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