Canada: Jasper NP

It felt good to leave the country. Even if it was just a 2-hour non-stop flight to our northern neighbor, Canada. I had to show someone my passport, so it counts. We flew into Calgary, picked up a Dodge Caravan (which would be our lodging for the week), then pretty much beelined it up to Jasper National Park.

The Rocky Mountains here are so close, so big, and so scenic. The scale is mind-blowing.

Even the Safeway parking lot is scenic.

Despite being surrounded by mountains, it never felt very remote. If I had to do it all over again I would probably fly in on a Sunday, because the first day was also the most stressful. The park was packed, and a normally reservable 800-site campground was closed this year for maintenance, which pushed excess campers into the first-come-first-served sites (the worst system).

Door buttons are magic

We ended up driving 2+ hours passing too many full campgrounds before finding an open site at Kerkeslin Campground. Farther from Jasper than I’d have liked, but it was such a relief to find something we signed up for two nights.

Ranger Raven on patrol

Driving back and forth turned out to be okay though because returning after dinner one evening we pulled over at Athabasca Pass Lookout where I saw my first life bird of the trip, Black Swifts!

Such an unexpected surprise (and the best stress-reliever).

As it turns out, Black Swifts love drama. Later on during the trip on a very crowded hike in Johnston Canyon just around the corner of this waterfall…

I found a nesting Black Swift! Insanity! I made sure to tell everyone on the trail around me how special this bird is.

Better than a bat.

Back in Jasper, Tomas tested his luck mountain biking with bears while I went birding. One of the birds that sparked the trip was a Northern Hawk Owl seen by my friend Kayla on her trip the year prior, but I wasn’t that lucky. I did find one of my other targets pretty easily at a picnic pullout near Medicine Lake, a Tennessee Warbler.

They look kind of like a grayer Orange-crowned Warbler and they have a sharp-trilly song. This area is also where I got my first good looks at Black Bears by the side of the road. Both big ones and little ones.

Other highlights here were nesting Bald Eagles, Clay-colored Sparrows, and multiple singing White-throated Sparrows. Still just as sneaky as when I see them in winter, but hearing them vocalize was pretty cool.

I focused on reports of Boreal Chickadees but I couldn’t find these or much else the rest of the day. It was challenging not knowing the area super well. But that’s part of the fun, right? One of the chickadee reports led me to the Valley of the Five Lakes Trail that was incredibly scenic.

The lake waters were so clear I could see a Common Goldeneye feeding on the bottom.

And she had the cutest little chicks.

Then that evening I went for a walk around the campground and found my first Boreal Chickadee! It was secretive and carrying food which explains why they were so hard to find if they’re nesting.

The next day was bright and beautiful. It was the perfect day to ride the Jasper Sky Tram up to Whistlers mountain top.

If there was a chance to find a White-tailed Ptarmigan in Canada, this was it. We were the first in the tram, and the first to the summit, but sadly there were no ptarmigan to greet us.

The stunning views and best poutine of the trip at the Summit Restaurant made up for any heartbreak.

Drowning my tears in gravy.

And since we’d taken the tram, we had energy for another 9.3 km hike at Wilcox Pass.

Here we saw singing Brewer’s Sparrows, Horned Lark, American Pipit, and a cooperative pair of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

And an amazing view of Athabasca Glacier and valley below from the hike summit.

Tweets and chirps, eh?

Audrey

Trogon Trip: The end

Our spur-of-the-moment Arizona trip was a great success. We saw 135 species in five days. I saw 23 life birds, Sarah saw 24, and Max saw 3 (he’s spent time working in the area before, which is part of what inspired the trip). And this was the slow time of year. I even managed to see every bird on my top ten(+) list I’d made before the trip.

Who can just pick ten?

My LBL (Little Brown Lifer) Canyon Towhee snuck in at the thickets in Madera Canyon, but I got better looks later at the Airbnb.

Nothing tops Arizona gold light.

The morning after seeing the Trogon, we were free to take a trip to Patagonia Lake.

Just like in the movie!

The best birds were a super cooperative Plumbeous Vireo (Plumbeous = “dull gray color of lead”).

I’d call that “brilliant” gray rather than dull

A Hooded Oriole at a (very smart) camper’s orange feeder.

The only oriole of the trip

And a Rufous-winged Sparrow that has a song that sounds amazingly reminiscent of a Wrentit’s bouncy-ball song. We never saw the bird but the song had a lot of personality.

Later we took a nice drive in the Coronado National Forest and further up to the grasslands of the San Rafael State Natural Area.

Rare grassland species

We hoped to flush up a sparrow or two which didn’t happen, but we did side-glance at a Horned Lark perched on the Vaca Ranch Corral fence (viewed from public road).

Don’t even think about making eye contact.

This is the infamous “Baird’s Sparrow Hill” area that is now closed to the public due to the actions of a few thoughtless birders (DO NOT PARK BY THE VACA CORRAL or within 1/4 mile of it). So, so sad. Though we didn’t see any “no birding” signs currently posted.

Practical pronghorn says everything’s going to be okay.

On our last day we went to Las Cienegas National Conservation Area (NCA). This is a special area, not just because it is an ecological transition zone between the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan Deserts and because it is precious BLM (public) land, but also because Max worked here almost 2 decades prior.

Not much changed except the place was boarded up. There are new buildings (and a bathroom!) associated with the Empire Ranch Foundation who works with the BLM maintaining the property. We birded the grounds and found Vesper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlark, and this is where we finally laid eyes on our first Green-tailed Towhee of Arizona. None of these birds cared to have their photo taken.

After, we left to go to San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (RNCA). Just another amazing Arizona birding location around the corner.

I have to say, all the parks in Arizona we visited seemed nice and well maintained. We looked at the sightings register here and were surprised to read someone had seen a Green Kingfisher along the San Pedro River that morning! I’ve only had quick looks in Texas and this would be a lifer for Sarah so we tried real hard. Sadly, though we couldn’t relocate the kingfisher. Instead we had several good consolation birds.

Thanks to a pair of Loggerhead Shrikes we were allotted pretty good (although backlit) views of a lifer Cassin’s Sparrow.

Other great birds included a Green-tailed Towhee that finally allowed us a look.

Totally Mexican Ducks.

A fantastic flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

A Great Horned Owl.

And a Grand “Fin-owl-e” a Western Screech Owl (!) comfortable in a tree just behind the visitor center. It was the perfect place for us to stop and have some lunch.

Such good times birding in Arizona!!! I’m thankful I could spend the trip with good friends who share the love for exploration, nature, and birding.

I’m drunk on birds.

Happy Birthday Sarah!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

SoCal: Death Valley

Our final destination on this trip was Death Valley. I had no idea what to expect. I’d driven through a portion of the valley a decade ago but didn’t remember how mountainous it actually is.

Temps during our stay were in the high 70s at day and low 50s at night. It was perfect.

The first night we stayed at Furnace Creek Campground located next to the Death Valley Visitor Center and the Oasis at Death Valley (formerly known as Furnace Creek Resort). There’s an expensive inn, an economy hotel and a few private RV campgrounds in the area including Fiddler’s Campground that had live music (karaoke and sometimes yodeling) after dark that could be heard from our campsite a block away.

Bat!

Bats made up for the lack of ambiance. I knew camping here would be a challenge but this lush green “oasis” is where many birds drop down during migration.

Amid festivals, a parade, construction, general business and a constant stream of cars and people around me I made the most of it and birded like I do. Luckily the birds didn’t seem to mind the chaos. The first evening I found a pair of Canada Geese on the golf course, because of course they would be there even in the desert.

Per the Birder’s Guide to SoCal the golf course is private property and birders are not welcome while others “commit golf.” So I followed the rules and birded from the fringes.

Though some were less obedient.

Golf course face-off

Par 4 Say’s Phoebe

From aerial photos (and per some eBird reports) I could see ponds on the property, but I couldn’t find a way to access them without trespassing. I got pretty close but ran into a dead end of thorny shrubs and had to backtrack a couple of miles. Not my finest hour. But I did find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (not black-tailed since it has more white under the tail).

And a Verdin.

I ran out of time (energy and water) to find another way in. The best waterbird besides the geese was a flyover Mallard.

Good job desert-duck

The book mentions to look for White-winged doves calling from the Tamarisks or, “lately, Eurasian Collared Doves.” I could only find Eurasian-collared Doves and there are sparse eBird reports of White-winged on the property in recent years and none from 2018.

Shocking

The grounds had a few good sparrow spots. I found House, Savannah, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, weird looking Song Sparrows.

And lots of Lincoln Sparrows.

One lucky afternoon I picked out a (Red) Fox Sparrow in the heat waves.

It was interesting to see birds’ strategies for keeping cool. Most stayed in the shade.

Shady House Sparrows

Some panted, or splashed in puddles or took dust baths. I saw some blackbirds drinking from sprinklers at the visitor center and I found a pair of Great-tailed Grackles taking shade under cars in the parking lot.

The best parking lot bird was a Harris’s Sparrow! A rare bird for the area.

I “pished” for a brief moment and it immediately popped out on a close shrub.

Too close

Amazing! I found a variety of Icterids too, including Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, and the best surprise was Western Meadowlark.

In the shade of trees above there was a Cooper’s Hawk.

I had a couple of falcon fly-bys a Peregrine and a Prairie.

We had perfect weather until almost the last day when a windstorm blew through the valley. It wouldn’t be Death Valley if it didn’t try to kill us. The windstorm then turned into a sandstorm. Terrible for birding or doing anything outside.

Leaving the storm

Luckily we had the van for shelter, and this was also the day we drove to a smaller campground at higher elevation called Wildrose. It was less sandy here, but still very windy.

From the safety of the van I spotted Black-throated Sparrows on the hillsides.

We drove a little ways past the campground towards the charcoal kilns but the road conditions turned too bumpy so we turned around. On the way back we pulled over for a Horned Lark that hopped right up next to the van.

And we had distant looks at a Golden Eagle!

Back at the campsite I walked the road down to a small creek and found a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

American Robin photobomb

A Bewick’s Wren.

And a Fox Sparrow scratching in the leaves.

As the sun was setting (at 4pm) and as I walked back to the campground I felt good about how birdy Death Valley was but I was also a little sad I hadn’t seen the poster-bird, a Greater Roadrunner, when just at that moment one walked right out in front of me. It raised its tail up and slowly lowered it down then continued down the road.

It was the perfect ending.

I have to say, writing about our trip I can’t help but think about the recent fires in California. It’s heartbreaking news. I’ve made a donation to the San Francisco SPCA for their disaster relief efforts to save animals affected by the fires. Much love to everyone in the state, they’ve been through a lot.

XOXO and happy holidays,

Audrey