Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Swarms of Phalaropes

Half of our ABA group on the causeway leading to Antelope Island State Park, Utah.

Back in late June, during the American Birding Association annual convention in Utah, I was assigned to help lead a field trip to Antelope Island State Park. Antelope Island is located on the southeastern edge of the Great Salt Lake, north of Salt Lake City.

We left the Snowbird Lodge high in the Wasatch Mountains before dawn, dropping down to the desert along this large briny inland sea. Our trip consisted of two huge touring coaches, each one loaded with excited bird-heads.

Our first stop was along the causeway leading to the park entrance. So this is the Great Salt Lake. The smell of fermenting brine shrimp came onto the coach to meet us. Rugged plum-colored mountains surrounded the lake at a distance. Shallow brackish water bracketed the road. The water was so shallow that huge areas of salty sandflats appeared here and there, and the movement of birds and insects was obvious everywhere we looked. Stepping off of the bus I noticed several flocks of swift shorebirds flying overhead. They were buoyant fliers, snipelike in shape, but stiltlike in their gracefulness.

I was momentarily puzzled.

Then it hit me—just as someone else shouted "Wilson's phalaropes going overhead!"

Of course!
Wilson's phalaropes overhead, flying to join the huge feeding flocks on the Great Salt Lake.

Flock after flock, each one with between 12 and 30 birds, flew overhead, all headed in the same direction.

"Look at ALL those phalaropes!" I heard myself exclaim. I'd never seen so many at once.

"If you think that's a lot. Look out there, over the water!" said a birder next to me.

There, swirling over the water about 300 yards out were CLOUDS of phalaropes. They looked more like swarms of insects than flocks of birds. And they were reportedly ALL Wilson's phalaropes, staging, molting, and gorging before heading south for the winter.
Every June, as soon as they have finished nesting up north, the phalaropes begin gathering at the Great Salt Lake. As many as half a million may use the lake as a resting and feeding stop on their southward migration.

These birds, in a few weeks, would make a non-stop flight to northern South America. There they'll spend the winter on inland lakes high in the Argentinian Andes—a journey of more than 5,000 miles.

Red-necked phalaropes also pass through the Great Salt Lake, but not in such staggering numbers.

The appearance of these post-breeding phalaropes coincides with the large hatches of brine flies, small harmless insects that form their own dark clouds. The phalaropes and other birds gorge on the abundant brine flies, as well as the equally abundant brine shrimp, putting on body fat that will fuel their long migration.

Here it was, just the last week of June and already fall migration was on for these phalaropes.

I'll share a few images of the distant clouds of Wilson's phalaropes from our morning at Antelope Island State Park.

Like a wave above the water's surface, thousands of phalaropes shifted to new feeding spots.

The flocks were constantly ebbing and flowing.

This was just one small portion of the flock. It extended twice this far to each side of my camera's frame.

This must have been what flocks of passenger pigeons looked like 200 years ago.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Into Thin Air

On the way up, looking up, from the tram.

Three different times during last week I ascended a mountain on a tram, hopping on at 8,000 feet above sea level and hopping off at 11,000 feet ASL. In this post I will share some experiences and images from two of those ascents. The third one I'll save for a future post.

I spent last week with Julie, Phoebe, Liam and about 250 other birders at The American Birding Association annual convention held this year at the Snowbird Resort in Utah, about 45 minutes outside of Salt Lake City. Snowbird sits at about 8,000 feet—much higher than SLC. Our ears popped several times during the shuttle drive up to Snowbird.

We arrived Monday night, too late for the banquet dinner and program. But we still managed a few hellos before heading off to find some late-night grub and our swanky room. Julie and I were attending the convention to help lead some field trips for the attendees and Julie was giving a presentation on Friday night, plus we had many old buddies with whom we wanted to catch up—so we had a busy week ahead of us.

We had nothing on tap for Tuesday morning so, after $68 of breakfast and a bit of birding around the Snowbird grounds, we four took the ski tram up and over the mountains to Hidden Peak. Phoebe and Julie took turns being moderately freaked out by the height and swaying of the tram. The tram could serve as the stunt double of the one featured in the James Bond film Moonraker in which Richard Kiel bites the cable to get to James Bond.

The tram in a rare Richard-Kiel-free moment.

Looking down at Snowbird from the tram.

We got to the top and, literally, stepped into thin air. Taking a few rapid steps at 11,000 feet of altitude caused me to breathe deeply. An altitude headache ensued, followed closely by two ibuprofen pills chased by an entire bottle of water.

In case you were wondering if you were really high or just high on life...

The sun was milky white in the clear blue sky. Most of the mountainsides around us were covered in deep snow. We all squinted through our sunglasses as we slathered on the sunscreen. The air was so thin it made Twiggy look like a sumo wrestler.

Uinta chipmunks asked us about the contents of our lunch bags. A golden eagle slipped past followed by three common ravens. Violet-green swallows twittered and swooped around an unused chair lift building, exploring the many possible nesting cavities.

The additional 3,000 feet in elevation made the air inside our potato chip bag expand. Sadly, the number of chips inside did NOT expand with the bag.

Uinta chipmunk with an accidental piece of cheese.

Gingerly approaching the edge.

Lunch with a view (and lifer chipmunks!)

Two days later I was invited to help Bill Schmoker and Jeff Gordon to scout Hidden Peak for birds we might see on the Sunday morning tram field trip. Joining our merry band of birders were Lisa White and Katrina Kruse of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, momentarily released from their booth-staffing duties at the ABA trade show. Up we went again.

Jeff Gordon and Bill Schmoker looked like models for the REI catalog.

Lisa and Katrina dug the awesome view.

On this second trip we hoped to locate some reliable black rosy finches, a target bird for many of the convention attendees. We had no such luck. But we did see pikas (a gerbil-like rabbit relative), several dark-eyed (gray-headed) juncos, and many white-crowned sparrows. We also hiked down off the top and along a ridge line. Hiking down was a cakewalk. Hiking back up required three separate stages marked by intervals of gasping for air. I know I'm not Lance Armstrong, but this up-slope walk made me feel more like Stretch Armstrong after I ran him through my sister's Easy-Bake Oven.

Bill Schmoker crosses a snow field. Being from Colorado he was used to the altitude.

My lord, the view from up there! If you've got to be gasping for air, trying your best to avoid your first major heart attack, Hidden Peak is a nice place to do it.

Soon we headed back down to the land of normal atmosphere and cash bars and bird checklists and evening programs and all the people who live their safe little lives in the lowlands. We, on the other hand, had walked among the giants, high atop Hidden Peak, where the livin' is easy, but the breathin' ain't. And we'd lived to tell about it.

The view from the top of Hidden Peak.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Snowbird Creatures

We are up at almost 8,000 feet in the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City, Utah, at the American Birding Association conference. There are creatures strange and wonderful here.

Steller's jays swipe food bits from the hotel balconies.

Cassin's finches show their long-nosed profiles fluttering near the bird feeders at the Snowbird Resort.

Pine siskins are everywhere!

The name yellow-bellied marmot sounds like a scathing put-down but these chunky mammals care not a whit.

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