SOME BIRDS ENCOUNTERED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (Part I)
Chris Coleborn

It has been my privilege to visit the United States of America three times. They have been very busy visits in connection with my calling as a Pastor, but I often managed to fit some birding into my schedules. Because of travelling to diverse places in the USA it meant that the opportunity was there to see a great variety of birds. It was a great experience to not only meet different people and share in rich and satisfying friendship and fellowship in a like precious faith, but also to experience the richness of creation - often quite different to what we may know in Australia.

My visits took me from the dry coastal hills and plains, the wonderful deserts and high rugged pine clad mountains of the south of California to the lush fields and green deciduous woods of the central north in Michigan and Wisconsin. My work also took me to the Atlantic seaboard where the Pilgrim Fathers walked in Pennsylvania and also the Old Southern States of Virginia and South Carolina. With friends I was able to wander in the fabulous soaring and wild Rocky Mountains in Colorado as well as the woods of the east. In all these places it was wonderful to enjoy the wildlife, especially the birds, so different to Australia.

The west coast, between Los Angles and San Diego is a fascinating contrast of land types. There is the low coastal plain, with its dry, brown flatlands and foothills. With settlement and the planting of many trees and scrubs it makes for a very diverse habitat and so there are quite a lot of birds in this area. Not only the birds of the dry lands, but those that need flowering scrubs for example. It was here that I first saw Woodpeckers and Hummingbirds. We have nothing like these birds in Australia. They were fascinating. The first Hummingbird I saw I thought it was, of all things, a large Blowfly! It made a buzzing sound as it flew, and seemed to me to be about the size of a Blowfly. Yet what incredible delight to focus binoculars on it as it was near a flower and see a male Anna’s Hummingbird. They are a lovely iridescent green on the back, with a beautiful and striking purple red throat and head and a white bib. It was a little jewel. I became quite sentimental about it because one of my daughter’s names is Anna. In this area it was also a privilege to see the Calliope Hummingbird and the Black-chinned Hummingbird - all incredible works of living art.

The Acorn Woodpecker was the first of this type of bird that I encountered. It was depositing an acorn into a hole it had drilled into a Palm Tree. It has a striking contrast of black chin, white rump, black wings and a vivid red head. In this area were also Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, which have striking black and white zebra type stripes on their backs, fawn breasts and bright red necks. Here also was a Nuttall’s Woodpecker; a fairly inconspicuous woodpecker compared to the previous two mentioned. Another type of type of beautifully coloured Woodpecker seen was the Common Flicker (Red-shafted Race), which is strikingly spotted on it underside, with a black chest band, grey neck and face, with red under its tail, in its wings, and in a gape behind the bill. None of these Woodpeckers really made the loud "rat-tat-tat" sound we often associate with woodpeckers. That had to wait until I was in Texas.

On the coastal lands there were other new birds to also encounter. There were Rufous-sided and Brown Towhees, a Black Phoebe and the more common birds of the urban areas such as the American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Scrub Jays, Mourning Doves, the bright yellow, black headed American Goldfinch and in the drier areas the lesser coloured and so called Lesser Goldfinch. Purple and House Finches were also common - the males look like our introduced House Sparrows that have been dipped in purple-red dye. The females look like our female House Sparrows. One also came across the Old World House Sparrow throughout the States too. I also came across the Western Kingbird, which is a type of Flycatcher. The Western Kingbird was not coloured or shaped like our Flycatchers, such as the Restless Flycatcher and our Willie Wagtail, but its behaviour and mannerisms were very much the same. They had a horizontal posture, wagged their tail and moved with the jerky, almost nervous motions of our birds. When one too, has not see Squirrels, it was a treat to see the beautiful brushy tailed Western Grey Squirrel in the parks and gardens too. I thought how much my children would have enjoyed seeing these creatures.

Another interesting bird of the dry areas was the Phainopepla. It is more common in Mexico, but fairly common in the South West of the States too. The male is a shiny blue-black colour with a crest and a long tail. It was also enjoyable to see the little Inca Dove.

Perhaps the most incredible sighting was when visiting the foothills a huge raptor was noticed slowly circling above. Getting my binoculars focused onto it, one could see it had a striking underwing pattern of white. It soared above for some minutes giving very good views of itself. Its long wide wings and the way they were held in a straight line could clearly be noted. I had my suspicions as to what it was, but could not imagine that such suspicions were correct until opening it the book confirmed it was the rare California Condor. Later local birdwatchers reported that one had been in the area, for this sighting is near to where the last small colony of these great birds still exists in the wild.

On a "day off", my host took me to the Joshua Tree National Park - a fascinating desert park. This is a fairly flat grassland area, but with some undulating sandy desert in which there are great rocky outcrops. There are scattered chaparral, the giant cactus of the South-West occasional clumps of trees such as the Joshua Tree, various varieties of Desert Oak, California Juniper, Mojave Yucca, Californian Fan Palms and low scrubs such as Ocotillo. What a thrill it was to see for the first time a Greater Roadrunner. It was larger than expected with quite a crest. Most seen were stationary, though I saw one speed away from us. It was here too that one encountered such desert birds as Albert’s Towhee, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, (which reminded me of our Fairy-Wrens ), and the little Canyon Wren, (which compared to our Wrens seem to have stumpy tails). It was also interesting to come across such mammals one had read about as the Black-tailed Jackrabbit (really a species of hare). It was great to come across a colony of elegant, yet hyperactive, little Californian Ground Squirrels. A Coyote was seen here too.

Behind the coastal area of grassland, dry arroyos and occasional patches of dry woodland are the San Gabriel Mountains. These rugged, steep mountains are covered with Spruce, Pine, Firs, Cedar and various varieties of deciduous trees such as Oak and Birch. Crystal clear streams run among these granite mountains, and plunge down to the plains below. The air is pure and fresh, and though the days are warm, the air is invigoratingly cool. A whole range of different birds and mammals are to be found here. There was a glimpse of a Black Bear and some Mule Deer. It was here too that one could see some really strikingly beautiful birds. One of the first was a noisy flock of Steller’s Jay, which are about 30 cm long, having a variety of shades of blue on the wings, rump, tail and underside, and a dark grey back and head and a large crest. They were quite noisy as they fed and flew around the top of some pines. A Clark’s Nutcracker, another quite large pale grey and dark blue and white bird was feeding quietly under some spruces. To come across birds that had only previously been only well known names was fascinating. For the first time a little Chickadee was observed. It was a Mountain Chickadee, gambolling among the outer branches of some variety of pine or spruce. A companion bird for the Chickadee was a Pygmy Nuthatch with its family also feeding among the high altitude pines. One of the brightest coloured birds I saw in the States were Tanagers. Here in these mountains a beautiful shimmering gold of breast, neck and rump, black and white wing and deep blood red head identified a Western Tanager male. In the sunlight they were like molten gold.

Another area of mountain country seen was in Colorado, near the city of Lovelands and close to the famous Rocky Mountain National Park. It was here that I saw my first "Magpie". It is of course nothing like our Australian Magpie. It is, as many of you would know, a bird somewhat the shape of a Grey Shrike-thrush, but vividly coloured black and white with iridescent blue green in the wings and tail. The tail is long and streams out behind it in flight. Near to where I was staying was a big series of burrows of Prairie Dogs. One afternoon just idly viewing these delightful animals (but a pest to humans when near to their dwellings), I saw what appeared to be a bird about the size of a Prairie Dog. It was long-legged and brown with whitish spots on it and a dark band around its neck. On focusing my binoculars on it I realized it was a little owl called a Burrowing Owl. Such un-expected sightings were great.

One day we went on a trip that took us on a road beside a swift flowing mountain. The man driving was had only a very basic knowledge and appreciation of birds. He was happy to fall in with the request to drive slowly by the stream for it may have been possible to sight a Dipper. The distribution maps in the Field Guides suggested that were in suitable habitat. My friend asked what was a Dipper? I explained that it was a little grey bird that would jump under the water and pull itself along the bottom by its feet grabbing rocks and pebbles as it searched for water insects etc. He laughed and told me he was not to be taken in so easily! Almost straight away the silhouette of a little dark bird on a rock in the stream was observed - it looked like the silhouette of a Dipper. There was a shout to "stop"! We piled out and I as the binoculars focused on it, sure enough, a little Dipper came into clear view. The unaided eye quite easily saw it too. What a pleasure to be seeing birds that I had read and heard about. My friend saw the bird go under the water, and we were even able to see it at times under the crystal clear water. He was enthralled - and the wonders of creation and its Creator dawned on him in a way it had never done before.

Australia has forests, lakes, coasts, deserts and mountains so unique and beautiful that they can match anything else in the world. Yet the beauty with which our Maker has endowed our country does not mean that there are not other different but incredibly beautiful sights throughout the earth too. Surely one of them must be the Rocky Mountains of the USA and Canada?

Before arriving in the Loveland area, even though it was only early Autumn, there had been an unseasonably heavy fall of snow. On this outing though the sun was shining with golden warmth, the air still but sweet with the tang of the Junipers, Pines, Cedars and Firs and crisp from all the snow on the panorama of hills and soaring mountains all around us. There were mountain meadows with yellow, pink and white daises peeping through the snow, and the grass so green. Quacking Asp trees and Willows along the creeks and near ponds and small lakes were turning gold. On a rocky cliff face we saw some Bighorns and stealthily and shyly making their way though the woods there were Mule Deer. One of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard was the haunting bugling call of the Bull Elk as the whistling, almost bird-like call, beautifully echoed around the mountains and seem to linger in the otherwise still mountain air. Grazing in the grassy meadows where there was open space, or even where the trees were more scattered, Elk could be seen - the majestic bucks, the size of a steer, their heads crowned with elegant, large spreading antlers. Yellow-bellied Marmots sunned themselves outside burrows in a pile of rock; Red and Grey Squirrels scampered about the trees and on the ground little Least Chipmunks could be seen. What a serene and beautiful picture. Gazing from the top of "the highest paved road in the world" - I think they said it was 21,000 feet, my companions and I were silenced by the wonder of it all as we looked at the breathtaking majestic world spread around us and beneath us. Into this silence one brother quietly spoke, How Great Thou Art! He said it all.

As we walked along canyon and started up a climb to look at a beautiful stand of Cedars, a huge bird flew overhead, and circled to "eye us off". It took only a few glimpses to realize I was seeing my first Golden Eagle. It reminded me somewhat of our Wedge-tailed Eagle, except it did not have a wedge shaped tail. In these high coniferous woods a Grey Jay was seen on the outer branches of a conifer. An uncommon Townsend’s Solitaire, a somewhat erect grey bird with a long tail, some black, white and rufous in its wings and a white ring around its eye. A Beautiful Mountain Bluebird was also a treat to see.

(To be continued ...)


This report was published in The Christian Bird Observer’s Magazine, April 2001