Tag: Utah (Page 1 of 5)

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.



That Time I Saw a Mythical Bird in Utah

The stunning hood emblem of a 1963 Ford Thunderbird

Mythical Bird Sighting in Utah

I had just turned a corner when I spotted it walking casually along the side of the road, all by itself. I had never seen anything like it. By size and shape, it resembled a chicken. It walked like one, too. But there was something about this creature–several somethings, actually–that weren’t quite right. It appeared to be covered in fur, not feathers, and had the haggard look of having just showered or been recently shocked by a jolt of electricity. It looked to be wearing puffy leg warmers. It was black from head to foot. And its feet were really big. Upon close inspection, the feet on this beast had 5 or maybe even 6 toes.

Fawkes the Phoenix flames out in front of Harry Potter

What could it be? But for the shaggy hair, I would’ve said it was a chicken. And those 5-6 toed feet were weird. Perhaps it was a mythical bird-like creature here to fulfill its destiny. Native Americans tell of a gigantic Thunderbird, whose flapping wings sounded like thunder and who shot lighting out of its eyes. I couldn’t be sure that this creature had wings, to be honest. It certainly didn’t have wings big enough to create thunder. Greek mythology describes the immortal Phoenix, but this bird didn’t burst into flames. The Egyptians worshipped the Ra, the deity of the sun who had a falcon head, and Thoth, the scribe of the gods who had the head of an ibis. But this little creature had neither such a hear nor the body of a human. There weren’t enough legs for this to be a Griffin. Japanese texts refer to an “eerie bird”, or itsumade, that showed up around corpses. Thankfully, I didn’t see any corpses around. So I snapped a couple of pictures and went to do some research.

What in the world is this thing?

It turns out that my black woolly monster is a breed of chicken known as a Black Silkie. They originated somewhere in India maybe, or China, Marco Polo described a “furry chicken” he encountered during his 13th century travels, which seems to be the first historical record. They reportedly have a strong maternal instinct and calm disposition. It’s said that they like to sit in people’s laps. I saw nothing about whether the people liked this trait. This might explain why this bird was so casually walking along the side of the road as I crept by in my car. These birds actually have blackish skin and blackish bones, and you can find a bunch of youtube video online about cooking black silkie chicken (like this one).

Check out the feet. There are at least five, and maybe 6, toes on this freaky foot.

I guess the point is – you never know when you’ll stumble upon some kind of bird the likes of which you have never seen before.



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