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...

Babe's Hummingbird

For a few moments there, I felt as though I had walked into a scene from the movie, The Big Year. In the movie, and in real life, there was a Xantus's Hummingbird in Gibson's British Columbia, a very rare Mexican visitor to the pacific coast of North America, seen at a feeder in a residential back hard. The movie depicted a lovey, white haired woman who was happy to have folks from all over the world come to her home and view the rarity, and who enjoyed friendly conversation with the visitor.

On Thursday afternoon I set out, by car, from Toronto to within an hour or so of Pipersville, Pennsylvania, so I could get an early look at the Allen's Hummingbird frequenting a feeder in in Babe Webster's backyard on Stump Road. Pipersville is about 30 minutes off the nearest highway, and as it turns out, only six miles from Peace Valley Park, where the Pink-footed Goose is still residing. Fact is, this wayward hummer was there when I had come to see the Pink-footed Goose, but for some reason wasn't on my radar.

Driving through the small towns leading to Pipersville, probably isn't much different than driving through Small Town British Columbia, and when I arrived at the specified address on Stump Road, I didn't have to wait long to see a kindly, white haired woman out putting food in her feeders, in the back yard. I drove partly up her driveway, got out and introduced myself. It was nearly like when Steve Martin's character, Stu, met the homeowner in The Big Year. Se was friendly, talkative and showed me right to the best viewing spot for the Allen's. Babe could have been the woman from the movie.

But there was a difference. My humming bird host has birded for and lived in the same housr for nearly 53 years, and was on Attu island at least once with Sandy Komito. She shared stories of her lifetime of birding adventures and I shared stories of my first year birding adventures. She was fun to talk to, admitting that at one point in Attu she broke down in tears, having stuggled with the weather and biking, asking herself what the heck she was doing in such a desolate place. While we chatted, we did, every so often, we remember to look up at her deluxe hummingbird feeder and view the Allen's as it came in for breakfast. And this little guy dines in style. This is indeed Babe's pampered baby. The feeder is kept full with warmed sugar water and even has a heat lamp built in. Though Babe is quite fond of her visitor, she would prefer it head back to the southwest and warmer weather sooner than later.

When this bird originally appeared back in November, it was thought to be a Rufous Hummingbird, and it had, in fact, arrived 10 years to the day that Babe had a Rufous in her back yard. However, a savvy and experienced local birder, scott Weidensaul was able to catch it for banding and identification,(mist netting, I assume), and examine and measure it in hand to determine it to be a 1st year male. I had been too early in January and too late in in the fall to get this guy on the west coast, so consider myself lucky to have counted year bird 592 in a Pennsylvania backyard. I signed her guest book,(I was visitor number 206), before I left and considered myself lucky to have met one of the more interesting characters in my year long quest.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Happy Holiday Birding

I am heading out on the road one last time this year.  I've been busy with the holidays at home and haven't been out chasing since the Rough-legged Hawk.  Sue and I did spend Christmas Day birding at Humber Bay East and James Gardens, but mostly I've just been home and deciding how to finish off the year.  I was unable to book any flights with my air miles to take me anywhere where I could get 9 more species this year, so 600+ will have to wait for another year.  Most of the flights I could book from Toronto would have me leaving on December 30 and returning sometime in January.  No thanks, Aeroplan.

The only flight I could get with my air miles, was from Baltimore to Miami.  So I will drive down to Maryland,(there is a Tufted Duck there), and on to Miami where maybe the Western Spindalis will hang around just for me.  I would also like to see a White-crowned Pigeon.  On the way back I will check out some birds in New Jersey and perhaps be in the right place at the right time for a Dovekie.

There has been no sign of the Smew that visited Whitby Harbour this time last year.  That would have been a great bird to end the year with, since it was the first bird I chased, last January 1.  Oh well.  Another year in another place perhaps.

Humber Bay East: 

Backyard birding:

Back Yard Squirrelling?

 Christmas Cheer from Amber and friend...

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Kind of a Rough Day

It was one of those days.  I was late getting out the door this morning, barely made it to the Amherst Island Ferry on time, nearly got my car stuck in a rut on the side of the road, got lost in Owl Woods, and would still be there if not for having marked my parking spot on my GPS.  I also ran out of gas on my way back to Toronto, after a brief side trip to see if I could find the Western Tanager that was in an Oshawa Park.  Didn't.

I did have a brief look at a Barred Owl in Owl Woods, but spent the better part of three hours driving the roads in search of one of four Rough-legged Hawks that had been seen on the island in the last week.  Finally, with half an hour before I needed to get to the ferry docks, I found a hawk in a tree out in a field.  I had time to check it out with my binoculars and establish it was one of the Rough-legged Hawks, and then went to grab one of the cameras I brought with me to record the momentous event.

The first one I grabbed, our Canon with the 35x zoom lens that would have taken a good photo at that distance,  had a dead battery.  My Sony zoom lens wasn't long enough to get any kind of photo at that distance, and the sun was almost exactly behind the bird anyway.  Plan C: I grabbed my scope, and would get a digiscope shot with my iPhone.  Alas, before I even had the tripod set up the bird flew.

So, all in all, it was a rough day.  But in a good way.  I'll trade being lost in the woods and running out of gas for a Rough-legged Hawk any day of the year.  Especially when the days of the year are running down to a precious few.  591 birds down, 9 to go for 600 with only 9 days remaining in the year.  At this point 600 would be gravy.  With family get-togethers over the next two days, I will have to run full steam afterwards, until the sun sets on New Year's Eve.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Hoary Hawk-Owl, Birdman!

The journey to see the Northern Hawk Owl actually started in mid October, when I drove up to Hilliardton Marsh to meet Bruce Murphy, the Bird,(banding),man himself, to see a Boreal Owl.  It was worth the 5 hour + drive to see that bird and meet a some really nice and committed birders.  At the time I asked about Northern Hawk Owls and Bruce promised to help me find them when they arrived in late December.  And one,(maybe two), did during their annual Christmas Bird Count.  I made plans to go see it, along with Hoary Redpolls coming to his feeder at the banding station.

Sure there were Northern Hawk Owls closer to home, including in Peterborough, but it's not always about where the bird is, but who you get to see the bird with.  And I have been looking forward to returning to Hilliardton Marsh in the daylight, and meeting up with Bruce and Maggie, whom I also met at Boreal Owl watch.  Turns out, in the daylight, Hilliardton Marsh looks very similar to the Zax/Zim Bog.

We had met a little earlier at the Husky Station in New Liskeard, Ontario, which I was lucky to even get to, as their own web site had directed me to a Mac's Milk five Kilometres away.  I ended up getting there early, so enjoyed toast and coffee in the diner.  Soon after, Bruce arrived, followed by Maggie.  She had also been at the Yellow Rice and Rails festival but we never crossed paths out in the field.

I followed in my car and after scanning the trees in the fields Bruce stopped his car and got out.  I saw no sign of a Northern Hawk Owl or any life.  But Maggie had spotted it in a tree about 200 yards away.  We got a great look at it through my scope, but non of the pictures were that good.  I dropped a pin on my iPhone map so I could find my way back later.  

Meanwhile we went back to the banding station and stood freezing in the cold, watching Common and Hoary Redpolls coming to the feeders, along with Pine and Evening Grosbeaks.  Bruce and Maggie would point out the few Hoarys from the large flock of Commoners. The Hoary Redpolls, had an overall more "frosty" appearance.  Over the course of twenty minutes or so, I got to see a good handful of the Hoary Redpolls mixed in with the rest of the flock.  They were cute, and would fly in as a group, stay for a bit, like seniors on a day trip to the mall, and with seemingly no provocation, all leave for the trees in an instant.  

Once we were too cold to stand there any longer,(both Maggie and I commented on how our thumbs were particularly cold), and had seen plenty of the Hoary guys, we set off in search of a local Great Gray Owl, that has been sitting up fairly close to the road.  We drove to all the sights it had been seen, but no luck on this day.  I didn't need it for my year list, but any time you get to see a Great Gray, you want to take the time to check it out.

Afterwards Bruce and Maggie bid me farewell and I had thanked them profusely for their time, I drove back, with the help of my GPS App, to the spot where the Hawk Owl had been and arrived just on time to see it dining on a delectable little mouse.  I enjoyed the dinner show and got to take a few good photos, including a nice closeup through my scope using my iPhone.  Up close, it was even better, as I could really see what a beautiful bird the Norther Hawk Owl really is.  The sky was overcast, so the pictures don't really show what I saw through my scope.  I stayed until it flew off onto another dead tree way in the distance and at that point set off on the long drive home.  I will finish 2012 having seen 16 owl species of 18 rated lower than code 5.  My only misses were the Flamulated and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls.

And with less than two weeks left in the Big Year, I am heading to the finish line with 590 species seen or heard in 2012.  Can I find 10 birds in 12 days?  Good question.  I've already seen 17 birds in the first 20 days of December, so who knows.  On January 1 of this year, time seemed to be in abundance, and now as it approaches again, time has become just as much a nemesis as these last 10 birds.

Where to go next?  Hmmmmmmm....

Monday, 17 December 2012

Weekend Update

On Friday evening I set out for Massachusetts.   I had been driving or birding the entire time and had had very little sleep.  But the birding was great down there and the people I met even better.  I drove all night to get to Bridgewater, MA by morning to find the Northern Lapwing in a corn field.  There were already two birders present, but they had yet to find it.  We crisscrossed the fields, looking into the sheared off corn stalks, appearing more like CSI's looking for evidence than birders looking for a rare code 4 bird.  The sun was out and it wasn't too cold, so the walking was quite pleasant.

Eventually more birders showed up and it wasn't long before someone had seen the Lapwing at the opposite end of the field from where it had been reported, walking and feeding amongst stumps of stalks.  We all had great looks at it and enjoyed finding out how far each of us had all driven for this bird.  I think I had driven the furthest.  I struck up a conversation with Chris, from Florida, who had traveled even more miles than me for the Lapwing, though he flew.  We both wanted to see the Little Egret so agreed to meet an hour or so later at Kalmus Beach in Barnstable, MA.

We started where the Little Egret, which looks nearly identical to a Snowy Egret, had last been seen, but over the next four hours we and other birders were unable to locate it.   Fact was, it had it hadn't been seen the last two days.   Not that the trip was a bust.   Chris and I had split up so we could cover more ground and, while we still continued to look for the Egret, we were also scanning for a Black-headed Gull.   I wasn't having any luck, but Criss found one at Keys Beach, on a jetty, with some other gulls and a couple of Brant.  We were able to watch it for a good while before it took off and landed not far off in the water.  It stayed there for a bit then flew off.

We returned to our starting spot and staked out the water area when more birders showed up, with Big Hopes we had seen the Little Egret.  Alas, no.  But down at the beach one of the new arrivals had some Common Eiders in his scope.   Bonus!   Another bird for the Big Year.  I stayed until the sun started to set on our Egret Watch, and decided I would get a start on my drive to Boston.  One of the birders at the beach had just come from the Fenway Victory Gardens where they had a wayward MacGilvary's Warbler.  That was a bird I hadn't found on any western trips and had given up on as a bird I would see this year.

I got to the Victory Gardens, across from fabled Fenway Park about 8:30 on a cold, gray morning. These privately held gardens were once part of the war effort, all across the US, Canada and abroad. During the first and second World Wars they grew fruit, vegetables and herbs in order to reduce the reliance on farmed produce.   They also helped boost the moral, as it gave those left behind a sense of purpose in supporting the war effort back home.  Now, they are private retreats for local tenants.  Some are kept up meticulously and rival any home garden, and others are in need of a little, or in some cases, a lot of a TLC.

Upon my arrival I was immediately told that just an hour earlier the MacGilvary's, Nashville and a Golden-crowned Kinglet had all been in a bush near where I had entered.  Within half an hour there were nearly a dozen birders present and all those eyes eventually led to our first look at the MacGilvary's.  It was in a thicket, and though we could get good looks, a photo was difficult.  One local birder, Justin, did get a picture good enough to confirm the identity, but mine just showed the bush and a blur.   Over the course of the rest of the morning, myself and two guys named David scoured the gardens for another look.  Every time we ran into another birder, I introduced ourselves to them. "Hi, I'm Robert and this is my birding friend, David and this is my other birding friend, David."  As the morning wore on, we had more than our fair share for looks at the Nashville and were quite frankly getting tired of thinking we finally had the target bird, only to find out differently each time.

While one of the David's and I were down one row, the other David called the David I was with and alerted us to his confirmed MacGilvary's sighting.  We ran as fast as the binoculars slapping against our chests would allow, but it was gone by the time we arrived.  David Number One had a picture, and we knew the bird had not gone far.   In fact, within 10 minutes I spotted it and for the next 10 minutes or so all present got fantastic looks at this rare east coast visitor, and those with cameras got some nice photos.

I am home now, 4 birds on the plus side and a new total of 588 for the year.  Wednesday I head up to Hilardton Marsh for Northern Hawk Owl and Hoary Redpolls courtesy of Bruce Murphy, the intrepid northern Ontario bird bamder.

Part of the the B.S.I. Team,(Bird Scene Investigators)

Northern Lapwing: 

Black-headed Gull - Winter Plumage:

Nashville Warbler:

MacGilvary's Warbler:

Common Eiders: 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

It Was a Black-eyed, Yellow-legged, Walking Purple Sandpiper

Editor's Note:  This is an earlier blog post, from December 1, 2012.  I changed the title and it popped it up to the top... the newest post is below, "The Patagonia Key." 

And finally, it was on my list, with almost no effort at all.  I had planned the morning to go into work and prepare for my business trip to Nashville, and the afternoon for driving to Elmira for Rough-legged Hawks and some cheese balls from Kitchen Kuttings.  If you've not tried them before, take the drive to Elmira and find out for yourself, the cheese balls, not the Hawks.

But my day didn't go anywhere near as planned.  I was at work for longer than I had anticipated, then when I finally was on the road to Elmira, I had to turn around and head back to downtown Toronto and take care of something else.  In the meantime, OntBirds came through with a report of a Purple Sandpiper working the beach at Bronte Harbour in Oakville, thanks to the keen eye of Mark Jennings.  Well that changed everything.  I had missed the Purple Sandpipers on at least three trips to Presqu'ile Provincial Park the past few weeks.

As soon as I wrapped up things at work, I jumped in the car and headed 30 minutes down the QEW to Bronte Harbour.  I overshot the parking lot, had to make a tight turn at the end of a road down at the lake, park the car, then re-park the car closer to the beach, and as I walked down the path was directed to the bird by a gentleman who was running back for his camera, having not expected the bird to be so close.

As it turned out, it was right there in front of us, feeding and walking about in the water and on the rocks, putting on a wonderful show for all present.  Cutest little sandpiper I've seen.  We all watched for about 10 or 15 minutes, everyone taking photos.  I even ran into Clive, with whom I shared an afternoon of birding in Hamilton, waiting for sunset to see the Short-eared Owls.  Around half a dozen birders were present before I headed out to search for the Rough-legged Hawks.

Alas, the only raptor I saw the rest of the afternoon was a Red-tailed, on a poll on the way up to Elmira.  However I did get the cheese balls, so I can't complain.  Sometimes the best days are the ones that aren't planned.

So, we are now into the home stretch.  The Purple Sandpiper was number 573 on my Big Year.  For me it is a significant number.  When I realized I would see in excess of 500 birds this year, I made it a goal to get to and pass 572.  572 is the number of birds Roger Tory Peterson saw in 1953, the year he set out on his Wild America Adventure.  Perhaps my year has not been quite so wild, but though I am not stopping yet, hitting and passing my goal has felt pretty good.

The Patagonia Key, by,(with), Matt Brown

We didn't have to start so early on Monday morning. 7:30 was a fine time to begin for the birds I was after. And the key to getting them was to begin after sunrise in Patagonia. It being quail hunting season, Matt and I were going to have one last "audio-visual" hunt for the elusive and rarely seen Montezuma Quail, sometimes referred to as mythical, since so many birders rarely see or hear it. There was also word of a Ruddy Ground-Doven in Patagonia Lake State Park, and while there we would work on both the Hammond's and Dusky Flycatchers. And if time permitted, a drive north of Tucson for another rarity, a Mexican vagrant, know as a Rufous-backed Robin. Another intense" but fun day of target birding with Matt. Just the way we like it.

After a coffee at the Gathering Gounds, we set up into the hills and spent the morning looking and listening for the Montezuma Quail.  It was adventure hiking, to say the least, with spiked bushes and barbed things clinging to our pants and shoes.  Matt played the quail call and we walked and listened.  We could definitely see signs of their presence, as they leave distinctive scratch marks in the soil.  Finally, as we walked, we heard a clearly identifiable answer to our Montezuma Quail calls.  Later we would hear them calling from another location.  Matt was relieved as he didn't want me to leave Arizona believing that these birds were, indeed mythical.

Next we were off to Patagonia Lake State Park.  This would be my third trip there this year.  I had just recently seen the Elegant Trogon, but there had been few, if any, flycatchers that day.  Of course,  I was focused on the Trogon, so may have missed them.  This day, we would here for the Ruddy Ground-Dove and a couple of flycatchers.  We started at the visitor's centre and it took no time at all to find a female Ruddy Ground-Dove, not on the ground as its name would have you believe, but in a tree.  There were supposed to be two males, but they were MIA.  Good thing we made our first stop for the Ruddy's, because when we returned later for the males, there were no doves of any species to be seen.

Having had good looks at the dove, we headed down to the birding trail, where once Sandy Komito had seen the Nutting's Flycatcher at the beginning of his record setting Big Year.  A much easier place to get to that the Bill Williams River NWR.  We were on the hunt for the Hammond's and Dusky Flycatchers, and once we got to their preferred habitat, Matt began playing the calls.  Well, wouldn't you know it, the Hammond's flew in right away and we got spectacular looks at it.  Matt pointed out the flatter head, as though a cartoon anvil had landed on it.  It didn't take long for the Dusky to show up either.  Within ten minutes we had great looks at both.

Matt still hadn't seen the Trogon this year, and in fact, since I saw it, it has not been reported very much at all.  We kept an eye out for it, but couldn't locate it near where i had found it last time.  Good thing I wasn't counting on it for this trip, or I would have been quite disappointed.

But it was another very successful day of target birding with Matt.  Over the course of the year I have counted 31 year birds in the Patagonia area and 17 in the park itself.  But there were two more birds to look for before heading home.  There were reports of a Rufous-backed Robin and Rosy-faced Lovebirds had just been added to the ABA list.  I had to drive back to Tucson and then over to Phoenix, where I was flying home from, in order to bag those last two.

I drove up to Sabino Canyon Recreation Area but it was too late in the day to find the robin.  I ran into a gentleman who birds on weekends and business trips, whom I had met in Texas, along the trail.  Hemant was in the area for work and was birding the park, having no idea that the robin was around.  We looked together the first evening, but it turned out the bird we were chasing was likely a Black-throated Sparrow, based on the photo I took the next morning in the same bush.

Since it was getting dark, we decided to call it a night and come at daybreak the next morning.  I had really wanted to see it that night so I could get to Phoenix and stake out the Rosy-faced Lovebirds at dawn the next morning.  I could only hope to get the robin quickly the next morning and still have time before my flight to see the Lovebirds.

I arrived just as the sun was coming up on Tuesday morning and headed to the same spot as the previous day.  Except, I had been following Hemant the night before and I saw a sign for Sabino Dam East and West.  I didn't remember which way I had gone, so contacted Matt via text message for a little guidance.  Turned out that either way basically took you to the same place.  I met up with Hemant and we ran into a couple of hikers who had seen the bird the previous year and helped guide is to the exact right place to look.

But, there was no robin at all.  In fact, it had not been seen the previous day, and we decided to scout the entire area in case it was foraging elsewhere.  Eventually we split up to increase the odds.  Finding no sign of rufousness below the dam, I headed back to where it had originally been seen, and as I entered the area just above the dam I heard it's chip call.  It took me only a couple of minutes to chase it down, on and over and under some tree limbs, but then it tired of running and just hung out on a log long enough for a photo.  It moved around, I chased it, and got some more good looks and photos.

I needed to get on the road for Phoenix, as it was getting late, but first chased down Hemant and directed him to the bird.  I hope he got his photos.  I rushed off to the car, but not before getting a nice photo of a Phainopepla posing nicely atop a tree.  After a two hour drive to Phoenix, I only had an hour to scout around for the Rosy-faced Lovebirds, but ran out of time and had to catch my flight.  I was glad of my decision to stay for the Rufous-backed Robin, though.  The Lovebirds hadn't even been on my radar,(birdar?), until I arrived.

I left returned home having added 10 new year birds on my trip through Texas and Arizona and I left Arizona with over 140 Arizona species and 584 species for my Big Year.  16 to go.  Long shot, but worth trying for over the next 3 weeks.  I couldn't have done any of it without the amazing help of Melody Kehl and Matt Brown.  Please look them up next time you're in Arizona.

Ruddy Ground-Dove

Hammond's Flycatcher

Dusky Flycatcher

Rufous-backed Robin

The rufous back:


Sandhill Cranes in Texas

Verdin where I wish the Nutting's had landed in Bill Williams  River NWR

 Barrow's and Common Goldeneyes, together at the BW NWR Visitors Center

Made this while waiting for the Nutting's to return after my initial look

The crazy, scary road in Bill Williams River NWR that nearly broke my rental car

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Big Year Diaries

Saturday December 8, 2012

I Flushed Another Bird, and Liked it Even More

I was up at the crack of dawn chasing a Sprague's Pipit.  It is about 40 minutes from my hotel in Weslaco.  I did have time to eat breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express, even though I didn't stay there.  Just kidding.  I love their breakfast bar and the 500 Aeroplan Points I get for each stay.  I have discovered that if you check out in the morning and check in again later, if staying multiple nights, you get 500 for each night.  

The Sprague's Pipit was named after Isaac Sprague, an artist who traveled up the Mississippi with James Audubon.  I would have preferred Isaac's Pipit, or if Audubon had known a guy named Pepe: Pepe's Pipit has a nice ring to it).  The Sprague's, unlike its namesake is a secretive bird who enjoys the privacy of grass fields, and would prefer to be left alone.  I was also looking for Mountain Plovers, but saw none in the farmer's fields near Sebastian, Texas.  I head to Mesquite Road and as I am approaching the intersection I am attacked by two vicious dogs.  A big one and his irritating little sidekick, like those two dogs in the Bugs Bunny cartoon.  The dogs are barking up a storm and jumping at my car.  I was worried I will run them over so I proceeded slowly.  Too Slowly.  I closed my windows, fearing the little one might jump up and tear out my throat.  I have no time for this so edge my car slowly forward and eventually make the turn.  The big one gives up the slow chase, but sidekick won't let it go.  I guess he was trying to impress his bigger friend so that one day he can maybe   chase a car on his own.

The hunt for the Sprague's Pipit was even more fun than the flushing of the Le Conte's back in Florida.  The empty grass fields were full of Meadowlarks and Horned Larks, who, when flushed, stayed low when flying to away.  I was looking for a brown bird that when flushed flew straight up and then back down again into the grass.  The fields were about 2 to 3 times the size of a football field and in the far distance I could see Sandhill Cranes Grazing.  I walked up and down the fields, zigged and zagged and after a while thought I might have had a couple of Sprague's, but nothing definite.  And trying to get a picture of these birds wasn't even an option, but the time I got my camera up, they were back in the grass.

So I just watched them come up and examined each flushed bird with my binoculars, until finally, as I was heading back to my car,(I had a flight to catch in San Jose), I Sprague's Pipit flew from the grass, straight up in the air, and back down again, just as everyone I had talked to said it would.  I got a nice look through my binoculars and that was it.  A bird in the air is worth more than one in the grass.  I took it and headed to the airport and my flight to Tucson.

Sunday December 9, 2012

Nutting's Special

The quest for the Nutting's Flycatcher, something I have been looking forward to all year, involved a four hour drive to Parker Dam, another shorter drive on a scary and rutted dirt road, and was over all too quickly once I actually did hear the Nutting's "wheep."

I had planned to stay in Texas until Monday, but the NARBA Alert of the the return of the Nutting's Flycacther to Arizona forced me to change my plans.  I had figured I'd be back in Toronto and sometime before the end of the year I would hear the report and use my last Aeroplan trip to get there to see it.  Since I was in the vicinity, I figured I could try for the Nutting's and save the air miles for another rarity, say the Western Spindalis in Florida.

The drive up the two mile road was just the third scariest drive I've had this year in Arizona, but I was less worried about myself than I was about breaking the car and being stranded without a cell phone signal.  I should have taken the SUV the rental car people suggested.  I eventually got to the 2 Mile Marker the NARBA report directed me to on Planet Ranch Road.  If it had been up to me, I'd have named it Car Killer Road.  I did survive the drive in, but dreaded the return trip.

I walked the rutted road, and watched the trees and bushes for movement, and listened for the distinctive call of the Nutting's.   I was prepared, having listened to it many times this year, to prepare for this one day, and even more after Lauren Harter had found and reported it.  I walked, listened,  heard and saw Juncos, and wondered why I was the only person here.  Shouldn't a whole band of birders been here to see the rarity?  Hadn't they all read and seen The Big Year.  I wanted witnesses.  I needed help.

But then, out of the bush came the sound I had been waiting for, the music to my ears, the "Wheep," I had been waiting all year for.  It called several times as I scanned for it with my binoculars.  I caught a glimpse of it as it flew into a tree.  I located it about 100 to 200 feet away partially hidden by branches, but was able to see it well enough to catch a bit of it's yellow belly while it called again, clinching the identification.  I talked to Lauren later to make sure there were no other flycatchers, either Hammond's or Ash-throated, present and nothing else that might have sounded like the Nutting's.  Without a good photo,(the sun was at such an angle that my photos don't show much of anything), and no witnesses, I wanted to be damn sure I wasn't mistaken.  I had about a minute viewing he bird through my binoculars before it moved to another spot and stayed for another 3 or 4 more minutes and then vanished into the cool Arizona morning.

I should have had my scope out but I had honestly believed that it would be just like in the movie and land 10 feet in front of me.  A Verdin did exactly that.  Sometimes life is not like the movies, let me tell you.  There weren't even any other birders around to share the moment with. I stayed until mid afternoon hoping for a return visit and closer look with no luck.  I probably stayed a little longer since I was dreading driving two miles out along that rutted road.

NOt that I am complaining.  I got to see the Nutting's Flycatcher, one of birds that spurred me to this wild and crazy Big Year, and there was that moment of excitement when I first heard it call.  And that thrill when it flew into view.  Though the experience was more Barnacle Goose than Pink-footed Goose,(see earlier blogs), the Nutting's was, indeed special.  I even got some photos of a Barrow's Goldeneye down at the Bill Williams NWR Visitors Center.

Monday December 10, 2012

To Be continued...  Bed time for birder guy...

Friday, 7 December 2012


I forgot to write about my adventures on Thursday.  Sure, I got in late and had to be up at 4am this morning to bird around the Rio Grande Valley, but that's no excuse for not keeping my loyal readers up to date,(I'm starting to sound like on of those gossip columnists from the 30's).

Never mind.  I finished my work in Nashville on Wednesday night, but had a 6am flight to San Antonio, so I had to be ready to leave at 4am.  Problem was, I was still finishing off with my work well after midnight and by 2am I had decided that if I fell asleep I wouldn't be able to wake up on time, so decided to go without sleep until 2:30 in the morning when I fell asleep anyway, while watching old episodes of Mission Impossible on Netflix.

So I was up at 4 in the morning, flying by 6am, and attempting to sleep on the plane, so I'd be prepared for the adventure in Texas.  I arrived in San Antonio at 10:30 in the morning and the first order of business was to drive to Big Tree, in Rockport, Texas, home to a famous and nearly 2000 year old Live Oak Tree.  It was there, or near there, that I would find the Whooping Cranes.  I expected whole colonies of Cranes to be standing regally on the grass when I pulled into the Big Tree parking lot.  The only things there were the tree and two retired ladies who had just taken a picture of the tree.  However, they did direct me further down the road, to where I would see Whooping Cranes.

I drove down the road, to a parking lot adjacent to the water and a large grass field, a likely habitat for the Cranes.  However, before I even got the scope set up, a big white bird with black wing tips flew by.  I got my binoculars on it quickly and recorded the sighting of my first Texas White Pelican.  Not quite whooping with joy, was I.  At least yet.

I walked up the road and got to see lots of ducks, including many, beautiful, Northern Pintails, and a lot of Ruddy Turnstones.  There were more ducks and lots of gulls, but I wanted Cranes.  I scanned the grassy fields, but no big, white birds.  I returned to my car to try a different location when a couple pulled up in a pick-up truck and, after we exchanged niceties, got down to business.  "Seen any Whooping Cranes?" asked I.  "Yes, they usually fly over and land yonder in the grass," answered the husband.  I was told that they came across later in the day, but if I wanted to check out the pond, I might find some there.

So I got back in the car and followed the road up to the next turn and drove along until I saw the pond they spoke of.  Meanwhile, a woman in a compact sedan, grey, I believe,(the car, not the woman), was slowly driving the streets.  I suspected birder.  I would later be proved correct in my rather obvious assumption.  I got out of the car and checked out the little pond, but it was empty, except for the water.  The mystery car pulled up ahead, stopped briefly, and made a U-turn.  As the car approached I was eager to find out if she was the keeper of the Crane knowledge.  Turned out she was.  Not only that, but if I had just walked 100 feet further up the road I would have found the birds myself,(and I am sure I would have, but it was nice to have the help).

A pair of Whooping Cranes, number 574 for the year, were in a field about a hundred yards off and I watched them through my scope for a while and then started taking photos.  I decided to walk across part of the field to get better shots and I was punished for my near trespassing by getting my shoes and pants covered in needle sharp burrs, that were laying in wait for me.  I got some great photos, including of the birds in flight, and then had to remove the burrs from my shoe laces and pants, in what turned out to be quite a painful procedure.

I drove the neighbourhood for another 20 minutes looking for the family of cranes that was supposed to be around, finding more ducks but eventually returning to the first location and watching and photographing the cranes for a little while longer.  But I had to get down to Weslaco so I could get a full night of sleep for my day of birding in the Rio Grande Valley, which was to start, once again at 4am.

I spent today birding with Huck Huchenson of Estero Liano Grande State Park.  We had a great time and saw lots of birds on my last trip and we did the same today.  I had hoped with Huck's help I would be able to get the White-collared Seed Eater, but even though Huck knew all the best habitats, the bird once again eluded me.  As did the Red-billed Pigeon down at the Falcon River.  However we did see all three Kingfishers down there, and an Audubon's Oriole.  We both heard it's sweet song and saw it on two occasions, while down at the river.

Later we birded the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge and saw, amongst at least 20 species of duck and shorebird, a Wilson's Phalarope, in winter plumage, feeding in and amongst the ducks.  It wasn't spinning, but rather feeding in circles.  Very high on the cute scales, I would say.  We also saw lots of hawks and raptors, but no Hook-billed Kite.  Huck says you could watch for three days without seeing one or just arrive at the right time after sunrise and pick it up quickly.  Alas, it will have to wait for another year.

I need to be up and out the door early tomorrow, to make it to the airpot in San Antonio for a 3pm flight to Phoenix, Arizona, where I will make that most traditional of Big Year Pilgrimages, to find the Nutting's Flycatcher.

The Big, Old Tree

Whooping Cranes

 Audubon's Oriole

Ringed Kingfisher on a Foggy Morning

Green Jays

Altamira Oriole

Vermillian Flycatcher

Wilson's Phalarope, and Friends