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

 

Going global, Mountain West Birding Company Announces Rebranding to Pitta Nature Tours

March 08, 2021

Salt Lake City, Utah (March 8, 2021)—Mountain West Birding Company, a niche bird-watching travel company, today announced a major rebranding to reflect the company’s evolution from small local tour operator to global tour leader, focusing on ethical and sustainable offerings in five countries. Effective March 8, 2021, Mountain West changed its name to Pitta Nature Tours. Pitta has been sharing incredible birding experiences and wildlife tours with nature-minded people for more than 15 years. Tim Avery, owner and lead guide at Pitta, said, “It’s been a long time in the making. We started a small business in my parent’s basement and, through a strategic plan and growth model, made my dream of leading birding tours internationally come true.

Tim Avery, the owner of Pitta, points out a Timor Flowerpecker during a tour in Indonesia in 2019.

 

“The international birding tour industry is a competitive space, and I believe over the next 4 to 5 years we will make an impact as a new face in the crowd, willing to take on challenging tours in unique places, and be wildly successful while doing so,” adds Avery. “Our vision is to maintain our high standard for quality and success as we continue to grow. Our core values reflect our understanding of our impact on the natural world and the importance of sharing that with people, expressing the need to protect the environment, supporting local and indigenous communities, and above all do so while being honest and earnest with our customers. It’s not just about running a business, but making the world a better place.”

Continuing to offer birding tours in Utah, Northern Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming, Pitta has set itineraries to Baja, the Yucatan, Chiapas, and Oaxaca in Mexico; Bali & the Lesser Sundas, Java, and Sumatra in Indonesia. Future tours in Jamaica, Panama, Thailand, and elsewhere are also in the works. Pitta’s flagship Flammulated Owling Tour, which runs from Mid May to early August each summer, remains a customer favorite. The Mountain West Most Wanted Tour, featuring 10 of the most highly sought-after species in Utah, Nevada, and Idaho, has sold out twice every summer since 2017.

Besides the new name, the rebranding effort includes a top-to-bottom redesign of the company's website, graphics, communications, and correspondence. Pitta’s new brand includes a new logo, featuring the stunning Blue Pitta from Southeast Asia, and utilizes simple, bold colors and stunning graphics to emphasize their simple message, “We. Find. Birds.”

Click to Download Press Release
 


Contact info:

Tim Avery
Birding Guide & Owner
tim@pittatours.com 
pittatours.com
2397 Falcon Way, Sandy, Utah, 84093
+1-801-440-3035



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January Utah Custom Day Tour Recap

January 27, 2021

January 21, 2020 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

I don’t lead very many domestic tours in the winter. Typically after September and before May, I might lead 2-3 torus each year in northern Utah. Generally, these are 1/2 day or day trips where a client happens to be in Utah for something else and wants to maximize their time. I don’t really advertise much in the way of winter tours as there hasn’t been as much interest in the past—but I likely am missing out on some opportunities (Rosy-finches, gulls, and raptors come to mind). In any event, this past week I led what will likely be the only winter tour I do this year due to the pandemic, and it turned out to be a pretty good day.

My client, from Minnesota, was looking for a chance to pick up a few lifers while in town helping family during an adoption. With a small target list including some difficult to find birds, I recommended an itinerary that I thought could maximize our time, and also shared some self-guided information to help them outside of our tour on more far-ranging species. If you book a specific tour with me but need help finding some other birds, don’t hesitate to ask—I can usually provide a few options to help you on your quest.

For our day trip, we would start at Antelope Island State Park, then visit a few sites along the Great Salt Lake before trying for a vagrant sparrow, and pygmy-owl to wrap the day. But like so many private tours, we shifted gears and changes course early on as we started birding.

At the state park, we quickly located the first target—CHUKAR, as we found a flock of around a dozen birds just after sunrise. Quick tip, as of late early morning has been the most reliable time to find Chukar almost anywhere in Utah. After the rough winter in 2018-19, this species has generally been much less common, and often quite difficult to track down mid-day. Following our success with the Chukar, we turned towards wrens but struck out on that front (Rock is usually reliable, and I had a Canyon while scouting earlier in the week). Instead, we managed to locate a SAGEBRUSH SPARROW—a bird I had only seen a couple times prior in the winter along the Great Salt Lake. While this species is generally rare on the east and south sides of the lake, it is extremely rare in winter. A pretty good bird, and a surprise lifer for my client. 

Sagebrush Sparrow at Antelope Island State Park

After leaving the park we immediately adjusted the route for the day to go look for a recently reported Mew Gull in Weber. We ended up dipping here, but it put us within 30-minutes of Lewis’s Woodpecker, a target we earlier chose to skip, but with it being about 20 minutes closer, we decided to go for it—and located 3 LEWIS’S WOODPECKERS almost immediately upon arriving at the woodpecker spot. 3 lifers by 11:00 AM.

We got back on track and made our way to Farmington Bay WMA, which is a worthwhile stop any time of year. Today was no different and we hit the gull jackpot with 7 species. We missed Mew Gull, which ironically had been reported earlier in the day, but managed to pick up GLAUCOUS GULL, and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL, 2 more unexpected lifers. 

Digiscoped Glaucous Gull at Farmington Bay WMA

We also saw loads of AMERICAN AVOCET, a decent number of GREATER YELLOWLEGS, lots of PIED-BILLED GREBE, and the most NIGHT-HERONS, BALD EAGLES, and NORTHERN HARRIERS my client had observed at one location. The sunny weather made for great photo ops and this GREAT BLUE HERON hunting on the road was a fun stop on the way out. 

Great Blue Heron hunting along the road at Farmington Bay WMA

We decided to skip the vagrant sparrow which hadn’t been seen in a few days and my client had tried for a couple times already. Instead, I wanted a slam dunk lifer so we headed towards Park City and a feeder where I knew CASSIN’S FINCH would be present, and they did not disappoint. We also added STELLER’S JAY for the day and a handful of other montane birds.

Still wanting to look for Pygmy-Owl I laid out some options. We decided to try for a Yellow-billed Loon that had been present for more than a month now and was on our way to a reliable owl spot. But with the warm weather the past week there was a lot more open water on the lake, and with little time to search for the loon we dipped. Wanting to leave plenty of time for the owl search we made our way to a stakeout, where unfortunately despite trying for an hour we were unable to locate any pygmy-owls. This bird is tough year-round, but in the winter they often stick to the same general area for weeks. Alas, the only interesting bird in a tree we saw was more than a dozen WILD TURKEY that flew into some nearby conifers to roost for the night. 

Sunrise over the Great Salt Lake

The day started off with a fantastic sunrise, as we drove over 250 miles on the day and racked up 58 species of birds. Not the biggest list, but no less than 6 life birds, and a few pretty good finds for Utah in January. We did all of this in 2 vehicles, masked up, and socially distanced throughout the day to do our part to help stop the spread of Covid-19 but still connect and share a wonderful outdoor experience.

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2020 Flammulated Owling Season Recap

September 03, 2020

May 11 - August 18, 2020 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

If there was one thing about the summer of 2020 that was normal—it was the reliability of Flammulated Owls in the mountains just outside of Salt Lake City. While we had a big summer full of tours planned, I ultimately pulled the plug on almost everything except the Flammy tours. The reason was simple—I could meet my clients in the field, distance, and wear a mask, while still sharing these incredible creatures with the world. There were some caveats though. I didn’t have any large groups. I think the biggest was a family of 5 that came with me in May. Other than that most of my parties were parties of 2 friends or family or individuals. It made the tours simple but meant I still ended up doing a fair amount of owling tours. 

Flammulated Owl from a May tour in southwest Utah

Let’s start with the basics. In all, I led 18 Flammulated Owling Tours this summer. Several were part of private tours booked as part of bigger itineraries, while the majority were those small private individual tours. During those 18 tours, we saw or heard a total of 130 Flammulated Owls. A lower count than most summers, but quite often the looks were so good early on that we didn’t keep owling later into the night. 

This Flammulated Owl from early June was incredibly cooperative
 
In all, I found owls in 7 different canyons this summer. These canyons mostly are in 3 larger areas that I split my tours evenly between based on time of the season, day of the week, and making sure that I try to spread out tours to keep the experience fantastic for everyone that comes. How do I do this? I most cases every tour visits a different set of trees or patches of forest within these larger areas. This means that on almost every tour, the birds we encountered haven’t been interacted with this summer—at least by me. This gives every group a chance to see owls that aren’t being harassed week in and out like some local birders and photographers, and tour leaders elsewhere do. 

Even ad July wore on the Flammulated Owls were still giving great looks

I also did a quick private owling tour in Washington County that included some diurnal owling. This tour in late May over the course of 2 days produced 7 Flammulated Owls, as well as Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl, Great Horned Owl, Western Screech-Owl, Long-eared Owl, Common Poorwill, and Lesser Nighthawk. 

Not a flammy! This Long-eared Owl was found during our May tour in southwest Utah

Most of these birds would normally be seen on my Birding Zion Tour in early May, but it was canceled—at least going forward we have a nice variety of owls to look forward to here!  Back in the north, I ran 3 tours in May, 4 tours in June, 6 tours in July, and 4 more in August. Our biggest night was 12 Flammulated Owls on May 26th, followed by 11 on June 4th. We averaged just over 7 Flammy’s per tour this year. 

One of my favorite shots from the summer was this mid-May Flammulated Owl 
 
In mid-July, while checking old nest cavities I located an active Flammy nest and watched it for several days. It was the only active nest I located this summer, despite checking nearly 20 cavities from previous years. The status of the active nest is unknown though—as about a week later I observed a Northern Flying Squirrel emerging from the cavity. It was definitely late enough for the birds to have fledged, and I really hope that happened before the squirrel took over! 

The Northern Flying Squirrel that moved into this Flammy nest

I ran a late tour on August 18th and we still were seeing owls with relative ease. At this point, most of the birds we saw appeared to be younger, and in almost every case were calling independently when located. Testing out those vocals and making some odd calls for sure! 

The last Flammulated Owl of the year--a recently fledged bird still growing those feathers

In the end, I look back at the summer of 2020 as another successful season in the books. While overall numbers were down due to fewer tours, the viewing this year was top notch. Active and cooperative birds provided an incredible opportunity to talk about this species with a variety of clients, and in many cases, some of the photo ops were the best I’ve seen. With the 2021 season 9 months away, I hope the world can get back to normal and I can share these incredible owls with even more birders as I enter my 14th summer leading these tours!

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2020 Mini Most Wanted Tour Recap

August 20, 2020

August 7-10, 2020 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

After all the cancellations due to Covid-19, I managed to put together one last tour in early August—the goal was to basically cover the Most Wanted species, with the exception of the desert species typically covered at the beginning of the most wanted tour. For this trip, I picked up a client in SLC then drove north to Twin Falls (backward from my normal route) and met up with the other 2 joining our party for the rest of the tour.

The first task was tracking down Cassia Crossbill, which only took about 10 minutes. We found a few birds moving around the treetops and calling near Diamonfield Jack and with everyone satisfied with the views, we deiced to check a few other areas—but didn’t get any better looks, so we moved on towards Brockman’s Feeding Station. En route we picked up our obligatory Lewis’s Woodpeckers, and also the first Olive-sided Flycatcher we’ve recorded in Idaho on this tour. 

Cassia Crossbill in the treetops

At the feeding station, there were far fewer birds than earlier in the summer, and the Black-chinned Hummingbirds were dominating the action. A good number of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were in the mix and we had one aggressive Rufous Hummingbird that kept everyone else on guard. Of course, the highlight here was 3 Calliope Hummingbirds—all young/female types, the males appeared to have moved on. 

Calliope Hummingbird mobbed by a Rufous Hummingbird

We spent the evening south of town in the agricultural areas, picking up Barn Owl and Burrowing Owl. We were watching a harrier fly over the sagebrush at one stop when a large flock of Gray Partridge took flight--this bird was tough this year on both tours!  Perhaps the most interesting thing was a flyover pluvial plover that sounded like a Black-bellied or possibly Pacific Golden-Plover. Unfortunately, it never stopped and was left as plover spuh!

The next morning we birded along the Snake River where a nice flock of Bushtit provided killer views, while Canyon Wren and Rock Wren both showed nicely as well. A lingering Bullock’s Oriole was a nice surprise. 

Killer looks at Bushtit

Heading south into Nevada, we stopped in Jackpot to check out the golf course and sewage ponds (very difficult to bird). 45 Killdeer were in a soccer field on the outskirts of town, while a pair of Say’s Phoebe represented a species we tend to miss about 50% of the time. Continuing south towards Elko, we stopped at a reliable Sagebrush Sparrow spot and had 9 birds!!! It was incredible seeing 6 lined up on a fence together. 

6 Sagebrush Sparrows lined up!

After getting to Elko and settling in we headed off in the later afternoon to bird along the Humboldt River. We had an incredible outing with 38 species, the second-biggest total in eBird from this area. While there was nothing too remarkable, we had a Mallard type that gave us fits as a possible Mexican Duck and in the end, left us with more questions than answers.

We wrapped up the day at South Fork Recreation Area and a nice assortment of shorebirds and the hit or miss resident Bald Eagle. Early to bed, we got up early due to the experience on my previous tour and were at the trailhead at 3:22 AM. Hiking in the dark while serenaded by a Great Horned Owl, I moved at a pretty good pace for a big man. Talking to the group beforehand I told them I wanted to be in place well before sunrise so I would go ahead and get setup. I was at the lake in under an hour and at my viewing spot 20 minutes later still completely dark. Slowly everyone in the group arrived and we watched the sky lighten in the east. 

The last little bit of night fading to day...

At 5:20 am the Himalayan Snowcock started calling, and for a painstaking hour and thirty minutes, I scoped my usual locations without seeing anything. The birds had been silent for almost an hour when one called in what seemed like a higher than usual meadow. I moved my scope and worked my way across when I caught the movement—success! For the next hour, we followed a pair of birds that worked their way across a 1/4 mile stretch. It was a huge relief after the short look the week before! 

Target achieved--Himalayan Snowcock at 60x...

The other interesting note was we had 15 Black Rosy-Finch today. I remarkable count for this tour! After an uneventful hike down we found another Lewis’s Woodpecker in Lamoille Canyon, before heading back to town. Grabbing lunch and eating in the park a Townsend’s Warbler moved around in the trees over our table—a first for the most wanted tours which generally occur well before migration for this species.

We did the same loop in the evening as the night before with what appears to be a Red-shouldered Hawk flying along the river. We never got great looks and left it as buteo spuh on the checklist. Southfork had a good amount of movement overnight with a lot more shorebirds today. We added Semipalmated Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs for the tour.

Our final morning started off without having to re-hike for snowcock—always a nice way to start morning 2 in Elko. We birded the desert around town and counted an incredible 25 Sage Thrashers before starting our journey back towards Salt Lake City. On a whim, we decided to check out an RV resort on the side of the freeway. I called the owners and got permission to bird and we were pleasantly surprised. There were a few migrants around—but still, on the early side, it was mostly breeders. A young Gray Catbird was the best bird—likely a breeder in the area, there are very few confirmed sightings in Elko county away from the Goshutes which get a fair amount of coverage from hawk watchers every year. For me, it was a new Nevada bird. 

Gray Catbird skulking around the RV resort

For the 2nd week in a row, we had a Nashville Warbler, indicating some good early movement this year. The other bird that was briefly seen was an apparent 1Y Bay/Poll Warbler. We lost it after finding it and were unable to relocate it in the thick willows here. I know I want to bird this location later in the fall in the future—I imagine it could turn up some nice eastern vagrants!

Back in Utah, we picked up Baird’s Sandpiper at a roadside pond before finally snagging a Ferruginous Hawk at the stakeout from the previous week. Working on upping the tour total we birded Lee Kay Ponds in Salt Lake Valley for Neotropic Cormorant before breaking for a bit. In the evening we set off to look for Black Swift. It was a hot day in northern Utah and after it cooled very few swifts were out at our breeding site. We did spot a few White-throated Swift and eventually had 2 swifts that looked good for Black Swift, but were quite high, and I wasn’t comfortable making the call on birds that we couldn’t be sure about.

We wrapped the tour up with the pièce de résistance, and my favorite—the Flammulated Owl. Even weeks after breeding season, we still located 3 Flammy’s, successfully locating the big 3 for the mini most wanted.

Ending with a bang--Flammulated Owl to warp things up

After what was a really tough summer for the world, the country, the tour industry, and my company I was just happy to be able to lead some tours this year.  I really enjoy the most wanted tours and it was fun to be able to show a few new birds to clients. 

We ended up with 135 species for the tour and with the exception of the difficult to get swift we got every other target bird for the tour!

Photos from this tour can be found here:



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2020 Most Wanted Tour Recap

August 04, 2020

July 27 - August 1, 2020 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

In early summer as we realized covid-19 wouldn’t allow us to proceed with our group tours as usual, we canceled all our summer group itineraries. It was pretty disappointing, but the right thing to do, and really the only thing to do. As luck would have it one cent wanted to do a private tour with the most wanted as the base and an additional few days on the tail end. With a target list, we planned out a tour in place of what would have been the 2nd most wanted tour of the summer

My clients arrived on July 27th and we did an earlier than usual pickup with some of the usual birding around the airport. Kicking things off we snagged a few Neotropic Cormorant and most of the usual breeders in the wetlands here. What we did next was head into the mountains for some birding not usually included on the tour—but what might now be a big part given the luck we had. Right off the bat, we found a cooperative Cordilleran Flycatcher—followed by 6 more over the next hour! We had great looks at Red-naped Sapsucker and Hairy Woodpecker and picked up all the usual montane breeders. 

Red-naped Sapsucker dressed to the nines!

The major prize though was a pair of American Three-toed Woodpecker. I had been following a pair all summer and they didn’t disappoint today. 

This American Three-toed Woodpecker was a first on a Most Wanted Tour
 
An unusual highlight was an early 1Y Nashville Warbler, the first for a most wanted tour. We progressed through the afternoon picking up American Dipper, and a variety of target species, as well as an unexpected Peregrine Falcon while we ate dinner in a parking lot as we avoided eating with crowds. We visited our Black Swift nest site and at 8:30 pm got really good looks at 2 birds flying over. 

Black Swift soaring overhead

After dark, we didn’t have to work very hard to track down 4 Flammulated Owls. Very cooperative birds that let us enjoy their presence while they called in the dark and we occasionally lit the trees nearby for great looks. 

One of 130 Flammulated Owls we encountered on tours this summer.

On morning 2, we set off for the desert habitat southwest of Salt Lake City. Being late in the season it can sometimes be difficult to track down some of the usual suspects. We did pretty well locating 9 Gray Vireo including one bird that followed us as I imitated a pygmy-owl and walked through the junipers. 

Gray Vireo still singing at the end of July

We picked up Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Juniper Titmouse, and Bewick’s Wren as expected but missed Gray Flycatcher and Ash-throated Flycatcher. These early arriving species can be tough but we usually get them this late. My theory was that we had an early spring and many of the breeders had departed due to how dry things were and the lack of water this year.

Moving into the sagebrush habitat we added Brewer’s Sparrow and Black-throated Sparrow. While Sagebrush Sparrow was a miss, I was confident we would pick that up in Nevada. We got some bonus birds that weren’t expected today including a large flock of Mountain Bluebirds, and a Green-tailed Towhee pretty far out of habitat. An extra stop ended up securing a Sagebrush Sparrow so another big target was out of the way. 

Black-throated Sparrow is one of our flashier breeding sparrows
 
Heading towards Nevada we picked up a Ferruginous Hawk. Not at our usual spot, this stakeout bird had been present at another location all summer. We arrived in Elko on a hot afternoon and opted to relax in the AC of our hotels instead of try birding in the heat. A little evening birding around town produced some usual suspects, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Day 3 kicked off bright and early—we arrived at the trailhead at 4:15 am and were at our viewpoint by 5:26 am. As the sky started to lighten I scanned the slopes which were almost completely devoid of snow for the first time on a tour. We heard several Himalayan Snowcock start to call then spotted several flying off some far cliffs and out of the canyon. I moved the scope to where they left for and as luck would have it a single bird was sitting there still. I got the clients on the scope and bird and after short looks, they told me the bird was gone.

I attempted to relocate it, but nothing. I started scanning and nothing. For the next 2 hours, I worked my way back and forth across the canyon and along the slopes—nothing. That was it. If we hadn’t have been in place right at sunrise we would have missed the birds. It was a bit frustrating, but we did get the bird so it worked out. We headed down the trail and picked up Lewis’s Woodpecker unexpectedly along the trail, along with our usual Dusky Flycatchers, Rock Wrens, and MacGillivray’s Warblers

Lewis's Woodpecker taking flight

We spent the rest of the day relaxing before visiting the desert and reservoir south of town. A Semipalmated Plover at South Fork was a good find, while everything else was expected. On day 4 we decided to head back south of town. We found a roosting Common Nighthawk that was more than accommodating for photos. 

Common Nighthawk really have an incredible pattern

 We also picked up our target Gray Flycatcher that we missed in Utah. Another super cooperative bird landed on the same post as the roosting nighthawk.  In the early morning light we enjoyed some great photo ops on various twigs, brushes, and fence posts!

Gray Flycatcher success in Nevada

Turning our attention towards Idaho we left Elko and made our way north. We did make a brief stop to check out a Sagebrush Sparrow stakeout that turned up 9 sparrows!!! Continuing on, we crossed the state line and were on our way into the mountains to search for crossbills. Of course, we had to make an obligatory stop at Brockman’s Feeding Station where a dozen Black-chinned Hummingbirds and 7 Broad-tailed Hummingbirds mostly controlled the feeders. A Single Rufous Hummingbird came and went sporadically, while 3 Calliope Hummingbirds were the target bird that provided numerous opportunities for good looks. 

Broad-tailed Hummingbird giving a peek at that gorget color

Making our way further into the South Hills we started looking for Cassia Crossbill, but it was a warm and quiet afternoon. Our first couple stops didn’t turn up any crossbills and by mid-afternoon, I was starting to worry. My second reliable spot was also quiet, so calling an audible we took a hike to an area I hadn’t previously looked before. Coming over a hill, I flushed a crossbill and it emphatically called revealing it was a Cassia Crossbill. I saw where I thought it had gone and worked our way to the spot found the bird up in a tree feeding. It was a drab 1Y bird, but the target nonetheless! 

The only Cassia Crossbill seen on this tour was this drab young bird

We ended up having a few more flyovers calling, but this lone bird was the only cooperative one! We called it a day and headed into Twin Falls for the night.

Day 5 started out in the agricultural areas south of town with Burrowing Owl, Barn Owl, and Great Horned Owl. We drove around for a bit checking all my usual Gray Partridge spots without luck. Eventually, on our final loop on one road, we turned around and like a miracle spotted 3 birds along the road that we had missed driving the other direction. We headed back to town and spent some time birding along the Snake River, with the highlight being an incredibly cooperative Lazuli Bunting

Lazuli Bunting bringing some color to the party

With our Idaho needs met, we started heading back towards Utah, and made our way to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. While the birds typically found here in the summer are like any other marsh in the mountain west, the concentration of breeding Western Grebes, and more importuning Clark’s Grebes makes this a must-visit if you’ve never been. Both birds showed well in good numbers. We were also treated to more than 5,000 migrant Bank Swallows in a couple of large flocks, and 3 Common Goldeneye—and out of place species not normally found here in the summer. 

One of around a dozen Clark's Grebes seen this day

We continued birding along the Great Salt Lake seeking out Wilson’s Phalarope and Red-necked Phalarope. Numbers were down considerably from previous weeks, but we did have some very close and cooperative Wilson’s for great photo ops. We wrapped up our day returning to SLC and calling it a night. 

Wilson's Phalarope striking a pose

Adding an additional day to the tour we returned to the Great Salt Lake first thing in the morning and subsequently located 10 Chukar. This has been a common theme the past couple of years since a big winter kill-off 2 years ago. Birds have been reliable at first light in a couple spots, but with much fewer numbers than in the past, the mid-day finds are becoming increasingly harder. 

Chukar success at first light

We spent the remainder of the day birding around Salt Lake County adding a few Utah species to my client's list, and picking up Olive-sided Flycatcher for the tour. In the evening we did a little list padding picking up a couple species we hadn’t seen yet before heading to a nearby canyon at dusk to pick up Western Screech-Owl, which did not disappoint. We located 6 screech-owls before turning in. 

Our last night of owling produced numerous Western Screech-Owls

The final extended day of the tour took us on a loop through the northern Utah Mountains and southwest Wyoming desert. Visiting a mountain valley at sunrise we had incredible looks at beautifully lit Sandhill Cranes. More than a dozen cranes in golden light was definitely a tour highlight.

One very well lit Sandhill Crane

However, the bird that really left me feeling good was the incredible number of Bobolink we found. We counted no fewer than 32 mostly young birds with a few adult males and females during the morning. Again, the lighting made for insane photo ops! 

We don't normally get Bobolink on this tour, but with a 2-day extension we tracked down a few ;)

The rest of the morning filled in a few trip needs like our 5th empidonax flycatcher of the tour—Willow Flycatcher, and more chances for photos of American Dipper. Finding our way into southwest Wyoming where it was extremely hot despite the 2,000' elevation difference from Salt Lake City we had some good birding at a local reservoir. We found a few more Sagebrush Sparrows, making it a 3-state species for the tour, and a surprise Common Loon that was clearly lost. 

And just like that this most wanted tour + extension was a wrap. 

With 164 species it was our biggest total for this tour—although the 2 extra days definitely contributed to the bigger tally. All in all things went exceedingly well and we hit every target species for the tour! 

Photos from this tour can be found here:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mwbirdco/albums/72157717775481422

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2020 Cassia Crossbills and More Tour Recap

July 15, 2020

July 10, 2020 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

With my June Crossbill tour canceled due to Covid-19, I had the opportunity to put together a one-day Crossbill Chase to southern Idaho in early July. This tour is typically a 2-night 3-day adventure that includes looking for Flammulated Owl, Black Swift, and all the juniper and sage species in Utah before heading to Idaho for all the southern Idaho specialists. This tour is designed for people who’ve already seen Himalayan Snowcock—or have no interest in that species. But with a. Handful of clients reaching out about crossbill, I worked with 3 groups to meet in the South Hills and show them Cassia Crossbills!

On July 10th I left Salt Lake City early in the morning for the 3.5 hour trek to the South Hills. I arrived int eh area a little early so did some birding on the way into the “hills”. This includes a stop in a riparian habitat I like to bird where a Northern Harrier was hunting over a nearby field. The adult male bird was a nice contrast to the many female/young birds I typically see in the agricultural areas in south of Twin Falls. 

A male Northern Harrier--the "Gray Ghost"

One of the exceptionally common birds int eh area is the Yellow-breasted Chat. If you stop just about anywhere along a riparian area here you can hear the birds calling, and with some careful stalking, photos are a possibility. 

Yellow-breasted Chat are quite common in southern Idaho

After playing around a bit I made my way to the meeting are where I was shocked at the sheer number of off road vehicles scattered around on a Friday morning. It was busier than the busiest Saturday I had ever seen here and the constant roar of OHV’s was really annoying. It is the single worst thing about birding in the South Hills, and largely unavoidable due to the local population “outdoor” interests. Nonetheless, the noise didn’t seem to bother the birds too much as I heard and saw several Cassia Crossbill flyover calling. We took a short hike and within a few minutes located a handful of birds feeding on cones on the ground. Success! 

The star of the show, the Cassia Crossbill

The group enjoyed the close views and watching the feeding technique of these unique finches. Continuing birding here I heard tapping that sounded like a sapsucker so we headed in that direction and were greeted with a pair of Williamson’s Sapsucker! These birds were much more flighty than the crossbills, so we admired from a distance before letting them go about foraging. 

Williamson's Sapsucker is a nice surprise on any tour

As part of the group only wanted to see crossbills ad were going to head back towards SLC to see if they could catch an early flight home, I took the rest of the group and had them follow me to Brockman’s Feeding Station where the hummingbird show was in full effect. We nabbed all 3 breeders with Broad-tailed Hummingbird and Black-chinned Hummingbird making up the bulk of the birds. The highlight as usual was 3 Calliope Hummingbirds, all adult males coming in quite frequently allowing for good looks! 

Calliope Hummingbird is reliable all summer in the South Hills

With the quest complete, I said farewell to my clients and made my way back to Salt Lake City. It is completely possible to get all these birds in a single day out of SLC, but it requires a lot of driving, and you don’t get to enjoy some of the amazing things southern Idaho offers. There are a lot of birds we weren’t able to cover not his short tour like some of the lowland owls, and game birds we usually see, as well as visiting the Snake River, and a local wildlife refuge for some great birding. Here is hoping 2021 allows us to get back on track!

Photos from this tour can be found here:

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2020 Flammulated Owling Kickoff

May 19, 2020

Flammulated Owl
Our first Flammy on a tour this year on May 18th.

On May 11th the State of Utah opened the highway into our favorite early season owling location, so I decided to get out and see what the habitat looked like and how active the birds were.  I left Salt Lake on the 40-minute drive so that I would arrive just as it was dark enough to start owling.  I drove to the furthest point in the canyon where I typically find owls and stepped out into the cool night's air. American Robins and Hermit Thrushes rang out form the aspen covered hillsides—but more importantly, 3 FLAMMULATED OWLS were calling simultaneously from various directions.  The birds were back and extremely active!

It was still a little lighter than I like to start, the mountain tops to the west highlighted by the distant last rays of daylight faded.  I decided to give it a try and started calling.  A bird bee-lined it past me--the first Flammy of the year.  Continuing to talk the bird made its way back and I spotted it come in to land about 50' away on a dead limb.  I put the light up and got a quick look at the tiny owl before it fluttered off into the dark.  Wanting to give the birds plenty of space, and not harass them, I moved on to my next stop.  

Over the course of the next hour I made 4 more stops, and at each location was greeted by calling Flammulated Owls.  I broadcast at a couple locations and didn't get much in the way of responses, so I just tallied up what I was hearing and kept moving.   At my final stop for the night, there was a very territorial bird who wasted no time in coming in to say hi—it was the 12th Flammy of the night!

Flammulated Owl

Our first cooperative owl of the year!

It was a great start to the year.  The owls were back, active, and responsive.  The only issue was how many people would I be able to share them with this summer due to Covid-19?  Fast forward one week to May 18th and I put together a private tour with a family of 5 to go look for owls.  There were some differences between my usual tours, however... For starters, I didn't provide transportation—instead, I had my clients meet me near where we would go owling, then follow me in their car.  Next, there was to be 6' of space between myself and the group while birding. I could still show them the birds without having to get close.  Third, when we got the owls there would be no congratulatory high-fives or handshakes.  It was to be a hands-off experience.  

With this in mind, we met shortly after sunset and caravanned to the spot I wanted to try for owls.  When we got there it was quiet, but a little windy.  We gave it some time to calm down then started owling.  Right off the bat, we had several birds calling but nothing really responsive.  We have parked about a 1/4 mile away and were going to walk our way back looking for birds along the way.  At our second stop, we tried and didn't get any response—but just as we were starting to walk away  an owl started calling relatively close.  The next thing we knew it had flown in and landed low in an Aspen right next to our group.  Everyone got a nice short look before the bird departed deeper into the forest.  At about the same time, another owl started calling on the other side of the road where we were walking.  We moved that direction, and after a short search, I found the bird perched about 15' up on a dead limb.  This time the bird sat and watched us as we watched it.  For several minutes we enjoyed nice looks as the owl before it took flights and headed back into the forest.  The group was pleased and we called it a night, without having to check any other spots for owls.



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2019 Bali and The Lesser Sundas Tour Recap

March 14, 2020

After 18 months planning, an advanced scouting trip in 2018, and our local guides running a version of our Lesser Sundas Tour with another client in October 2018, we were excited to touch down in Bali for 18 days of birding on the Indonesian Archipelago. As with any long tour, in a remote part of the world, things didn’t always go as planned, but overall things went rather smoothly and the tour was quite successful.

Sumba Hornbill at its nest cavity

During our time in the country, we tallied 292 species of birds on the current Clements list. Additionally, we encountered at least 19 other subspecies and or undescribed forms not currently recognized by Clements that will likely be split at some point in the near future (Rote and Timor Boobook, Mutis Parrotfinch, Timor Nightjar, Timor, Flores, and Sumba Flowerpecker, etc.).

But the juiciest tidbit and the entire reason for going to the Lesser Sundas is for the endemics--and endemic-wise, this tour was a success! On the Lesser Sundas, we tallied 79 Lesser Sunda endemics--the vast majority of the expected 85 species! Add in the 21 Java and Bali endemics found on Bali, we ended up with 100 species of endemics from Nusa Tenggara! We tallied a whopping 140 Indonesian endemic or near-endemic species in all, meaning that 48% off all the birds we saw are only found in Indonesia!

On Sumba, we found all 17 possible endemics, with good looks at 16 (see flighty Sumba Buttonquail below), and were only on the island for roughly 48 hours--a pretty good turnaround. A Sumba Hornbill feeding its mate in a nest cavity, a female Eclectus Parrot guarding her nest, a pair of cooperative Sumba Boobook, and a very obliging Red-naped Fruit-Dove highlighted our day at Billa Forest on the island. While a last-ditch effort for Sumba Myzomela paid off, and a flighty Sumba Buttonquail punctuated the quick stop here.

Sumba Myzomela at the 11th hour

On Rote, we found all 4 recognized island endemics with ease: Rote Boobook, Rote Myzomela, Rote Fantail, and Rote Leaf Warbler. Additionally, we located both the Timor Blue Flycatcher and Timor Stubtail which potentially may be recognized as distinct species in the future (among a number of other possible splits. We also had great looks at a number of Timor specialists here like Timor Oriole, Red-chested Flowerpecker, and Green Figbird.

Poor record shot of the Magpie Goose at Sotimori

A major highlight here came during our only full day on the island where numerous Australian water birds were using Lake Sotimori. Amongst the Australian Pelicans, Royal Spoonbills, Wandering Whistling-Ducks, and Hardheads we found the Lesser Sundas apparent 1st record of Magpie Goose.

Outside of the West Papau where the birds aren't entirely uncommon in the southeast, this bird is accidental in Indonesia.  The only other vagrant sighting I found in eBird was from the Tanimbar Islands on Yamdena in November 2017 when one Magpie Goose was seen over the course of a week at Saumlaki Airport Lake.

And in Eaton's Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago, he mentions just a single sighting from Banda in 1988--making this the 3rd verified sighting for the archipelago.

There was one other interesting report I came across from a point in the middle of the Timor Sea about halfway between Timor and Australia--apparently in the Jabiru Oil Field.  During the week of July 15-19, 1991, Raymond Nojek reported 4 groups of 4-5 birds traveling east. The report came from the Jabiru Venture Floating Production Storage and Offloading ship stationed here.  This oil field has since been decommissioned, but the sighting is quite interesting.  The timing is outside of the cyclone season and seemingly makes no sense with any type of migration, post-breeding dispersal, etc.

Rote Boobook past the end of the road on Rote

The hardest birding of the trip came on Timor--as was expected. We had several misses here, but they were somewhat expected in the rare and decreasing Timor Imperial Pigeon, and we did not discover the first Timor Green Pigeons in West Timor in more than 2 decades. We also missed Timor Spangled Drongo which was somewhat of a surprise. Otherwise, we picked up 31 island endemics here including the mythical and still yet described Mount Mutis Parrotfinch, only known from a handful of sites on and around Mount Mutis. We had great looks at the Tricolored Parrotfinch, and every other bird with the word Timor in its name. A surprise Channel-billed Cuckoo made a brief appearance in the mangroves near Kupang (according to our local guide, this was a sign of rains to follow)--and a Great Frigatebird flew by while we ate lunch on our last day in Kupang.

Timor Cuckoo-Dove on our final morning on Timor

Flores proved to be more difficult this year than expected, with several expected birds proving hard to find. We missed 3 species here--and they were tough ones to swallow with the declining Flores Green Pigeon, and roaming Wallace’s Hanging-Parrot and the majestic Flores Hawk-Eagle. Flores Crow was heard only, and Mees’s Nightjar only provided flyby looks in the spotlight. 25 Endemics were heard and seen in all, and two members of our party ticked off their last Asian Kingfisher species with White-rumped Kingfisher on our 1st morning touring here. A memorable morning listening to Bare-throated Whistlers and coaxing out Flores Shortwing, Flores Leaf Warbler, and Pygmy Cupwing was punctuated in the evening by the calls of several Flores Scops-Owl, which proved difficult for good looks this year.

The incredible songster--Bare-throated Whistler on FLores

As expected the boat trip to Komodo National Park was a highlight not just for the dragons, but the birds here as well. The endemic Yellow-crested Cockatoo showed nicely at a nest site, while Green Junglefowl, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, and Wallacean Drongo all cooperated quite nicely. Here at the end of the dry season, the island was extremely dry, and hordes of Barred Doves visited the lone remaining man-made waterhole. From the boat, we had great looks at White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Great-billed Heron, Lesser Crested Tern, and a number of Lesser Frigatebirds.

The unforgettable Komodo Dragon

We wrapped up our tour on Bali, where comfortable accommodations, delicious food, and easy birding made for a memorable end to our tour. Another 21 endemics were picked up here over our final days.  In the highlands, Javan Whistling-Thrush, Flame-throated Barbet, Sunda Warbler, and Javan Flowerpecker were all added.  And we wrapped things up in West Bali National Park with unforgettable encounters with Javan Banded Pitta, Bali Myna, and Sunda Scops Owl

The Javan Banded Pitta was a great wrap on the tour

On our final morning, while several of us relaxed in the swimming pool of our hotel, a Black-thighed Falconet paid us a visit, giving the group one more bird before the trip concluded.

Poolside Black-thighed Falconet on our final morning

None of this would have been possible without the immense help from Bali Birding Tour and our local guides Heri (Sumba), Martin (Timor), and Samuel (Flores). Local knowledge is key to successful tours in this part of the world, and our 3 local guides provided immense logistical support, as well as up-to-date information on key species. If you are interested in joining us on a future tour to the Lesser Sundas, we plan on going back in 2021!

Check out more than 600 photos from this tour on our Flickr Page:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mwbirdco/albums/72157713471968733

The photos are also split out island-by-island for easy perusal...

Sumba Bird Photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mwbirdco/albums/72157713470929736

Rote Bird Photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mwbirdco/albums/72157713472953363

Timor Bird Photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mwbirdco/albums/72157713473944588

Flores Bird Photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mwbirdco/albums/72157713474262708

Komodo Bird Photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mwbirdco/albums/72157713473655236

Bali Bird Photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/mwbirdco/albums/72157713471968723

And we will be writing up (and sharing here) our detailed trip report in our annual "Field Notes" report later this spring.

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