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a blog by and for Utah Birders

Exploring Utah

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 

Just as I was getting a case of post-spring migration blues last month, I started to feel better remembering that the mountains were starting to open up and I had whole new areas of Utah to explore again.  With only one summer in Utah under my belt, I still have many parts of the state to explore and many mountains to climb.  Last summer I focused mainly on the Salt Lake City area with a lot of hiking in the Wasatch Front area and only found time to make it up the the Uintas once and late in the year at that.  This summer I am hoping to make it up to the Uintas more often, visit new parts of Utah and to hike some new peaks.

Last month, with a rare free weekend and my girlfriend busy working, I had some time for a weekend full of birding.  That Saturday I met Jeff Bilsky up at Silver Lake in Brighton and we hiked a loop from Silver Lake to Twin Lakes Reservoir to Solitude Lake and back to Silver Lake.  Despite the crowds, this spot is one of my favorite places to bird in Utah since it is full of birds and other wildlife.  My first trip of the year up there once again did not disappoint.  Stepping out of the car we could hear Broad-tailed Hummingbirds whizzing by.  Just after the bridge over the creek we were greeted by a MacGillivray's Warbler which was unusually cooperative and gave us some great views.

A surprising viewable MacGillivray's Warbler

The typical montane species put in their appearances.  A pair of Cassin's Finches looking like they were copulating with the female being dominant over the male.  An Olive-sided Flycatcher did what they do best and was seen perched on a dead snag.  Pine Siskins were seen gathering nesting material.  A very photogenic Western Tanager gave close views as it ate a wasp in front of us then continued foraging.  Yellow-rumped Warblers also put in close views, apparently with their attentions more on food and females. Chipping Sparrows were in abundance as well lending their trills to the sounds of the forest.  Another normally skulky bird, a Lincoln's Sparrow gave us killer looks from close.  Near Silver Lake itself we thought we had a new birder when Jeff told him we had a Creeper and he came up to us for better views.  He grew confused when Jeff kept pointing to the base of a nearby tree.  Finally he said that be thought we said "Beaver" and walked away when he found out he was searching for a small brown bird with a curved bill.

Cassin's Finches showing off some yoga poses

 This female was the dominant bird that day

 An Olive-sided Flycatcher wouldn't be complete without a dead snag

This Pine Siskin was working on its nest

Western Tanager Wasp Lunch

 This Western Tanager gave us extended good looks

 A Western Tanager forages while calling

Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warblers are starting to win me over

 Not a beaver but a creeper.

 An unusual view of a Lincoln's Sparrow

Chipping Sparrows were all over

After our hike was over and Jeff had left, I had a funny moment at a hummingbird feeder near the Brighton resort.  As I was walking over to the feeders, a Hairy Woodpecker flew in to the area and then made its way onto the hummingbird feeder much to the distress of the Broad-tailed Hummingbirds and the woodpecker itself.  For the next five minutes, the hummingbirds kept trying to feed and to drive off the woodpecker but the woodpecker would also do his best to keep the feeder his and keep the hummingbirds at bay.  Eventually he got fed up with the constant buzzing around here and took off, much to the delight of the hummingbirds who wanted to feed.

Hairy vs Broad-tailed

The Hairy keeps the hummer at bay

Finally with the Hairy gone, the Broad-taileds were able to feed

The next day I my plan was to make a solo trip to three places in Utah that I have never visited before:  Bear River Meadows, Monte Cristo Campground and North Arm Natural Area at Pineview Reservoir.  This route would make a nice loop around northern Utah and promised many interesting birds.  Bear River Meadows near Randolph was my first destination for the day.  It turns out that I have driven by this great birding location many times driving to and from the Tetons, but I never realized it was here.  In the future, I will make sure to stop by whenever I am heading up there.  My target birds were Black Tern, American Bittern and Eastern Kingbird.  While I missed out on the bittern, I did see many Black Terns and Eastern Kingbirds.  The habitat here was one that I haven't seen too much with both wet and flooded fields to go along with some more typical marsh habitat.

The birding started out great as soon as I turned onto Crawford Mountain Rd as I noticed a Red-tailed Hawk nest near the intersection and at least one fuzzy chick visible as well.

A good start to the day

Bear River Meadows

Driving down Crawford Mountain Road I noticed all the duck species present that I hadn't seen in a month or two.  Species that I saw included Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Canvasback and Redhead.  All but the Gadwall and Pintail were seen in pairs.

These were the first wigeon I had seen in a few months

This photo helps show the differences between Canvasback (front right) and Redhead

This male pintail was starting to molt into eclipse plumage

Other birds I had only seen as migrants in the spring were also here.  I had a large flock of White-faced Ibis, but given the recent report of a Glossy Ibis, I should have scoped the flock more thoroughly.  There were also a decent number of Franklin's Gulls giving their whiny calls.  Two Sandhill Cranes gave a flyby.  A Willow Flycatcher called away in some shrubs but I could never get a view of it. More typical marsh birds were present as well.  A Marsh Wren was doing anything but be typical singing out in the open at the top of a dead tree.  Common Yellowthroats were among the more musical of birds I heard that morning.  Yellow-headed Blackbirds also lended their color to the landscape.

This Marsh Wren was all about breaking stereotypes

A photogenic 1st year male Yellow-headed Blackbird

Shorebirds were well represented for June and I had 6 different species: Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Spotted Sandpiper, Willet and Wilson's Phalarope.  I was particularly excited to see the Willets and the phalaropes since I haven't had too much experience with these species in their breeding grounds (well I assume they breed around here).  One of the phalaropes gave me the best views in my life so far as it preened and did its silly spinning feeding move which makes it look like something is wrong with it about 15 yards away from me. 

This Wilson's Phalarope gave me great views

The phalarope in the middle of its unique surface tension feeding technique

A video of the phalarope showing off its unique feeding techniques

I was hoping to just get to see one Black Tern and Eastern Kingbird, but I ended up seeing several individuals of both species.  Right before I got to a bridge over the Bear River I saw my first or three pairs of Eastern Kingbirds.  They put on their typical show that I would see at my family's house with them being very vocal and flying all over the place.  I only saw one Eastern Kingbird last year in Utah and I am glad that I am seeing many more of them this year.

Eastern Kingbirds have always been one of my favorite flycatchers

A typical vocal Eastern Kingbird

Once I got to the bridge I saw my main target bird, Black Terns, my 319th Utah species!.  They were flying up and down the river hunting often in pairs,  It was fun seeing this oddball of a tern since it is the opposite color of most of the terns one would see in the US.  After getting to watch the terns for a while I decided that I should get moving on since I still had two cool destinations to visit, but I definitely will be coming back to bird this area- I still need American Bittern!  Next stop, Monte Cristo Campground.

 My first Utah Black Tern

A hunting Black Tern

I hopped on Route 39 towards Monte Cristo, but just before I got there, I stopped at Curtis Creek Road.  Despite all of the ATV traffic and noise, I managed to first hear, then see my first Utah Purple Martins.  It is always a treat to see the largest swallow we have in the United States and it is interested to have to go up in the mountains to see them since they are found all over the place back east.  The martins got especially active and vocal when a Cooper's Hawk made the mistake to fly through their territory and they soon mobbed it away.

My first Utah Purple Martin

I was excited to try out the Monte Cristo Campground given all the reports I have read about it.and all the high elevation species that I could see there  Upon getting out of my car, I heard a singing Cordilleran Flycatcher and made my way to where it was singing.  I didn't have too much trouble finding it due to its vocal nature and got to observe it for about ten minutes as it flew back and forth flycatching and singing.

This Cordilleran Flycatcher was quite vocal

The campground loops themselves we not open yet which left me alone to explore them.  The area turned out to be quite birdy with most of the typical mountain birds being present including Hermit Thrushes, Yellow-rumped Warblers and 'Mountain' White-crowned Sparrows and 'Gray-headed' Juncos- the subspecies that we only see in the summer.  Two more species gave me great extended looks, Western Wood-Pewees and Cassin's Finches, the pewee being especially helpful to study for future identifications.

A gorgeous male Cassin's Finch

Our breeding subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco, the Gray-headed

Although Monte Cristo was productive, I did miss two of the more sought after species present- Williamson's Sapsucker and American Three-toed Woodpecker.  I may have looked in the wrong areas but I will have to come back again and try for these species since they are always great to find.  I had one more stop for the day and continued down Route 39 towards the North Arm Natural Area at Pineview Reservoir.

View south of Monte Cristo Campgrounds

I have birded in the Pineview Reservoir area before, but never in the North Arm Natural area.  This area tended to have a riparian and marshy feel to it and had many nice walking trails to thoroughly explore all the habitats.  I first started out heading down south to the marshy areas and soon found myself hearing the alarm calls of Ospreys in stereo with a nest both to my left and right.  Not wanting to disturb the birds, I headed back to the main trail.

Nesting Ospreys aren't a bird to disturb

I later had one of the Ospreys soaring overhead

The next part of my birding involved lots of sounds and some sights.  Two of the birds I wanted to see here the most were Gray Catbirds and Yellow-breasted Chat.  Both of these birds are very vocal, mimicking other bird's calls but both have a desire not to be seen.  This caused me great frustrations while trying to see them, but made it that much sweeter when I was able to eventually get some great albeit brief views of these two skulkers.  I am surprised how habitat limited Gray Catbirds are out west since they can be found in most habitats out east.

You have to take the views chats are going to give you

The same applies to catbirds

The North Arm was probably my most productive spot for the day with many different birds on land, in the water and in the air.  Warm temperatures had many birds soaring overhead included the nesting Ospreys, a Swainson's Hawk and a Turkey Vulture that was molting and let me apply what I have read about molt in the field.

Note the primary (p7) molting in on this Turkey Vulture

In Pineview Reservoir, there were many Western Grebes hanging out despite the presence of all the boats on the water while there were Caspian Terns hunting over the reservoir.  There were several swallow species taking advantage of the water- Barn, Violet-Green and one of the big surprises of the area, Bank Swallows attending to a colony.  It was fun watching these small swallows zoom all around their nesting holes.

A Bank Swallow at its nesting hole

I was hoping to see a Calliope Hummingbird here and thought I may have seen one at the southern part of the area but didn't have good enough looks to count it.  I did have many Broad-tailed Hummingbirds though both feeding at the abundant wildflowers when not aggressively defending them from other hummingbirds.

This Broad-tailed Hummingbird's throat was as bright as any wildflower

The birds here were not only numerous but many allowed close views that really gave me an opportunity to study them.  I felt lucky that some of the best looks I had were of some of the more colorful species of Utah.

A looker and a great singer, the Lazuli Bunting

While Yellow Warblers are common, views like this are not

The subtly beautiful Cedar Waxwing

What Fox Sparrows lack in color they make up for in song

With it getting pretty hot, I decided to call in a day and head home to Salt Lake City.  But what a day it was!  I started in wetlands, then went up to mountain forests at 9000 feet and ended in riparian habitat.  I finished with 88 species while only birding three different spots.  It just shows you all the unique birding habitats Utah has to offer.  Since I birded these areas, I have also gone to Zion National Park and Nebo Loop, two more awesome birds spots in Utah that I hadn't previously explored.  Look for future blog posts detailing my adventures there along with adventures yet to come.  I think I hear the Uintas calling my name...

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Blogger Jo Ann Natrop said...

What a great day of birding and great shots! I especially liked the small brown bird with the curved bill.

July 15, 2013 at 11:44 AM  

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