[Tweeters] Canyonlands NP report

Warren Clemans wumpusbear at gmail.com
Mon Apr 20 10:21:52 PDT 2015

My family and I just returned from a 5-day backpacking trip in Canyonlands
National Park in Southern Utah. I ordinarily don’t bring binoculars
backpacking, considering them to be a heavy extravagance, but this time I
brought a small pair. I’m very glad I did. The trip yielded 9 life birds
for me. (One nice thing about being a beginning birder is that life birds
aren’t so rare, but they’re still thrilling when they occur.)

Our trip followed Salt Creek from the Cathedral Butte trailhead to Peekaboo
camp, then over the Peekaboo trail to Squaw Flats campground. Roughly 35
miles in 5 days, including a side trip to Angel Arch. Non-avian highlights
included dozens of ancient ruins and pictographs. Because of the reliable
water supply, this valley has been occupied off and on for thousands of
years. It’s also stunningly beautiful, with arches, cliffs, balanced
rocks, side canyons, caves, etc. It’s an explorer’s paradise, as long as
you stay off the cryptobiotic soil. This report will focus on the birds.

Day 1: We descended about 1000 feet through a pinyon pine and juniper
forest. Tons of western scrub jays and spotted towhees. In the evening,
my son and I scrambled up on the slickrock above camp and had great views
of WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS (life bird #1). I’m sure I’ve seen these before,
but we were up high and the birds were at eye level so we could make a
positive ID.

Day 2: Very cold night and morning. I woke up early and walked up to a
spring and pond near a rancher’s cabin from the 1890s. Near the pond a
BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD landed repeatedly on a snag and sat still long
enough for me to look him over. (LB #2). On the way back to camp I saw
and heard BLACK-CHINNED SPARROWS. These were striking birds with bright
pink bills. (LB #3). That evening at camp, just around dusk, my daughter
spotted a bird that landed on a branch about 6’ above my head. It was
getting a bit dark to see but it was clearly a small owl. Soon it started
tooting so we could make a positive ID—NORTHERN PYGMY OWL (LB#4). We spent
2 nights at this site, and this little fellow hung around camp both nights.
We adopted him as our mascot.

Day 3: We did a day hike to Angel Arch, a highlight of the trip. The
trail ends at a viewpoint, but you can scramble the rest of the way up to
the arch. My daughter and I gave it a try but lost the trail. Just as we
were about to turn around, we started hearing birdsong above us. My
daughter spotted the bird: CANYON WREN (LB#5). She said its call sounded
like the Doppler effect, as if the bird was trying to fool us into thinking
he was moving away quickly. What a gorgeous bird, running/flying straight
up a thousand-foot vertical sandstone cliff below the arch. On the hike
back to camp, I saw 2 or 3 really lovely blue-gray birds working through
the scrub. I got good enough looks to be pretty sure they were BLUE-GRAY
GNATCATCHERS. I played the song on the Sibley app to confirm (quietly, not
trying to call the birds but just so I could compare the song). One of the
birds heard me and came over to investigate, then circled around me until
he realized I was a fraud. LB #6.

Day 4: This day consisted mostly of a walk along a riparian corridor in a
fabulous sandstone canyon. The avian highlight of the day was a BLACK
PHOEBE flycatching low over the creek. We watched it move between 2 or 3
low perches. LB#7. Camp that night was spectacular but didn’t yield many

Day 5: Our last day on the trail involved following cairns over high
slickrock domes and across a couple of river valleys. I had a tentative
gray vireo, but not sure enough to list it. The whole family got great
looks at a SAY’S PHOEBE (LB#8). Finally, within a half mile or so of the
end of the trail, I heard first, then saw, a small flock of PINE GROSBEAKS
moving between juniper and pine. (LB#9). Sibley’s range map shows them as
being a little further west, but I played their song and it was a good
match. Definitely not a match for any of the finches with similar coloring.

There were lots of other great birds throughout the trip: mountain and
western bluebirds, mountain chickadees, spotted towhees by the hundreds,
chipping sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, distant flycatchers that I
couldn’t ID, and lots of others that escaped my attempts at identification.
It can be hard to bird while backpacking since we try to stay together on
the trail, which makes it hard to stop for long stretches and look at birds.

Good birding,
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