Birding Across America by Train May 25—Jun 07, 2014

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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The heart and soul of this unique tour lies in the excitement and adventure of traveling cross-country. The fact that our journey takes us across three completely different physiographic regions, and an amazing diversity of species, is almost secondary. And the train itself has a special allure, mystique, and history that make for an exciting element of the tour. This year, some unfortunate train delays tarnished some of that excitement, but the silver lining was expanded sightseeing opportunities, including Glacier National Park and the Columbia Plateau, which we normally pass under cover of darkness. Our record “train list” of 112 species is testament to the expanded birding opportunities en route, some understandably fleeting, but others quite spectacular. The pothole region of North Dakota was particularly birdy, and we had excellent views of most waterfowl, grebes, pelicans, and other waterbirds before even stepping off the train! And none of us will forget the wonderful views we had of that adult Ferruginous Hawk sitting on its nest as we slowly rolled by, or the Gray Partridge that we never would have seen had our train been moving. Throughout this tour, our group of intrepid travelers was up for the adventure, whatever it brought, making this trip a delightful experience.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Every tour is different, and each one memorable in its own way. One of the most memorable aspects of this year’s tour was amassing a long list of bird nests. Starting with a pair of Wood Thrushes changing nest duties at the Helderberg Workshop, and a Tree Swallow poking its head out of a nest box behind the Adirondack League Club, we went on to have a truly privileged glimpse into the private lives of some very special birds: a Black-throated Green Warbler tucking her nest under peeling bark of a birch tree; an Olive-sided Flycatcher building on the slightest horizontal branch near the top of a tall spruce—that just happened to be at eye level for us; and most amazing of all, a Sprague’s Pipit whose nest was masterfully tucked under a wisp of grass, betrayed only by the adult hobbling across the prairie in a very un-pipit-like fashion. With a little patience, and a little luck, we found nests or recently fledged young of an amazing 39 species! It’s going to be hard to top that!

Gray Jay

Gray Jay— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Each segment of our tour had a very different flavor, and a very different set of birds. In New York, our brief exploration of lowland deciduous forest near Albany was highlighted by simultaneous views of Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak—that’s a lot of color! And, appropriately, we did a little birding along some railroad tracks at Black Creek Marsh where we found Willow Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and nesting Eastern Bluebirds. Higher up in the Adirondacks, the coniferous and mixed forests, lakes, and bogs were full of bird life. Right on the League Club grounds, we found such typical eastern forest birds as Ruffed Grouse, Broad-winged Hawk, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue-headed Vireo, and a host of colorful warblers. Our forays to some of the Adirondack hotspots yielded boreal specialties such as Gray Jay, Black-backed Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and Rusty Blackbird. And the experience of staying at the Adirondack League Club was worth the trip all by itself. Resting in our cabins in the evening while listening to the enchanting wails and yodels of Common Loons was the quintessential North Woods experience.

The North Dakota segment of our tour was an incredibly birdy experience from start to finish. Few places are so full of life as the prairie pothole region. We didn’t have to travel far out of town to find marshes with an abundance of birds such as American Bittern, Red-necked Grebe, Wilson’s Phalarope, Black Tern, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and a long list of ducks. Prairie roadsides were dotted with Western Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Horned Larks, and sparrows, while the occasional Marbled Godwit or Upland Sandpiper fluttered overhead in display. Our time in North Dakota was made even better by having our good friend and North Dakota resident Ron Martin join us for our entire stay. His local knowledge added tremendously to our experience, particularly his assistance with finding specialty birds. We meandered our way across nameless prairie roads, stopping at one site to see Red-headed Woodpecker, another to see Sharp-tailed Grouse, another for Chestnut-collared Longspur, and another for Short-eared Owl. At one spot we were surrounded by Grasshopper Sparrows and stumbled into a Sprague’s Pipit. At another, we were soaking up amazing looks at a Le Conte’s Sparrow while rival Sedge Wrens catapulted song after song at each other from opposite sides of the road. It was hard to leave!

Western Willet

Western Willet— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Our time in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula was cut short due to train delays, but we sure fit a lot into two days. From some fine feeder birding at a Wild Birds Unlimited store, we proceeded to Railroad Bridge Park, where some pleasant birding from this historic wooden bridge yielded Red-breasted Sapsucker, Brown Creeper, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Swainson’s Thrush, and a Rufous Hummingbird nest. Along the coast at Ediz Hook, we enjoyed a plethora of characteristic Pacific species such as Harlequin Duck, Pelagic Cormorant, Black Oystercatcher, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, and Rhinoceros Auklet. Of course, the centerpiece of any visit to the Olympic Peninsula is Olympic National Park, which we visited twice. Towering conifers and snow-capped peaks made for an incredibly scenic drive, enlivened by a number of special birds. Superb views of Olive-sided Flycatcher and Western Tanager were rivaled by the sight of a Vaux’s Swift snipping twigs from a treetop for nesting material. One of our primary targets, Varied Thrush, posed nicely for us as it sang its mesmerizing song from high on a treetop. At the same location, a Townsend’s Warbler jumped from treetop to treetop as it sang with all its might, while a Sooty Grouse hooted away from the hillside above us, making for a classic Pacific Northwest symphony.