Day 366 +11 - May 2016 Recap

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 0 Comments A+ a-

When April came to an end, it was just the beginning of the biggest month of birding in Utah history.  I say this for two reasons.  The first is that it legitimately was a huge month for birds in Utah.  Lots of species and lots of rarities.  The second is that in May I set a new Utah Big Month record with a whopping 257 species.  I passed the previous record by 7 species which had been held by Mark Stackhouse for 15 years.  I bested my own previous Utah Big Month of 235 by 22 species.  It was a huge month.  And a huge month means long post with lots of pictures and stories.  If you don't want to hang on for the ride, I suggest closing your browser window now!

It didn't take long to add a couple year birds, with the first morning of May producing Warbling Vireo and Broad-tailed Hummingbird in my backyard.  I had very few year birds that were first seen in my yard, so I was happy with a couple in May.  May 2nd was when things started to get crazy.  I had already been checking northern Utah County hotspot Powell Lake most days on my lunch break.  I made it a ritual to swing by a couple spots, scope the birds, and head back to the office to finish the day.  This Monday was no different as I pulled my truck over on the road that split the lake in two halves.  I put my binoculars on the gull flock and started scanning when I saw a dainty, compact gull on the water.  I stared for a second thinking the shape was wrong for Bonaparte's Gull which were also present.  Then the bird took flight and the glaring black "M" pattern on the wing and back was impossible to miss--it was a Little Gull!

The Little Gull, on a little lake in Utah

Stunned I hurriedly took some pictures then crafted an email to the listserv.  This was a mega in May--or anytime in Utah with just 3 previous records.  With number 4 in the books I was proud to have been the finder of 50% of Utah's Little Gulls now.  It ended up being the only year bird for the day as I spent the rest of my lunch hour taking pictures and waiting for others to show up. A few people arrived and I left knowing that others were on the bird.  By the time the bird disappeared more than 30 birders had entered checklists in eBird with the gull.  On the 3rd, I went back to see if I could get better photos--which I did, and while I was watching the bird with a small group or birders an email came across the listserv--Long-tailed Jaeger at Sand hollow Reservoir--280 miles from home.

Birders chasing their lifer Little Gull at Powell Lake

If you followed my blog in 2016 you know this was the first hard decision I had to make.  Chase a bird I had already seen in Utah, and have people wondering why did he chase a bird he already has in Utah (mainly my friends).  Don't chase and risk missing a huge year bird.  Chase and don't tell anyone--get the bird, and no one is the wiser.  I wrestled with this the night of the 3rd--then promptly woke up in the middle of the night, packed my truck and hit the road.  I made the 280-mile journey in the dark and arrived to an empty state park.  Empty except for me, and a Long-tailed Jaeger.

Me and my pal the Long-tailed Jaeger #jaegerSelfie

For 30 minutes it was just me and jaeger.  I took photos, I looked at the stunning adult bird in detail.  It didn't look like it was doing well and I wondered if it would make it to the weekend.  And then as quickly as I had come in under the cover of darkness and anonymity, I left the park, no one the wiser.

As fierce as this looks, it was just a Long-tailed Jaeger yawn

I had plenty of time to kill.  I had basically set the day aside and had come all this way.  There were other birds to be seen so I set off to look.  The first target was a hopefully lingering Lark Bunting in the Washington Fields.  I headed that way and quickly found Lark Sparrows.  As I was almost through the loop of the area where the bunting had been seen it popped up and landed on a Cholla Cactus.  Tick!  Almost too easy.  I decided since I had come all the way down here I should go check out Lytle Ranch.  It was the middle of the week, who would be there?  I could get out there, add another 15-20 species of migrants and arrivals for the year then be on my way.  Like my previous trip, I should have gone to Zion and looked for Painted Redstart--instead, I blew my cover...

Lark Bunting posing on a Cholla

I made the trek to the ranch and had about 90 minutes to bird.  When I pulled into the parking lot I was shocked there was a vehicle.  I wasn't worried as what were the odds they knew me.   I got out of the truck and then heard my name, "Tim, Tim Avery?".  You've got to be kidding me... I turned around and didn't recognize the face, but headed over to talk.  It was the husband of another birder and they'd been on one of my trips before.  Busted.  I talked for a second and then hurried on my way.  One birder, okay, that's not terrible.  There was a lot of activity and I quickly started adding year birds.  Then I heard voices and looked through the trees a small group of 5-6 birders were headed my way.  What the hell is going on?  It's a Wednesday in May!

While I was seen by others, I was busy seeing Summer Tanagers

I decided this was too much and headed back to my truck a different route.  I left in a hurry and basically cursed myself the entire drive back to St. George (the nearest city).  I knew there had been an Orchard Oriole reported over the weekend and thought about trying for it but knew that there were probably a handful of birders around now.  I also knew a Painted Redstart had been reported at a nearby park.  I chose the park and missed.  I had to head home and while on the drive back I got word that the oriole had been seen.  I mad ea series of mistakes and couldn't believe it.  Luckily I got the jaeger and bunting to dampen the blow.

By the following Monday it would be my biggest week of the year.  I had clients for 2 full days, a 2-day  trip back to St. George with my friend Jeff Bilsky, the Marathon Birding trip I would lead at the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, and my first owling client of the season.  All this in 7 days.  And it would be a big week.  The two days of guiding didn't turn up anything major but I added Stilt Sandpiper, Northern Waterthrush, and Grasshopper Sparrow for the year.

This was the best look I got at a Grasshopper Sparrow this year...

I also made my only visit to the local Greater Sage-Grouse lek for the year, luckily avoiding the crowds that have become a hassle here on weekends.

Greater Sage-Grouse drinking from a roadside puddle

On the only day I spent in the office this week, I took my lunch hour and started what would be my new ritual for the next 30 days, conducting a daily survey on private property owned by the state of Utah on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake.  I dubbed the site, "North Shore" for short and it would quickly become my go to for rarities.

"North Shore" in a down pour

This was my 3rd time here this year, but the first with permission to bird on the property giving me access to acres of trees closed to the public.  On my very first survey it rained--birds.  The first new sight of the year were White-throated Swift zipping overhead.  These migrants were almost never seen in the valleys but storms had likely put them here on the shore in search of food.  As I scanned the birds zipping left and right I caught one small dark bird--a cigar with wings--it was a Vaux's Swift.  Bam! That was a nice find and would end up being my only sighting of this species in 2016.

Crappy record shot of the Vaux's Swift at North Shore

Somehow I made it to May without seeing Lewis's Woodpecker.  I didn't expect my year bird to come at a migrant trap, but here I was looking at one.  I would end up seeing dozens as the year went on, but this was still the first.   The following afternoon I picked up Jeff Bilsky and we were on our way to southern Utah for 48 fast hours of birding in the desert, followed up by the trip we co-lead.  The target for tonight was a Spotted Owl in Zion National Park.  We made the 4-hour drive, hopped on the canyon bus, and made our way to the trailhead.  We reached our destination with a little daylight left and waited for it to get dark.  But I had made a miscalculation.  Normally I do this hike in April when the sun sets earlier.  Tonight the last bus down canyon left just 30 minutes after sunset.  We would have to almost run the entire trail back to make the bus.  We waited till the last possible moment with no owls making an appearance before we hit the trail.  As we jogged into the parking lot the last bus down canyon for the night arrived.  Had we waited 5 minutes longer we'd have been walking back the 4 miles to our car.

The view of Zion Canyon from a high side canyon after sunset

Not wanting to go empty handed we decided to head out on a road we could drive and try listening in a few other spots.  So that's what we did.  Just when we were about to give up I heard the faint staccato barking of a Spotted Owl in a side canyon where I've had them a couple times.  Although there would be no visual or photo tonight, I was just happy to get this bird before it was too late.  We made it to our campsite sometime after midnight where Lesser Nighthawk could be hear trilling in the warm desert night.

At first light, we were at Lytle Ranch seeing what migrants were around.  There wasn't much.  In fact, it was a rather sad affair.  Lytle had been my go to for great birding for years.  Migration at it's finest.  But in 2016 the ranch was hit or miss, with miss being the more common theme.  I only added a couple migrants this morning, with the highlight being a beautiful Indigo Bunting.

A lovely Indigo Bunting on territory at Lytle Ranch

The rest of the day was spent visiting our favorite hot spots around the desert and in the mountains of this corner of the state.  I only added 11 year birds on the day with Acorn Woodpecker and Hooded Oriole rounding out my list.  It was less than expected.  On a side note I was relieved to have chased and gotten the jaeger--had I waited I would have missed the bird.  We checked Sand Hollow and there was no sign of the bird.  As we were leaving the state park Jeff joked that he had seen a dead jaeger on the side of the road.  WE turned around and went back, and the joke became reality.

Jeff with the dead Long-tailed Jaeger #jaegerSelfie... The bird made it's way to Dixie State University to join their collections.

The emaciated bird had bit the dust, likely dropping from the sky exhausted, sick, and far from its usual habitat.  This, unfortunately, is a regular occurrence for wayward jaegers over the continental United States and was coincidentally the 2nd dead jaeger I've found in Utah.

The following morning brought much of the same--but many fewer year birds.  In fact, only 2 year birds came to fruition.  The first was a Brown-crested Flycatcher followed up a short time later with Cassin's Kingbird.  The kingbird was a big deal since this species has been harder to find reliably in recent years.

Cassin's Kingbird being super territorial

We headed back to Salt Lake with 17 new year birds in my pocket, bringing my year tally to 264 species.  The biggest miss was the lack of migrants making it a possibility that I would miss Pacific-slope Flycatcher for the year.  I wouldn't be back till late in June, and then again till September.  Luckily, I had gotten almost every other species I needed for the year in the 5 trips I'd made so far to this corner of "Narnia".

The following day would be the single biggest day of birding I had for the year.  Our Marathon birding trip would see around 160 species for the day as we bounced all over northern Utah chasing the mostly common stuff while trying to pick up the unusual stuff along the way.  12 new year birds came mostly in the form of migrants, with flycatchers making up the brunt of those birds. Willow, Hammond's Gray, and Cordilleran Flycatcher were all new for 2016, with an Olive-sided Flycatcher to boot.  All 5 of these species were at the tiny migrant trap Garr Ranch on Antelope Island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake.

Marathon Birders looking at warblers or empids at Garr Ranch

Along the Antelope Island Causeway, I snagged Red Knot and American Golden-Plover for the year.  But missed Ruddy Turnstone for about the 4th or 5th time for the year.  In the afternoon I picked up a surprise Broad-winged Hawk in Little Cottonwood Canyon--the 2nd year in a row we've found one on this trip.  We ended the day owling in a misting rain in the mountains outside Salt Lake.  In the dark we heard Flammulated Owl and Ruffed Grouse to end the day. This first Flammulated Owl would be one of more than 175 I would hear or see in 2016.

The following day I was back at work, but took my usual lunch time break--this time back to Powell Lake where luck would have it, a Least Tern was circling.  This never sure-thing was nice to find, and jsut kept the string of good birds going.

Least Tern making a pass over Powell Lake

The day continued with my first owling client of the year.  Before dark we did some birding in the mountains outside Salt Lake and the combination of new year birds was an odd one.  A singing Gray Catbird, followed by a Calliope Hummingbird at a feeding station in a nearby canyon, and a Northern Goshawk calling from the forest nearby.  All new year birds and good birds to be seen on the same day.  And of course, the owling was on par with most Mountain West Birding Company owling tours...

A client reviews their lifer photo of a Flammulated Owl with me

At this point things couldn't get better right? Wrong, the rarity train continued the next day.  I headed back to the North Shore for a survey and not even 10 minutes in and I was looking at a female Scarlet Tanager.  I didn't expect to get that in 2016 so it was a good find. Thsi was followed less than 30 minutes later by a singing Black-and-white Warbler.  A bird I expected this year, but not as an audible!  The tanager being a review species was submitted to the UBRC and passed unanimously 9-0 with the accompanying record shots.

Record shot of a female Scarlet Tanager at North Shore

Over the following 2 days, I added two more year birds in Eastern Kingbird and migrating Purple Martin.  But all was not well on the big year front.  It was May 19th and I was missing a breeding species that I would have a lot of trouble finding at any point after this.  I had plans over the weekend and couldn't go then, so I had to make a decision.  Write the bird off for the year, or try to do a day trip the next day.  Again, I slipped away without anyone really knowing what was going on, and made the 4-hour drive int eh dark to Monticello, Utah.  I ended up at first light sitting on a Gunnison Sage-Grouse lek listening to and getting a glimpse at a very distant GUSG for 2016.  I lucked out on what could have been a huge miss.

Very cropped, very distant Gunnison Sage-Grouse at Hickman Flats

The morning also brought my both Pygmy Nuthatch and White-breasted Nuthatch for the year, and as a surprise, the only Bushtit I would have in 2016 were a small flock this day.  Back in Salt Lake and a couple days later I was chasing Semipalamted Plover before work.  I had missed this species thus far and was worried I might miss it altogether.  I drove to Antelope Island before work and ticked the bird before checking out a report of a Tennessess Warbler at Bountiful Pond on the way back south to work.  No warbler, but a singing White-throated Sparrow was a nice consolation.  On top of these birds I managed a lunch break which produced a "che-bekking" Least Flycatcher at the North Shore.  I was running on empty but the good birds just kept coming.

Sunrise over the Great Salt Lake on a quiet weekday morning

I took it easy the next day but decided to try for a bird I hadn't been able to chase yet--a Northern Parula at River Lane in Utah County.  I headed to the spot the bird was reported and it was still feeding in the same tree.  How random along a river where the bird could be anywhere.

Best "Utah-look" I've gotten at a Northern Parula

As the week came to a close I went out one morning to look for Black Swift near my house in Little Cottonwood Canyon.  There had been no reports yet, but I imagined they were back.  At the usual spot, there was one circling out over the canyon in the dim morning light.

Black Swift high above Little Cottonwood Canyon

I headed to the office for the day but took my usual late morning lunch break to do a survey at North Shore.  As I turned onto a side trail there in front of me was a large-billed kingbird perched low over a field.  I started taking pictures.  I was almost positive it was a Tropical Kingbird.  I sent the photos around to a few people who might be able to rule out the rare Couch's, and everyone seemed to concur with my initial ID--a Tropical Kingbird!!!  This one passed the UBRC 81- with the lone dissenter not confident it could be safely separated from Couch's.

This Tropical Kingbird was perhaps one of my best finds in 2016

The holiday weekend tied up a number of loose ends for my year list.  I snagged Common Grackle in a day trip to eastern Utah with my family--but missed a Red Phalarope we chased as part of the trip.  And on Memorial Day, above Memory Grove, in City Creek Canyon I added 2 more year birds with Golden-crowned Kinglet and Pacific Wren.

Super territorial Pacific Wren in City Creek Canyon

The wren put me at an incredible 299 species for the year and capped what had been an incredible month.  I mostly figured this was it for May, even with the following day to bird.

My lovely wife and our budding birder on Memorial Day

I wanted to get to 300 for the month but was okay where I was.  I decided to do a survey at North Shore during lunch, and didn't expect anything out of the ordinary--and didn't find anything out of the ordinary either.  I figured I could do some birding in the evening to try and track down 300 for fun, but I didn't have to.  As I walked the trail I looked up and there above the trees were 2 Common Nighthawks.  #300.  I just smiled. It was ironically 1 of the 3 I figured on seeing in the evening if I stuck around. Instead, here it was mid-day and the bird came to me. #300... I looked around and I was all by myself. Birds were singing in the trees above me, a light breeze cooled the warm air and I had a peaceful sensation envelop me. For a couple minutes, I just stood there admiring everything about this scene. It was so simple.

In the complication that has become a spider web of keeping stories straight and making sure I keep my secret, a moment of sheer simplicity brought me so much joy. You would have thought I had found a first state record by the grin I had as I kept walking, enjoying the moment. There was no pressure for May anymore. I had hit a good number and could get back to my strategy game. Chase when you need. Get the species when they are expected. And of course, spend some time hoping you find something rare.

Back at my desk I did a little eBirding, and realized I had a sure thing if I was willing to make a little drive this evening.  I opted to go for it and drove to Wyoming after dinner.  I made my way along the border past Woodruff and Randolph, Utah to Bear River Meadows along Crawford Mountain Road.  Here in the last few minutes of daylight, I snagged American Bittern for species 301.

The successfully tracked down American Bittern to close out May

 I watched the sunset over the marshes and listened to the chorus of frogs, birds, and of course the bitterns.  I wanted to share the moment but decided to keep my secret by not telling a soul I was here.  I headed home in the dark, with the most successful month of birding in Utah I've ever had.

Sunset over the Bear River Meadows on May 31, 2016

To make it such a great month took a lot of effort--like 4,597 miles on the road.  Yeah, that's a legit total for the 31 days in May.  And all that time on the road posted 85 new year birds for the month.  There were also the 59 miles on foot while I spent 181 hours birding.  I had my biggest day, miy biggest week, and my biggest month of 2016.  In the process I was more than a dozen species ahead of my pace from 2007.  I had seen some remarkable birds, and I knew that it would get harder after this.  May was the hurricane.  After it passed, there was a longgggggg calm... Almost 3 months of calm before things got back on track.

Family portrait on a cool May afternoon in the mountains outside SLC

2016 Year List: 358


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