Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Eve 2010

It is the afternoon of New Year's eve and almost the end of my big birding year. I have been home since Christmas eve, thoroughly enjoying spending time with my family. I did go birding this morning with my local birding buddy Pam. We hit 3 spots that we have visited of late to see what was about, always hoping to get better looks at rusty blackbirds which are around Chapel Hill in the winter, but are not found in great numbers.

At our first stop we counted probably 3-400 common grackles that flew over. There were also a few red-winged blackbirds. Moving onto our second spot, which is only about a mile away from the first site, we also saw lots of grackles but this time they were out in the marsh feeding. We kept scanning the grackles that were up in the trees and located a couple of female red-winged BB. Then we found a group of 7 female rusties which we watched for a bit until they flew high over our heads.

The rest of the morning was spent at our 3rd spot where I was able to get the photo above of a hermit thrush which winter in our area (click on it to enlarge). The morning also gave us red-bellied, downy, pileated and red-headed woodpeckers plus a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Some other birds seen included golden-crowned kinglet, carolina chickadee and wren, tufted titmouse, eastern bluebird and phoebe, brown thrasher, white-throated sparrow, american goldfinch and crow, turkey vulture, hooded merganser, mallard and canada goose--all local birds for us during the winter.

So week #52 + 1 day is nearly over with 47 birds seen or heard. My year to date total remains at 704 birds seen. Bob Ake has ended his full ABA area year at 731 birds, and his friend John Spahr saw 704 birds for his full ABA area year. This is the 2nd time 3 birders have seen 700+ birds in the same calendar year in the ABA area. At the bottom of the right hand column I have added a new section listing the birds I saw this year but were not ABA countable. I will be doing a few more blog entries over the next few days to offer some reflections and musings on this past year of birding, eating and travel. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Only 3 Days Left in My Big Year

It is Wednesday morning and I am still in Chapel Hill. Not only was the white-throated thrush not relocated, but Sunday morning was the last time anyone reported the black-vented oriole. The Monday post said over 30 birders searched until 5 PM but no one saw the oriole. There was no report at all about looking for or seeing the oriole on Tuesday. So I am still home, and at this point the chances of chasing another bird before the 31st look very slim.

The top photo above is of 7 beanie babies that my 20 year old daughter found in her long neglected collection. Each was gift wrapped for me for Christmas morning, and the 7 represent seeing 700 birds this year. The bottom photo is my 29 year old artist son's rendition of a slaty-backed gull that he made in honor of my 700th bird seen. If you check my list to the right side of the blog you will see that the gyrfalcon is listed as #700, but when my son checked the list the slaty-backed was recorded as the 700th bird seen. So an explanation is in order.

Since I entered the first 247 birds back in early February in the order that they appear in the ABA trip list, I continued throughout the year to follow that method for each new posting. I did the same initially when I entered gyrfalcon, slaty-backed gull and brown shrike on December 11. Also, remember that at that time I had not yet discovered that I had seen 3 more birds earlier in the year, so I thought these 3 were birds #696, #697 and #698 for the year. After I completed the review of my list they moved up 3 spots. Finally, even though I had been following the entry order as described all year long, I later decided that I would list these 3 birds in the exact order in which I saw them. As a result the order was changed because the gyrfalcon was the 700th species seen by me this year. I am hoping that my son will also make me a piece of art of a gyrfalcon.

We still have snow on the ground so our feeders have continued to host lots of birds. As a result, I found a female cooper's hawk sitting on my feeders yesterday which of course meant not another bird was in sight. I have seen 7 more birds for the week, and am planning to do some birding today since it is going to be so nice out--sunny and near 50. The travel map has been updated, and it might be the final one barring a last minute rarity. Stay tuned!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

CBC in Chapel Hill

It is the day known as boxing day in England. It began snowing here in Chapel Hill about 8 PM on Christmas, and this morning we awoke to a lovely winter wonderland (photo above of the front door of our house). My friends Pam and Perry who live across the creek from us have been doing the CBC for 25 years in this local area which includes the 230 acres that we live on. I joined them this morning for 2 hours.

Because of the snow most of the birds seen were at my feeders. The highlight was 4 female and 2 male purple finches. When I started this big year on January 1st, I had a single female purple finch which at that time was a new bird for our property. Having 6 in all this morning was a real treat, and seemed a fitting find near the end of my birding adventure.

We walked several of our trails, looking and listening for other birds, but with the fresh snow it seemed that most birds were probably hunkering down trying to stay warm. The snow was still falling lightly this morning as we walked, but with no wind it was a delightful and magical stroll. With the snow starting last nite, this is the first time since 1947 that snow has fallen on Christmas day here in Chapel Hill.

We saw 24 bird species this morning. This evening I checked Narba to find that the black-vented oriole was seen for the 5th day in a row at Bentsen, but the white-throated thrush found 2 days ago in the valley was not relocated. As a result, I am going to stay in a holding pattern about going down to south Texas to see if the thrush is refound. If it is, then I will probably decide to fly down there. Stay tuned!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve--Back Home

Today is the beginning of the 52nd week of my big year. I have just returned from a quick visit to Columbia, MO where we surprised my brother Jon for his 60th birthday. My son and daughter are home for Christmas, so I will not be traveling after any birds for the next few days. I plan on Sunday to participate in our local CBC with our friends Pam and Perry.

The black-vented oriole that was seen last week at Bentsen RGV state park showed up again on Wed. and has been seen now 3 days in a row. Bob Ake is flying down today in hopes of seeing it tomorrow. I will be waiting to see if it stays around into next week, and then will decide whether to make a try to see it. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Surprise for Brother Jon's 60th Birthday

It is early on Wednesday morning and I am in Columbia, MO where I spent my early years. My brother Jon who is a year younger is turning 60 tomorrow. My sister Maria and Jon's wife Candy decided back in September that we should surprise him by all showing up here this week. So my sis and her partner David, and my other brother Alex and his wife Betsy took 2 days to drive to Columbia from North Carolina. I was up at 3:45 yesterday morning to catch my 6 AM flight from Boston to St. Louis. Last nite we walked into a solstice party that he was attending, and completely surprised him. He was actually shaking when I gave him a big hug.

But I am a bit ahead of myself. Monday morning I got up hoping to find some rarity had been reported in the Boston, or New England area, but none were. The weather was overcast, and winds were out of the NW rather than the NE, so I went to look for the pink-footed goose again because I had not seen it very well a couple of weeks ago. It took me about 45 minutes of scanning 2 large groups of canada geese to find it hunkered down on the ground. It then got up and fed a bit. It was too far away to photograph, but the views were quite good.

Next up for the day was to visit a middle eastern bakery and cafe named Sofra in Cambridge. My friend Lex had told me about it, so my friend Marcy and I had lunch there. The top photo is of a flatbread sandwich filled with sausage, hot peppers, green olives and spices. It was very tasty. Marcy had the mezze plate--5 different small servings of vegetarian goodies like smoked eggplant, lentils, and brussel sprouts all seasoned in different ways.

We then caught the 1 PM showing of the Fighter which is based on a true story about a local boxer from Lowell, MA. When we came out of the movie to head home it was beginning to snow. By 6:30 it had not accumulated that much, so we drove into downtown Boston to eat at Picco. Cobb, a friend of Lex's, had told me the week before that I really needed to try the pizza at Picco. We first had a piece of balsamic glazed pork belly with arugula that was the dish of the nite (middle photo--sorry for the dark, grainy phone photo). Marcy and I shared it, but it was so good that we had to order another one.

Next on our menu was the evening pasta special--pumpkin ravioli in a sage butter sauce (bottom photo). This was oh so good. The pasta was paper thin, the pumpkin was slightly sweet which went perfectly with the sage and butter.

Last we tried 3 different pizzas (no photos because they were too dark and grainy). I had the basic margarita which is always a good test of a pizza place. Marcy had what turned out to be a fine combo of sausage with broccoli rabe. Richard, her husband, had a vegie topped pie. We all thought the crust was quite good as was the fresh mozzarella, but the pizza maker could have done a better job forming the pizza. There was too large an edge. If the pie had been pulled out a bit further, then the edge would have been right, and the ingredients on top would have been spread thinner which is also a key to a great pie.

I have been checking the web to see if any rarities are around, but the last few days has been very slow. A little stint was found at Point Reyes in CA but was seen only that day. A western spindalis was seen for all of 30 seconds down in the Miami area. I saw this morning that a thick-billed murre was seen from the Monhegan ferry in Maine on the 17th, but not reported until mid day on the 20th!

I will be hanging out with my family today to celebrate Jon's birthday. Depending on the weather, I may do some birding around Columbia tomorrow before driving back into St. Louis in the evening in order to be ready to fly home early on Friday. Stay tuned!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

CBC at Cape Ann, MA

I flew up to Boston yesterday morning so that I could participate in the Christmas Bird Count on Cape Ann, MA. I chose this CBC because my contacts in MA told me my best shot at finding a thick-billed murre would be to do a sea watch at Point Andrews on Cape Ann. I met the bird counting group at 7 AM at Friendly's for the organizing session, and was out at the sea watch spot by 7:45. I spent the next seven very cold hours with Brian and Tim scoping the sea.

The day began with overcast skies and the occasional snow flurry. By noon the sun finally broke thru for about an hour before the skies started to cloud up again. By the time we packed it in at 3:15 it was very cloudy and decidedly colder. The views out to the ocean were very clear, and the seas were relatively calm (top photo) which was good since most of the birds we saw were flying by rather than sitting on the water. We saw many birds with the highlights being about 40 dovekies, roughly 200 razorbills including 1 that sat on the water very near our viewing spot, a pacific loon (rare in the east), a first year king eider, and a small flock of cedar waxwings with one bohemian waxwing mixed in.

The most common close in birds of the day were the harlequin ducks (bottom photo above taken by me earlier this year of harlequins in WA--click on it to enlarge). We also saw lots of black, surf and white-winged scoters; many common eiders; and a few long-tailed ducks, common loons, red-necked grebes, great cormorants, black-legged kittiwakes, and red-breasted mergansers. After 7+ hours of active scanning, only 1 bird might have been a thick-billed murre, but I did not see it well enough to make the call.

I am now trying to warm up at my friends in Lincoln, watching football and waiting for the Patriots game to begin this evening. For this week I have seen 39 birds. I will be checking the internet to see if any of the other CBC's in this area found a rarity that I can go look for tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Feeling a Bit Sheepish But Elated

When I found out yesterday that I had a double entry for scissor-tailed flycatcher, I was very concerned that there might be other entry errors. So I first checked the list on the blog and found 3 more dupes--american redstart, semipalmated plover, and california gull. Then I decided to review all my weekly checklists. I have been using the ABA trip list--a blue covered booklet that has space for 10 days of birding. I have started a new one each week so I have only used 7 of the slots. My weeks start on Friday because 2010 began on a Friday.

I also have a master list derived from the weekly trip lists. I went thru it 4 times to check for errors and found none there. But what I did find from my paper master list is that in fact I have seen 704 species this year--not the 701 that I thought was my total as of yesterday. Once I discovered that I knew I had made other entry errors on the blog. The main problem was a result of not adding the monthly chronology of birds seen until the beginning of February when I listed well over 200 birds. I found that I had not entered 4 birds from that 4+ week period--northern harrier, blue-headed vireo, forster's tern and hermit thrush.

Of these 4, only forster's tern had been logged later in February. Also, I found a dupe of california gull in February, but I had not entered summer tanager so it made up for the CA gull dupe. I found 2 entries for american redstart, but the second entry should have been northern waterthrush. Similarly, the second entry for scissor-tailed flycatcher should have been golden-cheeked warbler, and a 2nd entry for semipalmated plover should have been semipalmated sandpiper.

I have now corrected the chronology on the right side of my blog page. I also have gone back into the blog, and corrected/modified the YTD info to match what actually happened as far as the birds seen. I want to thank the 2 readers who have pointed out the errors since it caused me to thoroughly review my check lists to be able to correct the errors. There are still some days left to bird. Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bird Poop on My Face!

I just received an email saying that somehow I have scissor-tailed flycatcher on my list twice. There is also a comment on my last entry pointing this out (see comment #7). Therefore, my YTD may not be 701 (after review and correcting, 704), but 700 (703). I am going to go over the list very carefully, plus check my field notes, to make sure that there are no other errors. But I first have to go out to dinner. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hoary and Common Redpolls!

I flew to Minneapolis yesterday and then drove part way to Valley City, ND where I was hoping to see hoary and common redpolls this morning. I was up at 5:30 AM to cover the last 115 miles. It was still dark when I arrived in Valley City so I stopped at the Broken Spoke Cafe to have your basic eggs over-easy breakfast with bacon, hash browns and an english muffin.

I then called Jean Legge, the birder and woman who has the feeders, to get directions to her house. When I arrived about 8:15 she told me that the redpolls would come in about 9. While we waited, we watched her feeders thru her kitchen window (a great benefit since it was about 10 degrees outside, and the birds could not easily see us), and enjoyed a large group of american goldfinches, quite a few black-capped chickadees, 2 white-breasted nuthatches, 2 pine siskins, a couple of house sparrows, a hairy and a downy woodpecker, and 1 troublesome blue jay. Once he had his fill and flew off, the redpolls began to come in. There were only 2 at first, but as I was leaving a total of 5 appeared.

The top 2 photos were taken by Jean who has a better camera than mine. In the 1st you have a single hoary, and the next one has 3 commons feeding. The 3rd photo down is also of a common redpoll that I took while it snapped up seeds on the snow. The hoary mostly stayed away from the feeders, but I was able to study it and saw its very white back and rump, and its mostly white breast.

A little after 10 I hit the road to make it back to Minneapolis in time to fly to Texas in case the black-vented oriole that was seen there yesterday was relocated. As I arrived into Minneapolis I saw on Narba that after several hours of searching by at least 20 birders this morning the oriole was not found. So I decided to visit Matt's Bar (bottom photo of the grill man at work) to have my 3rd juicy lucy hamburger of this big year. It was as good as the first 2.

9 more new birds were seen for the week, and the hoary and common redpolls raise the YTD to 704. When asked last month about reaching 700 birds for the year, I said that the chances were "slim and none at all, and slim had just left town." Today not only is "slim back in town" he is sitting in the mayor's office with his feet up on the desk drinking a fine single malt scotch. I have added an updated travel map. It looks like I will be heading home early tomorrow morning. Stay tuned!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Icing on the Northern CA cake--Arctic Loon

Today was supposed to be much better weatherwise, but at 8 AM it was misty and overcast. Fortunately, it did begin to lighten up, and as the day went on we even saw a bit of sunshine. Wes and I had a big breakfast at Denny's, and then went back to the brown shrike spot to get better views, and maybe a photo.

When we arrived Bob and John were at the favored viewing site along with a few other birders. The bird had already been found near to where we had seen it yesterday. About 10 minutes later I said to Wes, look at that brown bush where it had been seen. Sure enough he found the shrike in his scope. For the next 15 minutes we were able to get short views of it as it would move about.

Wes then walked down to the general area in which it was feeding, but as was the case on previous days, when a person got too close, the shrike would stop moving about. After about 30 minutes of no success in getting a picture, we were going to drive down to the north jetty outside of Eureka when John Spahr called to say that he thought he had an arctic loon at Stone Lagoon. He had gone up there to look for a tufted duck that has been there, but instead saw the loon.

We all raced up the road for 20 miles to the lagoon. We got out and scoped the water, and there it was--an arctic loon in winter plumage. It was quite far out on the lagoon, so we moved around to another location, but could not relocate the bird. Wes did find the tufted duck before John had to leave to catch his plane to San Fran, and then onto Calgary where he will be looking for snowy owl, gray partridge and white-winged crossbill.

Wes and I then turned back south and stopped briefly to photograph the bull elks (top pic). From there we did go out to the north jetty to check on the seabirds. As we were walking out an ancient murrelet was feeding right next to the jetty (middle photo--click on it to enlarge). Out at the end of the jetty we saw many birds including the brown pelican, and double-crested and pelagic cormorants (bottom photo).

We pulled ourselves away to give us some time to stop one more time at the Loleta bottoms to look again for the gyrfalcon and the slaty-backed gull. We found neither, but we ran into several local birders that Wes knew who were out looking for the same 2 birds. We told them about the loon, and they told us an arctic loon had been on that lagoon the past 2 winters.

About 3:30 we started the long drive back to San Francisco. Bob Ake was ahead of us in his own car, and was already at our motel when I arrived about 9. He is flying up to Spokane, WA tomorrow to look for a gray partridge. 15 new birds were seen for the week, and the arctic loon was the 702nd new bird for the year.

I spoke with the woman in North Dakota who has the common and hoary redpolls coming to her feeder, She told me she had seen the birds again today, so tomorrow I will be catching a 6:30 AM flight to Chicago, and then onto Minneapolis. I will drive to Fargo for the nite, and will hopefully be looking at the redpolls early on Tuesday morning. Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Double Red Letter Day Plus!!!

What a day we had today. After spending 7 hours yesterday in which over half the time it was raining, we only had a near miss on seeing the brown shrike up here just north of Arcata, CA. I had flown into San Fran 2 days ago and Wes picked me up for our 6 hour drive up to Arcata. We were at the brown shrike site about 9 AM where we found Martin Meyers, a very good birder from Nevada that I had met earlier this year.

The rain started soon after we began our stake-out. Over the next 6 hours we saw 1 fly-by that could have been the shrike, and heard what we thought was the shrike call twice, but we could not find the bird. We did see lots of sparrows including swamp, song, lincoln's and white-crowned.

At 3 we saw 2 birders on the other side of the north pond high fiving. We made the error of moving towards their position instead of looping around the other direction in order to get across the wet area to be in the right place to try for the bird. They moved to where we should have been and found the bird again, but by the time we got there it had disappeared. Now it was 3:30 and we decided to call it a day.

This morning we were out birding first in the Loleta bottoms hoping to see a gyrfalcon that had been spotted there 3 days ago. John Spahr had joined us. He is the birder who has birded often with Bob Ake this year, and as a result he arrived in Arcata with 699 birds for his full ABA area big year. We found no gyrfalcon this morning, but saw lots of shorebirds including 20 pacific golden plovers, an equal number of black-bellied plovers, many killdeer, wilson's snipe and dunlins.

We finally made it to the shrike site about 10 under overcast but dry skies. Wes set up his scope at the spot that the birders from yesterday afternoon had 1st seen the bird. John, Martin and I fanned out looking for the bird toward the south pond. We talked to a woman birder from Phoenix, AZ that I had met on some pelagic trips back in late May out of Hatteras, NC. She had heard the shrike, and another birder had seen it briefly about 8:30. The photo above of the brown shrike was taken by Sean McAllister a couple of weeks ago.

At 11:20 Wes calls me on my cell and says to come to him that they were looking at the shrike in his scope. I was probably 300 yards away, and by the time I got to him the shrike had disappeared. Fortunately 15 minutes later it reappeared and I was able to get a brief look at it sitting about 1 foot off the ground in a bush. John, however, did not find it. Soon it began to lightly rain, so we went into town to regroup and have some lunch. After eating John decided to go back to look for the shrike.

Wes and I headed back down to the Loleta bottoms to look some more for the gyrfalcon. Martin met us there. Just as we turned onto Cannibal Island rd. we saw a huge number of blackbirds and starlings flying across the road. Right behind them we saw a gyrfalcon chasing after them. It circled back around and we proceeded to chase it down the road. We briefly lost sight of it, so we stopped to scan the area. We looked up on the wires to find it sitting only about 100 feet from us. When we got out of the car it flew off, and we lost it again as it flew towards a large red dairy barn.

We drove the length of Cannibal Island rd scanning for it, but did not relocate it. On the way back we checked out the shorebirds again. Then Wes and I saw a large group of gulls feeding in a dairy pasture. We drove down to see what all was there. We found lots of mew gulls, and glaucous-winged gulls, a few herring and thayer's gulls, 2 or 3 western gulls, a glaucous gull, and a slaty-backed gull. I had been hoping to see a slaty-backed this month because there have been a few found in recent years on the west coast. The only 1 confirmed this year in the lower 48 states was up in Wisconsin about 3 weeks ago.

When we got back to our motel we heard from John that he did get to see the shrike this afternoon, so he is now the 12th person to see at least 700 birds in the full ABA area in a calendar year. And on Thursday in Newfoundland Bob Ake saw a black-tailed gull which raised his total to 728. He is now all alone in 2nd place for a full ABA area big year. He will be here tomorrow to look again for the shrike.

For the first 2 days of week #50 we saw 51 birds. The brown shrike and gyrfalcon are both life birds (for Wes too) as well as new year birds. The slaty-backed gull is also a new year bird. So this post is justifiably titled A Double Red Letter Day Plus. The YTD is now at 701 which makes me the first birder to see 700 or more birds in a calendar year in just the lower 48 states.

Tomorrow Wes and I will bird in this area some more, including trying in the morning to get some photos of the shrike. I will be back in San Francisco tomorrow nite so that I can fly to Minneapolis on Monday. I will then drive to Valley City, ND to look for both common and hoary redpolls that have been visiting a feeder at a home there. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

California Bound

I actually got to go birding today--not chasing but birding. I woke up to a temp of 17 degrees but had planned to bird this morning with my friend Pam. I picked her up at 8:30 and we headed over to a local spot to see what was there. As soon as we got out of the car we had lots of birds hungrily looking for food--song sparrow, brown creeper, brown-headed nuthatch, and yellow-rumped warbler. Next we found a group of eastern bluebirds (top photo). Soon after we spied 2 river otters climb out of an ice hole and then scamper down the frozen-over New Hope Creek. I don't think I had ever seen river otters out of the water for that long of a period. Usually they duck under as soon as they see you.

We walked the area and by the time we started back out we had seen several red-headed woodpeckers plus northern flicker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, downy, red-bellied, and pileated woodpeckers. At one point a group of about 20 blackbirds flew into the top of a sweetgum tree. We were hoping they were rusties, but after glassing them it was apparent that they were all female red winged. A great blue heron was perched up on a dead tree preening in the sun.

We then went to a 2nd close by spot, and also had lots of bird activity with pretty much the same birds. Our 3rd stop was not as active but we did have a hairy woodpecker raising our woodpecker, et. al. species total to 7 which is the most I have seen in 1 day. Our final stop was back at Mason Farm where we had some new birds including winter wren, pine siskin, ruby crowned kinglet, brown thrasher, eastern towhee, fox sparrow and several white-throated sparrows (middle photo--remember to click on pic to enlarge it). On our way back to the car we flushed a cooper's hawk.

When I got back home I found a possum digging around under my feeders (bottom photo). It climbed up into a tree when I approached. It was quite colorful with its pink feet, nose and ends of its ears. After today's birding the week count of birds is at 67. It is now Wednesday evening and I am getting packed for an early flight tomorrow to CA to try for the shrike again. Stay tuned!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Snow Covered Morning in Chapel Hill

It is Sunday morning and as the picture above shows we had a nice little bit of snow starting yesterday afternoon here in Chapel Hill. I have been coming to or living in Chapel Hill since the mid 70's and my experience of winter over that 35 year period is one of my personal reference points about global warming. This part of NC rarely sees significant, if any, snow now.

It has been nice to be home since Friday evening, getting some rest and quality time with my wife. This last phase of a big year is really not to my liking since I much prefer to just go birding rather than constantly being ready to "chase" the next rarity. I have rarely done "chasing or twitching" in the past. Most of my rare birds have happened because I was already birding somewhere when one showed up, or because I made a point of birding in a place like Gambell, on St Lawrence Island, AK.

I want to thank some of the followers of this blog for their suggestions/assistance lately about reaching my now final goal of seeing 700 different birds before the end of this year. I listed recently some of the more likely rarities that might be seen, and have received in the comments some ideas about finding these birds. The really rare code 4 or 5 birds I will find out about immediately on Narba. For timely info on gyrfalcons, redpolls and thick-billed murres I will need to constantly scan the internet bird sites or hear from my birding contacts, or readers of this blog.

Other than the common redpoll and the thick-billed murre, which I plan to search for the week before Xmas up in New England, most of the other rarities are much more iffy in where they could show up. For example, slaty-backed gulls could be on the west coast or the upper midwest. Gyrfalcons could appear in WA, the plains states, the upper midwest or New England. So I have to be ready to hop a plane as soon as one is found. As a result, I am currently waiting a few days before returning to the west coast to try for the brown shrike again in hopes of some other rarities also being seen out there. In the mean time maybe a western spindalis or a loggerhead kingbird will show up in FL. Stay tuned!

Friday, December 3, 2010

I Thought I Was Going to Boston, But Ended Up in AZ

When I woke up yesterday morning I had decided since the sun was supposed to be shining in northern CA that I would drive back up to try for the brown shrike again today. At about 9 AM I got word that a lapwing had been seen in the past hour at Plum Island outside of Boston. I also still need to go to New England to look for the common redpoll and thick-billed murre, so I made a reservation to fly to Boston on American. Bob Ake decided to go back to VA first flying on Southwest, and then was going to come up to Boston.

When I arrived in Dallas about 7 PM I got a call that a baikal teal--a rarity from Asia--had been found that afternoon just outside of Phoenix. I did not get back on my plane to Boston. Instead I bought a new ticket for the 10 PM flight to Phoenix, and was asleep a little after 1 AM in my motel room. I was up at 6 this morning and arrived at the Gilbert Water Ranch about 7. When I walked up to the spot where the teal had been seen yesterday there were already 15 birders there enjoying good views of the teal. The top photo was taken by Brendon Grice. Gary Nunn who had found the teal was also there--a transplanted brit--who was having a bad work day yesterday so he went birding!

The challenge with a baikal teal is that sometimes they are kept as pets, so there is always some question about whether any given bird is in fact wild, or just an escapee. The good news about this particular bird is that it appears to be a 1st year male with no bands on its legs or clipping of its feet/toes based on the many photos taken. It has appeared in a place and at a time that fits previous accepted vagrant sightings. Finally, this year is generating so many "northern" and Asian birds that it is not surprising that a baikal teal would make an appearance.

That said, like the white-cheeked pintail that I saw a month ago in NC and will be reviewed by the NC bird committee, the AZ bird committee will study the"evidence" and determine if this bird is deemed to be wild. Unlike the white-cheeked, this teal has a much higher probability of being accepted as a wild bird. Therefore, while I have put the white-cheeked on a provisional status for my big year, today I am going to count the teal.

I also was able to bird around the Gilbert Water Ranch some and took a photo (bottom) of 3 rosy-faced lovebirds that have been expanding there numbers in the Phoenix area for over 20 years. As a result, I was told by Gary Nunn that the AZ bird committee will be considering this year whether to add them to the state bird list as an established exotic. As I left to go back to the airport, there were still 20 birders looking at the teal as it was flushed probably by a cooper's hawk, and more birders were pouring in from the parking lot. Bob is flying as I type to AZ.

Today is the beginning of week #49 and 29 new birds were seen. The baikal teal is a life bird and raises the YTD up to 698. I am writing this blog entry at home, having arrived here this evening. While sitting in the airport in Chicago, I heard as I had suspected would happen that the brown shrike was seen again today. I may be heading back to CA very soon. Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Still Shrikeless

Today is December 1st, my birthday, so I had my fingers crossed that we would see the brown shrike today. After 9 hours of sleep last nite, we were out in the heavy mist by 9 AM, prowling thru the sand dunes and wetlands listening and looking for the shrike. Like yesterday, there were about 10 other birders out there with us. Alas, after all the other birders had left, we called it a day about 1 PM without finding our elusive quarry. We saw 5 more new birds for the week. Because it was raining today, I again did not take any new pics, so I have put a photo of an eastern screech owl that I took down in south Texas earlier in the year (click on it to enlarge).

We grabbed a quick lunch, and checked the web to see if any new rarities had been found today. None were in the lower 48 states, so after sorting thru my options with Bob and Wes, I have decided to stay here in San Fran for now to see what develops with the shrike, or some other bird. Bob is heading home so that he can then go up to Newfoundland to try to see both black-tailed, and a yellow-legged gulls. I did get an email this evening from John Puschock telling me that 2 gyrfalcons have been seen near Moscow, ID recently. This is one of the birds that I am hoping to see before the end of the year, so I need to get some more info about this possibility.

On the way to our motel for the nite, we stopped in San Fran for a quick dinner at my favorite SF chinese restaurant--Hunan. I talked about this place earlier in the year when I ate there with my son Caleb. Since I was not home to eat a celebratory meal with my wife, it was great to share a birthday dinner with Bob and Wes at a place that I have been eating at for over 30 years. They let me pick the dishes and they seemed quite happy with the results.

There are only 30 more days in this big year. I said a few weeks ago after I had seen 688 birds that I was raising my year end target to 695 birds. With 697 now seen, and the common redpoll an all but certainty, I am now within reach of the amazing level of 700 species seen in the lower 48 states. If rarities keep showing up at the rate they have in the past 3 weeks, then getting to 700 is looking much more probable. "Slim" is now back in the "town limits", but there is still some work and luck required for me to get to 700.

Based on sightings over the past few years, some rare birds I have not yet seen that have a greater probability of making a showing before the end of 2010 include the following:

gyrfalcon, slaty-backed gull, thick-billed murre, hoary redpoll, roadside hawk, emperor goose, ivory gull, eared quetzal, loggerhead kingbird, and white wagtail.

Given the large number of northern birds that have pushed down into the lower 48 states in recent weeks, other rarities such as the brown shrike might also be found. The travel map has been updated. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Brown Shrike--no; Rock Sandpiper--yes!

We arrived into San Fran just before 11 PM last nite, and Wes was at the curb to pick us up. We drove a couple of hours up to Ukiah, CA where we checked into a motel to get a bit of sleep--like 4 hours. On the road again at 5:30 AM, we made it to the brown shrike site by 9. It was overcast, a bit windy, but no rain. We walked the 1/2 mile out into the dunes area along with about 10 other birders. We all fanned out, and spent the rest of the morning in vain looking for the brown shrike.

We headed back into town to get a bite to eat, and to get on line to see what travel options we might have. We also checked the bird hotlines only to find that no new or recently missing rarities had been seen. We had met a couple of local birders at the shrike stake-out who told us where to go to see a rock sandpiper. As I have said recently, this is one of the birds that I missed earlier in the year, but still expected to find.

It began to rain as we approached the north jetty in Eureka, but we jumped out to walk it anyway. Out towards the end we found quite a few shorebirds--black turnstones, surfbirds, 1 wandering tattler, and 2 rock sandpipers. In the photo above you can see a rock sandpiper in the front with 2 surfbirds and a black turnstone behind it.

The rain stopped, so we stayed out on the jetty for awhile taking in the diversity of seabirds such as 2 pomarine jaegers harassing a black-legged kittiwake; harlequin ducks; black and surf scoters; red-throated and common loons; western grebes; common murres; pelagic and brandt's cormorants; and 2 brown pelicans. We finished the day with 38 new birds for the week, and the rock sandpiper raises the YTD up to 697.

We were hoping big time for the brown shrike because it is Bob Ake's birthday. It would have brought his big year total up to 724 which would be the 3rd highest total for an ABA area big year. He is tied for 3rd with Lynn Barber from Texas, and will undoubtedly move higher before the year is over. Double congrats to Bob for his big year total and his birthday!

We have now checked into our motel for the nite to get some much needed rest/sleep after the crazy travel of the past 3 days. It is supposed to rain tonite and tomorrow, but we are hoping that the front will stay more to the north allowing us to try again in the morning for the shrike. Stay tuned!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Streak-backed Oriole

Bob Ake and I were on the road at 6:30 AM to make the 160 mile drive from Phoenix to look for the streak-backed oriole near Wellton, AZ. We arrived about 9:15 to find a sunny, chilly but very windy morning. We checked in with a couple of birders who gave us the most recent info about the bird. Chris Taylor had some very good pictures that he had put on the web (bottom photo), and the consensus this morning was that this oriole was definitely a streak-backed oriole--not a hybrid as had been speculated yesterday.

We spent the morning checking all the birds, most of which were hunkered down because of the wind. The top photo is of a group of mockingbirds that kept returning to this low dead shrub. About noon we decided to take a break and get some lunch which we found at a small cafe. Breakfast was the best choice on the short menu, so we chowed down on eggs, etc.

Back at the oriole site we found 3 more birders, including a woman Bob knew, who had driven in from Sierra Vista, AZ to try to find the bird. After about an hour they left, and right after the owner of the property told us she did not mind our walking in her yard to try to locate the oriole. Within 10 minutes we heard an oriole like chatter, and realized it must be in a very dense pomegranate tree. Sure enough we soon got some brief glimpses of it, and then with some "squeaking" it came out enough that Bob got a pretty good photo (middle).

As soon as we saw the bird we called the cell of the 3 birders who had just left, and they returned to try to see the bird. It stayed hidden for the next 20 minutes, so Bob and I decided to head back to Phoenix. We had talked with Wes Fritz in the morning and decided not to go to CA to try for the brown shrike because it had not been seen today, and the weather was going to get very rainy starting tomorrow afternoon. But on our way up to Phoenix we heard that the shrike had been seen this morning, and we quickly decided to head to San Francisco after all. So we are sitting at the airport waiting to board our plane.

We saw 23 more new birds for the week, and the streak-backed oriole brings the YTD up to 696. We are hoping for a trifecta tomorrow with the brown shrike. Stay tuned!

Tufted Flycatcher Instead of a Brown Shrike

The brown shrike in northern CA went missing again, but the tufted flycatcher at Big Bend NP was refound, so yesterday morning I flew to Midland-Odessa, TX to be in position to drive 250 miles down to the park. I arrived about 1:30 PM and waited until 9:15 when Bob Ake--the birder from VA doing a full ABA big year--finally was able to get there. I watched several college football games that were not very exciting except for the LSU/Arkansas tussle.

We took off in our rental car only to have a flat 20 miles down the road. Bob managed in the dark to get the tire changed, and we returned to the airport to get a new vehicle. All of this meant we did not get to sleep at Fort Stockton until 1 AM. 5:40 came all too quickly, but we wanted to make sure we arrived at Big Bend plenty early. Unfortunately, in my haste to get to the site, I was pulled over just as I arrived by 2 very serious park police who pointed out that as I had passed them a few 100 hundreds back I was doing 54 in a 30 zone. My explanation that we were anxious to see the flycatcher did not make a bit of difference. They were "by the book" guys including insisting that we stay seated in our car.

As soon as they finished giving me a ticket, we jumped out and saw a birder--Jay Hand from Tucson, AZ--with his camera taking pics of the tufted flycatcher. It was a cool but sunny morning, and we joined in the photo parade. The bird is small, and mostly stayed 20 feet up in a large cottonwood doing his very animated flycatching routine. As a result my 2 photos above are not quite as good as I would have liked, but definitely show you what a tufted flycatcher looks like (click on the photos to enlarge). This is only the 5th record of this bird in the US, but is the 2nd one that I have seen.

We ran into a woman birder who had been on a pelagic trip with us back in the summer. She and another birder, and Bob and I took a stroll around the grassy area with a variety of trees checking out what other birds were around. It was a flycatcher morning--vermillion, ash-throated, and black and say's phoebes were feeding along with the tufted. We saw 29 birds today, and the tufted flycatcher raises the YTD to 695.

About 10 AM we decided to start back toward Midland-Odessa to make sure we got back in plenty of time to catch our flight to Phoenix. A streak-backed oriole was found near Yuma, AZ yesterday by Paul Lehman, so we are in Phoenix tonite and will drive early tomorrow morning to try to see the oriole. As we drove this morning we also heard that the brown shrike was found again, and a lapwing was found yesterday in Storrs, CT. Our plan is to fly to San Francisco tomorrow evening where Wes Fritz will pick us up for the 5 hour drive up to Arcata, CA to look for the shrike. Stay tuned!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Early Thanksgiving Morning

It is early Thanksgiving morning, and since it is going to be a very full day, I wanted to get a posting out before all hell breaks loose. For starters, I want to talk a bit more about our recent trip to Italy. Having lived there for a year back in 2003-04, we have made some friends one of whom is Giulia. After we returned to NC in the summer of '04, Giulia and her friend Claudia came to the states and spent Thanksgiving with us. Since these 2 women had taken such good care of us at our favorite wine bar--Fuori Porta--it was a real treat for us to show them what an American Thanksgiving was all about. After visiting with us they then went to Austin, TX to see our friends Craig and Renee.

Because of these visits, Giulia's parents wanted to have us to their house the next time we visited Italy. So CKay and I went with Giulia to have a meal with her folks. It seemed like Thanksgiving all over again in that there was so much food that her mother had made--crostini fiorentini, pasta bolognese, pork, goat, potatoes, etc. Lots of wine was consumed along with her father's homemade grappa. And all the talk had to be mostly translated thru Giulia because her parents speak very little english.

On our most recent trip we went again and this time Craig and Renee joined us. Giulia made a great pureed squash and chick pea soup to start. Her father made the classic salt cod dish called baccala. The top photo is of Craig and partially of CKay with the huge skillet of baccala sitting in front of them. Like the first visit, we all had a fine time getting to know our friend Giulia's family a bit more, and sharing simple Tuscan food together.

Also when we lived in Florence, we spent a lot of time trying various pizza places. Most pizza in Florence is the very thin crust pies, but there are a few places that make the Napoli style pizza which has a crust more like what we are used to here in the states. Our favorite Napoli pizza joint was a 5 minute walk from our apartment. We would get a couple of margarita pizzas made with fresh mozzarella to take home where we would add our own extra toppings like arugula or prosciutto.

The bottom photo above is of Vicenzo, il pizzaiuolo (the pizza maker), and the margarita pizzas he made for us on our last trip. He makes pizzas 6 days a week from 7:30 PM until midnite, usually 4 at a time. When my daughter Jess would come with me to pick up the pizzas, he would make one in a heart shape for her. When Vicenzo goes on vacation, the pizza place is closed.

Changing the subject back to birding, today is the end of week #47. There are only 5 weeks left in this big year, but the flurry of rarities has continued. A tufted flycatcher was seen last Sunday at Big Bend NP, but not reported until Tuesday. Yesterday's search by local birders came up empty, but they are going to try again today. And the brown shrike was relocated in northern CA yesterday. So while I am very much looking forward to sharing a Thanksgiving meal with my family later today, I also am thinking about how to get to CA to try to see the shrike. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Is 700 Species Possible in the Lower 48 States?

It is Tuesday afternoon and I did not go to California yesterday morning. The brown shrike that was found early on Sunday disappeared by the end of the day, and has not yet been relocated. I knew this before I boarded my plane home on Sunday evening. While I would love to add a brown shrike to this big year, I have been quite happy being home the past 2 days, getting some needed rest. Plus, Thanksgiving is almost here.

I did go birding with my local birding buddy, Pam (top photo), this AM. It was unseasonably warm--over 70 degrees--and a bit windy because of the weather front that came in this afternoon. In the past week the leaves have mostly fallen, but as you can see in the pic, there is still some good fall color here in NC. We really did not see many birds, but did get a nice photo of the cedar waxwing (bottom photo). We also had a bald eagle fly over.

After my last post, Ned, a friend of Bob Ake's, commented that he was wondering if it was possible to see 700 species in just the lower 48 states in a calendar year. As I have said a few times in this now almost 11 month long blog, I originally did not think it was possible to see 700 different birds because of several factors.

The 1st is that when you study the probable birds you could find in the lower 48, the number is around 650. Second, each of the next 50 birds become increasingly more rare in their incidence in the lower 48. Third, when they are found, they often do not stay around long enough to travel any distance to their location before they have moved on.

Fourth, if any birder had seen more than 700 birds in the lower 48 states when doing a big year, I figured I would have read about it. Fifth, so far only 9 birders have seen over 700 birds in 1 year in the full ABA area. Finally, my goal was to use birding as a focalizer of a grand travel adventure for the year, and not necessarily to try to set a record.

As a result, I never even bothered to check until about 2 months ago to see what the record for the lower 48 states was. That is when I discovered the info I have shared recently. First, the ABA "official" record is 685 set in 2005 by my friend Dan Sanders. Second, Sandy Komito emailed me that when he set the full ABA area record back in 1998 of 745 birds, he saw 692 of those in the lower 48 states, but did not submit that number to the ABA.

With the good fortune of the past few days when I saw the fork-tailed flycatcher, the Ross' gull and the pink-footed goose, I am now at 694 birds for the year which means I am now the record holder (official and unofficial) for the lower 48 states. I also know, barring just horrendously bad luck, that I will see common redpoll and rock sandpiper before the end of the year.

I also said recently before seeing the last 3 rarities that I felt 695 was probable by year's end. Which finally gets me back to Ned's musing about 700 for the year. Over a month ago I suggested the chances were "slim and none at all, and slim had just left town". Now I have to say that slim has returned to the edge of town. Will 4 more rarities appear in the next 5 weeks, and will I be able to reach them--maybe.

What I do know because of the number of rarities that have already shown up this year, that seeing 700 bird species in the lower 48 states is doable. In fact, if I somehow had been able to see all of the following rarities that did come to the lower 48 already this year, then I would be over 700.

For starters, I did not decide to chase after rarities until July. As a result, in the winter I missed the amazon kingfisher, tamaulipas crow, and roadside hawk in TX, and the ivory gull in both MA and GA. I missed the western spindalis in April, and the bahama mockingbird in May in FL. I chose not to chase a red-necked stint in MA in July, and a lesser sand plover in WA in September because I doubted they would stay around long enough.

Some 1 day wonders this year included an aztec thrush in March, black-vented oriole in April, and a green violetear in September in TX; a common ringed plover in MA in September; and an arctic loon and horned puffin in WA in October. The recent thick-billed vireo in FL was seen and photographed, but not reported for 4 more days, and by the time it was confirmed, it also disappeared. And I missed the most recent ivory gull in CA by 6 hours.

Some pelagic birds seen this year on other trips than the ones I took included great-winged, herald and white-chinned petrels; wedge-tailed, black-bellied and white-faced storm-petrels; and short-tailed albatross.

Hindsight shows that I could have reached in time the amazon kingfisher, the bahama mockingbird, the roadside hawk, the winter ivory gulls, and the red-necked stint. Therefore, at a minimum I would have 5 more year birds as of today, and at a maximum there are a total of 19 rare birds that came to the lower 48 states that I was not able to see. If I had, then my YTD number would be at 713 which means hypothetically, Ned, it would have been possible this year to see 700 birds in the lower 48. And with 5 weeks to go I will still be trying to do just that! Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Even I Don't believe What I Did the Past 48 Hrs

It is Sunday afternoon about 6 PM and I am back in the Boston area getting ready to fly home again. But you say, "I thought he was in Denver". I was there for all of 7 hours yesterday. I was on my flight to Denver yesterday morning at 6:20, landed at 11, and was watching the bird (top 2 photos) at noon with a group of local birders (bottom photo). The bird was not close, so I could not get my own pics and instead have downloaded the small photos above taken by Glenn Walbek, the birder who found the gull. It was great to see this bird because the only other Ross' gull I ever saw was back in 1975 in Newburyport, MA. I was told by the local birders that it was only the 3rd Ross' gull for Colorado.

While I was enjoying seeing the 693rd bird for the year I received a call telling me that the pink-footed goose I missed outside of Boston was relocated. I called American and booked myself to fly back to Boston rather than Raleigh. I arrived in Boston this morning at 1:30 and was picked up by my friend Richard who took me to his house to get some sleep.

I was out at the new site for the pink-footed (only the 3rd one ever seen in MA) about 8 AM and before 9 several other birders had arrived when the goose was found mixed in with a large group of canada geese. Unfortunately, we were only getting very frustrating 1-2 second looks of its head as it would raise it ever so briefly while feeding. After about 20 minutes the goose made a very short flight to another spot that we could not even see from the edge of the field it was in, and we could not try to get closer because of the "do not trespass" signs.

I decided to not waste any more time hoping it would reappear and instead drove an hour over to Plum Island to see if I could find a gyrfalcon that was reported from there on Saturday. On my way in I stopped at the local seafood cafe and ate some pretty good fried clams.

It was a beautiful, chilly day with lots of birds around including about 20 hooded mergansers, a rough-legged hawk and a eurasian wigeon. I spent 4 hours thoroughly enjoying the late fall day and all the birds at the refuge. As the sun was getting low in the sky I decided to head back to my friend's house, stopping at the cafe again to pick up a lobster roll for the road.

23 more birds were seen over the past 2 days for the week, and the gull and goose bring the YTD up to 694. I will be flying home in a couple of hours, but I just heard that a brown shrike--a rarity from the asia--was found today in northern CA. I may be on another flight early tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fork-tailed Flycatcher!

About 11:45 Wednesday morning I found out that a fork-tailed flycatcher was seen that morning at a small park in Stamford, CT. I checked the airline schedule and found I could catch a 2 PM flight to NYC. I was supposed to arrive at 3:25 which meant I could make the 40 mile drive up to Stamford just in time to see the bird before dark. The plane pulled away from the gate at 2 PM and immediately its engines were turned off because of high winds in NYC had caused a delay.
We finally took off at 3 PM, arriving in NYC about 4:20, but by the time I got my rental car, and made the drive with fortunately little traffic, it was totally dark at the park. So I grabbed a motel room hoping that on Thursday morning the bird would still be there.

I pulled into the parking lot at 6:30 AM to find about 10 other birders with scopes and cameras in the adjacent natural area waiting to spy the fork-tailed. It was sunny but quite chilly. About 7 AM one of the birders found it perched in a tree. We all moved closer, but it was still too far away for my camera. I asked one of the photographers to email me a pic, but he did not do it. (In 2011 I met Doug Koch who had seen the same fork-tailed flycatcher, and he sent me the photo above that I was able to add to this post).

Also on Wed. afternoon I received a report of a pink-footed goose near Boston, MA and a possible thick-billed vireo in Miami, FL. Having spent 30 minutes enjoying the flycatcher, I decided to make the 3 hour drive up to Boston in hopes of quickly finding the goose so that I could drive back to NYC yesterday afternoon to be able to fly to Miami. On my way up I received confirmation that a thick-billed vireo was in Miami.

About 10:30 AM as I was getting close to the pink-footed site I saw a bunch of cars, and people with scopes scanning a field full of geese. It was not where the pink-footed had been seen, but I pulled in to find it was the location of a barnacle goose that had been in the area for a few weeks. Another couple arrived at the same time. I had met the husband at the hawk tower at Bentsen Rio Grande SP back in March. They were on their way from upstate NY to FL but had detoured thru MA to see the 2 geese, and then planned to stop in to see the fork-tailed in CT. The 2nd photo shows the barnacle goose with some canada geese around it (center facing left--smaller, white face and dark throat, neck and upper chest with a gray/black back). This is a bird I saw way back in January in NJ (click on photo to enlarge).

I then went to the pink-footed site, but yesterday there were no geese there, just a large group of turkeys. Since the pink-footed goose has only been recorded twice before in MA, there were lots of local birders out checking the surrounding fields. Because the farmer who owned the field said that the geese came in every afternoon, I decided to "stake-out" the field as did several other birders. I was the last to depart at dusk without a single goose landing in the field--just a few flyovers.

After staying with good friends in Lincoln, I was back on goose patrol this morning at 6:30, checking several possible fields, plus a large reservoir. I found plenty of canada geese on the reservoir, but very few geese in the fields, and none again landed at the primary pink-footed goose site. I had made a reservation this morning to fly to Miami this evening, so at 11 I started driving back to NYC to drop off my rental car. Enroute I spoke with the Miami birder who had confirmed the vireo yesterday. He said this morning 10 birders searched for the vireo but did not relocate it. So instead I flew home to NC late this afternoon.

Today is the beginning of week #47. A total of 22 birds were seen. The fork-tailed flycatcher is a life bird and raises the YTD to 692. As I was driving home from the airport this evening I got a call from Bob Ake telling me that an adult ross' gull was found at a reservoir near Denver, CO. I have a plane reservation for 6:20 AM tomorrow to chase this latest rarity. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Home Waiting for the Next Rarity

It is Tuesday evening and I just finished watching with my wife the 6th Harry Potter movie in preparation for the 7th one that will be released this Friday. My daughter will be home next week for Thanksgiving and as with the previous 6 movies we will be seeing it together. I also just reread the 7th book to be ready for the new movie. Obviously if I have time to be doing all this it means that I am still in NC patiently waiting for another rare bird to show up that I have not yet seen this year.

The photos above are more of the food we ate while visiting Florence, Italy recently. The top is a plate of grilled vegies with a very special cheese called buratta. It is hard to describe but essentially it is similar to a fresh mozzarella on the outside and cottage cheese like on the inside. My wife eats this plate almost every lunch at our favorite wine bar, Fuori Porta. The middle photo is of fresh taglierini with baby artichokes, a dish we ate at our favorite Florentine restaurant, Buca' dell Orafo. The bottom photo is what was left of a dozen grilled fresh porcini mushroom caps that we all shared at Buca. One reason we like being in Italy in the fall is to be able to eat fresh porcini. I also had as good a risotto as I have ever had made with a different wild mushroom called finferle that is somewhat like a chanterelle.

After my last posting I was asked if I knew Sandy Komito and whether he was still actively birding. I have never crossed his path as far as I know, but have obviously communicated with him recently to get the info about his lower 48 number from 1998. Sandy is now in his late 70's, but still does get out to bird from what I have been told. For example, he was on one of Debi Shearwater's pelagic trips this past summer.

Since I have no new big year bird sightings of my own to report, I suggest you check out Bob Ake's doings on the link to his blog on my blogsite. He just saw the taiga bean-goose today, and is on his way to TX next to try to see a crimson-collared grosbeak--a bird I saw back in February. While I am glad to have a bit of time at home, I am hoping for a rarity to show up soon. Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Holding Pattern in NC

It is Sunday morning and I have just returned with my wife from a fine autumn walk here on our property. It is not clear why, but fall has come "late" here as far as the leaves and color. It is the 14th, but usually by now our leaves are mostly on the ground and the glorious reds, oranges and yellows of our maples, hickories, dogwoods and oaks are a fading memory. Not alot of birds about this morning, but we did flush a woodcock.

My bird photo for today is a gufo as they are called in Italian. One of our favorite museums to visit in Florence is the Bargello which has castings of several different birds including the owl at the top. The gleeful little guy in leather chaps below the owl is eros--one of my most cherished bronzes also in the Bargello. The Uffizi and the Accademia are the better known museums in Florence, but we generally prefer the Bargello and the Museo dell Duomo.

The 3rd pic from the top is of a typical deli at the San Lorenzo market in Florence. It is always enjoyable to stroll thru this large market to see the various vendors--deli's, meat and poultry, seafood, wine and lots of produce on the second floor. The bottom photo is of a place called Nerbone that has been open since 1872. It serves simple pasta lunches for the working folks.

It is best known by foodies for its bollito panino--a sandwich of brisket that has been cooked in its own juices until totally tender, and then sliced very thinly (by the guy in the photo) and piled on a kaiser roll. Toppings are salt and pepper, and a green and red sauce. I was introduced to this delightful simple sandwich (the closest thing to BBQ in Italy) by our friends Ben and Karen when they stayed with us during the year we lived in Florence. I used to arrive about 11:15 in the morning so I could sit eating my panino while listening to a group of older Italian men trash talking each other. Now when I visit for a week I try to have 2 or 3 panini, often as a light breakfast by getting a piccolo version.

Yesterday I went on "bird alert" for a few hours when a possible slaty-backed gull was reported near Corvallis, OR, but by the evening it was concluded by local birders that the gull was an odd western. So I am still in a holding pattern, waiting for a rarity to show up while contacting key people around the country asking them to inform me ASAP about any rarity that they know about.

I was asked after my last posting if I now have the record for the lower 48 states. The answer seems to be yes and no. Yes in that the "official" record according to ABA info is 685 different species seen by my friend Dan Sanders back in 2005. But as I wrote prior to leaving for Italy, I learned from Sandy Komito that his computer records indicate he saw 692 birds in 1998 in the lower 48 states when he set the all-time ABA record of 745. He did not submit that number to the ABA, so according to my ABA birding friends, it is not an "official" number.

Back on September 30th I stated that my new goal for the year was to see at least 690 different species. With 691 seen, and the rock sandpiper and common redpoll expected, by year's end I should reach at least 693. With 6+ more weeks to go, I also expect some more rarities to make an appearance. As a result, I now think 695 birds is probable with the holy grail of 700 still out there but getting more possible. And with at least 693 birds I would also pass Sandy's 1998 lower 48 number. Stay tuned!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Rusty Blackbird in NC

I got home yesterday evening from California. My wife picked me up at the airport and we hit one of our good local restaurants--Vin Rouge--for a quick meal featuring perfectly prepared steamed mussels in white wine and cream with french fries for me, and trout with pureed potatoes for my wife. It felt good to sleep in my own bed after the whirlwind of the past 5 days.

This morning my local birding buddy, Pam, and I headed out about 8:30 to check the usual rusty blackbird spots. The rusties have started to be seen in central NC, so I was optimistic, but after checking 3 good spots and finding none, I was thinking maybe today was not our day. At our 4th stop, which had the best rusty habitat of the day, we heard 1 calling. After about 10 minutes we saw it fly across the wetland and land in the top of a tree. It then flew further out beyond where we could see it. We plan to go out again in the next few days in hopes of finding a larger group, and maybe some photos.

Since I have no pertinent bird photos to post today, the photos above are from our recent time in Italy. Last year when we visited Florence in the fall we and our friends, Craig and Renee, made a day trip up to Bologna to eat at the Godot Wine Bar which my wife and I had discovered back in 2004. We spent about 4 hours thoroughly enjoying the food and wine that day. Craig thought it was one of his all time favorite meals, so we decided to go again this past week.

We went on Monday which was All Saints Day. We took our good friend Giulia who works at Fuori Porta in Florence. We arrived at Godot to find that the ownership had changed in April. We were bummed because we discovered last year that 1 of the owners was a huge american football fan, especially of the TX longhorns. Craig, who lives in Austin, had brought him a TX football jersey. The best we could do was talk with him on the phone, and tell him to come by to pick up a gift we had brought for him.

We proceeded to have a very good lunch. The top photo is coddled eggs with shaved white truffles that was quite nice. The middle pic is of our friend Renee with a bowl of the classic pasta bolognese. The 3rd photo down is a rabbit cacciatore with wedges of white polenta. Other starter dishes included tagliatelle with leeks and cream, and steak tartare. Other main dishes included a small roasted poussin, and chitarra pasta with truffles.

For wines we began with an '08 Vie di Romans sauvignon blanc followed by an '06 riserva verdicchio from a producer that I did not know. Both wines were fine examples of their grapes and regions. Our red wines were an '08 etna rosso from Terre Nere, and an '07 carignano Terre Brune from Santadi. Each also were handsome representatives of their grapes and regions.

Pam and I saw 30 birds on the first day of week #46, and the rusty blackbird raises the YTD up to 691. There is an updated travel map. I am now in a holding pattern waiting to see what rarity might show up next. In the mean time I will bird some locally, and continue to share more about our trip to Italy. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ivory Gull--No; Taiga Bean Goose--Yesssssss

Yesterday morning Wes and I were out by 6:30 to make the "rounds" of Santa Maria and Pismo Beach in search of the ivory gull and possible other rarities that might be around. It was sunny, but very windy which made the birding not as enjoyable as it had been on Monday. We saw lots of good birds (49 total new ones for the week), but by mid-afternoon we had not found the ivory gull. We did find that one of the dead seal carcasses that it had been feeding on had been scooped up by the beach cleaning crew, thereby further reducing the chances of the bird coming back to eat.

I called a friend in Montecito about having dinner about 5 before making the drive down to LA to catch a plane home this morning. As we were driving back to Wes' house we got a call alerting us to the discovery of a taiga bean goose at the Salton Sea--a 6 hour drive from where we were. As on Monday, there were no second thoughts about going after this bird which has been seen in the lower 48 states only 3 other times. Even in Alaska it is quite rare since it does not breed in North America. I called my friend and canceled the dinner date.

We hit the road at 6:30 PM and made it to Palm Springs by 11 where we checked into a motel. We were back on the road before 5 AM and arrived at Unit 1 of the Sonny Bono NWR at 6:20 to find 25 cars and trucks already there. Between 40 and 50 birders were lined up with their scopes and cameras on tripods looking at and photographing the bean goose. It was about 3-400 yards out in a field eating with 3 white-fronted geese and 100's of snow and ross' geese.

The top photo taken by Todd McGrath shows the taiga bean goose--the 1 that is not white--at the edge of lots of snow and ross' geese. Generally it was hanging near the 3 white-fronteds. The bean goose looks alot like the white-fronted goose. It is almost the same size with very similar coloration on its back and wings, but its bill is dark with no white at the base, it has a unmarked breast and belly, and the streaking on the sides and back of its neck seem a bit heavier than the white-fronted.

As on Monday in Long Beach when we saw the black-tailed gull (3rd and 4th photos above also taken by Todd McGrath--click on the photo to enlarge), a who's who of top CA birders were there thrilled to see such a rare bird. The large flock of geese flew up a couple of times so the bean goose was also observed in flight (2nd photo from top taken by Chris Taylor), always flying next to the 3 white-fronteds. After about an hour of watching and chatting, since the geese were not moving any closer we headed off to bird other sites at the south end of the Salton Sea.

We saw 20 more new birds for the week with the best being an albino least sandpiper which was the first I have ever seen. We also saw the large-billed form of the savannah sparrow. About 2 we went back over to check on the bean goose when we got a call that it was much closer to the viewing area. Unfortunately we arrived about 10 minutes too late as it had moved far out into the field again, so after checking it out thru our scopes for a bit we pointed our car back towards LA where I had left my car on the way down yesterday.

The bean goose raises the YTD up to 690 and is another life bird for me. The whirlwind nature of the past few days has been both exciting and tiring, and I am still absorbing the good fortune of seeing 2 such rare birds back to back. There was a rumor mid-day that the ivory gull had been relocated, but by the end of the afternoon there was no confirmation so I am planning to fly home tomorrow. Stay tuned!