|Don Messersmith’s Big Birding Trip
After my wife, Sherry, died unexpectedly on Thanksgiving Day 2012, I found that the memories in our apartment were such that I needed a change for a while. Gradually an idea evolved in my mind to take a trip and look for birds I had never seen. In discussions with my four daughters who encouraged me to do this, I decided on a cross-country, four-month-long trip (it ended up five months and nine days) to visit family and friends I seldom see and to look for birds along the way. I made a list of about 60 “target” species I had never seen (I saw 10 life birds) and wrote to people in 15 states that I would like to visit them. I expected to travel in about 36 states (it ended up being 30 states and four western Canadian Provinces) and return in mid-September (I returned October 18). With no set itinerary or timetable, I drove 21,733 miles and saw four of the Great Lakes in the North, the Pacific Ocean in the West, the Gulf of Mexico in the South, and the Atlantic Ocean in the East.
Although I traveled alone most of the time, I was happy to have my daughter Betsy join me for a week in eastern North Dakota including Father’s Day. Later Heidi joined me in California, Mary in Texas, Betsy again from Mississippi to North Carolina, and Donna from North Carolina to Maryland. For 12 days Bill Murphy, a former student and now long-time friend, joined me in Montana, traveling 36 hours by train from his home in Indianapolis. He was a great help with the mountain driving in Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks, and with his sharp eyes and good hearing he located many birds I might have missed, including two of my life birds and a couple of others for himself.
I kept a journal and periodically sent portions of it to a selected group of family and friends. The journal is now about 150 single-spaced pages.
This was not a “Big Year” endeavor, nor did I do a “Blog.” However, I took many photographs, which I am using in my “Birds of North America” class at ANS.
On May 9, I was ready to leave. It took me 10 trips from my apartment to load the Toyota Sienna van. I tried to think of everything I would need, so I had one suitcase with clothes for cold weather, one for warm weather, and one for overnight use. I had two boxes of food, two of books, one of miscellaneous equipment, two coolers, a sleeping bag and mattress, some tools and medicines, spotting scope, camera, laptop, iPad, and my new iPhone. I left the Riderwood parking lot at 3:47 p.m. and headed toward Burlington, West Virginia. Here I visited Paula Piehl who is the daughter of the man who was my Bird Study Merit Badge Counselor in the Boy Scouts and got me started in birding. (If only he could have known where this would lead me!) I have known Paula since 1962 when I met her at the University of Michigan Field Station.
My next stop was in Pennsylvania where I had hoped to visit the Powdermill Nature Center, but I didn’t get there until 6 p.m., and it was raining. The next day I headed for Ohio and the famous Magee Marsh. Magee Marsh is a remnant of the once extensive Black Swamp that covered northwestern Ohio, and so the migrants bunch up there before crossing Lake Erie. I had two wonderful days of birding there, viewing warblers, vireos, thrushes, and more, often at eye level. My best bird was a Mourning Warbler. I was also happy to run into some members of the Montgomery Bird Club and ANS. I stayed with my niece and nephew, Kathy and David Bartley, in Oregon, Ohio, for two days. Kathy is the daughter of Sherry’s sister.
From there I drove to visit Bill Murphy and April in Indianapolis. Bill took me to the Blatchley Nature Center where he is a board member. Blatchley was a famous entomologist and all-round naturalist, and he collected many interesting artifacts—from American Indian articles to an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Although we did not succeed in seeing our goal bird (Connecticut Warbler), in our two days there we recorded 66 species, including 11 warblers.
Near Ann Arbor I briefly visited a distant cousin on my father’s side and then headed north into Kirtland’s Warbler territory. This endangered species eluded me, but I did hear three of them singing. After a brief stop at the University of Michigan Biology Station where I had taken two ornithology courses with Dr. Olin Sewall Pettingill, I continued north to the Upper Peninsula where I spent a few hours in Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Although it was too early for the spring migrants, Trumpeter Swans and Common Loons were there. I moved on into Northern Wisconsin where trilliums were abundant, but the birds weren’t. May is just too early to be up there in the north woods.
In Central Wisconsin I spent a wonderful four days with the family of Jean Mansavage, a student from my ANS classes. I birded with her brother and was invited to her mother’s birthday party. Birds were scarce, but Sandhill Cranes, Cliff Swallows, and ravens told me I was heading west for more interesting birds. Jean’s brother Jack and I came upon my first-ever gray wolf, which was standing in the middle of a country road.
I entered Northern Minnesota with hopes of seeing some new birds. Again I was too early in the season. Two mornings the temperature dropped into the upper 20s and I had to scrape ice from my windshield the first part of June. One nice bird was a Philadelphia Vireo in bright sun a few feet away at eye level. I was also surprised to see a Barrow’s Goldeneye on the river that separates the United States from Canada. The well-known birding destination, Sax-Zim Marsh, produced only a Gray Jay, ravens, magpie, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and White-crowned Sparrows.
On June 9 I crossed the Red River of the North into Fargo, North Dakota, where I felt the western portion of my trip began. In Grand Rapids, Wisconsin, I had crossed the Mississippi River, and, of course, in Minnesota I was already in the Great Plains, but North Dakota seemed more real western, and now I was seeing Western Meadowlarks every day. I met my daughter, Betsy, at the Fargo airport to begin our week together. The first day we drove south into South Dakota and spent a wonderful day, first in the Sica Hollow State Park with its wet woods and a clear stream. Very active Clay-colored Sparrows were a high point here. We also visited Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge where the best birds were courting American Bitterns, Western Kingbirds, Brewer’s Blackbirds, Ruddy Ducks in brilliant breeding plumage, Wilson’s Snipe, Willow Flycatcher, and a nesting American Avocet.
In Jamestown, North Dakota, we visited an outdoor museum with its buildings from early American pioneer days—general store, one-room school, a church, post office, saloon, jail, barber shop, pharmacy, and more. Next to this outdoor museum was a Bison Reserve that featured an albino bison and a 25-foot-tall bison sculpture. Later we went to Sullys Hill NWR where we saw only Eastern birds, including Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and a White-breasted Nuthatch. We also came upon a herd of free-roaming bison here and a prairie dog colony.
The next day we went to Lake Alice NWR, which was essentially destroyed by flooding. Surrounding farm fields were also flooded, and some farms had been abandoned because of the flooding. In Rugby, North Dakota, we were at the geographical center of North America. This was marked by a stone cairn. Later we visited the International Peace Garden right on the Canadian border with Manitoba. In this Canadian Province we saw nesting Red-necked Grebes on a lake, bringing our day’s total to 44 species. The next day we visited Audubon NWR where we saw many Bobolinks, Clay-colored Sparrows, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a Ring-necked Pheasant, Franklin’s Gulls, and many ducks.
Betsy flew home from Bismarck, and I headed to western North Dakota. At Long Lake NWR, I saw my first life bird of the trip, the elusive Baird’s Sparrow. Further west I began seeing oil wells. This was part of the big oil boom in North Dakota, and I had trouble finding a vacant motel room because of all the oil workers. In Dickinson there is a fine Dinosaur Museum. In this part of North Dakota and nearby Montana, many dinosaur remains have been unearthed and several towns had museums.
As I traveled west on a state highway, I stopped to photograph a Swainson’s Hawk and further on a Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk. A sign pointed to a National Grassland Access Road, which I took. This was a good decision, because this long gravel road had many Lark Buntings, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Upland Sandpipers, Horned Larks, Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Rough-winged and Barn Swallows, a Loggerhead Shrike, Western Meadowlarks, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a Dickcissel, and more. This is open range country, and in three hours I passed only two ranch houses. I ended the day in Medora in far western North Dakota. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is here, because he had a ranch near here and loved this part of the country. I drove through part of the park the following day, but I saw few birds. There were prairie dog colonies and free roaming bison and wild horses, however. This is the Bad Lands, and some scenes were quite spectacular.
Then I crossed the Little Missouri River into Montana where I spent the next 17 days—Montana is a big state. This is Sioux Indian Territory, and I was near where Sitting Bull finally surrendered to end Indian wars in this area. My destination was Medicine Lake NWR where I saw Western and Clark’s Grebes side by side, White Pelicans, nine species of breeding ducks, Northern Harrier, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Willets, American Avocets, Wilson’s Phalaropes, California Gulls, Upland Sandpipers, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and Grasshopper, Vesper, and Lark Sparrows, among other common species. At one point on the auto-tour route, I was stopped by a Long-horned Steer whose baleful eyes indicated he was not about to move out of the road. I turned around and headed for the paved highway and spent the night in Plentywood.
The next day I drove up into Saskatchewan, Canada, where I took the first road heading west. I was on this little-traveled gravel road for 77 kilometers and saw many birds while driving through the open prairie countryside. Some of the noteworthy species were 20+ Eared Grebes, eight species of ducks (this is still prairie pot-hole country.), Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk, Prairie Falcon, two Sharp-tailed Grouse, Upland Sandpiper, Sprague’s Pipits feeding on the roadside, Bobolinks, Dickcissel, and Lark, Grasshopper, Vesper, and Chipping Sparrows—40 species in total.
Back in Montana I ended up in Malta, a small town on the Milk River, an important river for commerce in pioneer days. In both North Dakota and Montana, I passed places of significance to the Lewis and Clark expedition, especially when I was following the Missouri River. The next day, Bowdoin NWR provided some good birds including Eared Grebes, White Pelicans, White-faced Ibis, Cinnamon Teal, Willets, Marbled Godwits, avocets and stilts, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Cliff Swallows, Sprague’s Pipits, Lark Buntings, two Baird’s Sparrows feeding in the road in front of my car, a Chestnut-collared Longspur, and California, Ring-billed, and Franklin’s Gulls, plus several other common species for a total of 42 species. I stopped at a rest area that had a plaque telling about outlaws, including the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy who were active in this area. This is now the Belknap Indian Reservation with a big Casino of which there are many in every Montana town.
I stayed in Havre, a nice town only 34 miles from the Canadian border. Not far from Havre is the Beaver Creek County Park, the largest county park in the country at 17 miles long and one mile wide. It is all wooded with Ponderosa Pines. There were wild flowers in bloom, and the clear Beaver Creek runs the entire length of the park—a very pleasant refuge from the open Great Plains. Here I saw Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warblers, Black-capped Chickadees, Spotted Towhee, as well as some common Eastern birds. The next day I drove on gravel roads looking for birds, which were rather few and far between out here, but I did see a Prairie Falcon, Sprague’s Pipits, Horned Larks, Brewer’s Blackbirds, and Gray Partridges.
That evening Bill Murphy arrived, and the next day we drove north toward the barren Sweet Grass Hills. Along this gravel road we saw White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, six species of ducks, Red-tailed, Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagle, Northern Harrier, Wilson’s Snipe, Marbled Godwit, Eurasian Collared Dove, Common Nighthawk, Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Say’s Phoebe, Least Flycatcher, Western Wood Pewee, Bank Swallows, magpies, Mountain Bluebirds, Loggerhead Shrike, Warbling Vireo, Cedar Waxwings, Chestnut-collared Longspur, many sparrows, a McCown’s Longspur—a life bird or me—, and California, Ring-billed, and Franklin Gulls, for a total of 61 species. We also saw two coyotes and a white-tailed deer with a fawn.
The following day on a back country road, we saw our first Long-billed Curlews in a field with Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks as well as pronghorn antelopes, mule deer, prairie dogs, and ground squirrels. Later we spotted a Red-naped Sapsucker feeding young at the nest hole while a Hermit Thrush was singing. At another stop we had good looks at a singing male MacGillivray’s Warbler, as well as a Pine Siskin, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Western Tanager, and Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco. At the ponds, there were nesting Black Terns, Marsh Wren, and Bank Swallows. On another day we went to Medicine Lake where we saw Dippers and a nesting Calliope Hummingbird. We took a trail at the lake and saw a Peregrine Falcon, Swainson’s Thrush, Audubon’s Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow, Red-naped Sapsucker, Violet-green Swallows, Common Mergansers, Osprey, and Golden Eagle.
At the Glacier National Park Hotel we saw photos of the disappearing glaciers, now only 25 left from a high of 150 in 1850. By 2020 all moving glaciers will be gone from the effects of global warming.
From here we drove into Alberta, Canada, and found a motel in Cardston. Some of the birds we saw in Canada were Calliope Hummingbird, Gray Catbird, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Red-naped Sapsucker, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow Warbler, and American Redstart. Later we added Red-necked Grebes, nesting Great Blue Heron, and a Common Loon with babies on her back. Further on we saw a baby moose and its mother.
We went into British Columbia for a few hours, but we saw only common birds. On our way back to Cardston after dark, we saw a Great Horned Owl and encountered a herd of about 50 elk in the road. The next day we headed west. At a bridge we stopped to view a group of mountain goats on a hillside. We settled in a motel in Kalispell and birded from there for a couple of days. At nearby Smith Lake, we saw Eared and Red-necked Grebes, Osprey, Black Terns, and Pacific Wren. On nearby Roger Lake Road, we did well seeing Northern Goshawk, Red-naped Sapsucker, Cordilleran and Hammond’s Flycatchers, Western Wood Pewee, Swainson’s Thrush, Western Tanager, “Oregon”
Junco, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, but the best of all was my first-ever Cassin’s Vireo.
The next day Bill left by train from Whitefish and I headed west. The following day I drove over the low Maria’s Pass to get west of the Rocky Mountains, through the Cabinet Mountain Range, and into Idaho, where after a stop for lunch, I drove through this narrow part of the state and into Washington when I crossed the Spokane River at Spokane
In Part 1, I told about traveling from Maryland across the Great Plains. Continuing my narrative of my Big Trip, as I enter the State of Washington at Spokane, I am now in the Pacific Time Zone; it’s July 11 and I have been on the road a little more than two months.
In the Little Spokane Natural Area and Riverside State Park, a Western Wood Pewee and a White-breasted Nuthatch that goes up the tree trunk when foraging (a possible future separate species) were the highlights. I drove on west across more arid prairie land. For the next couple of days, I was in wheat-growing country until I got to Grant County, which produces more potatoes than any other U.S. county. A bird of note was a drab-colored Brewer’s Sparrow seen well. Later in the agricultural Kittitas Valley, I found a good birding spot where I saw Williamson’s Sapsucker, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Western Tanager, Spotted Towhee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Tree Sparrows, and more.
I crossed the Cascade Mountains at Snoqualmie Pass at 3,022 feet and visited my nephew and family in Sammamish. At the south end of Puget Sound, I visited Nisqually NWR where I saw Willow Flycatcher and Bewick’s Wren. Then I headed to the Olympic Peninsula, a beautiful area of Douglas Fir forests, beaches, parks, but I saw few birds on my much-too-fast trip around the peninsula. Finally, on July 17, I saw the Pacific Ocean. Like William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805, I exclaimed “The ocean at last!”
I headed south on U.S. 101 to Twin Harbors State Park where it was very cold. I saw Northwestern Crows, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Spotted Towhee, and a Rufous Hummingbird. Later I reached the Columbia River where I saw Double-crested, Brandt’s, and Pelagic Cormorants and Herring, Thayer’s, and Glaucous-winged Gulls. Then I crossed the 4.1-mile long bridge over the Columbia River and into Oregon.
For a couple of days I followed the Oregon Coast on U.S. 101. At Ecola State Park by the ocean, I saw my only Black Oystercatcher, some Common Bushtits, and Cedar Waxwings. At Cannon Beach I photographed the huge Haystack Rock, and on other stacks (rocks), I saw thousands of Common Murres, Tufted Puffins, Brown Pelicans, and gulls. I turned inland, crossed the Coastal Range, and stopped in Salem, the state capital. In Corvallis I visited the Jackson/Frazier Wetland but observed only common birds. I drove through the Willamette Valley and into the Cascade Mountains to the home of Bob and Linda Fleming. Bob is a tour leader, world traveler, and specialist on the Himalayas. One day we went with a birder high into the Cascades to look for Black-backed Woodpecker, Green-tailed Towhee, and Dusky Grouse. Although we didn't see these birds, we did see Townsend’s Solitaire and Lewis’s Woodpecker. On another day, Bob and I drove to Salt Creek Falls to look (unsuccessfully) for Black Swifts, which nest there. Two more days driving south through Oregon’s scenic Siskiyou Mountains brought me to California.
I could see 14,162-foot Mt. Shasta with some snow near the summit, but in the Central Valley it was very hot—97°F at 8 pm. The next day in a Live Oak woodland, a White-headed Woodpecker crossed the road. This is very hot (102°F), arid country, so I decided to cross the Coastal Range to get nearer the ocean. State Route 36 runs from Redbluff to Rio Dell. It is narrow, has many hairpin turns where the speed limit is 10 mph (I drove 5 mph), and, although scenic, is perhaps the scariest road I have ever driven. Luckily there was little traffic.
A visit to Humboldt Bay NWR added Golden-crowned Sparrow and Black Phoebe to my trip list along with several common species. The next day I drove through part of the “Avenue of Giants,” the Redwood trees. The next day I reached Berkeley, where I visited another nephew and niece. They took me birding by the Borrego Reservoir where the best birds were Acorn Woodpecker, Common Bushtits, Anna’s Hummingbird, Violet-green Swallows, California Scrub Jay, Steller’s Jay, and California Towhee.
The next day, while waiting for my daughter, Heidi, to arrive at Oakland Airport, we went to a nearby wetland that had Ring-billed and California Gulls, Caspian Terns, Black Phoebe, Black-necked Stilts, and, best of all, a California Clapper Rail, an endangered subspecies. We next visited Naiping Shen, one of the Chinese students Sherry and I had sponsored in the 1980s. We had a nice time of sightseeing around the San Francisco Bay area, Point Reyes, Tiburon, and Half Moon Bay where Heidi saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Heading south we stopped a few hours to visit the San Juan Baptiste Mission built in 1799 and still in use. We later crossed over the 4,000 foot Coastal Range to Morro Bay. Beside the huge Morro Rock we saw Western and other gulls, White-crowned Sparrow (gambeli race), but of more interest were the Sea Otters and a California Ground Squirrel. Then we headed to Los Angeles where I visited a friend who had been my childhood playmate in the first and second grades in Toledo. (We found each other a few years ago over the Internet.) Heidi was fascinated with our reminiscences about life in Toledo in the 1930s.
Our next destination was San Diego, where we spent four days visiting Sherry’s brother, Paul, and his family. Over these few days, we went to La Jolla for a day at the beach, a walk to a nearby park where pretty Heermann’s Gulls were common, church on Sunday, swimming in their backyard pool, and birding at Famosa Slough where there were Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Black-necked Stilts, Willets, and a Black Phoebe. One day we visited Cabrillo National Park, which commemorates Juan Cabrillo who discovered San Diego Bay in 1526. After a good fish dinner (accompanied by Great-tailed Grackles) we went to Balboa Park, which was built in 1915 for the Pan-American Exhibition.
We left their house, made a short visit to a Washington, DC, friend from the 1950s, with more reminiscing about our biking and hiking days back then with the American Youth Hostels. From his house we took I-5 to the new I-8 and at 10:45 a.m. Pacific time on August 7, I turned east, heading for home. Now we crossed hot, almost barren desert, made a detour to look at and photograph the Mexican border, and later passed through the agricultural Imperial Valley, which gets its water from the Colorado River. Hay seems to be the principal crop here. As we crossed the Colorado River, we entered Arizona and stopped in Yuma where the temperature was 109°F. The next day we followed I-8 through more dry, scrubby desert with low bushes, spindly ocotillo, and cacti. The only break in all this was Dateland, where there are groves of date palms looking like a scene in Egypt. In Phoenix we did some sightseeing in the center of the city and after lunch returned to the car where the thermometer read 115°F! We visited some friends of Heidi’s and spent the night in Scottsdale.
The next day Heidi flew home from Phoenix, and the following day I continued east on I-10 to Tucson. I visited the Sonoran Desert Museum, which has plants and animals from the surrounding area of many saguaro cacti. Here I saw only one bird, a Bendire’s Thrasher. There were exhibits of prairie dogs, a young cougar, and a Mexican wolf. From there I drove on to Sierra Vista, which at 4,140 feet is cooler. For the next five days, I went to various well-known birding spots such as Patagonia Lake (Neotropic Cormorants), the Patagonia Rest Stop (Thick-billed Kingbird, a life bird for me, Western Tanager, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Western Kingbird, and others).
From there I went to Paton’s, a private home with many feeders for hummingbirds and other birds. This place is well known to birders and has now been taken over by the Tucson Audubon Society since the Patons have passed away. Here I saw six species of hummingbirds including my first Violet-crowned; White-winged, Inca, Ground, and Eurasian Doves; Lesser Goldfinches; Blue Grosbeak; Yellow-billed Cuckoo; Ladder-backed and Gila Woodpeckers; Curve-billed Thrasher; Lazuli and Varied Buntings; and an Abert’s Towhee—more than 30 species in all.
The next day I went to the San Pedro Riparian Area to look for a male Varied Bunting, which I could hear singing but never saw. I did see a Yellow-breasted Chat and a Great Blue Heron. I found a pleasant spot to sit there, under a huge Franklin Cottonwood tree. A high school group came by while I was there, led by Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis, and I knew one of the participants, Alex Wiebe who had taken one of my bird classes. On the way back to my motel, I saw four Chihuahuan Ravens and spotted a Gambel’s Quail walking across the motel parking lot. The next day I visited the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Nature Conservancy property but saw no new birds. In Ramsey Canyon I saw Mexican Jays. From there I headed across the desert to New Mexico.
It was so hot now that I only went to the famous Bosque del Apache NWR. Here few birds were moving about. The highlight was a very cooperative Greater Roadrunner that stood still occasionally for photographs. In Las Cruces I stayed in the Chili Motel, so named because this is a chili growing area and there was a huge red chili out front. After a night in Socorro I continued on I-10 and into Texas. I did not enjoy the heat and barren deserts of southern New Mexico.
My first Texas stop was El Paso where I saw my first resident cockroach. I had also acquired a colony of chiggers in New Mexico. I was anxious to cross dry flat Western Texas, so my only birding stop was Balmorhea State Park where I saw two Say’s Phoebes. A man at a rest stop recommended a motel in Monahans, because the motels in Odessa were $190 a night now as a result of the oil boom.
The Sandhills Motel requires a special mention. The swimming pool was used for trash and broken furniture. The old-style cabins were rather rundown—the whole place had seen better days. My room did have a refrigerator and microwave but no table or chair. The single light bulb in the ceiling was the only light (a second bulb had burned out). The TV did not work, and the window air conditioner was enhanced by some paper plates that helped direct the air flow into the room. In the bathroom the toilet paper holder had disappeared long ago, there was no soap, and the towel and washcloth were an appropriate brown, but clean. The window had been washed some time after WWII but had a crack in the upper part, and the lower part was fitted with a piece of plywood. The bed was clean. All this for only $50 a night.
The next day I drove 375 miles almost non-stop to Mansfield where my daughter Mary lives. It was so good to be there and also to see trees again. Mary took me to Cedar Hill State Park the next evening, but a Summer Tanager was the only bird of interest. Other days on various excursions, I saw Black-crested Titmice and numerous Great-tailed Grackles, but not much else. One evening we watched The Big Year.
After five restful days, I left for an excursion northward to Oklahoma. This was prairie country again, but a pleasant state park and lake called Lake Murray had only Blue Jays and Black-crested Titmice. Further on I visited the Salt Plains NWR where I saw White Pelicans, Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Northern Bobwhite, and Cattle Egrets. Now the birds are again eastern species. I had lunch in tiny Medford at Smrcka’s (yes, that’s the correct spelling) Restaurant, which had Czechoslovakian food.
Then I drove north on U.S. Route 81 into Kansas. This road follows the old Chisholm Cattle Driving Trail, which was used from 1866 to 1887 to drive longhorn cattle from Abilene, Texas, to Wichita, Kansas. This area of Kansas was called the Cherokee Strip because of some disputed land, which the Indians eventually lost. So there is a lot history right here near Caldwell, a former rough cattle town. My route took me east, paralleling the Oklahoma border through the hilly Flint Hills section where it began to look more like Virginia than the Great Plains. The main crop in this area seemed to be pecans. The best birds along a stretch of gravel road were about 12 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.
I crossed the Arkansas River into Missouri and into the Ozark Mountains, which are quite scenic. The only episode of interest in Missouri occurred in the little town of Neosho where I found the unforgettable Flower Box Motel. I couldn’t unlock the door to my room so the manager had to come and wiggle the lock to open it. After I had unpacked, I wanted to go to supper, but now I couldn’t unlock the door to get out! So, I called the office. This time the whole family came, but they couldn’t open it either. Eventually I handed all my stuff out the window to them, and then I crawled out the window! Unfortunately there is no photo of this rather unusual activity. They then gave me the best large room in the newer section of the motel. I thought it was pretty humorous, but they were very embarrassed.
I drove through some of the Ozarks, but few birds were seen, and so it was on to Arkansas. This took me through pretty green hilly country to Fayetteville, where I stayed overnight with my former ornithology class co-teacher, Dr. Wayne Kuenzel, and his family in their home in the woods. Dr. Kuenzel gave me a tour of his lab in the modern Poultry Research Building of the University of Arkansas.
My next stop was the Sequoyah NWR where I added White-eyed Vireo to my trip list and also recorded herons, egrets, and two Bald Eagles. The temperature was 100°F. From here I headed southwest and back into Texas and to Mansfield to spend more time with Mary and her family. Mary had not been to South Texas, so we left for a week of travel and birding to some of the most famous refuges in South Texas and along the Rio Grande River. We visited Aransas NWR, Connie Hagar Bird Sanctuary, Rockport Nature Center (Loggerhead Shrike), Padre Island (Reddish Egrets; Long-billed Curlew; Black-belled, Snowy, and Piping Plovers; Willet; and stilts) and into Corpus Christi and its Botanical Garden. Then on to Harlingen and San Benito. The next place of interest was Laguna Atascosa NWR where we saw Green Jays, White-tipped Doves, White and Brown Pelicans, Anhingas, herons (Great Blue, Tricolored, and Little Blue), Egrets (Great, Snowy, and Reddish), Wood Storks, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills, Plain Chachalacas, Harris’s Hawk, Northern Harrier, Crested Caracara, Scaled Quail, American Oystercatcher, four tern species, Common Poorwill, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Long-billed Thrashers, and Olive Sparrow—a total of 53 species!
The next day we visited the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary where we saw more butterflies than birds, right up to the Rio Grande River. The Buff-bellied Hummingbird was new for my list. We then drove south on State Route 4 to the very end of the road and the end of Texas at the Gulf Coast Boca Chica beach. Along this stretch of very desolate grassland and alkaline flats, we saw Harris’s Hawk, Crested Caracara, White-tailed Hawk, and Aplomado Falcon (my first) as well as Wilson’s Plovers and Bonaparte’s Gulls. We found a motel in McAllen. The next day in Bentsen State Park, a trolley took us to a tower where we saw two Gray Hawks, a roadrunner, Yellow Warblers, and a Groove-billed Ani, among others. In Hidalgo the next day, we saw a Great Kiskadee, and in Mission we added a Couch’s Kingbird beside a Tropical Kingbird for good comparison, and a Brown-crested Kingbird, all along one street. The next day we stopped at Santa Ana NWR, which is suffering from the long drought so the only bird of note was a Groove-billed Ani. From then on we drove north through the Texas Hill country back to Mary’s home. During my stay this time, my grandson took me to a Texas Rangers baseball game, which the home team lost 5 to 3.
This is getting rather long, so I will summarize the rest of the trip home. I left Mary’s house on September 11 and headed southwest. I visited the Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR, but saw only stuffed birds. I also visited Anahuac NWR where Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks were added to my list. At Fort Travis State Park, there were Hudsonian and Marbled Godwits on the lawns.
In Louisiana I visited a number of Gulf Coast refuges where Mottled Ducks and Purple Gallinules were seen as well as alligators. I visited Avery Island where McElhenny Tabasco Sauce is made and Oakley Plantation where John James Audubon completed 32 of his paintings. In West Monroe I stopped by to see where the TV program Duck Dynasty is filmed. I viewed the Indian mounds at Poverty Point.
In Mississippi there were more refuges, and in one I almost stepped on a poisonous Cottonmouth Snake. Near Madison there was a big family reunion honoring my wife’s missionary ancestors, which was attended by 33 Japanese alumni from a university founded by Sherry’s great uncle. Two of my daughters, one son-in-law, and a nephew also came. From there my daughter Betsy and I drove almost non-stop through Eastern Mississippi, across Alabama, up through Georgia into South Carolina, where we stopped for lunch with another nephew and niece, and went on to her home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. We took a trip to the Atlantic Ocean to complete my circle of major bodies of water. A couple of days later, my daughter Donna joined me for the final leg through Virginia and back to Maryland where I arrived on October 18.
I was gone five months and 9 days, drove 21,733 miles, visited 30 states and four Canadian Provinces, saw 354 species of birds including 10 life birds, visited many relatives and friends and numerous refuges—all with no problems. A wonderful trip in a great and wonderful country where people were friendly and helpful everywhere.
Montgomery County Birder's Guide Reviews
A New Second Edition Guide has been published and is now available for purchase
The ANS Naturalist News (December - January issue) gave high praise to the first edition of the guide. "Both ‘old hands’ and...new...are going to find this storehouse of information infinitely helpful in uncovering the rich parklands and birding resources of Montgomery County. Actually, it ought to have much wider appeal and exposure than to just the birding community."
"The Birder's Guide just arrived today ! It's beautiful and thorough and incredibly well done, overall. You guys should be proud. No surprise why it's selling so well. I've learned so much already just by leafing through. Michael O'Brien's drawings are beautiful and the layout's great. A triumph! as the reviewers should say. Thanks so much for sending the book and having it signed by fellow MOSers. It really, really makes me homesick and longing to explore new local birding haunts..." - from an e-mail received from Spain...
The Second Edition contains several new birding areas including Blue Mash, Germantown Recreation Park and Lois Green Conservation Area.
A complete update of all Sections as well as some new 'Little Treasures' have been included. All maps have been checked and updated. The bird species accounts and checklist for the County have been modified to reflect the changes over the past several years.
"We received the books yesterday, Howard. Thanks for sending them so promptly. You all did a fantastic job on this book! It looks great. I've updated the ABA website with a description of the current edition. Please share my enthusiasm with the other folks who worked on this edition. Best regards, Charlotte Goedsche of the American Birding Association."
The Guide may be ordered from Howard Lefkowitz at email@example.com. It may be picked up at MBC meetings or mailed to you for an additional charge. The cost of the Guide varies depending on membership in MBC.