Total ABA Species Recorded During 2010 - 731

Sunday, February 28, 2010

California and My First Lifer

The trip to Santa Cruz Island from Ventura CA aboard the Adventure I was a great trip. It took over an hour and a half to reach the first disembarkation point and another twenty minutes to reach Prisoners Harbor where only a few remaining passengers got off. We were escorted along a specified path within the land held by The Nature Conservancy which borders the Channel Islands National Park. The bird we were interested in was of course the Island Scrub-Jay which was supposed to be a piece of cake from the Prisoners Harbor landing. But I got a bad feeling after there were no jay calls as we passed the eucalyptus grove, one of the places the jays are found. After another hour of hiking up the steep hillsides and neither hearing or seeing anything sounding or looking like a jay only helped to increase my anxiety. John and I lagged behind at one point, and when we caught up to the group, they were waiting for us because they had just heard a jay, very close and it was apparently still there. My heart was pounding when John and one of the others in the group spotted it in the thick of a bush. I got good enough views to add it as a lifer, but I wanted better views (bvd, better view desired!). But the tension that had been building was relieved. John and I took that opportunity to have our picnic lunch and start slowly back toward the dock, birding as we went, leaving the rest of the group to continue their hike. And we did have further observations of the jays, a couple of pictures of which are posted (photos). Since the perched bird doesn't show off his color, I included the flight shot which I didn't expect to turn out at all.
At the appointed hour we headed back to Ventura, stopping on the way to pick up the larger group. It was a whole different ballgame than the morning dropoff. Now the tide was lower by six feet. A six to ten foot swell was running smack at the side of the boat as the participants tried to climb down a ladder onto the front of the boat. About four people would get onboard and then a bigger swell would force the captain to back away from the pier and start the process all over again. It took over an hour to reboard all the people. However, the consolation prize for having the patience to endure the wait was that we encountered a school of Common Dolphin numbering well over a hundred animals. And to top it off we spotted a whale, probably a Grey Whale, a little further along. As I said at the beginning: it wasa great trip.
The jay wasn't the only new bird of the day. The other new birds for us were all water birds and included four gulls (Western, Heerman's, Mew, and Glaucous-winged), Pomarine Jaeger, Black-vented Shearwater, three alcids (Pigeon Guillemot, Xantus's Murrelet, and Rhinoceros Auklet), two cormorants (Brandt's and Pelagic), and two Black shorebirds (Oystercatcher and Turnstone) for a total of 14 year birds for the day. That brings the total seen for the year to 367.
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Friday, February 26, 2010

Nothing Profound but a Nice Evening

Spent Friday doing the little things everyone has to do, like the wash, getting some money for the trip, picking up a prescription, a stop at the grocery and still forgetting to get one item.  In the afternoon I turned in my second dose of rental car.  Perhaps when I get back from CA the Prius will be ready.  The evening was the best part, celebrating my wife Joyce's birthday a couple of days ahead of time at a nice restaurant with good friends.  Tomorrow it's pack and go.  Next posting will be from California.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Weather has an uncomfortably large impact on a Big Year.  I thought about it as I penciled myself into a walk in the Great Dismal Swamp tomorrow to look for Rusty Blackbirds.  A little while later I heard the forecast for high winds that erased those plans.  High winds keep birds down, make it hard to hear, and dramatically alter any bird's flight profile.  Since I will have several more chances next month to walk the swamp, I chose to bag it and do a little more prep for the next trip.
Weather plays no bigger role during the year than with pelagic trips.  Here you're talking "Yes or No."  It seems simple enough: if you don't get offshore, you're not going to get those pelagic birds.  I'll be in that boat (so to speak) soon.  On our first complete day in California, next Sunday in fact, we hope to take the cruise to Santa Cruz Island where we will look for the Island Scrub-Jay, a potential lifer for me.  When I made the reservations, the manager said they'd been having weather problems, and I should make my plans accordingly.  Rescheduling is a real pain because it requires re-arranging the remainder of the trip's schedule.  But then as I say, it's all part of the great adventure.
Snow is a significant consequence of weather, and snow can keep you out of places you had hoped to go.  Mostly that's in the high country.  So, if you're pushing the envelope, hoping for an early chance at getting up in elevation, you may have to postpone it, or worse, forget it entirely.  I'm guessing there are at least a few people reading this blog who are just a wee bit weary of snow this year.  Southern California has had some this winter as well.  Total species count remains at 353 as it will until California.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How did we do in Arizona?

As I did after our Texas trip, I'll attempt a bit of analysis of our Arizona excursion.  The two trips were a little different in that this time we flew and rented a car instead of driving from Virginia.  In my case that added only about $200 since I used my frequent flyer miles for the airfare.  The gasoline cost was about the same per day since we had a Prius for both trips.  We again enjoyed the hospitality of a friend's home for several nights cutting the motel cost.  We did not camp a single night even though John had brought the tent and we both had our sleeping bags and pads.  That may become the standard method until summer.  We will not take the tent to California, for example.  We saved on the pelagics since we did only one NC trip to get the winter birds we needed.  And I had budgeted for a quick trip to MN for owls which I decided not to take.  So another month of coming in under budget.
How about the birds?  The only birds on the list we "missed" were Harlequin Quail, Sage Thrasher, Brewer's Sparrow, and McCown's Longspur, all of which we have at least one more significant chance for during the rest of the year.  On the positive side there were three ABA birds for me in Arizona when we arrived and we got all three.  It took three tries with the Rufous-capped Warbler, a run to Phoenix for the Rufous-backed Thrush, and a little driving for the Ruddy Ground-Dove, but we turned that into a chance to make an incursion into CA and got the Yellow-footed Gull.  I feel very good about our progress thus far and see no reason why we shouldn't reach the goal of 650 for the year.  Going into California my total stands at 353.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Eastern Shore Waterfowl

The young male Common Eider near the pier at Kiptopeke State Park was among the first of the interesting waterfowl seen today on the Eastern Shore.  From there I went to Cape Charles where I picked up Ned Brinkley at his home and we headed down to the town beach where a number of birds had been seen last weekend. There were well over a hundred Surf Scoters and nearly a hundred Common Loons gathered in the harbor and along the shore. Secreted among these was a female White-winged Scoter, a year bird for me. But the previously reported Red-necked Grebe could not be found. We headed up the highway to the Machipongo Trading Company where I got a great cup of coffee and refilled the car's gas tank. That would be my rental loaner while my Prius is being repaired (maybe ready in two more weeks, for those who might be interested!). The MTC deserves our support in their effort to buy and grow locally and in as green a fashion as possible. The coffee sure was good. On to Willis Wharf where the Willets were beginning to reassemble as the tide rose. We ended up with over 120. A single Marbled Godwit and a lone Black-bellied Plover were the only other large shorebirds. There was also a group of Dunlin and a few Ruddy Turnstones. We drove south on route 600 where we saw a large group of Snow Geese. We may have seen the same group later on our drive since both groups had about 2000 birds. Amongst them were a few Blue Geese and a Greater White-fronted Goose of the Greenland race. In one field was a tightly packed group of 220 Brant.  I had seen a small group of these geese in a field during the Cape Charles Christmas Count, but this new group was very impressive.  Along the way many cardinals, sparrows (Song, Chipping, Fox, Swamp, White-throated, Juncos) were seen. After a couple of attempts to see marsh sparrows with Ned tromping around in the salt marsh and flushing nothing, we ended up at the Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR on ramp lane. The pond had an excellent collection of ducks including about 80 Green-winged Teal, some Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Northern Shovelers. Ned suggested that with this many teal present, there should be at least one Eurasian Green-winged Teal. And by golly there was one (photo). "Probably should be a Eurasian Wigeon, too," he added. And by golly there was one of those too (photo). Back to Cape Charles for another try at the grebe with the same negative results as earlier. Dropping Ned off, I headed home with a stop on the CBBT Island One where there was little of note. On my first stop there this morning on my way north, there was a nice group of Lesser Scaup with a single hen Greater Scaup and a high plumage Great Cormorant, flank patch, bright white-rimmed yellow throat pouch and all.
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Monday, February 22, 2010

Ducks and the Rain

At home catching up today.  A few errands but mostly getting through mail, email, bills.  And watching our cove!  We had about forty Mallards, but mixed in was a nice male Green-winged Teal (web photo), a pair of Wood Ducks, and a pair of American Black Ducks.  The Bald Eagle flew over.  I still haven't gone to North Shore Drive to look for the nest.  The activity at the feeders was up, primarily because I straightened their alignment, cleaned and filled them all.  One of the errands was to replace the cellphone charging cable that I think I left in the Chicago airport and the connector that got left in the rental car.  At least I didn't leave anything really important (that I know of!).  And then the rain came.  It made me happy that I got the lawn taken care of yesterday.  Worked on the California itinerary and potential bird list.  It should be fun.  We leave Saturday, at a reasonable hour anyway.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Black-headed Gull

Full of good intentions I made a to-do list as I drank my first cup of coffee. Then Andrew Baldelli called. "You going to look for the Black-headed Gull?" Of course my intentions were to work on the yard, but Joyce said that sounded more like an afternoon job, after it warmed up a bit outside. So I agreed to go with Andrew for a morning of gull-scanning. The first location, East Ocean View, looked pretty much as it had the evening before. A few more Tree Swallows and a small group of Savannah Sparrows in the dried Bermuda grass were new. The gull result was the same: no goodie gull. We moved on to 86th Street at the oceanfront where my favorite parking space was available. The ocean was flat calm with no birds. There was a medium-sized group of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, but nothing too exciting. We drove south to Rudee Inlet where we met Van Truan, a former regional editor for American Birds from Pueblo, Colorado. Andrew showed him his life Purple Sandpiper through the scope. I'll probably give Van a call when we get to Colorado in April. A walk up the beach to where the dredge spoil was spewing muck out of the pipe produced more Lesser Black-backs, but little else. We drove back to East Ocean View for another look for the gull, but the results were the same. When we got back to the house, Andrew agreed to let me know if the gull showed up in the afternoon.
After lunch I did get going on the yard. Put down some lawn food, trimmed our badly overgrown pyracantha, straighten the bird feeders and refilled them. The chickadees were talking to me the entire time I was working on the feeders. With the tasks finished, Joyce and I drove to East Ocean View as we had done the previous evening. When we got to the beach, the scene seemed exactly as it had been last night. All the same birds were there and the gull was not. However, things soon changed. Out of the west flying straight toward us was a tern-like gull with pale upper wings and darkish underwings. It alighted on the water with a little wing flutter and there it was....the Black-headed Gull, number 352. Another birder Ryan from northern Virginia walked onto the scene, camera in hand. We both took a series of photos, two of which I've posted. On our way home Andrew called. "I got the gull," I said. Tomorrow, more errands and some rain.
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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Home in Norfolk

Well....I'll confess.  I slept in.  Not really late, but certainly enough to have a positive impact.  I suppose I could use the excuse that my body was still on Arizona time.  But the real truth is that it felt good.  That first cup of coffee at home was also good.  Seeing the backyard birds, easily from an indoor chair, was a novelty.  Like the Brown-headed Nuthatch (photo).  Nothing new, but it was fun.  Tomorrow I have to do some yard work since John and I will be going back on the birding trail next Saturday to California.  Today, though, I ran errands, picking up some items I needed, with more yet to figure out.  I got a haircut, picked up a prescription, did some banking, bought some lawn supplies for tomorrow's outdoor work, and stopped to pick up the calling cards I had ordered before I left for Arizona, but the printing shop wasn't open.  Costco with Joyce, was the usual zoo, except the grazing was not quite up to the usual fine standards.  We got seduced into a new TV, a 32 inch Vizio, 720p for a good price.  Also got my new copy of Turbotax so I could pretend I was working on our taxes.  On our way home we took a nice walk at East Ocean View, looking for the Black-headed Gull.  It wasn't around.  Try again tomorrow.  At home I set up the new TV.  Amazing how heavy our old set is compared to the new LCD model.  The hookup was simple because we still have non-digital cable.  The picture quality for the digital channels is a significant improvement and there are multiple PBS digital channels we didn't have access to before.  A nice 60th birthday party at a friend's house finished off the day.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Full Day of Travel

Travel days are never really fun, but this was my first day of travel that included FOUR flight segments.  That's right.  Tucson to Denver to Dallas to Dulles to Norfolk.  John took a different flight sequence, going through Chicago.  His Denver to Chicago flight was delayed two hours, but he still was able to make his Norfolk connection.  Most things on my flights went well except one of the segments had no potable water so no coffee.  And my segment into Dallas arrived only fifteen minutes before the flight to Dulles left.  I was a nervous wreck trying to get through all the people ahead of me getting off the plane.  When I did get off, I raced out to the schedule board, found out that my next flight was leaving from the neighboring gate.  But when I ran up to the counter, no one was there and the door to the gate was closed.  Several people asked, "Are you Robert Ake?"  When I answered "Yes,"  they told me the agent had been calling for me, but the door had just been closed.  So I banged on the door which didn't make it open, but did bring an attendant from another gate who got on his phone and raised the person on the other side of the closed door.  After making her understand that my flight had just arrived, she opened the door and I boarded the a thunderous applause, since all the passengers had been told that Bob, the Big Year guy, was the person they were being held up for.   Well, not exactly.  In fact as I went down the aisle to my seat, I could hear the grousing about how much longer it was taking, and it takes all kinds, and he looks like the kind who is always late.  But after that I got my cup of coffee and all was right with the world.  Got into Norfolk ahead of schedule and my bag even arrived with me, not delayed by the quick transfer required in Dallas.  John's flight had arrived a half hour earlier, so Joyce took both of us back to our house where John got into his car and drove off into the traffic and on toward Staunton.  I recorded no birds today, anywhere, at all.  Lots of snow everywhere, though.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Last Day in Arizona - Bird #350

Back in Tucson from our run to California and back, we set out early to a spot where a Short-tailed Hawk has been seen in the morning.  It didn't cooperate, but we met several other birders hoping to see it as well including Stuart Healy from Sierra Vista.  Next we tried for a Red-breasted Sapsucker that has been visiting a city park, again with no success.  However, a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers were courting at the park and I just couldn't resist a photo (photo).  Our third bird try was for Gilded Flicker in the Saguaro National Park.  That yielded much better results with three birds seen in a short period of time.
For the rest of the day we drove up Mt. Lemmon and sampled the habitats at higher elevations.  We took several walks into snow-closed camping areas, walking on the snow, and stopping to listen as we went.  We did see several groups of Pygmy Nuthatches (#350), some Steller's Jays, and a Mountain Chickadee.  We went as high as the road allowed where we saw the result of the fire of several years ago.  Most of the houses in Summerhaven have been rebuilt, but the trees that used to surround them are no longer there.  On the way down we stopped to take some pics (photo).  It took forever to get over to the hotel we had picked for our last night in Arizona.  John had his heart set on an Italian meal, so we did that.  My spinach cannelloni was terrific.  Our flights tomorrow leave Tucson at 5:30am so our last night may not include much sleep.  The species total is now 351.

Another ABA Bird and a Toe in California

This morning the sunrise found us back at the ground-dove spot next to Beverly's house.  But after following the requisite directions and waiting a while, the ruddies hadn't shown up.  So we took a walkabout.  We met John, who has a bunch of pens surrounding his house that have turned the place into a petting zoo.  He had some doves and told us they came in by the tons in the evening.  Overhead were squads of starlings and Red-winged Blackbirds that were hoping to feed in the nearby croplands.  Explosive caps kept going off to try to keep them from doing so.  The ruddies weren't at John's either, so we walked back to Beverly's.  She was out in her yard refilling her feeders.  I took another look in the direction of where the ruddies should be and there, walking in the grass like any love-struck couple, was a pair of Ruddy Ground-Doves (web photo).  The male seemed paler than I had expected until I recalled that the western subspecies is in fact significantly paler than the eastern race, the one I'm used to seeing in Mexico.  Another ABA bird!  We talked a bit with Beverly, told her how much we appreciated being allowed to intrude, and hopped back in the car for a short drive to a Circle K for a celebratory cup of coffee.
Where do you go when you've hit on the target bird early in the day?  To California, of course!  We set a course for the Salton Sea in an attempt to score on the Yellow-footed Gull.  We have a much better chance in winter than later in the year, since the birds go back to Baja to breed.  We got there before noon, and once we got oriented, we drove to the headquarters of the Sonny Bono NWR, got a map, and headed out to Obsidian Butte, the location where the gulls had been seen recently.  There were a lot of California Gulls in all plumages, many Western, Eared, and a few Clark's Grebes.  Brown and White Pelicans, a huge variety of ducks, and more gulls.  At our third stop-and-scan, we climbed out of the car and up a pile of obsidian chunks.  From that vantage I picked out an adult Yellow-footed Gull with its dark mantle, clean white head, bright yellow legs, and large bill (web photo).  Following high fives, we were on our way to the south end of the sea, looking along the way unsuccessfully for Burrowing Owls.  At the overlook for Unit One of the refuge we had Soras and Clapper Rail call.  Saw many Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets.  Lots more ducks and a huge number of white geese.  As if someone unseen had fired a cannon, the geese began to take flight.  There were more Ross's Geese than Snows.  There must have been over ten thousand geese in the air.  Quite a spectacle. 
We gassed up the car, got a portable meal, and headed back toward Tucson arriving at our Motel 6 at about 8:00pm.  Nice meal in a Thai restaurant nearby.  Tomorrow we'll bird around town, try to ditch the car tomorrow afternoon, and stay at a motel with a shuttle service to the airport.  Our flight on Friday departs at 5:30am.  The species total is now 347.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Third Time's the Charm

As you may recall, dear readers, yesterday no new birds were added to the cumulative total. However, as we left the trail where the Rufous-capped Warbler has been seen, we found a note on our windshield that said that the warbler had in fact been seen that morning. That gave us high hopes. But to make it happen, last night I made an effort to contact local people who could give us better directions than we currently had. One of those people was Mark Stevenson . So this morning after a run up and back on Ruby Road hoping for Montezuma Quail to be feeding along its edges, we stopped for lunch. I launched my laptop using the Mifi wireless router and found a message from Mark with quite complete directions to the three locations in Florida Canyon where the warbler has been seen. Needless to say I didn't finish my lunch, but instead drove up to Florida Canyon where we again walked up the same trail. However, at a crucial point, we diverted right and ended up where we should have been, with all the landmarks in the right places...the dam, the sycamore, the burned oaks. Plus we passed a couple who had JUST seen the bird. That, as it turned out, somewhat distracted us, but since we couldn't find the bird where we thought they said it would be, we went back to a systematic survey of the possible areas. Not long after that John yelled that he had the bird along the creek. I got over in time to have the warbler fly into a bush at my feet before it recrossed the creek and disappeared only to reappear forty yards away. We saw it a couple more times but I couldn't get a photo. The Rufous-capped Warbler became the second ABA bird for me on the trip (web photo).
With so much time left in the day we took off for a site near Yuma AZ where Paul Lehman has had Ruddy Ground-Dove. Unfortunately, even though we made good time, we didn't arrive at the location until it was really too dark to see anything well. So we're bunked up in a motel ready to give the search a try first thing in the morning.
By the way even though we didn't get the quail along Ruby Road this morning, we did see a nice flock of Lawrence's Goldfinches, a new bird for the year (photo). The species total is now 341.
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Monday, February 15, 2010

Some of this and that

No new birds today. But it wasn't a bad day. We birded Patagonia Lake State Park again; tried for the Rufous-capped Warbler again; owled in upper Madera Canyon again. All without success. But no one said birding is a gimme. Along the way, though, we saw nice birds with great weather and met some interesting people. At the left is a Gila Woodpecker (photo) who was very proud of the yellow fruit he had found and was trying to figure out how to open it so he could eat it. I'm sorry to report that he dropped it. The Greater Roadrunner (photo) was next to the gate to the state park. He seemed fascinated by the green hose. Perhaps he thought it was a giant reptilian meal. Although I've already posted a picture of a Bridled Titmouse, the cute factor is so strong with this bird that I just had to post another. This photo is actually quite good, if I say so myself.
Tomorrow we're planning to drive the Ruby Road early in the morning, hoping for the elusive Montezuma Quail. The total species list remains at 339.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Flat Tire on Sunday

It was a gorgeous day in southeast Arizona.  Dennys senior breakfast was a hit and the second cup of coffee got me going.  We had hardly started the slow but careful roadside birding in the Sulfur Springs Valley when some Mountain Bluebirds were seen.  This was followed by more good looks at Sage Sparrows and a Crissal Thrasher.  A little further along we found our first Bendire's Thrasher as well as more Curve-billed Thrashers.  The Whitewater Draw Wildlife Management Area is an oasis in the valley, holding many of the usual water birds.  However, the refuge is best known for its wintering Sandhill Cranes.  The population has grown over the past decade and now numbers something in excess of 40,000 cranes.  We saw a group of 500 which was impressive.  We also saw several coveys of Scaled Quail (photo) which is locally referred to as "cotton top."  Along the road a falcon lit on a power pole (photo).  It was a Prairie Falcon, a bird some are still missing, eh David? 
It was about that time that John noticed that the tire pressure light on the dash had come on indicating the at least one of our tires had a leak.  Sure enough!  The right front was looking a bit flat.  We drove to the nearest town and found the tire repair place closed since it was Sunday.  That was to be the case in the next nearest town as well.  So after sampling the local cuisine for lunch, we drove back to Douglas where a Walmart had a functioning tire repair facility.  It took over two hours; all told we lost three plus hours of birding.  When the repair was finished, we replaced the donut tire with the full-sized version and headed back to the valley.  We worked some more fields where we got excellent looks at Lark Buntings, some of which were molting into breeding plumage (photo).  This is another species that breeds where we might not go, so it was good to see it now.
We have decided to go back to the west, forgoing a crack at some of the species in the Chiricahuas.  The strategy is to go after species that are here in winter only or are rare since we'll be back to Arizona in July for the breeding birds.  So tonight we're staying in Patagonia at the Stage Stop Inn, a place where my groups have stayed.  Tomorrow we will visit some of the areas we've visited earlier, but failed to see an important species.  The species total is now 339. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Huachuca Mountains

Today we spent the morning slowly driving the lower reaches of the major canyons on the East side of the Huachuca Mountains in the zone where grass meets oak, hoping to luck onto a Montezuma Quail. We did see and hear some neat birds during the drive, but no quail. At the upper parking area for the Miller Canyon trail we ran into a nice group of birds that I augmented by whistling my Northern Pygmy-Owl imitation. Among the Mexican Jays and Bridled Titmice were White-breasted Nuthatches, a Hermit Thrush, a Magnificent Hummingbird, and a Red-naped Sapsucker (photo), a relatively recent split from the Yellow-bellied. I also noticed a Townsend Warbler working the holes made by the sapsucker (photo). Upper Carr Canyon was closed and Ramsey Canyon is so overdeveloped that it offered little attraction for us.
We went to the San Pedro House, an environmental center with trails maintained by the Friends of the San Pedro River. The feeders were full of Lesser Goldfinches and House Finches with one lonely American Goldfinch waiting her turn. Among the Red-winged Blackbirds were four Yellow-headed Blackbirds and a Bronze Cowbird. We took a walk down to and along the river finding a few birds like Grey Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Song Sparrow, and a triad of woodpeckers. We ate the lunch we had picked up earlier, while watching the birds at the feeders. With most of the afternoon remaining, I decided to try Fort Huachuca and Scheelite Canyon. However, the main entrance to the fort was closed for repairs, so we had to use the East entrance and work our way around to Garden Canyon. We parked the car in the new-to-me parking lot for Scheelite Canyon, walked to the trail head, and started up. It''s somewhat problematic to watch your feet so you don't slip and simultaneously scan the trees for birds. But when we reached the section of the climb Smitty used to refer to as "the jaws," I had strayed from the trail and had to clamber over to reach it. As I did I looked up and there was the Spotted Owl. We saw only one and we didn't want to hassle it in an attempt to find the other. We took a few pictures (photo) and went back down the trail. There's a feeling of reverence when you're in the presence of those owls.
We drove to Douglas where we'll get set to launch a search of the Sulfur Springs Valley tomorrow, looking for longspurs, sparrows, and raptors. Tonight we'll eat in the early twnetieth century Gadsden Hotel with its Tiffany windows. We stopped by there earlier so we could see the windows with the sun streaming through and the huge faux marble columns with their gold-plated caps. A real treasure. The species total now stands at 334.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Phoenix Area Birding....With Success!

After enjoying and greatly appreciating George and Ellen West's hospitality for three nights, we got up and out early this morning and headed toward Superior AZ where the Boyce Thompson Botanical Gardens are located. Two Rufous-backed Robins had been reported from that location. So after missing the one at Santa Gertrudis Lane, we were again trying to add that species to our list. We had enough time for a quick breakfast and still made it to the gate ten minutes before they opened. We parked, paid the entrance fee, and walked back along the main trail. A robin-sized bird jumped up off the ground and into a bush near some purple berries. It was the bird (photos), gotten within ten minutes. It was my first ABA area bird of the year. You'll see that if you look at the spreadsheets on my web page. It's shaded orange! A little later a Canyon Wren sang and a Rock Wren perched high up on the cliff and bobbed. On our way back we spotted the other Rufous-backed Robin feeding on some berries. We were able to point it out to another birdwatcher who raced off to get his friend. Buoyed by this success we headed west toward Phoenix to try for a Eurasian Wigeon on an urban pond. It took a little maneuvering but we managed to get parked and walk to the pond. There was the wigeon, a catch-up bird for John. We also tried an old site that I knew of for Burrowing Owl, but in the intervening years the habitat has fallen prey to parking lot development.
Our next target was Le Conte's Thrasher in a salt bush area west of Phoenix. It took the better part of an hour to get there and get organized to search the sparsely vegetated, somewhat desolate field that is the habitat of the thrasher. The walk began with great views of Sage Sparrows, running across the ground with their tails held high. Gambel's Quails called and Anna's Hummingbirds sang and did their courtship arcs in the air. Then a pair of pale thrashers raced over the ground in front of us looking like diminutive roadrunners. One of the birds was carrying nesting material. We got two more looks at the birds, both involving fast-moving runs across the bare spaces between bushes. These Le Conte's Thrashers behaved as all the others I've seen. I had been hoping since we were getting here in February that the male would be singing from a bush and I'd get a perched-up thrasher view. Oh well. We did have good short views and we were glad to have them. A Black-tailed Gnatcatcher added frosting to the cake. With all the trophies under belt, it was decided to head back to southeastern Arizona for some of the other target birds. The species total is now 328. That's more than half-way to my goal of 650!
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

San Rafael Grasslands and Baird's Sparrow

We had decided to go to the San Rafael grasslands today.  George volunteered his Toyota 4-Runner since it had high clearance and 4-wheel drive which we might need since it had rained/snowed heavily yesterday.  That proved to be a good idea since the roads were very sloppy and the Prius couldn't have made it.  When we got up to 5400 feet, the elevation of the grassland, there was snow on the ground (photo).  Our only companions were the Border Patrol trucks that passed us.  We saw flocks of longspurs and Horned Larks flying around so we did a little walking out into the snowy grass.  Longspurs flew up right and left, but one bird stayed behind.  It slunk through the grass, but gave us great looks as it paused in open spaces.  It was a Baird's Sparrow, our target bird and the reward for having subjected George's vehicle to the muddy track.  The longspurs were identified as Chestnut-collared and were beginning to get some breeding plumage.  On the way down we stopped for some small flocks which included Bushtits, Bridled Titmice (photo), and Mexican Jays.  After a coffee in Patagonia, we went to the Patons to look at the feeders.  As it so happens Mrs. Paton recently died and the family has yet to decide what to do with the place.  Michael Marsden is currently acting as caretaker.  Two Anna's Hummingbirds were the only hummers at the feeders but there were Pine Siskins at the seed feeders.  We decided to move on to Lake Patagonia where we found waterfowl, cormorants, and some new year birds including Grey Flycatcher, Hutton's Vireo, and Arizona Woodpecker.  On the way back to Green Valley we stopped at Santa Gertrudis Lane just to have another look for the Rufous-backed Robin, but it wasn't there.  Back in Green Valley we took George's suv to the carwash to get rid of some of the accretion of mud.  Later we took George and Ellen out to a restaurant where we all had great meals.  The species total is now 320.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Luggage, Rain, But Some Nice Birds

The luggage was supposed to arrive during the night...but it didn't, giving the day a negative start.  John made arrangements to have the bags delivered to George West's house and left outside if no one was home.  They did arrive sometime around noon and George brought them in when he got back from a junket to Mexico to get duty free supplies.  On the other hand John and I went birding along Santa Gertrudis Lane south of Tumacacori.  There had been a giant hedge of pyracanthus in full berry, but lately all the berries have been eaten, leaving a pretty bare offering for the birds.  There were Western Bluebirds, mockingbirds, Hermit Thrushes of the western variety, and one American Robin feeding there.  But no Rufous-backed Robin.  We'll have to hope that the Boyce Thompson bird(s) hold up for another week.  We did have a nice Crissal Thrasher (web photo) and some other ancillary pickups during our morning of birding.
At lunchtime we went back to sort out John's outdoor wear that was delivered.  We also got to see George's hummingbirds, Anna and Costa.  George bands hummingbirds during the summer season.  In the afternoon we headed for the upper Florida Wash area where a Rufous-crowned Warbler has been seen on and off.  It was raining with the temperature in the low forties.  Our directions turned out not to be precise enough and we finally turned around after a significant climb without seeing much except a Canyon Towhee.  A ride up into Madera Canyon found the rain turning to sleet and then to snow with an appreciable accumulation at 5400 feet.  The total of new birds for the day was eleven bringing the species total to 311.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

We are in Arizona - Bird Number 300

A long day of flying.  Into Chicago with the snow.  Out to Los Angeles.  That's right Los Angeles.  It's right on the way to Tucson.  But right on schedule we arrived in Tucson.  My luggage made it, but John's didn't.  So after filing a claim, we picked up the rental car, a Prius, and headed south toward Madera Canyon.  It was late but we managed some new species, Yellow-eyed Junco, Spotted Towhee, Acorn Woodpecker, and Painted Restart (bird species # 300) (web photo).  Tonight we're staying at the home of George West and his wife in Green Valley.  George wrote the bird guide to Alaska which we'll use later this year.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Arizona Not

While watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, I got a call saying that one of the legs of our flight to Tucson had been cancelled.  So we had to stop watching the game, missing the onside kickoff, and get new flights.  No new arrangement could be made for Monday, so we settled for Tuesday.  With the schedule open for today we decided to bird locally.  In the morning we went to the Dismal Swamp where we had a nice assortment of woodpeckers but didn't run into the hoped-for Rusty Blackbird.  However, I did manage to see a Brown Creeper which was a catch-up bird for me since John saw one in Indiana that I missed.
We returned to the house so I could pack up.  John was already packed.  Once I was finished, we went back out to check out the bay.  At Ocean View we spotted a couple of Horned Grebes, a species that was a catch-up for John.  We finished off the day at Crackers, a tapas restaurant, where we had a great meal.  Off to bed early since our flight departs Norfolk at 6:00 am tomorrow.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


John and I set out from the house this morning, headed for Mackay Island NWR.  We went there on January 1 as part of our first day of the Big Year.  We drove the causeway slowly with the emergency lights flashing.  We were looking for American Bittern and King Rail, just as we were that first day.  We parked and walked the edge of the marsh on each side of the road, got back in the car and drove a little further, then walked another stretch of road edge.  Along the first stretch to our amazement, we flushed a Least Bittern, a bird I've seen only once before during the winter and that sighting was also at MacKay Island.  After lots more walking we were returning to the car when an American Bittern flushed to our left (photo).  My yelp of joy provoked a King Rail to call.  So we had bagged the birds for which we were searching.
Going from there to Back Bay NWR to scan the ocean sounded like a good idea.  At the ocean we did carefully study a Pacific Loon just beyond the surf.  But the hoped for scoters, grebes, and gulls were not there.  So we moved on to Fort Story.  As we were approaching Rudee Inlet it just made sense to stop and give it a look.  There were a few Surf Scoters, a female Common Eider, a Purple Sandpiper, and quite a few gulls.  In the midst of those gulls was an immature Little Gull, a catchup bird for John since he missed the one at the hotel yesterday in NC.  But unlike yesterday, there were only two Bonaparte's Gulls in the flock.  So you don't always need lots of Bonies to get a Little Gull.
We did make it to Fort Story, and after being checked out, we went to the bay overlook near the first landing monument.  There was not a lot flying except Red-throated Loons and Red-breasted Mergansers, plus a few Northern Gannets and a large unidentified alcid.
We headed home to get ready for our trip to Arizona tomorrow and to watch the Super Bowl.  Go Colts.  My species total now stands at 295.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Little Gull, a catch-up bird

The VSO field trip to the Outer Banks of NC officially began last night with a nice presentation by Jerry Via and Bill Akers and a compilation of species seen so far.  The pelagic trip added quite a few species to the trip list.  Today, after breakfast, we assembled on the raised deck behind the motel to scan the ocean for birds.  It was a bit foggy, but cleared up slowly during the following hour.  There were large numbers of Northern Gannets and Bonaparte's Gulls with other gulls and a few scoters.  One of the other gulls turned out to be an Iceland Gull in second winter plumage with a bit of silvery mantle showing.  Out over the breakers a small gull caught Jerry's eye (web photo).  I got on the bird; it turned out to be an adult Little Gull in winter plumage with its black underwings flashing.  This was a bird all of yesterday's participants on the pelagic trip had missed after Brian had sighted it.  After the gull disappeared to the north, the group reassembled in the parking lot, loaded up, and headed south to Pea Island NWR.  We tarried a bit, then caught up with the group at the south end of the Oregon Inlet bridge where they were looking at a Common Eider.  In the watery road edges there were Dunlin, a Short-billed Dowitcher, Semi-palmated Plovers, Wilson Snipe, and a Killdeer.  Further down on the refuge were Snow Geese, 3 White Pelicans, Western Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, and Tundra Swans.  A couple of Bald Eagles kept the waterfowl on the move.  Toward noon we broke away and started toward Norfolk with stops on the way to get some fresh fish and to pick up sunflower seed at the Cape Henry Audubon Society's birdseed sale.  It snowed most of the way home and was still snowing when we arrived at my home.  The snow raised  questions about our flying to Arizona on Monday since our flights go through Dulles which was closed today.  Ah well!  All part of the great adventure.  Tomorrow we'll bird locally.  My total species list now stands at 292.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Very Successful Pelagic Trip

As you probably gathered from yesterday's posting, I didn't think we'd get out today.  So what do I know?  Seven hardy VSO members boarded Brian Patteson's boat, the Stormy Petrel, just a bit after 6:00 am and shortly thereafter we were underway  .... in the dark.  We stayed inside until the boat made it through the inlet.  The first Razorbill was seen soon after that and the fun had begun.  The rain held off until afternoon as did the higher wind velocity.  Brian took us northeast along the coast where over 100 Razorbills were seen.  Then a few Dovekies popped up.  Chumming brought in many birds, mostly Herring and Great Black-back Gulls and Northern Gannets. But among them were an Iceland Gull and Manx and Greater Shearwaters.  We made it out to the Gulf Stream where we cruised the boundary for a time.  Among the Bonaparte's Gulls working the weed line were a half dozen Atlantic Puffins and a dozen Red Phalaropes.  With the wind rising and the rain beginning, we headed south still vigorously chumming.  And it paid off.  Out of the gray came a large dark seabird on powerful wings....a Great Skua, my number one target bird for this trip (net photo).  Brain turned the boat around and brought us quite close to the skua.  During the day he also manuevered the boat to give us great looks at all the pelagic species.  I had purposely left my camera in the car because I thought conditions were going to be wet and windy and not conducive to good picture-taking.  With the great looks we had at all those birds I think I could somehow have managed.
Species total is now 291.  We'll go over 300 in Arizona, our next out-of-the area trip; we'll be there next Monday night.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The First Pelagic Trip

John and I are back together again, this time for our first pelagic attempt of the year.  We're scheduled to go out of Hatteras NC tomorrow with Brian Patteson to look for alcids, winter gulls, Great Skua, and the like.  The weather doesn't look too terrific, but we're hopeful something will come of it.  We have to get up at 4am and drive to Hatteras from our Kill Devil Hills motel.  Traffic shouldn't be much at that hour.  The participants in this VSO pelagic trip are supposed to meet at the dock at 6am.  We will have done our 7-11 breakfast and coffee.  Though the temperature is now 37F, it is not likely to be much warmer tomorrow.  If we don't make it offshore tomorrow, it looks even worse for Saturday and Sunday.  Such are the vagaries of pelagics.  If we don't get out tomorrow, we'll spend the day birding onshore with special attention to the ocean side where we can look for the alcids and other birds we had hoped to find from the boat.  We'll give you a report tomorrow. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Travel North and Fly Home

I bid Audrey, Bobbie, and Dixie (Audrey's dog) goodbye and headed out looking for a gas station that perhaps had coffee for sale.  I found one and as I emerged with cup in hand, who should greet me at my car but two Common Mynas, now a countable Florida exotic (net photo).  So they got counted.  With some coffee and a year bird under belt I headed north to Ft. Lauderdale where apparently the last remains of any Smooth-billed Anis in the country reside.  It's a commercial area south of the airport and isn't a place where anyone would like to spend spare time.  But I combed the area for well over an hour.  Just as I was about to leave John Pushock whom I had met yesterday drove up.  So he and I tried a little harder, but still without success.  At least I have the area figured out when John Spahr and I return in April.  During the time I was Ani searching, I glanced skyward from time to time.  About 9:30am there were some vultures in the sky.  A hawk joined them and then another.  Lo and behold it was a pair of Short-tailed Hawk, a bird that can be gotten in Texas and Arizona, but is most easily seen in south Florida (net photo).
I got back in the car for the journey north.  I had travelled perhaps 10 minutes when my cellphone rang.  I had just called my doctor's office about a perscription and was expecting a callback.  It wasn't the doctor's office; it was Audrey.  The La Sagra's was being seen.  It was now about 11am and I was a little more than an hour north of the site.  So I had to make a tough decision and decided I couldn't get down there and back to Orlando in time to make my flight.  Besides there wasn't any guarantee the bird would still be there if I did make the run.  There are NO guarantees in birding, folks.  So I bagged it and kept on going north.  I'll have to admit that I pulled off the road and thought about it, made several calculations, but stuck with my original decision.
Much further north near Vero Beach I experienced something new for me.  A bird flew up out of the scrubby vegetation that's all along that area.  It was easily identified as a Florida Scrub-Jay.  I've seen many of them during my visits to Florida, but never from the interstate.  And it's another Florida endemic, in fact a US endemic (web photo).  We'll see it again in April at a little more leisurely pace when it can be savored as it must be.
I made it to the airport in time to gas up, check in the rental car, check in for my flight, and grab a Starbucks to go with the peanut butter and jelly sandwich Audrey had made for me.  I enjoyed the meal.  The first flight was on time.  The second one is not.  I'm writing this blog in the Newark airport where I'm hoping the half-hour delay posted is in fact all the delay we experience.  Tonight, back in my own bed.  Tomorrow John comes to Norfolk and we travel to the NC Outer Banks for the VSO pelagic trip.  Species total is now 284.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

All Day at Bill Baggs, but NO La Sagra's Flycatcher

The day began with a stop at a breakfast place, the Donut Gallery, recommended by Robin Diaz.  It was a hoot and quite reasonable considering it was on Key Biscayne, one of the most expensive locations in Florida.  We met Robin, a volunteer naturalist at the park, and John Puschock, a young bird tour leader and photographer from Seattle who had been showing his pics at the recently concluded Space Coast Birding Festival.  The birds started with calling Great Crested Flycatchers, Eastern Phoebes, some warblers, Painted Buntings, and Blue-headed Vireos.  The warblers included American Redstart and Prairie Warbler, two new birds for the year.  During the morning a couple of Magnificent Frigatebirds flew by (web photo).  We ended up with a group of good birders all trying to come up with the La Sagra's but it was not to be.  The best animal of the day was an Everglades Racer with its pale gray smooth scales.  We also saw many lizards displaying their dewlaps.  They were jumping around and diverting my attention with their motion and the noise they made in the leaf litter.  The afternoon ended with the return of the Great Crested Flycatchers and no La Sagra's with them.
Audrey, Bobby, and I went to Shivers, a BBQ rib spot, where we sampled their chicken, pork, and beef plus collards, black eyed peas, cole slaw.  We saved room for dessert back at the trailer.  Audrey had made a sour orange pie, like a Key Lime pie but made with sour, not sweet, oranges.  It was very good.  The species total now stands at 281.  Tomorrow I travel north returning the rental car and flying home from Orlando.