A Great Story about the Lesser Sand Plover

A Great Story about the Lesser Sand Plover

Learn everything as you go, and just go with it.
— Matt

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.


A Story of the Mongolian Plover

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...

Plate from artist Ian Lewington showing the Greater and Lesser "Mongolian" sand plover complex Ian is a talented artist, and more of his work can be seen at http://www.ian-lewington.co.uk/ 

Plate from artist Ian Lewington showing the Greater and Lesser "Mongolian" sand plover complex

Ian is a talented artist, and more of his work can be seen at http://www.ian-lewington.co.uk/ 

 

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.

A Snowy Plover (left) and Sanderling (right) rest in the sand behind a Brown Pelican feather on the beach.

A Snowy Plover (left) and Sanderling (right) rest in the sand behind a Brown Pelican feather on the beach.


THE MAN BEHIND THE PLOVER

Matt Lau found the Lesser sand-plover while conducting Snowy Plover surveys along the beach in California.

Matt Lau found the Lesser sand-plover while conducting Snowy Plover surveys along the beach in California.

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…

Birding is exciting... That’s a lame answer. For me it’s something that gets me away from reality. 

Learn about each different bird that you’re chasing, and it’s biology and ecology, and give yourself some context to that bird’s existence.


When [birding] stops becoming fun and you’re not learning, then maybe it’s time to back off a little bit, and take a break.
— Craig

I like being outdoors and seeing new places. I grew up in a boring midwestern area (in my view at the time) I’ve always enjoyed traveling and getting to new spots with different landscapes. Birds are part of that- everywhere you go there’s slightly different [birds] and it’s interesting to see the differences in different places.
— David

Hawaii Added, Listers Scratch Heads

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Hawaii Added, Listers Scratch Heads

 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. 

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October 16-21

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October 16-21

I’d love to go out there and positively get everything out there, but you just won’t.
— Dave

16 October

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...

17 October

Birding Summary: Went on a private pelagic to Farallone Islands and saw Blue-footed Booby

I've seen possibly the only Northern Gannet on the West Coast- twice - in different locations off CA

I've seen possibly the only Northern Gannet on the West Coast- twice - in different locations off CA

The booby enjoys a good head scratch. 

The booby enjoys a good head scratch. 

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.

Brooke

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. 


 

18 October

Birding Summary: Searched unsuccessfully to find the Yellow-green Vireo at Pt. Reyes

Female Black-throated Blue warbler was a fun surprise

Female Black-throated Blue warbler was a fun surprise

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! 

An Elephant Seal lounges on the beach at Pt. Reyes

An Elephant Seal lounges on the beach at Pt. Reyes

19 October 

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

 


MARIO

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. 

Birding is…

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. 


20 October Huntington Beach, CA

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!

 

I snapped a super-cropped Spotted Dove photo, just to back Laura up! 

I snapped a super-cropped Spotted Dove photo, just to back Laura up! 

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.

The Air Force flight demonstration team, the Thunderbirds were practicing for an upcoming airshow

The Air Force flight demonstration team, the Thunderbirds were practicing for an upcoming airshow

21 October  San Diego, CA

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? 

A flock of storm-petrels heads right for us- Can you spot the Least(s) in this photo amongst the Blacks?

A flock of storm-petrels heads right for us- Can you spot the Least(s) in this photo amongst the Blacks?


CAPTAIN DAVE

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! 

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October 9-15

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October 9-15


Recently I kicked it up a notch- maybe because I slowed down a bit, but mostly because the other big year birders have encouraged me and helped me realize it's more about the birds and birders, it's about living every day intentionally, and having an opportunity this year to do a Big Year that few others will replicate. After I returned to Seattle from Barrow I was ready to see some rare birds. Missing both Ross's and Ivory gulll in Barrow stung a little bit, as both birds are required to reach my goal of 750 species. Don't get me wrong; had an amazing time in Barrow and seeing Polar Bears made up for missing the gulls, but as a particular Facebook friend would remind me, I can't count count bears.

Sunday October 9th    Gig Harbor, WA    

It was great to be home, even for less than 24 hours. I managed to unpack and repack, enjoyed a home-cooked meal, and figure out some logistics with my car licensing as I find my new place of residence after the year ends. Eating a home-cooked meal and spending time with my parents was the highlight of my "down" time, before jumping in Dad's Jeep and heading down to Mt. Rainier and looking for some grouse.

This past week was unlike any other I've had this year. With that rationale, a different week deserves a different blog post. So, stepping out of my typical writing style I'll simply recount how I saw what I saw, and where this crazy adventure took me. Hopefully you enjoy it as much as I have.        -Christian

Washington

9-11 October               Slept at Home

Birding Summary: Saw 3 grouse species, including White-tailed Ptarmigan, Sooty Grouse, and Ruffed Grouse. It was a treat to meet and bird with owl guru, Khanh Tran. Having him as my birding partner-in-crime made searching for fancy chickens much more enjoyable! 

I couldn't sit in Seattle for long. There was low-hanging fruit growing on the bird tree- grouse ripe for the picking. I met Khanh, the best owl and grouse guide in the business, for an interview and birding expedition. I've shared his interview below. We enjoyed several fantastic hikes around the Mt. Rainier area, finding multiple owl and grouse species. I encourage you to get out with this expert birder- who loves a good challenge and has fun traversing the variety of mountainous terrain in search of elusive birds... and it pays off! Successful in my grouse search, cleaning up on 3 species (and my last code 1 bird for the year, Ruffed Grouse) I grew restless and started scheming about how to get down to California.

Northern Pygmy Owl, Washington

Northern Pygmy Owl, Washington

California

12 October    Slept in car near Moreno Valley          

Birding Summary:  Great looks at a Little Stint, and a lot of roadside birds while driving to AZ

Little Stint (right) and Least Sandpiper

Little Stint (right) and Least Sandpiper

I booked a cheap one-way ticket from Seattle to Los Angeles. The city of Angels gave me a heavenly deal on a rental car: about $20/day. I drove the heck out of that car for 3,030 miles! I started driving at night towards Arizona, stopping in a town close to reported Little Stint in California. Slept in back of rental car in an abandoned warehouse parking lot across from Jack in the Box. Sleep rating was 4/10.  The next morning, I drove a dozen miles and was staring a Code 4 Little Stint in the eye- what a neat bird!  I also had a great time talking and birding with Tom. Spent the rest of the day driving to Flagstaff, Arizona where I met a friendly police officer along the highway. No speeding ticket and no Lesser Sand Plover. Beautiful light and a herd of horses was a nice bonus to a peaceful evening.


I enjoyed the sunset and moonrise on the Navajo Nation while searching for the Sand Plover

I enjoyed the sunset and moonrise on the Navajo Nation while searching for the Sand Plover

Arizona

13 October        Slept near Flagstaff, AZ          

Birding Summary:  No Sand Plover; Highlights: Chestnut-collared Longspurs and American Avocets

A flock of American Avocets flies past in the warm early morning light. 

A flock of American Avocets flies past in the warm early morning light. 

I didn't enjoy my second night of sleeping in rental car. Sleep rating was 4.5/10. I promised myself I wouldn't sleep in the car the next night... Woke up before sunrise and scoured two puddles for the reported Lesser Sand-Plover, which hadn't been seen in over 24 hours. The bird simply wasn't there. I couldn't perform magic, or check around on every pond around the unfamiliar Navajo Reservation, so I left after photographing some avocets. Chances are the bird may still be around on a different wet area- who knows. While watching the Avocets, I noticed one bird was banded, and I'll look into the band numbers and info later. I interviewed several birders at this spot, (Sam and Bernie) and saw some birders who I'd met at other rare bird chases earlier in the year. 

This whimsical image is a flock of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, a fun treat to see anywhere 

This whimsical image is a flock of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, a fun treat to see anywhere 


14 October    Organ Pipe, AZ        

I could see Mexico's roads across the fence

I could see Mexico's roads across the fence

Birding Summary: Recorded owl vocalizations at night, looked for Ferruginous Pygmy Owl

Slept 50 yards away from my desert scrub spot from earlier in the year in Organ Pipe, on a concrete pad behind an outhouse. Woke up before light, hearing an owl. Was it a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl? You'll have to read the book... I birded Organ Pipe in the morning, then drove to Dateland, Wellton, Yuma, Mittry Lake, ending at night in Los Angeles National Forest. I checked old locations for Ruddy Ground Dove, a species I still need this year. I put some miles down today, and was ready to sleep by the time I reached the mountains above L.A. Glass on the ground kept me from sleeping outside, so I reluctantly slept in the car.

I found this guy at Quitobaquito, along the US/Mexico border. Any herpers care to ID? 

I found this guy at Quitobaquito, along the US/Mexico border. Any herpers care to ID? 


Yep, that's Black Bear, emerging from a bear-proof dumpster. Someone tell the bear...

Yep, that's Black Bear, emerging from a bear-proof dumpster. Someone tell the bear...

15 October    Los Angeles, CA

Birding Summary: I’ll coin L.A the land of introduced species! Parrots and Peafowl! (not-countable) Birded Bayfront Park waiting for Laura's flight, spotting hundreds of shorebirds.

Woke up with three bears outside my car, literally. I could hear their breathing, crunching on their food, and having a dispute with other bears. All during the night they visited the dumpsters in the parking lot, walking past my car multiple times. I shined my headlamp in their eyes to keep them wary of me. Drove through some winding mountain roads, spotting quail and raptors. Drove to San Francisco and picked up Laura in evening from airport, after birding the mudflats surrounding the airport. It was pretty cool to see Marbled Godwits fly in front of an A380. Storm blew in, dumping rain and probably pushing some birds around.


MEET THE BIRDERS

I'll be adding interviews to this section from the dates during this blog post. Check back and see the updates- I simply can't upload everything at once due to the bandwidth!

 

KHANH

Khahn is a fantastic birder. Friendly, engaging, and an amazing attention to detail. He knows his quarry intimately, specializing in birds of the Pacific Northwest where he lives. He's great about sharing his knowledge and pictures in the online birding communities in Washington and Oregon. I had the chance to meet and bird with him recently, and thought I'd share some of his interview with you. 

 
I think grouse are very under-appreciated.
— Khanh
 

What makes you different than other bird guides?

I specialize in are tougher high-elevation birds- some of the tougher grouse and owls. I’m consistent at finding them. I think being persistent and really having a sense of curiosity and studying them- that’s been the most valuable for me.

I think grouse are very under-appreciated. Most birders don’t put the time and energy into studying them- knowing their habits, and finding them. they’re kind of a mysterious and challenging group of birds. 

Why do you bird? 

Birding is fun and addicting for me. There’s a technical aspect of it. Studying the sounds, the field marks, it's an intellectual challenge. There's an artistic quality- photography and photographing the birds. Birding is art to me too. There's a creative part, combining the photography and the art. Lastly, there's a spiritual part to birding. It boosts my morale, I get a high off it. It's physically challenging- I like to be outdoors.  


Khanh with a White-tailed Ptarmigan on Mt. Rainier. We saw three on our trip up above treeline on the snow-covered slopes- a real treat! If you'd like to bird with Khanh, look him up on Facebook Tweeters, or contact The Birding Project! 

Khanh with a White-tailed Ptarmigan on Mt. Rainier. We saw three on our trip up above treeline on the snow-covered slopes- a real treat! If you'd like to bird with Khanh, look him up on Facebook Tweeters, or contact The Birding Project! 

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Above the Arctic Circle

Above the Arctic Circle

I stood on the Arctic shore, staring a distant polar bear square in the eye, through my binoculars. 

Fall Warblers

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Fall Warblers

Deep in the heart of downtown St. Louis 

is a sprawling 19th century Gardenesque park. (Ask me what 'Gardenesque' means, and I wouldn't be able to tell you but I promise it's a real thing) Donated by Henry Shaw, hardware entrepreneur of the 1850's, Tower Grove Park stretches almost 300 acres in downtown Missouri. Full of winding paths, bushes, pavilions, and a lily pond, this National Historic Landmark is also an important "migrant trap" or resting place for migrating birds each Spring and Fall. As a student in high school, I often went birding with my friend and mentor Brad Warrick in Tower Grove Park when the birding was particularly good, or a good bird showed up- perhaps a Black-throated Blue Warbler. I've met many birders for the first time in Tower Grove, birders whose names I'd seen on MOBIRDS, the state birding Listserve. It was always nice to put a face to the name, and stand beside a complete stranger, our binoculars aimed at the same bird, equally in awe of the warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and tanagers which were in our neighborhood on their way to and from Central and South America. Minutes of silence would pass in observation before we'd introduce ourself to one another, to find we already knew each other from our posts online.

Now, I know most of the birders I meet in the park, and each morning birding there is like a high-school reunion. I enjoyed sharing hugs, stories, and catching up with several old friends as well as making some new ones. Let me introduce several to you:

WENDY

"Birding is "in the moment". That's just really what it is for me."

Wendy shared her thoughts about birding being "in the moment". I like that idea and certainly have thought about our conversation since!  

Wendy shared her thoughts about birding being "in the moment". I like that idea and certainly have thought about our conversation since!  

MICK

"Birding is almost too much fun!" 

I enjoyed visiting with birders in Tower Grove Park, some new, others old friends. We marveled at the spectacle of Fall migration, which brought hundreds of birds into the park to enjoy. It was a spectacular sight to share with others.


BIRDS OF TOWER GROVE PARK

Tower Grove Park is home to birds year-round, including this fully-flighted male Wood Duck.

Tower Grove Park is home to birds year-round, including this fully-flighted male Wood Duck.

Ovenbirds are usually seen on the ground feeding in dead leaf litter, but a dog walker flushed this one up into a small tree. 

Ovenbirds are usually seen on the ground feeding in dead leaf litter, but a dog walker flushed this one up into a small tree. 

This isn't an Ovenbird... Can you tell what species of thrush this is? Comments are open!

This isn't an Ovenbird... Can you tell what species of thrush this is? Comments are open!

A young male Cooper's Hawk keeps a watchful eye over the stream, full of birds moments before.

A young male Cooper's Hawk keeps a watchful eye over the stream, full of birds moments before.

A Blue-headed Vireo has a "spectacled" appearance, taking a second to check me out.

A Blue-headed Vireo has a "spectacled" appearance, taking a second to check me out.

Not all of my photos are sharp and in focus, and that's ok. Warblers like this Cape May are quick!

Not all of my photos are sharp and in focus, and that's ok. Warblers like this Cape May are quick!

A Yellow-bellied flycatcher forages deep in the foliage for flying insects. It will winter in Central America, between southern Mexico and Panama. 

A female Blackburnian Warbler bathes in a stream before returning to the tree tops to feed.

A female Blackburnian Warbler bathes in a stream before returning to the tree tops to feed.

She carefully preens her flight feathers, making sure they are in top shape before taking flight.

She carefully preens her flight feathers, making sure they are in top shape before taking flight.

A Magnolia Warbler snags a small caterpillar from a crevice along a Cypress branch.

A Magnolia Warbler snags a small caterpillar from a crevice along a Cypress branch.

The few mornings I birded the park, trees were dripping with warblers. I've never seen it so saturated! At some times, I could see 20 warblers at once. It was a couple of special days to see 50-60 bird species in a morning, right in downtown. Although the light wasn't ideal most mornings, I managed to make some nice images (and many not-nice blurry photos too) and I wanted to share these with you.

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I Do!

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I Do!

After a beautiful wedding ceremony in Houston, Christian sets his sights on the Variegated Flycatcher

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A gamble after Gambell

I stepped off the plane, more tired than I should have been for a travel day. My hypnotic, trance-like state of travel was instantly broken by the ringing noise as my ears adjusted to the cacophony that was the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. Sirens blared, lights flashed, and the engines of the Boeing 737-400 Combi aircraft idled at a dull roar, as we deplaned outside onto the tarmac. I wasn't in Gambell anymore.

 

The inside of the airport was slightly less assaulting, but just as busy. I wove around passengers in the gate area and walked briskly to the nearest men's room, where every urinal was taken. Minutes later I checked the monitors for departing Seattle flights, the closest one had left a half hour ago. I was sure there'd be more. Walking further down the hall I found an empty row of seats across from a gate where people were lazily sitting around waiting for the aircraft to arrive. I dumped my backpack, laptop bag, and carry on, greedily taking up half the row of seats.  A quick check on my phone showed the flight loads looked oversold all day to Seattle, so I knew I wasn't going anywhere soon. Facebook notifications began lighting up my phone, so I logged on and looked at my news feed. The first item on my news feed was from the ABA Rare Bird Alert:

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The accompanying photo was clearly a Eurasian Sparrowhawk, which would be the second time one had been seen in Adak, and this time the photos were not questionable at first (or second) glance. I scanned through the comments discussing the ID and I wondered how long it would stay on Adak. My train of thought was interrupted as a voice came over the speaker: "We apologize for the short delay, and are currently waiting for our plane to arrive before we begin boarding for Adak..."

 

I couldn't believe it. My stomach did a somersault. Could I... Wait a second, this wasn't the plan. I needed to get home to Seattle, and then to Texas for Kevin's wedding. If I could... What if...

 

I picked up the phone to make a few phone calls, and to check the weather on Adak for Sunday. If I could switch my standby ticket I was using for my Seattle flight and go to Adak instead, I would be the only person to be able to chase this bird. Something inside me pushed me forward, calling me to go to Adak. Part of it was the possibility of re-finding this bird, and some of it was making a split-second decision I knew I would regret at the end of the year, if I didn't try. I knew that re-finding a migratory raptor would be hard, but my wanderlust burned within and I couldn't sit at the airport all day. I had to get to Adak. Phone calls complete, it cost me $.38 to change my ticket- I put it on my credit card.

 

To be continued...

 

This excerpt from Christian Hagenlocher's upcoming book My Life in Birds is a brief preview of the full account of his trip to Adak, birthplace of the winds. Stay tuned for another excerpt, photos, and blog posts from Alaska! 

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Two Week Update

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Two Week Update

It's been just over two weeks since I arrived in Gambell on the small prop plane flown by Bering Air. Since then I have had a truly unique Alaskan experience living in the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. Since my arrival, some things have changed while many things remain the same.

 

There's been some significant turnover in birders on the island. We've gone from nearly 30 people birding on Gambell to approximately 12. I've seen two different birding tour groups come and go, and met a handful of independent birders who arrived in Gambell with high hopes of adding to their robust life list of North American birds, but left with the same number of empty boxes on their checklist. Having less birders means there are less people looking for birds, but with unfavorable winds there hasn't been much to discover anyways. The two Siberian Accentors have been the highlight so far... 

 

Since I arrived, the wind has been the biggest factor in seeing new birds on St. Lawrence Island. Today the wind is gusting up to 40 miles per hour from the North, which is about as far from ideal as it can get.

Today marks the first day I haven't birded, since it is just too windy to see land birds. They are reactant to flush, and the windchill makes land birding unpleasant. Instead, I went to the school and sat in on some science classes, helping students with Biology and in the process, learning about their culture.

 

I come from a background of teaching high school Biology at a private prep school, so I wasn't sure what I would find in the Gambell school. Similar to my high school, all grades K-12 are all taught under the same roof, and class sizes are small. When I stepped inside, the sense of community and school pride was strong. I was greeted with a smile and welcomed with open arms into the school community. Last week I enjoyed the time I spent in the science classroom with Mr. L and his students, and with poor winds for birding in the forecast, I returned today for more. In Biology I had the chance to share photos of some of the birds I've been seeing around the island, and students were eager to share the Yupik names for the birds, as well as their stories with the native wildlife they know intimately, since subsistence living is necessary for survival in this part of Alaska, and is crucial in maintaining their cultural heritage.

 

On Wednesdays students have an early dismissal. School ends at 2pm and all grades file into the gymnasium and sit in the bleachers with their class, or have the option to join their families. A row of folding chairs is set up in the middle of the basketball court where six seated drummers begin pounding on their round animal-skin drums, with thin curved mallets that appeared to be made of a rib or sliver of walrus tusk. The young boys, maybe 5 years old sprinted out to half court when the drumming started, and they stomped their feet and moved their hands in rhythm with the beat. Later, girls and women got up to dance, their fluid hand motions and coordinated movements telling a story. The strong cultural ties within this community was evident as elders and kids followed the same movements, and in the bleachers, feet tapped along with the drum beat, including my own. I felt like a part of things here.

 

The Internet connection has been in flux recently, possibly due to the high winds and heavy use on many devices (iPads, cell phones, and laptops). A couple days ago our router was borrowed, and now we are on a replacement that is equally as slow. I've been awake early in the mornings and late at night to try and stay up to date on things, which has been difficult. I'd like to thank everyone who has contributed to my GoFundMe page, which is allowing me to extend my visit in hopes of better weather in the coming week. I hope to get thank you notes out soon, since my account email isn't functioning with the limited bandwidth. If you're reading this and have contributed to my GoFundMe page, thank you so much! Your support has allowed me to stay as long as I have already. Also, I'd like to mention that a generous donation of air miles helped get me up to Alaska on this visit, making my Gambell trip possible. If you or someone you know has air miles they'd like to donate before they expire, I will put them to use before December! Please email thebirdingproject@gmail.com for more info.

 

I'm truly grateful to have such a strong community that has offered support so far this year!

 

There are many stories, birthday surprises, and great photographs I still have to share, but we will have to catch up after I'm off the island. I'm detailing these experiences carefully in a book, which I've spent the last few weeks working on. It's coming together! 

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Through the Fog

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Through the Fog

 

For birders, life up here on St. Lawrence Island revolves around the weather. The daily talk always includes the weather, both here and across the Bering Strait as well as a few select locales in the Lower 48. Words like millibars, dew point, westerlies, and marine layer are common breakfast talk, as people speculate what forecast is most accurate. The truth is, no matter what the forecast says people still go birding. When it's too foggy to bird, people talk about birds, their lists, and the weather- don't forget the weather!

I feel out of my league most days up here. I'm surrounded by an elite group of birders whose decades of birding experience spans at least twice my own age. Some reminisce about seeing a Bachman's Warbler when younger, others revel in the "glory days" of their dozens of visits to Attu. At least I can hold my own in a conversation about Attu birds, having been there earlier this year. Most of the time I just listen.

I've learned a lot being surrounded by such serious birders. I make mistakes sometimes, calling out then wrong bird name or a mid-identifying an alcid flying directly at us on the morning seawatch. It's hard to do in front of people who have seen these birds for decades, and I myself only having spotted them for the first time this year. For much of my life I've been looked to for expertise on birds, but now I turn to others and glean their knowledge. It's quite humbling and I'm learning a lot through quiet observation. I'm learning about what qualities of a birder I want to emulate and which ones I don't. There's good examples of each here. Sometimes I just keep my mouth shut and let somebody else spot the bird after I've seen it and made my own notes mentally, learning from the ID discussion that ensues. 

 

Recently the Asian rarities have been almost non-existent, with the exception of two Siberian Accentors that showed up during a brief west wind. That was a life bird for me, and one I've wanted to see since the Rare Birds of North America came out with an Accentor on the cover. In January, the same species was seen and chased by the other big year birders in British Columbia, while I was near the other International border. Like many other birds this year, I'd swallowed the pill of acceptance that I wouldn't see one this year. Naturally, I added this unexpected bird to my list, happy to actually see something on Gambell that hours before had been in Russia, flying "back in time" from the future to grace us on this side of the international date line, with its presence.

 

With less distractions, I've started to really look at the common birds with more discernment. I have been noticing subtle differences in Snow Bunting plumages, especially in female and first year birds. It seems like this complex is poorly understood, and this region of the world is certainly close to breeding populations of both species, and hybrids are easily overlooked especially by birders who are only looking for a rare Asian bird they still covet for their life list.

"Its still too early for McKays" I hear  frequently from the resident expert and birding guru, Paul Lehman when I look hard at Snow Bunting photos. Laura Keene and I still need McKay's Bunting, but I'm not interested in counting a hybrid or confusing juvenile bird for my lifer McKays. I want to learn Snow Buntings well enough so when I see a McKays it will be obvious, even if it is a juvenile or female. There's no telling what may arrive first. I also am trying to take a stab at the birds that others motor past without a second look. I'm photographing several Snow Buntings each day that look different than what the Sibley Guide to birders illustrates (Sibley states there's a high degree of variability but the illustrations fall short of the birds I'm seeing), Maybe I should take a hint and forget about it... That could be the easy lesson they're trying to teach me! As long as birding is slow, I have to work and improve my skills at something, and learning to "shrug and forget" is a skill I've mastered already on the hybrid gulls of Gambell. That will make a great blog post for when I can upload photos.

Yesterday morning's peregrinations floated through my head as I cruised down the beach on an ATV, flushing droves of Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. Should I leave Gambell and spend money birding elsewhere? Is this really turning out to be a bad fall, with nothing showing up? The pessimism is tangible. At meal times I sit at a fold-out table, eating my ramen with real beef jerky for seasoning and listen to others bemoan the lack of birds here. Being my first time, the bar isn't set very high. I'd be happy with a Steller's Eider. I understand more now than earlier this year how variable birds can be. Sometimes you don't see them. It's a fact of life. And right now we are just not seeing them, and that's ok with me. I'll plug away at my interviews and keep studying snow buntings. All all I know, is the M&Ms in trail mix make everything better.  

Reflections on Pace and Place

The recent hurricane that blew rare seabirds to Arizona has been quite the discussion topic recently, as some of those birds would be "lifers" for several birders, or "state birds" at least. The magnitude of this event has been amplified since we haven't seen anything spectacular up here, several people lament not being in Arizona this week. However, it seems to me that there are always birds that one can't chase- it's a fact of birding. Especially a storm petrel on a sewage pond, or any tubenose stranded inland. I'm well-learned at this point of the year of not dwelling on the bird you can't chase- there's been dozens of them. That's what separates Olaf and John from me. I can't chase a Yellow-legged gull in Newfoundland or a Common Pochard in Kodiak. I'm watching the "listers" lists grow along with everyone else as national newspapers pick up on the competition. My list continues to grow as well, but at a much slower pace, which is ok. I've seen nearly all the common birds in North America, along with a healthy dose of rarities- more than some people see in a lifetime! I'm still impressed when people tell me they've seen 500 birds or 700 birds in their life- that's a huge accomplishment! I can relate to people who have traveled across the continent to visit the diverse ecosystems and far-flung corners of the country; I've visited most of those locations myself. The magnitude of what I've accomplished this year begins to dawn on me when I flip through a bird book and each page brings a specific memory of seeing that bird- who I saw it with or what stage of my year I was in when it was encountered. Most importantly I've spent time with a wide variety of people who all care about birds in their own way. The insights I've gained through my interviews have helped me immensely as a birder. I've accumulated a vast collection of stories and experiences, words of wisdom and advice, which I'm spending the slow hours reviewing, transcribing, and editing. Instead of dozens of layovers, hundreds of nights in hotels, and a sizable chunk withdrawn from a bank account, I have a story. I have an enriched year full of experiences, new friends, and life lessons. Like the ending of "The Big Year" film, I've already won. And it's only September! Weather, a lack of Asian birds, or the attitude of others can't affect my year. I'll go to bed tonight grateful, and embrace the work needed to have a great day tomorrow.

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North Winds: A Gambell Update

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North Winds: A Gambell Update

 

Today marks my one week anniversary of my arrival on Gambell. I plan on celebrating the same way I have each day- by birding of course! I'll probably drink some Crystal Lite and heat up a bowl of ramen for a celebratory dinner. 

 

For the majority of the last week the winds have been from the North or Northeast. This translates into slow birding. What birders on Gambell are hoping for is a West / Southwest wind, with a little rain mixed in to push migrating birds out of the sky forcing them to make landfall on the island.

 

Other Big Year birders may not be updating their blogs for two reasons: virtually no new birds, and super-slow internet. It's so slow, the Google homepage takes minutes to load. I've been writing my updates on my iPhone (hence some auto-correct mistakes sneak through the editing process) and publishing them at 4am or standing next to the router and trying to publish on my iPhone. Sometimes photos can be uploaded but I have only tried via Instagram which compresses the photo much smaller for upload. I don't see internet speeds changing soon...

 

The majority of birds we are seeing each day by abundance are Short-tailed Shearwaters, Crested Auklet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Snow Bunting, and Horned Puffins. Least abundant birds are probably North American land birds, which we have found several of over the last few days:

American Tree Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Bluethroat

Northern Wheatear

 

We've seen a trickle of shorebirds, including a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Gray-tailed Tattler which have both been here the entire week, and several stray Long-billed Dowitchers, Pectoral Sandpipers, and Rock Sandpipers.

 

Numbers have fluctuated a little this week, with a brown juvenile Gyrfalcon showing up for a couple days, and a Peregrine being seen off and on.

 

Gulls are usually Glaucous, Glaucous-winged, Slaty-backed Gull... This species is a scarce but regular visitor on Gambell. Identifying adult (beyond 3rd cycle) is straightforward but the majority of birds here this year have been 1st/2nd cycle birds- with many of them showing Herring traits mixed in making an interesting quandary. I'm still a gull novice, often birding with others like Paul Lehman and Greg Scyphers who have years of experience identifying gulls. Many gulls out here deserve a shrug, as they can't be identified confidently. There's no competition out here that I'm involved in, except with myself. I count birds I see that I can identify on my own with the highest degree of certainty. Photographs help clinch questionable birds, but you can't photo every bird you see. There's about 30 birders out here, some with tour groups, others independent, some are long-time friends, others prefer to bird alone. People see birds others don't. This week I've birded with Olaf, John Weigel, and Laura Keene for hours- we are all out here for the same reason- to cooperate and see Asian vagrants. Last night I sat together with Olaf and Laura and we had a great discussion over dinner about some of the animal encounters of our year: rattlesnakes, bears, whales, and the noticeable absence of mountain lions.

 

Marine mammals have been slower, but on sea watch we've seen Steller's Sea Lion, Minke Whale, and Gray Whale. Land mammals have been more numerous, with feral dogs joining us on our flushing lines through the boneyards, and various voles and shrews. I've seen arctic fox sign but haven't spotted the culprit.

Looking ahead, change is in the wind. Say a prayer, cross your fingers, or do whatever you do to help conditions improve bringing new birds to the island. Some people are staring endlessly at the ocean, and I fear they may just walk in and disappear...

 

Joking aside, I'm having the time of my life out here. Talking with the people, hearing birding stories, and searching for new "island birds" has been a fun challenge. I found two Arctic Terns and the American Tree Sparrow yesterday, which was rewarded with raised eyebrows from Paul, both fall firsts for the the year. I guess I'll have to get back out and keep looking! Something good will turn up soon, I can feel it!

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Life on Gambell

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Life on Gambell

I've returned from half a day of searching for rare birds, with no luck. With cold hands I struggle to type a blog update on my iPhone which may not even upload due to the archaic Internet connection. I haven't been on Facebook, and can only sporadically get a photo onto Instagram. Maybe the wind has something to do with it? Legend has it the winds were born out on the ocean here, sweeping across the rest of Alaska and the lower 48. It's been cold and windy here on Gambell the last few days, with few differences to separate each day from the last. The 20 mph North wind is not conducive for Asian rarities so morale isn't high, especially with the birding tour group that is only here for a week.  I've been taking some notes and putting the details into a book draft, so I'll remain brief but do my best to share with you what it's been like on Gambell since I arrived.

The winds may be cold, but the tension between two big year birders is icy also.  Spirits and shoes were dampened on their last visit to Gambell and there's some history I'm sure I am unaware of. This is the second time the four of us have been in the same location, the first being the tiny airport at Adak as John, Laura and I left Attu and Olaf arrived. I am on good terms with all three, and in the last three days have birded with each one independently from the others. I've seldom seen all three at the same place as the other three simultaneously, since someone always manages to sneak out the door or walk on the other side of the road when they spot the other "alpha male". Perhaps it's to avoid conflict or drama- who knows. Today Laura Keene and I spent the afternoon searching for Steller's Eider, which we both saw this morning on our sea watch but not well enough to count for me. Paul Lehman called the ID at a distance and I got on the birds immediately, but they just looked like distant brown eiders to me. I couldn't see any significant field marks, but photographed the birds anyways. Hopefully in the coming days I'll be able to spot more and get a better view, in order to add it to my year list and really feel good about it. Laura had seen them earlier, but wanted to come help me find them and hopefully spot an Arctic Loon to add to her year list. We took an ATV down the beach, spotting Pacific Loons, Harlequin Ducks, Crested Auklets, and hundreds of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. Birding has been slow with the north wind, and no Asian migrants have been found in over a week. Red-throated Pipits that were present a few days ago are now harder to find. Most birders here (maybe 28-30 in total) are out looking each day for rarities, which seems like a lost cause due to the wind direction. My morale is hard to break, since I'm not solely after the rare birds. I have lots of people to interview, including three of the top 5 birders in the ABA area, with life lists surpassing 900 species. These guys have been to Attu dozens of times collectively, and have seen many first North American records. Each of them is here for the same reason- add more birds. The stories they have are amazing. I cannot wait to share them with you all!

I have had the opportunity each day to sit down and talk with some of the native Yupik people here on the island. I've been trying to make it a priority to talk with someone new each day. Today I spoke with two individuals, one who was a village elder. He was born in the 1930s on Gambell and his tribe is of Russian origin. He recounts the free flow between people across the Bering Strait, as well as reindeer when the strait freezes in the winter. He told me about hunting, and growing up before the Soviet Iron Curtain isolated the flow of people and tradition between here and Russian tribes. None of the existing buildings on Gambell were here when he was young, in fact the village was at a different location than it is now. I had many questions about the history and archaeology of the area, as I have daily encountered diggers who rely on excavating artifacts and fossilized ivory to sell as income. Yesterday a man about my age brought in a large piece of mammoth tooth he found, wanting to sell it to me for $120 USD. This is still very much a subsistence culture, where the people hunt whales in spring, pick berries in the summer, and hunt walrus and seals later in the fall and winter when sea ice brings mammals closer to the island. They use many parts of these animals, and it's common to have carvers come into our hotel in the evenings showing us their carvings made from walrus ivory and fossilized bone. 

There is much more to share, however an Ancient Murrelet was just reported off the point. I think I'll go out and take a look. You never know what will turn up out here! 

 

 

 

 

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Coast to Coast

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Coast to Coast

Yesterday mid-afternoon I landed in Gambell on a small twin-engine turboprop plane, flown by a youngish pilot sporting Carhartts and a blue flannel shirt- the official uniform for the Alaskan bush. I was one of three passengers, the other two were also birders and seasoned veterans of birding Gambell and Attu, back when it was run by Attours. I sat next to several hundred pounds of cargo, spending most of the 81 minute flight leaning on a box I later examined more carefully which read 'EGGS'.  In the rear of the small plane, a stack of pizzas from an Asian restaurant in Nome filled the cabin with a slight aroma of lukewarm pie. I was glad I'd saved my second Qdoba burrito for my layover in Nome, which I hastily downed publicly in the one-room airport with no shame.

The village of Gambell, Alaska

The village of Gambell, Alaska

The day had literally flown by. Hours earlier I had been at my Washington home with my parents, before boarding the second leg of an Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage from Seattle, less than 12 hours after landing in Seattle from Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina. As I sat on the Boeing 737-400 it dawned on me that I was now traveling by air, a luxury I'd dreamed about for thousands of miles from the driver's seat of my Subaru for most of the year. This trip, from Raleigh to Nome was made possible by a generous friend and prior colleague who donated air miles to The Birding Project, with instructions to go get more birds. Well, friend- I'm doing it! There's no better place in North America to spend the coming weeks in search of rare birds. What started as a dream, of far-flung islands in Alaska shaped by winds and time, has turned into a year-long tour of these places, not just visiting and flying home but experiencing the place- living there. By the end of the day I had seen over 20 species of birds, none new for the year but I fell asleep last night with a deeper appreciation for this place called Gambell. I'd walked under the arched jaws of a Bowhead whale skull, weaved through ancient bone pits of walrus skulls, whale vertebrae, and seal ribs. I'd talked with locals, trying to sell ivory carvings to make a few bucks. I'd birded with two friends also doing a Big Year. I'd made new friends too, who I'll be walking alongside in the coming weeks, through the challenging terrain trying to flush rare birds, blown by the winds off their teams-Siberian migration route to this Island. The days are quickly growing shorter, and familiar migrant birds are departing. We will see what tomorrow brings. One thing is for sure:  I love it here! Adventure awaits, my friend. I can't wait to share it with you. 

 

Christian will be updating his blog while on Gambell this fall with accounts of his birding adventures. With modest internet speeds, photos will be challenging to upload so he will have to paint a picture in your mind with words. Enjoy following along!  

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Debi Shearwater

Debi Shearwater

DEBI 

In Hollywood's 2011 movie The Big Year, the seabirding guru "Annie Auklet" portrayed by Anjelica Huston is loosely based on Debi Shearwater. I use the term "loosely" because unlike in the film, Debi did not actually pull a knife on Sandy Komito, who was portrayed in the flick by Owen Wilson, a self-centered birding machine who would out-talk and deceive anyone to get what he wanted: more birds. This week I had the chance to bird with the cap-wearing sea bird expert, on two trips out of Monterey, California. The hat Debi donned today was an Island Conservation cap (visit islandconservation.org to learn about preventing extinction of island species) She received it for the work she has done in wildlife conservation, an area receiving just as much attention and effort from Debi as her birding trips- if not more.  I learned that Debi's testimony as a plaintiff was instrumental in stopping the 30-year Eagle Take Rule, which allowed wind farms to incidentally kill Bald and Golden Eagles on wind farms for 30 years without penalty. The judge’s rule was called the Shearwater Decision. The Golden Eagle is actually Debi’s favorite bird; she shares her life with the eagles, which she knows by name- around her home in the foothills of California. 

Out of all the different groups of birds in the world, how did you settle on seabirds? 

I first started birding when I lived in Texas. We used the Peterson Field Guide in 1972.   Many of the plates in that book are black and white illustrations. Warblers were colored. I was all excited about warblers. After a couple of years, I thought what about all these black and white birds? If you read the texts, a lot of the birds lived in open ocean. I thought “Who does that?” 

Briefly I went to the East Coast. There I went on my first pelagic trip, and I loved it. Instantly, I loved it. I met a man who lived in Monterey, and I knew I was going to Monterey, I was married to an Army officer at the time. He said, “If you like sea birds you'll love California.” I did not want to go to California. I thought California had too many cars and too many people. I still think that,  and it does.  

So as soon as I got to Monterey, 10 days after arriving, I went out on a boat. It was unreal. I walked down to the harbor, and the ENTIRE HARBOR was covered with fulmars. Inside the harbor: everywhere. I thought, "Wow, this is pretty easy sea birding!" We pulled out of the harbor and I saw my first Rhinoceros Auklet, Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murres… I kept thinking, this is REALLY EASY! 

So after the first trip,  it was only a half-day trip in April 1976. I started talking to my friends who told me it was a big problem to get out on these boats. I thought, “Why doesn't someone just organize it?” So I organized a couple of trips for locals out of Santa Cruz. 

Two years went by and I thought I was going to stay in California. This was 1978. I had a trip I organized, and we went out and saw a Streaked Shearwater, a seriously-rare Japanese bird. Then I thought someone should set up and organize these trips. I published a schedule and people came. That’s how it started. The whole thing started in my living room. Everybody that went on the boats, they were my friends. Afterwards they would come back to my house for dessert and coffee. Then it got bigger and bigger- people came and I didn't know who they were. 

 

How has pelagic birding changed as technology developed? 

 Sea birding has changed a lot. First of all, when we started there wasn't a field guide for seabirds. Somewhere in the early 1980’s Peter Harrison’s sea bird book came out. That started to change everything.Same thing for marine mammals. Do you know how I learned my marine mammals? From a NOAA publication 444. It was all black and white photos of dead animals on beaches. Then more field guides started coming out. Another big change was digital cameras. Social Media.

 

In the beginning we put a bucket overboard with the thermometer. Now I subscribe to a service called Terrafin. It maps the surface temperature of the ocean and helps find upwelling areas where warm and cold water meet. Marine forecasts are better now than they used to be. 

 

What advice would you give someone who has never been on a pelagic (seabirding) trip? 

I’d start in Monterey. There’s nothing in the United States that’s better than Monterey Bay. Nothing! 

It’s a half-moon shaped bay. It’s protected from the prevailing Northwesterly winds by the Santa Cruz mountains. It has a submarine canyon that’s as big as the Grand Canyon. Deep water is cold water. When everything in the ocean dies, it falls to the ocean floor and becomes detritus [dead and decaying organic matter] The combination of winds and currents causes something called upwelling, and that deep, nutrient-rich cold water comes to the surface and feeds the whole entire food chain from plankton to zooplankton, to blue whales. You can see the whole food chain in one day in Monterey.  There’s no place better than Monterey. Marine ecologists consider 5 places in the world ‘the most productive places’ many of them consider Monterey #1. 

Birding is…

Birding is fun… Birding is whatever you make it. It can be whatever you want to make it. That’s what I tell people. If you want it to be all-consuming in your life, it can be. If you want it to be just a casual hobby, it can be. If you want it to be something you do for photography, it can do that. It can be whatever you make it. I think it’s fun. 

 

 

Check back to see an upcoming post on Pelagic Birding- what it is, where you can go and do it, and what you'll see! 

Searching for a Stint

Searching for a Stint

A rare shorebird makes an appearance in Northern California. Re-locating it would prove to be rather difficult. 

Nathan

Nathan

A wise Cornell student shares his thoughts on birds and birding 

Josh

Josh

I love being surrounded and immersed in all aspects of nature.

INTERVIEW

How did you get started birding?

I've always really been into nature- every aspect of it. We moved up here when I was 4. I think birds being the most observable form of wildlife really helped me focus on that. When I was 12 years old, I discovered that people actually go birding on trips. That was a new concept for me. That's when I really started, when I was 12 years old.

What's your favorite aspect of birding?

I think birding is a great door into exploring all aspects of the outdoors. Plants, and trees and insects. Going out to Glaicer Park seems liek a really full experience for me, because I'm seeing it all. Experiencing nature with all of your senses in every aspect that you can. Appreciating every organism. Feel this huge picture of where I'm at in the world. I think that's my favorite part.

What is the strangest experience you've had while birding?

What comes to mind is interactions with other people- mostly non-birders. Especially out in Montana where there's not a lot of other people that go birding. You run into people that think you're up to no good, or think you're spying on them. It's really interesting to deal with and explain what you're doing. Usually those kind of people usually don't see the birds or even know they are around. I've been confronted by someone who was wondering what I was doing and I said I was looking at birds. They blatantly said "There aren't any birds here".  I think there are birds here, actually...

Birding is...

Beautiful. I really think it's just beautiful. I love being surrounded and immersed in all aspects of nature. 


FROM CHRISTIAN

I met Josh exactly 8 years ago in 2008, on the same mountain pass we birded together today.  Logan Pass is the apex of the Going-to-the-Sun road which traverses Glacier National Park from Lake McDonald to St. Mary Lake. The 6,646 summit is the highest point in the park reachable by car, which makes some easy and fun alpine birding to be had by everyone!

I lived in Glacier National Park at that time, a newly-minted college freshman, who in search of summer adventure, had talked my way onto a Harlequin Duck research study in Glacier. It was quite the eventful and memorable summer- I nearly died the first day of work, and had some personal revelations that led me to abandon my enrollment at University of Alaska, and return to Principia College for the start of my Sophomore year that fall. Throughout the summer, I met quite the cast of colorful characters, and found myself birding with Josh, Andrew, Dan, and a newspaper reporter atop Logan Pass looking for White-tailed Ptarmigan. The same bird lured us here today, which would have been a new addition to all of our year lists. Needless to say, we didn't find them but had an excellent time trying both mornings, and enjoyed exploring the park's various habitats. Josh is a talented ear-birder, and he quickly and accurately pointed out many neat birds to see. (I'll leave the list and photos for a separate blog post) 

Andrew

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Andrew

Re-united after 8 years of growing up, artist and friend Andrew joins me in Montana's beautiful Glacier National Park

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