Category: Hikes/Walks (Page 1 of 3)

Late Spring at the Marsh

Canada Geese Ballona Freshwater Marsh

A baker’s dozen cruising the marsh

Late Spring at Ballona Freshwater Marsh

The birding has been a bit slow recently in the 5MR. Spring migration has mostly moved through. And we’ve had cloudy morning after cloudy morning around here, which doesn’t inspire me to get out and about. That said, I had a nice walk recently around the Ballona Freshwater Marsh. The birds were all the usual suspects. Still, I saw things I’d never seen before – like this Ruddy Duck in full mating display, which included not just that ridiculous baby blue bill, but raising up two horns in its head.

Ruddy Duck Ballona Freshwater Marsh

The marsh in May is the best spot in my 5MR for two species: the endangered Least Bell’s Vireo, and Yellow-breasted Chat. There was a little doubt whether those birds would show up this year. A recent fire burned in the area where both are often found. The fire was likely associated with folks who live behind the marsh. It mostly burned an area of nonnative invasive pampas grass (good!). But it also burned some willows, including the exact location where the Least Bell’s Vireo nested last year (bad!).

Ballona Freshwater Marsh fire

A complicated ecological scene

Despite the fire, both Bell’s Vireo and Yellow-breasted Chat are out there singing again this year. There are at least two Bell’s Vireo and possibly three Yellow-breasted Chats there right now. Both are easy to spot by call, with the colorful chats more likely to be seen, too. 

Yellow-breasted Chat Ballona Freshwater Marsh

An Ash-throated Flycatcher was bouncing around the willows.

Ash-throated Flycatcher Ballona Freshwater Marsh

A female Great-tailed Grackle at the west end was busy foraging and was totally unbothered by my presence. She was so close, I couldn’t get her namesake in the frame.

Great-tailed Grackle Ballona Freshwater Marsh

In addition to the goslings pictured above, I spotted a baby Killdeer (Killfawn?) at the small dry overflow pond at the west end of the marsh. A vocal adult was protectively watching guard, though it didn’t give me the classic injured-wing feint.

Killdeer Ballona Freshwater Marsh

Canada Jay at 10,000 feet

Canada Jay Thousand Lake Mountain Utah

Canada Jay, Thousand Lake Mountain, Utah

A lifer Canada Jay on Thousand Lake Mountain

Before we came out to Utah, I came up with a list of five birds that were possible lifers on the trip, Each was a long-shot. In order of how likely it was I thought I could see them, they were:

  1. Dusky Grouse
  2. Northern Goshawk
  3. Calliope Hummingbird
  4. Canada Jay
  5. American Three-toed Woodpecker

The boys and I had a flyover Northern Goshawk early in our trip. I saw another Goshawk just a couple of days ago, in the same area. While wandering Boulder Mountain upstream from Singletree Campground, a historic site for a Goshawk nest, I noticed a big bird flying towards me about 75 yards away, at eye level. As crazy as it sounds, the first thought that came into my head was Canada Goose. Must’ve been based on wingspan and white belly. But it quickly became clear that this was no goose. It was a Goshawk coming right for me. It dodged a couple of trees, and did a Maverick-like Top Gun fly-by just 5 feet over my head. We looked each other in the eyes. It then vanished into a stand of trees that I couldn’t believe it flew through without clipping its wings.   

A few days later, wandering around Mill Meadow Reservoir northeast of Loa, I got a short but clear view of a Calliope Hummingbird along a creek. On another day, I took a hike up to Coleman reservoir, south of Teasdale, the sight of a forest fire in 2012. Turns out, it was started by an arsonist who gained the thanks and praise of some locals for starting the fire. I went there because American Three-toed Woodpeckers like recently burned areas. I didn’t think a fire that burned 8 years ago was recent enough, but I thought it was worth a try. There were burned trees all over, but no target woodpecker.

Flatiron Lake Teasdale Utah

A small lake in the burn area

Two places near Torrey offered a chance of both Canada Jay and Dusky Grouse. The first is Boulder Mountain, where someone reported both species at Chokecherry Point just a few days ago. It’s a 3.3 mile hike each way from the highway. The hike starts at 8,600 feet, and ends at 10,700. This spot is in Garfield County. 

The other option is Thousand Lake Mountain. Dusky Grouse has been reported there twice, each a July sighting. Canada Jay has been reported there three times, including near Elkhorn Campground in May. There is a 8 mile dirt road to Elkhorn Campground (elevation 9,800 feet). But I didn’t know if it was a Prius-accessible road. Elkhorn Campground is in Wayne County. (I mention the counties because birders can be weird about county lists. And Torrey is in Wayne County. And for reasons that only make sense to some birders, I preferred (if I could) to add birds to my Wayne County list over my Garfield County list.)

Canada Jay Thousand Lake Mountain Utah

I am a sucker for this color scheme

I decided to attempt the drive up to Elkhorn Campground first. On the maps, the dirt road to the campground is a dark-red dotted line, and all the other dark-red dotted line dirt roads I’ve driven in the area were well-maintained, frequently-graded dirt roads that any sedan could handle. I was relieved to find that the case for this road, too. It was a steady climb, and a couple of sections had some bumpy rocks, but overall it was easy going. Indeed, the road was so good that I drove right past Elkhorn Campground to see how close I could get to a couple of lakes near the top of the mountain.

I pulled over at a spot called Clay Dugway Spring. As I stepped out of the car at 9:30am, a bunch of birds flitted about the spring: Western Tanagers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, American Robins, Mountain Chickadees. I headed off toward Deep Creek Lake. As I walked the road, I came upon a picnic area. Moving about were three Canada Jays. Two were adults, with mostly white heads. The third was a sooty gray juvenile. They moved deliberately from tree to tree. Their flight was mesmerizing – big, slow wingbeats, and a swooping glide onto a perch. They didn’t stay around for long, but the views were great.

Deep Creek Lake Thousand Lake Mountain

Deep Creek Lake

Canada Jays were called Canada Jays until 1957, and then Gray Jays until the name changed back in 2018. They are also known as Whiskey Jacks and Camp Robbers. Apparently, they approach humans willingly, and will take food out of your hand. They also use sticky saliva to glue food to trees that they come back to during winter.  The Torrey area is about as far south as Canada Jays get in Utah.

I struck out on Dusky Grouse on Thousand Lake Mountain. Even though I thought it was the most likely addition to my life list, I’ve yet to see one. Looks like I’ll need to hike to Chokecherry Point before we leave. 

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