Guest Post: Andrew Belt This Summer at Fish Springs NWR, UT

For two and a half months, I had been working at a relatively remote National Wildlife Refuge in Utah known as Fish Springs. Established in 1959, the refuge encompasses 10,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands but totals to nearly 18,000 acres. Being over three hours away from Salt Lake City, not too many people visit Fish Springs, but the birding opportunities there are remarkable.

AmericanAvocetsV
American Avocets

How remote is Fish Springs? The nearest town, Delta, is at least an hour and a half drive on gravel and dirt roads. During this time, I had gotten to know the refuge’s extraordinary beauty. Within the Great Basin Desert, this is an oasis for more than 298 species of birds as well other wildlife seen on the refuge. Therefore, the refuge requires extensive monitoring and careful planning to ensure that this continues to be a haven for wildlife.

BlackCrownedNightHeronII
Black-crowned Night-Heron
CommonNighthawk
Common Nighthawk

As part of my internship, the majority of my time involved spraying noxious weeds (i.e., perennial pepperweed and spotted knapweed), but I had been occupied with fieldwork, too. Once a week, I conducted evening surveys, with the focus on snowy plovers. As an important stopover site, Fish Springs has one percent of the Pacific Coast western snowy plover population, which breed here annually. Besides snowy plovers, I also surveyed other resources of concern, including American Avocets, White-faced Ibises, Long-billed Curlews, American Bitterns, and Virginia Rails, whose numbers will help influence future management decisions.

ClarksGrebe
Clark’s Grebe

For the last three weeks of my time there, I had been conducting sub-aquatic vegetation (SAV) surveys as part of a larger study for 2015 involving eight other refuges. Along with two other people, we sampled a select number of sites within five different refuge units and analyzed the composition of those sites, such as canopy cover percentage, depth, and temperature. This data will also help with the habitat management plan for managing waterfowl and other migratory species that utilize those important food resources, such as sago pondweed, muskgrass, and widgeon grass.

SnowyPlover
Snowy Plover
WesternGrebe
Western Grebe

I enjoyed my time out there, but I missed being back home in Indiana. Now that I’m home, I miss the views of the sun rising and setting over the mountains and seeing every star in the night sky. Being in Utah gave me a great perspective on life, and I hope that these memories will last a lifetime.

Andrew Belt
School of Public and Environmental Affairs
Indiana University, 2015

abelt@umail.iu.edu

An Oasis in the Bean Fields

Before I get to the Oasis, I’d like to ask you a few questions.

1. What is the ratio to finding decent shorebird habitat and the proximity of the nearest road or parking spot?

An extremely unofficial poll of 1 puts it at 92.3%.  And if I read IN-Bird correctly it appears that the best shorebird habitat at Goose Pond is always a one mile walk. No more. No less. Doesn’t matter which pond or season, it’s always a mile in and out. Through vegetation thick vegetation of course.

2. Why are the best looking shorebird spots always along the Interstate so that you don’t dare stop for fear of being rundown? 

You know of what I speak. You are traveling down Interstate XX (you fill in the Interstate numbers, 65 for me) and see this great looking flooded field and even at 70MPH+ you see a couple of hundred shorebirds but you don’t dare stop.  So you get off the next exit but there is never any access from the country roads.

3. So now you finally find a decent flooded field along a two-lane road. But there is no shoulder or parking spot. 

And the only turn-off is a mile away. In either direction.  And of course the road is so busy you don’t stop for even two seconds or you will get rear ended.

075
See the water just left of the road a few hundred yards ahead? The road has no shoulders or anywhere to park? Yes, I identified some Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers in my 10 seconds of stopping on the road. East of Franklin 8/1/15

And that pretty well sums up my experience on shorebirding habitat in the Midwest.

But even with that being my track record I haven’t given up.  After all the rain in June and July I have spent most of my bird outings criss-crossing the rural landscape in hopes of finding a new shorebird spot.

So it was with great joy and excitement that I found an Oasis east of Whiteland. I could almost hear the music in my ears when I drove by, kind of like the movies where the heroes are lost in the desert and they only have enough energy left to climb one more sand dune and when they reach the top there is the Oasis.

The only difference is that I didn’t weep like our heroes always do.  Now if it ended up not containing shorebirds I might have wept. But luckily for you it did.

020
The Oasis.

What I didn’t say and you can’t see is that there is a two-lane road between the Oasis and me. Big Trucks like to drive down it.  Even on Sunday morning. That is a negative. But this Oasis has a farm lane directly across which makes scoping easy. A bigger positive.

I haven’t seen anything rare at the Oasis but most of the usual shorebirds have been seen.  Just good to have another option.

078
A Solitary Sandpiper trying to hide in the foliage. This wasn’t from the Oasis but from one of the my other wet spots before it dried up. Greenwood Retaining Ponds – 8/1/15
007
I’m not sure that these Killdeer know which way they want to go. East of Whiteland – 8/15/15
009
One of 30 or so Least Sandpipers at the Oasis. East of Whiteland 8/15/15
025
If you look close you can see a Semipalmated Plover in the center of the photo that I missed on my first scan of the area. A different wet area – across from Franklin Township Park. 8/15/15
033
A closer photo of the Semipalmated Plover showing it’s orange and black bill. Across from Franklin Township Park. 8/15/15
016
Somewhat of a surprise, a Sora. I don’t usually see them in Johnson County and especially in August. Another wet area that I check regularly – Franklin High School 8/22/15
003
The Oasis also had other species – Tree Swallows for one. It was odd to see them there unless they were migrating. I usually find them around ponds with snags. East of Whiteland 8/15/15
004
A rare sight in Johnson County – a Great Egret. I guess I know a few more wet areas than I let on. Yet another wet area that dried up the first week of the month. South of Franklin – 8/1/15
023
And Double-crested Cormorants are hard to come by in Johnson County away from the very small area that the White River cuts across the NW corner of the county. Atterbury FWA – 8/22/15

And I still need to tell the story about the how shorebirding can end you up in the hospital.

Colorado National Monument – Again

Time to wrap up the Colorado trip.  This post and one more should do it.

After birding the Grand Junction area for 4 days I planned to spend the last full day in the area walking/hiking and see if I had actually learned some of the western birds without having to stop and think about it. I decided to head back to Colorado National Monument and hike up No Thoroughfare Canyon to the first waterfall. It would be one mile up a ravine/creek bed and take a few hours. Plus hopefully see a few birds on the way.

P1230679
The typical view hiking up No Thoroughfare Canyon. Colorado National Monument 6/24/15

The habitat wouldn’t vary much and it ended up not being real birdy, but I had a nice hike.

Gambel’s Quails were calling to start the day again. Along with Mourning Doves cooing. And for the fifth straight day I think Black-throated Sparrows were the first birds to come and check me out. Plus the rabbits were all over the place. (Unlike Rabbitt Valley)

Plumbeous Vireos were the most numerous bird going up the trail with a pair in about every cluster of Cottonwood trees. eBird even made me confirm the quantity – 8.

P1230720
Even better looks of Plumbeous Vireo than I had a few days before. Colorado National Monument 6/24/15

One of the neater things on the trail was a rock outcropping that must have had White-throated Swifts nesting. They were constantly flying in and out of the rocks. Perched at the base if the rocks were some juvenile Red-tailed Hawks that called the whole time I was walking by.

P1230625
What Colorado National Monument is known for – rock croppings. 6/24/15
P1230636
If you look close you can see 3 White-throated Swifts flying around the rocks. Colorado National Monument 6/24/15
P1230659
This photo is out of reach of my camera but I wanted pictures for the trip. Two Red-tailed Hawks that called the whole time. Colorado National Monument 6/24/15

A little farther past the outcropping I heard a distant caw. At first I thought it was Common Ravens since they had been flying around earlier. But the closer the noise got I could tell they were Pinyon Jays! After not getting good looks the day before I was hoping they would stay out in the open in the narrow ravine. Finally a group of three came down the side of the cliff and one actually stayed out in the open while the other two hid.

So I finally got good looks at a Pinyon Jay.

P1230703
A Pinyon Jay that actually stayed out in the open long enough for a photo and then good looks. Colorado National Monument 6/24/15
P1230650
Can you tell what this bird is on a ROCK?                     Right were it supposed to be.               Wait for it…… A Rock Wren.          Colorado National Monument 6/24/15
P1230681
Nothing like trying to ID an empid in a different setting. Pretty sure it was a Gray Flycatcher. It is awful gray. At least it stayed out in the open and even called once. Colorado National Monument 6/24/15
P1230673
Believe it or not only one of two Black-billed Magpies I saw on the trip. And not very good looks at that. Colorado National Monument 6/24/15

I finally reached the waterfall, which turned out not to be a waterfall in the dry season. But I ran into a park volunteer who said the next waterfall was about another mile.  I hadn’t planned going that far and hadn’t brought enough water. But he brought plenty of extra water in his backpack for people that went up the trail in sandals, no sunscreen, and with no water. So he gave me a bottle and I carried on. I really didn’t expect more birds but felt like hiking.

P1230693
The first waterfall. Not impressive in the dry season. Colorado National Monument 6/24/15

The walk to the second waterfall was about the same walk as to the first.  Except the ravine narrowed and there were even less birds as the day heated up.  But I ran into another hiker who said that his buddy was hiking in from the backside to meet him. This was also government land and was higher elevation.  I ran into him later and he never did meet up with his friend.  Listening to him I think the guy was lost.

P1230671
No clue what species of squirrel, but he looked to be in charge perched up on the rock. Colorado National Monument 6/24/15

 

The hike back down was uneventful.  It was late morning so I decided to try the higher elevation outside of the park. I am glad I did because I finally came across a Juniper Titmouse. A bird I really shouldn’t have missed on the trip.

P1230755
My one and only encounter with a Juniper Titmouse. And imagine, in a Juniper Tree. Not to knock it, but have you ever seen such a plain looking bird? No wonder it was called Plain Titmouse before it was split with the Oak Titmouse. Little Park Road, CO 6/24/15

With a rare storm approaching and not wanting to get caught up on the ridge, I called it a day.

P1230766
It doesn’t look ominous but that is a pretty good thunderstorm heading my way. Little Park Road, CO  6/24/15

 

An August Dickcissel

Now a Dickcissel in August doesn’t sound that exciting for someone living in Central Indiana. But in North Central Illinois in August it can be hard to find.

As I recalled in a November 2013 post that in late July 2012 I decided to bird everyday in August 2012 and to see how many more birds I would see than my normal August birding. I knew from past experience that I would probably need to see Sedge Wren and Dickcissel the first week.

I started the month by birding the places that both species had been in July. Sedge Wrens were still holding on at the same spot at Matthiessen SP, but Dickcissel were notably silent at Matthiessen, a spot they were usually reliable year after year and had been in July.  So I checked a couple of other reliable spots. Same thing, quiet.  And it was like that for the rest of the month.  The Sedge Wrens though hung on until mid-August.

I am not sure what was different that year.  I was out every day in prime habitat.  And in previous years they would hang on until mid-August. Another one of those bird mysteries.

So now anytime I see a Dickcissel in August I always think back to the summer of 2012.

DICK 1
A distant photo of a local Dickcissel this August. Greenwood Loop 8/9/15
Dickcissel - Female
A much better photo of a female Dickcissel from Matthiessen SP IL. 6/19/10
DICK WPH 062412
And a singing male – McCune Sand Prairie, Bureau County, IL 6/24/12

And a few more photos from Driftwood SWA a week ago.

007
There were several Baltimore Orioles out early at Driftwood SWA. 8/8/15
065
A Cedar Waxwing checking things out. I stood by this tree for a while and had several birds fly in to get their picture. One of them must have passed the word around. Driftwood SWA 8/8/15
055
Eastern Kingbird. Same tree. Driftwood SWA 8/8/15
034
Gray Catbird. Ditto.
028
Probably the bird of the day. I first heard and then saw 3 Red-headed Woodpeckers including 2 juveniles. Including this one. This is only the second time I have seen Red-headed Woodpeckers at Driftwood. 8/8/15
046
A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher playing peek-a-boo. Driftwood SWA 8/8/15
051
And here is more typical view. Driftwood SWA 8/8/15
037
A Brown Thrasher watching me but I don’t think he knows I see him. Driftwood SWA 8/8/15
013
And one of those surreal moments when I’m just standing watching things and a Great Blue Heron lands in a tree about 20 feet away. I slowly walked away after a while and it didn’t fly away. Driftwood SWA 8/8/15

 

Rabbit Valley CO should be named Lark Sparrow Valley CO

Birding Rabbit Valley was exciting in a different way than the previous Western Colorado habitats. I had never birded a strictly semi-arid environment so the birding would be different than the other days.

I left the motel at 5AM to be at Rabbit Valley by 5:30, a 25 minute drive almost to the Utah border, to listen for Common Poorwill and Common Nighthawk.  The area is a typical sagebrush area with sparse pinyon and junipers mixed in with the sagebrush. It was as quiet as previous days so I should have heard either species if they had been calling.  But no luck. The noise from I-70 could easily be heard, making the day a little different from other days with the constant backdrop of semis.  But it felt good being out early.

Rabbit Valley Sunrise
A view to the east from the entrance of Rabbit Valley.
Rabbit Valley Sunrise 2
Right after sunrise, the view to the Southwest. Not many birds calling.

At dawn around the north entrance there wasn’t much happening except Rock Wrens, Lark Sparrows, and Black-throated Sparrows. So I drove several miles along the north boundary road. Nothing. So I decided to tun around and head back.

ROWR
One of the few birds calling at dawn, a distant Rock Wren. Not on a rock though.

I finally saw a red finch that I hoped might be a Cassin’s Finch. I stopped to check it out and it turned out to be a House Finch and it’s flock.  But the stop proved very productive as I then heard several other birds.  I’m not sure if it was the geographic location, or that the day was finally getting into full swing, or my presence, but the few birds that were there started calling.   So I stayed and birded the area for several hours with good results.

LASP 2
The valley should be called Lark Valley instead of Rabbit Valley. The Lark Sparrows greatly outnumbered the rabbits.
BTSP LASP
I guess when there are few objects to perch on, you had better share with other species. Black-throated and Lark Sparrows.

The area had more Rock Wren and Black-throated Sparrows plus many more Lark Sparrows.  While watching these species I heard a raucous “caw” down the road.  Took me a minute but it dawned on me that it was Pinyon Jays heading my way.  One of the few birds I really wanted to see on the trip.  So I then proceeded to spend probably an hour chasing them around the dry, arid, sagebrush area.  They would fly from bush to bush, never giving good looks, and never coming out in the open except to fly.  But I did get a few looks and in the chase saw several other species.

PIJA
This is about as good of looks as I got of Pinyon Jays. Luckily that would change the next day.
CORA
A Common Raven came to check out all the noise that the Pinyon Jays were making.

A Gray Vireo started calling from the top of a bush giving good looks.  Then Sagebrush Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, Say’s Phoebe, and an Ash-throated Flycatcher all appeared at one time or another. And the Lark Sparrows were still thick.

ATFL 2
Probably my favorite photo from the trip. This Ash-throated Flycatcher was perched nearby while I chased the jays.
Rabbit Valley Landscape
A few from one of the small hills I was going up and over following the Pinyon Jays.
LASP 3
Another Lark Sparrow. I told you they were abundant.
WEME 1
A Western Meadowlark was checking me out as I left the park.

Unlike the previous days I wasn’t at altitude and the day started to warm up quickly. And there was no wind.  Hindsight says I should have walked to Rabbit Canyon and spent the day birding in the shade of the canyon. But it would have been a good walk in the hot sun to get to the canyon since it wasn’t accessible by car, 4WD only.

Rabbit Valley Rough Road
Here is a typical route back to Rabbit Valley. I don’t think the rental car would traverse it very well.

So I headed across to the Interstate to Brewster Ridge were Scott’s Orioles sometimes nest.

Rabbit Valley Sparse Vegetation
This is the view from Rabbit Valley looking up at Brewster’s Ridge to the Northwest. You can see the road cut into the side of the hill on the right side of the photo.

The day was not “officially” hot and there wasn’t anything on Brewster’s Ridge except Black-throated Sparrows.  I got out and walked for a half hour and didn’t hear anything else.

Brester's Ridge
Now on top of Brewster’s Ridge. Not much here…
Brester's Ridge 2
If the reports of Scott’s Orioles nesting in these Junipers were true, which I doubted at the time, they would have to wait until another time.

I then stopped by a local lake that might have birds.  Nothing there. And lastly went by a local wetland that had Prairie Dogs.

Prairie Dog
This guy really didn’t like me be there. He “barked” the whole time I was around.

I then called it an early day at 2PM to go back and catch up on my notes.