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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
Birds Seen on this Tour: