Scenario: This is a rather lengthy tale of a 10 week trip that started and ended in Vancouver BC and involved driving from Seattle, Washington to, ultimately, Key West, Florida – and back again. During this time I touched on 33 states and drove (over) 23,000 kms. I also spent a week kayaking out of Vancouver Island itself and 4 days birding the Vancouver area.
There is possibly not a lot of useful information for a birder travelling to either Vancouver or the States – there is much more specific information available elsewhere – however, if you’re interested in a saga regarding birding in North America or in a specific destination, maybe you will find it helpful.
My name is Colin Reid and I reside in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. I am 60+, retired and just love travelling and birding adventures. I completed this trip alone.
Travel details: I flew Air Canada direct from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia to Vancouver, BC and back. For the Vancouver Island bit I flew Pacific Coastal Airlines to and from Campbell River. Through carrentals.com I hired a car in Vancouver from Thrifty, and from Alamo in Seattle for the American part. I was happy with the service I received from all four companies. Obviously to hire a car for two months is quite expensive – it cost me $3,600 Aus. I did meet a guy on the trip who suggested that looking at a mini-lease direct from the company might have been more economical, but that hadn’t occurred to me at the time of hiring. For the American part I opted for a Toyota Rav look alike and was glad I did. Not that I traversed any really rough roads, but the extra clearance gave me more confidence when I hit a couple of torrential downpours along the road that caused minor flooding and might have swamped a normal sedan.
Fuel costs varied enormously. I think the lowest I paid was $2.17 US PER GALLON somewhere in the middle but on the west coast it was as high as $4.70 US PER GALLON. (I just stress the per gallon thing as I am used to paying per litre - as you might be.) Mostly it was in and around $2.50 - $3.20 US/gallon. It appeared that all cars in the states use unleaded fuel, didn’t see any diesel cars, and I spent a total of $1,262 US (=$1,873 Aus) on fuel. Probably a pretty poor carbon footprint…….
Accommodation: In Vancouver I Air BnB’d it and on the trip to Vancouver Island with Wildcoast Adventures had three nights in the Comfort Inn in Campbell River and 3 nights in the Orca Campsite on the island.
In the states I had planned to camp as much as possible with the option to motel-it if the weather – or exhaustion – got too much. In the end I camped on 39 nights and spent 27 in motels – mainly due to the wet weather I encountered in the first half of the trip.
Before I went I bought a Park Pass for the National Parks in the states and while this didn’t entitle me to any reduction in the NP camping fees, allowed me free access into all national parks saving quite a bit of money. It usually costs about $35 US per day to enter places like Yosemite, Glacier, Zion and Yellowstone so……. It did offer a 50% reduction in costs for camping in National Forest Parks, but didn’t help at all in any way in State Forest Parks. It possibly might have also been of benefit when entering national monuments, but I didn’t so I don’t know.
I did find the cost of camping to be 1. variable and 2. at times very expensive. I had chosen (of course) to go to the states when the Australian dollar was at a 20 year low – typical! The most I paid for camping was $60 US which equates to $100 Aus – per night. The cheapest I think was $5 in a Forest Park in North Carolina.
I used booking.com to find motels and usually filtered the results for between $50 and $100 US per night – it was only me so it didn’t really matter so long as it was clean and the door locked. The places I stayed varied in condition, cleanliness, accessibility and facilities. Mostly I paid less than $65 US per night.
Preparation: Having spent a very successful month in southern California and Arizona in 2018, there weren’t a load of new birds to see on the west coast. I researched firstly with Vancouver in mind and tried contacting Bird Pals in the area. That was not very successful. The advice I received indicated that the birds I listed would already have gone (i.e. moved south) or not arrived by early September and no one seemed particularly interested in showing me around so I decided, late in the piece, I would do my own thing for the 4 days on the mainland.
I listed all the birds I hadn’t seen in the USA and did a state by state wish list, highlighting the hardest birds via a colour coding process. For example, a bird I might have a chance at in only 3 states got a red flag, a bird I could get in 10 states a yellow flag etc. I had certain places I wanted to go such as Glacier NP, Yellowstone, The Great Lakes and so on and so tried to line up every bird (!) with some sort of idea of its preferred habitat. I also of course checked bird lists where I could for the places I wanted to visit and looked at E-Bird for reports, around the same time I would be there, from the previous year.
It gave me something to work with, but as I needed to retain a level of flexibility, I didn’t get too pushy on exact sites. It was fortunate I did, because my plans went to hell in a handbasket for the first half of the trip.
I had an older copy of Sibley, but, having seen an updated National Geographic Birds of North America, bought one on-line before I left. I also had the iBird Pro app for calls and field work on my iPhone.
Along the way I researched in more detail – once I knew where I was going to be – using E-Bird for recent records.
Notes on driving in North America: Apart from driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road for those of us from UK, Ireland, Australia etc, it’s relatively easy. The interstates are brilliant and the highways all fast and well signposted. Parking in most areas outside of the city centres is easy and available. I found American drivers to be patient, calm and respectful. Whether that’s a fear of the other person being armed and dangerous I don’t know, but I had more near misses and aggressive driving back in Brisbane in my first week back than I did in 2 months/23,000 kms in USA.
The speed limits are all in MPH and vary from 25 (40k/h) in suburban streets to 90 (145k/h) on the interstates. The usual speed was 70 or 80 MPH but everyone drives at least 10 MPH above the speed limit on interstates and highways so it’s pretty fast. I passed numerous parked sheriff’s cars at that over-speed and was never stopped. Almost without exception all drivers moved over to let faster cars past and indicated lane changes well and clearly. The trucks on the interstates can be a challenge, but most of them did the right thing and stuck to the inner lane unless absolutely having to pass. All in all I never had an issue with anyone doing anything really stupid – apart from myself, when not focusing properly, on side roads….
Vancouver – I don’t think I’ll ever drive in Vancouver again. I got busted one Sunday morning in the city for using the iPad with my mapping app open. I got a ticket for $368 which I was then advised by the motorbike cop not to pay. It all seemed a bit unnecessary considering I hadn’t done anything stupid or illegal and the traffic was almost non-existent anyway. But then being told I didn’t have to pay it?
Apart from that – which really was a minor detail – there are tunnels on both sides of the city which are far too small to accommodate the traffic flow and back-ups of several kilometres existed north and south while 5 or 6 lanes of traffic merged into 2 for the tunnels. Ridiculous carry-on. It really made a day out a pretty miserable affair when one had to spend an hour or so to get 20 or 30 kms back ‘home’.
I know there are worse cities to drive in – Bangkok is a personal example – but one kinda expects it there. I didn’t expect it in a city like Vancouver.
Tipping in the states: Tipping is expected in almost any service industry related activity. I find this tiresome and annoying. Not because I’m too mean, but even locals don’t know what is an appropriate tip in certain circumstances. I mean, come on Eileen! I asked, quietly, several times what they thought and in most cases got a shrug and a don’t know. Basically it seemed to be about 10%.
I’m not used to tipping UNLESS I feel the service deserves it. I understand its ‘part of their pay’, but it is a bit of a farce really and when you’re actually TOLD its expected? That kinda pisses me off. Take MY tip - One place you don’t have to tip is MacDonalds.
Day 1 – 11.9.19 (Wednesday) Travel
The next adventure started with Leon and Didi. At the airport the bag drop was very quick and efficient – so much so, in fact, that I was left a little dazed and it all felt like a dream. It’s probably because I’ve been thinking, planning and worrying about this trip so much that it has become a bit….unreal in a way. I waltzed through security and passport checks, grabbed a coffee from the usual place and grounded myself in the outdoor smoking area to try to get some reality back into the equation.
It didn’t help much and the efficient, easy boarding onto the Air Canada plane didn’t help me escape the feeling I was just dreaming – it was all so easy and relaxed. Maybe it’s just me – this, after all, was my 24th international flight (+ 8 domestic flights) this year so the whole flying thing has become almost part of my life lately. Anyway I settled in, avoided conversation with the guy beside me whom I just didn’t want to talk to for the next 14 hours and waited for take-off.
All went well, I managed to get a few hours shut-eye and we landed in Vancouver 3 hours before we took off in Brisbane – due to the time difference, of course – at 7.20 (am).
Expecting the usual arrival delays I had booked the rental car pick-up from Thrifty at 10.00.
Jesus – it was so easy, again, getting through customs, passports etc that I was in the terminal looking for the smoking area by 8!
That need satisfied I went looking for the rental cars. The guy said if I took the car NOW, I’d need to return it by the same time on Sunday or be charged another day’s rental, so I opted for a coffee instead as I don’t want to have to come back too early on Sunday. It would also give me an opportunity to check out the airport and find things I would need later – like shuttle bus stops, left luggage etc.
I picked the car up just after 10. It had a few minor scratches which I photographed as the paperwork suggested it was damage-free and I’m not taking any chances with my record. A Hyundai Elantra, auto, a bit scruffy, but that suits me fine.
I found my Air BnB on MapsMe and headed out focusing really hard on driving on the right. Found the house, but as I had agreed to meet the owner at 15.30, I had some time to kill. I let the sat nav take me to a nearby park – Fraser River Park about 10 minutes away.
I wandered round there picking up my first lifer of the trip – Northwestern Crow. Not a lot different from American Crow, but a tick is a tick is a tick. It was amazingly quiet actually. A dull, grey, glary type of day, warm (21), no wind, lots of berries on the trees and yet nothing much showing. I did find a few Northern Mallard on a small pond while Western and Californian Gulls occasionally passed by along the river. A flock of about 10 Killdeer flew off one muddy patch and a few Song Sparrows, 1 probable Lincoln’s Sparrow and a brief Northern Flicker made up most of the list. A hawk swooped a few Crows and then landed out of sight in a tree. I approached and it flew again. Based on the size and general behaviour I’m pretty happy it was my second lifer of the day – Sharp-shinned Hawk. Very like Cooper’s only smaller really.
I was feeling a little hungry so made my way to a nearby MacD’s and had an Angus burger and coffee, then headed for another park area along the waterfront – Jericho Beach Park.
This was a bigger park and maybe a bit more activity?
A small flock of (wild?) Canada Geese wandered across the road, 2 Great Blue Herons, 2 Yellow Warblers, a small flock of American Robins (interesting that they’re flocking already?) 2 Spotted Towhees, a handful of White-crowned Sparrows, 3 House Finches and an obliging female Northern Flicker on the ground.
My first Canadian mammals were of the introduced variety – European Rabbits one could almost pet (apparently dumped by people who no longer wanted them as a pet) and Eastern Grey Squirrels Sciurus carolinensis. Both showing black melanocytic forms.
Three turtles perched up on a mud bank were Western Painted Turtles Chrysemys picta bellii.
It was time to meet my Air BnB host and I headed there through the afternoon school traffic checking in with Frances at 15.30. It’s a nice room – that’s all it is – with a shared bathroom and kitchen. I was hoping there would be coffee but apparently only that left by previous guests. I guess I’ll have to go and buy some basic stuff when I’ve had a little rest…..
I fell asleep, unfortunately, and when I woke up I was hungry so I drove to a nearby Safeway and bought a microwavable meal for dinner. I also got some oats for breakfast and the necessary coffee, sugar and milk.
After eating a very poor dinner I spent the rest of the evening in my room, reading and doing my notes etc.
Trip List – 16 Lifers - 2
Day 2 – 12.9.19 (Thursday) Vancouver BC
I didn’t sleep well – jet lag and the nana nap yesterday afternoon didn’t work out too well and I spent a lot of time reading through the night.
I got up at 7, had breakfast and left around 8. Headed south thinking I would avoid most of the traffic – I did – and arrived at the George C Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary half an hour before it opened at 9. It was a damp, cloudy morning but the rain initially held off.
I paid my $3 admittance fee – got the $2 senior discount – and wandered around the tracks looking for stuff.
Within 20 meters of the entrance I got all excited ‘cause I had 2 or 3 Black-capped Chickadees, my third trip lifer, right there in front of me.
By the end of the day I had seen so many they had become ‘just another f……..g Black-capped Chickadee’ as they do. But they were pretty cute and super-confiding.
Moving right along and cutting a long story short….I spent the morning happily birding the ponds and surrounding scrub/grasses/bush for what seemed like a big list, but ended up less than 40 species. Mind you there was some quality birds – crippling views of Short-billed Dowitchers and Greater Yellowlegs, a distant Bald Eagle sat on the beach, a number of Sandhill Cranes (new for my NA list), good views of Northern Harriers, heaps of Sparrow sp, mostly I think Song with a few obvious White-crowned and at least 1 Lincoln thrown in. Definite Yellow Warblers and a few I believe were that, flocks of Bushtits and best of all, finally, Wood Duck. Man, what a stunning little duck, I couldn’t stop taking photos of them and they were so easy – almost stuffed.
By 13.00 I was pretty knackered, what with lack of sleep, lack of coffee and carting all the stuff around (camera, scope etc) so I headed back to the car and south towards Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal (yeah, I can’t pronounce it either) where I had found reports of Black Turnstone on the rocky edges of the terminal area. On the way I looked for somewhere that had coffee and food and once again, Ronald McD was the answer. What the hell – you know what you’re getting, you get it quickly, it doesn’t cost the earth – and they have good toilets. What more could I ask for?
I felt much better after eating, but by then the rain had really settled in – in fact it was pissing down.
Never fear, thinks I, I’ll check out the ferry terminal anyway – you never know!
Well, that was a complete waste of time.
There was nowhere to stop or park unless you pay or are going on one of the ferries. And even if you did park, I think you’d still have difficulty wandering around looking for stuff. It might be possible to park back on the mainland – the ferry terminal is on a man-made island, connected by a causeway where you can’t stop - but I wasn’t going to park and walk as it was pouring rain and I didn’t have any wet gear with me, of course. It would have been a long, probably mostly uneventful walk anyway. I did see a couple of Black Oystercatchers from the car as I drove slowly in the inside lane back along the causeway, but that was about it.
By now it was close to 15.00, wet, grey, dull, almost starting to go dark. No sign of the weather lifting, I decided to head home. MapsMe told me 30 minutes. It took over an hour and a half. The traffic was f….d. At one point I took a slight diversion and saw the USA/Canadian border – what is it with my travelling? I always end up on borders. A few ks further and it was 5 lanes of solid traffic into one lane to go through a tunnel under a river.
Anyway, got home with another microwave meal – this one included a brownie with the fried ‘chicken’, mash and corn, but really wasn’t much better than last night’s effort.
Trip List – 43 Lifers – 4 New NA – 2
Day 3 – 13.9.19 Friday Vancouver BC
Slept a little better and got up at 6.30 to a dull, damp cloudy grey (or gray!) morning. After breakfast at which I doubled up on the oats, I headed out. Today I had decided to go north (yesterday had been all south) and so set my course for Grouse Mountain. This meant transitioning through Vancouver city itself hence the earlier leaving and the iPad as always strapped to my left thigh for guidance.
So I got into the city and was happily following the instructions issuing from my iPad in light traffic, feeling good. I stop at a set of lights, I was the second car and no one was behind me.
Well, no one that is except a cop on a motorbike. Whom I didn’t see. Why would I be looking? I was doing nothing wrong.
Well, he didn’t think so and pulled up beside me and pointed me to the curbside.
I sat and reflected on the last few minutes driving and could not pinpoint anything different or incorrect? I’d just been following the traffic, such as it was.
Anyway he walked to my window and advised me that using an iPad in my lap to navigate was a ‘distraction’ and not acceptable practice, could he have my license and insurance? He could – if I could find the latter – it was, in fact, in the glove box OK and he took them away back to his bike.
When he returned he lectured me on the dangers of driving distracted, that he was sure the penalties in Australia were much worse than here. Then he gave me a citation and THEN advised me that:
1. It wouldn’t affect my license here or at home.
2. The rental people would never know.
3. I was a good driver (?)
4. He didn’t want to stress me out – (like a little LATE for that don’t you think?)
5. He wanted me to have a good holiday and enjoy Canada/Vancouver (like – ditto!)
6. I didn’t have to pay it if I didn’t want to. There is no reciprocity between Canada and Australia concerning fines and even if I came back to Canada without paying it, no one would ever follow up.
I tried a couple of times to say stuff like, its an iPad, its only for navigation, I’m not playing with it. And, I’ve never been here before and so I was looking around taking everything in.
But he really didn’t want me to say anything except thanks, I think.
I mean – what’s the point? He goes to all that trouble, issuing me a fine, then telling me in great detail how I don’t have to pay it?
Anyway he told me to use the iPad on the passenger seat and just ‘listen, don’t look at it’. He also told me he’d been in Brisbane in 1992 to quote’ see the State of Origin’ unquote and had driven to Cairns where he’d been busted for driving with open liquor in the car – and HE’D never paid the fine!
Obviously with that advice I intend to follow his example and not pay it, of course. Just as well – it was $368.
I carried on, reaching Grouse Mountain a little while later than expected. It was raining, a thin misty rain and the trees and mountain were shrouded in mist or maybe cloud. I parked and paid $8 via credit card – probably about $10 Aus – for 3 hours then started hiking up one of the trails. It was very rough, quite steep and the mist only got worse. There was absolutely nothing moving or calling in the forest of huge pine trees so after 30 minutes I gave it away and walked back down to the car park, working on the old assumption that everything is always in the car park.
It was raining heavier now and so I got a coffee from Starbucks beside the chairlift station (I checked the price – it was $59 return. I thought about it, but chose not to go, as the weather was so foul I’d have seen nothing from up there anyway and the chances of seeing grouse or anything else from the chairlift seemed a bit thin.)
As I sat with my coffee waiting for the rain to ease a small Chipmunk ran around in front of me. I decided it was a Yellow Pine Chipmunk Tamias amoenus – a lifer and he was very cute, as chipmunks are, so that kinda made up for the lack of birds.
On the way back to the car I saw another Squirrel lifer – Douglas’s Squirrel Tamiasciurus douglasii so all in all it wasn’t a bad $10 worth.
As I got back to the car, my expectations were met as a mixed flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (6) and Townsend Warblers (20) moved through the trees right in front of my vehicle.
It always happens, doesn’t it? Nothing new, but they were nice.
I decided to have a smoke before I headed off again and found another Yellow Pine Chipmunk about 2 meters away chewing on some grass – that was cool!
It all happens at the car, I’m telling ya!
So as the weather was so shit, especially in the mountains, I thought a drive with a possible lowland destination would be worthwhile. I set the Squamish Wildlife Management Reserve in the iPad, propped it up in front of the gear lever and set off.
It was a lovely drive and is probably spectacular in the sun, along the coast north towards Whistler for about 60 ks. (Whistler is another 50 and I didn’t bother)
The Wildlife Reserve was pretty poor. Nothing of interest for me there, a few Common Ravens, sparrow sp that I decided were Chipping Sparrows and it was starting to get windy to top it off.
I went to Mackers for lunch again.
With time on my hands I checked the map for maybe somewhere else nearby that might be of interest and found a place called Alice Lake about 12 ks further north. So I went there. By now the rain had stopped and it had brightened up somewhat but was still cloudy.
I parked up (free this time) and decided to walk around the lake. It was very quiet, no one else around really. The track crossed a beach then entered the trees.
As I entered the trees I saw a movement on the slope on my right. I stopped and got the bins on - a Varied Thrush!! Yahoooo!! He was a bit nervous and kind of flighty but I thought I’d get a photo anyway.
Just as I started to bring the camera up, a healthy f….ker wearing only lycra pants jogged past me up the path and of course the bird disappeared never to be seen again. He could run anywhere, but No, it had to be HERE. Now.
I had originally thought Varied Thrush would be easy, but the birding guys I had contacted had given it a low percentage chance at this time of year cause ‘they weren’t all back yet’. I’m not sure where from, but it was clear it wasn’t going to be easy.
So, here I am with, potentially, the ONLY Varied Thrush I’ll EVER see and some wanker has to jog past RIGHT at the wrong time. You can imagine my pain. And the resultant sulk.
You not allowed smoke in some of these parks in Canada, but apparently its OK to disturb people while you jog – F…k THAT!
I saw 5 other people on the track in the next hour or so and any one of them would have stopped if they’d seen me with a camera out.
I didn’t see Mr I-only-jog-in-my-underpants again. Lucky for him.
So 10 seconds worth of VT, but, I guess, at least it WAS a VT.
I watched a second Douglas’s Squirrel run back and forth with pinecones he seemed to be storing somewhere, but that was literally it for Alice Lake. I headed for home.
Quoted distance: 83 ks. Quoted time: 1 hour 5 minutes.
I left Alice Lake at 15.00 – and got home at 17.15. The traffic into Vancouver was just horrific, 30 minutes to get through one set of lights!
I did see a Golden Eagle overhead at one point in the road – a new North American for my list. Friday the 13th is right……
Trip List – 48 Lifers – 5 birds, (2 Mammals) New NA – 3
Day 4 – 14.9.19 Saturday Vancouver BC
I didn’t get to sleep till after midnight so was late waking to another dull, grey, wet morning. It was the type of morning where bed is very attractive and you’d prefer to curl up with your lover under the doona than drag your sorry ass out.
But, lacking a lover, drag my sorry ass out I did.
I spent a little bit of time with E Bird trying to decide where would give me the most bang for my Canadian buck on my last day in Vancouver. I had considered Stanley Park in the city environs, but when I checked recent reports there was nothing there that got me excited. I did, however, find a report of Horned (or Shore) Larks and, more importantly, a (single) Black Turnstone at a place only 10 minutes away near the airport – Iona Beach Regional Park.
Still a little shell shocked from the police interaction yesterday and wanting to avoid any further possible contact with Officer Buckingham I was happy not to go into the city and set off south for this Iona place.
I got there at 9.45 and checked out a mass of hirundines over a small pond. I picked out a handful of Northern Rough-winged and 1 Violet-green Swallow/s from the large flock of Barn Swallows hawking over the water.
Then I set out for the ‘pier’, which was more like a causeway. Perfect for Turnstones with rocky edges all along its 4 km length. Yeah, 4 freaking kilometers! The tide was going out and vast mudflats were appearing. But they were virtually empty, apart from several hundred Green-winged Teal scattered in small flocks, a few Northern Mallard and fewer still Northern Pintail. However, optimism was high and I set off, continually watching the rocky edges for any movement.
I came across the Shore Larks - all 3 of them, and they were quite confiding, considering how photographically challenging I have found them in the past.
In 4 kilometers I only found 1, yes, ONE, Western Sandpiper. It was the only wader, literally, that I saw until I bumped into a pair of birders. An older couple who had come late to the birding scene – nice enough, but not what one would call hard core birder/idiots like some of us. They did point out a Wandering Tattler which, apparently, is unusual at this location.
I kept up the positivity all the way to the end where a rocky outcrop suggested great things but was, in fact, completely barren of birds.
Offshore there were large numbers of Surf Scoter and I went through them looking for White-winged, unsuccessfully. A few did venture quite close to the causeway.
Then I walked the same 4 kms back. By the time I had reached the car it was raining again and my back was aching from carrying the ‘scope. So I had a little rest then set off to look for a gate into the nearby sewage settling ponds where the birders I had met on the walk thought was my best chance, locally, for Hooded Merganser. They had given me the secret 4-digit code to get through the gate, which was very nice of them.
But it didn’t help me find a HM as there weren’t any on either of the two ponds.
I was pretty tired by now, desperate for coffee and the day wasn’t getting any better weather-wise so I basically packed up and headed home via, yes, you guessed it, another Mackers – oh and Safeway again for another microwaveable meal…..
Trip List – 57 Lifers – 5 birds, (2 Mammals) New NA – 3
Day 5 – 15.9.19 Sunday Travel
I was scheduled to fly to Campbell River at 13.30 from the South Terminal. The hire car had to be returned by 10.15 latest so I was up at 7, breakfasted and packed and left at 9.15. First job – fill the car with fuel. Easily accomplished at a nearby service station where the same process applied as in the USA – pay before you fill. Cost: $43.
Then to the airport and car drop off completed without hassle – for a change!
I dropped my rucksack into the left luggage counter – $68 for the 7 days. Then, as I had plenty of time, I thought I’d just check where the Seattle bus left from - in preparation for next Saturday. It was lucky I did.
My flight next Saturday from Campbell River arrives in Vancouver at 11.10. The bus to Seattle leaves at midday – from the Rockport Casino in Vancouver, NOT the airport as I had understood it from the website. I would need to get a cab (~$20) to the Casino to get the bus.
The helpful information desk also advised me to book a seat on the bus as they often filled up – especially if the Seattle flights were cancelled for any reason.
There was little chance of me making the midday bus in 50 minutes. If there had been a bus around 13.00 it would have worked but the next bus didn’t leave till 16.00. so…….panic.
Not a major panic as I figured I could live with it if I had to drive from Seattle airport to Westport at night, but it would have made for a very late arrival followed by an early start the next day for the pelagic.
I pondered the options on the 15 minute shuttle ride.
When I checked in with Pacific Coastal Airways I asked the girl if there was any chance of getting an earlier flight next Saturday? She said there was and very politely and efficiently booked me on the 6.50 flight from Campbell River getting in at 7.35 and I paid the $52.50 change fee.
Problem solved. In fact, I can now probably get the 11.00 bus to Seattle, arriving there at 15.15. All I’ve got to do now is book the bus…….
The plane left on time – a twin rotor 19 seat job, 10 of which were empty. I had planned to ask for a window seat, but had forgotten in the excitement of changing my return flight. It would have been superfluous anyway as all the seats were window seats. The pilot said we’d be flying at 10,000 ft. I once jumped out of a plane flying higher than that.
Most of the flight was cloud covered and we landed at Campbell River in the rain, again. I got the shuttle bus to the Comfort Inn in downtown Campbell River for $20 – and organised a pickup for next Saturday at 5.45. I had to wait 40 minutes for check-in, which was fine, then dumped my bags and went for a walk.
One thing I had ‘forgotten’ to bring was shorts. Well, not exactly forgotten, but thinking more about the rest of the trip, had decided there would be minimal opportunity to wear shorts. However, where kayaking was concerned and it being relatively warm, I thought it’d probably be preferential to wear shorts rather than get my long pants wet. Pretty silly of me, considering I have a dozen pairs at home, however, I found a K-Mart type store where I got a pair for $15. I felt a bit like Jack Reacher.
I checked out the location for the bear hunting trip tomorrow and then the pickup point for the kayak trip on Tuesday. It was about a 10 minute walk to the Grizzly adventure pickup which I visited just to check what time I needed to be there. The Wildcoast Adventure departure point was 15 minutes walk in the opposite direction. Will require a bit of effort to walk there with my bags, however, I’m sure I’ll cope. A pickup from the hotel for non-drivers would have been nice….
Campbell River was bigger than I had imagined. An extensive waterfront with marinas and small wharfs, loads of shops and restaurants on the shores of Discovery Passage, backed by pine covered hills. Even the circus was in town with a Big Top set up in a small waterfront park.
I checked out a few of the local restaurants with an eye to eating McDonald’s-free tonight. It seemed to be a choice of burgers, KFC, burgers, pizza or………..burgers really. So I decided it’d be pizza for a change.
I walked the 15 minutes to Fisherman’s Wharf where the Tuesday morning departure is scheduled to leave from – just to check it all out. I had been half expecting to see eagles and stuff flying around but there were only a few gulls, a couple of Double-crested Cormorants and a single Harbour Seal checked me out.
An 8-slice (small size, apparently) average tasting vegetarian pizza and a Canadian beer at Boston Pizza later and I was back ‘home’ again, settled in for the evening.
Trip List – 57 Lifers – 5 birds, (2 Mammals) New NA – 3
Day 6 – 16.9.19 Monday Vancouver Island
Once again it took me ages to get to sleep – it was well after midnight. I was up at 6.15 and down for a big breakfast, then walked down to Pier E and the All Day Grizzly Adventure.
It was awesome!
While we waited on the dock a North American River Otter crossed the pontoon briefly – apparently they are common here and crap on the boats at night to mark their territory.
We left in the boat at 8.30, 12 in all, the second boat also full. It was a two hour trip to the Orford River Malumo First People’s settlement. The water was almost mirror calm and the scenery was pretty spectacular once the clouds lifted and the sun actually came out for a while.
On the way we caught up with 2 Humpback Whales and then a single. I also noted Common Guillemots, 1 Pigeon Guillemot, Pelagic Cormorants, Surf Scoters, a pair of Harlequin Ducks, Western Grebes, a Great Northern Diver and Bonaparte’s Gulls (~100). Being inside the vessel taking pictures was impossible unless we stopped – which we did for the whales, but not for the birds. There may well have been Marbled Murrelets as well but I didn’t get any chance to ID them.
We were met by two First People’s guides of the Malumo tribe at the wharf, along with two buses, and received an official welcome and another safety briefing re bears. The guides and our boat person, Jim, carried bear spray and were constantly on the lookout for errant bears, including checking the area around the bus before letting us out.
It was about a 30 minute drive to the first viewing tower along a rough dirt road but on the way they spotted our first Grizzly. It wandered through the bush about 30 meters away watched carefully by everyone. So cool!
When we arrived at the tower a bear was already on the river bank and crashed into the water to catch a salmon. This was the only successful fish catch we witnessed – but we saw that individual and another fishing along the bank no more than 50 meters away, quite casually. Really cool! F…….g awesome actually!
While we were watching these guys an immature Bald Eagle landed downriver and later an adult perched up in a tree approx 80 meters away. Goosanders also fished the river and a few Gulls and Common Ravens hung around too.
When the bears had wandered off to do whatever it is they do in the woods, we moved to another location, but saw no bears, just a couple of distant Belted Kingfishers, although only one UK guy and myself were interested.
A third location gave us our fourth bear – a big black mother of a bear, but it was some distance away and didn’t show well. Our final, 5th, animal was only a brief viewing before it slunk off out of sight.
Back at the wharf we had lunch then headed back towards Campbell River. This time we went through an area of ‘rapids’, a narrow waterway where the sea floods through causing whirlpools and waves – all very dramatic and, even better, there were half a dozen Steller Sea Lions fishing in the disturbed water.
A little while after that, and following an alert on the radio, we headed for a bay where Orcas were being seen and, sure enough, they were there. Three of them, a male, female and calf. We had to maintain a 200 meter perimeter and it was quite choppy so my videos are all over the place. Hopefully I’ll get a bit closer in the kayak.
Back at the dock at 17.30 we said goodbye and I walked back to the Comfort Inn. I decided not to worry about dinner as, by the time I’d reviewed my photos and video and notes, it was well after 20.00 and I still hadn’t finished. I wasn’t hungry anyway.
Trip List – 67 Lifers – 5 birds, (+5 Mammals) New NA – 5 (+2 Mammals)
Day 7 – 17.9.19 Tuesday Vancouver Island
We were due to leave on the Discovery Launch Water Taxi at 8. I went downstairs, had breakfast and then headed out for a smoke at 7.15. I recognized a guy who had been on the bear hunting expedition the day before and we started chatting. Brad (from Toronto) was heading out to the water taxi for the same trip I was on so I grabbed my stuff and we walked up the road together.
It was raining, windy and waves were breaking in the marina. It was a truly miserable morning.
The water taxi was delayed till 9.30 – in fact till 10 in the end – and Brad and I repaired to a nearby café – the Beehive – and sat and talked while we waited. It was a blessing that we found each other as we discovered a similar sense of humour and language use and shared a lot of laughs over the next few days.
The boat finally left and we headed off with 9 others into the spray and rain. It turned out that two of the other couples were from Brisbane. Jesus, can’t get away from it! One couple, she was 4 months pregnant, now lived in London, but had, a few years ago, lived on Birdwood Rd……. The others had been travelling for 5 months, working on-line but had originally lived in Moorooka, Greenslopes and Holland Park. The third couple on board were Germans from Leipzig and the last three were made up of Canadians, a single female, Laura, hailed from Victoria, and two guys, friends, from somewhere else in Canada. I was the oldest member of the group.
We stopped off, briefly, at Quadra Island to pick up some supplies then we were off again on the two hour trip to the camp. We had brief views of White-sided Dolphins Lagenorhynchus obliquidens and a Humpback on the journey, but the only birds I really ID’d were Bonaparte’s Gulls in the channel. It did eventually calm down, but when we reached the drop off point the chop was messy and we had to transfer from the water taxi to the beach via a small rowing boat. I was shitting it that my gear would fall in, but we landed Ok, if a little wet, and carried our stuff up the rocky beach to the sleeping tents.
We were shown around – the toilets, kitchen tent, sauna, hot tub – and Brad and I decided to share a tent. We had some lunch and then were left to hang out as the conditions were not kayak-friendly.
I set up with the scope on the beach and watched the passing stuff. Pelagic Cormorants, Surf Scoters and a couple of Marbled Murrelets sitting just off the beach. The latter a feature of the next 4 days, but never more than one or two and I never got close.
As I sat there I suddenly noticed a small wader on the opposite side of the creek that flowed beside the campsite. Zooming in I realised I had a bird I had almost given up on – Black Turnstone!! It very obligingly flew across the creek and landed about 30 meters away – brilliant views!
Basically that was it for the day. We had salmon for dinner that night and all meals were well prepared, there was plenty of food and coffee was always available.
Day 8 – 18.9.19 Wednesday Vancouver Island
I got up before breakfast and wandered out in front of the kitchen tent with coffee and bins and watched a flock of 7 Black Turnstones! Yep, you can’t find the bird then they’re everywhere. A few more Scoters, but realistically not much else. The forest behind the campsite was completely dead (of birds that is). Huge pines backed up the steep hill with minimal undergrowth and just nothing calling or moving at any time during our stay.
Back down at the creek it was low tide and I thought ‘that creek is really good-looking for Dipper’ and sure enough 10 minutes later I had American Dipper! Crippling views. I was to see it daily, and a second one once, over the coming days.
After a huge breakfast – pancakes, bacon (can’t get enough of this American bacon!), fruit, coffee, juice – we headed down to the Paddle Shack and geared up for our first kayaking paddle. I chose to be in a single kayak, as did Brad and Laura, the couples, and the two Canadian dudes, were in doubles.
We got instruction, got in the kayaks and paddled along the edge of the island. By now the conditions had calmed completely. Totally. I mean there were NO waves, swells or anything else to disturb the surface. It was the classical mill-pond thing.
We paddled for 2 or 3 ks along the coast, eventually pulling in at a sandy/shingly type of beach and went for a walk to a waterfall a little distance up a valley.
There were 5 Spotted Sandpipers flitting around the beach during lunch and one of the non-birding Canadian guys said he saw a Red-headed Woodpecker. I could hear it, but couldn’t find it visually. We had the one and only Bald Eagle perched up on the walk to the waterfall.
When we headed back the wind had sprung up a bit and there was a small swell out wide, but nothing to worry us. It took an hour and a half to get back to camp and we saw nothing of any great interest along the way.
Brad and I were starting to wonder where the Orcas were. They had told us that if we saw anything – Orca, Humpback, Seal Lion etc – we were to shout it out loud, so everyone got a chance to see whatever it was. We did see a couple of Harbour Seals and Steller Sea Lions appeared here and there but none came close and we weren’t supposed to ‘chase’ them.
I had thought about calling ‘Black Turnstone’ or ‘American Dipper’ but refrained, as I figured no one else would be interested.
Back at camp some people headed for the hot tub – I’ve never been one for hot tubs so just hung out, drank coffee, watched for passing Orcas and checked out any passing birds, of which there were few.
Another big dinner and I headed for bed around 9.
Day 9 – 19.9.19 Thursday Vancouver Island
I was half asleep, waking up, at 7.45 when someone started shouting ‘ORCA’. Everyone jumped up and ran to the beach to watch several Orcas pass over the next 30 minutes or so.
They were a fair way out – probably 1.5 – 2 ks away. It was so quiet though, we could hear their exhalations and inhalations and the fins were easily seen as they moved leisurely up the Strait.
After yet another huge breakfast we headed out and this time paddled straight across the 4 km wide Strait. We saw some Dall’s Porpoises Phocoenoides dalli but again not particularly close and they kept going.
We landed on another beach and had lunch there, then paddled back across to camp. We were, obviously, hoping the Orcas would come back, but they didn’t show. I did have another Spotted Sandpiper on the lunch beach. And a Red-necked Grebe drifted past during the afternoon. A gull sitting patiently on a rock at the mouth of the creek demanded some attention and I ID’d it as another lifer – American Herring Gull.
Back at camp, once again the hot tub got some use, then the sauna was ready. They only fire it up for one day of each trip because it uses so much wood. I decided to enjoy a sauna and along with about 6 others piled into the home-made structure.
It was very good actually, they’d done a really good job and we all sat and sweated for a while before emerging. The others were all plunging into the creek and I thought, well, might as well.
I almost died of a heart attack I reckon. It was so freaking cold.
They all piled back in for another sauna session, but once was enough for me. It felt great afterwards, but then……it feels great too when you stop banging your head against the wall.
Then it was dinner, a beach campfire and I was in bed again around 9.
Day 10 – 20.9.19 Friday Vancouver Island
Our last day at Orca camp – or Non-Orca camp as Brad put it…. An early morning paddle before dawn at 6.45 was arranged and most people turned out for it. We paddled out on the absolutely flat calm strait and ‘rafted up’ together in the middle to watch the sunlight come up on the mountains and start to burn off the heavy mist. It was a lovely morning, but I was pretty cold by the end of it and we were back at camp by 8.30. On the way an American Mink Neovison vison put in a brief appearance running up the rocks beside the water – I only got a fleeting glimpse over my shoulder. Then it was Eggs Benedict for breakfast and packing up.
The water taxi returned at 10.30 and, as this is the final camping trip of the season, a couple of guides got off to help our guys break down the tents etc. We loaded our stuff onto the boat and several kayaks on the rear deck then headed off, finally, back to Campbell River. It took over two hours and involved another stopoff at Quadra Island to offload the kayaks and some of the other camping stuff.
Along the way we saw 2 Orcas, 1 Humpback and several Steller Sea Lions. As Brad said ‘we shoulda camped there…..’
At Quadra Island we had very close encounters with two North American River Otters Lontra canadensis playing around the jetty like puppies. They were really cute, but unfortunately my camera was in the hold.
Back at the marina, Laura offered Brad and I a lift to the Comfort Inn which saved us a 15 minute walk with our gear – and we checked in again.
A hot shower, a shave and a proper toilet were the necessities of life as I checked my emails to discover another disappointment - the planned pelagic out of Westport on the Seattle coast that had been scheduled for Sunday, had been cancelled due to expected heavy weather. Now I need to decide what to do when I pick up the car tomorrow at Seattle airport…
At about 7 Brad and I went out for a dish of chicken wings and two beers each at Boston Pizza - $60 Can. Not something I would repeat every day, but it was nice to have a couple of beers before crashing.
Trip List – 74 Lifers – 8 birds, (+7 Mammals) New NA – 7 (+3 Mammals)
Day 11 – 21.9.19 Saturday Travel
Big travel day. Planes, trains and automobiles….. Started off with yet another disappointment of sorts – the shuttle to the airport I had arranged personally last Sunday for 5.45 didn’t turn up. So at 5.50 Brad and I ordered a taxi. We got to the airport at 6.25 checked in, had a coffee and flew 10 minutes late at 7.
We got the free shuttle from the South Terminal to the International where I left Brad on the bus to go to the Domestic terminal and I went in and collected my rucksack from the left luggage. Then I sat and had another coffee as I had plenty of time on my hands.
I thought I’d just check with the Information desk. Maybe there was a free shuttle to the Rock River Casino from the airport? A lot of the hotels seem to do that. However, apparently you have to be a guest to get the free ride, but the woman did convince me to use the Skytrain.
I had planned to get a $20 taxi, but she made it sound so simple I couldn’t refuse the challenge! (I know, it’s pathetic isn’t it when you see a train ride as a challenge….)
So for $8 I got my ticket, rode the unmanned, automatic monorail kind of thing to the third stop and struggled through to the Casino and eventually the bus stop with my 4 bags.
I had to wait nearly two hours but that was OK, I knew that. At 11, the bus turned up on time, we piled in and found it almost full. 30 minutes later we all piled out again, collected our bags and queued for ages to go through the USA customs. Interviewed, quizzed, fingerprinted, photographed and we were all back in the bus again and off to Seattle.
We arrived 5 minutes later than scheduled at 15.20 and I asked a police officer with an M16 where I could 1. smoke and 2. collect my car. He was very helpful and polite and after I had completed 1, I found myself on the bus to Seatac Rental Car Heaven. All the companies are off-site and the bus simply takes you there and drops everyone off.
It took more than an hour to get the car. There were a few people who seemed to be having difficulty in one way or another and held up everyone else. Finally, however, I sorted the paperwork and went down to the garage to collect a Nissan Rogue Sport – black! Nice! Looks very like a Rav 4. Mileage = 28,965.
I had decided to drive to a town away from Seattle just to get to a place with a bed in a motel and sort my stuff out before starting to camp. I still hadn’t got a pillow, camping chair or any serious food or gas so……
I ended up in an Econolodge in Ellensburg about 170 ks east of Seattle, part way to Spokane. Apparently I got the last room – a double. I also got the senior discount of about $10, one night cost me $88, and that includes wifi, of course, and a ‘continental’ breakfast in the morning. It was the right decision I think. It gave me the chance to sort my clothes v camping gear, set up the car with music and so on and generally sort out my head. I had two days in hand now, thanks to the cancellation of the pelagic, so would alter my schedule as it suited.
So my Canadian List stands at 74. Didn’t see anything worthwhile after crossing the border – just one probable Golden Eagle over the highway at 110 k/hr….
Trip List – 74 Lifers – 8 birds, (+7 Mammals) New NA – 7 (+3 Mammals)
Day 12 – 22.9.19 Sunday Washington State
I woke at 5.30 after a surprisingly solid night’s sleep in a very comfortable bed. I had the ‘continental’ breakfast which was quite good actually – boiled eggs, cereal, good quality yoghurt, toast, fruit, a selection of pastries that I ignored and waffles - but I didn’t have room for them either - and plenty of coffee.
I went for a wander around the immediate area after breakfast and opened my USA account with a lifer – Black-billed Magpie. To all intents and purposes it’s exactly the same as the European version, but, once again, a tick is a tick.
I ended up in a rough deciduous treed area opposite the motel which had a bit going on, but I stumbled across several tents which appeared to be homeless people and I did feel a little uncomfortable. I didn’t see anyone, but I did see a couple of Steller’s Jays, Downy Woodpeckers, Warbling Vireos, Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Robins, a Northern Flicker and a Northern Harrier flew through quite low. Three Mule Deer also crossed the track in front of me. I could have hung around longer but was a bit wary of the other ‘occupants’ so packed up and headed off around 9.
Then came the next disappointment! I had brought along an inverter to use in the car so I could charge my laptop – it seemed the answer to that on-going issue. However, the only power outlet in the car was damaged and wouldn’t connect. It’s a real pisser actually cause now I can only charge one item at a time in the car and not the laptop at all. And when I’m charging something I can’t listen to my music. I also need to keep the iPad on almost continuous charge in the car if I’m using it as it drains fairly quickly and that eliminates my music too of course. Shit, shit, shit, shit. I considered calling Alamo and asking for it to be replaced/fixed, however, I don’t want to change the car – I love the car! I decided I’d think about it and decide later.
In the meantime I headed east towards Spokane about 120 kms to Moses Lake where I had been told there was a Wal-Mart. In the first few ks I saw at least 6 Red-tailed Hawks perched on fence posts beside the highway.
I found the Wal-Mart and spent about 2 and a half hours stocking up – I bought a camp chair, gas cylinders, a pillow, a bucket, tinned beans, an esky, milk, cheese, chocolate, eggs, bread, butter….you get the picture. I spent $156 and packed it all in the car, then went back in and bought an AT&T Sim card for my phone so hopefully it’ll be available at all times now for Messenger. Cost - $10 for the sim card and $35 for a month of unlimited texts and calls and some data (not sure how much, but it should be enough).
Then retired to Starbucks to have a coffee and charge the laptop……
I headed east again just after 14.30. MapsMe told me it was two and a half hours to Priest River. It was a fairly boring drive through undulating land stripped bare for agriculture – appeared to be a wheat like crop.
When I reached Priest River at 17.15 I put the campsite I had chosen into MapsMe and found it was another 66 ks away. I hadn’t realised it was so far away from the town itself so decided to find something closer. The first place I tried was closed. The second place, 19 kms away, at Round Lake State Park was open and I started setting up camp at 18.15. By 19.00 I had the tarp up, the tent under it, my sleeping stuff spread ready inside, a cup of coffee to hand and a meal on the way. Cost for two nights = $60 that includes the $5 a day entry fee. Steeper than I expected, but with little choice today I just had to suck it up.
Trip List (USA) – 22 Lifers (total) – 9 birds, (+7 Mammals) New NA – 7 (+3 Mammals)
Day 13 – 23.9.19 Monday Idaho
I slept off and on and got up at 7. After eating I went for a walk around the campsite and checked out the lake. Nothing. Nada. Zip.
I decided to go for a drive and headed for a nearby lake that was much bigger. I ended up on the shores of Lake Pendl Oreille at Talache. There was nothing on the water. There was nothing along the roads either apart from Common Raven. Nothing flew up, nothing on the wires, nothing calling. Just nothing. I went for a walk along another lake and saw a single Mule Deer, apart from that – nothing at all.
I got fuel – filled the tank from ¼ full for $23.70 ($2.88/gallon which to my reckoning made it about 75c/liter or just over a dollar Australian)
I wanted to try to get up higher elevation-wise. My main targets being Hooded Merganser (hence the lake quests), Black-backed Woodpecker and any type of Grouse. I set the target for Long Mountain and drove up the dirt road as far as I was comfortable. Then I drove back a bit, parked up and walked again through apparently perfect habitat for anything. And again absolutely nothing. It was like everything had died.
Headed back to the campsite and had lunch, then went for another walk this time around the lake. It was hard birding!
I saw, literally, a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a single Hairy Woodpecker, a single Steller’s Jay, an Osprey, had good views of one Pileated Woodpecker, 4 Green-winged Teal and 3 Northern Mallard. The most common bird was American Robin - about 10 or 12. I also saw two Red Squirrels, one of which froze in response to my playing Pygmy Owl. The walk lasted almost 3 hours.
I rested at camp for a while, then had a hot shower and shave and prepared some dinner. One of the park wardens came over and checked I had ‘got back the $10 you overpaid?’ Yes, I had and I thanked him very much, then quizzed him about Beaver and Owls and Woodpeckers etc.
After I had eaten I took his advice and headed up the creek that ran into the lake. There were a couple of beaver dams and I sat and watched a couple of sections of river for over an hour – but no beaver appeared. Went back and crashed early – it was spitting rain and cold.
Trip List (USA) – 30 Lifers (total) – 9 birds, (+7 Mammals) New NA – 7 (+4 Mammals)
Day 14 – 24.9.19 Tuesday Montana
Up at 7, fed, watered, broke camp and was on the road by 8. Heading for Glacier National Park in Montana - 408 kms, 5 hours. The sun was shining, the roads were good quality, the speed limit 70 m/hr, little traffic and good music.
Along the way I saw several Red-tailed Hawks perched up and a few other ‘raptors’ soaring low over the road. However, most of the soaring birds were over places I just couldn’t stop and, when I did once or twice, they had vanished. So I gave up. They all looked dark underneath, but weren’t eagles. Possibly dark morph Rough-legged Hawks/Buzzards? I also saw a few Wild Turkeys.
Other than that it was a pretty uneventful morning but a lovely scenic drive through the mountains and valleys of northwest Montana, alongside rivers and lakes. I finally came to a rest at Starbucks at Kalispell.
It seemed to take ages to charge the phone, iPad, E-Reader and especially the charge pack I had drained the previous night charging the phone & iPad. I had two coffees while I waited and eventually left at almost 14.30. I only had an hour and a half drive left to Glacier.
Along the way I had a brief glimpse of a falcon sp perched up – it was either a Merlin or a Prairie Falcon but, again, nowhere to stop easily. At the turnoff to the park a small flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds were beside the road, but I didn’t bother stopping for them.
In fact I got there at 15.45 and went to the park headquarters near West Glacier. It was closed, but the sign said it was open till 16.30? There were two chicks weeding outside the building and I asked them WTF? But not like that really. Anyway, apparently by crossing into Montana I had lost an hour – it was, in fact, 16.45 and hence the office was closed. However, they were very helpful and answered all my questions.
Did the America The Beautiful pass exempt me from the entrance fee? Yes. What was the Apgar campsite like? Ritzy, was the reply. Oooookay. Was it self-registration at the campsite? Yes.
They also told me the road to Logan’s Pass was closed beyond the Avalanche campsite – which was ‘primitive’ – and that there were ‘plenty of Loons on Bowman Lake’ further up the west side of the park.
I drove into the Apgar campsite, found a site and registered. The Park pass cut the cost in half so I only had to pay $20 for two nights – bargain! The toilets were flushable, but no showers. The campsite gravelly, but the pegs went in OK and I picked the furthest one from the main entrance. There were quite a few other campers, mainly RVs of various sizes but it seemed quite quiet. (Note: I only paid half the price but I think I mistook my Pass for a different type of pass and actually should have paid the full $40. Nothing ever came of it anyway.)
Quiet too on the bird front – I walked down to the nearby Lake McDonald and saw nothing at all. So I went back to camp cooked a meal of potato, carrot, zucchini, beans and a tin of roast beef in gravy and saved enough for the next night. All good.
Warnings about bears everywhere. ALL food stuffs must be in the car unless being used or a fine would result. However, I spoke briefly to the camp host and he told me there were very few bears on this side of the park. On the East side (a drive of 2.5 hours due to the Logan Pass road being closed) they were ‘everywhere’. Dammit! At least it wasn’t snowing or raining. Snow was expected on Friday, by which time I planned to be miles away.
Trip List (USA) – 31 Lifers (total) – 9 birds, (+7 Mammals) New NA – 7 (+4 Mammals)
Day 15 – 25.9.19 Wednesday Montana
It rained lightly during the night and it was a cold, grey, damp dawn. The campsite being in a valley took a long time to get the sun and warm up, but the afternoon was lovely.
I went for a short walk around the quieter, closed sections of the campsite but saw absolutely nothing. I drove up the ‘Sun Rd’ to Avalanche where it was closed – along with a lot of other people. The only bird I saw was a pair of Western Grebes on Lake McDonald, but the scenery was pretty good.
I decided to drive the 60 kms to Bowman Lake but in my usual way ended up somewhere else, outside the park in Columbia Falls. The roads were pretty good and there was only one turn off, but I thought that wasn’t the way so……ended up back at the campsite around 13.00 and not worth driving the 60 kms at that time. On the trip I saw 2 probable Pileated Woodpeckers fly over the road, and, at a random stop, 1 Goosander on the river and a single Black-capped Chickadee and that was it.
I had some lunch and went for a walk through the forest ending up at Apgar Village (during which the only bird I saw was a single Northern Flicker, even though I played owl calls, Black-backed Woodpecker and Grouse) where I bought an obsidian bladed, deer horn knife made by a local craftsman. So, if I’d gone to Bowman I’d have missed the knife, which was pretty unique, I thought.
I did see a Dark-eyed Junco in the village and two Goosanders and 2 Red-necked Grebes on the lake. Two more Juncos were near my campsite, but that was IT for the day! Surprisingly there were a few butterflies knocking about.
As I finished writing this a tiny Chipmunk appeared briefly – I believe it was a Least Chipmunk which is another new mammal.
I guess two new birds for my American List and a new mammal means the day wasn’t a total loss.
I had dinner and at dusk walked into the closed, quiet part of the campsite looking for Owls. I used playback and waited till after dark without any result. Then back to camp, bed and an episode of Designated Survivor on the iPad.
Trip List (USA) – 36 Lifers (total) – 9 birds, (+7 Mammals) New NA – 7 (+4 Mammals)
Day 16 – 26.9.19 Thursday Wyoming
Awake at 5.30 to wind and spattering rain. The wind was only in the treetops but the rain was at ground level. I made a cup of coffee at 6.30 and walked into the closed section again for a phone call home which was great.
Back at camp, packed the tent and the canopy and was on the road by 7.50. It was raining still, grey, dull, half dark – a pretty miserable morning. I drove till 9.30, then had to stop for car-fuel and me-fuel – i.e. petrol and coffee - at Swan Lake. ($2.84/gal, $37 total)
It would have been a beautiful drive in the right weather through pine forests, alongside lakes and rivers, a winding 70 m/h good quality road with little traffic, during which…… I had my first emergency brake situation of the trip….
A large adult deer pranced out in front of me, all hooves and tail going, dancing across the wet road. I hit the anchors at 110 k/h and it jumped off the road in front of me. Luckily it was a straight stretch of road and there were no other vehicles in sight. My reactions had been good, despite falling into a sort of driving state, and the car had handled well. I think it was a Mule Deer…..
After another hour or so, the rain eased off to just sporadic showers and the land flattened out somewhat. At one point I saw 2 Bald Eagles circling and stopped to check them out. A Cooper’s Hawk soared over briefly as well. I drove on.
Another couple of hours and approaching West Yellowstone across grasslands a falcon perched up caused a turn around, but was gone when I got back. I suspect it was a Prairie Falcon, but couldn’t be sure. However, two Rough-legged Hawks showed up nearby as some compensation.
I reached West Yellowstone at 15.00, 672 kms and 7 hours driving. I filled up with fuel again - $2.94/gal; $32 total. Then headed for Mackers for charging and coffee.
When I’d had enough coffee and charged everything as much as I felt was safe, I headed into Yellowstone National Park. Wow!! Yellowstone! Somewhere I have always dreamt of being.
I stopped for the Yogi Bear type guy at the gate, flashed my pass and asked about camping? Not so good.
Only two camp grounds open and both were full last night. I checked the board and Madison (14 miles in) was full but Norris (28 miles in) was ‘open’.
OK – let’s see how it goes. First up it was busy, traffic wise, I mean really busy, especially the traffic coming out. Within a few miles we all came to a dead stop as 6 American Bison Bison bison (tick) walked down and across the road through the traffic. They are HUGE. (Never realised they were called American Bison – are there other sorts?) Very impressive. Big muscly shoulders, shaggy coast and beards, yeah, I was impressed. And they could do whatever they wanted.
Further up the road another log jam – this time it was a few Elk Cervus elaphus in the trees beside the road.
Further on it was roadworks and we all sat for more than 10 minutes before they allowed us through to Norris camp ground and, sure enough, it was full.
Turn around and drive the 28 miles back to West Yellowstone, passing the Bison again who were still playing chicken with the traffic crawling along, everyone hoping they wouldn’t headbutt their car. Pretty cool!
Another group of Elk on the opposite side of a river also had people parked (illegally) all over the place. I didn’t stop but did catch a glimpse of a male with a full spread of antlers. Figured I’d see plenty over the next few days. I also passed several thermal pools, but again, didn’t stop – need to find a campsite as its now 17.00.
Back at WY I started looking for just that – long story short, I finally found a KOA camp ground 10 miles outside town and went in to check in. I was visualizing a 4 night stay, using their washing machines, having leisurely breakfasts, hot showers, treating myself, blah, blah, blah.
When I said to the guy ‘4 nights please’, he said ‘do you know what’s coming here tomorrow?’ ‘No’ I said, thinking, maybe the circus?
‘There’s a snow storm coming and it’s expected to dump up to 12 inches of snow here tomorrow night. Its going to blitz BC and west Montana and arrive here over the weekend – probably lasting till Monday.’
Jesus Christ on a sledge! Is it just me? Or what? He was a really nice guy with distant Scottish and Irish ancestors, in fact he was wearing a kilt of sorts, ballet shoes, a stud in each nostril, an earring in his right ear, shoulder length hair and was about 5 ft 6. He suggested that I head southeast as the storm would probably only come as far as this area. Of course it would!! I’m here! In fact this campground closes in 5 days, on October the first, until May next year. He reckoned even in May there could be up to 10 feet of snow in the campground.
I paid the $30 for one night and set up camp in the spitting rain. Unable to tie the soaking wet canopy up to a tree (not allowed) I did my best, using it as an awning more or less. I might as well keep the tent as dry as possible. Then I retired to the ‘lounge’ to spread my maps across the floor and try to retrieve something from this unexpected news.
I thought I’d head for Cheyenne. I wouldn’t get there tomorrow – too far – but somewhere along the road in that direction. That takes me southeast and still gives me an option on potentially Wisconsin, the Great Lakes and Niagara Falls if I swing north in a few days. First I need to escape the coming storm. It means more or less abandoning North Dakota and Minnesota at least. I figure if the snow is bad here, it’d be worse there, so sadly I won’t get to see those states. I really had wanted to see ND, but that’s life. Get over it and move on. And live…..
I heated up a ‘quick’ meal and ate it standing sheltering from the rain under a pine tree. Then back to the lounge to ensure I, at least, got a full charge on everything for my $30. I won’t have time to use the washing machines so I’ll just have to stay smelly, but I should be able to have a shower and shave.
At least I got two hours in Yellowstone and saw Bison, Elk and hot pools. So I had a hot shower, charged everything and headed back to my tent. I was standing in the dark having a last fag when a car pulled up, John, the guy from reception hopped out, thrust a small jar in my hand and said ‘Colin, a small taste of home for you’ I said ‘what is it?’ ‘Macallan’ he said, hopped back in his car and drove away. I don’t normally drink straight whiskey but it went down like fire in my throat and was very welcome.
Trip List (USA) – 41 Lifers (total) – 9 birds, (+8 Mammals) New NA – 8 (+4 Mammals)
Day 17 – 27.9.19 Friday Wyoming
The morning dawned cold, clear and sunny. It showed 36F in the car which equals 2C. I got up at 7 and drove to Mackers for breakfast and internet.
I checked emails, updated stuff and looked at where I might go after I left Yellowstone. I had, by this time, accepted that I had to leave. I was disappointed, but realised it was necessary. No point in putting the whole trip at risk. But it was a lovely day. The best I’d had since arriving in North America. The sun was shining, the sky was blue with puffy white clouds and it was quite warm.
However, leave I did. I had left the canopy and tent up as long as I could to dry them both out as much as possible, so broke camp, hit the road at 11 and headed south in the general direction of Cheyenne, but with no definite plans. I had time to spare now and the only ‘appointment’ I had was in three weeks time in North Carolina.
The drive was very scenic to start with and I only stopped once in the first two hours. Passing a small wetland I noticed two Swans sitting on what appeared to be a bank or island. I jumped out as these were my very first Swans of ANY sort in NA.
And good ones they were – a pair of Trumpeter Swans with two young. How lucky was that? Great views in the scope.
Headed on through the bottom corner of Idaho, then crossed into Wyoming and reached the pass through the Teton Range after driving down along it for quite a while admiring the sheer scenic value of the snow-capped peaks. I stopped at the top of the range and boiled a cup of coffee and sat and enjoyed the view through a cigarette.
Then on towards Jackson. A few ks out of town another wetland with a pond full of duck brought me to a stop again. American Wigeon, Northern Mallard & American Coots. (My first A Wigeon in NA, having only seen a couple in Ireland previously).
On then to Jackson and I was thinking that camping in the Teton National Park would be a possibility? It was a 20 minute drive from busy Jackson town to the NP and I found camping at Jenny Lake, tents only (thank God, no RVs) campsite. As I was checking in a Least Chipmunk scurried around and as I drove in a Red Fox trotted calmly past the sign advising ‘DON’T FEED THE FOXES’.
I found a campsite (no 26) set up camp and relaxed with coffee again. Later I went for a drive through the park – along with a lot of other rubberneckers – and saw some close up Elk. At the Jackson Hole Dam I saw approx 100 Goosanders, American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorants and a Golden Eagle flew over putting everything up. A couple of roadside Mule Deer, one again trying to kill itself in front of me, but it wasn’t an emergency at 45 m/hr and that was it.
Then it was back to camp and a make-up dinner that, surprisingly, tasted quite good. Unfortunately they tell me the storm I ran away from in Yellowstone is suspected of coming here too, so maybe only one night - which would be a real pain. I really just want to find somewhere nice to camp for a few days, get some washing done, cook nice meals and bird! Although birding might not be an option as there are still very, very few birds around – certainly in the passerine range.
Trip List (USA) – 48 Lifers (total) – 10 birds, (+8 Mammals) New NA – 9 (+4 Mammals)
Day 18 – 28.9.19 Saturday Wyoming
I was running again. I woke at 5 to ……..rain - again. Persistent, but not heavy. I got up at 7 and made a cup of coffee. The camp host came round and I asked him if it was going to snow? Probably not at this altitude – 6,800 meters - BUT the rain was going to continue till Tuesday. Shit! And he was closing the campsite tomorrow anyway. Double shit. I could stay the night if I wanted but……
I decided to evacuate and broke camp in full wet gear wrapping up the damp tent and the soaking canopy and bundling them into the boot.
As I did so he came back and said ‘You wanted to know when it was going to snow?’ I said ‘Yeah’ He said ‘It’s snowing NOW’ and laughed and he was right – it was a sleety kind of snow, but snow it was. He also told me the Teton Pass where I had made coffee, and sat in the sun, yesterday had been closed overnight due to the snowfall.
I hit the road by 8.30 and headed into Jackson. The snow increased as I drove and big flakes were on the windscreen as I drove through town and hit the road south. I had no real plans - just to get out and worry about it later. The road out of Jackson wound up through the mountains and the snow on the ground increased, but turned to sleet as I drove.
Eventually I hit the plateau at about 7,100 feet and continued on across a boring landscape, flat and featureless, rain constant.
It didn’t ease until about 10.30 and I dropped down somewhat to a brighter morning but across endless prairie with little to offer. I got to Round Springs around 12.30 and stopped for fuel ($2.71/gal, $37) and a coffee. Then on again having decided to head for Wood Landing just outside Cheyenne, turnoff at Laramie. I was looking at the map and saw that in South Dakota just across the border from Wyoming, where I presently was, was Mt Rushmore and I thought that might be my next destination, but too far to go today.
I drove on, running south away from the snow and rain, I hoped, the sun shining, the sky clear, but very, very windy with warnings along the highway regarding strong wind gusts that shoved the car across the road. However, it was a main four-lane highway at 80 m/hr (125 k/h) and I just sat in cruise control and negotiated my way past trucks and RVs.
I finally reached the turn off outside Laramie just after 16.00 and headed for the nearest Wal-Mart to pick up a few supplies. Then the 60 kms to Wood Landing and hopefully a campsite. I found a campground alright.
It was the only thing AT Wood Landing, but it was sheltered in a hollow backed by hills and so not too windy.
I asked for a campsite and an older woman who looked like the main character from that movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri took my $33 and told me to pick a site beside the RVs.
The ‘site’ was a scrappy piece of ground, rough as shit, dog turds everywhere and trying to get the pegs in was a nightmare. But I had little choice. I was knackered after the stress of getting out of Teton and the 7 hour drive (670 ks) and just needed to get some food, have a shower and go to bed. I did all that – and washed some clothes in the shower as there were no laundry facilities – then crashed with my E-Reader and iPad.
I had seen no birds of any worth on the drive. Despite the miles and miles of prairie I didn’t see anything that looked like a Prairie Falcon. I did see a couple of Red-tailed Hawks, 2 Bald Eagles and a handful of Black-billed Magpies and that was it.
I now have a lot of time on my hands so just want to find a place to settle down and bird for a few days. I didn’t think Wood Landing was the place…..
Trip List (USA) – 48 Lifers (total) – 10 birds, (+8 Mammals) New NA – 9 (+4 Mammals)
Day 19 – 29.9.19 Sunday Wyoming
I slept well and at 7 got up and had poached eggs for breakfast. Then I went for a walk around the area seeing nothing but a couple of Black-billed Magpies.
So I went for a drive up a dirt road I had noticed on the way in which indicated that Medicine Bow National Forest was up the road. I drove up a quiet dirt road that wound up the valley beside a small creek, named, inappropriately I thought, Big Laramie River.
There were a few birds when I parked and walked – Black-capped Chickadee, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and two Northern Mockingbirds. Above in the sky a couple of Red-tailed Hawks.
Then the wind started to invade the valley and birding became impossible. I was in two minds. What should I do? As the man said ‘Do I stay or should I go’?
Stay another night in this awful campsite or move on.
It was over 500 ks to Custer, another 6 hour drive, but there were some birds HERE.
I drove back to camp, my mind more or less made up to go. When I got back the decision was immediate. A howling wind was assaulting the canopy and tent and it was only 9.30.
I packed as quickly as I could, bundling everything roughly into the boot and took off. Back to Laramie and Mackers for internet access – and a coffee and apple tart.
Then I hit the road again, at 11.30. The drive was OK. I stopped after an hour and fueled up again – most expensive petrol I’ve seen. $3.23/gallon, put in $40 worth which just about filled the tank anyway. Then on again, turning off the main highway onto a two lane road towards Lusk, and then on to Custer in South Dakota.
Most of the drive was across boring prairie with some interesting low bluffs along the way. The temperature was about 70F, or 21C, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, the puffy clouds white and clean looking.
I stopped at the state line for a smoke and saw 2 Kildeer. Along the way several Red-tailed Hawks, one low- flying Bald Eagle and heaps of Pronghorn. I assume they’re wild, I must have seen close to 100 in fields beside the road - a handsome animal and apparently North America’s only native deer.
Arrived in Custer at 16.00. Looked pretty cool, lots of places named after famous western characters and places. I followed the signs for the State Park having looked it up briefly on E-Bird, which showed a list of 244 species and some wanted ones among them, and checked camping was available and reached the sign-in hut. It was closed.
As I stood there wondering what to do, a car pulled up with, as it turned out, the camp hosts who immediately took charge and I ended up with a nice campsite for two nights for $22/night plus a $20 entrance fee for the park.
I set up camp and relaxed for a while, then went for a short drive to check out part of the park.
I saw a Red-necked Grebe and three Horned Grebes on Stockade Lake, but little else before dusk.
I cooked, ate and showered washing my pants and shirt in the shower, hoping it wouldn’t rain and they’d dry off tomorrow.
I was looking forward to relaxing over the next day or so and getting some birding in.
Trip List (USA) – 51 Lifers (total) – 10 birds, (+9 Mammals) New NA – 9 (+4 Mammals)
Day 20 – 30.9.19 Monday South Dakota
It wasn’t to be. First off I couldn’t sleep. Don’t know why, but just couldn’t drop off and, after watching an episode of Designated Survivor and reading, I was still awake at 1.00 when it started to rain.
It wasn’t super heavy but the electrical storm that came with scared the living bejasus out of me. I lay there waiting for the lightning strike that would end it all and put my sorry ass out of its misery, but, no, instead, a peg pulled out and a pole fell down. I nearly shit myself, then I was out in the rain, and small hail now to boot, stark naked, trying to decide what to do.
I managed to stabilize the tarp by winding the guy rope around the end of the tent pole and crawled back into my sleeping bag, damp and cold.
The storm moved on, but the rain continued drizzling and spitting with occasional flurries. Luckily there was no wind. I finally fell asleep, but was awake again just after 6. I got a phone call which made the day a lot brighter, then got up and made sure none of the pegs would ever come out again before sitting in the car and watching the re-arranged canopy to make sure the rain didn’t pool in it again.
Once I was happy that was OK, and I’d had two cups of coffee, I decided to take my wet clothes (the ones I had washed last night, har, har) to a launderette in Custer. It cost me a dollar to dry them while Elvis crooned about lovin’ me tender on the operator’s CD player. Oh joy!! Then I headed off to the Crazy Horse Monument.
On the way I stopped off at a gift/gun/knife shop that had a sign outside saying ‘Bikers welcome’ and bought a small horn-handled sheath knife from a small, large lady who dropped $5 off the price for me without asking. I was half expecting the Sons of Anarchy to turn up but got away before they did.
The monument was much more complex than I had imagined. $12 to get in, a museum all about North American Indians which was fascinating, full of interesting stuff, a video presentation on how the guy started to carve the mountain up and an additional $4 bus ride to the base of the mountain. Apparently it’s the biggest rock carving in the world. Pretty impressive considering they’ve been working on it for 71 years….
I reckon they’ve got another 7 HUNDRED & 71 years to go at this rate.
Another 20 ks or so and I was outside the Mt Rushmore entrance. It cost $10 to park, but I photographed it from the outside. Not because I’m too mean, but because I wasn’t interested in all the crap that would go with it if I went in. I don’t care how long it took or who and what happened, I just wanted to see the rock face and was happy to see it from the road.
On the way back to Custer the sun broke through! For 10 minutes…………then it was back to mist and damp and wet, but no more rain.
I had some lunch at ‘home’ and while the kettle was boiling the second best thing of the day happened. I heard a whistle type call and looking up saw two Grey or Canada Jays in the treetops overhead. I’d given up on these as I was too far south, I thought. However, there they were and, when I checked the book, the Black Hills around the Custer area was their most southerly range point.
I headed out around 2 and drove the park roads for the next two and a half hours looking for birds.
I saw 4 Northern Mockingbirds at one point together, 3 distant White-tailed Deer that white-tailed it outta there almost as soon as I saw them, about 200 Bison, or Buffalo as the locals call them, they had all been rounded up last week and were now corralled (I don’t know why) and one Chipmunk sp, but only in the rear vision mirror as he hightailed it, literally, across the road behind me. When he ran he held his tail vertical, maybe to save it getting wet?
And that was it, despite driving at 20 m/hr, stopping at likely spots, walking parts of the road, playing owl calls…..it was just D. E. A. D. Dead! No sounds, no movement, no nothing. Which led me to my next decision. Where to go from here?
I decided to forget the birding options for the moment. It seemed pointless. I was just not getting anything for time spent. Yeah, I know I had Grey Jay today and that was brilliant, but Jesus, the hours I was putting in for very little result? So. I wanted to see the Great Lakes and Niagara Falls. I thought the birds MIGHT be better nearer the east coast – i.e. Washington DC, Carolinas etc.
So. For the next few days I would head basically directly for the Great Lakes, probably to around Rapid Falls northeast of Chicago, 1,845 kms away. I reckoned on four days maximum. Then I’d go to Niagara and then south to the Cape May area and so on. It would mean a lot of driving this coming week, but it’d put me in the, hopefully, better birding areas earlier than I originally planned. The weather at each potential overnight stop was forecast as rain/showers/rain so I expected to be using motels for the next few days.
Back at camp it was dead still, a thick mist had descended and it was very quiet. Two adult White-tailed Deer and a fawn came between me and the toilet block. Like most deer seen close up they are truly beautiful and appearing out of the mist, very lovely.
Fingers crossed it won’t rain tonight. I sat in the toilet block where it was warmer and I had power to charge stuff from the electric shaver socket. Then it was off to bed and the iPad and E-reader.
Trip List (USA) – 52 Lifers (total) – 11 birds, (+9 Mammals) New NA – 9 (+4 Mammals)
Day 21 – 1.10.19 Tuesday Travel
It didn’t rain. It stayed misty and damp all night, but it didn’t rain.
So at 6.30 I boiled a couple of eggs and while they boiled started breaking camp. Eggs eaten I was on the road by 8. I filled up with fuel in Custer @ $2.89/gal - $33 in.
I was heading directly east towards Sioux Falls as a potential destination, but first I took a diversion to Deadwood. It added an hour or so to my journey, but being a huge fan of the program I couldn’t resist. The drive to Deadwood was on a two-lane road through mountains and forests, great scenery, while the temperature dropped to 31F or, basically, 0C.
My diversion proved fatal. Not for me, thank Christ, I’ve had enough trouble with hire cars this year, but for an American Robin which foolishly tried to outrun my front bumper giving me no chance whatsoever of avoiding its untimely end. I went back and picked him up – pretty little thing, unfortunate end.
Deadwood didn’t look like it does in the series. Surprise! The rain was actually freezing on my windscreen as I entered town and so I only stopped to use the facilities at the visitor’s center (visitor’s centers always have restrooms), had a quick smoke then moved on. Lots of place names reminiscent of those cowboy and Indian days, even saw a Bullock’s Hotel, although in the series Bullock was the sheriff, not a hotelier.
The town council obviously got it wrong. I hit Highway 90 and settled in for a long boring ride towards Sioux Falls at (a completely legal and safe) 80 m/hr (130k/hr) for 656 kms and 5 and half hours.
It was a boring drive. Flat grasslands and wheat, but here and there small wetland ponds along the roadside with some ducks or Coots maybe on them, and, later in the afternoon, flocks of Blackbird sp over and in the reed beds. I also drove under a huge (~300?) flock of small gulls. I’m thinking they were probably Franklin’s but couldn’t stop on the highway to check. Several raptors flew over the road and the passing fields but again, on my own, who knows? Probably Red-tailed Hawks for the most part and one juvenile Bald or possibly Golden Eagle.
I saw more birds on that drive than I had seen in the past ten days in total.
I stopped off at Mackers in Chamberlain at 14.15 for a much needed break, internet, coffee and smoke after 5 hours behind the wheel, having driven clear across South Dakota and not seen one other sign for Mackers since leaving the Rapid City area at 10.00. I was a bit knackered but after pancakes and coffee etc and updating my blog headed on east, filling up with fuel again @ $2.69/gal, $29 in.
I passed Sioux Falls and ended up 30 ks or so further on at Luverne in Minnesota and a Super 8 hotel for $58 including breakfast and shaky wifi at 18.00.
A microwave meal, coffee, shower and shave and I felt like a new man.
Trip List (USA) – 52 Lifers (total) – 11 birds, (+9 Mammals) New NA – 9 (+4 Mammals)
Day 22 – 2.10.19 Wednesday Travel
Another day, another interstate. I slept well and was up and about by 6.30. I more or less packed, then went downstairs for breakfast. It was pretty shit.
I made a waffle, but the plastic cutlery was so weak I couldn’t cut it, so used my Opinel instead. The coffee machine was half out of order. Half – because the decaff part worked, but the real coffee didn’t. The yogurts were OK, but then management had no part in that. Not sure I’ll use Super 8 again. I guess you get what you pay for.
I was on the road by 7.45 into a grey, dull, wet morning. It went OK – for the first two hours, after which I stopped for fuel (@$2.59, $33 in) and a smoke and got some cheap, lousy coffee. Then it started to rain and continued – not too bad, but a pain for traffic management. The scenery changed to small hills and trees and farms – and corn. Lots of corn. More corn than one could imagine. Corn to fill a billion cornflakes boxes and still have enough to feed Afghanistan.
I crossed the state line into Iowa and continued south, stopping two hours later a little short of Cedar Rapids? in Waterloo for a Mackers coffee and internet.
I looked at where I might end up tonight as it was only midday and decided on a spot near a town called Princeton. The Dixon Waterfowl Refuge had some good birds listed and some seen recently were very worthwhile. It was only 3 and a half more hours and I felt pretty good.
However, when I started off again it really started to rain and I mean RAIN. It was horrific and very dangerous. The road surface couldn’t drain quickly enough. The trucks were doing more than the 70m/hr posted limit and spray? Spray like you’ve never seen. I don’t think I have ever driven in rain like that before, despite driving in tropical downpours, and certainly not surrounded by trucks all doing 125 kms/hr.
I clung on and managed to keep the car on the road and out from under the trucks. I’ve seen enough of the undersides of trucks to last me a lifetime and didn’t intend repeating the exercise, but it was really, really hairy.
That lasted about an hour and half. Finally the rain eased and I turned off the highway and stopped for another coffee and smoke (6 hours driving at this stage, 3 smokes, 3 coffees.)
Then another hour and half to Hennepin, roughly near the proposed birding spot. I was thinking if it was any good, I’d bird for a couple of hours in the morning before heading on. I just wanted to see the place that afternoon to see if it was worthwhile. However, I couldn’t find the spot initially and was low on fuel. Hennepin had a population of 750 and no petrol station or motels, in fact nothing but a collection of what looked like farm buildings – they were probably full of corn, just waiting to be corn-flaked.
The closest fuel was in Princeton, (pop 7,500) 30 kms away so I drove back there, filled up with fuel (@$2.58, $32 in), then found an Econolodge to stay for the night. It was pretty grotty even at $76 and the ‘high speed internet’ was total crap.
Birds? Nada, really. I did see some overflying through the rain, but nothing to speak of. I DID see several dead Raccoons and, I believe, American Badgers, along the road, plus one deer hammered in the middle of the road. It would be nice to see some ‘Coons and Badgers alive.
I drove across the road, literally, to Mackers fort dinner. I know it sounds pathetic but after driving in the rain for 7 + hours I didn’t have the energy or the interest to go looking for anywhere else and the internet was so bad in the Econolodge I wanted to look up the birding site directions just in case tomorrow was good.
Trip List (USA) – 52 Lifers (total) – 11 birds, (+9 Mammals) New NA – 9 (+4 Mammals)
Day 23 – 3.10.19 Thursday Illinois
I was up at 6.30 after a restless night during which it rained heavily and another electrical storm passed over. It had stopped raining around 3am, but everything was soaking wet outside. I had the complimentary breakfast which was a bit average, but did have boiled eggs and toast. During breakfast some long-haired individual insisted on telling me how bad his life was, how he’d lost his job, his boss pulled a gun on him, he was made to walk the plank in the US navy (? really?), his friends didn’t want to know him…... I’m not surprised. I didn’t particularly want to know him either…….
I headed out into a bleak, grey, wet, misty, windy morning to do the best I could bird-wise.
Arrived at Sue & Les Dixon’s Wildfowl Refuge which was a good looking wetland with a larger than normal expanse of water due to the rain, grass and reed beds, backed by deciduous forest. I scoped the duck from the observation tower then walked along a boardwalk through the grass/reed stuff to another carpark where I scoped the birds again.
There were plenty of duck mainly Northern Shoveler and Northern Pintail with a few Lesser Scaup, American Wigeon, Ring-necked and Ruddy Duck. Mute Swans were my personal highlight given they were my first in USA, hundreds of Canada Geese and American Coots, Ring-billed Gulls and Blue-winged Teal. A few, mainly juvenile, Bald Eagles and Turkey Vultures soared overhead, and White Pelicans were in large numbers.
It was a good spot – but the weather was shit. A thin rain-like mist and a strong wind from the northwest (in my face) made it difficult. The light was shit too so details were hard to establish. I did pick out a number of Pied-billed Grebes as well.
As I scoped, another birder turned up. Turned out he was the guy who had put the lists on E-bird in the last two days – the ones that had encouraged me to come – Scott Harp. We chatted for about a half an hour – he was very informative and friendly. He pointed out a Glossy/White-faced Ibis that had been hanging around for a while, apparently. Either species would be very rare in this location, but no-one has been able to decide which it was – for my money I’d say it was a Glossy Ibis, but then again, what do I know. The difference is in the colour of the eye and the thing was 300 meters away at least – impossible at that range in those conditions. While we chatted a Downy Woodpecker blew in to a nearby tree and American Goldfinches flicked around.
I walked the Seep trail along the wetland edge through the trees, but all I saw was a Northern Flicker and a Belted Kingfisher. The wind was just horrendous for passerines which was disappointing.
Back at the carpark Scott now had two Ibises, but no definite ID. I had to go, even though the sun was now shining, so hit the road at about 11.
My journey took me past Chicago which I had already figured as being challenging. It always is around cities when you don’t know where you’re going.
It was, as I expected, a f…….g nightmare. Three or four lanes, everyone doing at least 70 m/hr (120 k/hr), changing lanes, turning off, dodging in and out of the lumbering trucks. There were several ‘spaghetti’ type junctions and I made two mistakes taking the wrong road. It was frustrating, but being alone and trying to decide which of the three choices was right I struggled a bit. It just meant getting off at the next exit and going back again and my female friend on MapsMe did her best and remained very patient, but it was still annoying and quite stressful.
I eventually managed to get clear on Interstate 94 and headed northeast. I had decided my destination would be Holland on Lake Michigan. There were several good looking birding spots around the town and I figured I’d spend a day checking them out – and see a Great Lake into the bargain.
I reached Holland around 4 and headed down to the ‘lakeshore’ on the southside of the inlet from the lake, only to discover that there was little access to the lakeshore itself, certainly at this point, as it was completely dominated by big rich, f..k off houses.
I had lost another hour transitioning from Central time to Eastern coast time. That’s it now until I leave Florida, but it meant it was getting on and I needed to decide whether to camp or motel it. It was cold – more from the wind than the actual temperature and I stopped off at a Mackers for internet access. I booked a room for two nights on-line at a Microtel for $47 per night as a special. It was quite a nice place, modern and fresh.
It was, as I said, $47 per night…..plus TAX. This tax thing is really annoying. You get a price quote on ANYTHING, even a Macker’s coffee and then there’s the tax added. I keep forgetting it.
This morning I decided I’d use up some of my accumulated change and have a blueberry muffin at Mackers. So I spent 10 minutes working out the exact cost - $1.79 – in small change. Dimes (10c), quarters (25c), 5 cents and pennies and handed it over with an apology and could she check it, please? It was right! Well done, Mr Reid.
But the tax added another 14 cents so I had to scrounge around again and find that in the remaining coinage.
The hotel should, in theory, have cost $94, but was, in fact, $100 and something due to the bleedin’ tax. I don’t understand why they can’t give you an actual figure. They KNOW what the tax is. Surely it doesn’t change? I know it’s a state tax, so that varies from state to state, but surely each individual business would KNOW what their tax commitment was? Actually the only thing that doesn’t have unexpected added tax is fuel. What it says on the pump is what you pay. Other than that everything else has this unexpected addition – well, its unexpected to me, cause I keep forgetting about it…….
Not that I’m mad or angry or anything! Just an observation on life in the states.
Trip List (USA) – 64 Lifers (total) – 11 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA – 9 (+4 Mammals)
Day 24 – 4.10.19 Friday Michigan
I woke to sun and no rain. I actually woke around 6, but fell asleep again and didn’t get up till nearly 8. Mind you, dawn was at 7.45 so…… I had the usual boiled eggs, coffee and yogurt and, this morning, a toasted bagel cause there wasn’t any bread supplied in the complimentary breakfast.
I had done some research on the area and picked three locations that all had in excess of 200 species listed.
The first was the Holland State Park on the north point of the inlet from Lake Michigan and I drove to Ottawa Beach first to see my first Great Lake. It was pretty much the same as the sea with small waves, no horizon as such and a sandy beach. It wasn’t very exciting.
There were several hundred Gulls on the beach and breakwater, 85% of them were Ring-billed Gulls with a good number of American Herring Gulls present and 2 Great Black-backed Gulls.
I drove around for a while trying to find somewhere to park so I could walk the park. Everywhere was ‘No Parking’ and it appeared I’d need a ‘Recreation Pass’ to park within the park boundaries. That was $9 and I was, naturally, very reluctant to pay nine bucks for a couple of hours birding. I asked at the Park HQ and the chick directed me to a 2 hours-free parking zone nearby which was much better.
Just as well really ‘cause I walked through the park and it was almost completely dead.
Almost I say, but I did get a couple of lifers – in fact they were virtually the only birds I saw, apart from my old new friend the Black-capped Chickadee (1).
The first lifer was Blue Jay and I saw about 30 of them in flocks flying around calling. Not exactly a ‘rare’ bird, but once again, a tick is a tick.
The second goodie was again an ‘easy’ bird – Eastern Phoebe, which I saw fairly briefly at the campsite as I exited the forest. I left the area and headed for my second destination – Upper Macatawa Natural Area, inland from the lake, about 20 minutes away. I parked up, free, and walked out along a pavement looking for the lakes described on the map. However, the ‘natural’ (grassy) tracks that would have taken me within sight of the water were flooded due to the recent rain so that didn’t work out. I don’t think there was much on the water anyway as I saw no ducks in flight and none apparent on the bits of water I could see.
I walked back to the carpark and headed the other way through a wooded area alongside a flooded creek. It was very quiet and I decided to head somewhere else. As I walked back to the car I noticed several Cedar Waxwings in a dead tree on the other side of the creek. I scoped them to be sure of ID then a thought occurred to me. If THEY are feeding on something in the creeper on the tree then maybe something else will show up to eat the same stuff? So I waited and very quickly my amazing field craft skills proved worthy. First up, several American Robins, then another lifer – White-throated Sparrow, nice!
Shortly after that a bird I have wanted to see for evah, even though its not super exciting or, indeed, rare, but I’ve loved the name since school days – Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! Yahhoo!!
Not long after that a male Red-bellied Woodpecker stopped in a tree nearby, better and better! Then a Nashville Warbler put in a brief appearance in the plants low down on the river bank and two Northern Cardinals and a few American Goldfinches passed by.
I waited longer, but things seemed to have quietened down so I left and drove to another section of the park to try and get to open water, but the tracks there were even more flooded so I gave up on the Upper Macatawa Natural Area and headed, instead for Mackers and a coffee to go with my smuggled in cheese sandwich.
I fueled up ($2.48/gal, $32 in) and headed for my next destination – Saugatuck Dunes State Park 30 minutes away. I should have known – State Park = parking fees. Once again I was supposed to pay a $9 fee for a Recreation Pass, but it was on a self-registration honour system and I have never made any claims to be honourable so I took a chance, parked up and walked in.
This place, despite, as I said, having a bird list of >200 species was dead as. I saw 1 female Red-bellied Woodpecker and that was, literally, it.
I walked through the park to the ‘beach’ – still feels funny calling it that at a lake, but it was sand dunes and a sandy beach, just like an ocean. God, how naïve I sound!
Anyway. I got away with the parking thing and, dishonourably holding my head in shame, headed out looking for somewhere else to bird as it was only 15.30 and I figured I had three hours of daylight left. I was super keen now, having bagged a number of lifers, of course, and it was just bloody great to be actually birding and SEEING SOME BIRDS!
I finally found a place after a couple of false starts. Van Raalte Farm (Park) thing. It was a public park with free (!!) parking and I wandered the tracks there through overgrown brambles and a low deciduous canopy alongside a small creek. I think it was an old farm area, cause there were apple and cheery trees with fruit still on them and a very mixed flora which, of course, gets the birds in. I kinda wished I’d started here this morning – about 400 meters from ‘home’.
Nothing much to start with – a flock of American Robins, and a few White-throated Sparrows. Then I went off track for a short distance and came across a couple of American Tree Sparrows. While sort of watching them another bird appeared – Black-throated Green Warbler. Yahoo!! Beautiful bird – as most NA warblers are. Of course, the camera was in the car….
Again, not a major rarity, but the important thing for me was – it (and the Nashville earlier in the day) were both still in full plumage and were still HERE. Which suggests that 1. Not all the warblers have gone and 2. some, at least, are still in breeding plumage. I was a bit concerned that I might have missed all the warblers, especially given the lack of birds in general over the past two weeks. I’m feeling a little more optimistic now.
I celebrated with a T-bone steak in Denny’s – the most expensive item on the menu @ $15, including two sides and ‘dinner’ bread. Not bad value actually, I’ll probably do it again.
Then it was back ‘home’, a shower and bed, happy with my 7-lifer day.
Trip List (USA) – 77 Lifers (total) – 18 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA – 10 (+4 Mammals)
Day 25 – 5.10.19 Saturday Travel
I was up at 6.30, packed and had breakfast by 7.30. Then I hit the road again. 808 kms, 7 and half hours.
The weather was cloudy, then sunny and it wasn’t a hard drive. Not much to report on most of it apart from seeing a large number of Turkey Vultures and a few Bald Eagles over the road – and a huge number of dead Raccoons, must have been more than 50, I reckon.
I stopped three times, twice for coffee and a smoke and once for fuel near Cleveland in Ohio. It took ages, mainly because the people filling their cars were in no hurry whatsoever and I had to wait to get a pump. ($2.49/gal, $32 in)
I had decided to stop outside Buffalo to check the weather and make a decision re accommodation – i.e. rain and I’d motel it, dry and I might camp. I also wanted to check on how to see Niagara Falls, cost, transport etc.
I pulled into a service area 20 miles short of Buffalo and headed to MacDonalds for wifi access. As I walked in I noticed a counter to my left that advertised information about the Falls. Why not, I thought? And so I met Dotty.
Dotty was about 70+, I reckon, and gave me a full rundown on what I could expect to see from the American side of the falls, as opposed to the Canadian. She was so helpful I let her talk me into two nights in the Cinderella Motel on Grand Island for $75 US a night and a tour-guide-led trip to see the Falls the next day. The bus would pick me up from the motel at 8 and deposit me back afterwards – cost $105. It was all so easy I agreed. I would have had to pay $105 anyway to get the boat ride etc, which I wanted to do and although the motel was maybe a little more expensive than I had planned – what the hell, I’m only here once and it does make it all very easy.
I thanked her and headed out, arriving 45 minutes later at Cinderella’s at 18.00, 10 hours since I had left Holland, where the room key was in the room, the door open and some paperwork for me to complete as the ‘two sisters who ran it were gone home for the night’ (per Dotty). The motel was a typical movie-style motel, just one long row of rooms with carparks out the front facing the road, but clean, not too dated and the microwave provided enough heat to warm a can of soup to go with my cheese sandwiches for dinner.
So that was it really! Done and dusted! Nothing to arrange, nothing more to do except lie back and enjoy it, as the actress said, blah blah, blah.
Trip List (USA) – 77 Lifers (total) – 18 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA – 10 (+4 Mammals)
Day 26 – 6.10.19 Sunday New York State
I slept well and woke to rain – again. I was glad I had made the decision to stay in a motel, rather than camp. I had coffee and oats and then waited at the reception building for the tour bus to arrive at 8, which it did. Rickie the 60 year old New York, Italian heritage driver/tour guide was quite entertaining and knew everything there was to know about the falls. His accent and language was exactly the way its portrayed in the movies.
We picked up a few other people ending up with 22 in total, including a baby and two young boys. Half of the group were home grown American tourists, all older than me and the other half appeared to speak only Spanish, although they looked ‘American’ as well, all younger.
We arrived at Niagara Falls around 9.15 and started at the Bridal Veil Falls, a lookout point at the top of the American side of the complex. It was pretty impressive, although not as high as I had imagined there was a lot of water going over the edge.
I wandered around a bit hoping to follow Mr D’s example and find a Hooded Merganser at the top of the falls, but although I checked everywhere there was no sign. I did have an American Black Duck, which, although not as exciting, led me to a bit of a quandary.
I had this bird ‘ticked’ from a possible sighting in Ireland sometime in the 70s. I don’t remember seeing it at all so after some personal debate decided to call it a lifer today. Maybe Mr H can remember the occasion back then? Anyway, I got some photos and moved on.
We then went through a ticket gate and watched a movie about the falls, then down in an elevator to the boardwalk at the base. There we were supplied with a pair of sandals and a yellow poncho – neither of which I bothered to wear, trusting my Berghaus Gortex jacket and leggings, which worked perfectly. My Zamberlain boots too, kept my feet dry, despite me getting absolutely soaked on the Hurricane Deck, where you stand almost under the waterfall. Needless to say I kept the sandals and poncho as souvenirs. (I’m starting to sound like I’m being sponsored to wear these clothes).
I got back upstairs and was directed to the lookout point over the Canadian end of things. 90% of the water goes over these falls, only 10% over the American side. There was a rainbow in the spray thanks to the weak sunlight now breaking through.
Next it was into town and a souvenir shop with coffee and a roadside stand with hot dogs - after the family with the kids finally got back 20 mins late to the bus. I could live with that, but what irritated me most was there was no apology whatsoever. I thought that was pretty dam rude, but, of course, said nothing.
I had a $3.50 (+ 50 cent tip) hot dog and mustard and a $2 coffee, then it was off to the Maid of the Mist tour where we were again supplied with a poncho – this time in bright pink.
I think I was only one of two people on the boat NOT wearing pink.
I had always wanted to go on this boat and it was exactly the way I had imagined it (or seen it somewhere, maybe?) Very, very wet from spray, luckily all fresh water, right in close to the falling water itself, especially to the Canadian falls. It didn’t last very long - maybe 30 minutes? Then the tour was finished.
On reflection I could have done it cheaper, but being picked up at the motel, no hassle finding parking or ‘where to go?’ and having others around to share comments was worthwhile. The weather had picked up during the morning – the rain had held off, but as Rickie dropped me ‘home’, it started to rain again.
I had coffee, then the rain stopped and I headed out to Buckhorn Island State Park, 5 minutes down the road at the north end of Grand Island. I had researched the area on E-Bird and this place showed some promise with a good list and recent records of several warblers.
I walked around a track from the East end, looking for stuff in the very thick undergrowth. It was pretty dead, but then it was after 15.30, grey and damp, cloudy, rain threatening – not a good day or time of day.
I did find a couple of groups of birds – Yellow-rumped Warbler (2), White-breasted Nuthatch (2), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (2) and, finally, reasonable, if brief, views of a single Golden-crowned Kinglet. I also had a couple of Blue Jays and a single Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows. But that was about it in total. I ended up with a long (45 minute) bird-less walk back to the car.
Back ‘home’ I heated a can of spaghetti and (4) meatballs for dinner and settled in for the evening.
Trip List (USA) – 81 Lifers (total) – 20 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA – 10 (+4 Mammals)
Day 27 – 7.10.19 Monday Travel
I was up again at 6.30, ate and packed and left the motel at 7.30. Another dismal, wet morning. I had a 7.5 hour/768 km drive ahead of me. It was hell on wheels till 14.00. Rain, mist, trucks, spray – quite stressful and, more importantly, through country (New York and Pennsylvania States) that looked really nice – hills and valleys, trees and rivers - but thanks to the shitty weather I saw nothing of.
Just after 2, however, it brightened, the sky cleared and the sun broke through. I’d obviously outrun the rain – for the timing being anyway, he said, pessimistically.
I stopped at a Mackers and had a couple of bacon & egg McMuffins and checked the weather channel. It wasn’t good news. The rain was predicted to last for at least the next 10 days, all the way down the coast to at least North Carolina. I had thought, maybe, I could divert somewhere and sit it out or drive behind it or something, but the front carrying the rain was pushing up from the southwest and it didn’t look great from tomorrow on. It did look like the pelagic on 18th might still go ahead as the winds were relatively light, but I’d have to wait and see.
I’m really over this f…..g rain. I did see on weather.com that Montana had now got 4 foot of snow and it was a ‘record breaking’ storm I had escaped from – so I guess THAT was good news.
So, past Philadelphia where I made two errors in navigation and increased the toll cost a little, I ended up driving through a, shall we say, ‘run down’ part of the city which wasn’t in the tourist guide. I expected to be offered drugs or even carjacked, but got through unscathed and back on the Atlantic City Expressway. My tolls for the day were a total of $15 or thereabouts in amounts ranging from 50 cents to $9.30 individually.
I didn’t get to my destination – Cape May – until almost 18.00. Ten and a half hours after leaving Niagara. I headed to a Mackers again to get wifi access, then searched for somewhere to stay.
I was, again, in two minds. Should I camp it or motel it? With rain predicted for the next three days that I thought I’d be here, I decided, in my wisdom, to motel it and found a cheap place (the Shelton Motel) in Rio Grande (an area, not a place) a few ks off the ‘island’ that is Cape May. It was certainly cheap. Stank of smoke, wifi didn’t work and place looked dodgy enough for me not to want to leave anything in the room. However, it was a bed, it was clean (apart from the smell) and as cheap as I could make it - $189 US for three nights. I turned the air con on full blast and forced open the window to try to clear the smell. I might need to buy a spray. I mean I smoke myself but not inside and really that concept is no longer a reality. It really does stink the place up.
However, hopefully I’ll be out most of the days I’m here and not forced to hang around in my room. Birds for the day? Nothing worth talking about, the weather was just too shit to see anything but the tailpipe of the vehicle in front of me – when I could see it through the spray. I just want to get some decent weather and some freaking birds!!
Trip List (USA) – 81 Lifers (total) – 20 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA – 10 (+4 Mammals)
Day 28 – 8.10.19 Tuesday New Jersey
I got up and out by 8, having quietly poached a couple of eggs on my stove in my room. As the internet had not worked at the motel I went to Starbucks 200m down the road and had a coffee and logged on to research birding hotspots in Cape May. Hence I arrived at the Raptor Watch Point at Cape May Point itself.
I found a few others on site – about 50 birders in total, with an average age greater than mine, I reckon. There were also 4 representatives of the Cape May Bird Observatory, Audubon society there giving advice and lending scopes and bins to all and sundry.
I decided this was a good place to be as with at least a few ‘professional’ eyes on the skies, I wouldn’t miss much and I wouldn’t have any doubts about identification.
In front of the viewing platform there was a shallow pond, somewhat similar to Buckley’s Hole on Bribie Island, but bigger. There were, literally, thousands of Tree Swallows circling above, and drinking from, the lake. Over a hundred Canada Geese, similar number of Northern Mallard and among all this – 1 Wood Duck (new for USA), American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, 2 American Black Duck and 1 Eurasian Wigeon. The latter a real vagrant that I would have traded for a Hooded Merganser in a heartbeat, but there ya are. A good tick on my USA list, but not a lifer, of course. My first Snowy Egret of the trip showed up along with a couple of Greater Yellowlegs and a few other bits and pieces.
In the skies above over the course of the next three hours there was minimal migration due to the easterly winds – apparently north westerlies were required - but we did have a couple of Western Ospreys, several Bald Eagles, a Peregrine Falcon, a Merlin, a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk put in a couple of appearances. I had been hoping for Broad-winged Hawk, but dipped out today. A pair of Northern Mockingbirds jumped around noisily in the hedgerow in front of the platform, but other than those I didn’t see any passerines.
I introduced myself to one of the Audubon team and when I told her where I was from, it turned out she had been one of the team researching Red-backed Fairy Wrens in Samsonvale, just outside Brisbane! Small freaking world – again.
She gave me some advice on where I might find some passerines and so I left the raptor watch and headed off, firstly to Lily Lake beside the Cape May Bird Obs headquarters. I walked around the lake looking for passerines, but saw bugger all, except a Spotted Sandpiper on the lake itself, 1 Blue Jay and a pair of flyover Northern Cardinals. The wind was really screwing things up, but at least it wasn’t raining.
I checked out the Obs shop, then headed off to Higbee Beach and Wildfowl Reserve. I wandered around there for about an hour and a half and saw no passerines at all. It was dead. I did see a pair of Cooper’s Hawks and found a new butterfly – Common Buckeye Junonia coenia.
The girl I had spoken to had also suggested a seawatch point at Avalon, 30 minutes north on the east side of the peninsula. I was pretty keen and headed off that way around 14.30, as nothing seemed to be working for me on the passerine front.
I spent an hour looking for the ‘pier with the shack on the end, near 8th street’ – but never found it. Avalon was a ghost town. Obviously a summer retreat for people with money, lots of nice houses with no one in them, the place was deserted and everything closed up. A police car followed me for a while but lost interest.
It was pretty frustrating and looking at E-Bird later I realised I’d been very, very close to the seawatch point, but just hadn’t seen it. I did see a couple of flocks of Western Sandpipers and one Arctic Skua offshore and driving along the coast I came to Stone Haven – a similar place to Avalon and similarly empty, but in the Stone Haven Bird Sanctuary I found 3 sparrows that I determined were Swamp Sparrows to finish off the day.
I headed home, stopping off at Wal-Mart on the way to get some money out and buy a few groceries. I also got a couple of microwave meals to have in my motel room.
Not a total loss of a day, but frustrating none the less. The weather was still grey and gloomy and the wind was a pain in the ass, however, it had remained dry and one lifer, 3 new North American birds and a new butterfly were worthwhile.
Trip List (USA) – 96 Lifers (total) – 21 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA – 14 (+4 Mammals)
Day 29 – 9.10.19 Wednesday New Jersey
Finally – a day to remember. I was up and out by 7.30 and headed for the Raptor Lookout at Cape May Point. Another grey, cloudy morning, but it wasn’t raining and that had to be a bonus.
On a bit of a whim I decided to stop off at the South Cape May Meadows, a spot I had noted the previous day in passing, but because it was so windy and quite exposed had passed up.
I parked up and headed out along the gravelly trail. It was a low lying, swampy area and, thankfully, the wind had dropped in strength overnight.
A few Northern Mockingbirds played along the hedgerow to my left and while establishing their identity I noticed the tail end of a much darker bird vanishing into the thicket – pretty sure it was a Gray Catbird. Almost immediately afterwards a couple of warblers higher in the branches caught my eye and turned out to be Cape May Warblers. A good start?
As I moved further on I saw a single birder on the track ahead of me. When I got to her we started chatting and Lesley turned out to be a Londoner on her last day at Cape Way. I spent the rest of the day with her, birding different areas and having her identification skills put to my best use. She was lovely – a few years older than me - but eyes and ears in much better condition than mine and, having being a regular visitor to Cape May, she knew all the spots and where the best birds were. It was an absolute pleasure sharing her company and her advice and information were invaluable.
We also shared similar views on life in general and she enjoyed a smoke, so we got on like a cigarette on fire. Back to the birding.
The first birds I saw after meeting Lesley were, surprising to me but apparently common on the east coast, Pectoral Sandpipers. There were also Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, 3 Soras, a Common Gallinule, 2 Kildeer and I found my own first American Golden Plover (1). She also confirmed for me my identification of Swamp Sparrow.
We hung there for an hour or so, then it started to spit rain so we headed back to the cars. As we did a flock of 6 birds flew over and landed nearby – Bobolink, perched up nicely in the phragmites. I followed Lesley to a beachside café and as we sat and drank our coffees under shelter we watched Great Black-backed and American Herring Gulls on the beach, along with a number of Laughing Gulls (my first in NA) and three Royal Terns flew past.
Then we headed for the Cape May Bird Observatory where I had been yesterday. I hadn’t realised there was a garden behind the building open to the public and we wandered in there and around the edges of the trees outside for a couple of hours while warblers came thick and fast.
First up - Black-throated Blue Warbler, Then Northern Parulas, Cape May Warblers, Black and White Warblers, dozens of Yellow-rumped Warblers and American Redstart. It was full on when the flocks arrived. They seemed to be flying a circuit and everything would be quiet for 10 minutes, then birds were everywhere and we were kept frantically busy trying to identify each and call it if it was something different. Naturally I wasn’t doing much calling and I also missed a couple of things.
At one stage a Carolina Wren put in an appearance in the hedgerow opposite the observatory entrance – it was almost in my hand and such a little stunner. Oh to see all lifers this well!
When we felt we had exhausted the birds currently present, we headed off in Lesley’s car (cause I’m a terrible passenger, she told me) to Stone Haven, just south of Avalon where I had been yesterday.
Driving around and stopping off at different locations we had American Oystercatchers (~20), Royal Tern, Forster’s Tern, Caspian Tern, Western Sandpiper (~50), Sanderling (~50), Willet (~60), Long-billed Dowitcher (1), Grey (or Black-bellied) Plover (~100) and coming back along the road 5 or 6 Boat-tailed Grackles.
Then back to Lesley’s for a coffee and a sit down, before heading back to my car and the Cape May Observatory area again. More warblers – all the previous plus Magnolia, Palm and Blackpoll and much to my relief and delight, at last, Red-eyed Vireo.
Finally at 18.00 we both decided to call it a day and headed off agreeing to meet the next morning. I was knackered. I’d spent a lot of time standing and had had nothing to eat since breakfast and only two coffees all day. But what a day. I had also met a birder from Florida who insisted on giving me his phone number and telling me to call him when I was in the Jacksonville area so he could take me birding. Another birder gave me advice on locations north of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco – and suggested strongly that I head west after Florida through Texas and Arizona rather than my planned route through Oklahoma and Colorado. I had been thinking along those lines myself, due to the weather, so will need to review my plan/timetable with that advice in mind.
A 16 Lifer day!
Trip List (USA)–124 Lifers (total)–37 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA–17 (+4 Mammals)
Day 30 – 10.10.19 Thursday New Jersey
I met Lesley at Higbee Beach at 7.15 as arranged. It was a cool morning which warmed to a hot day out of the wind. Started a little cloudy clearing to blue skies after 9am, but the wind persisted which made birding a little difficult.
We walked the fields with a number of other birders scattered around but didn’t see much. I managed to ID a Red-eyed Vireo, there were a number of Yellow-rumped Warblers and these were just about everywhere all day. We also had a couple of Blue Jays, a Common Yellowthroat, a brief Black and White Warbler, a couple of distant Palm Warblers and 4 Northern Flickers, but the dominant bird of the area were the Sharp-shinned Hawks. There was almost always one overhead and they came and went so it was difficult to estimate numbers, but I’d reckon, conservatively, at least 6 birds in that one area. Hence the warblers and other stuff were very quiet.
After Higbee we headed to the Raptor Watchpoint as Lesley wanted to say goodbye to people there. We went for a walk around the lake and I finally got great views of a sitting Gray Catbird, 2 in fact. Again plenty of Yellow-rumped, bushes just dripping with them at times.
Other birders told us they had had an Indigo Bunting just up the track, we failed to find it, but did find an American Bittern – which was really a better bird and no one else had seen it.
Round the corner 5 minutes later and another lifer for moi – a Solitary Sandpiper living up to its name on a small pond all alone. Nice one!
A Black-throated Blue Warbler showed well, but in a really dark spot – as they do – and filming it was not very successful.
Back at the Raptor Watchpoint I waited while Lesley said her farewells then we parted company – her to the airport, me for a coffee at the beach and Laughing Gulls on the sand.
As it was now after midday and the warbler scene was quiet I chose to head up to Stone Harbour again.
I picked up a Tricoloured Heron while looking unsuccessfully for Little Blue and then parked up and walked out to Stone Harbour Point.
There was a large flock of small waders running in and out of the small waves - ~300 Sanderling, ~20 Dunlin, ~50 Least Sandpipers, 1 Ruddy turnstone and ~10 Western Sands. I had been looking for Piping Plover but they weren’t to be seen. I wandered around the dune tracks for a while, but saw little apart from the masses of Monarchs and Common Buckeyes.
Back towards Cape May and Mackers for coffee and apple pies and internet access to check weather predictions and look at places to go between Washington DC and Hatteras. It was surprisingly difficult to find a place in that area that had a good list on E Bird and I was left thinking I might stay on in Cape May for yet another couple of days as the birds were there and the weather looked good.
I went to Wal-Mart again and bought coffee, sugar, gas and a t-shirt for myself. Then back to the Cape May Bird Obs for a late afternoon warbler fest, I hoped.
There was no one else there and, initially, only a very few Yellow-rumped Warblers. In the garden I had a female Black-throated Blue at my feet, then back out on the road a male Black-throated Blue, several Northern Parulas and at least one Magnolia Warbler.
I was scratching my head, taking dozens of photographs and pondering the field guide trying to work out what was what when one of the guys from the Obs shop closed up and came to his car. He asked me if I needed any help and then stood with me and helped me confirm the ID of several of the current flock of warblers overhead. While we did this, a Carolina Chickadee dropped in.
Back to the smelly Shelton for another night in.
Trip List (USA)–131 Lifers (total)–40 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA–17 (+4 Mammals)
Day 31 – 11.10.19 Friday New Jersey
I started the morning at 7.15 at Higbee again. The guy I’d spoken to the evening before had suggested it would be a good morning for warblers.
It wasn’t, but I wasn’t alone in thinking it might be. There were two groups of about 15 birders each being led by guides – local guides I thought – plus a handful of other birders, some of whom I recognized, but all of whom ignored me. I think I was invisible.
It was a slow two and half hours, but I did get two more lifers.
I was just filming a Red-eyed Vireo when a female birder walked past me and asked me if I’d seen the two Brown Thrashers back up the track? I hadn’t, but I walked back 20 meters and corrected that mistake.
I saw a load of Northern Flickers and 2 Eastern Meadowlarks fly overhead, a Carolina Chickadee, a Northern Parula, a handful of Yellow-rumped Warblers and a stack of Sharp-shinned Hawks (~25) along with a lesser, but still impressive, number of Cooper’s Hawks (~15) There were up to 6 or 8 birds visible at any one time and, I assume, the same ones just kept coming around, if not I could have tripled that number – amazing stuff. I also had Swamp and Chipping Sparrows in the grass to keep me confused.
Further on up the track I saw 3 or possibly 4 separate Eastern Phoebes and then latched onto an Eastern Wood Pewee that one of the members of one of the groups had quietly told me had been seen. Another birder had seen a Blue-headed Vireo, but despite an extensive search I couldn’t find it.
I headed on to the South Meadows and walked in to find the area a little more flooded than last time and therefore less small waders. However, among the Northern Mallard I counted what I believe were 5 American Black Ducks and a few Green-winged Teal - which I have probably seen here before, but have forgotten to clarify ID or whatever.
I was looking at 3 Dowitchers trying to decide if they were Long or Short-billed and I asked a passing birder for his opinion. He wasn’t sure, but we agreed in the end to go with Long-billed. Before he had walked away I saw a smaller wader which I didn’t recognize and I asked his opinion on it too – Semipalmated Sandpiper I was happy to record. Good scope views but too far for photos.
The American Golden Plover was still on-site, looking lonely, as were both Yellowlegs and Pectoral Sandpipers. Scanning the edge of the reeds a Sora stuck its head out for a second or two, before turning its white and black striped ass and running away.
I walked to the far end of the swamp where there was a hide of sorts and, while in there, found a Wilson’s Snipe in the nearby reed bed. It wasn’t a long view and mostly from behind, but good enough for me. Another lifer I hadn’t been sure I’d get.
I was pretty knackered by now and although the wind was cold, the sun had been warm, my back was aching from bending over the scope and I was trying to decide what to do in the next few days. Should I stay or should I go? Seems to be my constant question.
Cutting a long story short, after an internet session in Mackers supported by a large non-fat, hot Latte, I decided to stay for another two days. The birds were here, I had got to know the place, there was every chance I’d see more lifers AND if I went somewhere else before Hatteras I would have to drive an extra day. So back to my smelly motel room for a look at the maps spread out on the bed. I had also found out that the ROAD into Hatteras was closed – most likely due to the storm a few weeks ago – so assuming the pelagic is still a goer, I’ll have to get a ferry across. I was also considering getting a ferry from Cape May to Delaware to cut the driving down a bit. So I had researched all those details and was prepared now to spend another two nights in Cape May.
Around 16.00 I was back at the Raptor Watchpoint and then walked the track I had walked with Lesley yesterday (the Bittern/Solitary Sand track). It was dead apart from a few Yellow-rumped Warblers. No Bittern and the empty Solitary Sand pond was almost dried up.
I got to the CMBO (Cape May Bird Obs) at about 17.15, stayed for 5 minutes - there were no birders or birds in sight – and headed ‘home’ to book another two nights, have dinner and get an early bed in preparation for a big day again tomorrow.
Trip List (USA)–138 Lifers (total)–44 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA–17 (+4 Mammals)
Day 32 – 12.10.19 Saturday New Jersey
Once again I started at Higbee – after quietly frying two eggs in my room without setting off the fire alarm.
It was very quiet warbler-wise, just a few Yellow-rumped and one Palm Warbler. However, I did get to see a female American Redstart quite well, if a little distantly, which completed my part view/tick on Wednesday and finally eased my embarrassment when everyone seemed to know I needed to see one.
I wandered the fields for two hours enjoying the LACK OF WIND! and sunshine. Just seeing Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, Carolina Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Eastern Phoebes and Carolina Wrens without the pressure was nice. The Hawks were much reduced in number, probably linked to the lack of warblers, I would imagine. One Sharp-shinned swooped so low, after a Phoebe I think, it nearly took my head off.
I did see an imm Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - no red on it anywhere – which gave me pause and left me wondering until I had it confirmed by a second one in the CMBO garden later. A perched up Merlin sat well for photos too. I also saw my first confirmed Savannah Sparrow of the trip. (although I think I’ve probably seen them, but not ID’d them fully)
One of the other birders told me that at 10am CMBO usually went off so I made a point of being there then.
It wasn’t really ‘goin’ off’ mainly cause there just weren’t that many warblers around, but there were a large number of Yellow-rumped, a few Black-throated Blue females, one Black and White, a Northern Parula and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.
I also got my first lifer of the day when a Yellow-billed Cuckoo landed in the crown of a tree overhead and through the leaves I got to see most of the bird, including the name plate – the yellow bill. Another birder showed us a picture he had just taken claiming it as a Bay-breasted Warbler, but I don’t think anyone else found it. During my visit I saw quite a few Carolina Chickadees, several Carolina Wrens and the second Yellow-bellied Sapsucker I mentioned, plus a Downy Woodpecker and a pair of House Finches.
Around 11.30 it was quite warm (22C) and things seemed to be quieting down so I headed for Mackers internet and coffee and booked the ferry from Cape May to Lewes for 8.30 on Monday morning. I also booked camping in Washington for two nights and emailed them re my interest in a night tour on Monday night. I might not stay for two nights – its an expensive campsite and if I see everything I want to see for $50 on Monday night…… I also emailed my contact for the Hatteras pelagic just checking on access to Hatteras itself, whether it was going ahead and accommodation. Kate replied very quickly – and I’m glad she did, because the ferry I was planning on taking from way down south is not operating due to storm damage at the island end. The road in from the north should be open by Wednesday – and anyway that’s the only way in at the moment so she saved me a lot of frustrating, unnecessary driving.
I went ‘home’, had a sandwich and watched the last episode of Godless from Netflix.
At 3 I thought I’d head out again and do the Meadows. On the way I went to Wal-Mart (again) and got two packets of Dramamine ($3.80 for 8 tablets in each) and another $20 phone credit.
I walked out the track sort of thinking I was wasting my time, as it all seemed very similar to previous days without anything radically different. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Another birder met me on the track and pointed out my second lifer of the day – Baird’s Sandpiper. I must admit I’d probably have struggled identifying it so was very happy that it was handed to me on a plate. I know I say I don’t want birds pointed out like that, but this species would always leave me wondering if I was right or wrong, so, happy days!
He also mentioned he had heard a Virginia Rail calling back down the track so, after everyone had moved on, I used a little playback (quietly) and a bird jumped up out of the reeds flew a few meters and dropped out of sight again. Not a very satisfactory view at all, but I’ll take what I can get and hope for a better one next time. I also managed to get another Savannah Sparrow on film.
By the time this was all done it was almost 18.00, the light was going and I felt I’d done enough so headed home once again.
Trip List (USA)–142 Lifers (total)–47 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA–17 (+4 Mammals)
Day 33 – 13.10.19 Sunday New Jersey
Another day, another start at Higbee. It was pretty quiet again, apart from the flocks of warbler sp flying overhead which no one near me could identify. The wind had swung to the northwest and the birds that had come down the peninsula overnight, apparently, don’t like to cross the water to Delaware so they fly back north. Go figure. There were hundreds of them flying high overhead in groups of less than 10, but almost continually – at least for the first hour, then they seemed to thin out. Very few of them were landing, however, and those that were all seemed to be either Yellow-rumped or Palm Warblers.
There were a bigger number of Eastern Phoebes around the trees and I saw about 15 Northern Flickers, a Chipping Sparrow, a Savannah Sparrow and a couple of Brown Thrashers and that was it in two hours.
I also had what I believe was another Magnolia Warbler. I went to the CMBO and hung there for a while, but it was very quiet, just a few Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and one Cape May Warbler. I also had about 15 Black-crowned Night Herons fly in to roost on Lily Lake.
Thinking there must be something exciting somewhere and I was missing it, I left and headed to the Meadows. It seemed like something was going on when I saw a group of birders all clustered together peering through scopes and bins. Oh Good, I thought, what is it?
I heard ‘Clapper Rail’ and how its tail looked white and quickly set up my scope and started scanning the far reed edge. I saw a Gallinule and said ‘is it anywhere near the Gallinule?’
A blank look and then ‘There’s a Gallinule there’? Uhhhhh yeah! It’s the big blue-grey thing that apparently you all think is a Clapper Rail. Moving right along. There wasn’t much else around, apart from one beautiful Wood Duck, looking like a Japanese toy, Killdeer, American Golden Plover, Least Sandpipers, Green-winged Teal, American Black Duck, Pectoral Sandpipers, etc. (Look at me! Nothing much else around!!)
I left and headed north towards Avalon, stopping at Mackers for internet and coffee.
I arrived a bit after 13.00 and found the seawatch point. It was a wooden shack on the beach. No height and all sight to the south blocked by large earth moving machinery used to clean the beach. Luckily everything was coming from the north.
There were several people there including two Audubon/Cape May volunteers doing the counting. They were counting everything including the flocks of CarmorANTs (the way they pronounce it, emphasizing the ‘ant’ bit).
I stood, along with everyone else, and started scoping. Over the next two hours we had flocks of Scoter, mainly Surf with a few Black, 2 very distant Northern Gannets, 3 Royal Terns, 1 Caspian Tern, 1 Lesser Black-backed Gull and a flock of Scaup sp that splashed down before we could ID them definitively. There were Atlantic Bottle-nosed Dolphins continuously in sight just the other side of the stone ‘pier’.
It was interesting – and I added a few birds to my North American list – but nothing outstanding and, by all accounts, a pretty normal Avalon seawatch.
I drove down to Stone Harbour afterwards and walked out to the point. There were 13 Sanderling on the beach, but nothing else.
Back then all the way to CMBO for a last ditch attempt to finish the day with a lifer.
The only person there was a guy I had seen before who was packing up his car and I said ‘Pretty quiet eh?’ ‘Yeah’ he said, ‘nothing happening’.
I noticed a movement in a tree in front of his car and there was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in clear view sat up for photos, video, the whole shebang. Brilliant!
The guy was happy to have that as a finish to his day and left. I hung around for half an hour or so and found two Black and White Warblers, a Northern Parula and a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I also had two Winter Wrens to add a fourth species to my NA list today – but otherwise it was a lifer-less day. (Reflective note: I always thought that Winter Wren in NA was the same as in Europe, but the European one is Troglodytes troglodytes while the American one is Troglodytes hiemalis, so it would appear I DID get a lifer today – by default. Oh well.)
I retreated to Mackers for dinner to save myself driving all the way ‘home’ and back, ‘cause I thought I’d take a spotlighting walk at Higbee and eating at Mackers would save me time and effort.
I stayed there till 7 and when I came out again it was raining. However, I headed down to Higbee, parked up and walked the first field in the light rain. I saw nothing and was pretty knackered after another 12 hour day so gave it away and headed ‘home’.
I made a cup of coffee and sat outside to have a smoke. The woman from the unit next door came out and hung around having a great old conversation with herself. I think she’s a drunk cause I couldn’t understand a word she said, but it all sounded very interesting.
I finished my smoke, went inside and double-locked the door.
Trip List (USA)–149 Lifers (total)–48 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA–21 (+5 Mammals)
Day 34 – 14.10.19 Monday Travel
I left the Smelly Shelton at 7 and headed for the ferry. I was getting it across Delaware Bay to save a long drive north round the top of the bay. It probably would have been cheaper to drive, but I like ferries and it seemed like a better idea. Cost = $38 US.
Filled up with fuel - $2.47, $24 in.
It all went very well and I relaxed with a crap coffee for an hour and a half. There was nothing to see apart from Laughing Gulls and the bay was very calm.
Drove across Delaware Island from Lewes to finally cross a bridge over Chesapeake Bay – or part of it anyway. I got to Washington around 13.30 and checked in, having pre-booked the $60 US very expensive Cheery Hill campsite. It was a really nice campsite though and there were no other ‘campers’, although there were the usual hundreds of humungous RVs around. One of the reasons I booked THIS campsite was because it was closest to Washington and they had a night tour of the city to see the sights.
Unfortunately the tour was fully booked so, on their advice, I headed into the city alone. I had bought a Smartrip card for $15 which gave me 24 hour – or at least till midnight – access to all buses and trains in the area.
I got the bus at the campsite at 15.20 and arrived at the metro station 25 minutes later, the train arrived and I stepped out onto Pennsylvania Ave at 16.00.
There followed a 10 km walk at high speed trying to see everything before I had to get the train back. I saw:
The Trumps temporary residence (White House)
The Washington Monument
The Vietnam Memorial
The Reflecting Pool
The Lincoln Memorial and
Walked across the Memorial Bridge to have a quick look at Arlington.
I did want to see the Pentagon and the Capitol building but just ran out of time.
Back at the Metro station (Archives) my train was delayed because of an ‘Unauthorised person’ on the track somewhere. I think they got hammered ‘cause they mentioned ‘medical personnel were in attendance’.
Got back to the bus stop at 19.55, having missed the 19.40 bus. The next one was at 20.40 and I was pretty knackered, but had no choice but to wait – along with several others going my way.
That bus never arrived and it was after 21.30 before we finally got a no 83 back to the caravan park arriving at 22.00. Me and public transport just don’t work. That’s it.
I grabbed a sandwich and crashed.
Trip List (USA)–149 Lifers (total)–48 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA–21 (+5 Mammals)
Day 35 – 15.10.19 Tuesday Travel
Up at 7, having slept OK. Had fried eggs for breakfast and a hot shower before breaking camp and heading south. Mapsme told me it was a 5 and half hour drive to Hatteras Island, but I didn’t get there till 17.00. I don’t know why. I only stopped once for a coffee and Southwest Salad with grilled chicken at Mackers for about 30 minutes. I also got fuel ($2.25, $22 in) and a few groceries at, where else? - Wal-Mart - and withdrew some more cash.
Anyway, the road to Hatteras was open, although there was a bit of sand here and there and some shallow (sea) water, which I drove carefully through. I found a campsite in Rodanthe. I had been hoping to camp in the National Park, but the sites were miles away from Hatteras so I paid $34 for one night only, on the advice of the owner as tomorrow was predicted to be a dreadfully wet and possibly windy day. I set up camp appropriately with that in mind.
Basically no birds but did see a number of Boat-tailed Grackles at roadside and Brown Pelicans overhead along the coast road. There’s not much to it, sea on one side, a line of sand dunes, the two lane road and water on the other – in places the peninsula, or line of islands joined by bridges, is only a couple of hundred meters wide. Its no wonder these places get trashed in a cyclone, a good set of waves would wash right over the top.
Trip List (USA)–150 Lifers (total)–48 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA–21 (+5 Mammals)
Day 36 – 16.10.19 Wednesday North Carolina
At the halfway point on the trip – 36 days down (including Canada), 5 weeks left to go. To date I have driven 5,684 miles or 9,470 Kms, by my reckoning.
I was up at 7, when the rain was predicted to start but didn’t. It started at 7.30 and rained on and off all day.
For a while, initially, it looked like my tent would get flooded. The canopy took the worst of it, but the water built up and started to pool. However, it eased off and the water soaked away for the most part.
I cooked some breakfast, had a shower, sat in the car and read and watched some Netflix download. Then, as the weather seemed to break a bit I drove the 50 odd kms to Hatteras and found the dock and the boat and then the nearest campsite with plans to move the next day in preparation for the pelagic on Friday. The road was partially flooded in places and everyone was taking it easy – well most people, there were the usual wankers who don’t seem to realise the dangers, but on the whole it was a slow, pedantic drive with several stops to negotiate the flooding – all fresh water now, of course. It is predicted to be sunny for the next 48 hours at least so I wasn’t too worried about the weather. Kate had advised me that the pelagic was still a goer so the expected winds and weather can’t be too bad.
Birds were few and far between – what with the rain an’ all, but I did stop at one point to look at some Common Grackles and Boat-tailed Grackles along the road. I later had the latter in the campsite too.
When I rebooked for a second night there was a different woman on the counter and she insisted on charging me $38 (as opposed to the $34 last night) because quote ‘you’re getting electricity and water’ Water? WATER? What campsite doesn’t give you water?
Anyway, as I had ‘stolen’ electricity the previous night to charge my stuff, I didn’t argue and just paid up. I’ll be gone from here tomorrow anyway. So much for southern hospitality.
It stopped raining around 4 and got windy – as it always does after rain. It blew through the night but I was well sheltered and suffered no consequence.
I went down the road and treated myself to a plate of ribs and a beer ($25US) which were awesome.
Trip List (USA)–151 Lifers (total)–49 birds (+9 Mammals) New NA–21 (+5 Mammals)
Day 37 – 17.10.19 Thursday North Carolina
The day dawned bright and clear and sunny – as promised by the weather forecast – but still very windy. Had breakfast and headed out to bird Pea Island. There were a number of duck on the large lagoon, but I couldn’t hold the scope steady enough in the wind to ID them. I did see a Tricoloured Heron and a few other bits and pieces.
I met a guy leading a group who was very friendly and we chatted birds for a while, then he told me of a potential Lark Sparrow at the Visitor’s Centre 1 mile up the road so I packed up and headed there. I didn’t find the LS, but did see more Tricoloured Herons and very briefly one Little Blue Heron.
Unfortunately, it flew before I could get a photo, but I was very happy to see it, having looked for it for some time.
I headed back to camp and broke camp over a cup of coffee and left the site at midday.
Drove down towards Hatteras itself and decided to check a National Park campsite at Frisco, 15 minutes from the pelagic boat. It was excellent so I claimed a site and re-erected the tent. Wish I’d been here yesterday, it only cost $14 a night, but no internet or even phone signal. Water and flush toilets of course, plus cold showers!
I couldn’t pay the $28 because there was no self-registration, except to say which site you were on. It said I had to pay by 9am the next day, but I wouldn’t be here then, until late afternoon so was a bit concerned.
I went for a walk along a boardwalk to the beach – expecting an empty stretch of sand. Hah! 4WDs and fishermen everywhere. I could see a few shorebirds scattered here and there but wasn’t confident of my target species at all. However, I sat down and scoped the closest three birds – 2 Sanderling and my target – a Piping Plover Yahhooo!! Dodging the cars I got some close up views and video – great little bird, love the ambidextrous foot action.
I went back to camp and then headed out to end up at the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and beach. Dozens more 4WDs and fisherfolk almost shoulder to shoulder along the beach. I chatted to one dude from Virginia and we talked fishing for half an hour or so.
I headed home stopping off at Buxton Woods, a sheltered area of trees and a single Yellow-rumped Warbler that seemed to have the place to itself. I also stopped off at the campsite near the lighthouse where I lucked onto a ranger and explained my predicament re Frisco, he said he’d send a txt to the camp host and say I’d pay him on Saturday morning before I left. Then home, dinner and a short spotlighting walk in which I saw an Eastern Cottontail Silvilagus floridanus
Trip List (USA)–153 Lifers (total)–51 birds (+ 10 Mammals) New NA–21 (+5 Mammals)
Day 38 – 18.10.19 Friday North Carolina
Pelagic day, at last. I was up at 5, ate and on the dock by 6. I met Kate – the woman I had been in contact with over the months and we were joined by a total party of 12 birders on a boat 65ft long, very stable, plenty of seating and with Kate, another guide Kyle and the skipper/owner Brian, also a birder, we set off. Watched Brown Pelicans diving for fish and passing groups of Black Skimmers on the way out of the ‘inlet’ as they call it, until we hit the open ocean and headed for the Gulf Stream off the shelf. I had taken a Dramamine and took another one after we left and started to feel a bit dozy in the sun so I took a No-Doze which counteracted the sleepiness imposed by the Dramamine and I was really good for the rest of the day, although at least three passengers were seasick.
Kate, Kyle and Brian wore headsets and communicated via those and a tannoy Brian used to tell us where to look. It was hard to understand what he said, but the others called the birds well and made sure everyone saw everything. With only 9 active birders on board (3 being incapacitated) it was pretty easy to stay in touch with everything.
It took about two and half hours to get to the shelf. On the way we stopped for a flock of about 60 Cory’s Shearwaters and one Great Shearwater feeding over a school of small Tuna.
Once we reached the shelf Kate set up a burley trail and we started seeing Black-capped Petrels almost immediately. They were to stay with us for the next 4 hours providing brilliant viewing as they soared around the boat and fed in the slick. Several times Audubon’s Shearwaters were called but I failed to get on to them until finally a couple came closer to the boat and I saw them – although not very well, but good enough. There were Great Shearwaters around the slick all day as well with the occasional Cory’s coming in to feed.
The only other birds we saw were Wilson’s Storm Petrels – about 10 views I guess, maybe the same birds? not sure – and one Pomarine Skua that came almost within touching distance.
We started back just after 2pm and it was 6.30pm when we finally docked – a long day!
I headed home, desperate for coffee and a meal and sorted through 975 photos, first cull, down to 190. There were a lot of pictures of empty ocean and unidentifiable blurs.
Trip List (USA)–160 Lifers (total)–53 birds (+ 10 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 39 – 19.10.19 Saturday North Carolina
Woke up at 5 to hear two Great Horned Owls calling some distance away. I was tempted to go look for them, but didn’t want to disturb other campers in the predawn, chilly dark so made coffee and talked world cup rugby with a friend back in Brisbane.
After dawn broke I packed up and left the site at 8.15. While I had breakfast ect I had a Northern Parula and a Yellow-rumped Warbler in the campsite.
I stopped off at the kiosk at the entrance to pay the fee for the two nights. The wardens didn’t reduce the cost because of my America is Beautiful card – I had assumed they would – so the camping cost me $28 a night, which I was a little disappointed with, but anyway…
I drove back towards Nag’s Hd and stopped first at the Visitor’s Centre at Pea Island where I’d had the Little Blue Heron two days previous. I didn’t see it again, but got a brief, but adequate view of a Black-billed Cuckoo that flew in, landed for long enough for me to get the bins on it then flew again and disappeared. I caught a glimpse of a red eye and the bill appeared all black. It was very quick but I was 100% certain – and the red eye (eye-ring, in fact) confirmed it, Yellow-billed have yellow eye rings. Brilliant!!
Just afterwards I met another American birder, Phil, and in our following discussion he told me of a location in Florida that he said I had to visit. He was a really nice guy and we ended up up the road together looking, unsuccessfully, for a White-rumped Sand that had been seen two days previous.
After looking for the White-rumped Sand I headed on north, passing my turn off at Nag’s Head and, stupidly really as it turned out, on up to a place called Duck, 30 minutes further up the Outer Banks. Stupidly because I was working on info received yesterday re a ‘boardwalk that was good for warblers’ I had no other info and there was no way I was ever going to find a boardwalk along 20 miles of houses, shops, beaches, bush. Really dumb!
Heading back I spotted a Wal-Mart and couldn’t resist buying eggs, yogurts, vegies, Orios and chocolate. Then went to Mackers and charged the laptop again, sorted some photos and wrote up my blog entry for yesterday, checked my emails and generally sorted shit out. (I also filled up with fuel - $2.58/gal, $32 in).
Then it was back on the road again around 13.00, arriving finally at 17.00, at Oyster Point campsite in Croatan National Forest. (345 kms) It took me a while to find the campsite – I had to use Maps on my phone in the end as Maps Me just didn’t recognize it. I wasn’t overly surprised. It was down a one mile unsealed track and very basic – but in return only cost $5 a night – half price thanks to my America is freaking Beautiful card. How come THEY take it and National Parks won’t? There was water and a single toilet block that looks like a drop toilet – but what more does one want for two nights? My phone told me a thunderstorm and rain was expected nearby (the closest point I could get a weather forecast for, about 10 miles away) and possible rain for the next 24 hours so I set up the canopy with that in mind.
I cooked dinner in occasional drops of rain, under the canopy just for comfort and crashed around 9.
Trip List (USA)–162 Lifers (total)–54 birds (+ 10 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 40 – 20.10.19 Sunday Travel
I am SO over this rain. I woke at midnight as light rain started. And again at 2 when it got heavier.
I lay awake monitoring the tent and canopy over the next 4 hours. The canopy took the worst of the sometimes very heavy rain and the tent stood up to it well, but it did start to get quite damp and it wasn’t getting any better.
On my phone the rain was predicted to last till nightfall. I figured all I would do would be sit it out then pack up and leave the next day. Might as well drive today, if that was the case, as birding was impossible and….it was predicted to get windy after midday as well.
So, decision made, I packed up and was leaving the campground by 7.30. The roads were semi flooded – and that had been the other concern. The area was very low-lying and I could see temporary flooding being a real issue.
I headed to the nearest Mackers and settled in for pancakes and coffee and a review of the future weather pattern looking south….
Not good. Rain almost every day right down to the Everglades over the next 10 days.
I am SOOOOO over this rain.
I set off south and the rain stopped. The day turned into a drier afternoon the further I got along the road.
I stopped at a Mackers about 50 kms short of Myrtle Beach, just north of Huntington Beach State Park where I had, originally, planned to camp. I wasn’t going to camp so I went on-line and booked a room at the Waikiki Village – a Retro Motel – in Myrtle Beach and headed there.
It was not too bad. The décor was a bit so so, but comfortable, clean, secure and friendly in the middle of a seemingly never-ending Gold Coast-like strip of shops, cafes, restaurants, water parks and beach stuff that went on for miles and miles and miles.
I paid the $120 for two nights and asked about laundry facilities? They didn’t have any but I was welcome to use those at another ‘sister’ hotel just down the road. I stripped off, showered, shaved, changed and headed down the road to wash all my dirty stuff for $2.75 in the laundry at the other place.
Then it was back to the Waikiki to hang my tent in the shower and the canopy over the balcony rail to dry - and a night in researching stuff and places in Florida.
Trip List (USA)–162 Lifers (total)–54 birds (+10 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 41 – 21.10.19 Monday South Carolina
At last, a perfect day. Possibly the first one since leaving Australia? Sunny, calm, bright, clear skies, no rain. I don’t know what happened the weather forecast, but every time I stay in a motel expecting bad weather – it turns out good. Must be a message in that somewhere, but I’m too tired to think of it now.
Huntington Beach State Park, 30 minutes south of Myrtle Beach, had a very impressive list in excess of 300 species, including a heap of stuff I wanted. A recent bird lister on EBird had achieved 78 species. I managed only 48, but got some good stuff along the way.
I filled up with fuel @ $2.19/gal, $28 in and arrived on site to pay my $5 entry fee to the State Park.
One crosses a causeway 100 meters into the park and I got my first lifer for the day before parking – Wood Stork, once seen, quickly forgotten, pretty boring just standing around as Storks do. I parked up and walked back to the causeway and got my second lifer of the day – White Ibis. A bit more exciting, and a more attractive bird than the Australian version with its red bill and legs.
I heard a Clapper Rail, probably about 100 meters away, so didn’t try playback there. I tried at several spots later but got no response and, as I haven’t seen one yet, didn’t tick it.
There was a mixed flock of waders on the low-tide exposed mud beside the causeway – well, 2 species anyway. Semi-palmated Plovers and Western Sandpipers.
A few Tricoloured Herons, Cattle, Great and Snowy Egrets completed the scene. I walked up to a nearby boardwalk seeing a few Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, Eastern Phoebes and one Eastern Wood Pewee on the way. There were heaps of Northern Cardinals and they persisted all day in the bush.
Back at the car I drove to the Gift Shoppe and asked about a map of the park. The old guy was very helpful and I headed out with some understanding of where to go next – maybe.
I walked a trail from the car park at the gift shop – Kerrigan Nature trail – and had a Hairy Woodpecker and Pine Siskins. I also had a Least Flycatcher – although it took me a while to work it out.
Again back at the car I drove to find the Sandpiper Lake Track and walked that. It wandered along and around the edge of a lagoon/lake and ended up near the northern beach.
In truth it was very quiet and tough birding really. Maybe because it was late in the morning? However, I did find two Tufted Titmouse, a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Brown Thrashers and had a poor view of a Pine Warbler.
I walked out to the beach but turned back due to the fact there were dozens of people walking, fishing, sun bathing and generally doing the beach thang. Not a bird in sight.
Walking back to the car along the road I found an American Redstart (female), a Northern Parula (again) and a Blue-headed Vireo which made me happy as I’d missed it twice in Cape May. I like Vireos.
It was about 13.30 now and I was starting to feel the pinch so back to the Gift Shop and a cup of lousy coffee later I decided I’d check the causeway again in the hopes of seeing a decent Little Blue Heron. The tide was back in by now and there was very little to see, except a single Little Blue Heron.
Am I good or what?
As I walked back a single sparrow flew and landed just out of sight. It took about 10 minutes before it finally flew clear and landed on a nearby reed bed where I got great scope views of a Nelson’s Sparrow. I thought at the time it was a Saltmarsh but the photos showed it as Nelson’s so I settled for that. I know that sounds contradictory – “great views, but’ - but they do look very similar.
I decided I’d go somewhere else and try for Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch at a nearby woodland area called Brookgreen. There were recent reports of both, but when I got there it was like driving into Windsor Castle and they wanted $18 to start with so I U-turned and drove away. I mean there was no guarantee and it was like 2 o’clock in the afternoon – the chances were pretty skinny at the best.
I drove round for a while trying to find a patch of suitable, accessible woodland without any success and settled for a haircut at a genuine Barber’s shop for $11 (+ $4 tip – look at me! Giving away money) I reckon he did an excellent job and deserved a tip.
Then I went looking for a place to eat. I ended up taking a side road down towards Murrell’s Inlet and stopped, on an impulse, at a slightly down-at-heel looking joint called the Riverside Café. I had a large cheese-burger and fries and a Bud and ate the free peanuts while throwing the shells on the floor with all the other shells. Quite the place - $15 for the meal (+ a tip which I’m not going to reveal here).
Then back to Huntington Beach State Park and free entry now, cause I paid $5 for the day. I walked the Sandpiper trail again as dusk descended hoping for night birds but only saw a Red-eyed Vireo before dusk actually descended. Then I heard a pair of Great Horned Owls calling, but didn’t try to chase them down 150 meters or so through thick bush. I played back a couple of other birds but got no responses.
That was it. 12 hours after leaving I got home and sorted through 570 photos.
Not a bad day – I had expected the weather to be worse and the birds maybe to be better? But still I guess I can’t complain at least it didn’t freaking rain. There’s a thunderstorm predicted here tomorrow so I decided to continue heading south.
Trip List (USA)–171 Lifers (total)–61 birds (+10 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 42 – 22.10.19 Tuesday Florida
I was up at 6.30 and away just before 8. I had a long drive ahead of me – 700 odd ks – so wanted to get on the road.
It was a lovely day of course, dry, clear, sunny patches and the drive went well, down through Charleston, South Carolina – literally through – past Savannah, Georgia and then forked off from outside Jacksonville to finally arrive at a reserve near Gainesville in Florida. I stopped twice during the 8 hour drive – both at Mackers for coffee. At the second stop I had Common and Boat-tailed Grackles in the car park almost at my feet – can definitely tell the difference now!
The weather was good – except at Jacksonville when it absolutely bucketed down for about 15 minutes. It was, again, really hairy. Windscreen wipers going flat out, hardly able to see out to follow the truck 30 meters ahead of me at about 100 k/hr. Just hanging on, hoping the car wouldn’t leave the road. Further on I really REALLY needed a piss, so finally found a dirt road, pulled in just as the rain caught up. But I couldn’t be stopped and got a bit wet relieving that necessary ‘itch’. Back in the car and down the road at 80 m/hr and 15 minutes later – “Where’s my glasses?’ Search the front seats – nothing. No option, but to turn back and find the pit stop. 13 miles back and search the ground – nothing. Search the front seats again – nothing. Did I open the back door to get my jacket when it was raining? Yes, apparently, as my glasses were on the floor in the back…. Jesus wept. A 50 km round trip and half an hour lost….
I found Paynes Prairie Reserve State Park and the Puc Puggly campsite. Yeah I know, weird eh?
It was weird too when I got there because it was after 17.00, 24 degrees and 82% humidity. Like being back home in February.
I set up camp in a semi-tropical almost rain forest setting, sandy ground, palm trees and the like. Saw a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and a noisy Pileated Woodpecker visited the trees overhead. I didn’t have a lot of time before dark but went for a walk anyway down to the lake – about 10 minutes from camp.
I turned away from the lake edge and a bird flew from one tree to the next just above my head – then perched up and looked down at me. FAR OUT!! Barred Owl. Wow! Crippling views as it tore into a kill and calmly kept an eye on me wandering around below, steaming with excitement. Finally. My first owl of the trip – first owl seen anyway. And one I had looked for and hoped for and, honestly, expected to have seen by now.
Brilliant. I know some of you will understand how excited I was.
I returned to camp and set about making dinner – chopped up fresh vegies and a can of roast beef made up a stew. The mossies were HORRENDOUS. Most of you will know they don’t normally affect me too badly, but they were swarming and sooooo annoying, in my eyes, my mouth, my hair, my ears. Their bites don’t hurt or irritate me luckily, but they were just everywhere, so once I’d eaten I retired to the car and made a phone call, sorted my photos and wrote up my notes.
Trip List (USA)–172 Lifers (total)–62 birds (+10 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 43 – 23.10.19 Wednesday Florida
So I went to bed around 9.30 and spent a few minutes killing the few mosquitoes that came to bed with me, then settled down. I woke at 2am.
I was shaking, mainly from the waist down. I wasn’t hot, nor was I cold. My calves and thighs were aching and I couldn’t get comfortable.
I rolled and stretched and tossed and turned until 4am.
My first thought was Dengue – but dismissed that as I didn’t think it came on that fast.
Then I was thinking what had I eaten? But I wasn’t feeling sick so that wasn’t the issue.
I was shaking like when I had an infection in hospital after the bike crash and they’d treated me with serious antibiotics pumped straight into my neck – but maybe not quite as bad and, again, I had no temperature, in fact if anything I was cold.
It finally occurred to me, as I went back through the day that it might be a lack of fluid. Water more specifically. I’d only stopped for two coffees and had one for breakfast and a couple when I had arrived – but other than that I’d had no liquid all day. Those of you who know me, know I hate water and never drink it, but this was different and I was quite worried.
So I got dressed, abandoned the tent to the mossies, got fresh water from the car and drank 4 large mugs over the next 20 minutes, then I walked up and down in the dark trying to ease the cramping in my legs. The shaking stopped after about 10 minutes so I figured I was on the right track. By 5am my legs had eased. No water had come back out. I was literally falling asleep on my feet, so got into the car and put the passenger seat back and – fell asleep. When I woke again at 6 I was fine. Knackered, but not in any pain - apart from the normal shit anyway.
Mind you I haven’t stopped pissing all morning. And I still hate water.
But I’ll make a point of drinking it more regularly now.
I started breakfast at 7 but it took me a while to get going and, in fact, I was pretty knackered all day, but its amazing what you can achieve on 4 hours sleep.
I went for a walk from camp down to the lake again, but it was very quiet until I found a tree dripping with American Redstarts. At least 6 females and my first male. Apart from that only one brief Red-bellied Woodpecker then back to camp and I drove out to the gate to pay my camping fees. $20 a night. That was it. Amazing value. I booked three nights.
Drove on out to the sort of causeway where there was an observation walkway and deck. Immediately I had my first lifer of the day – not really a biggie as it looks so like Australian Darter – Anhinga. While I was looking at it and starting to line it up for photos, another bird flew in and landed nearby – a Limpkin. I had three altogether and the Anhinga pissed off before I could film it. I did see others later, but none as close as the first one.
A large raptor flew past and it had a white rump. Northern Harrier was my first impression, but it didn’t fly like a harrier – more like a slow eagle. Snail Kite! There were in fact at least 4 flying around, mostly distantly. So, three lifers in 5 minutes? Not bad going.
I left there after a while and drove to the western entrance of Sweetwater Wetlands – a dead end street with parking easily available. At the main entrance there was a car park and a cost of $5 – here it was free.
I walked in expecting great stuff, but was disappointed. After an hour and a half I saw one Eastern Phoebe. It appeared dead, (not the Phoebe, the place) Back near the car however, a couple of birds moved through overhead – a Tufted Titmouse and a Downy Woodpecker. By now I was really f….d and decided to just sit against a tree and see what happened.
What followed was a good hour. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, American Redstart, 2 Yellow-throated Warblers, 2 Red-eyed Vireos, a White-eyed Vireo, Carolina Chickadee, Northern Cardinals and a Prairie Warbler. Obviously the thing to do is just sit and wait and the birds come to you.
I was in dire need of a decent coffee by now so found the nearest Mackers and spent an hour or so updating my blog and checking emails ect.
Feeling a bit stronger I went to Wal-Mart and got a few things – gas, bananas, kitchen paper and a recharge for my phone SIM. I also went to the bank and withdrew some more cash.
Then I headed for a trail into the swampy area of Payne’s Prairie from 15th SE street – the La Chua Trail. A good decision.
I didn’t see any new birds, but the Limpkins were almost within touching distance and I saw at least 8 more Snail Kites, a Little Blue Heron, Anhingas and my first Alligator – only two babies, but still…
I also saw a couple of American Redstarts and at least one other warbler I failed to get onto properly, but it looked like something new and a pair of Great Horned Owls were calling while still full daylight.
Headed back to camp intending to eat and spotlight. I was in the middle of the former when an Eastern Screech Owl called some distance away. I played for it, but it didn’t respond. As soon as I’d finished dinner I went for a walk but failed to find anything. I think I’ll need to be out and about right on dusk tomorrow night as after dusk they seem to all go quiet.
I wrote my notes, sorted my photos, had a shower and crashed.
Trip List (USA)–178 Lifers (total)–68 birds (+10 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 44 – 24.10.19 Thursday Florida
I was up again at 7 and headed out after breakfast on a long walk that lasted till 13.30. I walked trails in Payne’s Preserve but didn’t connect with a lot of stuff – and nothing new.
I didn’t see anyone else in the almost 6 hours of birding and walking and the bush was pretty thick and sort of wild looking – but I’m not sure how ‘managed’ it’s been.
I ran into a couple of small ‘bird-waves’ – the first included a Black and White Warbler which was nice and the second, significant, one, a similar mixture to the previous day at Sweetwater – Downy Woodpecker, American Redstart, Tufted Titmouse, Yellow-throated Warbler and White-eyed Vireo - which was interesting. I did see, and took photos of, another bird which tentatively might be Yellow-throated Vireo but the jury is still out. I also saw lots of Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers.
I ended up at Chacala Pond hoping for duck, but not a skerrick on the water. I played for Sedge Wren and had call back, but, as I did, a movement in the grass revealed a warbler and by the time I identified that as a Common Yellowthroat (my first for the trip), the wrens had departed.
I got back to camp pretty knackered – it was about 24C and 70% humidity and I’d walked 10 kms - so had a rest and checked my photos to try to gain some wisdom on the unknown bird, without success. After 3 I headed out to the main swamp/lake area where the observation walkway was and crossed the busy, 4 lane, 60 miles/hr, highway to scope the opposite side of the road which was more overgrown and held some promise – there was nowhere to stop on that side and no access from any other direction.
I saw a heap of Common Gallinules, 1 Pied-billed Grebe, several Anhingas and a single duck that could have been a Mottled Duck. I was a bit hesitant to claim it, but a Mallard on its own would be highly unusual and they are not supposed to come this far south, according to the range maps. It was a fair way away and I couldn’t see as much detail as I’d have liked but potentially it was what I think it was.
I flushed a couple of Limpkins as I walked back to the car and saw a couple of distant Snail Kites hunting over the reed beds.
Once again back at camp I sat for a short while then headed out to owl. I had heard Eastern Screech Owl calling near my campsite the previous night, but they sounded like they were in the immediate area of a colony of RVs - one end of the camping area seems to have attracted a lot more people and that was where they seemed to be calling from. I figured I’d try somewhere more quiet and chose the carpark near the lake. I sat through dusk till it was dark, but heard nothing and got no response to playback so retired for the evening. A little bit of a frustrating day, but nice birds all the same and, once again, it didn’t rain and there was no wind - which on this trip was a bonus!
Trip List (USA)–179 Lifers (total)–68 birds (+10 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 45 – 25.10.19 Friday Florida
I was up at 6.30, had breakfast and left by 7.45. I had a 5.5 hour drive and 500 kms to go to my next destination so didn’t push it too hard – unfortunately. I stopped for a couple of coffees and spent an hour in a Mackers somewhere. I also looked up recent records of Florida Scrub Jay and found one near Titusville/Orlando at Cocoa Dump. So I turned off for the 5 minute drive and spent 15 or 20 looking for a bird – didn’t find it in the spitting rain and carried on - into some very heavy showers that had me hanging on for dear life at 70 MPH again.
I filled up with fuel twice - $2.39 $27 in and $2.36 $28 in. When I reached the Fort Lauderdale area the traffic ground to a stop – there’d been a crash a few miles ahead and it took over an hour to get past it. Then there was a broken down car in the Express lane at Miami and, long story short, I was running very late getting into the Everglades National Park. I booted down the access road aiming for the very far end – Flamingo campsite – arriving just after dark to locate a campsite in an open exposed campground in a strong easterly wind and spitting rain. I got the canopy and tent up behind a tree while slapping myself stupid by the hordes of mosquitoes determined to have my blood. I ate a very quick meal and crashed – or tried to. It was 27c and 80% humidity and I was sweating like the proverbial pig.
Trip List (USA)–179 Lifers (total)–68 birds (+10 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 46 – 26.10.19 Saturday Florida
Rain had been forecast and between the wind, the sweat and the incipient rain, that never really happened, along with the bloody mossies in the tent, it was an uncomfortable, tiring night with only about 4 hours sleep - again.
I woke at 5 and lay, damp and bloody and heard, what I believed was a Lesser Nighthawk calling outside so got up. But didn’t see it. On questioning by Mr H, and checking the range maps, it appears Lesser Nighthawk does not occur in Florida, so what I heard remains a mystery.
In Cape May Lesley had given me a small can of insect repellent ‘because I’d need it in Florida’. I was thankful to use it, although I hate the stuff, but it did ease my suffering somewhat. I had a sleepy, grumpy breakfast and headed out to bird. Then things improved.
While finishing breakfast 3 Roseate Spoonbills flew over and when I walked up to the shoreline a Yellow-crowned Night Heron stealthily slunk off, reminded me of Beach Stone Curlew a bit.
Among the few waders – Semipalmated Plovers, Least and Western Sandpipers, a Willet and several Ruddy Turnstones – I found a Wilson’s Plover. That cheered me up no end.
Meanwhile Black and Turkey Vultures walked and flew around at close range and among the crows I identified, at last, several Fish Crows. I was pretty sure I’d heard them over the last week or so, but hadn’t been confident of ID – now I was.
Back to camp and a reviving coffee then off down another track – the Coastal Prairie track. Several Palm Warblers flitted ahead and a single Tennessee Warbler in a tree. I picked up a few more bits and pieces on the track ending with a rather distant, but definitely identified Mottled Duck.
Along the way several Red-shouldered Hawks perched up very confidingly and back at camp again, an adult landed in the tree in front of me – brilliant viewing.
In the tree overhead at camp a number of American Redstarts spent the day, joined on occasion by Palm Warblers and once a Prairie Warbler. Pileated Woodpeckers visited nearby trees almost constantly and the Vultures did their thing all around. White Ibis flew overhead and a flock fed about 100 meters away all day.
I had a shower – hot water available in the toilet block – and relaxed in the breeze and shade as it was 31C and very humid.
After a light lunch and several coffees, waiting while my laptop, phone and camera battery charged in the toilet block electric razor outlet – I headed out again. This time in the car to the Marina, about 2 miles away, where there was reputed to be a store. There was, but they had no milk so I bought some coffee mate, a bag of ice and a can of insect repellent and stole 12 little creamers from their coffee stand. Well one of the assistants told me to take some cause there was no milk so…. I put half the bag of ice in the esky and asked them if I could leave the other half in their freezer for tomorrow – no problem.
I went to the visitor center and spoke to the ranger on duty and she suggested Eco Pond as a possible Roseate Spoonbill roost. As it was now high tide I decided to try. There were two birds there, one very close.
Then I went back to the Marina for a massive cup of ice cold Coke – my first soft drink this trip.
I thought I’d check the shoreline again before heading back to camp and so drove down that end of the camping area. To my complete surprise there was a HUGE flock of waders and terns sitting in the saltpans behind the beach.
It was such a small area and they were packed in. I reckoned on 1000 Willets, 150 Marbled Godwits, 250 Short-billed Dowitchers, 15 American Avocets, a few Grey Plover, 100 Least Sandpipers, 30 Semipalmated Plovers, Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstones, Western Sandpipers, Caspian Terns, Laughing Gulls and, for me best of all – approx 300 Black Skimmers. Absolutely stunning birds – I’ve seen them before but never this close or in these numbers. I spent an hour or so going through the flocks as best I could, but they were so tightly packed and I had minimal elevation I was sure I missed stuff. Maybe tomorrow? It certainly helped bump up the trip list.
Back at camp I made a couple of phone calls while waiting for dusk. It was till stinking hot but the breeze, shade and repellent made life a lot more comfortable.
Just as dusk fell 2 Common Nighthawks flew around overhead – brilliant to see.
I walked away from the main camp and played several tunes, but only got response to Eastern Screech Owl and one flew in briefly to see what the fuss was all about. It wasn’t a great view at all, but a good way to end a great day despite the mossies, heat, humidity and exhaustion.
Trip List (USA)–192 Lifers (total)–76 birds (+10 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 47 – 27.10.19 Sunday Florida
I was up before dawn and out with the Common Nighthawks still circling madly overhead – and not that far overhead at times. Jesus, they’re a crazy bird – it’d be great to be able fly like that I reckon.
After breakfast I headed up to the beach front again and checked the waders – much the same as yesterday.
I drove back along the main road for about 10 ks to a track called Snake Bight and started in on the 1.8 mile/2.6 km walk. The track was the most overgrown, tangled unmaintained wreck of a track it has ever been my displeasure to walk. Basically a low berm surrounded by flooded mangroves, mostly dead ones, that headed straight down to a promised boardwalk at the ocean end. I never got that far, giving up and heading back after about 2 and half hours walking, stumbling in 30 degree heat and high humidity. Luckily the mossies weren’t too bad, but I’d had enough and didn’t bother with the last bit. There were mysterious splashes and movement in the water alongside the track and a couple of ‘gator slides’ I reckon where something had pulled itself out of the water on one side and slid into the water on the other – but I saw no sign of anything except White, Ibis, Anhingas and herons flying away in alarm.
I saw a few birds along the track – and had a bit of luck. Thee Black and White Warblers, 3 White-eyed Vireos, several American Redstarts including my second male, a pair of Black-throated Blue Warblers, Common Yellowthroat and a few birds I couldn’t identify. I’m getting really over this warblers-in-the-fall bit.
On the way back I wasn’t taking any prisoners, just plowing along keen to get the ordeal over, BUT I managed to pick up a pair of Painted Finches and got great views, but no photos, of the male, which made the morning all worthwhile. Stunning little bird.
I was knackered and headed back to the Marina for a huge Coke hit and to pick up the rest of my ice.
Then back to camp and a shower and washing clothes and spending the afternoon doing bugger all.
I listened for owls ect through dusk while enjoying the aerial antics of the Common Nighthawks again – but none called. I walked down the field a bit after dark, played Eastern Screech Owl, got a response and managed to spotlight a single bird.
Then it was back home, dinner, a phone call and bed.
Trip List (USA)–196 Lifers (total)–77 birds (+10 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 48 – 28.10.19 Monday Florida
Once again up at 6.30 and on the road just before 8. I reached the entrance gate of the park an hour later – it’s a big park, even at 55 mph.
I hit a Mackers as soon as I reached civilization and had breakfast, internet and updating there. On a side note – I’ve noticed all the Mackers lately have had no available power outlets for customers. Maybe it’s just Florida? But certainly further north most I went to had power available to charge my stuff.
Anyway, headed south at 11 and eventually reached Key West, at the end of the chain of islands around 13.30, stopping only once, on a whim, for coffee at Baby’s Coffee, the most southerly coffee grinders apparently. It was a good coffee.
I found another Mackers, snuck in and used their internet without purchasing anything and identified a potential campsite. It was a pretty limited choice. I chose Leo’s Camping and arrived there to be offered a ‘primitive’ (i.e. no electrical connection) site at $60 US per night! Jesus, Mary and Joseph. $100 Aus per night for a patch of ground that was all coral gravel that I had to borrow a peg hammer to get the pegs in? Mind you the showers were good, the WiFi was quick and had a password for a change (which, possibly naively, makes me think it’s more secure) and there was a lounge type place to sit and do laptop stuff and charge everything without using the bathroom outlets.
Nice and all as it is I wish that when Americans visit Australia they should have to pay for stuff like this at this cost – a special American Price - it’s pretty heavy!
When I got to my site there was a 2 meter, multi-coloured lizard sitting under my table. I asked him what he thought he was doing, but left him alone when he ignored me. Later he hopped into the water and swim away – pretty cool. American or Green Iguana Iguana iguana.
Anyway I checked E Bird and found that there were two locations worth visiting in the immediate area – Fort Zachary State Park, which I had already targeted – and Charles ‘Sonny’ McCoy’s Indigenous Park.
The latter was closest so, it now being nearly 17.00 having spent the afternoon sitting in the shade out of the 32C heat and humidity, I headed there.
I couldn’t get in as it happened. Apparently the entrance is through the ‘Key West Wildlife’ place and it was closed at 5. So I headed for Fort Zachary SP.
Being a State Park, of course, there was an entrance fee - $4.50. and although I only had an hour before it closed at sundown, I paid it.
I wandered around among the beach goers packing up to go home, under the passing Black Hawk helicopters servicing the massive Naval Base next door – and saw a few bits and pieces in the fading light.
I got one definite lifer – a full-blown male Hooded Warbler which was brilliant. I also had a female Blackpoll Warbler and a male Black-throated Blue Warbler among the others I couldn’t identify positively. I also had a Scarlet Tanager which posed an identification challenge initially.
Then headed home, picking up milk, bread and ice on the way. Cooked dinner, made a phone call and crashed.
Trip List (USA)–198 Lifers (total)–79 birds (+10 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 49 – 29.10.19 Tuesday Florida
I was back at the fort just after opening at 8. It had spit rain a couple of times through the 28C degree /80% humidity night, but all was well.
The first bird I saw was what I took to be a Cooper’s Hawk perched up, but on seeing the photos is a Broad-winged Hawk – which I saw later in the day as shall be revealed. In my defence it didn’t hang around long and I assumed it was a Cooper’s….not much of a defence really….
Anyway, the second bird I saw was an Eastern Wood Pewee, which of course sent me into an orgy of photo taking before I decided what it was.
The third bird I saw (this is it, I promise) was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo perched up nicely. I took some photos but won’t repeat myself.
After that it was a morning of walking slowly around trying to identify Warblers. Quite frustrating for part, but simple in others, where I was kicking the Palm Warblers out of the way and trying to ignore all the American Redstarts. The birds I did manage to ID included Northern Parula, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue Grosbeak (1 female), Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Grey Catbird and Prairie Warbler. Yeah, I know, all the easy ones, but the place was dripping in Redstarts and I saw at least 3 males. They were very distracting.
While this was going on at least three Merlins and a couple of (genuine) Cooper’s Hawks hunted overhead and through the trees shutting everything down at times.
I also came across 4 Ovenbirds all acting like uptight Wrens, running around with their tails cocked. They didn’t seem particularly stressed, but I thought it strange behaviour all the same.
I finally wandered out onto the grassy area towards the shoreline and saw three people standing with huge lens on cameras mounted on tripods. Turned out they were taking photos of and noting the passing raptors. Not an official thing I don’t think, just three friends doing their thing.
While standing with them and annoying them for an hour or so I had Broad-winged Hawk pointed out to me passing overhead in comparison to a nearby Cooper’s and a Magnificent Frigatebird put in a semi-distant appearance which I was happy with. There were several American Kestrels and they had had a Short-tailed Hawk the previous day. They were very experienced and gave me some tips and hints.
When I left them alone, finally - I think they packed up early to get away – they made some comments about looking for warblers and so I retired to the trees and put them in action – and had limited but happy success in a Blackburnian Warbler.
They also suggested walking along the shoreline and looking for Wurdemann’s Heron – a cross between a Great White Heron subsp and a Great Blue Heron. I think I found one – it’s the white head?
Along the rocks I saw a couple of those giant American Iguanas – obviously very used to people, very casual. I had a hot dog and Coke for ‘lunch’ and tried again but things seemed to have quietened down so I decided to head home, charge everything up and have a rest after 5 solid hours.
I headed out at 17.00 again. I had a tip-off from a woman I had met at Hatteras re Mangrove Cuckoo on a Key, 20 minutes back up the road. ‘Just go to the end of Sugarloaf and play – they just popup’.
I went there, played, but nothing popped up – probably some time since they’d been here. I did however, have my first RACCOON, so the trip wasn’t entirely wasted. Just trotting across the road in front of me like a four legged hunchback, but enough.
I went home again, had dinner and crashed early. The heat and the constant go-go-go were draining me.
Trip List (USA)–205 Lifers (total)– 83 birds (+11 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 50 – 30.10.19 Wednesday Florida
It was predicted to rain at 4am. If it did I didn’t hear it, but it did rain just after 5, which was a bit of a pain as I wanted the tent and canopy to be dry for the packing. However, I got up at 6, ate some oats, boiled eggs and bread and butter and packed up immediately afterwards. I was on the road by 7.30.
It was a 700 km, 7 hour drive to my next destination and I wanted to get going ASAP.
I reached the Homestead area at the end of the Keys around 10 and booked into a Mackers for coffee and a break.
Then back on the road again heading almost directly north – after I by-passed Miami again. It wasn’t too bad – certainly nowhere near as bad as the southern journey had been and I made relatively good time. I ended up on a Highway, not an interstate, possibly because I had programmed MapsMe to avoid toll roads. I don’t know if it made the difference – certainly not in time or distance, according to the outcomes – but the highway was frustrating to drive. Loads of traffic lights and local drivers hogging the outside lane for miles because they wanted to turn left somewhere up ahead. Usually drivers pull over to the right – its almost an obsession on the interstates – but on the highways it’s not the same.
So, cursing and swearing I gradually made my way up through central Florida, stopping once around 13.30 for a burger and coffee at Mackers again, cause it’s just simple in all respects. It’s not that I have a craving fondness for the food – although the southwestern salad isn’t bad and I should have had that – but as I have explained before – it’s just easy, quick, clean, parking is always available and the toilets are good.
I hit the Orlando area around 15.30 and followed the directions round the edge of the city to rock up at 17.00 at Magnolia Park beside Lake Apopka where I camped for two nights at, get THIS - $17.25 per night with free electrical connection, hot showers, flush toilets and the walk I wanted to do started across the road.
I set up, had a coffee and wandered across the road for a quick look as dusk descended. The park is overrun with Eastern Grey Squirrels and I did see, briefly, a Red-shouldered Hawk and an Eastern Phoebe, but nothing else before dark.
Trip List (USA)–205 Lifers (total)– 83 birds (+11 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 51 – 31.10.19 Thursday Florida
A restless night followed by a frustrating day. The goomba in the tent next to mine – there were about 10 other empty sites, but the manager put me beside this dickhead – played his TV in his tent all freaking night. It was so clear I could hear what was being said. So after breakfast as I headed out to walk the Lake Apopka Loop Trail I stopped off at the office and asked to change my site. They agreed so long as I was moved by midday. Not sure why the rush as its Thursday and it’s not exactly busy, but anyway that was fine.
The Lake Apopka Loop Trail is about 9 MILES long and most of it is driveable. But I thought I’d walk the part near the campsite as it wasn’t the driveable part.
It had ‘dropped’ to 24C around 4am but was starting to heat up again to 28C by 8am. I walked about 2ks probably, for about 1.5 hours anyway, then turned back. I did see a lot of birds - hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds, Anhingas and Palm Warblers dominated with about 10 or 12 Common Yellowthroats, mostly unmarked, It was an excellent habitat for King Rail and Sedge Wren, Purple Gallinule and maybe both Bitterns. But despite extensive playback (for the first two sp), I saw none. Heaps of Common Gallinule, but otherwise nada, which was annoying given the list I had seen posted just a few days ago. I did have one Prairie Warbler and a couple of Northern Parulas, but even the warbler scene was not very exciting.
The highlight of the morning walk was a full grown American Alligator, at last. About 4 feet long maybe? And two or three juveniles nearby.
Back at camp I moved the tent and re-located without drama then went to drive the rest of the Loop in air-conditioned comfort.
Or I would have if it had been open. Apparently the Wildlife Drive along the lake shore is only open ‘Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Federal Holidays’ Who closes a wildlife drive? Re-think, re-plan. I looked to see if I could find a way down to the lake somewhere else. Nope. It was surrounded by private property and/or inaccessible but I spent two hours trying to find a way in finally giving up and going to Mackers for lunch (southwest salad & Coke) and internet. Then Wal Mart for necessary supplies and at 14.30 off to Wekiwa Springs State Park where I had found recent listings for my three target species. Florida Scrub Jay – last chance – Red-headed Woodpecker – seem to keep missing it – and Brown-headed Nuthatch, just in range.
It took me about an hour and a half to drive there and it looked GREAT – sandy ground, pines and mixed woodland around a little lake with no one else around. $4 entry fee and I was happy to bird for two hours ………..with rapidly fading optimism and vanishing hope as I saw F All.
Well, F All apart from bleeding Blue Gray Gnatcatchers, Red-bellied bloody Woodpeckers, a Downy and a Hairy Woodpecker and a few unidentifiable yellow things in the freaking trees that are JUST DOING MY HEAD IN, but I think they were Yellow-rumped and probably Prairie Warblers. Never sight nor sound of any of the targets despite blasting the woods with their calls and putting up with hordes of flesh-eating mosquitoes until I almost cried.
I had to resign myself and admit defeat as far as the Scrub Jay was concerned and headed home to a cooling shower, dinner and a re-vitalising phone call.
As tomorrow is Friday I’ll be able to drive the Loop Drive before I head off to my next destination. Ha Ha they thought they had me!
Trip List (USA)–207 Lifers (total)– 83 birds (+11 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 52 – 1.11.19 Friday Florida
I was at the entry gate to the Lake Apopka Wildlife Loop Trail just after 8 to find several cars already ahead of me. I parked up at the first pull in and started checking the birds in the nearby lagoon. A local guy stopped to chat and explained, when I enquired, that the wetland was run by the local water board and there were workmen on site during the week, hence the closure from Monday to Thursday (inclusive). OK, I get that.
Cutting a long story short I spent the next two hours birding from the car mainly by driving along the slightly-in-need-of-repair unsealed road between huge areas of reed beds, shallow and deep water ponds absolutely dripping with birds. I drove at 10 mph or less and stopped fairly regularly and it took me a full two hours and I only scratched the surface bird-wise. I was really focused on the two Whistling Duck sp, Fulvous and Black-bellied, both of which were present, according to the local dude. I only managed to find one single distant Fulvous Whistling Duck, but I’m sure I missed heaps of stuff. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of Common Gallinule and Blue-winged Teal, dozens of Egrets and Herons of all species, some of the Great Blue Herons walked across the road in front of the car and gave off when you drove past. Anhingas everywhere, smaller number of American Coots, Glossy Ibis, Gadwall, Pied-billed Grebes (~150). For the record I saw about 6 adult Alligators, 1 Snail Kite, 2 Green Herons well and 1 Black-capped Night Heron very well, but it was a rushed visit. Given more time I’m sure I’d have found other stuff, maybe not new, but probably new for this trip, however, I had 350 ks/4 hours to drive to my next destination and some planning to do for the coming days, so I headed off at 10.
I reached St Marks National Wildlife Refuge, on the gulf coast south of Tallahassee, at about 15.00, having stopped a couple of times for coffee and toilet breaks.
I drove straight in and went to the visitor’s center for a map and enquired about a couple of things, then back out the 3 miles to the main road and straight into a campsite opposite. $11 per night for a ‘primitive’ site (i.e. no electrical or water hook-up) and when I asked the guy, Rick, about charging my equipment he ran an extension cord from the nearest supply to my picnic table for me, amazing!
I set up camp, then headed straight off to the nearest Mackers for internet access. I spent some time planning the next few days, looking at species lists for various locations in Alabama, Arkansas and Oklahoma, weather conditions there and in Colorado and Utah and individual species records for birds I intended to try for. I still had a day in hand over the plan, but intended to keep that up my sleeve just in case.
I headed back to camp, found a male American Redstart nearby and had dinner early planning a big day the next day in St Marks. Looked like I might have driven out of the hot humid sweaty conditions – it was quite cold (11C), thank goodness, and expected to drop to 9C during the night. Mind you Colorado was presently 10C max so it’s was going to get a lot colder….
Trip List (USA)–209 Lifers (total)– 84 birds (+11 Mammals) New NA–25 (+5 Mammals)
Day 53 – 2.11.19 Saturday Florida
I was at the park before 8. The gates opened at 6, but dawn wasn’t until 7.50 so I thought I’d be on time as soon as the light was available. A number of people had thought the same and I was surprised at the number of cars in the visitor’s car park, but carried on down the road.
Ahead of me two obvious birders were standing in the middle of the road looking up into the trees so I thought ‘what the hell’ and stopped and approached them. It turned out that one of them was a bird guide of some sort and was checking out some warblers that were moving through – apparently the ‘warbler radar’ the previous night was ‘white’ with moving birds across the eastern seaboard.
Anyway, he was setting up for a tour, but very kindly asked me if there was anything I specifically wanted to see? I said Red-cockaded Woodpecker would be good?’ and he gave me very specific directions to a side track and walk here and look there and turn off here’ – excellent, thinks I.
As we spoke a raptor type bird flew across the road above the trees. In the grey light of dawn we really had only silhouette views and, as it was quite low, no time to bin it. Long tail, sharp wings, slow languid flight. The guy said it looked like a Kite. I agreed in that it wasn’t a falcon – too big – and it wasn’t a harrier – wrong flight pattern – could only be a Mississippi Kite. It was, possibly, a bit stringy, but the more I thought about it afterwards – and the guy said he couldn’t think what else it would be - the more convinced I became, so I’m going with that!
I thanked him and headed to the side track he’d described, a long open wide path with pines on the left, thin, tall and scattered. Not far in I had a Hairy Woodpecker. As I was checking IT out, I noticed another bird sitting on a stumpy branch – binned it – Eastern Bluebird at last. It flew but playback brought it and three mates back straight away. I got lousy shots,
but good views.
I heard a bit of knocking and on impulse played Red-cockaded Woodpecker and in they came – at least 4 birds. Again, good views, but shit photos.
Brilliant!! Job DONE!! 3 lifers and the sun wasn’t even up properly. It was, incidentally, beautifully cold, I had gloves and beanie on and three layers. I hung around the area for a while, but nothing much else showed so I went back to the car and drove further in to the reserve. The road more or less goes directly to the gulf coast where an ancient lighthouse is the big thing.
Along the way it passed numerous shallow ponds surrounded by reed beds and patches of exposed mud. At the first pond I stopped at I saw at least 8 Wilson’s Snipe feeding on the open mud, 2 Roseate Spoonbills, a Sandhill Crane among flocks of Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Tricolour Herons, a Green Heron, Anhingas, 5 Redhead, 1 Ring-necked Duck, ~400 American Coots, Blue-winged Teal, Red-winged Blackbirds, both Common & Boat-tailed Grackles – it just went on and on. Brilliant stuff.
At the next pond Snowy Egrets and Little Blue and Tricolour Herons fed just meters from the road with 20 American Avocets in the background, more Snipe, Greater Yellowlegs and other bits and pieces. Brilliant birding, along with a flock of about 300 Tree Swallows. Oh, I also saw a Vermillion Flycatcher along the road – the woman in the visitor’s center had mentioned it yesterday. I hadn’t looked too hard for it having seen it very well last year in Arizona, but bumped into more by accident than design.
I carried on for a bit then stopped at a random patch of pines beside the road and got out to have a smoke and play for my second target of the day – and had success! At least 3 Brown-headed Nuthatches arrived in response. Well, arrived might be too big a word. They were much smaller than I had imagined - only 4 and half inches, smaller even than Pygmy Nuthatches – and stayed at the top of the tall, skinny pines. I had reasonable views, but no photos.
They just wouldn’t come down near ground level. They were smaller than some of the pine cones they were hangin’ off.
I ended up driving to the lighthouse and scoped the shore line for a Willet, a Least Sandpiper and a Western Sandpiper and further out on an island about 40 American Oystercatchers, some Brown Pelicans and the usual Double-crested Cormorants. A few Laughing Gulls and Forster’s Terns completed that picture. Being Saturday it was quite busy so I didn’t hang around there too long.
I was looking for some bush to explore. There wasn’t much passerine type habitat really – it was mostly open water or reed beds, but behind the restrooms at the Headquarter Pond there was a bit so I headed in there. I had Northern Parulas, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers in a large deciduous tree and was sorting through them looking for something different when I heard a call I thought I recognized (look at me! Recognizing calls! Will the world stop spinning?)
I whipped out my phone and played and a pair of Eastern Towhees jumped up and down for a few minutes before vanishing into the palmetto scrub again. Target three of the day acquired and destroyed!
By this time I was feeling a bit wrecked. It was after 13.00 and I’d been on the go for a solid 5 hours plus. It had warmed up nicely and I was down to one layer so I decided to head home and have a break. I did that, lay down on the ground for a while to ease my aching back, then headed back in to the park just after 16.00.
I covered a few of the spots I’d been to in the morning, but added nothing really exciting to my daily list which ended at 71 species. I did find the pond behind the restrooms full of waders – probably a high tide roost?
The bulk were Dunlin ~ 400, there were also Semipalmated Plovers and a smaller number of Semipalmated Sandpipers. Short-billed Dowitchers, a few Marbled Godwits, Grey Plover, Greater Yellowlegs and Least Sandpipers made up the rest of the numbers all watched by a 3.5 meter Alligator lurking in the deeper water.
At dusk I exited the park, stopped on the access road and played for a few night birds, but got no response. I think I’ve done my thing with Chuck Will’s Widow and Eastern Whip-or-will. They’re probably all in South America or, possibly southern Florida where I didn’t put in enough effort.
Back at camp I showered, ate and sorted through my shitty photos in the hope of rescuing something. It was a good day though, amazing what you can do when you have perfect weather and a good birding spot.
Note: I had forgotten that I had seen Common Mynas at a shopping center somewhere in Florida the other day. I’d been distracted on my way to Wal-Mart and as they are so common at home, dismissed them. I have now added them to the total and they were a new bird for my North American list – yeah, anal, I know.
Trip List (USA)–218 Lifers (total)– 89 birds (+11 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 54 – 3.11.19 Sunday Travel
Goodbye Florida, Hello Alabamie, via Georgia. Another day another day behind the wheel. Only 500 or so Ks, supposedly 6 hours. I was so confused.
I slept well, woke at 6 – as per my watch – got up and had a quiet breakfast in the pre-dawn dark and chill.
At some stage I checked my phone and found it was only 5am? Where did the hour go? Had I changed time zones coming here and not noticed? I didn’t think I had travelled far enough west and I was still in Florida. I pondered the question.
Then I remembered a guy I had met briefly in the park the previous evening and he had said something about ‘daylight saving’. I didn’t know America had daylight saving, but that must be it. The eastern seaboard must have gone back an hour last night at the beginning of the month. I re-set my watch and tidied up, broke camp and left just before the new time of 7. I had delayed until it was dawn as I wanted to stop at a State Park up the road a bit cause there’d been a recent report of Hooded Merganser on EBird and I thought I’d have a go.
I filled up with petrol up the road - $2.43, $32 in – and drove into the State Park. There was no one on the tollbooth so I continued on in, finding a parking space in the car park of a salubrious looking lodge joint.
There were a few oldies wandering around and three older women practicing something resembling Tai Chi on the lawn, but I shouldered my scope and strode on in in my dirty pants, scruffy boots, fingerless gloves (it was chilly) and marched over towards a dock where I thought I’d scan the supposed lake. It wasn’t a lake, it was part of a river about 200 meters wide and my access was restricted due to fences and locked gates, presumably to stop the oldies falling in at night.
Anyway, I set up the scope and scanned what I could of the water and saw nothing. I was thinking about some other access when a blow occurred in the water in front of me that sounded like a dolphin? A dolphin up-river? Its not like it’s the Ganges or the Amazon…..is it?
No, it was in fact a pair of very big West Indian Manatees Trichechus manatus (to give them their full name)., just lazily turning and feeding in the river.
So, I didn’t see my HM, but got a great mammal tick. I assume they were wild, as the river appeared to be free flowing, not like an artificial lake or anything so, something I had never expected.
I packed away the scope and marched back through the Tai Chi-ing women and headed out before anyone got to charge me the $6 daily fee for access. Once safely past the tollbooth I pulled over cause there was another part of the river just off the road. A flock of about 25 Wood Duck swam cautiously away as I approached and lifted off into the mist rising off the water before I could see if there was anything else among them.
Other than that I did no birding all day, simply drove north and west, stopping once at a random forest track to brew a coffee and again for lunch at Mackers to post my blog, read emails and generally re-charge everything again.
I got to Talladega National Forest just east of Birmingham, Alabama, around 16.00 and found a campsite. Cost? – $10 per night thanks to my America is Beautiful card. (Well I think it gives me that $6 reduction, I just filled in the envelope like it did and didn’t ask any questions) One of the camp ‘hosts’ stopped by while walking his dog and we had an intimate discussion I probably could have done without, regarding the advantages of incontinence pads.
Don’t ask. They’ll talk about anything. There was no water available immediately as they have had a problem with the well apparently, but they turned it on for 2 hours at 17.00.
At least I THINK it was 17.00.
I wanted to make a phone call and had no service at the campsite so drove 10 ks back down the road at what I thought was 18.30 to meet a regular schedule at 19.00 (or 10am Brisbane time). However, when I did get signal I found it was, in fact, already 20.00. Somehow I had regained the hour. I was so confused. I assume, now, that only Florida may have had daylight saving? I’ll probably never know and it doesn’t really matter anyway. Maybe they’re just playing with my head. I reckon Homeland Security could do anything they wanted these days, including remotely changing the time on my watch. Or am I just paranoid?
It was cold after dark – 5 or 6C - and predicted to drop to 3 by midnight so I went to bed as soon as I’d updated my notes.
Trip List (USA)–218 Lifers (total)– 89 birds (+12 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 55 – 4.11.19 Monday Alabama
A frustrating day. A cold night when I wore my t-shirt, socks and beanie all night, but was warm enough in my bag.
I got up at 6 with the dawn and had breakfast, everything was very quiet around camp, apart from the strange yipping, almost dog-like calls of the American Crows.
I headed out on a walk around what turned out to be an empty lake seeing very little for a lot of spent energy. Pileated Woodpeckers dominated that scene, with a couple of Downy Woodpeckers thrown in. I found two moving flocks of birds including mainly Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a couple of Golden-crowned, which was nice, they being only my second sighting. Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Chickadees, 1 Common Yellowthroat and, later, a group of distant Eastern Bluebirds. Near the latter there was a tree full of small birds but it was very high and against the sky and I don’t think there was much in it, apart from the species already noted.
I met a couple of guys around my age carrying rifles and we chatted for about 30-40 minutes. They were squirrel hunters, but hadn’t ‘bagged’ any. They were really nice guys and we got on well – they invited me over to their camp fire later in the day.
I did have one sparrow that perched up 70 meters or so away and had a distinctly long tail. Head markings were hard to make out, but I’m going with Bachman’s Sparrow as an elimination issue, i.e. don’t think it could have been anything else. When it flew I lost it.
Back at camp I decided to head out to find an internet connection – again at, yes, Mackers – and researched Arkansas deciding to go to a place outside the original destination of Ouachita National Forest, as that didn’t seem to hold much promise – more on that tomorrow.
I also explored possibilities in the immediate area for my main target – Red-headed Bloody Woodpecker. I found a place 10 minutes away where one was seen a couple of weeks ago – Holt’s Farm Loop – and headed there around 2.
I wandered the place for two hours playing the call but saw, literally, only 2 American Robins, 1 Brown Thrasher and 1 Song Sparrow. That was it – in an excellent habitat, but it was just dead at that time of the afternoon. Maybe if I’d gone there this morning…..I think I might have to abandon hope for this woodpecker. I also took photos of a set of turtles lying up alongside a pond – but will need to ID them later.
I drove the hour or so back to camp and wrote up my notes early. Once I had done that and had dinner I spent an hour or so with the squirrel hunters and friends around their campfire. It was great to have good company and chat about travelling and camping and Australia and Ireland and USA – although I think I did most of the talking.
Trip List (USA)–219 Lifers (total)– 90 birds (+12 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 56 – 5.11.19 Tuesday Travel
I was up at 6, no, 5, maybe……..God I’m STILL confused. Anyway, had a quick breakfast, broke camp and drove out into the dawn at the real time of 6.30. I had a 650 km/9 hour drive ahead according to MapsMe and wanted to get an early start.
As it turned out it was 17.00 when I arrived at Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas, having driven basically right across Alabama and Mississippi. I had stopped a couple of times – for a coffee, of course, a smoke or three and to claim my free double cheese burger from Ronald for participating in an on-line feedback survey, and to take a phone call. Most of the drive was easy as it was on interstates and we all sat at 80 mph or 135 k/hr in cruise control. The section from Memphis to Little Rock was very busy with trucks and slow cars but otherwise it was a relatively easy 10 hours or so in total. (I also stopped at a nearby Wal-Mart for necessary supplies so that added half an hour or so to my total.) I filled up with petrol at one point - $2.23/gal; $29 in.
However, I was pretty whacked when I set up camp mindful of the prediction of rain – again – overnight and, it appears most of tomorrow. We’ll see. Had a quick dinner, showered and shaved.
Trip List (USA)–219 Lifers (total)– 90 birds (+12 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 57 – 6.11.19 Wednesday Travel
Rain had been predicted from 4am and it was to last most of the day. I woke at 5, but it wasn’t raining. I checked my phone and it showed now, that the rain would start at 7 and last all day at over 50% probability every hour.
I lay and debated the point of staying at this location for the day, in the rain, no birding, only to drive on tomorrow again. Seemed pointless so, at 6.30, I made a cup of coffee and while the water boiled took down my tent. Then I sat under the canopy smoking and drinking the coffee while the rain started 15 minutes early.
By 7.15 I had finished my coffee and packed up the wet canopy and was driving out of the park and down to the local town and Mackers for breakfast and research.
I filled up with fuel @ $2.27, $28 in, and headed west and then north, bypassed Oklahoma City, and arrived at a small nothing sort of place in the middle of nowhere, a real Oklahoma expectation kind of place, a long road surrounded by nothing for millions of miles with a motel, a diner and a Chinese restaurant in a row with, surprise, surprise, a Wal-Mart directly across the road!
The place was called Blackwell, 600 ks and 5 and half hours from where I started, about 100 ks north of Oklahoma City. It was the closest place I could get to my chosen birding spot in Oklahoma – the Great Salt Plains NWR. The weather was predicted as rain overnight, but cloudy and rain-free tomorrow. I kept my fingers crossed.
On the drive I stopped a couple of times for necessary functions and cigarettes and thought it worthwhile to note that now - when I go into Mackers to have a coffee - when I’m finished I fill the cup with ice, take it out and put it in my esky and I fill my water bottle with cold water to drink along the way. All good! Mackers is great!
I also filled up with fuel again just before my day’s driving finished - @ $2.24/gal; $27 in.
When I got to Blackwell I stopped in Mackers car park, logged onto their internet from the car and booked a motel room in the Super 8 Wyndham motel two miles further down the road for two nights for $105.
I got there, checked in with the very nice owner/manager/whatever and asked if she would do my laundry? A notice on the counter said it was $12 a load and I figured 2 long-sleeved t-shirts, 1 normal t-shirt, a pair of birding pants, undies, hankie, 2 long-sleeved birding shirts and 2 pair of socks worthwhile. She said she’d have them done in an hour – I said, no rush, tomorrow would be fine.
I retired to my room and spent a few hours looking at choices involving species (like Rosy-finches and Sage Grouse) and places (like Gunnison, New Mexico, southern Colorado, Utah etc) until my eyes were more crossed than usual.
Then I went next door to the Dragon Palace and stuffed my face on Chinese food from their $7.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. It wasn’t the best Chinese I’ve ever had, but it certainly filled my stomach, which was smaller than my eyes, and I was stuffed to bursting in my greed to get my money’s worth.
Back in my room and my laundry was done – for nothing, she refused to take any money, said it was nothing and the load was so small. Wow! Incidentally the room was spotless, smelt nice and the décor, although a little dated maybe, as a lot of these places in USA appear to be, was all in great nick and very comfortable.
The weather forecast says it’ll rain all night till 6am, then be a bit windy in the morning. It also said today’s forecast high here was 20. Tomorrow’s is a maximum of 7. SEVEN degrees after TWENTY today? And the morning will start off at 1C, but the actual low tomorrow would be minus 4?
Trip List (USA)–219 Lifers (total)– 90 birds (+12 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 58 – 7.11.19 Thursday Oklahoma
I got up at 6 and had the free breakfast, making myself a waffle in the waffle machine provided. It was still dark when I finished so I hung out in my room for a while.
When I headed out I found it was an hour’s drive to the birding location – I hadn’t realised it was that far, but set off anyway across the seemingly endless landscape of flat barren fields with a wind trying to blow the car off the road.
Before I got to the Great Salt Plains National Wildfowl Refuge I could see flocks of Sandhill Cranes against the morning sky – hundreds of them in small flocks of 20 or less. The morning was dominated by their honking as small groups flew around in and out of the refuge. I didn’t get close to any standing birds, but there were hundreds more on the opposite side of the lake I started at. I estimated about 3,500 in total for the day. Could have been more, maybe I was a little late arriving and some had already left as a previous lister on E Bird recently claimed 10,000.
Anyway, I drove to the visitor’s center – closed – then on to the first ‘walk’ and out to an open roofed hide overlooking a shallow lake.
First birds were a flock of ~100 Ring-billed Gulls, 7 Bonaparte’s Gulls and ~30 Forester’s Terns. There was a feeding flock of about 100 American Avocets showing just how shallow the lake was.
There were flocks of duck which slowly approached my end of the lake as they fed – all numbers approximate – 400 Northern Mallard, 200 Gadwall, 150 Green-winged Teal, 50 Northern Shoveler, 150 Northern Pintail, 5 Redhead, 100 American Coots.
In the distance I could see a flock of ~35 very white looking ducks – they were at the furthest limit of the X50 mag but I was pretty confident they were my target – Hooded Merganser. They never came very close, but I did see a few of the males sit up and flap their wings during the hour or so I waited – and froze.
My phone told me it was 0 degrees and that it felt like minus 7.
It actually felt about minus 77 and my fingers felt like they would snap off, despite two pairs of gloves. The rest of me was OK, but when I got back to the car I unpacked my thermals, went into a toilet, stripped down to my undies and got into them pretty quick. Needless to say half an hour later the sun was out and it ‘warmed up’ to about 5 degrees, but I was much more comfortable.
I walked a bit of the track seeing virtually no passerines. The wind was definitely affecting their presence.
So I drove the ‘auto-route’ and stopped when I saw some birds. Yellow-rumped Warblers dominated, with Dark-eyed Juncos coming in second. I found a group of 12 Eastern Bluebirds at one point and saw a few American Robins as well. A few Carolina Chickadees and one Spotted Towhee completed the scene. I stopped at a couple of ponds and on one found a distant flock of Canada Geese with about 10 Greater White-fronted Geese among them. I looked but couldn’t find any Snow Geese.
I reached the end of the auto-route which put me back on the main road. I found a few Eastern Meadowlarks, one of which sort of perched up for me to get the camera on it – but most blew away in the breeze. I reckon I saw at least 30, conservatively, along the road.
I decided to do the run again and drove back into the refuge and checked the hide to see if my HMs had come any closer. The glare was horrific by now and nothing new was in sight.
I drove the auto-route again and again stopped when I saw birds. I think it might have been the same group of Y-R Warblers, C Chickadees and DE Juncos, but among them my patience was rewarded with a single Field Sparrow. (I shouldn’t feel too proud, cause I should have seen this a long time ago, however, his bland, virtually unmarked face stood out immediately and I was happy to tick him).
By now it was after 13.00, I was pretty tired, my back was aching and I’d basically had enough so headed home to do some research, make decisions and relax in anticipation of a big drive the next day.
I couldn’t face Chinese food again so went the other side of the motel to a diner and had fried chicken smothered in a thick white gravy/sauce, baked potato and fried okra. The chicken was nice when I scraped off the ‘sauce’ – too rich for my taste – the potato was good, the okra?Disappointingly deep fried bland really. That plus coffee and a cup of good vegetable soup was $12.50. I left $15 on the table – big spender me.
I had been tossing up on where exactly to go from here. Originally I had planned on Gunnison in Colorado – basically in a fantasy hope of Gunnison Sage Grouse, however, reviewing the weather there and the minimal chance of the GSG I had decided to head further south. It was a toss-up between Heron Lake (1,200 ks, 10+ hrs) based on a 2015 report of Rosy Finches, or Albuquerque (1,100 Ks, 9 + hrs) as a slightly closer and easier option.
In the end I decided that Pinyon Jay would be my target – the Rosy Finches would just be too difficult on a one day visit, especially with zero reports of any in recent months – so, based on recent reports and none near Albuquerque - Santa Fe would be it tomorrow night. 1020 ks/9 hrs via Interstate 40 West.
Trip List (USA)–225 Lifers (total)– 92 birds (+12 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 59 – 8.11.19 Friday Travel
I was up again at 6. It was minus 4 outside, but no wind, so it “felt like -4” warmer than yesterday anyway.
I had been a bit worried about ice on the road but as it turned out, the roads were dry and there was no threat, although the fields were white with frost and some roadside pools sheeted over.
I chose to forgo the free breakfast in the motel – it had been a bit average – and went, instead, back to The Stack, the diner next door. I had eggs (over medium), bacon and toast and a side order of ‘grits’. I had wanted to try grits – like the fried okra of the previous night. Once again I was disappointed – it was a white, bland gritty (admittedly) sort of rice thing. I asked the rather elderly waitress what was in it, but she said she didn’t know. ??? Lived here all her life and didn’t know how ‘grits’ were made? Strange that! Anyway, it was pretty shit, in my opinion, and I didn’t eat any apart from a minor tasting. Maybe it wasn’t good ‘grits’.
I was on the road by 7.15 and back down the highway to Oklahoma City. A sort of strange ‘it’s a small world’ type incident happened.
At 8 I pulled into a random service station as I was bursting from the three cups of coffee I had drunk before and with breakfast. I had a smoke outside afterwards and exchanged pleasantries with a fellow smoker before we both got into our cars and I headed on south.
After I got through the usual road issues around a city and cleared Oklahoma City itself, I needed fuel so picked a service station at random again and pulled in to fill up. ($2.17/gal, $26 in) It was the usual thing, pay $40 in the office, go back, fill up the car, return for the change.
I got back to my car and a voice on the other side of the pump said ‘we meet again’! It was the guy from the previous servo, an hour and a half before!
It may not seem like a big deal, but for the two of us to turn up at the same PUMP (no 14 out of 20) at the same SERVO, at the same TIME, considering the hundreds of options open to us and the thousands of cars on the road – I thought it was pretty incredible, as did he.
Anyway, once again, I headed on down the road or rather, down the interstate, sitting comfortably on 81 mph in the 70 mph speed limit zone – completely normal in USA, everyone drives 10 mph over the limit, except at schools and in suburbia.
I stopped about 3 more times, another fuel stop ($2.49/gal, $33 in) and a couple of necessary functions following coffee intake. The scenery across Oklahoma and north Texas was pretty boring, then it was into desert and mesas and buttes and so on in New Mexico until I turned off I40W and headed north to Santa Fe, arriving at 16.45. A total of 1,020 kms and 10 + hours of almost solid driving. (I had gained an hour at the New Mexico border as I switched to Central Plains time, hence the apparent mathematical error.)
I found a Mackers, went on-line outside and booked a room at a Day’s Inn just up the road for $117 for two nights. I was buggered if I was going to find a campsite after driving all day and the temperature predicted to be 1 degree overnight. The sun was shining and it was 17 degrees, but cold in the shadows and I was knackered.
I had a shower and a quick meal via the microwave and crashed early.
Trip List (USA)–225 Lifers (total)– 92 birds (+12 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 60 – 9.11.19 Saturday New Mexico
I got up at 6, but stuffed around with emails before having the very average free breakfast and then heading out to the Overlook Park near White Rock, northwest of Santa Fe. I thought the cold morning would extend bird activity, but later kicked myself for not getting out there sooner than 8.30. The park was on the edge of a mesa (maybe?) – rough, sandy, rock-strewn ground with scattered juniper trees that maxed out at about 3 meters in height. Some taller trees in the background, but generally real mountain desert-type of terrain. Such a contrast to the kind of habitats I’ve been in for the last several weeks. The place was alive with birds – mostly American Robins, (~300) but I saw the following in order of appearance:
Woodhouse Scrub Jay (10)
Townsend’s Solitaire (20)
Canyon Towhee (3)
Western Bluebird (15)
Common Raven (2)
Juniper Titmouse (1)
Dark-eyed Junco (20)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (1)
Black-capped Chickadee (2)
House Finch (4)
Spotted Towhee (1)
White-winged Dove (10)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (1)
Red-tailed Hawk (1)
But no Pinyon Jay. At times there were birds going everywhere. The Robins were a pain as each one had to be checked and they kept diving into the small juniper trees and running around behind them. I’m sure I missed stuff as a result, but got great views of all of the above. Really any visiting birder would be happy with a list like this, I guess, but having seen them all last year and not even getting a hint of my target bird…..
I left at 11, as it got quite warm - full sun, clear skies, no wind, only 17 degrees but really pleasant, but the bird life died. I left feeling a bit flat – possibly just tired and frustrated as I was sure I had missed stuff, but confident I hadn’t missed my target bird.
I got down to the main road and into traffic caused, I think, by roadworks. I crawled along in it for 15 minutes or so, then pulled off into a Mackers and had coffee, a pumpkin pie and did some research again until the traffic cleared.
By the time I left it had warmed further but I drove to a place near Santa Fe – the Audubon Center and started to walk up the canyon trail. I gave up after 15 minutes or so, it was dead as and I just felt knackered.
I headed home and spent the rest of the afternoon reading and snoozing. Walked 100 meters to a Denny’s for dinner – had pot roast, pumpkin pie and coffee for $20, then home and crashed early again.
Trip List (USA)–232 Lifers (total)– 92 birds (+12 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 61 – 10.11.19 Sunday Arizona
I was on the road before 7 having not bothered with breakfast – apart from coffee, of course. I headed southwest back towards Albuquerque. Being a Sunday the road wasn’t busy and I could sit on my usual 10 mph over whatever speed limit was posted.
I filled up with fuel in the Albuquerque area @ $2.33/gal; $27 in and headed west on the old I40 again. I drove as far as Flagstaff stopping once for a Mackers coffee, but didn’t sit, just grabbed and went.
I turned north at Flagstaff after filling up with fuel again - $2.67/gal; $28 in - on a one lane highway – the 89 – and on into spectacular scenery towards the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The road was pretty shit, but the scenery was awesome, difficult to get into perspective and very difficult to get ‘on film’ with any hope of impact. It’s just all so big.
I was heading for Marble Canyon beside the Colorado River and my target was California Condor. There was a place called Navajo Bridge that seemed to have consistent reports.
I reached the bridge – a one lane each way metal trestle – and decided, at the last moment, to have a quick look.
There was a guy with a huge lens on a tripod and I approached him with optimism rising. Sure enough, perched on the struts under the bridge 6, no less, California Condors.
Brilliant! Target acquired and nailed!
I spent some time taking photos, looking at the wing-tagged birds and talking to the dude from Texas, then headed on the short distance to Marble Canyon itself in search of milk. I found it in the service station which was the only place in Marble Canyon, apart from a motel. As I walked back to the car several small ground squirrels scuttled around like clockwork toys – Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels Callospermophilus lateralis.
Arrived at the campground and picked a site – it was only 15.30, but I felt like sitting down and enjoying the view with coffee and cheese & biscuits after the 7 hours on the road. As I did a small bird hopped around my tent – Canyon Wren - who then performed brilliantly for the camera on a nearby rock.
I sat for a while, then downloaded my photos, wrote my notes, had dinner and crashed.
Trip List (USA)–234 Lifers (total)– 93 birds (+13 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 62 – 11.11.19 Monday Utah
I was up at 6 after a restless morning as I had woken at 4 and it seemed my mattress had gone flat overnight. I had a big breakfast and leisurely broke camp as I didn’t plan to drive too far.
I left camp at 8 and headed down again to the Navajo Bridge to see the, presumably same, 6 California Condors still perched up on the bridge struts.
Then I parked beside the motel and walked around the back, successfully getting photos of the Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, three of which scurried around at high speed. Man, they can run. I’d love to get it on video, but they were just too fast.
I set off at about 8.45 and eventually arrived in Hurricane, a town in Utah in which I found a Mackers and hurried in to get a well deserved coffee and wifi access. I spent some time there checking stuff and waiting to make a phone call.
While checking stuff I just ran an EBird check on recent reports of Hooded Merganser ……….. and found that 6 had been seen a few days previously on a small lake about 10 minutes away.
Well, what is a guy to do? But go and check!
I found the lake – Grandad’s Pond – at the edge of a new housing estate surrounded by a bitumen path and patches of reeds. There were birds on the water and the scope quickly established hundreds of American Coots, approx 30 Redheads, 2 Canvasbacks, 40 or so Lesser Scaup and, yes! About 12 Hooded Mergansers. A walk around the lake got me to within decent camera range of the amazing males. Far out!!
Sated with HMs and happy as a pig in shit, I headed off up the road to Zion national Park. It was busy. I got a campsite in a ‘group area’ where several groups of campers share the fire pit and tables. It was OK, very open really and you could get stuck with people if you weren’t careful. I talked to a guy around my age who had been camping for the last two years with his 2 Husky/Malmut/wolf cross dogs. He was from Idaho and reminded me a bit of Mr H. Pretty cool guy actually.
One of the other camper groups (2 guys) in my area built a fire and started playing a guitar. I hate people who play guitars in public places when no one is interested. However, the guy from Idaho had invited me over to his campfire so I headed over there for an hour before crashing.
Trip List (USA)–236 Lifers (total)– 93 birds (+13 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 63 – 12.11.19 Tuesday Travel
In Zion NP you can’t drive yourself around very far, you have to take a shuttle bus up the canyon. I wasn’t real keen on the idea, preferring always to do my own thing. It was windy too and I was a bit disillusioned so I birded for an hour or so around the campsite seeing only House and a few White-crowned Sparrows and decided I would head out.
I broke camp, said goodbye to Rick and was on the road by 9. A late start which proved awkward as it turned out.
I sort of planned to get as far as I could towards Yosemite but was prepared to camp somewhere short of my target should the opportunity present itself.
I was passing through Virgin shortly afterwards and needed a toilet desperately. I stopped behind a post office (deserted) and watered the cactus and while I did so a Rock Wren put in a close appearance.
The ride down from Zion to Nevada, through part of northern Arizona was spectacular, a great road through gorges and around fantastic outcrops.
I reached the outskirts of Las Vegas and found a Mackers for coffee and a relax. Filled up with fuel again –@ $3.25/gal, $40 in – and hit the road again. The highway took me around the east of Vegas and past Creech AFB.
It was a long, boring, tedious drive really. The desert in these areas is pretty flat until it hits ranges of small mountains on either side, which are a long way off, and the road just goes on and on and on…
I turned off Highway 95N and onto 6W eventually, after passing a small town called Beatty and filling up with fuel at Tonopah station – more expensive again, but I needed it, not knowing how far the next fuel was. $3.53; $33 in.
I got to a smaller town called Benton expecting maybe a campground? The terrain had changed a bit by now, being a bit more hilly and less deserty. But there was no apparent campground there so I turned right and headed towards Mono Lake and the eastern gateway to Yosemite.
By now, 10 hours on the road even having gained an hour by crossing the California border, the sun was seriously setting and I wasn’t gonna make Yosemite before dark.
I got to the eastern entrance and stopped at a gift shop come petrol station and asked the chick if there was, any camping in the area. It was dark by now. She told me all the campsites on that side of Yosemite were closed for the season, the only ones were 2 and half hours away and also the local private ones had closed, but maybe 15 minutes down the road?
I jumped on the iPad and found a free camping area that far away, drove down, drove in and found a rough site that would suit. There was no one else in the area, which I was pleased about, having seen some of the occupants of the free camping areas at previous locations.
I set up camp, got a coffee going and heated up a tin of spaghetti and meatballs before crawling into bed around 19.00. It was predicted to be minus 2C in the morning so I wore full thermals just in case.
As it turned out I was warm as toast and it was only 1C so not so bad.
Trip List (USA)–237 Lifers (total)– 93 birds (+13 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 64 – 13.11.19 Wednesday California
I was up at 6 and had coffee and oats before breaking camp and heading out to have a look at Mono Lake. It was much bigger than I had imagined and the birds on the water were a fair way out. I did, however, see American Coots, Ruddy Ducks and Horned or Slavonian Grebes – all in good numbers.
I headed into Yosemite around 9, in the end and drove the road right through via Tioga Pass. There were patches of snow on the higher peaks and the scenery was spectacular. It took me over two hours to drive at an average speed of 35 mph/ 55 kph to reach the far end. I stopped a couple of times but saw nothing exceptional, in fact, saw very little apart from Common Ravens and a handful of Dark-eyed Juncos.
I reached the campground at Hodgdon Meadow, although I don’t know where the ‘meadow’ part comes in as it was all big pine trees, but nice. I found a site, paid my $18 for the night and set up camp.
I had some lunch (for a change) and, while I did, a pair of Douglas’s Squirrels Tamiasciurus douglasii chased around a nearby fallen tree and Steller’s Jays, a pair of Brown Creepers, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Downy Woodpecker and 2 Hermit Thrushes passed by.
Following a drive in search of phone signal, I birded around the campsite for a hour or two. There wasn’t much around, in fact, I was starting to think I would see more just sitting at my tent.
Then I hard a tapping and followed it up a slope off the road I was on. It was just a Hairy Woodpecker, but it seemed there were a few birds around so I lay down on the ground with my head pillowed by a log and watched for a while. I was rewarded with a pair of White-headed Woodpeckers which was just brilliant as I’d wanted to see this species particularly.
I also had a Northern Flicker and some small birds so high up I couldn’t ID them for sure. Chickadees of some sort I think.
After dinner and dark I headed out up the road into the park and drove for a few ks hoping to find some mammals along the road. I stopped at a couple of places and played for owls too, but got no responses. The road was quite busy, traffic-wise, and I had no chance of seeing anything there either so went back and went to bed just after 7.
While I had been away another group of about 6 campers had set up at a campsite next to mine and were burning marshmallows and so on over their fire. They also were setting up for a big night and one tosser had such a loud voice I heard his opinion on every subject under the sun.
I lay for a while trying to sleep, but in the end I got up, dressed, took all my food out of the ‘bear bin’ (a solid cupboard in every campsite where you were instructed to store your food), put it all in the car along with my bedding, took down the tent and moved about 100 meters away to another, empty site. I set it all up again, put all my food in the bear bin at that site and crawled back into bed for a solid night’s sleep.
Trip List (USA)–239 Lifers (total)– 94 birds (+13 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 65 – 14.11.19 Thursday California
I was up at 6, an hour before dawn, had a coffee and a smoke and drove into the park again. The road was much less busy, but the only animals I saw were 3 Mule Deer. Again I played for owls, but no response.
Back at camp I had a small breakfast, broke camp and was on the road before 8. I drove down the fantastic winding road towards San Francisco and stopped at a Mackers for a coffee and a bit of internet, but they had no public power outlets (some Mackers do, some don’t, but the wifi is always good) so I couldn’t charge anything. I also needed a new charge cord for my iPad as the one I had had failed, so I went into a Wal-Mart, got one along with some minor supplies and then to a bank to withdraw some more cash. Finally filled up with fuel again - $3.69/gal; $40 in (petrol is much more expensive in California as you will have noticed) and headed on into San Fran.
I had programmed Maps Me to guide me on non-toll roads and whether that was the reason or not, I don’t know, but I ended up driving through the middle of the city with multiple road works and traffic lights……but eventually ended up on the Golden Gate bridge – something I had wanted to do for a long time. It wasn’t as spectacular an experience as I had imagined – the lanes were really narrow and the road surface bumpy as shit, but I managed to film it all while driving, which was a challenge in itself.
Then I ran into traffic – no reason, just normal afternoon chaos I think on the northern highway, eventually turning off a narrow road to arrive at Bodega Bay on the coast. I was still a long way from my destination, but the drive along the coast was brilliant. A narrow two lane winding, curving, road, somewhat similar to the Great Ocean Rd or the road south of Monterey Bay, but with less traffic and I hammered along loving every minute of the two hours or so it took me to reach Pt Arena. Like a race track - my type of driving!
It was dark when I found the KOA campsite, but I got a nice, secluded site and the proprietor was very pleasant, for $40 a night. I had my first hot shower and shave in 5 days and heated up the leftovers from the night before for dinner while I charged everything in a power point in the camper’s kitchen. There was no phone signal, but the wifi was excellent.
No birding, BUT, while stuck in traffic I did see a White-tailed Kite land in a roadside tree to add to the trip list.
Trip List (USA)–240 Lifers (total)– 94 birds (+13 Mammals) New NA–27 (+5 Mammals)
Day 66 – 15.11.19 Friday California
I’d been expecting rain, but it was only pretending when I woke at 5. I was up at 6 and had a slow breakfast, taking my time and being visited by a Hermit Thrush while I ate.
I set off for the lighthouse planning a seawatch and realised that there was a heavy mist hanging over the coast, no wind, an almost flat sea but a heavy swell hitting the rocks below. It was a sight to make an old seawatcher’s heart jump for joy!
I set up and scanned the ocean – there were HUNDREDS of birds passing – divers, auks, cormorants, man, it was goin’ off! I had forgotten to bring my chair so I hopped back in the car and hammered back the 6 miles or so to camp, grabbed the chair, returned and set up for a lengthy watch – just brilliant!
There were hundreds of Red-throated Divers, Pacific Divers and a few Great Northern Divers (I don’t like the name Loons, so they’re divers, they’ve always been divers) and flocks of Common Guillemots and Brandt’s Cormorants continually passing over the next three hours. It was amazing.
Interspersed with them were a few flocks of Surf Scoter, a few Black Scoter, Cassin’s Auklets and ……………..Rhinoceros Auklets!! Wow, I was excited! I had about 4 of the latter sitting on the water in the scope – all immatures at that range, possibly some adults in flight.
I had a Merlin chase a Cassin’s Auklet – don’t know what it would have done if it had caught it – and a Peregrine fly past. There were a small number of gulls – Western, Californian and American Herring Gulls knocking around. And several Harbour Seals lolling in the water below.
In the grounds of the lighthouse there was a flock of about 30 Kildeer and Song and White-crowned Sparrows. When the passage slowed I took a walk to the other side of the headland to see if there was a more sheltered beach that might harbour waders – there wasn’t but along the way an American Kestrel, a Say’s Phoebe (which seemed a bit out of range?) and a single American Pipit showed up. It was classic Pipit country but I only saw the one. They seem to be thin on the ground. If it had been Ireland there would have been dozens in that habitat.
So, two long awaited lifers under my belt and I started to head back to look for less exposed rocky areas. I stopped after about 300 meters and walked out to the cliff edge to check and see – and was rewarded with a small rocky beach protected from the waves and a flock of 21 Black Turnstone, (new for USA list), 12 Black Oystercatchers and 12 Surfbirds! Yaaaaa!
I spent some time filming them – it was a bit difficult to get a good angle looking down on top of the birds, but brilliant in the scope.
I carried on and drove the 13 miles to Gualala a small seaside town that had looked interesting when I drove through last night. I found one café there and had soup and (2) excellent cappuccinos in celebration.
Then I drove around trying several areas without much more success, apart from a couple of Red-shouldered Hawks, another White-tailed Kite and good views of a Fox Sparrow.
I was back at camp at 16.30, downloaded my photos and wrote up my notes, while planning another seawatch at dawn the next day. The wet mist and lack of wind continued after dark, so hopefully it would be similar conditions in the morning.
Trip List (USA)–256 Lifers (total)– 97 birds (+13 Mammals) New NA–28 (+5 Mammals)
Day 67 – 16.11.19 Saturday California
I was really in two minds - so what's new I hear you say? I hadn't appreciated just how far I was still from Seattle. Having crossed the entire continent I sort of assumed (!) that I was within easy reach. Not so. I was still 1,200 kms away.
I wanted to be within 2 hours of Seatac on Thursday morning - just so there were no final stuff ups.
I was trying to find places to stop along the way that fulfilled that criteria and gave me some birding opportunities. The wifi at the campsite had been so slow the previous night cause of everyone jumping on I was sure, to download movies etc - that I had given up. However, I had decided to at least attempt another seawatch and take it from there.
I got to the Point again at 7.30. Almost running down 4 California Quail scurrying along the road in the poor light conditions. The fog, which was a better description than 'mist', was really heavy. I could barely see the second set of waves - and they were bigger and there was more white water than the previous day. I set up and gave it an hour but it didn't get any better. I did see Brandt's Cormorants and 1 Western Grebe, but, apart from 5 Harbour Seals asleep on the rocks below, that was it. I decided to leave on a high (from yesterday) and do some research for the next few days, while, I hoped, the wifi was quiet.
Heading back I stopped at a cafe at the end of the lighthouse access road intending to pick up a coffee. But when I went in I decided to have breakfast. I had, just that morning, discovered that somewhere along the way I had misplaced my oats. I had no idea where but they were gone, so I had had only a coffee, a smoke and a banana for breakfast.
The cafe looked good and the meal and cappuccinos were too - the coffee was hot, the poached eggs perfect, the bacon a delight, and the service excellent, but I didn't like the giant hash brown thing that came with it. That was cool and I scoffed everything else, paid the $25 (inc tip) and headed back to camp.
I did some work on the laptop, the wifi was good and I made some decisions. My first was I would head north now. To Eureka, which promised a lifer seen recently on the 'north spit jetty' - Rock Sandpiper. That was good enough for me, put me 3 hours further north, within reach of Eugene, where a couple of other birds look possible and that set me up for a final drive to a final location, still to be finalised, close to Seatak.
I only put $20 fuel in because it was freaking expensive in this isolated part of the coast - $4.65/gal - then headed north along the Shoreline Highway which was a SUPERB drive. Just brilliant scenery. Every 10 minutes another '12 Apostle-type' scene unfolded, rocky islands, sandy (black volcanic) beaches, rivers, mountains, the pounding Pacific, small towns, lovely looking places to stay. I could go back there easily. Very impressed. I filled up with fuel again at Fort Bravo - still expensive compared to everywhere else - #3.87; $40 in.
A bit further up the road and I stopped at a beach for a fag, then the next section of road took me through redwoods. Amazing road, just brilliant to drive fast. I grew up on roads like these in the Wicklow mountains and I loved every minute of it - Oh and the trees were pretty cool too.
I arrived at Leggett and, on an instant impulse, turned off to 'The World Famous Drive Through Tree' - paid my $10, drove through the very tight hole, took a photo and drove out and onto the 101 for a fast ride, again through redwood forests, but on a dual highway, to get to Eureka at 14.30.
I stopped at a Mackers for internet and coffee and identified the 'north spit jetty'.
Headed out there into the soup-like fog which only blanketed the coast - a km inland and it was sunny and warm - here it was damp and cold.
Jettys, I have discovered in the USA, are not the typical jetty as I know it - i.e. a wooden structure sticking out into the sea. They are - and this one was - a cement or rock breakwater. This one lay across the end of the spit with the channel on the other side, a beach on this side. The rocks and cement were eroded and broken in places and the waves were breaking over and through it here and there, flooding the beach.
Almost immediately I saw Black Turnstones and Surfbirds. In number. Well, about 30 Black Turnstones and maybe 20 Surfbirds. And they were very confiding being used to people I assume. I walked up and down the beach watching the wall as every time a big wave broke along the wall, the birds would fly up and over or land on top so it made it easy to go through them and look for my target.
I worked the jetty for some time, but didn't see my RS. In the channel beyond the wall there were a couple of Great Northern Divers and one very close Rhinoceros Auklet. The conditions were terrible for photos - gloomy, foggy - but I did my best.
By now it was almost 17.00 and getting dark - I decided to motel it for the night and found a place - Travel Lodge by Wyndham - in Eureka for $60. I drove there, checked in and made some dinner using the microwave. I planned to return to the 'jetty' first thing in the morning and try again.
Trip List (USA)–257 Lifers (total)– 97 birds (+13 Mammals New NA–28 (+5 Mammals)
Day 68 – 17.11.19 Sunday California
I was up at 6 after a good night’s sleep and partook of the average breakfast provided. I checked out by 7 and headed back to the North Spit Jetty. It was, again, a very foggy, damp, cool morning, but the tide was at its lowest (@ 8.30) and hopes were at their highest.
I quickly found a flock of Black Turnstones and Surfbirds picking their way along the wall closest to the car. I went through them with a fine tooth binocular but couldn’t see anything different about any of them. I chased them up and down the wall for a half an hour or so, seeing again a Rhinoceros Auklet at close range, Great Northern and Pacific Divers, a Western Grebe and a handful of Pelagic Cormorants.
So, these birds (Rock Sands) are like Purple Turnstones right? I knew from experience that Purple Sands always seem to be right at the end of a wall, right down on the breaking wave part, so taking that into account, I resolved to work my way along the entire wall.
Easier said than done as, in places, the wall was completely broken.
Everywhere was wet, slippery, uneven and downright dangerous to someone like me who falls over regularly.
However, I made my way along that treacherous wall for its entire kilometre or so not finding anything until near the end when more f…..g Black Turnstones and Surf-bloody-birds had to be virtually kicked out of the way.
I got to the end, lit a cigarette, shrugged my shoulders and resigned myself to another dip on another species and started the hazardous journey back.
About 100 meters back from the end I thought I’d have one more look at where I had last seen those Black Turn-bloody-stones and Surf-bloody-birds and lo and behold – a Rock Sandpiper!
Yah-bloody-hoo!! Never was a bird more richly deserved, I reckoned. I’ve looked for them with Mr W in Hokkaido last year and searched every rock between Monterey Bay and LA with Mr H also last year and now, finally, cracked it.
I spent a while taking 2 or 300 hundred photos and a couple of videos just because I could before heading back.
It wasn’t the trudge of despair now, but the triumphant march of the Happy Man!
I dropped in to a Mackers for a coffee to celebrate, then set off on the 5 hour drive to Eugene in Oregon, my next destination.
It was, again, a fantastic scenic drive, firstly north along the coast, then inland from Crescent City through redwood forests on brilliant roads. Man, it was spectacular.
This coast had really impressed me. I wouldn’t rush back to Eureka – it struck me as a bit of a down and out place - but the natural environment around it and all up and down the coastline was just brilliant.
I reached Eugene around 15.30 on a grey, dull, bleak sort of day. I just didn’t feel like camping. I guess I’ve had enough and a comfortable bed in a room with a shower etc seemed like a much better option. I booked a place through Booking.com as I always have for $120 for two nights – the Super 6 North Eugene and headed there, checked in and found no microwave, no fridge, not even shampoo for God’s sake, in the room. No breakfast included – not that that’s a big deal, given the average motel breakfast - but it was also a long walk from the car and I was a bit pissed off. However, the next closest motel in my cheap price range was 20 odd kilometres further away from where I intended to bird the next day so I decided to suck it up and stay. It’s strange, the places I have stayed for one night only, have been, on the whole, quite good. The ones I have booked for more than one night have been generally, disappointing. It must be me.
Trip List (USA)–259 Lifers (total)– 98 birds (+13 Mammals) New NA–28 (+5 Mammals)
Day 69 – 18.11.19 Monday Oregon
It was a bleak looking, damp, cold morning in Eugene when I headed out to Mackers for pancakes & coffee. It didn’t look hopeful, but I headed off for Maurie Jacob’s Park and the river walk along the Williamette River to Alton Baker Park. I had chosen this site because both my target species had been seen there in the last week or so – Red-breasted Sapsucker and Pacific Wren.
There wasn’t much visible in the Maurie Jacob’s end of things but as I crossed the river on the foot/bike bridge a Spotted Sandpiper landed on the rocky shore below so it wasn’t all bad.
In fact it got better as I walked the 3 kms to my turnaround point in Alton Baker.
Along the river I had California Scrub and Steller’s Jays, then ran into a feeding flock of Bushtits, a Brown Creeper, a Downy Woodpecker and White-breasted Nuthatch. A Sharp-shinned Hawk glided across the noisy highway to my left and a single female Common Goldeneye was added to my trip list. Surprisingly a pair of Hooded Mergansers showed up on the river. I say ‘surprisingly’ cause you know how it is – you spend ages looking for a bird, you finally find it and then it’s everywhere! Next up I’ll trip over a flock of Rock Sands……
Anyway, I got to the park and wandered a bit before going down a dirt track into the scrappy bush along the river bank and playing Pacific Wren without a lot of confidence.
Within 30 seconds I had 2 Bewick’s Wrens bouncing around and immediately afterwards a Pacific Wren! Got some shaky, out of focus photos but he wasn’t sitting still for long.
Target 1 achieved.
I walked back up onto the grass and saw a movement in a nearby tree – Northern Flicker, then another one. What the hell, I thought, use playback, what can it hurt?
It didn’t hurt anything, but I had a Red-breasted Sapsucker in the tree within a minute! The most discreet woodpecker type bird ever. He showed well for about 20 seconds then moved into dead leaf cover and refused to come out. That lasted with partial views for about 5 minutes then he flew into another, thicker tree and basically disappeared. Target 2 achieved.
I hung around for a while trying to find another sapsucker – I really wanted a photo – but couldn’t find anyone willing to pose, so set off on the 3 kilometre hike back to the car. Along the river walk I saw much the same birds as on the outward journey plus Pied-billed Grebe and the Goldeneyes had increased to 5 males and 2 females. (definitely only Common, I checked)
I got back to the car and decided to try another location – Delta Ponds – that sounded worthwhile.
I got there and immediately had a nice Fox Sparrow feeding in front of me. On the small, grotty looking ponds there were at least 20 Wood Duck and, again (!) 8 Hooded Mergansers! Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Northern Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Canada Geese, American Wigeon, American Coot, Double-crested Cormorants, Pied-billed Grebes and 3 Lesser Scaup were on the water.
In the bush along the waterside I had a moving flock of about 20 Yellow-rumped Warblers, a few Black-capped Chickadees, another Downy Woodpecker, another pair of Bewick’s Wrens and a couple more Northern Flickers. Jeeeez, they’re a nice bird. Really smart. I’ve got a big soft spot for Northern Flickers, they are so cool.
By now it was late lunch time and I decided for once to go to Mackers and have a burger. What a change! I hadn’t been bothering about lunch but was just feeling the need today.
That satisfied and a bit of research on the iPad and I decided to head for Mt Pisgah Regional Park. Well I actually went to Mt Pisgah Arboretum first, but it was quite busy and you had to pay to park in a rough car park. Bugger that. I drove the 30 km extra to the regional park which turned out to be a rough road into dense coniferous forest up a mountain (well, obviously, it was Mount P after all….uhhh duhhh).
It looked brilliant for Northern Saw–whet Owl and I hung around for two hours occasionally playing calls until it started to rain quite heavily just on dusk and I gave it away without success. It was a perfect place, I reckon.
If I was a NS-w Owl I would live there. Back home and I cooked some rice and heated a mix of beef & veg soup, black beans and a can of roast beef chunks - in the bathroom so the steam wouldn’t set off the fire alarm - for a tasty and nourishing meal.
Trip List (USA)–266 Lifers (total)– 100 birds (+13 Mammals)New NA–29 (+5 Mammals)
Day 70 – 19.11.19 Tuesday Oregon
It was spitting rain on a dull, grey, miserable looking morning when I shook the dust of Eugene off my boots and headed north on the I5. I filled up with fuel in Portland @ $3.19; $40 in.
I reached Sauvie Island near Portland on the Oregon/Washington state line and turned off to look for the wildlife refuge I expected to find packed with geese.
The island was much bigger than I expected, but I could see flocks of geese flying around, and, when I stopped, heard shotgun blasts in the distance.
I don’t think there is a ‘refuge’ on the island – or at least I never saw one. Everywhere I stopped told me I needed parking permits and a permit to kill wildlife or I wasn’t allowed in anywhere. I was tempted to ignore the details given that there was hardly anyone around and who would ask anyway, but it seemed pointless when I didn’t know where any geese were.
Until, that is, I turned a corner and found a mixed flock of Canada and Snow Geese in a field right by the road. I simply stopped and started scanning them from the car at about 50 meters. It was pretty spectacular and I think I was lucky they were there as all other birds were some considerable distance from the road. I watched for a while and felt comfortable that I could identify several Cackling Geese among the horde.
Then I moved on and found other flocks further away and a field half full of Sandhill Cranes. Target (Snow Goose) acquired, I headed back to the main road and on to Aberdeen my destination for my last two nights in the USA. I’d picked Aberdeen cause it was only one and a half to two hours from the airport and there were a couple of birds recently reported in the area that I wanted to try for.
I had booked a room before I left Eugene in a Guesthouse Inn and reached there around 14.15 – the office was closed until 15.00 so I went to Wal-Mart and bought some take home stuff for the grandkids.
Returning to the motel, I cleared the car of everything and started sorting and packing for the journey home.
Trip List (USA)–268 Lifers (total)– 101 birds (+13 Mammals) New NA–29 (+5 Mammals)
Day 71 – 20.11.19 Wednesday Washington State
I was on the road before dawn in a foggy, dripping morning. I headed for Preacher’s Slough Road trailhead, about 20 minutes away. There had been a report of Ruffed Grouse on ‘the road’ and I had to assume it was on this trail.
I walked the trail – or most of it anyway – through mixed, overgrown, tangled bush which didn’t look to me like Grouse habitat, but what do I know? Maybe I had the wrong place.
I did, however, see 2 Varied Thrushes, 3 Pacific Wrens, Steller’s Jays, a Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrows and a small flock of Chestnut-backed Chickadees. I also had what I believe was a Townsend’s Chipmunk so the walk was not a waste of time by any means.
Back home again for a cup of coffee and loaded the camping chair, esky, pillow and bucket into the boot and headed out to a nearby area called Hoquiam for another targeted, reported bird.
I found a ‘wildlife’ viewing area beside the river – 2 ponds that seemed to be part of the waste treatment complex which I think was the ‘viewing area’ although there was a Keep Out sign in front of one of them, which I ignored, there being no fence to stop access.
There were a lot of very flighty duck on the small ponds – Gadwall, Northern Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Lesser Scaup, another 15 Hooded Mergansers (can’t get away from them now!), Pied-billed Grebes – and a pair of my target species seen really well in the scope, but too far away for photos – Barrow’s Goldeneye. On the banks were a number of Kildeer and loafing around the riverbank and ponds – Glaucous-winged Gulls.
Happy with that! A great way to finish the trip.
I stopped at a Mackers for a coffee and got rid of my true rubbish in one of their bins, then drove back to Aberdeen looking for a homeless person to endow with my no-longer-required essentials.
I looked and drove and drove and looked but sometimes you just can’t find a homeless person when you want one.
I ended up leaving the stuff under a bridge in a seedy looking part of town where I have no doubt someone will find them useful.
Then to the car wash. I had been willing to pay someone to wash it professionally, but only found a do-it-yourself joint, so I did-it-myself – for $6.50.
Then back home again to pack up my stuff.
I hung around for a while then decided to drive out to Westport, about 30 minutes, just to have a look. This was where I was supposed to go on the pelagic back on 22nd September when I first entered the states.
It was quite a nice harbour with a good seawall, off which I saw a flock of Surf Scoter and about 10 Western Grebes. I had packed the scope so it was a bins-job only and there could have been more out there, but they were just too far away.
I drove back to Aberdeen again and went to Denny’s for dinner. Man, what a meal! I ordered berry pancakes (2 big blueberry pancakes, banana, strawberries and maple syrup) which came with two over-easy fired eggs, 2 pieces of bacon and a hash brown – on two separate plates, for God’s sake! I ate it all, but it nearly killed me. Cost? $20, including a $3 tip – look at me! Tipping! Again!
Then back home for an easy last evening.
Trip List (USA)–272 Lifers (total)– 102 birds (+14 Mammals) New NA–30 (+5 Mammals)
Day 72 – 21.11.19 Thursday Travel
So, the last day of My Big Adventure and it was going to be another ‘planes, trains and automobiles’ kinda day. I was on the road, again, just after 8.
It was a two hour drive to SeaTac and I only stopped to fill up @ $3.09/gal; $38 in.
At one point the traffic slowed to a crawl in the early morning peak hour and I had a quick glance at a pond beside the road. American Coots and, of course almost predictably, a male Hooded Merganser. Man, first I couldn’t find any, now I’m seeing them in a traffic hold up!
I dropped the car off with minimal fuss, just the usual casual walk around by the check in chick, although, thankfully, there was nothing to find anyway, well, apart from the small ding in the driver’s door that happened somewhere and a couple of scratches that were probably on the car when I got it.
I got the rental car shuttle bus to the airport itself and, after some misguidance by a wanker in the airport, found the bus stop for the Quick Coach to Vancouver. I had an hour and a half wait in the 4-degrees-feels-like-1 temperature, but the bus arrived smack on time @ 13.00 and I climbed aboard grateful for the warmth.
Arrived at the Canadian/USA border at 16.00, processed no problem, all up about half an hour, then on to Rockport Casino. The bus for some unexplainable reason doesn’t go to the airport in Vancouver. Makes absolutely no sense to me and they used to go there, but there ya have it so it was time for the Skytrain again. $3 and the struggle with four bags up and down stairs, in and out of elevators to arrive, finally, at Vancouver airport at 17.45. I checked in straight away, getting rid of my two big bags and headed directly for Starbucks for my first coffee in almost 12 hours.
My flight wasn’t boarding until 22.50, to leave at 23.30 so I had nearly 5 hours to kill. I asked and found out that once I went through departures there was no smoking so I went back to Starbucks for another Grande Cappuccino.
In the USA: I drove 13,617 miles or (approx) 22,695 kms. I visited or passed through 33 States, physically staying in 21, the others I just drove across or partially through.
Fuel cost me $1,262 US = $1,873 Aus.
Accommodation cost me: $2,474 US = $3,672 Aus. (Camping: $891, Motels: $1583)
I camped on 39 nights and moteled it on 27 nights. I put the tent up 23 times and took it down - 23 times.
Canada: (10 days)
74 species of birds
7 new birds for my North American list.
13 species of mammal
3 new mammals for my North American list
1 lifer (a bumblebee)
1 lifer (a turtle)
USA: (62 days)
272 species of birds,
+27 new birds for my North American list
+6 new birds for my USA list
+1 new mammal for my North American list
+2 new mammals for my USA list
15 species of insect (14 butterflies, 1 spider)
+1 new butterfly for my North American list
7 species of Reptile/amphibian
+I new Reptile/Amphibian for my USA list
Total lifers for the trip:
Yeah, I know, freaking anal, eh?
Well, with 5 hours to kill at the airport, what else am I gonna do?
States visited: (S = stayed somewhere, D = Only drove)
British Columbia S
Washington State S
South Dakota S
New York S
New Jersey S
North Carolina S
South Carolina S
New Mexico S
Man, now we’re really getting anal…….
And out of all the thousands of photos I took, mostly discarded, I am taking home 2,629 photos and videos. Not, that is to say, that they are all brilliant, far from it, but they all mean something to me.
IF YOU’VE STAYED WITH ME TO READ THIS TO THE END THEN I CONGRATULATE YOU AND SUGGEST YOU GET SOMETHING BETTER TO DO! No, seriously, I hope you enjoyed this lengthy tale – I certainly enjoyed the experiences and writing about them.
For any further clarity, complaint or enquiry please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or for photos, video links and maps check out my blog – email@example.com.