Birding Across America by Train May 16—29, 2011

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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With another Birding Across America by Train tour in the books, I am inclined to declare an overriding rule for this trip: "expect the unexpected." While simple and timeworn, the phrase is appropriate for this trip because, after four tours now, a picture has emerged of an adventure in which no two tours are ever the same. A significant reason for this is that vastly different weather conditions prevail in the northern tier of the United States from one year to the next.

Through the years, we have experienced plenty of glorious weather to be sure, but we’ve also run a weather gamut that has dealt us snow, record heat, saturating rain, wind, and fog. So in keeping with the theme of expecting the unexpected, the 2011 edition of Birding Across America by Train will be remembered, in part, for the vast amount of rain-produced flooding on the High Plains. Add to this scenario the above average rainfall in the Northeast and it is easy to see how rain played a key role in the setting of our agenda.

In a way, none of that seemed to matter since we had yet another extraordinary tour. For the third consecutive year we set new records for the most numbers of birds and mammals we’ve ever recorded on the trip. Our total of 227 birds upped the old record by one, while our 23 species of mammals easily surpassed the old record of 19. Among our sightings were a host of birds and mammals that we have never previously seen on the tour, including moose, Cape May Warbler, and Harris's Sparrow.

Natural history, however, is but one half of this magnificent trip. In combining two traditionally great pastimes, birding and train travel, this tour presents an unmatched opportunity to see a huge swath of the country while experiencing the charm of a cross-country train trip. Speaking to this point, the abundance of water this year resulted in several lengthy delays, which actually allowed us to spend more time on the train than ever before, and to witness the countryside in greater detail.

As always, the highlights were numerous, and it is impossible to list here all the moments that filled us with joy over the duration of the trip, but I wanted to offer a look at each of the regions we visited.

In New York, a rainy first day did not wreck the resolve of gorgeous Hooded and Blue-winged warblers on territory southwest of Albany, while our stay in the Adirondacks produced such dazzling birds as displaying American Woodcock, Black-backed Woodpecker, and a host of beautiful warblers in high plumage, including Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, and Magnolia.

In North Dakota, we entered Big Sky Country at that wonderful time when birds are still migrating through the region while most of the breeders have arrived on territory. Pothole marshes, lakes, ponds, and reservoirs contained far more water than usual, but still produced a pageant of pelicans, cormorants, waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Meanwhile, the native grasslands once again held a mix of emblematic prairie birds. This part of the trip included visits to many excellent birding areas. Memorable experiences included a remarkable migrant-filled morning at Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge, and defying lousy weather in McHenry County on May 24 to successfully find Sharp-tailed Grouse, Marbled Godwit, Upland Sandpiper, Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague's Pipit, Baird's Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and Bobolink.

The final leg of our journey included two days on Washington's Olympic Peninsula where we savored the coolness of the Pacific Northwest, finding such wonderful birds as Harlequin Duck, Black Oystercatcher, Marbled Murrelet, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Varied Thrush, to name only a few.
 
One of the joys of this trip is experiencing the country from the charm of a train. Special memories from our time aboard Amtrak include:

* Boarding the "Lakeshore Limited" in Albany, and waking up the following morning in Ohio along the south shore of Lake Erie.

* Riding the "Empire Builder" alongside the mighty Mississippi River near the Wisconsin-Minnesota state lines.

* Witnessing the gentle beauty of the undulating prairie of western North Dakota and Montana at a reduced speed because of flooding of the Missouri River.

* Spotting moose, prairie dogs, and mule deer through the large windows of the observation car.

* Crossing the width of Washington in a single morning, from Spokane in the east to Puget Sound in the west.

Birding Across America by Train is a journey across America, an unforgettable demonstration of how two great American pastimes can be combined for a singular travel experience. 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 extraordinary look at what is one of the world's most diverse, beautiful, and fascinating countries.