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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Driving Across the American West From North to South

A few months ago we decided to plan a road trip south to get a much needed dose of sunshine during the long, gray months of the Pacific Northwest winter. Since then we've been keeping an eager eye on bird sightings along our route with the potential for lots of life birds as we traversed a climate very different from our home base. Saturday, February 3 was departure day and we found our change in weather as soon as we crossed east over the Cascades. Surprisingly, it was sunny and 60+ degrees and we went birding in T-shirts, adding our first new species of the trip:

Mountain chickadee in Union Gap, WA
This is my second year doing a photo year list, trying not only to see or hear but also photograph as many bird species as possible in 2018. Unlike last year, where I would post the first identifiable photo I got of a species only to later go back and upload a better replacement, this year I decided to wait until I got shots I was happy with for common species I knew I would get photo ops for. The sunshine gave me just the right sort of opportunity to get some better shots of common species like these American wigeon.

American wigeon in Kennewick, WA
As daylight descended on the first day of our road trip, we crossed the Columbia River into Oregon with a beautiful sunset.

The next day we crossed northeastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho, beginning the part of the drive that was new territory for me. Sadly the Idaho landscape was not very compelling and on our few stops we found hardly any birds. The day was salvaged by a late unplanned stop at Shoshone Falls which were an impressive sight.

Shoshone Falls near Twin Falls, Idaho

While it had been overcast all day, as we left Twin Falls, Idaho we were treated to another spectacular sunset, with the colors getting better and better in all directions after the sun went down. They call Montana the Big Sky State but we got a taste of it in southern Idaho, with colors surrounding us on all sides in a wide open sky.

We spent our second night just across the Nevada border, and the next morning it was amazing to see how much the landscape had changed from nearby Idaho. I had never really thought of the Great Basin as being surrounded on all sides by mountains, which made for compelling scenery.

We had to stop several times for some unexpected wildlife sightings. I'm lucky enough to see bald eagles regularly and have had opportunities to get some amazing photographs of them, but this was my first time photographing a golden eagle at close range.

Golden eagle
Not far from the golden eagle, we came across a coyote.

And later on we also saw several herds of pronghorn, North America's closest equivalent to the antelope of Africa.

We made a slight detour to check out Cathedral Gorge State Park, which turned out to be a great decision. The geology was beautiful, with red rock slot canyons and other amazing formations. Luckily the skies cleared and the sun came out, too, making for even better photo ops.

Several times as we traversed the landscape of the American West we noticed the sudden appearance and disappearance of certain plant species. I know certain trees, shrubs, and cacti are adapted for particular climates, but it was amazing how abruptly they would start and stop - related to elevation, or...? I have no idea. The Joshua tree was one of those plants, that went from non-existant to present by the thousand to absent again.

While this trip is nature-focused, we inevitably have to pass through some cities, and as Jason had never seen Las Vegas before we decided to make it a one-night stopping point. When we checked in the hotel clerks couldn't believe we were only staying one night, but it felt like more than enough! We walked the Strip at night and it was sensory overload. But, worth seeing at least once in your life.

All throughout our trip we've found ourselves coming up with questions about the places we're traveling through, things we have to look up every night. We were wondering how a place like Las Vegas ended up in the middle of the desert, and I never would have guessed that the initial beginnings of Sin City were due to its proximity to the construction site for the Hoover Dam. While workers were eventually banned from going there, it started getting its reputation during that time when dam workers would go there to drink, gamble, and find prostitutes.

Anyway, the next day, it was thankfully back to birding. Incredibly, not far from Las Vegas, is an amazing little area called the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. Run by the local parks and rec department, you have to check in upon arrival but access is free and then you can walk freely around the nine ponds which create an oasis for a wide variety of species in the middle of the desert. I would have loved it anyway, but perhaps especially in comparison to walking the Strip the night before, it felt like an oasis to me, too! And, the very first bird we saw there was my first lifer of the trip.

Common gallinule
It's fascinating to realize that the further we get from home, the more our common species become unexpected and vice versa. The people at Henderson don't bat an eye at the common gallinule, which was one of the reasons I wanted to go there. Meanwhile, they are very excited about the dozen snow geese that have stopped there, which up in Skagit Flats we have by the thousand. But, somewhat ironically, while scanning those thousands of geese in Washington has yet to turn up a Ross' goose for me, there was one among the dozen snow geese here at Henderson.

Small, cute Ross' goose front right with larger, less cute snow geese for comparison
The Henderson Preserve also turned up Jason's target species for the trip: a greater roadrunner. This species can prove elusive so we felt lucky to find one so early on!

That afternoon we continued on down into Arizona, where we would have our first multi-night stop in the Phoenix area. I don't like flying to begin with, but another benefit to driving is you really get to comprehend the landscape you're traversing. It was pretty darn awesome to drive the American West from nearly the Canadian border to nearly the Mexican border in a matter of days. But now that we had reached so far south, the birding would really pick up, and that's where I'll continue on my next blog post.

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