Category: Trip Reports (Page 2 of 15)

Sandhill Cranes Eat Mice

Sandhill Crane Torrey Utah

A Sandhill Crane in Utah tossing around a mouse

Birding South Central Utah

We just spent a week in southern Utah and, as usual, it was glorious. Our headquarters is the strategically located little town of Torrey, Utah. From there, it’s about 20 minutes to the red rock playland of Capitol Reef National Park (highway construction added some delays this year), 20-40 minutes to two different 10,000 foot mountains, and 20 minutes to some wide-open agricultural fields. That’s a big variety of habitat within striking distance. Despite the arid climate, there are creeks and rivers running here and there all around, great for cooling off and attracting birds. The place is just as amazing at night as it is during the day. Torrey is a designated International Dark Sky Community. Even when the moon is almost full (as it was while we were there), the stars at night are mindblowing. For an L.A. resident, it’s awesome to walk outside at night, look up, and straight-up see the Milky Way. Torrey is certainly off the beaten path, and much of the good stuff is down dirt roads. The beauty and solitude (especially compared to Zion and Bryce Canyon and Arches) more than make up for the extra effort it requires.   

The colors of southern Utah are incredible

I’ve been seeing Sandhill Cranes in the agricultural fields around Torrey since 2013. At first, I thought it was a pretty good find. eBird was in its infancy at the time, and this is not an area with a lot of eBird submissions, so there weren’t many reports at all. Moreover, the map in the Sibley guide we had indicated sightings were rare in southern Utah (the 2nd edition still shows it as rare).  The Nat’l Geographic Field guide indicated they aren’t in southern Utah. The Audubon Field Guide is the same. But they’re all wrong. There are Sandhill Cranes here every summer. At least, they’ve been there every July and August I’ve been there. One year I saw a group of 38 together in a field.

The inaccuracy of the distribution map for Sandhill Crane is not my point, though. The point is: beyond seeing Sandhill Cranes, I never spent much time watching them or learned anything about them. In nine years, I didn’t once pause to wonder what it was that Sandhill Cranes eat. All the Sibley Guide says is “picks food from ground.” If I’d thought about it, I’d have guessed that meant seeds and grains and bugs. That would have been a correct, but incomplete, answer. As we were driving by a field with two Sandhill Cranes, I noticed each one picking up some big, bulky item and tossing it back to the ground, and then pick it up again. I pulled the car over and zoomed in with my camera. Was it cow dung? Nope. This pair of Sandhill Cranes were tossing field mice around. I don’t know why this surprised me so much. Given their size, they must chow down for meals from time to time. And I’ve never blinked when a Great Blue Heron wolfed down a fish or frog, so why wouldn’t a big crane similarly go for big prey? I did some internet research, and Sandhill Cranes are omnivores who will eat snakes, lizards, fish, rodents, and small birds. That’s one of the things about birding – it’s so much more than ticking off a species and moving on. Spend some time watching, or happen by at the right time, and you see cool stuff.

I didn’t see any lifers on the Utah trip this year. It’s the 8th time I’ve been there during July-August, and I’ve pretty much exhausted any likely lifers that are around during that time of year.  But I did see a lot of familiar birds I don’t get a chance to see in Los Angeles. This included Pinyon Jay, Juniper Titmouse, Black-billed Magpie, Virginia’s Warbler, Northern Goshawk, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Grace’s Warbler, and Cordilleran Flycatcher. A couple of surprises this year were an American Dipper on Sulphur Creek in Capitol Reef, a Williamson’s Sapsucker on Moulder Mountain, and a California Gull on a reservoir.

Despite a trio of trips to the high mountains, hoping to stumble into the path of the elusive Dusky Grouse, I struck out again this year. I did manage to visit some beautiful lakes, including the one below that had a lone Spotted Sandpiper. Access was quite easy on Thousand Lake Mountain – the roads are dirt, but well-maintained. Four-wheel drive isn’t necessary to get almost to the top. Boulder Mountain, on the other hand, is rougher going off the paved highway. To my delight, I didn’t see or hear a single ATV this year. They look like fun, but they’re loud, ruin the serene mood, and don’t help with bird-finding.  

At 10,000 feet on Thousand Lake Mountain

I’d love to visit this area during spring or fall migration, just to see what it’s like. Surrounded on all sides by mountains, I don’t imagine it’s much of a flyway. But who knows? Before this year, I would’ve said that Sandhill Cranes don’t eat mice. But they do. Maybe Torrey and Capitol Reef are great spots for migrants.





Birding Maine & Canada – July 2022

You couldn’t get more east in the lower 48 than we did

Maine in July is Fantastic

July once again meant a family vacation to Maine (last’s year trip report is here). And Maine in July means endless green as far as the eye can see. For a resident of Los Angeles, where it basically never rains and concrete and buildings cover the landscape, Maine is an impossibly lush environment. The roads are lined by all manner of green trees. The hikes wander through forests of green trees and fields of green bushes and green grasses. The rocks are covered in green mosses. This green bounty creates a curious dilemma. For an urban birder like me, life can be easy because the birds are usually concentrated in the small patches of available bird-friendly habitat.  But when you get to a place like Maine, it’s all habitat. In every direction. The birds could be anywhere. Looking for a Northern Parula? Just walk a few feet in any direction and look in the trees. No spot is all that much better than another. Birding in a place like Maine defies the (increasingly, in my view, noxious) eBird idea of birding hotspots. 

Greens trees around Sargent Mountain Pond, Acadia National Park

Another joy of Maine is the chance to see species that don’t regular come to the West Coast. There is a certain set of birds that I associate with being in Maine. There’s the Bobolink, who sound like R2-D2 and emerge from tall grass fields in surprising numbers as you walk by. There’s the unbelievable fiery face of the Blackburnian Warbler that makes the bird look like a tiny meteor entering the atmosphere. There’s the Bald Eagle majestically perched in pine trees at the water’s edge. There’s the impossibly long and intricate song of the tiny Winter Wren emanating from somewhere deep in the forest.

Of course, a trip to Maine is also good for unexpected sightings. This year, I added a half dozen birds to my Maine life list. An Indigo Bunting popped out of some bushes one day, and left before I could snap a photo. A Bonaparte’s Gull was hanging out at low tide in a cove while some Common Mergansers swam past. One evening, a Common Nighthawk danced high above a grassy field. On our drive back to Boston airport, we stopped at a Henslow’s Sparrow stakeout. And a lunch break in Portland got me a Northern Mockingbird at almost the northeastern edge of its range. In addition, I got great looks at birds I don’t see every time I come. They included Black-and-white Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, Red Crossbill, and Pileated Woodpecker, who I tracked down thanks to its impressively loud drumming.

One day during the trip, my oldest son and I took a drive to Canada. The border was just over two hours from where we were staying. Since he’d never been to Canada, and I hadn’t been there since I became a birder, we both were looking to check some boxes on our to-do list. There wasn’t much in the way of cities nearby. Since it was just going to be a day trip, we decided to visit Campobello Island in the province of New Brunswick. Despite being Canadian land, it’s the home of a U.S. National Park–Roosevelt Campobello International Park (it’s actually jointly managed by the U.S. and Canada). Apparently, Franklin Roosevelt had a summer home there, and some buildings are preserved.

We skipped the home tours and headed straight for East Quoddy (Head Harbour) Light at the northeastern tip of the island. The lighthouse is on a rocky islet. It is an island at high tide, and accessible by foot at low tide (the tides here shift some 15 feet from low to high, and can rise 5 feet an hour). It’s picturesque. Our timing was almost perfect – we had to wait about 15 minutes until the tide was low enough to walk over. It’s a fun, short adventure – there’s some slippery rocks to manage, mysterious fish heads decaying, and some rusty, off-kilter stairs to ascend and descend. The lighthouse itself was closed, but it was a nice spot to chill and see some whales (no Great Cormorants, which would’ve been a lifer, but the only Black Guillemot of the trip). We checked out a couple of other spots on Campobello Island, including a cool little cove with 5 old shipwrecks, and then stopped for lunch. All told, we got 10 species of bird, and were able to turn all of Canada light yellow on our eBird profiles.

Head Harbor Lighthouse, not quite at low enough tide to access

After lunch, we went back to the United States and out to West Quoddy Head Lighthouse. It is the easternmost point of land in the lower 48 states (apparently the U.S. Virgin Islands is farther east). We checked the rocks for Great Cormorant (none), and took a short hike along the coast. Now we’ll need to go to Washington, Florida, and Minnesota is we want to hit the westernmost, southernmost, and northernmost points in the contiguous 48 states.

Before we drove back to Boston for our flight home, I checked eBird to see if there were any possible lifers along the way. It turned out that a guy had recently found a Henslow’s Sparrow in a field along the side of the road (he was apparently driving by with his windows down, and heard the bird. Notably, Henslow’s Sparrows have the shortest song of any North American songbird, so this is quite a ridiculous find). It was only the 4th record ever for Maine of this declining grassland sparrow, and the spot was just 5 minutes off the highway. It promised to be a short stop: either the bird was there when we pulled up, or we’d stand in place for 5-10 minutes and strike out. If we were lucky, there’d be some birders already present with their scopes pointed at the bird. We were lucky. As we drove up to the location, two other car loads of birders pulled up almost simultaneously with us. At least three different birders were present, peering through binoculars out into the field. We walked up, they pointed to the bush where it was perched singing, and I had a lifer. The bird was a bit far out in the hot field for me to get good photos (see below).

I snuck in one last birding excursion before we boarded the plane. Near our airport hotel was a place called the Belle Isle Marsh Preservation. It offered a chance to catch a glimpse of a Saltmarsh Sparrow, and maybe some other birds that would bump up my year list. To my delight, there were Saltmarsh Sparrows moving around. They never stood still out in the open, but darted from one patch of marshy cover to another. You never knew where one would pop out, so you had to be quick on the trigger if you wanted to good photo. I totally failed to get an identifiable picture of one (see above), but it was fun to try. 

As usual, it was great to get to the northeast.


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