Thursday, September 30, 2010

Can It Really Be Chapel Hill, NC?

It is Thursday Sept. 30th, the last day of the month, and the end of the 39th week of this big year (51 species seen for the week). I am home along with my wife's truck for the 1st time since early June. With 9 full months completed, it is time to talk a bit about how the overall year has gone, and what it all means for the final 3 months of 2010. But before I do that, I hope that you will first enjoy looking at some more of the Utah hiking pictures--remember to click on them to enlarge.

To refresh for long time followers, or to inform for recent readers, I said way back in late December of '09 that I thought seeing 600 different bird species would be a respectable effort, and seeing 650 would be a very good result. I also said hitting 700 in just the lower 48 states would be highly improbable. So these estimations provide a context for the next few paragraphs.

If you look at the column at the right side of this blog, you will see that in January alone I recorded 247 different species seen--more than 1/3 of the total number of 682 that I have seen so far. Again this is really no surprise given how many parts of the lower 48 states I visited in January, and the fact that I was just beginning the big year. If you scan down the column you will see the number of birds in February dropped down to 107, and when added to January, I had seen 1/2 of all the different birds I would eventually see by today.

March was slower (68 new birds), but then April (99) and May (85) picked up a bit which is no surprise with the spring migration in full swing. As a result, the YTD number hit 605 different species by the end of May--only 5 months into the year. However, since then the number of new birds seen has slowed down dramatically, and in September only 7 new birds were added. Significantly, 5 of these were all new ABA area life birds for me (note asterisks in column).

What I did not say at the start of the year was how many new ABA (American Birding Assoc.) life birds that I expected to see. I had thought the number would end up around 20-25, but so far I have seen 30. I point this out because it is one reason I am at 682 birds YTD. I have been fortunate to see some life birds that I had not expected such as the bare-throated tiger-heron, the red-footed booby, the common crane, the cuban pewee, the la sagra's flycatcher, the orange-billed nightingale-thrush, the plain-capped starthroat, the streaked shearwater and the hawaiian petrel. I also saw a few birds like the northern wheatear, the northern jacana, the yellow-green vireo, the crimson-collared grosbeak, the masked duck, and the blue bunting that I could not count on showing up in the lower 48 this year.

So what does hitting 682 birds seen so far mean for the final quarter of the year? Well, over the past month I have tried to determine how that number stands in relation to other big year efforts over the past 50 years. In doing so, I have found for starters that there are just not that many people who have done full ABA (all of North America above Mexico) big years, and even fewer who chose to do just the lower 48 states. For example, so far this year I have met only 2 people--Bob Ake and John Spahr--who are doing a full ABA big year, and they say I am the only birder doing a lower 48. After 58,000 miles driven and 47,000 mile flown, and having hit all the major birding spots several times, I should have met or heard about any other birders that were doing big years.

While I originally thought there would be a few more birders undertaking major big years, I now realize that the time and money involved precludes most people from doing either a full ABA or lower 48 states big year. I suspect there are far more state big years, and even more county big years done annually.

In reviewing the available historical record, the 1st time a big year number was highly visible was from back in 1953 when Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher did a 30,000 mile tour of North America. In 1955 a book (Wild America) and film were produced, and in the book they mention that they saw 572 different bird species. The bar has kept being raised since then with the current ABA area record (748) being set in 1998 by Sandy Komito. A book called the Big Year was published in 2004 about him and 2 other birders from that year. Now a movie based on the book is in production that will apparently be a comedy starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black as the 3 birders. For even more info on big bird years, check out the Wikipedia entry on them.

I also knew that the ABA puts out an annual ABA big day and ABA list report. In studying the report I found that they track the top big day numbers by state as well as the top big year numbers by state, but they do not do that for full ABA or lower 48 big years. Instead, they publish each year the annual lists for the ABA area, lower 48 etc, that are reported to them. The most recent report shows that the highest number of birds seen in the lower 48 states in 2009 was 618. In 2008 the top number was 670; in 2007 it was 648; in 2006 it was 628; and in 2005 it was 685--which was part of a full ABA big year done by my friend Dan Sanders. In 2004 it was 634; in 2003 it was 610; in 2002 it was 574; and in 2001 it was 618. For now this is as far back as I have been able to obtain ABA report info.

Since these are the only lower 48 records that I have found, and because after 2005, three species have been split in two, I am working on the assumption that 688 is the highest lower 48 number recorded. And finally, I believe that there would be some mention of it somewhere, so I also am assuming that no one has ever seen 700 different species in the lower 48 states in one calendar year.

Based on the information I have uncovered so far, I have set as a goal for the last 3 months of this year to raise my year to date total to at least 690 species. I believe this number is doable based on the birds that I still should be able to find over the next 3 months. As for the possibility of reaching 700, the old cliche that the chances "are slim and none at all, and slim just left town" is probably appropriate, but you never know. To see 700 can only happen if several highly rare birds were to visit the lower 48 states by the end of 2010, and I was able to hear about them and get to them in time before they disappeared.

I am home for the next few days unless a rarity shows up that I can reasonably get to. I will be doing a posting in the next couple of days talking about the non-birding part of my big year. There is a new travel map also. Stay tuned!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Eurasian Tree Sparrow in St. Louis

This morning my friend Marty and I drove into St. Louis to a neighborhood just off I-64 to look for eurasian tree sparrows. This is a bird that was introduced from Europe back in 1870, and, unlike starlings (another introduced bird), it has not expanded much beyond the greater St. Louis area. Within 5 minutes of arriving in the heart of the sparrow's original chirping grounds we found several of them. It took me another 30 minutes to get an adequate photo (top above--click on it to enlarge). But I am a bit ahead of myself.

Yesterday morning we left Hays, KS early so that we could stop for lunch at the "world famous" Arthur Bryant's KC barbecue. I have heard about this place for years, but had never had any of its offerings. We arrived a little before 11 AM and the crowd was just beginning to show up before they went to watch the KC Chiefs beat the SF 49'ers.

This place was initially put on the culinary map years ago by the well known food writer, Calvin Trillin. It has continued to be held up by many as the best example of KC style barbecue. We ordered the pulled pork on wonder bread with fries, and the beef brisket on wonder bread with fries. Huge servings appeared on our plates. Ignoring the white paste bread and abstaining from adding the bitter "original" barbecue sauce after sampling it, we worked our way thru the heaped meat and fries. We left full but wondered what Calvin and the rest of the food critics found so special about the 'cue. I must admit that I have a very strong bias to NC pulled pork and the concomitant vinegar sauce.

We arrived at Marty's home in Columbia, MO, by early afternoon, and proceeded to have an enjoyable evening with his wife, Nola. We dug an ancient bottle of 1990 Ravenswood Dickerson vineyard zinfandel out of their wine cellar, and drank part of it with cheese and a truly amazing "cracker" from Spain--Tortas de Aceite de Ines Rosales. We were pleasantly surprised to find the zin had turned into a slightly funky but lovely old wine. The bottom photo is of Marty, and our wine and appetizers. The round package on the table to the left of the wine bottle holds one of the herb and olive oil "crackers".

We finished off the zin with homemade mashed potatoes and slaw, and pork ribs that we brought home from Arthur Bryant's. The ribs put some luster back on Arthur's name as they were meaty enough, nicely smoky and very tender with an excellent rub on them.

After returning from St. Louis this morning, we all went to Marty and Nola's main lunch spot--Murry's--to have a hamburger. For those who have been following this blog you know that one of my food sub-themes has been hamburgers. Unlike my pizza experiences this year that have generally been great, I have had much less success finding great hamburgers. That is not the case at Murry's where burgers are a specialty.

First off, you can get a burger cooked medium rare which in many states and places is no longer possible due to food borne illness concerns. Second, their meat is very good and the bun is a notch above the norm. You get red onion, tomatoes and lettuce to add to the burger along with whatever condiments you prefer. Today we also had blue cheese added--blue but not too bluey. They also make fantastic thin onion rings/strings. My only complaints here are that I find an 8 0z burger to be a bit too much, and bacon is not available as an add-on.

The past 2 days of relaxed birding added 23 more species for the week, and the eurasian tree sparrow raised the YTD to 682. Tomorrow I will be starting the drive home to NC with a stop in Little Rock, AR to visit with relatives. Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Deja Vu--Al's Chickenette

Still basking in the joy of our slot canyon hiking of the past 2 days (top photo above), we started the day by doing a driving tour of Colorado National Monument which is just outside of Grand Junction, CO. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, and my friends Marty and Craig were duly impressed with the knockout rock formations in the monument. As Marty said, it is very difficult to photograph and capture the sense of power you feel while driving thru it. After an hour of taking it all in, we pointed the truck towards Denver.

I-70 in western Colorado is one of our more scenic interstates. As we passed by Vail we had to record the aspens taking on their full fall glory (middle photo above). Because we got such an early start today, my friend Craig was able to change his flight from tomorrow to this afternoon, so we powered on to the Denver airport and dropped him off. Marty and I then hit the road again heading east.

The shift in geography from the slickrock of SE Utah to the rockies of western and central Colorado to the plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas over the past 36 hours is about as dramatic as any you can make in the US. The sun setting on huge fields of red milo sorghum was eyepopping, but again very difficult to capture digitally.

Now it's Saturday nite and we are in Hays, KS on our way to Columbia, MO where I grew up, and where my friend Marty and his wife, Nola, and one of my brothers, Jon and his wife, Candy, live. For dinner we went to Al's Chickenette (bottom photo above) which for long time followers of this blog is a place that my sister and I ate at way back in late March. It is famous in these parts for its fried chicken and fresh cut fries. We arrived hungry at 8 PM and left quite satisfied.

11 more new birds were seen for the week. On Monday I will be going into St. Louis, MO to find the eurasian tree sparrow which is an introduced species that lives in the greater St. Louis area. This bird would raise the YTD to 682. Stay tuned!

Slot Canyon Heaven

The past 2 days have mostly been spent hiking in some fantastic slot canyons in southeastern Utah. Yesterday we went into Buckskin Gulch which is east of Kanab and just north of the Arizona border. A big thanks to my brother Alex for suggesting this hike. It was a combination of "narrows", slots and more typical canyon hiking. The top photo with Marty in it captures a sense of the at times enclosed canyon with the reflected sunlight, and rock textures and colors. Over a 5 hour, 8 mile hike, we saw about 20 other hikers, 4 of whom were doing several day camping hikes.

After our hike, we drove 4 hours north to get to Boulder, UT in order to have dinner at what many consider to be the best restaurant in the area. It is called Hell's Backbone Grill, and is part of the Boulder Mountain Lodge. Hwy #12 is the route you take to get from Bryce Canyon over to Boulder. The section of the road from Escalante to Boulder takes your breath away as you drive thru 20 miles of some of the finest slick rock country in Utah. The long drive and magnificent scenery had us more than ready for a good meal.

The restaurant emphasizes the use of locally produced foods. We all had the house salad which was greens with pumpkin seeds, dehydrated corn, sliced plum and edible flowers. We also had the smoked local trout pate and instead of quacamole, we tried their zucamole made with zucchini squash. Entrees were a ribeye steak shared by me and Marty, and roast chicken eaten by Craig. The desserts were a perfect chocolate pot de creme, and a superb bread putting. Our wines were Dry Creek sauvignon blanc and King Estate pinot gris by the glass followed by a 2006 Bucklin Old Hill zinfandel. The latter was outstanding.

After spending the nite in Torrey, 45 miles up the road from Boulder, we drove about an hour north to an area west of Hwy 24 and south of I-70. We did an 8 mile circle hike beginning in Little Wild Horse canyon and finishing in Bell canyon. The 2nd photo from the top is of 2 of 4 big horn sheep that appeared as we were about to enter the canyon. The 3rd photo down with Craig in it gives you a feel of the narrowness of the slot sections we hiked thru today. They were far tighter than anything we saw yesterday in Buckskin. For the 1st couple of hours we saw no other hikers. Over the next 2 hours we met about 20 people, with more than 1/2 of them being some boys and 3 men who were leading the group.

We hiked from 10AM to 2PM, and then drove over to Moab, Ut to visit Arches NP, and have dinner. The 4th photo from the top is of delicate arch which we visited before going to dinner at the Desert Bistro. My wife and I had eaten here back in 2006 when I last visited Moab. Our starters were the house greens salad and a quickly seared piece of ahi tuna in a teriyaki like sauce. The tuna had just been flown in today by Fedex. Craig and Marty both had breast of pheasant encrusted in pine nuts with a lingonberry sauce, and wild rice. I had the quail quesadillas with mango slices and quacamole. We shared a bottle of 2007 Robert Sinskey pinot noir from Carneros. We passed on dessert so that we could drive back up to Arches NP at dusk. The bottom photo above is of landscape arch barely visible in the fading light.

The birds seen for the past 2 days have been somewhat limited. The highlights today were a say's phoebe, a nashville warbler, a green-tailed towhee and a golden eagle. Today is Friday so it is the beginning of a new week--#39. 13 birds were seen. Tonite we are staying in Grand Junction, CO. Tomorrow morning we are going to visit Colorado National Monument before making the drive thru the rockies to get to Denver. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Zion NP

Last nite we went to Bouchon for dinner. I have eaten at this Bouchon location once before, and at the original place in Napa Valley a few years ago. This is one of Thomas Keller's many fine restaurants. It reminds me of a Parisian brasserie like Le Coupole, but Keller calls it a bistro.

We started with a bottle of non-vintage Roederer estate champagne to celebrate my wife's and our friend Marcy's birthdays. The starters we chose were all mostly simple salads perfectly dressed with impeccably fresh greens, or a couple of us had a beet salad. A country pate was also selected. We drank a 2000 Smith Haut Lafitte with this course. I was quite pleased to find such a mature and fairly priced wine on what is a very good, but generally highly marked up wine list.

Entrees were mussels in white wine with the classic presentation of pommes frites in a cone. Day boat diver scallops dry packed from Maine was a special selected by 3 of us. Unfortunately, this dish was not well received. My wife had a superb crispy 1/2 of a poulet. Another of us had white boudin sausage with pureed potatoes and prunes. I opted for the braised boneless beef short ribs that were melt in your mouth tender. Along with finishing up the white bordeaux we drank a 2007 cotes du rhone from Tardieu Laurent.

For dessert we shared chocolate brownies with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, profiteroles, and creme brulee. We also enjoyed a bottle of 1995 Neipoort colheita (vintage tawny port). After a leisurely 2+ hour meal, we all left quite satisfied. We then strolled home via the Wynn casino, continuing to marvel at the range of attire and people that one sees in Vegas. As one of us said, Vegas is like a parallel universe and definitely unlike any other city.

This morning all the wives plus one of the husbands headed home, and I and my friends Craig and Marty drove over to Zion NP. Craig had never been here, so we decided to walk up the narrows of the Virgin river that runs thru Zion canyon. The top photo is of Craig, and the bottom photo was my effort to capture a brief rain shower--double click on it to enlarge to better see the raindrops. It was quite amazing to witness because from where we stood, the sun was shining and no clouds were visible but it was definitely raining lightly with the raindrops sparkling in the sun. As you might expect in a narrow river canyon, we saw no bird life other than 2 dippers, and heard a canyon wren.

After carefully picking our way over 3 hours time thru the often rocky river bed, we drove into Springdale to have an early dinner at the Bit & Spur. This is a local place that I have eaten at over the years. Its main food theme is mexican, and they make everything on premises. An example would be the sweet potato and masa tamales stuffed with either pork or mushrooms. Having not eaten since mid morning, we chowed down heartily.

It is now Wednesday evening and I am in Hurricane, UT which is about 20 miles away from Zion NP. There is a magnificent harvest full moon shining down. The week's bird count is now up to 53 and the YTD is still at 681. Tomorrow we are going to hike in Buckskin Gulch--a classic Utah slot canyon. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Las Vegas--One of the Strangest Places on Earth

It is Tuesday morning and I have just returned from the breakfast buffet here at Treasure Island. I am spending 2 days and 3 nites in Vegas with my wife and 3 other couples mostly eating, taking in shows and watching one friend play craps intermittently. 5 of our group just headed off in my truck (actually my wife's) to visit Hoover Dam. Having seen it before, and having driven 55,000 miles so far this year, I opted to stay here and do a blog entry.

Sunday afternoon was a bit tense because my wife and another couple were all delayed flying in from Dallas. As a result the dinner plans for a bit looked like they were going to have to be scrapped. Fortunately they arrived just in time for all of us to jump into 2 cabs to get to our dinner spot--Rosemary's. This is a restaurant that is not on the strip, but according to our chef friends--Ben and Karen--it is the place that all the chefs in Vegas go to eat.

We all opted for the $55 prix fixe 3 course dinner. Starters included pan fried sweetbreads with black beluga lentils and bloody mary butter, twice baked parmesan souffle with garlic cream and wild mushrooms, beef and Maytag blue cheese carpaccio, and salmon tartar. Entrees selected by our group included the daily special of Australian barramundi (like a redfish) with garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed greens; roasted rack of lamb with kalamata olive creamed potatoes and a balsamic reduction sauce; seared sea scallops with a parsnip potato puree, apple cider buerre blanc, and crispy prosciutto and parnsip strips; and Alaskan day boat halibut with sauteed garlic spinach, sizzled leeks and chive muscadet butter sauce. The weakest part of the meal was the desserts--solid but nothing special. The petit fours (lemon squares, chocolate squares and peanutbutter balls) were very good though.

Another reason we chose Rosemary's was that on Sunday evenings the wine is 1/2 price. Our starter wines were a 2009 arneis from Vietti and an 2008 albarino from Alicia. For a main course we drank 2 bottles of Fogcrest, Laguna West pinot noir. This is a small producer in the Russian River Valley that I had not heard of, but the wine was quite good--medium weight with good structure and fruit.

The service was quite good, and our main wait person, a young woman from Philly, was particularly attentive and I will say unpretentious--no snooty, stuffy, jaded server as can happen in places like Vegas.

Our next event for the nite was to see Cirque du Soleil's Mystere show. For those who may not know about Cirque, it was founded in 1984 in Quebec, Canada, and over the past 25+ years has grown into a worldwide phenomenon with several permanent shows in Vegas plus traveling shows. I first saw Mystere in 1995 and was so blown away by it that just 3 weeks later, after meeting my wife and 2 kids in San Francisco on their way back from Australia, we all went to see it. I have seen mystere now 4 times, and 3 of the traveling shows. I find there is nothing quite like it, and always greatly enjoy their artistic rendition of a circus without any animals.

Yesterday was pretty low key during the day. Late buffet breakfast followed by a stroll thru the Wynn and Encore hotel/casinos. I watched one of my friends play craps, which is a pretty complex casino game that supposedly you have the best odds of winning at provided you know how to play. Of course, the house in the end always wins. I am not a gambler because it seems like a waste of money. It took me a long time to understand why some of my friends like to gamble, but I finally realized that they get an adrenaline rush from the prospect of winning whether they are betting on a sports event, or playing craps in Vegas.

Yesterday was so low key that I even took a nap. I also checked on what was happening with the rare birds around the country. I found that the arctic loon had not been re-reported, and the green violetear hummer had been a one day wonder. But a lesser sand-plover did show up in Bandon Marsh--the same place I had chased unsuccessfully sharp-tailed sandpiper and ruff a couple of weeks ago.

Last nite we all had drinks at the sea breeze bar here at TI, thoroughly enjoying our sassy waitress before heading next door to the Mirage to have dinner at Kokomo's, a steak house. This was part of our package of dinner and tickets to Cirque's show Love which premiered in 2006 and is based on the music of the Beatles.

Our prix fixe meal was pretty straight forward steak house cuisine. Starters of duck confit salad, beet salad or pepper shrimp. Entrees were roast chicken, salmon or filet mignon. Desserts were either a chocolate mouse cake or a spice cake with ice cream. None of it was great, but all was respectable. The best part of the meal was the 2008 Navarro gewurztraminer, the 2009 Caymus conundrum, the 2006 Stag's Leap petite syrah, and the 2007 Ridge Lytton Springs zin.

Unquestionably the highlight so far of being in Vegas (besides seeing my good friends and wife) was the Cirque Love show. I felt like I had back in 1995 when I saw Mystere for the 1st time. I was spellbound for 90 minutes watching the marriage of Beatles songs, costumes, stage set and dancing/acrobatics by the 60 performers in the show. The combination took the songs to a higher place for me than just hearing them alone, and the visual impact of the show was totally mesmerizing. I did not want it to end, and I would go see it again tonite if we were not already booked to eat at Bouchon--one of my very favorite restaurants. Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ruffless Once Again in LA

I was walking along the Los Angeles river at 6 AM in the fog. Over the next 2 hours I scanned 1.5 miles of the river and saw lots of birds--mallards, dowitchers, peeps, black-necked stilts, american avocets, greater and lesser yellowlegs, western gulls, a black-crowned night-heron, a couple of black-bellied plovers--but not the ruff! I did see 10 new birds for the week including the black phoebe (photo above--click on it to enlarge) on my way back to my truck.

The LA river is a concrete lined waterway which generally has very little water flowing in it. Outside of Los Angelenos, most people only know of the river if they watched the terminator movie where arnold roared up and down the river bed chasing john connors on their respective motorcycles. The water that is in it provides good feeding spots for shorebirds.

I am now in Las Vegas with my wife and 3 other couples. We are going to spend the next 3 nites and 2 days enjoying the shows and restaurants the city has to offer. So the blog for the next few days will be alot about food. The green violetear hummer and the arctic loon reported in Texas and Washington respectively yesterday will probably not be seen by me since they are not likely to stay around long enough while I play in Vegas. There is a new travel map also. Stay tuned!

Condor Express--6th Pelagic Trip in 10 Days

This morning I was up before 6 to make my 7 AM departure on the Condor Express (photo above) out of Santa Barbara Harbor. I went out on the Condor back on July 31st and had a great day of seabirding so I was looking forward to today. We motored out thru the fog, and headed south of the Channel Islands because to the west the winds were gusting to 25 knots. We did not see much for the 1st couple of hours, but then found some spots where there were birds.

The best bird of the day was a fork-tailed storm-petrel which is very rare this far south in California. Todd McGrath the trip leader and one of California's premier pelagic birders said he has only seen maybe 15 fork-tailed storm-petrels in his 100 plus pelagic trips in southern California. We also saw wilson's, ashy, black and least storm-petrels. Overall, there were not large numbers of seabirds today, but pretty good diversity. I saw 21 new birds for this week out on the boat, but no new birds for the year.

I still had an enjoyable day chatting with a fellow from Sarasota who has birded lots of places; and a woman from Knoxville who was curious about my big year. I also saw a birder on the Condor that I have seen on every trip I have taken on this boat. He tends to stand out because of his unique binoculars. He has added plastic extensions to the bottom of the binocs I assume to keep sea spray off the bottom lenses. He arrives with his birding attire in a large see thru plastic bag, and dons his gear at the dock. I would guess he is in his fifties with a beard and a topknot style ponytail which you can only see before he puts on all his warm clothing and rain gear. The rain gear is red and looks quite well used.

After the Condor docked, I hit the road about 4 PM hoping to get down to the Los Angeles river in Long Beach to try again for a ruff. The traffic delayed me, and then finding the right location meant it was all but dark when I arrived at the river. I could see silhouettes only. As a result, I am staying tonite in a motel near the river and plan to be out looking for the ruff at first light before making my drive up to Las Vegas to meet my wife and friends. Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ruffless and Owlless in Central California

Having seen so many really great and rare birds of late, the past 36 hours have reminded me again that sometimes you just don't get your bird. Yesterday morning I was at the Younger Lagoon in Santa Cruz by 9:15 in hopes of finally seeing a ruff. A local birder was there ahead of me, and we both spent the next hour scanning the lagoon for the ruff that had been reported from there the morning before.

We saw pectoral sandpipers, killdeer, a single dowitcher and a few peeps along with several snowy egrets, but no ruff was to be found. We also saw a cooper's, a sharp-shinned, and a red-tailed hawk along with a northern harrier and a peregrine falcon while we were looking for the ruff, so that might be one reason we could not find it. There have been no more sightings reported over the past 2 days, so at least I don't have to feel bad that somehow I missed finding it even though it was there somewhere.

I then drove the 4+ hours over to Yosemite NP to try for a great gray owl that had been seen at one particular spot on Glacier Point road just 2 days before. I arrived about 6 PM and was joined immediately by an English birder that I had seen on a couple of the pelagic trips this week. We staked out the meadow until dark thirty, and then went to sleep in our respective vehicles in hopes of having success this AM.

I was out scanning the meadow about 6:15 AM along with the Englishman. About 7 four more birders from the pelagic trip out of Bodega Bay drove up, and we all spent the next hour waiting for the owl to make an appearance. About 8 they decided to drive down the road to look for sooty grouse. About 8:45 they returned to say that they had just talked with 3 other birders who had the good fortune to find a great gray owl at McGurk Meadow--a scant 5 miles from where I was standing--and watched it feed for upwards of 30 minutes.

We all zipped over to the trail to McGurk Meadow, and quickly walked the 10 minutes it takes to get down to the meadow. After about an hour of searching the meadow all we found were some owl feathers below the perch it had used to feed. So once again the great gray eluded my best efforts and info to find it.

I am now checked into my motel in Santa Barbara after driving the 6 hours it took to get here from Yosemite. Week #37 finished up yesterday with a total of 105 birds seen for the week. Week #38 began today with only 17 birds recorded, but tomorrow morning I will be going out on the Condor Express again in search of more seabirds. I get back to shore about 3 PM which should give me enough time to rush down into Los Angeles to look for a ruff that was found on the Los Angeles River in Long Beach yesterday. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bodega Bay Pelagic--September Trip

Yesterday Wes Fritz and I got together mid morning to do some landbirding. We were looking for something special like a ruff or sharp-tailed sandpiper but the best we could do was 2 pacific golden plovers and 4 pectoral sandpipers. The top photo is of a long-billed curlew that I took on Monday down in Monterey--remember to click on it to enlarge. The real excitement for the day was when I took a bite of my lunch sandwich and was stung on the bottom of my tongue by a yellowjacket. Needless to say it put a damper on the rest of the day which limited the amount of birding I did after lunch.

This morning we left the Bodega Bay harbor a little after 7 with some concerns about the seas since the weather report said there were wind gusts up to 20 knots. Our ride out to the deeper water was a bit rough, but nothing horrible. On the way out we had some fog, but nothing as thick and closed in as we had last Friday and Saturday down in Monterey. We saw once again the same group of seabirds with the best looks so far of fork-tailed storm-petrels this past week.

The chumming brought in gulls, jaegers and skuas, shearwaters, storm-petrels, plus fulmars and black-footed albatross (bottom photo above). Just as we reached the really deep water (7000 ft) the bird of the day flew by our boat--a cook's petrel. It was first called out as another buller's shearwater, but immediately the spotters realized that it was the similar looking but smaller cook's. I saw the bird and thought before they changed the call that it did not look like all the buller's we had been seeing today. And since I had missed seeing a cook's back on July 31st on the boat out of Santa Barbara, I was thrilled to have seen and known that this bird was a cook's.

It is very late, so I am going to wrap up this post by saying that 12 more birds were seen for the week over the past 2 days. The cook's petrel is a life bird and raises the YTD up to 681. Tomorrow I will be out looking for a ruff in the AM, and then will be heading over to Yosemite NP in search of great gray owls. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

1/2 Moon Bay Pelagic

By reading my headline you will already have surmised that I did not make the trip to Massachusetts. I was able to speak with the birder who found the common ringed plover on Sunday afternoon. After talking with him about the challenges of the location of the bird, and the fact that he only found it because it flew by him calling, I decided not to risk a 48 hour cross country round trip and instead went out of 1/2 Moon Bay on a pelagic yesterday.

We left the dock a little after 7 AM. This location is relatively unexplored by Debi Shearwater, but in one of the few trips out of 1/2 Moon Bay an extremely rare white-chinned petrel was seen. We fortunately did not have fog, but the skies were overcast until mid afternoon. Our goal was to get far enough out again to reach deep warm water. We were able to do that. Once out there though, we did not find much birdlife, and the only cook's petrel was seen at a great distance by Wes Fritz, the chummer.

We did see all the same birds as we had out of Monterey plus the hypolueca form of the xantu's murrelet. We were hoping that it would be the even rarer craveri's murrelet, but the photos clearly showed it was a hypolueca xantu's. We had good looks at wilson's, ashy and black storm-petrels, and more distant looks at fork-tailed. All 3 jaegers were seen plus laysan and black-footed albatross. We also saw elegant, arctic and common terns; fulmars, common murres and rhino auklets; the usual gulls; and sooty, pink-footed and buller's shearwaters. Probably the birding highlight of the day was a huge flock of red and red-necked phalaropes in migration. We also had lots of marine mammals including humpback, fin and blue whales, and pacific white-sided dolphins (photo above).

It was Debi's birthday which happens also to be my wife's. One of the fishing boats out in the warm water gave Debi 2 albacore tuna for her birthday. Needless to say, she was quite pleased. My wife is at the beach back in NC with other members of my family, and they had a dinner celebration for her including cake and ice cream which I was very sorry to miss. I will be seeing her with 3 other couples in Las Vegas starting next Sunday where we will celebrate her birthday again.

Because we were so far out, it took a long time to return to port, and we did not get back until 7 when we had expected to return about 4. For the week 20 more new birds have been seen, but I am still sitting at 680 birds YTD. There is an updated travel map. Today I plan to do some land birding with Wes, and tomorrow I will be going out of Bodega Bay on a pelagic. Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

3rd Day on the Bay

Yesterday we left the harbor at 5:35 AM in order to make the long ride out far enough to try for cook's petrel. We needed to get to deep water (over 10,000 ft) that was warm enough. Unfortunately, like Friday we had fog for a good part of the ride out, and did not find warmer water until after lunch. In this case warmer meant going from 56 degrees up to over 59 degrees. We also found some sun, but no special/rare birds other than a pair of scripsii xantu's murrelets.

On the way in we found a pair of tufted puffins (top photo above--remember to click on it to enlarge), and saw what the group concluded were 2 common terns sitting on a bunch of kelp (middle photo above). Surprisingly a bank swallow flew by the boat. We also had fin whales and blue whales plus dolphins of various types. At the harbor we were greeted by California sea lions (bottom photo above).

After doing a little land birding this morning, I am now sitting in my motel room in San Mateo talking with Bob Ake who is doing an all ABA area big year. He has just returned from 2 weeks up in Alaska where he hit 700 birds. Major congrats to Bob! Also, I am waiting to see if I am going to catch another red-eye flight tonite because a common-ringed plover was seen yesterday in Massachusetts. If not, I will be going out tomorrow with Bob on a pelagic trip from Half Moon Bay. Stay tuned!

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Different Kind of Day on the Bay

We went out again at 7:30 AM, but today was about as different as it could be from yesterday. Instead of a mostly bright blue sky day, we began with fog which stayed with us until early afternoon. As a result, our chumming effort was not all that successful because the birds could not see the boat, so when we lost the gulls that followed us out of the harbor, we did not have the magnet they provide to other birds. As a result while we saw most of the same birds as on Thursday, there were far fewer of them, and they were much harder to pick up in the foggy conditions.

We did have one very entertaining and educational 30 minutes while we watched a humpback whale feeding very near our boat. The top photo is of the back of the whale. The middle photo is a shot of the whale slapping its pectoral fins on the water as part of its feeding maneuvers . The bottom photo is of the whale breaching during its feeding process--remember to click on photos to enlarge. We watched its feeding routine thru several cycles.

After getting off the boat, Wes and I spent about 90 minutes retracing our land birding steps of yesterday. We also found most of the same birds as on Thursday but nothing special to add to the year list. So 59 birds were seen to start week #37, but no new year birds were found. Tomorrow I will be out on Monterey Bay one more time. Maybe we will find something special like a cook's petrel. Stay tuned!

Double Red Letter Day

Wow, what a day on the boat out on Monterey Bay/Sea Valley. But first, let me talk about yesterday. I was up very late on Tuesday nite after returning from FL/ AZ, so I did not get up on Wednesday until 6:30 AM. I talked with Wes Fritz and we decided that I would drive down to Santa Maria to meet him to bird for the afternoon before driving back up to Monterey. For those new to the blog, or who don't remember, Wes (top photo above) is the chummer on Debi Shearwater's pelagic trips who I met back in August.

We met at 11 AM and headed off to some of his best spots, including a location that had a ruff for over a week. We worked that spot but did not find the ruff, but did see a peregrine falcon hunting the area. So we tried a few other locations. At one of them we ran into 2 birders that Wes knows who told us that they had been at the ruff spot probably about an hour before us. They said they had seen the ruff and almost immediately they saw the peregrine strike the spot where the ruff had been seen. Wes later talked to a third birder who said she had seen the ruff feeding away about 2 hours before we arrived to look for it. So for me and the ruff it proved to be a tough day since apparently the ruff was lunch for the peregrine before I was able to see it.

This morning we were on the boat and out on the bay by 7:30. It was overcast at first, but by late morning it was sunny and very nice. The first big action for the day was 2 groups of orcas/killer whales that we found around 8:30. The middle and bottom photo above are of some of the orcas. We followed alongside their hunting for probably 30 minutes.

Soon after we had a flesh-footed shearwater come up the wake of the boat. This is a bird I was hoping to find today, so I was very pleased it showed up so early. About 11 AM Debi yelled "Wes, streaked shearwater coming down the port side of the boat". The bird flew by and kept on going. Since the streaked is a very rare bird, we stopped the boat and Wes did major chumming to see if we could get it to return. We did get the same or another flesh-footed to come in, but not the streaked. After 45 minutes of lots of good birding, the boat started moving again.

Throughout the day we had birds all around us including all 3 species of jaegers. We even had a dark morph pomarine jaeger fly by twice. We also had 5 south polar skuas visit over the course of the day. Some of the other birds included black-footed albatross; cassin's and rhinocerous auklets; wilson's, ashy and black storm-petrels; sabine's, heerman's, california and western gulls; common, arctic and elegant terns; and sooty, short-tailed, pink-footed and buller's shearwaters to go along with the flesh-footed and streaked.

After we returned to the dock about 3 PM, Wes and I headed up to Moonglow Dairy and Elkhorn Slough to see what might be around. We had tri-colored blackbirds and lots of different shorebirds but no ruffs. We called it a day about 7, and went to one of my favorite restaurants--Passionfish located in Pacific Grove. I had 2 appetizers--dungeness crab salad with avocado, and mussels in a tomato broth. Both were delightful. Wes went with the mahi-mahi with a ginger/wasabi marinade. We shared a chocolate truffle cake discovering that we both loved good dark chocolate. I drank a very floral 2008 torrontes from Susanna Balboa.

41 more birds were seen to finish up week #36. The flesh-footed and streaked shearwaters were both ABA life birds--those 2 birds plus the orcas warrant the double red letter day title-- and raise the YTD up to 680. Tomorrow I will be back out on Monterey Bay. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Back to Back Red Letter Days

It seems almost unreal, but in just 48 hours I traveled from San Francisco to south Florida, then to SE Arizona, and I am now back in northern California having just checked into my motel for the nite. You have heard about Florida already, so this post is all about my quick stop in Tucson.

I left Miami at 6:30 this morning, taking 2 flights to get to Tucson by 10 AM. I made the 55 mile drive down to Patagonia in less than an hour to visit the Paton's. For birders, the Paton's has been one of the meccas of birding for many years. Its future is uncertain since Mrs. Paton died last year. For now it is still open to the public, and all the birds that like to visit its feeders. In particular, there are about a dozen sugar feeders which have for years been the one sure place to find a violet crowned hummer. On Sunday the rarely seen in the U.S. plain-capped starthroat (hummer) showed up at the feeders.

When I arrived today a woman was leaving having not seen the bird. She said it had come in at 8:45 but not since. When I got to the feeder area I found 2 birders with large cameras patiently waiting for the starthroat to return. Soon another birder arrived. We all kept scanning the feeders and about 11:15 the starthroat flew in to feed. It then flew up into a nearby tree and proceeded to preen for 20 minutes. The light was not the best, but the bird was very visible. The 2 photos above were the best I could get with my camera--remember to double click on the photos to make them larger. The bottom one also has what looks like a black-chinned hummer which you can see is much smaller than the starthroat.

I have never visited the Paton's in September and was thrilled to see the huge number of hummers that were at the feeders. The only place that compares to what I saw today is Beatty's over in Miller Canyon in the Huachucas. It was not uncommon to see 4 or 5 birds on a feeder. The hummers that I saw included black-chinned, broad-billed, Anna's, Costa's, violet crowned and the starthroat. One of the photographers said he saw as many as 8 different violet crowned.

I saw 17 more new birds for this week, and the starthroat is an ABA area lifer for me (I have seen it before in Sonora, Mexico). The YTD is now up to 678. Tomorrow I will be land birding here in California before starting a series of pelagic trips later this week. Stay tuned!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Another Red Letter Day in the Everglades

It is Labor Day evening and I am posting this from Miami, FL. That's right, I am back on the east coast. I got a call yesterday morning about 8 AM west coast time from Bob, a birder I know down here in Florida, telling me that a cuban pewee had been found just that morning at Long Pine Key in Everglades NP. I was in Arcata, CA and my initial reaction is that is cool, but how could I get to Florida. I also knew that a plain-capped starthroat had been seen in SE AZ at the Paton's feeders. Both the pewee and the starthroat are extremely rare birds for the US, and are the kind of rarities that I am now hoping will show up in the remaining months of this big year.

I quickly got on the American Airlines website to see what my options were. I found that I could use frequent flyer points and take the red-eye to Miami. I was scheduled to leave at 8:45 PM, and I was a 6 hour drive from the San Francisco airport. No problem since I had about 12 hours before the flight left. I ended up birding around the Arcata area for 3 hours seeing lots of good birds including northern harrier and white-tailed kite in the Arcata Bottoms. At Arcata Marsh I found 200-300 marbled godwits, 40-50 willets, and 20-30 long-billed curlews resting in the grass at high tide.

Enroute to SF, I spoke again with the Florida birder who told me the pewee was still there plus a western spindalis had been seen close by. So now I had 2 very rare birds in the same spot, and both would be life birds for me.

I arrived in Miami this morning at 5:45 and was picked up by Bob and his friend Dex. I wrote about them back in March when we ran into each other looking for a western spindalis (did not see) and a bartailed godwit (did see). They had left northern Florida at 3 AM to be able to get me at 7. We powered down the road to Everglades NP. About 7:45 we talked to another birder who was looking at the pewee. But by the time we arrived at the pewee spot a little after 8 the bird had stopped calling and was not visible.

There must have been at least 25 birders there when we pulled in. My Florida birder friends knew most of the crowd. Since this is only the 3rd confirmed sighting of the cuban pewee in the US, I was surprised that there were only 2 other out-of-state birders there--a couple from Indiana that I had met early in January in south Texas when we were all looking at the bare-throated tiger-heron. They were in Florida when they heard about the bird, so they had seen the pewee yesterday afternoon. They had returned today in hopes of seeing the spindalis.

This morning was a typical hot, humid and buggy day in south Florida which was barely tolerable when the breeze would kick up. We kept patrolling the pewee site all morning, plus looked for the spindalis, but had no success. Since none of us had eaten, we went into Florida City to chow down at my favorite local taqueria.

When we returned to Long Pine Key about 1 almost no birders were still there. One new arrival was a woman who had come in from Houston. Soon after arriving a couple walked out of a side trail and told us that they had just watched the pewee for 15 minutes, but were walking out because it had left. We rushed down to the spot where it had been seen, and after 10 minutes it flew into a tree and proceeded to preen.

The 2 photos above of the pewee were taken by Bob. Notice the tear drop eye ring, large bill and very short wings of this bird. It was initially found on Sunday because of its call which is very distinctive and nothing like an eastern pewee. The top photo is the 3 of us celebrating seeing the bird (left to right--me, Bob and Dex).

We got to watch the bird closely for about 15 minutes. For the woman birder from Houston, this was her 790th ABA life bird--a huge life list total. For me and Dex, it was a life bird. Getting such a long and close look at this rare bird was definitely a highlight of the year, and thus qualifies today for red letter status.

In the intense heat and humidity of the afternoon we decided to drive over to a fruit stand called "Robert is Here" to get one of its famous key lime shakes. This really hit the spot, reviving us to return to Long Pine Key to make one more effort to find the western spindalis. After 90 minutes of looking, and major storm and mosquito clouds threatening, we called it a day.

38 more new birds were seen for the week over the past 2 days, and the pewee brings the YTD up to 677. You may remember that a few weeks ago I was asked when I hit 650 birds seen YTD, what did I expect the rest of the year to look like. At the time I said I thought I would get to 675 birds seen YTD by October 1st. It is only Sept. 6th, so I am well ahead of my projection. As a result, I am raising the 10/1 target to 680. I will be on a flight at 6:30 AM tomorrow to Tucson, AZ. Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

2 Good Days of Birding in Oregon

I was up and out yesterday morning before 7 to try again for the ruffs that had been seen in Newport starting on Wednesday. I spent an hour checking out the area where they were found. It was a fine morning to be birding. I watched the sun come up over the water, and kept scanning for the ruffs. I found the same marbled godwits, whimbrels, peeps and pectoral sandpipers (top photo above--remember to click on it to enlarge) that I saw on Thursday afternoon, but no ruffs made an appearance. I also saw lots of gulls, and a few terns including an immature forster's tern.

Late on Thursday evening a ruff was reported down in Bandon where I had been on Thursday morning looking for the sharp-tailed sandpiper. When I did not find the ruffs in Newport, I decided to drive back down to Bandon to look for that ruff, and also to walk Bandon Marsh again.

I arrived in Bandon about noon, and went to check out the location where the ruff had been seen. Soon after I pulled up another birder arrived. It turned out he was the person who had found out about the ruff. This ruff was a juvenile seen by someone who photographed it, but did not know what it was. The birder I met had seen the photo and knew that it was a juvie ruff. But it was seen on Wednesday, not Thursday as reported, and by yesterday it had disappeared. To make things even more frustrating for me, he told me that the ruffs in Newport had been seen at 10:30--just a couple of hours after I had left for Bandon.

I went back over to the marsh to see what was happening there. Unlike Thursday, yesterday there was fog coming and going over the marsh. There were several birders scoping the marsh including a very good local birder. He and I joined forces to walk thru the marsh to see what was around, hoping for a sighting of a sharp-tailed sandpiper, or maybe the ruff. Neither of those birds were found, but I was able to study 3 pacific golden plovers with the local birder which was very helpful.

About 2 PM I decided to drive back up to Newport to try one more time for the ruffs. I got there about 5 and spent 90 minutes looking for them, but again came up empty. So I checked into the same motel from the nite before.

This morning dawned sunny, and I was on ruff patrol before 7. Again all the same birds were around, but after 4 hours of seeing no ruffs I threw in the towel, and drove back down to Bandon Marsh. The bottom photo above was taken of the lighthouse at Heceta that I ended up driving by 4 times in 2 days.

When I 1st got to the Bandon Marsh, I found nothing but western and least sandpipers. Apparently a peregrine falcon had flushed all the bigger birds. After a bit I saw off in the marsh the same local birder who had already hiked thru much of the marsh, but had found nothing new. After about 30 minutes the plovers and dowitchers returned. There was only 1 pacific golden plover this afternoon. Also, it was sunny, but a brisk, steady wind was blowing out of the north which made for less than optimal birding conditions. After about an hour of scoping but seeing nothing new, the local birder and I said our farewells.

53 birds were seen during the first 2 days of week #36. I am now back down in California, spending the nite in Arcata to be ready to bird this area tomorrow morning. Maybe something good will show up here. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Change of Plans

It is Thursday nite and I am in Newport, OR. Yes, this is the same place I said a couple of weeks ago that I would not need to visit again when I saw a fork-tailed storm-petrel on a boat out of Ft. Bragg. Little did I know that a sharp-tailed sandpiper would be seen 2 days ago in Bandon Marsh (top photo) on the southern coast of Oregon. And that a ruff would be seen yesterday in Newport. But they were, so as soon as I got off my plane into San Francisco yesterday afternoon, I jumped into my truck to begin the 550 mile drive to Bandon Marsh.

I spent last nite in Yreka, CA and was on the road this morning at 5 to finish the 4 hours left in the trip to reach Bandon Marsh to search for the sharp-tailed. It was a beautiful morning--sunny, breezy with temps in the high 60's. I slogged thru the marsh for 4 hours trying to scare up a sharpie, but none were found. There were lots of other shorebirds, mostly western and least sandpipers, and a few other birders too. There was the occasional whimbrel (bottom photo above), plus a large group of black-bellied plovers.

I studied the group closely because a pacific golden plover also had been found 2 days ago mixed in with the black-bellieds. I found 2 birds that were clearly golden plovers, but then the question became was 1 or both a pacific, or were they both American golden plovers. I know both these birds in full breeding plumage from visiting Alaska, but I am not nearly as familiar with them in their basic or non-breeding plumage. My sense was that I had 1 of each based on their markings, etc. My photos were not as good as I wanted for posting, but I did email them to Wes Fritz, an excellent birder from Santa Barbara, CA who I met when he was doing the chumming on Debi Shearwater's recent trips. He confirmed that I had a photo of each.

I left Bandon about 1 PM to make the 100+ mile drive up to Newport in hopes of finding a ruff since I still need it for my big year. I spent a couple of hours near the Hatfield Marine Research Center with a few birders all of whom were looking for the ruff. At one point we got into a lengthy discussion as to whether we were looking at 2 pectoral sandpipers, or 2 ruffs in non-breeding plumage. While it would have been nice to have had 2 ruffs, in the end they were just 2 pectorals.

Week #35 is completed. I did not bird all that much--a little respite while home--but I did see 44 birds for the week, and the pacific golden-plover brings the YTD up to 676. There is an updated travel map. Also, the big year has now entered its 9th month as of yesterday. I will be out there again early tomorrow to see if maybe the ruff is in fact still around. Stay tuned!