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.
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.
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
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, 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.
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.