Sunday, January 13, 2013

Spur of the Moment Chase Trip to Miami

I have been checking NARBA regularly to see what rarities might be tantalizing this year's big year birders.  There are so many possibilities with the citrine wagtail and bramblings in British Columbia; the northern lapwings, and pink-footed and barnacle geese in New England; the bananaquit and western spindalis in Florida; and the Nutting's flycatcher and rufous capped warber in AZ.  So far I have not come across any new big year blogs to know which of these birds are being pursued, but seeing that both a western spindalis and a bananaquit were very near each other in the Miami area, I decided to fly down to Florida last Wednesday morning.

I arrived about 9 AM, picked up my rental car and immediately drove to Bill Baggs SP on Key Biscayne to try for the bananaquit.  When I got to the site I found several other birders, and was told that I had missed the bird by about 20 minutes.  It had called and then had flown across the nature trail and disappeared providing at best very poor looks at it.  I spent the next 2 hours hanging out with the other birders in hopes it would reappear.  One of the birders was Roberto Torres, known as Toe locally.  We had first met in 2010 when I came to see the Cuban pewee in the Everglades.

About noon I decided to join Dick and Gaylee, who had come over from Marco Island to look for the bananaquit, to go to the nearby site on Virginia Key where a female western spindalis had been seen off and on for a month.  Gaylee had seen it earlier in the morning, so we were hopeful about finding it again.  We looked from noon to 2 PM without success.

I decided to return to the bananaquit spot, where I worked the area until dark without success.  Mariel, a park ranger, and her husband, Angel, came around about 5 PM in hopes of finding the bananaquit, but as dusk approached we had neither heard nor seen the bird.

Thursday morning I was back at the spindalis location by 7 AM where I met Dick and Gaylee to hunt for the bird again.  We ran into Ron and Dollyanne, a birding couple from Knoxville who I realized were part of a small birding trip to E. Africa that had inspired Bob Wallace to set up the trip I took there last July.  We shared some of our memories of our respective trips while we wandered around on the mountain bike paths listening for the spindalis which we did not find again.

I left about 8:45 to make the 20 minute drive over to the bananaquit site.  I arrived to find Toe already there, only to be told that the bird had once again made a quick fly by 15 minutes before I had arrived.  I spent the next 3 hours searching for it.  About 10:30 a group of birders from Minnesota joined in the search.  They had just seen the La Sagra's flycatcher, another rarity, close to the spindalis site, and now were keen on finding the bananaquit.  The group was led by a well known Minnesota birder, Kim Eckert, who wrote the best field guide for the area around and north of Duluth.  I had met him back in 2005 when I visited Minnesota during the great gray owl irruption.

At mid day I left to go down to Kendall to look for other Miami exotics like red whiskered bulbul, and monk parakeet.  I found one of the latter (click on any photo to enlarge).  Mid afternoon I returned to my motel to regroup.  While looking for the bananaquit, I was given the number of Alex Harper, a local birder, who was familiar with good spots to look for white-winged parakeets.  I called him to find he was up in Tallahassee looking for a Costa's hummer.  He gave me directions to a good roost site in Miami for the white-winged, so I drove there arriving about 4:30 PM.  Over the next hour small groups of white-winged parakeets would fly over.  Then about 5:45, a very large group circled and landed in a palm tree to roost.  I apologize for the not great picture, but the light was not very good by the time they settled in for the night.

I decided to try one more time for both the spindalis and the bananaquit.  I arrived at Virginia Key about 6:30 AM Friday, and joined 2 other birders to hunt for the spindalis.  When we had not located it by 8:15, I decided to go back to Bill Baggs for one more try at the bananaquit.  When I arrived there was only one other birder there.  As the morning wore on a few more birders began to arrive.  One of them was Pat, who lives in the summer on Kelly's Island in Lake Erie near Magee Marsh, and winters in Boca Raton.  I had met him in January of 2010 when he and his friends were checking out a red-footed booby that had been rehabbed in Miami and then released.  After seeing the booby, we had all gone up to Ft. Lauderdale near the airport to look for smooth-billed ani's.  I did not find one that day, but was successful in February. 

I gave up my search about 1 PM to make the drive back to the airport to fly home.  While I did not find either of my target birds, both of which would have been life birds for me, I did enjoy being in Florida, and chatting with several birders.  As a consolation prize for my readers, I have included a photo of a bald eagle that I found last week perched at the entrance to our property in NC.  This is only the 3rd bald eagle that I have seen on our property.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year's Day 2013

Another new year is upon us--may the birding gods give birders much joy in the coming year!  And as for 2012, there were certainly plenty of vagrant rarities to keep people happy last year.  My post today is a short review of my birding highlights from 2012, and a recap of the big year efforts that have just been completed.

Other than the trip to meet with the 700+ club in early December, my last bird outing of note was when I made a spur of the moment trip up to Boston after Thanksgiving to visit friends, and to see a northern lapwing that arrived outside of Boston in mid November.  I had hoped during my big year in 2010 that a lapwing would come and stay late in the year like this one has but that did not happen.  Amazingly this one, plus a pair on Nantucket, have now been "wintering over" for weeks.  There is a good chance that anyone starting a big year is in MA today to add a northern lapwing to the list.

Not an hour drive from the lapwing that I saw with my friend Richard, a little egret was found about the same time.  I had already seen a little egret in DE a few years ago, so I did not also go check it out.  My birding photographer friend, Doug Koch, went to MA a couple days after I was there, and graciously shared his photos of the lapwing and egret for you all to see (click on any photo to enlarge).

Looking back over my year of birding, the trip to E. Africa, which is thoroughly documented already, was unquestionably the high point of the year.  Right behind E. Africa was the first ever gathering of the 700+ club in TX in December.  Spring migration in KS and OH was a delightful mix of birds and friends.  The whirlwind trip early in the year to see the Nutting's flycatcher in AZ, and the falcated duck in CA was lots of fun.  Interestingly, it appears that both birds returned to their respective spots in December making for another prime target to hit this week for this year's big year birders.  And last, the one day trip into Chicago to see the elaenia species found in late April.  Unfortunately, the birding experts could not make a final determination as to which elaenia species it was--white crested or small billed.

Turning to the many big year efforts put in in 2012, 2 young birders from Colorado started well, but unlike Gabriel Mapel in 2011, lost momentum by mid summer.  The father and son team from Ohio, Eddie and Liam, also hit a few rough spots beginning in late spring, and from what few subsequent blog posts they made, it appears that they did little birding in the second half of the year.

Black and Holly Wright who are based in TX and did a photographic big year, ended up with over 400 species photographed, but illness and the holidays made their December less productive than they had planned.  Sara and Simon--the trucker couple--seemed to have a lot of fun seeing birds while moving goods around the U.S.  After mid summer they also slowed down a bunch, but did do some more posts on their blog late in the year.  It appears that they will be trying again in 2013 to increase their number above the 351 seen in 2012.

Robert Baumander from Ontario definitely gets the award for being the most successful novice birder doing a big year.  He almost made it to 600 species seen.  Michael Delesantro and Renee Rubin unquestionably get the award for the "biggest bang for your buck big year" in 2012, tallying 654 species seen while spending only a little over $10,000 to do it.  And finally, John Hargrove (primary birder) and his wife, Beverly (regular in the field support, and big year chronicler/blogger), strove mightily to reach the 700 level but came up just short.  As Beverly said in her blog, John will need to go thru his lists and photos before making a final determination, but as of 12/31, his number stood at 689.  You can find the blogs for all these 2012 big year efforts on the home page of NARBA.

Peering into 2013, it will be interesting to see who will be doing big years.  I know that Jay Lehman, a birder from Ohio, is supposed to be out there today starting his quest.  Jay has the opportunity since his ABA life list is already at about 790 to be the first birder to see at least 700 species in a calendar year, and pass the 800 level on his life list in the same year. I suspect there will be other big year birders joining him, and hopefully most of them will be blogging so that we can follow their exploits.  As for myself, I check NARBA regularly to see if their is a rarity that I want to pursue, but mainly I prefer to go birding.  Spring migration will find me actively enjoying warblers in northern Ohio in May.  I am also toying with a return to Alaska in the fall to do some birding for a couple of weeks with friends.  Stay tuned!