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Two of Utah's Most Wanted

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Tuesday, April 30, 2013 

In the past month, I had the chance to see two of Utah's most unique and and amazing sights: the leks of the Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse.  Leks are a mating behavior found mostly in birds where males of the species gather together to do elaborate displays and show themselves off to prospective females who show up looking for a mate.  These two species are together only found in two states (in all the GRSG is found in 11 states and 2 Canada provinces), Utah and Colorado, owing to the range restrictions of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse which is only found in those two states.  It is one of only a handful of birds endemic to the United States.

 The Greater Sage-Grouse is the most common of the sage-grouse

Gunnison Sage-Grouse are only found in Utah and Colorado

In late March I visited the Henefer lek to see displaying Greater Sage Grouse.  In the middle of April, as a part of a Utah Birder's field trip, I got to see Gunnison Sage-Grouse on lek near Monticello, Utah.  Finally this past weekend, I returned to the Henefer lek and got to compare the workings of the lek a month later.  The displays of the two sage-grouse species are similar, with both involving the careful choreograph of inflating air sacs, whipping their head forward, showing off their tails and wings and making sounds by both calling and inflating their air sacs.  Other bird species of game bird in North American may inflate air sacs and dance around, both nothing can beat sage-grouse for the magnificence of their display.

Greater Sage-Grouse are found in 26 out of 29 counties, only not found in Davis, Salt Lake, and Washington counties.  The closest lek to Salt Lake City and one of the easiest ones to view is the lek in Henefer on Route 65.  It is about an hour drive away from Salt Lake City, so in order to get optimum viewing at sunrise, I had to leave my house at 6:30 am in March and 5:30 in April.  Although I had to get up at very early times, getting to see the sage-grouse display at sunrise wass well worth it.  When I visited in March, I counted at least 41 Greater Sage-Grouse on lek with about equal numbers of males and females.  Most of the sage-grouse were out in the field to the west of the parking spot, a few brave (or crazy) males picked a spot where there were fewer males- the middle of route 65.  Luckily cars driving on the road slowed down and no grouse were hurt.

This male Greater Sage-Grouse decided that the best spot to display was the road.

 The display of the Greater Sage-Grouse

Another male was displaying on the road for almost an hour straight.  He had both his good moments when many females were around him and others when he was dancing solo.

Another male had quite the audience

This male put on a show when many females were around...

And when there were very few

This past weekend when I returned to the Henefer lek, things were much different.  This time there were no Greater Sage-Grouse in the middle of the road.  All of them were in the field west of the road which gave amazing views once the sun started rising.  Also the ratio of males to females was different- out of a total of 22 birds, 20 were males and only 2 were females.  By this time of year, most females have already mated with the males with the best displays and are nesting.  The birds remaining were those who weren't as lucky, hoping that they could still get a chance to mate this year.  The remaining males looked smaller and often their tail feathers didn't look as good as their counterparts had the month before.

 It was mostly males at the Henefer lek a month later

Tensions were higher as time was running out to mate

In addition to getting to view Greater Sage-Grouse this spring, I made a trip down to Monicello with the Utah Birders to view Gunnison Sage-Grouse on lek.  In order to view Gunnison Sage-Grouse in Utah, you need to head down to San Juan County in the southeastern portion of the state.  It is there that the 100 Gunnison Sage-Grouse remaining in Utah reside with are only a few leks remaining that are active.  Despite the very low numbers, the birds remain listed only a species of special concern in Utah, but soon the US Government will rule whether the 3500 total birds living in the wild deserve to go onto the Endangered Species Act.  With 95% of the land these birds are found on in Utah privately owned and the threat of wind turbines and a cell phone tower being built near their leks, I personally feel that these birds should be listed as endangered in order to get the full protection they need.

You are looking at 1% of the remaining Gunnison Sage-Grouse in Utah

Gunnison Sage-Grouse is a relatively "new" species, only being split from Greater Sage-Grouse in 2000.  Compared to Greater Sage-Grouse, Gunnison are smaller in size, have a bolder white-striped tail and have denser filoplumes on the back of their head giving them the appearance of having a ponytail.  The sounds produced during their display sound less like the bubbling and popping of a Greater Sage-Grouse and more like the noise a long saw makes when being wiggled up and down.  

The "ponytail" of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse is prominent during their display

A male Gunnison Sage-Grouse struts his stuff

We had our first Gunnison Sage-Grouse while scouting for field trips later on in the weekend.  We were treated with great views of this rare bird as seen above.  However, the next day we made the real trip to the lek, led by Guy Wallace of the Utah DNR who has been studying Gunnison Sage-Grouse for the last 31 years- even longer than they have been a full species!  The night before our trip, Guy gave all the field trip participants a great presentation on the Gunnison Sage-Grouse and their history and future in Utah.  Without him, the Utah population would be even worse off than as it is today.  

We headed to the lek before sunrise and got in position to view the birds.  Viewing the Monticello Gunnison Sage-Grouse lek greatly contrasted with Henefer Greater Sage-Grouse lek.  We were 300 yards away from the Gunnison lek whereas the Greater lek was about 30 yards away, but the biggest difference was in the number of birds at the leks.  The Greater lek had anywhere between 22 and 41 birds present but there were only 6 Gunnison Sage-Grouse at the Monticello lek- 5 males and a female.  Hopefully these numbers will increase over time as it was sad seeing so few of these birds at lek.  The males still put on an impressive show and showed their competition for mates as there was wing fighting between two of the males.

The Monticello Gunnison Sage-Grouse lek

Two Gunnison Sage-Grouse on lek

Both species of Sage-Grouse are a hidden treasure in Utah that can only be fully enjoyed during the right time of year and in the right locations.  Hopefully they can be adequately protected so that future Utahns can enjoy their leks and displays for years to come

On a bonus note, later in the day when I first visited the Henefer lek this year, I encountered an amazing moment in nature at Rockport reservoir.  With the temperatures finally warming up, the ice sheet on the reservoir was melting and as it did it started producing sounds as the ice cracked over long distances.  There were low pitch sounds like you would hear from a whale as well as higher pitched popping like a gun going off.  I have never heard anything like it before and tried to get some recordings of the sounds to share with others.  Here are two recordings of the ice sheet making sounds as it melted.  I hope you enjoy it.

Note the sounds about 6 seconds in

More sounds about 30 seconds in

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eBird, show me those unverified reports

posted by Tim Avery at
on Friday, April 26, 2013 

If you know me, you know I am a huge eBird advocate.  I think its a great tool, and has only gotten better with time (as any good software with a large user base and a developer that takes feedback should).  There are still a few things I would like to see when it comes to exploring data--specifically ALL reports of a species, whether the report has been verified or not.  This would be very easy to show, and very useful to many birders.

A first fall female Cape May Warbler--whether or not the photo is conclusive, it's still a report worth being able to see.

My reasoning is simple: There are numerous checklists with rare birds that have not been verified--but the report very well may be correct.  This means that when exploring data on eBird maps there are species that don't necessarily show up on the maps in areas they have been reported.  And some of those reports are valid reports, but for any number of reasons the eBird reviewer has decided not to verify it.

I have seen 3 Cape May Warblers in Utah in the past 20 years, yet none show up on the eBird maps.

Now wait a second Tim, that reviewer is the one making sure the data pool isn't a mess? Yes, I do agree, but I also agree that if done correctly the information would be beneficial to everyone looking at it, and still be able to show what sightings are perhaps legitimate, versus ones that aren't.  Talking specifically about maps, I will give you an example

Let's say you want to look at HERMIT WARBLER sightings in Utah.  This species is rare but annual fall migrant.  It cuts across the southwest corner of the state in mixed Ponderosa woodlands--the Kolob area and Oak Grove Campground are two areas where this bird is reported.  Although the species is annual, there are very few verified reports in eBird.  This may just be because very few people report them--but let's pretend they are reported more frequently, but with questionable or no documentation, and the reviewer doesn't feel comfortable approving them.

This was the only photo I had of Kolob--during prescribed burns one summer.

At a top level when you come in with the maps if there were locations with verified and unverified sightings they would still show up how they currently do--as purple blocks.  If there were locations that had only unverified sightings, they would show up as red blocks.

How I envision unverified reports showing up from a high level.  Locations with ONLY unverified reports will show up red.

When you zoomed in to the actual location points and clicked on one, not much would change.  It would still display everything as is, with the verified reports showing up as they currently do. The major change would be that at the end of the list is a link that reads, "view unverified reports".

What you would see when you click on a way point--the same as the current view, with a link to pull up the unverified reports.

If you were to click on the link, the list of unverified reports would show up below the verified reports in the same fashion--however nothing would be bold so that it doesn't have as much prominence as the verified reports.

How the unverified reports would appear with the verified.

This would accomplish two things.  First, it would give a complete visual of the ACTUAL reports of a species in a  given area, or specific location.  In doing so it would make the data more valuable so that users could view the whole picture.  Separating the unverified reports out leaves the interpretation of the data to the user.  The majority of birders could look at that and be able to determine the obvious reasons reports weren't verified--versus reports that seem to actually make sense that weren't verified for a random reason here or there.  Secondly, and this will sound bad to some people, but for certain species that are over reported, and seemingly misidentified time and time again, it will make the observer more aware in a public space of their continued mistakes.  A lot of people put species into the database over an over that are misidentified.  A lot of these are probably common species, and it goes unnoticed, because in the grand scheme of things it falls into an acceptable margin of error.  However for other species, that maybe are continually reported, it will be an eye opener.  If you are the only birder who ever reports LEAST TERN from Lee Kay Ponds, and you seemingly report them 2 to 3 times each year, but the other 99% of birders only see one there every 5 years--that will be obvious in the data.

Not everyone self-polices, myself included.  I have numerous reports that have not been verified by the reviewer for some reason or another--however, many of those reports come with valuable information, some with undeniable photo proof of a species, and SHOULD be accessible with the rest of the data in the public records--not through some awful report you can generate from another website that is wildly impossible for your average person to look at and make sense of.  I would rather have my unverified sightings visible to the public, and let the users make their minds up about the sightings based off the notes and photos I provide.

How a location with only unverified reports would show up when the way point is clicked.

In some instances this is important for birds that have never been reported otherwise in the state, or there have been a handful of reports but no verified sightings in eBird.  A prime example is GILDED FLICKER.  This species has now been reported a handful of times from the Mojave Desert in southwest Utah, but none of the reports have been verified in eBird--despite written descriptions and photos of the birds.  Now I don't know the reason for these reports not being accepted--but it is a disservice to other observers and in this case hides important information about the possible extreme northern limit of this species.

Female Gilded Flicker flying past me.  Other photos show other field marks for this species as well.

Not everyone is going to agree with this approach--specifically folks who have lots of unverified reports and might feel uncomfortable with that being out there.  Others, perhaps those in the strictly scientific side of things, might also not like this approach because they feel the person doing the verifying job is weeding out BAD data.  And I see both points.  However, this database is open to the public, and the data should all be easy to read an interpret for all reports.  The reviewer will weed out the majority of bad sightings, and the user will be able to look at that data and make their own assumptions based off of it.

Just my two cents, on something I would like to see to make the data pool even more useful.  What do others think about this kind of idea?  Or do others have ideas that would improve the user experience or data provided in some way or another?

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My 10,000th Photo Upload

posted by Tim Avery at
on Friday, April 19, 2013 

When I was 13 my dad gave me his 1970's Pentax SLR with a 200mm lens.  It was my first real camera, and one that in the 70's was top of the line.  It was all manual, and made me learn how to actually use a camera, and not just point and shoot.  At 200mm it was hardly the ideal weapon for taking pictures of birds, but as a budding birder it was the perfect companion to at least try.

The first Camera I ever used to photograph birds--a Pentax K1000 with a 80-200mm lens.

It weighed a ton--not literally, but it was all metal--the way things used to be made--not the plastic junk with some metal pieces we get today.  I remember thinking it was a really good camera because of how heavy it was.  For a 13 year old shooting pictures with an SLR was a pricey hobby.  I could pick up 4 rolls of film at 200 or 400 ISO with 24 shots per roll for anywhere between $6-10.  It would cost another $12 to get the photos processed afterwards.  So if we went camping for a weekend I could easily spend $25 just for a handful of pictures--all of which by my current standards would end up in the trash can.

I bought more of these 4 packs as a kid than I care to remember.

But I loved it.  The first birds I remember photographing with it were Rufous Hummingbirds at a makeshift feeder my dad made out of a Coca-Cola can and a margarine bowl, that hung from the window cover on our family trailer.  We would go camping and fishing on the Indian reservation north of Roosevelt multiple times every summer, and come July and August the hummingbirds were abundant.  Trying to capture them in flight was the ultimate challenge for me, and one of those memories ingrained form my childhood.

Rufous Hummingbird at a makeshift feeder taken with a Pentax K1000 and 80-200mm lens.

A couple years later with the help of my parents I bought my first SLR, a Canon EOS Elan IIe, and a Tamron 70-210mm lens with a Quantaray 2x teleconverter.  Again, it wasn't the ideal tool for taking pictures of birds, but it was a workhorse Camera I used to take pictures of everything--including my only trip to southeast Arizona in 1998.

Broad-billed Hummingbird in Arizona taken in 1998 with a Canon EOS Elan IIe film camera.

I had that SLR from 1997 until it was stolen from my car one day while birding in Parley's Gulch in 2004.  I wasn't so upset about the camera being stolen, only that it had pictures of one of the only Flammulated Owls ever seen on the Great plains--luckily that year I also got my first ever digital point and shoot and managed to get a few shots with that camera as well.

Flammulated Owl at Chico Basin Ranch, Colorado in 2004. At the time this was only the 2nd report of this species from the Great Plains.  This was taken with a Fujifilm 3.2 megapixel camera through a spotting scope.

When the insurance money for my camera came, I doled out a little extra and picked up the Canon EOS Digital Rebel, which had been out less than a year.  I think I paid close to $1000 for that camera, and picked up a 70-300mm lens to go with it.  It was an incredible step forward in technology, and image quality, and opened up a whole new world for me.  I took it on its inaugural voyage with a road trip to Oregon, where I went photo crazy.  Never had I been able to take photo after photo after photo, and not have to worry about paying for more film or printing. It was amazing!

Red Crossbill taken at Cape Arago State Park, Oregon in 2004, with a Canon Digital Rebel (1st gen), and a 70-300mm lens--a major leap in technology for me.

The following winter I took it with me to Duluth, Minnesota to photograph Great Gray Owls that were irrupting in greater than normal numbers.  You wouldn't know it by the image quality, but the photos were taken with a $150 mostly plastic lens--to this day these are some of my favorite photographs.

Great Gray Owl at Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota in January 2005, taken with my first Canon digital SLR and an inexpensive $150 mostly plastic 70-300mm lens.

After that trip my dad bought me a Canon 100-400mm lens near graduation time--with the expectation that I pay him back for the lens, which there was no way I could afford as a college student.  He never made me pay pay back... Its one of those things that I look back and think how wonderful my parents were to me, giving me the opportunities in life to do the things I wanted to.  They knew at that point I was interested in wildlife photography as a career, and wanted to help me how they could.  Although it never panned out, it became one of my greatest passions and something that without their help I probably would never have been as into it as I am.

House Wren taken in July 2005 in southern Wyoming, with a 100-400mm Canon L lens.

Since then I think I have gone through 4 or 5 digital SLR bodies, I still have the 400mm lens and will never get rid of it, but have switched mostly to a Sigma 150-500mm lens--my second big Sigma lens--for my day to day bird photography.  

Bearded Mountaineer photographed near Cusco, Peru in August 2012 using a Canon t3i and a Sigma 150-500mm USM lens, with a Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash.

For the last year I have watched as my photo collection on timaverybirding.com climbed past 9,000 images and slowly crept in on number 10,000.  This week I finally uploaded my 10,000th photo.  I didn't choose number 10,000, and had all but forgotten about it while I was out photographing this week.  I then noticed the photo counter on my site said 10,009.  I went in and looked--surprised by what shot it actually was.  It wasn't necessarily a special photo I had hoped to upload as number 10,000, but now that its done, I won't soon forget.

Willets and Marbled Godwit coming into land.  The 10,000th photo uploaded to timaverybirding.com.

From humble beginnings almost 20 years ago, to a Marbled Godwit with a couple of Willets at a pond in Lehi on a windy Thursday afternoon.  Those 10,000 shots are cut down from a much larger number of images.  Going back to my first DSLR I estimate I have taken nearly 400,000 images in digital format in the past 10 years.  That means that of the original images taken only 2.5% ever reach the web. 

My cameras through the years...

Another way to look at that is if I were to have bought all the film for that in 24 exposure ISO200 film in 4 packs at an average of $8 per pack, I would have bought 4167 four packs of film, and spent $33,336 on buying the film.  Breaking it down even more, that is 16,668 rolls of film... and to get that processed at an average of $3 a roll at Costco, would have cost $50,004.

So in just 10 years to be able to have captured the images I did I would have had to have spent $83,340 on a hobby. Wow.  Now granted, I never would have had the machine gun trigger finger I have with my current setup, and I would have been much more conservative with my use of film.  That means I likely wouldn't have put together the collection I managed to at this point in my life.

This includes photos of about 484 species of North American Birds, 155 species from Peru, 143 species from Costa Rica, and 42 species from Mexico--there is some overlap from country to country, but all in all I have taken pictures of about 750 species of birds.

Aside from the birds there are hundreds of photos of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, dragonflies, and other insects.  And almost 1,000 pictures of scenery, sunsets, weird weather, the moon, and various other wonders of our world.  Not to mention all the adventures with my lovely wife over the past 5 years.  Memories to last a life time, and at a fraction of the cost that film would have translated to.

Memories to last a lifetime at a fraction of the cost.

So here is to the next 10,000, who knows what that will be and where it will happen.  All I do know is I can't wait to get there and see what stories happen along the way.

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2013 Gunnison Sage-Grouse Days Recap

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, April 16, 2013 

This past weekend, April 12th and 13th, we completed the first ever Utah Birders Gunnison Sage Grouse Days event in Monticello, Utah.  We were able to set up a 15 person visit to a lek on private land near Monticello, as well go birding in the general vicinity.  The following recap covers the event, as well as pre-even scouting, and post event birding.

Jeff Bilsky, Kenny Frisch, and I got an early start to the weekend, leaving Salt Lake in the midst of rush hour on Thursday the 11th. We planned to spend the first half of Friday scouting for Saturday, as well as birding our way down to Monticello.  We had to make a stop in Provo to pick up stickers for the event, so along with our late start we fit in limited birding on the way down.

Stickers and T-Shirts for the Event

We did make a stop in East Bay near the water treatment plant and as luck would have it one of the resident OSPREY decided to put on a show for us as it gathered nesting material.  For several minutes we watched as the bird flew past, dove on a a hillside with talons open and legs stretched, and grabbed nesting material.  The bird would circle back and do it several times before finally flying off in the direction of the nest platform.  The lucky spot we ended up in gave us an unforgettable photo opportunity.

Osprey gathering nesting material in Provo.

Talk about an awesome kick off to the weekend--we had no idea how much better it would continue to get...  We made a brief stop at the pond near the Flying J opposite Camelot Woods between Provo and Springville.  A few ducks and geese, as well as American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and Killdeer were present.  A small flock of TREE SWALLOWS with two BARN SWALLOWS were flying overhead as well.  Back on the road we headed up Spanish Fork Canyon and down Price Canyon, noting a few odds and ends along the way including both LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE and a flock of AMERICAN AVOCET on the Price Canyon side.

Sunset on the hills over Price.

After grabbing dinner in Price it was a dark drive south through Green River, Moab, and finally into Monticello around 11:00pm.  We made our way to Devils Canyon Campground, where we opted to camp in the woods up the road above the campground away from the weekend warriors.  Just after getting there we were joined by Melissa May who birded the remainder of the weekend with us. Outside the temperature hovered around 31 degrees, and the shorts and flip flops I had been wearing all day were no longer the right attire.  After getting my mat set up and sleeping bags on the ground, I tucked in for the night. Did I mention we opted for no tents?

My bed for the first two nights in the mountains.

After a cold night in the mountains we awoke to Kenny's alarm at 6:00am. We decided to drive the Hickman Flats Road to look for any Grouse coming or going to leks, as well as scope out some local specialties. After a quick stop for coffee we were on our way to the flats and after a little looking we found a male GUNNISON SAGE-GROUSE displaying within 100's of the road.  I was shocked at how easy this was.  My previous jaunts here had only seen fleeting glimpses of birds running across the road or flying by.  This time we watched the bird display for 20 minutes in the glow of the morning sun.

Male Gunnison Sage-Grouse Displaying near Monticello.

While we watched this bird we saw others in the distance, all in all we counted 9 birds, about 11% of the total population in the wild in Utah.  A grim reminder that these birds are on the brink of extinction in our state.

The picturesque setting for Gunnison Sage-Grouse Days

After the grouse experience we wandered various roads, getting terrible looks at SAGE SPARROW, and great looks a BURROWING OWL right off the road.  GOLDEN EAGLES were seen at several stops, as were PRAIRIE FALCON, Red-tailed Hawks, and American Kestrel.  A lingering ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK was also seen.

Burrowing Owl along Hickman Flats Road

After going as far east as we could on Hickman Flats, we took Ucolo Road south to North Old Highway to head back to Monticello.  Shortly after starting down the road a LEWIS'S WOODPECKER coursed across the road, followed by another--and then around a half dozen all in all while we watched.  This small group of woodpeckers was very active and seemed to be doing pretty good.  While we were watching these we came across a sapsucker in the junipers nearby.  It took a while to get a good look, but when we did, it was a WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER!  In just 15 minutes we snagged two species that we didn't expect for the weekend.

Williamson's Sapsucker on Hickman Flats was a surprise.

After the woodpeckers we stopped in town before heading towards the Abajos.  Loyd's Lake (as the signs at the lake state--however on the internet it is Lloyd's Lake), had a few ducks and grebes, as well as our target JUNIPER TITMOUSE, and WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH.

White-breasted Nuthatch posing at Loyd's Lake.

We drove up to Dalton Springs Campground where there was plenty of bird activity, including RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER, the usual chickadees, kinglets, and siskin--and both SHARP-SHINNED and COOPER'S HAWK.

Sharp-shinned Hawk soaring over Dalton Springs in the Abajos.

From here we made our way around the north end of the mountains picking up STELLER'S JAY and CLARK'S NUTCRACKER.  A flock of nearly 50 WILD TURKEY crossed the road at one point--we spent about 10 minutes allowing them to cross before we continued.  We ended up missing out on any grosbeaks, or rosy-finches that we hoped to come across, but did get into a nice flock of CASSIN'S FINCHES on the way back to Monticello.

Male Cassin's Finch at Dalton Springs.

Rushing to scout one last location before the rest of the trip participants arrived we hurried to Devils Canyon Campground to try and turn up some of the specialties there.  While we ate lunch in the campground we were joined by RED CROSBILLS, and the #2 target bird here, PYGMY NUTHATCH.

Pygmy Nuthatch holding still long enough for a photo.

Above our heads TURKEY VULTURES and WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS soared.  Chickadees, towhees, juncos, and Cassin's Finches could all be heard singing or calling from various trees.  We split up to look around for our #1 target, the Acorn Woodpecker, but missed out.  I happened to take a break on some rocks where numerous RED CROSSBILL were overhead, and after starting to hoot like a Pygmy-Owl, one of the male crossbills dropped in closer to take a look--and provide an excellent photo op.

Stunning Red Crossbill checking out my Pygmy-Owl imitation.

As we were meeting back up to leave Kenny walked up from behind and flushed a woodpecker from a tree behind me.  We found it a moment later in a large Ponderosa.  It was a sapsucker, with a orange-red nape, but a messy barred back.  What a conundrum.  The bird eventually flew right in to a small tree right next to us, and allowed some great views form close up.  In my opinion the birds was either a hybrid Red-naped X Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, or a 1st winter male YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER, still attaining adult plumage--with an uncharacteristic amount of red on the nape.  I'm betting it's a hybrid, but one can always hope for the cooler pure rarity.

Presumed Yellow-bellied X Red-naped Sapsucker hybrid found at Devils Canyon Campground while scouting for Grouse Days.  Although this bird shows heavy traits for YBSA, the mix of field marks probably points to a hybrid.

We had to take off to get back and meet the rest of the group who would be arriving at 3pm to do some afternoon birding with us.  Based on the activity at Devils Canyon we decided to take everyone back there.  About an hour later we were back with the group, totaling 12 of us for this portion of the trip.  The birds had all but stopped making a raucous by the time we got back, and were unable to relocate the sapsucker.  Wed did however find 2 EVENING GROSBEAKS and all the other previously mentioned species.  As we were getting ready to head out and try for ACORN WOODPECKER, one bird called twice from just below the parking area at the end of the campground loop.  We still tried for the birds in their usual spot along 191, but nothing was seen or heard there.  As a side note this was our guiding groups 8th Woodpecker of the day--okay 7.5th species.  An 7.5/8 woodpecker day in Utah is fairly unusual, and worth mentioning--maybe a blog post about it another time would be interesting too.

Utah Birders at Devils Canyon Campground.

After missing visuals of the woodpecker we herded the group back to Monticello where we ate dinner at Wagon Wheel Pizza in town. There aren't a lot of options for places to eat in Monticello, and this was by far the best choice.  Although the service was slow (I guess they weren't used to 14 patrons on a Friday night), the Pizza was good.  By the end of the meal all 15 participants in the trip had arrived, and we headed across the street to the San Juan Administration building where we met Guy Wallace a biologist for the Department of Natural Resources, who has spent his 31 year career in Monticello.  Guy knows the Sage-grouse in Utah better than anyone, and gave a brief orientation on the birds, their history, status, and possible future.  Guy would also be our guide to the lek the following morning.  Following the orientation everyone parted ways for the night--and for those interested in owling we would take a short walk around Devil's Canyon later that night.

The Abajo Mountains were a great backdrop for the weekend.

At 9:30pm our group of 4 met up with 4 other Utah Birders and were able to call in one NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL on the moonless evening.  In the past the owls here have been more vocal and cooperative, but the calling bird was more than enough to satisfy most of the group.  Then it was time for another cold night camping--we did manage to have a fire for about an hour before finally ditching the warmth of the flames for the warmth of the sleeping bags.  We had to get up at 5am the next morning, so we needed some sleep to make that happen.

Sunrise over the Hickman Flats near Monticello.

When Kenny's alarm went off Saturday morning at 5am I wanted to throw a rock at him--what were we doing?  Oh that's right, getting a life bird for the vast majority of the group--Kenny, Jeff, and Melissa had that pleasure they day before, but the other 12 attendees had either never seen one or had only poor looks in the past.  After hastily packing up camp we headed into Monticello again.  A quick stop for coffee and restrooms and we were on our way to meet the group.  We piled into 4 vehicles and fell in behind Guy Wallace to head out to Hickman Flats to visit the lek.  We arrived on site to find several males booming 250-300 yards out in a field.  The 15 members of the group gazed the birds in awe.

Utah Birders watching Gunnison Sage-Grouse

We spent over an hour there in the 30 degree air, with a slight northeast breeze, easily dropping the way it felt into the low 20's.  It was miserably cold, but everyone was exuberant about getting to watch the birds.  We were able to watch several skirmishes between the males--all vying for the attention of just 1 female present this morning.  Other birds at the lek were limited to a few VESPER SPARROW, COMMON RAVEN, and HORNED LARK.  But the show-stopping GUNNISON SAGE-GROUSE were the whole point of the weekend, and we could officially call Grouse Days a success!

Displaying Gunnison Sage-Grouse in the distance.

15 Excited and Cold Utah Birders on the Hickman Flats.

After thanking Guy for his help and the great viewing opportunity we set off across the flats to show off some of the other birds.  We relocated the BURROWING OWL from the previous day, albeit several hundred yards further from the road.  We ended up tracking down a SAGE SPARROW--the bird was really flighty and every time the group got anywhere near it flew off into the sage.  I split up from the cars and hiked ahead to see if I could get it out int he sage in my scope, for everyone to see.  As soon as I was out of earshot of the cars, I could hear the beautiful song of these unique little sparrows.  I quickly found the bird, and as the cars caught up waved them in to get a look.  Eventually with a little coaxing the male individual came right in to the fence providing stellar looks for all.

Singing Sage Sparrow along Hickman Flats Road.

We stopped to pick up the Lewis's Woodpeckers, and also snagged JUNIPER TITMOUSE, CHIPPING SPARROW, and an early arriving DUSKY FLYCATCHER along North Old Highway. After that everyone headed into town to regroup for our next set of stops.  On the way in we fell behind and as luck would have it a flock of PINYON JAYS flew across the road for a new trip bird.

Pinyon Jays atop a distant Juniper.

We made stops at Loyd's Lake and Dalton Springs in the Abajos again and saw much of the same from the previous day before having everyone meet at Devil's Campground one last time to get their official grouse days shirt and sticker, and the last few stops of the day--Recapture Reservoir and the Blanding Wastewater Treatment Ponds.

Jeff looking for birds in the Abajos.

We were down to 10 people at Recapture, but those lucky that stayed got killer looks at an OSPREY in a dead snag north of the reservoir, and 4 COMMON  LOONS near the damn.  From here we headed to Blanding losing 4 more participants as we got further south.  At the ponds we picked up FRANKLIN'S, BONAPARTE'S, and a single CALIFORNIA GULL.  A first county report (in eBird) for MARBLED GODWIT included 3 individuals--and a flock of 40 or so WHITE-FACED IBIS were hunkered down out of the wind.  We met British birder Dave Briddon and his wife here--they alerted us to the Franklin's Gulls, Godwits, and Ibis.  In turn we showed them the Bonaparte's and California Gull.  It was other-worldly running into birders in Blanding--a desolate stop in the middle of the desert where I have never ran into birders in the past. In any event, this is where Grouse Days came to an end.  We parted way with Norm and Gail Jenson who stuck it out to the last stop, and our group of 4 dropped into the desert and Montezuma Creek Canyon.

Kenny on "mini Pride Rock" in Montezuma Creek Canyon

We checked several places I have had luck in the past--but the creek was completely dry, and the ponds I know about were all but empty--it was a sad affair. We missed Black Phoebe at a pond that I have had them at every time I have visited.  But did turn up BLACK-THROATED SPARROW and CANYON WREN in another location where they are expected.  A surprise here was while checking a Great Horned Owl nest from past years, we flushed a BARN OWL that was either appropriating the nest, or the cliffs nearby.  This was a 1st in eBird for the county.  As we headed south out of Montezuma Creek was had a WILD TURKEY cross the road, followed by a flyby hummingbird that we assumed was a BLACK-CHINNED.  At the pond where we missed the phoebe earlier, Jeff spotted 2 BLACK PHOEBES that had just been hiding on our earlier stop.

Although usually associated with southwest Utah, the Black-throated Sparrow in habits the entire southern half of Utah, and is quite common in the low desert of San Juan County.

We swung through Hatch Trading Post, and continued towards the town of Montezuma Creek--as we approached Jeff spotted a flock of 38 or 39 AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS soaring several hundred yards above the desert.  They appeared to be following the San Juan River towards Lake Powell, but surely looked out of place in this barren wasteland.

Out of place migrant American White Pelicans over the desert.

We made it to Bluff and after a little struggle finding a place to stay for the night, we ended up at one of my old campsites for the night.  We spent the waning hours of daylight watching WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS head into the cliffs for the night, while we ate dinner and just relaxed.  I was out cold by 9:30, and basically slept through the night.  It was easy since the temperature only got down to 50--too bad we hadn't camped here the previous two nights...

Sun setting on the red rocks in Bluff.

We started the morning in Bluff with a quick gas station break, next to the Kokopeli Inn, where a LUCY'S WARBLER was singing form the trees.  From here we headed west to Sand Island Campground, but instead of birding the campground we headed to the bridge on the highway going over the river--just west of the campground.  Here you can pull off the road next to the river.  While walking and scanning along the banks here we heard what sounded like a WHITE-THROATED SPARROW singing on the opposite side of the river.  We got bad looks and decided to try and coax it out just to be sure.  It was indeed what we had hoped, and a great find for the trip.

Vagrant White-throated Sparrow along the San Juan River.

Heading back into Bluff we were almost to town when I spotted what looked like a crow on top of a power pole on the highway.  I hollered at Jeff to stop but couldn't spit out that I thought it was a CHIHUAHUAN RAVEN while I hurried to get out and take pictures.  The bird ended up flying rather quickly, but not before I took 2 or 3 shots of it perched.  I told the guys what I thought it was but wasn't completely sure till I got home and checked the pictures on a big screen.  You can judge for yourself here...

Possible Chihuahuan Raven just outside of Bluff.

Back in town we followed 5 WHITE-FACED IBIS flying right over the highway.  We added YELLOW WARBLER on the east side of town before heading to the Navajo Twins rocks and ponds on the north side of town in Cottonwood Wash.  The upper pond was almost completely empty and the only bird of note was a LUCY'S WARBLER in the trees.  the lower pond appeared void of all birds except for an AMERICAN COOT, but as we walked down the dike that leads into the pond Jeff spotted all 3 species of teal including a gorgeous male BLUE-WINGED TEAL.

Male Blue-winged Teal showing its namesake.

After enjoying great looks at the ducks, and unsuccessfully trying to conjure up Sora, Virginia Rail, and Common Moorhen, we were walking away when a WHITE-WINGED DOVE started cooing from the trees below the pond.  After getting eyes on the bird it mad ea short flyby, allowing for a few pictures.  It is likely that this species breeds in Bluff, as there have been birds here on each of my visits here in the past decade.  For anyone that happens to be down this way, keep an eye out for this bird typically associated to the other southern corner of the state.

White-winged Dove we found in Bluff.

We headed out of town and headed east along the San Juan River to see what else we could find.  There wasn't much but we did turn up a few more LUCY'S WARBLER--and I was impressed with the 7' tall sage brush along the San Juan River here.

The tallest Sage Brush I've ever seen...

We decided it was time to head back north so made our way back to Blanding with a quick stop at the Wastewater Ponds.  The birds had mixed up a little form the previous day--with 2 fewer godwits, and 34 more BONAPARTE'S GULLS.  A huge flock of about 100 YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS were also present.  We stopped again at Recapture Reservoir, where a GREATER YELLOWLEGS upped our shorebird count for the trip, and a small flock of RING-BILLED and FRANKLIN'S GULLS sat on the water.  Our last birding stop of the trip came as we made a last ditch effort for a visual on ACORN WOODPECKER.  This time with fewer people, and less traffic, one bird obliged us and sat patiently watching us from about 100' feet away in a Ponderosa for 20 minutes.  For Jeff it was the moment of finally setting his eyes on that nemesis bird that had eluded him time and time again

Acorn Woodpecker was a great way to end our birding in San Juan County.

We parted ways with Melissa here and started the 5+ hour journey back north.  We made one last stop in Green River--not for birds but to fill up on a Bacon Cheeseburger at Ray's Tavern--it's truly the only place to eat in Green River--no serious, unless you want fast food this is the only place to go.

Lunch stop in Green River at Ray's Tavern.

We weren't quite done birding though--in Spanish Fork Canyon Jeff spotted a flock of about 50 FRANKLIN'S GULLS flying over the highway, which we had to stop and look at given where we were.

A few of the 50+ Franklin's Gulls in Spanish Fork Canyon.

And as we rolled into Spanish Fork a SWAINSON'S HAWK made its way onto our trip list, which ended up at 130 species for the 72 hours we were out.  It was hard not to look back at the weekend and call it a great success--and one of the best weekends of birding I've had in Utah.  Hopefully in 2014, we will be able to have the 2nd annual Gunnison Sage-Grouse Days, and introduce a few others to birding in this remote and often forgotten portion of Utah.

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