Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Trip Report 1/2, Grand Canyon June-July 2008

This is a report from a birding trip we did last summer at the north rim of the grand canyon and zion national park. This trip happened to be also our honeymoon!

  • Travel

We flew from Detroit to Las Vegas. This indeed was a very reasonably priced flight (in the $400'), even at the height of the summer season. In addition, the rental cars were dirt cheap ($20 a day, for an economical rental, but they did not seem to have ANY small car, so we got a free upgrade for a larger SUV)

The reason why we choose the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is that we were looking for a reasonably cool area (no way we were going to spend one week in a 110F temperature), beautiful landscape and nice birds to look for. At 8,000/10,000 feet alt, the north rim of the Grand Canyon was a logical choice. We indeed had a perfect weather, always nice, with temperatures in the 70'. The cool air also allowed us to see bird at any time of the day, unlike the Nevada Desert we crossed on the way (at noon and 110 degrees temperature, bird activity is close to zero)

Gas : we went at the grand canyon during the peak of gas price crisis. The only gas station inside the national park was so old that they could not charge more than 3.99$ a gallon. That was about 50 cents cheaper than anything we had seen on the way from Las Vegas. Obviously not a great advantage right now, though, as the gas price is now about half of that

On the way back, we had a few extra hours to waste, so we tried a beach on Lake Powell. Big mistake. The beach we choose (on the east side of the lake) was nice, but was missing a rather essential element : water. The lake Powell has lost so much water that some of the resorts have been closed. I guess this is the price to pay if you want to have green golf course and lawn in Las Vegas. The heat was so unbearable anyway that I don't think we could have stand on the beach for very long anyway

  • Resources

Although Arizona is clearly the mecca of birding in the US, I found out most of the material available on the internet is focused on the south east of the state. Nevertheless, these two links provided very useful information. Note that it is necessary to travel through Washington County, Utah between Las Vegas and the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

  • Accommodation

Demotte Campground : a tip to my fellow birders : if you take your bride to a honeymoon trip, don't buy a tent for 2 bucks at the recycling center....

Accommodation is certainly a problem on the north Rim of the Grand Canyon. There is basically only one campground in the park, and it was impossible to book a spot, even for 2 months in advance. Another option was, of course, the fairly expensive lodges (about $200 a day). The easier solution we found was at the Demotte campground, just before the entrance of the park. For $15 a day (and, most important, no reservation, there is a first come, first serve policy), this campground offered basic confort (no shower, though, we found easier the best to take showers at the north rim campground, for a few quarters), plus a basic, but friendly restaurant next to the campground (they were renting some cabins too). If you are travelling on a budget, you can also camp anywhere in the national forest. Many area at the edge of the meadow were superb (and free!) potential camp sites, and fairly close from the road.

The campground was located in the middle of a large grassy meadow. Overall, I would highly recommend this campground. It is a beautiful, quiet and clean place, very relaxing. There were many forest roads to hike (or bird watch) on, and there were many birds we found around this campground we did not found in the park (Cassin's Finch, Evening grosbeak, Williamson Sapsucker). I was also told it is a great place to find a black backed Woodpecker, but we were unsuccessful in finding it.

  • Birding

We could not find a park ranger who was really a bird specialist. But there was a note book with pictures and comments at the visitor center where you could get some fairly valuable information.

Birding around the campground itself was great. Cassin's finches, Pine Siskins and Evening Grosbeak were everywhere, but sadly, were best seen at the restaurant garbage dump. Violet-Green Swallows, Mountain and Western Bluebirds were very common on the meadow, and some Brewer's Blackbirds were nesting in a tree close from the restaurant. We also found a nice Williamson Sapsucker, a Painted Redstart, and many audubon's Yellow-Rumped Warblers (Not a new species? You have to be kidding me!) on a short hike around the campground. A Prairie Falcon was also seen on the road toward the camp. Raptors were rather scarce, and we could not find the Swainsson Hawk we were hoping for.

Birding in the park itself was also great, but unequal. We first tried the Ken Patrick Trail and only found a few new birds there (1 Plumbeous Vireo, many Blackthoated swift and 2 Townsend's Solitaire). This trail is particularly popular for mule riding.

Trying to get a California Condor while Relaxing...

  • On the second day, though, we tried the Widforss Trail (only a fraction of it, as the whole trail round trip is about 10 miles), and the birds were fantastic. This part of the park has burned a few years ago, and the diversity of trees and plants makes great habitat for different birds. Pygmy Nuthatch, Stellar's Jay, Western Tanager, Clark Nutcraker, Mountain Chickadee and Blackchinned sparrow were found. But the best birds were certainly a Female Dusky Grouse (also called Blue Grouse) on the side of the trail, as well as a California Condor who flew overhead (and yes, I did count it as a life bird, despite it's ABA non-countable status). I got a quick view of a woodpecker which might have been a black-backed (this trail is supposed to be the best in the park for this woodpecker), but I could not be sure. The views over the canyon were maybe the best we had in the park.

Widforss Trail

  • On the stargazing side, it should be noticed that the north rim of the Grand Canyon is probably the best place in the lower 48th. We were lucky enough to be there during a special event, and many stargazers were gracious enough to let us look through their scope. The sky was truly magnificent, and we had spectacular views of some planet (I could not believe the views of Saturn we got). Nevertheless, I tend to think that there is more charm and excitement to find and observe a bird than say, a double or even triple star (OK, I can see two yellow dots instead of one, so what?). Plus optics are less expensive!

Night Sky at the north rim lodge

  • Trip List

Dusky Grouse * Tétras sombre
Turkey Vulture Urubu à tête rouge
California Condor * Condor de Californie
Red-tailed Hawk Buse à queue rousse
Prairie Falcon Faucon des prairies
White-throated Swift * Martinet à gorge blanche
Williamson's Sapsucker
* Pic de Williamson
Northern Flicker Pic flamboyant
Western Kingbird * Tyran de l'Ouest
Gray Vireo Viréo gris
Plumbeous Vireo Viréo plombé
Steller's Jay * Geai de Steller
Clark's Nutcracker Cassenoix d'Amérique
Common Raven Grand Corbeau
Violet-green Swallow * Hirondelle à face blanche
Mountain Chickadee Mésange de Gambel
White-breasted Nuthatch Sittelle à poitrine blanche
Pygmy Nuthatch * Sittelle pygmée
Western Bluebird
* Merlebleu de l'Ouest
Townsend's Solitaire Solitaire de Townsend
Hermit Thrush Grive solitaire
American Robin Merle d'Amérique
Yellow Warbler Paruline jaune
Yellow-rumped Warbler Paruline à croupion jaune
Painted Redstart * Paruline à ailes blanches
Western Tanager Tangara à tête rouge
Black-chinned Sparrow * Bruant à menton noir
Dark-eyed Junco Junco ardoisé
Brewer's Blackbird * Quiscale de Brewer
Cassin's Finch
* Roselin de Cassin
Pine Siskin Tarin des pins
Evening Grosbeak Gros-bec errant

* life bird for me

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