What started on January 1, 2012 as a bit of a lark, inspired by the book and movie, The Big Year and John Vanderpoel's nearly record breaking Big Year, has turned into a full fledged quest and a real challenge. I only wanted to learn how to bird, and seeing 300 species in 12 months was the number I had in mind when I began. I think, at the time, 200 would have been pretty satisfying. I knew nothing about birding other than what little I had paid attention to when out with Sue, while she birded. And that was precious little.
At the end of the day, yesterday, February 13, I had 196 species in less than a month and a half. I wanted to get it up to 200 today, and with little going on in the Toronto area, bird-wise, I decided to drive 4 hours north to Algonquin Park, as a number of good birds had been reported lately,(Thanks Kevin and Ron). 4 hours for 4 birds doesn't seem unreasonable now that I really am going after a much bigger number. I won't say what that number is, quite yet.
After a lengthy morning of driving, I entered the park around 10:30am and after seeing a Turkey Vulture flying overhead, stopped at the Gate to get a park pass and some directions. Shortly after, though, while heading out on Hwy. 60, I met a couple stopped on the side of the road. Had to be Birders. Yes, they were also birding. I didn't know it then, but I would run into Gene and Linda many times throughout the day, and as usually happens, the meeting was fortuitous. Through our open car windows they told me they had just seen some Common Redpolls. Redpolls? I had missed them up in Uxbridge a while back. I wished them luck, and continued driving, scanning the sky and trees for birds, hoping to not drive off the road.
A short distance further up the road, I spotted a small flock of birds across the roadway, atop some trees. I pulled over, stopped, pulled out my binoculars and had my own Common Redpoll sighting and my first Year Bird of the day. Continuing on, I made another stop where many birds were congregating in the road and either mourning the loss of one of their feathered friends, or eating it. Not sure which. Either way it was a great place to stop. Lots of bird activity. And wouldn't you know it, Gene and Linda pulled up right after me. Together we got some White-winged Crossbills and another Year Bird, a Pine Siskin. I do have pretty good luck with meeting just the right people. They were up from the states and had planned some cross country skiing or snowshoeing today, but ended up mostly birding. I just hoped I would keep running into them.
At next stop, Spruce Bog, I was greeted by flocks of hungry Blue Jays. I had a bag of bird seed with me, and let them help themselves. I was hoping to find the Red-breasted Nuthatch and Boreal Chickadees there, and had to use my iPhone App to call the Nuthatches in, as not much was going on when I got there, and even my seed was only making the Blue Jays happy. I heard the Nuthatch before I saw it, but eventually a few arrived, along with a half a dozen or so Black-capped Chickadees. I got some nice photos, but my feet were staring to tingle with cold and I felt the onset of hypothermia settling in, so decided to make a quick run to the car, and head to the visitors centre before I lost a toe or two to frostbite.
Note to self: Get warmer winter boots.
And who do I run into at the Visitors Centre by new good buddies, Gene and Linda. Not only that, but the good folks at the Visitors Centre had the pantry well stocked with lunch items, snacks and hot and cold beverages, purchased on the honour system. I got a great look at the Evening Grosbeaks at the feeders, and had bird number 200 for the year. I celebrated with Kraft Dinner, washed down with fresh coffee from the Keurig Coffee Machine. I chatted with Gene and Linda as they finished their snacks. We talked about Big Years and they shared their birding stories, along with some of their friend Greg Miller, one of the greatest Big Year Birders ever. They took off again, but I lingered longer, hoping my feet would defrost again before I left. And I got another look at the Grosbeaks and some nice photos, too.
My final stop was down at the closed gate near the Opeongo Store, where rumour had it there was a Blacked-backed Woodpecker. Lucky for me, Gene and Linda showed up again. They sure knew how to show up at just the right time. Would I have found the woodpecker without them? Not sure.
Along with Gray Jays, who would eat out of your hand, and an odd albino, white faced, Black-capped Chickadee, Gene also showed me the Red Crossbills, high in a tree. I was worried I was getting Warbler Neck and I hadn't seen any Warblers. We were then able to stalk, hear the pecking of, and finally see the Black-backed Woodpecker beyond the gate at the end of the road. Now that was fun. In my wildest dreams in the last week of 2011, I could not even have imagined myself standing in the cold with binoculars, a camera and two American strangers, looking at a woodpecker 4 hours from home. My feet were so cold they were numb, but I didn't care. That was bird number 203 for the year and I probably didn't thank Gene and Linda enough for their help. So, thank you, Gene and Linda.
We also got to see a cute little weasel-thing, called a Pine Martin. A nice bookend to the Hispid Cotton Rat Sue and I saw in Florida last week. So, Birds: 203 vs Rodent-y things: 2. Rodent-y things need to make a huge comeback. Maybe "Hail-Mary" sighting at the end of the hear with a Naked Mole Rat will complete the comeback. Maybe not.
We went back to the Spruce Bog for one last shot at the Boreal Chickadee, and athough we heard it a couple of times we did not see it. Since I do not have it on my Life List as a sighting, I will hold off on counting it in my Big Year until I actually see one, even if the rules allow me to count it. I just think counting a bird I've never seen is stretching the spirit of the rule.
My only other miss for the day, besides actually seeing the Boreal Chickadee, was the Pine Grosbeak. Something for another day, I guess. And so I drove home with about a dozen species spotted in Algonquin, seven new ones for the year and perhaps can take the day off from Birding tomorrow. Or maybe drive out to Kanata to see the Gray Partridges or up to North Bay for the White-winged Dove, or maybe to Niagara Falls for a few more gulls. Or maybe, just order good, warm winter boots from L.L. Bean.