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...


  1. Forget the Spindalis in Florida. You've got to go for the Citrine Wagtail in BC!

  2. Yes, it would be a good bird to get, and I may yet. However there are a lot of good birds in south Florida right now including a newly found Smooth-billed Ani.