When one bird ghosts you, another one appears
Pursuing life birds like Prairie Falcon and Townsend's Solitaire in Wyoming’s Curt Gowdy State Park
So far in 2022, I have enjoyed two trips out West. I flew from my home base of Columbus, Ohio, to San Diego in mid-February to attend the San Diego Bird Festival. Later that month, I flew to Seattle—but instead of a return flight home, I did something I’d never been able to do previously: I accompanied a friend on a cross-country drive!
Because my friend, Whitney, is a birder, a drive from Seattle to her new home—the birding paradise of Cape May, New Jersey—absolutely included stops to birdwatch along the way. (I, unfortunately, needed to disembark in Columbus.) Due to cost and our respective adult responsibilities, we made this trek within a compressed timeframe. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement: we drove about 2,600 miles in just six very full days of travel. Ideally, this breaks down into daily averages of around 450 miles. In reality, birders like us will absolutely become consumed by an itinerary developed around the promise of awesome birding! Never mind inconvenient facts, such as “time constraints” and “losing an hour driving east into a new time zone”—we were committed to our birding mission.
After an absolutely spectacular late afternoon spent about 60 miles north of Salt Lake, Utah, in which we watched Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches (lifers for us both!) for a good half-hour, we were bound for our next major birding destination of Kearney, Nebraska (it’s the sandhill migration capital of the world, after all!). The drive on I-80 would cut horizontally along the entire length of southern Wyoming, and into Nebraska. At nearly 11 hours, we would require an overnight stop between each destination.
Well. If you haven’t driven I-80 across Wyoming, I will tell you that it is expansive, breathtaking, and otherworldly, precisely because it is also very much uninhabited. While this made for a scenic drive, it did not offer much in the way of lodging choices. Thus, we found ourselves spending a night in charming Rock Springs, Wyoming. The upshot of this was me finding a Starbucks for the first time since Idaho—but, as the only viable hotel option to work into our rigid schedule, we faced an almost 600-mile drive to Kearney the next day.
Undeterred by the distance to our next destination, we wanted to fit in at least some birding while we were in Wyoming (you might recall Bob Dolgan’s Wyoming birding experience last summer and his rainy camping mishaps, too!). After all, we’d crossed into the state after sunset. The sole opportunity to birdwatch ideally would need to a) be situated close to I-80; b) offer hiking or scenic views; and c) afford a potential life bird sighting. Whitney’s a seasoned pro at plotting out birding destinations on the fly. While I drove, she checked the eBird and BirdsEye apps on her phone. I’d been jonesing for a Prairie Falcon myself—something about the Plains’ expansive vistas!—and Whitney had also mentioned a few birds she’d also like to see.
Eventually she landed on Curt Gowdy State Park. About 25 miles west of Cheyenne, Wyoming, there were recent reports of Prairie Falcon. A species that Whitney had not yet seen, the Townsend’s Solitaire, had also been seen near here. For those readers in Illinois and/or the Chicago area, you might recall that the Townsend’s, a thrush of open forests and woodland edges typically associated with western United States, has been reported as an occasional local winter visitor. In fact, Stephanie Beilke was fortunate to record an eBird-first sighting at the Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois in December 2021. I’d barely registered the potential for the Townsend’s, so focused was I on finding the Prairie Falcon.
After paying the fee to enter the park, we decided to hike Crow Creek Trail, which promised a waterfall at hike’s end. In hindsight, we might’ve been a little ambitious; we began the 3.6-mile hike around 2 p.m. Although we had brought snacks in our daypack, we had not yet eaten lunch. Of greater consequence was the impending five-hour drive to Kearney. Not to mention, that pesky time change (curses to you, Central Standard Time!).
Nevertheless we optimistically forged ahead . . . only to realize that we also had not banked on snow. While the unseasonable temperatures warmed us along the ridges of steep granite formations flanking Crow Creek, the path in the lower areas, shaded by junipers and other flora, was still snow-covered. (Also, have I mentioned that Whitney’s from balmy Texas?!) Still, we were delighted by the few birds that we did encounter, like Clark’s Nutcracker, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Black-capped Chickadee. But, it was slower going than either of us had expected or planned.
As serendipity would have it, after about 1.5 miles, we each independently checked the time. And I am here to tell you, it was not on our side. As I am able to go from “I’m fine!” to “I’M HANGRY!” in approximately a single breath, I spoke up. We discussed the merits of completing the hike versus turning around and making better time for the long drive ahead. My appetite and Whitney’s footwear situation prevailed.
Along the return hike, we stopped for photos several times. At one point, the sun momentarily burst through the partial cloud cover. Knowing we had an epic drive ahead of us, Whitney and I stopped, took in the scenery, and spoke of the mutual Zen we enjoyed in that very moment. Aaaand then we were off! (Remember National Lampoon’s Vacation? The part where the Griswolds arrive at the Grand Canyon, and Clark allows them about 5 seconds to take it in? It kind of felt like that.)
As we walked onto the bridge crossing to ascend the path’s end, we both noticed movement in the creek. Whitney got right on it; yep, a beaver had just disappeared from the creek’s shoreline. She tried to help me see it, but it was already out of sight, and I just had not been fast enough. And as she turned to ask me something, we both saw a flash of bird motion to our left. It had just flown from a young tree toward thicker juniper cover, not far, in fact, from where we’d seen the beaver. It was thrush-sized, mostly gray, with an unmistakable bold, buffy wing stripe. Whitney had just gotten her lifer Townsend’s Solitaire, just like that! We discussed how cool it was to have seen it here, where we certainly had not been targeting it; rather, we were mammal-focused in the moment just prior to the sighting.
I wonder if I’d been the one to spot the bird without Whitney present, whether I might’ve defaulted to a Northern Mockingbird. After all, the Townsend’s was alone, and superficially resembles a mockingbird, which is a species I’m accustomed to seeing here in Ohio. However, Whitney had been studying Townsend’s field marks earlier that day and understood it might pop up during our hike. Well, it literally did! And as soon as she called it, I recognized the grayer body, the white eye ring, and of course that buffy wing stripe.
My takeaway from this particular episode? Like Whitney likes to say, you aren’t necessarily going to always get that life bird when you want it. Rather, they come to you when you’re supposed to see them. The other takeaway? The Prairie Falcon is officially my nemesis bird. So now I wonder: when I am supposed to see one? Only time will tell.