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.
A MORNING AT ANTIETAM
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.
VISITING THE ABA
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.
Where to Next, Magellan?
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.