Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why I Was Able to See 704 Birds in the Lower 48 States

I have studied both my schedule and the number of rare birds that I saw this past year to better understand why it was possible for me to see 704 species in 2010 in the lower 48 states. The schedule I developed in the fall of 2009 was based on my years of birding experience plus using the ABA's Birdfinder: A Birder's Guide to Planning North American Trips. This book lays out 19 primary birding trips that can be done on their own, or combined together to create a big year schedule. Each trip lists the key target birds plus other probable and possible birds that you might see. I knew from using it in the past that it provided a good baseline starting point for designing a big year. After finishing up my big year I would still say it serves that purpose with a few modifications.

First, since I did only the lower 48 states, the chapter on Alaska was not needed other than to determine which birds from that trip might still be picked up in the lower 48 states. Of the 31 target birds listed for that chapter, I was able to see 20 of them. And since I did not spend a couple of weeks in Alaska in June, it gave me some flexibility in my lower 48 scheduling for that month.

Second, in order to have the greatest chance for success on the pelagic trips off the east coast I believe the ideal time is May 28th to June 2nd. This is a bit later than the Birdfinder guide suggests. But I also think it is important to visit SE Arizona in May, so I went there the week before my pelagic trips out of Hatteras, NC. This reversed the order in the Birdfinder.

Third, the Birdfinder suggests that you will find lawrence's goldfinches in September in California. My experience says that you really need to look for this bird in CA and AZ in February, or make a special trip into CA in mid to late April to improve your chances of seeing it and potentially reduce the amount time required to find this species. Also, I went to Arizona in late January which is not suggested in the Birdfinder, but I love birding there and I felt it was a good use of my time since I also wanted to spend some time in California in the winter.

Fourth, I also spent some time in New England in January and again in December to work on winter birds. The Birdfinder does not recommend visiting New England except as part of its secondary trips which it lists as a baker's dozen.

Fifth, instead of visiting Big Bend NP in July as recommended in the Birdfinder, I added that to my April swing thru Texas for the spring migration. I was able to see the colima warbler, gray vireo, and montezuma quail then.

Sixth, I went to Colorado in late March to see the grouse and prairie chickens which allowed me to get back into Texas by the beginning of April to be ready for spring migration there. Now I would go to Colorado at the end of March overlapping into the beginning of April because I think it is better for finding the grouse and chickens, and being at High Island the 1st week of April is not as important.

Seventh, it appears that the best time to try for the himalayan snowcock is in August, and I would look for the white-faced storm-petrel in late August off of Massachusetts instead of trying in late August out of North Carolina.

Turning to how it was possible to see 704 birds in the lower 48 states, the first step was that I did not miss any of the birds that a good and diligent birder should see. More specifically, I saw all the code 1 and 2 birds that you should be able to find in the lower 48 states with the exception of thick-billed murre.  This includes breeding and migratory species, and currently totals about 645 birds.

Because the lower 48 states are in the northern hemisphere, finding as many birds in the first 6 months of the year is critical to your overall success in not missing any code 1 or 2 birds. This means being in the field almost daily from January thru July is optimal. I was able to do that so by June 1st I had seen 605 birds, and by July 1st the year to date total was up to 631. During the last 6 months of the year I only added 73 more birds for the year, and as I have said in an earlier post, many of these were seen on pelagic trips off the west coast in August and September.

Next, I had a very good pelagic birding cycle in 2010 (23 total day trips with only 2 cancellations) in which I missed only a few of the rarer but possible code 3 pelagic species such as short-tailed albatross, bermuda, herald and murphy's petrels, white-faced storm petrel and craveri's murrelet. The rare pelagic birds that I did see included great skua (3), fea's petrel (3), white-tailed (3) and red-billed (3) tropicbirds, cook's (3) and hawaiian petrel (4), streaked shearwater (4), and european storm-petrel (4).

Most critical to reaching 704 species was the combination of rarities that visited from both north and south of the border. Overall for the year I saw 42 code 3's, 15 code 4's and 4 code 5's. For starters, there are 25 rare vagrants on my big year list that came to the lower 48 states from their normal homes south of the border. Four of these (orange-billed nightingale-thrush, cuban pewee, tufted flycatcher and bare-throated tiger-heron) were code 5 birds, and 6 more were code 4 birds (red-footed booby, northern jacana, blue bunting, plain-capped starthroat, streak-backed oriole, and crimson-collared grosbeak). The rest were all code 3's including the flamingos in the photo at the top.

But what really made it possible to get to 704 was the large number of birds from the north, or eurasia that showed up in the lower 48 states in 2010, especially late in the year. The code 4 birds that I saw included baikal teal, brown shrike, black-tailed gull, common crane, and barnacle and pink-footed geese. Code 3's included Ross' and slaty-backed gull, taiga bean goose, red-throated pipit, curlew and sharp-tailed sandpiper, and great skua. Code 2's that you would normally see in Alaska but not necessarily in the lower 48 included gyrfalcon, arctic and yellow-billed loon, bar-tailed godwit, northern wheatear, hoary redpoll, and northern hawk-owl (bottom photo above).

My final point today is that like 1998 when Sandy Komito set the all time full ABA area record of 745, this year in its own way was another phenomenal year for rare birds. As a result I was able to set a new record for the lower 48 states. I also believe that Bob Ake, who finished his year at 731 for the full ABA area, could have gotten very close to Sandy's record if his schedule had been slightly different, and he had decided to chase birds from the start of the year.

My specific reasons for suggesting this are that I saw 11 birds in the lower 48 states that Bob did not see (bare-throated tiger-heron, blue bunting, red-footed booby, european storm-petrel, fea's petrel, white-tailed and red-billed tropicbird, streaked shearwater, common crane, flame-colored tanager, and plain-capped starthroat). There were 3 more birds that he could have chased successfully--amazon kingfisher, roadside hawk, and bahama mockingbird. And even though he went to Alaska 3 different times, there were at least 3 more birds (mottled petrel, whiskered auklet, and McKay's bunting) he might have picked up there with a slightly different schedule of time and places to bird.

One final indicator of how good the birding opportunities were in 2010 is that when I began the year I estimated that I would pick up 20-25 life birds. By year's end I had added 38 life birds to my ABA area list plus possibly a 39th if the white-cheeked pintail I saw at Pea Island NWR is accepted by the NC bird review committee as a wild bird. If it is, then my YTD will also move up to 705. My next post will talk about some of my top food experiences during the big year. Stay tuned!

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