Alaska '98 Trip. Week 9. Southern Alberta, Canada to Denver

Last week's report had only the first six days of Week 8, because of America Online email size restrictions. I'm writing more and more, want to cut back a little. So this week's report will start off with Week 8 Day 7, then have all of Week 9.

We slept last night in Okotoks, Alberta, and plan to verify our probable Common Terns we thought we saw last night there.


Week 8 Day 7. Thursday July 16, 1998. 56th day out. 15 days left. Okotoks, Alberta, Canada to Shelby, Montana. Back in the US, ay?

Per our plan, we are up, out and at Frank Lake at 9:33am. It opened at 9:30. We now drive in, and by putting our windows down to listen, we see that the mosquitoes are practically nonexistent this morning.

We get closer to the lake, but we see exactly zero candidates for Common Tern. In a few minutes, one shows up, then a couple more. The sun angle is right for good identification, and we see clearly the white tails and black wedges out at the end of the wings. Definitely COMMON TERNS*. And this time we really mean it. Still, it would be fun if we could get closer...

Sharon plays the Common Tern tape, and we pull in an immature Franklin's Gull. I've never seen one (an immature), and he's never seen us. It's a standoff, so after a while, we ignore each other.

We've got our lifer, and we start heading back out. We see a dark bird with a white tail band, can't quite ID it. I suggest Lark Bunting, but Sharon says the belly was white. We leave it in our thoughts a while. Sometimes, an idea will pop up later that clinches the ID, though we're not getting any such thoughts right now.

We continue south, towards the US. The countryside is now rolling prairie. We pick up a trip dead skunk. Whew.

We are seeing hay freshly cut now, and the smell takes me back. Almost everyone is using the big roll makers, and we see several rolls in the area between the road and fence. We are curious about who gets this hay grown in limbo land.

We're nearing a specific area that Maury referred us to, hoping for Sprague's Pipit. This is supposed to be an easy bird to hear, hard to see. We follow the instructions, taking a right onto the access road to the famous Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump national monument. We are looking for all-natural, original short grass prairie. No cultivation, no crops. I recall this place from our 1991 trip.

We stop perhaps a mile short of the monument, get out of the pickup, and play the Sprague's Pipit tape. It is described as a descending tinkle of double notes, and is outstanding on the tape. We hope we can hear the real bird. After playing the song a couple of times, we hear a little unmistakeable tinkling echo. Actually about a half dozen. SPRAGUE'S PIPIT*. Can't see any though.

We decide to tour the monument, come back down, and take a gravel side road, as Maury had suggested we do, for quieter surroundings. On to the monument for now.

Speaking of the Indian monument, everyone thinks that the Indians ran the buffaloes off the cliffs, which then fell, smashing their heads in, which is where the monument got its name. The typical buffalo didn't put up much of a fight after that. All of that is true, except it's not where the name comes from. After one such stampede, the Indians were on the plains underneath the bluff, dragging buffaloes off the pile, when they came upon one of their own. He had chosen a prime spot to watch. They found him under the buffalo, with his - you know.

Last time we didn't visit, this time we decide to, but get wires crossed about which parking lot to go into with our fifth wheel. It's so hot that we get out, take three photos and some video, and leave. We still want to see the Sprague's Pipit, although we have now officially claimed him as a lifer, based solely on his song.

As we are walking back to our rig, we can hear Clay-colored Sparrows on the grass slope above us, below the bluffs. A brown (female, the males are gray) Northern Harrier flies by. Two hoary marmots sun themselves on some rocks.

With some difficulty of identification, we finally are sure we see a few Sprague's Pipits, one at a time, but these we can't hear. They're quite a ways off in the scope. We decide to head on towards the evening camp, and take off. Very shortly we cross a river with the interesting name of Oldman. OLDMAN RIVER.

We call ahead to our target evening RV park, leave our Visa number to reserve a spot. And as had to happen someday, we come to the Canada/US border. We pull up behind two other vehicles, wait our turn, and finally pull into the question-and-answer spot. We're up.

The agent asks us where's home, where have we been, how long were we out of the country, do we have any alcohol, firearms. What is the value of the stuff we purchased, do we have any fruit. We say $300 (although I'm sure it was a quite a bit more) and yes. What kind of fruit, he wants to know. We tick off the items we bought at Safeway. He tells us to take our fruit and go inside to have it inspected. We forget to take in the bananas. They say we have to dump our oranges, apricots, and lemon. We can toss them or eat them, they don't care. We take a couple of bites, toss, and are off.

No question was ever asked about antlers. We got our antlers in. And no double-check, which would have turned up the bananas, of course.

Our first trip bird after entering the US for the last time is the breeding plumaged AMERICAN AVOCET. We see a swimming group of petite birds, which I figure are Red-necked Phalaropes, but Sharon didn't see them, and I'm not sure, so we don't count them.

During the day's drive, I see a mostly black bird with white underparts and a pronounced, white terminal tail band. I suddenly know what the bird was we saw miles ago and tell Sharon what I think. Thought it might have been a lark bunting at the time, but decided to wait and think about it. She looks it up and agrees. EASTERN KINGBIRD. We see several more during the day. Elegant when they flare to land, and the sun is at the right angle on their formal black and white tuxedos.

We arrive at Shelby, Montana, and set up in Lewis and Clark RV Park, a bare bones RV park, but I think the best one of the area. After setting up, we head across the street to a man-made lake, where NY Bob said he flushed a Gray Partridge. These birds were imported from Europe and have taken such a good foothold, that in this area, they are the predominant hunting bird.

Right in camp, we see several WESTERN KINGBIRDS and on the lake there are maybe five AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS. We hear something buzzing continually, finally figure out that it's coming from above us, and see three Common Nighthawks. There are plenty of mosquitoes, flies, and other insects, explaining the presence of the nighthawks.

The Common Nighthawk is the nightjar, or goatsucker, most often seen during daylight. The first one we ever saw, in Texas, was overhead at three pm. So he's the day nighthawk.

Up on the plateau above the lake, we get a great late evening look at a HORNED LARK, another trip bird. I'm wearing my mosquito cap but Sharon is only wearing OFF, and after a while, we go back to camp.

Dinner is barbecued steaks, corn on the cob, relatively fresh tomatoes and mashed potatoes. I'm in dinner heaven again. I call Visa to get the total of our monthly bill, and write a check, to mail tomorrow morning.

Off to sleep, feeling a deep-down we're-home feeling (in the US), but missing Canada already. "Pure Sweet Canada Canada Canada" (song of the White-throated Sparrow). I have enjoyed Canada just as much as Alaska.

Day's Best Birds: Sprague's Pipit*, Common Tern*, Common Nighthawks, Horned Lark.

Life Birds: 2 today (Common Tern, Sprague's Pipit), 69 total.

Trip Birds: 7 today (2 life birds + Eastern Kingbird, American Avocet, Western Kingbird, White Pelican, Horned Lark) 211 total.

Lewis & Clark RV Park Rating: B-, electric hookups, on open gravel lot with no trees, rigs packed in. The good news: steady winds mean no mosquitoes.


Week 9 Day 1. Friday July 17, 1998. 57th day out. Shelby, Montana to Great Falls, Montana. Freezeout Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Looking for Mr. Longspur

We're up early, across the street, can't find any Gray Partridges around the lake.

As we head out we see the best highway sign of the trip: "BNSF Intermodal Hub". Anybody have ANY idea what that means? It was on one of those helpful, standard, green signs with gray or silver letters and border. They show up really well at night, almost like they are backlit. You see them all over the country. Not the message. The sign type.

Sharon encounters my intermittent truck radio problem. I've been living with it for about five years, but can't find the source of the problem. It has an electronic pushbutton panel, and occasionally, for no apparent reason, none of the buttons will work. The radio is stuck on, at the station it's on, AM or FM, and you can't change the station, can't turn the radio off, can't change AM to FM. The only thing that works is the reduce-volume button.

Sharon finds the problem in three minutes. Occasionally, the station scan button gets stuck in the 'in' position, and doesn't pop back out, locking out the operation of all the other buttons. It's very subtle, difficult to see, but all you have to do is use you fingernail, and pop it back out.

We see two pale brown birds, one sitting on a fencepost, with its long tail showing. A Red-winged Blackbird sits on an adjacent fencepost. We do a U-turn, come back and study it. We finally ID a female Ring-necked Pheasant.

We come to the Freezeout Lake area, bypassing the first hunter's parking area, continue on to the second - nearer the water. There's a Common Tern patrolling the edge of the water, about 25 feet from us, six feet over the water. Very nice upgrade to the faraway models we saw at Frank Lake.

We also see a juvenile WILSON'S PHALAROPE. There are Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Common Terns all over the place. We hear Soras, and check the range of Yellow Rails, but they will not be here. There are Black Terns around, and we see a WHITE-FACED IBIS flying over.

We see a BLACK-NECKED STILT and hear its familiar kip, kip, kip. A Short-billed Dowitcher, then a DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT. One of the lakes has two islands. Common Terns nest on one and the cormorants on the other.

Our big purpose is to see longspurs here, and we backtrack to the hunter's parking area. There is perfect prairie shortgrass here. We spend about an hour, and see maybe a dozen female longspurs, but can't tell whether they're McCown's, Chestnut-collared or some of both. Their black-and-white tails are confusing, for the milliseconds we get to see them in the air, before disappearing back into the grass.

We decide we've wasted enough time, and head out for the day. But ...

We fly by a building, I just make out the words "Visitor Center," and we decide to go back and get some information. We are lucky to talk with a fellow who knows a lot about all the birds here. He gives us tips on finding longspurs, near a picnic area, and Gray Partridges, on the back side, of an 11-mile perimeter drive. The dirt road turns to non-negotiable muck when it's wet, but it's been dry for days. We decide to take the fifth-wheel around the perimeter drive, hoping for male longspurs, much easier to identify than females.

But first we drive up a separate gravel road he mentions, hoping for Gray Partridges. No luck, though we see lots of VESPER SPARROWS, with their light outer tail feathers. Then back to the loop road. Right away we see a couple of Upland Sandpipers on fenceposts. We spook a GREATER CURLEW, then see a MARBLED GODWIT. Later, to remember the latter, I have to have Sharon translate what sounds like 'robert delbert' mumbled into the cassette recorder with a mouthful of ice chips, into the correct 'Marbled Godwit.' I couldn't figure it out.

On the back half of the 11-mile loop, I see two dove-size birds walking the road in front of us. We stop and they fly, but I see rusty outer tail feathers. I quickly check the NGS Field Guide and I know what they are. Sharon doesn't quite get them, but more flush into the grass on our left. I see a couple walking quickly away from us, toward the water. I slowly walk towards them, they flush and Sharon gets a good look now. These are the GRAY PARTRIDGES* we've been after for a couple of days now, and it's so great to see them.

There is a very abundant plant with both white and purple flowers that has a fantastic smell. And there are so many, that the smell is everywhere. I want the world to smell like this. We're pretty close to the lake here, so I bring the scope out. Scanning, we get EARED GREBE and WESTERN GREBE. We also see nesting Red-neck Grebes. We continue on around and see a beautiful sunlit yellow, black and white bird. The same AMERICAN GOLDFINCH as on our spinner.

We finish up at Freezeout Lake, and resume our travel, passing through Fairfield, the Malting Barley Capital of the USA.

Sharon insists that I put down camel, trip mammal, as we see one in a fenced enclosure. There are lots of small canals here, similar to the ones near Uncle Calvin's in central California, south of Fresno. But there are also lots of giant rainbird roller sprinklers (I don't know their proper name), like you see around Minneapolis.

We begin to see lots of buttes, and are reminded of Arizona and New Mexico. We start dropping down, down, down in altitude. Drive by Northern Lights Angus Bulls.

We make the transfer to I-15, and as we're making the sweeping right turn, I look in the left side mirror for traffic, and notice somebody's hubcab tooling down the road.

Then I recognize it.

At this junction, there's lots of space to the right, and I pull over and park there. As I step out, I see a blob of rubber around one of the rims, where a trailer tire used to be. I've never had the spare tire out from under the trailer, but I'm going to get it out now.

It's really hot, I finally get the tire changed. We're only about ten miles from our destination, Dick's RV Park. I called there earlier and made a reservation for a shady, full-hookup pullthrough and it looks really inviting when we get there.

I find a place to buy a new tire, but they just closed. Have to wait till tomorrow. Goodyear Tire-Rama.

I go back, shower and relax the rest of the evening. It's been a great birding day, one of the best in a long time.

Day's Best Birds: Gray Partridge* (aka Hungarian Partridge), Wilson's Phalarope, Greater Curlew, Marbled Godwit, American Goldfinch.

Upgrades: 1 today (Common Tern), 8 total

Life Birds: 1 today (Gray Partridge), 70 total.

Trip Birds: 11 today (Wilson's Phalarope, White-faced Ibis, Black-necked Stilt, Double-crested Cormorant, Vesper Sparrow, Greater Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, American Goldfinch, and the Gray Partridge*), 222 total.

Dick's RV Park Rating: B. Right next to a freeway exit road, otherwise OK.


Week 9 Day 2. Saturday July 18, 1998. 58th day out. 13 days left. Great Falls, Montana to Bozeman, Montana.

Got up, got two new tires, one a backup spare, unmounted, for potential future tire needs. Had them install the new, mounted one. Took off.

Last night at 7:30pm, a bank temperature said 98 degrees. The Tire-Rama guy said temperature was 106 yesterday.

Sharon called our Montana birder hotline numbers. They left references to another couple of names, but the birds reported were not of direct interest on the hotline itself. I called one of the birders, and asked him about longspurs. He recommended Freezeout Lake (why, that sounds familiar), and said he had only seen Chestnut-collared Longspurs there. We thought we had seen some McCown's Longspurs, so that makes me doubt our tail-identification skills. I asked if males take part in raising the fledglings, suspecting that maybe they don't. He had no knowledge of them leaving. He gives me two more numbers, and we decide to call one of them from the night's camp.

During the day's drive on I-15, we slowly drop down through a wonderful green valley, centered with an inviting-looking river of moderate width. We see White Pelicans on it, then see a sign identifying the Missouri River. Sort of feels like my river. There are small, rugged mountains on both sides of the valley, rich green grass and trees all over. The Missouri has carved out a fantastic canyon here.

We see 40-50 Canada Geese in a farmer's field, adjacent to the river. Montana's state road sign numbers, here anyway, are painted inside arrowhead outlines. The low mountains have begun smoothing out, they look like golf course carpets rolled over the tops of the hills. Individual evergreens populate the hills, rather than stands of forests. Closer observation of the greenery reveals that it is prairie short grass.

We pass through Jefferson City, but Montana, not Missouri, then we begin climbing. I watch the temperature gauge climb to its highest since the broken pulley incident. My mind is taken off this as we come around a curve and see a shiny white big rig tractor, lying on the other side of the center barrier, on its side, with the top against the center barrier. The top is ripped open, and you can see the fiberglass shards. It makes Sharon think of Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.

As we approach Butte, we are shedding altitude very fast, then see the city through a 'vee' between two mountains. Butte is a big mining town, and lots of the mountains look like they were skinned. There is a wonderful, brilliantly white statue of the Virgin Mary high up on a mountain top, across the freeway, and I suspect its purpose is to pull the eyes away from the mining havoc. Beautiful though.

We cross the continental divide, then do a five-mile long 6% downhill grade, to relatively flat land. Montana has these interesting roadsigns. Take a square roadsign, rotate it 45 degrees, so it looks like a baseball diamond. Then split it down the middle horizontally, from third to first base, put a hinge at the split. Now you can fold the top half down, so you can't read its message, or unfold it up, so that it can display the intended message. Typical signs say, "ROAD CLOSED AHEAD." Attach a small wire or rope from the top of the sign, and run it through an eyebolt at the top of the post the sign is attached to. Then like venetian blinds, you pull the rope down to raise the sign, or let the rope up to release the top half of the sign. An interesting way to do the signs.

We don't turn off, but pass within a couple of miles of the Missouri River Headwaters State Park, later pass the Madison Buffalo Jump. The air temperature continues hot, and we are glad to pull into the Sunshine Campground RV Park, just outside Bozeman.

Sharon puts a cornish game hen into the oven, and starts it cooking as we head into the first good grocery in a long time. We eat dinner outside, in the warm air, but it's breezy in the shade. Also, the park's main circuit breaker blew, there's no electricity, and our AC doesn't work. We have game hen, baked potato, garden salad, cold milk. Mmmm-mmm.

She has found a meeting in town, and heads off, after doing most of the dishes. I finish off the dishes, then make a phone call to a birder named Helen, in Billings. She puts us onto a location where we might find both longspurs. But we will have trouble finding Chukars and Bobolinks around Billings. They've nested and are out of there, I think she says.

I catch up with updating all the birds we've seen, the dates and locations, in our NGS Field Guide. Sharon gets home, the electricity is back on, and I fill her in on our good chances for longspurs.

Day's Best Bird: Cornish Game Hen

No new birds today

Sunrise Campground RV Park Rating: B. Nice except for the electricity problem. And it's a little crowded.


Week 9 Day 3. Sunday July 19, 1998. 59th day out. 12 days to go. Bozeman, Montana to Sheridan, Wyoming. Longspur Looking, Part II.

Because of the heat, and because we want to be birding for longspurs near Billings before 8:00am, we answer the alarm at 4:00. We're on the road by 4:45. It's dark, we're eastward bound, and hardly anyone else is on the road.

Before we know it, we're in Billings, driving up a steep, winding road to a bluff overlooking the city. The airport is right across the road from the bluff. We pass a flight of eight Canada Geese. Only they are rusty iron plates, cut out and bent into recognizable sculptures.

There are wonderful houses looking down on the city and the rolling hills beyond. This is definitely horse country, with an equestrian center, hot walkers, wide open fields and paddocks. "PRAIRIE BREEDERS" is painted on the top of a big barn. Three horses occupy one paddock, and one of them is tearing around it in a circle, daydreaming about being in the open meadows.

Sharon spots a trip Pronghorn Antelope, and we see many more during the day. As we near the referenced short prairie grass pastures, we flush up lots of Vesper Sparrows with their white eye rings and chestnut shoulder patches.

We turn left at the green bar in Broadview, then after a couple of miles, we recognize the correct field. By the landmark pipe about 100 yards from the road. Suddenly ten birds fly up from their invisible grass hiding places, probably a couple of families. We see their black and white tails, but can't see any of them long enough to identify them. We are looking for males, because their face markings and colors will clearly identify the McCown's vs. the Chestnut-collared Longspur.

We are looking at three on a fence, probably a female adult and two juveniles. Then I realize that the adults, who would normally not sit on the fences, are just following their fledglings around. The little ones have no problems at all with fence-sitting, they are too young to know about avoiding exposed positions. A truck zooms by on the gravel road, sending the three into the air and away. But down a couple of posts, on the top of the fence, sits a single bird. Was he there when the truck went by?

My binoculars tell me it's a male, and I quickly switch over to the scope, zeroing in and telling Sharon at the same time, including the fact that it's a long-sought-after male. From the scope, I clearly see that the back of his neck is chestnut-colored. CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR*, at last.

Sharon gets a clear look in the scope, then he flies over the road and behind us. I watch him overfly the huge wheatfield behind us, heading for another patch of short prairie grass visible behond the wheat.

The longspurs' last name comes from the back toe, which is extra long, and is believed somehow to be useful because they spend most of their lives walking on the ground.

Helen told us that we should be able to see both longspurs here, and that the Chestnut-collared would be the more difficult. We continue to scan the grasses and fences around us, glad in the knowledge that we got the harder one already. Lots of fledglings land on the fences, accompanied by their moms. Then Sharon spots a male with the scope, sitting on a fence. I get a great look too and zoom in at 45X before he takes off. Black face, little chestnut on his wing. It's a McCOWN'S LONGSPUR*, but when he flies, he stays in the area. Thanks Helen, for this great location.

We were going to stay in Billings, because this was going to take all morning, but it's only 9:18am, so we decide to put some more miles on. As we are turning around we see Horned Larks and Meadowlarks. We head back toward Broadview and Billings.

The key to our successful birding the last few days has been the birding networks, both telephone and computer. Without checking back, I'd venture to say that the last eight or ten life birds were because we got in touch with someone who could point us to the right place. We resolve to join the ABA when we get home, and should have before this trip. They maintain a list of members, send you a copy, and each member gives his status of availability for phone calls to other members. Like a '1' means call any time, '2' means call between 8am and 8pm, '3' means call on weekends, and so on. Only I made up these keys, they are just an example. I'm guessing we would have gotten ten more hard-to-get birds. The downside, of course, is that we'd still be in Alaska. Or upside...

As we pass by the airport, and through downtown Billings, a bank tells us it's 88 degrees. We pass an Exxon station with a message board that says, "Register to Win 82 Honda Accord." An 82? Has a 1982 car become a classic while I wasn't looking? Or do they mean they are going to give away 82 brand new Hondas nationwide?

I'm watching a train cross the road ahead, in town, and miss a red light. Trip violation. Sharon yells, I see the problem, but I'm so far out that I just hit the accelerator and hope. A car is zooming at us from Sharon's side, but slows down. Whew. I wait for the adrenaline to recede to its normal resting place, and for the train. I resolve to redouble my driving alertness. Luck won't save us every time.

We stop in at a McDonald's for lunch to celebrate the longspurs, and I am delighted that they have my new craving, an m&m McFlurry.

We are aimed for the Little Bighorn Battleground up ahead. We are on a Crow Reservation, and see a strange site. There is an open box in a field, the box is maybe 5x5x4 feet. One side is open and that faces the highway. There is a huge letter 'X' painted on one side. There are evenly spaced boxes like this, maybe fifty feet apart, spread across six or seven adjacent fields, most with a different upper case letter. We have no clue.

We stop at Little Bighorn Monument, and I can't help going back in time, picturing the events of the day. We read a play-by-play description of group movements and encounters. The weather is scorching hot, and I wonder if it was this hot on that day. I doubt it. I wonder if there were longspurs back then, chased from their grassy home, unknown to everyone.

At 2:03pm, we are welcomed to Wyoming. Like No Other Place On Earth, it says. The speed limit is announced at 75 mph, confirming indirectly that Montana had no speed limit, because we never saw one [We later read that the speed limit is "safe and prudent"].

The Montana roads were nice and smooth, but they change for the worse at the state border. Construction is underway on the other half of the divided highway, and that will help the drivers next summer. Just like the construction of last summer has helped us this.

Here's a sign for Gillette, Wyoming, the energy capital of the nation. We pass a coal mine that advertises both types of coal. You got your lump and you got your stoker. I tell Sharon that we used both when I was growing up. Started with lump till Dad put in a continuous feeder in the basement, and I guess that must have used stoker.

We pass a herd of all-black cows except for a 16-inch band of white around their middle. Designer cows. Pretty cool. At 2:33pm, we pull into the Sheridan, Wyoming KOA. There are lots of shade trees, and we jump on a nice, shaded site. We set up, turn on the AC and go inside for that great afternoon nap that follows a 4:00am alarm and two life birds.

This is maybe the best KOA I've been in. It's cozy, lots of huge shade trees, swimming pool, miniature golf, showers, laundry, mini-store, two phones and friendly owners. Not too close to the freeway, and not too far.

I catch up with the week's events on the computer.

Day's Best Birds: Chestnut-collared Longspur*, McCown's Longspur*

Life Birds: 2 today (the longspurs), 72 total.

Trip Birds: 2 today (the longspurs), 226 total.

Sheridan, Wyoming KOA. Rating: A.


Week 9 Day 4. Monday July 20, 1998. 68th day out. Sheridan, Wyoming to Denver, Colorado and daughter Shandra's home. Looking for Bobolinks.

We are up early again, and get our morning Common Nighthawk over the freeway, bugging. Getting up today at 5:30am was much more difficult than getting up at 4:00am yesterday because we have no specific bird on our target list today.

We watch the answer to the question, "How do pronghorn get down off of hills." Prong.

You know how great it is when you're driving America's roads, going west in the morning or east in the evening? The sun is behind you and the countryside ahead of you has such great light. You feel so sorry for the people going the other direction, looking into the sun.

This morning, we're the other people.

Sharon is trying to get out of the heat-through-the-windshield sun and I get an idea. "Get the windshield sunshade, and spread it out so it's half on your lap and half on the dashboard," I offer. She gets it out and after a little maneuvering, wonders why we never thought of it before.

We round a slow corner, and the sun is on our left. We're going south again. We look to the right, and can see a pickup pulling a fifth wheel, keeping exactly up with us. He looks to be about the same size we are, and is rolling across the slopes of several grassy hills, about fifty feet away. Suddenly the hills begin moving rapidly closer. We're on a collision course. We're gonna cra--! Oh. Never mind, it's our shadow. Neat illusion though.

Wyoming is gorgeous so far, lots of long and short grasses and greenery. It's like no other place on earth. We decide it has upper-medium size skies. Not quite big skies. Gotta go further north for that.

Sharon sees a nest on a manmade platform on a pole and describes it to me. I missed it. Then we both see another one, then see an OSPREY. Sharon reads me the story of Wyoming's name. The Delaware Indians called this area meachaweeyaming, or something like that, which means the great plain, or on the great plain. That got shortened to Wyoming.

Wyoming has six adjacent states, Sharon says, can I name them? I can't, with my newly increased concentration on driving. I could if I weren't driving. Sometimes, I'll draw a freehand map of the United States, drawing in all the states, then naming them. I can get them all except I keep reversing New Hampshire and Vermont. Other times I'll do South America. Next will be Africa. It's amazing how useful this is in Trivial Pursuit.

We see a mother deer with twin fawns on our right. It's 6:30am. Then I think I see a Lark Bunting on a fence, and for sure see several black-faced white sheep. Merinos? I can't remember. Sharon didn't see the possible Lark Bunting.

When we were just leaving Denver in 1997, we were on the way to our south Texas birding trip. We had just left Shandra and Jeff's and were on the outskirts of Denver, when we saw a flash of a black bird with white wing patch. We didn't identify it at the time, but as I was leafing through the NGS Field Guide that night, I realized that it had to be a Lark Bunting. No other possibility. I made the argument to Sharon and we added it to our life list as it existed in 1997.

So now, I've just had the exact same experience. I have the feeling that we're going to see them up close, very soon. I see a couple more, but am going too fast to slow down and stop. I knock ten miles per hour off our 55 speed, and tell Sharon what I think I'm seeing.

Almost immediately we see a couple and I do have time to stop now. All black, white wing patch, silvery-white beak. We get great looks with the scope. No doubts. LARK BUNTING, an upgrade to our one-year-old sighting, in Colorado. And I am now certain that the one we saw in '97 was indeed a Lark Bunting. I was probably 90-95% sure at that time.

We resume our travel, and watch a bunting fly to a fence, flare to land, and show us his wings-open, black-and-white markings. Excellent.

We come to a group of pronghorns. An adult male, two females and a young one. When traffic is moving, they don't mind. When traffic stops, they don't mind. When traffic stops, and people get out, the male minds. He runs over to the others, they all run perhaps fifty yards away and stop. We look at each other. I get out the video camera, and get some good shots. They decide they are still too close, and jog away. Get that too.

We've been aware of hearing a peep, peep, peep. As we switch our attention to the peeps, we realize that we're looking at a huge prairie dog town. From right here, we see maybe 200 holes and 50 dogs. We watch them a while, then look back at the pronghorn. They are on the other side of a fence. Dangit. We didn't see how they got over. Pronged, probably, and we missed it.

We stop for breakfast, and as we're accelerating on the road afterwards, we both see a fairly big, light brown bird fly up and straight away from us. All I saw was a white terminal tail band, but broken in the middle by the same brown color as the rest of him. What was that? We discuss it a long time, but can come to no conclusions. The size and general shape fit that of a Mourning Dove, but they have that wedge-shaped tail. So that doesn't quite fit.

We're about an hour from Cheyenne now and we're seeing lots of mesas and rocky outcrops. We stop at the Chugwater, Wyoming rest stop. Sharon calls her mom, Gretchen, to wish her a 'bomb voyage,' pronounced the French way. Didn't you used to call it that? She's headed for Norway in a couple of days with her brother. We learn that Jeane & Red (Sharon's sister and brother-in-law) made it safely home, are recovering from their trip, and can't figure out how we could possibly spend three or four more weeks on the road.

Billboards begin to assert themselves as we come closer to Cheyenne, and it's then that I'm reminded of the refreshing general lack of them for the last few weeks. "Your Room is Ready - Little America."

We stop in at the Game and Fish building in Cheyenne and get information on Bobolinks. As we continue on through the city, we see advertisements for CFD, but can't figure it out. There's a big annual rodeo event, and we know that is in progress, then we figure it out. Cheyenne Frontier Days. Like the Calgary Stampede.

We follow the G&F guy's instructions to likely Bobolink fields, and patrol up and down this gravel road for an hour-and-a-half. It's really hot and Sharon slowly starts wearing her Norwegian-been-in-the-sun-too-long red face. Time to cool off. We're fairly sure we've seen female Bobolinks, but we're not sure enough to claim them. So we don't.

We resume our drive and are soon welcomed to Colorado. We drive more-or-less straight to Denver - Wheat Ridge actually, in northwest of Denver - and set up our trailer in Shandra and Jeff's driveway. We'll be here six nights, and leave next Sunday. We'll do a little birding here, but very little.

Days Best Bird: Lark Bunting, Osprey.

Upgrades: 1 today (Lark Bunting), 8 total.

No life birds today.

Trip bird: 2 today (Lark Bunting, Osprey), 228 total


Week 9 Day 5. Tuesday July 21, 1998. 61st day out. Babysitting granddaughters Mikayla (2-years) and Samantha (3-months).

Rolling on floor, teaching mischief. Stuff like that. Samantha has become a different person in the three months since she was born. Incredibly content and self-entertained. Laughs a lot.

No birds today.


Week 9 Day 6. Wednesday July 22, 1998. 62nd day out. Babysitting Mikayla and Samantha.

See yesterday.

Develop fourteen rolls of film. It seems like I've taken pictures of about two hundred glaciers.

Drove by Crockett's Dental and Vision Center. No eye teeth jokes come to mind.

I do find a Wild Bird Center, and pick up a copy of "A Birder's Guide to Colorado," or something like that. Two other books in this series have been incredibly useful to me in planning our Arizona and Texas birding trips. They tell where and when to find what birds.

But no birding today.


Week 9 Day 7. Thursday July 23, 1998. 63rd day out. 8 days left. Birding around the Denver area

I have two areas for us to bird today. The first is in the town of Boulder, location of the University of Colorado. There is a big patch of hay that is not cut until all of the Bobolinks have fledged. The second is in Golden Gate Canyon Park, northwest of the town of Golden. There we'll look for Williamson's Sapsuckers and Virginia's Warblers. And try to upgrade our Blue Grouse sighting.

With Sharon navigating, we make our way to the Boulder Recreation Center, name now changed to Boulder Family Center. Of the three Bobolink areas, all have been cut. We check anyway, but these Bobolinks have flown. Sharon spots a coyote in one of the fields.

On to Golden Gate Canyon.

We head up this attractive little canyon, and see a tiny deer with antlers, we think a mule deer. We drive up the thirteen miles to the visitor center, talk with Ed Calvin, a naturalist there. He suggests spots for the warbler and sapsucker, and we're off.

We drive to Bootleg Bottom, where a sapsucker was spotted July 7th. We take the Elk Trail and get two trip birds. First we can hear the insect-like buzzing of the BROADTAILED HUMMINGBIRD. Then we are the object of a HOUSE WREN family's scolding.

We have a nice walk, but no Virginia's Warbler. On up to Panorama Point. It's cool today, partly cloudy, and nothing's happening. Well, gorgeous scenery. We go on to Aspen Meadows Campground, where we see a family of Mountain Bluebirds and a flock of small brown birds - probably Pine Siskins, but we don't see them very well.

By the time we're finished, about noon, I'm ready to turn the driving over to Sharon, but she's just as sleepy as I am. So we park and have a little nap, waking at 1:00pm. It looks like rain, so we cancel our new plans to poke around for a Blue Grouse upgrade, and head for home instead.

Just on the way out, I see a black bird fly across the highway from right to left, about fifty feet in the air. I tell Sharon, "Mostly black, with four white spots and one pale tan patch in the center of the back." As I do a U-turn, Sharon says that that might have been our Williamson's. I do another U-turn and we start playing the sapsucker tape. Sharon gets a good look at a black and white woodpecker-type-clinging bird, and believes it's a Williamson's. I can't see it, and so we can't claim it.

We go home, have another nap. Sharon barbecues chicken for dinner, and with the fresh sweet corn we picked up, it's a great summer feast.

Day's Best Birds: Broad-tailed [reported as Broad-billed in weekly email] Hummingbird

No life birds today.

Trip Birds: 2 today (hummer + House Wren) 228 total.


That's it for Week 9. We'll be here till Sunday morning of Week 10. Then we'll head out to look for Chukars in Western Colorado, and maybe take a shot at the Black Rosy Finches reported northeast of Salt Lake City. We've also heard of nesting Vaux's Swifts between Provo and Salt Lake City. And some other birds

There's definitely more birding to go.

Regards, Sharon & Bob

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