Monday, 30 July 2012

Driven to Bird Part II: On the Road again

Well, I was back in the car again last night driving 12.5 hours to St. Louis with a 3 hour snooze last night, arriving mid afternoon and going straight to the Clarence Canyon NWR with hopes that I might find the reported Buff-breasted Sandpiper. It was a place similar to where I hunted the Fork-tailed Flycatcher, but without the heat - there was the humidity - and instead of having to walk 4 miles, they allowed you to drive most of it.

Alas, I had limited time to search amongst all the Killdeer before I had to head to the airport for an evening fligh to Arizona, that I was once again shut out in my search for a targeted bird.

I will be back on Thursday and there are other places to find this migratory birds, so I am not giving up.

But first things first I have to get to Arizona and a day of birding with Melody Khel tomorrow and a day on my own on Wednesday.

Then I shall drive around the Midwest for 3 days and see what I shall see.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Dog Days...

They are certainly not the bird days here in Ontario.   Any reports that are coming out are for early fall migrants.  So, in order to see anything new at this time of year I have to head out of town.  South-West, to be exact.   A return trip to Arizona and then a road trip adventure to Missouri and Kansas and Minnesota, including stops in St. Louis for the Eurasian Tree Sparrow and the outskirts of Minnesota and an exploration of the Sax-Zim Bog.

I will be leaving late in Sunday and driving 12 hours to St. Louis and getting on a flight to Tucson, where I will get a quick sleep and be ready for a full day of birding with Melody Khel on the final day of July.  So far, July has been quiet, with just 14 new species, but that will change in Arizona and I hope to add at least 20 on July 31.  I will then spend the day on my own, on August 1 and pick up whatever remaining birds I can before heading north again.  While out with Melody, Arizona bird guide extraordinaire, we will be concentrating on owls and hummingbirds and a few of the rarities that might be along our way.  I will then follow the Arizona Rare Bird and E-bird reports on my own the next day.

With 48 species to go for 500, I hope to get close in Arizona and perhaps hit 500 while on my mid-west swing.  One can dream, I guess.  Or hallucinate.

Speaking of which, the character of Steven Furca, in my short story from the other day was, essentially, me.  I love story telling and the events of the day seemed so far fetched, as they were happening, and the jumble of thoughts and tangents my mind was going through that day, rather leant themselves to fictional prose.  The fact was, other than the use of a fictional character to drape the story around, everything that I described that day happened.  Would I do it again?  Not without proof that the bird had been seen within an hour or so of my arrival.  And never again alone without good shoes and lots of water.

What was the significance of the name Furca?  You tell me :)

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Let Me Tell You a Story...

One Day in the Life of a Big Year

A short Story by 

By Robert Baumander
(Based on the true events of July 22, 2012)
It was a day like pretty much every day during his Big Year.  Awake early, hotel breakfast, spilled his coffee all over the coffee station.  Humble Apologies.  On the road again with a fresh cup and a banana that he would forget about in his vest pocket until late afternoon.
Steven Furca was on yet another quest for,(at least for him), the elusive Fork-tailed Flycatcher.  This pesky little freak of nature with its split, ridiculously long tail, had outwitted Steven in Florida more than once this year and had seemingly, purposely, shown up on sides of the country he was too far away from to get to on a moments notice, since he did not have the disposable income of a Major League Baseball Player, or say, John Vanderpoel.
This time around, the good folks at FLARBA were kind enough tease Steven with reports of the flycatcher showing up five days earlier on a bike trail adjacent to Lake Apopka, near Orlando, Florida, when he set out on a journey through Lansing, Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Boston for his consulting job that had allowed him to even attempt a Big Year.  Naturally, Florida and Tampa Bay, was the last stop on his trip, and Steven had to fret about the possibility that the flycatcher of his dreams would have moved on by then.  Little did he know that five days hence Steven would be down to his last thimble sized swig of water on a day hotter than anything he’d experienced this year, and he had already been to Texas, Arizona, Florida and even Alaska in June, so he knew from hot.
Back in February when he was in Florida, FLARBA had alerted him to a Fork-tailed Flycatcher that was perfectly situated betweenTampa Bay, where he was staying, and some of his other birding destinations, so it was not out of his way to go after it.  He tried for it both on his way from and returning to Tampa Bay, and on both occasions wandered around in scrub grass for over an hour in the hot sun, somewhere in the middle of nowhere Florida, and on both occasions missed the bird.  Yet he would get FLARBA repots that the bird had been seen on the same day, either hours before he had arrived or minutes after he had left, empty handed.  No bird in the hand, but one likely giggling somewhere in the bush.
Big Year birding wasn’t meant to be easy.  No one is handing the birds to you in a gilded bird cage.  A Big Year is a 12 month quest to see as many species of bird as possible and takes an obsessive personality to survive.  Most birders who undertake such an adventure have been birding and thinking about doing a Big Year for many years.  Most of all, it takes experience.  After all, if you are going to identify the birds you have to know the birds.  Steven didn’t know the birds when he started.  He was a rookie with not a clue as to the identities of more than a handful of birds.  He knew the Blue Jays and the Cardinals and the Orioles, but mostly because they were on the emblems of Major League baseball teams.  To Steven, there were just seagulls, and he only knew of  albatross’s from a long ago Monty Python sketch.
But now, more than six months into his Big Year, Steven had seen more than 450 species of birds and had become ever more obsessive with each passing day, and though his original goal had been around 300 birds,(not bad for a beginner), and had escalated to 500 by mid May, he now was setting his sights on 600 for the year and he didn’t want to end up with 599 because he failed yet again to find the Fork-tailed Flycatcher.  So, of course, he would have to hope against all hope that this time it would stick around until he arrived.
From the cryptic e-mail he had received from FLARBA, Steven knew to head to Magnolia Park and take the loop trail to the pump house.  Sounded easy enough in print.  Didn’t look like too much of a walk from the map, but maps are very tiny compared to real life distances and sometimes it’s hard to judge.  After a two hour drive up from Tampa Bay, where he had been working the previous day, Steven walked into the Magnolia park office and from the way he was dressed, the ranger knew he was there for a Fork-tailed Flycatcher.  She had been fielding requests for directions to the bird since Monday and Steven was just another nerdy curiosity in cargo pants, “birding” vest and silly birding hat.  
When he explained to her that he really hoped the bird was still there,(she had no clue as to the Fork-tailed’s whereabouts), as he had been chasing one of those devilish birds since February, she smiled with glee at the possibility of him finally finding it.  Or, perhaps, she was she secretly mocking him, as she actually knew the bird had already fled for the Bahamas or South America and she had made the travel arrangements herself, somehow knowing he was coming.  Steven’s imagination could sometimes run away wildly on him, as we shall soon see.
Standing at the desk in the office, Steven was already geared up,(that’s birder talk for binoculars, camera, multi-pocketed vest, funny hat), and ready to go when the ranger explained to him that he had to get back in his car, drive across the street, park the car and walk past the bathrooms, to the paved path, and continue on to the trail head and then on to the pump house along a path of hard packed sand and gravel.  So, back to the car he went, unholstered his camera,(it was on a gun holster-like device that made him feel like Wyatt Earp), took off the binoculars and hat and drove across the road.
As he was getting out of his car, yet again, he spotted two men returning from the tail, on bicycles, both with binoculars around their necks.  Bonus!  Any birder on a chase for a particular bird loves the sight of a birder who has been there before him.  It’s like instant intelligence.  Birders have their own secret code phases that instantly produce a response.  “Seen anything good?” is one, but in this case, all Steven had to ask was, “Did you see the bird?”  The two men, who were soaked with sweat so badly that their chest hair could be seen through their shirts, knew exactly what he was asking.  Was the Fork-tailed Flycatcher still around?
“Didn’t see it,” the sweatier of the two gentlemen said.
“Oh,” said Steven.  This was not the answer he was expecting.  “How long did you spend looking for it?” he asked.
“About 45 minutes,” was the response.  “But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.  Might just be a late riser, or it wasn’t buggy enough this morning.”
This wasn’t encouraging news.  Still, he was here and the other gentleman told him it was about a 15 minute bike ride to the pump house, so Steven incorrectly estimated it would take 30-40 minutes to walk there.  After all, he had walked many miles in the heat of Texas and Nevada in the past month, and this was only Florida.
So off he went.  Without his binoculars.  Luckily he had only gone about 10 feet from the car.  Binoculars retrieved, he set out again.  Made sure he had his bottle of water and was about 200 yards along the paved path that led to the gravel path that led to the pump house that led, hopefully, to a Fork-tailed Flycatcher, when he saw a couple returning from the trail.  He waved and nodded.  Continued on.  Something about the man nagged at his brain.  What was it?  Oh, he didn’t have binoculars, so wasn’t a birder.  But he did have a camera.
A camera!  Steven had forgotten his camera.  How could he be so stupid?  Easily.  Steven could forget pretty much anything, and it was a wonder he could even get himself out of the house in the morning, sometimes.  People told him to make lists.  He effortlessly forgot to make lists.  He bought a book on improving his memory and promptly forgot to read it.  So, nearly 300 yards into his forking chase, he had to return to the car and get his camera.  He didn’t want to claim his saw this bird without photographic proof.
Finally, nearly half an hour after he began his walk, he reached the actual trail head.  He was relieved to get off the hot asphalt and hoped there was a little bit of shade along the trail.  No such luck.  No shade and it was hot.  Steven estimated it was about 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity.  Did that make it 200 degrees?
It sure felt like it.Within minutes he was sweating from every pour in his body.  He was even sweating, he thought, from his eyeballs.  He could feel the sweat trickling down his legs into his hiking boots and socks.  He was on dry ground but felt like he was sloshing through puddles.  It was getting hotter.  It was so hot, he imagined, that he might see a Scarlet Tanager burst into a Flame-colored Tanager.  That made him giggle, forget the heat for a moment and try to remember that one for his Blog.  Of course, he would not.
And, it wasn’t just the heat.  There were also dragonflies.  Hundreds of dragonflies, swarming like the mosquitos that had plagued him on the Snake Bight Trail back in March.  This is kind of like that he thought, trying to ignore the ever present sun that was trying to bake his head, like so many chocolate chip cookies, even through his funny hat.  Instead of walking about a mile for an American,(pink), Flamingo and fighting off mosquitos, he was walking nearly 4 miles for a not often seen flycatcher but at least he didn’t have to fight off the dragonflies.
Soaring and gliding above his head, like a child’s kite on a summer’s day were Swallow-tailed Kites, not just one, but nearly half a dozen.  This, too, reminded him of the Snake Bight Trail, as he had seen his first Swallow-tailed Kite of the year that day too.  Though he knew better than to stop to take a photo when chasing a rare bird, he figured a ten second delay was not going to make or break finding the flycatcher.  And did not the Swallow-tailed Kite have that same freakishly split tail?  So Steven took a few shots, as he had no photos from his earlier sighting.  
And on he went.  Mille after brutally hot mile.  He had started at a rather quick pace but realized he might waste all his energy getting to the pump house and have nothing left in the tank to get him back to the parking lot and his car.  And he was not rationing his water very well either.  Mistakes were being heaped upon mistakes and little did he know the peril he was in.
The heat was getting to him.  The sweat was stinging his eyes.  But on he went.  At one point he thought he must almost be there, so he pulled out his map and then his iPhone, as he was not very good at reading maps, and was lost more often than found when using them.  The little blue dot that showed his progress on the map app nearly made him drop to his knees in disbelief.  In about half an hour he had only covered about a third of the distance to the supposed location of the bird.
He was hot, sweaty, tired, and he wasn’t even halfway to his destination.  He took a swig of now warm water.  It actually tasted pretty good.  It was raspberry flavored and make the him imagine he was drinking tea.  He pulled himself together, straightened his crooked spine and soldiered on, telling himself that he’d done it before and he could do it again and if he saw the flycatcher it was all worth it.
Along the way he flushed about a hundred Red-winged Blackbirds from a tree, which was kind of exciting, and he saw Great Blue and Little Blue Herons, and Great Egrets and White Ibis and more Swallow-tailed Kites.  He heard what sounded like a Limpkin laughing at him from the reeds.  And then came the gnats.  Thousands of millions of them it seemed.  They got up his nose and in his eyes and attempted entry into his ears and any other orifices that might be open to invasion.  
This was not fun anymore.  He needed to see the bird and get the heck back to civilization.  He hoped that maybe some cyclists would come along with cold water and a side cart to take him back to humanity.  No such luck.  Steven was now imagining himself as the last birder on earth.  The heat hallucinations were just tickling at his brain.  If he was the last person left on the planet, this desolation at the edge of a mirror smooth lake was probably what it would feel like.  And as the last birder on earth it was up to him to find the last Fork-tailed Flycatcher on earth.
Then up in the distance was a mirage, perhaps.  No.  It was... Yes, it was the pump house.  Steven shook away the daydreams and focused on his surroundings.  He need to be alert and not miss the bird.  He felt like he was about 100 yards from the pump house and though he kept walking, it didn’t seem to get any closer for the longest time.  Above his head the Swallow-tailed kites showed off their split tails as he searched for his nemesis bird.
Nothing.  No flycatcher.  Wait, what was that?  He pulled his binoculars to his sunburned and sweat stained eyes and examined the bird on a ledge above the pump house door.  it was an Osprey.  And that was it.  No flycatcher.  No other birds to speak of either.  He was alone, tired and ready to just sit down and take a nap.  Except, he was nearly 4 miles into a trail that had only one way out.  The way he had come.  
Steven milled about, walked, turned pointed his binoculars, expectantly, at anything that moved, bird, bush or dragonfly, hoping to resolve the shape of the bird he was now beginning to believe he would never see.  He didn’t exactly want to cry, but he wasn’t smiling either.  Remember, he told himself, it’s the chase, not the bird.  Oh, screw it! he thought.  Of course it’s the bird.  It’s always about finding the bird.
For the next twenty minutes he slowly and, yes, dejectedly scanned every bush and twig, but with no success.  Now the Swallow-tailed Kites were beginning to mock him.  “We have split tails!” they sang in his head, “why don’t you just enjoy us!”  As he walked back all he could think of were the kites and their forked tails.  And what kinds of forks have only two tines.  You can’t eat with that kind of fork, he thought.  You’d put holes in your tongue.  
Steven’s brain was now on auto pilot.  He’d walk back, take his time, not expend too much energy and keep an eye out for the flycatcher.  Wait!  Was that it?  He turned to the bird, pulled up his lens and sighted, yes, it was a young Cormorant.  Figures.  He looked up.  The Kites laughed, “Don’t you like our forked tails?”
He was also down to about an inch of water in his water bottle.  He had maybe bitten half a mile off his nearly 4 mile return trip.  His feet hurt and the sun was relentless.  But walking south, he had a slight breeze in his face and it felt good.  Occasionally the sun would even go behind the clouds for a few moments to give him time to rest and get back his strength, what little he had left.
Even then, he did not give up searching for his flycatcher.  Yes, it was his flycatcher now. He swatted away bugs and gnats and walked.  Slowly.  One foot in front of the other.  And yet, as slow as he was walking, he imagined he was still walking faster than people in front of him on a crowded sidewalk, or in the halls of airports, or anywhere where he wanted to get in a crowd.  Except, now Steven didn’t want to get anywhere.  He wanted to lay down in the grass.  But two things kept him from doing that.  One, he was allergic to some of the native Florida bugs and if he got bit and went into anaphylactic shock, he was not sure he was brave enough to stick himself with the inch long Epi-Pen needle.  And secondly, he imagined that if he lay down to rest, the next time anyone saw him, all they would find were his dried out, mummified remains.  And he wanted that less than he wanted to stick himself with the needle.  
He walked.  Was that Bigfoot?  No, it must have been a mirage or, in fact, a river otter running across the path.  “Of course it is,” Steven said allowed, “more likely a river otter than a Bigfoot.  I don’t think they have those down here anyway.”  
He also kept thinking he saw alligators in his path about a hundred yards ahead, but when he got there, it was just a shadow or a discoloration of the and and scrub.  “Can I even get cell phone service out here?” he asked no one in particular.  He was now thinking everything out loud, even though no one was there to hear him.  If a crazed birder talks to himself in the woods, do any of the birds hear him making a sound?
He wondered what he’d do if a ‘gator did cross his path.  “Should I call 911?  I’d sound like an idiot asking for helicopter evacuation."  And what if he collapsed from heat exhaustion?  Wait?  Was that a flycatcher in the bush?  He wanted it to be, he really did.  But it was not.  He didn’t even care what bird it was at this point.
Steven took a thimble sized sip of his now hot raspberry water.  It was the yummiest thing he had ever ingested into his body.  He knew this was getting bad.  He checked his iPhone through blurred eyes.  He was only halfway out of the woods, though these really weren’t woods, just a scrub path on the edge of a lake.  No one was coming to his aid and wait, was that shade ahead?  Yes it was.  Just a small patch, as the sun moved across the sky.
He was thankful to the shade and said so.  He stood there with his hands on his knees, pain in his right foot that he would later discover was a severe blister on one of his deformed toes,(long story-for another time).  His fingers ached from dehydration and he had to go to the bathroom.  Funny, he thought, how no one ever needs to use the potty in fictional life.  But in real life it can be a huge bother!
Steven started questioning this whole birding thing.  Who would put themselves through this for one bird?  “Me,” he said to whatever was out there, which was not much.  Well, above there were the Black Vultures, waiting for him to die so they could have a feast for dinner.  And, of course, those Swallow-tailed Kites, who sang “Who’s got forked tails?  We got forked tails,” to the tune of that classic ’70’s Neet hair removal ads.
Short steps, Steven told himself.  “People in worse conditions have walked out of the desert.  I will make it out.”  He was unwilling to be a victim of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher chase.  “If at first you don’t succeed,” he told himself, “sometimes you just don’t succeed.”  He didn’t want to believe that.  There would be other reports, other Fork-tails.  
He walked, he limped, he drank small bits of water and rested in the shade when there was a patch to rest in.  His back ached and his foot was nagging at him, but he was getting close to the end, he knew it.  At one point he started to hallucinate.  Was that Sandy Komito coming down the path?  Or was it Owen Wilson, who played Kenny Bostick in the movie, The Big Year.”  Or was it beloved character actor Berry Bostwick, known for his now cult role in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”  An odd choice of hallucination, Steven thought, considering he never even saw the movie.
Turned out to be dog walkers.  Turned out he had made it back to civilization.  He still had 400 yards of paved path to traverse, but there was a water fountain at the end of this bleached out rainbow.  He downed the last thimble full of water in his bottle and toasted to his survival.  No Fork-tailed Flycatcher, but he consoled himself with the nice photos of the Swallow-tailed Kites he’d post on his blog, when he got home.
Eventually, he got to the water fountain, took a long, long, long drink.  Used the bathroom facilities and returned to his car, where he had dry socks and shirt waiting for him in his luggage.  How convenient that he was heading to the airport.  His vest was soaked through and seemed quite heavy.  Shouldn’t be that heavy from just the sweat.  No.  It was not the sweat.  It was the banana.  Quite worse for wear.  It was nearly black on the outside, but what was on the inside was a welcome snack.  A bit mushy, but he couldn’t complain.
Steve let the air conditioning blast and cool him down.  It was time to return home again.  He had added 6 new year birds on this trip, all in Nevada and stood at 452 for the year.  There would be another Fork-tailed Flycatcher to chase, and with a little luck and determination, another 148 birds still left to find before his quest was complete.  This, he told himself, was what Big Year Birding was all about.  It really was the adventure, the quest and surviving a 12 month birding marathon with your sanity intact.

One of the many Swallow-tailed Kites:

 The infamous Pump House:

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Other Las Vegas

In Florida they have a campaign for the natural areas of Florida, the places away from all the Disney Style theme parks.  They call it The Other Florida.  Well the Nevada Tourism Commission needs to steal the idea and play up The Other Las Vegas, which is 25 miles in every direction of The Strip.  There are mountains and dessert scrub and birds galore.  On Tuesday, I spent the morning birding The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve where I was welcomed. once again, by the ever present Verdins, and picked up two new species for the year: Yellow-headed Blackbird, a summer resident, but one that is not often seen, and the Abert's Towhee.  Oh, and lots of American Avocets, Coots - young and old - and 4 White-faced Ibis!  I did miss out on seeing what was supposed to be an easy bird, a Crissal Thrasher.

From there it is a short drive to the maze-like Wetlands Park, where, once again, I got lost - due to lack of signage,(something they say they will correct) - in 95 degree heat, but also was able to easily hear and eventually find a Yellow-breasted Chat.  In fact, at times it seemed as though I was surrounded by them, a symphony of their beautiful calls in 3D stereo sound, better than anything Dolby could ever produce.  The place was ripe with birds, but in early afternoon most were hard to see, but one Chat did alight atop a tree,(I like how that sounds), and I was able to get a photo, though it wasn't doing it's usual call,(not that you'd know that from the photo).  Seems these guys also are quite clever and skilled at imitating other bird calls, which is unusual for warblers.

I then drove out toward Mount Charleston, 25 miles north of Las Vegas and drove up to Corn Creek, over a very bumpy, gravely road that was making my brain bounce around in my head, and if you know anything about me, I do not need anymore brain bouncing!  I did remember an episode of Mythbusters where they tested the myth that driving fast over a bumpy road actually makes the drive smoother.


At Corn Creek Natural Wildlife Area I birded in absolute isolation, as the place looked to be deserted, except for a small cabin in the woods that looked like it belonged to some Survivalist and there was no way I was knocking on the door and having the next "Uni-bomber" greet me in his fatigues with an uzi in his arms.

That not withstanding I walked the short loop about half a dozen times picking up new birds on each loop including two new birds for the year: Broad Tailed Hummingbird and the coolest find of the day, a Western Tanager, while I was actually stalking a different bird, I never did identify.  The Tanager landed in a tree and I was able to get photos.  Reminded me of a scene in The Big Year, when the character played by Jack Black hears one and then falls to the ground chasing it for a photograph.  I understood his excitement.  On my last loop I finally found an American Roadrunner in Nevada, after missing it on my last trip.

I spent the rest of the day, prior to heading to the airport, up at Spring Mountain where the temperature dropped from 95 to 67 as I drove to 8000 feet above sea level.  I saw lots of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, and heard what were probably Mountain Chickadees, but never laid my eyes on one to confirm it.  I did find an Olive-sided Flycatcher near the entrance to the Lower Bristlecone Trailhead, bumping my total for the year to 452!  My other miss on the mountain were Western Bluebirds that had also been reported in the area.  All in all, I would say Nevada is an under birded, birders paradise and more birders should include it on their western swings.

Here, now, random pictures of the day, including Yellow-headed Blackbird,(both male and female), White-faced Ibis, Yellow-breated Chat, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Abert's Towhee and Western Tanager and Olive-sided Flycatcher:

Abert's Towhee

American Avocet

Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Eared Grebe:

White-faced Ibis


Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Bird'n Las Vegas

And leaving Las Vegas with 452 species.

I had a late flight out of LV last night so I had a good chunk of the day to bird around urban Las Vegas and the mountains that skirt the city. Las Vegas is birdier than one might think. They go out of their way to provide natural areas for local birds and wildlife.

From the aptly named Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve to Mount Charleston I was able to see and hear over 35 species yesterday in temperatures ranging from close to 100F down to 67F at an elevation of 8000 feet.

I am limited to typing on my iPhone now so a longer edition will follow, but the new species I added include:

Yellow-headed blackbird
Abert's Towhee
Yellow-breasted Chat
Broad-tailed hummingbird
Western Tanager
Olive-sided Flycatcher

Working on the photos while I await yet another delayed flight.  Welcome to Big Year Birding :)

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Forked Again?

A Fork-tailed Flycatcher Has Been Reported in the Orlando Area!

And now I have to hope that this bird hangs around for a week, so I can make yet another attempt at getting a Fork-tailed Flycatcher.  I've missed this infernal creature on 3 or 4 occasions this year.  Either it was not about in the reported locations when I arrived, or one appeared somewhere just before or after I had left the area, or in a location I was unable to travel to at the time.

Starting Monday I will be doing a work road trip to Michigan, Nevada and New Hampshire, and finish next Saturday in the Tampa Bay area, and will have Saturday evening and part of Sunday to devote to finding that bird, if it decides to hang around and grant me an audience.   

In the meantime I am home in Toronto this weekend with no birds to chase or find.  There won't be time for birding in Michigan, and probably not in New Hampshire, but I will have a full day to bird outside Las Vegas, and hope to pick up a few extra birds there.

Then, after a week at home from July 24-29, I head out on the road again, just for birding.  I will be down in Arizona picking up summer species along with, hopefully, lots of owls and hummingbirds.  Then I will head north, pick up my car and drive through the midwest, stopping in St Louis for the Eurasian Tree Sparrow and north to Minnesota with a stop at the Sax-Zim Bog.  Hopefully some local birders will come to my aid and help me in my quest for some midwest species.

Here are a few more photos from Newfoundland.  Horned Lark in a parking lot; thousands of Murres, mostly Common, with a few Thick-billed mixed in; and a female Pine Grosbeak:

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Oh, and One More Thing...

The Gannets!  The Northern Gannets.  How many?   Thousands and thousands of them.  And the Black-legged Kittiwakes and the Common Murres and a handful of Thick-billed Murres.  On my last full day in Newfoundland we made the pilgrimage every birder should make at least once in their lifetime, if not twice.

It was Sue's second visit, and my first to Bird Rock at the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve, one of the largest Gannet communities in North America.   It's located at the southwest tip of Newfoundland, over an hour from St John's, and even further if you take the scenic route, as we did.  When you get to the reserve road, it's another 15 minute drive to the park and then a mile hike,(keep an eye out for American Pipits and Horned Larks in the grass), to the precarious tip overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of feet below.  It's an awe inspiring sight when you arrive.  I was in Alaska and saw thousands of Kittiwakes and other seabirds, but nothing prepared me for the sheer majesty of this bird roost.

Birds were everywhere, in the air, in the ocean, hanging off the cliff faces, and in the case of the Gannets, hundreds of them, many nesting, on Bird Rock.  We stayed for a couple of hours, drinking it all in, taking photographs and then came back later in the afternoon for a second look.  Though I didn't add any new birds to my year here, it didn't matter.  It was worth the trip to Newfoundland.  If you are a birder, even a casual birder, take time to see this.  You won't regret it.

And my apologies to Catherine Barrett.  I wrote yesterday's blog on my iPhone on a plane and was tired and originally, for reason's known only to the furthest reaches of my brain, called her Barbara.  I have corrected the mistake and hope to never misidentify such a nice person ever again,(but, please, don't hold me to that).

And now, some photos from the trip, including, of course Gannets, but also the Purple Finch and lots of seabirds, including those adorable and loveable Atlantic Puffins!

After 6 months and 11 days, I finally "found" a Purple Finch!  Woo Hoo!

 The conditions when we arrived in Newfoundland:

(Probably why our flight was delayed)

The Northern Gannet and child

 Bird Rock - don't get too close to the edge, it's a long way down if you can't fly!

American Pipit

 Ruffed Grouse

 Arctic Tern with baby

 Greater Shearwater


Two of the Atlantic Puffins

 Just a small fraction of all the Atlantic Puffins

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Purple Bird of Newfoundland

I am heading home for a few days, but had time to stop at the backyard feeder of a nice woman I met on a beach looking for a Royal Tern.  We didn't exchange names, just that we were both "chasers."

That was Monday.

Yesterday evening a received an e-mail from a birder named Catherine from Goulds. She couldn't sleep and while cruising the Internet found this blog. She sent me an e-mail with an offer of help if I were still around. Alas I was leaving today, but asked her if there might be somewhere I could snag a Purple Finch on my way to the airport.  She replied this morning with pretty good info: her backyard feeder!

We drove there from Branch and the little purple guy was at the feeder the moment we arrived and returned a few minutes later for some photos.

That was number 53 for the trip.

And if you haven't guessed by now, Catherine was the woman I met on the beach.  How cool was that?  A Big Year is about a lot of things.  Of course there is the chase.  The list.   Finding the birds. Surviving the travel.   Being away from home.  But, in the end, it is about the people you meet along the way.  So, even though I didn't meet you in person, thanks Catherine.  No one can really do a Big Year in isolation.  Without the people I've met along the way and without Sue putting up with all this craziness, I'd have never seen even 300 species of birds, let alone 446, so far this year.

54 from 500.  But I am not stopping there.  I am a little too crazy and there are still too many birds to find and, I hope, lots of people to help me find them.

When I hit 300 I, rather jokingly talked about starting on the second 300.  So, throwing caution to the winds of fate, and at the risk of driving everyone I know and love crazy, I will keep going until day 366 of 2012, and try to see my 600 birds.   It might not be probable, but Impossible is not an option.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


Yet it is really called Gull Island. Go figure. Yes, it is home to thousands of Herring Gull, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common and Thick-billed Murres and some token Razorbills, but the true stars of the show are the adorably cute, Atlantic Puffins. Hundreds of thousands of them. The largest colony of puffins on the east coast, yet only 3% survive annually because their neighbors on the small island of the coast of Witless Bay, the Herring Gulls and Kittiwakes find their babies to be a nice, light snack. If that weren't bad enough, they also steal fish right from the beaks of the adult Puffins, who are just trying to survive and live peacefully in the company of these not so neighborly seabirds.

We went out on O'Brien's aptly named Atlantic Puffin, and thanks to the knowledgeable guides, who could not only belt out a good Irish Folk tune to rival anything by the Irish Rovers, but also knew their birds, we were able to see Greater and Sooty Shearwater, Common Murres, Herring Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes, but most notably, Thick-billed Murres and Razorbills, in addition to the most lovely Atlantic Puffins.

The rest of the day has been spent driving to the Cape St. Mary's Echological Preserve, with a stop at Chance Cove Provincial Park where we found a Ruffed Grouse with a baby, and later at St. Vincent's, thanks to some other birders, a small colony of Arctic Terns with their own baby.

And we are still on the road, even as I type this, racing the sunset to our accommodations for the evening and hopefully a good dinner before retiring for the night.

July 9
Witless Bay -
O'Brien's Atlantic Puffin
Gull Island
443. Thick-billed Mure
444 Razorbill
Chance Cove PP
445. Ruffed Grouse

Sunday, 8 July 2012


Just a quick update from The Rock.

I did, finally make it to St John's, through rain and fog and dark of night.

We had only a little time to bird yesterday and a full day today, but it was at times so foggy a bird could have landed on my nose and I wouldn't have seen it. It was cold and raining all morning and became nice in the afternoon and then over the course of an hour the weather change a dozen times. Humid, warm and sunny, then suddenly gale force winds, dense fog and and a quick drop in temperature . Within minutes it would warm up, fog would clear and then we'd get a repeat performance.

Still I managed 31 species including:
July 7
La Manche Villiage
439. Pine Grosbeak
July 8
Renews-Bear Cove
440 Greater Shearwater
Million Dollar View - Ferryland
441. Atlantic Puffin
442 Black Guillemot

With more to come!
(I hope)

Friday, 6 July 2012

Newfoundland or Bust!

We got "bust."

So, as I continue to discover, a Big Year is not always about being jn amazing birding locations, it's actually more often than not, trying to get I said locations. I am writing from about 10,000 feet above Halifax, Nova Scotia, rather than St. Johns Newfoundland, where we were actually headed.

Now, I am sure the birding is fine Halifax, and there is a 14 hour ferry boat over to Newfoundland, on which a large variety of Pelagic birds can be seen. In fact, I read just yesterday in Sandy Komito's chronicle of his 1998 Big Year, how he took that very trip.

Breaking news!

We are not going to Halifax after all, as they are not equipped to get us on our way to St Johns. Instead we are detouring to Montreal! How lucky for me. A Little Egret was reported to NARBA in the Montreal area, just yesterday. This could be good news after all. If we are forced to stay overnight we will go for the egret this evening or early tomorrow morning, and then catch our flight to Newfoundland and perhaps even arrive in time for lunch.

Or, the captain will come on the intercom just before we land and alert us that we are making an about turn and heading to Quebec City for Summer Carnivale!

Perhaps I should have taken the window seat and looked for sea birds in flight, as that, right now, at 6:17pm on Friday July 13, ahm, July 6,(wouldn't have been cool had it been Friday the 13th), would have been my best chance of seeing any birds today.

And now it's dark and we are just arriving at a Holiday Inn for the night and the flight tomorrow is too early to chase the possible Little Egret. Not worth staying a full day here without it having been confirmed. Who knows, it might have taken off and headed right to St Johns.

Who knows. Right now we need dinner and sleep as we have a very early shuttle to the airport in the morning. Turns out the 6am shuttle is full so we have to leave at 5:25 for a 8:10 flight. So we won't even get into St Johns until noon tomorrow

Good night ;)

Thursday, 5 July 2012


It's been 10 days since I added a new bird to my year list, let alone saw anything more than backyard feeder birds and some swans and gulls down by the lake.  Of course, I've been working every day since I returned from Texas.  There has been one good bird in the area in the last week, a wayward Magnificent Frigatebird, but I've already seen them in Florida and though it would be a nice addition to my Ontario list, too much time would have been involved in chasing it.

One thing I've learned is to plan a Big Year way in advance so you aren't chasing a difficult bird in Ontario when it would be an easy bird in, say, Florida.  Case in point, the White-winged Dove.  It was a rarity here in Ontario.  I knew it was a bird that could be seen in Florida, so I didn't make the long drive up to North Bay to chase it.  However, I wasted too much time chasing it in Florida, since it's almost as easy to find in Arizona and Texas as Robins and Starlings are in Ontario.

Now it is off to Newfoundland tomorrow, so we can start a week of non stop birding again.  Hopefully there will be a rarity or two appear there while we are birding.  I am excited about the Atlantic Puffins and all the other pelagic birds we could see, and I will once again be will be well medicated before getting on the boat.  Hopefully it will be warmer and dryer than it was on the Alaskan pelagic trip.

So, after nearly a week of restless anticipation, and birding withdrawal, which has led to some bizarre birding dreams the last few nights, I am ready to head out on the road again, or in this case, out to sea, so to speak.  If I were doing an unrestricted Big Year, and money wasn't an issue, I'd be making a pitstop in Quebec for a possible Little Egret, but not, alas, this Big Year.

And if anyone out there has tried my iPhone Digi-scoping idea, from yesterday's blog, I'd love to hear how it worked out for you.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Digi-scoping with iPhone

Happy 4th of July to all you Americans who have made my travels through so many states easy as hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet!

Two more sleeps until we head off to Newfoundland.  Yippee....  Another adventure awaits.

So, do you want to digi-scope and save money too?  Sure, we all do!

In that regard, I have been trying to find a good and inexpensive way of digi-scoping with my iPhone and discovered a product on line that looked like it had potential, except for the fact that I'd have to order and pay for it, and it looked ridiculously simple to make on my own.  And, best of all, in 15 minutes, I produced a finished, nearly ready for market product, with very little effort. 

Here is how to make your own iPhone digi-scoping adapter:

1: Find a juice bottle lid, or spice bottle lid or any kind of lid that has a flat back that matches the external diameter of your scope.  Mine happened to work perfectly with a Dole Juice bottle lid I had saved just for that purpose.  I drilled a half inch hole in it.

2: Go into your junk drawer or to the Apple Store and get yourself a iPhone case that covers the back and sides.  A soft rubber one will work best.  

3: Set the lid on the scope and line up the camera on the iPhone with the scope so the lens is centred on the scope to get you the full image in the iPhone screen.  Use a marker to scroll around the phone on the back of the lid and then glue the lid to the case.  

Once dry you can start digi-scoping and don't have to bring a separate camera with you, since you're probably already carrying your iPhone.  And of course we all want to save money.  If you make one, please let me know how it worked for you.

Here are some photos to give you an idea:

Through my back window into the back yard:

A zoomed in image from the scope:

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Halfway Home

July 1: Canada Day and 200th anniversary of The War of 1812.

A chance to look back at the first 6 months.

In the first half of the year I have seen 438 ABA Species(440 overall), 400 of which are life birds for me, as my only experience with birding prior to this year was a love of photography and nature and I had photographed birds more than any other wildlife.

In 6 months I have counted birds in 8 States and 2 Provinces: Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, West Virginia, British Columbia, and of course, right here at home in Ontario.

I have traveled thousands of miles by air, sea, bike and on foot and have been to places I'd have never traveled to if not for my Big Year.

I have met wonderful people and discovered that birders are amongst the nicest, if not the nicest people you will ever meet.  I have exchanged e-mails with Sandy Komito and John Vanderpoel, and a few other birders from around the country, who have offered advice and encouragement.

I have discovered that goals can change rather quickly.  I had a modest goal of 300 when I decided to do this, late in 2011.  After I passed 300 I decided that I would have a good chance of 500.  Now with 162 to go, I do not believe that 600 is an unrealistic goal with 6 months to go.  Call me crazy, but with trips to Newfoundland, Arizona, Nevada, California, Florida, perhaps New Jersey and with fall migration looming, I think I can aim for this number.  Why not?  I may never have another chance to see 600 birds in a year again.  Then again, 10 years from now, I may be going after 700 plus.

Friday we head to St. Johns Newfoundland, and over the following 3 weeks I will be in Michigan, Nevada, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Florida for work,(and a little birding), and Arizona, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota,(including the Sax-Zim Bog), and Illinois for birding.

I will need a lot of help and would be appreciate any advice and suggestions.

Now to wrap up my Texas trip.  My favourite bird of the trip was the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher,(a very good substitute for the elusive Fork-tailed Flycatcher I have yet to get), yet I didn't include any photos.  I intend to make up for that with lots of Scissor-tail photos, plus a few more from my last day in Texas.