Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Next Blog...

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

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

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

Friday, 4 January 2013

These Are Some of My Favourite Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Breaking Down The Big Year

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

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

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

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

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

  17: States visited

   3: Provinces visited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come...

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

It Was a Very Good Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Putting a Positive "Spin" on Things

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

Blanche DuBois, A Street Car Named Desire

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

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

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

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

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.