Sunday, August 14, 2016

Himalayan Snowcock Adventure

I have just returned from a quick visit to Utah and Nevada where I joined up with Laura Keene, Bert Filemyr, Doreene Linzell and Marty Riback mainly to visit the Ruby Mountains in NE Nevada in search of Himalayan snowcocks.  Laura is doing a full ABA area big year, and the rest of us offered in the spring to assist her in looking for the often hard to find snowcock, which is an introduced game bird that is only found in the Ruby Mountains.  It lives above the tree line which requires a 2 mile hike up from the parking lot in Lamoille Canyon to reach Island Lake (9700 ft elevation) that sits at the bottom of a large cirque (all photos except for the group shot (John) and the Island Lake photo (Laura) were taken by Bert.  Click on any photo to enlarge).

We flew into Salt Lake City on Tuesday the 9th, and made the 220 mile drive west to Elko, NV.  After an early dinner we drove another 20 miles up to the small town of Lamoille to check into Hotel Lamoille--a nice 3 room place that would shorten our drive at 4 AM the next morning up to the end of the road in Lamoille Canyon.  Since there was some daylight left, we went up to Pump House picnic area to look for Lewis's woodpeckers which we found.  Even more intriguing for me was the hummingbird moths that were actively feeding on flower nectar.

You have 2 choices when it comes to looking for the snowcock.  Either you can hike up late in the afternoon, and spend the night at Island Lake so you are ready to start searching at first light; or begin hiking up in the dark to arrive soon after first light.  In 2010 when I did my big year I hiked up and spent the night in early July, but failed to either see or hear a snowcock.  I tried again in August camping out overnight that time with my friend Rob Lowry.  We heard snowcocks calling, but we were unable to locate them in the vast area of the cirque.  So besides helping Laura, I also wanted to finally see a snowcock, thus removing the only "heard only bird" on my ABA life list.

Our group decided that hiking up in the dark was preferred.  The trail is very well maintained and includes many switchbacks, so hiking with a headlamp is not difficult.  Since it was 47 degrees when we set out at 4:45 AM, it also was very comfortable hiking compared to my late afternoon hikes in 2010 when the sun was pounding down on me and the temp was in the 80's. As we were about to start up the trail, John Weigel, who is also doing a full ABA area big year, drove up and said he would catch up with us.

Each of us walked at our own pace in climbing about 1000 feet of elevation which meant we reached the lake at different times.  Soon after Marty, Bert and I arrived at the lake John caught up with us. The 4 of us then hiked up another 200-300 yards to a level spot, and just after 6 AM began searching for the snowcocks.

We knew that a few had been seen regularly in the cirque over the past few weeks, so we figured we would be able to find them.  While the scopes were being assembled, I was scanning in the most likely area of the cirque when I noticed some movement at an estimated distance of 200-300 yards.  Looking through 2 scopes we located at least 4 snowcocks, which are the size of a small turkey, slowly feeding on seed heads. They can be very difficult to find if they are not moving because their color is so similar to the rocks.

Laura and Doreene had not arrived yet, so John walked back down the hill a bit to find them working their way up the steep incline.  First Laura got to the scopes, and a few minutes later Doreene joined us. John had already seen a flying snowcock in late July, but had returned to get photos.  As a result, he headed back down the mountain sooner than we did.  Before he left, he took a "record" shot of the 5 of us, and we also got one of him and Laura.

The rest of us were able to spend an hour overall watching the snowcocks feed. We also saw other birds in the cirque and on our way back down including mountain bluebird, Townsend's solitaire, white-crowned sparrow, pine siskin, junco, rock wren, Cassin's finch, MacGillivray's and Wilson's warblers, western wood pewee, northern flicker, kestrel and red-tailed hawk.

Since we were so successful in finding the snowcocks, it meant we could now drive back to Salt Lake City instead of needing to try again the next day.  Enroute we stopped in some good habitat for juniper titmouse--a bird that Laura still needed for her big year list.  We came up short, but early the next morning south of Salt Lake City we finally tracked down a couple.

Then we drove up to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge which is about an hour north of Salt Lake City. We stopped on the way in Ogden for an early lunch at In-N-Out Burger which provided the "fuel" we needed to spend almost 4 hours birding the refuge.

On the drive in we saw a couple of eastern kingbirds, and then at the beginning of the auto tour we found lots of northern rough-winged, violet-green, barn and tree swallows, and both Clark's and western grebes. The drive provided lots of birds including white-faced ibis, mallard, redhead and ruddy ducks, cinnamon and green-winged teals, pied-billed grebe, avocet, black-necked stilt, American bittern,  snowy egret, spotted sandpiper, willet, savannah sparrow, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, northern harrier, California and Franklin's gulls, and Forster's and Caspian terns.

There were 1000's of coots and many juveniles with which most of us were not familiar.  We finally found some large pools of water that had a few waders like western and Baird's sandpiper, killdeer, and lesser yellowlegs.

Near the end of the drive we happened upon a huge group of long-billed dowitchers.  It is hard to accurately estimate such a large number, but it was easily the most at one spot that I had encountered. We concluded that the total was between 4,000 and 5,000 birds.  The photo below only captures some of the flock.

We still had time to make one more stop at Antelope Island SP where many birders go to see their first chukar.  The great Salt Lake is very low this year, so the water did not come close to the long causeway drive out to the island except where the road crossed a small connecting point.  We found 1000's of Wilson phalaropes there, and a few bank swallows sitting on a wire.  In 2010 when I came to the island to see a chukar, the water was up to the causeway, and 1000's of eared grebes were feeding.  On Thursday there were only a few of them.

We stopped at the visitor center to enquire about recent chukar sightings.  We were told to just look behind the center, and sure enough we found a few of them moving in and out of the vegetation. Sometimes you have to work very hard to see a chukar, so we figured it was a perfect bookend to our earlier success with the snowcocks.

Early on Friday Marty caught a flight home, and Laura took a flight to Dallas to search for buff-breasted sandpipers. Bert, Doreene and I went up into Big Cottonwood Canyon to see what we could find.  It was only 45 degrees when we started birding before 7 AM, so the birds were not very active. Over the next 3+ hours we did see some new trip birds like red-breasted nuthatch, mountain chickadee, sharp-shinned hawk, orange-crowned warbler, Lincoln's sparrow, and stellar's jay.  We stopped on our way down the mountain to have breakfast, and were treated to 4 different kinds of hummers feeding at the lodge's feeders--broad-tailed, black-chinned, rufous and calliope.  It was a very nice end to our birding trip which included over 100 bird species in just 2+ days of birding.

I want to close this post with a short update on how the big year birders are progressing.  As I said in early July, this is proving to be a record breaking year for full ABA area big year birders.  As of today, both John Weigel and Olaf Danielson have broken the record of 749 set in 2013 by Neil Hayward.  John is at 756 species plus 2 provisionals (first ABA area record birds that will need to be reviewed, and hopefully added to the official ABA list).  Olaf is at 752 plus 1 provisional.  Also, Laura Keene has now reached a total of 714 + 2, and Christian Hagenlocher is at 711 + 2. No other big year has had 4 people break 700 different species. Both Laura and Christian might also pass the old record by the end of December, and John and Olaf will add even more birds to their respective totals before year end.  Good fortune and birding to all of them.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Pine Flycatcher and 2016 Big Year Update

I just had an opportunity to get down to southeastern Arizona to do 3 days of birding in one of my very favorite places to visit.  It was over 100 degrees each day, topping out one day at 105, but it was still enjoyable.  On the 4th of July I spent my time over in the Sierra Vista area birding in Miller and Carr Canyons.  The hummers at the Beatty Guest Ranch were fun to watch even though the white-eared hummer they often get each year did not come in to feed.  The hummer group included broad-billed, broad-tailed, magnificent, rufous, black-chinned, violet crowned and anna's. My highlight for the day was seeing a northern pygmy owl up close that I found sitting on a tree branch as I was driving down the windy Carr Canyon road late in the afternoon.  I was about to take a picture when another car drove up and scared the owl off.

On Tuesday the 5th I was up at 4 AM so I could get down to Madera and Florida Canyons before first light in order to try for poor wills along the road.  Sure enough I found 3, and then spent about an hour walking part way up Florida Canyon listening to the morning chorus.

I stopped next on my way up to Madera Canyon to check out the desert species, and saw most of the usual suspects for this time of the year such as varied bunting, lucy's warbler, phainopepla, verdin, Bell's vireo, brown-crested flycatcher, canyon towhee, and rufous-winged, black-throated and Botteri's sparrows.

I then went up to the Santa Rita Lodge to look for the plain-capped starthroat that had been reported the day before. I ended up being there most of the day, arriving before 8 AM, and finally leaving a bit scorched from all the sun at 7:30 PM.  There were several other birders who came and went, but none of us saw the starthroat fly in. We were entertained all day by many other hummers including a single brilliant male rufous, and many broad-billed hummers.  Other birds coming to the feeding area included magnificent, anna's and black-chinned hummers, hepatic tanager, Scott's oriole, lesser goldfinch, brown-headed and bronzed cowbirds, Arizona and acorn woodpeckers, dusky-capped flycatcher, wild turkey, varied bunting, white-breasted nuthatch, bridled titmouse, Mexican jay and house finch.

Wednesday I was up again at 4 AM to make the 1 hour drive down to the intersection of Hwy 83 and Gardner Canyon road where I met Melody Kehl, a local bird guide.  I have known Melody for years beginning when I road into California Gulch with her to see 5 striped sparrow and buff-collared nightjars.  She was driven by her husband because of the absolutely worst road I have ever been on since the first trip many years ago into California Gulch.  Edge Wade was also with her, a birder that I also met several years ago who lives in Columbia, MO where I grew up.  I had last seen her during my big year in 2010 when we bumped into each other in South Dakota looking at an orange-billed nightingale-thrush.

Our goal for the morning was to try to see the first documented pine flycatcher found in the ABA area.  Even though it was only 5-6 driving miles into the campsite where the bird had been found on May 30th, it took almost an hour to traverse this just horrible road that is actually pretty good for the first 3 miles.  On our way in we heard black-chinned sparrows calling.

The pine flycatcher is found in Mexico and Guatemala, and is very similar to a cordilleran or pacific-slope flycatcher which are common in the west of the U.S. The sun was beginning to shine on the treetops in the campsite when we arrived at 6 AM, and fortunately the bird was sitting on the nest it had built 3 weeks earlier.  Over the next hour we were able to get good looks at the flycatcher as it would periodically leave the nest to feed (the photos above and below were taken by Neil Hayward who had seen the bird a couple of weeks earlier--click on any photo to enlarge).

We also saw a pair of sulfur-bellied flycatchers that were nesting in a sycamore tree, and had a first year male elegant trogon fly in. Towhees and juniper titmice were calling.  As we were leaving 2 more high clearance vehicles arrived with 7 more birders.  On our way out we found 2 montezuma quail crossing the road.

I was back at my car at 8 AM, and Melody and Edge headed off to try for another Mexican rarity--a slate-throated redstart that had bred in the Chiricahuas over the past few weeks.  I checked my email and saw that I had a message from John Weigel who is doing a big year.  He was at his hotel in Green Valley, the town below Madera Canyon, so I drove over to visit with him, stopping at Paton's and the Patagonia rest stop on the way.  John and I had a nice visit, and then I drove back up to Tucson to have dinner with a long time friend who I had been staying with on this trip.

Seeing John prodded me to add to this post a mid year update on those birders doing a full ABA area big year in 2016. The headline has to be that as in 1998 when North America last experienced a full blown el nino, this year has seen a huge number of vagrants show up. But what is decidedly different in 2016 is the number in the first half of the year that have come to the lower 48 states.  Also, because of the far superior communication via the internet, the big year birders are able to find out about rarities quicker, and in turn reach the birds in a more timely fashion which raises the odds of seeing a rarity.

How many people are doing a full ABA area big year is hard to determine, but I know of 4 who definitely are engaged in what is a huge undertaking.  Because most of these 4 are listing their sightings on ebird, or have a blog site, it is possible to track their progress.

As of today, Olaf Danielson ( has seen 746 species plus has the pine flycatcher as a provisional (a bird documented for the first time in the ABA area that if accepted after a review process by the state in which it was found, and then by the ABA will be added to the ABA area list).  Right behind him is John Weigel ( who has seen 741 species plus 2 provisionals (cuban vireo and pine flycatcher).  In third is Christian Hagenlocher ( at 689 species with 2 provisionals (cuban vireo and pine flycatcher). In fourth position is Laura Keene who my readers may remember is a birding friend that provides me with so many good photos for this blog. She is at 665 plus 2 provisionals (cuban vireo and pine flycatcher).

For those not familiar with ABA area big years, these species totals for early July are historic in the case of Olaf and John.  In 1998 when Sandy Komito set the record during the last el nino, he reached 696 birds by this date, and went on to set the then new record of 748 species seen by the end of 1998. In 2013 Neil Hayward broke Sandy's record when he saw 749 species, but his total on the first of july was only 653 species.

The ABA applies a code to each species seen in the ABA area.  Code 1 and 2 cover at this point 672 birds out of the almost 1000 bird species ever recorded in the ABA area which is all of North America above the Mexican border.  Practically all of the code 1 and 2 birds will be seen by a birder doing a full ABA area big year.  So the key to putting up a big number and possibly setting a new big year record is tied to how many code 3-5 species are seen.  In 1998 Sandy saw an amazing total of 96 code 3-5 birds.  Neil saw only 81 code 3-5's in 2013, but made up the difference with code 1-2 birds that had been added to the ABA list between 1998 and 2013.  These added birds are a result of splits of existing species, and introduced or exotic species that have been added to the ABA list.

What is truly amazing for all 4 of these birders this year is the huge number of code 3-5 birds they have already seen, and there are still almost 6 months left in the year.  I do not have the exact numbers of rarities for Laura (65+) or Christian (50+), but including provisionals John has seen 89 and Olaf has seen 79 rarities.  Even though John has more rarities seen so far, Olaf is currently a bit ahead of John in total species because he has already seen almost all of the code 1-2's whereas John has several more to pick up.  That should change over the next few weeks as John fills in his missing code 1-2's.

Finally, what is also different about this big year is that it is the first time at least 4 birders will see more than 700 species in a year.  Even more significant is that in every other record setting big year for the full ABA area, the "race" has not really been close between the leader and the runner-up(s).  And given Olaf and John's current totals, at least 2 of these 4 will break the record set in 2013.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

San Blas, Mexico 2/27-29/16

Saturday was another early start.  We were headed back up to the coffee plantation area, but stopped briefly on the way to check out a place in the small town below the plantation.  It was pretty birdy and we found a bright-rumped attila.

We also had good looks at a scrub euphonia, and masked tityra.

Up at the coffee plantation we were less successful than on our previous visit.  There were not nearly as many birds around, and when we finally heard a rosy thrush-tanager, we were totally unable to get it to come out for a viewing.  After about 90 minutes we decided to try some new spots including a group of abandoned shrimp ponds.  I had to take a picture of Dan Sanders in his house slippers scoping the ponds.  He was having trouble with a sore toe, and decided to wear his slippers--this had to be a birding first for me.

The ponds were pretty productive for waders including our only reddish egret of the trip, and a couple of American avocets.

Later in the day we visited a place that had been good for gray-crowned yellowthroats. It did not disappoint, and we also had good looks again at white-collared seedeaters.  We kept looking for ruddy-breasted seedeaters as well, but never found any that definitely could be identified.

We saw another laughing falcon, and finished our day hearing and finally getting a brief look at a lesser ground-cuckoo.

Most of day 9 was spent at a place called Tecuitata--a ridge road that we walked along for quite some distance.  It was often shady, so the day was very delightful from a temperature point of view.

Our main target here was the San Blas jay which we did see initially at some distance, but then we were able to get much closer looks at this fine bird.

We saw many of the same birds we had seen during the trip like gray hawk, which was a daily bird for us, but also squirrel cuckoo, and rufous-backed robin.


Late morning a pick-up truck came by, and Dave had a short conversation with the people in it.  He told us they were on the way over the hill to the beach.  It turned out they had been hired by him to make us lunch which we discovered when we rounded a corner an hour later to find them cooking chili rellenos (photo taken by Laura Keene).  This is a favorite Mexican dish for me, and these were the best I have ever eaten!

There were 2 huge fig trees on each side of our lunch table that kept dropping tiny figs on us.  They also attracted lots of birds including a magnificent lineated woodpecker.

Our lunch spot looked out the the Pacific ocean, and at one point we watched a group of white pelicans soar by us.

After lunch we worked our way back down the road, and then went back to San Blas to take a very short boat ride over to Peso Island.  It is called Peso Island because it originally cost 1 peso to ride over on the boat.  Inflation of course has now raised the price to 20 pesos/person.

It was a very pretty weekend afternoon so you would have thought there would be lots of people on the beach.  To our surprise we had the place to ourselves.  Dave told us that other than Easter week, Mexicans do not spend time on the beach.  A group of 15-20 Wilson's plovers popped up.

There was of course a gull flock that had terns mixed in, and also we found the ubiquitous ruddy ground dove.  We walked out to the breakwater, and figured we could just walk back along the beach to the boat, but discovered that was not possible half way along.  This caused us to cut through a pasture while fighting off the mosquitos that were coming out as the sun set.

It was hard to believe that Monday was already day 10, and our last day of birding. Before making the drive back up to Mazatlan, we had another boat trip which went up the Rio San Cristobal.  We were on the river early on a blue sky day with a nice breeze.

Green kingfishers and black-crowned night-herons were seen often.

We had been hoping to find mangrove cuckoos, so we were pleased to get very good looks at one.

We saw more snail kites, and had a close up fly over from a roseate spoonbill.

We also got to view a wood stork rookery.

We still had 2 other target birds to find--spotted rail and hook-billed kite.  We took our boat into a side channel that opened up into a large shallow wetland.  When we heard a spotted rail calling, we worked for quite some time to draw it to us.  As it moved closer and closer making intermittent calls, we did see common gallinule and a Ridgeway's rail. We also had 2 hooked-billed kites fly across the open area at some distance giving very unsatisfying looks for those of us who were facing in the right direction as they quickly passed us.

After maybe 20 minutes of patiently waiting, the spotted rail stuck its head out of the vegetation very near our boat, but when it looked up and saw us, it immediately turned around, stopped calling and disappeared.  Unfortunately not all of our group was able to see it.

We needed to make our way back to the boat dock, and then return to the hotel for a final meal before starting for Mazatlan.  We were on the road by about 1 PM for the 3+ hour drive.  We decided to make one last stop at a place we had visited on day 1.  Our target birds were rosy thrush-tanager and flammulated flycatcher.  2 or 3 of our group briefly saw the thrush-tanager, and all of us had good looks at the flycatcher.

We returned to Hotel Siesta in Mazatlan for our last night.  We enjoyed one more meal together drinking margaritas and cold Mexican beer.  We all were very happy to have had such a good trip together, and particularly to have seen so many birds that are only seen rarely and often not very well in the ABA birding area.  We had such good views of some of these birds that we started talking about not life birds for our lists, but life looks meaning the best view we had ever had of a species. The total species count of seen and/or heard birds came to 299.  I know that I saw over 50 new life birds.

As the meal wound down, we said our good-byes because Dave was taking Neil, Dan and Doreene to the airport at 4:30 AM, and then driving home to Alamos.  Bert, Laura, Marty and I were not flying out until 11:45 AM. I would highly recommend this trip guided by Dave to anyone wanting to dip their feet into what birding in Mexico has to offer.

Friday, April 1, 2016

San Blas, Mexico 2/24-26/16

On Wednesday morning we were up at 5 for breakfast and on the road by 5:30 to make the drive up into a coffee plantation that was no longer fully managed.  The elevation took us up out of the sea level habitat.  The bird viewing for the first hour was very active, but they were quite high up in the trees.  Golden-cheeked woodpeckers were abundant.  Other highlights included bat falcon, elegant euphonia, elegant and citreoline trogons, rufous-backed robin, happy wren, and western tanager.

The road through the plantation was a fairly rough cobblestone type that seemed very old, and very necessary if it has been raining.  We worked our way down the road, stopping and scanning as best we could through the heavy foliage. We picked up lilac crowned parrot, and saw gray-crowned woodpecker; greenish elaenia; boat-billed flycatcher; ivory-billed woodcreeper; western long-tailed hermit; and red-crowned ant-tanager.  Like most days of our trip we heard collared forest-falcon, but never once did we see one. Other heard only birds that morning included russet-crowned motmot, and colima and ferruginous pygmy owls.

After our siesta we visited crocodilo road which gave us a wide variety of bird life beginning with our first bare-throated tiger-heron of the trip.

We also had a northern jacana.

Groove-billed anis were around.

The first laughing falcon of our trip made an appearance, as did a black hawk.

Driving into San Blas yesterday Dave had seen a crane hawk fly over that the rest of us missed, so we were very glad when one come by.

Other birds seen along the road included white-throated, willow and vermilion flycatchers; white-collared seedeater; lincoln sparrow; thick-billed and tropical kingbirds; orange-crowned, nashville, Macgillivray's, Wilson's and yellow warblers; and mangrove and northern rough-winged swallows. After a long and pretty toasty afternoon, we were more than ready to get back to the hotel for beers and dinner.

We were up even earlier on Thursday because we had to drive over an hour to a mid elevation site for our morning birding.  The area is called Cerro de San Juan.  Our main targets were various hummingbirds.  There were of course several white-eared, but we also picked up berylline.

The others included calliope, cinnamon and finally a bumblebee.  The best though was the Mexican woodnymph.

Two birds that had been eluding us were the rufous-crowned ground-sparrow, and the rusty sparrow.

We stopped at a high altitude ranch that had a large group of spotted wrens, and along the road we found our first stripe-headed sparrow of the trip.

After a picnic lunch in the cool highlands where we saw our first green jays of the tour as well as several warbler species like black-throated gray, yellow-rumped and rufous-capped, we drove down to sea level to find a marshy area that Dave had heard about.  We wandered around on back roads a bit before we finally located it, but it was well worth it.

There were a large number of black-bellied whistling ducks, but most amazing was the huge number of female and immature snail kites.

There were also many limpkins.

As the sun fell low in the sky, we made our way back to the hotel for more beer and good food which this time of year meant lots of variations on wild caught shrimp from the Pacific ocean (photo taken by Laura Keene).

Friday morning was not quite such an early start, but we were still on the road before 6 AM.  Our morning was spent walking along Singayta Road.  Since we were now on our 7th full day of birding, and 3rd in the San Blas area, the number of new species for us was beginning to decline.  The morning was very delightful nevertheless.   Some previously seen birds included golden-cheeked and gila woodpeckers; great kiskadee; red-billed pigeon; white-winged, white-tipped, and inca doves; groove-billed ani; cinnamon hummer; orange-fronted parakeet; and dusky, pacific-slope, and social flycatchers.

New seen birds for the trip included a great black-hawk, fan-tailed warbler, Mexican parrotlet, and russet-crowned motmot.

After our siesta we all piled into a small boat for a late afternoon until dark trip on Rio Tovara.  The first part had us follow the river out to its mouth.  Along the way we stopped and called out a rufous-necked wood-rail.  I also briefly saw a jaguarundi walking along the far side of the river, but it moved into the vegetation before I could get anyone else on it.

The main reason for the boat trip was to go up river through the mangroves to the large spring that feeds the river.  It was a beautiful evening, and with all the bird life it turned into a very magical time.

The number one goal was to find one of the strangest of birds--the boat-billed heron.  We located 2 roost areas.  A truly stunning bird, but such an odd bill.

Near dusk we found a white-tailed kite.  Just before that we had an unusual encounter with a merlin that circled over our boat time and again before finally disappearing. We almost felt like the bird was dive bombing us.

The other most interesting bird of the evening was the northern potoo.  Over an hour's time we encountered 8 of them.  It seems like the perch goes right into its stomach since you can not see its feet.  We also flushed a few paraques.

We ate later than normal, but no one was complaining after such a perfect tour of the river.