Birding Across America by Train May 22—Jun 04, 2017

Posted by Michael O'Brien

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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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Our journey across the country was a marvelous sampling of habitats, from eastern deciduous forest near Albany to boreal bogs and lakes in the Adirondacks, to wide-open prairie grasslands and pothole marshes in North Dakota, to the rugged coastline and moss-covered temperate rain forest of the Olympic Peninsula. Along the way, passing by little towns, each with its own unique charm, and watching the landscape change gradually, or sometimes abruptly, is the real thrill of cross-country travel. As an added bonus, in contrast to our last offering of this tour in 2014, this year’s train trip experienced NO travel delays now that tracks have been upgraded and freight traffic has subsided. A most welcome change!

Sooty Grouse

Sooty Grouse— Photo: Michael O’Brien

 

As we often do when we first meet our groups, we asked everyone if there were any special birds they were hoping to see. One response was Bobolink. Well, we took care of that one right away, as our first official bird of the trip was a beautiful male Bobolink singing his bubbly song in a meadow outside Albany! That morning was devoted mainly to birds of the eastern deciduous forest and edge, and we did well to find the understated Willow and Great Crested flycatchers, along with such brilliant beauties as Hooded Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager, and Indigo Bunting. The scene in the Adirondacks was quite a bit different, with a landscape dominated by cool mountain lakes, boreal forest, and bogs. Warblers were a big focus during our time in the Adirondacks, and we were pleased to find a long list including Nashville, Black-throated Blue, Magnolia, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, and Canada. But rivaling all the warblers was that magical scene one calm, misty morning when we listened to the drumming of a Ruffed Grouse while enjoying amazing views of a hooting Barred Owl! And it was such a delight simply staying at the Adirondack League Club, particularly in the evenings when, from the comfort of our cabins, we could hear a bizarre and wonderful assortment of calls from the resident Common Loons. 

The prairie grasslands and pothole marshes of the Plains in North Dakota were in stark contrast to forested landscapes in New York. And these open spaces were teeming with birdlife! For this adventure on the Plains, Ron Martin, a local expert and good friend, joined our crew. After a quick visit to Oak Park (yes, there are trees in North Dakota!) we made our way to the Minot Sewage Lagoons. No birding tour would be complete without a trip to some sewage ponds! Although a blustery Northwest wind kept us inside our vehicles most of that afternoon, we enjoyed a marvelous concentration of waterbirds, highlighted by dozens of Wilson’s and Red-necked phalaropes spinning in circles side by side. During our two full days in the prairies, we packed a lot in and found some very special birds, such as Red-necked Grebe, Upland Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague’s Pipit, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and the very scarce Baird’s Sparrow. But as exciting as these birds were, it was the abundance that was most striking in North Dakota: cattail marshes full of Yellow-headed Blackbirds; ponds full of every duck in the book; flocks of migrating Franklin’s Gulls appearing out of nowhere; and roadside wires dotted with kingbirds, meadowlarks, and sparrows. And perhaps everyone’s favorite sighting, a comical trio of Wilson’s Snipes strutting back and forth across the road!

Read Michael’s full report in his Field List.