It was really starting to feel like spring last week, and I was looking forward to a pleasant day of birding this weekend. Then it got cold again and snowed about an inch on Saturday, but I figured that meant Sunday would be a great chance to do a tour de farm fields to look for longspurs and buntings. A little snow meant the roads wouldn't be unbikeable, but it was enough to push the birds out to the roads where they would be more visible. Well, then I saw the forecast for winds gusting over 40 mph - with what would have been a headwind my whole ride home - so I scrapped that plan!
Instead, I went back up to the quarry at the top of the bluffs where I spent New Year's Day. That location is conveniently close to my house for bad weather days (very cold on January 1st or very windy today); I know I can bike 4 miles in any conditions. After parking my bike, the quarry provides a good long walk through a variety of habitats that are relatively hard to find around here, including several birch patches, a stand of impressively large spruce, and some open scrubby stuff at the bottom of the quarry. The walk starts in mixed deciduous forest, which is not at all hard to find around here, but adds to the variety.
The wind wasn't bad when I started, and bird activity was good for the first couple of hours. On my way up the initial steep climb from the parking lot, I came across a mixed flock of birds (Downies and other woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches, chickadees, jays - and a gray squirrel) scolding at something. I was hoping for an owl and the group was not far off the trail, just down a short steep embankment that I didn't want to navigate. I crept up to the top of the embankment and had great views of the agitated birds... but never saw what they were scolding. The birds were all pretty low to the ground and seemed to be watching something on the ground, so I decided it was probably a mammal rather than an owl. A few minutes later I saw fresh cat tracks, so that could have been it.
I continued up the trail and heard a Tufted Titmouse singing for #42. Titmice are not rare around here, but have only recently started singing for the season, and I generally seem to hear them much more often than I see them.
A little bit farther up I glimpsed a large wing-flap a short distance off the trail, through fairly open woods and next to a cliff. I got my binoculars on the bird and was pleased to see the back and shoulder of a Barred Owl (#43). The bird turned around, saw me looking at it, and slowly side-stepped until it was hidden from my view by the trunk of the tree. I went on my way to avoid disturbing it while it settled in for the day. Last year I never did find a Barred Owl in La Crosse County, and only had one Great Horned! Aren't there Barred and Great Horned owls everywhere?? Apparently not here. I heard both species hootin' it up on an overnight camping trip that I did last spring to neighboring Trempealeau County, and I'll probably do that again at least once this year, but it wasn't out of the question that I could have missed Barred Owl altogether with a bit of bad luck. So, it's nice to get that one on the list, especially with a chance encounter where I wasn't expecting one.
I took some of the trails less traveled farther up in the quarry, hoping to find a Northern Shrike that had been there a few days ago. That's another species I could happen to miss all year - I never found one last year, and while I'm planning some trips to/through better shrike habitat this year, they're so sparse that I can't count on finding one. Likewise, especially given the windy conditions, I was keeping an eye to the sky for Golden Eagles, which I could also easily miss this year. No shrike or golden today, but I did flush a pair of Song Sparrows (#44) from a sheltered patch of grass.
By then the wind had really started gusting, and I didn't see much else as I finished circling the quarry and headed back down to my bike. I was glad to have the wind at my back for most of the ride home!