After our first three trips of the year, which totaled almost 15 weeks and over 25,000 miles, we thought the remaining trips would be less hectic, more about the quality of the birding than the quantity of the birds (because we had so few species left on our target list).
Yet, here we are in New Hampshire (which was not even on our starting itinerary), after already having spent birding time in Oklahoma, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Vermont, and it has only been two weeks since we left home (but over 4300 miles)! So much for “less hectic.”
With all that go-going, we have fallen behind in both the quality and quantity of our web blogging, so we wanted to take some time to catch you up on our experiences in each of the states mentioned above during the last two weeks. Some of this may be a repeat of what we have already written and it could get a little long-winded, so bear with us.
Inexplicably, we had missed the Mississippi Kite during the spring migration in the Rio Grande Valley and in our travels around the Gulf of Mexico, so we targeted that species during our trip north through the central states.Oklahoma, specificallyOklahoma City, was our choice of where to start looking for the bird. From our past experiences driving across Interstate 40 we knew that the bird should be easy to see there. It wasn’t as easy as we had thought. It took us about three hours of looking before we finally spotted a single bird perched by the side of the road.
In Iowa, we were looking for Greater Prairie-Chicken. It was several weeks past the usual end of the spring lekking season and we knew that it would be much harder to find birds when they were no longer coming to the lek. Our friend, Mel, from New Mexico, had given us directions to a major lek site, where he used to work, near Kellerton. Our hope was that a few birds would still be hanging out in the area and we could flush one up. There were many birds in the area of the lek, but none of them was a prairie-chicken. We saw or heard Bobolinks, Dickcissels, blackbirds, Upland Sandpipers, sparrows, geese, meadowlarks, turkeys, ducks, Ring-necked Pheasants and several more but nothing looked like a chicken or squawked like a chicken, so no prairie-chicken.
Minnesota was a great success for us. Even though we missed four of our target species (Spruce Grouse, Great Gray Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker), we fell in love with the North Country. There was so much open space available for birding (unlike the RGV where 97% of the land is private and behind locked gates) and so many new habitats for us to explore. We were surprised, however, by how few other birders we met during our week-long stay. Except for a few groups of birders we saw in the area around Sax-Zim Bog and a single birder from Pennsylvania who we met near the Big Bog, north of Waskish, we were alone in the north woods. We were also surprised by how hot it got. We had temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s during several days, something we didn’t expect for early June. The warm temperatures seemed to negatively affect the birding and they were a main reason why we decided to leave Minnesota earlier than originally planned. We did find 13 of our target species in Minnesota, (including the elusive Black-billed Cuckoo) so the early exit was not that harmful to our list.
We spent less than one full day in Wisconsin, so it is not surprising that we did not get any new birds there. We tried for White-winged Crossbill and Spruce Grouse as we drove across the state and passed up chances for other species still on our target list because they were too far off our intended route. The point is, there were good birds in Wisconsin, we just did not spend enough time there to have a good chance of finding them.
Our time in Michigan was similar to that in Wisconsin, but this time we had much better luck in finding birds. We missed some White-winged Crossbills that had been reported on eBird but the guided tour of Kirtland’s Warbler habitat hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society, near Grayling, was a slam dunk. In fact, our guide said that they had a 100% success rate finding the birds during all of last season and so far this season. It is a bit of a drive to get to Grayling from most parts of the U.S., but once you get there you will get your lifer warbler.
During the warbler walk we met Charlie and Jane Martin from Massachusetts. We started chatting about our birding experiences and Renee mentioned that we had not seen Evening Grosbeak yet. It turns out that they had just seen some at a state park near Grayling and we got directions, left the warbler walk early, hurried to check out of our motel and hustled over to Hartwick Pines State Park. It only took about 10 minutes for a pair of grosbeaks to arrive at the bird feeders at the rear of the visitor center and we were able to add our second new species of the day. Thank you, Charlie and Jane!
We drove straight through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York without doing any birding, the simple reason being that there was almost no chance of finding anything new for our list in the habitats through which we were driving. We arrived in Vermont late in the afternoon on Wednesday and drove straight to the Okemo Mountain ski area. At the end of the Okemo Mountain Road we parked at the gate and hiked the rest of the way to the summit near the chair lifts and old fire tower (about a 10 minute walk).
Our target here was the Bicknell’s Thrush. It is not a common bird anywhere and is quite hard to see.Okemo Mountain is not the “go to” spot for the bird. Most folks would probably say Saddleback Mountain in Maine is a much better place to see it. But getting to Saddleback and hiking in its notoriously fickle weather is much harder than driving up a paved road at Okemo Mountain and hiking in for 10 minutes. Besides, Okemo Mountain is only about an hour away from Michael’s sister in New Hampshire, where we are staying now. So, even though our chances of finding the bird were lower than at other locations we chose Okemo Mountain as our first site to try for it.
Four hours later, after listening to three other species of thrushes singing in the spruce-fir forest, waiting until it was nearly completely dark, and while dejectedly walking back to the car, we finally heard the Bicknell’s distinctive call note. It was so dark that we could not see the birds (There were two calling back and forth near us.) so we played a short segment of tape to try to get a confirmation of the species by song. Immediately, the male sang several phrases and we had our bird. Unfortunately, there is no picture. Photographs don’t work well in the dark!
Tomorrow we will climb Mount Monadnock, an iconic location in southern New Hampshire, in search of White-winged Crossbills. Again, it’s not exactly a “go-to” spot for the bird in summer, but it is close to where we are and there is a recent eBird report, so why not give it a try? Wish us luck!