Howdy, y’all! Oops, sorry, even though I’ve been back East for some time now, I can’t stop myself from talking like everybody does out in the Wild Wild West! But while I’m on the subject, I’m even sorrier still to keep yinz (how everybody talks here in the ‘Burgh) waiting so long for another blog post! I know you all (how everybody else talks) have been eagerly anticipating a full account of my amazing journey, because who doesn’t love to read long, self-indulgent descriptions of others’ personal experiences accompanied by lots of selfies and reminders of how much more fun they were probably having than you!
I didn’t want my face to distract from the awe-inspiring Western landscape in the background of this selfie, so I made sure there was only enough of it showing to verify that it was really me and that I was actually there, and left the rest of the shot open, for you to take in its magnificent beauty. (Though you can do that with my face, too, if you want! 😉 )
In case you missed my last blog post: go back and read it, it was really interesting. In case you don’t want to do that: I spent my Thanksgiving vacation (Nov. 24 – Dec. 10) out in the beauty-filled state of Utah, which is in the Western United States of (North) America. While I had several motives for making this journey, I’ll admit that I mainly went out there for the same reason all birders travel: to find a remote county that doesn’t have very many competing eBirders, thus making it easier to rank highly in that county’s top 100 eBirders of the year (i.e. being one of the best birders there is)! With this worthy goal in mind, I sent my girlfriend Heather (since you’re probably wondering: yes, my initial attraction to her was based on the fact that her name rhymes with “feather”) to Utah in the early spring of 2014, so that she could thoroughly scout the area throughout the year and then be able to tell me where to find all the birds during my Thanksgiving visit! A little planning can go a long way in making yourself a better birder!
My girlfriend likes to dress up and look nice for me, which is why she always puts a bird feather in her hair. This feather was from a “Red-shafted” Northern Flicker. I don’t want to have to explain to you why they are known as “Red-shafted,” because this is a family blog.
Heather had her own place to live out there, so I was able to stay with her for free. This was a blessing for me, as I didn’t have a whole lot of money to spare, since I always blow my paychecks on birding equipment, bird guides, and bribes for other birders to tell me where all the good birds are at. She lived in a town called Boulder, locally famous for having a boulder. Boulder is located in Garfield County, which was named after my second favorite cartoon cat, who was named after my third favorite U.S. president (I rank Heathcliff, Polk, & Eisenhower slightly higher, respectively). Eagerly looking at the paltry output of other birders in the county, I knew it would take no time at all before I shot to the top of the eBird ranks, destined for glory! However, being a recent convert to Rastafarianism, I figured it would be prudent and symbolic to first make a pilgrimage to Zion (National Park).
In Zion, I captured this action shot of an American Dipper dipping under the water to catch some salmon or something. A lot of people mistakenly believe these birds were named after the way they “dip” under the water, but they were actually named after the ornithologist who discovered them: John Horatio Dipper.
Zion was nice and pretty and full of pleasant, appreciative tourists. To understand how pretty it is, you should perform a simple Bing image search for “Zion National Park,” because I took no photographs of the park itself, since there were always too many tourists in the way. After the pilgrimage, we made our way back to Boulder, where we stayed for the next two weeks, racking up all those sweet, sweet birding points! Besides all the red rocks and desert dust, what I saw the most of in Utah were two things which basically rhyme: Mormons and Corvids. Everyone already knows and respects what Mormons are, but for those of you not “down” with bird “slang,” Corvids are a group of birds that are either black or blue, such as crows or bluebirds. In Boulder, I saw a literal ton of ravens, magpies, and various jays, although I actually didn’t come across any bluebirds. (The Eastern Bluebirds which I am most familiar with, I mean, because of course I saw Western Bluebirds, and even some Mountain Bluebirds. So yeah I guess I did see bluebirds out there, too! See what I mean? Corvids everywhere!) I even saw some Clark’s Nutcrackers, just in time for Christmas! 😉
Here is a Pinyon Jay peckin’ on a pinyon cone. We ornithologists refer to birds in the proper American way, instead of any vulgar Hispanic terminology, which is why these guys are called Pinyon Jays rather than Piñon Jays (pronounced “pinyon hays” in Spanish).
Just like an Old West gunslinger, I had to be “quick on the trigger” (camera button) to capture this photograph of a Black-billed Magpie in flight. (Identified as Black-billed instead of Yellow-billed after I carefully analyzed this photograph and couldn’t see any hint of yellow.) Magpies are striking birds (as evidenced above) featuring both black and white feathers, appearing as if they were an interesting hybrid of raven and some other white bird, say, an American White Pelican, perhaps.
Common Ravens were very common out there, hence the name. There were so many, in fact, that I was afraid they were going to murder me. (That’s an inside joke for birders.) Unfortunately I never remembered to photograph any of them, so instead I have provided an image taken back in the ‘Burgh of some American Crows, which are the Eastern subspecies of Common Raven.
Unfortunately, it took me very little time to realize that maybe late November/early December isn’t the best time of year for seeing a bunch of birds in the desert. I looked long and hard for most of the species Heather had seen over the summer, but somehow they were nowhere to be found, even for an expert birder like me! I did turn up Gray-headed, Pink-sided, and Oregon Juncos, but as it turns out, those are all just variants of one species, Dark-eyed Junco, and couldn’t be individually added to my county list! They’re really no different than the stupid old Slate-colored Juncos we have in PA, so I wasn’t even technically adding to my life list either, so it’s like, what’s even the point, you know?! However, one nice surprise did occur while I was scanning a dead tree from the bottom to the top for any signs of smaller birds, and once my binoculars reached the top, I was shocked to find a big bird there: a Golden Eagle! (These birds were named after the way they used to lead prospectors to gold strikes. In nature, this is known as a “symbiotic relationship,” as the eagles would help those grizzled frontiersmen strike it rich, and in return, the birds would be rewarded with a heaping handful of birdseed. Everyone’s a winner!)
The majestic Golden Eagle.
Since there were hardly any birds to look at, I was forced to pay attention to the land itself in order to have something to appreciate. And I’ll admit, some of the rock formations out there were simply unbelievable! How anyone can look at this photograph and not believe in God is beyond me…
Feeling dejected about the lack of birds and available wi-fi connections in the desert, I decided to take a contemplative hike up into the mountains, where I pondered whether it even mattered to be the number one eBirder in Garfield County, as long as I was somewhere in the top five. This hike helped me realize that other non-bird parts of nature are kind of cool, too, and that the West really wasn’t so boring, after all. (Though I really wish there’d been more birds besides a bunch of stinking ravens.)
When I first came upon the carcass of this moose, I was shocked to find it covered in ravens and magpies. I knew those birds were smart, but I had no idea they were capable of bringing down an animal this big!
I couldn’t believe it when I found these wolf tracks on the trail! I didn’t even think there were any wolves in Utah, but I don’t know what else would’ve made tracks like these! Incredible! (I placed that stick there to help you have a sense of scale. Then I ran out of there, in fear that the pack might be hot on my scent!)
As the trip was winding down, I resignedly filled out my eBird reports, and once the results were in, I received the shock of a lifetime! I’d made it all the way up to number two, the second best birder in the county!!!!! Better still, the only person who was (slightly) higher than me was my very own girlfriend, Heather! It was the proudest moment of my entire life! The two of us as reigning birding champs, isn’t that just the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard?! Just look at how cute this is: http://ebird.org/ebird/top100?locInfo.regionType=subnational2&locInfo.regionCode=US-UT-017&year=2014! So, after all that, the trip ended up being kind of worth it!!! (Note: You may think I’d be ashamed that my own girlfriend, a woman who hardly even knew the difference between Bicknell’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes before I ever met her, bested me in the all-important contest of who can see more birds within an imaginary boundary designated by politicians a long time ago. But I am a humble man, and I have no problem admitting that it only makes sense that she would see more, since she was out there for 8 months, while I had only visited briefly. Otherwise I would’ve blown her out of the water!!!)
I really left my mark on the county’s eBird list! I also literally left my mark by carving my self-appointed nickname into this tree. (I believe this was a White-barked Tree, Pinus albinus. Also, I slew a bear out there, but I didn’t think that was as interesting to write about compared to my eBird conquest.)
The birding highlight of the trip had to be finding this flock of ostriches! According to eBird, this species has never even been reported in the entire state of Utah, so beyond my recognition as a top birder in Garfield County, my name will forever be memorialized in adding to the state’s documented species list, as soon as my report gets reviewed and accepted!
Her bird-finding duties now complete, Heather decided to return East with me when I left. On the way back, we stopped to visit our friends in Boulder, Colorado, which allowed me the opportunity to make plenty of hilarious jokes on the ride there, such as “We’re going to Boulder? But we just left there!!!” You probably assume that since we were in Colorado, we decided to indulge in a certain something that has recently been legalized in that state, but let me just put that notion to rest: since we are a heterosexual couple, we had no desire to take advantage of a legal same-sex marriage. From Boulder (CO, not UT), we headed eastward, and continued to have a lot of interesting bird sightings along the way (see, for instance: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S21224110). After 21 hours of nonstop driving, we were happy to arrive back in the ‘Burgh, where we could finally see some other people again. Our dog Huck was even happier that we were home, as he was finally able to be let outside to pee.