Birding Across America by Train May 19—Jun 01, 2007

Posted by Victor Emanuel


Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel started birding in Texas 70 years ago at the age of eight. His travels have taken him to all the continents, with his areas of concentration being Texas, Ari...

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In May 2005, VENT inaugurated a new kind of trip entitled “Birding Across America by Train.” It was a bold idea; no trip like this had ever been offered by any company. That pioneer trip was such a great success that we decided to offer it again in 2007. It sold out and was again a marvelous and memorable experience.

What made this trip so memorable? First, there were the three biologically rich areas in which we spent time: the forests and lakes of the Northeast; the prairies, potholes, and marshes of the northern Great Plains; and the mountains and rocky seacoast of the Pacific Northwest. We spent three days in each of these regions. Each had its own set of birds, wildflowers, and trees. Each was radically different. And each had its own special experiences.

After assembling in Albany we began our adventure in Upstate New York, based at the lovely Adirondack League Club and surrounded by 53,000 acres of private club-owned land. The forests of the northeastern United States are the home of a wonderful array of warblers and other songbirds. Our tour was timed to be there just as the trees were budding out, making it easier to see birds. In three days of birding we saw 20 species of warblers, including Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Canada, and the stunningly beautiful Blackburnian. All these warblers were in high breeding plumage and most were seen several times at close range, giving all of us the opportunity to savor each one. On our last morning we returned to Ferd’s Bog, where we saw Black-backed and Three-toed woodpeckers on the same tree!

We boarded the Lakeside Limited in Albany and traveled to Chicago where, between trains, we visited the Field Museum and met with Tom Schulenberg, a staff ornithologist who has led VENT tours and is one of the principal authors of the forthcoming and long awaited, Birds of Peru. Then we boarded the Empire Builder and continued west to Minot, North Dakota. Our three days of birding around Minot coincided with the height of the breeding season. We saw displaying Sprague’s Pipits, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, and Bobolinks, as well as many other prairie birds. One of the delights was seeing familiar birds on their breeding grounds in high plumage. This was especially true of the Black Terns, which were a marvelous study in black, gray, and white. Another treat was seeing hundreds of both Red-necked and Wilson’s phalaropes, two of the world’s most handsome shorebirds. One morning we watched 21 Sharp-tailed Grouse perform their bizarre stop-and-start dance, which was followed by superb looks at a Baird’s Sparrow.

The train journey from Minot to Edmonds, Washington was the most wonderful of the entire trip. We traveled for hours through the plains of North Dakota and Montana, sometimes right alongside the Missouri River. In the late afternoon we saw the snow-covered Eastern Front of the Rockies. As we ate dinner we passed through the mountains and over the Continental Divide, enjoying some of the most dramatic scenery of the trip.

Our time in the Pacific Northwest was spent on the Olympic Peninsula, where we experienced the majesty of the towering trees of old growth forest, inspiring views of the Olympic Mountains, and Puget Sound?a study in blues, greens, and whites. We saw a superb set of birds that included Varied Thrush, Harlequin Duck, a male Red-breasted Sapsucker, Townsend’s and Hermit warblers, Marbled Murrelets, and Rhinoceros Auklets.

In each region we saw beautiful wildflowers?trilliums in the Northeast and the Northwest, prairie smoke and pasque flowers in North Dakota, and glacier lilies above treeline in the Olympic Mountains. We also identified the characteristic trees of each region and saw an assortment of mammals, butterflies, and other marvelous creatures.

Second, there was the train trip itself. From a train you experience landscapes in a unique way. We traveled along and crossed many rivers: the Hudson, the Mohawk, the Fox, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Flathead, the Columbia, and finally the Wenatchee. Almost all of them played a role in American history. We saw the rich woodlands and marshes of Wisconsin, awoke to the plains and potholes of North Dakota one morning, and on another morning awoke to the lava country of eastern Washington. From the train we saw 58 species of birds including flocks of White Pelicans, many waterfowl, Sandhill Cranes, Bald Eagles, and American magpies. We also saw two moose feeding in a lake, pronghorn antelope, and a coyote. From a train you do not see billboards, gas stations, or convenience stores. You see country, varied and often magnificent country.

Finally, there were the people?the wonderful, appreciative group of participants and the excellent local guides we had arranged to work with: Gary Lee in the Adirondacks and Ron Martin in North Dakota. Their local expertise and great knowledge added immensely to our experience. We couldn’t have asked for a better group for this trip, especially Stephen Lalor and Louisa Edwards. They are from Dublin, Ireland and had never been to America. They saw our country as few visitors ever see it. They were almost overwhelmed by the vastness and beauty of America. Seeing our own country through their eyes was a treat for all of us. At our final dinner Stephen, speechwriter for the president of Ireland, made a speech. He talked about the “jaw-dropping” experiences they had had, the male Scarlet Tanager, the Rockies, the Olympic Mountains, the wildflowers, and the train journey itself. He concluded by telling us, “You Americans should be proud of the marvelous country you have.” Indeed we are proud and thankful that we had the opportunity to see it as few people ever have.