Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Graduation Road Trip and 2012 Big Year Review

I am back in Columbia, MO today having driven down from Northfield, MN yesterday.  My wife and I left last Thursday to make the 2 day drive to Northfield to attend our daughter Jess' graduation from St. Olaf College.  Graduation day was unusually hot--92 degrees--for Minnesota, and the graduates, professors, friends and family all suffered under the afternoon sun. 

After recovering from the heat, we drove into Minneapolis to have a celebratory dinner with Jess at 112 Eatery--a really good restaurant that we discovered 2 years ago during my big year.  It has one of those menus that makes it almost impossible to decide which dishes to order.  The duck with radicchio salad (above), and the razor clams with hearts of palm (below) were both superb.  We also loved the blue prawns with rooster mayo, the grilled asparagus with lardo, the pan-fried gnocchi with parmesan, and the sea scallops with oyster mushrooms.  The wines by the glass were not as interesting as the food--sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and verdejo from Spain.

My wife flew home yesterday, and Jess and I drove the 500 miles to Columbia to visit today with friends and family before continuing our road trip back to Chapel Hill, NC.  This morning my friend Marty and I went birding at a fine conservation area near here called Eagle Bluffs.  When we visited the area during the first week of May we were pretty well skunked as far as birds that day because of the very high water levels.  Today was almost the opposite as far as water levels which meant that we were able to see, and actually study close at hand some late migrating shorebirds including semi-palmated, white-rumped, and pectoral sandpipers.  The best "bird" of the day was 2 sandhill cranes (I did not have my camera but the photo below is of a sandhill crane I had seen last year--click on any photo to enlarge).

Since it is almost the end of May, which is also pretty much the end of the spring migration, I want to reflect on this year's big year efforts that I have been following thru the various blogs listed on the NARBA home page. For starters there are 2 "junior big years" being undertaken by 2 young birders who live in Colorado.  They seem to be having fun and getting out a fair amount.

I have enjoyed following Sara and Simon who are a trucking couple that are birding as they deliver their cargo around the country.  Their YTD is at 288.  Blake and Holly Wright are currently in Arizona as part of their photographic big year, and have seen 345 species YTD.  Then there is the father and son team, Eddie and Liam Ehrman from Ohio, who have covered a lot of ground including one spring trip to AK in April.  Their year to date count has reached 367 birds.

Next up is John Hargrove whose blog is being written by his wife Beverly. He has been in Alaska for the past 2 weeks birding at Attu and Adak with the Z tours group led by John Puschock.  He is now headed to Gambell with a Wings group.  He has hit 500 birds YTD, and Beverly says he is shooting for the full ABA area big year target of at least 700 species.

And finally there is the low budget big year effort of Renee Rubin and Michael Delesantro.  They have a budget of only $10,000, and are only driving around in their Toyota Prius.  They have spent a little more than half of their budget, but have already seen 586 different bird species.  In their most recent post (Slow Birding (apologies to Chris Hitt)), they have asked for assistance with an upper midwest trip in June to find a good list of birds that they still need.

Here is what I would suggest they do.  I assume that they subscribe to NARBA to get info on mega rarities.  They also should be daily checking birdingonthe.net to get up to date info most easily on recent bird sightings.  As for their routing, drive thru St. Louis, MO on their way north to pick up the Eurasian tree sparrow.  They also might try to contact Edge Wade in Columbia, MO who is a very good birder.  She might be able to help them find a Mississippi kite.

After MO, next up is Michigan to bird near Mio and Grayling to see the Kirtland's warbler on its breeding ground.  After that head to the UP to pick up American woodcock, black-billed cuckoo, spruce grouse, winter wren, boreal chickadee, least flycatcher, gray jay, and CT and Mourning warblers (the ABA Michigan bird guide is a very good source for finding birds in MI).  If they miss any of these birds in the UP, then they can keep looking in northern WI and northern MN above Duluth.  At Sax-Zim bog and Aitkin County they can also find CT warbler plus leconte's sparrow; willow, alder and yellow-bellied flycatchers; ruffed grouse, black-backed and northern 3 toed woodpeckers. Great gray owl and even northern hawk owl are also possible.  For assistance in MN they might contact Kim Eckert, and definitely use his bird guide.

From MN they should head into North Dakota to find Baird's sparrow, sharp-tailed grouse and gray partridge.  Next stop is Colorado to see black billed magpies, dusky, greater and lesser sage grouse, greater prairie chicken, and white-tailed ptarmigan.  If they missed northern 3 toed woodpecker in MN, they can pick it up in CO plus boreal owl, and possibly evening grosbeak and Lewis' woodpecker.  John Vanderpoel who did his big year in 2011 could be of assistance with all of these birds. Finally, another place to look for Mississippi kites is in Kansas on their way back to Texas.

In their last post they were pleased with their YTD total, but not surprisingly were seeing a definite slowdown in adding to the list.  I had seen 605 birds by the end of May in 2010, and only saw another 99 birds over the next 7 months.  Once they finish their upper midwest swing, things will really slow down for them.  They said they had originally expected to see between 600 and 625 birds given their low budget limitation.  I think they can get to as high as 650 depending on how many more rarities show up in south Texas where they live, and how they apply the remaining dollars in their budget.  No matter what number they end up with, they will definitely end up spending less per bird seen than anyone who has done a big year other than Kenn Kaufmann when as a teenager he hitch hiked all over the U.S. doing his big year.

I will be driving home over the next 2 days, and then will be there for the month of June.  My next birding adventure will be when I leave on June 29th to spend the month of July birding in East Africa.  More about this in my next post.  Stay tuned!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Magee Marsh--Wrap Up of 9 Day Stay

On Friday morning we were up even earlier than normal so that we would be at the Ottawa NWR visitor center before 7 AM to catch the tour bus to go to Cedar Point.  This is a part of the refuge that is usually not open to the public because of the stipulations of the grantor who gave the land to the Fish and Wildlife Service.  Dan and Doreene who have been coming up to Magee for over 20 years had never been able to tour Cedar Point, and all on the bus were not disappointed in what we found.

It was a chilly but sunny morning as we drove thru the entry gate, and we immediately were finding birds along the wooded gravel road.  Much to our surprise, we found the common nighthawk in the photo above (click on any photo to enlarge).  We would get out and walk a bit, then ride for a bit.  It took us about 3+ hours to cover 5 miles of really great habitat.  The roadway was bordered on the north by Lake Erie, and on the south side were the various impoundments.  Most of the roadway was lined by trees and shrubs.  We found several small groups of actively feeding birds including several warbler species like the black and white below.

After leaving Cedar Point, we stopped by Meinke marina and found 2 male bobolinks perched on a telephone wire.  While watching them we got a report of a black rail being seen again nearby at Metzger Marsh.  This was the 3rd sighting of this bird over the past week, so we decided to swing by the location to check it out.  The bird was seen by Greg Miller's cousin, uncle and nephew, so we were able to talk with them about it when we found them at the marsh.  Unfortunately, we did not have their luck in having the rail walk up out of the marsh to say hi to us.

We returned to the boardwalk after eating lunch at the Ottawa visitor center.  The bird activity was very slow but their were more birders arriving for a big weekend of birding.  We decided to go for an early dinner, and then returned to Metzger to look for American and least bitterns after 7 PM.  We traipsed out into the marsh on a beautiful spring evening but had no luck rustling up either bird.  We did flush several Wilson's snipe.  Since Rob had heard an American bittern calling at another location nearby when we had stopped to look for yellow-headed blackbirds, we went back for all of us to look and listen for it.  Once we heard its distinctive call, we headed back to our motel as the sun was setting.

As predicted, the winds had changed to the SW on Friday, and continued to blow from that direction into Saturday.  We hit the board walk about 7 AM, and by 8 migrating birds began to drop into the foliage.  At one point we found 12 warblers feeding in one small tree.  At another location there were well over 10 Swainson's thrushes gleaning in the leaves of a large cottonwood.  There were many black-billed cuckoos and a couple of yellow-billed cuckoos being seen along the boardwalk.  An acadian flycatcher was a rare find for Magee. A mourning warbler would be briefly seen before disappearing again for several minutes.  At the same place the huge moth in the photo above was seen for several days.  I also ran into Aaron and Ethan Gyllenhall, the brothers who had found the elaenia near Chicago in April.

Mid morning word began to get around that 3 young Amish boys had located a female Kirtland's warbler on the new trail at the western end of the marsh.  As on Wed., huge numbers of birders vacated the boardwalk and rushed to try to see the warbler.  I watched it feed in the top of a medium sized willow tree for several minutes before it flew further down the shrub line. 

Soon after seeing the Kirtland's, I needed to begin my drive back to North Carolina.  I heard later from my friends that the Kirtland's was seen off and on throughout the day, as was the mourning.  A golden-winged warbler also was found on the boardwalk.  I ended the day with 23 warbler species for only 5 hours of birding.  My 17 days of birding in NC, MO, KS, IN, and OH had generated 218 different species, and during my 9 days at Magee Marsh I saw 164 different species.  I am back home for 10 days before driving up to Minnesota to attend my daughter's college graduation.  I may do some birding in NC during June.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Magee Marsh--Kirtland's Deja Vu

After posting my entry last Wed. morning, I headed over to Magee to see what might be around.  As I drove up to the parking area at the east end I saw a large crowd of birders intensely focused on the top of a huge cottonwood tree.  I parked quickly and jogged over to see what bird was creating such a commotion.  To my amazement and delight, having just missed seeing one 2 days ago, I discovered it was a male Kirtland's warbler.  I proceeded to watch for the next 10-15  minutes as it moved along the branches and trunk of the tree, often out of sight behind the leaves.  Unlike the bird shown below (photo by Adrian Binns) that entertained 100's of birders while feeding at ground level on the beach just east of this location back in 2010, this bird was a good 50 feet up in the air.  As you might imagine, there was great excitement with high fiving and jubilation in the crowd.

Unfortunately Dan and Doreene were still leading a tour group, and missed the bird because it disappeared some time after 9:30 AM. I moved my truck further into the parking area, and snapped another vanity plate of a birding friend, Ann Oliver, to add to my plate collection.

Later that afternoon Rob and Ricki arrived, and the five of us birded the boardwalk which was still very "quiet" birdwise for Magee.  There was still pretty good diversity, but the numbers were way down from my normal experience of birding there.  This was partly a result of the wind blowing in from the north rather than the south.  That said, I still found a total of 22 warbler species, which was my highest count for a day so far this trip.  I also was pleased to see the fox snake crawling out of the dead tree stump into the leaves of the adjacent shrubs to sun itself (click on any photo to enlarge).

On Thursday we decided to check out some other nearby birding sites to see what else we might find since the boardwalk would be pretty slow with the wind still blowing from the north.  We headed over to Camp Sabroske to check on the western sandpiper that had been reported from there.  On the way in we met another birder, Tom Camp, from Columbus who Dan and Doreene knew.  We all walked far enough around one of the impoundments to be able to get good looks thru our scopes of a small shorebird with a damaged wing.

Like other birders who had seen it since it was originally reported, our first thought was that this was a western sandpiper.  But then as it began to move around allowing us to study it, Tom suggested that maybe it was not a western sandpiper.  So we continued to examine its features. The bill was too long, and the bird was too big overall to be a western.  It ate like a dunlin of which there were several also in the impoundment area.  Finally, we could see a few feathers starting to form part of the distinctive black patch found on the belly of all breeding plumage dunlins.  We left to do other birding, but contacted another birder we knew to go over and take some photos of this bird.  He did and later let us know that we were right about it being a dunlin that had just begun its breeding molt cycle.

We finished the day celebrating Dan's 69th birthday at Danny Boy's restaurant in Sandusky.  We were looking forward to Friday morning's birding when we were going on a tour of Cedar Point, a part of Ottawa NWR that is not open to the public but was being made available as part of the Biggest Week in Birding".  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Magee Marsh--KIrtland's Warbler

The past 2 days of birding has been steady birdwise.  Monday's rain stopped by noon and surprisingly based on the weather forecast it proved to be a good afternoon of birding without more rain.  On the way over to Magee we were able to find 2 upland sandpipers in the field opposite to where they had been seen the night before. The boardwalk was very active which allowed me to hit 20 warbler species for the day for the first time since arriving here.  But the story of the afternoon was about the warbler that got away.  We were on the boardwalk when the Leica rep said that there was a possible Kirtland's warbler behind the Ottawa visitor center.  Since this is the rarest warbler in North America, and the rarest to visit the Magee Marsh area each spring, Dan, Doreene and I jumped into their car and headed next door to the Ottawa NWR.

On the way to look for the Kirtland's I snapped a photo of the purple martin "housing complex" (click on any photo to enlarge).  As we were walking to the warbler site we had a chance to speak with 2 fish and wildlife staff coming out who said they had just seen it.  We rushed back to the small oak tree to find a few other early birder arrivals searching the area.

After 15-30 minutes easily 200 birders had come to look for the Kirtland's.  One of the birders was Greg Miller who I have known for over 10 years. He is the guy in the blueshirt holding the big camera.  While searching for the bird, Greg joked that since last year when the movie The Big Year came out, which is based on the book of the same name, he is often asked to speak about a record he did not set back in 1998 (Sandy Komito did), and to sign copies of a book he did not write.

After an hour of scanning the area, the most interesting thing seen was the raccoon who was sitting in the same small oak where the Kirtland's had been observed from 1-4 PM by the 3 birders who reported it.  The birders began to disperse when it seemed like the warbler had left the area.  We also decided to call it a day.

Yesterday proved to be an even better day than Monday beginning with seeing another prized bird at Magee--the golden-winged warbler. Mid afternoon found us looking at a black-billed cuckoo which is also not common on the boardwalk.  I found another vanity plate to share.  I ended the day with 20 warbler species. We ended our day with an auto tour of Ottawa NWR.  The highlight was seeing 3 sandhill cranes.  The amusing part was when a group of very good birders got into a debate as to whether they were looking at 3 greater or lesser yellowlegs.

Dan and Doreene are leading a group tour this morning, and later today our friends Rob and Ricki from Nevada will arrive.  I also have now seen over 200 species in less than 2 weeks on this spring migration birding trip. Stay tuned!

Monday, May 7, 2012

First Few Days at Magee Marsh

Last Thursday morning I started driving to Toledo, OH.  I first stopped in St. Louis to visit Tower Grove Park which is a good migrant trap south of the city.  It was a pretty morning but very slow birdwise.  The only interesting birds there were several singing Swainson's thrushes.  After about an hour I pushed on toward Toledo, but decided in Indiana to detour south of I-70 to visit the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife area.  I had read about it earlier in the year when the hooded crane that had been in Tennessee was sighted there as it apparently migrated north with the sandhill cranes it had been hanging out with in TN.  Again I found little in the way of birdlife other than one shorebird habitat that had a few greater and lesser yellowlegs, and some least sandpipers and semi-palmated plovers.

I spent the night in Richmond, IN and was checked into my motel in the Toledo area before noon.  I headed over to Magee Marsh to see how the migration was progressing there.  I spent the next 7 hours on the boardwalk bird trail.  The species diversity was pretty good but not high numbers of birds.  I ended the day with 16 warbler species seen which is the fewest in one day that I have ever counted during my many visits to Magee over the past 10 years.  Similarly, there were not high numbers of birders out on Friday, but I did see some vanity plates like the one in the photo below.

My friends Dan and Doreene who live in Columbus, spent the day at another refuge looking for a reeve as part of their annual Ohio big year efforts.  They stayed until dark without seeing the bird, so we did not get together until Sat. morning for breakfast at 6:30.  We were on the boardwalk before 8 joining far more birders than were there on Friday.  The day was much like Friday as far as bird numbers with my warbler count moving up to 18 different species seen including the not so great photo below of a northern waterthrush (click on any photo to enlarge).  Dan and Doreene added 18 new year birds for the Ohio count.

The potential top bird of the day was a black rail reported at Metzger Marsh nearby, but other than the birder who reported it, no one else had any luck in seeing or hearing this very elusive species.   We even went to the site as the full moon was rising to try a 3rd time to at least hear it but after 15 minutes of not hearing its distinctive call we decided it was time to call it a day.

On Saturday I met Susan Jones who lives in Winston-Salem which is about an hour from my home in Chapel Hill, NC.  During the day our paths crossed several times.  I thought the woman she was birding with looked like an actress who has been in several films including Mystic Pizza and High Fidelity.  On Sunday I asked Susan if I was right, and sure enough, it was Lili Taylor who decided spur of the moment to join Susan for a couple of days of birding.  Lili left before I could say how much I liked her acting.

Sunday was a bit slower than Saturday.  We started the day in high hopes of seeing an alder flycatcher and a sanderling that had been reported very early, but even though we were out looking for them by 8 they apparently had already continued their northward journeys.  We birded around the area, but did not find much new with Dan and Doreene adding only 4 new birds for their Ohio year, so we headed back to our motel for an early dinner.  While we were eating a birder called to tell us about 2 upland sandpipers flying around a newly plowed field that we had checked out on our way to dinner.  We finished eating and drove over only to be skunked.

This morning we awoke to heavy rain and thunder.  It is not really supposed to clear up today, but you never know.  At least it has given me the opportunity to do this blog post.  The next few days wind direction and general weather forecast suggest no major bird fall-out, but then they are only forecasts so stay tuned!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Birding Kansas

Marty, Nola and I headed out just after 6:30 AM last Sunday morning to drive to Weston Bend State Park north of Kansas City, MO in hopes of seeing some migrating warblers.  It began raining pretty soon after we set out, and kept raining all the way to Kansas City.  We decided to have a sit down breakfast to give the rain a chance to stop.  By the time we finished eating around 9 AM the rain did let up, so we went into the park to see what was about.  We only had maybe 30 minutes before the rain returned, and we saw a few birds including a barred owl, but there was no indication of a significant arrival of warblers.

We then drove across the Missouri River to Ft. Leavenworth, KS to check out the river bottom birding there to see if it might be better than what we had found up on the bluffs at Weston Bend.  No sooner had we reached the bottoms when the rain really began coming down hard, so we decided to give up on looking for warblers, and instead began the 4 hour drive to central Kansas in hopes of better weather at Cheyenne Bottoms which is just outside of Great Bend.

We arrived about 4 PM under sunny skies.  While briefly chatting with the staff at the visitor center to get our bearings, we pointed out a sora feeding in the small pond just outside the building much to the surprise and delight of the staff since they said one had never been seen before in that body of water.  We then began to tour the various water impoundments, and found a huge number of waterfowl and shorebirds including the black neck stilts in the above photo (click on any photo to enlarge).  There must have been 10-20,000 long billed dowitchers on the refuge, and close to that many semi-palmated sandpipers.

After about an hour we came upon another birder, Dave Williams, who had come down from the Kansas City area to bird the Bottoms.  He knew the area well and gave us good advice on where to look for certain birds he had seen earlier in the day.  He also told us we were very fortunate to have a day with so little wind.  While talking we saw a peregrine falcon fly by in pursuit of its dinner. 

Before we parted ways we also found out that he knew Pete Janzen, another of Kansas' fine birders that I had met at the Dry Tortugas during my big year in 2010.  Pete had given us quite a bit of good info to help us with our trip.  We had wanted to get together to bird with Pete, but in the end our schedules did not mesh.  We kept birding until the sun began to set, and then checked into our motel for the night.

The next morning we returned to Cheyenne Bottoms for a second helping of what it had to offer.  The gravel road we took to get to the refuge proved to be very birdy.  Whereas the afternoon before we had not seen a single sparrow, Monday morning we found 9 sparrow species including Harris', chipping, grasshopper, white crowned and white-throated, lark, Lincoln's, savannah and field.

After studying all the shorebirds in the inlet canal, particularly the hudsonian godwits, and flushing a short eared owl, we encountered swarms of barn, cliff and bank swallows.  The light was not very good, and the swallows were jittery with us nearby so the photo above of some cliff swallows did not turn out as crisp as I would have liked.  By noon we had done the full circuit again, and decided to head back into Great Bend to try some barbecue at Woodie's which hit the spot.

After lunch we made the 45 minute drive down to Quivira NWR to see if it would be as bird bountiful as the Bottoms.  I had read on the KS listserv that 2 days earlier there were an estimated 50,000 wilson phalaropes (photo below) at the refuge.  We found many but nothing approaching that number.  Overall, there just were not the numbers of birds at Quivira that we had seen at Cheyenne Bottoms. 

We returned to Great Bend to have dinner at a Mexican restaurant that proved to be only good.  A huge thunderstorm rolled thru town while we ate, and then the sun came out which generated a double rainbow.  We had planned to get up very early on Tuesday morning to drive about an hour south to try to see some lesser prairie chickens at a lek, but decided instead to begin heading back to Missouri early so that we could visit another birding hot spot--Marais de Cygnes wildlife area.

We drove thru more rain on the way, but by the time we got to Marais the rain had stopped.  We birded there for 3 hours, but once again found little indication of a major migratory push, so we climbed back into our car and pointed it towards home having seen 124 species in 3 days of birding.  Enroute to Columbia we did stop at another BBQ spot in Kansas City, KS to pick up some ribs to take home for dinner.  This batch put to shame the ones we had eaten at Woodie's the day before.

Since we got back a day earlier than planned, Marty and I went birding again around the Columbia area today.  We had a very good morning beginning with our finding 2 Henslow's sparrows.  We then heard mostly, but also saw a variety of warblers--prairie, blue-winged, Tennessee, Kentucky, worm-eating, northern parula, common yellowthroat, Louisiana waterthrush and ovenbird.  We also had summer and scarlet tanagers; pileated, red-bellied and hairy woodpeckers; acadian flycatchers; indigo buntings; blue-gray gnatcatchers; white-eyed and red-eyed vireos; and an eastern wood pewee. After lunch we went to Eagle Bluffs to see what waterfowl and shorebirds might be still around, but discovered that the warm front had pushed all the earlier reported birds further north. 

Tomorrow I begin a 2 day drive to Magee Marsh near Toledo, Ohio.  I read today on the Ohio listserv that 21 species of warblers had been seen by 1 PM at Magee--the spring migration is finally starting to arrive there.  Stay tuned!