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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!