When a strange-looking whale washed ashore on St. George, I didn't expect to learn 2 years later that it was a new species!
After spending two days out on the water in La Jolla and Channel Islands National Park, I decided to pass on the opportunity to take a boat out of Monterey Bay on a pelagic trip (I missed a Great White Shark) deciding instead to find a California Condor. On the American Birding Association (ABA) list, they're categorized at Code 6 'Extinct' however in 2014 they were added back on the list as a countable species, along with Aplomado Falcon and Whooping Crane (both of which I have seen already this year). Given the other Big Year birders have all seen California Condor, it was time for me to pick up a year bird, and a life bird.
California Condors are huge.
Weighing in at up to 26 pounds, with a wingspan of 9.5 feet, the California Condor is a giant bird! As one of the largest flying birds, it has commanded the attention of people for hundreds of years. Early Native Americans held the "Thunderbird" in high esteem, and believed it brought thunder to the sky with its giant wingbeats. California Condors had been driven to extinction in the wild as a result of shooting, egg collecting, and lead poisoning. The San Diego Zoo has since worked in cooperation with the Peregrine Fund to breed the birds in captivity, and release birds back into the wild. Today, there are 268 California Condors flying free in North America.
Finding Condors in California
Along California's Highway 1 is one of the best places in the state to find condors. There are many pullouts along the oceanside north of Lucia before Big Sur, and many of these are great spots to scan the sea cliffs for roosting birds in the morning, or catch a glimpse of a soaring condor in the afternoon breeze.
I checked recent eBird reports, and there were multiple sightings around Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Andrew Molera State Park. Another hotspot of condor activity is Pinnacles National Park.
Condor #204 also known as "Amigo" was hatched at the San Diego Zoo in the spring of 1999. The following year, he was released into the wild, and has been cruising the sea cliffs of Big Sur since, defending "his" stretch of beach along Highway 1 where I spotted him yesterday morning.
Amigo has an interesting story. Following his release, he paired with a female, 222 and had a chick, condor 470. The original egg laid by the female 222 was not viable, and so biologists swapped out the egg with a fertile one from a captive condor breeding program. The egg hatched in the wild successfully, and the offspring #470 grew up in the wild and is still flying free today.
Note on Wing Tags: All of the 200's are yellow, so only the number '4' appears on the tag. Learn more about wing tags at www.condorspotter.com
Things haven't always been easy for 204. Several years ago, he disappeared from radio contact and was found with an injured beak. Vets assumed he had been struck by a vehicle. During his rehab, his mate 222 had mated with a different bird. His son 470 still hangs out with him, and patrol their territory, chasing intruding condors away. I observed him do this yesterday morning, chasing 663 off "his" rock.
Now Amigo has a new mate- female 534. She is paired with 2 males, which may be more common in wild condors than we know. Their nesting attempt last year failed, but biologists don't know why; the nest is in such a remote location that climbing up to the spot is impossible. They believe from watching the behaviors of Amigo that this year he has a chick, and hope they will be successful in bringing the chick through fledging.
Update: I found this year's blog from the Ventana Wildlife Society, and it is confirmed that Amigo is a dad! The chick is number 842, and has been observed being tended to by 3 parents. Here's to success!
Vultures and Condors lack feathers on their heads, in order to make cleaning their feathers easier after feeding on dead carcasses. Condors are actually very clean birds. I observed the condor rubbing his head against a rock, cleaning any remaining bits of Sea Lion off his skin. They will rub their head on grass, branches, or rocks to clean themselves after a meal. They also enjoy frequent baths, and regularly preen their feathers to keep them clean.
Threats to Condors
One of the main threats to condors is lead poisoning. This occurs when condors eat dead animal carcasses containing fragments of lead ammunition.
In addition to lead poisoning, I learned that littering is also a very real threat to Condors. Adult birds forage for bone fragments and calcium-rich shells to ingest for nutrition, and bring these items back to the nest to feed a chick. Along Highway 1, the condors have been observed picking up and ingesting bottle caps and pieces of plastic "micro-trash" which they mistake for these shells and pieces of bone. Biologists have put out broken seashells in areas frequented by condors in hopes that they ingest shell fragments instead of landing on the road to collect human trash instead. So far, this has been a successful strategy, combined with spraying condors with water when they approach the road too closely. While walking along the highway, I picked up several pieces of micro-trash to throw away in a garbage can, reducing the number of pieces available for a condor seeking additional nutrition for their offspring.
I met Tim along the road, when he pulled off to check out the condors that I had been watching. He has volunteered with the Ventana Wildlife Society for the last 6 years, tracking condors and recording their daily activities and interactions and helping to keep the birds safe. He'll come down on a weekend and track the birds, figuring out what birds he picks up and sends his data back to the biologists, who receive data from volunteers throughout the range. The goal is to have someone out here every day. Last year, Tim made a documentary film about the condors at Big Sur. It's worth checking out the trailer in the link above! I interviewed Tim to learn more about the history of the birds at Big Sur, and put much of what I learned from him into this blog post.
The 2015 Condor Report is available here, for those interested in learning more!
How did you get started birding?
My kindergarten class took a field trip to the local nature center. Until that point, I'd been your typical 5 year-old kid, and I was really interested in dinosaurs. But we went that entire program was on birds. I was really captivated...They were releasing a Dark-eyed Junco they had been rehabilitating. I got to be really close to it, and it really struck me as being cool.
I took my first trip to Arizona when I was in 2nd grade. I got a lot of the really common birds. It's been really fun. A lot of my birds haven't been found with technology. I've found a lot of them myself or with guides.
It's an experience. There's a whole lot of stuff that goes into birding. There's the birds themselves, the trips they take you on, and it's the people you meet while doing it. I like showing other people the birds as much as I like seeing them myself.
I first met Alex several days ago in Madera Canyon, watching the hummingbird feeders at Santa Rita Lodge. We were talking when the Plain-capped Starthroat (photo below) landed right in front of us on the feeder. Alex and his mom are on an Arizona birding trip, seeing a lot of great birds in a short amount of time- I can relate! Southeastern Arizona is small, and I knew we'd cross paths again. That time came at Beatty's Guest Ranch, in search of the Berylline Hummingbird. We weren't disappointed, and were treated to fantastic views of that bird as well. After the hummingbird departed I had a few minutes to visit with Alex, who is an enthusiastic young birder dedicated to becoming a better birder. His story and interest are as real as it gets. I could relate to Alex's experience of seeing a Dark-eyed Juno in the hand being released, as I've released many juncos brought to me by my cats over the years. I too had an interest in dinosaurs since I was young, and their modern-day relatives continue to lead us both afield in search of the identical evolutionary diversity of their extinct scaly ancestors.
It was a real pleasure meeting Alex and I hope our paths cross again later this year in the winter in Minnesota!
After the hummingbird excitement, we took a short hike and found the Gray Hawk nest being studied by researchers at the University of Arizona. Check out their research project here.
Cruising down the interstate at 80 miles an hour felt pretty dang good after being cooped up for a couple days. I longed for the feeling of wind blowing through my mop of hair, but it was over 100 degrees outside and today I had the A/C on full-swing. Usually I try not to turn on the A/C as it doesn't help my fuel economy, but today it was fully warranted. I was back on the road again, after spending several days in New Mexico. These last few days were beautiful; I was privileged to be present at the wedding of my best friend since high school. In fact, my return trip from Nome was entirely based on attending his wedding, so I worked in my birding plans around the date, and soon an epic roadtrip emerged.
July 3rd Fly back from Nome to Chicago, IL
July 4th St. Louis, MO
July 5th Kansas
July 6th New Mexico
July 7th - July 10th Wedding festivities in Albuquerque and Santa Fe
July 11th San Antonio, TX
Recent reports of a Mexican Violetear (previously lumped as the Green Violetear) in San Antonio at a private residence had me googling the miles and checking my bank account to see if a side trip to Texas was feasible. It wasn't objectionable, so the gas went on the credit card. I'd already driven across the country, and so what was 700 more miles? It wouldn't be for just a single bird- I still needed Groove-billed Ani also. After one sprint across the desert, and some fortunate events- I got both birds the same day. That's a story for another post. Time to head West, again...
July 12th Big Bend National Park
I couldn't drive past Big Bend National Park without stopping. It was only 69 miles off my route, and I needed an excuse to get out of the car and hike for a few hours. On my last visit to the park in April, I saw all of my target birds in a less-than 24 hour birding blitz that included trail running and guiding two European birders around a park I'd never been to before. (Thank you, eBird) The trip resulted in me spotting two life birds, including Colima Warbler, and Blue-throated Hummingbird. It was a great trip, and a destination I couldn't wait to get back to!
Leaving San Antonio, I had hours before the turnoff to think about it, to plan, scheme, and weigh how stopping would affect my chances of seeing the Plain-capped Starthroat being seen in Arizona's Madera Canyon. When I reached the turnoff in the small Texas town of Marathon, I pulled over and slept in my car next to the tourist shelter. It was literally a shed full of photos and brochures highlighting the area's attractions. There were even Barn Swallows nesting on top of the right light inside the shack. Waking up early the next morning, I figured I could hike for a bit before the day got too hot. On a whim, I drove into the park to Chisos Basin, and jogged up the trail to Boot Springs. I spent the next hour and a half laying under a male Blue-throated Hummingbird, watching him defend his territory and attempting a decent photograph. Am I obsessed with photographing birds? No. I've passed on many opportunities for the "perfect shot" to just watch the bird. I won't come away at the end of the year having photographed the most species, but I will have a nice portfolio of images that help tell the story of the birds I've been fortunate enough to see and enjoy.
Here's a nice male Blue-throated Hummingbird. They are the largest hummingbird species that breeds in the United States- mostly within a limited range in the southern parts of Arizona and Texas. This species is quite vocal- I heard them far down the wooded canyon along a stream, and found nearly a half-dozen different individuals along my hike. It was a challenge to find the calling birds, which perched in the middle-elevations of the pine and oak woodlands. Most of my photos show the underside of the bird, like this:
I climbed across the stream on a downed tree to be closer to this male perched high on a limb. However, with some patience I was able to sit above the stream on a hillside, where the same male favored a low perch. After 15 minutes or so, he flew down and landed nearby, offering a great photo opportunity.
Hiking back to Chisos Basin, I stopped to take a drink and listen for Colima Warblers. (I saw exactly two) After a few minutes of enjoying the shade under a small pine shrub, I stood up and heard a wheezing grunt-like call followed by a snarl. Startled, I turned around and caught sight of a small cinnamon-phase Black Bear, mid-stride walking right towards me! I shouted at it, and waved my arms. That did the trick... the bear swerved its course after giving me a nasty look, and made a wide arcing turn around me, keeping his distance. I got out my bear spray just in case, and kept my cool when he looked like he may charge me. Luckily, the bear kept his cool too and crossed the trail less than 40 feet away.
July 13th Arizona
This morning I woke up in El Paso Texas, drove across New Mexico, crossed the border into Arizona, dropped my car off at a friend's house, and went birding. Truth be told, I paused for a moment, contemplating a shower before returning to the 100 degree morning to go birding. I decided to get the bird first.
Arriving in Madera Canyon, I met my friend and fellow Big Year birder Laura Keene, who had just seen the Starthroat. Literally. Right before we got there. Good thing we didn't stop on the way for ice cream... It was great to celebrate this bird with Laura, who had patiently waited two days to spot and photograph this bird after it had been reported. And she got great images! I ran into some other birders who were hoping to see the bird, and we all had quite a show when the bird returned, feeding right in front of us on a feeder, then flying up to a tree where a Broad-billed hummingbird harassed it before it returned to a nearby feeder. I didn't get any great photos, but these are acceptable for documenting the bird, which looked rather ratty as he was molting tail feathers and sounded by the raspy wingbeats that it was also missing primaries on both wings.
Onwards to 700
From here on out, only 8 birds stand in my way on my goal to 700. I could write a whole post on my thoughts/emotions and my plan for reaching 700.... However, it's late and I have a real bed to sleep in tonight. I think I'll explore Arizona tomorrow and do some more photography, just for kicks. I have the whole rest of the year to see more birds!
Summary of my plan to reach 700:
Finish birding Arizona. Then drive to CA, NV, WY, MT, and finally WA.
Relax at home in Seattle. Go to more weddings. See what is left. What's possible?
Anything you put your mind and heart into.
Confession: it's a hide-a-bed.
"Never take any moment outside for granted"
Jason's interest with birds started as he spent time rehabbing sick and injured birds for Wildlife Rescue. He went on to help out at a local bird banding station, where meeting other young birders cemented his interest and helped deepen his understanding of the natural world. One day the azure blue of a Western Bluebird perched on his bird bath demanded his attention. He had never before seen such pretty colors on a wild bird. Now Jason says the subtle blue on female bluebirds may even be more amazing than their flashier male counterparts. (Better turn your field glasses back to the birds folks and check that one out!) He then placed a bird house in his yard, which was quickly occupied by nesting bluebirds and ever since he's been doing research on various species of cavity nesting birds.
Recently I caught up with Jason over dinner at his house, where strange noises came from the multitude of cardboard boxes on his kitchen table. The commotion proves he is still involved with bird rehab, with the boxes containing a couple owls, a baby swallow, and other feathered patients ready for delivery to the wildlife hospital tomorrow.
What's the strangest experience you've had while birding?
Trying to see a Glaucous Gull at a dump in El Paso. They didn't want us in there. We tried bribing the guy with a $20 bill in an empty subway plastic bag. [He refused] He said there were no birds there but there were gulls flying right behind him when he said that.
What makes your experience as a birder different from everyone else? What talents or qualities are unique to you?
Birding by ear is hands-down my favorite way to do it- that's the most challenging and the most fun. I'm definitely not super competitive, that's definitely a good thing for my birding. Everything's just enjoyable. As long as I'm looking at a bird I'm happy.
What advice would you give to young birders or someone who is new to birding?
Just get outside and do it. It's amazing how discouraging it is at first. Getting out there, looking at the birds every day- it's like meeting new people. you don't know them very well the second you look at them- so you have to interact and get to know these birds.
Never take any moment outside for granted.
Amazing! Therapeutic. Definitely mentally recharging. And for me... a life saver in a lot of ways. I think that's the biggest thing. It came to me in a part of my life that I needed it to, and it saved my life.
What a great week! From Alaska to New Mexico, I drove from Chicago to Albuquerque, across the American Heartland. No new birds until today, but quality time with quality people is worth the trade off. As July is now upon us, I'm very close to my goal of 700 birds for the year- and am figuring out how to raise the bar in multiple areas of The Birding Project. I've had 1,300 miles of road to think about it, and am excited to reveal some new changes in the coming weeks. For now, I'm in New Mexico at a friend's wedding and will spend some family/friends time before venturing out to bird more. Thanks to all of you that have supported me along the way recently, and I'm looking forward to getting some of my photos and writing from Alaska published. (And Maine) ((And before that)) This year is flying by.
Thanks for following my adventure. I'm grateful for everyone who has supported me and continues to encourage me in my "dream year". It's not just birding, it's bigger. And I love it.
Birding is a lot like life. Sometimes things go your way, and sometimes they don’t. The last couple days in Nome, things just fell into place. I came, I saw the birds, I soaked in every detail and experience I could, and then I flew overnight back to Chicago. End of trip.
My Nome trip was a last-ditch effort for me to get back up to Alaska and do a little “target birding” - pursuing specific birds in a given area with the hopes of seeing them well enough to add them to my year (or life) list. I had 10 birds that were my “targets” and for the sake of time I'll share photos of five of them, and some accompanying remarks in hopes to add a little bit more to the experience of just looking at a beautiful photo. Hope you enjoy!
1.) Long-tailed Jaeger
2.) Northern Wheatear
4.) Bristle-thighed Curlew
5. Arctic Warbler
NOME PHOTO GALLERY
Lately in my life I've been trying a lot of new things- food, habits, sleep patterns, and experimenting a little with my blog. Most of these changes you won't be able to see yet, but it's my attempt to stretch myself outside of my comfort zone, and learn a little bit more about myself. Doing a Big Year, many birders can attest to almost falling into a rhythmic cycle, of chasing birds, traveling, and finding some time left over to sleep. It's almost robotic. I'm doing things differently- that's what makes The Birding Project so exciting to me. So while I wait for the Polar Cub Cafe to open in Nome, so I can enjoy a hot breakfast to fuel my exploits into the sub-Arctic today, I'll share a few photos with you from yesterday.
A BIRD LIKE NO OTHER
The Bristle-thighed Curlew is a unique species of shorebird. It breeds only in North America, unlike the similar-looking Whimbrel, another medium-sized shorebird sporting a de-curved bill.
With only about 7,000 adult birds left in the entire population, this is definitely a rare bird. Although only a Code 2 by ABA standards, to me this bird is much rarer. I've already made the trek to Nome earlier in my post-college life, driving 75 miles outside of Nome on a highway that dead ends into the tundra, and hiking up a hill to scan the vast hillsides and valleys for this bird.
I didn't see it.
Yesterday, I returned with more optimism. Despite my high-hopes of seeing this bird, knowing from recent eBird reports that there were breeding birds present at this spot, an invisible pressure hung over my head. What if I didn't see it? Would I have to come back? Could I intercept a late-departing adult on St. Paul in August? How could I even get to St. Paul? There was no shortage of questions in my mind.
The hike up the hill opposite of "Coffee Dome" a dark mountain on the other side of the dirt road is described by birders as a "death march". I couldn't disagree more. The deep holes in the tundra, empty now but filled with water after rains, made hiking difficult. The spongy ground gave way under my Xtratuf boots, yet there was a solid feeling of being supported by plant life. The mosses, lichen, and willow shrubs made a lush green canvas for cottongrass and yellow wildflowers to bloom against in bright contrast.
I hiked over an hour, only finding several Whimbrel with chicks (believe me, I tried making them into Curlews) and several Willow Ptarmigan (a new bird for the year!) Choosing a different route down the hill always seems better than re-tracing one's steps, and this strategy produced not one, two, three, or four individuals- but SIX Bristle-thighed Curlews! I didn't spend much time photographing them, since they were agitated to share their nesting habitat with me, but I did stop briefly and fired off a volley of shots.
I'm heading to breakfast now, and hope you can enjoy some glimpses of this amazing bird. My images try to convey a sense of where this bird lives- as well as the beautiful mottling and barring on his plumage. I'll update this post later with some more biology of the bird and how it was named, but for now- overpriced omelettes are calling my name!
The social media age seems to be spawning a culture that seeks instant gratification for everything. An "I want to know and I want to know NOW," approach, and birds and birding are certainly no exception.
I get it. I really do. And I suppose that if Facebook and all this "easy as can be" technology had been around when I first started birding, I'd have been tempted to utilize it to answer all my ID questions too. But, I don't think so.
My favorite thing about birding is spending time with birds. Rather than grabbing a quick photo and dashing off to ask for help on Facebook with the ID, I encourage people to take some time to study and get to know the birds. Spend some time watching even after you've gotten the photo. Watch their behavior, listen to their songs and call notes, and don't stop watching - even as they fly away.
It's great to get an instant answer and pin a name on a bird. But if you stop there, you miss out on the best things about birds. And you'll never get to know them well enough to say, "There goes a Northern Flicker!" -- even when all you get is a quick flash of tail as it disappears out of sight.
Today I am trying something new for The Birding Project. I logged on Facebook and saw a post from Kimberly which perfectly summarized the types of birding wisdom I'm striving to gather and share with people. With her permission, I want to share her thoughts with a wider sphere of people, helping spread a positive conservation message. I met Kimberly at The Biggest Week in American Birding this past May, and although we didn't get a chance to interview, we did chat briefly about trying to connect in the future. She's doing fantastic work, and I'd love to collaborate with her on a future project blending education and conservation with young people!
Sandy is a master hummingbird bander, and licensed to band birds from songbirds to owls. She is a long-time friend of Scott Weidensaul, and has worked with him on banding projects for decades. I met Sandy and her husband Gary at Hog Island, and was lucky enough to be present when she was banding hummingbirds in the afternoon.
What is banding, and how does it help birds?
Banding is a method of applying a numbered aluminum band onto a bird. Banding is a valuable way to gather data about bird migration. It helps scientists track an individual bird by catching it again. Through banding, we can learn about bird populations, life spans, and migration routes.
Bird banding interrupts the life cycle of a bird. Therefore, in order to catch and band birds one must be trained specifically to capture and handle birds, and have a proposal with a specific research question that banding will help answer.
Bird banding has a strict Code of Ethics that all licensed banders adhere to closely. The safety and welfare of bird comes first.
Questions that bird banding helps to answer include:
-How long do they live?
-Do they return to the same area annually?
-How far do they migrate?
We have learned fantastic things about bird migration through the banding and recapture of birds. These insights help us protect valuable habitat, and monitor bird populations worldwide.
How do you catch a hummingbird?
We use traps, specially built to catch hummingbirds safely. This trap is operated using the components from a gutted remote control car. Once the bird flies inside to feed, the remote trigger drops the door shut enclosing the hummingbird inside the cage trap.
Digital calipers are used to measure hummingbirds accurately. Measurements can help the bander determine the sex, many times the male is smaller and his 6th primary is asymmetrically shaped. All measurements are taken in metric units, since data can be shared internationally.
What we've learned through banding hummingbirds:
-The oldest hummingbird is 13+ years old!
-Hummingbirds are extremely faithful to their breeding and feeding sites, and some hummingbirds have been re-captured on the same day each year, after an 845 mile journey across the Gulf of Mexico!
-13 Rufous hummingbirds overwintered in Pennsylvania and survived -36 degree temperatures, and mated the next spring.
Eliza started birding about a year ago. She starting going birding with her dad, who promised her when she was young to take her to see her favorite bird, the Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica. He made good on his promise, and she saw two in Monteverde! She's interested in seeing unique habitats and unique birds, like Ptarmigans in Colorado.
These past few days on Hog Island, I've talked with dozens of teen birders from around the country. I wanted to share with you some of their thoughts about birds and birding from our interviews. It's amazing to hear the depth of their answers to some of the same questions I've been asking adults. They are thoughtful, unselfish, question-driven, and enthusiastic. After 24 hours of being on the island together, I watched new friendships form and saw many examples of camaraderie. After meeting and birding with this group of young conservationists, I am optimistic for the future of birds and birding.
A soldier shares about her experience birding while in the Army
How did you get started birding?
I was 4 [years old] and my grandfather made me a bird feeder. I remember the first bird I ever identified. It was a Slate-colored Junco. I bird recreationally... I bird almost part of every day. You know, I've always been interested. I've always paid attention to em when I was a fisherman offshore. I've been a pursuer of things all my life. A commercial fisherman, a hunting guide, a fishing guide, a bird guide. I like finding things I guess.
Whats the best part of taking out young birders from Hog Island?
The enthusiasm! They grew up in an electronic age. They have so much more exposure. What were those bird books we had when we were a kid? Now they have phones with books on them. They're all linked together with it [technology] Some of these kids are pretty competitive. They're going to help the environment with that much enthusiasm.
How has birding impacted you?
I've always loved the ocean, and nature, and the educational aspect of that. I started out on a lobster boat in this bay. I didn't have the broader perspective. I enjoyed the scenery, and I loved it, but with the education, it broadens my perspective a ton. The different birds, the different habitats, the different groups- it's a much bigger picture of the harbor.
I interviewed Meghan next, Bill's first mate. She played a vital role in keeping everything running smoothly on our trip. Thanks to her, we caught and held fresh lobster!
A talented young birder from Georgia spots the Little Egret in Maine
Henry and Deb met while birding, and their shared love of birds gave lift to the wings of their relationship. Since that first field trip, they have traveled around the country together birding. I met the pair at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in upstate New York looking for a Garganey. After talking with them for nearly half an hour, and birding with them the following day, I had to move on to Boston and they persisted for the Garganey (which regretfully showed up days after they left)
They invited me to stay with them in Maine, and I took them up on their generous offer spotting a Bicknell's Thrush on a ski mountain in Vermont, and spending some quality time with my family. I stayed at their beautiful home just miles down the road from where I was born, in Brunswick. Henry's photographs of birds from Puffins to Northern Hawk Owls graced the walls of their home, including my guest bedroom. (The Hawk Owls were my favorite, as 'HAWKOWL' is my current license plate) After a fantastic meal and even better dessert, we hiked along the rocky coastline at sunset. Needless to say, I fell asleep quickly that night, with dreams of Hog Island dancing in my head.
I'd like to extend a heartfelt thanks to all of my recent hosts (Henry and Deb included) who have opened their homes to me, allowing me to progress in my big year, from sleeping in my car, to a couch, to a bed. Maybe by the year's end I'll have a hotel sponsorship...???
What role has birding played in your relationship together?
Henry: We met on bird trips. We figured out we went on 4 day trips together. We didn't know each other's names. I spent more time talking to her friend... (laughs)
Deb: We became birding friends. Mass Audubon is an amazing birding community. People really know each other well. The whole cooperative nature of that birding community was definitely part of it.
Henry: We both lived in eastern Mass so we both would see each other out birding
Deb: We both were individually involved with birding. It was easy to talk with each other about birds.
What do you like about having a birding spouse?
Deb: He's a good communicator because he takes the photos and then he sends emails out to everybody on the trip.
Henry: She hears the birds. I may not even be tuning into the bird songs. She's tuned in!
Deb: We're the only two people who we know that can talk about birds as much as we want and the other doesn't get annoyed. (laughs)
Deb: Another way that they got to know each other was by volunteering with a young birders program. Henry was asked to be involved, and he asked me to be involved too. It's been the best. I think overall if you were to take one thing that made us grow... [that would be it].
I stood in the Anchorage airport next to a taxidermy moose, holding a handful of cash in disbelief. My heart was full of gratitude for the generosity of a new friend who had just given a generous contribution to The Birding Project. It was handed to me with kind words and a smile, yet I assumed the unspoken implication to go chase a bird that I hadn't imagined I'd get to see this year. With some careful planning, and internet deals, I could travel almost anywhere in the ABA area to chase any bird I wanted. With some serious decisions to make, I slept on it- on the hard tile floor of the Anchorage airport (which has no carpeted floorspace anywhere I could find) In the morning, I decided to rent a car for 24 hours, and pick up some of the more common boreal birds I hadn't seen yet this year, and drove deep into the interior of Alaska in search of nesting Northern Hawk Owls. That adventure will have to be wait to be told properly...
24 hours later I was flying south over the Seward Peninsula on Alaska Airlines, bound for warmer climes. Little did I know that the heat wave I was about to encounter would be the hottest temps in Arizona yet this year- breaking 112 degrees. It was a good thing I would be doing most of my birding in the mountains, where it was slightly cooler.
I purposefully scheduled my flight to Arizona through Seattle, with the second leg the following morning so I could stop overnight in Seattle. I enjoyed a home-cooked meal and a real bed, courtesy of Chateau de Mom and Dad. Their unconditional love and support has enabled me to feel at peace chasing my dream of doing a Big Year. Family is the best.
I took a standby flight from Seattle to Tuscon, which was the most affordable option I could find. On the flight, instead of some much-needed rest I busily planned the next leg of my adventure- a driving trip from Seattle to Maine, which I knew was the best use of the next couple of weeks to pick up the remaining breeding birds I hadn't seen yet so far this year. I still needed Bicknell's Thrush, Atlantic Puffin, and a host of other breeding birds that I could pick up on my cross-country drive. I can't wait for that trip!
Little did I know that the Jeep Compass I picked up at the airport would be my best friend for the remainder of the trip. Without it, driving to the Pine Flycatcher at Aliso Springs would have been difficult, to say the least. My Subaru likely would have made it, but with the extra weight of my gear it could have been dicey. Along the road in I spotted a Montezuma Quail! I've seen this species already, but this bird could not have been more photogenic.
I drove straight from the airport to Aliso Springs campground, which was located at the end along a steep, rough road that earns an award for "most fun road traveled" for the year. It was on par with the official Jeep test-drive track I'd ridden on years ago, full of incline hills, logs, bridges, and berms. After driving tens of thousands of miles on cruise control, having to think through each section of rough road, analyzing a steep climb before engaging the 4WD and attempting to scale it without scraping the bottom of the rental car was thrilling. I made it to the campground easily without damaging the vehicle, or encountering other cars coming down the road.
At the campground was one other car, about to leave. As I pulled in, I met another birder named Larry, who graciously filled me in about the recent habits of the Pine Flycatcher. While we were talking, I noticed a small drab bird land about 10 feet away. The Pine Flycatcher! We had great looks, and were treated to the bird feeding, then watched as it gathered nesting material and flew up to a nearby tree and continue constructing a nest. This was one of the easiest birds I've seen all year... I couldn't be more pleased! I interviewed Larry and talked with a nice couple that showed up right as I was about to leave. We all left very happy.
After a couple of brief interviews with the birders who showed up right after me, I thought I might have a chance to get to the Aztec Thrush spot. The bird had been seen last night along the trail, so I figured I may have a shot if I could drive to Madera Canyon, and hike up to the Carrie Nation trail before sunset.
I hoofed it, stopping briefly to look at the hummingbird feeders at Santa Rita Lodge. Recently a Plain-capped Starthroat and Berylline Hummingbird were both reported here, but I could sit at feeders after I saw the Aztec Thrush. Little did I know that I'd spend every spare moment of the next couple days sitting at the stakeout spot... On the hike up, I spotted a commotion in the trees and a Northern Pygmy Owl emerged with a young Painted Redstart in his small feathered talons. Dinner has been served!
I spotted some Robins along the trail to the mine. They had finished bathing and were moving up the hill into a side canyon. Was the Aztec Thrush mixed in like it was last night? If so, I couldn't find it. I waited until dark, and listened to the night sounds start as the sun dropped behind the mountain, the sky slowly turning into my favorite color blue. Instead of hiking out, I decided to sleep up the hill in my hammock. I fell asleep to Mexican Whip-poor-wills calling, and hearing a variety of hoots from many species of owls I had already seen and/or heard this year. These voices of old friends seemed to be telling me that it was nice to have me visiting. I agreed.
The following morning brought over 30 birders up the trail, forming quite the crowd. I enjoyed visiting with a few folks, but the antics of a "stakeout" grew as 8:00am approached, then 9am. New people arrived, huffing and puffing from the long hike. Snacks were brought out, and the culprits of crinkling wrappers received scowls from the birders who were listening for the mute call note of the Aztec Thrush, who had not appeared. Tensions rose as more people came, and the dreaded turn around time came for more than one birder, who had to leave the birds and return to real life, looming outside the canyon. I was grateful I didn't have to leave. It was 9am, and the bird hadn't showed. I decided to hike up the trail and see if I could see anything. Maybe I'd flush the bird? Perhaps I could find the goshawk whose feather I saw earlier in the morning on the trail? Within 10 minutes, I flushed a Northern Goshawk, and returning to the stakeout spot I spotted... nobody.
The birders had disappeared, which meant only one thing. The Aztec Thrush had been spotted! I've chased many birds this year, and don't really get my hopes up about finding them until I see it. I was optimistic about seeing this bird, and remained so despite having just missed it. Running out of water and cell phone juice left me with no choice, I hiked out to re-supply in the afternoon. I re-strategized, and geared up to head back up the canyon. I birded the rest of the day, meeting a host of new characters, and running into two separate black bears right before setting up for the night. For the bears' protection (I'm not scared of Black Bears) I decided to sleep somewhere else rather then tempt them with a backpack full of food and toothpaste. A fed bear is a dead bear...
I don't know why I'm hesitant to admit I slept on the roof of my rental car. Maybe it's because I wouldn't sleep on the roof of my own car out of fear of denting the roof or sunroof, but it was a rental car and the inside wasn't comfortable. I slept under the stars and fell asleep to the calls of Whiskered Screech Owls and Mexican Whip-poor-wills.
I'm getting kind of lengthy here, so I'll summarize the next day: I didn't see it.
Mid-afternoon, I decided to re-prioritize. I asked myself, "Should I sit around and wait for this bird to show, or chase a different bird I haven't seen yet?" The answer was clear, and I headed out to see the Slate-throated Redstart. I picked up a friend I had met earlier in the day, and Evan and I headed East to find the Redstart.
When we arrived at the eBird pin, I immediately spotted a cairn marking the spot. After a few minutes of searching, and examining carefully the Painted Restarts, and encountering a small, Downy-like woodpecker, we spotted the Painted Restart feeding actively. It was high in the trees, and we anxiously waited several minutes for it to fly lower, which it did and the bird put on a nice show for us near its nest before disappearing into a thicket for the night. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountains, and although it was still light we set our cameras on the highest ISO possible to take grainy but identifiable photos. I wasn't too upset with the images I managed to make. As we stopped for a celebratory bite to eat, I was relieved that I chose to pursue this bird and abandon my Aztec Thrush stakeout. The Aztec Thrush hasn't been seen since...
I had to return my rental car the next day by noon, and was graciously invited to stay with a friend who I'd met at the Aztec Thrush stakeout. He picked me up from the airport in fine style (my first time riding in a Mercedes-Benz) and we returned to his home where I immediately showered, decompressed, and got caught up on multiple things. I didn't make my standby flight the next day, so we had several hours of birding in the morning on nearby Mt. Lemmon. Our target bird was the Olive Warbler, which was a new species for me for the year. That afternoon we retired to the cooler confines of the house as outside temps pushed 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Before I knew it, I was riding Alaska Airlines comfortably back to Seattle, with my dad waiting to give me a hug and cook me a salmon dinner. I am so grateful to Steve and Michele for hosting me, and helping to extend my Arizona trip by a few days! Thank you!
As I close my eyes in a place far away from windswept mountains and rushing streams, the day dream builds in my imagination like a storm, flashes of sights and sounds from a place stuck in the corner or left out of most maps. As I convert my Attu photos to black and white, I can hear the complex musical song of the Winter Wren raining down from the cliffs along Gilbert Ridge. My careful preservation of pixels as rocks and raindrops might help others to realize what a mysterious and fragile world we live in.
I've converted some of my images from Attu into black and white to replicate the historical images I've seen in books documenting the war in Alaska during WWII, when only black and white photographs captured the timeless beauty and texture of a land dotted with snow and sky. Viewing my photos in black and white somehow links me with these days gone by, when the runways were bustling with wartime activity and soldiers washed their hands after a long cold day outside. Turning my images into monochromatic snapshots helps me understand that this is, in fact the same place all of that history unfolded. Many lives were changed by the events that transpired here, just as my life was changing as I scaled mountains, crossed streams, reflecting and examining my own heart.
Now others can look through my lens at the rugged beauty of this island, the black and white tempting the mind's eye to fill in the color- making the landscape come to life, to imagine what it would be like to sink into the wet tundra and smell the sweet aroma of summer wildflowers. Maybe a seed has been planted inside your thought, to get out and explore the vistas of your dreams.
Here's what all of my birding friends have been waiting for: a bird report from Attu. It's been a whirlwind week since I returned to civilization and have had access to the internet, and I've spent most of that time chasing rare birds in Arizona, on top of trying to plan and schedule the remainder of my June travels, and keep writing my book while things are still fresh in my mind. Instead of sharing the content of my book, detailing each day on Attu, I'm providing a synopsis of the trip birds and what we did. You'll have to invite me out to dinner to hear the juicy details.
Birds: Alaska gave me 40 new year birds
Rarest bird: Far Eastern Curlew
Birds I missed that others saw: Pin-tailed Snipe, Eurasian Hobby, Solitary Snipe (saw distantly but no way I could identify it after it flushed and flew over bay) I found a Hawfinch and Siberian Rubythroat, but did not see field marks well enough to count them.
FAR EASTERN CURLEW CODE 4
Emperor Goose (Code 2)
Rustic Bunting (code 3)
Wood Sandpiper (Code 2)
Why do people watch birds?
The birding adventure of my dreams begins with a splash
Evan does breeding bird surveys in Utah and on his days off from work, ventured to Arizona to find new birds.