Friday, January 12, 2018

Nazca Booby Chase and 2017 Review

It has been a year since I added a new post to this blog.  It is not that I have not been birding, but as I get further away from my lower 48 states big year in 2010, I have been weaning myself off putting out new posts whenever I do a lengthy bird trip, or do a rarity chase.  This post is prompted by my having just returned from San Diego to see Nazca boobies, as well as wanting to summarize the efforts of the big year birders in 2017.

The Nazca booby is a South American seabird that breeds mainly on the Galapagos, Malpelo and La Plata Islands.  It was split off from the masked booby as a result of DNA analysis back in 2000.  It was added to the California checklist in 2014, and is now on the ABA checklist.

Four Nazca boobies were found before Christmas in the San Diego area.  Two have continued to be seen in San Diego Bay, so a group of us from around the U.S. decided to fly out to San Diego this past Tuesday in hopes of seeing one.  We were up before dawn on Wednesday, and headed to Attu Avenue, the closest land position from where the birds have been observed.

When we first began looking we found a brown booby flying from north to south.  We carefully scanned the buoys on which the Nazca boobies have regularly been found resting, but initially did not find any.  After about 30 minutes Bert Filemyr picked up in a scope a pair flying from south to north on the other side of the bay (photo taken by Laura Keene--click on any photo to enlarge).  We watched them as they continued north, and then lost sight of them.

When they did not return, we walked out to our cars, and headed down to a small wetland south of Attu Ave. to fill some time prior to taking a boat out in hopes of getting better views and photos.

We were on our boat and out into the bay by about 9:15.  We worked our way along the buoys, and then up along the floating security fence that separates the open bay area from the naval yard.  We made a circuit twice over 90 minutes, but unfortunately did not relocate the pair of boobies.

After returning to the dock, we split up to go birding in different areas.  Bert, Jay and I stopped to check out a red pipit site that was nearby, but found only American pipits feeding in the grass of a small park.

Next we drove 2 hours north up to Prado Regional Park to look for a white wagtail that had been found there recently.  Fortunately we located it along the spillway that it had been frequenting.  Jay and I had seen white wagtails in Alaska, but this was the first sighting for Bert in the ABA area.  Not wanting to get caught in San Diego rush hour traffic, we headed back south.  Enroute we talked with Neil to discover that he had returned to Attu Ave. mid afternoon, and had found 1 booby on a buoy.  He decided to rent a boat on his own, and was able to get several photos including the 2 below.

We all gathered together about 5:30 at Pizza Nova near the San Diego airport to have a celebratory meal (from the left, Neil Hayward, Paul Lehman, me, Jay Lehman, Leslie Sours, Laura Keene, John and Bill Vanderpoel).  Paul lives in San Diego, but did not bird with us today. Most of us saw Paul in April of last year when we did a repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver where we were able to see Murphy's, Cook's and Hawaiian petrels along with other less rare pelagic species.

After dinner, Neil, Bert and I went to the airport to catch our red eye flights home.  Bill, John, Jay, Laura and Leslie stayed overnight before heading home on Thursday.

Turning to a recap of the efforts by big year birders in 2017, I need to preface the 2017 summary by first updating the final results of 2016. In October of 2016, the ABA announced that the membership had voted to add Hawaii to the ABA area, but since the official list of birds from Hawaii had not been completed, birds seen in Hawaii in 2016 would not be counted in the big year totals for the ABA area.  Three of the 2016 big year birders who passed 700 birds seen in what is now being called the continental ABA area (John Weigel, Olaf Danielson and Laura Keene) also birded in Hawaii.

John Weigel requested early in 2017 that the ABA reconsider the decision not to count Hawaii birds on 2016 big year lists.  Over several months of back and forth, and after the ABA released its official list for Hawaii birds, the ABA finally concluded that the 2016 big year birders could add to their continental totals any birds seen in Hawaii that were now on the new, expanded ABA area list.  As a result, the following are the new totals for 2016:  John (new ABA--835; continental ABA 783); Olaf (new ABA--829; continental 778); and Laura (new ABA--814; continental 762).

In 2017, 5 birders passed the 700 level for birds seen in the continental ABA area, and 3 of them also birded in Hawaii.  All of them still have provisional birds on their lists (a species not yet added to the official ABA checklist because the species was first recorded in the ABA area in 2017), so their big year totals will not be final until the provisional birds are voted on by the ABA review committee.  That said, the following are the numbers for 2017: Yve Morrell (ABA--813 + 4; continental--757 + 4); Ruben and Victor Stoll (ABA--813 + 3; continental--759 + 3); Gaylee Dean (continental--745 + 2) and Dick Dean (continental--743 + 2).

If all the provisional birds are accepted, the final results would have Yve Morrell coming in first in the ABA area by 1 bird, and the Stoll brothers would end up in first place in the continental area by 1 bird. Obviously the records set in 2016 by John Weigel are far above the totals in 2017.  It will likely be many years before either the ABA, or the continental ABA records will be eclipsed.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

2016: Holiday Chase and Year End Review

This may be the longest gap between posts on this blog.  Other than watching the ABA big year birding saga unfold during the fall, I did not get out myself and bird much until right after Christmas. I spent Christmas in Brooklyn with my wife and our 2 grown kids.  As we were driving up just before Christmas from Chapel Hill, NC, I read that a graylag goose (ABA code 5) was being seen in East Providence, RI, and 3 first year common shelducks (not yet on the ABA list) were at a wetland outside of St. John, NB.

While we were having a fine holiday over Christmas weekend I continued to read that these birds were still being reported.  Since I was already in NYC, it made sense to consider going on up to the Boston area to meet up with other birding friends to look for these birds.  My wife graciously agreed to drive home without me, so I arranged for my friend Bert Filemyr who lives just outside of Philadelphia to pick me up at 10:30 on Tuesday morning the 27th.  We drove straight to Watchemoket Cove in East Providence to look for the graylag goose.  We and many other birders looked for it from about 2 PM until dusk, but it never made an appearance.  While staking out the location, a reporter and photographer for the Providence Journal showed up and interviewed several of us about the goose and why we were there trying to see it.  They ran a nice story the next day.

Having missed the goose, the second part of our plan entailed meeting that evening our friend Laura Keene who had seen the goose at length on Monday.  I wrote in my last post about Bert and me meeting Laura, Marty Riback, Doreene Linzell and John Weigel in August to look for himalayan snowcocks in the Ruby Mountains of NV as part of Laura's big year adventure.  We had a nice meal at an Irish pub in Woburn, MA, and then went to bed at 9 PM because we were getting up at 2 AM Wednesday to make a 7 hour drive up to St. John, NB.

Neil Hayward, who lives in Cambridge, and set the big year record in 2013 (more on big years later in this post), met us to join the chase. The weather was good, and we arrived at the common shelduck site about 10:30 AM, timing our arrival with the high tide.  At first we were unsuccessful in finding the shelducks along a boardwalk where they were most often seen.  We then checked back down the road we drove in on, but also did not locate them.  A couple driving out stopped to say they were back in the area we originally checked.  We rushed back and went down a side trail at the beginning of the boardwalk.  After about 200 yards we came upon a group of 10+ birders who had just been looking at the 3 birds.  Two of the birders, Liz and Morris, were a couple we know from Newburyport, MA.

We all were trying to relocate the shelducks when they flew back in the direction from which we had just come.  So we walked back to the boardwalk, and scoping the marsh we found them back up along the road.  When we got back up to that spot, the ducks had moved further back into the marsh.  Laura was able to get photos of them flying and feeding (at back of 2nd photo--click on any photo to enlarge).

Neil unbeknownst to the rest of us had come prepared with a sign indicating that these ducks (if added to the ABA list--thus the ? on the sign) would raise his ABA life list to 800 total species seen.  You will note the sign reads 797 + 3 because he is also awaiting the addition of Cuban vireo and pine flycatcher to the ABA list.  Bert is on the far left and Laura should be obvious, as is Neil holding the sign.

We had a nice lunch with Liz and Morris in St. John before making the 7 hour drive back to Woburn.

Bert and I were on the road Thursday by 5:45 AM to get back down to Watchemoket Cove at first light to try for the graylag again.  It was quite cold, but clear and windless.  Even though there were no geese when we arrived, we positioned ourselves to scan the golf course that runs along the cove since this is where the goose was often seen with lots of Canada geese feeding in the grass.  About 8:15 we noticed that 2 other birders had arrived, and had parked about 100 yards past our spot.  We got out to talk with them when Bert looked out on the cove to see the graylag goose swimming along by itself.

We proceeded to approach the other 2 birders to make sure they had seen the goose to discover that it was David Nelson and Matthew Matthiessen from California.  I had met them in May of 2009 in Cave Creek Canyon, AZ when looking for a tufted flycatcher.  It turned out that they were flying up later that day to Halifax, NS, to be in position to drive over to see the shelducks.  Then they planned to fly to St. Johns, NF, to bird there as well.  A local stopped to chat and suggested that we drive around to the other side of the cove to get closer looks at the graylag.  He proved to be right as we were able to walk close enough to get the photos of the goose taken by Bert.  We parted ways about 9 AM, and Bert dropped me at LaGuardia airport on Long Island so I could fly home.

It was really great to finish up 2016 birding with several of my friends, particularly with Laura.  She had decided at the end of last year to do a full ABA area big year with the primary goal of taking more photos of birds in a calendar year within the ABA area than anyone else.  The record established in 2015 was 605 species photographed.  As we were driving up to St. John, Laura was showing me on her camera many of the birds she had been able to take pictures of.  Laura is an outstanding photographer, and so it came as no surprise that picture after picture were not just "record" shots for ID purposes, but photos that you would want to hang on your wall, or that would be selected by National Geographic for one of its articles.

Laura's goal was to try to take pictures of 97% of the bird species that she saw, and she finished the year at 741 species photographed--a truly amazing total.  It seemed fitting that I ran into David Nelson at the graylag goose site because he originally set the photo record in 1996 when he took pictures of 412 different species of birds.  His current life ABA list for photographed birds is now over 800.

This leads me into sharing the final results from the 2016 ABA big year birders, and my views on how the year turned out.  First, for the first time ever 4 birders not only saw more than 700 different species in the ABA area in a calendar year, but all 4 of them broke the record of 749 set by Neil Hayward in 2013.  For details of that big year and comparisons to the record of 748 set by Sandy Komito in 1998, please refer to my blog post from January 2014.

The final ABA area totals including provisionals (species that are not yet on the ABA official list) are as follows:  John Weigel (780 + 3 provisionals); Olaf Danielson (776 + 2); Laura Keene (759 + 3); and Christian Hagenlocher (750 + 2).  These results are nothing short of mind boggling if you know the history of ABA area big years.  Dating back to 1983 when it first happened, there were only a total of 15 people who had ever seen more than 700 different bird species in a calendar year. In 1987 Sandy Komito set the record at 722, and then broke his own record in 1998 at 748.  So Sandy held the ABA area big year record for 26 years until Neil moved into first place in 2013.

How did 4 birders in the same year break the old record?  It is simplistic, but it all ties back to late 2015, and the first 1/2 of 2016 being an el nino weather pattern year.  When Sandy set the record of 748 in 1998, it was the last significant el nino year. Sandy also spent 4 weeks on Attu, the most westerly island in the Aleutian Island chain. As a result, Sandy counted 96 code #3-5 birds on his list (the rarities). In 2013 Neil only saw 81 code #3-5 species, but he made up the difference by seeing more code #1 and #2 birds (the lion's share of birds species in the ABA area, and most common) plus the species splits and exotics added by the ABA to its list between 1998 and 2013.

John and Olaf each saw all the code #1 and #2 species.  John saw 110 code #3-5 birds, and Olaf saw 105 code #3-5's.  Laura and Christian each saw all but one of the code #1 and #2 birds.  Laura saw 90 code #3-5's, and Christian saw 80 code #3-5's.  It would not have been possible for all 4 of these birders to pass the record of 749 without having this kind of success in seeing code #3-5 species.  And the fact that John and Olaf crushed the old record is because of their very high totals of code #3-5 birds.  This is the same pattern seen when Sandy's 1987 record of 722 was smashed by him in 1998 with a new record of 748.  Given the history of ABA big years, it will be some time before the 2016 record will be broken.

One of the fascinating facts about the final totals for the ABA area is that as in 1998, Attu proved to be a difference maker.  A small group of birders was able to visit Attu by boat for a week, and John saw 3 birds there (common sandpiper, pintailed snipe and long-toed stint) that Olaf was not able to see since he did not visit Attu.  They each saw 6 rarities that the other did not see:  John (whooper swan, gray-headed chickadee, Hawaiian petrel, smew, white-tailed tropicbird, and cuban vireo); Olaf (siberian rubythroat, great knot, Trinidade petrel, hawfinch, marsh sandpiper, and yellow grosbeak).  John also saw a kelp gull in Ohio, and a graylag goose in Rhode Island that Olaf chose not to try for.

That said, there is a new wrinkle to big year ABA efforts because in October of 2016 the membership voted to add Hawaii to the ABA birding map.  Beginning sometime this year, the ABA will include Hawaii in its year and life list totals, and will retain the old ABA area list data under the heading of continental ABA.  Knowing this change would be happening, Olaf, John and Laura all decided to do some birding in Hawaii at the end of 2016.  While their totals will not be official, they provide a reference point for the new ABA area record potential.  Specifically, their respective 2016 new ABA area totals will probably be:  John (835 + 3); Olaf (832 +2); and Laura (814 + 3).

Other totals for categories in which records were set, or potential targets for setting future records include:

U.S.:  John (832 + 2) and Olaf (827 + 1)

Lower 48:  Olaf (722 + 1)

Doing a full ABA area big year is a monumental undertaking, so the tremendous effort and dedication demonstrated by all 4 of these birders should be acknowledged and commended.  This is true of all that came before them as well, but 2016 had an added dimension that has never been part of the big year storyline from years past.  I am referring to the unfortunate rancor and enmity that developed in the middle of 2016 when Olaf realized that John was also putting in an all out big year effort.

I can't personally speak to 1998, but the book the Big Year painted a largely friendly competition among Sandy, Al and Greg.  Also, back then there were no blogs for a birder to report their big year story.  I think the first of its kind was done by Lynn Barber in 2008.  In my own big year in 2010, I met Bob Ake and John Spahr in the spring. Bob and I shared that each of us were doing blogs.  We would follow each other's efforts after that online, and by the fall when it was mostly about chasing rarities, we would often bird together, and even share hotel rooms and rental cars.

Birding and the focus on making lists has always been compared to playing golf.  There is a similar honor system in both pastimes.  As far as I know, no fellow birder has ever publicly questioned the veracity of another birder's big year sightings.  The expectation is that a birder is applying the equivalent of seeing a lifer for each bird put on his or her list.  This means there should be no reasonable doubt that you saw a given bird.  Sandy Komito is often referenced when he did not add great gray owl to his list in 1998 because he could not be certain that what appeared at a distance in poor light to be a great gray owl was in fact one.

In the modern era with digital cameras now available, most big year birders try to document at least the rarities they find, if not all the birds seen by them.  But you can not always get a "record" shot for ID purposes.  This is all the more reason why a birder needs to apply a very high standard of identification, and preferably if there is no photo there are other experienced observers who also saw the bird "well".

While the ABA has very clear big day guidelines, it has chosen not to establish similar guidelines for recording birds during big years.  The ABA has continued to follow the honor system approach.  I know I was amazed that in 2010 the ABA did not want to see my list.  They just wanted me to submit a total number for their records.  My understanding based on the ABA blog post about the year end totals for 2016 is that all 4 of the leading birders were asked to submit their lists prior to the blog post being published.  This may be an indicator of things to come vis a vis big year efforts and the ABA.

I know that I still fondly remember my big year adventure using birding in the lower 48 states to focalize a year of travel that included visiting favorite places around the U.S., seeing friends, and eating great food.  I saw the joy and elation on Laura's face last week as she was wrapping up her big year.  In contrast, after Olaf worked so hard, traveled 300,000 miles by car and airplane, and spent $95,000 plus used 800,000+ frequent flyer miles, I find it very sad that he wrote in his big year summary on his blog that "I had basically wasted a year of my life chasing and counting birds.  I really had."

In conclusion, I also noticed on the ebird lists that there were several couples who apparently were doing big years together in 2016, in a few cases seeing over 600 species.  I also saw the names of friends or birders names that I recognize who were clearly regularly birding last year.  With all the rarities still hanging around the lower 48 states at the beginning of this year, there are certainly plenty of reasons to be out birding.

Happy new year!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Himalayan Snowcock Adventure

I have just returned from a quick visit to Utah and Nevada where I joined up with Laura Keene, Bert Filemyr, Doreene Linzell and Marty Riback mainly to visit the Ruby Mountains in NE Nevada in search of Himalayan snowcocks.  Laura is doing a full ABA area big year, and the rest of us offered in the spring to assist her in looking for the often hard to find snowcock, which is an introduced game bird that is only found in the Ruby Mountains.  It lives above the tree line which requires a 2 mile hike up from the parking lot in Lamoille Canyon to reach Island Lake (9700 ft elevation) that sits at the bottom of a large cirque (all photos except for the group shot (John) and the Island Lake photo (Laura) were taken by Bert.  Click on any photo to enlarge).

We flew into Salt Lake City on Tuesday the 9th, and made the 220 mile drive west to Elko, NV.  After an early dinner we drove another 20 miles up to the small town of Lamoille to check into Hotel Lamoille--a nice 3 room place that would shorten our drive at 4 AM the next morning up to the end of the road in Lamoille Canyon.  Since there was some daylight left, we went up to Pump House picnic area to look for Lewis's woodpeckers which we found.  Even more intriguing for me was the hummingbird moths that were actively feeding on flower nectar.

You have 2 choices when it comes to looking for the snowcock.  Either you can hike up late in the afternoon, and spend the night at Island Lake so you are ready to start searching at first light; or begin hiking up in the dark to arrive soon after first light.  In 2010 when I did my big year I hiked up and spent the night in early July, but failed to either see or hear a snowcock.  I tried again in August camping out overnight that time with my friend Rob Lowry.  We heard snowcocks calling, but we were unable to locate them in the vast area of the cirque.  So besides helping Laura, I also wanted to finally see a snowcock, thus removing the only "heard only bird" on my ABA life list.

Our group decided that hiking up in the dark was preferred.  The trail is very well maintained and includes many switchbacks, so hiking with a headlamp is not difficult.  Since it was 47 degrees when we set out at 4:45 AM, it also was very comfortable hiking compared to my late afternoon hikes in 2010 when the sun was pounding down on me and the temp was in the 80's. As we were about to start up the trail, John Weigel, who is also doing a full ABA area big year, drove up and said he would catch up with us.

Each of us walked at our own pace in climbing about 1000 feet of elevation which meant we reached the lake at different times.  Soon after Marty, Bert and I arrived at the lake John caught up with us. The 4 of us then hiked up another 200-300 yards to a level spot, and just after 6 AM began searching for the snowcocks.

We knew that a few had been seen regularly in the cirque over the past few weeks, so we figured we would be able to find them.  While the scopes were being assembled, I was scanning in the most likely area of the cirque when I noticed some movement at an estimated distance of 200-300 yards.  Looking through 2 scopes we located at least 4 snowcocks, which are the size of a small turkey, slowly feeding on seed heads. They can be very difficult to find if they are not moving because their color is so similar to the rocks.

Laura and Doreene had not arrived yet, so John walked back down the hill a bit to find them working their way up the steep incline.  First Laura got to the scopes, and a few minutes later Doreene joined us. John had already seen a flying snowcock in late July, but had returned to get photos.  As a result, he headed back down the mountain sooner than we did.  Before he left, he took a "record" shot of the 5 of us, and we also got one of him and Laura.

The rest of us were able to spend an hour overall watching the snowcocks feed. We also saw other birds in the cirque and on our way back down including mountain bluebird, Townsend's solitaire, white-crowned sparrow, pine siskin, junco, rock wren, Cassin's finch, MacGillivray's and Wilson's warblers, western wood pewee, northern flicker, kestrel and red-tailed hawk.

Since we were so successful in finding the snowcocks, it meant we could now drive back to Salt Lake City instead of needing to try again the next day.  Enroute we stopped in some good habitat for juniper titmouse--a bird that Laura still needed for her big year list.  We came up short, but early the next morning south of Salt Lake City we finally tracked down a couple.

Then we drove up to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge which is about an hour north of Salt Lake City. We stopped on the way in Ogden for an early lunch at In-N-Out Burger which provided the "fuel" we needed to spend almost 4 hours birding the refuge.

On the drive in we saw a couple of eastern kingbirds, and then at the beginning of the auto tour we found lots of northern rough-winged, violet-green, barn and tree swallows, and both Clark's and western grebes. The drive provided lots of birds including white-faced ibis, mallard, redhead and ruddy ducks, cinnamon and green-winged teals, pied-billed grebe, avocet, black-necked stilt, American bittern,  snowy egret, spotted sandpiper, willet, savannah sparrow, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, northern harrier, California and Franklin's gulls, and Forster's and Caspian terns.

There were 1000's of coots and many juveniles with which most of us were not familiar.  We finally found some large pools of water that had a few waders like western and Baird's sandpiper, killdeer, and lesser yellowlegs.

Near the end of the drive we happened upon a huge group of long-billed dowitchers.  It is hard to accurately estimate such a large number, but it was easily the most at one spot that I had encountered. We concluded that the total was between 4,000 and 5,000 birds.  The photo below only captures some of the flock.

We still had time to make one more stop at Antelope Island SP where many birders go to see their first chukar.  The great Salt Lake is very low this year, so the water did not come close to the long causeway drive out to the island except where the road crossed a small connecting point.  We found 1000's of Wilson phalaropes there, and a few bank swallows sitting on a wire.  In 2010 when I came to the island to see a chukar, the water was up to the causeway, and 1000's of eared grebes were feeding.  On Thursday there were only a few of them.

We stopped at the visitor center to enquire about recent chukar sightings.  We were told to just look behind the center, and sure enough we found a few of them moving in and out of the vegetation. Sometimes you have to work very hard to see a chukar, so we figured it was a perfect bookend to our earlier success with the snowcocks.

Early on Friday Marty caught a flight home, and Laura took a flight to Dallas to search for buff-breasted sandpipers. Bert, Doreene and I went up into Big Cottonwood Canyon to see what we could find.  It was only 45 degrees when we started birding before 7 AM, so the birds were not very active. Over the next 3+ hours we did see some new trip birds like red-breasted nuthatch, mountain chickadee, sharp-shinned hawk, orange-crowned warbler, Lincoln's sparrow, and stellar's jay.  We stopped on our way down the mountain to have breakfast, and were treated to 4 different kinds of hummers feeding at the lodge's feeders--broad-tailed, black-chinned, rufous and calliope.  It was a very nice end to our birding trip which included over 100 bird species in just 2+ days of birding.

I want to close this post with a short update on how the big year birders are progressing.  As I said in early July, this is proving to be a record breaking year for full ABA area big year birders.  As of today, both John Weigel and Olaf Danielson have broken the record of 749 set in 2013 by Neil Hayward.  John is at 756 species plus 2 provisionals (first ABA area record birds that will need to be reviewed, and hopefully added to the official ABA list).  Olaf is at 752 plus 1 provisional.  Also, Laura Keene has now reached a total of 714 + 2, and Christian Hagenlocher is at 711 + 2. No other big year has had 4 people break 700 different species. Both Laura and Christian might also pass the old record by the end of December, and John and Olaf will add even more birds to their respective totals before year end.  Good fortune and birding to all of them.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Pine Flycatcher and 2016 Big Year Update

I just had an opportunity to get down to southeastern Arizona to do 3 days of birding in one of my very favorite places to visit.  It was over 100 degrees each day, topping out one day at 105, but it was still enjoyable.  On the 4th of July I spent my time over in the Sierra Vista area birding in Miller and Carr Canyons.  The hummers at the Beatty Guest Ranch were fun to watch even though the white-eared hummer they often get each year did not come in to feed.  The hummer group included broad-billed, broad-tailed, magnificent, rufous, black-chinned, violet crowned and anna's. My highlight for the day was seeing a northern pygmy owl up close that I found sitting on a tree branch as I was driving down the windy Carr Canyon road late in the afternoon.  I was about to take a picture when another car drove up and scared the owl off.

On Tuesday the 5th I was up at 4 AM so I could get down to Madera and Florida Canyons before first light in order to try for poor wills along the road.  Sure enough I found 3, and then spent about an hour walking part way up Florida Canyon listening to the morning chorus.

I stopped next on my way up to Madera Canyon to check out the desert species, and saw most of the usual suspects for this time of the year such as varied bunting, lucy's warbler, phainopepla, verdin, Bell's vireo, brown-crested flycatcher, canyon towhee, and rufous-winged, black-throated and Botteri's sparrows.

I then went up to the Santa Rita Lodge to look for the plain-capped starthroat that had been reported the day before. I ended up being there most of the day, arriving before 8 AM, and finally leaving a bit scorched from all the sun at 7:30 PM.  There were several other birders who came and went, but none of us saw the starthroat fly in. We were entertained all day by many other hummers including a single brilliant male rufous, and many broad-billed hummers.  Other birds coming to the feeding area included magnificent, anna's and black-chinned hummers, hepatic tanager, Scott's oriole, lesser goldfinch, brown-headed and bronzed cowbirds, Arizona and acorn woodpeckers, dusky-capped flycatcher, wild turkey, varied bunting, white-breasted nuthatch, bridled titmouse, Mexican jay and house finch.

Wednesday I was up again at 4 AM to make the 1 hour drive down to the intersection of Hwy 83 and Gardner Canyon road where I met Melody Kehl, a local bird guide.  I have known Melody for years beginning when I road into California Gulch with her to see 5 striped sparrow and buff-collared nightjars.  She was driven by her husband because of the absolutely worst road I have ever been on since the first trip many years ago into California Gulch.  Edge Wade was also with her, a birder that I also met several years ago who lives in Columbia, MO where I grew up.  I had last seen her during my big year in 2010 when we bumped into each other in South Dakota looking at an orange-billed nightingale-thrush.

Our goal for the morning was to try to see the first documented pine flycatcher found in the ABA area.  Even though it was only 5-6 driving miles into the campsite where the bird had been found on May 30th, it took almost an hour to traverse this just horrible road that is actually pretty good for the first 3 miles.  On our way in we heard black-chinned sparrows calling.

The pine flycatcher is found in Mexico and Guatemala, and is very similar to a cordilleran or pacific-slope flycatcher which are common in the west of the U.S. The sun was beginning to shine on the treetops in the campsite when we arrived at 6 AM, and fortunately the bird was sitting on the nest it had built 3 weeks earlier.  Over the next hour we were able to get good looks at the flycatcher as it would periodically leave the nest to feed (the photos above and below were taken by Neil Hayward who had seen the bird a couple of weeks earlier--click on any photo to enlarge).

We also saw a pair of sulfur-bellied flycatchers that were nesting in a sycamore tree, and had a first year male elegant trogon fly in. Towhees and juniper titmice were calling.  As we were leaving 2 more high clearance vehicles arrived with 7 more birders.  On our way out we found 2 montezuma quail crossing the road.

I was back at my car at 8 AM, and Melody and Edge headed off to try for another Mexican rarity--a slate-throated redstart that had bred in the Chiricahuas over the past few weeks.  I checked my email and saw that I had a message from John Weigel who is doing a big year.  He was at his hotel in Green Valley, the town below Madera Canyon, so I drove over to visit with him, stopping at Paton's and the Patagonia rest stop on the way.  John and I had a nice visit, and then I drove back up to Tucson to have dinner with a long time friend who I had been staying with on this trip.

Seeing John prodded me to add to this post a mid year update on those birders doing a full ABA area big year in 2016. The headline has to be that as in 1998 when North America last experienced a full blown el nino, this year has seen a huge number of vagrants show up. But what is decidedly different in 2016 is the number in the first half of the year that have come to the lower 48 states.  Also, because of the far superior communication via the internet, the big year birders are able to find out about rarities quicker, and in turn reach the birds in a more timely fashion which raises the odds of seeing a rarity.

How many people are doing a full ABA area big year is hard to determine, but I know of 4 who definitely are engaged in what is a huge undertaking.  Because most of these 4 are listing their sightings on ebird, or have a blog site, it is possible to track their progress.

As of today, Olaf Danielson ( has seen 746 species plus has the pine flycatcher as a provisional (a bird documented for the first time in the ABA area that if accepted after a review process by the state in which it was found, and then by the ABA will be added to the ABA area list).  Right behind him is John Weigel ( who has seen 741 species plus 2 provisionals (cuban vireo and pine flycatcher).  In third is Christian Hagenlocher ( at 689 species with 2 provisionals (cuban vireo and pine flycatcher). In fourth position is Laura Keene who my readers may remember is a birding friend that provides me with so many good photos for this blog. She is at 665 plus 2 provisionals (cuban vireo and pine flycatcher).

For those not familiar with ABA area big years, these species totals for early July are historic in the case of Olaf and John.  In 1998 when Sandy Komito set the record during the last el nino, he reached 696 birds by this date, and went on to set the then new record of 748 species seen by the end of 1998. In 2013 Neil Hayward broke Sandy's record when he saw 749 species, but his total on the first of july was only 653 species.

The ABA applies a code to each species seen in the ABA area.  Code 1 and 2 cover at this point 672 birds out of the almost 1000 bird species ever recorded in the ABA area which is all of North America above the Mexican border.  Practically all of the code 1 and 2 birds will be seen by a birder doing a full ABA area big year.  So the key to putting up a big number and possibly setting a new big year record is tied to how many code 3-5 species are seen.  In 1998 Sandy saw an amazing total of 96 code 3-5 birds.  Neil saw only 81 code 3-5's in 2013, but made up the difference with code 1-2 birds that had been added to the ABA list between 1998 and 2013.  These added birds are a result of splits of existing species, and introduced or exotic species that have been added to the ABA list.

What is truly amazing for all 4 of these birders this year is the huge number of code 3-5 birds they have already seen, and there are still almost 6 months left in the year.  I do not have the exact numbers of rarities for Laura (65+) or Christian (50+), but including provisionals John has seen 89 and Olaf has seen 79 rarities.  Even though John has more rarities seen so far, Olaf is currently a bit ahead of John in total species because he has already seen almost all of the code 1-2's whereas John has several more to pick up.  That should change over the next few weeks as John fills in his missing code 1-2's.

Finally, what is also different about this big year is that it is the first time at least 4 birders will see more than 700 species in a year.  Even more significant is that in every other record setting big year for the full ABA area, the "race" has not really been close between the leader and the runner-up(s).  And given Olaf and John's current totals, at least 2 of these 4 will break the record set in 2013.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

San Blas, Mexico 2/27-29/16

Saturday was another early start.  We were headed back up to the coffee plantation area, but stopped briefly on the way to check out a place in the small town below the plantation.  It was pretty birdy and we found a bright-rumped attila.

We also had good looks at a scrub euphonia, and masked tityra.

Up at the coffee plantation we were less successful than on our previous visit.  There were not nearly as many birds around, and when we finally heard a rosy thrush-tanager, we were totally unable to get it to come out for a viewing.  After about 90 minutes we decided to try some new spots including a group of abandoned shrimp ponds.  I had to take a picture of Dan Sanders in his house slippers scoping the ponds.  He was having trouble with a sore toe, and decided to wear his slippers--this had to be a birding first for me.

The ponds were pretty productive for waders including our only reddish egret of the trip, and a couple of American avocets.

Later in the day we visited a place that had been good for gray-crowned yellowthroats. It did not disappoint, and we also had good looks again at white-collared seedeaters.  We kept looking for ruddy-breasted seedeaters as well, but never found any that definitely could be identified.

We saw another laughing falcon, and finished our day hearing and finally getting a brief look at a lesser ground-cuckoo.

Most of day 9 was spent at a place called Tecuitata--a ridge road that we walked along for quite some distance.  It was often shady, so the day was very delightful from a temperature point of view.

Our main target here was the San Blas jay which we did see initially at some distance, but then we were able to get much closer looks at this fine bird.

We saw many of the same birds we had seen during the trip like gray hawk, which was a daily bird for us, but also squirrel cuckoo, and rufous-backed robin.


Late morning a pick-up truck came by, and Dave had a short conversation with the people in it.  He told us they were on the way over the hill to the beach.  It turned out they had been hired by him to make us lunch which we discovered when we rounded a corner an hour later to find them cooking chili rellenos (photo taken by Laura Keene).  This is a favorite Mexican dish for me, and these were the best I have ever eaten!

There were 2 huge fig trees on each side of our lunch table that kept dropping tiny figs on us.  They also attracted lots of birds including a magnificent lineated woodpecker.

Our lunch spot looked out the the Pacific ocean, and at one point we watched a group of white pelicans soar by us.

After lunch we worked our way back down the road, and then went back to San Blas to take a very short boat ride over to Peso Island.  It is called Peso Island because it originally cost 1 peso to ride over on the boat.  Inflation of course has now raised the price to 20 pesos/person.

It was a very pretty weekend afternoon so you would have thought there would be lots of people on the beach.  To our surprise we had the place to ourselves.  Dave told us that other than Easter week, Mexicans do not spend time on the beach.  A group of 15-20 Wilson's plovers popped up.

There was of course a gull flock that had terns mixed in, and also we found the ubiquitous ruddy ground dove.  We walked out to the breakwater, and figured we could just walk back along the beach to the boat, but discovered that was not possible half way along.  This caused us to cut through a pasture while fighting off the mosquitos that were coming out as the sun set.

It was hard to believe that Monday was already day 10, and our last day of birding. Before making the drive back up to Mazatlan, we had another boat trip which went up the Rio San Cristobal.  We were on the river early on a blue sky day with a nice breeze.

Green kingfishers and black-crowned night-herons were seen often.

We had been hoping to find mangrove cuckoos, so we were pleased to get very good looks at one.

We saw more snail kites, and had a close up fly over from a roseate spoonbill.

We also got to view a wood stork rookery.

We still had 2 other target birds to find--spotted rail and hook-billed kite.  We took our boat into a side channel that opened up into a large shallow wetland.  When we heard a spotted rail calling, we worked for quite some time to draw it to us.  As it moved closer and closer making intermittent calls, we did see common gallinule and a Ridgeway's rail. We also had 2 hooked-billed kites fly across the open area at some distance giving very unsatisfying looks for those of us who were facing in the right direction as they quickly passed us.

After maybe 20 minutes of patiently waiting, the spotted rail stuck its head out of the vegetation very near our boat, but when it looked up and saw us, it immediately turned around, stopped calling and disappeared.  Unfortunately not all of our group was able to see it.

We needed to make our way back to the boat dock, and then return to the hotel for a final meal before starting for Mazatlan.  We were on the road by about 1 PM for the 3+ hour drive.  We decided to make one last stop at a place we had visited on day 1.  Our target birds were rosy thrush-tanager and flammulated flycatcher.  2 or 3 of our group briefly saw the thrush-tanager, and all of us had good looks at the flycatcher.

We returned to Hotel Siesta in Mazatlan for our last night.  We enjoyed one more meal together drinking margaritas and cold Mexican beer.  We all were very happy to have had such a good trip together, and particularly to have seen so many birds that are only seen rarely and often not very well in the ABA birding area.  We had such good views of some of these birds that we started talking about not life birds for our lists, but life looks meaning the best view we had ever had of a species. The total species count of seen and/or heard birds came to 299.  I know that I saw over 50 new life birds.

As the meal wound down, we said our good-byes because Dave was taking Neil, Dan and Doreene to the airport at 4:30 AM, and then driving home to Alamos.  Bert, Laura, Marty and I were not flying out until 11:45 AM. I would highly recommend this trip guided by Dave to anyone wanting to dip their feet into what birding in Mexico has to offer.