Sunday, February 28, 2010

Day 59--A Whaling I Go

It rained thru the night and was still spitting at times at sunrise which found me driving one of those incredibly beautiful winding country roads you find here in California. Robinson Cyn is just south of Carmel, and I spent a couple of hours there looking for more new birds for the year. In particular I was hoping to scare up a California thrasher which I did, but I also found several varied thrushes just at day break, and a slew of California quail. I also had the company of a very nice rainbow and was greeted by a tom turkey.

I returned to Monterey in time to go out on a whale watching boat. The seas were a bit rough because of the weather front that had just passed thru, and it was a bit damp to start, but then we finished the trip in bright sunshine. 3 gray whales were found but not seen very much because they were feeding and the waves were not helping. Birding wise I saw some key birds including black-footed albatross, short-tailed shearwater, and pacific loon. Overall the 2+ hour trip was quite productive.

I then drove for 3 hours to the San Joaquin river delta near Sacramento in hopes of scoring a tufted duck that had been reported there. After such good fortune yesterday with the long-eared owls and mountain plovers, it was not a surprise that this time I struck out. After scanning thru all the greater scaup I saw, I came up short.

My consolation prize was stopping in Oakland at Pizzaiolo--another fine wood-fired pizza place I found 2-3 years ago. I ordered the margherita which was pretty special. The crust was classic as was the simple tomato sauce used. The fresh mozzarella had a very good flavor, and instead of basil they had sprinkled parsley and marjoram on top with a very lovely olive oil. I thoroughly savored this fine effort. I also had for dessert a flourless chocolate cake with candied orange peel and whipped cream.

The species count for the week is up to 87, and 12 more birds were added to the YTD total. Tomorrow I am taking a day off from birding to spend time with a friend here in the SF area. On Monday I will be up at Point Reyes to see what that great birding spot can deliver. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Long-eared Owl

Alot to talk about tonight. First, yesterday was the end of week 8 of this travel adventure I am on. I flew into San Francisco from Oklahoma. I had a little time before I needed to meet my son for dinner, so I went to Foster City just below the SF airport to check out what birds might be there. I got good looks at greater scaup--a new bird for the year. The week ended with a total of 124 birds seen, and 22 more YTD birds, including 2 life list birds.

I met my son at a chinese restaurant in SF called Hunan. I have been eating here for over 30 years. I was first introduced to it when it was a hole in the wall on Kearny St. by 2 sisters I knew at the time. That location closed soon after when they opened at a much larger site on Sansome St. Whenever I am in San Francisco I make an effort to have a meal there. They make a dish called Marty's special that consists of smoked ham, chicken, bell pepper, onion, carrots, bamboo shoots and black beans. I have never had a chinese dish like it, and over the 30 years it has never disappointed. It was really good to be able to see my son and share a meal. He lives in Brooklyn, NY but is in SF to participate in a bachelor party for a friend.

Today I would have to call another red letter day--both for birding and eating. I am in Monterey, CA, and it was supposed to rain most of today. So I decided to go about an hour east of here to Panoche Valley to look for land birds. I met a birder from San Jose who had current info about mountain plovers and long-eared owls. These are both difficult birds to track down, so we teamed up to find them. Fortunately the info was still good and we saw about 75 mountain plovers at one location. And only 10 miles away at Mercey Hot Springs we saw 8 long-eared owls (see top 2 photos above; the plover picture was taken by the guy from San Jose--click on photo to enlarge).

I returned to the Monterey Bay area to find the weather forecast was right--lots of rain that made the birding a bit difficult. Even so I found more YTD birds including the heerman's gull (bottom photo above). By sunset I had seen 63 birds for the new week of which 18 were new YTD birds.

I had dinner at Passion Fish, a restaurant located in the neighboring town of Pacific Grove. I have eaten here a few times since I discovered it 3 years ago. The great thing about Passion Fish is its wine program. I think it is the most diverse and interesting wine list I have found in the US. And they sell their wine at retail prices rather than the norm of 2-3 times wholesale. This is the kind of place that if it was in your home town, and you love wine, you would want to eat there regularly.

The restaurant is also a huge supporter of sustainable fishing. The menu is mostly seafood focused, but it also has some meat choices. Tonight I had the seasonal house specialty--Monterey Bay spot prawns. They remind me of the langoustines you get in Europe. I drank a 1/2 bottle of 2005 Copain rousanne which was a good match.

Tomorrow I am planning to go out on a whale watch boat to see some seabirds. Monterey Bay is one of the great seabirding locations, and while a whale watch boat is not the same as going out on a pelagic birding boat, it should still be good. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Yellow-billed Loon

My day began just after dawn at Washita NWR where I was hoping to track down lapland longspurs. The temp was 21 degrees but sunny. I visited here for the first time last March on my way down to Sonora, Mexico. And like last year I did not find many birds, especially the geese that the refuge is known for. I did find my first harris's sparrows of the year but no laplands.

From there I headed back towards Oklahoma City stopping in the El Reno area to try again for laplands. After driving many gravel farm roads the best bird I could find was a rough legged hawk. At least I was able to go into El Reno to Johnnie's Grill whose claim to fame since 1946 is their onion hamburger. I sat at the counter and watched the crew produce its specialty. The burger starts as a preformed lump of meat that is smashed flat on the grill by a modified mortar trowel. The griddle man said a normal spatula just is not strong enough, so they took a trowel and shortened the metal by cutting off the tip half.

After smashing the meat the griddle man adds a good sized handfull of thinly sliced onions that are then mushed into the meat acting like a glue to hold the meat together. The combo is flipped, cheese is added if it is a cheeseburger, and the buns are lightly "pressed" on top of the combo. The full cooking time is somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes. When done, the burger is passed over to the set up guy who has prepped the plate with whatever fixings you ordered. In my case it was lettuce, tomato and bacon. The fry guy had already delivered a basket of onion rings ahead of the burger.

On the counter you have mayo, mustard and ketchup, plus salt and pepper. While I ate my burger I observed that about 2/3's of the burgers had onions on them, and about 2/3's of the burgers, with or without onions, came with cheese. There were alot of hot dogs with slaw and chili ordered as well. As for the burger I consumed, it was a solid burger but I would only rate it as good. The onion rings were quite good. I would say that the Jucy Lucy I had in January in Minneapolis was better tasting.

After lunch I drove on into Oklahoma City to meet the local birder who has been so helpful the past 2 days. A woman birder that I met earlier this year in Texas had given me his name. I had only spoken with him on the phone so it was nice to meet him in person. We met at Lake Hefner which is a large water supply lake for the city. An immature yellow-billed loon had been seen off and on for about a month here, so we went to look for it. He had seen the bird earlier, and today we were successful in finding it. It took us more than an hour to locate it, but then we had very good looks with excellent late afternoon light on it. Since yellow-billed loons are another rare bird here in the lower 48 states, finding this bird was icing on my Oklahoma "birding cake".

Today added 10 more birds for this week and 2 birds to the YTD list. I am flying to San Francisco tomorrow. I will be having dinner with my son who happens to be in the Bay area this week. We are going to have dinner at a restaurant that I have been eating at for over 30 years. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dorothy, you are almost in Kansas

As you can see from the 2 photos above I am no longer in Florida, and Oklahoma is next to Kansas, so the title of this post. I flew into Oklahoma City yesterday afternoon, and I immediately drove down to Norman to look for some smith's longspurs in a field next to the local airport. My birding contact here in Oklahoma had told me exactly where to search, and after 45 minutes of sloshing thru a very wet field, I flushed about 20 smith's longspurs. I was concerned about being able to find this bird since I tried last year in mid March without any success. Having found it so quickly makes the rest of my 2 days here much more relaxing.

Today I visited early in the day the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. It was quite chilly (under 30 degrees), but sunny. Not many birds were moving. I saw one group of longspurs flying briefly, but not long enough to ID. I then headed down to Hackberry Flat WMA, another place recommended by my local contact. I spent 2+ hours slowly checking out this excellent birding spot. I found a new bird for the year--greater white fronted geese. They were mixed in with 1000's of snow and canada geese.

I then headed towards Elk City where I am spending the night. I stopped at a second location suggested by my local guy to look for more longspurs. I traipsed thru a muddy pasture full of longhorn cattle to get to a hilly spot where as predicted a good sized flock of McCown's longspurs were flitting about. You may be getting that finding longspurs is not all that easy. And once you find some, identifying them can be very challenging since they either hide in the grass or constantly fly up to move on. Since they are all in winter plumage right now, they are even harder to ID. The key is generally the tail feather pattern. They have similar but distinctive tail feather coloring that when flying you try to pick up on.

So after another full day of birding today, plus yesterday late afternoon, the week's bird count is up to 111. 3 new birds have been added to the YTD total bringing that number to 322. The smith's longspur is also a life bird for me, raising that number to 10 for the year. Tomorrow I will be spending the morning at the Washita Nat'l Wildlife Refuge, looking for a few more key birds. Will more longspurs be in the offing? Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

No Longer Snail Kiteless

Well, I would have to say that today was another red letter day. Not only did I finally pick up a snail kite, but I also found a pair of white-tailed kites. I had a chance at a trifecta if a swallow-tailed kite had shown up, but then that might have been just a bit greedy. Instead, I saw another smooth-billed ani which arrived at Anhinga Trail 2 days ago, and at dusk I saw a beautiful, oddly colored (mottled) barn owl.

But to back up, I began the day at dawn in Everglades NP at Anhinga Trail. I had checked the Tropical Audubon Society web site last night and found that snail kites were roosting there. So at dawn I was there to see if I might see them leave the roost. That did not happen, but I did meet a very nice young guy who was taking pictures, and who knew the woman who had put the roosting info on the website. He told me about another possible place to find them--Hidden Lake which is close to Anhinga Trail.

He also told me why there are signs warning that the vultures might damage your car while it is parked. It turns out that the black vultures above sometimes are attracted to some smell that is emitted from the rubber in windshield wipers and the rubber around car windows. So they will tear into the wiper blades, etc. How weird is that? Fortunately I did not have any trouble with the vultures today.

I spent an hour at Hidden Lake this morning, thoroughly loving the beauty and quiet of the place. I did not see a snail kite this AM, but when I returned this afternoon my luck changed. A male flew in, swooped down to pick up a snail, and then flew on. As I was walking back to my truck, I also heard 2 great horned owls "talking" to each other. Since I had seen the snail kite, I did not stay for the dusk roosting at Anhinga Trail, and instead went to a close by location to check for short-eared and barn owls. While waiting for the owls I saw an osprey, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, a kestrel and several northern harriers. A couple of birders from the Miami area came by and confirmed that 5 snail kites had come in to roost at Anhinga Trail.

I drove back into Miami in the dark feeling great about the day. 4 YTD birds were added, and 11 birds were new for the week. Tomorrow I get on a plane to go to Oklahoma to do some winter birding. Could a smith's longspur be in my future? Stay tuned!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day 51--More South Florida

I checked out several birding locations on what was a sunny, low 70's day here in south Florida. I saw the sun come up at Bunche Beach which is on the mainland just across from Sanibel Island. Lots of shorebirds including several piping plovers--a new bird for the year. Also black skimmers, snowy, great and reddish egrets. They were not close enough to photograph, so the blog shot above is of a limpkin, another Florida specialty.

On the causeway bridge to Sanibel I got good looks at several royal terns--also a new year bird. As I mentioned yesterday, Ding Darling NWR was one of the places back in the early 70's that cemented my love of bird watching. Today the refuge was not all that full of birds, so after doing the 5 mile drive and walking 1 of the dikes for 3 miles, I headed down to a new place on Marco Island--Tiger Tail Beach. This proved to be excellent since I hit it just past low tide. There was an opportunity to study several shorebirds, and I picked up wilson's plover, semipalmated plover and short-billed dowitcher for the year list.

I then drove I-75 thru the northern part of the Everglades sea of grass to get back over to the Miami area. I stopped at Markham Park to try again for the snail kite. It was a beautiful place to walk along a raised dike providing great views out over the marsh. After an hour I still was kiteless. Since I wanted to be in Everglades NP tomorrow, I drove on down to Florida City which is very close to the park. One reason to stay here is to look for the common mynas that hang out around the fast food joints on the main drag. Sure enough, this evening I found a flock and added common myna to the year list and my life list.

The day ended with the week list at 81, the YTD number went up to 315, and the new life birds for the year is now up to 9. The Everglades is calling. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Day 50--A Good Birding Day in South Florida

As seems to be pretty much the norm now, I was up at 5:30 AM and heading to my first stop by 6:15. I went to a nursing home located near the Miami airport to look for monk parakeets that roost there. As I pulled in I heard them flying around, but did not get a good enough look in low light to confirm that the birds were in fact monk parakeets. So I will need to try again maybe on Sunday.

From there I headed down to the Kendall area of Miami to look again for the red whiskered bulbul. I wandered around an elementary school for a couple of hours because it is the current best place to locate this rarity. The 1st half hour or so the kids were filtering into school. In this day and age I was a little bit worried that someone might wonder about a guy hanging around an elementary school, but fortunately no one questioned me about it. I saw some yellow chevroned parakeets, plus a few other birds, but no bulbuls.

From there I drove out the Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41) in search of snail kites that have been scarce so far this winter. No luck on that one either, but I did spend a very enjoyable hour at Shark Valley which is part of Everglades NP. This is a photographer's paradise as the birds are quite used to humans, so they don't spook. In 10 minutes I saw every kind of heron there is to see in the US. I also saw 2 purple gallinules (see top picture above) which are always fun because they are so colorful.

From there I drove on up to Corkscrew Swamp--a National Audubon Society preserve. This place is one of the nicer places to bird. You roam thru a swamp on a good boardwalk checking out all the flora and fauna. There was a feeder station by the entrance building where I was able to get pictures of painted buntings and a shiny cowbird (see the 2nd and 3rd photos above). The latter is another Florida specialty that is not easy to track down, particularly this early in the year. The painted buntings were also a surprise. I actually saw 2 other buntings down near Shark Valley earlier in the day. As you can see from the picture, the painted bunting is aptly named since the male has so many different colors.

I finished the day with 51 birds for the new week, of which 5 were new birds for the year bringing that total to 309. Tomorrow I am going to spend the morning at Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island which is one of the very 1st places I birded back in the early 70's. There should be some good birds there tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

End of 7th Week--Smooth-billed ani

Wow, another red letter day. The pictures above are of a smooth-billed ani that I found this afternoon in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. This was the 3rd time I went to the same location on Old Griffin Rd. which is just south of the airport in Ft. Lauderdale. I waited around for over an hour, and then the bird called and flew in across the canal. I really could not believe how it just sat so nicely to have its picture taken. This has become an extremely rare bird here in south Florida, and for me this is also a life bird, bringing the year total to 8.

Earlier in the day I went to Merritt Island NWR with my brother-in-law. This was my 1st visit to this refuge, which is next to the Cape Kennedy Space Center, and we had a good couple of hours checking out mostly shorebirds and waterfowl. I did get to see the Florida scrub jay as well, plus black skimmers and lots of winter plumage dunlins. With the ani, plus these 3 birds, the YTD total has now reached exactly 303, and week 7 has come to an end. Tomorrow I will be wandering around Miami, and environs looking for more south Florida specialties. Stay tuned!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pelagic Trips--Day 2

Weatherwise, yesterday's 2nd pelagic trip from Hatteras was like night and day from day 1. It was a bright blue sky day all day. While the sea was not too rough, the wind was still cold, so everyone was bundled up (see picture above). We saw pretty much the same birds as the day before, and added great views of dovekies and great skuas. One great skua appeared quite near the boat fairly early in the day, making several birders day since they were on the trip to add this bird to their life list. We even saw another one far behind the boat briefly mixed in with the feeding gulls and gannets.

Generally dovekies are seen flying very fast just above the water away from the boat. Yesterday we had the good fortune to have several that were feeding near the boat. They would disappear under the water for a bit, and then pop up for us to get good close up views. This bird is the other main reason birders go out of Hatteras in the winter. Little gulls and razorbills also made appearances, plus 1 black legged kittiwake, 1 northern fulmar, and a group of red phalaropes. I was unable to pick up the kittiwake, but did see the fulmar and phalaropes. A brief sighting of a manx shearwater was also missed by me. So I did not get everything that was seen (which is not uncommon on a pelagic trip), but overall it was a very good day.

After some review a consensus was reached that the jaeger seen the day before was a parasitic jaeger. For non-birders, jaegers and skuas are similar to large seagulls, but are very aggressive and will try to steal food from gulls. Normally only skuas are around Cape Point in the winter, so when the jaeger was spotted everyone 1st thought skua, but then when it was more clearly seen, it was obvious that it was not a skua, but a jaeger. And yesterday after some discussion of its characteristics, parasitic was the conclusion.

On my drive home near dusk I was able to find a few cackling geese mixed in with a large number of snow geese on Pea Island. Cackling geese look like canada geese, but are much smaller, have short necks and their breast feathers are much darker. So after day 2 of the pelagics, 6 more YTD birds were added to the list, bringing the total to 299. I leave for Florida on Wednesday, driving my Tacoma pick-up. Stay tuned!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pelagic Trips--Day 1

Today I went out on a boat--Stormy Petrel II--from Hatteras, NC. Brian Patteson has been running seabird viewing trips for over 20 years. He also has a good group of birding experts who act as spotters on his boat. One of the premier birders in the US if not the world is Steve Howell who was on our trip today. He is also a bit eccentric. He always wears sandals like Chacos even on winter trips. Today was no exception even though it was snowing some with high winds and a temp of about 35 degrees.

Pelagic refers to seabirds that spend all their lives at sea except when they come into land to breed. Most birders come to pelagic birding only after realizing that they like land birding. This is because pelagic trips cost about $150 per day, plus you need to travel to a coastal location and generally pay for lodging unless you happen to know someone locally who can put you up. Finally, you usually board the boat before sunrise and spend all day out on what may be somewhat rough waters. Moreover, seasickness can be a real problem that for some people makes for an uncomfortable day, or worse, being curled up all day in a fetal position praying for the trip to end. As a result, some very good birders choose not to partake in pelagic boat trips.

There were about 15 people on the boat which is typical for a winter pelagic trip. They were from all around the country as well. Summer trips will have twice that many, or even more on bigger boats. Today was mostly about staying as dry as possible, and warming up in the cabin often. In my case, I spent alot of time in the cabin because it was the most comfortable place to be. Also, while I have not gotten sick on a pelagic trip, I do not want to ever find myself in a fetal position for the day. So I tend to munch on food regularly to keep my stomach full and busy. This is easier to do by staying near your pack which you keep in the cabin area.

The day started quickly with the sighting of a little gull, an appropriately named small gull that you are fortunate to locate since there are not many in the US, and its whereabouts is quite random in the lower 48 states. The rest of the day was typical for pelagic birding--many of the same birds, northern gannets and gulls today, following the boat to eat the chum thrown off the back of the boat regularly to get birds to follow us. By day's end 5 more year birds were seen--little gull, northern gannet, red-throated loon, razorbill, and atlantic puffin. This brings the YTD total to 293. The new week's count after 2 days is up to 47 birds. Tomorrow I will brave the seas again in hopes of getting the 2 key birds missed today--great skua and dovekie. Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

End of 6th week

Today is Thursday Feb. 11, the end of the 6th week of this big year travel adventure. I have been home now for a couple of days recharging my batteries for the next segment of this adventure. I get asked often how is it going so far, being away from home almost 100% of the time. My answer is that while my days seem fuller and more intense than normal, I am having a good time. The birding has generally been very enjoyable, altho' there is a bit of a "triage" feel about it at times. By that I mean since seeing as many species as possible is part of the year's agenda, there are times when it would be nice to just do some birding wherever I happen to be. Instead I decide to move on to a new location in search of a species that I have not seen yet this year, and need to find now as opposed to later in the year.

So how has that strategy worked so far? Well, I mentioned earlier in the blog process that one key book I have used to construct the schedule of my big year of birding is titled "Birdfinder: A Birder's Guide to Planning North American Trips". Using that book as a reference point, I would say that after seeing 288 species in the first 6 weeks, I am pretty much on track for hitting my respectable year number of 600 birds.

I have also seen some birds that I would never have counted on finding. These include the bare-throated tiger-heron, the northern wheatear, barnacle goose, La Sagra's flycatcher, and red-footed booby. Also the rufous-backed robin and the northern jacana while generally seen each year are certainly not birds you would automatically expect to find during a big year.

On the other hand, 2 of my misses so far include the amazon kingfisher that showed up in Laredo, Tx for a couple of weeks and the various ivory gulls sighted, mostly up in New England plus one all the way down in Georgia that died from a predator attack injury. These are not birds you would normally count on seeing in the lower 48 states. Misses of expected birds so far include the great gray owl, king eider and common redpoll. Again these birds take some hunting to see, but with effort in the right season and place a birder should find them. Fortunately I still can track them down either in the next few weeks or late in the year. All in all on the bird count front I think things are going well.

As for all the travel miles (over 10,000 both driving and flying), I am looking forward to getting into my tacoma pick-up truck and driving most of the rest of this big year in my own vehicle. I have also had some good food experiences so far, including the great pizza made at Pizzeria Bianco, but I have only just started to tap into the places I am looking forward to eating at over the next several months. Finally, the same is true for all the friends and family that I will be seeing over the next few months. In March my wife will be joining me for the 1st time during this year for a week of friends and birding in Texas.

So tomorrow I head off to Hatteras, NC for 2 days of pelagic birding on a boat that travels out towards the gulf stream off the outer banks of North Carolina. The captain and bird guide is Brian Patteson who has been leading trips to see seabirds for many years now. This will be at least my 10th trip out with him. There are several birds on the target list including the great skua and dovekies. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Crimson-collared grosbeak

I was up early yesterday to make the most of my last day in south Texas. I went to Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen and after about a 45 minute wait the crimson-collared grosbeak made an appearance. I had seen this bird in 2005 when several spent the winter at Frontera Audubon in Weslaco which is nearby. I would show you a picture, but my record shot in low light just is not good enough. Instead the photo above is of a south Texas specialty--a paraque--which is like a whip poor will for those familiar with that bird. I took this picture at Estero Llano Grande State Park which is one of the multiple sites of the World Bird Center in south Texas.

Before visiting Estero, I tramped around Santa Ana trying to find the hook-billed kite that randomly shows up there, but again I ended up kiteless. So I went over to Estero to try for some wintering sparrows that love the grassy areas at Estero. It had become pretty windy, so I would flush a sparrow, but it would not land on a tree or bush. Instead it would fall back into the grass which makes it almost impossible to get good field marks before the bird disappears again. After an hour of trying, I gave up, but found the paraque. I also met a birder from Carson City, NV who as it turns out will be on the same 2 pelagic trips this coming weekend, departing from Hatteras, NC, that I will be on as well. More on that in a few days.

While in south Texas I continued to take advantage of the many excellent and inexpensive taquerias that dot the landscape. Most are individual units, but there are also small chains like El Zarape that has 9 locations in the valley. A really nice, freshly made breakfast taco sure beats what most hotel chains are now offering as part of the room fee. A dinner based on small corn tortillas filled with various meats plus potatoes and charro beans is always good. I also tried for the first time a gorditas place. They specialize in fresh baked corn tacos that are thick enough to puff up. They make an incision in the tortilla that creates a pocket to put various ingredients inside it. You order these by the each, and they range in price from $1-2. Depending on your hunger, you might order 3-5 of these for a dinner. They are extremely tasty and a nice change from the normal corn tortilla dinner.

Yesterday generated 11 more birds for week #6, three of which were new YTD birds. I am back home for 3 days and will be doing another blog before my weekend pelagic trips about how the big year is going so far, so stay tuned!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Day 38--Tropical Parula

Birding this AM in the McAllen area took me again to the Frontera Audubon site first where there was no roadside hawk sightings, but I did get a fine look at a tropical parula. Where I live in North Carolina, the northern parula breeds on my land, but the tropical parula is only seen occasionally down here each winter in south Texas. The bird was not close enough to get a picture, but I did take the above pictures of 3 inca doves with a white-tipped dove, and 4 plain chachalacas--all species common here in south Texas.

I spent the rest of the morning wandering around Santa Ana Nat'l Wildlife Refuge in hopes of finding a hook-billed kite. This is a bird unique to a small stretch of the Rio Grande River. A very few birds move up and down a 20-30 mile stretch of the river, and they are not easy to find. I will try again tomorrow morning before I head home. So the day added 10 new birds for this week, plus 2 new birds for the year. Tomorrow I will be looking for another rarity that showed up here in the last week--the crimson-collared grosbeak. Stay tuned?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Days 35-37: SE Arizona and S. Texas

It is Saturday evening and I am in McAllen, Texas. I have not been able to update the blog since Wed. night, so I have some major catching up to do. I finished up my swing thru Arizona and California on Thursday and Friday before catching a plane yesterday afternoon for south Texas. The birding in AZ on Thurs. and Fri. was typical--some expected birds, some surprises and some misses. The misses were 2 more attempts to track down black-capped gnatcatchers and rufous-capped warblers. The surprises included hammond's flycatcher (a life bird) and gray flycatcher, both seen at Patagonia Lake State Park. Normally I would have been looking for these 2 birds in June in Colorado, so finding them now was a real bonus.

I also stopped in to visit the Sonora Desert Museum just outside of Tucson. This is a great place to learn about the Sonora desert. They have several raptors and owls including the barn owl above that they show to guests. They also have a hummingbird house where you can walk around as the hummingbirds flit about you. For non-birders, no bird in captivity is countable in a big year total, so the barn owl is not yet on my YTD list.

Thursday night I stayed with an old family friend in Tucson who actually was the person back in 1973 that introduced me to birdwatching when she, my brother and I were hiking in Big Bend NP. We went out to eat at a restaurant called Wildflowers. The annual gem and jewelry show was in Tucson, so the restaurant was packed because it is one of the best places to eat in Tucson. I have eaten there several times and always had excellent meals. One reason I particularly like Wildflowers is a waiter there who is extremely knowledgeable about wine. He has never failed to suggest a really good wine (often pinot noir) to go with the food we have ordered. I shared a fried calamari and mizuna salad, and then had a miso glazed black cod dish that had house made ravioli and mushrooms.

Today I began my day at dawn in Laredo at the mouth of a small creek (Zacate) that dumps its waters into the Rio Grande river. I was there in hopes of seeing an amazon kingfisher that was found there about 2 weeks ago. This bird has never been confirmed before above the Mexican border. Unfortunately the bird has not been seen for the past 3 days, so I joined several other birders from around the country who came up short on the kingfisher. One of those birders was a guy from Cincinnati that I have birded with in the past on pelagic trips out of Hatteras, NC (more on pelagic birding trips next week when I do 2 of them). At least I was able to see a female white-collared seedeater in Laredo, along with 2 ringed kingfishers, and several other birds.

From there I drove to McAllen to look for another rarity, the roadside hawk. It had been at the Frontera Audubon property for the past 10-12 days. When I arrived at 4:15 PM there were several birders, including some I had seen in Laredo, looking for it. The story on everyone's lips was that earlier in the day the feather remains of what appeared to be a raptor were found at Frontera. By 6 PM no one had seen the bird, so it is possible that the remains were the roadside hawk. Nevertheless, I will be at Frontera early tomorrow to try again. I did get to see several red-crowned parrots flying overhead.

Week 5 is now "in the books". We finished the week with 141 total birds seen, 40 new species for the year, and one of those was a life bird. Week 6 is off to a roaring start with 86 birds so far in just 2 days. 16 are new birds for the year, and one is a life bird too. That brings the YTD total to 283 birds. I will be birding the next 2 days here in south Texas. Who knows what goodies I might turn up. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Day 34--Salton Sea, California

I had a very enjoyable morning birding around the southern end of the Salton Sea. The highlight was seeing the sun begin to shine upon a huge flock of ross's geese. This goose is found in the west and looks like a small snow goose at a distance. But thru binoculars you can see the bird is a bit smaller and most importantly its bill is smaller and a different color than the snow goose. As it flew by, the immature bald eagle above sent the entire flock of several hundred geese up into the air. Check out the beak on that baby!

Since I am back in the Phoenix area tonite, I went for an encore meal at Pizzeria Bianco. This time instead of getting there at 4 PM, I showed up about 5:30 and put my name on the list for a 7:30 slot. I checked into my motel, began this post, and then headed back for dinner. Sure enough, I sat down about 7:30 at the bar. I was served by the same wait person that has been at Pizzeria Bianco every time I have visited. He told me he has worked there ever since it opened 10 years ago. I ordered the margarita pizza with the prosciutto di Parma layered on top after the pizza has been cooked. I left a very satisfied customer.

The birding for the day added 18 more birds for the week, and 6 more birds for the year, bringing the YTD number to 261. Tomorrow I am birding back down in the Tucson area. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Leconte's Thrasher and Burrowing Owls

Well it was another red letter day! I left the parking lot of the Holiday Inn Express just outside the Grand Canyon at 4:05 AM and thought I could make it to the leconte's thrasher location in 4 hours. When I pulled up at the thrasher spot at 8:05 AM, I figured I was in the flow today. Sure enough, a large group of birders from Tucson Audubon showed up within 5 minutes, plus a young woman on her own like myself. We joined the big group and within 30 minutes the leconte's was found, and then a second one 10 minutes later. The birds were not close enough to photograph, but everyone got good looks thru the spotting scopes.

I then drove on over to El Centro, a town in the Imperial Valley of California and checked into my motel before spending the last 3 hours of daylight birding the southern end of the Salton Sea. The SS is another one of our country's great birding locations. I was happy to find the pair of burrowing owls pictured above. The bird count for the week increased by 28 bringing the weekly total to 112. 6 of the 28 were new birds for the year, so the YTD total is now 255. Tomorrow I will spend the morning at the Salton Sea looking for whatever is wintering here. Stay tuned!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Grand Canyon

It is always nice to visit the Grand Canyon in the winter because you don't have the throngs you encounter in the summer. There was lots of snow on the ground, but as you can tell from the picture above, it was a bright blue sky day. The temp was 6 degrees when I got up at 6 AM, but by mid afternoon it had reached 40. I spent most of the day just walking along the south rim trail soaking up the magnificence of the canyon. I did not see any condors, which was always a long shot because in the winter they tend to be at lower elevations (the south rim is at 8000 ft), but 2 years ago in February I did see some.

I did get a few birds, including 5 new ones for the week, and 2 new ones for the year list, which brings the YTD total to 249. Not surprisingly the common raven (see photo above) showed up regularly, along with mountain chickadees and pygmy nuthatches. The common raven is a very hardy bird, and can live throughout the winter in the high arctic, so a little snow and cold at the GC is no big deal. Tomorrow morning I will be trying for the leconte's thrasher again before heading into California. Stay tuned!