We travel for many different reasons, but whenever we travel, birdwatchers have the extra bonus of being able to see birds that they might never encounter back home. I recently had the opportunity to drive across the country to Montana from New Hampshire to bring my son to college, of course I packed an appropriate birding guide, Birds of Western North America.
While there, I was able to get multiple good looks at two new life birds: the black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) and the Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis).
The sandhill cranes we first saw as we were driving along Interstate 90 in Wisconsin. We'd see them most notably at dusk in groups of 3-12 birds. Sandhill cranes are normally resident in Wisconsin during the summer breeding season.
With the exception of a Florida population, Sandhill cranes don't generally venture to the east coast, however, we were lucky enough to have one vagrant spend some time in seacoast New Hampshire this summer. Sandhill cranes can be quickly distinguished from great blue herons by the bright red cap that extends below their eyes. In flight, cranes fly with their necks extended out straight, while herons tuck their heads back closer to the body, leaving their necks curled like the letter "S".
Black-billed magpies were very common around Montana and could be seen in the countryside as well as in city parks and residential lawns. They are vibrantly colored and unmistakeable in appearance. Their long tails and distinctive white, blue and black coloring make them easy to identify. In flight, the undersides of the wings are bright white from about the middle outward.
The magpies seemed at home among people, looking for dropped food or handouts in the parks and alternately gleaning whatever insects. Magpies eat almost anything from french fries to road kill with fruit, eggs, and even nestlings of other bird species thrown into their diet when available.
By taking advantage of the travel we had to perform anyway, we added these two new life birds to our list.