Birding Across America by Train May 20—Jun 02, 2012

Posted by Michael O'Brien


Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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Birding Across America by Train is a unique tour, in several ways. First of all, just the idea of traveling cross-country has a certain mystique and romance about it. Perhaps something we all did, or wanted to do, when we were young, and would like to relive, or experience for the first time. Then, there are our three main destinations—New York's Adirondack Mountains, the North Dakota prairie, and Washington's Olympic Peninsula—each one rich in its own way, and each well worth its own separate trip. And then, of course, there's the train itself, complete with a mystique, romance, and history of its own. The constantly changing landscape is captivating, and the gently jostling ride perfect for sleeping. The train provided some fine, albeit fleeting, birding opportunities as our "train list" of 101 species indicates. Interesting, often beautiful, and ever-changing scenery kept us looking out the window from the Mohawk River Valley in New York to the Lake Erie shore in Ohio, to the vast potholes, prairies, and badlands of North Dakota and Montana, and to the snow-capped peaks of Glacier National Park. Birding was particularly good in the pothole region of North Dakota, and mammal watching was at its best in Montana, with sightings of pronghorn, elk, red fox, and black bear. And to add interest to our longest train day, the Empire Builder staff put on a fun wine and cheese trivia game—our group won three bottles of wine!

Common Loon

Common Loon— Photo: Michael O'Brien

The magic of this innovative tour continued this year, and each segment of our route had its own special flavor and theme. As one might expect this time of year, weather was sometimes a factor on this tour. Gray skies and threatening rain followed us for much of our two weeks, and sometimes dictated our itinerary. For example, we managed only two picnic lunches during the entire tour. But we were fortunate to experience heavy rain on only two days (one in the Adirondacks and one in North Dakota), and in neither case did it last very long. Temperatures were often chilly (40s to 50s), broken by the occasional spell of warm sunshine, which made everyone (especially the butterfliers in the group!) happy. Despite the sometimes-challenging weather, we were remarkably successful in finding most of the characteristic birds of each region. The tour tallied an impressive 250 species of birds, with excellent views of many. For example, of our 27 warbler species, we had scope views of 15! And our patient field techniques were rewarded by sightings of many interesting courtship and nesting behaviors that are prevalent this time of year, but easy to miss with a more rushed approach. A highlight in itself was the fact that we found nests or recently fledged young of 28 species!

Before beginning our exploration of the Adirondacks, we sampled a mix of lowland deciduous forest, field, and bog around the Helderberg Escarpment, New York. Our brief time here was highlighted by a spectacular field full of Bobolinks, excellent comparisons of the very similar Willow and Alder flycatchers, a pair of Yellow Warblers tending a nest, and lovely scope views of a Blue-winged Warbler. Farther north, the coniferous and mixed forests, lakes, and bogs of the Adirondacks were full of bird life. Along with a long list of warblers, we saw such characteristic Northeastern birds as Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Blue-headed Vireo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Scarlet Tanager, as well as boreal specialties such as Lincoln's Sparrow, Black-backed Woodpecker, and White-winged Crossbill. A spectacular view of a Barred Owl, and close views of nesting Common Loon, Common Raven, and Black-throated Blue Warbler were some favorite highlights. Other wildlife such as puddling Canadian Tiger-Swallowtails, an American toad seeking shelter from the rain in a "hobbit cave," many wildflowers including pink and yellow ladyslippers, as well as a keen local perspective from Gary Lee, made our visit to the Adirondacks a particularly rich experience. And among the many pleasures of staying at the Adirondack League Club, none of us will soon forget the eerie and wild sound of Common Loons calling just outside our rooms at night!

The North Dakota segment of our tour was chilly, and often with the threat of rain looming on the not-too-distant horizon. But these challenges aside, our success in the prairies was nothing short of remarkable, thanks in large part to the local expertise of Ron Martin. A favorite site that we visited first, and revisited later, was the Minot Wastewater Treatment Lagoons (aka, sewage ponds—the one site no bird tour is complete without!). This remarkable place held hundreds of phalaropes (both Wilson's and Red-necked), hundreds of ducks of many species, hundreds of swallows (looking hungry in the chilly weather), dozens of Eared Grebes, stunning Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and many others. In a more natural setting, another favorite site was east of Minot in a nameless area, generally along 57th Street, that we called the "57th Street Prairie." Along this road, and on several nearby roads, we experienced some of the native grasslands and prairie potholes that make North Dakota famous. Western Meadowlarks and Bobolinks patrolled roadside fences, Upland Sandpipers and Marbled Godwits looked very un-shorebird-like as they stood in flowering pastures, groups of Black Terns floated over marshy ponds, and ducks of one sort or another occupied every pond or puddle. Of particular interest were some of those highly sought prairie specialties, such as Sprague's Pipit, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and Le Conte's and Nelson's sparrows that showed well for us here. At another prairie site northwest of Minot, Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, we had fun navigating some sloppy roads but were rewarded by amazing views of a Baird's Sparrow, as well as a Sharp-tailed Grouse and a moose. And, although fighting the weather a bit, we also enjoyed an excellent mix of arctic-bound migrant shorebirds including Baird's and Stilt sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitcher, at a marshy spot near Souris River National Wildlife Refuge.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper— Photo: Michael O'Brien

In Washington's Olympic Peninsula we enjoyed pleasant (aka, dry) weather for the whole period, which was a welcome change! The centerpiece of a visit here is Olympic National Park, which we visited twice. This magnificent area, dominated by towering conifers, was not only scenic, but also full of interesting birds. We were delighted to have multiple good views of Sooty Grouse, one of the signature birds of the region. And our second attempt yielded excellent looks at Varied Thrush, another characteristic species of the Northwest. Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Gray Jay, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Pacific Wren, Western Tanager, and Black-headed Grosbeak were among the many other interesting species we encountered here. Perhaps the top highlight, however, was a family of Barred Owls that we stumbled upon early one morning; we watched in amazement as an adult fed two fuzzy babies right before our eyes! Along the coast, we enjoyed an entirely different set of characteristic Northwestern species such as Harlequin Duck, Barrow's Goldeneye, Pelagic Cormorant, Bald Eagle, Black Oystercatcher, four species of alcids, and the ubiquitous Glaucous-winged Gull.

One of the more fascinating aspects of birding cross-country is looking at (and listening to) how species vary regionally. This hit home particularly in Washington, because most species in New York and North Dakota belong to eastern groups, while those in Washington were often different, sometimes subtly and sometimes strikingly. It did not take long for us to notice how different the "Oregon" Juncos in Washington looked from "Slate-colored" Juncos in New York. But on a more subtle level, it was interesting to see how dark the Pacific Downy and Hairy woodpeckers looked compared to those farther east. Or how large and dark the Song Sparrows looked. On an even more subtle level, it was interesting to hear how different the Marsh Wrens, Warbling Vireos, and Savannah Sparrows sounded between Washington and North Dakota. Or the subtle difference in appearance and song between eastern and western Purple Finches. Do some of these differences reflect species boundaries? Possibly. We now take for granted the full species status of some other very similar eastern vs. western birds, such as Chimney and Vaux's swifts, Eastern and Western wood-pewees, or the recently split Winter and Pacific wrens. This tour offers a unique opportunity to see and hear some of this variation in quick succession—one of the many reasons I look forward to my next Birding Across America by Train trip!