a first in all my tours here—an outright downpour as we went to bed. I’m not sure how long it rained during the night, but luckily it had stopped by the time we departed the hotel before 3:00 AM.

We made our way to the Lamoille Canyon and it was apparent there had been some big rain here earlier in the week. In several places large slicks of mud were still on the road, while 10’ piles of debris and mud had been plowed off the road surface. I’m sure fires in recent years haven’t helped the canyon, and clearly there had been a bit of a mess. At the parking area everything was soaked—it was obvious that it had rained most of the night and I was slightly nervous about the trail condition. But, much to my surprise the trail was fine. As we ascended, I spotted another car coming up canyon—it was my buddy Chris Brown and his Wildside Tours group. There would be a lot of birders out and about today!

Himalayan Snowcock on a distant ridge

Despite our large group we spread out and slowly made our way to the “slab”. As we got out our scopes and started scanning as it became light, I spotted a single Himalayan Snowcock sitting in the same notch in the rocks as my tour 2 weeks earlier. I quickly got those with me on the bird, and motioned for the rest of the group to hurry as we had the bird.

Snowcock Success

Fairly soon, everyone had seen it, as well as another bird that emerged shortly after. We made sure to keep a close eye on the birds as they made their way across the ridge line. Pretty soon the Wildside group arrive and we motioned them over to join us since we had the birds. In no time at all around 20 birders were on the slab enjoying lifer Himalayan Snowcock views.

Island Lake at Sunrise

On top of seeing the main target for the tour, the skies had mostly cleared and it was a beautiful morning in the Ruby’s.

After spending several hours on the slab we decided it was time to head back to town. On the way out, a Prairie Falcon flew over and landed in a dead snag across the tiny valley from us. Meandering down the trail we were treated to a trio of my favorite mammals here: Yellow-bellied Marmot, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, and the always a crowd pleaser American Pika.

Yellow-bellied Marmot lounging on a boulder

American Pika keeping a watchful eye on us

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel having a nibble

On our way out of Lamoille Canyon we made a quick stop to pick up Lewis’s Woodpecker for the tour, then headed back to Elko. The plan was lunch to go from my favorite spot in town—unfortunately there had been some miscommunication between the owner and her staff and at the last minute they told us they couldn’t handle our large group as planned. It was disappointing, but luckily another local dive saved the day and was able to seat our larger group immediately. Big props to Odeh's Mediterranean Restaurant where I’ve eaten several times before. Aside form the gracious staff at this family-owned business, the food is fantastic!

While large birding groups can often cause logistical issues, the pandemic really showed how many local restaurants struggled to maintain normal hours, with short staffs, and lots of people trying to get out and make up for the year lost. Prior to 2021 we had never run into any issues with restaurants, but it was apparent the toll for the pandemic was taking on small businesses!

While we typically try to get out for some birding in the evening—due to the logistical issues at lunch we wanted to make sure we had a smooth dinner so we skipped birding, had a great dinner at Luciano’s and that was the day!

Digiscoped Lark Sparrow

Overnight it rained again—and continued into the morning. Luckily for us but the time we reached our morning birding destination at South Fork the rain had subsided in the valley—but we could see it continued over the Ruby’s. South Fork was its usual, incredible, hotspot. We tallied a whopping 64 species here as we spent the morning canvassing the entire lake and surroundings.

Wilson's Snipe with Long-billed Dowitchers

Loads of waterfowl, waterbirds, and shorebirds made for a lot of scoping. Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe, American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope, Semipalmated Plover, and Lesser Yellowlegs were some of the highlights.

Digiscoped Sora

Near the campground on the west side of the lake we had 3 Sora feeding in the open in a nearly dried up canal—great looks as the birds didn’t seem to mind the crowd gawking. Eventually we wrapped things up and headed back towards Elko, making a stop in a juniper patcher near town. While there weren’t any out of the ordinary birds, we did pick up a few things like Western Tanager and Bullock’s Oriole, in addition to Northern Mockingbird and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Back in town we managed to get everyone packed and were finally able to grab that delicious lunch we expected the day before. We dined at the city park and then hit the road back towards Utah. A quick stop just over the border and we added Snowy Plover for the tour, before continuing back to Salt Lake City and dropping everyone off at the airport or nearby hotels.

A huge thanks to Taylor, and Adam from Georgia Audubon, for co-leading this tour. The more guides the merrier, and with 3 sets of eyes on the lookout we definitely picked up a few more birds than usual! Upon arriving back in Utah I received a DM asking about the mudslides in Lamoille Canyon. I quipped that it wasn’t a big deal, they had cleared the road and we were good. Then the message included a link to a news article. On Sunday, the day after our tour more than a dozen mudslides caused massive damage to the road. The canyon was closed and they had to help get people out of the canyon. The road stayed closed for more than a month while they cleared debris, and made sure the road was safe to use.

Because of this, my last 2 tours to Elko for the summer were cancelled! A friend of mine on the mountain that Sunday said the following to me in a message, “Island Lake was scary with the rain and hail”… They had gotten off the mountain before the landslides and had no idea what had transpired. The good news is that the canyon is once again open to the public, and we should be good to go for 2022!  This was the first time we had ever encountered sketchy weather in all my tours to Nevada and isn't expected normally.

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Georgia Audubon Photos from this Tour:

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2021 Georgia Audubon Custom Tour Recap

Posted: January 17, 2022

July 25-30, 2021 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

Way back in June 2019 (what seems like a lifetime ago), Adam Betuel reached out about planning a tour with him for the summer of 2021. At the time Adam was running his own company called Teal Birding to lead tours primarily for Georgia Audubon. Over the course of our planning, Georgia Audubon hired Adam full-time, and in the end, we worked to plan a Georgia Audubon Mountain West Hotspots and Highlights Tour for this past July. Like the rest of my tours this summer, we banked heavily on vaccine availability and decreasing covid-19 cases to determine if we would be able to go.

Georgia Audubon doing their best "crossbill" impression!

In our planning, we opted to go with a larger group to keep the cost lower, add an additional night to cover more areas and offer my Snowcock Expedition as an extension after the main tour. With this in mind, I reached out to see if Taylor Abbott was available to help lead and drive our second vehicle. With the big logistical questions answered, we set the itinerary and Adam got to work selling the tour! In the end, we sold out all 13 available spaces and waited to see how the summer went.

All 3 guides and all 13 participants were fully vaccinated at least 2 weeks before the tour began, and cases remained steadily low through the summer. On July 25th we picked up the last of the participants to arrive and kicked off our tour! We had one cancellation the week before the tour, so the group stood at 12 + the 3 guides.

Western Tanager hanging around our picnic area

As became the routine this summer we headed to Millcreek Canyon to show off our over-summering flock of 9 Tundra Swan that were calling the pond at Log Haven home. Continuing up the canyon we encountered a noticeably quieter habitat than usual. The summer heat and early spring had really exacerbated the speed to the end of the breeding season. Nonetheless, we tracked down several Western Tanager, a few Warbling Vireo, and flyovers of both Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk.

Catered BBQ dinner from Table 22 by Chef Parks

Changing things up ever so slightly, I reached out to Table 22 by Chef Parks to see if they would be interested in catering a simple BBQ picnic for us in the canyon. We reserved a picnic site, and Table 22 delivered and set up our dinner in the great outdoors. The BBQ chicken and sausages were fantastic, and the relaxed atmosphere made for a nice meal. Definitely check them out!

Last-minute Black Swift spotted by Adam

After dinner, we headed south. With reports of Black Swift in Salt Lake county dwindling we took our chances at Bridal Veil Falls in Utah County, about an hour away. Luck wasn’t in our favor during our vigil, but as we returned to the vans to head owling, Adam spotted one flying right over the parking lot. The bird made several passes and even in the fading light, the looks were great!

Flammulated Owl shot by Adam Betuel, Georgia Audubon

We ended up at an owling site I hadn’t yet checked this year. Knowing we would have a large group and have limited access to locations for 2 vans and so many people I kept a few spots just in case. We waited as the light faded and talked about the owls, why they were here, and how we would hopefully find one. Within 19 minutes of starting everyone had several looks at least one but possibly 2 Flammulated Owl, all from less than 20’ of where we parked.

Super cute and cooperative Juniper Titmouse

In the lead-up to our tour, we adjusted the itinerary to slow down a little based on our tour with Lake-Cook Audubon in June. Instead of our usual morning in the desert, we departed immediately for Idaho, crossing the border around 8:00 AM. At the Juniper Rest Area, we nabbed Ash-throated Flycatcher, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Juniper Titmouse, and Bewick’s Wren.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird at its nest

We continued towards the South Hills, arriving at Diamondfield Jack Campground just before 11:00 am. We spent several hours here with a picnic lunch and birding. We found a Broad-tailed Hummingbird nest right where we were eating lunch. The usual Mountain Chickadee, Hammond’s Flycatcher, and Brown Creeper were all present.

Poor digiscoped Cassia Crossbill

While those are all nice birds, they were not our main targets, and we eventually got great looks at the star of the show--the Cassia Crossbill.

We made our way across the hills towards Brockman’s, stopping in the burn to pick up Lewis’s Woodpecker. Several birds put on a show moving about in the treetops. Continuing we drove the windy dirt road passing through a patch of aspen when a Northern Goshawk swooped down through the trees along the road, and right over the first van. Adam and I both yelled out GOSHAWK!!! But only 4-5 people saw the bird as it disappeared into the forest.

Migrant Rufous Hummingbird at Brockman's

At Brockman’s, the feeding frenzy was in full effect. Loads of Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, and migrant Rufous Hummingbird kept everyone busy and entertained. In the week since my previous visit, ALL of the male Calliope Hummingbirds had either already left on their migration or were avoiding the large number of birds. In the end, we picked out several young and female Calliope’s.

1 of 17 Swainson's Hawks from this afternoon

We also picked up a calling Gray Catbird here, but in the afternoon heat, most of the birds were taking a break! Once everyone had their fill of hummingbirds we headed back towards the lowlands. In the sage flats on the west end of the hills, we picked up Grasshopper Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, and Savannah Sparrow. Once we reached Magic Valley we spent some time birding in the agricultural areas south of Twin Falls where we had 17 Swainson’s Hawks, including a very cooperative young bird perched on a fence post by the road.

The uncooperative Gray Partridge continued for another tour!

On Tuesday morning, we headed back into the fields to see if we could get back on top of our summer partridge issues. As luck would have it, more eyes helped find the birds. Both Adam and Taylor spotted small coveys of Gray Partridge working their way through the sagebrush. The looks weren’t fantastic, but it was the main target!

California Quail "hiding" in the sagebrush

We also picked up California Quail along with the usual Barn Owl and Northern Harrier. We missed Burrowing Owl but picked up a consolation Prairie Falcon. Overall, the birding was really good this morning and we had other fun desert birds like Sage Thrasher, Loggerhead Shrike, and Horned Lark to entertain!

We also had an interesting interaction with a local who we could tell was watching us. As we were headed out of the field I stopped to scan some hay bales when the truck pulled up and the woman driving began to ask what we were doing and why we were there. Replying that we were just bird watchers, she didn’t appear moved as she went on to tell us that their farm had been “robbed” several times in the past week, and the side road we had been pulled over on was private property. Remaining calm and slightly amused, I told her that we weren’t robbers, and I was up here several days every summer and had parked in that spot many times since there were no trespassing signs. She continued that if I just looked on my GPS I could see it was private--at which point I just had to laugh. She clearly didn’t like us being there, and despite the fact that we were in 2 giant white vans, walking around looking at birds, we must have fit the idea of what “robbers” look like and act in her mind. It never ceases to amaze me the extremes of the locals you meet in how they react to birders--we are after all a very innocuous group!

Canyon Wren at Shoshone Falls

Anyways, we checked out of our hotel and visited Shoshone Falls where the birding was again pretty good for the late date in July. We added another California Quail, worked hard for a Yellow-breasted Chat, Rock Wren, and Canyon Wren, and mostly just enjoyed being out and birding. Lots of common birds filled in the time between the target species.

Phalarope streaming past after sunset

Our afternoon plans fell apart due to our time birding in Idaho. We ended up leaving late and running out of time to visit Bear River MBR. Instead, we opted to check in to the hotel and take a short break during the 100-degree afternoon, before visiting Antelope Island State Park for sunset and shorebird migration--neither of which disappointed! Roughly 25,000 Red-necked Phalarope and perhaps 5,000 Wilson’s Phalarope delighted the group.

Utah's state bird—the California Gull

We also picked up a bevy of other species including 3 Snowy Plover, 3 Marbled Godwit, 1,000’s of American Avocet, and several hundred Black-necked Stilts. Hundreds of Franklin’s Gulls also passed by while we watched the phalarope show. We made a quick loop of the island just before dark hoping to maybe come across a Chukar--instead, we found 5 Northern Mockingbirds.

Sunrise over the Great Salt Lake

On Wednesday morning, we were back at the island before sunrise headed to look for Chukar again. This time, however, luck was on our side and we found a small flock of 5 before the sun had even hit. We also saw several Rock Wren, 6 Burrowing Owl, and a Sage Thrasher to kickoff the morning

We again focused on the causeway on our way off the island--most of the same birds as the previous day. We did get good looks at Willet and Long-billed Curlew and spent some more time enjoying the phalarope migration.

Digiscoped Sora hiding in the reeds

Visiting Farmington Bay WMA we focused on marsh birds for the remainder of the morning. Highlights were both Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe as well as both Sora and Virginia Rail. Waterfowl was dismal, with just Redhead in addition to the common park species. We added both Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs, in addition to the new normal Neotropic Cormorant flock that was present all summer.

Georgia Audubon enjoying some cooler temps

After an afternoon break, we ventured up to 8,000’ and a 40-degree swing in temperatures as a pleasant rainstorm drenched us in the mountains. The birding was pretty slow due to the rain and we missed most of what we would expect to find. We did have Lincoln’s Sparrow, Red-naped Sapsucker, and 5 Steller’s Jays to keep us busy. But in all honesty, the wet and cool weather was a perfect end to the afternoon!

Western Screech-Owl providing killer looks

By the evening the storms had mostly passed. We decided to try for Western Screech-Owl and had a rough go of it for the first 30 minutes. The howling wind looked like it was going to squash our efforts, but eventually, a cooperative bird landed almost on top of the group and posed nicely for everyone to see. In the end, we were back to the hotel and done for the night by 10:00 pm!

Tiger Moth at the Gas Station

Thursday morning the plan was to get into the mountains and enjoy some cooler temps. We started off on Jeremy Ranch Road in Summit County and quickly picked up most of our expected targets. Willow Flycatcher, Lazuli Bunting, Yellow Warbler, and Gray Catbird were all cooperative. A flyover Bald Eagle was a bonus.

At a quick stop for gas, several people noticed these Tiger Moths on the window of the gas station. It’s always fun to take a few minutes and look at the unexpected.

Male Bobolink on his way out of breeding plumage

Heading east we visited a mountain valley and agricultural area where the products of a successful breeding season were on full display. While the 25 Bobolink were definitely the star of the show, 49 Sandhill Crane and 20 Savannah Sparrow were equally impressive counts. Despite our best efforts, we missed snipe this morning!

Digiscoped Golden Eagle near Kamas

Making our way higher we were treated to a pair of Golden Eagles along the road. Both birds spent time flying over and perched on the nearby cliffs.

As we reached one of our favorite mid-elevation riparian sites the effects of the summer were apparent with bird diversity and density really low. With some effort, we found Hammond’s Flycatcher, but the rest of the expected breeding specialties were nowhere to be found. While disappointing, the scenery did provide some consolation.

The bonus crossbill, a White-winged Crossbill in Utah

We proceeded to almost 10,000 feet and set out to find a rarity that had been reported the previous week. After a short search, we located, got great looks at, and recordings of White-winged Crossbill. While this species isn't normally expected on our summer tours, it was a nice addition. And for about half the group a pair of Red Crossbills made for a clean sweep of the Lower 48 Crossbills!

Our last ditch effort for American Dipper paid off!

The game plan this afternoon was similar to the previous day--we took an afternoon break then set out to do some birding before dinner. We happened upon an Osprey at a rather unexpected spot. And after nearly 40 minutes of searching, we finally found an American Dipper for the week. This bird eluded us at all our other usual spots and the search today was a last-ditch effort.

Prairie Falcon on a distant power pole

We wrapped up the day with a little birding near our hotel adding Lesser Goldfinch for the week, before having a great dinner to cap off our last night in Salt Lake City. On Friday morning we set out to pick up the Sage and Juniper specialists we still needed for the week. It had poured overnight making the road quite sloppy and not ideal for the vans. We focused on finding Gray Vireo and Gray Flycatcher which were the 2 main targets. We did miss a couple of expected sparrows, but the safety of the tour takes precedent to the birds! We had a migrant Warbling Vireo here which was an early surprise, but the weather must have put a few things on the move! A bonus Prairie Falcon was a nice pick up on teh way back towareds Salt Lake City.

Georgia Audubon checking out some waterbirds

Having a few hours to burn with our expected route blocked, we called an audible and visited a small local lake where we hadn’t brought a tour in years! It ended up being a great decision that added several birds for the tour. The highlights included a trio of migrant sandpipers: Least Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, and an uncommon Solitary Sandpiper.

We also had great looks at a number of marsh birds like Snowy Egret, Caspian Tern, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. After running out of birds we started making our way back to Salt Lake to wrap up our regular portion of the tour with a fantastic lunch at Red Iguana. From here we lost several members of our Georgia Audubon group, and added a few of my clients for our Himalayan Snowcock Expedition, which you will be able to read about next week when I release that trip recap!

A huge thank you goes out to Adam Betuel and Georgia Audubon for a thoroughly enjoyable week birding in the Mountain West. And of course, none of this would have been possible without Taylor stepping in to guide and drive our second vehicle! Three guides certainly made for picking out a number of birds we likely would have missed! All in all, it was a great week of birding in Utah and Idaho!
Pitta Tours Photos from this Tour: 

Georgia Audubon Photos from this Tour:

Birds Seen on this Tour:

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