Dedicated bird watchers began showing up at the rendezvous spot about 8:30 am. We all remarked about how the weather was fine until we got within 10 miles of The Wilds.
"It's a clearing off shower."
"It's supposed to blow through and clear off."
"It'd be better for the birding if this turned to snow."
"Where's the mobile Starbucks cart?"
As the leader of one of the trip's three groups, I felt it necessary to stand outside my van welcoming arriving birders, gathering my group, explaining our plans, and, most importantly, giving out directions to the bathrooms. I stood in the rain for 20 minutes or so and got soaked through to the skin. Bad idea. I could have starred in one of those spoof commercials from Saturday Night Live for "Bad Idea Jeans." I had wet feet and legs for the remainder of the day.
We split into our three groups and my gang, Group 2, headed off to the entrance to The Wilds where a northern shrike had been seen by several arriving birders just an hour before. We gave it a really good attempt but ended up shriking out. Leaving the shrike-free spot our bird list was: American crow, song sparrow, Carolina wren (heard only), red-tailed hawk, northern harrier. Not much for an hour's effort.
Back to the Jeffrey's Point Birding Station, a nice birding deck (with a roof!) perched strategically atop a ridge overlooking several ponds and much of The Wilds' prime real estate. I have never stopped at the birding station when it hasn't been either raining or snowing. I need to go up there this summer when the drought settles in, just to test this theory. From the deck we added some waterfowl (mallards, ring-necked ducks, trumpeter swans from the captive-bred birds at The Wilds, Canada geese) and a few other expected birds. Then the rain increased its intensity, blowing across the deck (which has no walls to stop either wind or rain), and seeing no Starbucks cart in sight, we repaired to our vehicles to shiver and let our binocs fog up and become useless.
In the remaining time before the blessed arrival of lunch time when we'd get to sit inside a BUILDING WITH HEAT, we birded the lakes on the backside of The Wilds, along 340. This is a lonely stretch of highway, running straight as a string up and down several hills, east to west. The lakes it skirts typically offer the best waterfowl watching because of their seclusion, protection from the direct wind, and, for birders, the fact that you're looking down on the birds. We grabbed a smattering of new birds here, including a female ruddy duck, a female bufflehead and some gadwall. There were also horned larks along the road and a single, singing eastern meadowlark.
From there we decided to try for another shrike spot atop the strip-mined ridges of Prouty Road. Again no shrike appeared, but we did score our first rough-legged hawk of the day.
Lunch inside The Wilds' nice visitor's center was the warming-up we all desperately needed. Zick (ever wise at providing good trip food) had packed some homemade turkey soup AND a hotplate. People's laughs turned to envy as the soup began to steam and smell good. I took the first spoonful in a giant sip, then poured half the bowl down each leg. I could finally feel my toes once again.
Dr. Nicole Cavender gave us a short presentation on the good conservation work being done at The Wilds. If you've never been, put a visit the The Wilds on your short list. It's a very cool place.
After lunch we headed back out into the rain, newly determined to find our quest birds: short-eared owl, golden eagle, northern shrike, and the mythical prairie falcon that often haunts The Wilds in winter. Our score was yes, yes, no, no. My group revisited our morning sites, picking up a few birds, finding the roads a lot muddier than they had been before lunch.
Then the call came over the radios that the golden eagle had been spotted from the Jeffery Point Birding Station. We raced there. No eagle. Then..... EAGLE! An adult golden eagle rose up from the woods on a distant ridge. Though the look was from perhaps a mile away, we were able to get everyone on the bird, with many looks through the scopes. Soon the eagle perched and several of us left to drive nearer to it for a better look. We got some more flying views from Zion Ridge Road, and lots more looks at rough-leggeds and male harriers.
Our pal Shila is an uncanny bird spotter. I think she has birding ESP or senses the birds' auras or something. Sheels was in Zick's car all day and basically spotted every single good bird. It was while we were watching the eagle that Shila said, "Here's a long line of birds and there's some white in them! What would that be?"
It was a line of about 50 snow geese, uttering their high-pitched calls, flying toward us from the northeast. This was a surprising sighting. Even more interesting was the fact that the skein included a large percentage of blue-form snow geese. I raced to the van for my camera and clicked off a few frames. The geese seemed to want to settle onto The Wilds but changed their minds and headed off to the west.
At the end of the day the remaining hearty souls converged on the birding station to scan for short-eared owls. What we thought was the reappearance of the golden eagle turned out to be (after a cooperative fly-by) a sub-adult bald eagle! A new bird for the day!
It was still raining in small drizzles, but then the sun seemed to FINALLY take control, chasing the rain away. Though it offered us no warmth, it did give good light for owl watching, a nice sunset for photography, and a lovely ending to a fine, if challenging, day afield. We all hugged and handshaked our goodbyes and headed home, friendly taillights disappearing in all directions as night's black curtain snuffed out the day.