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What a Year! My First Year Birding in Utah

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Monday, December 31, 2012 

Last month marked the anniversary of my biggest life change- my move out to Utah. I moved out to be with my girlfriend Molly who had moved out in May to start her residency at Primary Children's Hospital. I left Spencerport, NY on the morning of Monday, November 7th and 2000 miles later arrived in Salt Lake City in the evening of November 10th. I only made a few detours on the way; a few for food (Primanti's in Pittsburgh, BBQ in Kansas City) and a few others for birds (Illinois for Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Kansas for geese and sparrows).

 My first Utah sunset, just east of Park City

My first Utah bird is still a favorite of mine even a year later, Black-billed Magpie. In the year since I have seen another 283 species just in Utah, which I think is not too shabby for my first year. I have had 48 life species that time frame with 32 of them found in Utah. One of those lifers I found in Utah proved to be my 500th lifer, Gray Flycatcher (however my 499th bird, Dusky Grouse, may be my actually be my real 500th since the Rosy-faced Lovebird I found in February in Phoenix became countable this year). Both of these birds were found on a great field trip to Deseret Ranch led by Mark Stackhouse.

 A female Dusky Grouse- my 499th life species (or was it 500th?)

The first year in Utah has been filled with many memorable birding moments and many memorable birds. Out of all the birds I saw in the past year, these 10 stand out more than the others for various reasons. Here they are in taxonomical order.

1) Greater Sage-Grouse- This was the first bird I ever saw on its lek. It was awesome to see dozens of these birds in one area just before dawn, with the males doing their best to woo the females on hand. Little did they know that they wooed me.

Greater Sage-Grouse on lek in Henefer

 2) Long-billed Curlew- Ever since I was a kid thumbing through my Golden Guide I had always wanted to see this king of the curlews with its giant bill. And once I finally got to see them this year, they did not leave me disappointed! Their cinnamon colored wings visible when they fly were an added bonus to a cool bird.

A Long-billed Curlew at Antelope Island showing off its namesake bill and neat wing pattern

3) Northern-Pygmy Owl- Not only did this owl become my go-to call for attracting songbirds all over the Wasatch Front, but it was also one of the birds I was looking forward to seeing the most in Utah. They are the perfect addition to the top of any coniferous tree and I think next year I will make a replica of one to go on top of my Christmas tree.

Northern Pygmy-Owls make any conifer better

4) American Three-toed Woodpecker- This may be the rarest breeding bird in New York State but that didn't stop me looking for it in the Adirondacks for years. I never found one but figured it should be easy to find out here compared with back home. I soon found out that they are not easy to find, but it only made my first ever sighting up in Brighton that much more special.

American Three-toed Woodpecker- Silver Lake trail

5) Olive-sided Flycatcher- While I have had this species back east, finding one singing away while hiking Mt Raymond was a real treat. These flycatchers really belt out there song and don't really try to hide themselves while doing so. Check out a video here.

Olive-sided Flycatcher singing on Mt Raymond

6) Clark's Nutcracker- What needs to be said? These birds are bold, inquisitive and handsomely plumaged. I made sure to see my lifer Nutcracker within my first week in Utah. Anytime I am hiking in the mountains and I hear their call, I get a smile on my face.

Clark's Nutcracker on Mt Raymond

7) Rock Wren- I love these little guys. Given how loud their song is, you would imagine a much larger bird. They have a subtly gorgeous plumage and I love the way they bob about when someone invades their territory. (Quick fact: ROCKWREN and FISHCROW are my two top choices if I were ever to get a personalized license plate)

Rock Wren on Antelope Island

8) Sage Sparrow- This sparrow nearly drove me crazy trying to find it. It wasn't until September when I was able to find my lifer when Jeff Bilsky spotted one at the Provo Airport Dike (a nice consolation prize since the Tropical Kingbird was gone). A striking sparrow with plumage different from any other sparrow I have ever seen.

Sage Sparrow at the Provo Airport Dike

9) Baltimore Oriole- I have seen hundreds of these back home, but getting to see my only one of the year in Utah was fun and made that particular Baltimore Oriole more memorable than any other one I've seen (with the possible exception is one that visited my aunt's suet feeder in the middle of winter). An added bonus was getting to see his Red-naped Sapsucker buddy up close too.

Baltimore Oriole at the International Center feeding on his buddy's sap holes

10) Gray-crowned and Black Rosy-Finches- I will be sneaky and lump these two species into one spot since when I was learning my birds as a kid from my Golden Guide they were lumped as one species, the Rosy Finch. The Golden Guide showed me those uniquely colored finches and upon learning that they could only be found in hard to reach areas only made me want to see them more. Seeing them in a huge flock on top of a mountain only added to their mysterious aura. (Note: Since I moved to Utah there have been 2 separate Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches seen in NY. I guess I was meant to see them this year no matter where I was.)

Black Rosy-Finch in a flock of Gray-crowneds on Powder Mountain

As for my favorite Utah birding memories of my first year, I have somehow narrowed my huge list down to the top 10 moments. Here they are in order of the dates they happened.

1) My first week in Utah- Since I didn't start work until the Wednesday after I moved to Utah, I took full advantage of the 5 free days I had before then. I went to the Saltair and Marina, Farmington Bay, Antelope Island, Parley's Gulch and for the grand finale I hiked Grandeur Peak. I netted 79 birds in that week including my lifer Clark's Nutcracker and other good species like Harlequin Duck.

2) Henefer, Powder Mountain and Beus Pond. February 25th- There were many highlights on this trip. I saw my lifer Greater Sage-Grouse on lek, saw my first ever moose, had my lifer Rosy-finches at Powder Mountain along with Red Crossbills and Cassin's Finches, and finished the day looking at semi-domestic Wood Ducks and "wild" Mandarin Ducks at Beus Pond. Ended the day with 50 species. Not bad for the end of February.

A "wild" Mandarin Duck at Beus Pond

3) Easter trip up to White's Valley, April 8th. I went up north in search of various game birds and besides a run-in with a local sheriff, had a very successful trip. The road in White's Valley had dozens of Golden Eagles which we having their own Easter meal of lamb. I ended up seeing both Gray Partridge and Sharp-tailed Grouse which were lifers. I had a gorgeous dark morph Swainson's Hawk, some Long-billed Curlews and my first brief foray into Idaho. 71 species for the day.

Welcome to Idaho! This is just how I imagined it would be

 4) Big Day with Tim and Jeff, May 14th- Just an awesome life experience and I ended up netting 11 lifers. Just make sure you don't let Colby Neuman know you are trying to break his big day record. If you want to read more, check out the blog post I wrote about it here.

5) Jeff Bilsky's Great Salt Lake Bird Fest trip, May 19th- Carl Ingwell and I tagged along to "help" Jeff find birds. Hilarity ensued. Notable birds birds included my lifer Pacific Golden-Plover among 18 species of shorebird, Northern Waterthrush and Grasshopper Sparrow plus a Long-tailed Weasel. Also a new web series was born that day: Part 1 and Part 2. We had 81 species on the day.

Jeff Bilsky field trips are always an experience not to be missed

6) Eastern Birds in Northern Utah, June 17th- Kris Purdy found some awesome eastern birds up around Ogden. By seeing the Prothonotary Warbler and Least Flycatcher, I felt like I was back home. Throw in nesting Cooper's Hawks, a Yellow Warbler feeding a cowbird in its nest and some Cattle Egrets near Bountiful Pond and it was a great day. Here are two videos: Prothonotary Warbler and Least Flycatcher.

Prothonotary Warbler in Ogden

7) Deseret Ranch Field Trip, July 14th- This trip, led by Mark Stackhouse, ranks right up with the Big Day as my favorite Utah birding memory so far.  We had 135 species on the day, but of personal note I had my 500th life species. A great tour by an energetic leader of areas that are unfortunately inaccessible most of the time. So many pristine habitats, so many birds. It's too bad Mark is hooked on Mexican birding since he would be an asset up in Utah. Plus he also played ultimate frisbee so we could even talk about that. Go on the trip next year if you have never been.

Jeff and Carl, Lords of the California Gulls. Dereset Ranch

8) Salt Lake International Center and Lee Kay Ponds, September 22nd- I had a rare free weekend in September, so I got my first real taste of fall migration in Utah with Tim Avery and Jeff Bilsky. A Cassin's Vireo at the IC was a lifer for me and we had other nice birds like Indigo Bunting, Olive-sided and Least Flycatchers, Green-tailed Towhee, Barn Owl and a gorgeous juvenile Swainson's Hawk. Later while stopping at Lee Kay Ponds, we found 2 juvenile Sabine's Gulls- a striking gull I can never see enough of.

 Juvenile Swainson's Hawk at the International Center

9) Three-toed Woodpecker and Mammals at Silver Lake, October 5th- I have written about this about an in another blog post, but it is always so rewarding to see a bird you have been looking for your whole life. Toss is some very close encounters with Mule Deer and Pika and you can't go wrong.
For more about this day including pictures and video, check out the blog post.

10) University of Utah, All Year Long- This one is probably also cheating since it isn't one specific, but the whole past year working at the University of Utah has been great for birds. It has been my first time working outside and my last job didn't even have any windows. I have had 60 birds on campus, including my lifer California Quail and Red-naped Sapsucker, other great birds like Bohemian Waxwings and nesting birds including Western Kingbirds. There is a great mix of habitat and you can see double digit species almost every day.

I have learned so much in the past year about Utah birds, whether it is their distributions, behavior or identification. I discovered that there is great birding to be done along the lake, in the desert, up in the mountains and everywhere in between. And best of all,  I have found Utah birders themselves to a tremendous group, always willing to help me find birds and teach me about them and I can't thank them enough and making me feel like I've been birding here for years. I'm looking forward to what my second year in Utah will hold for me.

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Blogger Tim Avery said...

What an epic year man. Glad to have you here in Utah! Now you habe to ip the ante for 2013!

December 31, 2012 at 12:56 PM  
Blogger Oliver Hansen said...

Nice recap. Keep the posts coming in 2013. We all enjoy them.

January 1, 2013 at 8:16 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

WOW, I hope that everyone in Utah loves to take good care of the Birds. They are a blessing for us and we are lucky that our place is one of the home for many birds. Maybe we can have a fund racings to help their home improve for them to feel more comfortable. Logan Utah events is a free listing and open for any events, weather if its small or big events.

March 11, 2013 at 9:16 PM  

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