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2021 Lake-Cook Audubon Custom Tour Recap

Posted: September 19, 2021

June 24-28, 2021 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

The last week of June we were delighted to organize a 5-day/4-night custom tour of Utah and Idaho for the Lake-Cook Audubon Society, based out of Chicago, Illinois. This tour was originally planned for 2020, but postponed until this year due to Covid-19. As our group got vaccinated, and covid-numbers dipped, we gave the green light to run the tour. Unlike our typical itineraries, which limit at 7-8 participants, we worked with the group to bring 14 members, and Jeff Bilsky co-led the tour. The group arrived on June 24th to an unusually cool, windy, and rainy summer afternoon. The weather was a great reprieve from the heat, but had me worried about our first 2 targets…

Lake-Cook Audubon celebrating lifer Cassia Crossbill in the South Hills

As was the default this summer, we took this group to Millcreek Canyon to check out the 9 Tundra Swan that had been present since November. The birds didn’t disappoint, and it made for a nice start with an unusual species for June! The breeders were also out in full force with the cooler temps. We snagged almost every expected species including Cordilleran Flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush, Lazuli Bunting, Warbling Vireo, Dusky Flycatcher, and even a cooperative Fox Sparrow!

Cordilleran Flycatcher near Salt Lake City

After the nice start, we took a short break for dinner back at the hotel before heading to our nearby waterfall to look for Black Swifts. Unfortunately, the viewpoint was packed with cars and birders so we headed to our secondary viewpoint and did not see a single Black Swift. I have never seen them from the secondary point, so didn’t have high hopes—but perusing eBird the next day I wasn’t too upset, since none of the birders at the other location had any either. We did however get great looks at Western Tanager.

Flammulated Owling. Our group posing at the end of a long night!

Having waited for swifts, we were a little late in getting to our owling destination for the night. I was nervous as I watched the temps dip into the high 40’s due to the storm front that passed through. The group looked tired and cold as we exited the vehicles. I promised we wouldn’t be out long, and as luck had it was had owls at our first stop—unfortunately, only a few in the group saw the lone cooperative bird before it departed. Heading back to the vehicles I was prepared to make one more stop but decided to quickly try at the cars before we left. This turned out to be the best decision we could have made, as several Flammulated Owl started responding, and within a minute, a territorial bird came in and landed 20’ away at nearly eye level. The cooperative bird remained long enough for photos by anyone that wanted them and provided some of the best views of this species we had all summer.

Flammulated Owl reward on this cold June night!

After our late night, we got started a little later than usual the following morning, and that was okay. We headed to the juniper woodland and shrub-steppe about an hour from Salt Lake City to see what sage and juniper specialists we could turn up. As usual, our success rate here for the 2 main targets of Gray Vireo and Gray Flycatcher remained high with both birds present in decent numbers. We also picked up Sagebrush Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Sage & Juniper Highlights from our morning in the desert

We spent the remainder of the morning birding around the towns of Eagle Mountain and Cedar Fort hoping for some good raptor finds. While we had the expected Swainson’s Hawks, nothing unusual was to be found. After lunch, we took a much-needed afternoon break. I had received a poor review of the planned afternoon outing from another guide who took a group a few days before and let us know the birding had been very slow. With not many options, and wanting to get our group in the field and to cooler temps, we headed to Alta and the weather was definitely a pleasant departure from the valley heat. While it wasn’t overly birdy, we worked hard and picked up a few montane species, including this gorgeous Hairy Woodpecker that might have gotten into a sap mess that stained it more brown than usual!

Hairy Woodpecker with an awful lot of color

Trying to avoid a repeat of the night before, we ate dinner a little early and headed to our waterfall viewpoint about 45 minutes early to make sure we got the spot. It paid off! Eventually, we spotted a group of Black Swift swirling in the distance. I counted what appeared to be 8 birds before we settled on 5 for sure as they moved down the canyon and disappeared. It was a thrilling juxtaposition from the previous day! 

With the swifts in the rearview, we turned to another local owl species and took off for a short hike right after sunset. While the birds initially gave us a little heartburn, we finally tracked down one very cooperative Western Screech-Owl that posed for the group before disappearing back into the woods. Tonight everyone in the group could be in bed by 11 pm!

Western Screech-Owl providing killer looks

We had an ambitious plan for Saturday—and it proved overly ambitious for a group of this size. One thing to always think about when planning any larger group tour is the added need for multiple restroom stops throughout the day, more time when viewing birds to make sure everyone gets scope views of every bird they want to see, and the added loading and unloading times. It had been several years since I did a tour this large, and I definitely didn’t plan for enough time to fit in all our stops as planned. 

Mule Deer taken with a cell phone

We kicked off the day about 30-minutes from Salt Lake City at a montane riparian area that is generally very birdy all summer long. This morning was no different. We got right into our targets, getting cooperative Willow Flycatcher, Lazuli Bunting, Belted Kingfisher, Gray Catbird, and one member of the group spotted a distant Black-headed Grosbeak which provided great scope views.

Moving on, we visited a mountain valley with a large agricultural area. We quickly found our main targets here of Bobolink, Savannah Sparrow, Wilson’s Snipe, and Sandhill Crane. A surprise Wilson’s Phalarope was here—the female bird might have been an early migrant, but could have potentially been a breeder which would be an exciting find here!

Bobolink performing its flight song

Eventually, we made our way up in elevation visiting another montane riparian location with more mature trees and a variety of mixed habitats. In a short 45 minutes here we nabbed our main targets of American Dipper, Hammond’s Flycatcher, and Red-naped Sapsucker.

Hammond's Flycatcher peering down at our group

We also had incredibly cooperative Cordilleran Flycatcher, Western Tanager, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, and all the typical montane species for the height of the breeding season.

Western Tanager belting out a tune

By the time we reached our next stop the day's plans started to unravel. Being a Saturday we anticipated crowds, but it was on the absurd level this morning. But, the campground we planned on birding was quiet as could be for the first time all month. We left adding a few species like Cassin’s Finch, Mountain Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, and a flyover Osprey. But we missed every specific target planned for here, putting a bit of a damper on my expectations.

Dark-eyed Junco at 10,000'

We did make a quick stop at just over 10,000’ for the views and picked up Rock Wren and Mountain Bluebird before starting our descent into Wyoming. Needing to make a quick bathroom stop we pulled into a campground on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains that I had never visited before. The 15-minute stop turned into a 53-minute outing, spurred by what appeared to be a Northern Goshawk flying through the trees. The real highlight was finding a pocket of Wilson’s Warbler that appeared to be breeding here.

Wilson's Warbler we found in the Uinta Mountains

The campground was extremely birdy and we got great looks at a number of species including Red-naped Sapsucker, Dusky Flycatcher, and Cassin’s Finch. We snagged one last surprise before we left as an early migrating male Rufous Hummingbird flew past while we were gawking at Wilson’s Warblers. From here, we grabbed a late lunch in Evanston, Wyoming, before dropping back into Utah. A short stop near the town of Echo added Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Virginia’s Warbler for the tour.

Peregrine Falcon soaring overhead

With a big day to follow we took an afternoon break back at the hotel before grabbing dinner at a distillery nearby. After dinner, an impromptu drive through a local neighborhood added California Quail and Lesser Goldfinch for the week!

California Quail in a local neighborhood

On Sunday we rose early and made it to Antelope Island State Park for sunrise. Despite a concerted effort we missed Chukar which has been hit or miss in recent years due to a tough winter 3 years ago. We did however add Burrowing Owl, Great Horned Owl, Northern Mockingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Sage Thrasher, and Rock Wren before leaving the island. Along the famed Antelope Island Causeway, we got a sneak peek at fall migration, with 50,000 Wilson’s Phalarope swarming, and 10,000 Eared Grebe dotting the water as far as the eye could see.

Wilson's Phalarope on the Great Salt Lake

The plan for the rest of the day was to reach the South Hills of Idaho and see if we could get our 3 main targets there before dark. We made a pit stop at the Juniper Rest Area just over the Idaho border and picked up 6 Juniper Titmouse and a singing Bewick’s Wren!

Juniper Titmouse up close and personal

Expecting a quick lunch stop we were stunned to arrive at an absolutely slammed rest stop—this delayed our arrival and we didn’t make it into the South Hills until after 1:30 PM. As we drove past the Magic Mountain Ski Area, I heard the familiar call of a Cassia Crossbill. We pulled in and spent the next hour birding the area and were treated to great scope views at several!

Cassia Crossbill in the South Hills


Cassia Crossbill we found dead in a parking lot

With the crossbill picked up, everything else in the parking area was a bonus. Eventually, we headed towards Brockman’s, but not before a quick stop in an old burn treated us to 3 Lewis’s Woodpeckers. Normally this is the highlight of the drive to the feeders, but a short distance later we found an adult Ruffed Grouse standing in the road—and her 14 chicks that crossed while we watched!

Ruffed Grouse crossing the road in the South Hills

It was almost 4:30 pm when we arrived at the feeders, and we were treated to the usual show of Broad-tailed Hummingbird and Black-chinned Hummingbird. The star of the show as usual here though were 6 Calliope Hummingbirds that made for a great viewing opportunity as birds came in time and time again to specific feeders.

Calliope Hummingbird at Brockman's

Having accomplished our goal for the day we headed out through the desert towards Twin Falls. A late dinner at Jasmine Thai was a perfect end to the day—capped off with a flyover Common Nighthawk in the parking lot. Monday started with a visit to the agricultural areas south of town. As with 1/2 our visits to the fields this summer, we missed Gray Partridge—a disappointing change from our success here the previous 5 years. Luckily, the Northern Harriers, Swainson’s Hawks, and Barn Owls put on a show to keep things interesting!

Barn Owl near Twin Falls

We wrapped up our time in Idaho with a visit to Shoshone Falls Park. Overall species density was really low this morning. We didn’t have any wrens which is extremely unusual, and only a single Yellow-breasted Chat and Bullock’s Oriole. We had to make some slight adjustments to our end-of-tour plan since several people had their flights moved up by airlines. We ended with a great lunch back in Salt Lake City, and dropped off 1/2 the group for flights. The rest of us headed to a nearby Wildlife Management area and spent the rest of the afternoon checking out Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, Greater Yellowlegs, Neotropic Cormorant, Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Duck, and a variety of other typical marsh birds.

In just 5 short days we tallied 156 species, a surprise with such a large group, but a trend we saw this summer on most of our tours. We had low densities of birds in general, but high species counts overall. The Lake-Cook Audubon group was a joy to bird with, and Jeff Bilsky did a phenomenal job on his first large multi-day tour!

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May 2021 Utah Custom Day Tour Recap

Posted: September 06, 2021

May 27, 2021 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

In between owling tours, and our Marathon Birding Tour for the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, we fit in a custom day tour with a trio of clients from Michigan. The goal was birding in general, and given the time of year, the tour we recommended focused on the Great Salt Lake. Opting for an early start to try and catch Chukar at first light on Antelope Island, we picked our guests up at 5:30 AM in Salt Lake City and made the 40-minute journey to the Great Salt Lake. We made a quick stop outside of the park to catch a few birds up close. Yellow-headed Blackbird, American White Pelican, Ring-necked Pheasant, and White-faced Ibis were some of the first birds for the day.

Yellow-headed Blackbird is always a crowd pleaser.

We mostly skipped the causeway on the way to the island—the brunt of shorebird migration had passed, really limiting the possibilities. Heading straight to our Chukar stakeout, we got lucky and found a bird perched high on a rock upon arrival. A quick search turned up 2 more birds, making for quick success on this species that has become much harder to find since the winter of 2018-2019.

Chukar at Antelope Island State Park

While on the prowl for Chukar we added Rock Wren, Northern Mockingbird, and Loggerhead Shrike. A single Long-billed Curlew flyover was our only visual for this species on the day. We tracked down several Burrowing Owls at their burrows, while we enjoyed the serenading from Western Meadowlarks in the early morning light.

Western Meadowlark belting out a tuney

We spent a few minutes enjoying one of the island's resident Great Horned Owl families, and checking out roaming flocks of Brewer’s Sparrows, Lark Sparrows, and Horned Larks. We found a small herd of Pronghorn with several females radio-tagged and collared for some study. They lounged lazily in the grass, keeping fairy well hidden—but not completely.

A radio collared and tagged Pronghorn on Antelope Island

Our original plans for the day were a quick visit to the island and then birding at higher elevation for our montane breeders—but with songbird migration appearing a little behind schedule, and many songbirds still stacked at lower elevations, we traded the mountains to visit Garr Ranch on the island, and see what migrants were there—a good call in hindsight! As we arrived the song of Yellow Warblers was only overshadowed by the starlings (cest la vie). Almost immediately, a hard fitz-bew of a Willow Flycatcher could be heard in the picnic area. We made our way towards the sound and quickly found it in the shadows of one of the historic buildings.

Overhead, Western Tanagers sang and called. Several males sat out in the sunlight providing killer looks at this species that really should be the Utah state bird (I am biased given the fact this was the bird that really hooked me in the early 1990s). We enjoyed watching them forage for insect, as well as fly-catch, watching one male come up with a red insect of some sort—it was hard to tell what since most of the creature was already in the mouth, with only a few red parts protruding from the bill!

Western Tanager with a delectable morsel

One of several MacGillivray’s Warblers present on this morning showed in a tree above while we watched the tanagers. It flew when a Great Horned Owl came buzzing overhead, and landing briefly!  Other migrants showing in decent numbers included Wilson’s Warbler, and at least 3 more Willow Flycatchers. There was a good variety of species in small numbers. Single Warbling Vireo, Western Wood-Pewee, Green-tailed Towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, White-crowned Sparrow, and Lazuli Bunting added to the fun mix of birds present.

Great Horned Owl surveying the birders below

As we wrapped up our birding at the ranch, we tallied 32 species. Heading back to the parking lot another spring arrival added to our count with our first Common Nighthawk flying around the picnic area. Right on time, this late western migrant made a few passes before finding a roost in the trees over the picnic tables. The last week of May is when this species shows up in northern Utah and May 27th is the date I usually expect to start seeing them—so perfect would be a fair description of their arrival this year!

The 1st Common Nighthawk of the year!

Leaving the island we spent a little time on the causeway, observing the usual suspects. Several hundred breeding plumage Eared Grebes and smaller numbers of Black-backed Stilt, American Avocet, and Franklin’s Gulls were the main targets. A flyover Caspian Tern heading west over the lake seemed lost—not sure what fish it planned on finding over the open lake! We made a brief stop to add Snowy Plover to our trip list before continuing on to our next stop at Farmington Bay WMA. 

In May, even a short visit to Farmington Bay canceled a wide variety of species. We spent just over an hour here and picked up 43 species. Highlights included a pair of Ring-necked Ducks still present at this late date, a lone Blue-winged Teal (a common bird for our eastern friends, but one that occurs only in small numbers here), both Clark’s Grebes and Western Grebes in decent numbers, and the ever-present Neotropic Cormorants that are now a staple here it seems.

A flock of Neotropic Cormorant

With a little time to spare, I asked if the crew was interested in seeing the Tundra Swans that are still here (read about this on our Marathon Birding recap). We made the quick drive back into Salt Lake City, then up Millcreek Canyon, where the 9 swans were still swimming on the small pond in the mountains—1,000’s of miles from where these birds should be breeding and enjoying their summer, on the tundra.

Our group wrapping things up for the day!

Several Steller’s Jay and a flyover Broad-tailed Hummingbird wrapped up our tour. Many thanks to Judy, Liz, and Jenny for the enjoyable morning in the field. For more information on custom tours, check out our custom tours page on the website!

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2021 Marathon Birding Tour Recap

Posted: August 22, 2021

May 16, 2021 - From Farmington, Utah

In May 2019 we wrapped up our 12th straight year of offering Marathon Birding during the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival. Weather and migration lulling led to our lowest total since 2012—we hit 151 species (149 in eBird, not sure what species we missed on the checklists!), which is a great day of birding, but well below our running average of just over 160 for the previous 6 years. The plan was to roar back in 2020, get back into the 160s and keep chasing our all-time high of 170 from 2015. Alas, Covid-19 shut the world down, the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival was canceled, and Marathon Birding would have to wait until 2021 (we hoped). 

When the festival committee started planning for the abbreviated 2021 festival, much of the United States was still in full-on crisis mode, as the pandemic raged. We were optimistic that vaccines and the passing of winter would lead to a climate where we might be able to offer our tour again. With that in mind, we came up with a strategy to allow us to operate in some capacity unless things were still out of control.

The Marathon Birders starting the day off on the Causeway

As luck would have it, the vaccine rollout was a success, and the pandemic waned in America during the spring. In March when the festival opened for registration, we filled our 10 spaces within 10-minutes and had a 9-person waitlist by the end of the day. Barring a disaster in the following 7-weeks, Marathon Birding was back in 2021!

All 4 of our guides (Mike, Taylor, Kenny, and me) and all 10 participants were fully vaccinated more than 2-weeks before the tour, and we were one of the few trips during the festival to operate almost normally. We came up with a plan, prepped the group, and at 6:00 AM on Sunday, May 16th, we kicked off our 13th Marathon Birding Tour, with a European Starling as the first bird of the day.

For various reasons, we weren't able to pursue our usual route as planned so we adjusted. Our normal starting location is Farmington Bay WMA, but unable to access the property early this year, we switched things up and headed to Antelope Island State Park. Shorebird migration was quickly on its way to an end, but we still managed to catch 1,000’s of migrating Wilson’s Phalaropes and Red-necked Phalaropes refueling on their way north. The causeway also produced good numbers of Black-bellied Plovers and a handful of Snowy Plovers along with the common fare. We missed a lot of shorebirds we often get, with peeps completely absent this year.

On the island, we found our usual Burrowing Owl, Great Horned Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, Sage Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, and Rock Wren on the north end, while Chukar eluded us for the 2nd marathon tour in a row. The winter of 2018-19 really crushed this species here and it has been a tough get after sunrise ever since.

A poor digiscope of a Burrowing Owl

At Garr Ranch, there were enough songbird migrants to keep us busy. We picked up most of the usual migrants including Western Tanager, Wilson’s Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Dusky Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, and Lincoln’s Sparrow. Impressive numbers of Green-tailed Towhee and Willow Flycatcher were highlights.

One of a few Willow Flycatcher at Garr Ranch

A pair of Bobolink was a nice pickup that saved us a stop later, and a singing Least Flycatcher in the picnic area was the find of the day.

Least Flycatcher was the best bird of the day

We snagged Grasshopper Sparrow on the way off the island, giving us a healthy 90 species before 10:30 am. With Mike and Taylor at the helm, they led us on backroads towards Farmington. In the past, this drive has helped us pick up California Quail (no luck this year), and Great-tailed Grackle, which we had no issues finding at several locations. Our next stop was Farmington Bay WMA where our count hinged on numerous species that can be found here and nowhere else during our day.

Things started off well with Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe as well as larger divers like Neotropic Cormorant (a staple here now), and American White Pelican. Caspian Tern was a nice addition, as were numerous late migrant Bonaparte’s Gulls. We snagged both Sora and Virginia Rail, as well as Great Egret and Snowy Egret. Waterfowl was a bit of a letdown, but we did get Redhead, American Wigeon, and Blue-winged Teal. Of the 53 species we tallied here the best birds, by and far were 17 Stilt Sandpiper mingling with hundreds of Long-billed Dowitchers.

Perhaps the greatest photo ever taken of Stilt Sandpiper

By the time we wrapped up here, it was apparent things were not going as planned. We had 110 species, where we expected to be in the 120s. Shorebirds and waterfowl were partly to blame, but missed waders and migrant songbirds also contributed. We had some serious work ahead of us to catch back up. We made a quick stop at Bountiful Pond where Common Merganser and Red-breasted Merganser helped, but not much else. Trying to figure out the best way to pick up species quickly we made a stop at Mueller Park in Bountiful, a first on this trip. Intermittent showers didn’t stop us from walking up the lower portion of the canyon where we added 11 species for the day, including Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Townsend’s Solitaire, Fox Sparrow, and Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Making our way into Salt Lake City, we added Swainson’s Hawk and Turkey Vulture on the move. Deciding to add a trip first we made a side trip up Millcreek Canyon where a flock of 9 Tundra Swan has been staying at a private pond since a November windstorm knocked them down here. This in all likelihood will be the only time this bird is ever seen on this tour!

The long-staying Tundra Swan in Millcreek Canyon

The birds can fly (and have left and come back), but it was quite a surprise that they have remained through May (still being seen in August!!!)! We easily got them as well as Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and a highlight Black-throated Gray Warbler before exiting the canyon Having missed most of the swallow species thus far we made a short stop in Cottonwood Heights at Old Mill Holding Pond where we got all of the expected species except Bank Swallow.

Black-throated Gray Warbler in Millcreek Canyon

Making our way to almost 9,000’, with a laundry list of montane species we visited the town hall feeders at Alta where things weren’t as hopping as we hoped. Nonetheless, we managed to pick up Clark’s Nutcracker, Brown Creeper, Downy Woodpecker, Cassin’s Finch, and our first Dark-eyed Junco of the day. As we left the canyon and made a dinner stop, we sat at 139 species for the day.


Clark's Nutcracker at Alta

Trying to figure out how to pick up 21 more species with a couple hours of daylight and impending thunderstorms isn’t a fun task to tackle. While everyone refueled on Mexican food I scoured through my list for the day trying to figure out the plan back to 160. It still seemed possible and with Kenny having a few stakeouts on our route, we set out to get back into it. Stopping at Little Dell Reservoir we added a lingering Common Loon, and a surprise flyby Sharp-shinned Hawk. We grabbed the last swallow for the day as several Bank Swallows circled over the lake, and the usual Osprey were on their nest platform via a scope view.

The Group birding at Mountain Dell (photo by Kenny Frisch)

Kenny came through with Yellow-breasted Chat at Mountain Dell Reservoir, but we dipped on American Dipper as a nest he had located near Lamb’s Canyon. At 144 Species at 6:51 PM, the skies opened up and the deluge began. For the next hour and 10 minutes, we didn't add a single species, and missed a handful of things we hoped would fill in gaps. At 8:01 PM we finally got things moving again with a Belted Kingfisher along Jeremy Ranch Road in Summit County--the only new species in the county for the day.

The Group birding on Jeremy Ranch Road

Near the north end of Jeremy Ranch Road in Morgan County, we quickly added a pair of expected species—American Dipper and Bald Eagle. Additionally here we had audibles for both Wild Turkey (responding to my awful imitation), and a Wilson’s Snipe calling from a wet meadow.

As daylight turned to darkness, we sat at 149 species, well short of what we needed to be at to hit 160. Even with our best nocturnal effort, we might eke out another 5 species. And on this wet and cool evening that was not the case. We started off strong with an audible Flammulated Owl. There were very few birds even calling, and we only heard 4 Flammy’s total. This was followed by an audible Common Poorwill. No other owls were on the docket and this seemed like the last new bird we would get. But then an odd calling accipiter caught our attention. It was a call I hadn’t heard before but reminded me of a Northern Goshawk. But it was dark, so what was going on? As we approached the call and put a light on the trees it broke into the typical shrieks of a goshawk and flew off into the woods, and Mike managed to capture a recording! A truly odd experience.

And that was it, species number 152 for the day, besting our 2019 total, but falling short of our average by nearly 10! Regardless, it was an enjoyable day of birding with a great group of people. And it was a big step in the direction back to normalcy post-pandemic (whatever that ends up looking like).

Kenny Frisch was a great addition as a guide

Kenny Frisch filled in for Jeff Bilsky who was not able to join us this year, and he was a great addition to the guide team. Sadly, this will be Taylor’s last marathon for at least 2 years as he will be living out of the country. It looks like Kenny will be back for the next few years, and we hope we can convince Jeff to make the cross-country trip to help again as well!

Thanks as always to Mike, Taylor, and Kenny for their excellent leadership, and thanks to our wonderful group that forged ahead as we dealt with the weather and the typical changes to our plans as we tackle this “mini big day”!

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2021 Cassia Crossbills and More Tour Recap

Posted: August 20, 2021

June 6-8, 2021 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

After our limited guiding 2020 we had high hopes that the summer of 2021 would get things bay on track.  There was definitely some trepidation early on, and we only sold 4 spots on our Cassia Crossbills and More Tour.  This eased multi-day trip was probably a good way to start things off and get back into the swing of things.  Our small group convened on the afternoon of Sunday, June 6th, and after checking in to the hotel headed to the hills for some birding before dark. 

This afternoon became the blueprint for all our other multi-day tours that kicked off in Salt Lake City this summer, with a visit to the pond at Log Haven in Millcreek.  The highlight here was 9 Tundra Swan, which were present from early November 2020, and continued through every tour into August of 2021.  A great summer bird in Utah was a great way to start off the trip.  We also managed most of the expected breeders here with Cordilleran Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Swainson’s Thrush, and Lazuli Bunting.

Lazuli Bunting in Millcreek Canyon

A quick visit to a nearby neighborhood gave very brief looks at a pair of Band-tailed Pigeons that had been visiting a feeder.  We added California Quail and Black-headed Grosbeak here as well.  As daylight faded we added Black Swift at a local waterfall, as well as Golden Eagle, and Violet-green Swallow.

With the sun having set, we switched our focus to nocturnal birds and set out to pick up Flammulated Owl. In an unusual turn of events, our first short hike didn’t produce a single owl—there seemed to be an absurd amount of traffic, and as that subsided, the wind picked up, leaving us without a visual for a Flammulated Owl.  While we heard 8 birds, this was the first time in 15 years we had not seen an owl on a June or July tour.

Gray Flycatcher at Soldiers Pass Road

Trying to put the night behind us, we started off Monday in the Juniper Woodlands and shrub-steppe about an hour from Salt Lake City.  Our luck here turned things around as we found Gray Vireo, Gray Flycatcher, Sagebrush Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, Bushtit, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay for a nearly clean sweep of expected species. From here we had a bit of a drive and spent the late morning making the 4-hour trek to the South Hills.

Sagebrush Sparrow at Soldiers Pass Road

Once here, things quieted down—at our first stop, we didn’t see or hear a Cassia Crossbill.  We snagged numerous other montane species including Hammond’s Flycatcher.  Checking our backup spot we finally encountered a pair of Cassia Crossbills, but they quickly flew off and no others were present.  Again, other birds made up for the lack of crossbills, with a highlight Williamson’s Sapsucker making an appearance.

Williamson's Sapsucker at Porcupine Springs

At this point, we decided to give the crossbills a break and focus on a few other birds during the afternoon.  We started with Lewis’s Woodpecker, which did not disappoint.   Great views and the afternoon lighting really highlighted the greens and reds on this species nicely. By 4:00 PM we were at Brockman’s Feeding Station enjoying the hummingbird wars that were underway.  While the overall quantity of birds seems low, there were 5 Calliope Hummingbirds coming in to feed that made for excellent viewing!

Calliope Hummingbird at Brockman's

While we were enjoying the show I heard the hard call note of a Cassia Crossbill.  I quickly went in search of the bird, which was perched atop a conifer across a small stream.  I got the scope set up on the bird and we enjoyed great looks for 10-15 minutes.  And the bird started to sing, which was a great ending to our hunt for this lifer for all 4 in the group!

Cassia Crossbill at Brockman's


Crossbill Success at Brockman's

With the target species seen well by the group, and all our other South Hills targets acquired we opted to head into town, check into the hotel, and grab dinner.  Our day wasn’t over yet.  Since we had a hard time with the Flammulated Owl in Utah, I took the group back out into the South Hills to try a second time, and wishing minutes of arriving, we had a bird perched at eye-level that came in response to my mimicking the territorial call of this species!

Flammulated Owl in the South Hills

Tuesday morning we started off bright and early, making our way to the agricultural areas south of town.  We picked up the usual Burrowing Owl, Barn Owl, and one Great Horned Owl, while also seeing good numbers of Northern Harrier and Swainson’s Hawk.  The morning was quite birdy as we tallied 27 species in the mix of corn, soybean, and potato fields.

Burrowing Owl near Twin Falls

We had all but given up hope on Gray Partridge when a pair sprinted across the road in front of us into a recently cut alfalfa field.  Since there weren’t any great places to hide, we watched as the pair made their way across the field.  This species has become a regular on my tours here so we’ve expected it on most trips.  While we had success on this day, for the entire summer we only ended up seeing them on 3 of 6 trips to Twin Falls.

Gray Partridge near Twin Falls

After grabbing breakfast and checking out of the hotel we made our usual stop at Shoshone Falls Park to check out the falls.  This year the water was so low that water was only coming over one of the falls.  It was a pretty sad sight and one that the drought will undoubtedly impact for years to come.  Birding wise we found our target California Quail and Rock Wren, but couldn’t manage to coax out any Canyon Wren.  The colorful birds of the Snake River Gorge kept us busy with Bullock’s Oriole, Lazuli Bunting, Yellow Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat

Bullock's Oriole at Shoshone Falls

We began our journey back to Salt Lake and having hit our targets, we opted to check out a local wildlife management area along the Great Salt Lake to see what birds we could add to our trip list.  In just over an hour we tallied 48 species, with many new trip birds including a late staying Ring-necked Duck, several Blue-winged Teal, numerous Clark's Grebe and Western Grebe, Sora, a handful of wading birds, and a pair of Neotropic Cormorants.

Ring-necked Duck at Farmington Bay WMA

With our birding all but wrapped up, we enjoyed a delicious meal on the patio at Red Iguana 2 in Salt Lake City before dropping everyone off at nearby hotels for the night.  We ended up with 121 species, which is just above our expected 80-120 species on this tour!

What turned out to be a quick but great tour helped us adjust the itinerary going forward to really focus on Idaho, and give us more opportunities for the highlight species there.  This short 3-day, 2-night itinerary is a perfect way to experience the birding in the South Hills and see some incredible birds in a short amount of time.

Photos from this Tour:
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Birds Seen on this Tour:
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