Want to learn more about a fantastic species of bird? Read on!
Want to learn more about a fantastic species of bird? Read on!
Oh Zenaida Dove!
You filled your wings with wind and crossed the sea to appear,
and then disappear
Taking no heed of invisible lines drawn by Man
Paying no attention to color or race,
Sharing your love with all who love you back
On this week last year a Zenaida Dove appeared at Long Pine Key State Park. This Code 5 bird was the 9th record of this species in the ABA Area, with the last one being sighted in 2009. It was seen by many birders, and was observed copulating with a Mourning Dove before being seen intermittently and then disappearing in May into the unknown.
I spent nearly every day of February stranded on a barrier island off the Georgia Coast. This predicament was of my own choosing, as I spent the month working as a Kitchen Assistant at The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island as I saved money to get back on the road and continue birding. At this point I knew I was doing a Big Year, and was keenly aware that 700 was within my grasp, if I saw nearly all of the common birds, most of the uncommon birds, and several key rarities. I laugh at the language used- as key rarities describes exactly what I was hoping for- rare birds showing up in the Florida Keys. I knew at this time of year I needed to be located either in south Texas, or in Florida in order to be close by to where vagrant birds would likely show up. I knew if I was close to Florida and a rare bird showed up, I would be able to chase it on my time off from work under two conditions: first I had to get off the island, and second the bird had to stick around. In a fortuitous series of events, everything worked out according to my plan.
My 8 hour shift working in the kitchen ended mid-afternoon, and as I wasn't scheduled to work dinner my work week also was over. I left the lodge and stepped outside, turning my phone on to check the weather, tides, and to plan my weekend. All thoughts of fishing vanished when my phone lit up with a string of texts, Facebook messages, and emails about a Code 5 Zenaida Dove which had just been seen in Florida. I ran back inside, connected to wifi, and began plotting my trip. I needed to get off the island immediately on a boat, and get to and from south Florida back in time to make the morning boat on the next day I had to work. It took 20 minutes to figure out the logistics, another 20 minutes to pack, and within the hour, I was departing on the last boat back to the marina at St. Simons, with an adventure ahead!
Superficially, the Zenaida looks like a larger, stocky Mourning dove. I'm sure it's possible that more occur in Florida and are just overlooked. It's slightly darker, has a square tail, and a white patch on the wing which is visible when the bird is feeding on the ground as it often does. I noticed that it seems to stand upright higher off the ground than a Mourning dove, and appears better-suited for foraging for seeds in the understory, holding its tail erect and moving more like a ground-dove does.
I've heard this bird's name pronounced incorrectly numerous times by birders, so in the spirit of education, I'll clear things up: Zenaida is pronounced Zen-EYE-da. The word is found in the Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian languages, often as a girl's name. Originally derived from the Greek, the word Zenaida means "of Zeus". The genus 'Zenaida' includes 7 species of doves found in the Americas, including the White-winged and Mourning dove, in addition to the Zenaida dove.
There is an account from naturalist and painter John James Audubon, who noted in his writings that this species was found with some regularity in the Florida Keys. In his travels he located a nest, and brought 2 young back with him to South Carolina, presenting them to Reverend John Bachman (who discovered his namesake warbler in South Carolina in 1832) Audubon noted that they were fed indian corn meal from the mouth quite easily, before being raised by foster pigeon parents.
I really enjoyed the "treasure hunt" for this bird at Long Pine Key State Park. I spent the day birding with Olaf Danielson- the first of many days in 2016 we would be searching for the same birds at the same location. Fortunately, the bird was found by another birder and word spread around the trail loop quickly, and everyone was able to have a few minutes watching the bird at point-blank range. Without fear, the bird fed right up nearly to our feet along the edge of the trail, delicately picking at seeds hanging from low grasses and shrubs. In the right light, the iridescent blue patch on the neck would flash and then disappear just as quickly, visible through my binoculars but a tough field mark to photograph.
In April, I returned to Long Pine Key to search for the long-staying Black-faced grassquit. (which I never got a good enough look at to add to my year's total) I spent nearly 8 hours walking around looking for the bird, and intermittently spent some time picking up trash in the area the Zenaida dove had been seen, along the mangrove shoreline along the Golden Orb trail. While walking back along the trail, I flushed several Mourning doves, and a third dove which I nearly stepped on! As the bird winged up into the tree, I saw the square tail and white in the wings and an audible lower-pitched whistling noise made by the wings in flight, in typical dove fashion. I guessed the Zenaida dove was feeding at the edge of the trail in knee-high grasses, and I hadn't noticed the bird until it came shooting out underfoot and nearly got stepped on. What an unfortunate end it nearly met!
The last eBird report of the Zenaida dove is from May 5th, continuing to associate with a (presumed male) Mourning Dove. I recall earlier in the year someone around March 16 observed copulation between the two species, and possible nesting attempt may have ensued, as the bird disappeared for periods during the day that may alight with incubating behavior. It will be interesting to see if this bird is around this year (2017), as many of the other long-staying rarities from 2016 have been re-discovered. I suspect it may show up, but that's just a guess!
Click or tap through photos to see some of Christian's images of the Zenaida Dove
Errors in the form of spelling/grammatical mistakes are not intended, but plausible, given much of this post was written and composed on an iPhone using Siri while driving. Please contact Christian if any errors are encountered, so they may be resolved. Thank you!
Watermarked or not, the images contained in this post are property of The Birding Project, and are not subject to unlawful copying and distribution without exclusive permission from The Birding Project.
Cover photo by Justin Cale
A Note to Readers: The purpose of this article is to educate, bringing together diverse resources and information about baiting owls. The Birding Project has a diverse audience of amateur to expert bird admirers, researchers, authors, students, birding guides, photographers, and professional ornithologists. Learning is a key piece to conservation. The more we know, the more we understand how nature works, and the better job we can do at preserving it. This post aims to educate and inspire. If you enjoy this, please help the message reach more people by sharing this post with others.
For thousands of years owls have drawn human attention from cultures around the world. Ancient people revered and respected owls, and in some cultures they are intertwined with superstition and mythology. For many birders, spotting certain owls is almost mythical, as they are routinely some of the most hard to find and sought-after birds in North America. Every winter, birders travel to airports, cornfields, and bogs in hopes of spotting one of many northern visitors, pushed southbound by natural miracle of migration. There is usually a steady influx of northern owls annually, yet some years consist of larger south-bound movements, referred to as "irruptions".
Even in present day owls continue to elicit mixed feelings and spark controversy, specifically around the topic of baiting. Chances are, you've seen a photo of a baited owl, or watched on TV in amazement as an owl swoops in over the snow and appears to pounce next to the camera in an epic shot. These images and video footage often leave us speechless and so in awe that we often forget to question the legitimacy of the shot. Why should that matter? Well, many photographers justify their images as a way to educate people and as a conservation tool. However, as the first link above shows, there's nothing natural about owls catching mice on top of the snow- rodents will tunnel underneath the snow, where food is located and safety is key. In the second link, multiple shots of multiple owls are used, edited together to tell a story- however important details are overlooked, like the loud "swooshing" sounds accompanying the owl's otherwise-silent wingbeats edited in for the stimulation of a generation that needs sounds in every shot. There's no doubt in my mind that baiting was employed to get the footage in this clip.
For those unfamiliar with the term, baiting is the act of using a lure or attractant to bring an owl closer to the viewer. In this practice, live mice are frequently tossed out onto the snow in order to lure the owl in closer- resulting in an easy meal for the owl, and close looks / action shots for the viewers. Sometimes people use mouse-shaped cat toys attached to a string as a lure. Another type of baiting is audio baiting, or using playback or sound recordings to draw the owl closer into view. Many winter "owl prowls" use playback to attract or lure unseen owls from deep in the woods closer to the group, to provide a glimpse for participants to see an owl. The line gets blurry around audio luring, as many birders use this technique to find and spot birds, but current opinions from acoustic researchers believe it alters bird's natural behaviors and increases energy output to investigate and defend against "audio" intruders.
In an age of instant bird reporting, and social media acting as a conduit for sharing bird photos, more and more people are heading out in search of owls, armed with cameras. A single bird at a rural location can be publicized and photos celebrated,
Multiple award-winning wildlife photographers frown on baiting owls, and many organizations and photo contests, like Audubon Magazine- prohibit baited owl photos.
In June of 2016, I spent time with owl researcher and Project SNOWstorm co-founder Scott Weidensaul, who wrote this piece on the ethics of owl baiting. Scott emphasizes two main reasons why baiting owls shouldn't happen:
Owls don't need the food, and it puts them at risk.
Many people have good intentions putting mice out for owls, thinking that they are starving, but that is seldom the case. Research shows that during irruption years, Snowy Owls move further south as a result of a productive breeding season, creating a "bumper crop" of young owls. These owls, when caught to be fitted with transmitters are often plump and healthy overall. Providing food for these owls can pass along diseases from captive rodents to birds that may already be vulnerable to disease, as well as habituate them to being fed by people. More importantly, baiting owls is frequently done near roads, increasing the already high chance of vehicle collision resulting in the death of the owl.
Baiting Owls Changes Their Behavior
In Audubon Magazine's Guide to Ethical Bird Photography, it is written "Luring birds closer for photography is often possible but should be done in a responsible way" -- quickly followed by "Never lure hawks or owls with live bait, or with decoys such as artificial or dead mice. Baiting can change the behavior of these predatory birds in ways that are harmful for them"
If you're unsure if baiting changes the behavior of owls, watch this video. It's pretty convincing.
Northern Hawk-Owls are nomadic, and regularly disperse outside of their northern breeding range. This is part of the natural history of this species, following cyclical fluctuations of voles, their primary prey. I've heard accounts of Hawk-Owls near roadways leaving their perches and flying in to investigate when they hear a car door close, as a result of being fed by visitors. These owls that become habituated to hunting near roadways are flying low in pursuit of prey (baited or otherwise) and can easily be struck by a car. I read in a Canadian blog about that happening several times.
One doesn't need to look far to find stories of owl baiting. I found this blog post from The Afternoon Birder, a Canadian bird blogger who found herself several weeks ago in the middle of a group of people baiting a Great Gray Owl in Ontario, Canada. I'd encourage you to read her experience, view her photos, and think about what you would have done in this situation. She was moved to write about and share her experience, as well as start a hashtag #ethicalowlphoto for pictures taken free from influence of bait.
Is every owl shot baited? No! Sometimes a photographer is just in the right place at the right time. Patience, persistence, and a knowledge of the bird's behavior and biology can do a lot for a good photographer.
Laura Erickson's excellent blog post on this subject of baiting owls highlights some issues around baiting owls, including how it cannot be accurately compared to backyard bird feeding. Her post pulls together some valuable resources I won't intentionally duplicate here.
In Canada, birders and photographers face the same issues we do, just with slight variances in the law. This news story highlights the negative impacts of baiting owls in Ottowa.
As a amateur photographer, I admire the work of professionals, buying their books and hoping someday to make images as unique and inspirational as their work. Sometimes good photographers make poor decisions. Nobody is perfect, yet it takes consistently practicing what you preach if you want the respect and accolades you work so hard to have your images reflect. I've lost some respect for several photographers who have pushed the boundaries of ethically photographing owls.
In February 2013, up to 7 Boreal Owls were reported in the same area along a rural road in French River, Minnesota. Dozens of birders made the trek out to see what for many of them was their "lifer" Boreal Owl, a species normally found in secluded spruce forests. The owl was easily seen from the road, hunting voles 15 feet from the shoulder in front of a sizable crowd of over 30 people. The owl would wait for voles to tunnel out of the shoulder and run frantically across the road to the other side. The opportunistic Boreal Owl would drop down from the tree line, and easily capture the voles, then fly into the forest to cache the voles to eat later.
One professional photographer who had traveled thousands of miles to be in this location and photograph Boreal Owls for his book, went into the woods after the owl's successful hunt, intent to capture photos of the bird "caching" or storing the meal. As he left the roadway and went into the trees, people shouted in protest, upset that he broke from the masses to pursue the owl into the forest. His behavior likely didn't bridge any ethical line in regards to the owl which eventually returned later in the day, but it certainly negatively affected the people who had assembled along the roadway to watch the owl and all followed the group rules.
Birding for most of us is about enjoying the birds. However it is also about the people. This second part is what many folks forget when they are in the midst of the euphoria of seeing a new bird, or are intent on getting "the shot" -- professionals included. But there's this truth: People are watching you. New birders, impressionable young birders, and people who are not birders. (Land owners, news crews, and the general public passerby) As an observer, your actions affect the group as a whole as demonstrated by the previous story. Dozens of people left the scene angry, upset, and flustered, because of the selfish actions of one guy. Did I buy that photographer's latest book on Owls? Nope.
Professional photographers and cinematographers should be held accountable by the same standards as everyone else. They may know more about the behavior of the birds because they spend thousands of hours pursuing and studying their subjects. However, this does not excuse poor decision making around other people, or cutting corners just to get "the shot" and the next paycheck. Recently a video has been circulating Facebook, highlighting an encounter between two photographers, one baiting a Great Gray Owl hunting next to a road. (You can find said video on The Birding Project's page) This filmmaker, whose footage has appeared on National Geographic and other well-known sites certainly knows better than to take shortcuts that affect not just the bird but the people who came out to watch the bird. When confronted they said, "we did check with a bunch of people ahead of time, who said if that was necessary than it was ok..." I don't know who they checked with, but some producer at National Geographic shouldn't be calling the shots in this case, that's for sure.
As The Afternoon Birder experienced, birders can be unexpectedly caught in the midst of a baiting scenario. This can be uncomfortable, especially in a group setting where the actions of one person affect everyone else. Everyone deserves the opportunity to see an owl in the wild, behaving like a wild bird should. It only takes one person to ruin the experience of the whole group. If we unite together, and oppose the baiting of owls, we can bring change. Every winter this discussion breaks out in multiple states, in the news, and on birding forums. It's time we learn a little, and then help change occur. The Birding Project encourages you to engage, but not enrage.
Many people want to know how they can be part of the solution. My advice is to get involved! When you see someone doing something that isn't right... PAUSE. Taking a minute before you react often is helpful in making sure that you don't contribute to the problem. Then, engage them in a respectful way. Sometimes people don't know what they're doing is wrong. Other times, they do know better. Although baiting isn't an illegal practice in many states, it is criticized by major birding, conservation, and photography organizations.
-Make your voices heard online, too. Hold people accountable for taking ethical photographs of wildlife. Be respectful. As I understand it, Minnesota has been trying to pass laws to prohibit owl baiting. As far as I know, that isn't in effect, and won't be until they hear from you.
-Contact Audubon, National Geographic, and other outlets for owl photos and footage, encouraging them to refuse images and video of baited owls. Right now there's a video circulating on Facebook of a film company who recently baited a Great Gray Owl while filming "for National Geographic". Let them know we don't want to see footage of baited owls because a cameraman couldn't wait to get the shot or "asked permission" from other people.
-Refrain from posting exact locations of wintering owls. Websites like Project SNOWstorm delay real-time reporting of the location of their owls, to reduce the likelihood of photographers finding and baiting the birds, which has happened in the past. You can use general locations on eBird to report your sightings- instead of noting exactly where the bird is, opt for a county instead.
-Use the hashtag #ethicalowlphoto to support the growing community of photographers who are taking an ethical stand to share their owl photos obtained ethically and without bait. Join the group of birders who are standing up for not only owls, but for other birders too.
Remember the first time you saw an owl? Let's help someone else experience that amazement and wonder too. Hopefully it will be the first of many spectacular encounters with nature.
Project SNOWstorm: A great blog about Snowy Owl movements across the Northern U.S. http://www.projectsnowstorm.org/
Audubon suggests some tips to getting great owl shots in their Guide to Ethical Bird Photography.
Scott Weidensaul article: http://www.audubon.org/news/why-you-shouldnt-feed-or-bait-owls
Owl Research Institute: http://www.owlinstitute.org/
Blog: Great Gray Owls in Ottowa: Baiting and Abetting: A Great blog full of information concerning owls and baiting https://meadowhawk.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/great-gray-owls-in-ottawa-baiting-and-abetting/
With a lot of patience, and some luck, you could find yourself face-to-face with an owl like these photographers, without the use of playback or lures. Thanks to all who have contributed images!
Thoughts on Writing this Blog
I thought about if I could write anything positive about baiting owls. I wrote some words that made sense grammatically, and were certainly true. Then I deleted it. Writing a topic on baiting owls has been on my mind since 2016, when I was faced with the choice to go to Minnesota in winter to "clean up" on owls for my big year. I had heard of people baiting owls, and knew that some of the birds were in that area because food was easy. Not wanting my first look at a Northern Hawk Owl to be one waiting for a free handout, I decided not to go. I faced criticism from friends and birders who knew if I wanted to break 700 I needed to go see owls in winter. I managed to see and/or hear all owl species last year, avoiding using playback for most of them. I don't regret that choice, as I have the rest of my life to search out owls, as they reveal themselves to me.
Typos, factual errors, and mistakes/omissions are not intended, so if you spot something please contact email@example.com so it can be fixed. Thank you!
North America is a beautiful continent, full of biodiversity and amazing landscapes. While doing an ABA Big Year, one is fortunate enough to visit a wide variety of places to find birds.
Thanks to the iPhone, taking panoramic shots has never been easier.
I hope you enjoy a sampling of some of the places I visited in 2016.
How many places do you recognize? (Answers are at bottom)
Texas (x3) Little St. Simons Island GA, Utah (x3), Colorado, Dry Tortugas FL, Texas Coast, Grand Canyon, Cruise Ship Victoria BC, Attu AK, Palmer AK, Unknown Beach, Ruby Mountains NV, Glacier National Park MT, Gambell, Barrow, Adak Alaska, Mount Rainier WA (x2) U.S/Mexico Border fence AZ, Cape Spear Newfoundland, Frozen lake, somewhere in Alaska, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument AZ
As I spend my days writing, and sorting through thousands of photos, hours of video, and listening to the birders I interviewed in 2016, I can't help but feel nostalgic for the places that have become an essential part to my story. Attu, the last island of Alaska's Aleutian Island chain is one of those places.
I chose to visit Attu not only because I was doing a big year, rather it was on my life list of places to visit. I've read about this birding Mecca since a child, and seen it portrayed in the film "The Big Year". Since then, I dreamed of one day making my own pilgrimage to the beaches and snow-covered hills, ripe with Asian vagrants and specialty birds. In the 80's and 90's Attu was much more accessible, with an active Coast Guard base keeping the runway open for air traffic, and Attours Inc. leading annual Spring and sporratic Fall birding trips. After 2000, the base was shut down and access to Attu became restricted until 2010 when John Puschock from Zugunruhe Birding Tours began leading trips to Attu. This place is linked to lots of birding history, and in future decades, access might be completely restricted- so I figured last year that we might be at the end of an era of birding Attu. Participants arrive now by boat from Adak (a splendid birding locale on its own) The 2-day boat trip is a awesome pelagic trip, with the possibility of seeing Storm-petrels, alcids, Black and Red-legged kittiwakes, and multiple species of albatross (including a remote possibility of seeing the Short-tailed Albatross, which has a global population of about 2500 individuals) The M/V Pukuk, a 72-foot electronically stabilized boat boasts a stellar captain and crew, with fine meals and beverages and makes the experience much better than sleeping on the island as in days gone by.
Here's the thing: These trips fill up quickly, and each year this trip is offered could be the last. The logistics of planning and executing a trip like this is incredibly complex, and can't be taken for granted. I'm so grateful this trip is being offered (twice!) this year, affording more people the experience to visit Attu, learn the history of WWII and see the wildlife of the Aleutians.
Some of my best birding friends I've made on this trip. A journey to Attu draws diverse people that share a love for the same things- travel, adventure, and birds. I'd encourage you to contact John and go on this trip- don't let the opportunity pass you by. I didn't, and it's one of the best decisions I made all year.
Want to read more? Here's my blog posts and photo essays from Attu. Of course, more will be published in the coming months.
The trip to Attu: (Click link to open in new page)
Attu in Black and White:
This is your chance! It's worth it, I promise.
There's currently 2, possibly 3 open spaces May 21-June 4 tour- $8490 per person.
Questions? Contact John Puschock directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Feel free to email Christian about his experience at email@example.com
2016 ended without a bang. I slept on the tile floor of the airport in Boston, Massachusetts after throwing all of the effort/energy/money I could muster into finding a Dovekie, my last Code 2 bird. It just wasn't meant to be. I ended the year having seen 750 birds, plus two provisional birds, and a Graylag Goose for good measure. I was proud of my efforts this year, and a number was just that- a number. Possibly soon, I'll have more numbers to share: miles driven, walked, bicycled, airports slept in, etc. It takes some time to do the stats.
The answer is different for everyone. One big year birder relished a tropical getaway where clothing was optional. Another returned to her job and family in Ohio. The third enjoyed time with his spouse, visiting friends in the US before returning to Australia. Me? I kept birding, spending January 1st 2017 doing the same thing I did the day before: looking for a Dovekie. After a day of solid birding, I returned home to pack up and get to the Midwest, where I've been preparing for school, and resting. However, I rest best in action.
I drove up to Chicago and went birding with Sulli. This past year I have made a lot of friends across the country, and look forward to reconnecting this year with them. Sulli and I searched the lakefront for Long-eared Owls. If you missed my blog post, you can read about it here.
While in Chicago, I celebrated with fellow Big Year birders John Weigel and Laura Keene, alongside some birding friends from the area. Seeing them and talking about our year really helped provide a sense of closure, accomplishment, and fulfillment. We reminisced about the funny moments, birds we missed, and re-lived the year act by act like a Greek play. (Is it a comedy or a tragedy?!) It was a lovely surprise to have a cake with each of our final numbers on fire as candles. Our dinner was masterfully prepared by a chef/birder extraordinaire, and hosted by a gracious birding friend and help to all.
2017 has brought some wonderful opportunities to share my birding experiences with others. I've spoken to classrooms of students, done some interviews for newspaper, radio, and podcast media, and lined up some fun speaking engagements for this year.
For now, I'll continue to write, finish my lesson plans for school (I begin teaching High School Science again at the end of the month) and spend time with friends and family in the St. Louis area- escaping occasionally to go birding.
Weeks have passed since I finished my Big Year, and it's just now starting to sink in. It's taken nearly 20 days for me to write this blog post. The following are a few quick thoughts that have crossed my mind in the past few weeks.
I've learned more about the outcome of the election and the long-term implications it will have on our country. Without inserting personal bias into the post, I can say I've learned a lot by reading a variety of news sources in order to try and get a fair and balanced grasp on what is going on in my country.
Real food is delicious. I love going to a grocery store, and buying fresh fruits and vegetables, bacon and eggs, and ice cream. (Things that wouldn't refrigerate well in my car cooler last year) I still have a weekly bowl of Ramen, and am weaning my body off fruit snacks also.
Netflix is amazing. I'm not really a "TV guy" but all those shows I missed last year? Netflix.
There's a lot of accounting to do. I've spent hours and hours organizing gas receipts, documenting milage, sorting through and editing photos, and transferring my written journal entries into word documents for my book. These countless hours on the computer are a welcome change from driving, but have left me grounded in St. Louis during most days, enjoying the mild winter from inside.
The birds are still out there. It's been a tough few weeks for me to see many birds I missed last year be reported in the ABA area, and not be able to chase them. In California, a Eurasian Kestrel, an ill-fated Ross's Gull, and Common Pochard and Black-tailed Gull nearby isn't just low-hanging fruit for anyone doing a Big Year this year- that's an exceptional list of birds for any birder in the Lower 48 who hasn't spent time on a remote Alaskan Island. It's like a Siberian wormhole opened up and dropped a bunch of good birds in northern California. Not to mention, continuing Red-flanked Bluetail, a wild-looking Falcated Duck, and continuing rarities elsewhere makes 2017's January rarities appear on par with last year, a key ingredient to breaking 750. I'm sure there's others I've missed, but unsubscribing from hourly eBird alerts has helped me move on and get more work done. Yes, I know there's dozens of Dovekie off the Massachusetts coast right now...
The tall, prominent ear tufts of the Long-eared Owl are not ears at all- merely feathers. In fact, owls ears are asymmetrically positioned on the sides of their faces, buried underneath layers of specially-designed feathers for funneling sound. With one ear opening positioned higher than the other, sound reaches each ear at a different time, helping the owl to pinpoint directly where the sound is coming from. Owls can move the feathers on their faces, funneling sound towards their ears in a similar way to cupping your hands around your ears. Try it out!
My first Long-eared Owl encounter of my Big Year came near the end of March, near Denver, Colorado. I found a hotspot on eBird which had a couple species I hadn't seen yet, including LEOW (I'll use a 4-letter banding code to abbreviate 'Long-Eared OWl) Driving through the entrance of this location, I immediately spotted a thick line of Cedar trees, which stood out from the short grassland/agricultural landscape surrounding it. I parked and carefully walked around this clump of trees, looking for any hint of a bird. I saw nothing. I birded other parts of this park and then before leaving, I decided to walk through this clump of trees, and found a LEOW which flushed from an old magpie nest. Not wanting to disturb the owl further, I left the area, adding the bird to my year list, but sadly without a photo. I finished the year without seeing another Long-eared Owl after that day, and started this year with that bird at the top of my list to see and photograph, if an ethical opportunity presented itself. Luckily for me, the other day that opportunity came!
The Long-eared Owl is a difficult species to find, due to its cryptic plumage, elongated posture, and preference to roosting in dense pine and cedar thickets. However, if you visit the right places during the right time of year, maybe you will find a Long-eared Owl on your own! Before walking into a clump of pine or cedar trees, try scanning the ground below them with your binoculars first. Signs that indicate owls are using the trees include gray pellets (regurgitated clumps of fur, bones, and feathers) and white droppings, often called "whitewash".
Some species of owls use the same roosting tree throughout the winter, and others select different trees each night based on wind direction, disturbance, or where they caught prey the night before. If many people visit the same location repetitively and flush the owls, the consequence could be a dead owl. Flushing an owl in the day may cause the owl to use extra energy, and exposes it to harassment from birds like crows and makes it visible to predators.
You can get a good idea of owl habitat using eBird. Remember that posted sightings are most likely generalized, at a Hotspot location. Please consider the well-being of the owls before sharing the exact location of owls you may see roosting during the winter time. They need these safe places to rest undisturbed, so they can hunt the following night with full energy reserves! Being a raptor is tough!
-Will often roost colonially, forming large groups- sometimes up to hundreds of birds! Check out this video from the BBC's Planet Earth II of the largest known roost in the world!
-A group of owls roosting together is called a 'Parliament'
-Eat voles, mice, and rats, and even young rabbits! (We found a rabbit leg under the roost tree)
-Long, low hoots can be heard nearly a half-mile away!
All images in this post were made without using flash, and were taken without flushing the owls.
It's 10:00pm and I'm sitting in the Boston International airport. I don't have a flight out, or even a ticket booked. I've been going nonstop since I left Seattle, sleeping for a few hours last night before birding Race Point all day today. Only minutes ago I paused and took a breath, realizing for the first time today that the year is about to end and pondering what that means. I'm still soaking it in, and recording my thoughts and reflections.
Regardless of what I choose to do next, the story of my year is written. It is a precarious feeling, one I can't white put into words yet- at least three others know this feeling well. "Big" is an understatement; it has been a Herculean year. There is so much I want to share now, but it's simply not possible for my tired fingers to type it all out on my iPhone.
My "final" list will be published by the ABA in the next week. Dovekie will not be on it, despite seeing a tiny black and white alcid today that couldn't have been anything else. I was told, "That's the look you'll get" but as it is my list and decision, I will add it to a growing list of birds to be pursued in 2017 and beyond. I've learned so much today, and had a fascinating interview I'll share later. The tables turned, and I was interviewed by a local paper today. I'll share the article when it's published.
I have a new blog coming soon- first I need to figure out how I'm getting home, then get some sleep. Then add photos.
What will 2017 bring? I will spent some time compiling my numbers, photos, and interviews. The Birding Project continues, despite the "Big Year" efforts concluding. I'm now shifting towards the education and outreach part of the Project. I'll be continuing to publish blog posts from this year "filling the gaps" in my story- it should be fun to follow along! Also now that the birding is finished, expect a new layout of my website!
Finally, I'll be giving several different talks about my Big Year across the country at various venues. If you'd like to schedule a talk for your Audubon or school group, send me an email! I'd love to share what I've learned, and tell a story that will inspire you to get outside and go birding!
Safe and happy New Year to you all. Thank you for your support, encouragement, and positive thoughts this year! Thank you for being part of my adventure.
Yesterday I met my friend Sulli in Iowa to find Saw-whet Owls with a local "owl whisperer" Don Poggensee. We had a fantastic time, followed by a great interview with Don and tour of the nature center at Moorehead Pioneer Park. Then we drove to South Dakota and birded in my 49th state this year. As my EPIC Big Year winds down, it's these kinds of days I'll remember the most.
All year I have wanted to see a Northern Saw-whet Owl. Although it is fairly widespread, this pint- sized owl can be extremely difficult to find throughout its range. Well-aware of it's abundance and distribution, I purposefully waited until later in the year to look for this species. In the worst case scenario, I would try and find it in my backyard in Seattle over the Christmas holiday. However, after seeing a Little Gull in Massachusetts, my count was 749*. What would be my 750th bird including provisionals?
The answer: Northern Saw-whet Owl. After dark one night I decided to drive around some back roads searching for this elusive owl. You can read about that adventure here. I was genuinely surprised to get out of the car and whistle a series of monotone toots, and have a Saw-whet answer nearby. Then another. I located several by their call that night, and was able to get a brief glimpse at one in my spotlight as it flew off, but it was unsatisfactory to only hear a bird that could be written about in a future Milestones blurb in Birding magazine. If was going to see this bird, I needed a Christmas miracle.
Enter Don Poggensee, a jolly Iowan who nearly 30 years ago was supervising children on Moorehead Park's sledding hill, and he casually glanced into a pine tree and noticed his first Northern Saw-whet Owl. Captivated by an owl the size of a soda can, he would spend the next decades showing Saw-whet Owls to visitors with just as much excitement as the first time he saw it. This infection enthusiasm and accumulated knowledge about owls is what makes birding with Don so much fun. I've heard this year from multiple people that I "had to go" and even the "g-word" was thrown around (guaranteed) I decided instead of spending money on a Common Pochard chase trip (by air) or flying after a Graylag Goose whose provenance would be questioned, I would drive to my last three U.S. states I haven't been to yet this year. Iowa was on that list, along with Nebraska and South Dakota. A quick bout of text messages with a friend and our road trip and owl prowl was set.
*Pine Flycatcher and Cuban Vireo have not been added to the ABA Checklist yet, but in all likelihood they will be accepted in 2017, making them countable in my final total. However, I'll keep birding for a "clean" 750 (excluding provisionals) which I will reach after Christmas surrounded by friends
I called Don pretty early in the morning, after my friend Sulli and I had spent over an hour in the cold, walking through neat rows of tall pines, searching for Long-eared Owls at a nearby park. The secret ingredient to finding owls is effort. Sometimes, luck is the secret ingredient, and yesterday luck and effort in combination brought sweet success. As I listened to the phone ringing on the other end, I pictured Don sleepily answering the phone at home as I was calling pretty early in the morning. After almost one too many rings, the phone was answered by a chipper Hello! followed by slightly labored breath, and a background of crunching snow and branches whisking off coat fabric. Don was already in the field searching for Saw-whets! I was in disbelief as he gave me directions ("after you pass the depot, you'll round the corner and see my red truck parked on the right...") and he interrupted himself to say, "I just found a Saw-whet at eye level- why don't you drive on over here now and see it?" I couldn't believe it. Is this real life?
Sulli and I met Don at a parking lot near the outdoor bathrooms he'd described in his directions. Also accompanying us were two birders from St. Louis who had driven up to Ida Grove just to see the owls here in the park. People have come from dozens of states around the country, driving to this small park to meet Don and have a almost-certain close up view of the Saw-whets. We walked across the crusty patches of snow through scattered Cedar and Pine trees, following Don up the hill. I carefully stepped through straw colored brome grass, already matted down in clumps across the hillside from prior owl excursions. As we walked through the trees, Don pointed out different branches owls had occupied in the past. He referred to them by name, such as "Faithful" who always sat in the same spot. Just as a tour guide would, Don excitedly explained different ecological aspects of Moorehead Pioneer Park. The reason these owls are attracted to this spot is the abundance of food. Many mice eat the seeds from the brome grass and owls take advantage of such a high concentration of food here. Some years, Don has found up to 8 Saw-whets roosting inside the park. This winter, he's tracked down two individuals, which is equatable to trying to pin the tail on a live donkey. Every night after hunting the owls take a different roost, often close to where they caught and consumed prey the night before. Sometimes it's easy to find them if you know the preferred perches, and sometimes it's a hunt. Don has spent decades in these hills locating Saw-whets, and he seems to have it down to a science.
Don paused amidst his stories and explanations with a twinkle in his eye. I looked past him into a short pine tree, and spotted the owl he'd found in the morning. He smiled, building the dramatic effect for others who had not yet spotted the bird behind him. Soon all of us had spotted it, and in amazement Don walked directly underneath the bird, talking to it like an old friend. He ushered us closer too, beyond my initial comfort zone. It was clear that he knew these birds and respected them, yet this owl seemed unfazed by our presence after initially checking us out- we passed inspection. We took all the pictures our hearts desired, then left the owl in the same spot, eyes slitted and snoozing away.
We hiked around looking for the second bird, who was likely so well-camouflaged that he avoided detection today. Maybe the next group of visitors will find him tomorrow on his new perch after hunting throughout the night. Afterwards, Don took us to the new Nature Education Center, which was a beautiful building with educational displays, bird feeders, and friendly and knowledgable staff. I sat down and interviewed Don for The Birding Project, learning more about his military service, conservation work, and development of Ida Grove's unofficial owl tourism industry. I look forward to transcribing and sharing the interview with you in a later project.
I couldn't have had a better day and experience finding Saw-whet Owls. I affectionately dub Don Poggensee as the "Saw-whet Santa" who gave me an incredible gift yesterday, which was more than just a check on my list. I drove away from Moorehead Pioneer Park with a deeper understanding of the park's history, and a glimpse into the secret lives of Saw-whet owls. Even more importantly however, was a handshake and a friendship that will last for years to come.
If you'd like to experience Northern Saw-whet Owls with Don, please contact The Birding Project and I'd be happy to put you in touch- you're in for a treat!
Errors in the form of spelling/grammatical mistakes are not intended, but plausible, given much of this post was written and composed on an iPhone using Siri while driving. Please contact Christian if any errors are encountered, so they may be resolved. Thank you!
Watermarked or not, the images contained in this post are property of The Birding Project, and are not subject to unlawful copying and distribution without exclusive permission from The Birding Project.
Summary: Wrapped up my Massachusetts Dovekie search, drove 1K miles back to Midwest.
New Birds: Barnacle Goose (4)
Count: 749 + 2
After successfully spotting a Barnacle Goose (#749 +2) in New Jersey, I returned to Massachusetts not ready to give up in my search for a Dovekie. I'd spent hours out sea-watching on Race Point in the mornings, followed by searching other beaches in the afternoons without blatant success. New England's winter weather was fast approaching, and I was ready to spot my last ABA area Code 2 bird as it flew by, then run to Florida where the warm weather and Bahaman vagrants would warm my spirit. It didn't happen that way...
No amount of haze, distortion, distant alcids or poor photos could convince me that I for sure saw a Dovekie. A few times I thought I had one, only to watch it disappear behind a wave, or morph into a murre or razorbill upon closer inspection. I needed one to run into my face in order to count it and feel good about it. I saw Little Gulls, Manx Shearwaters, a King Eider- all interesting birds this time of year but not exactly what I was hoping to find. I birded until my eyes hurt, strained for looking through a scope for hours on end. The upcoming weather forecast included a "Gale Force" advisory with 10-12 foot seas, so my options for getting out on a fishing boat from Provincetown were limited. Even worse, the cold winds bringing wind chills below zero were from the West- which would not blow Dovekies down from their wintering areas offshore. Continuing here didn't seem like the most effective for what I wanted to do with the remainder of my year. I dug down deep inside of me consulting "the voice within". It was time to move on. I couldn't have tried harder, braved wind and weather to walk out to the end of Race Point time and time again. It's the journey, not the destination.
While driving back from Race Point for possibly the last time this year, I saw a small raptor on the side of the road that had been hit by a vehicle. I pulled over and identified the bird as an Eastern Screech Owl, but this one looked different- it was a brown phase bird! I've seen both color phases of Eastern Screech Owl- gray and red, but never a brown one! This was pretty cool- it was especially neat to see one in the hand and admire the complex variations in her plumage. (I'm assuming it was a female as the owl was heavy as they go, but owl expert Scott Weidensaul informed me there's an overlap between the sexes) In the photo you can see the serrated leading edge of the wing feathers. This fantastic design helps break up air flow over the wing, helping maintain the silent flight the owl needs to avoid detection. I brought the bird to the Mass Audubon center in Wellfleet, where we did our best to age the bird using a Pyle guide (bringing back memories of meeting and interviewing Peter earlier this year) Much can be learned by preparing specimens and using a museum collection for research- DNA, tissue samples, blood, and feathers can be taken and utilized for valuable research providing insight into bird populations, health, and genetic variances. I hope this bird will find a home at Harvard collection soon!
Mike O'Connor is the owner of the Bird Watcher's General Store on Cape Cod. He's passionate about helping people enjoy birds through feeding birds, and also writes about birds in a newspaper column. Mike started the store in 1983 when he worked for his friend delivering coal, and thought he should start his own business. At the time, binoculars were available only from camera shops, bird seed from hardware stores, and bird books from a book store. Mike had never heard of a bird store, but thought it was a good idea to put everything everything under one roof, and he knew enough to help people with birding questions. The questions kept coming, and he kept answering them- often with a stroke of humor and wit sprinkled in. Mike is also the author of a couple books including Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches? I've read it, and trust you'll enjoy his humorous approach to answering some backyard birders' most interesting questions. I was grateful to spend some time with Mike and his staff, who when I told them I was searching for a Dovekie, promptly retrieved one from the freezer in a plastic bag and handed it to me.
"Here's your Dovekie..." he said handing it to me. "What's your list up to now?"
Even though it was super-cool... (pardon the pun) I'm still at 749.
I packed up my car and drove south, through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and into Delaware. I drove nearly all day, skirting around traffic, stopping when I got the urge to bird, and sleeping in my car in Wal-Mart parking lots at night. The nights were cold, and I slept with windows cracked to avoid having to scrape ice from the inside of my windows which I learned about last January. Inside my car, I have an air mattress, foam mattress, flannel sheets, down sleeping bag (with liner) blankets, and a goose down parka. I stayed warm and toasty each night, despite temps in the low 20's. My water bottle froze in my car, but that was the least of my worries.
After spotting a road sign, I decided to stop at Antietam National Battlefield. I'd learned a lot about U.S. History in High School, and remembered that this was the single most bloodiest day in American history. Other battles in the Civil War such as Gettysburg had more loss of life, but occurred over several days of fighting. It was emotional for me to walk over the ground where such a significant loss of life occurred. I stood on the hill top next to a pair of cannons, rebuilt and positioned exactly where they were salvaged after the battle, looking over the farm fields and swales below, a peaceful looking scene to the eye of a passing motorist. I visited the museum and saw paintings by Captain James Hope, a professional artist in the 2nd Vermont Infantry. He sketched scenes from the battle and then later created 5 large paintings, which portrayed several key points in the battle, with entire regiments of men painted in painstaking detail. The tragedy of war hit me harder than I could have imagined as I slowly marched around the museum staring at old photographs, and artifacts like blood-soaked bandages, surgeon's instruments, and musket balls embedded in a fencepost. Black and white historical photos hid the blood but couldn't mask the horror of the events that occurred here. I left the museum with a sense of reality that this event I learned about in school actually happened. It was refreshing to get outside and bird around the battlefield, trying to distract myself with nature's beauty. It worked.
One place I wanted to stop at some point this year was the American Birding Association headquarters in Delaware City. I stopped by after birding one morning several days ago and met Jeff and Liz Gordon, who warmly welcomed me into the beautiful Central Hotel, built circa the 1830's and housing the ABA command center. Inside the beautiful building I received the grand tour- seeing the office and work spaces, conference room, retail floor, and Birder's Exchange.
Liz joked that whenever people drop by, she likes to put them to work. I was happy to help out and Liz and I caught up while packaging and labelling 2016 ABA Bird of the Year shirts. Featuring a awesome design from Paul at PRBY Apparel, the Chestnut-collared Longspur has been a great bird to celebrate this year. The Chestnut-collared Longspur is a declining grassland bird that is synonymous with shortgrass prairies. More info can be found clicking the link above, or click purchase a shirt to get your own! The shirts are as eco-friendly as they can get, and each shirt translates into 3 meals donated by the Fed by Threads program. I interviewed Liz for The Birding Project, and we talked about birds, my Big Year, Hawaii, and The Birding Project. I took a few minutes to re-new my membership for the upcoming year, which will help support the fantastic work this organization is doing for birds and birders in the Americas. I don't get paid to say this- but if you're reading my blog and you're not an ABA member, please join to support the work of this important organization!
With sub-freezing temperatures sweeping across the Midwest, I skirted the storms by driving south through South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. These were my last remaining states East of the Mississippi that I haven't driven through this year. It was only slightly longer than a direct route to St. Louis, and was much safer driving as well as some enjoyable birding at stops along the way. Gas prices decreased the further south I got, as did people's ability to drive in winter weather. Sigh...
My detour took me through Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, just outside of Gatlinburg. Just last month, two teens started a wildfire that spread quickly due to dry conditions, burning all the way into town, destroying nearly 2400 buildings and killing 14 people. Although the smoke had cleared, the smell of fire still lingered around town, and emergency response teams were set up wherever space permitted. I hiked some trails inside the park where burned tree trunks stood as a reminder that the laws of nature rule the forest, and wildfire (though in this case, human-caused) is a natural part of maintaining a healthy ecosystem. I enjoyed my short hike, stopping to talk with a lady about rattlesnakes (of which she was deathly afraid) and helped her understand the role they play in the food web. I've managed to spend much of the year in rattlesnake habitat, and have managed to only find several (when I was looking for them specifically) on Little St. Simons earlier this year. It almost felt like spring, as the sun's rays hitting my face made it feel much warmer than the balmy 60 degrees on the car dash thermometer. Eager to get back on the road, I snaked my way through traffic in Gatlinburg, where many tourists seemed preoccupied with Christmas music and spending money on cheap thrills to look up on the hillside above and see the charred skeletons of resort condominiums. The skeletons of buildings looked right at home among the naked trees whose leaves also had been lost long ago to nature's elements.
That seems to be the question everyone is asking. I am content knowing it has already been a very Big Year indeed. I don't feel the need to see more birds just to boost my number, or break an unofficial record. You won't find me sitting around on the couch until 31 December, that's for sure! I'd still like to see a Dovekie, and an Ivory Gull, and photograph more owls. I plan to spend some time with family and friends, maybe do a little traveling, and get caught up on photos, blog posts (I still have dozens waiting to be finished and published from past months) and organizing pictures and content from the year. I'm compiling a photo list, which seems like it might be over 700 ABA (excluding Hawaii of course) I'm not sure how it will stack up against other's photo lists from the year, but I intend to offer a number of identifiable pictures (so that anyone else with bird knowledge or a field guide could look at the picture and identify it) taken by me this year in the ABA area, showing multiple field marks of the species. I have some great photos, and some not-so-great photos; out-of-focus, unidentifiable pictures don't really serve their purpose in identification or proving I saw said species. For example, the 'alcid sp.' photo posted above doesn't show enough in my opinion to definitively support Dovekie or Common Murre as an identification. I haven't photographed everything but nobody has- that's the nature of birding. It'll be fun to see if I broke 700 photographed birds this year.
Errors in the form of spelling/grammatical mistakes are not intended, but plausible, given much of this post was written and composed on an iPhone using Siri while driving. Please contact Christian if any errors are encountered, so they may be resolved. Thank you!
Watermarked or not, the images contained in this post are property of The Birding Project, and are not subject to unlawful copying and distribution without exclusive permission from The Birding Project.
Breaking form, I'll keep this one short. Kind of.
I drove through a mild snow storm last night from Cape Cod to Long Island. Opting not to take the $50 ferry, I snuck through the outskirts of New York hoping to find a Wal Mart parking lot I could sleep in and get an early start looking for Barnacle Goose. It hadn't been seen in 8 days, and how many fields could a small black and white goose be hiding in on Long Island?
However, as I was held up by a police barricade on an industrial parkway, I checked my hourly eBird alert which had Barnacle Goose smugly staring me in the face- photos included on an eBird checklist from you guessed it- Long Island, NY. I made the right move.
Turns out, I had passed the spot, 30 minutes earlier. A cemetery wasn't on my top 10 list of best spots to find Geese, but I'll have to revise that list now.
I woke up this morning in a closer Wal-Mart lot, and drove to the Catholic cemetery- no geese. I tried across the street at the Jewish cemetery. Geese! Lots of them. On the golf course adjacent to the cemetery fence were flocks of geese, where they must have roosted overnight. I picked through some of them and found a Snow Goose as before I could finish searching the whole flock got up and flew across the road and out of sight. I followed them, and found them back across the road at the other cemetery.
The Barnacle Goose stuck out like a sore thumb. This brings me to 749 (plus two provisionals).
Almost there... to my goal of 750.
One more... What will it be? Dovekie up North? A rarity someplace else? Cold weather doesn't bother me, and Florida doesn't have anything too exciting right now so fleeing there doesn't sound too appealing. Birders will be everywhere- can't wait to pull a pop in and interview some CBC counters- who knows- if you're on the eastern seaboard, I may join you!
I'll sit at Starbucks a few more minutes and think about it...
Eh, maybe I'll go back and take another look at that Barnacle Goose. It is however, quite a handsome bird. I'm not sure when I'll see one again!
Summary: With only a handful of birds remaining and a whole 30 days left to bird, I put people first this week. I did my fair share of birding, but at a much slower, relaxed pace. Added Pink-footed Goose (746) and Little Gull (747) in Massachusetts, finishing the week searching for Dovekie and glimpsing a Northern Saw-whet Owl (748)
*The+2 are unaccepted Pine Flycatcher and Cuban Vireo and will remain provisional until accepted by the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) Checklist Committee.
Tip: Click underlined text for eBird checklist, external links, and more learning!
After seawatching today for Dovekie at Coast Guard Beach in the morning and Race Point in the afternoon, my eyes were tired and I was nearly burned out looking through a scope. I mixed in a smattering of other species- getting better looks at a couple birds then I had earlier this year. After dark, it's usually pretty easy to fall asleep in my car in a parking lot somewhere, because there's no light left and I've had a full day. I wanted nothing more then to get a good night's rest, but as I debated on my next move (should I wait until the end of December and come back for Dovekie, my last Code 2 bird?) I realized that the habitat here was perfect for Northern Saw-whet Owls. Without using playback, it would be a challenge to locate one, but I'd talked with a local birder earlier in the day and he told me a road I might drive down and listen. His advice paid off, when I stopped and whistled, the little owl tooted back to me in the distance. I'd just heard my first Saw-whet Owl of the year. I drove around a while, and stopped and whistled a few more spots. I had an owl right next to my car bark at me, and then go quiet. Down the road from there I got out and whistled again, getting a quick response. He flew across in front of me into some tall pines, and right as I got my light on him for a picture, he disappeared across the road into the darkness. I did make a recording of him with my iPhone for documentation. (Click italicized text for link and sonogram)
The Little Gull has been a tricky bird for me to find. I'm not talking for the year, I'm referring to just this week. I've largely ignored this minuscule bird throughout the year, largely under the assumption I'd find it in December on the East Coast, or as a vagrant in the Midwest. Although I like the idea of leaving a gull to chase somewhere, I'm happy to leave that honor to an Ivory or Ross's Gull.
I first tried for this bird at Niagara Falls on the 1st of December, on a road trip from St. Louis to Vermont. I was planning on birding my way out to the East Coast solo, but plans changed and I set course to Vermont to visit family and bird with my girlfriend before the holidays. On the way, we stopped a Niagara Falls, and birded the lakefront at each park along the way, hoping to spot a Little Gull. Only a few Bonaparte's gulls were seen along our frequent stops until we reached the falls proper and then hundreds circled below the falls along the river. After a while the cold set in, and we pressed on knowing that there were Little Gulls in Massachusetts.
I ended up seeing it in Boston, on Race Point. I looked through thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls for over 6 hours over the course of two days. However, when I saw it I knew it right away. I love the excitement of seeing a new bird- the process that begins with studying the bird in a book and online, pouring over photos and recordings, imagining other people's photos as your view of the bird. When you see "it" (regardless for what new bird "it" may be) the feeling is indescribable. I like birds that make you work. These types of birds are much more rewarding than driving up to a bird that is "staked out" and having another birder point right at it. I've had my share of those this year...
December 3rd began in Vermont, with a breakfast of fresh smoked bacon from the family smokehouse. I swept a light dusting of snow from my Subaru, before driving south to Boston. I headed straight to the Pink-footed Goose location reported to eBird yesterday along Scotland Rd. however the goose wasn't there. I checked ponds and fields all around the vicinity, even finding the geese in an office park runoff pond- but no goose. It was time to go to the airport, and say goodbye to my copilot. Returning to work must be tough, and missing a Pink-footed Goose was salt in the wound. The next two weeks will fly by, and we'll bird together at Christmas, which can't come soon enough.
My passenger seat didn't stay empty for long; the next morning Brad and I drove to a local pond where a lone male Tufted Duck had been seen. This Code 3 bird would be a new bird for my friend and birding mentor since high school. It seemed fitting to make a go at 750 with him, and he flew to Boston and we had a reasonable list of target birds to spot during the next couple days.
After spotting the Tufted Duck at sunrise, we looked for the Pink-footed Goose reported yesterday at a different location than I had been at. That's typical goose behavior. We drove around and scanned the Canada Goose flocks, with no luck. The bird was surely in the area, so we gave it some time to be seen by others, and we headed to Rockport along the coast to find more birds Brad and I wanted to see while on the East Coast. We managed to find them all including King Eider, Purple Sandpiper, and Great Cormorant.
After birding with Brad along the rocky coastline, I received an eBird hourly alert that notified me the Pink-footed Goose had been seen this morning on private property. I'm definitely in favor of respecting private property, but this just presented a challenge that required creative thinking. We headed that direction to check it out. After parking on a neighboring street, we walked along the main road past the private farm house / pond and stables adjacent to the pond. We had brief glimpses of some geese on the hillside overlooking the pond, but couldn't find the Pink-footed Goose. Some of the geese flew to the horse pastures next door, and by process of elimination (and a gut feeling) that's where we knew we should look. Brad searched for a proper vantage point along the road, as I went to the stables and asked for the owner. After introducing myself and giving her a quick lesson in rare birds, my enthusiasm rubbed off and she was more than happy to walk me out to the pasture and tell us where we could go based on which horses were where, and what lessons were going on when. From my new vantage point, I saw more than a hundred new geese, which before were out of sight from the road. Brad spotted the bird on the back side of the flock as I scanned the front birds, and we sat and enjoyed the pink feet of this goose through my Maven S.1a spotting scope (shameless holiday plug) and digiscoped a few photos with my iPhone.
After the successful wild goose chase, we returned to thank the owner and texted her some pictures of 'their' rare goose. I met Nathan, a skilled local birder who has spotted 8 different goose species in his local patch around the farm fields- quite a feat for Massachusetts! After a quick interview and photographs, Brad and I headed to Crane Beach, because my unwritten rule is If you're 10 minutes away from a Snowy Owl, you never keep driving. The recent reports from the dunes on Crane Beach were too tempting to ignore, and we found it easily nestled back in the sand dunes, napping peacefully but keeping a close eye on us through slitted eyelids.
Brad and I drove to Race Point the next morning, and searched unsuccessfully for Little Gull and Dovekie. There were so many Bonaparte's gulls, that I knew there had to be a Little Gull with them somewhere. I was overwhelmed and exhilarated at the same time, and loved every second of the search. Occasionally a flock of alcids would fly past through my scope, and I looked for the smaller Dovekie, with no luck. I forgot to scan the water looking for Dovekie most of the day, but I could come back another day and do that. I did just that- all day on 7 December. I'd share with you in more detail about my seawatching and killer looks at Ipswich Savannah Sparrow, but right now I want to go birding, and so I'll leave you for the windy Massachusetts coastline. First, a quick synopsis from yesterday with no photos, which are still on my camera.
I dedicated the morning to a sea watch at Race Point, after sleeping in my car in Provincetown. With a down sleeping bag, foam mattress, and a plethora of pillows and blankets, I was plenty warm in my car. but standing out on the beach for hours on end eventually got to me. Many razorbills and Bonaparte's Gulls later, I chose to move on down the cape and check some spots for roosting Saw-whet Owls. I arrived at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary just in time to watch two Kemp's Ridley sea turtles get dropped off for their initial check-up before transfer to an aquarium for rehabilitation and release. This time of year, sea turtles swim from the warmer shallow bay into the cold ocean, which causes their body temperature to drop. Weakened turtles often get washed ashore and perish, unless volunteers rescue them and they warm up and recover. I enjoyed learning more about these endangered turtles before going birding around the nature center trails. I'm definitely impressed with the work Massachusetts Audubon is doing- keep up the good work!
After sleeping at Wal-Mart again in my car in central Louisiana, I spent the rest of the day driving north across Arkansas towards the fragmented prairies scattered across southwestern Missouri. I arrived at Penn-Sylvania Prairie with enough daylight to do an interview with a birder I met, then hike solo out to a hill and lay in the grass. I walked thousands of meters across the prairie, canvasing it like a grid but flushing nothing. I saw some distant Northern Harriers, and figured if I lay in the grass one may fly right over me. There was nothing to lose. As I lay on my back in the grass, the sounds of the prairie crescendoed in my ears. Coyotes began singing as darkness approached, and the mechanical sound of a meadowlark call blew downwind. My eyes closed, since the harriers had disappeared into the grasses and I was enjoying the stillness of being outside a car for a change. Then I heard it- a Smith's Longspur! They have a dry rattle-like call, which I'd listened to enough times in the car on birding apps that the identity was clinched the moment I heard it. Looking up, I spotted a distant black spot against the gray clouds, above a Harrier which I'd venture to guess flushed it. The bird grew closer, bobbing up and down in an undulating flight. I looked through my binoculars as the spot grew larger, and I couldn't make out any diagnostic field marks with the backlighting. I took a few shots with my camera, and then when the bird was almost directly overhead I put the camera down and looked up just in time to hear the rushing of air through feathers as the longspur plummeted from the sky, flying right past my head- nearly hitting me! I guess it was checking me out? As it flew away bounding low over the prairie, the all-white outer tail feathers were clear as day, and it climbed high into the sky again and made its way upwind back over my head back the way it came from. The pale belly detailed in the field guides wasn't noticeable, but seeing the tail feathers and hearing the call was enough to clinch the I.D. I stayed out until dark, then set course for the nearest wifi: a McDonalds. I needed to check eBird and figure out Prairie Chicken spots...
After briefly seeing a Smith's Longspur last night (I took diagnostic flight shots, but even those didn't seem good enough for me today) I added it to my eBird list thus far bringing my count to an astounding 744 +2. Falling asleep next to the prairie last night, I reflected on the day's sighting of my Smith's Longspur. Being a life bird, I wanted to really see this bird well and enjoy it. Who knows the next time I'll be laying on a prairie, with enough time on my hands and few cares in the world other than seeing birds well. I had a cold night in my car to think about the sighting from yesterday, and with a Prairie Chicken to find next, I figured I should put a few more hours into seeing a Smith's Longspur well. I'd never seen one before yesterday, and heard they could be tricky to find and photograph. I was up for the challenge, and my strategy yesterday seemed to work. I drove across county farm roads for twenty miles or so, stopping often to photograph dark "Harlan's" Red-tailed Hawks, which fascinate me. (See bottom of post for more on this subject)
After visiting Providence Prairie Conservation Area, I arrived at Prairie State Park, where Prairie Chickens used to roam, but a consultation with the park naturalist confirmed their absence for the last two years. I hiked out onto the prairie in search of Longspurs, wading through the grasses until my thoughts were interrupted by the distinctive dry rattle of a Smith's Longspur calling overhead. I followed it in my binoculars until it dropped in the grass, noting the location by a ragged bush. I walked several hundred yards towards the spot, keeping the bush in sight and finishing my stalk on my belly. The birds were very wary, and it took over an hour of laying on the ground, crawling through Bison dung to get in a good position to watch them feed. One bird had a very orange wash to his breast, and their white wing coverts were extraordinary. I got fantastic photo and video of this flighty species, and content, I crawled away. I also flushed another group of longspurs, one which showed the distinctive tail pattern of a Chestnut-collared. I'd already seen them this year well, and with half a day left to make a drive up to Kansas City, I was ready to get on the road. I've loved revisiting my photos and video of these awesome little birds. Some birds are easily overlooked in a field guide until you really get to know them in the field- that's been a joy of this year, and my Smith's Longspur encounter will be remembered years from now, all because I was willing to not accept a poor look at a new bird. Persistence pays off!
The only birds I saw today were common backyard birds (Blue Jay, House Finch, etc.) and a plate of domestic farmed turkey. I'm grateful for all the good in my life and for the adventures this year has brought!
The Greater Prairie-Chicken has been somewhat of a nemesis bird for me. I'd sought out the other grouse in the spring time when they are most easily detected while on leks (breeding grounds). However, I purposefully waited until winter to see GPCH (a 4-letter banding code for Greater Prairie-CHicken) as I wanted to see them on snow-covered fields, but being so close to Kansas and wanting to hit 750 with breathing room led me to explore some Missouri and Kansas Prairie-Chicken haunts this week. I'd struck out yesterday (expectedly) at some locations in Missouri where there used to be GPCH, but this species has sadly declined in most of its former range in the state. One location I went to had perfect habitat and recent reports of Smith's Longspur, and so I extended my effort from there to search for chickens in the vicinity. From talking with farmers, coyote hunters, and a birder, I learned that there was one male left in that tract from last spring, and a shady rumor of a female. I didn't like my chances. So, I ventured across the state line into Kansas, pursuing a string of recent reports at a state fishing lake. I arrived at the lake in the afternoon, after tactfully avoiding Kansas toll roads (still saving every penny I can) and looked for a couple hours with no luck.
The golden hours of the Kansas evening were drawing to a close. I drove up onto a hill, pulled over, and set up my scope, adjacent to the state fishing lake. This differed from my previous strategy of driving the roads looking for prairie chickens on roads and in trees, which isn't how you'd think to find them but several people reported seeing them in trees in the area, so I figured it was a better strategy than blindly walking through miles of open prairie habitat hoping to flush one. I found more Harlan's Red-tails, which were quite shy and non-photogenic. I hoped from my lookout I could hear or see a Prairie-Chicken. Within seconds of mentally "moving on" and texting a friend I hadn't found any chickens yet, I saw a Northern Harrier glide over the ridge and start working her way across the valley in front of me. I watched her closely as she banked sharply and "checked" at the ground, flushing a large grouse- a Prairie-Chicken! I was on it with the camera, managing a few identifiable photos of it flying away with the harrier in the same frame. I breathed a sigh of relief, as I enjoyed the sunset and called a friend in Missouri who had offered to help me look for owls the following morning. Until now, I hadn't figured out my plans but was delighted to confirm my availability and know I'd meet and interview a new birder in the morning. As night descended from the top of the sky like a curtain, packed up my gear and put Kirksville, Missouri into my GPS.
I searched unsuccessfully for Long-eared and Saw-whet owls in Kirksville, but will persist in my owling endeavors for the remainder of the year. After being on the road for several thousand miles and a couple weeks, it's time to sleep in a real bed and eat some real meals with friends. I've enjoyed some down time shopping (er, birding) at Target, decorating a Christmas tree, eating pie, watching some tv, and working on writing, and now finishing a couple blog posts. I'll finish packing later today and get on the road early tomorrow.
I still have several species to find and 3,000 miles left to drive before the end of the year. My guess, is they'll happen in this order:
746- Little Gull, 747- Dovekie, 748- Pink-footed Goose, 749- Saw-whet Owl, 750- ?
The exciting part about birding is- who really knows what will happen? Next up: East Coast.
I'll be interviewing birders and trying to clean up the last several birds I have to reach 750- the end of an EPIC Big Year!
I could write a separate post on raptor ID, specifically on phases and color morphs of Red-tailed Hawks. After seeing dozens this last week, I'm continuing to learn more and study these birds every chance I have an encounter in the field. The "Harlan's" Red-tailed Hawks have been given and stripped of their own species status, still considered by some experts to be a separate species due to their breeding range and contrasting morphological characteristics to the calurus and borealis subspecies of Red-tailed hawk. They're often very dark, appear to have slightly longer wings, and are quite aerial when hunting, among other traits. In the past I've caught and handled several Harlan's, even flying one as a falconry bird for a short time. This subspecies shows remarkable diversity in their tail patterns (click for 'Birding' article by Bill Clark with photos) that can appear streaked, splotched, speckled, or barred, ranging from a variety of combinations of patterns and colors from red to black and white. Juvenile birds usually show brown to blackish barring on their tails, with a "wavy" pattern across some or all of the tail. It's a really neat "marbled" effect as seen in the next image.
I have dozens more photos, and a lot to say on the subject, but if I keep adding to this blog post it will never be published, like the dozens already that still await the "finishing touches". I apologize for the "gaps" in my journey, I know some of you are sitting at home eagerly following the Big Year adventures through your screens, but I can assure you it's a challenge to drive, bird, work/fundraise, update eBird, edit/transcribe interviews, write a book, and put together and upload a separate blog post on wifi at McDonalds during the year. It's quite the challenge, and one that is hard to understand unless you've done a Big Year. I'm doing my best! I'm sure I'll be able to fill in the gaps retroactively in January, when things settle down a bit, giving you months of reading material ahead. Thanks for following the adventure. Special thanks to my friends in the U.K. sharing their support/encouragement- I know you're watching as I join my friends in achieving the 750+!
Over the course of the year, several days stick out in my memory as major birding experiences that I won't soon forget. Waking up among Sage Grouse in Wyoming, hiking the Grand Canyon, my first pelagic trip are some of the many highlights of the year. I am confident I can add yesterday to that list also, because it was the day I saw too many rails.
What is a rail, you might ask? It is a type of ground-dwelling bird in the family Rallidae that include the Sora, Virginia, King, Yellow, and Black Rail. They are secretive marsh birds that prefer running when threatened, making them difficult to see when disturbed. Their secretive habits seldom leave them out in the open for birders to see, making a sighting a special treat. Most secretive and shy of the rails in North America are the Yellow and Black rails, the latter being almost grail-like to birders. This year I've seen nearly all the rail species except black rail which is a heard only on my list, and I wouldn't have heard it if I wasn't with another birder who was using playback. I've tried multiple locations around the country to see Black Rails, but to do this without using playback is nearly impossible. I'll try!!!
Since I was in Alaska during the Rails and Rice Festival several weeks ago, I missed my chance to ride on a combine and see Yellow Rails in the flooded rice fields of Louisiana as part of the festival. Registration fills up fast, so if you want a shot at doing this amazing experience (I highly recommend it) be sure to get on board for next year as soon as possible!
Yesterday mid-morning I pulled up to a rice field in Louisiana, meeting my buddy Dustin, who was ready for a long day of work on the combine. A born-and-bred farmer, Dustin has been driving combines since since he was heavy enough to activate the seat. His passion for what he does is contagious, and he graciously taught me everything I wanted to know about how combines work, and explained the methodology of what he was doing. I even helped take apart and clean the belts, which was dirty/dusty work, but so worth helping out, and it only enhanced the experience I was having. We sat in the cab listening to country music as he drove around the first flooded field, cutting rice, and flushing birds. Until recently, he was blissfully unaware of how special the Yellow Rail was to birders, as he's seen them since he was too young to drive combines, every year while harvesting. Dustin was great at spotting them, and honking the horn on birds that were reluctant to flush, giving them some extra encouragement to get a move on.
I sat outside the cockpit/cab of the combine on a specially-made seat, in order to accommodate birders for the Rail Festival. As we plunged into the wet fields, birds started immediately flushing from in front of the combine head. Killdeer, then various species of sparrows, Sedge Wrens, then a small bird with white patches in the wing- a Yellow Rail! It hadn't even been 10 minutes! I got great binocular views, and was ready with my camera for the next one. And the next. And the next. They kept coming! I counted carefully, not counting birds that flushed into the uncut sections of field that we'd get on our next pass. I probably under-counted, but my total was pretty amazing (hence "too many") Check out my complete eBird list for numbers!
Raptors were abundant above the rice fields, which made my day even better. I was constantly switching back and forth from spotting rails to identifying the raptors following the combine. At times, I saw nearly a dozen hawks hunting around the field we were harvesting. The highlight for the day was watching a Yellow Rail flush right in front of the combine, fluttering up giving me a perfect view and then- snatched by a Redtail in a spectacular stoop from high above us. I didn't even see the hawk until it opened her wings, engulfing the rail. I had my camera up and managed a few shots of the rail-turned-snack as the hawk flew away. Nature is simply amazing, and I was left speechless at the sight I had just witnessed.
At the end of the day, you'd think I was tired of sitting. However I was on a roll, and my excitement from the day fueled my drive north a couple hours before I settled down in a Wal-Mart parking lot for the night. It was a great day.
This morning, I drove for a few hundred miles, arriving at a prairie in southwest Missouri before nightfall. I'd been here before, vainly searching for Greater Prairie-Chickens in my younger years. Many birding memories came flooding back as I walked out onto the hilltop covered in bluestem and other prairie grasses. I crossed the hilltop sections searching for Smith's Longspurs, seeing and hearing only Northern Harriers floating over the field edges. I lay down in the grass, hoping a harrier might fly right overhead, but instead I heard the dry rattle call of a Smith's Longspur! Overhead, a single bird bounced high above, near a high-flying harrier then while I was watching it dove down right past my head, nearly hitting me. The bird flew so close I could hear the air rushing through its wings! I managed a couple quick diagnostic shots as it rose back into the sky, nearly a speck as the wind blew it back over the hill. I'm sure I'll see others as I return to search for Prairie-Chickens and owls tomorrow. For now, I'm signing off McDonald's wifi, crawling in my Subaru, and going to sleep. Thanks for following the adventure! Please feel free to 'Like' and 'Share' on Facebook, as it helps me gauge interaction and I can be sure to keep posts coming that you all enjoy!
This post was written and composed while driving using SIRI and compiled on poor McDonalds wifi later. If you find any unintended spelling/grammatical mistakes, please email firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you!
New birds: Mountain Plover (AZ, 2) Ruddy Ground Dove (AZ, 3) Amazon Kingfisher (TX, 5)
Miles Driven: 2,586 Nights in Car: 6 Cheapest Gas: $1.84 Bird Count: 742 +2
Sunday November 20th Moving on Along
Another night spent in the Subaru on the road. I decided to explore the flats east of Raymondville, along the Sacahuistale Flats. After checking a few spots around the ranches, whistling owl calls and playing a tape once (I'm bending my own rules on finding this bird) I decided to focus on finding Sprague's Pipit, a declining prairie species. I successfully cruised some muddy farm roads, easily finding a Sprague's Pipit and a multitude of raptors including this banded Harris's Hawk.
I could spend a week in the Lower Rio Grande Valley- there's so many birds here to see, and a ton of potential habitat for vagrants. If I had already seen all the Code 1s and 2s already, I'd spend a week in the valley, but alas, I have more birds to find. Better bundle up and head north! This coming week should see a nice push towards my goal.
Saturday November 19th Texas is King
This year I avoided King Ranch as best I could- until today. Every Big Year birder seems to go there for one special bird- the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. I'd read books, articles, blogs, all about finding this tropical species on King Ranch. It didn't sound too fun to me to a.) pay lots of money (over $120 usually) b.) have a guide drive me around and point out the bird, and c.) look at a owl in a nest box. I'm not criticizing anybody else, but that simply doesn't cut it for me. I wanted more of a search, an effort, and a story to see this special owl. After trying multiple times to find Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in Arizona, with dim success (I had marginal looks at a small owl flying away I think was my bird) I got what I bargained for in a good story, spent effort, and came up short for a solid sighting. (I didn't want to count this bird as a "heard-only")
After spotting the Amazon Kingfisher the night before in Laredo, I knew I'd drive past King Ranch, relatively-speaking. I knew I needed this bird more than ever, to reach my goal of 750+ birds. After trying everything else I could think of, I stopped and asked the King Ranch staff about the likelihood of being shown an owl. It wasn't going to happen. I understood their reasoning, and set out on my own to bird surrounding habitat the best I could in search of this bird, before driving North again.
I slept in my car along the road going into the Norias Division of King Ranch. It was windy, lots of traffic was on the highway on a weekend, and I wasn't really close to the habitat on the other side of the fence, nearly a mile away- that had owls. I can't say I didn't try. The police woke me up sometime in the night and questioned me, but I supplied enough evidence I was a birder, and my Maven binoculars proved to be a free "don't-go-to-jail" card, metaphorically speaking. I fell back asleep, waking up in the night to play the call and listen- nothing, as I expected.
After sunrise, I birded around the area- checking spots for owls, raptors, and Masked Ducks. This species is overdue to show up in the ABA area, and I used eBird to check previous locations where Masked Ducks have shown up, and narrowed it down to locations with Ruddy Ducks reported there within the last week. I looked at a lot of Ruddy Ducks, but alas, no Masked Duck. Ill leave it to someone else to find on the Christmas Bird Count, perhaps.
Near Port Mansfield I ran into a large herd of deer, which distracted me from my owling mission. They seemed curious, walking up to me and following me around. I'm guessing people in town feed them, as they seemed very habituated to people. I saw several large bucks, including one who wanted to challenge me to a fight. I had to decline, seeing how an antler through my abdomen isn't on my needs list.
After sunset, I sat around at McDonalds long past my bedtime, figuring out computer issues, and logistics for the next half-dozen birds. It will be a couple weeks, but I'll make it to 750. My 1 TB external hard drive is full of pictures and video footage, my credit card company can't keep track of my whereabouts, and I'm loving every minute of it. Life is good.
Friday November 18th
After spending the night at a roadside rest stop in the middle of Texas, I stole a few hours of sleep before waking up and driving the remaining 300 miles or so to Laredo. It felt nice to be back in the land of Caracaras and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. New arrivals since I was last in Texas were scores of American Kestrels, some larger and broader then I've seen in the Southwest the last few days. I pulled a few U-turns putting my "merlin glasses" on, hoping to watch one of my favorite birds hunt, but with no luck. I arrived at the Amazon Kingfisher spot along the Zacate Creek, and spent the remainder of the day searching for it. I befriended a border patrol guard and we hiked along the river corridor together, talking about birds. He was working (on foot patrol) and I had a personal bodyguard, which was cool. We had a marginal look at what I think was the Amazon Kingfisher flying down the creek shortly after 1pm. After looking at a photo on my phone, the guard said "That's definitely it, you should count it". I was 95% confident in the I.D. and held off adding it to my list, as it wasn't dark yet and the chance for it to stick around and be re-seen by others was high. I wanted other birders to see it, and to for me to get in a look that would resolve 100% certainty in my identification before adding it to my list. I won't regret being the biggest critic of my own list, since I'm competing with myself, and I won't get better at bird identification if I cut corners. My patience was rewarded at a quarter after 5pm I got another fly-by look at the bird as it came up the creek, with other birders seeing it too! I took poor but diagnostic flight shots, and we ran up the hill to tell the other birders. Everyone shared great looks at the bird once it returned to the "normal spots" along the waterfall and rocks along the creek. I did a few interviews, took photos, and just enjoyed the positive energy flowing from everyone. What a relief! I was glad I didn't count it earlier and leave, for I would have missed a fantastic shared experience with the other birders. I indulged in an authentic Mexican dinner, courtesy of a birder who decided I shouldn't eat mac n cheese tonight. Thank you! I scarfed down my food, taking half the meal to go. I drove across the state to Kingsville... I had an owl to find.
Thursday November 17th
Waking up in a ditch has never felt so good. This time, it was a self-selected ditch- a seasonal gulch in the foothills of Organ Pipe National Monument. The goal was to get off the road and bird dusk then dawn, searching for Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. This bird is becoming a bit of a nemesis, but 3 times is my maximum effort for a bird this year in a spot, then I move on. It's not a hard-and-fast rule but I've kept it in mind and stuck to it so far I think. I checked out some spots near the park Headquarters and then bought a backcountry camping permit for $5, drove out into the middle of nowhere, and hiked further into the middle of nowhere. It was great. Just me, the stars, and a Great Horned Owl calling somewhere in the distance. I thought I'd attract scorpions and spiders in the night, sleeping on the ground without a tent, but woke up without a bite. I did see this spider, which bears an eerie resemblance to Brown Recluse. I spent the morning hiking desert washes with Ironwood trees and suitable habitat for the owls, spotting other things, but I could sense the changes in the desert since I'd been here a month ago. It was colder, and more quiet.
In the afternoon, I got my oil changed, tires rotated, and then drove 760 miles into the middle of nowhere, Texas. It was a long day of driving well into the night, but not setting my dashboard clock forward helped trick me into thinking it wasn't as late. I slept at a rest area next to a loud truck.
Wednesday November 16th
I slept in my car near a shooting range outside of Yuma, Arizona. I didn't know it, driving down a dirt road and pulling off into a dirt cul-de-sac in the dark until I heard shots during the night, and moved my car a little bit to somewhere that looked a little less prone to stray bullets. Who knew people shot guns on a range at night? In the morning, I followed an eBird pin to an agricultural area near Yuma, Arizona in search of Mountain Plovers. The pin was in the general vicinity, and I had no trouble finding a huge flock of them a mile or so away. I had great early-morning light and nice scope views of a new life bird! Next, I jumped on I-10 East to the town of Roll, which had some recently-reported Ruddy Ground-Doves. I'd searched close by this town a few weeks ago for this bird, based off some older eBird reports from previous years- i knew they'd be around here. A friend found them a couple weeks ago, and so I had a narrower search area to check this time, instead of flying in the dark. I checked the bridge on the way in, but didn't see the birds Olaf reported (they actually weren't on the bridge, I just thought it was funny he put the eBird pin there) I found a female amidst scores of Inca Doves, and met some nice folks while driving around town looking in people's backyards for birds. Mid-afternoon, I set my GPS for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and started eating all the cookies one of the ladies I met baked and gave me. I arrived before dusk, and spent some time checking a few spots for owls. Grabbed a backcountry permit and headed off into the foothills to sleep in the desert and look for owls, stopping only to whistle for owls and enjoy the sunset. This year is awesome.
I'm writing this from the comfort of a McDonalds booth in Las Vegas. I've been cleaner places this year, but this isn't the worst of them. The man on drugs outside was nice and didn't give me much of a hard time, other than wanting to know my name. "Justin Tyme Tueleaf" I replied.
I don't think he got it.
I'm posting this sporadic, spur-of-the-moment update, as I kind of feel bad for not being on top of the blog update game lately. I have 6 posts in queue now, none of them finished. Some are waiting on pictures, others are waiting to be boiled down to summaries from my writing. Bad internet connections, rare birds, and a desire to take a break from a computer screen this election week have been contributing factors to not having them done.
Let me give you a brief update:
Two days ago I drove south from Seattle, after figuring out all of my car issues. I'm now registered and licensed in Washington, glad that's behind me. I managed to see the Common Scoter in Oregon by some good timing and sheer luck, and have some bad photos of it, from both days.
A week ago, I saw a Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Michigan with Laura. It was a nice looking bird, and I met many nice birders while I was there- all of three hours. I have a way of arriving right before flycatchers disappear (Pine, Variegated, now Fork-tailed) so I give it 3 days until it's MIA in the ABA.
Before that, I chased Gray-headed Chickadee in Alaska. It was a crazy trip that may have been outside my means, but it is a Big Year and when am I going to have another chance to fly in a bush plane and get dropped off in the wilderness with 3 of my birding friends? Right. I did see a Chickadee, and I did write all about it. It just might be a Gray-headed. I even have photos (only of a Boreal) Lots of bear tracks too.
How's that for a cliffhanger?
And finally (weeks ago now) I was in Barrow again. It was cold, the sea ice was far from land, and no Ivory or Ross's Gulls in sight. I had a great time regardless, because who goes to Barrow twice in the same year? This kid.
Where to now, you ask? I'll tell you, because I'm not in a competition. I'll show all of my cards, if I have cards to show. I'm in full clean-up mode, heading to Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri. My birds are on my needs list page- feel free to have a look. When I'm not driving or birding, I'll be working on finishing my stories, and blogs for you to enjoy.
Take a minute and be thankful. You're alive, living in a pretty great corner of the world. It may not seem like it sometimes, but that's when you can go outside and look at birds, and temporarily forget about it all.
At least that's what I'm going to do.
Little is known about the Gray-headed Chickadee. It is perhaps the least-understood breeding bird in North America, and certainly one of the hardest to find. They occur in scattered low-density populations across the southern slope of the Brook's range, and across the interior of Alaska, but exactly true extent is not known. Unlike dozens of other bird species found at this latitude in summer, this one doesn't migrate south; it may move constantly across suitable habitat to find and cache food- and perhaps could migrate between "islands" of suitable habitat. These chickadees are cavity-nesters, and so they must remain in areas with trees large enough to provide a cavity to sleep in at night to endure well-below-freezing temperatures. To survive this extreme temperature drop, the Gray-headed Chickadee slows its metabolic rate, entering a state of semi-hibernation. During the day chickadees feed actively, finding and caching food across the forest. They have amazing memory of where they hide food, returning to excavate it in winter when food is scarce. Scientists have learned that the chickadee brain actually increases in size during winter to remember more information like where they cached food. I am assuming this mechanism is even more influential in this species, found in the most extreme climes.
Before this year, Lynne Barber is the only Big Year birder I know of that has found a Gray-headed chickadee while doing a Big Year. Lynne is currently doing an Alaska big year and already has set the new record for the state- a big accomplishment indeed! Maybe Sandy Komito did on his first Big Year, but I'm not sure. I'd love to meet him and ask him. As for this year, I know John Weigel encountered Gray-headed Chickadees twice very near the spot of my sighting, when he returned several days after our initial trip. You can read about it in his blog post here.
A trio of adventurous souls assembled in a hanger in Kotzebue, Alaska early in the Arctic morning, before the sun came up. I had joined Laura Keene, John Weigel, and Jay Lehman on this epic trip of a lifetime. Already up in the Arctic, it was a cheap standby jaunt for me to fly to Kotzebue from Barrow. In the darkness I had time to catch up with my big year compadres; all of us share a special connection, having gone through many similar experiences chasing birds. It was winter in the Arctic, so the sunrise wouldn't happen for four more hours. Inside the hangar, maps, old photos of picturesque views from bush planes, and several taxidermy shoulder mounts of Dall Sheep rams hung on the walls. We dressed in a ridiculous amount of layers, morphing into obese eco-tourists with binoculars hugging our necks. After making lunches, and loading our gear, we rolled into the Cessna and casually taxied onto the runway and took off at a sharp angle that could only be executed at a small airport with no air traffic whatsoever.
The next thing I knew we were flying at 116 knots at 500 feet over barren tundra. We continued like this for maybe an hour, each of us lost in our own thought as we pressed our face against the window, taking in the expansive landscape below. It looked vastly different from anything I'd seen- rivers sliced deep gashes across the tundra, flowing one direction and reversing course in a tight bend and flowing back (seemingly) uphill. We were high enough that the tundra looked like astroturf, and then suddenly an animal or tree would appear larger than life, resetting my context for scale. I could imagine the frozen lakes filled with shorebirds and ducks and geese only months earlier. I wonder how many Eurasian Dotterels nested here, escaping detection by human eyes but common among their nesting neighbors of golden plovers, sandpipers, and waterfowl.
I was startled out of the trance of my own thoughts when the hum of the engine changed, and the plane made a sharp banking turn, and we made a pass on a small gravel bar in the middle of a river. On the second pass, we landed, bouncing over short bare saplings and avoiding larger patches of willow brush. Within minutes we were dropped off to wait for a smaller Piper Cub to shuttle us one by one to the frozen lake. This was awesome! I can't describe how cool it was, so I'll share a video I took with my phone.
Soon, but not quite an half an hour later, it was my turn to climb in the even-smaller plane, sitting single-file behind the pilot. We took off as the engine roared, climbed just higher than the tree tops, and almost dusted the spruces as we shot across the trees as low as we could go, before slowing down and crabbing sideways and touching down- gliding onto the frozen lake. At first the wheels didn't spin, we just slid across the ice, then we rolled and slowed down and turned and taxied to the corner where our guide and a pile of winter gear lay on the snow. I turned my camera on to find that the battery was 3/4 dead because of the cold. My iphone also was on the verge of shutting off. I took both batteries I had brought, and put them inside my gloves. I put my phone down my shirt to keep it warm, hoping to prolong the battery life to take some pictures and videos of the trip. Nothing would last long enough to get a group shot at the end of the day. After I figured out my battery resuscitation, I began looking around and taking in the wonderland we had just landed in. Within 10 minutes of landing I started scanning the trees as there were several White-winged Crossbills and some redpolls vocalizing. Some fluttering at the edge of the lake caught my attention, and I struggled to lift my binoculars with a parka and gloves on. A small bird jumped out and sat in front of a spruce trunk for a brief moment, before hopping up and working its way across some branches, dodging in and out of sight. “Chickadee!” I shouted. Laura and our guide were at my side immediately, and Dave got on the bird as it flew. “I think that's it" I said excitedly. I didn't want to jump the gun on the ID as most people do when seeing this bird for the first time, so I described the bird as best as I could in the moment. "It looks like a Black-capped... but not quite” were the next words out of my mouth, as I described the features of this bird.
From my notes: "I saw a chickadee that superficially resembled a Black-capped Chickadee. (BCCH) I took in the whole bird at once. The head had the same black and white pattern as a black capped, with large white cheek patch and dark throat and crown. At a distance the crown didn't look black or brown or gray, it just looked dark since the pattern of the spruce bark behind the bird obscured my ability to tell for sure what color the head was. In stark contrast to the bark, the underparts were almost entirely a creamy light color like BCCH would be. It certainly lacked the chestnut-colored flanks of a Boreal Chickadee. (BOCH) I was unable to study the bird carefully, but that's what I saw in a glance through my bins for no more than a second and a half."
The bird quickly moved from trunk to the dense branches, and dropped from the spruce into a willowy thicket out of view. I was exited. I think this bird was a Gray-headed Chickadee. Others didn't really get a good look through binoculars like I did. I wanted to run after it and try to find it, but the plane just landed so we didn't go anywhere. I had to try to restrain myself because I wasn't the guide and didn't want to overstep my bounds and go running into the forest chasing this bird before everyone got there. We were still waiting on John, who had just been shuttled to the lake from our first drop-off point. He got out of the plane, and I told him the news- I think we had already had one. We listened to a short safety briefing focused on the dangers of exposure/hypothermia, and the precautions of winter travel on ice and snowy bear trails. We all got cans of bear spray, and our guide carried a shotgun. I was literally standing in the tracks of grizzlies in the snow as I strapped on the can of bear spray onto my packs waist belt, within easy reach.
We went off in the general direction the chickadee was last seen- they guide played a call but had no response. My general aversion to playback went unvoiced, as I wanted everyone else to see the same bird I had just seen. My hope and optimism wasn't mirrored by the guide, who suggested we continue to follow the plan and hike to to the lake where the chickadees had been seen last week. Inside I was devastated. Why weren't we staying and chasing this bird? I had a chickadee right HERE and we were taking time walking almost a mile in a different direction where there MIGHT be chickadees? I didn't get it. I trudged through the snow behind the others, keeping my feelings bottled up. Would we see more later at the lake and have it for sure, making my sighting not matter? I was about 90% sure of the ID at this point. Two seconds longer would have been enough time for me to think clearly as I looked at the bird. I should have taken a photo, but my gloves were on and the bird disappeared before I could raise my camera. It all happened so fast…
We hiked to the lake, nearly a mile along bear trails. I stepped in deep holes in the snow made by grizzly bears, likely digging up voles from their burrows. My size 12 boot tracks matched the length of many of the tracks, which were frozen in the snow as permanent reminders for me to watch my back as I brought up the end of the line of intrepid chickadeers.
The remainder of the daylight hours were spent chasing chickadees around a lake. A late run had triggered a feast of spawning salmon near the creek feeding into the lake, and bears left all sorts of energy-packed scraps around the lake which were reported to draw in all kinds of birds including Gray-headed chickadees. The lakeshore was buzzing with White-winged Crossbills, and all chickadees I saw were distinctly Boreals. I didn't see all the birds the others saw, and the flocks seemed to stay just ahead of us. After a good look at the first Boreal Chickadee, I explained to the group how different it was from the bird I saw earlier. As we trudged through the thick spruces, over piles of bear feces and salmon heads, I re-played my sighting over and over again in my head. I wondered to myself Could it have been a Black-capped Chickadee? It was possible, and I knew I'd have to contact some experts on range maps and chickadee distribution. Our guide told me that Black-capped Chickadees didn't occur this far north of Kotzebue, and so that only left one option... I wanted a second and third opinion to be sure. I wouldn't make a definitive sighting until I could rule-out the remote possibility it could have been a Black-capped. The possibility of vagrancy couldn't be overlooked, however I knew if it was indeed a Black-capped I would have seen the entire head pattern clearly. I thought a black cap would be distinctive against the trunk of the tree, but I didn't see a clear black cap. I also didn't clearly see a gray cap- a field mark that for me, would clinch the ID.
The bird I had seen occupied my thoughts as we kept searching. The daylight waned quicker than we all wanted it to. For that reason I wasn't the only one who wished to be here in the Alaskan summer, partly because of the extreme cold and lack of birds we experienced. However, I'll take quality over quantity, and I had a poor-quality sighting of a potential high-quality bird... I think the consolation prize for all of us was being here... we made a trip that no other birder had made in winter- crossing frozen waters and boreal forest. The light, the views, and the adventure all packed into one day made this journey epic- regardless of the outcome.
We finished our excursion in reverse order as we started- shuttling one by one from the lake to the gravel bar, assembling and boarding the Cessna, and flying back to Kotzebue. On the flight back we hugged the tundra as our experienced bush pilot banked the plane giving us topside views of Musk Ox and Caribou herds from under 100 feet. It was a success! We all had stayed warm, surviving a hostile environment with bears, ice, and the joyous silence of solitude. For moments of standing on a small gravel bar, watching the bush plane fly away carrying the other birders to the next recon point, I felt like the only person in the world- a world where the laws of nature decided who lived and who didn't, the rules which seem so obsolete when we're sitting at home in front of the computer screen, with a roof over our heads, heat pouring out of the air vents, and a fridge stocked full of food. I've been in the wilderness before, but until today, I've never been here. And here is where the Gray-headed Chickadees are. I savored the moments of mystery, friendship, and an adventure of a lifetime.
As for the bird I saw? Several experts have cast doubt of the northern edge of Black-capped Chickadees range extending all the way to where we were birding. We were over a hundred miles north of confirmed BCCH habitat, across a treeless tundra. The type of habitat, solitary nature of this bird, and all field marks I saw all point to Gray-headed Chickadee. I've left it off my year list because I'm choosing to try and break 750 without it. I want clean looks and confirmable photos of as many birds as possible, and I don't want the rare nature of this bird to persuade me to add a bird to my list that I wouldn't if it were more common and I had the same look. I've seen thousands of Black-capped chickadee in my time as a birder, and if it was a Black-capped I wouldn't be reluctant to say so- that'd be a great record this far North! However, it didn't look right, and my gut tells me it was a Gray-headed. I'm purposefully trying to have the highest integrity possible for my count, for me- not for anyone else. I'm also continuing to inquire with experts, and learn more about Black-capped Chickadee ranges in the Brooks Range, and proclivity to vagrancy. If I can positively rule out my sighting having any significant chance of being a Black-capped Chickadee, I may reconsider.
Will I add it to my life list? I'm sure people will be wondering that, but for now, the answer lies with me, my pen and my list.
Matt's advice to birders is sound wisdom. As an educator, I have learned flexibility and patience in the classroom, and that experience has successfully translated into my Big Year adventure in more ways than one.
700 is a big number. In days it totals nearly two years. In minutes, almost twelve hours. It takes just over four and a half minutes to count to 700. (Believe me, I timed it) I remember the first 700 page book I read- the fourth book in the popular wizard series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That took forever!
Many birders aspire to seeing 700 species of birds in North America in their lifetime; only a small percentage of those strive to see that many species in a year. I feel incredibly blessed when I think about all that I've seen this year. I look through my Sibley Guide to Birds of North America with the same nostalgia of flipping through a photo album of my childhood. Each bird has a story, and hundreds of sightings live in vibrant color and motion in my memory, and also on my memory cards preserved in pixels for future study, learning, enjoyment, and sharing. The birds in my book I haven't seen hold nearly as much enjoyment as the ones I have, knowing that they too are out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.
This year for me is about collecting those stories. seeing the birds, meeting new people, and understanding better why birds hold a mysterious allure over people. As I try to figure that out, I learn more about myself through my fascination with birds, an interest I've held onto since childhood. Seeing new birds has a magical power, transforming a one-dimensional painting or photograph from books I’ve read since the third grade, turning each bird into a living three-dimensional living organism. I experience unspeakable joy, wonder, and amazement every time this happens. That is a small part of what drives me to see new birds. However, not all birds are created equal.
Recently a Facebook friend left a comment on my page, questioning my decision to go back to Barrow instead of chasing an Amazon Kingfisher in Laredo, Texas. I understand what doing a Big Year must look like from the outside. I’ve been there- eagerly reading blog posts of another’s birding adventure, hoping they get to see each and every rarity that popped up around North America every week. For me it's not all about the checklist or greedily gobbling up every rarity the day after it shows up on the rare bird alert. I choose to chase quality birds- birds that intrigue me, that I have a history with, or a strong desire to see. The reasons vary by bird, some species I've dreamed of seeing for years. Some birds are familiar friends from my experiences abroad, while others I've never even heard about. I chose 700 as a number to aim for, because it was attainable, includes all of the regularly-occurring avifauna and then some. Attaining my goal so early, and still having lots of year left brought on a new set of questions I had to ask myself, about my motives and goals. I realized I may never be in this position again, with the opportunity to see these birds, travel more, and continue interviewing birders. I still had more information to gather on the birder-front, and so it felt right to keep chasing birds. As I approach 750 species, and the threshold of the recently-set ABA record (pre-2016) I'm not slowing down. However, I am carefully choosing which rarities to chase.
For me, an Ivory Gull holds more allure and mystique than an Amazon Kingfisher. I've seen the latter in Belize, frequenting the tangled vegetation and snags along the winding Lamanai River in Belize, which I motored down in a small speedboat on my way to explore ancient Mayan ruins. On the other hand, I’ve only been graced by the presence of an Ivory Gull once in Missouri/Illinois along the Mississippi River. The snow-white bird almost glowed in daylight, floating around a dreary gray palette of his concrete dam perch, the cloudy sky, and murky Mississippi currents. He floated around on pearly wings, searching for food in an unfamiliar habitat. The entire drive home, this bird lingered on my mind. Part of me was excited to have just seen an Ivory Gull, however seeing this one so far away from the Arctic, I knew the health of the bird was in question and it would likely not make the trip North again. Usually after encountering a new species, one will mark a box on their checklist. However, when I got home I added a new box to my bucket list: See Ivory Gull in the Arctic.
One story that I’d like to share with you is of the Mongolian Plover. Now, a keen birder will be quick to point out that this bird has been re-named the Lesser sand plover, which further may be split and re-named the Mongolian Plover yet again. Taxonomy is confusing, so I'll try not to get into taxonomical history and tell the story more simply, risking inaccurate taxonomic naming as I explain my history with this species.
The first time I looked through a field guide slow enough to notice this shorebird, it was called a Mongolian Plover, and so that’s what I’ll call it. (Nay-sayers can grumble at me later, as I call Long-tailed duck Oldsquaw, too. I learned birds from old bird books, before names were changed to what they are today, so I still have a hair of "old-school" engrained in me.
It took years for me to mature into a birder who appreciated shorebirds. I don’t think I looked at many shorebirds as a younger birder, except for the Killdeer, whose alarming broken-wing ploy always lured me into looking for the cryptically-colored eggs laid on the bare ground in a shallow scrape. The first Killdeer nest I found was on the playground in third grade. However, that's another bird and a different story...
I first noticed the Mongolian Plover in a bird book as an early teen. This handsome shorebird jumped off the page, sporting a dapper red vest and Zorro-esque black mask. The name “Mongolian Plover” immediately captured my imagination. I pictured this bird scurrying out of the way across the Mongolian steppes, flushing in front of armies of horses carrying iron-clad Mongol soldiers galloping at breakneck speeds into battle. I never dreamed I’d travel to Mongolia in my early twenties, and stare up at the expansive sky which mirrored the landscape in its vastness and texture. I traveled around the country on horseback, by camel, and hanging out of old Soviet-era vans, birding lakes, mudflats, deserts, and high-alpine steppes, and was successful finding one of the few Mongolian birds I knew about before I set foot in the country. While abroad I saw a Greater sand plover, which would remain the only sand-plover on my life list until 2010, when I had great comparisons of both Greater and Lesser side-by-side along Mida Creek near Watamu, Kenya, noting overall size and shape of the bill as a key separator between the two species.
Early in my Big Year, I stopped on the same shorebird page, remembering my time in Mongolia as I mulled over the name sand plover. A twinge of curiosity shot through me as I considered the fact that I may actually see one of these handsome devils if things worked out this year. I mentally added it to my 'must see' list, and did some investigating as to what it would take to see one in North America. I found that the most reliable spot to see sand plovers was in the Spring and fall on St. Lawrence island in Alaska, near the town of Gambell. It seemed Lesser Sand Plover was almost annual there, occurring each Fall in small numbers. For most of my Big Year, I believed Gambell to be out of my reach, and I avoided believing I could actually go there during spring migration, as I had committed funds I didn’t have and time to venturing to Attu, which I voted the “harder to get to” category of Alaskan birding locations. The Fall presented a different story, and with the help of family, friends, and the birding community, I raised some funds to get up to Gambell to kick off a Fall birding adventure. Despite one report of a sand-plover, nobody could re-locate the bird, and rumors swirled as strongly as the north wind blew, discouraging many migrants from making it across from Russia.
On October 2, 2016 two Arizona birders found a Lesser Sand-plover at Round Cedar lake near Flagstaff, Arizona. After no confirmed records of this species found this Fall in Alaska, this was a good bird, and one I very much had hoped to see. To be honest, my memories of seeing this bird in Mongolia and again in Kenya had faded, and throughout the year I poured over the plates in Rare Birds of North America, and each time I looked at it I wanted to see one again. As soon as I had the chance, I flew to Los Angeles, rented a car, and drove to Arizona to see it. I'd arrived 24 hours too late. The bird had gone.
Fortuitously, I received a second-chance while birding with Laura Keene a week later in California. We'd finished our day's search for the Yellow-green Vireo reported on Pt. Reyes, and we both drove to San Jose so she could return her rental car and we'd carpool in my rental car, which I'd already extended. After leaving the Bay area, I checked Facebook and saw a post of a "possible" Lesser sand-plover from California- right where we'd just been! The photos sure looked good for Mongolian plover, and after returning her car we headed back north to be in position to find the bird early the next morning.
A cold breeze rolled off the sand dunes toward the Pacific Ocean as I hustled down the beach before sunrise the following morning. I was outpacing another birder, who was hurrying to keep up and keep a conversation with me. Coincidentally, we'd both left the parking lot at the same time heading north along the beach to the GPS points of yesterday's exciting discovery by Matt Lau- a beautiful Mongolian Plover, which I determined from photos was a different individual than the Arizona bird the week before. I wasn't trying to ditch him, but we had different walking speeds, and I'd learned two things this year: first, birders give much better interviews after they see the bird, and recording an interview in the wind pretty much defeats the purpose of recording it. I've listened to dozens of interviews at night, realizing the wind was my main subject, and I'd lost the coherence of spoken words, unable to type out and preserve the wisdom and humor I'd heard earlier in the day.
Within the hour, I was still weaving my way up the beach, trying to spot any signs of Snowy Plovers. I saw Sanderlings running around frantically along the shoreline, scoped Scoters diving in the choppy surf, and admired the subtle differences between the ravens and crows which both gorged on the tidal feast left on the beach from the night before. I continued to walk at a brisk pace, prepared to hike 5 or 6 miles along the beach if necessary, intent on doing so quickly, as Laura was working on her computer in the car, and we had a Yellow-green Vireo to search for next. As the sun's golden rays arced over the eastern horizon, illuminating the beach in front of me, I spotted several small round white shapes darting across the beach ahead. I'd found the Snowy Plovers! The plumage of this species has evolved over time to perfectly match the color of the sand, making them near-invisible to predators when they crouch low in their burrows, becoming just another lump in the contour of the shoreline. I counted over 30 Snowy plovers, and with them was a larger, darker lump facing away from me. I'd spotted the bird!
I pointed it out to my beach-walking compadre, and we got great views of it in the scope. Drinking in the field marks, studying the short compact bill, creamy-colored throat and buffy eye stripe. The bird appeared at home on the beach, nestled in among foreign species unknown to her. I quickly updated the Facebook thread on the bird, confirming its presence today at the same location, and I sent Matt (the finder) a brief Facebook message- he was already on his way. I stuck around to interview him for The Birding Project, and share with others who were en-route the joy of seeing this bird. Birds are better enjoyed with others. After asking Matt for imput, I joined a couple others and laid down on the cold sand, slowly inching toward the flock. There's a fine line between getting "the shot" and disturbing the birds, and Matt had described to me the visual cues to look for to know if my presence was disturbing their routine and behavior. I watched carefully from eye level nearly 20 meters away, as the birds preened contently and sleepily lazed in the sun with their eyes half-shut. There's no fooling a plover, who always has one eye out for danger. I could tell something was in the air as the birds all suddenly flattened and buried deeper into the sand. As if on cue, a Merlin appeared overhead, and decided that an opportune meal didn't exist below on the beach, and rapidly flapped downwind along the coast. I continued to study and photograph the plover, who relaxed once the falcon was out of sight (at a much greater distance than I thought). She stretched her leg out and extended her long wing, revealing primary feathers edged with white, with dark brown, nearly-black tips. This bird appeared to me to be undergoing some stage of molt, as evidenced by the photo to follow. Notice the lighter gray feathers on the middle of the wing- clearly a different generation of feathers than those at the top of the wing.
After a few others arrived, and with several interviews complete, I packed up and headed back down the beach, to meet Laura and do some birding. To some, this was a life bird, or another tick on their California county list. To me, it was seeing an old friend in the New World; a traveler who has spent many months traversing land and sea in search of something, much like myself.
As I walked back down the beach, I thought about the day. Laura and I had some birding and lots of driving ahead of us, as the possibility of getting offshore from San Diego was growing closer in the coming days. For now, I just took a deep breath and enjoyed the morning.
How did you get interested in birds?
My very first encounter was with Steller’s Jays when I was camping as a kid. That moved my interest in that direction. I didn’t start birding until I got into Humboldt State University and took an ornithology class with Dr. Mark Colwell. He really got me into birds and biology and ecology, and birding itself. He influenced me to get into eBird, and I got into going out and birding more frequently, and finding rare birds, and it really caught on. It mixed being outside and looking at birds, so that’s what really got me into it.
What advice would you share with someone new to birding?
Start slow. Don’t be intimidated by all the expert and advanced birders. When I first started off, I definitely felt like I didn’t belong, but don’t let that get to you because everyone starts where you are right now. Learn everything as you go, and just go with it.
Birding is exciting... That’s a lame answer. For me it’s something that gets me away from reality.
With Addition of Hawai’i, Birders Will Be Confused About Which List to Care Most About
Report by Spencer Fullerton
The American Birding Association’s recent decision to add Hawai’i to its widely recognized “ABA Area” has the potential to put the nation’s birding community in chaos. For decades, the golden prize for American birders was clear: see as many species as possible in the ABA Area. Until recently, this geographic area was defined, quite logically, by the boarders of the 49 US States on the North American continent, all of 15 of Canada’s provinces and territories, and the French controlled islands St. Pierre et Miquelon1. Now that Hawai’i has beenadded to the ABA area, birders won’t know whether the top prize in birding will be the “New ABA Area” or the “Old ABA Area”.
Cooper Harris, an 82 year old who has seen 912 bird species in the ABA area, was debating whether to keep with tradition and spend three months this fall on remote islands in western Alaska or start a new trend by visiting Hawai’i for the first time. “I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars traveling all across the continent to be the top birder in the American Birding Association, and I am at risk of losing that title to my closest competitor if birders put a higher value on a newly defined area,” Harris vented while we walked through freezing rain on Alaska’s Attu Island earlier this year. His frustrations continued, to “I took thirty-four boat trips off the California coast before I saw my first Hawaiian Petrel, and now someone might be able to sit on the shore at Waimea and count that bird on his ABA list. I hope birders continue to revere the original definition of the ABA area”. Murphy Cook, who is attempting to set the record for the most species seen in a single year, is also banking on birders respecting tradition. While sitting next to the radios in the comfort of a lodge eagerly anticipating a report of a rare bird from the birders scouring the remote snow-covered village of Gambell, Alaska, Cook complained between sips of hot chocolate, “I just don’t see how anyone could admire a birder who doesn’t work as hard as I have this year for getting a higher total just because they had a larger playing field”.
The perspective is a little different for Harris’s nearest competitor Ross Franklin. During his youth, Franklin, who has seen 907 species in the ABA area (not including Hawai’i), took many trips to Hawai’i with his father to document the archipelago’s bird life. When asked about the addition of Hawai’i, Franklin responded with a smirk on his face, “I do like tradition, but between you and me I would benefit from the addition of Hawai’i and the new ABA area taking over as America’s gold-standard for bird listing. Hell, eight species I saw when I was younger have since gone extinct, do you know what kind of advantage that would be for me?”
Based on conversations with mere mortals who have seen well below 900 species, there is no clear consensus on which list will determine the grand poobah of American birding. One person I talked to used a sports analogy to describe the situation. She said “I think birders will adapt with the changes and recognize the premiere list as whatever the definition of the ABA area happens to be at the time, especially if it helps break records. You didn’t hear anyone complaining about records when baseball changed its schedule from 140 to 162 games.” Another birder had a different perspective: “These people have given their lives to this, and it would be a shame to negate that tenacity. Do you know the determination it takes to pass up trips to travel the world to see colorful quetzals, bee-eaters, and fairy-wrens and instead focus on spending weeks looking for drab old world warblers and flycatchers at the same three places in Alaska year after year?” Only time will tell how the American birding community reacts to the addition of Hawai’i to the ABA area.
1. So you actually know something about Canada, eh? Well, most Americans didn’t catch that.
This report is brought to you by an anonymous contributor, who wrote this birding satire piece for "The Onion". The views in this essay do not reflect the opinions of The Birding Project, and this is intended as lighthearted humor only.
Birding Summary: Saw several species of Storm-Petrel, including Wilson’s, Ashy, and Black, but we didn’t get far out enough for Buller’s Shearwater or Flesh-footed Shearwater
Went out on a Shearwater Journey's Pelagic, despite bad weather. Many people were pessimistic the trip would go out, so I was happy we even left the dock. We only made it out a little ways to Pt. Penos through the swell and chop, and some birders still got ill. All four Big Year birders were on board, hoping to get out far enough for a shot at something unusual- perhaps a Flesh-footed Shearwater, Mottled Petrel, or something more unexpected. Debi didn't expect to see any storm-petrels, however the birds surprised us. Some excitement ensued after spotting a couple “light-rumped” storm petrels, and given the time of year and location, we weren't sure what we were in for. After a little while the weather won, and we headed back to shore. Back at the docks, plans began forming to get out offshore the following day- and I was waiting in the wings for another opportunity to bird further away from land. The birds are out there...
Birding Summary: Went on a private pelagic to Farallone Islands and saw Blue-footed Booby
I slept in car in Safeway parking lot, and was at marina at sunrise to learn if I’d be able to get out on a boat. Sea conditions were still rough, and many captains didn’t want to go out. However, Dennis and the New Captain Pete were up to task, and didn’t disappoint. This was the second time I’d been on his boat this year, and he knows how to navigate and follow birds. Sea conditions worsened slightly as we were out, with swells reaching 15 feet, but chugging out to sea with the potential to see a Blue-footed Booby, I didn’t care. It wasn’t as bad as the Bering Sea, so I knew I could survive this wave pool. Got to Sugarloaf, and spotted the bird after scanning through lots of nooks and crannies. It was facing away, and was very camouflaged. It took a little while to all get on the same bird, but everyone on board saw it- after carefully looking at an adult and juvenile Brown Booby. After we took adequate photos, we cruised around the islands looking for Great White Sharks, since it’s high time for giant adults to come to the Farallones to feed on juvenile sea lions and seals. I spotted a sea lion carcass floating, but watched it and no shark took advantage of the free meal. On our way back, I saw several Buller’s Shearwaters, which added a new bird for the year. Chowed down on a great burger in the harbor, did our eBird lists, then I drove up north to position myself closer to the Yellow-green Vireo spot the next morning.
I bird because…
It’s pure. I guess it can be as big or as small as you want it to be. It can be as completely pure and spiritual or as completely [unique] as you want it to be. There’s kind of birding for every mood I guess. Sometimes it’s joyous, sometimes it’s meditative. Sometimes it’s frustrating.
What got you into birding?
I was in Alaska when I was 4. There was a Mandarin Duck there that was not part of the exhibit at the zoo. there was much discussion and debate about whether it was naturally occurring. I didn’t really look at birds again for a decade, but I would say that Mandarin duck was my spark bird.
Birding Summary: Searched unsuccessfully to find the Yellow-green Vireo at Pt. Reyes
Woke up in a McDonalds parking lot after spending another night in my rental car. I’d been too tired to keep driving to the campground I hoped to get to. Better safe than sorry. Arrived before sunrise at Point Reyes National Seashore, which was early enough to beat the traffic. Along the way I flushed a Common Poorwill from the road, which was an unexpected surprise. I heard Great Horned Owls when I parked in the lot, waiting or the sunrise. Thoroughly checked pine trees, cypress many times, but failed to produce a Yellow-green Vireo. I was planning on leaving in the morning after I gave the bird a good shot- my rental car was due in LAX that night and it would be a long drive back. Instead of returning it, I extended it and met Laura to continue searching for the vireo. By late afternoon, no vireo, but birds to see elsewhere, so we pressed onwards. Arrived in San Jose to return Laura’s rental car, and I saw on Facebook that a “possible” Lesser Sand Plover had been spotted just miles from where I was searching for the vireo. In my opinion the photos looked spot-on for Lesser Sand Plover to me, and so we immediately turned around after dinner and headed back north. I'd have my second chance at seeing a sand-plover, and Laura would get another morning to search for the Yellow-green vireo. It was a win-win!
Birding Summary: Saw the Lesser sand-plover, interviewed birders, missed the vireo.
The 19th of October was a good day. I birded with friends, and saw a life bird I've wanted to see for a long time. There's a story there, and I'm working on a separate post for the sand-plover, so you'll have to stay posted to hear about that adventure shortly! Actual time may vary, as I'm traveling and it's tricky to upload images, etc. but I'll get it out soon!
Highlights from today:
Meeting some great local birders, and doing some interviews.
Spotting Barn Owls roosting alongside the ocean in dense trees
Observing multiple subspecies of White-crowned Sparrows
How did you get started birding?
I needed volunteer hours. I worked for 5 years at the bird rescue center in Santa Rosa. I wanted to get out and see birds out in their normal state (in the wild, not in captivity)
The shorebirds got me started and made me want to pick through each one.
What is the most challenging aspect of birding?
Letting birds go when you just don’t know what type of species a bird was- I think that’s the hardest part.
What's it like being a younger birder?
Sometimes younger birders can jump to conclusions faster. I carry a camera with me, and I try to document the birds I see the best that I can.
I think birding is really enjoying what we’re seeing. It’s not trying to get things it’s more what you can find, what you can share, and what you can even bring to the public possibly. I enjoy running into really nice people out here.
Birding Summary: Helped Laura Keene find birds she needed: Spotted Dove, Ridgeway’s Rail, but we missed Hermit Warbler.
I like birding with Laura. Laura had been patient yesterday while I searched for the sand plover, and so today was her day. We started the search in downtown Los Angeles, seeking a Spotted Dove for her year list. I think she's tried multiple times for this bird, but things didn't work out. These birds have become much harder to find in the area, but we had some leads to go on, and I had a back-up spot where I'd seen the bird earlier this year on my one-day L.A. whirlwind tour with Andy before jumping on a cruise ship. That's another blog post or a story for the book. Laura and I arrived at our first spot to check. The yard we parked in front of had a broken-open piñata hanging from a tree, and caged birds singing somewhere on the porch despite the towels draped over the bars. This seemed like a good place- where exotic birds escape and make their home among familiar vegetation. Dozens of doves sat on the high-tension power poles which cut through the neighborhood like an invisible wall, breaking up the houses and yards as a reminder that we weren't in Mexico. As we searched through the Eurasian collared doves for a slightly darker dove with a spotted necklace, landing planes appeared constantly overhead, higher than the Red-tailed Hawk perched atop the pole, keeping a watchful eye on the feral cat who was busy judging me with a typical cat-stare. Beneath the power tower was a fenced-in nursery, a breeding ground for palm trees, banana plants, and a variety of tropical foliage that was reminiscent of a botanical garden. We peered through the chain-link fence, scanning the doves on the ground that were poking at little pieces of grit. One dove stood out to me. We'd found the Spotted Dove!
Laura and I both fired off a few photos, as the bird worked in and out of the shadows. This wasn't a bird either of us needed great images of, but I knew we could get closer and see the gorgeous neck of this bird not through a fence, so we went back to the car and took a drive around to the front entrance. The gate was open, and a man guarded the entrance with a hose in his hand. Maybe he was going to spray us for trespassing, but I took a chance he was just watering the plants and rolled my window down to say hello. Based on the neighborhood, I didn't expect him to speak English, and he lived up to my expectations. I told him we were looking for doves and wanted to walk around and take pictures. He told me to ask the owner, who was across the lot watering plants. I thanked him, and parked the car and walked up to the owner. I started the conversation in Spanish, and he chuckled and switched to English pretty quickly, after I told him what I wanted.
"You can park over there, stay as long as you'd like" he told me.
We easily re-found the bird, and got better pictures. This wasn't a life bird for either of us, but be took a second to enjoy seeing such a neat-looking bird, frantically searching for something to eat. The local Red-tailed hawk changed perches, causing an alarm that stirred up all the doves, and in a second, the dove was gone.
Birding Summary: Highlights were finding Least Storm Petrel (Code 3) among large rafts of Black Storm Petrel off the San Diego Coast
Early in the morning, John, Laura, and I headed out with Dave Povey to try and find Least storm-petrels. This Code 3 bird is much less common than the larger black storm petrel, which exist in pretty good numbers off the coast. The challenge is finding where the rafts of bird are on a given day. Recently, only several blacks were found by others on the same quest, and they couldn't locate the storm petrel raft. The ride wasn't as choppy as the other day, but we bounced away from land directly into the chop, stopping only to pick up a few balloons and sea garbage. (building up the good karma) We motored around off the 30-mile bank, seeing only small numbers of Black storm-petrels. In the distance, I spotted a cloud on the water. I alerted Dave, and tossed out a number of how many I thought were there: hundreds. I was wrong, as there were thousands, and with the numbers came the target birds. We looked over the large floating island of birds until we spotted a smaller, thinner winged storm petrel: last, and most certainly Least. We traded high-fives all around, and Dave brought out some chocolate-chip cookies to celebrate. We enjoyed the sprawling rafts of birds for a while, and then packed up and headed back, snagging balloons and trash along the way, leaving the ocean better than we found it, and the three amigos left the ocean with one more bird than when it found us earlier this morning.
At the end of the day, I was on a plane to New York. I was caught up in the excitement of Big Year birding, and had hatched an elaborate plan of how to see Great Skua. It involved the timing of a lot of things being just right, but it's worked out so far- so why not try?
I bird because...
I love being outdoors, I love the feeling of the chase, the excitement of something new all the time, I could probably go on and on...
My mom was a really good backyard birder, and she would know orioles and blackbirds and robins and jays, and I think probably I used to tag along with a lot of the park rangers when we camped a lot as a kid. Probably the thing that really set me off was I went to Humboldt State and Stan Harris was my major professor. I was like, “This is really cool, I like this!”
Advice to birders:
Just get out there and do it- enjoy it! I tell people that birding can be what you want it to be. People worry about their lists, or worry about whether they got the identification right. Don’t worry!
These blog posts are brought to you by The Birding Project, written mostly on an iPhone during long travel days and at rare bird stakeouts. Typos, grammatical errors, and mistakes of any kind aren't intended, but please contact Christian should a mistake be found. Thanks for understanding!