Archive for Recent Sightings
Much of the snow melted by 2:00 pm.
It’s one of those sentences I didn’t expect to speak on May 20 in Nebraska, but snow it did, a good inch and a half on the ground, the roofs, and the car tops when we got up that morning.
And what do we do in unexpected weather in migration? We bird, of course.
Alison’s attire required a little extemporization, but once that was done, we set off for the Soldiers Creek Campground at Fort Robinson, where we’d seen large numbers of lark sparrows, clay-colored sparrows, chipping sparrows, and lazuli buntings the day before, when it was just drizzling.
This snowy morning, the campground came through for us once again.
It’s always been one of my favorite birding sites in one of my favorite landscapes, the Nebraska Pine Ridge, but it’s rare for me to be there when the campers aren’t. On this morning, we shared the wooded grounds along the creek with a grand total of one rv’er (uncertain how to spell that one) — and loads and loads of birds.
Most impressive of all were the Swainson’s thrushes. This is a common May migrant in the Nebraska Panhandle, but we were unprepared for the flock of at least 20 bouncing around on the lawns and in the brush. We looked hard for rarer birds, but all were Swainson’s, and all the Swainson’s were olive-backed thrushes. No complaints from us, though.
The sparrow flock had grown considerably in numbers, with at least 120 lark sparrows feeding frantically on the snow, and perhaps half that many chipping sparrows joining in. Spotted towhees, probably but not certainly local breeders, whined and mewled and trilled everywhere, occasionally bounding out from their thickets to show off. These arcticus birds are the most heavily marked of all the spotted towhees, and Alison, who had most recently seen the bland oregonus birds of coastal British Columbia, exclaimed again and again when one flashed through her field of view.
There were less expected sparrows, too. A Lincoln’s sparrow was a bit on the latish side, even for western Nebraska, and a gloriously white-striped white-throated sparrow was both geographically and chronologically slightly out of place: generally uncommon at best in the Panhandle, this species is usually gone from the state entirely by May 20.
Most interesting among the emberizids were the white-crowned sparrows. At first glance, they seemed all to be dark-lored birds, thus presumably leucophrys (or maybe, just maybe, oriantha); but a closer look revealed that even though the black lateral crown stripes were thick and reached or nearly reached the base of the bill, there was invariably a gray loral patch separating that stripe from the eye line. The bill color was also intermediate between the darker-billed birds of the far north and west and the paler-billed Gambel’s sparrow; we put them down as “subspecies indeterminate,” not an uncommon label when you’re dealing with migrants — of just about any species — on the western Great Plains.
A high-pitched squeal revealed another surprise.
Broad-winged hawks are rare in extreme western Nebraska, but the weather had put down a mini-flock of three juveniles in the campground’s cottonwoods, and as the weather warmed, slightly, they took to the air, flashing from tree to tree and studiously avoiding the nervous Cooper’s hawks nesting in a tall tree nearby.
If I were a county lister, I’d have checked this one off for two, as it soared against the Cheyenne Outbreak Buttes, back and forth across the Sioux County line.
Meanwhile, the passerine show never let up. Red-eyed vireos and a locally scarce Bell’s vireo sang from the trees and thickets, and as the air attained its balmy 40 degrees F, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, American redstarts, and an ovenbird started to hunt and sing. All of those species breed in the campground, but there were also two migrants: a nice-looking celata orange-crowned warbler, and then, feeding with the American goldfinches and pine siskins in the cottonwood buds, a grassy-backed Tennessee warbler. As abundant as that bird is in eastern Nebraska in May, I’d never seen it in the Panhandle, where it is surprisingly rare at any season.
Three hours later, we left the campground to explore a couple of other sites.
There were birds everywhere, but the true fallout seemed to be concentrated in the riparian thickets. Up in Smiley Canyon, where our way was first blocked by American bison, we found no obvious migrants at all, though a flock of seven black-billed magpies was a welcome sight — the only representatives of the species we would see anywhere in Nebraska. The Icehouse Ponds were slightly more productive, with numbers of Swainson’s thrushes plicking and plocking everywhere we turned; chimney and white-throated swifts hunted among the flock of cliff, barn, and violet-green swallows. Alison, less reverent of rarity and more easily swayed by mere beauty than I am sometimes, decided that a male Bullock’s oriole, perched out on the grass in the middle of a small flock of western kingbirds, was her favorite bird of the day.
And mine? Impossible to choose on a day like this, when the weather and the season combined to make one of the best birding experiences I’d had in a long time. Or at least since the day before.
How to choose?
How do you decide between a soaring lammergeier and the soaring vaults of the Sagrada Família? Between golden orioles bursting out of the roadside brush and the gilded glory of the Palau de la Musica? Between bee-eaters barking and burping low overhead and the equally colorful, if less uncouth, cherubim and seraphim in some of the most important paintings of the western Middle Ages?
Here’s the secret: you don’t have to. At least not in Catalonia, where nature and culture have worked together for two millennia to create a landscape of endless delights—delights avian, artistic, and culinary.
This year’s tour started with a birdy bang with our first afternoon’s visit to the Llobregat Delta. We quickly decided that every world-class city could benefit from marshes, reed beds, and seashore like those that ornament Barcelona.
Sizzling corn buntings, scratching serins, and zitting cisticolas welcomed us as we left the parking lot at Cal Tet, and our short walk through warm sunshine—especially welcome to those of us who had endured a cold, wet winter—was accompanied by red-crested pochards, Audouin’s gulls, purple swamphens, and the interminable good-natured shouting of Cetti’s warblers. The only thing more richly supplied in Catalonia than good birding is good meals, and we started off right with an excellent dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in our neighborhood.
We launched the next morning with a quick breakfast in our hotel, then left at 7:30 to drive north along the Mediterranean to Aiguamolls, one of the finest wetland sites in Catalonia and Spain. White storks are almost comically abundant in the area, their great stick nests adorning what seems like every rooftop and treetop; we were rarely out of hearing of the exuberant bill clattering.
A common nightingale, not always the easiest of European songsters to see well, chanted and clucked and gurgled and trilled in plain view in the parking lot, and Cetti’s warblers were equally, and equally uncharacteristically, visible as we headed towards the first of the comfortable blinds that dot the marshes and ponds of the refuge.
That blind was doubly welcome when, for the only time in our week together, the weather turned less than congenial: the dull drip that had occasionally interrupted our walk threatened to turn to drizzle, and we sought shelter overlooking one of the best ponds at Aiguamolls. Garganeys, little egrets, little and great crested grebes, marsh harriers, and the first of what would be many whiskered terns made the wait for cheerier skies pass quickly, and indeed, we might have missed the splendid European spoonbill that magically materialized on the water in front of us—the only one of the entire tour—had we not been forced to patience by the rain.
The weather improved, and we finished our walk before venturing into the charming little resort town of Sant Pere Pescador for lunch. Not only was the food well up to our already exalted expectation, but we got to enjoy a little local color as the townspeople came in to fill their bottles from the great casks of wine lining one wall of the dining room: the incredibly low per-liter prices for what were quite respectable vintages (we tested a few, in the interest of cultural understanding) made us wish we’d brought our own supply of well-rinsed coke bottles.
Heartened by the blue skies and the bluer waters of the Mediterranean, we moved on to the famous ruins of Empuries, where first the Greeks and then the Romans established estimable cities beginning some twenty-eight centuries ago.
It was in the upper, Roman city that the signal advantage of this tour first sunk in: “birds and art,” some of us murmured, “birds and art,” as standing on the site of the two-thousand-year-old forum we watched firecrests, crested and long-tailed tits, and wood and western Bonelli’s warblers pass through the trees at eye level. We were a happy group as we returned to Barcelona, happier still over an excellent dinner in our hotel’s own restaurant.
After our early start the morning before, the next found us lingering a bit longer over breakfast before we set out for the forty-five-minute drive to Montserrat, the otherworldly mountain that rises abruptly from the coastal plain just northwest of Barcelona. Our destination was the monastery with its world-famous church, still an important pilgrimage station on the way to Compostela; on this beautiful blue-skied morning, though, we paused first at the Camí de les Batalles, a rosemary-scented trailhead above the little town of Bruc.
Serins, chaffinches, and the most obliging pair of cirl buntings in all of recorded time kept us entertained in the little parking lot while we pondered one of those improbable coincidences history is so full of: had the Catalonians not tricked the French into retreating from the flank of Montserrat in 1808, Joseph would never have abdicated the throne of Spain, and his nephew and son-in-law would never have conducted the investigations that made him, Charles Bonaparte, one of America’s most important early ornithologists.
Higher on the mountain, the moonscape of Montserrat’s oddly rounded peaks—reached by one of the world’s steeper cog railroads—was quieter than its maquis-clad slopes.
As the eerie fog cleared, a few soaring birds appeared, among them the only sparrowhawk of our week together, and we were eventually able to get fine looks at a couple of the typically shy western subalpine warblers singing in the sparse brush.
An elegant lunch in one of the monastery’s restaurants was followed by a visit to the church, where we admired the remnants of the Gothic cloister and tried hard to imagine away the Baroque besmirchments of much of the basilica’s interior. The line to pay respects to the Romanesque Madonna was short, so we joined the other pilgrims to marvel at the mosaics, sculptures, and wall and ceiling paintings adorning the long approach to the statue, its gold orb worn to a sheen by the kisses and caresses of the faithful over the centuries. We moved on to the monastic museum, one of those collections whose curators for some reason have felt the need to place on exhibit every last piece of art they own; the best strategy is to head straight for the highlights, among them a second-rank El Greco, a fine Caravaggio (if you like that sort of thing), and some truly eye-opening early Picassos.
Next morning found us going from early Picasso to early, period, as we left the hotel at 5:00 for the dry plains of Lleida. The early start was made less painful by a well-timed stop for coffee and pastries along the way—just the type of glimpse into genuine Catalonian trucker culture the average tourist never sees—and our eyes were open and our expectations high as we ventured out into the fields at sunrise. Hoopoes, red-legged partridges, common nightingales, and a gorgeous woodchat shrike (there is no other kind) started things off, and as we moved south across the steppe, colorful bee-eaters, noisy calandra larks, huge and cryptic European thick-knees, and, best of all, more than two dozen little bustards accompanied us.
As expected at the height of spring, the spirit was well and truly upon the male bustards, who were bouncing into the air above the females as they uttered their funny flatulent buzzes; in their distraction, several landed quite close to us, giving us wonderful views of these handsome and sadly imperiled grassland birds.
Lunch was in the tiny village of Belianes, where an enterprising restaurateur has transformed an ancient olive press into a charmingly intimate space serving excellent meals. It was hard to get up from the table, but more birds awaited, this time at the lake of Ivars. The approach, through intensively cultivated fields and a decidedly grimy farm town, is discouraging, but the lake never fails to exceed expectation. This time, Mediterranean gulls joined the abundant black-headeds, great crested grebes floated placid on the water at close range, and best of all, a male penduline tit descended from the willows to feed from the cattails just a few feet in front of us, a life bird for some and a highlight of the tour for all of us. We celebrated the successes of a long and rich day with a traditional dinner in Barcelona’s Santa Caterina market.
One of the great advantages of our Barcelona hotel is the proximity of the Ciutadella Park, a neatly laid-out and birdy site just steps from our front door. The morning after our long day at Lleida, we birded the park as a group, some of us starting at sunrise, others joining in as the morning went on. Spotless starlings and a finally cooperative short-toed treecreeper were among our best sightings, with a selection of introduced parrots and parakeets adding color and noise to the scene.
Color would be the theme of the rest of the day, too. After breakfast and a break, we set out into the city, exploring the medieval neighborhoods and their sights in the time-honored way: wandering until lost.
We compared the somber but moving Catalan Gothic of the improbably tall Santa Maria del Mar with the more obviously Frenchified architecture of the cathedral, and marveled at the mass of the city’s surviving Roman fortifications.
We had coffee and snacks at the Café 4 Gats, where Barcelona’s artistic avant-garde met at the turn of the twentieth century, then moved on to a guided tour of one of Catalonia’s real jewels, the Palau de la Musica, a masterpiece of light and whimsy.
After a light lunch of Catalan specialties, we moved on to one of the most famous buildings in Europe, the Basilica of the Sagrada Família. No matter how often you enter this church—still a-building 120 years after it was begun—the sheer imagination of Gaudí’s conception and the way that light, organic form, and devout conviction come together in one enormously varied and miraculously unitary work of art remains breathtaking.
The great project is scheduled for completion just ten years from now—surely occasion for a tour reunion.
The next day’s sights and sites were just as monumental. After a hurried breakfast in our hotel, we drove north to the mountains on a warm, bright morning. We arrived at the Cadí-Moixeró visitor center just as it was opening for the day—and just as a wryneck began the day’s serious business of singing in a nearby orchard. It took a while, but the strange woodpecker eventually flew in to reveal itself in all its weird, bark-colored glory. It was a good start and a good sign. The school retreat up the mountain, just below the pass, produced wheatears, mistle thrushes, and several looks at the often elusive citril finch, a specialty of the Pyrenees’ conifer-dappled meadows.
Red-billed choughs played around the cliffs above us, and as the skies grew warmer, Eurasian griffons, huge, bulky, tawny vultures, appeared in numbers. And then, from behind, there approached the bird of the day: a lammergeier, so close that the “beard” of this bearded vulture was visible. The great wedge-tailed bone-breaker soared nearby for several minutes, then disappeared as we congratulated each other on our amazing good luck. It wasn’t over, though.
A few moments later, the vulture reappeared, this time in the valley below us, just yards away, giving views such as none of us had enjoyed before. It was less a sighting than a visitation, and one that will remain in our memories for a very long time indeed.
After lunch in Bagà, we took time to bird the lower-elevation forests of the Pyrenean foothills and to visit the unprepossessing Romanesque church of Sant Joan de l’Avellanet, first documented in the early tenth century.
We were fortunate enough to find the church open, and stepped inside to see the short, single nave, the narrow slit of a window, and the graceful round apse, so different in style and ambition from the Gothic treasures of Barcelona.
Somehow, the last day of the tour had sneaked up on us, and we returned the next morning to the wetlands of Cal Tet. This time, we kept to the path outside the marshes to walk to the beach, where large numbers of Balearic shearwaters fished offshore and little ringed plovers, tawny pipits, and a handsome Eurasian oystercatcher haunted the sand. A hoopoe, the last of many we encountered in our week together, flew about the abandoned buildings, and cisticolas zitted what was now their familiar homely song overhead.
Our visit to Sant Joan had been intended in part to prepare us for the medieval halls of the National Museum of Catalan Art, which holds the most important collection of Romanesque wall and panel painting in the world.
Modest stone churches like Sant Joan were once covered inside with colorful masterpieces, masterpieces now on display in Barcelona, where they are exhibited in galleries built to evoke their original ecclesiastical settings. The lively colors, exaggerated forms, and earnest fantasy of these works are unparalleled in the history of western art—and matched in the natural world only by the beauty of Catalonia’s birds.
So how to choose? It’s simple. Don’t. Do as we do, and take in all the richness of a landscape full of nature and culture, wildness and history, art and birds.
Join me next year for some of the continent’s greatest birding spectacles.
Who could have predicted that—in March! in Nebraska!—we’d be peeling layers as fast as we could in temperatures in the 60s and 70s?
True to its changeable nature, though, by the end of this year’s tour, the Great Plains weather had us grateful for the coats and gloves we’d cast off at the beginning of the week. In between, we relished close-up studies of Ross’s and cackling geese, red-headed woodpeckers, and frantically displaying greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. We paid three visits to the spectacular roosts of the sandhill cranes, with the third time most decidedly the charm as thousands streamed onto the fields and river channels. Best of all, we made new birder friends and learned a lot along the way.
That first afternoon together, we looked at our suitcases stuffed with down coats and long underwear and smiled in embarrassment: why on earth should we have brought all that if the weather was going to be so resolutely springlike? The warm, sunny day was more than welcome as we explored a few of the waterfowl sites just north of our hotel; a good selection of lingering ducks padded the list neatly, while Dodge Park gave us our first looks at bald eagles perched hungrily in the giant cottonwoods and a fine adult lesser black-backed gull, still scarce on the eastern Great Plains, squabbled with ring-billeds over fish and other rotting tidbits.
We went on to a really good Mexican meal in Council Bluffs, then took our places on the shores of Lake Manawa for the evening show.
Right on time came the first buzzes, and soon half a dozen American woodcock were dancing in the sky above our heads, one of them repeatedly flashing right past us where we stood watching the sunset.
It was a good start.
And it got better.
The weather was even finer the next morning as we took our first walk through Fontenelle Forest.
A pileated woodpecker, sadly not seen by all, greeted us as we left the van, but red-headed woodpeckers were more obliging, perching and flycatching unconcerned as we admired them at close range. Prospecting wood ducks perched high in the trees, and the spring’s first red fox sparrows haunted thickets and brush piles.
A post-lunch visit to more wetlands, this time south of Omaha, produced a couple of horned grebes, one of them already in dashing breeding plumage. A gorgeous Franklin’s gull at close range on the water and in flight made up for the stand-offishness of one a few of us had glimpsed the evening before.
We ended a beautiful day at Schram Park, on the banks of the Platte River, where the always reliable feeders were attended by white-throated and Harris’s sparrows and at least two purple finches, a species whose occurrences in the area are unpredictable from year to year.
We could easily have spent the entire tour just in our little corner of eastern Nebraska, but the next morning, cooler and damper, we set off for the west. A stop at the Ceresco Flats and its “sparrow road” produced good views of Cassiar juncos and hordes of song sparrows; the handsome mink that emerged from the marsh was probably in search of muskrats rather than sparrows.
The first sandhill cranes welcomed us to Grand Island, and we paused at Mormon Island long enough for a leisurely study of our first close-up cackling goose. We would see many more more of both those species.
We drove the back roads to Kearney, stopping occasionally where it was safe to scan the crane flocks on the ground and to sort quickly through the roadside ducks. After checking in to our hotel, we found ourselves on the banks of the Platte River, where many thousands of cranes had assembled on the upstream roost. That first evening’s flight was not massive, but it gave us a taste of what lay ahead.
Sprinkles greeted us the next morning at Fort Kearny, and the cranes did not. Whether coyotes or human disturbance, something had pushed the birds off the roost early. It was time to shuffle the itinerary a bit to give us another chance at witnessing the great spectacle, and by the time we were finished with our well-deserved lavish breakfast, we had a plan.
After another look at roadside cranes, we drove north into the Nebaska Sandhills, one of the most beautiful and wildest areas in the lower 48. Red-tailed hawks were everywhere, among them a ferocious-looking Harlan’s hawk; not for nothing did Audubon style that (sub?)species “the black warrior.”
A suspicious bird wading in a ditch just west of Ravenna was occasion for one of those birderly u-turns. It was a rusty blackbird, with eight of its fellows; this rapidly declining species is scarce anywhere in Nebraska away from the Missouri River, and we would see only one more the entire trip, another female on the last morning in Fontenelle Forest.
Our walk around the Broken Bow sewage ponds turned up nice flocks of ducks, along with one of those “difficult” white-cheeked Branta: smallish and small-billed, but with a sloping forehead and long, thin neck, it may have represented the Canada goose subspecies parvipes, whatever that really is, a taxon poorly known in Nebraska.
We pressed on after lunch, arriving in Mullen (with a population of 491, the largest city in Hooker County) in time to put up our feet before meeting Mitch for the trip to a nearby greater prairie-chicken lek.
About 18 males strutted their weird stuff right in front of our schoolbus blind, occasionally breaking out into surprisingly violent dustups that left feathers flying and, no doubt, self-confidences battered.
When the dancing had waned and the herds of stotting mule deer started to descend from the hills, we bounced our way back to town for supper and an early night.
Thanks to the jagged line dividing the time zones in western Nebraska, 5:20 the next morning didn’t feel quite as early as it could have, but it was still dark when we arrived at the lek of the sharp-tailed grouse.
Less aggressively social than their prairie-chicken cousins, there were six males on this dancing ground, alternating their manic spinning dances with earnest, sometimes minutes-long stare-downs between rival males. The purple neck sacs, smaller and less conspicuous than the orange balloons sported by prairie-chickens, are always a surprise no matter how often you’ve seen them, surely one of the most improbable colors in the entire bird world.
The Pantry welcomed us for a huge breakfast, and then it was time to return to the east. Not straightaway, though: we wanted to leave ourselves time for another opportunity for the crane show at Kearney. Along the way, we witnessed one of the most memorable sites of the entire tour in the somersaulting display flight of a northern harrier at Clearwater, the bird again and again rising straight into the air, then twisting and turning on his descent into the cattails.
We went south to Sutherland Reservoir, where a distant flock of snow geese shimmered white on the gray waters and a great horned owl perched on the concrete dam and then flew in to inspect us at almost disconcertingly close range. A very active northern shrike was a reminder that no matter how warm the weather, winter wasn’t long past. The northern flickers here were apparently red-shafted birds, but a fresh roadkill confirmed just how complex the situation is for that species on the Great Plains: a visually “pure” red-shafted flicker at first glance, closer investigation of this unfortunate bird discovered a few red spots on the nape, certain evidence that somewhere in its family tree lurked a yellow-shafted bird or two.
After our Runza lunch in North Platte, we visited Cody Lake, that tiny urban pond on the banks of the North Platte famous for its appeal to lingering late-season waterfowl. This year, among the park ducks and barnyard geese, we found a female common goldeneye, several dozen cackling geese, a lone Ross’s goose, and a pair of dozing trumpeter swans, which raised their long necks to give their buzzy calls whenever a plane or red-tailed hawk passed over. The setting is far from pristine, perhaps, but there are few places where wild waterfowl are as trusting and as point-and-shoot close as here.
We were back in the Kearney area with plenty of time to watch the sandhill cranes feeding, loafing, and leaping on the fields, then took our place on the bridge at Fort Kearny.
A greater yellowlegs chased prey through the shallows of the Platte, and one of the red-tailed hawks was a dramatic dark-morph adult, crossing the river at close range.
Cranes, of course, were never out of sight and earshot, and as the evening went on, many thousands gathered on the low fields along the river. After two (almost) disappointing tries, this was the show we had been waiting for.
The light turned golden, then purple and pink and red, and still the cranes kept coming, flocks purring and trumpeting over our heads as they sought the safety of the river for the coming night. Even when dusk was approaching dark and we made the return walk to our vehicle, the shadows of the great birds were still overhead and their calls still echoed in the spring air.
The only downside to our having lingered at Kearney was that it was a long drive back to Carter Lake. The hotel desk, though, had our rooms waiting for us, and we were able to hit the pillows within a few minutes of arriving, crane music still in our ears.
It was easy enough to negotiate a slightly later starting time for our last morning afield. Cooler air had moved in during our time in western Nebraska, but even with temperatures right at freezing, the light breeze and brilliant blue skies made it a delight to take one final walk in Fontenelle Forest. Red-headed woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, and American goldfinches were drinking from the shallow waters of the stream, and red-tailed hawks were moving north along the ridges as we bade farewell to the birds, to each other, and to the wonder that is springtime in Nebraska.
Next year: March 19-26. See you there!
They’re stately, dignified, even slightly pompous birds. But when the spirit is upon them, even greater prairie-chickens can lose control, as these two did this past week in the Sandhills of Nebraska.
Yes, it’s the season of love and battle on the prairies.
My Nebraska tour is off to a great start — and with a great group, which makes me look forward even more to the rest of the week.
We started yesterday afternoon with some waterfowl watching near the airport, relishing close-up views of lesser scaup and redheads. I’d been worried that the fancy gulls of the day before might be gone, but sure enough, one of the first we saw on approaching the bleak marina at Dodge Park was an adult lesser black-backed gull, squabbling with the abundant ring-billed gulls over surprisingly large but obviously tasty dead fish. The day’s first bald eagles were here, too, perched impassive over the whole scene.
After an early supper at La Mesa, we moved across to Lake Manawa, where many thousands of gulls were streaming in to roost. Another adult lesser black-backed joined the flock, and most of us caught at least glimpses of three or four Franklin’s gulls out there in the horde; I’m hoping for more and closer views of this most handsome of North American larids.
The coloring of the skies reminded us that it would soon be woodcock time. We took our places in a traditionally good spot and watched the creatures of the night emerge, among them a few white-tailed deer and what I imagine will turn out to be the tour’s first great horned owl. Promptly at eight came the first nearby buzzings, and a few minutes later half a dozen birds were peenting and skydancing all around us. Several flashed right through the group as they took off in display flight — happily, no puncture wounds from the big-nosed lovebirds.
Best of all? Standing in the evening light without a coat. Spring on the Great Plains: you can never tell!