Birding Across America by Train May 22—Jun 04, 2010

Posted by Barry Lyon

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Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

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As our only domestic tour of its kind, Birding Across America by Train offers an immensely interesting and patriotic means to experience a broad swath of these United States. In combining two traditionally great pastimes, birding and train travel, this tour presents an unmatched opportunity to see some of America's most alluring birds amid some of its most majestic landscapes, and all while completing a national traverse from New York to Washington state aboard Amtrak trains.

The 2010 edition of Birding Across America by Train was a splendid endeavor, and one that saw our tour set new high marks for the numbers of bird and mammal species recorded. We enjoyed mostly good weather throughout the tour, but the Northeast baked under an early and especially intense heat wave. This, in combination with the later start date of this year's tour, meant that migration was largely over and the spring breeding season further along than we've observed on past tours. North Dakota and Washington were milder by comparison, but shared the same characteristics of a mostly concluded migration period and breeding activity among the nesting birds in full swing.

The new record of 226 bird species included a comprehensive representation of birds of the northeastern forests, the Great Plains, and the Pacific Northwest. In New York, a wonderful first day in the leafy Carolinian forest southwest of Albany produced colorful dandies such as Blue-winged, Chestnut-sided, and Hooded warblers along with Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, and Baltimore Oriole. Moving to the Adirondack League Club, a private facility set amid 53,000 acres of mountains, forests, and lakes, we spent more than two days entertaining ourselves on the club property and outlying parts of Adirondack Park. Highlights included Common Loons and Hooded Mergansers on Little Moose Lake; Scarlet Tanager and Blackburnian Warbler at East Lake; and Black-backed Woodpecker, over a dozen species of warblers, and a variety of northern plants in and around Ferd's Bog.

In North Dakota, we spent three days in Big Sky Country at the height of the breeding season. Pothole marshes, lakes, ponds, and reservoirs were filled with pageants of pelicans, cormorants, waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls, and terns; and the native grasslands contained a mix of some of our most emblematic prairie birds. This segment of the trip included visits to many excellent birding areas, but our trip to McHenry County east of Minot on the first afternoon was incredible for its richness. Sharp-tailed Grouse, Marbled Godwit, Upland Sandpiper, Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague's Pipit, Baird's Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and Bobolink headlined a list of sensational birds seen that day.

The final leg of our journey included two memorable days on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, and featured visits to Olympic National Park and the shoreline on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The highlights were many and included sightings of supreme Harlequin Ducks and Black Oystercatchers at Ediz Hook, and Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Varied Thrush, Olympic marmot, and black bear in the national park. Below Hurricane Ridge we were treated to the unforgettable sight of a Sooty Grouse in full display by the side of the road! Victor later proclaimed that event as one of the top birding experiences of his life!

For a serendipitous grand finale, an unscheduled coffee stop in the town of Quilcene turned into a birding extravaganza upon discovery of six species of finches clustered around the bird feeders at a nearby residence. From a distance of 10 yards, we watched transfixed as Evening Grosbeaks, Red Crossbills, American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, House Finches, and Purple Finches gorged themselves on sunflower seeds.

On an entirely different level, one of the joys of this trip is its varied pace. After several days of serious birding in New York and North Dakota, it was fun to board a train and relax while concurrently absorbing the memories of our last destination and anticipating the adventures to be had at the next. Special memories from our times aboard include:

• Boarding Amtrak's "Lakeside Limited" in Albany, and waking up the following morning along the south shore of Lake Erie, bound for the Windy City.

• Riding the "Empire Builder" from Chicago to Minot, North Dakota on an afternoon many of us deemed among the most pleasurable of the trip. Traversing southern Wisconsin, we laid eyes on a sublime countryside rife with farms, forested hills, and myriad rivers. The Mighty Mississippi appeared alongside of us late in the day, and was followed, soon after dark, by the lights of Minneapolis glowing on the horizon.

• The scenic splendor we experienced while traveling aboard "Empire Builder," across western North Dakota and Montana. This was a day that carried us from the rolling rangelands and prairie lakes of North Dakota, by the Missouri River in Montana, through the high plains, up into the forested Rockies, and finally down to the banks of the Flathead River.

• Crossing the state of Washington in a single morning, with such landmarks and landforms as the Columbia Plateau, Columbia River, Wenatchee River, Cascade Mountains, and Puget Sound all visible.

Birding Across America by Train is, in fact, a journey that celebrates the wildlife, landscapes, and people of our homeland. The variety we observe from one state to the next, the sense of adventure that fills us daily, and the uniqueness of purpose that lends this program its true meaning, effectively combine to deliver an unforgettable look at what is one of the world's most diverse, beautiful, and fascinating countries.