Birding Below Freezing
It’s 2020, so if COVID cases are spiking in Los Angeles, that means my family is probably in the middle of red-rock country in Utah. As we did in July, we took off to spend Thanksgiving week in Torrey, Utah. It was the first time we’d been in Torrey when it wasn’t late spring or summer. I was excited to see this beautiful wonderland in a new season.
It didn’t disappoint. There were still yellow leaves hanging on to many of the tall cottonwood trees that dot the landscape. We’d missed the brightest yellows of October, but it was a new look. On Boulder Mountain, the aspen trees were leafless, making their white trunks shine all the whiter. And we found some snow to play in. A dusting of snow fell at higher elevations on a couple of afternoons and evenings, which I’d never seen on red rock cliffs before. And with our brand new AWD Highlander (still driveable after we sadly bonked a deer on the way to Torrey), we braved the Burr Trail switchbacks for the first time. After the steep descent, we explored Headquarters Canyon, a fun slotty canyon.
But the high heat of July was decidedly gone. Most mornings, it was in the low 20s. Only on the first day did the daytime temperature rise above 50. With the familiar wind blowing, it was often super cold. Combined, the temperature, the wind, and the lack of bugs made for slim birding pickings. We did our family hiking in the afternoons when the temperatures had gotten to 40. Since we were hiking in slick rock canyons and washes, there was little chance we’d stumble into many birds. For most hikes, my bird list was raven + dark-eyed junco, the end.
I ventured out a few mornings to try to and find something more. I first went to Bicknell Bottoms, a vast area of grass fields with a creek running through it. Usually, it’s a productive spot. But there were several hunters walking the field when I drove up (ducks? ring-necked pheasant?). I did a drive-by (mallards, coots, harrier) and checked some spots in and around Teasdale. A small reservoir was almost froze over, abut a flock of 50 Canvasback were on the open water. During a walk around the rim, a Canyon Wren popped up. I then drove through the hay fields around Teasdale, and found the Ferruginous Hawk pictured at the top of this post.
Late one afternoon, I explored a spot just north of Torrey where a bridge crosses a creek. It was frozen on the edges, but still running. It produced the longest list of the week: 9 species! The best find was a flock of Gambel’s Quail moving through the bushes. They’re flagged as rare in the area, but (the very very few) local eBirders have reported small populations in a couple of spots for 15-20 years. This wasn’t one of those spots, but the habitat was just right. A Clark’s Nutcracker flyover was welcome – I love the color scheme of those birds. A quick stop at the flats behind the Capitol Reef Resort produced a surprise Sage Thrasher in a llama corral, which should’ve migrated out of here months ago. Even the llamas were long gone already.
I spent another morning at a couple of my favorite birding spots on Boulder Mountain. The first was Wildcat Meadow. I wasn’t sure what I’d find. There have only been 5 eBird checklist reports ever submitted for Wildcat Meadow from Nov-Feb. I had my fingers crossed for a lifer Pine Grosbeak, but I never stumbled into anything but the usual suspects and a coyote. From there, I headed to Singletree Campground, a bit further down the mountain and the spot where I saw my lifer Northern Goshawk this summer. There’s a short hike to a waterfall behind the campground. I found the waterfall frozen over. Around the waterfall, I finally found a mixed flock of birds. There were Juniper Titmice, Mountain Chickadees, three Brown Creepers, and a Townsend Solitaire moving around.
The best sightings of the week were during a family walk down Grand Wash in Capitol Reef National Park. On the way in, an unusual bird call sounded from behind me. I managed to get a rising sparrow-sized bird in my binoculars. The bird was quickly flying up over a 200 foot cliff. I could see a black chest that tapered off at the belly. After opening up my Audubon app, I’m 80% sure it was a Rosy Black-Finch. The call sounded right. But the visual look wasn’t certain. And it struck me as odd for there to be a single bird, instead of a small flock. It would’ve been a lifer, but I can’t be sure.
On the way out I spotted some desert bighorn sheep on a ledge about 25 feet above the wash. Bighorn sheep had disappeared from the area due to hunting and disease. In the mid-1990s, they were re-introduced. But it takes good luck to find them. I’ve seen them three times in 10 years, but it had been 5 years or more since I’d seen one. We watched them as they watched us for a good 5 minutes. Then, our family of 4 and their family of 4 went our separate ways. As we got to the car along UT-24, I heard the rattle of a Belted Kingfisher, and found it perched on the cliff above the Fremont River. The hike at Grand Wash was a great capper to a week in wonderland.