Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Big Night at the Magnolia Grill

Last nite my wife and I went to our favorite local restaurant, the Magnolia Grill, which is located in Durham, NC. My sis and her husband worked there as line chefs back in 1986 when it first opened. While many very good restaurants have opened here since 1986, it is still considered by many to be the best restaurant in the area. The owner/chefs, Ben and Karen Barker, have also been our next door neighbors for many years, so I have to admit that we have some major bias about them and the Grill.

We started with a 1/2 bottle of R. H. Coutier champagne to celebrate early my wife's birthday since I will be back on the west coast on the actual date in September. She had a perfect starter dish of fresh carolina shrimp marinated in oil and surrounded by baby butter beans, slaw and feta cheese. I had some hamachi that was smoked at the Grill with its own accompaniment of "green goodies".

It was one of those nights where there were so many tantalizing main courses that you felt like you needed to eat twice. My wife settled on a fine rabbit confit that she found most delightful. I went back and forth trying to pick an entree, and finally settled on a grilled veal scallopini dish because I could not remember ever seeing scallopini on the Grill's menu. It had a salad mix nestled on top of the veal. I was happy with my decision. We had brought in a bottle of 2000 Raphet Clos Vougeot red burgundy that was at its peak--elegant with a beautiful nose and still very good fruit even though it was 10 years old.

I had meant to take photos of all the courses, but in our desire to dig into the food, I forgot until the dessert course arrived. And with the low light in the room, the above photo taken with my cell phone is also a bit grainy. But the desserts--a chocolate chili cake with chocolate ice cream, and a brown sugar sour cream cheesecake with fresh peaches--certainly were not grainy. As always, they were a scrumptious end to our meal.

I am still checking all the bird boards for any rarities that may have arrived. A lesser sand plover was found in Washington St. on the 26th, was seen again on the 27th, but yesterday could not be relocated. This was the 1st documented sighting of the plover in Washington--4 others over the years have been reported but no photos were obtained. Normally this bird is only seen up in Alaska during spring or fall migration. This is the kind of rarity that I hope will show up on the west coast this coming week. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Definitely a Red Letter Day in the Everglades

Yesterday I was up at 5 AM to make my 7 AM flight down to Miami. I was in my rental car and heading down to Everglades NP by 9:30. I met Pete Frezza at the visitor center. I had read about Pete last March on the Tropical Audubon Society's bird board when a posting talked about him helping a birder find a greater flamingo. I have been checking in with him periodically to see if any flamingos have shown up. The very cold winter in Florida pushed the flamingos out of the Everglades, and until this past Saturday no birds had been reported.

With the sighting of a single bird, I decided to fly down to try for the flamingo with Pete's help. Not only does Pete know Snake Bight bay very well--he works for the National Audubon Society in its science center at Tavernier, FL--but he also is a fishing guide which means he has a very nice small boat with a motor. Given that the flamingo that was reported was a considerable distance out in the bight, having a power boat, as opposed to kayaking to the location, was a huge benefit.

We were on the water by 11:45. It was a remarkably nice day for south Florida in late August--sunny, but not too warm with a breeze. As a result, there were no mosquitoes bothering us during the 3 hours we were out on the water. We rode for about 30 minutes to get to the right area of Snake Bight, and scanned the shoreline. At quite some distance we picked up the unmistakable shape of not 1 but 3 greater flamingos (top photo above-remember to click on the photo to enlarge it). Their light color indicates that they are sub-adults--it takes 3-4 years for a flamingo to get its full pink color.

We worked our way towards them, poling the last few hundred yards in the very shallow water. I can not begin to describe to you just how cool it is to see this bird up close. This is one of those birds that in the flesh totally blows you away--the bird book images just do not capture how amazing this bird looks and carries itself. The 3 birds did not seem to pay us much attention, so we sat and watched them for probably 30 minutes, along with lots of other birds that were in the area.

We finally pulled ourselves away and headed back into the dock. On the way in I got a photo of the Wurdemann's form of the great blue heron (bottom above). When I was down in the Keys back in late April I had seen the white form of the great blue, but had not come across any of the Wurdemann's. My neighbor/friend who was birding with me at the time had really wanted to see this form, so this picture is for you gal.

We found the flamingos quickly enough that Pete and I had time to stop in for a late lunch at my favorite taqueria in Florida City. On the way to lunch we saw a crested caracara in the field which is not common this far south in Florida. I had 2 tacos with carne asada (skirt steak) and 1 with al pastor (pork), and Pete went for the shredded beef burrito. I was back at the airport in plenty of time to make my flight home. The plane then had mechanical problems which delayed our flight by an hour. Even the glitch at the end of a long day of travel could not take the glow off of another red letter day for this big year.

Week #34 is now in the books with a total of 88 birds seen, and the flamingo, which is a life bird for me, raises the YTD to 675. I am now home for a few more days before heading back to the west coast. I am keeping my eye on the bird boards hoping that a rarity shows up close by that I might be able to go see. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Day 3 of the White-faced Storm-Petrel Hunt, and More

I had seriously considered not going out on Day 3 of the white-faced storm-petrel hunt, but in the end decided to give it one more shot. While conditions for locating the WFSP seemed better on Sunday than the 1st 2 days of our search, in the end we still came up empty. I did get a shot of the bridled tern in the photo above. They often sit on debris floating in the ocean, and usually where there is some sargasso weed nearby. We also had a several marlins feeding around our boat for 1-2 hours. Brian said he had never seen so many in one spot.

We saw the same birds as on day 1 and 2 plus we had good looks at a manx shearwater, and a very good look at a south polar skua that we found sitting on the water. Unfortunately, my photo of it was even poorer than the one above of the bridled tern. We also surprisingly had a barn swallow and a prairie warbler fly around the boat. By the time we returned to the dock, I was more than happy to be finished with this recent round of pelagic trips. I did call Bob Ake, who had not come on day 3 because he needed to get ready to leave this morning for Alaska, to tell him he had not missed the WFSP.

While tired, I jumped in my trusty car and headed for Virginia Beach where I spent the nite. I was up this morning at 4:45 to make the additional 4 hour drive up to Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware. A black-headed gull had been seen there on Saturday, and I still needed to find one for this big year. I arrived at the Shearness Pool and began my scoping of the group of gulls and shorebirds. It took me about 20-30 minutes before I located the bird. It was in what is called basic plumage, but its thin red bill and red legs stood out once I found it.

I had been talking with a group of 4 birders from Philly prior to seeing the gull. We had all seen a godwit mixed in with the group of gulls but were having a hard time sorting out which kind it was because it was not all that visible. When I found the gull, I began to walk back over to the Philly group but the gulls flushed, and the black-headed disappeared.

I told one of the Philly birders that I was doing a big year, and said I was planning to drive over to Cape May that afternoon to look for the king eider that has been there all summer. He called a birding buddy in Cape May, who went out to make sure that the eider was still there. As I was driving toward Cape May, I got a message from the Philly birder that he had heard from his friend who found it was still hanging around the remains of what is called the concrete ship. The Philly birder also said that they had relocated the black-headed gull, and finally gotten good enough looks at the godwit to conclude that it was a hudsonian.

I arrived in Cape May a little before 4 PM, and found the king eider in the water next to the ship. It soon hopped up on what is left of the ship, joining several double-crested cormorants, and proceeded to preen at length. This allowed me to study it for awhile. I thought how wierd birding can be at times. I had looked during parts of 3 days on the north shore of Boston in January for a king eider--the normal time and place to find one. Instead I see this one in the middle of the summer at Cape May. After a long satisfying look, I packed up my scope and headed out of town.

I am staying outside of Baltimore tonite because I need to stop in Washington DC tomorrow. As a result, I ate dinner tonite at a place called Obrycki's which is famous for its steamed hard-shell crabs. I tried to eat here back in March, but they had not opened yet for the season. Even though I was eating alone, I still enjoyed cracking and digging out the crab meat from 6 large crabs. The Obrycki's lager washed the crab and cole slaw down well.

35 more birds were seen for this week, and the gull and eider raise the YTD up to 674. I will be heading back to NC tomorrow. On Thursday I will be flying down to Miami to look for a flamingo that was seen this past Saturday in Everglades NP. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

White-faced Storm-petrel--Days 1 and 2

It is Saturday nite. Days 1 and 2 of the search for the white-faced storm-petrel are completed but regretfully without a sighting of the bird. This is one of the most difficult of the pelagic birds to find. It shows up in small numbers along the east coast from the Outer Banks north to Massachusetts beginning each year in mid August and is seen as late as early October. I have seen only 1 in my pelagic birding forays over the years.

We did see some birds over the last 2 days while out on the Stormy Petrel II, captained by Brian Patteson. The top picture is mostly cory's shearwaters (light heads and yellow bills) with a couple of great shearwaters (bottom left, the 2 birds with the dark caps and bills) in amongst the group. Remember to click on the photo to enlarge. The bottom photo above is a not very good effort at capturing a pilot whale breaching the water. There were many of them around the boat today. We mostly had lots of wilson's storm-petrels with the occasional band-rumped storm-petrel. There were a few black-capped petrels each day as well.

Leaving and returning from the harbor provided the opportunity to see several other birds including herring and laughing gulls, least and caspian terns, double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans, great egrets, black skimmers, ospreys, and canada geese.

On Friday evening I had dinner with Bob Ake and his wife, Joyce, at my favorite restaurant in Nags Head--Basnight's Lone Cedar Cafe. It was nice to meet Joyce, and share a well-made seafood meal. Since the soft shell crab season is now over, I had a broiled lump crabcake and local shrimp plus whipped sweetpotatoes and slaw. Joyce had blackened redfish and Bob had tilefish. We shared a bottle of Brancott sauvignon blanc and a piece of key lime pie.

35 birds have been seen during the 1st 2 days of week #34, but no new year birds. The travel map has been updated. Tomorrow is our last chance this week to see the white-faced SP. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Home Barely

It is Wednesday morning here in Chapel Hill. I arrived home last nite and will be leaving again tomorrow to go to the Outer Banks of NC to do 3 days of pelagic trips there. I was up at 5 AM today to pick up my neighbor who birded with me in Florida back at the end of April. She had talked to some local birders and found where we could go look to find the eastern whip-poor-will near my home. I still needed this bird because I had not known the American Ornithological Union was going to split the whip-poor-will into eastern and mexican species.

We arrived at the local spot about 5:45 and had 3 birds calling over the next 15 minutes. The 3rd bird flew around us a couple of times before heading off into the pine trees. I had my friend back to her house by 6:30. On my way home as I drove by the dairy that is part of the land I live on outside of Chapel Hill I must have counted 30 eastern bluebirds flying over the pastures along with lots of chipping sparrows and a couple of pine warblers. All and all a very nice start to my day.

I saw 9 new birds for the week this morning, and the whip raises the YTD to 672. This weekend's pelagics are focused on an area off the Outer Banks that has white-faced storm-petrels this time of year. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hawaiian Petrel and Lawrence's Goldfinch

The 2nd pelagic trip out of Ft. Bragg on Sunday was right up there with the 1st one. Debi Shearwater who runs these pelagic outings says that statistically the rare birds usually appear after noon. Not on Sunday. About 8:30 one of the spotters cried out "hawaiian petrel". This is an extremely rare bird on the west coast, and all aboard were riveted to the back of the boat where the bird was first seen. It crossed the wake left to right, then looped back to the wake. By then the boat captain had put the boat into neutral, and the petrel proceeded to fly up the wake and passed close by the boat on the starboard side. The top 2 photos were taken by one of the trip leaders, Todd McGrath, who is the guy in the left-center of the bottom photo holding the big camera.

There were 20-25 people on the boat Sunday, and for the majority of them, including me, this was a life bird. So we started the morning with a big adrenalin rush. The rest of the day we worked our way out to Arena Canyon, and then turned around and headed back. We could do this because the seas were almost flat and there was not much wind. Sunday's birds generally were the same as Friday's except we had no laysan albatross come in. We did see lots of cassin's auklets on our way out of the harbor, and a pair of marbled murrelets flying away from us. A distant south polar skua was also seen in the morning. The afternoon's highlight was a 1st year franklin's gull which are quite rare on the west coast.

While on the boat I continued to compare notes with Bob Ake--the birder from Virginia who is doing a full ABA big year (everything north of the Mexican border)--and his birding buddy John who has been with him on most of his birding trips this year. Bob's year total as of Sunday is up to 689 birds, and he will be returning to Alaska for 2 more weeks at the end of August. He will definitely break 700 different species seen for the year. He and John are on their way as I type this posting to Elko, NV to make a 2nd attempt to see the himalayan snowcock.

I also got to see Jen Fowler and her brother who were on their 1st pelagic trip. For those following the blog, you may remember that I met Jen in South Dakota back in July when I went out there to see the orange-billed nightingale-thrush. She is the local birder who helped many visiting birders find the thrush. It was nice to be able to talk with her more while we cruised the sea.

The 3 pelagic trips this week have to rank with as good a series of days on the sea as I have ever had--reasonably good weather, lots of birds to look at including some very "good" birds like the hawaiian petrel and the laysan albatross. I will be going out on more pelagic trips on the west coast in September which I hope are as good.

Last nite I was in the small town of Bloomfield, which is near Santa Rosa, to spend time with one of my college roommates. He has a new woman in his life which I greatly enjoyed meeting for the 1st time. We had dinner at a local restaurant where we drank a bottle of the wine he has been making for the last 30+ years--Laurel Glen cabernet. I still have bottles back to 1986 of this wine in my cellar at home. I had a nice caesar salad with fried oysters added to it, and then a cup of seafood gumbo. We all shared a huge piece of chocolate cake for dessert.

After a homemade breakfast this AM, I drove 2 hours down to Mines Rd south of Livermore in hopes of finally seeing the elusive lawrence's goldfinch. I had been told by another birder that a 3rd birder in the Bay area had reported seeing them on Mines Rd last week. I called that birder up 2 nites ago and found out exactly where to look for them.

This time of year they want to be near a good water source because it is generally so dry. I arrived a little after 11 AM and as I walked up towards the small creek, I saw what looked like some goldfinches flying off into some distant trees. I figured that they would eventually return for water, so I checked out the other birds that were around such as oak titmouse, black phoebe, house wren, western scrub jay and nuttal's woodpecker.

About 2 hours later I heard the finches calling, and found them down by the creek getting a drink. It was a mixed group of 10-15 birds, and there were 2 lawrence's in with them. It really felt good to see them after looking so many places. It will also make my scheduling in September easier since I have now found them.

25 more new birds were seen for the week, and the petrel and goldfinch bring the YTD to 671. I am checked into my motel next to the San Francisco airport. I fly out early tomorrow morning to return to NC for a couple of weeks to see my wife and do some birding. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ft Bragg I: Another Great Pelagic Trip

We left the dock in Noyo Harbor at Ft Bragg, CA a little after 7 AM with the sun shining. In the short distance to the mouth of the harbor we entered overcast, at times misty/foggy conditions that were a bit colder than at Bodega Bay 2 days ago. The good news was that the seas were not any problem, so much so that Debi had the captain take us south which she only does out of Noyo Harbor with good seas and weather.

The big get for the day, at least for me, was the fork-tailed storm-petrel that came up the wake of the boat late morning. Wes, the chummer, found it and then all the spotters were calling out loudly, helping everyone locate the bird. If I had not seen this bird today or Sunday when I go back out of Ft Bragg, I would have needed to go to Oregon again to do a pelagic trip there in September to raise my odds of finding the fork-tailed SP. Instead, I get to drive less in September, and take more pelagic trips out of the Monterey area. Hooray!

As on Wednesday, we had birds with us all day, including both black-footed (top photo) and laysan (bottom photo) albatrosses. There were lots of black-footed, but we had only the 1 laysan which stayed with us all afternoon, and even followed us almost all the way into the harbor. We had all the same birds as on Wednesday including another fly-by tufted puffin, and ten's of buller's shearwaters. Other than being another long, tiring day at sea, the birding was excellent.

Week #33 begins with 37 birds seen, and the fork-tailed brings the YTD up to 669. Tomorrow looks like it will be similar to yesterday, but on Sunday I am back out for another pelagic. Stay tuned!

The Big Night Side of the Big Year

After I posted last nite I checked the internet bird sites to see if there was anything I might want to try to find today. As it turned out, I found a report of a pacific golden plover that was seen with 200 black-bellied plovers near Gustine, CA. This is a very tough bird to find in the lower 48 states, so I thought about going after it. But it meant driving 2.5 hours south to an unclear location and the bird was seen 3 days ago. It also meant I would have a 4.5 hour drive back to be in Ft. Bragg tonite.

The alternative was to have a nice relaxing day with much less driving. I slept in, shopped for the food I need for the pelagic trip tomorrow, and decided to drive by Hog Island Oyster Co. to eat some totally fresh oysters. For those who have been following this blog, you may remember that I had found this place in March. I was 1/2 way thru eating 24 oysters and drinking most of a bottle of Roederer estate champagne when I remembered to take the photo above. When I was here in March I did not have any wine to go with the oysters so today when a young couple walked in with a tray of oysters but no wine I gave them the rest of my champagne.

I then decided to try to stop in at Peay Vineyards which is just off route 1. I discovered their wines a couple of years ago and thought it would be fun to see their vineyards. I found Nick Peay home already hosting a guy in the wine trade who was in from Savannah, GA with his wife and daughter. We had a short tour of the vineyard, and then tried some of the syrah and pinot noir that Peay makes. After a couple of hours of talking about the wines and Peay's history, we all went our separate ways.

I finished my drive up to Ft. Bragg to be here for tomorrow's pelagic trip. The weather report is looking good, so I have high hopes for another good day out on the sea. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bodega Bay Pelagic

It is Wednesday evening and I have recently returned from an all day pelagic trip out of Bodega Bay, CA. But I am a bit ahead of myself. Yesterday I spent the morning birding in the Solano Lake area in search of the elusive lawrence's goldfinch which continues to be just that. I did find again its cousin, the lesser goldfinch, along with some other nice birds including the yellow-billed magpie.

I stopped in St. Helena to try the pizza at Tra Vigne. I had eaten in the past at Tra Vigne's fine dining cantinetta and figured the pizzeria was going to be good also. It did not disappoint. I had a very delicious sausage and mushroom pizza with a an amber ale from the Tra Vigne brewery. I would definitely eat more of their pizza if I lived in St. Helena.

Today's pelagic trip began at 7 AM chilly, overcast and a bit misty at times. Fortunately the misty/foggy part dissipated fairly quickly but it stayed chilly all day, and the sun only partly shown for awhile midafternoon. As we were leaving the harbor a wandering tattler flew across the front of the bow which was a good omen for the day because this was a bird I missed earlier in the winter.

The second new bird for the year was a tufted puffin that circled the boat 3 or 4 times right at the 50 fathom water level where Debi Shearwater said they frequently find one. This was about 90 minutes after we left the harbor.

The rest of the day was full of birds including both laysan (top photo) and black-footed (bottom photo) albatrosses (remember to click on the photos to enlarge them). At one point we had between 50 and 60 black-footed on the water behind our boat which is why the laysan flew in to see what all the action was about. Throughout the day we had long-tailed jaegers coming into check us out also, along with the occasional pomarine and parasitic jaeger.

The other trifecta for the day was the double-crested, pelagic and brandt's comorants we saw coming out of the harbor. We also saw red and red-necked phalaropes; cassin's and rhino auklets, ashy storm-petrels; sabine's, california and western gulls; arctic and caspian terns; and pigeon guillemots. The highlight for the captain today was the sperm whales that were only the 2nd ones he had seen in 40 years of taking boats out from Bodega Bay. We also saw blue and humpback whales. One of the humpbacks breached several times, leaping almost completely out of the water twice.

Over the past 2 days 47 more new birds were seen for this week, and the puffin and tattler raise the YTD to 668. The travel map has been updated. Tomorrow I probably will not bird, so my next post will be after the pelagic trip out of Ft. Bragg on Friday. Hopefully we will find a west coast rarity. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Himalayan Snowcock

I left North Las Vegas about 6:30 yesterday morning to make the 400+ mile drive up to Lamoille Canyon which is about 20 miles south of Elko, NV. Most of the drive was on Hwy 93 which runs up the east side of the state. It was very beautiful for most of the way. At one point I came across a pony express historical site, thus the top photo.

I met a couple that I birded with back in May at Magee Marsh in Ohio. They moved to Carson City, NV in the past year, and when they heard I was going to make another try to see the himalayan snowcock, Rob and Ricki decided to join me in the effort. After a early dinner in Lamoille, we drove up into the canyon and got ourselves organized to hike up to Island Lake. For those who have been diligently following the blog, I tried to see the snowcock back in early July but totally struck out that time. Rob and I loaded up our backpacks to be prepared to spend the nite up at the lake. Ricki walked up with us, but opted to come back down and stay in town in a nice comfy bed. As we hiked up we had some rain and small hail even though the sun shown on us the entire way up.

We arrived at the lake about 6 PM and immediately walked up another 200 yards above the lake to begin looking and listening for the bird. A little after 7 we still had not seen it, so Ricki hiked down and we kept looking until almost dark. We set up our sleeping bags and were in for the nite by 9:30. Unlike my last visit here when the stars were out all nite, we had mostly overcast conditions and even some lite rain for about 30 minutes beginning at 3 AM.

We got up at 5 when it was just beginning to be lite. We grabbed our spotting scopes and hiked up the 200 yards to begin listening and looking for the bird. The snowcock has a variety of vocalizations. About 5:30 we heard to our southwest what is described as the bugle call of the snowcock--to me it sounded like the call of the common loon but less mournful sounding. Almost immediately we heard another bugle call to the northwest of us which was followed by a a different part of the snowcock's vocal repertoire that came from the SW location. This of course got us excited because we knew that there were snowcocks in the cirque.

We spent the next 2 hours scanning the 2 areas from which the calls came, but found only mountain goats. About 7:30 we heard from the NW position a 3rd form of the bird's call. We kept looking, but again to no avail, and to make things worse, it began to lightly rain. About 8:30 the rain was still falling, and it did not look like it was going to let up, so we walked back down to our campsite to pack up our gear. In the time it took to pack the rain stopped and we even had some blue sky overhead.

Not ready to give up on seeing a snowcock, we once again went up the mountainside to scope the cliffs. As I was walking up I flushed a bird that was either a mexican whip-poor-will, which would be surprising since they are not supposed to be that far north, or a common poor-will, but they are not normally at 10,000 ft elevation. The amount of white in the tail and the overall size and color suggested it was a whip.

At one point a golden eagle flew thru the cirque which we had been told often flushed snowcocks, but not this morning. After an hour of scoping, we then walked further up into the cirque in hopes of flushing some birds. After hearing no more calls, and not flushing any birds by walking around, we finally called it a day about 11 AM. The middle photo is of Island Lake, and the bottom photo is of the distant cliff face area that we scoped in our efforts to locate a snowcock.

The past 2 days added 25 more new birds for this week. Not seeing the snowcock was disappointing because this is a life bird for me, and is now the only bird on my life list that has only been heard as opposed to seen and heard. Nevertheless, it raised the YTD total for this big year to 666. Tonite I am near Sacramento, CA. Tomorrow I will be trying again to locate a lawrence's goldfinch on my way out to Bodega Bay where I will be doing a pelagic trip on Wednesday. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve

Because I had a short drive up to Big Morongo Canyon Preserve I slept in this morning not getting up until 6 AM. I hoped that I would finally find lawrence's goldfinches there. When I pulled into the preserve I found a crew of 4 trapping and banding hummingbirds. The top photo shows the net that they drop down over the hummer as it feeds. They put it into a small net bag for a few minutes until they are ready to take it out to determine the type and sex, and measure, weigh and band it. Over 5 hours they catch about 40 hummers. Today they had Anna's, black-chinned and costa's while I was there. They do this every Saturday morning from April to September.

There were also lots of different feeders near where they were trapping the hummers. I was able to watch and compare the very similar nuttal's and ladder-backed woodpeckers that came into a suet feeder. Unfortunately I do not have a good photo of either to show you because the suet feeder kept moving with a bird on it, and none of my photos came out clear.

The preserve itself has many trails some of which I walked. It was a really special place to bird even though I arrived about a week too late to see the lawrence's goldfinches that breed there. The preserve host told me that they arrive in April but leave as soon as they fledge their young which this year was last week. This bird is going to be a tough find now since they are "nomadic" once they finish breeding.

After a very pleasant morning talking with the banders and walking the preserve, I made the drive up thru the mojave desert to Las Vegas. On the way I drove thru a particularly desolate area south of I-40. In the one horse town of Amboy (founded 1848) I came across the collection of shoes and boots in the bottom photo above (remember to click on photo to enlarge). Who knows how many years this has been going on since there is literally no one living in Amboy today. A bush nearby had lots of socks on it. We humans sometimes do very odd things.

I saw 17 more new birds for this week, and the nuttal's woodpecker lifts the YTD total to 665. Tomorrow I will make the 7 hour drive up to the Ruby Mountains to join 2 other birders in our mutual quest to see the himalayan snowcock. Stay tuned!

A Red Letter Day for the 1st Day of Week #32

On Wednesday a possible eared quetzal was reported in Miller Canyon down near Sierra Vista. But since no further reports were made I decided to return this morning to Montosa Canyon for one last attempt to get a better look at a black-capped gnatcatcher, and maybe even a photo. You may wonder why I kept going back. The answer is simple and is best explained by something a birder from Missouri said to me when we were both in South Dakota a couple of weeks ago to see the orange-billed nightingale-thrush. We had a few fly-by views of the bird, but we wanted better looks. Her comment was that the fly-by was a satisfactory look (meaning you had no doubt what the bird was), but it was not a satisfying look (meaning you could really study the bird and soak it up).

I spent another 2+ hours in Montosa, and most of the same birds from the past 2 mornings were still around. A couple from California that I met the evening before during the nightjar hunt came to bird there as well. They found a family of blue-gray gnatcatchers, but we again did not see or hear any black-capped. I finally packed it in and began my drive west towards southern California.

I am on my way to Elko, NV but had enough time to try for a 2nd time to see a ruddy ground dove in Wellton, AZ. I missed seeing it on Tuesday on my way over to AZ. Since this is the only known location currently of this very rare bird, it made sense to try again. I arrived just after 3 PM at the woman's house where it has been seen over the past few months. The top photo shows that the temp was 104. She told me that she had seen the dove 2 days ago, so I pulled up a yard chair and began my vigil in hopes that it would fly in. The heat was mitigated by a breeze, shade and the huge glass of ice tea that she gave me.

I proceeded to watch the comings and goings of her yard birds. The house sparrows and finches were everywhere. The eurasion collared and white-winged doves came and went. Western tanagers, black-headed grosbeaks, and a black phoebe were in and out as well. Black-chinned and broad-tailed hummers regularly came to eat sugar water or have aerial duels. A kestrel even dropped into the huge cottonwood tree at one point to see if it could find a meal.

The key was the inca doves. I only saw 1 last Tuesday morning, but this afternoon there were 3 that finally got used to my sitting there. They would fly in to get a drink at the drip bucket and then soon leave for awhile. I kept a close eye on them, and sure enough about 5 PM a beautiful ruddy ground dove came in right after the incas had settled down.

It was great to see the 2 doves side by side. The incas are very understated in comparison. The ruddy was ruddy on its body and wings, and it has an unpatterned whitish head and throat area, a gray bill and well defined dark markings on its wings. It took a drink of water and was off in less than 30 seconds. Since it was so warm, I decided to scram as well. I thanked the lady for her hospitality. On my way out I took a photo of the bat above.

Because it was early enough, I powered on into California and up to the Salton Sea. On my way into the southern part of the sea I found a total of 8 burrowing owls--more than I have ever seen at one time. I went to Obsidian Buttes to look for yellow-footed gulls. I had missed seeing them back in February. The first shore area I pulled into had several of them hanging about taking in the last rays of the day. There were also lots of other shorebirds and waterfowl in the area. I drove up the east side of the Salton Sea as the sun was setting. Hundreds of lesser nighthawks were cruising for bugs but I still had to spend 5 minutes cleaning bugs off my windshield.

For those who have been following this blog, you may be thinking today was a red letter day because the dove and gull are life birds for me since most of my red letter days this year have been when I have gotten a new life bird. It would be a good guess but wrong. Instead I think today is a red letter day because by seeing both of these birds today I have reduced the amount of travel I will need to do in the next few months because I won't have to make additional trips to find a very rare dove, and a gull that is only seen at the Salton Sea.

Week #32 begins with 44 birds seen, and the dove and gull raise the YTD total to 664. I am in Indio, CA for the nite and will be going to the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve early tomorrow to try for lawrence's goldfinch again before making the drive up to Elko. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Tying Up Loose Ends in SE AZ

The past 2 days of birding in SE Arizona was very enjoyable, and pretty productive as far as picking up the remaining expected birds here. Wednesday morning I was at Montosa Canyon by 6 AM in search of the only black-capped gnatcatchers that have been seen and heard lately down here. There were lots of birds in the wash which kept me very entertained. The top photo is of the hillside above the wash where the black-cappeds have annually been seen. The somewhat distant photos below are of a phainopepla (middle) and a varied bunting (remember to double click on the them to enlarge).

The most common bird constantly singing away was the bell's vireo. Some of the other birds seen there included white-winged dove, red-tailed hawk, cardinal, rufous-crowned sparrow, western tanager, broad-billed hummer, cassin's kingbird, black-headed and blue grosbeaks, and canyon wren. About 8:30 I heard what sounded close to the call I knew of the black-capped. I located a gnatcatcher but it did not have a black cap. It then flew over my head and I could see it had white undertail feathers like a black-cap. The problem was that blue-gray gnatcatchers have white undertail feathers also, so I was not certain at the time that I had found a black-capped.

That evening I went on line to listen to black-capped vocalizations and discovered that there is variation in the call. One of the calls matched the call I heard the bird make. Since I have blue-gray gnatcatchers that breed on my property back in NC, and know their vocalization quite well, I concluded that the bird that flew over my head was a female black-capped altho it might have been a male that had already lost his breeding black cap for the year.

I left Montosa about 9 AM and went over to check out Florida Canyon for northern beardless tyrannulets. When I arrived at the parking area I found Melody Kehl's car and then found her guiding a birder from Chicago. They were coming back down from the canyon having failed in their hunt for the rufous-capped warbler that I finally saw there back in May. We did see 2 nice tyrannulets together before deciding to drive over to Carr Canyon in hopes of locating an early aztec thrush. We hiked up to a cherry tree Melody knew of, but it had very few unripe cherries. We had a nice lunch, watched some birds come into a small pool of water that had a camera watching over it. None of us could quite figure out what that was all about.

Yesterday morning I returned to Montosa to try for better looks of the gnatcatcher. I first drove up the Madera Canyon road before it was even light to look for common poor-wills. I had only heard this bird back in May and wanted to see one. I found 3 along the road, so now that is a seen bird for this big year. I then arrived at Montosa by 6 AM, and spent all morning once again enjoying the bird life there. A Wings tour group came thru mid morning, and a woman birder from Ohio arrived about the same time I heard and saw the black-capped on Wednesday. As she got out of her car she said she heard it call on the hillside above the wash, but she stayed around for another hour and we did not hear it call again.

I finally gave it up about noon so that I could get some lunch before joining Melody and 9 other birders to go into California Gulch for the late afternoon and evening to look for 5 striped sparrow and the buff-collared nightjar. I had seen the sparrow back in May, but we had not seen or heard the nightjar. Unfortunately we had the same experience yesterday. Good views of the sparrow, but no sign of the nightjar. We did see 2 zone-tailed hawks, a great-horned and an western screech owl, and many other desert birds.

Week #31 ended up with 123 birds seen for the week, and the tyrannulet and gnatcatcher bring the YTD up to 662. There is an updated travel map. I am starting the long drive today back west and then north to Elko, NV to try for the snowcock again. Let's hope that my 2nd effort on it is more successful than it was with the nightjar. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Back In SE Arizona

It is late afternoon on Tuesday here in Tucson. I spent most of yesterday visiting several locations east of San Diego in search of lawrence's goldfinch. I had a good day of birding, especially at Kitchen Creek Rd. It is a short 5 mile road that heads north off of I-8, effectively ending at Cibbet NF campground. I say effectively because the road is usually closed just past the campground as part of the border patrol control program. Since it is pretty much a road to nowhere, it makes for very nice birding the last 2 miles where the creek parallels the road. I found lots of lesser goldfinches there, but no lawrence's. I did see lots of acorn woodpeckers (photo above).

I then drove to Yuma AZ to spend the nite so that I could be in Wellton AZ early this morning in hopes of seeing a ruddy ground dove. A very nice elderly woman lives on a pretty good sized piece of land with lots of large trees right next to some farmed fields. She has had a ruddy visiting her feeders this year. Unfortunately today was not one of those. She had been sick for a couple of days and had not put out any seed. I may try back at her place another time.

I made it to Saguaro NP outside of Tucson by 1 PM, and began to cruise the roads looking for gilded flickers. It was 107 degrees here this afternoon, so I was not getting out and walking around much. I found many gila woodpeckers, and then finally located 2 different gilded flickers. This was great because it makes my birding schedule for tomorrow much easier.

On a different note, my neighbor who joined me to bird in south Florida back in April emailed me that the American Ornithological Union had finally announced a series of changes which included 2 splits. There is now a pacific wren that has been split from the winter wren; and the whip-poor-will has been split into the eastern and the mexican whip-poor-will. This year I have seen both of the wrens (the post on 7/16 has a photo of what is now the pacific wren), and the mexican whip-poor-will. I have not seen the eastern whip, but I need to go back and check my records to see if I heard it.

Over the past 2 days 35 more new birds were seen for the week, and the flicker plus the pacific wren raise the YTD to 660. Tomorrow I will be out early to hunt for black-capped gnatcatchers. Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Salt Lake and Crystal Cove Parks

After the somewhat grueling pelagic trip yesterday, I did not turn over this morning until 7 AM. After a nice breakfast made by my friend, I hit the road about 10:30 and drove to Salt Lake city park in Huntington Park which is in the center of the greater Los Angeles urban area. I went there to see a spotted dove. I saw one fly by as I drove up, and then heard and saw one in a tree near where I parked the truck. I wandered around a bit and was able to get the 2 photos above. The top one is a good side view that shows the dove's spotted collar. The bottom photo has a mourning dove in there for comparison. Remember to click on photo to enlarge, and a double click will make it even bigger.

I then drove towards San Diego to visit Crystal Cove SP which is along the coast near Laguna Beach. I first hiked the El Moro Canyon part in search of a california gnatcatcher. I saw lots of california towhees, house finches, and lesser goldfinches plus a california thrasher and a house wren. I also saw briefly 2 different birds that were probably california gnatcatchers, but neither stayed in the open very long nor called. So after a nice 3 mile hike on a gorgeous sunny, breezy afternoon, I walked to the ocean side of the park--Reed Point. Within 10 minutes I had up to 1/2 dozen of the gnatcatchers flying around me, with a couple making the catlike mew call of this bird.

Today 13 more new birds were seen for this week, and the dove and gnatcatcher bring the YTD total up to 658. Tomorrow I will be in search of lawrence's goldfinch. Stay tuned!

Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay and So Much More

On Friday I took the Island Packers boat out to Santa Cruz Island to see the endemic scrub jay (above). This one sat around very obligingly as soon as we walked off the boat for our photo op. Then for the next 6 hours we rarely saw another jay altho we did hear them calling. Most of the people on the boat came out to camp or just spend the day hiking around. There were 2 other birders on the boat with me so we spent most of our time birding the area around the dock. Once we had seen most of the other birds on the island we just sat and talked until the boat returned to take us back to Ventura.

Santa Cruz Island is part of Channel Islands NP, and is considered to be our version of the Galapagos. The jay is the best known example since it has evolved enough over 10,000 years to be bigger and darker with a deeper "voice" than its scrub jay brethren on the mainland. It is only on Santa Cruz Island. I had been saving seeing this bird for my big year since most birders only make the trip out to the island once. On the way back in to Ventura harbor I also saw some pink-footed shearwaters, another new year bird.

Friday nite I stayed with a friend that I have known for almost 30 years. We went to eat at a local place called Sly's for an early celebration of her birthday. The place is known for its steak and seafood, so we had some of both. The mussels in cream broth were excellent as were the onion strings that we had as appetizers. My friend had some halibut cheeks, and I went with the aged Kansas City steak. These were accompanied by the local pinquitos (a small red bean) and some thin green beans with shallots. Our wine was probably the best thing we ordered--a '07 Melville pinot noir made from its Terraces vineyard grapes. Dessert was a meyer lemon tart that just had no real tartness, thus was flat and disappointing.

Yesterday the Condor Express left Santa Barbara harbor at 7 AM fully loaded with 78 birders, plus several spotters and its crew. I saw several birders that I have met over the years, including this year on other pelagic trips. I also was able to visit at length during the day with Bob Ake, a Virginia birder I met earlier in the year who is doing a full ABA big year. I had last seen him in Florida in April, so we compared notes on how our respective years were going so far. We discovered that other than Bob's friend John we had not met any one else so far doing a big year.

This is the 3rd time that I have gone out on the Condor, and yesterday was again an excellent day for sea birding. The weather was not great--overcast with at times early in the morning either mist or salt spray clouding my glasses and binocs. With the wind from the boat moving, it was also fairly chilly.

The early new birds for the year were black and ashy storm petrels, and red-necked phalaropes. Around 9 AM I and 3 other birders standing together on the bow saw a least storm petrel. As happens occasionally on a pelagic trip, none of the spotters or other birders picked up on this bird, but after comparing notes (very small, very dark, short tail, wing shape and its flight pattern), the 4 of us concurred that is what we saw.

We also saw lots of leach's storm petrels, sooty and pink-footed shearwaters, some terns and black-footed albatrosses, a few south polar skuas, all 3 jaegers (the long tailed was a new year bird), red phalaropes, and a single brown-headed cowbird. On the mammal front we saw sea lions, humpbacked, fin and baird's beaked whales, and lots of different kinds of dolphins.

The "miss" for the trip was cook's petrel. This is normally a very rare petrel on the west coast. But for some unknown reason it has been seen in large numbers over the past year, including in late June in the same area our boat was traversing. One was sighted mid-afternoon. I was in the cabin when it was called out, and by the time I made it outside, the bird had moved so far away from the boat that I could not pick it up. 2 more were seen off the back of the boat later in the afternoon, but again I was not able to see them.

The last day of July ended with the very long ride back to the harbor. We covered about 300 nautical miles for the day, and did not arrive back to Santa Barbara until about 9:30 PM. Another long and tiring day of seabirding, but very satisfying since after only 7 months of almost full time birding I have passed 650 birds seen for the year. For those who have been following my postings all year, you may remember that I said 650 birds would be a very good effort for the full year. So I have 5 more months to put major icing on my big year birding cake.

The other new year birds were sabine's gull, xantu's murrelet (both scrippsi and hypolueca), and buller's shearwater. Overall, 49 birds were seen on the 1st two days of week #31. 9 new birds bring the YTD number up to 656, and the least storm petrel along with the xantu's murrelet and the jay were life birds. I am off to LA today to find spotted dove and california gnatcatcher. Stay tuned!