The 400 Bird Quest - The Journey Home

Count Update:  303

It's snowing sideways outside today.  Nevertheless it's good to be home from FL.   I made this trip a personal challenge to seek rarities, advance my 2018 year bird species list toward the 400 goal, and try to surpass 100 lifetime species in as many states along the way as I can.   I left FL on March 26 and arrived in Minnesota on April 5th, car camping every night along the way.   Spring songbird migration was just beginning when I left, but I quickly passed it up traveling north.   

Needless to say I did not log many highway miles.  For the most part, I avoided all but the smallest towns, zigzagging through state parks, wildlife management areas (WMA), mountains,  seashores, farm fields and various green spots on the map.  One exception was Gatlinburg, TN.   I entered the Great Smokey Mountains in North Carolina on a Friday afternoon and found unexpected 'up north' birds like Common Raven and Ruffed Grouse before camping at 5000 ft elevation.  There was hardly a soul around. Natural solitude. It was extremely peaceful...but cold.  I woke to 24 degrees.  It was late Saturday morning when I finished winding down the Newfound Gap Road (US 441) and tumbling into downtown Gatlinburg. It was jammed with tourist traffic and swarming pedestrian families stampeding the shops and restaurants that were smashed side by side along the street.  A dramatic contrast from the nearby mountains, and a bit of a culture shock to this unprepared Grizzly Adams.  The town is a Branson wanta-be, complete with  a Dollywood theme park, Ripley's believe-it-or-not, an enormous King Kong clinging to one of the tall hotels, and all the standard issue souvenir shops.  On the why through town from the car, I  had no trouble picking up Pigeon, House Sparrow, and Starling for my TN list, but I was glad when traffic freed and it was behind me. 

Temps were cold and snow was covering ground most of the rest of the trip.  We got 3" of fresh snow one night on the IN, IL line. This provided excellent birding in open field ag land.  The snow concentrated migrants to the uncovered gravel roads, making them easy to spot.   I found Lapland Longspurs, Vesper, Song, Field, Tree, and Chipping Sparrows, American Pipits (100's), Horned Laks (100's), Snow Buntings, Pectoral sandpipers, Wilson's snipe  and more.

Other birders have reported uncommon birds they found at ebird.org.  I chased some of those reports and re-found the following:  American Golden Plover, Smith's Longspur, Ross's Goose, Surf Scoter, and Mute Swan (this wild pair was countable).  I also spent hours looking hard for Long-tailed Duck, Snowy Owl, Greater Prairie Chicken,  Seaside Sparrow and others in many places they were reported, but came up short.  In all I added new 28 year species to the year list and broke 300.   I also expanded my list of 100+ species to 11 states.

So that is it recorded somewhere here is a list off my favorite journey home hotspots: FL: Kingsley Plantation area, Big Talbot Island; GA: Jekyll Island, Paulk's Pasture WMA, Altamaha WMA, Harris Neck WMA; SC: Bear Island WMA,  Seabrook Island; NC: Great Smokey Mountains TN: Norris Dam State Park; IN: Patoka Lake, Sullivan County; IL: Dixon Wildlife Refuge, Lake Bloomington;  WI: Buena Vista Grasslands

Here are some photo highlights with captions from along the way.