Tag: Mountain Bluebird

I Nearly Ran Over a Lifer

A Chukar in the road, (c) Stephen John Davies

Why did the lifer cross the road?

When you teach a teenager how to drive, you realize how frightening and chaotic driving really is. Potential dangers lurk in every direction. Death and destruction can arise in a flash. Whether you’re driving in traffic on the freeway, cruising surface streets in your neighborhood, or touring the lonely backroads of America, you must remain vigilant. At any moment, a distracted driver, somebody in a hurry, children at play, bicyclists, or a neighborhood dog might wander into your lane, dart out from the sidewalk, or speed past you along the median.

It also turns out that, while on a quiet 2-lane highway in Kingston Canyon, Utah, a lifer Chukar might stroll across the road directly in front of you. It happened to me on a recent drive home from a wonderful vacation in southern Utah. We were on a beautiful stretch of windy highway following the East Fork of the Sevier River. As I came around a bend, a quail-sized bird strolled across the road. It wasn’t dawdling, and it wasn’t in a hurry. It appeared to slightly turn in my direction as it neared the bushes on the side of the road, but otherwise ignored my rapid approach. Thanks to its distinctive facial and side markings, I was 100% sure it was a Chukar.

A non-countable Chukar at St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo, CA, June 2015

The Chukar is a quail-like bird native to Asia and the Middle East. It’s been introduced across the western United States as a game bird. They’re also bred on farms for training hunting dogs and competitions. They are established in some spots of the U.S. I’d actually seen a Chukar once before, on the grounds of a Benedictine Monastery called St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo, California. That’s in L.A. County, in the Antelope Valley between Palmdale and Victorville. It was back in 2015, when a trio of Chukar showed up at the abbey for a few weeks. 

So how could the Utah Chukar be a lifer if I’d seen them before in California? The ones at the monastery were apparently escapees from a nearby ranch. As a result, they didn’t “count” as a lifer. But that thought didn’t cross my mind when I caught a glimpse of a Chukar on the highway. Indeed, I didn’t realize it was a lifer until we got home and I entered the sighting into eBird. Instead, my thought was about finally adding Chukar to my Utah list. They used to be infrequently reported in Capitol Reef National Park, where we vacation. But despite many tries, I’ve never stumbled across one. The Chukars in Utah “count” for life lists because, I guess, the populations there have been established for decades now.

The birding rocked on the trip as a whole. There weren’t any other lifers, but I saw and heard more Yellow-breasted Chats than I knew even existed as we floated down the San Juan River on a raft. Over 4 hot days, we cruised 27 miles downstream from Bluff to Mexican Hat. Violet-Green Swallows and Cliff Swallows were often around, families of Canada Geese appeared every few miles, and the songs of Black-headed Grosbeak and Yellow Warbler was never far away.

The chocolate-milk colored San Juan River in southeastern Utah

After running the river, we drove to Torrey for a week-long stay. I’ve scoped out a lot of great birding spots in this high elevation arid landscape. I managed 4 new county birds this trip: Gray Vireo (3 different birds encountered singing  along backcountry trails), Hammond’s Flycatcher (on Boulder Mountain), Gadwall, and Wilson’s Snipe (on a fence post just outside of town). One day my son and I went out on the Awapa Plateau (Parker Mountain) looking for Greater Sage Grouse. We found miles and miles of great sage brush habitat, but never found a single grouse. We did nearly collide with a Ferruginous Hawk. And we came across several small groups of Pronghorn, spotting at least 30 individuals in total, which was cool. 

Our trips to Utah are great for the chance to see bird species that aren’t as regular in Los Angeles. The blue of the Mountain Bluebird never ceases to amaze. Sandhill Cranes bugle from the tall grass in Bicknell Bottoms. Black-billed Magpie are stunning every time you see them. Common Nighthawks take to the air at sunset along the Fremont River to feed on insects. Grace’s Warblers flitter about the pines (I saw one feeding a gigantic Brown-headed Cowbird juvenile in an absurd scene). Clark’s Nutcrackers and Pinyon Jays move about in small groups. Sage Thrashers pop up in all sorts of places. And Broad-tailed Hummingbirds find every stocked feeder.

I didn’t get to Thousand Lake Mountain during this trip – the only spot I’ve ever seen Canada Jay. And we were a couple of weeks lake to visit on ongoing dinosaur dig near Hanksville, Utah. But the Torrey-Capitol Reef-Boulder Mountain area is always wonderful to visit.



Birding Wonderland

Comet Neowise Torrey Utah

The comet Neowise over Torrey, Utah

Quiet and Calm in the Interior West

After 125 days of “quarantine”, our family had grown weary. With the COVID case count growing, and stay-at-home measures increasing, we decided it was time to flee Los Angeles. Our destination was a part of south central Utah that the old-timers called Wonderland. My wife’s parents have an amazing house on a wind-swept mesa in Torrey, Utah. It’s a tiny little town, perfectly situated for easy adventures to the red rocks and slot canyons of Capitol Reef National Park or to the alpine lakes and forest of the Aquarius Plateau and Boulder Mountain. The area is a designated International Dark Sky Park, with better views of the Milky Way than I’ve ever seen.  You’re lucky to visit this area any time. These days, it has an added attraction. COVID (like high-speed internet) is just a rumor around here. 

Mountain Bluebird Torrey Utah

Mountain Bluebird, Torrey Mesa, July 2020

We arrived just before sunset on Wednesday.  The wide open space, the quiet, the beauty – it all added up to a calm that I hadn’t felt in weeks. This morning, I took a walk around the mesa. There aren’t a lot of birds right where we’re staying, but the ones that come by are great to see. The first two birds I saw were a Pinyon Jay and a Mountain Bluebird. I added Juniper Titmouse, Lark Sparrows, and Violet-green Swallows. I also found an odd-looking sparrow that I assumed to be a partially leucistic  Black-throated Sparrow 

Black-throated Sparrow Torrey Utah

Black-throated Sparrow

The highlight of the day came this evening – clear views of the comet Neowise zooming through the universe. The photo at the top was taken from our bedroom balcony. I’m so excited that we’ll be spending the next two weeks here in Utah. My target bird is a Northern Goshawk. They can be found on Boulder Mountain, but not reliably. You have to be in the right place at the right time. Crossing my fingers I can finally add it to my life list.

Pinyon Jay Torrey Utah

Pinyon Jay, Torrey Mesa, July 2020