Friday, August 28, 2009

June 26 - Heading Home

Early departure for Necedah NWR and a rapid tour of the facility. We surely could have spent more time here but in the short time we were able to revel in some fine looks at some special birds that included Whooping Cranes, Vesper Sparrow, and Golden-winged Warbler.

A call came from the pilots encouraging us to arrive early to get us in the window of weather that would allow us to get home that day. We gave our fond farewells to Roberta with great thanks for all that she did for our trip, promising to return before too long.

Off we were again in our "air yacht" with a stop, sidewinding through the clouds, in Ithaca, NY for fuel. We were a bit sceptical as to if we would make it all the way home but after a two hour stay, John and Doug identified a window between two lines of thunder storms that would let us home.

We cracked a couple of bottles of champagne, took some pictures of the group with the plane, and off we slipped between the storms and all the way home; many hugs and promises to keep in touch after we landed.

It truly was a trip of a lifetime! It would be hard to reproduce this experience unless we were able to get everyone back to try another adventure to equally as unique destinations. I hope we can!

June 25 - Horicon Marsh

Early departure for Horicon Marsh and a rendezvous with Roberta Laffey, long-time friend and a great help with our Wisconsin leg details. We enjoyed a full day with Jeff Bahls, a good local guide who was able to put us onto much waterfowl and a great tour of the vast Horicon marsh system.

We enjoyed a fine introductory program offered by the visitor's center and ate our lunch in the middle of the marsh wit many calling Sora and Virginia Rail. i still owe a few people a good look at a Sora (not for lack of trying).

We left Jeff's company in the mid-afternoon so as to enjoy the comforts of our Band B. Four of us wandered down the hill to Devil's Lake State Park and in about an hour of birding were able to some quality birds including Acadian Flycatcher, Hooded Warbler, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

We headed up to "The Dells" for a great Farewell Dinner at "The Wilderness" with Roberta, John and Doug and enjoyed much talk about what a great trip it had been so far. Everyone got a chance to talk about their favorite location and bird. For me, the prairie with the Spargus's Pipit flying and displaying above our heads was truly special. Everyone had equally unique moments.

June 24 - Cranes
Back up to Grand Rapids racing to get out before some weather came in. Heading for Baraboo, WI we experienced our first weather delay of only about an hour while we waited for a few clouds to pass at our fueling stop.

We arrived in Baraboo with no incidents and hustled off for a visit to the International Crane Foundation to hear about their important work in helping to preserve this very unique family of birds. Their collection of birds is wonderful, one Grey-crowned Crane particularly stunning in its mating dance preformed with John (the pilot) the focus of its attentions.

Not far was our wonderful B and B for the next two nights. The inn was grandly luxurious and all for our group only. The inn keepers were attentive to our needs and gracious hosts at an evening wine tasting which included some local wines which were surprisingly good. We ventured into the old part of Baraboo for a great dinner at Baraboo's best cafe.

June 23 - Black Hills and Sage Brush

We met early with our guide for the day, Dwayne Weber, a biologist for the federal government at wind Cave which boarders the larger Custer State Park. We took breakfast and lunch with us to minimise the delays and as my good buddy Jay Hand and I say..."MTC"..."Maximise The Coverage."

We walked a trail through the Ponderosa Pine with White-winged Crossbill, Western Tanager, and a new bird for me, Pinyon Jay. The two jays were first heard calling from the ridge above, flew over our heads, and landed in the distant tree line. Not the best look but fun to hear them calling!
We stopped occasionally to look at the wildlife which included American Bison and many pronghorn at close range. We stopped at the corral used for the bison round-up in the fall to search for Say's Phoebe. Great looks at three phoebes fighting for territory.
We visited Wind Cave to witness the phenomenon of the barometric pressure difference that creates a wind as the cave "breaths." We headed west toward Wyoming and the sage lands in search of the Sage Thrasher and Brewer's Sparrow, the later of which preformed admirably.

Back into the hills, we passed by some great rock formations, delighted by "The Needle" and "Cathedral Rocks." Not to be missed!

Dwayne was a great guide and I am sure we all hope our paths will cross again. Our group had a nice dinner outside at the main lodge; great hotel, food, service, and setting under the stars!

June 22 - Badlands, Rushmore, and Crazy Horse
Our flight to south Dakota and Rapid City was another opportunity for some great sight seeing. The Black Hills came into sight, their tightly spaced Ponderosa Pines giving them the "black" appearance. The change from the prairie land of the north to these unique hills (the highest at 7,242 feet) was interesting as was the Badlands to the east, stunning in their starkness, unusual shapes, multi-colored layers, and impressive scale.

We stopped for lunch after a short stop at the park headquarters; a very nice lunch just nest door. We drove the loop road and enjoyed many pull-offs for scenery and vistas, as well as prairie dogs and our first Pronghorn Antelope.

We made a run over to Mount Rushmore which was truly inspirational. The museum, carvings, and the whole memorial is really well done and tasteful. We all really enjoyed it. Not far from here is the Crazy Horse Memorial, still, and perhaps for many more years, under construction. Just the face is complete; the arm and area where the horse's head will be are just roughed-out. It too is an amazing sight and scale that is hard to fathom. The whole of Mount Rushmore fits on the head of Crazy Horse! It will be a wonder of mankind when complete, as it will be the world's largest sculpture in three dimensions.

We headed to our hotel (Creekside Lodge) in Custer. This is the newest addition to the historical state game lodge and wonderfully luxurious with fine food and wines. We must come back!

June 21 - Prairies and Pot Holes
Ron Martin met us at 5AM at our B and B to guide us through the prairies east of Minot. His expertise in putting us on the birds and in the proper habitat was well worth the guide fees.

Ron, in his self effacing way, provided us with stunning looks at Baird's Sparrow (North Dakota's #1 Star Bird), displaying Sprague's Pipit and its tireless hour long flights, impressive sparrow selection, and a visit to the nest of a Ferruginous Hawk. Chestnut-collared Longspur was truly a highlight for us all as well as hearing numerous Yellow Rail clicking in defence of their territories.

The morning included many other great birds before we headed back into town to enjoy our lunch on the porch of the B and B. Afterwards, we headed south to Garrison Dam in search of some new species. Large lakes and potholes yielded Horned Grebe on a nest, a look at a second year California Gull, close views of American White Pelican, Western Grebe at a distance, and many Common Tern.

We arrived back at Dakota Rose to enjoy some time on the porch with Ron and then a fine dinner at Dakota Rose. Ron made the day one of the best!

June 20 - On to North Dakota
We were able to fly direct to Minot without a fuel stop which gave us some more time on the ground in North Dakota. We dropped our luggage at the lovely B and B, Dakota Rose, met Carol and Jim Carr the owners, and picked-up some sandwiches before heading east to Salyer NWR.

Like many refuges in the NWR system, this refuge is a series of impoundments divided by elevated roads on which one can drive. Birding was stupendous with many fine looks at Black Tern scouring the waterways along the road. Marsh Wrens called everywhere as did countless Sora, who after many attempts to draw one out...remained elusive.

Eared Grebe were present in impressive numbers (100+) including a large raft of feeding and interacting, brightly plumaged individuals. The watering holes and cattail marshes were widespread, hosting many Black-crowned Night-Heron, ducks of many species, and a large colony of Franklin's Gull; a great refuge and greatly worth the visit.

Dinner in town at a restaurant called "10 Main Street" was fine food and service despite my abscessed tooth and one-and-a-half hour wait at the emergency room to get some antibiotics.