Tag: Utah (Page 1 of 3)

Condors in Zion

California Condor Zion National Park Utah

Condor close enough for a cell phone photo

Condors in Zion National Park, Utah

The family snuck in a 4-day camping trip to Zion National Park recently. It’s an astoundingly beautiful spot. Unfortunately, it’s no secret, so it’s overrun with humans. For that reason, despite traveling to Utah every year, passing just 30 minutes from Zion, we never go. But a friend had reserved two group campground sites, and a bunch of families were up for the trip to celebrate some recent birthdays.  

Wall Street Zion Narrows

Wall Street section of Zion Narrows

I managed to squeeze in two awesome, and distinct, hikes while we were there. The first was hiking the Zion Narrows. Getting to the trailhead requires riding the Zion Shuttle all the way to the end of line. From there, it’s a one-mile hike alongside the Virgin River. The trail is wide and flat here. The fun begins where the canyon narrows and the trail ends. From here, you walk up river.  And I mean river – most of the hiking from here involves feet in the water. Depending on the flow rate, the water will be ankle deep with occasional mid-thigh sections, or worse. We had a nice low flow rate, so the water never got to my waist. The water is cold, though, and the rocks are uneven and can be slippery. A walking stick is a must, the rental water shoes weren’t necessary (my 15 year old son and I hiked in keens + neoprene socks). We made it all the way to Wall Street–3 miles from the trailhead–where the canyon is just 22 feet wide and the cliff walls are 1500 feet tall. The crowded Narrows isn’t a good spot for birding. You can see Dippers, and a handful of songbirds, and a condor could fly over, but a lone raven was my only bird sighting of the 6 hour hike.

Angels Landing Zion National Park

The trail (at right) to the top of Angels Landing

The second awesome hike was Angels Landing. Like the Narrows, this is not a hike you’re going to do alone. Beyond that, it’s a totally different and amazing experience. This hike rises from the canyon bottom, up some switchbacks that appear from below to be carved into the cliff. From there, you hit Refrigerator Canyon – a cool, shady, narrow canyon where the Mexican subspecies of Spotted Owls apparently nest.  Once you make it through this welcome respite from the heat, you encounter Walter’s Wiggles, 21 short, but steep, switchbacks that take you to the true highlight of the hike: the rock formation known as Angels Landing. It’s a half-mile hike along this narrow, steep spine of rock. In spots, it’s just a few feet wide, and there are 1,000 foot drop-offs on each side of you. It’s truly not for the faint of heart. In particularly sketchy sections, you’ll be thankful for the metal chains to grab onto.

Once you make it to the top of Angels Landing, the views are spectacular. Even better for the birder who has made it, this is one of the best spots to see California Condors in Zion. There are around 70-100 condors who make Utah and Arizona their home. Just this summer, there was a nest on the cliff below the scary section of the Angels landing hike. The bird hatched in the wild, and apparently took its first flight at the end of August. Just as we made it to the top, we spotted two adult condors soaring. Amazingly enough, they were soaring below us, not a sight I ever expected to see. At one point, we had eye-level views at a distance of about 75 feet of one of the condors. A third condor, a juvenile, joined them. I was able to read the tags on two of them – the juvenile was 4 years old, and the adult was 18.

Campsite Watchman campground Zion National park

Campsite at Watchman Campground, Zion National Park

As far as birding goes, the campground was the most productive spot by far. There were Yellow-rumped Warblers and Summer Tanagers and Western Bluebirds moving through the trees. I also spotted Red-naped Sapsucker,  Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Black-capped Chickadee. There weren’t a lot of birds, but I wasn’t complaining.

I’m not going to be condescending and say don’t go to Zion National Park because there are too many people there.  However true the “it used to be better before everyone else starting coming” position may be, Zion is worth a trip despite the crowds – for the beauty, the scale, and the condors.

Birding Below Freezing in Utah

Ferruginous Hawk Teasdale Utah

Ferruginous Hawk soaring over hay fields in morning light

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.

Canyon Wren Teasdale Utah

A Canyon Wren popped up on the rocks one morning

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.

Sage Thrasher Capitol Reef Utah

A Sage Thrasher that should be further south this time of year

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. 

Downy Woodpecker Boulder Mountain Utah

Downy Woodpecker working the aspens

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.

Big Horn Sheep Grand Wash Capitol Reef National Park

A family of 4 Big Horn Sheep in Grand Wash

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