Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Target Birding Code by Matt Brown

With the DaVinci like precision of a master architect, Matt Brown my birding friend from Patagonia, Arizona,  designed Tuesday bird outing to maximize every bird in every location from the San Rafael Valley to Florida Canyon and Madera Canyon to the Tubac Bridge in Santa Cruz, and a rest stop or two at the Santa Rita Lodge.  Matt's influence didn't end there, as stops today at Patagonia Lake State Park and a return to San Rafael Valley and the Tubac Bridge just added to the wonderfulness of the past 3 days in south eastern Arizona.

Monday was a great day of birding.  We saw some great birds.  But when it comes to specific targeted species, the last two days were amazing.  We were up at the crack of dawn, O-Dark-30, in military parlance.  We needed to be up in the canyon, which sounds odd to me, at first light in order to see the Baird's Sparrow.  The bird is secretive and sometimes difficult to find unless you hear it sing, and is usually found on its breeding grounds in North Dakota.  It Winters in Mexico but can also be found in south east Arizona late in the year, saving many birders the time and expense of hunting it in the summer.  That includes me.
But the bird loves to stay low in the grass and only comes out at first light to sit on fences and warm up.  That only takes an hour or so, so the window of opportunity is quite narrow.  The only way to get this bird, as Greg Miller once suggested, is to really want it.  I really wanted it.  So I was up at 4:30 Wednesday morning and on the road by 5am to drive down to meet Matt at the Patagonia Post Office.  We headed up a long series of gravel roads, in the morning gloom, hoping to catch a Montezuma Quail in the headlights, but it was not to be, either on the way up or down.  When we arrived at San Rafael the only birds to be seen were Eastern Meadowlarks and some Savannah Sparrows.

Perhaps we were a little early.  Funny how the bird guides insist in these early starts and then are always surprised when there are no birds around.  However in this case it was better to be a little early and wait for the Baird's rather than come late and not see them at all.  And see them we did.  It didn't take long for one, then another Baird's to jump up on the barbed wire fences to warm themselves after a chilly night.  We saw our first through the scope, then had two side by side.  I was finally able to walk up close enough to photograph one right next to a Savannah.  Not even 8am and we had our first bird.

We were next going to try for the Chestnut-collared Longspurs.  They usually fly in flocks and land near a body of water for a drink and quickly fly out again, only to return a few minutes later.  But not today.  Sure Matt was hearing a couple overhead, and I could kind of make out their song, but nothing was coming within even binocular range.  We had a tight schedule and were only able to give them about a half hour to show.  Which they didn't.  Longspurs would have to wait.

Our next stop was Florida Canyon and don't be caught calling it Florida as in the state of Florida.  Bad form here in Arizona.  A few days ago I was in Pennsylvania and said I'd be searching for the Rufous-capped Warbler on Wednesday in Florida,(as in the state), Canyon and was quickly chastised for not using the Spanish pronunciation.  Well, excuse me.  It is correctly spoken, phonetically, as "Flor-E-da Canyon."  They pronoucne canyon the American way, so lucky I didn't call it, "Flor-E-da Can-E-on."  Oh the egg on my face had I done that.

It was a long hike up the canyon,(yes I know, it's all backwards), past a man sitting on a rock looking at nothing and perhaps contemplating everything, to the Warbler's habitat.  It actually didn't take more than 5 minutes to spot the bird.  Actually two birds.  Matt was pointing toward the ground, trying to get me to look where he was looking at one bird, but I already had this beautiful Warbler in my sights.  No messing up this identification.  The Rufous-capped Warbler has a distinctive look.  Full breeding plumage, even in the winter.

That done we headed back down the canyon in search of Black-chinned Sparrows.  A gentleman birder passing by said he had seen quite a few not too long ago, so we stayed in one spot, played a tape of the Black-chinned song and what do ya know, the Sparrow showed up as though he had been invited to the symphony.  We watch the bird for a while but we were late for an important date with a Crissal Thrasher.  No rest for the weary birder.  We were on a mission, and it was timed with military precision, so off we went to Madera Canyon.

On the way in we stopped at a bridge and played Crissal Thrasher song and in short order were hearing one.  We headed to the sound and soon found it high in a tree.  I could see it okay through my binoculars, but Matt ran back to the car to get the scope and told me to keep my eye on it.  I did for about half a minute, until it flew and hid.  These guys don't like to be seen.  Rather flighty and secretive.  Just not sure how he know I was even looking at  him from that distance.  Alas, yet another thrasher that was camera shy.  The only one I have a photo of is a Curve-billed Thrasher and the Crissal has an even curvier bill than the Curve-billed.  Who names these birds anyway?

Thrasher ticked off the list, we were now in search of Arizona Woodpecker and a couple of Flycatchers.  And because birding is a community sport. a nice couple, who had just seen a male Arizona up in the woods and a female at the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge, where we stopped for snacks, gave us directions to where the bird was last seen.  The key being last seen.  We walked for about an hour without once seeing one, though we did hear a couple.  Well, Matt did.  We just couldn't chase it down.

We still wanted to find Flycatchers, but needed to head back toward Patagonia, if we were going to get a chance to see Lawrence's Goldfinches.  I suggested taking an extra few minutes down at Santa Rita Lodge, and hope that the Arizona Woodpecker would come for a visit.  I sat on the bench overlooking the feeders while Matt went down to the road to look for Flycatchers.  Nothing was happing.  I needed an Arizona Woodpecker and wasn't going to leave without one.  There just wasn't time for luck.  So, I used the Force.  What could it hurt?  It certainly wasn't something to pray over, and I am not wont to pray anyway.  I was sitting there and a little voice said, "Use the Force."  So I focused all my energy on an Arizona Woodpecker showing up at the feeder.

I closed my eyes.  Willed it.  Opened my eyes.  Nothing.  Well, what did I expect.  Then, while I was looking to the left, an Arizona Woodpecker flew into the suit feeder from the right.  Brown back, no mistaking it.  And then I got a look at the red on the head.  A male.  I got photos.  I watched it.  Waved Matt up to see what I had brought,(I didn't admit using The Force).  We stayed until the Woodpccker retreated to the woods and it was back in the car and a long drive to the Tubac Bridge and Lawrence's Goldfinch.  I had chased this bird on a bridge in California with no success.  I knew Matt's good karma would help this time.  After all, we were having a pretty good day and we had found 5 owls together on previous visits.

We walked the bridge, played Goldfinch calls and waited and waited.  And waited.  Lesser Goldfinches showed.  And we waited.  We were losing light.  It was time for the Force again.  And, wouldn't you know it.  Nothing.  Matt took his bird calls down below the bridge and played some more.  I saw a bird with Goldfinch flight characteristics fly into a nearby tree.  I heard what I thought was a Lawrence's but Matt was also playing the call.  Though I didn't think it was his.  As it turned out, I was right.  It was a Lawrence's Goldfinch in the tree above.  Matt quickly found it in his binoculars but it took me quite a while to spot it.  It was tucked behind a branch.  But once I saw it, no doubt, I had my Lawrence's.  Matt grabbed his scope and we got a great close up look at the bird.  I just couldn't get any kind of photo of the bird.

That didn't matter.  We had seen six great birds.  We had hiked many miles, drove hundreds more and had a enviable list for one day: Baird's Sparrow, Rufous-capped Warbler, Black-chinned Sparrow, Crissal Thrasher, Arizona Woodpecker and Lawrence's Goldfinch.

I deserved a celebratory dinner and adult drink.  So I took myself out to Chilli's and had a spiked lemonade with dinner and it was yummy.  Needless to say, I was too tired to write anything.  I had trouble getting to sleep.  A lot had happened that day, so I let myself sleep in until 5:30 this morning.  I didn't have to be up in San Rafael Valley quite as early to see the Longspurs, and in fact, a little later might have been better.  I drove slowly up to the valley, hoping for a Montezuma Quail and thought I had something, but it turned out to be a phantom, quail shaped stick I was stalking.

However, when I did arrive up at the little ponds, it wasn't long before I was hearing the Chestnut-collard Longspurs and very quickly thereafter was treated to a Longspur Show.  A flock would swoop in, 25-30 birds, dip down to the water, get a drink and then fly off.  Occasionally they would land, mostly in the grass, but were nearly invisible even when Landing on the edge of the water.  Brown birds against brown dirt.  I was able scope them for moments at a time but photos were near impossible.  I will have to go through them all later to see if there are any good ones.  However, there was no doubt that I had seen a typical flocking behaviour of the Chestnut-collard Longspur.  Great start to the morning.

I new Matt was being treated to breakfast by a rich, retired super-elete birder, down in Patagonia, so I headed back for coffee and a chat.  I got to meet this birder who knew as much about The Toronto Blue Jays as he did about all the real birds he had seen in his life.  And he has seen a lot.  I never got his name but very few people have seen more birds than he.  In fact, he has seen more than half of all the birds there are to see in the world, over 5000.  Yet he was impressed, not only by the recent moves the Toronto Blue Jays have made, but by the fact I had seen 567 birds so far this year, having just started birding with this Big Year.

As cool as that was, the news was going to get even better.  Matt knew that an Elegant had been coming to Patagonia Lake State Park the past few years to overwinter.  I had searched for this bird on two occasions along the Carrie Nation Trail in Madera Canyon with no success.  And just in the nick of time, as I had to leave for the airport at 7pm, the Trogon was being seen as of at least yesterday along the Bird Trail in Patagonia, just 20 minutes away.  I wanted this bird.  Matt warned me it wasn't going to be a "slam dunk," as there were lots of trees in which the Trogon could hide, but if I did find it, it would probably sit up for a photo or two.  I was psyched.

After exchanging a few more pleasantries and talking a little more baseball with Matt's friend, I headed off to Patagonia with directions to the probable location of the bird.  Drive into the park, make a right turn at the T-intersection, drive to the end of the trailer camp grounds.  There are 4 parking spots.   Park and hike the Bird Trail Past the lake.  Walk along the creek and you will see a bridge made of logs.  Further down there is a second log bridge.  The Trogon has been seen somewhere between the two bridges not far from the creek and on either side.

Matt was right on.  It was no slam dunk.  It wasn't a long walk to the creek, and it wasn't particularly hot, and the birds along the way were nice to look at.  But there were no other birders around looking for the bird.  I was alone on the trails, tiptoeing past the cow pies, walking along the creek, crossing from one side to the other.  I was texting Matt for some advice and he told me to keep an eye out for branches no higher than 10-15 feet off the ground.  I looked and walked and looked.  It wasn't looking promising.  It was like looking for a needle-bird in a bird-stack.

I had been walking for nearly 2 hours.  I still had an hour or so before I had to think of getting out of there when I just glanced to my left and there, not 15 feet away, at eye level on a horizontal branch was the most colorful bird I have ever seen.  It was like a camera flash going off in my face.  I was momentarily a birder caught in the headlights.  Then I started quietly shouting, "Don't move, don't move, DON'T MOVE!"  I didn't even have to get my binocular up.  I grabbed the camera from my holster, and started clicking away.  The Beautiful, colorful and elegant in every way, Trogon stayed and eyed be curiously for about 2 minutes, and then flew off.  Luckily into another closeby tree.  I got a few more looks and then he was gone nearly as quickly as he appeared.

There was no one to High Five.  That was my thirteenth new bird in 3 days.  Species number 568 for the year.  It was a great day of birding.  I just had a few loose ends to wrap up before heading to the airport.  I needed a photo of the Lawrence's Goldfinch at Tubac Bridge and had to check as spot to see if a Rufous-backed Robin had shown up for winter yet.  No on the Robin, but a big yes on the Goldfinch photos.  In fact, a flock of six landed on a dead tree at the bridge.  They were kind of far away, so the photo is not great.  Before I left I met another birder who said a Lewis's Woodpecker had been seen at a nearby golf course.  I headed over and search for an hour until it got dark, but no luck.

So here I sit in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, on Thanksgiving, getting ready to drive to Connecticut for a Thanksgiving Goose.  Barnacle Goose, that is.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Next Blog...

This is the final entry of my 2012 Blog...

Once I started chasing rare birds, and it picked up considerably in the second half of the year, I would tell people, "I'm just here for the bird," meaning the specific one that had been reported, such as the Pink-footed Goose or Tufted Duck, say.  So in the spirit of that ethereal idea, you can, if you wish, join me in my future birding adventures at: justhereforthebird.blogspot.com

Thanks to everyone who has followed my 2012 Big Year and thanks for all the great comments and congratulations throughout the year.  I would never have made it without your support.

Friday, 4 January 2013

These Are Some of My Favourite Birds

The tough birds I found all on my own are some of my favourites, such as the Northern Lapwing, Nutting's Flycatcher, Tufted Duck, Barnacle Goose, and especially the Pink-footed Goose.  I loved spotting the Sooty Grouse, White-headed Woodpecker, Rufous-backed Robin and Western Spindalis all on my own.  I loved all the Flycatchers, especially the elusive Fork-tailed Flycatcher and the beautiful Vermilion Flycatcher.  The Hummingbirds were particularly beautiful, including the Plain-capped Starthroat I saw at the Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast and the Allen's at Babe's place.  If I had to pick a favourite duck, it would be the Northern Pintail.

And I want to some day see all the owls.  Not just in North America, but everywhere.  I never realized how many species of owls there are,(224), and how beautiful they can be.  I loved the Barn and Boreal Owls.  And I won't forget the Whooping Cranes or the satisfaction of finding the Audubon's Oriole in Texas and the MacGilvary's Warbler after a long search on a chilly day in Boston.  And I could look at Waxwings all day.  Very elegant birds.  But there was an even more elegant bird.

All three species of Puffins probably came a close second to my favourite bird of the year.  I saw Tufted and Horned on a pelagic out of Seward, Alaska and Atlantic Puffins in Newfoundland.  They were great birds all, wonderfully cute, but I was taken to them, rather than finding them on my own.  So, they end up a close second.

The winner as my favourite bird of the year, for its rarity, the time spent looking for it, the satisfaction of finding it and it's shear beauty, has to be the Elegant Trogon.  I looked for it on two occasions up at the Cary Nation Trail in Madera Canyon, both alone and with Matt Brown.  And then, on my last day in Arizona for the year, one was spotted in my favourite birding spot in North America, Patagonia Lake State Park.

I rushed over there, and had about 3 hours to find it before I had to drive back to Tucson to get to the airport and catch a flight.  I walked the stream bed for nearly the entire three hours when I turned my head in the exact right direction at the exact right time and there it was, not 10 feet in front of my nose.  And it neither of us got spooked.  I took photos, the Trogon posed for said photos.  It was one of the more exciting birds of the year, though finding the Rufous-backed Robin got me pretty pumped too.

Below, the Elegant Trogon, and some photos from the last few days of the year, followed by some of my favourite birds in the last half of the year.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Breaking Down The Big Year

One of my favorite things is making lists and categorizing things.  That's why I love baseball, it's all about the statistics.  That is why I wanted to do a Big Year, rather than just go look at birds.  I've always looked at birds and have loved photographing them for over 20 years now, but never really knew more than a handful of species names, mostly Blue Jays and and Cardinals.  The idea that you could go out and make a great, big, long list of birds, seeing and identifying new ones nearly every day for one calendar year, in a wide range of habitats, is what sent me over the edge.  When I saw the movie, The Big Year, I knew I had the personality traits of all three of the men depicted in the movie.  I knew I would be not just a bird watcher, not just a birder, but an extreme birder, a Lister.

So, by the numbers, here is a look back at everywhere I went and everything I saw in 2012.  Frustratingly, two birds appeared in Florida just after I left; both had been high on my list for getting in Florida in 2012, the Thick-billed Vireo, which I am reasonably sure I saw the previous day, and was confirmed just after I left, and the LaSagra's Flycatcher which I was two days late for in March.  Drat.  But time to move on, and as such, I present my 2012 statistics:

605: Total Life List, including Dusky Grouse in Montana, Roadside Hawk in Belize and Red-billed Streamertail and Jamaican Mango in Jamaica.

601: Total Species Seen and heard
596: ABA Countable Species seen and heard

547: Life birds added in 2012,(my previous Life List came from spending an evening identifying birds in photographs I had taken over the years).

  17: States visited

   3: Provinces visited

139: in Florida   (190 for the State)
110: in Arizona (167 for the State)
 93:  in California
 45:  in Texas
 20:  in Alaska
 12:  in Nevada
   5:  in each of Louisiana and New Jersey
   4:  in Massachusetts
   3:  in each of Minnesota and Pennsylvania
   1:  in each of Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri and West Virginia

147: in Ontario  (235 for the Provence)
    8: in Newfoundland
    2: in British Columbia

45 Species of Wood Warbler,(I am not sure I knew they even existed before I began my Big Year).

38 Species of Emberizids,(This includes Sparrows, Towhees, Buntings and Juncos, and I had thought                   nearly every bird was just a "regular sparrow").

36 Species of Flycatcher,(I had only ever heard of the Nutting's Flycatcher from "The Big Year").

19 Species of Woodpecker,(I had only known of 3 previously).

16 Species of Owl,(I had never seen one outside a zoo prior to this year).

15 Species of Hummingbird,(I had only seen 1 in North America and 2 in Jamaica prior to 2012, but they have always been my favorite birds to watch and photograph).

21 Rodent-y Things,(see Tab above).

I also flew and drove untold thousands of miles, walked and biked hundreds miles,(probably close to a thousand), boated hundreds of miles,(and was seasick on 3 of 6 boat and ferry trips).

I don't want to think of the money I spent.  So this is where I will stop.

I shall think of my favorite birds of the year, but Puffins are up there, along with Pink-footed Goose and Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

More to come...

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

It Was a Very Good Year

When I was 52, it was a very good year.  It was a very Big Year 
full of lots of great birds, on cold winter days and long summer walks.

And now, it is done.  I birded from sunrise on January 1 until it was dark on December 31.  I set out to do something no one else had ever done, begin birding with a Big Year.  For 366 days I was a bird watcher possessed.  There were times when I was standing in the middle of a field on a hot July afternoon in Texas, with sweat snaking down my legs and into my shoes, asking myself what the heck I was doing, and there were times where I was jubilant with the triumph of finding the one bird I was searching for after hours of scanning the trees or ponds or empty fields.

And I met the most extraordinary people along the way.  Birders, each and every one, are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.  I never met a birder I didn't like.  There was Fred in Hamilton who was one of the first birders to take me under his wing, back in January.  The professional guides I hired along the way, Melody Khel, Matt Brown, Eddie Bartley, Hutch Hutchenson and Ken in Alaska.  I met the kindest of strangers, sometimes the middle of nowhere chasing rare birds posted on NARBA and e-bird, such as Hemant, whom I ran into in Texas and Arizona and Edna, Ray and Sandy from New Jersey.  And finally, John Hargrove, doing his own Big Year at the age of 69, with whom I birded on two pelagics on opposite coasts, and on the final days of the Big Year down in Florida, by phone and text with his wife Beverly, as we chased down the Western Spindalis, but missed the Thick-billed Vireo,(actually, crazy as it might sound, I believe I did see the vireo the on the morning of the 30th in Fort Zachary Taylor, where I had started the day looking for White-crowned Pigeons, but failed to realise what it was and didn't get a diagnostic photo of for confirmation.  Carl, whom I met later that morning at the Key West Botanical Gardens, found it yesterday, photographed and identified it.  I was already in Maryland when I found out, and John and Beverly were too far away from the Keys to chase it down themselves).  Oh, and I shouldn't forget Sandy Komito, who was nice enough to keep in touch via e-mail a few times during the year with advice and inspiration.

I know that sometimes I was inaccessible to friends, coworkers and family who must have thought I was out of my mind to just pick up one day and devote myself to a single minded goal at, sometimes, their expense,(especially Sue who had to put up with this obsession for 366 days herself).  But in the end I have no regrets and have learned and seen so much and accomplished more than I set out to do when this all began.

Quite Frankly, the day I decided to attempt a Big Year, 300 species was the goal, just birding here in Ontario and wherever I travelled for work.  By the end of January I was hooked and knew that this quest had become bigger than I imagined and more important to me than I would have thought possible.  It was the near impossibility of seeing 600 birds that pushed me into going to Alaska, Arizona five times and Texas on four occasions.  To the Florida Keys, the Dry Tortugas and the rice fields of Louisiana.  To Newfoundland in July and California in January and September.  It drove me to take long pelagic boat trips where sea sickness made me question why anyone would put themselves through such agony just to see one more bird.

And speaking of one more bird, my final birding trip of the Big Year was to Cape May NJ to find a Dovekie.  I flew from Miami on the morning of the 31st to Baltimore, where I had left my car, then drove to Lewis, Delaware to catch the ferry to Cape May and Sunset Beach.  I did not get sick on the hour and half ride and was treated to an amazing show of Gannets and Scoters.  I enjoyed just watching the birds so much it didn't really matter that, as the sun set on my big year, I didn't see the Dovekie.  What mattered was that I never gave up.  What mattered was that after 12 months of chasing, of just being there "for the bird," just seeing the birds that were there to see on the ferry and at the beach, was satisfaction enough.  Sue, and a few others that view "listers" as birding pariahs, would be proud of me, I think.

That doesn't mean I will stop chasing.  Not by a long shot.  Another birder I met this year, Andrew, who did an Ontario Big Year, e-mailed me back, after I congratulated him on his year, saying that my goal for this next year should be to see 50 species I missed in 2012.  He said it wasn't his idea, but those were just the rules.  I will confine the chasing to inexpensive local trips and birds close to where I am at the time for the next few years.  Then, when and if one day, I have sufficient time, money and birding knowledge, perhaps when I am closer to 65 than to 55, I will go out  and break Sandy Komito's record,(if Sue lets me, that is).

So, as I wrote in my last blog, I end the year with 596 ABA countable birds, plus 5 that those pesky folks at the ABA have deemed not wild enough to list.  The only birds I had seen prior to 2012 that I didn't see this year, were a Roadside Hawk and Dusky Grouse, and two Jamaican Hummingbirds.  Could I have seen more?  Yes.  If I knew a year ago today, what I know now, I'd have not made at least a dozen stupid, rookie mistakes and would have easily passed 600.  I made way too many tactical errors that cost me a dozen species, at least.  Starting out, I had no road map to follow and didn't have 30 years of birding experience most birders have when they throw themselves into a Big Year.

In the end, I hope this inspires people to take the leap from just casual birdwatching to birding, and will serve as both a road map and a warning as to what they might be getting themselves into.  There is a cost, both in the pocket book and in your personal life that goes along with this kind of quest, but in the end is worth every dollar spent, every day spent in the field and, in my case, all those nights spent sleeping in my car.  I will have more to say tomorrow and in the days that follow, and put up some of the photos I have taken the last week that I haven't had time to sort through.  Oh, and I'll submit my list to the ABA and see if I made it in the top 10 of North American Big Year Birders.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Putting a Positive "Spin" on Things

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Blanche DuBois, A Street Car Named Desire

And it was no truer than today, as Beverley, the wife of John who is about to win the 2012 Big Year, helped me find accommodations in a camp ground last night so I didn't have to sleep in my car on the side of the road and end up in jail.  Instead, I slept in my car in a secure and protected campsite right next to the washroom and shower facilities.  Beverly also advised me as to where she saw the Western Spindalis in Key West Botanical Gardens, so I didn't have to end up spinning my wheels, so to speak, this morning.  

So, a lucky break last night and another lucky break this morning in the botanical gardens, as I met Carl Goodrich, one of the birders who discovered the Spindalis.  Nothing new to him, he's seen them many times before in the Bahamas and Cuba as well as here in Florida.  He showed me all of the trees the bird has been seen in and we searched together for an hour without finding anything.  So we split up.  He took the inner depths of the park and I went back to where he had seen it yesterday, along the boardwalk.   And as I walked along the boardwalk, looking into the big Fig tree, an olive-drab bird alighted on a branch in the next tree, not 10 feet from my face.  

I didn't even need binoculars to identify what might have passed for an odd, boring little bird, had I not been specifically looking for a female Western Spindalis.  As I brought my camera up for what would have been an amazing photo, it flew across the boardwalk and disappeared into another tree.  It called a couple of times and that was also a means of confirmation.  There was another birder present, Bo Howes, who checked his field guide as I checked my eBird App to doubly confirm it.

I went and found Carl and together we chased it from tree to tree trying to get photographs.  This was the third day Carl has come to photograph the bird without success, so I don't feel too bad about missing the photo myself.  I was just thrilled to have found it on my own.  At the start of the year, after having seen the movie that got all this going, there were three birds I wanted to see this year: Nutting's Flycatcher, Pink-footed Goose and Western Spindalis.  Well, four if you include the Xantus's Hummingbird, but my trip for the Allen's kind of emulated that movie experience.  So in point of fact, I got them all.  

Before we parted company, Carl gave me a tip on where to see a White-crowned Pigeon.  I've heard that before but over a morning of birding, I came to trust him.  He sent me up to Key Largo and told me I'd likely see one flying over.  He was right on.  I saw my first White-crowned Pigeon almost exactly where he said I would.  A good morning of birding resulted in birds number 594 and 595.  I spent the rest of the day looking for and not finding White-winged Parakeets, Red-whiskered Bulbuls and Nanday Parakeets.  Late in the day as darkness enveloped the Miami area, I might have heard and possibily seen the shadow of a Nankeet, but I had no tape of it's call to reference it against and the bird was silhouetted against the night sky.  

No worries. I will end the year with no fewer than 596 birds for the ABA area, plus 5 non ABA birds, giving me 601 in total.  I will also leave Florida, having seen 189 species of bird here, this year.

Is there an award for Rookie of the Year in birding?

Tomorrow is a bonus day.  Because of leap year, December 31 is day 366 of 2012.  So I might as well keep going until tomorrow evening, when the sun will set on my first Big Year.

Good night, from Miami, and thanks to everyone who has helped and put up with this crazy adventure.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

From Maryland to Key West in a Day, with Nowhere to Stay

I am sitting in a McDonald's where my considerable luck has finally run out.  I had been lucky to get the Allen's Hummingbird with relative ease yesterday morning, after having survived some white knuckle driving down there the previous evening.  I even got a great dinner for under ten dollars at a roadside dinner.

My luck continued as I drove from Pipersville to Kent Narrows and I was scoping the cove behind the Holiday Inn Express by 12:45 yesterday afternoon.  The weather was nice and the sun kept popping out, and within an hour I had finally caught the Tufted Duck in my scope.  Trouble was it wouldn't sit still.  For the 20 or so minutes that I was observing it, it kept diving, never staying in my scope for more than 10 seconds at a time.  I had been told that it was doing exactly that earlier in the morning, when another birder had come to view it.  When I arrived, the clerk behind the desk took one look at me and said, "You must be here to see our celebrity female Tufted Duck."  

By about 2pm most of the birds, mostly Scaup and Ruddy Ducks, had moved off to parts unknown and I was unable to relocate the Tufted Duck.  Though it was not too cold, nearly 3 hours standing in 32 F was beginning to get me shivering on the inside.  My hands were warm from hand-warmers in my pocket and I had good warm boots, but it was the chill in my chest that sent me into the hotel to book a room for the night.  But it was worth the chill, as in addition to the Tufted Duck, I was treated at times throughout the afternoon, to flyovers by a Northern Harrier, fly-bys from a Belted Kingfisher and a "swim-by" courtesy of a cute little Muskrat.

I had to be out the door at 4:30 this morning to catch a 6:55am flight to Charlotte, where I was scheduled to wait until 6:20pm for a connecting flight to Miami.  Well, I wasn't going to sit around the airport for 8 hours, so I inquired about a stand-by flight that was to leave at 9:55am.  Once again, O, Lucky Me.  A couple didn't show up for the flight so there were two seats available, in First Class.  Myself and another stand-by gentleman snagged them and I was in Miami by noon.  Trouble was, I wasn't able to reserve a rental car on line the night before.  No worries.  When I got to the Enterprise counter they were able to give me a compact car and I was off and running to Key West for the Western Spindalis.

And that is where my luck ran out.  Though I got to the Botanical Gardens after they closed, Mary, one of the women who works there, allowed me in to search for the bird, from about 5:15 to 6pm.  Alas, she was not informed as to where the bird was.  John and Beverley Hargrove had actually been there that morning, seen the bird and left directions to it at the Visitor's Center.  I looked until it started getting dark, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, only resulted in male and female Key West Chickens and an orange cat.

And of course, I have no where to stay tonight.  Homeless again.  However, I know now,exactly where to find the Western Spindalis in the morning, and while waiting for the Botanical Gardens to open tomorrow, will search around Key West for White-crowned Pigeons in and around Fort Zachary Taylor.

By 11am I should be heading back north and if my preparation pays off, have a good chance of finding a Nanday Parakeet, and a slimmer chance of Red-whiskered Bulbul and White-winged Parakeet.  So I sit now, at 593 for the year.  If I get very lucky on Sunday and see all 5 target birds, I will head north with 598.  The Dovekie in New Jersey would be 599.  That leaves one Wild Card Bird to show up between Key West and sundown on the 31st, where ever I might be then, to reach 600 ABA species for the year.

It could happen...