Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Wild Goose Chase!

It is Wednesday afternoon and I have just returned from a "Wild Goose Chase". I decided late Sunday afternoon to fly up to Burlington, VT so that I could be picked up by John, Doug, Ken and Liz on their way to chase the graylag goose that has been visiting Chambly Basin just outside of Montreal. Having birded with all of them earlier this year as part of John Vanderpoel's big year I thought it would be fun to chase the graylag since it would be only the 3rd wild graylag recorded in the ABA area, and a life bird for me.

I arrived at midnite, and immediately hit the rack at the rendezvous motel to be able to get some sleep before getting up to leave at 5 AM Monday. We left as planned, made it across the border about 6 AM after raising the eyebrows of the French Canadian custom officer who just could not understand why people from CO, CA, NY, NC and MA would meet up to come into Quebec to find a graylag goose. We were at Chambly Basin by 7:30 AM having already seen several thousand snow geese on the river nearby. It was sunny but only about 30 degrees and windy. I really had not brought the right cold weather layering, so I was pretty chilly, retreating to the warmth of the car regularly.

We met Raymond, the local birder who had found the goose, about 9:30 at a different location on the basin than we started. We went there because we saw some Canada geese fly in across from our position. He told us that there were not nearly as many geese on the Basin as there had been earlier. This was not an encouraging discovery, but we kept our hopes up nevertheless.

Once we found the new spot, many birders kept stopping in to check on whether the goose was there. By mid day we had carefully scoped all the Canada geese we could see but had not found the target bird mixed in with them. We decided to have some lunch and warm up. We then returned to the prime viewing spot about 1:30, and began our vigil again. More birders continued to cycle thru, but no one had seen the goose. As the sun got lower in the sky we hoped more geese would fly into to roost for the night. In fact the opposite seemed to happen as many of the geese that were already on the water flew off to feed very late in the day.

As the sun went down we found ourselves at 5 PM checking into a local motel, and then walking quickly down the road to eat dinner at Tre Colori, a recommended Italian restaurant. We ended up having a very good meal, including talking with the chef owner who told us his parents had moved from Calabria, Italy and started the restaurant 45 years earlier, and now he and his brother were running it.

After a much longer night's rest, we were back at the prime roost location at 6:30 AM to find at least 1000 Canada geese just waking up for the day. This was still well below the 2-3000 geese that had been on the Basin last week. While the wind was not blowing like the day before, the temperature was 17 degrees. One of the local birders from the day before joined us soon after our arrival, and then a few more. Alas, by 9:30 not only had we not seen the graylag goose, but most of the Canada geese had flown off to feed in the farmlands nearby.

Because John needed to be back in Boston by 7:40 PM to catch his flight home to Colorado, we reluctantly packed up and began our drive back to Boston--a drive that was much less exuberant than it would have been if we had found the graylag goose. John not only did not get the graylag, but he also did not see a great skua on his pelagic trip last Saturday which leaves him holding at 734 birds for the year. Even though Thanksgiving holiday traffic slowed us down as we approached the airport, we did get John to his plane on time so he would get home to spend Thanksgiving with his family.

Before closing out this posting, I want to respond to the comment on my last entry. A reader referred me to a short interview with Sandy Komito in which Sandy explains that he believes his final record number of different species seen in 1998 is actually 748. After reading his book recently, I understand the point he was making in the interview. Specifically, there were 3 birds he saw in 1998 that were accepted by state bird record review committees after 1998--Belcher's gull (CA), yellow-throated bunting (AK), and Bulwer's petrel (NC).

But in reviewing his book, and applying the same rules by which birds seen during a big year typically are counted based on state bird record committee reviews, he counted 2 species (Xantu's hummingbird in British Columbia, and a white-cheeked pintail in Florida) that were not accepted after the fact as wild birds by the state/province committees. Also, Sandy says in his book that after discussions with Jon Dunn, he decided he was not certain that he had seen a gray vireo in 1998, and therefore was not counting it in his total. As a result, I would suggest that Sandy's record total is still 745.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving--my favorite holiday of the year. I hope everyone has a great day tomorrow. When I will be birding next is not clear, but you never know, so stay tuned!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Is Sandy Komito's ABA Big Year Record of 745 Beatable?

Those of you who have been checking in on this blog over the past few months know that I have been talking about how John Vanderpoel has been doing in his full ABA area big year quest. I first met John this past summer on pelagic trips out of Hatteras, NC. I also saw him in September on pelagic trips out of Bodega Bay and Half Moon Bay, CA. The photo just above (fork-tailed storm petrel) and below (marbled murrelets) were taken by Doug Koch on 2 of those west coast trips.

This past Wednesday John saw a female rose-throated becard in south Texas to raise his year to date total of different bird species to 734. This puts him in second place all time, 11 species short of Sandy Komito's record of 745 set back in 1998. My last posting is about the movie the Big Year which is based on the 1998 big year birding experiences of Sandy, Greg Miller and Al Levantin.

When I was doing my lower 48 big year in 2010, I met a birder from Washington state while I was watching a pair of montezuma quail in Texas. I mentioned I was doing a big year, and his comment was, "after Sandy Komito found such a high total number of species, I did not think anyone was even doing big years now." The book the Big Year also makes the point that because of the unique el nino component in 1998 plus the loss of the availability of birding at Attu in the Aleutian Islands after 2000 that Sandy's total of 745 might never be beaten.

In summarizing my 2010 big year, I speculated that Bob Ake, who saw 731 different species doing a full ABA big year in 2010, could have gotten very close to matching Sandy's 1998 total (see my posting on 1/4/2011). After following John's effort this year, and having recently read Sandy's book about his 1998 big year--I Came, I Saw, I Counted--I am convinced that Sandy's 745 total is not out of reach. The following further explains my thinking on this.

First, Sandy points out in his book that between 1987 when he did his first full ABA area big year (then record of 721), and 1998 that 20 relatively easy to see new birds were added to the ABA list due to splits and newly recognized established exotics. There were another 32 rarities also added. He further points out that there were 27 species he saw in 1987 which he did not see again in 1998. And since 1998 another 48 birds have been added to the ABA list as a result of splits and rarities, 7 of which are easy to see birds. Finally, at the end of his book published in 1999, Sandy also suggests that his number can be beaten.

Another way to measure the possibility of passing Sandy's 745 record is to compare the birds that I saw last year in the lower 48 with Sandy's list of birds from 1998. He saw 52 birds outside the lower 48 states that I did not see. Adding those 52 to the 704 I saw, plus 6 others I could have seen but did not because I chose not to "chase" them, then the hypothetical full ABA area total could have been 762.

Turning to John Vanderpoel's big year, the key to his having reached 734 as of this week was the success he had this fall in his trips to the Pribilofs, Gambell, Barrow and Nome, AK. So, is it possible for him to pass Sandy's record with just 6 weeks left in the year? Since one never knows when and where a rarity may show up, it is not possible to say for sure if he can catch Sandy. Looking at other big year records may give some additional insight.

Specifically, in analyzing Sandy's last 6 weeks in 1998, plus Bob Ake's, my own and Lynn Barber's, I would say the probability is not high for the following reasons. First, Sandy only saw 5 more new species in his last 6 weeks, and John has already seen 2 of those birds. Secondly, while Bob saw 12 more new species in his last 6 weeks, there are only 4 birds on his list that John has not yet seen. Similarly, I saw 12 more birds in my last 6 weeks, but John has already seen 9 of those. Finally, in 2008 Lynn did a big year. She saw 13 more new species during her last 6 weeks, but again John has already seen 11 of those birds.

John's possible ace in the hole is to make one more visit to Alaska in December to go to Adak Island in the Aleutians in hopes of picking up 3-5 rarities. He also could still get some rarities out of Newfoundland, south Florida, south Texas, and southeast Arizona. This weekend he is planning to go out on 2 pelagic trips from RI and MA in search of a great skua (photo just below taken by Doug Koch). There is also a graylag goose in Montreal this week. I am considering joining John along with 3 other birders to make a run for the goose after the pelagic trips are over. Stay tuned!