Black Mesa

Black Mesa rises above the plains of western Oklahoma. On it, one can hike to the highest point in the state. I’m not really a “summit” kind of guy; I prefer the cozy feeling of canyons. But this mesa was calling to me when I was planning my trip. It just sounded so… different. Wisconsinites do not have topography like this in our own state, so this was my chance to try something different. Plus, I thought, the birding wouldn’t be half bad.

The last few miles of my drive to get to the mesa were different from the rest of the panhandle; smaller mesas and buttes dotted the landscape, turning a formerly flat and straight route into a winding roller coaster. On the drive in, I saw my first Bluebirds of the day: both Mountain and Eastern. I would go on to see more Mountain Bluebirds in this small section of Oklahoma than I ever had in my whole life. Getting up close to the mesa, I felt nervous. I knew, even before leaving Wisconsin, that this would be a longer hike. I knew I’d be exposed to the elements. There are few trees to protect you from the sun and wind. This knowledge did not make me feel any more prepared. Black Mesa is a long, winding feature. It looked much more intimidating in person.

Black Mesa, from near the trailhead

I set out on the hike. I’m not seeking to collect every state’s highest peak. Many of them are out of my skill level. But I have to admit I feel called to do these more moderate ones, the ones that aren’t just a point on a highway but also aren’t way up in the alpine zone of a jagged mountain. Since this one was on the way to Santa Fe, I did not want to pass it up. Starting off though, I had to keep my head in the game. It was over four miles each way, not a huge problem for me, but longer than what I usually hike alone. I wasn’t worried about my safety so much as my motivation. It’s easier to take a longer hike with friends. The conversation is a bit of a distraction, and the hike is a bonding experience. Alone, you’re getting by on just your own determination. I decided I would plow through the first few miles and by then I’d be too far to get lazy and turn around.

This plan worked, at least partially because the day’s bird highlight showed itself about two and a half miles in. I saw something perched on a small cedar. Scale is useless in such an empty landscape, but the bird appeared to be medium-sized. I set my binoculars on it and was pleasantly surprised to see a Prairie Falcon. This bird, found in the western half of the continent, is a pale tan but keeps the stereotypical falcon mustache pattern. It was a very keen-looking bird. I felt buoyed by the sight of it to keep moving.

Shortly after, I began to scale the mesa. Most of the 700+ foot elevation gain happens over the course of three quarters of a mile or so. It’s not a particularly steep ascent. To reference some Wisconsin trails, I’d compare it more to the Ferry Bluff trail than, say, the Balanced Rock trail at Devil’s Lake. Near the top of the trail, I saw up close the band of dark volcanic rock that gives the mesa its name. Hiking on, I got to the flat, windswept top of Black Mesa.

Big happy rocks

I didn’t know what to expect when I got up there, other than that it would be flat like much of the panhandle, but much higher. There were few trees up there, and the ones that were there were either stunted or dead. I looked around, trying to find the obelisk that marks the surveyed high point of the state. I could not. I pressed on, constantly scanning up the trail for it. Thing is, the mesa isn’t completely flat on top. There are small, barely-perceptible curves to its surface. They hide various parts of the flat top from each other. Eventually I saw the marker. I walked slowly toward it, feeling the weight of the wind and my backpack in my calves.

I took some time to look around. It was indeed an impressive view. As flat as the eye can see looking east and south, with more variation looking west and north. The view west into New Mexico was captivating. The mountain known as Sierra Grande stood above everything else on the horizon, like a distant giant. I had a hard time not gazing at it every few minutes. It was calling me onward toward the next state on my trip.

Sierra Grande

Thing is, I was decently close to New Mexico already. The border was only a quarter mile away, and I wasn’t even at the tallest spot on the mesa- the Land of Enchantment claimed that.

I sat, then laid, down on the ground. I was in a state of calm. A beautiful setting and a big, blue sky have that effect on me.

I still had four hours of driving ahead of me, and I wanted to get to Santa Fe before it got too dark. Besides, I knew I’d probably stop along the road somewhere to check out some birds (I did). My desire to keep time did some negotiating with my enjoyment of the moment and I stood up and headed back down the mesa toward my car.


Southwest Kansas

I am on my third road trip of the pandemic, as usual doing my best to stay safe. Between the distance I’m keeping from other people (yay outdoors!), my recent booster shot, and the two packets of masks I bought before heading out of town, I feel pretty good about things. The trip is off to a good start. I left Madison yesterday, and I’m already at Elkhart, the most southwestern town in Kansas, right on the Oklahoma border. I could walk to the Sooner State right now if I wasn’t winding down for the day.

They say Kansas is boring. I disagree. I drove diagonally through the entire state today and I was mesmerized. Flat? Definitely not the eastern half, with its rolling hills covered in bluestem. Central Kansas was a pancake, and the western half is close to being one, but it’s not boring if you’re looking for birds. Every fence post and wire along the highway had an American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, or Rough-legged Hawk. Northern Harriers floated low across the fields. Looking for raptors along the road is my favorite pastime when driving through open country.

The towns in the last few hours of the drive were variations on a theme: grain elevators right along the highway with small settlements built around them. The one bird that dominated these towns was the Eurasian Collared-Dove. These invasive birds love the Great Plains for the plentiful grain that’s here. I am sure they outnumber human residents in at least a few of the towns I drove through.

If Kudzu is the vine that ate the South, these are the birds that ate the Plains.
Eurasian Collared-dove habitat

In one of the towns, Sublette, I found a flock of 300 or so Great-tailed Grackles. I hadn’t seen any since I went to Texas in 2017, and I was pleasantly surprised to see them. I know they’re a plains bird, but I didn’t know I’d find them in quite those numbers. They are larger, longer-legged, and longer-tailed than Common Grackles. They sometimes hold their tails up in the air when perched on the ground, giving them an athletic and “ready” look. It is comparable to the stereotypical roadrunner stance.

The farther west I got, the more it looked like, well, the West. The yuccas and small hills of Cimarron National Grassland reminded me of eastern Colorado, which I am also not that far from at the moment. I enjoyed the sunset at the grassland’s Point of Rocks before settling down for the night. I have my longest hike of the trip ahead of me tomorrow, so I’d better rest up.

From below Point of Rocks
Cimarron National Grassland from Point of Rocks

Surf Scoter

I haven’t written for… almost a year.

It’s understandable. I graduated, got a new job, moved twice. You get the picture.

I’ve also just not known what to write about, silly as it sounds. I still get outside, but you can only write so much about local hiking spots. What to write about then? My best area of focus is animal sightings, in particular the birds. They have always been special to me. The more novel the bird, the more I feel inclined to write about it. Which brings me to yesterday.

I invited my boyfriend, Blaise, out birding with me. He suggested I go on eBird and see if anything unusual had been spotted recently. We looked and there were a few days’ worth of sightings of a single Surf Scoter out on Lake Kegonsa. We decided to check it out.

It took us about 20 minutes to drive down past McFarland, not counting a trip to the credit union. It wasn’t too cold for December down by the lake, but it will still a little windy. We parked near where the Yahara River enters the lake, not the best view point. Immediately after walking a short ways to a spot on there shore where almost all the circular lake was visible, I spotted a lone duck in the distance. Could that be it? It was a little dot of a bird, the overall shape blurred against the gray water. I set down my scope, took a peek, and instantly identified it. It was indeed the Surf Scoter.

She had a large, dark body with a heavy bill. Directly behind the bill was whitish spot, almost like a soft-edged crescent. Behind her eye was another light spot, a vertically-compressed circle. There was no white wing patch like there would be in a White-winged Scoter. My first Surf Scoter!

Grainy docushot ensued.

This was also life bird number 350 for me, a nice beautiful number. In addition, the Surf Scoter may have hooked Blaise on birds. I swear he spent more time at the scope than I did. Eventually, we decided to each take one last look and pack up. Our fingers and noses were getting a bit cold. We got some takeout Jamaican food and celebrated a fun day of birding eating it in the comfort of a nice, warm apartment.

Free Time

The hardest part of going back to school was not having as much free time during excellent birding seasons. Between working full time and going to school part time, I never had full days off except for in summer and a brief period in winter. I was missing out on one of the joys of life: the day trip.

Since mid November I have been on my clinical practicum. I quit my job to better devote 40 hours a week to my clinical experience. And, suddenly, I have weekends. Two whole days when I can do whatever I want. Needless to say, I’ve gone birding a lot more. Here are some of the bird highlights of my newfound free time.

Black Scoter

On the 14th of December, my first official day off, I decided to head toward Milwaukee. Why? Scoters. These sea ducks are reasonably common on the Great Lakes in late fall. Out of the three Scoter species present in Wisconsin, I was only able to see Black Scoter that day (though I got White-winged Scoter a week later in Madison). There were fascinating ducks to watch. A raft of 36 or so was floating on the rough waters. Rather than try to swim over the waves when they came crashing in, they swam through them, emerging on the other side like it was no big deal.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Every year, some migratory birds get lost. When a birder finds one of these vagrant birds, all the other birders in their area soon found out. Madison’s Black-throated Gray Warbler showed up in late October, and stayed for over a month. On the 21st of November, my parents and I went looking for it. It was not been a lifer for any of us, but was our first in the state.

We set out and wandered Olin Park before stumbling upon a group of birders. The best way to find a bird. Since it was already being tracked when we got there, we saw it almost immediately. At first it was high in an oak, but flew across the trail to hop along the undergrowth on top of a small knoll. It’s a small bird, black white and gray except for yellow spots in front of its eyes. They are normally found out west, and I saw my first ones in the junipers of western Colorado.

This is probably the best picture I could have gotten of it with my camera.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

On a late November day, I drove up with my parents to the Buena Vista Grasslands and Marsh in Portage County. My main target species was the Greater Prairie-Chicken, though I also wanted to see the Short-eared Owl. I got my wish just as the sky started getting dark when 15 of the Prairie-Chickens flew across the northwest sky. These grassland birds, declining in number, have a population of about 600 in Wisconsin, all within a few counties in the central part of the state.

The December 5th Three

I’m at the point where it’s difficult to get multiple lifers in Wisconsin in a single day, but on December 5th I managed to get 3. That last time I did that was back in 2014. At this point, lifers I get in my home turf are generally uncommon or rare birds. When I saw there was a Brant up in Manitowoc, I considered going. This goose species is pretty rare in Wisconsin, and Manitowoc is within my day trip radius. I made up for lost time and took the trip.

The Brant was… special. I always thought they looked pretty in the field guides, but DAMN, no pictures can do this bird justice. The black on their face and neck is so beautiful. The white pattern on their neck is like a perfectly-executed minimalist work. It is a very striking bird. I lingered.

As I was leaving, the Snowy Owl flew in. I thought she might have been a large gull at first. She was far away, all I could tell was she was white, and there were gulls around her. Through my scope, I could tell she was a Snowy. How exciting! Some birders are jaded on them, but this was my first one and I think they’re beautiful. From across the harbor she stared at me with those piercing yellow eyes.

When I left Manitowoc, I had a few choices of where to go on my way home. Given the time of day, I decided to check out some more owls. I found a spot on eBird that had recent sightings of Short-eared Owls. It was a 30-minute drive and I was worried it would get dark before I got there.

I got to the field right on time. I saw two owls flying in the distance as I drove in. Five or so cars were already there. I do not know if this was a regular crowd or if people were just getting a one-time visit like I was. A girl accompanying her family poked her head out the back of a truck. Further up the street an older couple stood just off the gravel with their scope. Many of us moved around, following the owls. And let me just say these are a species I want to see again. They’re not necessarily beautiful like the Brant or Snowy Owl, but Short-eared Owls have their own charm. They’re most likely to be seen at dawn and dusk (mysterious times!). They fly around in the half-light and perch on fence posts. They dive into the grass. They pounce and then glance around. Watch them and you’ll agree: this is an entertaining bird.

These were my practicum birds, as I call them. During my one month of clinical experience, I saw these amazing birds and many others. The six I wrote about here were all lifers or new to my state list. I can’t wait to see all of them again.


Social distancing: you do it it town,
why not do it while on the road?

In June I took a trip to Colorado. I packed my tent and went off to be even more alone in a place with different birds. I birded three distinct parts of the state: the northeastern grasslands, the central Front Ranges and foothills, and the western land of desert canyons. All had great things in store for me.

My first stop was the northeastern corner of the state, the main attraction being Pawnee National Grassland. It’s definitely a car birding destination. While I did take a hike at the Pawnee Buttes (reminiscent to the Badlands of South Dakota), most of my birding was done along gravel roads. Here I found Lark Buntings, a few Thick-billed Longspurs, two Burrowing Owls, and enough Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks to last a lifetime. Pawnee felt like a dream. Endless shortgrass with the occasional plains bird.

Lark Buntings, male (left) and female
Burrowing Owl
Western Kingbird

Central Colorado is more in line with what most Americans picture when they think of the state. I birded the foothills cities (Fort Collins and western Boulder proved to be nice) as well as the Front Ranges. My first urban stop was at the wooded area of the Dixon Reservoir. I saw some fascinating western birds. In particular I had good looks at a Lesser Goldfinch and a Western Wood-Pewee, both lifers.

Western Wood-Pewee
Yellow-breasted Chat

Once I got up into the foothills, there was a slightly different set of birds. While hiking uphill of Boulder, I found some old friends like Western Tanager, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Plumbeous Vireo.

Spotted Towhee- this one was in the foothills, but they’re fairly common across the state.

The mountains were a challenge for me. I spent a lot of that time fighting elevation sickness, even below the tree line. I swear I increased my altitude just as gradually as on my previous trip to the state. Oh well. Through the headache and nausea I still saw some birds. The biggest shock to me was seeing Wilson’s Warblers in the upper montane. Apparently they breed there. Never knew that.

Getting to western Colorado was a huge relief to my ailing body. As I made my way to the red rocks and canyons, my stomach settled and my head breathed a sigh of relief. There were some new birds out there too: Black-throated Gray Warblers and Juniper Titmice up high, and Black-throated Sparrows, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and Rock Wrens on the canyon floor. The stars of the canyon rim were White-throated Swifts, which flew by at eye level- one second a few feet above the overlook, the next at a dizzying height above the desert hundreds of feet below me.

What I like about birding is that oftentimes I feel like I have insider knowledge to something outsiders would consider a mundane event. The best example of this from my trip would be what happened on a sunny afternoon in the pinyon scrublands. I was sitting at my site, probably reading or something dorky like that (probably nonfiction even, jeez), when I heard a noise I’d never heard before. In the birding world, especially in another part of the country, that can mean very good news. I headed toward the source of the noise, anxious to see what it was.

It was a flock of Pinyon Jays, illusive and declining corvids of the interior west. Seeing them was like a religious experience, minus the “like.” There were 5 or 6. It was hard to get an exact count because they were highly active, moving about the campground. While I was busy snapping pics and just being shocked at being able to have the experience, all the other campers were just sitting at their picnic tables and wondering what’s up with the binoculars guy. Hasn’t he seen birds before?

Pinyon Jay butt
Pinyon Jay feeding time

I went back through Colorado the way I came. I spent one more night in the front ranges in one more on the prairie. I didn’t find any more lifers (including the dreamy target species Mountain Plover) but at least I had time to see more of my western bird pals before I headed back home.

Colorado has some of the most fun birding ever, especially on trips where you hit different parts of the state. The varied landscapes lead to a different set of species at at region, but they’re beautiful in its own right. The grassland stretched before me for miles, as a sea of light green. The mountains are breathtaking. Colorado National Monument looks like southern Utah, which is a pretty good compliment. I’m grateful I was able to take this trip and for Colorado’s response to the pandemic. I felt safe there.

Brewer’s Blackbird

Horicon Marsh

I’ve been wanted to post something here again now that the spring semester is over, but I’ve been waiting for a day when I had a decent amount of good media. That took a while. A lot of times I’ve gone birding without taking any pics or videos.

Fast forward to today. On the third day in a 16-day break from work, I decided to take a day trip. Horicon Marsh is the perfect destination for a June day: open enough to not be swarming with mosquitoes, and full of bird activity. I spent six hours at the 21,400 acre marsh, with Black Terns flying right past my head and Black-crowned Night-Herons hiding in the cattails.

21,400 acres is over 33 square miles, so I didn’t bird even close to the entire marsh. I focused on the auto tour loop (especially the boardwalk area), Old Marsh Road, and Ledge Road. I also made a brief stop on the Fond du Lac County side of Highway 49 where I got an up-close view of a Trumpeter Swan.

Trumpeter Swan

The floating boardwalk at the north side of the marsh is my favorite part. I like being able to walk above the water and through the reeds. Terns and swallows often hang out here in high numbers. Old Marsh Road, accessible only by foot for most of the year, is a good spot for waterfowl, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Common Gallinule, and many other marsh-loving birds.

Barn Swallow
Black Tern. I usually see them flying so it was nice to have one that was this easy to photograph.
Pied-billed Grebe

A target species I didn’t get to see was the Black-necked Stilt, which breed in the marsh but few other places in the state. There’s always next time, right? Either way, Horicon Marsh is incredible and I saw some really neat birds.

Up North, part 2

If my first morning in Minnesota was the coldest, then my second was definitely the warmest. The high for the day was 20 F, 40 degrees above what I started birding in the day before.

A big highlight for me as a corvid lover was seeing all 5 species Sax-Zim Bog has to offer. They are the American Crow, Canada Jay, Common Raven, Blue Jay, and Black-billed Magpie. The magpie is not only my favorite bird ever, but is also the least common of the five at the bog. Living in Wisconsin, I had only seen them in Colorado and Utah on week-long trips. Needless to say, I was extremely excited to see this population, the farthest east of the species. The three I saw were at the northeast corner of the bog, chilling by the side of the road and flew up when I came around the corner. Even on a hazy, colorless day I think they’re beautiful, long tails behind them like the tail of a kite. It was a brief view, as they hung around in some trees for a minute before taking off for other locales, but it was a view of my favorite species nevertheless.

The Canada Jays remained cool, but they were no longer the coolest corvid of the trip.

I got my third and final lifer of the trip that day too with a male and female of a new species seen while driving. I made this a verbal sighting with “holy [expletive], those are White-winged Crossbills!” I like winter finches so much. That serendipitous sighting made up for the lack of Pine Grosbeaks and Common and Hoary Redpolls this winter. Pine Grosbeak and Hoary Redpoll would have been lifers for me, but I’ll have plenty of chances to get some more cool finches.

The highlight of my last day was my luck in seeing two flocks of Evening Grosbeaks: one of 6 birds, the other of 14 that flew overhead on the same road I saw the crossbills on the day before. Unlike my first morning at the bog, I got to see the female grosbeaks as well. They aren’t as colorful as the males, but they’re pretty in their own way.

females (close side of the feeder)

After going birding on snowshoes for the first time (a short checklist of a Black-capped Chickadee and a Northern Shrike) I headed back to Wisconsin, murder mystery on the ol’ stereo system and fun times had with the birds.

Up North, part 1

It’s now the second day of a four-day vacation, and my first full day in Minnesota. I drove up from Madison yesterday and did a lot of (car) birding along the way. Some fun birds on the drive were Rough-legged Hawks, Bald Eagles, Common Ravens, and a single Pileated Woodpecker. It took about six hours to get to northern Minnesota and I watched as the snow cover gradually went from patchy to deep. The temperature on my car thermometer dropped about 20 degrees between Madison and Hibbing.

I’m mostly here for Sax-Zim Bog, a large birding destination northwest of Duluth. It’s a different world with a slightly different set of species. One I still haven’t seen yet but am looking forward to is the Great Gray Owl. The only time I’ve seen this large, boreal bird is when an individual ended up in Middleton several years back. I’d like to see one that isn’t lost by a suburban brewery. Will one of the many conifers sport one on top like a Christmas tree angel tomorrow?

Was that cheesy language?

One of my life birds today was the deliciously yellow Evening Grosbeak (ironically easier to see during the morning). I arrived at one of the many local feeding stations and hung out for several minutes, hoping something more uniquely northern would show up. The wait paid off as two Evening Grosbeaks stopped by for a few minutes. I always thought the yellow would be their most noticeable color, but the white on their wings really popped out. I thought this was especially apparent when one fluttered over a platform feeder with his back to me. I have a video below of them on a feeder. The distortion is from the cold air- it was about zero degrees Fahrenheit when I shot this video!

He spin.

My second lifer was a Northern Hawk-owl several miles away. I wanted to see one of them so bad but didn’t have any luck until I saw another car pulled off on the side of the road. Bingo! My fellow birder told me to look at the top of a spruce. Talk about a northern species: its range barely dips into the US! I feel so lucky to have seen one.

S/he distant.
Northern Hawk-owl

My favorite bird so far isn’t a lifer though. I’d seen Canada Jays a handful of times before, back when they went by Gray Jay, but they’d never made much of an impression on me. That has changed, due in part to their abundance here. I’m getting to see all their quirky and cute behavior and they might actually be my new favorite bird.

Imagine you’re walking through a spruce forest as the shadows grow long. You hear a sound. Or do you? You pause for a moment. Yep, there’s definitely something there. It’s a tiny squeaking noise. What’s making it are two plump birds flying your way. They continue to make these quiet sounds even as they’re just yards away from you. It’s like they’re trying to have a hushed conversation but you can hear anyway. All this from a family of birds that normally caw or shriek (Steller’s Jays are some of the loudest birds I’ve met). But Canada Jays are typically quieter and they’re cuter than any bird their size has any business being. I almost feel like we don’t deserve them. For the past few days, I feel like I’ve been basking in jay cuteness. Just check out the one below:

Top contender for the cutest pic I’ve ever taken.

I also have to admit the squirrels are cute too. Here’s a video I shot during a period when the birding was slow:

Gah. Too cute.

Anyway, those were my favorite parts of these first few days. I’m only halfway done with this mini vacation, so I’m excited to see what the next few days bring.

Wrapping up the Year

I haven’t written anything since August. Being a student with a full-time job got in the way, but I’ve been enjoying winter break for several days now. It would be hard to sum up an entire semester’s worth of birding in just one post, so I’ll end the year by sharing two videos from October I like. The first is of a Red-tailed Hawk at Indian Lake County Park. It preened itself but then stopped when it noticed me and my hiking buddy. I was worried it would fly off, but it assessed the situation and went back to preening. It let us walk right by it.

The second is a flock of Northern Shovelers. It’s the longest bird video I’ve made so far. They’re odd ducks.

Lastly, a bird sighting from today: an overwintering Chipping Sparrow at our feeder. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve seen one in the yard after fall.

The little brown bird in the center, with a Dark-eyed Junco to the right and a Mourning Dove bill on the far left
So cute

I ended the year with 184 bird species. Given the time constraints of school and work during fall migration, I’ll take it. The only species since my last update on here were Lark Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows, two grassland birds. I’m excited to see what next year holds. Maybe I can get a Chipping Sparrow on January 1st if it sticks around. I’m also hoping I can get out of the Madison area more often. I’ll have to take advantage of summer break.

Happy New Year!

Evening Cormorants

I got to Stricker’s Pond tonight just as the sun was setting. I didn’t note much bird activity: mostly a few American Goldfinch flight calls and a handful of Gray Catbirds meowing from the bushes. It was a pleasant walk though, going there at a time I’m not used to doing so. I was settling down for the night and so were the birds. A few Great Blue Herons flew across the water, and a flock of Mallards made a journey to their beds. Some birds, like the lone Common Nighthawk, were just getting started on their evening.

The coolest roosting birds were pointed out to me by a couple in the woods.

Cormorants? Where? I had scanned the pond perfectly when I was out in the open.

They were up in dead trees near the water, on the other side of the thick woods from me. I could just barely see them through the leaves. I knew I’d have a better view from the observation deck so I made my way over there.

I counted 15, but there could have been more. Some were perfectly silhouetted against the sky, but others were tucked back closer to the living trees at the shore. Plus, it was getting dark and everything was melding together in the low light. The fifteenth cormorant I found was barely distinguishable from the tree it was on.

They were probably at their nighttime roosts, but still awake. For the most part they sat there and slowly preened their feathers, but two of them got into a brief spat that I captured on film. I couldn’t see the orange on their faces that well, or much other detail for that matter, but I liked watching this little moment of their lives. They’ll all be down south before we know it, so we have to enjoy all the weird, funky water birds while we can.