August 26, 2006

North Dakota birds

149 black tern
150 western kingbird
151 upland sandpiper
152 sora
153 eared grebe
154 gray partridge
155 white-faced ibis
156 snowy egret
157 ferruginous hawk
158 Say's phoebe
159 sharp-tailed grouse
160 white-rumped sandpiper
161 great horned owl
162 western meadowlark
163 Swainson's hawk

Whoever thought a long bicycle trip would be a good chance to see birds didn't know what he was talking about.

Actually, that would be me. The trip is great for seeing the Great Plains, but not birds of the Great Plains.

Mainly, birds don't like me and my bike. Birds on powerlines (hawks, doves, kingbirds) or in the roadside grass (lots of little brown birds) fly away at the sight of me.

The most extreme example was along the Mouse River in North Dakota. Marshy water channels ran along both sides of the road, containing waterfowl of all kinds. As I rode through this corridor, birds rose from both channels and flew alongside me for a minute before veering off to the sides. It must have been a spectacular sight.

It's also hard to get anywhere efficiently on a bike. A refuge 20 miles off my route might as well be in the next state. And most good places to see birds have gravel roads, too hard on a touring bike.

August 04, 2006


During our week we reached two summits, Sacagawea Peak (9665 ft.) north of Bozeman in the Bridger Range, and Hyalite Peak (10,299 ft.) south in the Gallatin Range. We also climbed to a high lake, Lava, in the Madison Range. On the trail to Lava Lake my sister-in-law pointed out well-known mountaineer Conrad Anker, hiking with his family and definitely not carrying the 10 essentials, nor looking much like he needed them.

Dominant birds of the pines we hiked through included yellow-rumped warblers (Audubon subspecies), flickers, chickadees, and juncos. Instead of the jays and nutcrackers I expected to be as common as robins on a Midwestern lawn, I saw... robins. I also combed creeks for dippers, one of the most amazing American birds.

Halfway up Sacagawea Peak, the rock/vegetation ratio suddenly rose. In the cover of scrub and tree islands I found yellow-rumped warblers and white-crowned sparrows, plus a blue grouse that I flushed. Below a saddle, in a rocky bowl with patches of wildflowers, American pipits pumped their tails and a longtail weasel moved from boulder to boulder.

Finally on the Hyalite hike I saw my Clark's nutcrackers in the pines near Hyalite Creek. Past the trees on the way to the summit, at around 9500 ft., four yellow-bellied marmots sprawled across rocks, one whistling a warning. Here I also puzzled out a Cordilleran flycatcher, less exotic than it sounds; it was the western flycatcher until splitting into two species in 1989.

August 01, 2006


I doubt it will become a television show, but my Montana unsolved mysteries go by four names: western kingbird, Stellar's jay, gray jay, Clark's nutcracker. I've already mentioned the kingbird. Whenever I gained elevation and entered pine forests I expected a noisy chorus of jays and nutcrackers would announce themselves to me.

There were no announcements in the Kirk Hill preserve, located at the base of the Gallatins. Still, I saw an American redstart in streamside brush on my way up the hill (a life bird), and western tanager among Douglas-firs on my way down.

On the drive to Kirk Hill I had a top-10 LBY moment: a hundred yards away, taking flight over a hayfield, a long-billed curlew. The long bill on the long-billed is no inconspicuous feature. I'd seen these curlews before in southern California farmfields, where they migrate in winter.


My lack of trip preparation paid big dividends on the outskirts of Bozeman. From earlier visits for photography, my brother had reported yellow-headed blackbirds around a marshy pond near the East Gallatin River. Once there we saw them instantly. For the next hour or two I was in a perfect birding situation thanks to having almost no idea what I would find: either I was surprised and pleased to see familiar birds like the house finch, catbird, and eastern kingbird, or surprised and pleased to see new birds, namely lemony yellow warblers and cedar waxwings.

The next day at Sourdough Creek I had a similar experience, seeing an old standby—brown-headed cowbird—and two list newcomers, a pine siskin and western wood-pewee.

All over Bozeman, unmissable, were black-billed magpies, flamboyantly large and loud. On one especially hot afternoon the half-dozen I saw all held their bills open to cool down.

For reasons I don't understand, I saw eastern kingbirds and no western kingbirds. Actually, I understand the eastern part: despite their name, eastern kingbirds range well into the western United States. But I'd expected westerns to be a dime a dozen perching on trees and utility poles, when in fact I would have spent money to see one.