Thursday, January 26, 2012

Woodcocks at Mason Farm

At dusk last night my sister and I went down to Mason Farm to see if the woodcocks (photos above and below taken last spring at Magee Marsh, Ohio) were out. We arrived about 6 PM, and as we walked down the grassy roadway to get to the open fields we heard several birds still calling, including woodcocks. We had a few fly bys as we made our way down to the open area. By the time we reached the intended spot it was quite dark with only a new moon to light up the evening. Sure enough a woodcock landed about 50 feet away and began to call. I had charged my spotlight before coming out, but quickly discovered that since it had not been charged in a very long time that the charge was short lived. Opposite us an equal distance from the bird were 2 other birders with a flashlight which they would occasionally shine on the woodcock. Since our light was kaput, after squinting thru our binos for about 10 minutes, we headed on back home.

I am off tomorrow at the crack of dawn to fly to Arizona to meet up with 4 other birding friends. Our first stop tomorrow afternoon will be near Lake Havasu City to look for the Nutting's flycatcher that has been up visiting for a few weeks from Mexico. From there we will all drive into California to look for a falcated duck that has been hanging out for several weeks at Colusa NWR. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Great January for a Birder Doing a 2012 Big Year

In reviewing the NARBA postings for the first 10 days of 2012, if I were doing a big year in 2012 my head would be spinning with the possibilities. And following Sandy Komito's big year dictum to chase immediately all ABA code 4 and 5 birds, I would have already criss-crossed the country in just 10 days, and would still be rushing about trying not to miss the amazing number of rarities currently being seen.

In 2010 when I did my lower 48 big year, I was blessed in January with several code 3-5 birds, beginning with the first North American record for bare-throated tiger-heron at Bentsen RGV State Park. But 2012 is off the charts with opportunities, particularly if one is doing a lower 48 big year. In south TX in the Valley the rarities include black-vented oriole (code 5), golden-crowned warbler (4), crimson-collared grosbeak (4), blue bunting (4), and rose-throated becard (3).

In Arizona you can find Nutting's flycatcher (5), rufous-backed thrush (3), rufous-capped warbler (3), and black-capped gnatcatcher (3). Florida is hosting La Sagra's flycatcher (3) and American flamingo (3). In 2010 I was able to see in Florida a La Sagra's as well as the red-footed booby (3) in the photo just below.

California has a wintering over falcated duck (4), and Oregon has a brambling (3) and emperor goose (2). Washington also has emperor goose and yellow-billed loon (2). Ohio has had for several weeks a black-tailed gull (4) while the northeast is sporting pink-footed and barnacle geese (3's), and a slaty-backed gull (3). New Jersey has a common chaffinch (4), and Tennessee still has the hooded crane--possible first NA record. Anchorage, AK has a dusky thrush (4) being seen, and Newfoundland this winter once again has a yellow-legged gull (4). Finally, it has been a very good irruption year for snowy owls.

Most of these birds showed up in December, so working out a travel schedule prior to starting a big year in 2012 would have been a top priority. And those that appeared only recently are in places that the other birds were already being seen. 8 of this January's lower 48 states rarities I did not see during my 2010 big year. I have not heard of anyone doing an all-out full ABA area or lower 48 big year in 2012, but there are several birders doing their version of a big year (photographic, low budget, father/son). Here's wishing you all the very best of birding this year.

Turning to my chase for the Nutting's flycatcher and the falcated duck that I referenced in my last post, a stomach virus laid me low last week so that did not happen. I still have my fingers crossed that both birds will continue to winter over at their current locations. In 2010 a brown shrike was found in northern California in November, and stayed into early April of 2011. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

John Vanderpoel and the Myth of El Nino and Attu

John Vanderpoel's monumental effort to surpass Sandy Komito's full ABA area big year record of 748 in the end fell short by just 6 birds. John is undoubtedly still feeling worn out from the effort expended, and maybe a bit frustrated for having just missed setting a new record. But mostly I am sure he is elated from all the incredible memories that he has from his big year. Major congrats to you John!

Having done my own lower 48 big year in 2010, and being a student of other big years, I can say today that Sandy Komito's record set back in 1998 should no longer be seen as unbeatable. The book, The Big Year, helped to create a belief that somehow the combination of an El nino year and being able to bird at Attu created a unique set of birding opportunities that no longer could be matched. Bob Ake's effort last year when he saw 731 birds in the full ABA area began to raise questions about the myth of Attu and El nino. John's total of 743 (plus 1 provisional--the hooded crane) in my opinion demonstrates that it is just a matter of time before Sandy's seemingly insurmountable record is surpassed.

In fact, if John had begun his big year with the same single-mindedness that Sandy had in 1998, and discusses in his book (I Came, I Saw, I Counted), then John could have set a new record in 2011. I have spent some time studying John's schedule, and some key birds that he definitely could have seen but missed last year. For starters, a tufted flycatcher (code 5) was seen all of December in 2010 at Big Bend NP. If john had started his big year on Jan 1 at Big Bend he would have seen the tufted.

He could have gone to Quebec, and either Newfoundland or Nova Scotia in January or February to see a fieldfare (code 4) and a northern lapwing (code 4). His schedule would have allowed him to be on a pelagic trip out of Santa Barbara on 4/30 which would have given him a Murphy's petrel (code 3). If he had been patient and stayed literally a few minutes longer at a feeder in TX, he would have seen a white-eared hummer (code 3) in August that he specifically had gone to see. Similarly, after his extended stay at Adak in December, he chose to go home rather than remain one more day in AK which would have given him a dusky thrush (code 4) in Anchorage.

While John generally had very good timing throughout the year (fork-tailed flycatcher in FL; little egret in ME; curlew sandpiper and little stint in southern CA on the same day; violet-green hummer in TX; and gray-hooded gull in NY), the need to be home for Thanksgiving meant he missed a redwing (code 4) in Seward, AK by 1 day. Hindsight shows if he had first gone for the smew (code 3) in Ontario rather than the hooded crane in late December he would have gotten the smew and still been able to see the crane.

Finally, in late August instead of birding in Colorado for some code 1 birds that he could have picked up at other times of the year, he could have been in the Pribiloffs for a few days before going to Gambell. If he had he could have seen taiga and dark-sided flycatchers (code 4's), a jack snipe (code 4) and a long-toed stint (code 3). All of these birds could have been seen without missing out on other birds that John saw during the same time periods. If he had seen all these additional birds his 2011 total would have been 755.

When I exchanged emails a few weeks ago with Sandy Komito, he wrote that he hopes to live long enough to be able to congratulate a new full ABA area big year record holder. John's big year clearly shows that Sandy just might be doing that in the near future.

I have an airplane ticket on hold to fly out to Arizona and California this coming weekend to try for the Nutting's flycatcher and the falcated duck. Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Birding Highlights from 2011

It is New Year's day--warm and sunny here in NC. While the extent of my birding in 2011 was nothing like my big year in 2010, I still had some memorable birding trips. 2011 began in early January with my birding buddy Pam when we spent 5 days in the Rio Grande Valley of TX. I had chosen not to chase a black-vented oriole (photo above--click on it to enlarge) that showed up at Bentsen RGV State Park at the end of December, but since it was still being seen and it would be an ABA lifer for me, we decided to try for it while doing some extensive birding. We had a very enjoyable time with Pam picking up 25+ life birds.

I was going to chase with my friends Dan and Doreene a fieldfare that spent 3+ weeks in late Jan. and early Feb. at the tip of the Gaspe peninsula, Quebec, Canada. Unfortunately I had a last minute conflict develop here in NC, and could not make the trip. Dan and Doreene did go and got to see the fieldfare. I did get to see a yellow-faced grassquit in Texas in late Feb. when I went to Austin to visit friends.

In early May I made what is becoming an annual spring trip to Magee marsh near Toledo, OH. Just prior to my departure a garganey was found outside of Cincinnati. I routed myself thru there and was able to see another lifer (photo above--far right bird). My time at Magee may have been the best so far. The weather was almost perfect--sunny and 60's. The birding was outstanding most days, and for the first time when birding at Magee I saw a Connecticut warbler.

In late May a fan-tailed warbler (photo below by Martin Meyers) was found in Madera Canyon, AZ. This is the only new world warbler that I had not yet seen, so I jumped on a plane to AZ. I was able to see it on 2 consecutive days before it disappeared.

In June I went with 3 friends--Craig, Marty and Richard--on a raft trip with 4 other birders and 2 guides in the Arctic NWR to find the gray-headed chickadee (photo below by Bob Dittrick). This is probably the hardest breeding bird to see in North America. We were fortunate to get great views at the nest tree shown in the photo, and we saw another pair further down the river. All in all, the raft trip was outstanding--a most memorable birding adventure.

After we completed the raft trip, my wife joined me for 10 days of touring around Alaska. At Denali NP we were able to see lots of wildlife including a first ever lynx. We also saw a pair of gyrfalcons. While in Homer we took a morning pelagic trip to look for 2 more life birds-- red-faced cormorant (photo below), and Kittlitz's murrelet, both of which we found.

My 2011 life bird success rate dropped dramatically in the 2nd half of the year when I missed by 2 days seeing the gray-hooded gull that spent a week at Coney Island, NY. Then just before Thanksgiving I joined John Vanderpoel, Doug Koch, Ken Petersen and Liz Southworth to chase a graylag goose near Montreal, Canada. We missed it by a day, but fortunately it was refound 2 weeks later so that John, Doug and Liz were able to see it afterall.

My final chase of the year was over to TN to see the hooded crane which was also a success. So I finished the year with 7 new lifers, and 1 provisional pending the acceptance of the crane as a wild bird.

Turning to some of the 2011 big year birders, Gabriel Mapel, a 12 year old from VA, finished his junior big year at 436 birds, seeing a Bell's vireo as his last year bird at Cape May, NJ. Matt Stenger from OH completed his big year at 681, seeing a black-headed gull on Dec. 31st in Rhode Island. Finally, John Vanderpoel missed the smew in Ontario, Canada, but did see a Nutting's flycatcher in AZ on Dec. 31st bringing his YTD total up to 743 plus a provisional for the hooded crane. Major congrats to all 3 big year birders! In the next few days I will be doing a post on John's monumental effort that just missed breaking Sandy Komito's record for the full ABA area. Stay tuned!