November Synopsis: Attempted a second shot at Ivory and Ross's Gulls in Barrow (unsuccessfully) Searched for and saw a chickadee (likely Gray-headed) in the Alaskan wilderness with Laura K. John W. and John V. Chased and saw the Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Michigan, took a train to St. Louis, flew to Seattle, drove through Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas.
Results: 8 New Birds seen on my year list, and over 30 birders interviewed for The Birding Project.
23 Nov Louisiana to Missouri
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...
24 Nov Missouri Search for my last Longspur
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!
25 Nov Kansas City, Missouri Rest Day
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!
26 Nov Kansas Search for a Prairie-Chicken
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.
27-28 Nov Saint Louis, MO Rest Days
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!
The "Harlan's" Red-tailed Hawk
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+!
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.