Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Home Again, Prairie Chickens are now only in my dreams

I made it home in one piece but it’s taken me this many days to get time and energy to do a final post about my big birding adventure out west.

A male Greater Prarie Chicken strutting his stuff

Sunday we woke at 4:30 AM and met our group at 5:15 to head out to the lek in the school bus. We got set up in a trailer there and when everyone was settled and quiet, the flaps on the trailer were lifted and we all sat staring into the cold darkness with great expectation. Within a few minutes we began to hear the sound of the prairie chickens “booming” off on the distance. The sound grew and more and more chickens joined in. As the light grew we could see them moving onto the lek. For the next hour we watched in amazement as over 2 dozen greater prairie chickens danced and fought on the prairie 100 feet outside our trailer. The males have orange egg shaped sacks on the sides of their necks that they puff up and it is these sacks that make the booming, really more like a cooing or hooting sound. As females enter the lek the males get even more excited and begin to issue a crazed sort of cackling sound. They flip up feathers from the sides of their necks over their heads that look like rabbit ears, and then they stomp their feet and bend forward, charging around the lek. It was a truly incredible spectacle and we were all in awe.
Two males bowing towards a female

(Click here to view a good short film that shows the sigths and sounds of the sandhill dancers.)

Just about the time we were all starting to lose sensation in our hands and feet, the females began leaving the lek, our guide closed the doors on the blind and we filed back onto the bus to drive further onto the Kitzmiller ranch where dudes and dudettes were awaiting with our breakfast of pancakes, bacon, eggs, juice and coffee.  Once our stomachs were stuffed and we’d chatted with the other birders about the beauty of the prairie chicken dance, we packed back on the bus and were returned to the motel.

There grandma was setting up for the Sunday afternoon yard sale. I read again the note on the back of the motel door about all of the behavior that was discouraged by residents of the motel including breaking beer bottles and leaving car parts in the parking lot. I’m trying to figure out how sheets and towels get burnt, but I’m not really sure that I want to know. All of this did cause me to wonder just what kind of folks are regulars at the Butte.
We quickly packed up and hit the road, stopping to bird in a couple of spots on our way back to Denver where Chris dropped me at the airport and headed on to retrace our steps and try and pick up those elusive white-tailed ptarmigans, Gunnison’s sage grouses and a pair of owls in the Cache le Poudre canyon.

I was weary when I finally arrived home at 1 AM on Monday morning, relieved to have landed without incident after lots of turbulence on the flight and tornados on the ground here that evening. I slept hard despite the thunderstorms going on outside, glad to be back in my bed with my honey by my side.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Wray, Colorado and the Prairie Chicken Jamboree

The past couple of days of birding have been less fruitful than earlier in the week, the weather has hindered us, more snow, high winds and cold, but we've still gotten some great birds including a Three-toed Woodpecker, Barrows Goldeneye duck and Evening Grosbeak, all life birds for me.  Last night we stayed with friends of Chris's in Boulder, a pleasant change from a run of nights at a series of Comfort Inns and ate a wonderful dinner with fine wines. I had a dish called duck 3 ways, sausage, breast and confit of the leg, really scrumptious over a bed of white beans and greens.  It seemed fitting as I've been thinking the ducks on this trip have been one of the best parts of the birding.

Tonight we're in an extremely funky motel in Wray, Colorado, out on the prairie just a few miles from Nebraska.  This evening we were held captive by the folks from the Wray Chamber of Commerce for about 4 hours.  First we met up at the Wray museum, filled with arrowheads and info on archeological digs in this area.  Once the group of 25 or so folks assembled we filed onto a bus and were then toured around the town of Wray, population 2,200.  Our leaders were the head of the Chamber and the director of the museum.  They entertained us with stories and the history of Wray as we were driven past the fish hatchery, high school, recreation center, hospital, nursing home, wind turbine, and lovers lane from which I took the following photo looking out over this small but apparently well-funded burg.

We then drove to Laird, the next town up the road, to a building that was formely the school house, that after the top 2 floors were blown off in a tornado, was remodeled into a one story community center.  There we were joined by various dignitaries from the Wray Chamber of Commerce and given a presentation by a woman who had written her masters paper, circa 1963, on the music of the plains indians.  A crew of ladies and gents from the community center took our orders for how we wanted our steaks cooked but by the time the presentation was finished, they all came out medium well.  Baked potato, green beans, tossed salad and a roll rounded out the supper and was polished off with a choice of desserts, I picked cherry pie.  All things considered the meal was decent.

After supper a fresh faced young officer of the Colorado Department of Wildlife gave us a presentation on the Greater Prairie Chickens and what we should expect on our tour starting at 5:20 tomorrow morning.   I'll finally get a chance to put on the long johns and down coat I brought and break out the hand warmers.  It should be quite a show as we sit in our blind and observe as hopefully 2 dozen Greater Prairie Chickens strut across their lek in the early morning light.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sage Grouse strut their stuff

Today began again at 5:00 AM, I’ll be glad when I’m home and no longer visiting leks at the crack of dawn. But the sage grouse proved to be just as captivating as the sharp tailed grouse were yesterday.  After searching around the area where they were supposed to be we finally spotted a group of four flying overhead and followed them down the road to the lek. One of the things that fascinates me about birding is the amount of “intelligence” available on various birds in multiple locations. We had some conflicting info on this sage grouse lek, one source said to go 1.6 miles down the road and look for a sign- which wasn’t there- and then drive another third of a mile and park and look back to the east. This was not productive. The other source said go 2 miles and turn left at the fork, then a quarter mile down the road and the birds will come up to your car! Well, the second source was correct, though we observed them in the field beside the road and tried to give them some space.

These guys were incredible, twice as big as the sharp tailed grouse, they have large white sacks on the fronts of their necks/breasts that they puff out very large, two yellow egg shaped areas in the center of the neck also puff out in the process, there is a noise made in all of this but we couldn’t hear it over the high wind and nearby oil rigs pumping. At the same time the guys are puffing up their necks they are also fanning out their tail feathers like a small spiky turkey tail. But the thing that impressed me the very most was when they strutted away from us and there were a group of feathers in the center of the tail that were black with white dots at the tips, it was a really amazing effect.

After about 45 minutes we decided it was time to move on in search of the White-tailed Ptarmigans which we never did find despite an hour or so of scanning the area around Loveland pass. These birds are completely white in the winter, blend in perfectly with the snow and are only found above 11,000 feet so they are very challenging to find. On we drove to the town of Gunnison where we are spending the night. More fabulous scenery, including this shot from the continental divide.

One of the things we’ve been enjoying most are these plants that I think are some kind of willow growing in the river valleys, their newly sprouted branches are yellow, orange and red and when they catch the sunlight against all this snow it’s a spectacular effect. This photo doesn't really do them justice. We’ve seen miles of them on our journey this week.

The snow on the mountains and the way that it shows the contours of the land, with the wind having blown it away from some areas, piled it up into drifts in others, makes for lovely eye candy while driving the many miles we’ve covered. Tomorrow morning we rise early again to go for the Gunnison Sage Grouse, a smaller species of the birds we saw this morning, special to this section of Colorado. We’ll try one more time for the White-tailed Ptarmigan, though we are skeptical about the road to Guanella Pass after our close call on Wednesday. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

From Snow Drifts to Hot Springs

Well, it’s been another amazing day starting with a harrowing experience getting the truck stuck in the snow, my brothers ingenuity an my ballsy driving finally got us out, then we found the Sharp-tailed Grouses on the lek as predicted and spent close to an hour watching them dance. Read all about it on my brothers blog.

After the grouse, we drove around for several hours looking unsuccessfully for new birds. We didn’t mind too much as our eyes were filled with lots of gorgeous snowy mountain vistas like this.
The historic hot springs in the town of Steamboat have unfortunately been turned into a bit of an amusement park complete with water slides which I couldn’t bear. So when I read about Strawberry Park Hot Springs I knew, being the natural waters aficionado that I am, that despite the tough time this morning on a snowy road, I had to see if I could make it up the back road to the springs.

Getting there was cake in comparison, just a dirt road, well packed, no snow, no mud, a bit steep and windy but the Tacoma powered me right up the mountain, through a fabulous stand of aspens, white bark gleaming in the sun. Once I arrived I was extremely taken by the “outhouse”, one of the most stylish bathrooms I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.
Inside was this giant agate wall that separated the men’s side from the women’s.
But the best was yet to come in the pools themselves. Two large pools that were 105 and 106 degrees respectively, with a chilly snowmelt river flowing past. There were two smaller tubs that were 102 and 103 but I spent all my time between the two hotter ones and took three bracing dips into the river as well. I finally tore myself away as the 5 AM start to the day and the rush of hot and cold was starting to make me a little weak in the knees and I still had to drive back down the mountain.
Here I am in all my bliss. Dorothy, we are not in Kansas anymore.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

From the Prairies to the Rockies

Yesterday was so wild that I didn’t even get around to blogging though you can get the daily update over at my brothers blog “slow birding“. We were up before dawn again and headed back out to the site where we saw the Common Crane on Sunday night. We came to a place where what seemed like 10,000 Sandhill Cranes were resting for the night and watched and waited as the sun rose. Groups of cranes numbering 10 to 20 flew over head, coming from other night time resting locations along the river and heading out for their daytime cornfields. Some landed in the flock we were watching, some took off from the flock while we looked on.

Look closely and you can see hundreds of birds in the air near the horizon

The sound coming from this massive crowd of cranes was phenomenal, a cackling, cooing murmur. Occasionally a pair of birds jumped above the mass, spreading their 8 foot wings into the air, danced with each other, then settled their long legs back to the ground. We watched until the sun was up then headed west along the Platte River into Colorado.

We visited the Pawnee National Grasslands where we drove many miles through scenery like this. I tried to imagine what it must be like to live in a place so barren, so desolate, your nearest neighbor miles away. It was peaceful, and beautiful in its way, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

We were searching for longspurs and did finally find a couple of McCown’s Longspurs that stayed still long enough to get a good look at them. At the end of our time at the prairie Chris spied a bird swooping past, and shouted at the top of his lungs, banging on the dashboard “It’s a Prairie Falcon, it’s a Prairie!” He was hoping all day that we would find one and finally we did. It perched on the top of a transmission line and let us get a nice long look at its pale, understated coloring. Less showy than its cousin the Peregrine, but a lovely bird all the same and yet another to add to my life list for this trip.

We spent the night in Fort Collins Colorado. I looked over the map of the town and discovered a walking trail that I went to and got in a good 40 minute brisk walk along an urban stream where I picked up a kingfisher and two Cooper’s hawks to add to my list and worked out my ya ya’s from another 12 hour day in the car. We had an awesome Indian meal at a place called Star of India where we stuffed ourselves with tandoori, palaak paneer, dal and nan, washed down with a pint of the local brew.  I slept hard.

Today it was out before dawn again to try and beat a snowstorm as we drove over the Rockies today to Steamboat Springs. We had to drive through two 10,000 foot passes and were nervous about the impending weather. No problems driving and we got here about 1:00 PM, but the birding was not so productive in the mountains along the Poudre River because the weather was very lousy, but we did manage to pick up a Gray Crowned Rosy Finch which was not only a life bird for me, but one for Chris which has become a real challenge for him.

Crossing the mountains we found this large herd of antelope at the end of a road near a reservoir where we tried for birds near the town of Walden, but the lake was frozen over and covered with snow so there were no ducks or shorebirds to be had there.  We also saw a small herd of bighorn sheep walking along the road.

After lunch we drove up a valley north of Steamboat in search of more birds and the views were just tremendous.  Snowy mountains, farms scattered through the valley, horses and cows roaming in the pristine white. Black-billed Magpies, a stunning bird with a long tail and distinct black and white markings, were the main bird out braving the cold.

I’m happy to report we are currently chilling in our room here at Steamboat, we’ll actually be staying here two nights and I’m thinking of checking out the pool and hot tub for my R&R. Chris is researching the locations for us to try and find Sage, Sharp-Tailed and Dusky Grouse early tomorrow morning, it’ll be another one out before dawn. Slow birding my ass.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wild West Bird Show

I'm writing from North Platte Nebraska, home of the Buffalo Bill Ranch.  The birding madness has begun. It’s been a whirlwind since I got up at 4:15 yesterday morning to head for the airport, catch a plane at 6:10 that took me to Dallas where my Toyota Tacoma chariot awaited, my brother Chris as chauffeur.

We drove up into southern Oklahoma in a snow storm to the Hackberry Flats wildlife management area and spent 3 hours cruising around on dykes built between water catchment areas and fields of stubble left from the planting of crops to attract wildlife. The wind was blowing so hard that the snow was going sideways, but the birds were unperturbed and we were birding from the truck so we were totally comfortable. Lots of ducks and sparrows, the highlights of the day were the Lapland Longspur and the American Pipit, both new birds for me. The longspur, which is skittish and hard to find was very cooperative and let us get a good long look..

Driving across the plains in the snow was remarkable, the landscape tranquil, rolling brown hills with little stream valleys filled with cottonwood trees. The fence and hedgerows had snow drifted up against them that looked like fluffy piles of shaving cream, sculpted by the wind. Wind farms ran along the ridge lines, the huge turbines turning slowly but steadily.
At the end of a very long day, in the truck from 8:30 AM until 8:30 PM, minus an hour for an all we could eat catfish dinner, we arrived at the 14,000 acre Spelman ranch in northern Oklahoma. Sue Spelman, a 3rd generation Okie, greeted us and showed us our digs, a funky bunkhouse that was the relocated train depot from the town of Spelman. As soon as we got out of the car I threw on my coat and headed up the red dirt road in the fading twilight, a lucky crescent moon and Orion overhead, I was so glad to be out of the car and walking, breathing the cold night air, smelling skunks or cats or sage brush I’m not sure, but moving on my own steam. When I got back we compared notes and tallied our list before falling into bed. We saw 40 birds for the day. Not bad.

Today we woke early and were back in the truck at 7:15 to drive out to the Lesser Prairie Chicken lek before dawn. We immediately spotted 4 males cruising around their mating ground but we spooked them off when we tried to drive a little closer. After waiting a few minutes they returned and we got pretty good looks at them before they spooked again and did not return.  They did not do their dance for us, we speculated because it was cold, and early in the season and the females have not yet arrived. We are hopeful we will see the mating dance of the Greater Prairie Chickens later this week in Colorado.
On our way back to the ranch for breakfast we spotted a flock of fifty cedar waxwings feeding at the side of the road.
Driving across Kansas today we stopped at every other telephone pole to make a study of the variations of Red Tail Hawks. The Harlans’ which is a dark variation, almost completely dark grayish black with a grayish white tail, and the Kriders, very white, almost no markings whatsoever on the breast, and with a much paler red-tail than on the commonly seen Red-tailed Hawk.  We also saw rough-legged hawks, a new hawk for my life list.

Western Meadowlarks have been plentiful the past two days, if we’ve seen one we’ve seen 500, also kestrel are abundant and the red-tailed hawks are everywhere we turn. The true highlight of today was finding the Common Crane, which isn’t common at all, in fact its from India! It was seen on Friday and posted to the rare bird list, we went searching in the vicinity where it had been seen 2 days ago. We scanned each group of Sandhill Cranes we saw feeding in farm fields north of the Platte River in Nebraska. Literally like looking for a needle in a haystack, we actually found the bird.  It has a darker tail and white and black markings on the neck that differentiate it from the Sandhill Crane which has a red patch on the top of its head.

In the morning we will rise before dawn again and go to the Platte river to see the cranes amassed there and watch them take flight back to their feeding grounds for the day. We’ll then head for Colorado to see what we can see. I’ve got a promise from my bro that we will actually get out of the car tomorrow and do some walking, I cannot bear one more 12 hour day in the car! Despite the long hours, I’m so glad to be here, hanging out with my brother and being crazy obsessed birdwatchers together.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The big year, meets the big night, meets the little sister

I'm heading out before dawn tomorrow, flying to Dallas to meet up with my eldest brother and join him for 9 days of his Big Birding Year.  If you've not checked out his blog Slow Birding, you should, he's doing an amazing year long adventure, traveling the entire country back and forth to see how many birds he can spot in 365 days in the lower 48.  I'm joining him for a section of the trip passing through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado searching for the chickens of the prairie and millions of sandhill cranes.  I plan to blog from the road and it promises to be a wild ride, starting with a snow storm  predicted for tomorrow in the very region we are supposed to be hitting first! 

My vision of the trip has us getting up in the middle of the night to drive to the middle of nowhere to sit in the cold dark waiting for these chickens and grouse to do their strutting mating dances on the lek. 

Hopefully there will be some napping or at least early bedtimes involved.  Stay Tuned!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Indoor flowers

We've been enjoying this indoor show of flowers immensely over the past few weeks, the bright pink christmas cactus is putting on a whole second round after being covered with blooms at Thanksgiving and here it goes all over again.  The orchid, the only one we've ever been able to get to rebloom for us, its one that was my fathers and we adopted after his death.  The length of the flower sprays are incredible this time and the purple and white flowers fill the room with the scent of vanilla.  Just what we need to tide us over until more spring flowers start blooming outside.

Walking down along the creek today the trout lilies were in fine form, carpeting both sides of the path along Morgan, I think they are at their peak this week with our warm weather.  A few spring beauties here and there and the hepatica are also showing with their dainty lavendar and white edged  blooms.  The equinox is just around the corner.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring IS on the way

Wow- I can't believe its been two whole weeks since I've posted to the blog, apologies readers, it's been a very busy time with lots of details to pull together to get the Growing Healthy Kids community gardens up and running for the spring, an extra day added to my schedule at The Forest and volunteer training to lead childrens programs over at Duke Gardens.  Phew.

I've also started volunteering one afternoon a week at the local food pantry, doing intake and food distribution for Spanish speaking clients in an effort to keep my Spanish fresh after returning from Mexico.  It's sobering how little people have to live on, I'm glad this service exists for these families that are in hard times looking for work and struggling to make ends meet. 

When I was hanging out in the dark and cold days of February, I felt like I had a lot of time on my hands, and think I might have overcommitted myself, forgetting how busy I am when the spring kicks in.  I'm just hoping life will settle down a smidge once things get underway and I'm in the maintenance phase rather than the start-up phase of things.  But boy howdy, I've been running.

Lots of things seem to be running late, but it feels like they're trying to make up for lost time after the long cold.   The bulbs in particular are rocketing out of the ground now, tulips, hyacinths and daffodils all seem like I could about sit and watch them grow on the the warm days we've been graced with in the past week.

This is one of my favorite late winter plants, the Edgeworthia or Paper Plant.  Very lovely and eye-catching from a distance, the white petticoat like flowers hanging from the bare branches, swing like little bells.  Up close; the bright yellow undersides of the clusters of tiny trumpets are revealed and they are very fragrant, a bit like Lily of the Valley.

Most of the seeds I planted two weeks ago are finally sprouting, beets, spinach, turnips, peas are all popping out and I think I spied a few wisps of carrots this afternoon.  I plan to plant some lettuce, kale, and bok choy tomorrow if the rain lets up.  Woo Hoo- spring veggies are on the way.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Carbon Footprint

The wood stove stopped drawing a couple of days ago, smoking out into the living room and forcing us to shut the damper and put the fire out.  With more snow and cold weather on the way, David was up and onto the roof before he even had coffee this morning!  What dedication.
Here is what came out of the chimney, a giant bowl of black carbony soot.   A layer had built all the way across the pipe blocking the passage of smoke completely.  It really gave us pause and made us contemplate once again trading in our old stove for a newer cleaner burning one.  And the truth is, our chimney makes so much sooty creosote that we actually bang the stove pipe and take out about a gallon of stuff every couple of weeks of the winter.  Because we've been burning the stove almost continuously now for 3 months, soot is piling up even faster than normal.
It's a little easier for D to get up on the roof now that he's installed a catwalk system, but this picture doesn't really do the steepness and the height justice, I always get a little nervous when I see him way up there. We're not sure why our chimney builds up so much soot, maybe because its extremely long and the smoke cools down before leaving the chimney, or perhaps because we damp it down at night and it burns really slowly and not super hot? 

Not sure, but we had some long discussions today about changing this older stove out for one with a catalytic converter and I've also always wanted one with glass doors so I can see the fire, not quite the same as a fire place, but I really enjoy being able to see the flames.  We certainly don't want to give up having a stove, just being without a fire for 24 hours had me really missing that marvelous radiant heat.  Not to mention hearing the heat pump kicking on every 30 minutes, I can only imagine what our electric bill would look like if we didn't have the stove.

I'm hoping this latest cold rainy, wintery, snowy storm will be the last of the season for us.