Sunday, January 31, 2010

Day 31--Grand Canyon Next

Today was both a birding and driving day. I was up by 6 AM and birding at 7:30 in search of the always difficult to find leconte's thrasher--a bird of the low desert chapparal. There is a location about an hour southwest of Phoenix that is the right habitat for the leconte's. I spent 3+ hours looking for it, but the only thrashers I found were a sage and a crissal. It was a beautiful morning to walk around in the desert, so missing the bird was not so bad, and I did see 3 new year birds.

Then I drove up to Flagstaff to visit with a friend of mine. She has lived in Flagstaff for several years now, and I try to stop in to see her whenever I am in northern Arizona. We caught up on our lives, and had a good meal at a place called Salsa Brava. From the name you would be correct in assuming that it serves Mexican food.

I then drove on up to the Grand Canyon to be ready to bird here tomorrow, picking up 3 more birds for the year list. It was near the end of the day, and I snapped the picture above of a single mountain that you see as you approach the park on Hwy 64. The day's birding provided 9 new birds for the week list, and 6 new birds for the YTD count. Today I added a new feature on the right hand side of the blog. I have listed all the January YTD birds seen. And tomorrow may give me a condor. Stay tuned!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Rufous-backed Robin (Yes)

Perseverance paid off today with the sighting of the rufous-backed robin (see above) at Boyce-Thompson Arboretum. This is a life bird for me, and since it is a rarity here in the U.S., this was a good pick up for my big year. My picture of it is not the best since the bird rarely came fully out in the open, but at least you can get a sense of it, particularly its rufous back.

There was a couple from Illinois also looking for it. Unfortunately, the wife was not feeling well and went back to her car before the bird showed up. The husband did get some good photos, but he had already seen this bird whereas his wife had not. I left before I found out if he was able to get his wife back out to get a look at the robin so that she could add it to her life list.

Earlier in the day I had some other good sightings enroute, including the dark morph of the red-tailed hawk which is called a harlan's hawk. I saw 2 of this form within a mile of each other, and tried to get a picture but to no avail. Most hawks are fine with cars driving by, but when you stop to look or photograph them, they generally skedaddle.

I also was able to go to Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix to have dinner. This place consistently gets glowing reviews, which means that it is always jammed. It is in a small, old brick building in downtown Phoenix, and only seats about 45 people at a time. It became so successful that it opened a bar next door to manage the customer process. That process involves people beginning to show up over an hour before the 5 PM opening time, forming a somewhat ill defined queue. The bar opens at 4 PM so that you can get something to drink, and even some antipasti while you wait. About 4:45 people form a more obvious line based on their arrival time. At 5 PM sharp they open the doors and let in the first 45 or so people. They also give out 3 reservations each night for parties of 6 or more, and the waiting list for that begins 30 days out.

Tonight was the longest line I have seen in my few visits here. Those who do not make the 1st seating give their name to the hostess who then tells them how long their wait will be based on where they are in line. At that point they wait outside or in the bar, throw up their hands and leave frustrated, or if they are locals, they leave and come back at the time the hostess told them they would be seated.

I just missed the 1st seating, and was told it would be an hour and 15 minute wait. I had struck up a conversation with a young couple while waiting from 4 to 5, so I got us all a bottle of zinfandel to share while we waited to get in. Sure enough, at 6:15 we were seated together at the bar. The couple had never been to P Bianco, so they were excited to try it out. Usually you get 1 pizza per person, but they ordered 3 for the 2 of them, and ate almost all of them. They had been to Italy and felt like they were back there again. Having lived in Italy for a year, I have the same feeling about Pizzeria Bianco. The picture above shows the wood fired oven with a pizza cooking inside.

So after 2 days this week, the weekly total is up to 70 species. 6 new species were added to the YTD total, one of which was also a life bird for me. Between the birding and the pizza, I would call this a red letter day. Tomorrow I am off early to try to find what was for a long time one of my nemesis birds--the leconte's thrasher. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Day 29--Beautiful Arizona

One reason I am in Arizona in January is because I love birding here. I find the desert/mountain areas in southeast Arizona to be one of my favorite places to spend time hiking and birding. Plus for a birder this area has so many birds to look at, including a regular dose of rarities. The rarity of the moment is the rufous backed robin, which unfortunately eluded me again today. Nevertheless, I had a good time birding.

One of my favorite birds is the loggerhead shrike (see above), and there were many out hunting today. I found 58 birds to start this 1st day of the new week. 8 of these were also new birds for the year, so now the YTD count is at 235. Tomorrow I try again for the robin, and get to eat pizza at one of the very best pizza places in the country--Pizzeria Bianco. Stay tuned!

Day 28--Arizona

Well, after a quick swing thru Florida, I am now in southeast Arizona. I birded in both Miami and the Everglades yesterday before hopping on a plane for Arizona. I added 6 new birds for the week but no new birds for the year yesterday. I did enjoy my stroll down the anhinga trail in Everglades NP, and even snapped a couple of pictures there of an anhinga and a wood stork (see above).

Today I wrapped up the last day of week 4 here in mixed fashion. While I saw lots of new birds for the year list--no surprise since this is my 1st visit during this big year to AZ--I also was skunked on a key bird down here, the rufous backed robin. There have been a couple here in SE Arizona for a couple of months, but I was not able to locate them at 2 separate sites. However I did get some very good, close looks at 2 crissal thrashers--and got a photo of one (see above). This was a huge surprise since in the past I have never been able to get near a crissal thrasher--they run and hide generally when they realize that you are close by.

At the first location south of Tucson I ran into a woman bird guide I know here who was also hunting for it with 2 friends. After 3 hours of searching on my part, and at least an hour on theirs we came up short. This bird is known as a skulker which means it hides well in the canopy of the tree in which it is feeding, or in the brush as it hunts for food. So I drove up to another location near Superior, AZ called Boyce-Thompson Arboretum. It is an Arizona state park, and is a lovely place to bird. Today though it was raining which made it hard to find birds. The rufous backed robin likes to eat various kinds of berries. Mockingbirds and hermit thrushes do also. I saw plenty of them eating myrtle berries at Boyce-Thompson, but no rufous backed. So tomorrow I will make a second effort to find the elusive robin.

On the food front, I did get a chance to eat lunch at IN-N-Out Burger. I think this is the best large chain hamburger operation in the country. Unfortunately for most of us it is only in CA, UT and AZ. They offer 3 meal choices--a burger, a cheeseburger or a double cheeseburger. It comes with lettuce, tomato and their special mayo type sauce. You can add a slice of raw onion. It also comes with fries and a drink. You can "upgrade" your drink to a milkshake. It reminds me of McDonald's when it first began back in the 50's in southern Cal, which was after IN-N-Out Burger began in southern Cal. I remember as a child growing up in Columbia, MO, that we all thought it was a big deal to go out to dinner once a month at our local Mickey D's. McDonald's has changed alot since the 50's but it appears that IN-N-Out Burger has stuck to its very simple menu. I am always amazed at how busy the outlets are no matter what time of day it is, and how diverse the customer base is--all ages and ethnicities.

Well, week 4 is in the books. I am getting into a rhythm of getting up early, birding or traveling all day, and getting to bed earlier than when I am home. I finished the week with 88 species seen. I added 25 new birds this week bringing the YTD number to 227. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Arizona (No), Florida (Yes)

It is day 26 late in the evening, and I am not in Arizona yet because at the 11th hour last Sunday nite (it was actually just that, 11 PM), I decided to take a detour into south Florida to try to pick up the 2 life birds that I missed the 1st week of January. And I am very happy to say that this morning I picked up first the La Sagra's flycatcher that has been hanging out at Bill Baggs State Park on Key Biscayne for the last week or so. And as has been the pattern so far this year, I was joined by birders from Boston (MA), Seattle (WA), and Jonesboro (AR). For all of us it was a life bird (again for non-birders, that means the 1st time you see a species). One or two La Sagra's show up in Florida annually.

Then I made a few stops in route to another key location where I was able to see (picture above) a red-footed booby. In December this bird was brought in injured to the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station, a rehab center here in Miami, and then was released after it recovered. The bird continues to return at times during the day when the rehab center feeds its injured birds, and this now healthy booby is still taking advantage of the food available. The red-footed booby is normally seen only occasionally in the Dry Tortugas which are located 70 miles west of Key West, Fl. While checking out the booby, I also met 4 birders who are "snowbirds" here in Florida.

I finished up my day having dinner at a cuban restaurant which proved to be a good "local" food choice. I had a perfectly seasoned piece of grilled red snapper accompanied by some delicious black beans and a seasoned rice. I finished the meal with a tasty flan.

I will be birding here again tomorrow, and then I will head over to Arizona in the evening. The bird count for the week is now up to 58 species, the YTD number is now 212, and new life birds YTD are up to 5. Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Matt's Bar

I had thought I would not be blogging again until tomorrow, but here I am because I wanted to share my lunch experience at Matt's Bar located here in Minneapolis. This is the first burger joint from the book Hamburger America that I have visited as part of this grand travel adventure. I was curious about it because it makes a burger called a Jucy Lucy. Matt's has been making this burger since the 50's. What is distinctive about it is that they take 2 thin burger patties and place a hunk of cheese in the middle creating a formed 6 inch wide double patty with thin edges and a big hump in the middle.

The burger is cooked on a griddle that is at most 2' X 4', and resides at the end of the bar counter just as you come in the door. I was able to sit right next to the burger man and well "grill" him on the burgers. The burgers are made to order and, surprisingly to me, cook on the griddle for about 15 minutes, creating a cripy exterior, but in the center where the cheese hunk has melted the meat is still pinkish. You can get your burger with extra cheese on top but the griddle man suggested that might be overkill. It comes on your basic hamburger bun, untoasted, and you can have pickles and either grilled onions or raw onions. The grilled onions are rehydrated onions that are then cooked on the griddle. I noticed that he would occasionally place a finished burger on top of the onion pile to let some of the meat juices to drip down into the onions.

The grill guy told me that Matt started using rehydrated onions near the beginning because he just was not going to cut up that many onions everyday. On a good day Matt's will cook up 600 to 700 burgers almost all of which are Jucy Lucys. At one point there were easily over 20 burgers on the griddle. Right next to the griddle is a 2 basket fryer that keeps going pretty much full time. In the 30+ minutes I sat enjoying the cooking operation and of course eating a Jucy Lucy, I saw only one piece of chicken breast cooked up for a non burger fan, and only 2 regular burgers.

The finished burger comes to you wrapped in a piece of paper. It is suggested that you give your burger 3-4 minutes to cool off a bit so that the melted cheese does not burn your mouth or squirt onto you shirt. I also observed that once the griddle man turns the burger for the 1st time, he sticks a knife into the center to reduce the possibility of a cheese explosion happening. The fries are nice thin ones poured into the fryer out of an unlabeled brown bag removed from the freezer next to the refrigerator that holds the preformed burgers.

So by now you are wondering was the visit an eating success. I would heartily recommend that any hamburger lover who happens to be in Minneapolis should drop by Matt's for a Jucy Lucy. I was there about 12:30 today and all the booths and tables were already full even though the bar only had been open 30 minutes. I saw lots of smiling faces. As I was about to leave, a woman asked me about my travels, and then apologized for butting into my conversation with the burger man. I told her that was no problem--that Minnesotans were just curious and very nice people. As I drove home I had a smile on my face also. Tomorrow Arizona, stay tuned!

Great Gray Owl (still not)

Yesterday began early again. We were out and driving at 6:15 AM in order to be at our first birding location by dawn at 7:30. We decided to go to the northeast of Duluth in the same area that I visited last Wednesday in search of the spruce grouse. This is another place in which the great grays have been seen lately. We scoured the back roads but to no avail. We did run across a guy and his dog out early hoping to see a lynx. As we were starting to head back towards Duluth, we ran into 3 birders up from Wisconsin that we had seen several times over the previous 2 days. They also had been in pursuit of the great gray and like us had been skunked.

We drove back into Duluth to look for the elusive bohemian waxwings that had been seen along West Tischer Rd. This is a fairly long road with alot of the mountain ash which has berries that the birds like to eat. We had stopped the day before and asked an older woman if she had seen any of these birds in her tree. She had feeders hanging at her home, but she told us she had not--did not know what the bird even looked like. Well yesterday morning about 10:30 a group of 10-20 were feeding at her tree (so much for "local intel"). The photo above captured at some distance a few of the bohemian waxwings as they sat in an adjacent tree (click on it to enlarge). If you look closely you will be able to pick up the rusty color of the birds undertail coverts.

Flush with the success of the waxwings, we drove back up to Sax-Zim bog for one more try for the great gray as well as common redpolls and a blackbacked woodpecker. The weather unfortunately was turning a bit nasty--mixed rain and snow--so the roads were not great. We saw more northern hawk owls, a boreal chickadee along with lots of black-capped chickadees and pine siskins, but by 2 PM when we needed to begin our journey down to Minneapolis we still had no great gray, redpoll or blackbacked. This is part of birding--you don't always get your bird no matter how hard you try.

We survived the drive back to the twin cities area. We passed 5 cars that had slid off the road, 2 of which were lying upside down. We actually drove past Minneapolis to the town of Northfield to pick up my daughter who attends St. Olaf College. It was warm enough there that it was raining--a very uncommon occurrence this time of year in Northfield. We went back into Minneapolis to have dinner at a place called Azia--a fusion restaurant. It was the best meal we had in the northland, but it was mixed in quality. The appetizers and dessert were quite good, but the entrees left a lot to be desired.

So yesterday's birding added 3 birds for the week and 1 new species YTD. My friend from Missouri is already on a plane for home, and I am not birding today. I leave early tomorrow for Tucson, AZ. This will produce a new range of birds. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Day 22--Great Gray Owl (not)

Once again the great gray owl eluded us today. Northern hawk owls we continued to find, but the great gray was nowhere to be found this day. Nor as it turned out was the black-backed woodpecker, or the bohemian waxwing--both specialties of the far north. But all was not for nought in our birding journeys today. My friend and I did discover 4 northern shrikes, and 1 glaucous gull--both new for the year. Overall we had 19 species for the 1st day of the new week. And we still have tomorrow!

We also found the grill pictured above. I decided it was the appropriate photo for today because we probably would have had a better meal cooked on it in the middle of the snowy field than we have had so far at several food establishments we have tried here in the northlands of Minnesota. Tomorrow night we will be in Minneapolis to see my daughter and to eat at a fusion restaurant she knows about. Hopefully we will find something to rave about food wise there. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Day 21--Northern Hawk Owl

Yes it's true. I scored a northern hawk owl today--actually 3 in total--and there is even a picture just above to prove it. The other picture is of a gray jay eating from a frozen deer carcass. Up here in the "northland" they have a unique bird feeding method. Whereas the rest of us hang some suet inside a metal cage, they just hang part of a deer carcass on a tree with some seed feeders nearby. Works quite well and with the cold temps here in Minnesota, the shelf life is pretty lengthy.

Only added 5 new species for the week today, but 3 of them were also new for the year--the owl, pine siskin and ruffed grouse. The siskins were having a high old time at one of the carcass feeder locations, and the grouse was sitting all by itself late in the day in a bush eating its dinner. All these birds were found in one of the great birding locations in Minnesota. It is known as Sax-Zim bog which is about an hour drive north of Duluth. Sax and Zim used to be small towns, but now they are pretty much just names on a map. For birders, though, this is paradise in both the winter and spring/early summer.

So the week total came to 57 birds, and the YTD total is up to 202 species. Tomorrow is the beginning of week #4. I will be up early, and will be birding with my oldest friend--we have known each other now for just short of 55 years. He flew up from Missouri today to join me for a couple of days of winter birding. He and his wife will also be joining me in early April in Texas for the spring migration down there. Since the great gray owl eluded me again today, maybe tomorrow will be my lucky day. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Day 20--Spruce Grouse

I made it to Duluth, MN late yesterday afternoon, so no birding yesterday. I was up before 6 AM to make a 75 mile drive up into Lake County which borders Lake Superior and is to the northeast of Duluth. I needed to reach a location about dawn that is known for the regular sightings of spruce grouse. The only other time I came up to Minnesota in the winter was in Feb. of '06 which was what is called an owl irruption or invasion winter.

In 2006 I drove to the top of Lake County Hwy #2 on 3 consecutive mornings looking for the spruce grouse and finally found a group of them right where the bird guides said they should be. This AM I made the trek again. At first it seemed like I was going to come up empty, but then I found a single male close to where I had found the group 3 years ago. This was a big relief because this is a hard bird to find. So now I don't need to make that long drive tomorrow to try again.

On my drive back I stopped in the small town of Two Harbors to see what was about. Back in '06 I had the very good fortune to see a boreal owl here. No owl today, but I thought briefly that I had found a small group of bohemian waxwings, another specialty of northern MN. Instead I found cedar waxwings (picture at the top).

On Thursday I will be going after the great gray owl and the northern hawk owl. The latter is often easier to locate, but the only real shot at finding it is here north of Duluth in the middle of the winter when it comes down out of Canada. The great gray owl also is fairly regular here north of Duluth in the winter, but it can also be seen in the west at places like Yosemite National Park. Both species have been seen in the usual spots already this winter, so I should be able to track them down.

While I was quite happy to see the spruce grouse, I was even happier to run across a small group of white-winged crossbills feeding in a large pine tree. I have not seen this bird since the mid 70's in a snow storm at Plum Island, MA. Overall, I added 14 new birds for the week, and 8 new species for the year. Tomorrow the weather is for temps in the low 30's but no snow or rain. Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Home briefly

It is day 17 and I am home ever so briefly. I arrived back here yesterday afternoon after birding in New Jersey and Delaware on Friday. I began Friday early at one of my favorite birding spots--Brigantine NWR. It is located in mid Jersey just north of Atlantic City--I always find it a bit weird to bird at such a beautiful place with the skyline of Atlantic City looming on the horizon. It was a chilly but clear morning and after 90 minutes of driving the 9 mile tour route, I had seen over 30 species for the new week, and 2 of them were new for the year--mute swan and northern flicker.

I stopped briefly at the Shea Cafe which is right at the intersection of route #9 and the entrance road to Brigantine. This cafe is a wonderful example of a local place that makes excellent breakfasts and lunches. The owner has been there every time I have stopped in over the years, and is all about service and good food.

It took me 2 hours to drive over to Delaware to visit Bombay Hook again in hopes of tracking down the long earred owl, but once again I was unable to locate it. From there I headed down to Lewes, DE in an effort to find a black headed gull that had been seen recently at the Wolfe Neck wastewater treatment plant. After my google maps failed me, I finally found the place but the gulls were far out in a field feeding where they were spraying effluent from the plant. The facility limits access, so I was unable to get close enough to check out the feeding gulls. On the way down though I did see several bald eagles standing on the ice at Prime Hook beach, plus picked up 2 more species for the year--lesser black backed gull and greater yellow legs.

I ended my day in Washington, DC where I visited a very long time friend who lives there. We went into Silver Spring to have dinner at a place called Ray's the Classic. This is part of a restaurant group that received some press coverage last year when President Obama ate one of their acclaimed hamburgers at their Virginia location. I opted for Maryland crab royale instead because crab is a Maryland thing.

So after returning home the bird count for the year is now 191, and the count for week #3 is at 38. For the non-birders out there, you might be thinking that he is almost at 200 species seen already in just 2 weeks, so he will make it to 600+ birds easily and soon. But that is not the case. As I have said in an earlier post, there are many birds that are seemingly everywhere--crows, vultures, starlings, red tailed hawks, house sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, etc. So a big number after 2 weeks simply means I have been actively birding and covering quite a bit of territory (Tx, Fl, De, NJ, Ma). While the weekly numbers will probably average somewhere between 50-100 species seen, the number of new species for the year is going to slow down dramatically going forward. And as for new life birds, having 3 already does not mean that I am on a pace for 75 new life birds. In fact, I expect to only see 20-25 new life birds throughout 2010.

Minnesota is the next birding stop to look for some key winter birds like the great gray owl--one of my favorites. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Day 14--King Eider (Not)

I am now wrapping up the second week of this big year. The birding the last 2 days has been somewhat slow, and my key target bird--king eider--eluded me after several tries to locate one north of Boston. This is a hard bird to find in general, so not seeing it is not a surprise. Missed birds comes with the birding territory. While there will be other chances in the year ahead to see the king eider, it is always nice to find a bird sooner than later. The photo above of a group of common eiders is a substitute for missing the king eider, and the "distant" birds was the best I could do with my cell phone camera (click on photo to enlarge). I am getting a camera with a zoom lens in the next few days to remedy this shortcoming.

While the total bird count was much lower than in Texas and Florida the week before, it still was quite enjoyable birding in the frigid winter weather. Equally good over the past few days was the chance to eat some lobster rolls and fried clam rolls as I wandered around Newburyport, Gloucester and Rockport, MA. And as part of that wandering I stopped at the Mass Audubon Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, MA. this morning. I still remember calling the Mass Audubon bird hotline back in the early 70's when I first started birding. Mass Audubon began way back in 1896, and was key to helping to stop the slaughter of birds used at the time in women's fashion. Today the National Audubon Society continues to be a strong advocate for birds and other wildlife.

The bird count for week 2 came to 61 species seen and 1 heard, and the number of new species added for the year was 34, making the YTD total 187. I still have tomorrow to bird as I work my way back down to North Carolina from New England. Maybe I will find something special--stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Day 12--Gloucester, Rockport, and Plum Island

I awoke at 6 AM yesterday and got out of NYC before the traffic got bad. I had a really good 2 days hanging out with my son. On Sunday night we tried another wood fired oven pizza place in Manhattan called La Pizza Fresca. We had eaten there last fall and loved it, and were not disappointed a second time. The pizza was outstanding--true Napoli style pizza. So 2 nights in a row we scored top quality pizza.

I arrived in Gloucester, MA before noon and began birding the coastal waters there for winter waterfowl. It was a sunny but quite cold afternoon (photo above is of Rockport harbor). There were some birds about, but not the large numbers I had hoped for. Some of the highlights included common eider, common goldeneye, white winged scoter, black guillemot, and great cormorant. At the end of the afternoon I drove back to Lincoln, MA to stay with some good friends.

This AM I was on the road by 7:30 heading back up to the same area. Late yesterday the NARBA hotline announced that a seriously lost sage thrasher had been found in Salisbury, MA--this is a bird of the American southwest. I arrived in Salisbury to find many local birders happily looking at the thrasher that was sitting a the top of an evergreen. The rest of the day brought 4 other new birds for the year--a 1st year snowy owl, several snow buntings and American tree sparrows, and a rough legged hawk. So the current year to date total is up to 185 birds. Tomorrow I will be looking for a king eider that eluded me today. Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Day 10--NYC

I arrived yesterday evening into New York City, more specifically, Brooklyn, where my son lives. I was coming off a bit of a slow birding day because it is so cold that much of the fresh water ponds are frozen, and even flowing water is not totally open. My day began at Port Mahon in Delaware at sunrise (photo at top). I was looking for short eared and long eared owls there and at Bombay Hook NWR but found none.

From there I drove about 2.5 hours over to one of the country's great birding locations--Cape May, NJ. There was enough open water at the Cape May lighthouse that a few birds were feeding, including a male eurasian wigeon, a fairly hard to find bird. I drove on up the coast toward NYC, stopping at Barnegat lighthouse where I walked out the jetty in a very brisk wind to see what was around. Lots of harlequin and long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers, surf scoters, brant, and 1 purple sandpiper made the walk worthwhile.

I then headed further north to a small place named Califon, NJ where a barnacle goose has returned with 100's of canada geese for the past 2 winters. I had tried last year to see this bird but the day I stopped in it was not around. Yesterday though it was sitting as pretty as it could be on the water surrounded by a slew of canada geese. This makes my 3rd new life bird of 2010. Day 9's birding added a total of 11 new species for the year.

Last night my son and I tried out a pizza place called Franny's located on Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn. Being Saturday evening, it was totally jammed. We waited for 30 minutes but then got a good table next to the kitchen with its wood fired oven. The appetizers--a plate of coppa, pancetta and soppressata, and a puntarelle salad--were superb. The sausage pizzas were quite good, but having lived in Florence, Italy, we both agreed we had even better pizza there. So tonight we are going to La Pizza Fresca in Manhattan to try its pizza. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Day 8--Bald Eagle

As I was approaching the outskirts of Washington, DC, a bald eagle flew into view. This sighting would not have happened 20 years ago, but today with the recovery of the bald eagle population, once again this magnificent bird is a more and more common sight. Other birds that have made a significant come back include the peregrine falcon, the whooping crane and the Kirtland's warbler--all of which you will be hearing about as the year progresses.

And tonight's posting is mostly about the upcoming year since I spent most of today driving from Chapel Hill, NC to Dover, DE. I did get to bird at the end of the day at Bombay Hook NWR where several tundra swans were in evidence. I am hoping early tomorrow morning to track down a long eared owl, a "target bird" for this time of year. For the non-birders, a "target bird" means a bird that I especially am interested in finding because of the time of year and/or the location in which I am birding.

Many birds can be found relatively easily because they are widespread, numerous, and breed in the lower 48 states. Roughly 600 different species fall into this category which is why I said in an earlier post that a respectable effort for me is a total of 600 different species seen in 2010. The rest of the species that one might possibly see in the lower 48 states are much more difficult to find because they have a very selective and limited habitat; they only migrate thru the lower 48 states; or they are essentially accidentals--lost birds that are briefly discovered thru the diligent efforts of birders in the lower 48 states.

Hard core life listers lie in wait for this last group of birds. They check the hotlines regularly to see if an accidental has been found. And when one shows up, if they can find the time and/or money, they will "chase" the bird in hopes of seeing it before it leaves. An extreme example of chasing was the 2 birders who live in New York city that heard that an asian woodpecker had shown up in Gambel, AK. This is an island that is about 50 miles off the coast of siberia. 12 hours after the bird's sighting had hit the hotlines, they jumped on several planes and made it to Gambel in time to add the bird to their life lists. These same 2 birders undoubtedly went to south Texas in the last 2 weeks to see the bare-throated tiger-heron.

As part of my slowbirding agenda, I am not planning to be jumping on planes at the drop of a hat to try to see the most recent rarity. Instead I have designed my travels around the seasonal ebb and flow of the birds. I have some very specific places that I want to visit to bird--many of which I already know well. They will allow me to see a great many birds but in a less frenetic way.

Over the past decade I have made great use of a guide published by the American Birding Association (ABA) called Birdfinder: A Birder's Guide to Planning North American Trips. The author is Jerry Cooper, an avid birder from Oklahoma. This guide helped me design my big year itinerary.

A second inspiration for my travels is the book Roger Tory Peterson's Dozen Birding Hotspots written by George H. Harrison. This was a gift that I received back in 1976 when I was first getting into birding. The third is my friends, and family who will be joining me off and on during the year. The fourth is the food focus and the fifth is the hiking in some favorite places around the country.

Well that's about it for tonight other than to say since the year began on a Friday, my weeks will always start on Friday. That means that today the bird count for the new week was 25 total, and the number of new species added for the year was 6. After I bird all day tomorrow I am heading into New York City to spend the night with my son, and to eat some good food. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

End of 1st week

It is day 7 in the evening. I am back from the whirlwind tour thru south Tx. and south Fl. Catching my breath, having a home cooked meal made by me with my wife before packing up my Tacoma pick-up to head north tomorrow.

My 36 hours in south Florida was quite chilly because of the deep freeze the eastern half of the US is experiencing this week. I tried for the La Sagra's flycatcher in the Everglades early on Wednesday morning. I arrived just after sunrise and fairly quickly thought I had lucked out only to find instead a great crested flycatcher. About 30 minutes later I thought I heard the call of the La Sagra's but never could find the bird in the trees. 90 minutes later I decided that I was not going to succeed. While waiting I had the good fortune to see 1st a dark morph short tailed hawk kettling with the vultures, and then a light morph showed up as well.

So it was about 10 am and I needed to decide what to do next--the "triage" process of how to best use your time during a big year. The La Sagra's would have been a good big year find, but it would also have been a life bird for me. I decided to drive up to the Melbourne area of Florida--about a 225 mile drive from where I was in the Everglades to see a male masked duck that had been in that area for a couple of weeks. This is another quite rare bird that shows up occasionally in both Tx and Fl. I also wanted to see my wife's brother and his family. En route I made a quick swing into a possible site for smooth billed anis but struck out on that bird also.

I arrived at the Viera Wetlands about 3 pm (a really great little area for birding--second photo), and found the masked duck in 10 minutes of searching. I watched it for at least 10 minutes feeding. This is one of those birds that is so much more dramatic in the wild than the picture in the field guides--rusty feathers, black mask and a bright blue bill (check it out in Wikipedia).

After dinner with my relatives I drove back to Miami to be able to fly out this am. I did get up early to try for the red-footed booby in Miami that was recently rehabilitated by the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station (first photo), and was still hanging out in the area after being released. My plane left to come back to NC at 10:40 am, so I did not have much time to look for the bird and ended up booby-less. Nevertheless, the 1st week went extremely well. I finished the week with 153 species seen. New England is up next for winter birds. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Day 5--Estero Llano Grande State Park, Tx

Day 5 was mostly a travel day from south Texas to south Florida. It did start with a chilly but very nice walk around Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, Tx. This is part of the World Bird Center which includes Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park. It is just a really great place to hang out and bird--lots of different habitat, with good trails for moving thru the park. At the end of the 90 minute visit I had added another 14 birds to the year list. And on the way to the airport I made a quick stop at a local taqueria for a couple of cooked to order (as opposed to say the premade breakfast burrito at Mickey D's), delicious breakfast tacos--yummy!

Tomorrow morning I am up before sunrise to visit the Everglades in hopes of finding the recently reported La Sagra's flycatcher, another rarity that shows up briefly about once or twice a year in south Florida. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Day 4--Northern Wheatear

It is the end of day 4 that began very early near Beeville, Tx which is about 50 miles north of Corpus Christi, Tx. I arrived at 7:20 AM at a farm that is "hosting" a northern wheatear--a bird that shows up randomly and usually yearly somewhere in the lower 48 states. It is a vagrant that breeds in the far north, including Alaska.

When I arrived there were already 3 other birders there--2 guys who attend Texas A&M, Kingsville campus, and a fellow from Socorro, NM. This is typical when a rare bird shows up on the rare bird hotlines. We were all treated to good views of this very lost bird that was first confirmed on Dec. 30, and put on the hotline on Jan 2.

From there I headed back south to bird at Laguna Atascosa--one of the better known national wildlife refuges (NWR)--located east of Harlingen, Tx. It was windy, chilly and overcast. The birding was pretty good, but the ocelot crossing the road was a real treat. From there I went over to the equally famous Santa Ana NWR where the sun came out making for a very pretty late afternoon of birding. By the end of the day 31 more species were added to the year list. The best bird of the day for me was not the wheatear but instead a beautiful ferruginous hawk that I saw sitting on a fence post as I drove down Hwy 77. Tomorrow morning I will be up early again to do some birding here locally before I jump on an airplane that will take me 1st to Dallas, and then from there to Miami, Fl. Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Three Rivers, Tx

It's day 3, and I am in the very small town (2000 pop) of Three Rivers, Texas--so named because it is the confluence of the Atascosa, Frio and Nueces rivers. And I am here because close by at Choke Canyon State Park there is a northern jacana--a bird from Mexico that usually shows up in Tx or Az once a year.

After a great morning of birding at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park near McAllen, Tx, I drove up here 170 miles where I was successful in seeing the jacana. This is my first big year "drive" to see a specific bird, as opposed to generally birding an area like the south Texas hot spots along the Rio Grande River.

As I mentioned in my previous posting, I came to south Texas to begin my travels because of the first documented appearance of a bare-throated tiger-heron, which I was able to see late yesterday afternoon and again this morning. This became my first new life bird of the big year, and I added a second new life bird--a ferruginous pygmy-owl--as well. Above is a not so great picture of it taken with my cell phone thru a spotting scope . The tiger-heron is similar to the American bittern for those with a North American bird guide. The pygmy-owl is our rarest owl (there are 19 regularly occurring owls in N.A.), and is only 6.75 inches tall with a 12 inch wing span.

Another quite rare bird that I saw at Bentsen is the rose-throated becard, again a vagrant up from Mexico. A few individual birds are seen annually in south Texas, and southeastern Arizona.

While watching the tiger-heron, I had a chance to talk with some of the other birders in from around the country to see this rarity. For non-birders, there are birding hotlines in most states, and websites like that keeps a weekly link to all the state hotline websites. For the hard core birder, there is also a website called NARBA (North American Rare Bird Alert) that you can subscribe to for $35/year. This site is updated at least once a day and often 2-4 times.

So, when a rarity shows up, the hard core life listers will want to try to see the bird. One couple I spoke with had driven 1400 miles one way from Indiana. Another guy, who I already knew, and his friend attended the Gator Bowl football game in Florida, and then drove non-stop to south Texas to see the bird. For the guy I already knew, the tiger-heron was like his 775th life bird for North America above the Mexican border. And what is truly amazing about his life list is that he has never birded in Alaska. A third guy had driven over from Arizona.

On the food front, while south Texas is not known for having haute cuisine, and has more than its share of fast food places, I find the best local choice is the taquerias that are in all towns down here. The food is simple, very tasty, and also quite a bargain. When you can find them, breakfast tacos, a Texas staple, is also a good choice--certainly a step up from an egg McMuffin.

So after just 3 days, I have 2 new life birds, and added 58 more bird species to the year count. Tomorrow I am hoping to find a northern wheatear that was discovered 4 days ago about 1 hour drive from Three Rivers. I have been told by the Texas birders that this is only the 2nd record for this species here in Texas. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Day 2010

The New Year has arrived and my big year travel adventure is now officially underway. I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC on a large tract of land (230 acres) that is mostly wooded, but also has at the center a dairy farm where they make artisanal cheeses from jersey cows. There are pastures, 3 streams and a pond. Since we began living here in 2000 over 100 different bird species have been recorded here on the property.

To kick off my big year, I birded our land this morning with 2 friends, my sister and my wife. The weather was overcast and chilly (40's). The bird count ended up at 32 seen and 1 more heard. It was a pretty good morning but we did not see 5-10 winter regulars. The highlight and a good omen for the year was a female purple finch which is a life bird for the "house/property list".

The rest of today will be spent watching some college football, drinking port and eating blue cheese--all New Year's day traditions for me. I leave early tomorrow morning to fly down to south Texas for some early year birding. If I am fortunate, a first ever bare-throated tiger-heron which showed up from Mexico about a week ago will still be at Bentsen State Park situated on the Rio Grande. Stay tuned!