|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.
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.