Friend of NemesisBird, Matt Sabatine, provides another great guest article – this one about his recent trip to Utah, Wyoming, and Arizona where he met up with Alex Lamoreaux for a little birding near Salt Lake City and the Grand Tetons….
Actor John Cusack was once visiting the domicile of the great Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, and surprised by the lack of debauchery and otherwise crazy and outlandish things going on that Thompson was known for, Cusack grew worried that he was going to miss out on all the shenanigans that he had gone there specifically to experience. Thompson’s reply to his worries was epic…”Don’t worry, son… there will be games”. Thompson and Cusack proceeded to drink excessively and play a game called “shotgun golf”, where one of them would hit a golf ball off Thompson’s porch while the other would try to blast it out of the air with a shotgun. All was well in their world.
Many months ago I was asked by a friend of mine to be in his wedding at Lake Powell in Arizona, and attend the wedding party afterward, which was to be a large crew of us on a collectively-rented houseboat on the lake itself. When initially propositioned with this opportunity, my initial thought was,”will there be games?”. And, of course, “games” in our own little nerd-dom might as well be “ample birding opportunities”.
I was apprehensive to drop serious cash, take a lot of time off work and travel all that way without being able to engage in ample birdwatchings. So I altered the trip plan to include ample birdwatchings. I manipulated my trip such that I would have a handful of days, both before and after the wedding festivities to go birding, and decided to fly into (and out of) Salt Lake City so that I’d have more of the mountain west at my disposal before having to mosey on down to Page and back. I had made these plans months in advance to reduce costs, and so had planned to do the “before” and “after” parts of my trip solo, seeing as how none of my close friends are interested in birding (at all). But as the trip was approaching, I had realized that an old friend was finishing up field work in eastern Utah, and the timing was impeccable: he was set to be in Salt Lake City on the night of my arrival, and was free to go birding several days thereafter before reporting to his next field job. That friend was none other than NemesisBirder Alex Lamoreaux, and after arriving in Salt Lake City late on the night of June 16, I literally hit the ground running. Alex was down in the Alpine Loop in the Wasatch Mountains trying to band Flammulated Owls, and as soon as I picked up my rental car I drove down to meet him.
I’ll keep the post short and sweet hereafter. Basically Alex and I went birding around Utah, Wyoming and a little bit of Idaho before I drove down to Page for the wedding. And it was fun. Below are many of my photos from our travels together.
One of our main targets for the Tetons part of the trip was to see and photograph the resident Great Gray Owls, which are possibly the most reliable and obliging of their kind in the lower 48 states at this location. As luck would have it, our search spanned 7+ hours over two days, but we did finally meet one. A banded adult was working its way toward us on the early morning of 6/19/15, only to be scared away from an overzealous photographer walking hastily, directly toward it. Should we have expected anything else? Thanks to that nameless man, this was the best shot I was able to get.
My meeting with Alex concluded when we drove back to Salt Lake City on the late afternoon of June 19. I immediately began my 7-hour drive to Page, AZ, where my non-birder friends awaited my arrival in the house they had rented for the week. From June 20 until I stepped off the house boat at Lake Powell on June 26, there were pretty much no birding opportunities, save for a Black-throated Sparrow here, Lazuli Bunting there and a cooperative male Black-chinned Hummingbird at our rental house in Page, AZ.
At one of our campsites, a pair of Peregrine Falcons were kiting over on the morning of 6/23, presumably near a nest, and a Rock Wren jumped up for breakfast while I enjoyed my breakfast that same morning.
Following the shenanigans on the boat for the wedding party, I was again eager to retreat back to the Salt Lake City area to do some more birding before catching my flight home. I had some very specific targets in mind, many of which I was able to hit on with success.
After several hours of searching spanning several days, I finally met not one but three Williamson’s Sapsuckers. This after a several-mile hike up a steep mountain, after forgetting my water bottle and eating hardly any breakfast at all. It wasn’t until I had given up on them and had begun my descent back down the mountain that they actually appeared. This male was feeding in a Douglas Fir below eye level right next to the trail I was hiking on, probably 10 feet away.
I was sitting on a rock in Zen-mode, cupping my ears to try and pinpoint a very distant tapping noise from a foraging woodpecker, which, as I suspected, I later came to find out was an American Three-toed. While doing this, I heard tapping much closer, tapping that, in fact, was coming from a young Douglas Fir not 15 feet away, the closest tree to the rock I was sitting on. A male swung his way around the trunk, feeding below eye-level for several minutes. Party time.
My return flight was a red-eye from Salt Lake City departing close to midnight on June 29th, so I devoted the entire day to a last-ditch effort for a species that had eluded me on the trip to that point, Greater Sage-Grouse. I drove the 3.5 hours in the early morning to set up shop at the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming, a surprisingly reliable location for this species during the summer months. I, of course, did not see any Sage-Grouse, but there was plenty else to look at and photograph, bringing forth a nice end to the trip.
Overwhelmed with wonder as to why a Golden Eagle is so closely approaching me nowhere near a nest site, I look around at the ground nearby, notice a little prairie dog colony, and my questions have been answered. Clearly, no love lost on behalf of the eagle. I immediately left it to its morning hunt, and hope to someday be forgiven for my ignorance.
As it were, John Cusack got his questions answered, and so did I. There were games, and birds and travels and beautiful sunsets and machetes jutting out of the sand near campfires, and lots of other things unfit for this particular tale. I will forever yearn to wander, but wonder I shall no more.