It’s that time of year again. The time of year when Jen and I take in amazing scenery at Mt. Rainier National Park and spend a lot of time not looking at (our high alpine nemesis) White-tailed Ptarmigan.
It was beautiful. We saw a Peregrine Falcon that turned into a Prairie Falcon.
Rocks that turned into Mountain Goats.
Sky dots that turned into Gray-crowned Rosy Finches.
And Horned Lark hiding in the grasses.
All the alpine species except…
After 7 miles, tired feet and no ptarmigan in sight we conceded defeat. Two days in and two hikes down, we needed a change of scenery so we switched it up and drove to Cougar Rock Campground to try the Paradise side of things.
I was intimidated by this hike for my recovering ankle’s sake, but it turned out fine. We saw many of the same species as on the Sunrise side, and added Western Tanager, Warbling Vireo, Clark’s Nutcracker and the best bird of the trip at the last moment on the trail.
A Sooty Grouse “protecting” the family from a young deer!
A good reminder that nice surprises are around every corner. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll turn around and see a… ptarmigain?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My LBL (Little Brown Lifer) Canyon Towhee snuck in at the thickets in Madera Canyon, but I got better looks later at the Airbnb.
The morning after seeing the Trogon, we were free to take a trip to Patagonia Lake.
The best birds were a super cooperative Plumbeous Vireo (Plumbeous = “dull gray color of lead”).
A Hooded Oriole at a (very smart) camper’s orange feeder.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.