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2014 Marathon Birding Recap

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, May 20, 2014 

At this past weekends Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, for just the 2nd time there were 2 "Marathon Birding" Field Trips--one led by Mark Stackhouse and David Wheeler while the other was run by Jeff Bilsky and myself.  In the weeks leading up to the festival Mark and I had a little fun jawing back and forth about who would win their respective marathon.  Some sort of wager was needed, but Mark wanted to take things a little further and turn our challenge into a 2 part endeavor--which I will share more about later.  For now let's talk about the marathons that happened.  On Friday the 16th, Team Mexico (Mark and David) led their group to an astounding 162 species during their 18 hour jaunt across northern Utah, trickling past our best of 160 set last May.  The bar was set high--especially after all the trash talking from my end.  Right from the onset I felt that I may have sealed our fate by lighting the fire under Mark that set things ablaze.

On Sunday the 18th, Jeff and I did our usual thing, grabbing some coffee and breakfast and driving the 35 minutes up to Farmington to start the day.  We decided not to change anything form our previous marathon trip which had netted so many great birds.  The route was short, kept us birding most of the day, and provided a hell of variety of birds.  The only variables that ever worried me were weather, traffic, and how migration was going.  As usual we had the cars packed and ready to go a few minutes behind schedule but were out the gates of the Legacy Events Center, nabbing WESTERN KINGBIRD, BULLOCK'S ORIOLE, LESSER GOLDFINCH, and EURASIAN-COLLARED DOVE before we left.

Wood Ducks at Farmington Bay WMA

Heading towards Glower Lane we snared a CALIFORNIA QUAIL--always a relief to get this one out of the way early.  Glover Ponds were much slower than usual--we only had a handful of ducks, 2 grebes, and a major shortage of waterbirds in general.  Our first of many SANDHILL CRANES of the day bellowed from nearby and we kept on our way right on schedule.  Stop #2 was Farmington Bay WMA where things were looking up.  WOOD DUCKS, BLUE-WINGED TEAL, and LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER just inside the gates.

Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal at Farmington Bay WMA

We grabbed the usual waterfowl species form a top Egg Island, but had missed a wide variety of expected species.  Shorebirds were light, as were songbirds.  Along the main road we had BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON, SORA, VIRGINA RAIL, and an abundance of the expected COMMON YELLOWTHROATS--they were singing wildly and at least in the double digits. A quick stop as we left picked up both FORSTER'S and CASPIAN TERN, as well as a great find in a COMMON TERN perched on a nest platform with a Forster's.  The bird was quite diminutive, and for a minute we got excited that it may be a Least.  Alas it was slightly to big, and lacked the necessary features.  We left the bay with the expected number of species but were short on our hit list--we could easily make those bird sup later though.

Bobolink in West Kaysville

Through the back roads of Farmington and Kaysville we headed to Schick Lane.  Upon arrival we were greeted by DUSKY FLYCATCHER and GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE.  Walking the tree line we soon found our target BOBOLINK in the field to the west, while we snagged both BREWER'S and CHIPPING SPARROWS, and shockingly both HAMMOND'S and WILLOW FLYCATCHER!  3 species of empid before 8:00am given our route was quite unexpected. We also added BELTED KINGFISHER and has more great looks at SANDHILL CRANES.

Sandhill Crane in West Kaysville

Not wasting time we sped towards Antelope Island Causeway arriving right on schedule--glassing a flock of ibis at the entrance we were unable to pick out a Glossy--and we couldn't find a Whimbrel despite our best effort--those two were big misses.  About a mile in we scanned the mud flats for plovers finding over a dozen SNOWY PLOVERS, but no Semipalmated. We also got our only SAVANNAH SPARROW of the day singing here.  Jeff managed to pick out a distant BONAPARTE'S GULL while the expected gulls and shorebirds also filled our lists quickly.

Sanderling Flock on the Causeway

Another mile or so down the road we pulled over to scan the throngs of shorebirds to the north. 1,000's upon 1,000's of SANDERLINGS filled the mudflats, while 100's of BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS were a bit closer and easier to pick through.  We managed to pull out a couple of AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVERS in the distance and 6 RED KNOTS a little closer.  The biggest miss of the day here was our ZERO peep find.  Not a single one of the typically 4 species were found while we scanned--that could be catastrophic.  WE also missed a couple other noteworthy and recently reported shorebird like Dunlin and turnstone--the odds were starting to stack against us a bit.

Chukar on Antelope Island

We raced around the island quickly nabbing the expected SAGE THRASHER, LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE, CHUKAR, and ROCK WREN.  NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD has also become somewhat expected as of recent years and we had a couple.  At the corrals we easily saw BARN and GREAT HORNED OWL, as well as SAY'S PHOEBE--at least the island was being forgiving for us.

Great Horned Owl on Antelope Island

On the road to Garr Ranch we enjoyed a great show from a BURROWING OWL, who coughed up a pellet while half the group watched.  Our car missed the spectacle as we turned around!  We also easily picked up our GRASSHOPPER SPARROW with multiple singing and one individual posing on top of a stalk of grass near the road.

Burrowing Owl on Antelope Island

At Garr Ranch the luck swayed a little in our favor.  Migration had done well the night before and our 60 minutes scouring the trees turned up just about every expected migrant.  YELLOW, YELLOW-RUMPED, WILSON'S, ORANGE-CROWNED, and MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLERS joined BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS, WESTERN TANAGERS, HOUSE WRENS, and PLUMBEOUS and WARBLING VIREOS.

Warbling Vireo at Garr Ranch

We completed our 5 species empid sweep with GRAY FLYCATCHER and CORDILLERAN (we actually got all 5 species here as well). There was also one empid I saw for about 3 seconds, and snapped an out of focus shot of that looks like a LEAST FLYCATCHER.  We didn't count it since I was the only one to see it and it was so brief, but here's a crappy shot.

Possible Least Flycatcher at Garr Ranch

 The only miss here that surprised me was Western Wood-Pewee.  ON the other side of things, a calling NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH from the main spring, and a BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER were welcome additions.

Gray Flycatcher at Garr Ranch

We took a quick detour after the ranch to try for an Ash-throated Flycatcher Jeff had the previous day, but couldn't turn the bird up.  The 30 minute side trip cost us some time that we could have used later in the day, and added no new birds to our list.  On the way out the causeway we made a last ditch effort for Glossy Ibis to no avail, but Jeff picked the WHIMBREL out of the fields to the north. We rounded out our list in Syracuse with an AMERICAN CROW.

As we headed towards lunch in Ogden, we made a last minute decision to add a stop to our route a little out of the way at Fort Buenaventura for the Black Phoebe that had been present the past few weeks.  We spent about 30 minutes there and didn't find the bird, only adding NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW to our list.  Despite arriving for lunch at Jimmy Johns and leaving right on schedule, we had put ourselves behind by almost an hour we had gotten ahead--due to our stops.  But hey, you have to throw in some risks--because the rewards for those birds would have well been worth it.  Some days the cards just don't fall in your favor though. Plus Jeff got a cool shot of a "spirit" Robin...

The Spirit Robin by Jeff Bilsky

Up Ogden Canyon we stopped briefly for WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS, and added both PINE SISKIN and CASSIN'S FINCH.  Flyover GOLDEN EAGLE was our only of the day and sometime around 1:30 we finally saw our only SHARP-SHINNED HAWK of the day, and our first RED-TAILED HAWK--what a miss that would have been.  On Pineview Reservoir we added COMMON LOON and COMMON MERGANSER, while 100's of Western and Clark's Grebes rested on the water near the dam.  At the marina there were close to 40 CASPIAN TERNS on the tires used as a break wall.  A GRAY CATBIRD gave a brief showing and sang nearby, while a distant COOPER'S HAWK soared above.

Cooper's Hawk high above the group

At North Arm Nature Area we struggled through but netted the needed CALLIOPE HUMMINBGIRD.  YELLOW-BREATED CHAT played coy with us, but we got a few notes out of one near the bridge.  DOWNY WOODPECKER and WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE were also found, while SORA provided an audible along with many others in the riparian stretch that is a bird magnet.

Falling further behind schedule things got a little messy in the Powder Mountain Area.  Before we knew it the 2nd car was nowhere to be found while we scoured through CASSIN'S FINCHES looking for anything different.  Apparently they had stopped a curve or two below us and the radios weren't communicating that they were watching a NORTHERN GOSHAWK!!! 

Northern Goshawk by Jeff Bilsky

Our radio woes continued after the finally caught up and then fell behind again while our car ended up on top of the mountain they ended up at the feeders at the condos below.  Due to this our car had VESPER SPARROW while they added CLARK'S NUTCRACKER. We managed to work through the radio issues and didn't lose them the rest of the day, but as cloud cover built overhead and the winds picked up we struggled, barely adding MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, DARK-EYED JUNCO, and RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH on the ways down the mountain.  We stopped to watch a RED FOX along the road and heard a HAIRY WOODPECKER calling from a nesting site nearby.  We had missed quite a few birds but trudged on.

Red Fox at Powder Mountain

For the better part of the 4 o'clock hour we added no new birds, drove a long ways, and got turned around a couple times.  We missed a couple staked out birds, and couldn't turn anything into a new day birds.  We stopped to refuel both the vehicles and ourselves in Coalville, hopefully resetting things.  Jeff and I looked at our laundry list of misses and needs and tried to figure out what was our best plan of attack.  What we came up with was this: Change Nothing.  We just kept going as if we were right on track.

The Wasatch Back from Powder Mountain


At Rockport Reservoir I had a list of waterfowl we HAD to get.  As if the birding gods were listening, they rewarded us with all: COMMON GOLDENEYE, RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, RING-NECKED DUCK, and believe it or not... NORTHERN SHOVELER.  We decided to try our luck in the junipers along the highway and managed to call in a BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER which provided incredible looks for the entire group--while almost landing on Jeff's head.

As the clouds thickened and it slowly got darker we stopped into Summit Park where an awesome showing of birds at the feeders on Matterhorn netted us STELLER'S JAY and RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET for the day.  I mostly enjoyed watching my favorite bird the WESTERN TANAGER set against the cold grays of the sky and surrounding dead trees. No matter how we ended the day that bird was always a bright spot.

Western Tanager at Summit Park

We continued on to Mountain Dell and Little Dell Reservoirs.  Between the two locations we managed to add just WESTERN SCRUB-JAY for the day, and despite our best efforts couldn't pull out a Lazuli Bunting.  We headed to Big Mountain Pass where a RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER gave its obligatory call from the aspen near the parking area.  Heading down into upper East Canyon we finally snagged a LAZULI BUNTING singing just above Drouby Canyon in the oaks.  Our last stop before dark was Jeremy Ranch Road where there were just a couple birds we needed for the day.  We easily got AMERICAN DIPPER in the river, and with a little work finally turned up a FOX SPARROW skulking in the willows. A distant SWAINSON'S THRUSH sang up canyon, while no less than 16 WILSON'S SNIPE displayed overhead  along the farm land here.  I had never seen so man snipe in the sky at once--it was pretty incredible.

Me taking pictures of hummers. Photo by Norm Jenson

Broad-tailed Hummingbird taken with a Smart Phone

As darkness fell we headed back up East Canyon to try for owls and other night birds.We had put in a solid effort for the day and had some major holes in our list.  We also had some major things to be grateful for.  As it was getting darker we watched the last hummingbirds of the day visit feeders near where we looked for owls.  Just before it got to light to see without flashlights we added RUFFED GROUSE for the day.  A few minutes later the group had killer looks a FLAMMULATED OWL.  Our first try and the bird came in perfectly for everyone to see.

Flammulated Owl by Mike Hearell

Before we left the area a NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL grace us with its lovely repetitious hoot-hoot-hoot-hoot...  Up mountain a ways a NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL sang a few notes and gave an alarm trill just before out of the darkness a big white van driven by Mark Stackhouse with a owl tour pulled up to our vehicles to ask how the day went.  We lamented to our troubles and were quickly on our way--not before Mark kindly shared that he had a singing poorwill at our expected location and last stop on Big Mountain Pass.  Sure enough the COMMON POORWILL responded immediately to our calls.

We made two more stops for the night, missing two more species of owl we had hoped to tack on to our haul--instead we settled for 6 species--not a bad days work. And back to Farmington we headed parting ways with an excellent group of people who provided a great day of birding.

Now I would be lying if I wasn't dying to know what Mark's group had gotten when Saturday rolled around the morning after his trip.  He tortured me via email, and his trip participants by making them keep their lips sealed.  It wasn't until after Mark and I talked for an hour about how my buddies Kenny, Colby, and I finally stripped him of the Utah Big day Crown the previous week, that Mark finally spilled the beans that they had 161 species on their Marathon Trip.  It gave us a target--but at the same time I wasn't quite sure it was the real number--and I was right. It was 162 which he let on as we left during our brief meeting in East Canyon. Although this could have been an honest mistake--every single bird counts when you are going for a ridiculous number of birds in a day, so keeping 1 extra bird in our back pocket ain't a bad strategy.

So what did I tell Mark on the mountain?  Well we had had a rough day which was true. And we weren't done yet, which was true.  So I told him I hadn't tallied the list yet. Well that was a lie--and he of course knew that, I could have told you by the minute where we were at for the day.  Then after the trip I said I lost the checklist, and would have to figure things out today... Yeah that was a lie as well.  Then via email he asked and asked and asked, what was the number??? I kept putting it off. Was it so bad that I didn't want to share it with him? Did he take Team Utah (Bilsky and Avery) to task on their home field (which to be fair was his for 25 years)--they talked a big game but when the time came did we fold under pressure?  I'll be honest, it was a tough day... And there were some big misses... And the weather wasn't super cooperative... And in the end we had a great time and we just did what we could... 167 (one-hundred sixty-seven) species :)

See you in Mexico Mark!

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1 Comments:
Anonymous John said...

Woohoo! Team Utah FTW! Great recap guys and congrats on the win!

May 20, 2014 at 8:44 AM  

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