Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mt. Pinos

I slept in this morning and did not hit the road until 6, and then drove an hour to Mt. Pinos where I spent all morning birding. The main target for today was the white-headed woodpecker which you can see in the top and middle pictures above. The other bird of interest is shown in the bottom picture--the thick-billed race of the fox sparrow which is always on Mt. Pinos. I am pretty sure that I took some photos yesterday morning of some thick-billed fox sparrows that also summer in southern Oregon, but the quality of the photo is not great. Remember to click on the photos to enlarge them.

I had a very nice morning walking around one of the campgrounds that was empty because it had been closed to repave the roads (stimulus money at work). There was lots of birdlife, and of course since I finally saw cassin's vireos yesterday I saw another pair today. The mountain habitat (7-8,000ft) meant there were lots of mountain chickadees, pygmy nuthatches, western bluebirds, rufous hummers, clark's nutcrackers and stellar jays. I also saw a few olive-sided and pacific-slope flycatchers, and western wood pewees. Yellow-rumped and orange-crowned warblers were about along with green-tailed towhees.

I am now in Ventura, CA resting up for the 1st of 2 pelagic trips--1 tomorrow and 1 Saturday. Tomorrow I will be going out to Santa Cruz Island to see the jay that is endemic to the island. It is a type of scrub jay but is unique enough to be its own species. I have waited for the big year to finally take the time to go see it.

Saturday I will be going on the Condor Express--a large catamaran--that sails from Santa Barbara. We leave at 7 AM and return sometime after 5 PM. I have been out on this boat twice before and it is always a good pelagic trip.

Today marks the end of week #30. 26 more new birds were added for the week, and the woodpecker brings the YTD total up to 646. The jay will make 647, and who knows how many new year birds will be seen on Saturday. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Good Start to This West Coast Swing

My plane arrived in Seattle yesterday without incident, and I was on the road by 2 PM. I wanted to get past Portland, OR before rush hour set in, so I bombed down I-5. Once in Portland, I did stop briefly to check out a piece of "street art" that my son created a few years ago. It is three 20' X 20' graphics of city images and people that can be seen from the street as you drive/walk/bike by the Providence Medical Center on N. Interstate St. in Portland. I had only seen small versions of the art, so I was very happy to see it finally in person.

I got out of town in time to not get slowed down by the traffic, so I made it down to Roseburg, OR for the nite. This allowed me to be up and out before 5 this morning. I drove about an hour down to a section of the Siskiyou NF near Grant's Pass, OR. I drove along the Rogue River valley for a bit and then turned on FS road 25 in search of mountain quail. Within a couple of miles I had a single one flash across the road. In another 3 miles I flushed a large group of adults. Finally a bit further up the mountain I flushed 2 separate family groups--mom and many chicks.

Unfortunately, I find that this quail is always very skittish and once flushed, you get no chance at a photo. So instead the photo above is of 2 stellar's jays. I also found and watched a pair of cassin's vireos singing and eating their breakfast. I had been a bit concerned about tracking down the vireo because it is getting late in the breeding season and most birds do not sing as much.

Total birds seen this week is up to 57, and the quail and vireo bring the YTD up to 645. I am now in southern CA near Bakersfield. Tomorrow I will be birding in the Mt. Pinos area looking for some woodpeckers that I still need for the big year count. Stay tuned!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Off to the West Coast Again

Just wanted to do a short post before flying off tomorrow morning to Seattle. There is an updated travel map above. One of the commentors recently asked about what to expect in the big year going forward since so many birds are already "in the books". In general during the big year I have not provided any long term scheduling info partly because I want it to be something readers look forward to finding out about by checking the blog; and also because there are occasional changes in the original schedule that I developed for the big year.

I can say at this point that the next 2 months is mostly about pelagic trips off the west coast, plus 3 days of pelagics off the east coast. The next 3 weeks will also include some southern California and Arizona land birding, plus another try for the snowcock in Nevada. If the birding goes well, I should arrive back on the east coast in early October with as many as 675 birds seen YTD. From there on the only birds left to find are winter birds that I missed back in January and February, and any vagrants that might show up during the fall migration cycle. Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush

I just returned from Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota having seen the above orange-billed nightingale-thrush. The photo is not mine because the bird is extremely difficult to see, and when it does come out in the open, it tends to be a long distance off. The photo above was taken by Christopher Taylor who provided a link on the Narba website. Remember to click on the photo to enlarge it.

I got up at 4:30 Friday morning to catch my 6:40 flight to SD, but was concerned from the Narba posting late on Thursday that the bird might have disappeared. I arrived in Rapid City, SD about 10 AM and immediately drove the hour+ west to Spearfish. I found the trailhead parking area in Spearfish Canyon where iron creek flows into spearfish creek. Fortunately a local birder, Jen Fowler, who has been there most mornings this past week, was there and said that the thrush was still definitely in the canyon. She helped me and other birders who showed up over the next few hours get a good sense of what the thrush's habits were. Most importantly, when it first sang after arriving, she led us to the area of the side canyon in which it was singing.

She also said that the birder who found the thrush, Eric Ripma, was doing some bird survey work in the area, and had heard it calling one day when he was having lunch in the parking area. He knew it was something unusual, and finally located and then obtained photos of the thrush before making a report on its discovery and location.

The thrush has 2 main songs, one of which sounds somewhat like a towhee, and it is rather loud when it sings. Once you have heard either song you can easily pick it out. Because it was the middle of the day it was not calling all that frequently, and when it did, it generally was buried in the leaves or the pine needles. It did fly across the old road/trail and onto the more open opposite hillside 3 times during the afternoon which were my first sightings of it, but not as good as I wanted. Jen had said it was much easier to see early in the day, but another birder said that it was also seen well late in the day, so I ended up staying until the late afternoon in hopes of a much better perched view of the thrush.

Having arrived about noon, this turned into one of those several hour "stakeouts" that I do not particularly enjoy, but in this case I had company as both birders and curious hikers came and went. And as is typical when an extremely rare bird is found, there were birders from all over the US who had come to see the thrush. Jen said at her last count, about 200 birders from 21 states so far had been to the canyon.

Friday afternoon was no different. 3 birders from Missouri arrived mid afternoon. A woman in this group I had also met in Madera Canyon, AZ in Feb. of 2008 when we were all looking for a crescent-chested warbler. Another of the MO threesome was a fellow I had met several years ago in Madera when we were both looking for the flame-colored tanager. Like the thrush, these are both birds that normally do not come north of the Mexican border.

Later in the afternoon, a guy from Waxahachie, TX arrived having driven in from Montrose, CO after hearing about the thrush. Another birder from Michigan who had seen the bird early that morning returned. I had not met him before, but I heard him being called Macklin. I thought I knew that name from reading the annual ABA life list report. When I got back home I found the 2009 report had arrived while I was gone, and Macklin Smith is at the top of ABA area life list with 880 species seen as of 2009. For the non-birders out there, this is a phenomenal number since the current affirmed number of different species seen in the ABA area (North America above the Mexican border) is 960 as of 2009. Only about 700 of the 960 birds are regularly seen in the US, and there are only 30 birders on the ABA area life list as of 2009 with 800 or more birds seen.

Macklin and the Missouri birders left about 6:30--Macklin to start his trip back home, and the MO crowd to regroup to return early on Sat. morning. About the time they left 2 birders from Illinois showed up. They had seen the thrush earlier that day, but were back for another look. About 7 PM I heard the bird call up canyon. It worked its way down the stream, and at 7:11 the TX birder located it singing in a pine tree, sitting out in the open like the picture above. Over the next 20 minutes we followed it down to the parking area, and were able to see it clearly a few more times before it stopped singing for the day.

Jen had said that the thrush for one of the morning birders (20-25 in total) was his 700th life bird. The TX birder told me it was his 600th. As followers of my blog know, I do not know what the total for my ABA area life list is other than it is north of 700 birds. For this big year, the thrush brings the YTD up to 643, and raises the new life bird total for the year to 19. Overall, 23 different species were seen so far this week. I will be flying back to Seattle early on Tuesday to begin 3 weeks of intensive birding on the west coast. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 22, 2010


It is the end of week #29, and I have not picked up my binocs once this week. I have seen or heard around my home 25 different birds. I knew while I was in NC that there was a possibility of an overnite trip to south Florida to see a greater flamingo, but my contact in the Keys said none have been seen so far this summer. Instead, someone in Spearfish, SD found last week an orange-billed nightingale thrush south of there. This is a bird of Central America, so how it ended up in South Dakota is one of those birding mysteries. No matter how it happened, apparently lots of birders have been flocking to SD to check it out. Tomorrow at 6:40 AM I will be on a plane to Chicago, and then onto SD. Stay tuned!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Homeward Bound Tomorrow

One of my followers asked after my last post if I was still really enjoying this big year, or maybe I was beginning to tire of the process. My answer is yes to both. I am still generally enjoying the big year, but there is definitely some "marathon" component to a big year. I realized in the spring that to complete the "marathon" would require me getting back home during the summer which is why I am flying home tomorrow for a 10 day break. After returning to the west coast on July 27th, I will go home again in mid August for a period of time.

For those who may remember my posts back at the beginning of the year, I named my blog slowbirding in an effort to keep some balance and perspective to a big year. It is another reason that I chose to do only a lower 48 big year as opposed to all of North America above Mexico. My sis after birding with me said "slowbirding my ass!". There is no question that a big year is an everyday, all day process that does not feel like slowbirding. That said, today was a good example of the Big Night part of my big year that is definitely all about slowbirding.

I was up again before 6 AM so that I could have a chance to find a cassin's vireo. I checked one spot outside of Burlington, WA, but found no vireos. So I drove back up to Rasar SP to check it again. The photo above is of a winter wren (now pacific wren) that was chattering away at me as I walked down a trail. Earlier as I drove up to the park I saw a bald eagle fly over. It is one of our largest birds, and the winter wren is definitely one of our smallest. No vireos were to be found again at Rasar.

I called it a birding day about noon so that I could make the drive back down to Seattle in time to eat at 2 of my favorite places in the city. First stop was at Elliot's Oyster House. They have a happy hour everyday beginning at 3 PM. Normally their raw oysters cost between $24 and $32 for a dozen depending on what you select. But from 3-6 PM they have happy hour where they start the oysters out at 50 cents, and raise the price per oyster 25 cents every 1/2 hour. Oyster lovers arrive at 3 PM and begin to chow down.

They have usually about 20 different oysters to choose from, but at happy hour the choice is up to the shuckers. The choice changes about every 1/2 hour, but not always. Today we began with a dozen calm cove oysters. They were pretty typical of the pacific coast oyster which is actually a transplant from Japan. I then had 6 each of chelsea gems and snow creek. I thought these were clearly better oysters for my taste. I had a glass of a pinot gris from Oregon followed by a sauvingnon blanc from Washington to wash the oysters down.

I then walked up the hill from Elliot's to one of my favorite restaurants--Wild Ginger. I have been eating here for at least 10 years. It is what I would call an Asian fusion restaurant. I have never had a bad dish here, and the wine list is one of the best around. I drank an '08 kerner from Abbazia di Novacella, a white wine rarely seen in the US. Maybe because of my wine choice, the wine steward brought over the reserve list for me to browse. It may be the best reserve list I have ever seen because of the combination of the breadth of wines on it, and in many cases the remarkably fair prices. It only made me want to visit Seattle and Wild Ginger even more.

My food choices were a Thai rendition on manila clams that I have had many times in the past. I had hoped to get fried catfish in a red curry sauce, but my waitress told me that they had taken it off the menu. So instead I had a wide rice noodle dish with shrimp, squid, mussels and scallops that was very tasty, but not the catfish dish.

Since I was eating alone, I was a restaurant voyeur, taking in all the patrons around me. To my left was a table with 3 women with nordstrom shopping bags. 2 were in their 20's, but the 3rd seemed to be in at least her late 30's. The conversation was lively, mostly about an impending wedding. A couple in front of me was sharing 2 dishes, each using their chopsticks to select tidbits from the plates. What surprised me tonite was that the restaurant was not totally jammed with customers since in the past we have often had to wait to be seated even though the place has room for like 250 customers.

Today is the end of week #28 with 6 more new birds seen for the week. There is an updated travel map at the top. The next 10 days will be mostly about being home, but who knows what might show up on the east coast. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Another Bright Blue Sky Day in Seattle

I awoke at 4:45 and jumped in the shower. I was out the door by 5:15 heading to a small local airport that is supposed to have mountain quail on its grounds. Arriving at 5:45 I found the place locked up tight as a drum. I then went around to the back side where there is a quarry that also is supposed to have the quail. In just 15 minutes of wandering around I saw nor heard any quail, but was asked by 2 different employees why I was there. So I gave it up.

Next stop was a large state forest area near Olympia that is managed for timber production. I ended up driving about 35 miles of gravel roads, at times not even quite sure where I was since the road signage was so poor. After an hour I found the road I wanted based on the Washington bird guide. I stopped several times and finally found a hermit warbler mixed in with some chestnut-backed chickadees. This same road section has had mountain quail, but none made a showing for me this morning.

I then drove the hour up to Seattle, arriving in time to see the just released swedish production of the Girl Who Played With Fire. This is the 2nd movie made in the 3 book series by Stieg Larsson. If you have not heard about or read this series, I highly recommend it. It is probably the best fiction that I have read in the last year. The story's heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is the most unique heroine that I can ever remember reading about.

After the movie I went over to a great pizza place called Via Tribunali. My son introduced me to it about 2 years ago when he was living in Seattle. It definitely makes one of the very best Napoli style pizzas in the US. I rate it in my top 5. Today I had a pie with prosciutto crudo on top (photo above). It went great with the local micro-brew that they had on tap. I finished my meal with a light, not too sweet tiramisu.

Today's birding added 4 more new birds for the week, and the warbler brings the YTD up to 642. Tomorrow morning I will be birding north of Seattle trying to locate a cassin's vireo before going back into the city for the afternoon and evening to enjoy fresh raw oysters as an appetizer course at Elliot's Oyster House, and to eat dinner afterwards at Wild Ginger. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Olympic NP

I spent last nite in Sequim, WA which is just down the road from Olympic NP where I was hoping to find a sooty grouse. I was up at 4:30 AM to make the 1 hour drive to the top of Hurricane Ridge in the park. Once I was on the park roads I saw no other cars. I was told by a birder from Seattle who I met in Florida back in February that sooty grouse were "thick" up on Hurricane Ridge. I saw none on the road on my way up, so I parked the truck and walked the trails at the top of the ridge. I saw the sun come up over the mountain tops, and many deer that seemed almost tame. I also spied at some distance a very large black bear sauntering up a distant slope (top photo above--click on photo to enlarge). But after 90 minutes of walking the trails no sooty grouse made an appearance.

I did run into a couple who told me that they had seen a sooty grouse on Deer Park Rd yesterday, so I headed back down the mountain. But I first stopped at the Heart 'O the Hills campground to look for pacific-slope flycatchers. I heard them calling as soon as I drove in, and fairly quickly saw 3 different birds singing, calling and eating. I then made the drive up Deer Park Rd which is a one lane gravel road for its last 8 miles as it winds its way up a mountain. No grouse walked out on the road on my way up or down.

The middle of my day ended up being all about truck maintenance. An oil change at a Jiffy Lube that did not rotate tires meant I next went to Les Schwab where they told me that my front brake pads were finished, but they did not have the parts to fix it. That sent me down the road to the local Toyota dealer where the brakes were fixed.

I then decided to test the new brake pads by driving back up Deer Park Rd. Again there were no grouse on the road, but at the very top I parked and took the short trail that wrapped around the top of Blue mountain. A Birder's Guide to Washington said that sooty grouse could be found in the trees. The bottom photo was taken while walking the trail. You can see how steep the sides of the peak are. As I entered a small section of trees I flushed a female sooty grouse that flew down the mountain and out of sight.

Finding the grouse was a big get since grouse in general can be difficult to locate. My new brakes worked just fine as I drove back down the mountain, and over to Bremerton for the nite. 4 more new birds were seen for the week, and the grouse and flycatcher bring the YTD total to 641. Tomorrow I will be looking for mountain quail and hermit warblers. Stay tuned!

The North Cascades

I was up at 5 AM yesterday to make the drive from Hermiston, OR up to the Wenatchee area on the eastern slope of the North Cascades mountains in Washington state. I stopped about an hour south of Wenatchee to bird for a couple of hours in the morning. It was nice to see some new habitat and the birds that came with it such as evening grosbeaks and swainson thrushes. The highlight was seeing both male and female rufous hummingbirds which was a new bird for the year.

I stopped birding to make it up to Wenatchee to a bar in time to catch the World Cup final between the Dutch and Spain. The game went into overtime before the Spanish finally scored the only goal of the game to win their first ever cup. The Dutch have been bridesmaids 3 times now.

I then tried to bird just north of Wenatchee but there was a small fire in the area and the sheriff would not let me drive up the forest road. So I went a bit further north, and tried another forest road which I had to myself for an hour, but it was quite hot by early afternoon and there were not many birds about. Undeterred, I stopped to buy some super fresh rainier cherries and drove another hour north to the small town of Mazama where my Washington bird guide said there was a place that had hummingbird feeders. On my way I found 2 vaux's swifts feeding over a river with a bunch of violet-green swallows.

I arrived at the North Cascades Base Camp to find that since the guide was published in 2003, it has had 2 different owners. The 2nd owner, a husband and wife with 2 young kids, had just moved in during the last month. They did not have any feeders up yet, but they told me another birder had come by since they took over the lodge also because of the reference in the bird guide.

I ended up staying the nite, and had a very nice time talking with the wife, her mother and her son and daughter. And early this morning the husband called a woman he knew about back down the road in Twisp, the town from where they had moved, who he thought could help me out with seeing a calliope hummingbird. Sure enough she said to come on by her place. So I drove back to Twisp, and spent over an hour watching calliope, black-chinned and rufous hummers feeding at her wealth of flowers and her sugar feeder. We also had a nice chat about birds and farming (she had been a market gardener for many years).

After a hearty breakfast in Twisp I began the drive up thru the North Cascades mountains. This is an area that I have not been in since my 20's when I did some backpacking there. Back then it seemed like it rained on me most of the time, but today it was sunny. No matter the weather, these mountains are very beautiful, and it felt great to be back in them.

I stopped at Rasar SP to see what might be about. The photos above of a red-shafted flicker (top) and 2 pileated woodpeckers (bottom) were representative of my overall day since I also saw both red-naped and red-breasted sapsuckers, and a downy woodpecker. Remember to click on the photos to make them bigger.

I then drove another hour to catch the ferry over to Port Townsend. At the ferry dock I saw, and clearly also heard, several northwestern crows. The Olympic peninsula is the only area in the lower 48 states where this crow can be seen, and even then there is some dispute about whether you saw it or the much more common american crow. Based on the bird guide range maps and the bird's call, you have to make a judgment call, which I did.

The past 2 days added 37 more birds for this week, and the calliope and rufous hummers plus the swift and the crow bring the YTD up to 639. Tomorrow I will be up especially early to drive up to Hurricane Ridge in Olympic NP in search of a sooty grouse. Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

No Himalayan Snowcocks Today

My travel back from south TX to Salt Lake City was seriously delayed because of severe weather in Dallas. Instead of getting into Salt Lake at 11 PM I arrived at 1 AM. Other than a long travel day, it did not affect my schedule as I was still able to get over to Elko, NV by mid-afternoon.

I had decided to camp out overnite up at Island Lake in the Ruby Mountains above Elko. This is where most people hike up to in order to try to see the Himalayan Snowcock, a bird introduced into these mountains back in the 1960's. Before people found this site, the way most birders saw the snowcock was to take a helicopter ride even higher. The Ruby Moutains is still the only place it has become established in the US. Birders usually hike up before daylight to be at the viewing location by early light. It is only a 2 mile hike consisting of 10 very well laid out switchbacks. Most people make the hike in a little over an hour even though you start at 8600' and climb up to almost 10,000'.

I wanted to camp out and enjoy the beauty of the cirque surrounding the lake. It had stormed briefly in the afternoon, but other than a steady breeze, the weather was quite nice from late afternoon thru this morning. I spent 2 hours late yesterday evening scanning the mountainside for movement or shapes that might be the snowcock, but I only found a single mountain goat.

When I awoke at 1st light about 5 AM, I again spent the next 2 hours scanning for the bird, and again all I found was a mountain goat--probably the same one. Bob Ake and his friend John Spahr who are doing big years had been here 2 weeks earlier and did not find the snowcock either. Now I will need to do some more research to make sure the birds still are being seen at this site before making another trip here this summer.

Before hiking up to the lake, I stopped at the Power House picnic area to bird for awhile. It was a fine hour of seeing many birds including one of my favorites, the lewis's woodpecker. I have posted 2 shots of the bird especially for my sis who also is quite fond of this woodpecker ever since she first saw several a few falls ago when we were hiking in Zion NP. Other birds seen at the picnic area included american dipper, cordilleran flycatcher, lazuli bunting, house wren, black-headed grosbeak, warbling vireo, and a female merlin.

I finished up today by stopping outside of La Grande, OR to try to check out some nesting sites for great gray owls. I had been given specific directions to locate 3 different nesting platforms that had been used as recently as June. I scoured the area around the mileage I was given, but somehow could not find the platforms. So it goes. At least the drive as the sun was setting was beautiful featuring massive volcanic mountains rising above the horizon. Mt Hood, Mt Adams, and Mt Rainier looked like they were close by even though I knew they were more than 150 miles to the west.

Week #28 begins with a total of 52 birds seen so far. Tomorrow I will begin a 5 day swing thru Washington state in search of some key birds such as calliope hummingbird. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Last Day in South Texas for 2010?

I was out about 6:30 this morning even though I knew the weather was going to continue to suck. I checked Chihuahua Woods again in hopes of better looks at a hook-billed kite, but instead I just mostly fended off swarms of mosquitoes. Then I went over to Santa Ana again to see what might be about. I was particularly looking for northern beardless tyrannulets that are at the refuge.

It was overcast because tropical storm Bonnie is coming into shore today down by Brownsville. There was also some breeze, so overall it was tolerable. I did not hear or see any tyrannulets, but there were plenty of other birds about. The photos above are of (top) golden-fronted woodpecker, and (bottom) yellow-billed cuckoo (left side) and white-winged dove (2 on right side). I posted these because they are common birds here in the valley in the summer. Remember to click on the photos to enlarge.

The clouds got thicker and it began to spit, so I headed back to my car. I stopped for breakfast tacos on the way to the motel, and now I am getting this post in before I go to the airport for my flights back to Utah--hopefully not to return to south Texas again in 2010. I added 4 more new birds on this last day of week #27. There is also an updated travel map at the top. Tomorrow I will be driving over to Elko, NV to search for a himalayan snowcock. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Heat, Humidity and Clouds of Mosquitoes

I was up by 6 AM to make the hour drive down to Resaca de la Palma SP near Brownsville to search for the yellow-green vireo that was first reported the last week of June, and again on July 2nd. I saw my first yellow-green also in Brownsville back in late June of 2007. It was nesting in a neighborhood that made it very easy to see it, which was totally different than this morning.

I arrived at Resaca about 7:15 even though I knew that it might not be open until 8 AM. Sure enough the gate was still locked, but it was opened early. I pulled in and parked next to the visitor center. When the center was opened I had the opportunity to have the staff show me exactly where the bird was located. So at 8 AM on a morning with 90+% humidity, 85 degree temp, and at times clouds of mosquitoes, I began the 1.5 mile walk to find the bird. I had to stop once to put on more bug juice. No amount of repellent could keep me from occasionally inhaling a mosquito.

I got to the spot on my map, and sure enough not 1 but 2 vireos were singing. As I searched for one in the thick leaves, it flew out singing as it crossed the gravel road and disappeared into another tree. I listened to it singing for maybe another 2 minutes, but then decided that getting a photo was not likely and the mosquitoes were not letting up. I made the 3 mile round trip in an hour, and by the time I returned to the visitor center my shirt was totally soaked, and my wind pants were also wet from the knees down. I felt that hour was probably the most challenging birding conditions I experienced in this big year. I also felt fortunate to have had such good local information which allowed me to quickly see and hear the yellow-green vireo.

I cooled down in my air conditioned car as I drove over to the Brownsville dump to check it out for a tamaulipas crow. I tried to find this bird back in April, but the day I had a chance to stop in was after alot of rain and the dump was closed to birders. The crow used to be a regular at the dump, but had been absent several years in a row before a pair was seen initially back in March, and then again in mid April. They had not been reported since then, but I figured I should make an effort since I was nearby. After an hour of checking the appropriate spots, I found only 100's of laughing gulls, lots of great-tailed grackles, a few turkey and black vultures and 2 chihuahuan ravens.

On my way back to McAllen I saw 2 white-tailed hawks, and snowy, reddish and great egrets, so I have posted the photo at the top of a great egret scratching a mosquito bite.

I have just finished watching Spain beat Germany 1-0 to make it to its 1st World Cup final. I will be watching the final against the Dutch on Sunday, probably somewhere in Oregon. I saw 15 more new birds for the week today, and the vireo raises the YTD up to 635. Tomorrow I will bird here again early before catching a plane back to Utah. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Not South Texas Again!

I am sitting here scratching my head almost in disbelief that I am actually in south Texas for the 5th time this year. And it is July to boot. I was here at the end of June back in 2007 and said to my long time friend from Missouri who was with me on that trip that we should never come back here in the middle of the summer. I called him this morning about 9 AM to tell him how lucky he was to not be standing with me in such a bug infested, high heat and humidity spot.

I came down in the worst of the weather cycle for south TX because a yellow-green vireo has been heard/seen in Brownsville in the past 2 weeks. I also saw that my nemesis bird for this big year--the hook-billed kite--had been seen feeding near its nest site in Chihuahua Woods, a Nature Conservancy Preserve. In fact, the local birders say that this is the 1st successful nesting by hook-billed kites in south TX since 2002. So I got a frequent flyer ticket and flew down here yesterday.

I arrived at Chihuahua Woods a little before 7 AM in hopes of seeing the kite feeding on the snails which are its main food. I actually was hopeful after arriving at the site because I don't think I have ever seen so many snails in one spot. The mosquitoes were only a nuisance because of the Deep Woods Off that I had doused myself with, including my shirt. Fortunately, my wind pants were too thick for the bugs to bite thru. While waiting for a kite to come feed, I had the good fortune of having a groove-billed ani fly in and perch near me for a good look before moving on. This was another bird that had eluded me on my earlier visits to south TX.

After a couple of hours of staking out the feeding site, I had seen numerous birds. More northern mockingbirds in one spot than I can ever remember seeing plus long-billed and curve-billed thrashers, cardinals and pyrrhuloxias, great kiskadees, brown-crested flycatchers, golden-fronted woodpeckers, great-tailed grackles, and white-winged and inca doves. But no kite, so I decided to walk down one of the trails. As I came out into a powerline cut I saw off in the distance a large, raptor-like bird fly up and land on a pole. My heart fluttered in anticipation only to calm down when I saw that it was the very common harris's hawk. A 2nd flew in next to it that looked like a juvenile. After another hour of looking and waiting I decided that I would try some other locations.

I next drove to Bentsen Rio Grande SP, but the visitor center is only open Wed-Sun for the summer. Without any current bird info, I was not willing to walk the 1.5 miles out to the hawk tower in 90+ degree heat. I did see another groove-billed ani next to the visitor center.

Next I headed over to Anzalduas county park only to find that I could not get in because it was closed in case the Rio Grande flooded as a result of the rains from tropical storm Alex. Then I drove on over to Santa Ana NWR to see if they had any good local intel. One of the wardens said that he had seen hook-billed kites late morning in the past couple of days. I hesitated because of the bugs and heat, but then put on my hat and more bug juice, and headed out to the hawk tower which is only about a 1/4 mile walk.

The wind was blowing some, and there was occasional cloud cover, but it was still hot and muggy. There were birds down in the trees below the tower, but nary a bird up in the sky. I kept scanning but continued to see nothing. After 30 minutes I was ready to call it a day when I looked to the west and saw a good sized raptor-like bird come up out of the trees. I watched it slowly rise up a bit and realized that I was watching a female hook-billed kite. It did not stay up long before it settled back down into the trees. I waited a bit longer in hopes that it would rise up again, but when it did not I finally packed it in for the day. This was not the perfect close-up sighting one would want for a life bird, but I will take it knowing that I will see more hook-billed kites now that I have finally seen my first.

Since I was not able to get a shot of the kite, instead I have posted at the top a photo of an intermediate rufous colored red-tailed hawk that I saw in Idaho on my way down to Salt Lake City.

I am now sitting in a nicely cool motel room, watching the dutch play Uruquay in the semis of the world cup. The past 2 days of birding have added 24 more new birds for the week. The ani and kite raise the YTD up to 634, and the tally of new life birds for the year is now at 18. Tomorrow I will be down in Brownsville hunting for the yellow-green vireo. Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Can You Say Chukar?

I finally tracked down not 1 but 3 chukars at Antelope Island SP at the great salt lake in Utah. But I am ahead of myself. I left Jackson, WY this morning at 6 AM planning to visit Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge which is located northeast of Salt Lake City. I made pretty good time, and even stopped briefly in Logan, UT to call my brother and his wife because they both graduated from Utah St. Univ. which is in Logan. When I arrived at the refuge I found that the auto tour was closed until 9/15, and the visitor center was closed for the 4th. I was sorely ticked off about this since it was one of the 1st places I birded back in my 20's, and I still have very fond memories of birding there with my brother, sister and a friend who now lives in Tucson.

Antelope Island SP is just 30 minutes south of Bear River, so I drove on down in hopes of finding a chukar. The woman working the entry booth suggested that I walk out to the end of Buffalo Point. This required walking up a steep hill, and then down thru some rocky/bouldery areas. Once up the hill, I fairly quickly saw 1 sitting on a rock. I slowly approached it in an attempt to get a photo for today's post, but it flushed before I could get close enough. I heard one calling further down the hill, and then spotted it. I made a 2nd attempt, and again it flushed with its mate.

Since I got no chukar shots, the top photo is of a singing lazuli bunting that I have posted for my friends back in Boulder and Austin who hiked with me last week. I saw 2 lazuli that day, but neither were close enough to see without binoculars, so my friends now can see what one looks like (remember to click/double click on the photo to enlarge). The bottom photo is of eared grebes in breeding plumage that I saw at Antelope Island. This shot is for my wife who did not see any eared grebes when we were together in North Dakota.

I saw 18 more new birds for the week with the chukar raising the YTD total to 632. I am now in my motel room trying to decide whether to fly tomorrow to south Texas for a couple of days in search of a rare yellow-green vireo that has been reported in Brownsville over the past 2 weeks. Stay tuned!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Grand Tetons

After once again finding no chukars early yesterday morning, I arrived late afternoon in Jackson WY, which is on the edge of Grand Tetons NP. I first visited the park in 1968 as part of a 9000 miles in 3 weeks whirlwind tour of the western US before starting college. My oldest friend who I grew up with in Missouri and I drove his Chevy camaro, hitting as many interesting places as we could for future reference. One of the first was the tetons, and I have been back many times since, mostly in my teens and 20's to hike up into this magnificent mountain range. The top photo is of the Grand Teton. There is also a middle and south teton, but from the angle of this shot you can't really pick them out.

I was planning to meet a friend of mine from Austin here, but she decided that the 4th of July weekend did not work for her, and my birding schedule meant that this was when I needed to be here. So instead of enjoying showing her the tetons and Yellowstone NP for her first time, I went looking for calliope hummingbirds. It was a long winter here, and many wildflowers are still not in bloom so the hummers are not very visible yet. I saw many other birds including the barn swallow (middle photo) and the violet-green swallow (bottom photo). I particularly like the upclose frontal shot of the violet-green. Remember to click on the photo to enlarge it.

I also went for a walk around part of Jenny Lake in search of the hummer, but since today was July 3rd, there were so many other hikers/walkers that it was not all that enjoyable. Not 5 minutes apart I heard someone say to another person in their party, "are we there yet?". I also saw 3 young women carrying large backpacks clearly on their way up into the high country away from the crowds.

I ate dinner twice at a place called Nani's because a waiter I know from Tucson is here for the summer working there. It is a family owned Italian restaurant which has been here for 20 years. Because I like the food at Wildflowers in Tucson, I was hoping for a similar experience at Nani's. Unfortunately I can not say that was the case. The homemade bread, caprese salad with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, and the stracciatella soup were up to snuff, but the main courses were only so-so. I had amatriciana pasta the 1st nite, but it was not made with hot pepper flakes so it was "lacking". The scottaditto--a lamb dish common also in Italy--was not as good as many I have had in Italy.

The wine list was pretty diverse and fairly priced. I had a bottle of '06 Argiolas costera made from cannonau the first nite, and a glass of Frescobaldi '05 reserve chianti tonite. Both were solid, true examples of their wine regions. All in all, I was glad to see my waiter friend, but I definitely prefer eating at his other place of work in Tucson.

Week #27 starts with 56 different species seen or heard, but no new ones for the year. Tomorrow I will be driving back down to Utah to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, another place that I have known since my 20's. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Black Swifts Redux

I traveled today from Durango back up to the Grand Junction area. It was mostly about magnificent mountain scenery. I did stop at Ouray to check out the black swifts that nest there. The top photo above is of the sculpted rocks and water rushing below the swifts nest site at Box Canyon SP located on the edge of Ouray. The middle photo is of a black swift egg that was just laid today in a nest that was not occupied by a bird to keep it warm. The bottom photo is of a black swift on a different nest incubating its egg (remember to click on the photo to enlarge it). This species only lays one egg which is one reason it is not very common. It also generally nests behind large waterfalls for protection, but that is not the case at Box Canyon where instead it nests near a waterfall.

Today is the end of week #26, and the swift was the only new bird seen today for the week. Tomorrow I will be looking for chukars near Grand Junction early in the day before making the drive up to the Grand Tetons. Stay tuned!

Flammulated Owl and More

Today is Thursday July 1st--the halfway mark of my big birding travel adventure. When I started this back on January 1st, I had spent quite a bit of time last fall making my travel plan, but I did not know for sure if in the end it was going to be the "travel adventure" that I had hoped for. I can say now that it has been and much more.

I regularly told people that as long as I was having fun I would continue to follow my original plan, modifying it as needed. The basic schedule was predicated on where the birds would be at any point in the year. This is one reason that I have already reached 631 total species seen so far for the year. Being in the northern hemisphere, the bird's migration and breeding cycle means the 1st half of the year is very intensely packed with travel in my effort to see as many birds as possible.

So far I can say that of the birds that I ought to see, while I have had a few misses during the winter, I still have a chance to see those that I missed before the year is out. And because there are only so many birds that one can reasonably expect to find in the lower 48 states, at this point I probably will only see another 50 new birds for the year. 1/3 of those 50 will be seabirds, and most of those I will have a chance to see in August and September off the west coast. Of course if during the rest of the year many vagrants happen to show up in the lower 48, then it might end up being more than 50.

But let me return to the last 2 days of birding here in Colorado. Early Tuesday morning my friend from Austin and I went back into Rocky Mountain NP to bird for a few hours before I took him to the airport. We saw nothing new, but again had a very good time taking in the high mountain scenery and birdlife including a broad-tailed hummer on its nest. The photo above is of a black-billed magpie, one of the common but quite beautiful birds found all of over the western part of the US.

I drove west from Denver toward Grand Junction. I decided to drive up Mt. Evans to get the views above the treeline. I stopped at Summit Lake and was fortunate to see a nice mountain goat along the ridgeline. I also stopped at a place called Cameo near Grand Junction that I visited back in March in my efforts this year to see a chukar. My stop late Tuesday afternoon ended once again at that location with no chukar seen. I did see some nice desert birds including black-throated gray warbler, black-tailed gnatcatcher, say's phoebe, western kingbird, and a magnificent golden eagle which may be why I did not even hear a chukar calling.

I then drove up onto the uncompahgre plateau which is south of Grand Junction to a place that is well known for having flammulated owls. I arrived about 10 PM, and listened for their call. Not hearing any, which did not surprise me since it is now past their breeding season, I played the call from my Ipod. Very quickly I heard the owl call back. I walked around with my flashlight, playing the call again, and a flammulated owl flew over my head 3 times before flying further off into the trees. Since this was the only bird on my life list that I had heard but not seen, I was elated to have finally been able to see one. I fell asleep in the back of my truck with a smile on my face.

Yesterday I awoke with the sun rising over the plateau, and spent the day birding my way down the western side of Colorado near the Utah border. This is probably one of the most beautiful parts of our country and most Americans, and even residents of Colorado have never seen it. My destination for the evening was outside of Durango where a friend from high school and her husband live.

We spent the evening talking about a myriad of things while drinking some very good wine from their cellar ('95 Montelena cab, '99 Behrens and Hitchcock cab, and '70 Taylor port). The longhorn steak and salad was a good accompaniment for the cabs. An after dinner walk at sunset to visit their horses, and a house being built on part of the 150+ acres they own/owned gave us a second wind to keep talking past midnite.

The past 2 days of birding added another 31 new birds for the week. I will be birding my way back up to Grand Junction this afternoon. I am still on the trail of the chukar. Stay tuned!