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2021 Most Wanted Tour 1 Recap

Posted: October 02, 2021

July 15-19, 2021 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

This summer is our 5th summer running our Mountain West Most Wanted Tours, and as usual, both tours this summer were sold out.

This Flammulated Owl was definitely a highlight of this tour!

Our first outing was July 15-19, and our group was from all over the United States.  Like our other summer tours, we did a quick kick-off in Millcreek Canyon where the continuing flock of 9 Tundra Swans was a new bird for our most wanted tour list.  Otherwise, it was a hot and quiet afternoon with a few Cordilleran Flycatcher, a single Swainson’s Thrush, and a smattering of other species. Before dinner we did a little more light birding around the foothills near Salt Lake City, adding Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay for the tour.

Cordilleran Flycatcher at our usual spot

After dinner we headed to our Black Swift spot just outside Salt Lake City, and had no problem getting 3 swifts fairly quickly, that passed several times, low enough for really good looks and photos.  

We made a mad dash for one of our Flammulated Owling sites about an hour from Salt Lake City.  Things were quiet.  Eerily quiet. Our first stop produced exactly ZERO owls—quite unusual for a mid-July night.  There was cloud cover, and it was considerably warmer than usual, but the lack of owls was surprising.  Eventually, we found 4 birds while we walked a stretch of high mountain road.  One bird was quite close and perched nicely momentarily, but had no interest in putting on a show.  It wasn’t our usual incredible look for this tour—but it was a good look to start.

If you follow along on any of our other tour recaps you’ll see a pattern in our itinerary—when it works and is reliable, it’s hard to justify changes—so as usual after our first night, we headed to the Sage and Juniper specialist habitat just outside Salt Lake City.  This morning was a typical morning in the juniper woodland, with Gray Vireo, Gray Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Juniper Titmouse, Bewick’s Wren, Black-throated Sparrow, Sagebrush Sparrow, and I think every expected species showing nicely.  The area was so productive, we spent almost 3 hours here this morning.

Gray Vireo to start the day off right

Gray Flycatcher was a fast follow

Ash-throated Flycatcher being all too cooperative

After our morning success, the rest of the day was pretty open.  We wanted to be in Elko at a decent hour to get to bed for our early morning hike but wanted to make the most out of the day for birds.  We made our way back towards Salt Lake City, opting to visit a wetland near Salt Lake City and see what waterbirds we could pick up.   That decision really helped kick start our bird list for the week, as we added both Western Grebe and Clark’s Grebe, 14 Neotropic Cormorant, and 13 migrant Greater Yellowlegs.

The Bonneville Salt Flats

After a relaxing lunch nearby, we made our way towards Nevada, stopping to check out the Bonneville Salt Flats.  While there is next to no bird life here, the stop is always a highlight on this tour.   We made a quick detour on the Utah/Nevada border to check out some ponds on the Utah side. 3 Snowy Plover, 25 Western Sandpiper, and a Long-billed Dowitcher highlighted the quick stop along the interstate!  We drove straight through to Elko and after dinner at the hotel, called it a night.

Long-billed Dowitcher on its southbound migration

Saturday started early, with my alarm going off shortly after 2:00 am.  We were at the trailhead and on our way up the mountain at 3:40 AM.  Birds were quiet until we crossed the creek below Island Lake, when Western Wood-Pewee marked the first bird of the day, followed quickly by Cordilleran Flycatcher, Brewer’s Sparrow, and White-crowned Sparrow.  By 4:56 AM we reached Snowcock Slab above the lake and started scanning. We hadn’t been there long when eagle-eyed Susan, who had dragged her scope up the mountain spotted a Himalayan Snowcock on a distant ridge.  I quickly got my scope on the bird, and everyone got their distant lifer.

Himalayan Snowcock digiscoped on a distant ridge

The bird maneuvered into the rocks and sat still for quite some time, before eventually disappearing.  In an odd juxtaposition to most years, I was unable to locate any birds in the meadows feeding later in the morning.  Our short but sweet encounter with the birds would be it for this tour!  We also picked up most of the usual species here and had nice looks at Clark’s Nutcracker, Dusky Flycatcher, Cassin’s Finch, Fox Sparrow, and Mountain Bluebird.  We had not-so-nice looks at distant Black Rosy-Finch, Golden Eagle, and Prairie Falcon.

Snowcock Success in the Ruby Mountains

The hike down took longer as usual—we did get good looks at MacGillivray’s Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Rock Wren amongst a variety of other more common species!  We wrapped up our visit to the Ruby Mountains with a pair of Lewis’s Woodpeckers, before making our way back to Elko, having a delicious lunch at McAdoo’s, and a nice long afternoon nap!

In the evening, before dinner, we headed into the desert south of Elko to the premier birding hotspot in the county, South Fork Recreation Area.  This body of water is truly an oasis in the desert and always provides a lot of birds to check out.  Today’s highlights were 100 Western Sandpiper, 150 Long-billed Dowitcher, 40 Wilson’s Phalarope, 100 Red-necked Phalarope, a smattering of other shorebirds, 10 species of waterfowl, and a huge flock of 400 migrant Tree Swallow. Heading back into town we checked out the gravel pit ponds which were the lowest I've ever seen them.  A flyover Black-necked Stilt provided great looks.

Black-necked Stilt with incredible lighting

We wrapped up our time in Elko with an incredible dinner at Luciano’s and another early night to prep for the long day ahead.  Opting to skip the usual birding around Elko and focus on the birds of Southern Idaho, we headed north at sunrise and doing a little birding between the Nevada/Idaho border and Brockman’s Feeding Station.  With our Most Wanted Tours, we typically do the opposite route into Idaho, so our birding is a little backward from many of our other tours here.  The feeders didn’t disappoint as this morning we snagged 4 species.  12 Black-chinned Hummingbird, 10 Broad-tailed Hummingbird, 3 migrant Rufous Hummingbird, and the highlight 5 mostly male Calliope Hummingbirds still visiting.

Calliope Hummingbird was the star of the show

Broad-tailed Hummingbird didn't disappoint either

We made our way towards Magic Mountain Ski Area, with 3 Lewis’s Woodpeckers en route.  The ski area was literally a one-time wonder earlier in the summer and had since been a dud for crossbills.  After a short vigil here we headed to more reliable pastures.

Lewis's Woodpecker headed to the nest with food

Taking a lunch break at Diamondfield Jack Campground, the birds did the work for us. While eating our picnic lunch here I heard a Cassia Crossbill flyover and eventually land and start singing!  The bird posed nicely along with several others over the course of our break here in the tops of dead snags and Lodgepole Pines, providing great and prolonged scope views.

Cassia Crossbill singing silhouette

While here, it surprisingly started to rain and a downpour ensued.  Hard to be mad about rain when we are in a horrendous drought.  The drop in temperature and the fact we already had the bird made the rain all the more welcome!  Eventually, we started descending into Magic Valley, making our way to our hotel to rest until dinner.  After eating another great meal at Jasmine Thai, we headed to the fields south of town, hoping to increase our odds at getting Gray Partridge since our last big group had missed.  No luck on the partridge, but we did get killer looks at Barn Owl, numerous Swainson’s Hawks, and Northern Harrier before dark.

Wanting to provide a better Flammy experience than we had our first night in Utah, I took the group into the South Hills.  I won’t bore you with the details of the long drive there, only with the fact we had 4 Flammulated Owls in relatively short order, providing incredible views!  We also picked up several calling Common Poorwill and at least 2 Northern Saw-whet Owls that were not impressed with my imitations!

Couldn't ask for a better look at a Flammulated Owl

The next morning we did our morning visit to the fields south of town—and bringing us back to 50% success this summer, we missed Gray Partridge.  This is one I am having trouble grasping, as we have never had issues with this species until this year.  Wondering if the drought is playing a part in this or not.  In any event, we spent nearly 2 hours checking every place I usually find the birds, but to no avail.  We had great looks at all the usual suspects, including Northern Harrier,  Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl, and Swainson’s Hawk.

Northern Harrier gliding past us at sunrise

Shoshone Falls Park added Rock Wren and Canyon Wren, as well as the usual Yellow-breasted Chat and Bullock’s Oriole.  We saw plenty of birds here but managed to miss out 2nd game bird of the tour—California Quail. We made our way back to Utah and did an afternoon visit to Antelope Island State Park.  I knew the likelihood of finding Chukar would be low this time of day, and as expected we ended up missing.  Three game birds missed in a single day that we typically get most tours might mean making some adjustments to the itinerary in the future.  We did see lots of other great birds here, including around 25,000 Wilson’s Phalarope, 15,000 Red-necked Phalarope, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Curlew, and Willet.

Dinner at REd Iguana to wrap things up

It’s pretty unusual to miss one of our Most Wanted Species, aside from our older Mini Most Wanted Tours.  Chukar is the only original Most Wanted species we missed, but Gray Partridge is one of the secondary species that has been a highlight for our clients over the years.  Overall though we maintained our high rate of success with Flammulated Owl, Black Swift, Himalayan Snowcock, Gray Vireo, and of course the Cassia Crossbill.  All in all, we ended the tour with 147 Species—which is an above-average total for this tour!  

More importantly, it was a great group of birders that made for a thoroughly enjoyable tour!

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July 2021 Idaho Custom Tour Recap

Posted: September 26, 2021

July 8-10, 2021 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

It’s always a thrill when a client reaches out with a small and specific target list, that also is a bit of an adventure.  As was the case with John and Ellie who reached out in 2019 and planned a tour with me last summer.  Of course, Covid put the brakes on that, so we rescheduled to this summer to try again.  This tour was focused on just 2 species—Cassia Crossbill and Cassin’s Vireo.  The remaining 2 breeding ABA (not including Hawaii) species my client needed.  I knew the crossbill would be a piece of cake, even if we had to spend a little time searching.  The vireo however had been a little nervous.  I had only been to the area one time, years ago, and got them without issue, but I had never been in mid-July, and there was very little sighting data for that time of year…

We kicked things off bright and early in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 8, picking ups John and Ellie for our 3.5-hour drive to the South Hills in Idaho.  Taking a queue from my previous tour, we stopped at Magic Mountain Ski Area and didn’t quite have the same experience as 2-weeks prior.  We did get a Red Crossbill, but not the expected endemic.  After the short vigil here, we headed to my tried and true location near Diamondfield Jack Campground.  We spent the next hour enjoying various species, including Western Tanager, Hermit Thrush, Hammond’s Flycatcher, and of course, the star of the show—Cassia Crossbill.

Digiscoped Cassia Crossbill in the Soth Hills

John getting ABA lifer Cassia Crossbill

After the crossbill, the rest of the day was a breeze. We had a picnic lunch at Porcupine Springs, before spending a little more time at Magic Mountain.  En route to Brockman’s, we had 4 Lewis’s Woodpeckers at the burn trail, on what was a warm and considerably quiet afternoon.  At the feeding station, the usual buzz of Black-chinned Hummingbird and Broad-tailed Hummingbird was highlighted by 3 male Calliope Hummingbirds that put on a nice display.

Calliope Hummingbird striking a pose

We wrapped up the day with a short afternoon break and dinner before calling it a night.  On Friday we started the morning out in the fields south of town. This morning was one of our Gray Partridge success stories for the summer when a flock of 14 birds scurried across the road in from of us then flushed showing off those gorgeous rufous tails as they came to land in the tall grass in a nearby field!

Not my best shot of a Gray Partridge

We also had our usual bevy of Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl, Swainson’s Hawk, and Northern Harrier to keep things interesting.  No visit to Twin Falls is complete without a stop at Shoshone Falls Park, so we made the most out of the morning and birded the area thoroughly.  Both Rock Wren and Canyon Wren were quite cooperative, while numerous Yellow-breasted Chat and Bullock’s Oriole punctuated a very different visit than my previous tour here.

A stunning Yellow Warbler

The birding was phenomenal this morning and wrapped up our time in Twin Falls nicely. And even though not all the birds are specialties, even the common stuff like Rock Pigeon can be really stunning given their surroundings!

Rock Pigeon in some "native" habitat

From Twin Falls it's about a 90-minute drive to the foothills of Boise where we would start our climbing the mountains east of town.  A forest fire that started a few days earlier had turned the skies grayish-brown with haze, and the summer heat made for a very warm afternoon.  The drive to Aldape Summit only took about 35 minutes, with numerous stops in scrub oak and mixed woodland to try for the vireo.  We heard lots of vireos but they were all Warbling Vireo!  We also had lots of nice looks at Lazuli Bunting.

At the area near the summit, we parked and began checking a few spots.  It was hot, windy, and not a whole lot was out in the way of birds.  We eventually found a few Western Tanagers and had all but given up hope on the vireo for the day when I decided to try a Blue-headed Vireo scold call on a whim.  Much to my surprise, we watched as a Cassin’s Vireo shot in form across the canyon and landed at eye-level in an enormous pine tree right next to us.  The bird quickly realized we weren’t another vireo and went about its business.  This was the final continental breeding ABA lifer for John and a successful sweep of the targets for the tour!

Cassin's Vireo deciding it was done with being watched

We had planned on making another try for it the following morning but ran into a small car problem after the vireo.  Our loyal van Otus was feeling overworked in the heat and with the steep climb to elevation.  The engine overheated and if we hadn’t been facing downhill, I’m not sure how long we would have been there before the van cooled enough to let us coast downhill.  Erring on the side of caution we opted not to head back into the mountain the following day.  That evening I offered an owling outing, but after a great meal in downtown Boise, we wrapped things up for the night.

On Saturday morning we rose early so we could bird our way back to Salt Lake City.  We made the most out of being in Boise and checked out Kathryn Albertson Park along the Boise River Walk.  The highlight of a July morning here was 12 Wood Ducks and an early migrant Orange-crowned Warbler.

Wood Duck in a beautiful scene

It was a beautiful morning to spend walking through the park and even with low overall bird density, we had 25 species in an hour birding.

Sunrise over Kathryn Albertson Park

Starting our journey south we stopped at Indian Creek Reservoir in the middle of nowhere and had a field day with the migrant shorebirds and breeding waterbirds.  9 species of waterfowl including Blue-winged Teal and Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, and Northern Pintail were all highlights.  Shorebird wise we had Western Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Phalarope, and several other common species.  While the lake here was nearly dried up, the mere presence of water attracted tons of birds, and we had 37 species during our short visit.

Back in Utah, we made a stop at a local wildlife management area just outside of Salt Lake City.  As usual, this stop padded our trip list with a number of new species.  Highlights included a Ring-necked Duck that had been present all summer, a migrant Solitary Sandpiper14 Greater Yellowlegs (starting to build up before heading south), several Sora, a Virginia RailNeotropic Cormorant, and the usual Western Grebes and Clark’s Grebes.

John and Ellie at Kathryn Albertson Park

Despite this being a quick, 3-day tour that mostly focused on Southern Idaho in July, we ended up with 125 species, and most importantly a pair of happy clients that got their targets!  I really enjoyed this custom tour and was very pleased with our outcomes!

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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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