Sometimes it’s about the adventure, not the ultimate destination

Travis returned from Camp Chiricahua a couple of weeks ago and is now headed to Cape May, New Jersey, to do some birding with the very capable and fun Nemesisbird.com founder Drew Weber. In-between these adventures I took Travis up to the Land of Leopold (if you haven’t yet read A Sand County Almanac, you should!) to try and fill a few holes in his life list. Our targets were Henslow’s Sparrow, a common breeder in the Buena Vista Grasslands of Central Wisconsin, and Kirtland’s Warbler, a very rare but local breeder in the sandy pine region of Adams County. I was excited that my almost-five-year-old daughter Corinna wanted to get up at 4:00am with me and see some birds, so we got our gear together and snuck out of the house as quietly as possible.

By the time we reached the Buena Vista Grasslands the sky was just lightening up and a fog had settled over the wet prairie. Bobolinks were both in the sky and scattered in groups throughout the vegetation, and with the windows rolled down the “wink! wink! wink!” of their calls filled the car. A raptor perched on a fencepost, and upon further inspection turned into a gorgeous adult Cooper’s Hawk which Corinna was able to see at point-blank range from car window (cars make great wildlife blinds!). Savannah Sparrows made up the other most dominant species in the grasslands with birds singing, flocking, foraging, and aggressively pursuing each other as if still in the swing of breeding.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow. Leica D-Lux 5 + Televid APO 82

We stopped at several previously reliable locations for Henslow’s Sparrow, but turned up none in the sea of Savannahs. It’s possible that they were there, quiet, but Corinna wasn’t up to tromping through the vegetation in chest-high wet grass… just the fact that she got up at 4:00am was a major victory; I didn’t want to ruin her experience by putting her on a death march t’boot!

For August, it was chilly, as this Monarch demonstrates, as it waits to warm up in the morning dew.

Monarch warming up

Monarch warming up. Leica D-Lux 5 + Televid APO 82

While walking the grassland edge looking and listening for Henslow’s, a group of trucks rolled up and parked opposite us on the road. As the trucks unloaded it was clear that these men had hunting dogs with them, and one approached me and, upon seeing my spotting scope, asked if they were going to ruin my photograph. I explained that we were birdwatching, and asked whether they were going to hunt. I was surprised, since this is Greater Prairie Chicken land, and the chickens are a protected species. He confirmed that, yes, they were out hunting Greater Prairie Chickens, and upon seeing my facial expression reaction, clarified

“oh, but we don’t shoot them. No, we do everything but shoot them”

I chewed on that for a moment… a mock chicken hunt. Apparently this is a popular thing among game bird hunters, and I came to find that the following weekend would be a competition ‘mock hunt’ on horseback and all! I momentarily considered sticking around, since neither Travis nor Corinna had seen Greater Prairie Chickens before, but then decided to move on since it was getting late and we still had to try for Kirtland’s Warbler. Besides, this wasn’t the way I wanted either binocular or young birder to get their lifer chickens. Travis might have another shot at them in the spring, and Corinna and I have a date in a chicken blind next April too. We bid the hunting party goodbye and high-tailed it down to the sandy pines of Adams County.

Kirtland’s Warblers are mostly found in Michigan, and until 1995 were only known from the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. They now breed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and a few in southern Ontario, Canada, and since 2007 have been breeding in a small area of Adams County, Wisconsin. I had visited these birds several times in the spring, once for our Great Wisconsin Birdathon, but had no idea what to expect at this late date.

Corinna and I visited two locations where I had up to six singing males in the spring, and searched the habitat for any sign of remaining birds. Eastern Towhees called in the scrubby pines, Chipping Sparrows continued to sing as they did in the spring, and distant Common Nighthawks could be heard giving their “beep!” call. After an hour of searching I had very little hope of finding the species and Corinna was beginning to get hot as the sun warmed the dry and open sandy landscape. She decided she’d rather make some houses for fairies, and how could I object?

Corinna constructing a fairy house

Corinna constructing a fairy house

I wandered a bit down the trail as she worked on her latest fairy domicile. At some point I scanned the sky and was surprised to see a group of 10 Common Nighthawks rising up over the pines. This group quickly doubled, then tripled to over 60 birds, all the while rising up over us. I called to Corinna who came running and looked up into the blue at the swirling birds. By the time I got my camera up for a shot and some video, the group had moved out and away over the pines.

A bit of the Common Nighthawk flock over Adams Co. (click to enlarge)

A bit of the Common Nighthawk flock over Adams Co. (click to enlarge). Leica V-Lux 4

The whole experience lasted a total of a few minutes, but it was spectacular nonetheless to see these awesome birds flock and peel off together, into the distant sky and out of view. We saw no other Common Nighthawks that day, but that momentary burst of activity was fantastic!

Here’s a video I took with the V-Lux 4 showing part of the nighthawk flock as it faded into the distance:
Common Nighthawks

By late morning the temperature had hit 80F and Corinna and I were in need of some breakfast. We said goodbye to any Kirtland’s Warblers that may have been there and eluded us, along with any fairies who might have been eyeing up Corinna’s construction from the safety of the dense pines, and headed out for a promised meal at the Little Crane Cafe on our way home.

Corinna excited about French Toast, and seeing 60+ Common Nighthawks

Corinna excited about French Toast, and seeing 60+ Common Nighthawks

So Travis has had his first unsuccessful chase, Corinna was just happy to hang out with her dad in some cool habitat and get a restaurant breakfast out of it, and I learned more about  these unique places which I had only known in the spring. The next time I see Travis, he’ll have several new lifers having been in one of the best fall migration hotspots in the United States, and gone on a pelagic trip! So stay tuned to see what fun Drew has with Travis in the coming weeks, and keep an eye out for some reports from Camp Chiricahua which promise to highlight some fantastic birds of the Desert Southwest.

Good Birding!

David La Puma