24 August 2015

Glacier & Waterton Lakes

After visiting my brother's family in Billings, we continued north, getting an early start to visit the grasslands of Musselshell County. A well known spot for Mountain Plover, we cruised the open expanses in vain, but were able to enjoy a host of other plains species: McCown's Longspurs were everywhere, and multiple Chestnut-collared Longspurs could be found in their midst. We were mobbed by a territorial pair of Marbled Godwits as we walked one section of the plains, and songs of the Western Meadowlarks were our constant companions.

Limosa fedoa (Marbled Godwit)

A Marbled Godwit in Musselshell County, Montana.

From here, we continued winding our way across the plains, visiting Giant Spring before heading northwest to our final destination: Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park is a place that I have dreamed of visiting for years, and one that Caroline was blown away by. From the sheer rock faces to the dense cedar rainforests beauty abounded, and Caroline subtly tried to convince me that I should look into jobs in the Pacific northwest. Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Varied Thrushes, birds that I had not seen since my field work in Idaho, made appearances on the shadowy trails of the park, and we even found Caroline's first Black Bear ever.

Anthus rubescens alticola (American Pipit)

An American Pipit trying to figure out why I'm staring at in at Logan Pass, Glacier National Park, Montana

Avalanche Creek, Glacier National Park, Montana

Avalanche Creek, Glacier National Park, Montana

After two days in the stunning canyons of northern Montana, we headed even further north, crossing into Alberta, Canada and Waterton Lakes National Park. Here, I worked on my Canadian bird list and Caroline and I soaked in the views of the equally spectacular Canadian Rockies.

Cameron Lake

Cameron Lake, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

From here, we headed even further north still to Banff and Jasper National Parks, impatiently awaiting the glaciers that lay before us.

To be continued!

20 August 2015


I promise I'll finish my Canadian summary soon, but first, a story from yesterday, August 19. But to tell that story, I have to start in September 2014: Michael McCloy and I were birding our way across Kansas, and what started as a day of enjoying different birding locations soon devolved into a frantic cross-plains roadtrip that we dubbed "Jaegerquest". Running low on time, we spent 5-10 minutes at each reservoir along our route, but unfortunately failed to locate any member of the genus Stercorarius.

Fast forward to yesterday, 19 August 2015. Mark Robbins and I raced out to Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in Barton County, Kansas, to try to catch migrating shorebirds at dawn. A massive front had passed through the night before, lowering the temperature to an unbelievable 55F (12C). While we were complaining about bringing too little clothing, we were not complaining about the marshbirds we were encountering. We caught the tail end of an Upland Sandpiper flight, with 14 individuals passing over us within the first hour of being in the refuge. Massive numbers of Blue-winged Teal and Plegadis ibis flew around the marshes, and we even saw multiple Least and American Bitterns. Hundreds upon hundreds of Bank, Barn, Cliff, Northern Rough-winged and Tree Swallows perched on the roads and bushes, waiting for conditions to improve and trying to warm as hundreds of coots darted between the reeds and hundreds of Black Terns passed above them. The refuge was teeming with life, and we were loving our visit.

As the temperature started to warm, the winds began to increase, and Mark and I hurried to the southern portion of the refuge to try to see some of the shorebirds before they left. We began parsing through the present flocks but were interrupted as the birds all took flight, uttering their quavering alarm calls. Mark was immediately on alert: "Is there a Peregrine [Falcon]? Look for whatever is scaring them!" We frantically scanned the skies as the cries of Baird's Sandpipers overwhelmed us. The swirling flocks soon returned and settled, and we looked around perplexed. Something had flushed them, but what it was we might not ever know. Mark settled back into identifying shorebirds, and I turned my attention towards the water. I was set on finding a Western Grebe (spoiler alert: I failed, but we did have some later in the day) and began scanning the lake behind us. About two thirds of the way across, I spotted two Black Terns chasing each other when suddenly the back "tern" banked and revealed a short tail projection, a light belly and throat and a complete breast band. I immediately started shouting at Mark.

"JAEGER! JAEGER! We've got a Jaeger!"

Mark whipped his spotting scope around, shouting back "Don't take your eyes off of it! Don't lose it!"

The bird continued in its maniacal pursuit for another 45 seconds or so before disappearing against the far bank of the lake over a mile away. We stood there in shock, and began discussing what we saw. After going back and forth between a lot of characters, Mark lamented that it "may forever be just a Jaeger sp." We continued working both the lake and the shorebirds for another hour or so, continually checking the lake but failing to locate anything that was not a Black Tern, a Forster's Tern, or a Franklin's Gull.

When we reached the end of the lake, we sat for a while, scanning the lake again before we decided to continue to Quivira to see what we could find. We were pretty convinced the bird had moved on, as many terns and gulls appeared to be leaving, and decided to give the lake one final scan. Suddenly, Mark dramatically exclaimed "I don't believe it - IT'S STILL HERE!"

We got the scope and binoculars on the bird, and soon found ourselves looking at what was obviously an adult Jaeger soaring over the lake. The bird had a complete breast band, light chest and throat, and a seemingly bulbous tail projection, leading us to believe it was an adult Pomarine Jaeger. Mark became even more excited, informing me that at this time of year, Long-tailed and Parasitic Jaegers were much more likely than Pomarines, and that Pomarines do not usually occur inland until at least October. 

We continued to watch the bird, but soon realized we were not alone. A Bald Eagle had also spotted this rare vagrant, and began edging its way closer and closer to the Jaeger. Then the Eagle made its move, diving at the Jaeger. The Jaeger, far more nimble than the Eagle, dodged out of the way, and Mark's an my adrenaline spiked as the Eagle twisted around for another pass, forcing the Jaeger to drop out of the Eagle's path again. The encounter was soon over as the Jaeger bombed away from the Eagle, and it soon dropped out of view. Mark and I stood there waiting for another 45 minutes or so to no avail. It appeared as though our Jaeger had left.

We spent the afternoon visiting other birding spots, but found ourselves drawn back to Cheyenne to try one last time for the Jaeger around 4:15 in the evening. As we entered the refuge, my phone alerted us to an email it had just received - the Jaeger was seen fifteen minutes ago in the northern part of the wildlife area! We raced over there, but the bird and the observers seemed to have already left. We spent a maddening half hour searching the lake again before I spotted a lone, dark-backed gull like bird on the far side of the impoundment. Almost simultaneously, Mark was on it. "That's the Jaeger."

We threw up the scope, got out the camera and started watching the bird. Almost immediately, it got up to fly and Mark laughed, exclaiming "That's a [Pomarine]!" We watched the bird for an hour, showing it to other birders and watching it swim, fly, eat a Franklin's Gull it had killed and unsuccessfully try to kill another. We laughed as we watched it, amazed by our luck of being able to see it again.

Stercorarius pomarinus (Pomarine Jaeger)
Stercorarius pomarinus (Pomarine Jaeger)
Stercorarius pomarinus (Pomarine Jaeger)
Poor quality photos of our very distant Pomarine Jaeger, 19 August 2015, Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas

If accepted, this will be the sixth state record of Pomarine Jaeger for Kansas, and one of the few records for the interior lower 48 United States for the month of August. It took almost a year, but Jaegerquest was finally a success. Now to catch up on my work.

eBird checklists:


24 July 2015

Heading North

Driving across the plains has always been very hit or miss for me; either you have a pleasant drive across the wide expanses of central North America, or you get hit by massive supercells that meander across the plains and endure rain, hail, and hurricane-like winds. Our journey northwards started with a hit; I awoke to the sound of rain falling on the roof, and allowed my self to sleep in order to miss the worst of the storm. I knew we had a long way to travel, but didn't want to do a single mile in the dark pre-dawn rain.

The storm passed as the sun rose, and Caroline and I packed out little Nissan Rogue for the long journey ahead. We were going on vacation, and while that means rest and relaxation for most, it means thousands of miles of driving, hiking, and exploring for us. As soon as our gear loaded, we were off. We were going to try to make it to the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming by nightfall, and had significant portions of Nebraska and Iowa and the entirety of South Dakota between us and our goal.

The rest of the day was (thankfully) misses. By the time we reach Sioux Falls, our luck seemed to be holding. The massive storms were building, but we were still keeping on our "missing streak". The radar and weather reports indicated that the dark horizons were the edges of massive storms, and that we were threading the eye of the needle between systems working their way across the flats.

Hours stretched by as we grew closer to the regions in which I used to work. Soon after crossing the Missouri River, I started recognizing roadside stops from my field work two years prior. We stopped and filled up with gas by the KOA I had camped at for three days years ago, the same place I had sat while ordering my plain tickets for Puerto Rico. We were soon on the road again, and Caroline got to see her first new park of the trip: Badlands. Last time Caroline had visited me in South Dakota, we didn't have nearly enough time to head to this part of the state. Now, we were finally there, but running short on time. Despite not being able to visit every part of the park, we were still able to drive through the entire park and watch Burrowing Owls fly above their burrows.

As evening approached, we realized that the sky was getting darker faster than we expected, and we saw the clouds building to the northwest. Soon, our fears were confirmed:our day of blissful misses was over. A massive storm was building near our anticipated camping spot, and was heading straight for us. We hit the road for the last time, and managed to pull into a hotel in Rapid City as the sky opened and the wind and rain soaked the entire town.

The next morning, we woke up early and headed to Devil's Tower, Wyoming. Upon arriving, we realized that the effects of the storm were lingering, as all but the very top of the tower was shrouded with fog. We decided to continue north, and enjoyed a day full of missing storms as we crossed the grasslands of northeast Wyoming and wound our way to Billing's Montana to spend the weekend with my brother and his family.

After our time catching up and seeing my niece and nephew, we continued our journey north. We passed through the extensive grasslands of Musselshell County, where we failed to find any Mountain Plovers, but did get harassed by Marbled Godwits and found a Ferruginous Hawk nest.

Limosa fedoa (Marbled Godwit)

Buteo regalis (Ferruginous Hawk)

From there, we pressed northward, and finally arrived at our first stop of the trip: Glacier National Park (which I will save for my next post!).