Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Surprise--Rufous-necked Wood-rail

Last Sunday about mid day NARBA sent out an email reporting that a birder while videotaping a least bittern at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico captured footage of a rufous-necked wood-rail as it walked out of the reeds behind the bittern.  Since there are no records of a rufous-necked wood-rail in the ABA area, you can imagine the excitement this bird is generating.  Neil Hayward arrived back in Boston Sunday afternoon from his whirlwind trip to Hatteras, NC to do a pelagic tour, and was on a plane the next morning for Albuquerque.  You can read about his visit on his blog.

I called John Vanderpoel on Monday morning to see if he was going to see the rail only to find that he and 3 of his Colorado birding buddies had driven down on Sunday afternoon, and were already driving back home when I called him.  He really encouraged me to come out.  I was able to get a frequent flyer ticket to El Paso, TX that left Tuesday morning at 6:40.  I landed in El Paso about 10:45, and then made the 180 mile drive to the refuge arriving at 2 PM!

After a short chat with a very nice and 7 months pregnant refuge staffer, I was off to the location of the rail.  The photo just above is a visual of the Bosque Boardwalk.  The rail has been consistently hanging out on the left side of the boardwalk that splits the water.  When I walked up there were 8 other birders, and one fortunately had a scope on the rail.  We watched it at some distance for a few minutes, and then I suggested that we walk along the marsh trail to see if we could get closer views.

There were 2 openings near where the water stopped, and shortly after reaching them, the rail walked out along the far edge.  While my camera is not the best, at least I was close enough to get a few record shots of this very colorful bird.  It is about 12 inches in overall size, and as it moves around it reminds you of a chicken.  The photos just above and just below were taken by me (click on any photo to enlarge).  The very bottom photo was taken by John Vanderpoel.

As you can see a rufous-necked wood-rail is well named, and also has yellow on its bill and pink legs to go along with the rest of its bright feathery attire.  I had checked to see if my friends Dan and Doreene could make the trip out, but they were not able to find an air fare that seemed reasonable.  Doreene did tell me that she had only seen one of these in central America.  The closest area where this rail normally lives is on the west coast of Mexico.

The heat was very intense yesterday afternoon, so after watching the rail from 2-3 PM, I went back to the visitor center to cool off, and to watch the non-stop action at the hummingbird feeders.  I went out again at 4 and spent another hour watching the rail feed, and then went off to eat myself.  I had heard in the visitor center that the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, which is just up the road from the refuge, had very good green chile cheeseburgers.  I enjoyed eating one but a few hours later my stomach was less enthusiastic--oh well.

I spent last night in Deming, NM, and was able to bird today in the Chiricahua Mountains which is just over the state line in Arizona.  I had not been to the Chiricahua's since my big year in 2010, and I was curious to see how altered the area was because of the large fire that happened there a couple of years ago.  The east side was largely unaffected, but the west side had extensive sections that were burned.  I still had a good day birding, seeing many of the "usual suspects" for the area. 

I just read this evening that a very fine NC birder that I know, Derb Carter, posted on the Carolina listserv that the video of the rail was taken by another birder from NC whose name is Matt Daw.  Back in 2008 another first ABA record occurred at Bosque del Apache when a sungrebe was found.  It was eventually accepted by the ABA, and all the birders who make the trek to see this rail will have their fingers crossed that this rail is accepted as well.

I fly back home tomorrow.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Further Big Year Food for Thought

On this day in 2010 I was at Grande Tetons NP, a place I first visited as a backpacker in 1968.  I began actively birding in 1973 when I was backpacking in Big Bend NP, and continued ever since (click on any photo to enlarge).  While the tetons is not necessarily a place a birder would visit during a big year since there are no unique birds to be found there, for me it fit into why I chose to do a big year.  While I wanted to see lots of birds, I also wanted to visit old haunts, spend time with friends around the country, and sample good cuisine including finding good burger joints, and wood-fired pizzas.

I am saying this because as I tell everyone who asks, each birder should know going into a big year what he or she thinks the goals are.  Interestingly, Neil Hayward was just out enjoying himself birding early in the year, and as his blog states, the success of his birding adventures morphed reluctantly into a full blown big year effort.  On the other hand, Jay Lehman knew last fall when he was retiring from Proctor and Gamble that he wanted to do a full ABA area big year in 2013.

Sandy Komito made it clear in both of his big year efforts that it was all about setting the full ABA area big year record, and he did it first in 1987, and then did it again in 1998--a record that still stands.  In 2010 I did not set out to establish a new record for the lower 48 states, but my plan for the year gave me the opportunity to do so in the end because I had the good fortune of many code #3-5 birds showing up in the fall, and made the decision to chase after them even though I had done practically no chasing the first 1/2 of 2010.

Last year Michael Delesantro and Renee Rubin, who live in Texas, set as their goal to do a low budget big year which in the end meant the lower 48 states.  Their goal was to drive their Toyota prius, and to spend no more than $10,000.  By the end of the year they spent a bit more than that and saw 654 different species of birds--an outstanding effort on their part.

My last post laid out where Neil and Jay stood at the 1/2 way point of their respective full ABA area big years.   The post generated a few comments about the probabilities of Neil and Jay passing 700 birds for their full ABA big years.  As a result, I thought it might be useful to provide some more data points for readers/followers of big years to mull over.

First, as I have recently stated, the code #1 and #2 birds add up to 667, and seeing almost all of these makes it easier to break 700 birds for the year.  But there is a randomness to the code #3-5's that makes reaching 700 much more uncertain, no matter how much time, money and commitment a birder has.  For example, Sandy Komito saw 27 species in 1987 that he did not see in 1998, but to reach 748 total birds in 1998 he saw many other mostly code #3-5's.

One of the comments on my last post asked when did Sandy reach 700 in 1998.  The answer is July 12th, and by September 1st Sandy had reached 730 birds (plus 4 provisionals of which 3 were accepted by the ABA after 1998) for the year.  John Vanderpoel in 2011 did not reach 700 until August 27th, but by year's end he missed tying Sandy's record by just 5 birds.   So Sandy only saw 15 more new birds after September 1st, while John saw 43 plus 1 provisional (hooded crane).

Other recent full ABA area big year birders who passed 700 total species seen include Bob Ake who reached a total of 731 birds in 2010 after seeing his 700th on September 10th.  He birded that year with John Spahr who was not able to bird as many places as Bob, but John still totaled 704 birds.  Lynn Barber in 2008 finished her year at 723 after reaching #700 on October 24th. 

But a fast start or spending time in Alaska does not guarantee a big year birder will break 700 which is why there are only 12 people so far who have done it.  For example, Matt Stenger in 2011 by mid August had reached 655 total birds, but ended his full ABA area year at 681.  Similarly, John Hargrove in 2012 had seen about 615 birds by mid August and finished his year at 689.

The point of all this data sharing is that while it is fun to try to "predict" whether Neil or Jay will pass 700 total birds, or whether Neil because of his strong start has a chance to set a new record, the randomness of code #3-5's showing up, and the commitment to chase them makes it very difficult to know how a big year will turn out until the clock strikes midnight on December 31st.

That said, Neil in his last blog post listed the 48 code #1 and #2 birds he still needs to see which would take him right up to the 700 mark, so it certainly is much more likely that he will get to 700.  And as the commenters and I have pointed out, Jay has so many code #1 and #2 birds still to see that he could get there also, but it is fair to say that the statistical probabilities are lower for him.  As a comparison to make the point, Neil only needs to average 2 new birds a week to get to 700 whereas Jay needs to average 7 each week.  Stay tuned!