Pitta Nature Tours
2021 Georgia Audubon Custom Tour Recap

Posted: January 17, 2022

July 25-30, 2021 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

Way back in June 2019 (what seems like a lifetime ago), Adam Betuel reached out about planning a tour with him for the summer of 2021. At the time Adam was running his own company called Teal Birding to lead tours primarily for Georgia Audubon. Over the course of our planning, Georgia Audubon hired Adam full-time, and in the end, we worked to plan a Georgia Audubon Mountain West Hotspots and Highlights Tour for this past July. Like the rest of my tours this summer, we banked heavily on vaccine availability and decreasing covid-19 cases to determine if we would be able to go.

Georgia Audubon doing their best "crossbill" impression!

In our planning, we opted to go with a larger group to keep the cost lower, add an additional night to cover more areas and offer my Snowcock Expedition as an extension after the main tour. With this in mind, I reached out to see if Taylor Abbott was available to help lead and drive our second vehicle. With the big logistical questions answered, we set the itinerary and Adam got to work selling the tour! In the end, we sold out all 13 available spaces and waited to see how the summer went.

All 3 guides and all 13 participants were fully vaccinated at least 2 weeks before the tour began, and cases remained steadily low through the summer. On July 25th we picked up the last of the participants to arrive and kicked off our tour! We had one cancellation the week before the tour, so the group stood at 12 + the 3 guides.

Western Tanager hanging around our picnic area

As became the routine this summer we headed to Millcreek Canyon to show off our over-summering flock of 9 Tundra Swan that were calling the pond at Log Haven home. Continuing up the canyon we encountered a noticeably quieter habitat than usual. The summer heat and early spring had really exacerbated the speed to the end of the breeding season. Nonetheless, we tracked down several Western Tanager, a few Warbling Vireo, and flyovers of both Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk.

Catered BBQ dinner from Table 22 by Chef Parks

Changing things up ever so slightly, I reached out to Table 22 by Chef Parks to see if they would be interested in catering a simple BBQ picnic for us in the canyon. We reserved a picnic site, and Table 22 delivered and set up our dinner in the great outdoors. The BBQ chicken and sausages were fantastic, and the relaxed atmosphere made for a nice meal. Definitely check them out!

Last-minute Black Swift spotted by Adam

After dinner, we headed south. With reports of Black Swift in Salt Lake county dwindling we took our chances at Bridal Veil Falls in Utah County, about an hour away. Luck wasn’t in our favor during our vigil, but as we returned to the vans to head owling, Adam spotted one flying right over the parking lot. The bird made several passes and even in the fading light, the looks were great!

Flammulated Owl shot by Adam Betuel, Georgia Audubon

We ended up at an owling site I hadn’t yet checked this year. Knowing we would have a large group and have limited access to locations for 2 vans and so many people I kept a few spots just in case. We waited as the light faded and talked about the owls, why they were here, and how we would hopefully find one. Within 19 minutes of starting everyone had several looks at least one but possibly 2 Flammulated Owl, all from less than 20’ of where we parked.

Super cute and cooperative Juniper Titmouse

In the lead-up to our tour, we adjusted the itinerary to slow down a little based on our tour with Lake-Cook Audubon in June. Instead of our usual morning in the desert, we departed immediately for Idaho, crossing the border around 8:00 AM. At the Juniper Rest Area, we nabbed Ash-throated Flycatcher, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Juniper Titmouse, and Bewick’s Wren.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird at its nest

We continued towards the South Hills, arriving at Diamondfield Jack Campground just before 11:00 am. We spent several hours here with a picnic lunch and birding. We found a Broad-tailed Hummingbird nest right where we were eating lunch. The usual Mountain Chickadee, Hammond’s Flycatcher, and Brown Creeper were all present.

Poor digiscoped Cassia Crossbill

While those are all nice birds, they were not our main targets, and we eventually got great looks at the star of the show--the Cassia Crossbill.

We made our way across the hills towards Brockman’s, stopping in the burn to pick up Lewis’s Woodpecker. Several birds put on a show moving about in the treetops. Continuing we drove the windy dirt road passing through a patch of aspen when a Northern Goshawk swooped down through the trees along the road, and right over the first van. Adam and I both yelled out GOSHAWK!!! But only 4-5 people saw the bird as it disappeared into the forest.

Migrant Rufous Hummingbird at Brockman's

At Brockman’s, the feeding frenzy was in full effect. Loads of Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, and migrant Rufous Hummingbird kept everyone busy and entertained. In the week since my previous visit, ALL of the male Calliope Hummingbirds had either already left on their migration or were avoiding the large number of birds. In the end, we picked out several young and female Calliope’s.

1 of 17 Swainson's Hawks from this afternoon

We also picked up a calling Gray Catbird here, but in the afternoon heat, most of the birds were taking a break! Once everyone had their fill of hummingbirds we headed back towards the lowlands. In the sage flats on the west end of the hills, we picked up Grasshopper Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, and Savannah Sparrow. Once we reached Magic Valley we spent some time birding in the agricultural areas south of Twin Falls where we had 17 Swainson’s Hawks, including a very cooperative young bird perched on a fence post by the road.

The uncooperative Gray Partridge continued for another tour!

On Tuesday morning, we headed back into the fields to see if we could get back on top of our summer partridge issues. As luck would have it, more eyes helped find the birds. Both Adam and Taylor spotted small coveys of Gray Partridge working their way through the sagebrush. The looks weren’t fantastic, but it was the main target!

California Quail "hiding" in the sagebrush

We also picked up California Quail along with the usual Barn Owl and Northern Harrier. We missed Burrowing Owl but picked up a consolation Prairie Falcon. Overall, the birding was really good this morning and we had other fun desert birds like Sage Thrasher, Loggerhead Shrike, and Horned Lark to entertain!

We also had an interesting interaction with a local who we could tell was watching us. As we were headed out of the field I stopped to scan some hay bales when the truck pulled up and the woman driving began to ask what we were doing and why we were there. Replying that we were just bird watchers, she didn’t appear moved as she went on to tell us that their farm had been “robbed” several times in the past week, and the side road we had been pulled over on was private property. Remaining calm and slightly amused, I told her that we weren’t robbers, and I was up here several days every summer and had parked in that spot many times since there were no trespassing signs. She continued that if I just looked on my GPS I could see it was private--at which point I just had to laugh. She clearly didn’t like us being there, and despite the fact that we were in 2 giant white vans, walking around looking at birds, we must have fit the idea of what “robbers” look like and act in her mind. It never ceases to amaze me the extremes of the locals you meet in how they react to birders--we are after all a very innocuous group!

Canyon Wren at Shoshone Falls

Anyways, we checked out of our hotel and visited Shoshone Falls where the birding was again pretty good for the late date in July. We added another California Quail, worked hard for a Yellow-breasted Chat, Rock Wren, and Canyon Wren, and mostly just enjoyed being out and birding. Lots of common birds filled in the time between the target species.

Phalarope streaming past after sunset

Our afternoon plans fell apart due to our time birding in Idaho. We ended up leaving late and running out of time to visit Bear River MBR. Instead, we opted to check in to the hotel and take a short break during the 100-degree afternoon, before visiting Antelope Island State Park for sunset and shorebird migration--neither of which disappointed! Roughly 25,000 Red-necked Phalarope and perhaps 5,000 Wilson’s Phalarope delighted the group.

Utah's state bird—the California Gull

We also picked up a bevy of other species including 3 Snowy Plover, 3 Marbled Godwit, 1,000’s of American Avocet, and several hundred Black-necked Stilts. Hundreds of Franklin’s Gulls also passed by while we watched the phalarope show. We made a quick loop of the island just before dark hoping to maybe come across a Chukar--instead, we found 5 Northern Mockingbirds.

Sunrise over the Great Salt Lake

On Wednesday morning, we were back at the island before sunrise headed to look for Chukar again. This time, however, luck was on our side and we found a small flock of 5 before the sun had even hit. We also saw several Rock Wren, 6 Burrowing Owl, and a Sage Thrasher to kickoff the morning

We again focused on the causeway on our way off the island--most of the same birds as the previous day. We did get good looks at Willet and Long-billed Curlew and spent some more time enjoying the phalarope migration.

Digiscoped Sora hiding in the reeds

Visiting Farmington Bay WMA we focused on marsh birds for the remainder of the morning. Highlights were both Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe as well as both Sora and Virginia Rail. Waterfowl was dismal, with just Redhead in addition to the common park species. We added both Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs, in addition to the new normal Neotropic Cormorant flock that was present all summer.

Georgia Audubon enjoying some cooler temps

After an afternoon break, we ventured up to 8,000’ and a 40-degree swing in temperatures as a pleasant rainstorm drenched us in the mountains. The birding was pretty slow due to the rain and we missed most of what we would expect to find. We did have Lincoln’s Sparrow, Red-naped Sapsucker, and 5 Steller’s Jays to keep us busy. But in all honesty, the wet and cool weather was a perfect end to the afternoon!

Western Screech-Owl providing killer looks

By the evening the storms had mostly passed. We decided to try for Western Screech-Owl and had a rough go of it for the first 30 minutes. The howling wind looked like it was going to squash our efforts, but eventually, a cooperative bird landed almost on top of the group and posed nicely for everyone to see. In the end, we were back to the hotel and done for the night by 10:00 pm!

Tiger Moth at the Gas Station

Thursday morning the plan was to get into the mountains and enjoy some cooler temps. We started off on Jeremy Ranch Road in Summit County and quickly picked up most of our expected targets. Willow Flycatcher, Lazuli Bunting, Yellow Warbler, and Gray Catbird were all cooperative. A flyover Bald Eagle was a bonus.

At a quick stop for gas, several people noticed these Tiger Moths on the window of the gas station. It’s always fun to take a few minutes and look at the unexpected.

Male Bobolink on his way out of breeding plumage

Heading east we visited a mountain valley and agricultural area where the products of a successful breeding season were on full display. While the 25 Bobolink were definitely the star of the show, 49 Sandhill Crane and 20 Savannah Sparrow were equally impressive counts. Despite our best efforts, we missed snipe this morning!

Digiscoped Golden Eagle near Kamas

Making our way higher we were treated to a pair of Golden Eagles along the road. Both birds spent time flying over and perched on the nearby cliffs.

As we reached one of our favorite mid-elevation riparian sites the effects of the summer were apparent with bird diversity and density really low. With some effort, we found Hammond’s Flycatcher, but the rest of the expected breeding specialties were nowhere to be found. While disappointing, the scenery did provide some consolation.

The bonus crossbill, a White-winged Crossbill in Utah

We proceeded to almost 10,000 feet and set out to find a rarity that had been reported the previous week. After a short search, we located, got great looks at, and recordings of White-winged Crossbill. While this species isn't normally expected on our summer tours, it was a nice addition. And for about half the group a pair of Red Crossbills made for a clean sweep of the Lower 48 Crossbills!

Our last ditch effort for American Dipper paid off!

The game plan this afternoon was similar to the previous day--we took an afternoon break then set out to do some birding before dinner. We happened upon an Osprey at a rather unexpected spot. And after nearly 40 minutes of searching, we finally found an American Dipper for the week. This bird eluded us at all our other usual spots and the search today was a last-ditch effort.

Prairie Falcon on a distant power pole

We wrapped up the day with a little birding near our hotel adding Lesser Goldfinch for the week, before having a great dinner to cap off our last night in Salt Lake City. On Friday morning we set out to pick up the Sage and Juniper specialists we still needed for the week. It had poured overnight making the road quite sloppy and not ideal for the vans. We focused on finding Gray Vireo and Gray Flycatcher which were the 2 main targets. We did miss a couple of expected sparrows, but the safety of the tour takes precedent to the birds! We had a migrant Warbling Vireo here which was an early surprise, but the weather must have put a few things on the move! A bonus Prairie Falcon was a nice pick up on teh way back towareds Salt Lake City.

Georgia Audubon checking out some waterbirds

Having a few hours to burn with our expected route blocked, we called an audible and visited a small local lake where we hadn’t brought a tour in years! It ended up being a great decision that added several birds for the tour. The highlights included a trio of migrant sandpipers: Least Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, and an uncommon Solitary Sandpiper.

We also had great looks at a number of marsh birds like Snowy Egret, Caspian Tern, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. After running out of birds we started making our way back to Salt Lake to wrap up our regular portion of the tour with a fantastic lunch at Red Iguana. From here we lost several members of our Georgia Audubon group, and added a few of my clients for our Himalayan Snowcock Expedition, which you will be able to read about next week when I release that trip recap!

A huge thank you goes out to Adam Betuel and Georgia Audubon for a thoroughly enjoyable week birding in the Mountain West. And of course, none of this would have been possible without Taylor stepping in to guide and drive our second vehicle! Three guides certainly made for picking out a number of birds we likely would have missed! All in all, it was a great week of birding in Utah and Idaho!
Pitta Tours Photos from this Tour: 

Georgia Audubon Photos from this Tour:

Birds Seen on this Tour:

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