Friday, December 30, 2011

Anna's Hummer in New Bern, NC

The day after Xmas I did my usual bird walk on my property with Pam and Perry as part of their Christmas Bird Count. It was a chilly but sunny morning. We saw the usual suspects with some highlights being a golden-crowned kinglet, a winter wren and a hairy woodpecker. It is always nice to be part of their annual CBC effort.

Yesterday morning my sister and I made the drive down to New Bern, NC to look for another very rare hummer for North Carolina--an Anna's. We had success seeing the Allen's 3 weeks ago before it left the area, so we decided we should try for only the 2nd or 3rd Anna's to visit NC. We headed out at 6:30 AM to make the 150 mile drive to New Bern. We found the home of Art and Joanne Behrer where the hummer has been regularly seen. They graciously allowed us to park in their driveway so we could stake out the feeders right in front of the house. Joanne told us she had seen the Anna's at 7:20 that morning.

We patiently looked and listened for the male Anna's to make an appearance. About 11 AM when it had not come in to feed, we decided to drive on down to the Morehead City area to do some other birding, expecting to stop back for the Anna's on our way home to Chapel Hill. We turned the car key to find we had a dead battery. AAA came to our rescue about 2 hours later, jumpstarting our car. In the mean time we kept looking for the Anna's, but it just was not around. At least we had a fly over bald eagle to brighten our day.

After stopping to buy a new battery we drove down to Fort Macon so my sis could at least get some time walking on the beach. While there we were able to see 3 purple sandpipers, one of which is in the photo above. There was also a sanderling hanging out on the small jetty end where the purple sandpipers were busily feeding. Not much else was happening at Fort Macon birdwise. We saw one common loon, a couple of double crested corms, and a few pelicans.

We made the 50 minute drive back to New Bern, arriving just about 4:30 to try again for the Anna's. The sun was setting and the feeders were totally in the shade. My sister has a very good ear, and she said she thought she heard the bird calling. We walked toward a row of bushes and sure enough we found it perched in a bush. Unfortunately, while the hummer was very cooperative in letting me take its picture, the light was not great so the photos just above and below are not much more than record shots (click on photo to enlarge). You can see a bit of red behind the eye in the bottom photo. Having seen the bird, our ride home was much more enjoyable.

Turning to the whirlwind end to John Vanderpoel's big year, he is on a plane as I type to Toronto, Canada. On Tuesday on their way to TN to try for the hooded crane, John and Doug Koch stopped long enough to have a fried chicken lunch with me at Mama Dip's in Chapel Hill. That evening they were planning on picking up Liz Southworth who was flying into Chattanooga from Boston. On Wednesday they did get good looks at the hooded crane which now has been seen at Hiwassee wildlife refuge in TN by hundreds of birders from around the US. They all made the 12 hour drive back to Hatteras on Wednesday. Yesterday about 1:30 they had a great skua fly over their boat--the target bird for the last minute pelagic trip run by Brian Patteson to help John in his quest for the full ABA area record.

John is on his way to Whitby Harbour which is about an hour east of Toronto in hopes of seeing a smew that was found there on Tuesday. Unfortunately it was not reported yesterday, but he is going to make the effort to find it before flying to Arizona this evening. He and his brother will be looking for the Nutting's flycatcher tomorrow--New Year's Eve day-- at Lake Havasu City to finish out his monumental big year. His YTD total stands as of yesterday at 743 including the hooded crane as a provisional awaiting TN bird records committee review as to its acceptability as a wild bird. Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve Day

John Vanderpoel is back in Colorado. He posted yesterday that his last 3 days on Adak unfortunately did not bring him any more new year birds. Even worse, someone reported seeing a dozen whooper swans fly over the airport on Thursday a few hours before he was due to fly back to Anchorage. He had been looking for whooper swans for 3 days without success.

Having missed the whoopers, instead of staying overnight Thursday in Anchorage, and trying one more time for the erratic and elusive dusky thrush that was seen again on Thursday afternoon, he made the gut wrenching decision to go home on the redeye Thursday night. I just saw on NARBA that the thrush was seen again Friday afternoon. John had returned to Alaska in hopes that his success there in September and October--19 new year birds--would continue, and put him in a position to eclipse Sandy's record. Instead he came away with just 1 new bird for the year, and his YTD total is still at 741.

With 8 days left in his big year he still plans to fly to NC on Monday to be able to go out with Brian Patteson on Tuesday on the Stormy Petrel II in search of a great skua. From there he will probably head over to TN to see the hooded crane, and then onto AZ to try for the Nutting's flycatcher. It would be somewhat ironic if the flycatcher ends up being his last new bird for the year since that was Sandy Komito's first bird of the year back in 1998.

If he gets those 3 birds he will have done very well for the last few days of December. Bob Ake, Lynn Barber and Sandy each only saw 1 more new bird after this date during their big years, and I did not see any. Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

John Vanderpoel vs Sandy Komito

With John Vanderpoel's full ABA area big year effort breaking thru the 740 level, I have noticed on the ABA blog a debate between Greg Neise and Ted Floyd as to what is the big year number to beat. More specifically, is it 745 as originally reported back in 1998, or is it 748 as Sandy Komito has claimed in interviews this year as a result of the movie The Big Year?

In my post back on 12/10, I said I thought it was 747 actually because in studying his printed big year list in his book (I Came, I Saw, I Counted), he still had gray vireo on it which in his book he said he had taken off the list because Jon Dunn had convinced him his photo of a gray vireo was in fact a plumbeous vireo. Since then I have gone thru his list carefully, and discovered that his printed list does not include eastern phoebe or willow flycatcher even though he discusses the phoebe sighting in the text and references the willow in the index. So in his book the printed list has only 744 birds on it, including the gray vireo, but when you add the phoebe and the flycatcher, and subtract the vireo, you are back at the 745 different bird species reported.

To clear matters up, I emailed Sandy to ask him about what I had discovered. He responded that I was the first person who had ever noticed the printing error. He also restated the reason for the gray vireo delete. Finally, he wrote about the great gray owl (my photo above) he thought he saw flying at some distance in Minnesota in 1998, but did not add to the list. He has since been convinced from seeing more great grays flying that he did see a great gray in 1998 but still does not count it on his list.

Each birder doing a big year has to set his/her own level of confidence of an identification of a bird (Lynn Barber who did her full ABA big year in 2008 makes mention of this in her recent blog post on the ABA blog site). I was in Minnesota in January of my big year when I flushed a large flock of small birds. I was pretty sure they were common redpolls, but they did not return to the roadway so that I could get the visual confirmation I wanted. As a result, I went to North Dakota in mid December where I was able to see a common redpoll (photo just below--click on it to enlarge) as well as a hoary redpoll.

After exchanging emails with Sandy, and not getting into the discussions about the validity of any of the birds on his list, I would conclude that the number of birds he saw in 1998 is the 748 he has been claiming. He reported 745 at the end of 1998, and clearly says in his book that he thought there would be up to 4 new North American records from his big year (Belcher's gull, Bulwer's petrel, yellow-throated bunting, and elegant quail) that would be finally accepted. Over the next few years all but the quail were added to the ABA official list.

What is primarily generating the current debate is whether those last 3 birds should be counted after the fact. With respect to this issue, back in 1987 when he set the record that year, he initially submitted 721 as his record number, and has said after 5 NA first records were added that his final number in 1987 was 726. He has been consistent for well over 20 years in how he has played the game and reported his results, and being the record holder, I would suggest that it is a bit absurd after holding the record for so long to now be questioning his final numbers. But it is happening because this year there is a possible new record holder in John Vanderpoel.

The debate on the ABA blog has generated 62 replies so far including one of my own. It has also led to some comments as to whether Sandy should have counted in 1998 the aplomado falcon (reestablishment program in south TX), or the white-cheeked pintail (unknown provenance) he saw. Again, this is all because after so many years the full ABA area record is being finally challenged by John V. With all this discussion, it would appear to be time for the ABA to clarify the exact rules of the big year game so that at least going forward there will be less confusion than appears to be the case today.

Turning to John Vanderpoel's final days in his 2011 big year, he was delayed in leaving Adak because of a problem with the weather monitor used by the airlines to land on Adak. He also has not posted for 2 days when he did report that he was able to see a whiskered auklet, which brings his YTD to 741. His expectation was that he would finally leave Adak today. Let's hope that he found 1 or 2 more new year birds prior to leaving. His next target bird would probably be the Nutting's flycatcher that was found 4 days ago near Lake Havasu City, AZ. Stay tuned!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hooded Crane!

On December 13th a hooded crane was found at the Hiwassee wildlife refuge northwest of Chattanooga, TN. Because of where hooded cranes breed (southern siberia) and winter (Japan and Korea), no previously reported hooded cranes have ever been accepted as wild birds in the ABA area, but one was seen in 2010 in Idaho, and another in Nebraska this past spring. Cranes are such magnificent birds, and this bird was only 430 driving miles from my house, so I had been monitoring reports on it all week.

Yesterday morning when I read that it had been seen again around 8 AM, I jumped in my truck and made the drive over to the refuge. I arrived about 3:30 PM, and soon after the hooded crane walked out into a large grassy area. In the photo just above you can see the hooded crane standing all by itself in the center of the picture (click on photo to enlarge). The photo below was taken by David Kirsche on 12/15. Over the next hour the bird was visible for probably 30-45 minutes. Unfortunately it was about 400 yards away from the viewing location, but even with binocs you could see its distinct markings, and with a scope you had very good views of it. There was one 10 year old boy who kept asking for looks thru my scope.

In addition to the hooded crane, there was an immature (first year) whooping crane mixed in with the 1000-2000 sandhill cranes. The big question is whether the hooded crane will continue to stay at Hiwassee with all the sandhills, or will the flock move further south for the winter. Even though there is no certainty that this bird will be accepted as a wild crane, John Vanderpoel, who is birding at Adak thru today, is hoping to get to TN by mid week to see it. John has not posted on his blog yet as to how he did yesterday at Adak. Hopefully he has picked up at least whiskered auklet and whooper swan. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rusty Blackbirds

Last year in November and December I spent some time visiting several places here in the Chapel Hill area looking for flocks of rusty blackbirds that would be migrating thru our area. Unfortunately I only found a single bird in mid November, and then on New Year's Eve day I found a group of 7 females. So last Sunday when I read on the Carolinas listserve that a flock of 150 rusties had been seen at Mason Farm, I jumped in my car, and drove over to check if they were still there.

I figured that they would be in a damp, oak wooded area that I had been visiting over the past couple of weeks, so I walked straight to that location. As I was scanning the trail one rusty flew up into a tree. When I began to study the oak motte sure enough I found the flock feeding in the leaf litter. For the next 30 minutes I tried to get close enough to get some good photos, but the flock was very skittish and kept flying further into the oaks. The photos just above and below were the best I could get (click on any photo to enlarge). I was elated to see so many rusties together because the rusty blackbird population has crashed over the past 40-50 years.

Turning again to how John Vanderpoel is doing in his quest to top Sandy Komito's full ABA area big year total of 747 (see last post), he did not see any new year birds on his pelagic trip this past Sunday; but yesterday John and his brother saw a rufous-capped warbler in Florida Canyon, AZ. This brings his YTD total to 740. He is flying up to Alaska today in a effort to push that total higher. Alaska is critical to all full area ABA big year efforts, and generally birders visit the state 2-4 times from May to October. His going in mid December may be a first for a big year, and his flying out to Adak in the Aleutian Islands is definitely unheard of for this time of year. This will be his 6th trip to AK in 2011.

He will be in Anchorage overnight, and will have a chance to see a dusky thrush that has been hanging out with a large group of robins. On Adak he hopes to see at least 3 rare new birds for the year. He will return to Colorado on the 19th which will leave him about 2 weeks to find any more late in the year rarities. Even with the trip to AK, getting past 747 is not a sure thing. After this date Bob Ake only saw 2 more new birds in 2010; I only saw 2 more in 2010; Lynn Barber only saw 4 more in 2008; and Sandy only saw 1 more in 1998. Out of this group of 9 different species, only the white-cheeked pintail seen by Sandy is a species that John has not already recorded this year. The statistical probabilities are not in his favor, but you just never know what might still show up. Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Allen's Hummer in NC

This morning my sister and I decided to make the 140 mile drive one way to see only the 2nd Allen's hummingbird ever recorded here in North Carolina. We left at 7 AM and arrived at River Bend Park about 9:30. The hummer has been hanging around a feeder right at the park office. We walked into the office to find 5 other birders plus a very friendly female park ranger gazing out the windows at the feeder. The hummer mostly sat in a tangle of blackberry bushes, but would make occasional forays to the feeder for sugar water. The photo just above was taken thru the window from about 40 feet so it is not much more than a record shot but it does show the Allen's. Click on the photo to enlarge. So far 165 birders who saw the hummer over the past 3 weeks have signed the register at the park.

We spent about 30 minutes watching the hummer on its blackberry perch and at the feeder before deciding to walk the park to see what other birds might be about. We did not find all that much bird activity. Some highlights were golden-crowned kinglet, yellow-bellied sapsucker, pileated woodpecker and belted kingfisher. We did see some nice grasses like those in the photo just below. We finally started back towards Chapel Hill about 11:30, stopping at Lexington BBQ to have lunch.

I want to follow up on my post of 11/23 concerning Sandy Komito's full ABA area big year record total. I have since spoken with a birder I met last year, John Puschock, about his understanding of the counting rules for big days or years. I then reread the ABA rules myself. The starting point for whether to count a bird is whether the species is already on the ABA list of accepted birds. If it is on the list, then from there it is up to the birder to make the judgment call as to whether the bird they saw is countable. If a bird is not yet on the ABA list, then the birder needs to wait to see what the state and then ABA bird record committees decide about adding a new species to the ABA list.

For my big year I also added the criteria that any bird that might be deemed questionable such as a bird that might have been an escapee, or part of a release program, also needed to be reviewed by the state bird record committee. This is why last year I did not count the white-cheeked pintail duck that I saw in NC because our state record committee voted 9-0 not to accept that bird as a wild bird. Based on my personal criteria, I suggested in my post of 11/23 that Sandy's big year total was in the end 745.

I do not personally know Sandy, and I do not know the specific criteria that he used in 1998 for counting a bird. In the book, The Big Year, his 1998 total is reported as being 745, but based on what I read in his book (I Came, I Saw, I Counted), which included birds he he may have seen but not well enough in the end for him to put on his list, it would appear that his 1998 big year total is 747 different species. I say this because he was able to add 3 birds (Bulwer's petrel, Belcher's gull and yellow-throated bunting) after the year was over that were accepted later by the state and ABA review committees, but he also said in his book that he was not counting in the end a gray vireo on his list.

One of the most common questions asked of big day or year birders is what kind of verification is needed to confirm your list. The answer is that it is an honor system. In this age of digital photography and lots of birders out in the field, it is not that hard to get a picture or to have witnesses when a rarer bird is seen, but in the end it is still an honor system. Therefore, understanding what criteria a birder used can help to clarify any questions concerning the birds on a list whether the list is a life, a big day or a big year list. And the only time it ever seems to become an "issue" is when setting a new "record" is a possibility.

Turning to John Vanderpoel's big year effort, I spoke with him yesterday after he had seen a falcated duck that was found 3 days ago near Sacramento, CA. He flew there Friday morning from San Antonio, TX after seeing a juvenile brown jay at Salineno, TX. These 2 birds have raised his YTD total to 739. Tomorrow he will be on a pelagic trip out of Bodega Bay to try for another mega rarity. While I do not expect to be seeing any mega rarities in the next few days, I will be in touch with John as he seeks to break Sandy's record. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mason Farm

The last few days it has been in the 60's here so on Monday and again this morning I went birding at Mason Farm which is part of the NC Botanical Garden here in Chapel Hill. Both days proved to be pretty good days for birding. Monday I was walking about from 1-2 PM, and today I was out there from 10-11:30. Both days proved to be very good woodpecker days. I saw lots of downy (photo above--click on it to enlarge), red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers. I also saw a few flickers, 1 pileated woodpecker, and heard a yellow-bellied sapsucker. The only local woodpecker that I missed was a hairy.

The other main bird group over the 2 days were sparrows including white-throated, chipping, fox, field, and song plus lots of juncos. Other birds noted include red-tailed hawk, common grackle (unfortunately no rusty blackbirds were in the flock), blue jay, cardinal, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, hermit thrush, carolina and winter wren, brown creeper, american crow, eastern bluebird, white breasted nuthatch, carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, yellow-rumped warbler, turkey vulture, great blue heron, canada goose, and the barred owl in the photo just below.

After I finished my walk this AM I gave John Vanderpoel a call to check on how his second graylag goose chase was going. He had missed it on Monday, and again early yesterday morning, but finally had a brief view late yesterday. This morning he, Doug and Liz had better views before John headed south to Albany, NY to catch a flight to TX where 2 brown jays have been visiting the feeders at Salineno for a few days. After seeing a golden-crowned warbler and 2 aplomado falcons in south TX last week, he is now at 737 birds for the year. After his return to TX he plans to go to CA for a pelagic trip, and then next week to Adak, AK to seek out more rarities. With the brown jay plus some good fortune at Adak the ABA area big year record of 745 birds would be in striking distance. We are rooting for you John. Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

An Amazing Albino Ruby-Throated Hummer

My birding friend, Doug Koch, forwarded me yesterday several photos taken by Marlin Shank, who is only 15 years old, of an albino ruby-throated hummingbird. I have seen so few albino or leucistic birds during my many years of birding, and these 2 photos were just so amazing.

Today is December 1st which I remember well from last year during my big year. I posted an entry talking about having dinner in San Francisco with Bob Ake and Wes Fritz to celebrate mine (12/1) and Bob's (11/30) birthdays. We had just been in northern CA trying to see the brown shrike but had fallen short. Fortunately, we all were able to see the shrike 2 weeks later. Sometimes a birder has to make more than 1 trip to find a special bird since you are not always lucky on your first try.

John Vanderpoel knows this all too well as he enters the last month of his big year. In my last post I described our unsuccessful efforts to see a graylag goose near Montreal. Right after Thanksgiving, John flew up to AK to try for the redwing that was found in Seward on Nov. 17th. It was seen everyday thru 11/26. John arrived in Seward on the 27th but the bird was not seen that day, or any day since. After 2 days of looking he got back on a plane to fly to south TX in hopes of seeing the golden-crowned warbler that was found there last week.

Updating my discussion on his chances of passing Sandy Komito's 1998 record of 745, John is still at 734 species of birds seen so far in 2011. During the last month of their respective big years, Sandy saw only 4 new birds for the year, and Bob Ake and Lynn Barber 8 each. All but 5 of these birds John has already seen this year. Those 5 birds are baikal teal, northern lapwing, rufous-capped warbler, aplomado falcon and white-cheeked pintail.

The warbler is a code 3, and the teal and lapwing are code 4 birds. The aplomado falcon was extirpated in the US in the 1930's, and like the condor is now in a multi-year program begun over 20 years ago to reestablish the species in TX and NM. As a result, most birders do not count the aplomado falcon today because the ABA has not yet concluded that the south TX population has been successfully reestablished as a breeding bird. And as I wrote last year after seeing a white-cheeked pintail in NC, because they are raised as exotic ducks, very few white-cheeked pintails seen in the wild are ever accepted by state bird committees as being wild birds.

The point I am trying to make is that John's window/chance of successfully passing Sandy is definitely narrowing. But as he said in his last post, "this dog still hunts". We are rooting for you John. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Wild Goose Chase!

It is Wednesday afternoon and I have just returned from a "Wild Goose Chase". I decided late Sunday afternoon to fly up to Burlington, VT so that I could be picked up by John, Doug, Ken and Liz on their way to chase the graylag goose that has been visiting Chambly Basin just outside of Montreal. Having birded with all of them earlier this year as part of John Vanderpoel's big year I thought it would be fun to chase the graylag since it would be only the 3rd wild graylag recorded in the ABA area, and a life bird for me.

I arrived at midnite, and immediately hit the rack at the rendezvous motel to be able to get some sleep before getting up to leave at 5 AM Monday. We left as planned, made it across the border about 6 AM after raising the eyebrows of the French Canadian custom officer who just could not understand why people from CO, CA, NY, NC and MA would meet up to come into Quebec to find a graylag goose. We were at Chambly Basin by 7:30 AM having already seen several thousand snow geese on the river nearby. It was sunny but only about 30 degrees and windy. I really had not brought the right cold weather layering, so I was pretty chilly, retreating to the warmth of the car regularly.

We met Raymond, the local birder who had found the goose, about 9:30 at a different location on the basin than we started. We went there because we saw some Canada geese fly in across from our position. He told us that there were not nearly as many geese on the Basin as there had been earlier. This was not an encouraging discovery, but we kept our hopes up nevertheless.

Once we found the new spot, many birders kept stopping in to check on whether the goose was there. By mid day we had carefully scoped all the Canada geese we could see but had not found the target bird mixed in with them. We decided to have some lunch and warm up. We then returned to the prime viewing spot about 1:30, and began our vigil again. More birders continued to cycle thru, but no one had seen the goose. As the sun got lower in the sky we hoped more geese would fly into to roost for the night. In fact the opposite seemed to happen as many of the geese that were already on the water flew off to feed very late in the day.

As the sun went down we found ourselves at 5 PM checking into a local motel, and then walking quickly down the road to eat dinner at Tre Colori, a recommended Italian restaurant. We ended up having a very good meal, including talking with the chef owner who told us his parents had moved from Calabria, Italy and started the restaurant 45 years earlier, and now he and his brother were running it.

After a much longer night's rest, we were back at the prime roost location at 6:30 AM to find at least 1000 Canada geese just waking up for the day. This was still well below the 2-3000 geese that had been on the Basin last week. While the wind was not blowing like the day before, the temperature was 17 degrees. One of the local birders from the day before joined us soon after our arrival, and then a few more. Alas, by 9:30 not only had we not seen the graylag goose, but most of the Canada geese had flown off to feed in the farmlands nearby.

Because John needed to be back in Boston by 7:40 PM to catch his flight home to Colorado, we reluctantly packed up and began our drive back to Boston--a drive that was much less exuberant than it would have been if we had found the graylag goose. John not only did not get the graylag, but he also did not see a great skua on his pelagic trip last Saturday which leaves him holding at 734 birds for the year. Even though Thanksgiving holiday traffic slowed us down as we approached the airport, we did get John to his plane on time so he would get home to spend Thanksgiving with his family.

Before closing out this posting, I want to respond to the comment on my last entry. A reader referred me to a short interview with Sandy Komito in which Sandy explains that he believes his final record number of different species seen in 1998 is actually 748. After reading his book recently, I understand the point he was making in the interview. Specifically, there were 3 birds he saw in 1998 that were accepted by state bird record review committees after 1998--Belcher's gull (CA), yellow-throated bunting (AK), and Bulwer's petrel (NC).

But in reviewing his book, and applying the same rules by which birds seen during a big year typically are counted based on state bird record committee reviews, he counted 2 species (Xantu's hummingbird in British Columbia, and a white-cheeked pintail in Florida) that were not accepted after the fact as wild birds by the state/province committees. Also, Sandy says in his book that after discussions with Jon Dunn, he decided he was not certain that he had seen a gray vireo in 1998, and therefore was not counting it in his total. As a result, I would suggest that Sandy's record total is still 745.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving--my favorite holiday of the year. I hope everyone has a great day tomorrow. When I will be birding next is not clear, but you never know, so stay tuned!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Is Sandy Komito's ABA Big Year Record of 745 Beatable?

Those of you who have been checking in on this blog over the past few months know that I have been talking about how John Vanderpoel has been doing in his full ABA area big year quest. I first met John this past summer on pelagic trips out of Hatteras, NC. I also saw him in September on pelagic trips out of Bodega Bay and Half Moon Bay, CA. The photo just above (fork-tailed storm petrel) and below (marbled murrelets) were taken by Doug Koch on 2 of those west coast trips.

This past Wednesday John saw a female rose-throated becard in south Texas to raise his year to date total of different bird species to 734. This puts him in second place all time, 11 species short of Sandy Komito's record of 745 set back in 1998. My last posting is about the movie the Big Year which is based on the 1998 big year birding experiences of Sandy, Greg Miller and Al Levantin.

When I was doing my lower 48 big year in 2010, I met a birder from Washington state while I was watching a pair of montezuma quail in Texas. I mentioned I was doing a big year, and his comment was, "after Sandy Komito found such a high total number of species, I did not think anyone was even doing big years now." The book the Big Year also makes the point that because of the unique el nino component in 1998 plus the loss of the availability of birding at Attu in the Aleutian Islands after 2000 that Sandy's total of 745 might never be beaten.

In summarizing my 2010 big year, I speculated that Bob Ake, who saw 731 different species doing a full ABA big year in 2010, could have gotten very close to matching Sandy's 1998 total (see my posting on 1/4/2011). After following John's effort this year, and having recently read Sandy's book about his 1998 big year--I Came, I Saw, I Counted--I am convinced that Sandy's 745 total is not out of reach. The following further explains my thinking on this.

First, Sandy points out in his book that between 1987 when he did his first full ABA area big year (then record of 721), and 1998 that 20 relatively easy to see new birds were added to the ABA list due to splits and newly recognized established exotics. There were another 32 rarities also added. He further points out that there were 27 species he saw in 1987 which he did not see again in 1998. And since 1998 another 48 birds have been added to the ABA list as a result of splits and rarities, 7 of which are easy to see birds. Finally, at the end of his book published in 1999, Sandy also suggests that his number can be beaten.

Another way to measure the possibility of passing Sandy's 745 record is to compare the birds that I saw last year in the lower 48 with Sandy's list of birds from 1998. He saw 52 birds outside the lower 48 states that I did not see. Adding those 52 to the 704 I saw, plus 6 others I could have seen but did not because I chose not to "chase" them, then the hypothetical full ABA area total could have been 762.

Turning to John Vanderpoel's big year, the key to his having reached 734 as of this week was the success he had this fall in his trips to the Pribilofs, Gambell, Barrow and Nome, AK. So, is it possible for him to pass Sandy's record with just 6 weeks left in the year? Since one never knows when and where a rarity may show up, it is not possible to say for sure if he can catch Sandy. Looking at other big year records may give some additional insight.

Specifically, in analyzing Sandy's last 6 weeks in 1998, plus Bob Ake's, my own and Lynn Barber's, I would say the probability is not high for the following reasons. First, Sandy only saw 5 more new species in his last 6 weeks, and John has already seen 2 of those birds. Secondly, while Bob saw 12 more new species in his last 6 weeks, there are only 4 birds on his list that John has not yet seen. Similarly, I saw 12 more birds in my last 6 weeks, but John has already seen 9 of those. Finally, in 2008 Lynn did a big year. She saw 13 more new species during her last 6 weeks, but again John has already seen 11 of those birds.

John's possible ace in the hole is to make one more visit to Alaska in December to go to Adak Island in the Aleutians in hopes of picking up 3-5 rarities. He also could still get some rarities out of Newfoundland, south Florida, south Texas, and southeast Arizona. This weekend he is planning to go out on 2 pelagic trips from RI and MA in search of a great skua (photo just below taken by Doug Koch). There is also a graylag goose in Montreal this week. I am considering joining John along with 3 other birders to make a run for the goose after the pelagic trips are over. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Movie The Big Year is a Big Dud!

The movie The Big Year was released 2 weeks ago, but since I was in Italy, I was not able to see it until this afternoon. I have been looking forward to seeing it for several months because I had read the book, I know one of the birders on which the book is based, and naturally because I have done a big year. What a huge let down this movie proved to be!

My wife watched it with me and generally liked it. She asked me if I had not read the book would I feel the same way, and my answer was yes. So why am I so disappointed?

First, Mark Obmascik who wrote the book did a very good job in delivering the story of the 1998 big year experience of Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller (who I know). He did such a good job that Ben Stiller bought the movie rights, and decided to make it into a comedy hiring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black to deliver the script written by Howard Franklin. The fact that it was to be a comedy had many birders concerned about how we would be perceived, but my opinion after seeing it is that we have nothing to be worried about.

Second, the movie right from the start says that it is based on a true story but some of the facts have been altered--boy were they! If you had not read the book maybe you might have liked the story line better than I did, but the changes did not improve the story as far as I was concerned. For example, the Greg Miller character was the birder he was partly because his father was a birder. But for the movie they decided that he and his father needed to not see eye to eye on his birding passion. This is just one of several script changes that seemed unwarranted.

Third, the story is about 3 men's passion for birding, but the birding part of the movie was so inaccurate that it was laughable. The director clearly had no sense about birding--what it feels like, how birders actually act in the field. The descriptions of the birds were often poor. The locations of some birds like the pink-footed goose and great gray owl were absurd. And for anyone who has not read the book, the Owen Wilson character who was Sandy Komito in the book, never found his big year nemesis bird--a great gray owl. The movie decided that it would be a snowy owl, and suggested that he finally saw one on Dec. 31st. By the way, as I sit typing this blog entry I am listening to a great horned owl hooting outside my window.

Fourth, I don't think I laughed more than a couple of times during the movie. The book had its funny moments, but the movie and these 3 successful comedian actors just were not funny.

Finally, having done my big year last year, I feel very qualified in saying that this movie did a very poor job of capturing what it really feels like to do a big year. It certainly tried with all the dates and place captions printed on the screen, but in the end it was only a shadow of the real thing.

An indication of the overall failure of/lack of interest in the movie is that after its first 10 days it had only sold $6 million in tickets. It was shown on 2100 movie screens around the US which means that it was averaging about $300/day/screen which equals only about 40 viewers per screen. This afternoon there were only 7 customers at my showing. I just checked and saw that it is not in any of our local theaters after tomorrow--a measly 2 week run!

On a better note, John Vanderpoel continues to rack up birds. After his 4th trip to AK this year where he saw oriental turtle dove and McKay's bunting, he is now at 729 birds for the year with 2 months left to find more rarities. With 2 easy birds still to get, he should move into 2nd place all time for the full ABA area before the year is over, and just might even get close to Sandy Komito's record of 745. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Pelagic Photos from Doug Koch

As promised in my last post, I have received a few photos taken by Doug Koch last month on several pelagic trips off the coast of northern CA. The photo just above shows Doug sitting in the middle with the black knit hat with his camera in a white plastic bag trying to stay warm. Sitting to his left is John Vanderpoel, and standing up facing towards John is Steve Howell one of the premier pelagic birders in the world.

We saw lots of shearwaters on our trips including the sooty above (click on any photo to enlarge), and the pink-footed just below.

We also had good looks at buller's shearwater shown above. The gull highlight on these trips was the sabine's gull in the photo below.

Since mid September when these photos were taken I have not been able to bird because of a bicycle accident that left me with a broken left collarbone. I have learned that this is the most often broken bone, and 90% heal without any surgical intervention. You keep your arm in a sling for several weeks and the broken bone "finds" a way to mend itself even when the broken ends are not real close together. This has slowed me down a bit in general, but I am still heading off to Italy today for a 2 week vacation to celebrate a good friend's 60th birthday.

While I am off partying, John Vanderpoel will be continuing his full ABA area big year hunt for more birds. He is now at 726 and has 2 easy birds still to see. With reasonably good luck this fall he could reach the mid 730's--an extremely successful big year effort that would move him into 2nd place all time.

Finally, the movie the Big Year is opening this Friday. It is based on the book the Big Year about the adventures of 3 birders who did full ABA area big years in 1998. It stars Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin, and is being billed as the best adult comedy of the year. I will be seeing it as soon as I return from Italy. My review of it will be my next blog entry. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

3rd Day out on Half Moon Bay

I am back home from my trip to northern California after completing one more all day trip out of Half Moon Bay with Shearwater Journeys this past Sunday. John Vanderpoel was able to be on board, but only because Doug Koch gave him his spot since the boat was totally sold out. On the way out of the harbor we saw a few surf birds (photo above--click on it to enlarge). Under sunny skies we proceeded to head northwest and eventually went 30 miles which took us out to and a bit past the Farallon islands (photo below).

These small islands are where tufted puffins and ashy storm petrels breed. We were hoping to find some large groups of ashy storm petrels, but did not. This was a portent for the day as we saw very few seabirds as we kept motoring over some very good sea topography without any success. The day wound up at 7:15 PM after traveling almost 90 miles. While the seas were not too rough, and the sunshine was nice, the trip proved to be one of the worst days for seabirds that I can remember with only one laysan albatross, and a couple of south polar skuas to raise people's spirits.

Last year Debi said this same route was covered with seabirds plus 75 humpbacked whales feeding on krill, but this year there seems to be very few food patches for the birds. This is one of the challenges of seabirding since day to day, and year to year you are never sure what you might find in any given area. Only Monterey Bay consistently has large numbers and variety of birds.

The next day I visited friends in the north bay area before heading home, and heard from John that Monday's trip had even fewer birds than on Sunday. He has now returned home, and will be heading up to Alaska this weekend to continue his big year effort. Doug will still be going out on Monterey Bay for a few trips. Once he returns home to New York he has promised me several photos of many of the good birds we saw on the Bodega, and earlier Half Moon Bay trips. Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Great Winged Petrel Miss

The past 2 days I have been on pelagic trips out of Half Moon Bay. On Friday John Vanderpoel and Doug Koch were also on the boat. We left the dock about 7:30 AM, and headed into some rough seas that were almost as bad as the ones we had most of the day at Bodega Bay on Wednesday. On the way out of the harbor we saw surfbirds; black turnstones; brandt's, double crested and pelagic cormorants plus a single surf scoter, and a lone wandering tattler on the breakwaters. We then powered thru a large group of mostly sooty shearwaters on our way out to deeper water. The day overall was pretty birdy, but not as good as on Wednesday at Bodega Bay. We did have south polar skuas which had not made a showing at Bodega. We ended the day with good views of winter plumage marbled murrelets, but arrived back at the dock almost 2 hours past the normal 5 PM return time.

This morning I was out on the boat again, but John V. was down in Monterey doing a pelagic trip there instead. Doug was on the boat, and my friend Rob Lowry also was on board (photo just above). We cruised out initially thinking that we would need to stay close to shore because the forecast was for winds up to 30 knots, but after about 90 minutes we got an updated forecast that said the winds were much lower than predicted. So we again headed out to deeper water, and the sun came out. The photo just below is of Debi Shearwater pointing out a pomarine jaeger flying by the boat.

Soon after making the decision to head out to deeper water, a birder from Australia called out "great winged petrel". At first Debi did not hear him, and then said, "wait did you say great winged petrel?" He said yes, it just flew by the front of the boat. Debi had the captain stop the boat, and then immediately told him to try to chase in the direction that the bird flew, but within a minute she realized that it was not possible to catch the bird. So instead we put out a small oil slick and waited for about 20 minutes hoping the smell of the oil might bring it back. The oil slick did not do the trick which meant there were many very depressed birders on the boat today since only 4 people actually saw the great winged petrel in the 10-15 seconds it took for it to pass by our boat. Having not seen the petrel go by, I was among the bummed since this was only the 5th record of this bird being seen off the coast of CA.

The rest of day was sunny with fairly calm seas, but birdwise it was even slower than yesterday with almost no storm petrels, and no laysan albatross to cheer people up. We did have very good views of a single cassin's auklet on the way out of the harbor, and then a very cooperative tufted puffin later in the morning. One of the birds we saw closer into shore, but also throughout the day, is the common murre shown in the photo above--click on any photo to enlarge. We also found a large group of sea lions feeding.

We returned to the dock about 4 PM, still under sunny skies. As we came into the dock area we had very good looks at a clark's grebe. It had been a nice day to be out at sea, but the missed petrel is still weighing on me some since I may not get another chance to see this bird given how rarely it has been found. Ever optimistic that something else good will show up, I will be on the boat again tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bodega Bay Pelagic

Yesterday I went out of Bodega Bay on a Shearwater Journey's pelagic birding trip. The boat was jam packed, and included some birding friends. The 2 guys mugging for the camera just above are John Vanderpoel (left) and Matt Stenger who are both doing full ABA area big years in 2011, and finally met face to face after several near misses earlier in the year.

The boat left the dock finally about 7 AM under overcast skies. We made our way out in some heavy seas with winds up to 15 knots. It was one of those awkward days to be on a boat--not so rough that the boat could not go out, but rough enough that several people were adding chum to that provided by Wes Fritz, Debi's main chummer on these trips. Unfortunately one guy was sick much of the day which meant he will not have fond memories of seeing his first laysan albatross (photo just below--click on any photo to enlarge).

John and Matt however had very good days for their big year count. They both added flesh-footed shearwater to their totals--a difficult bird to pick up in the fall on the west coast. Matt also added fork-tailed storm petrel and buller's shearwater to his list. John's total is now at 712, and Matt is up to 655--both excellent numbers with 3+ months left in 2011. The main difference in their totals is that John has made more trips to Alaska, and had a well thought out year plan whereas Matt has pretty much been just out there birding around the country going where the "wind" and some planning has taken him.

After a bit of a slow birding start, the trip got much birdier. Besides the laysan, we also had several black-footed albatross; lots of fulmars; sabine's, western and california gulls; elegant and arctic terns; wilson's, ashy, black and fork-tailed storm petrels; pink-footed, buller's, sooty and flesh-footed shearwaters; pomarine, long-tailed and parasitic jaegers; cassin's auklets; red and red-necked phalaropes; and 1 distant tufted puffin fly by.

We stopped twice to put out a fish oil slick which kept lots of birds coming in to check us out, but also meant for a rocking boat making it hard to take photos as well as raising the seasickness level. It was good to get back to land about 5 PM where the sun was shining. Right after we docked I was able to get the photo just above of a black oystercatcher. I am on land today, but tomorrow will be going out of Half Moon Bay on another pelagic trip. Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Checking In

I have not been out birding since the gray hooded gull chase. I did go up to Brooklyn, NY and Boston a week ago, but ended up not looking for the hooded crow in New Jersey because it had disappeared again. I also chose not to go to the NC coast yesterday in hopes of seeing lost seabirds as a result of hurricane Irene.

My main reason for doing a post today is to congratulate John Vanderpoel who yesterday saw his 700th and 701st bird for the year. The photo above is of a dusky grouse that my wife and I saw last year in June in Colorado. Yesterday John found a few female Gunnison sage grouse also in Colorado for his 701st bird, and earlier in the day he saw a group of pinyon jays for #700--you can read all about it on his blog (see link on mine).

John is out today looking for the greater sage grouse, and then is off to AK for a couple of weeks before returning to California to do some pelagic trips. I will see him then when we go out of Half Moon Bay together in mid Sept. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Tale of 2 Hoodeds

I wish that the 2 photos above were taken by me yesterday, but alas that is not what happened. So I asked Doug Koch to send me the above pics (click on photo to enlarge) that he took on Tuesday morning when I was originally supposed to be at Coney Island with him, Ken and John. But I am ahead of myself.

Having missed out on Tuesday to see the gray hooded gull, I kept checking to see if it was still showing up. I knew that some birding buddies of mine from Ohio--Dan, Doreene and Bill--were planning to try to see the gull yesterday before flying off Friday evening to Brazil for 3 weeks of birding there. As a result, when the gull was seen again on Wednesday, we hatched a plan to try to see it together on Friday.

Also on Wednesday, reports came in that the hooded crow, which had been found on Staten Island in late June, but then had disappeared, was relocated on the New Jersey shore. This bird, which lives in Europe and is largely non-migratory, created a big stir when discovered because it would be a first North American record of the hooded crow. But because its origin/provenance was unknown, there was much doubt whether it would eventually be accepted by the ABA as a wild bird that had arrived in the US unassisted.

As a result, my Ohio friends had chosen not to chase it back in June when it was first found. However, since my friends were driving from Ohio to NYC, we decided if the crow was seen again on Thursday to meet in Philadelphia on Thurs. nite. I checked the listservs all Thursday morning waiting to see if the gull and/or crow were being reported. My friends began driving at 3 PM towards NYC.

A very tardy report finally came in about 5 PM that the gull was seen briefly from 7:30-8 AM on Thursday, but not for the rest of the day. At that point no one had reported seeing the crow. Since there is still uncertainty that the hooded crow will be accepted by the ABA, my friends decided not to go to Philly, but instead took a more northerly route towards NYC. When the crow was finally reported about 9 PM as having been seen Thursday afternoon, it was too late for them to change their routing, and it was definitely too late for me to get to Philly on a plane Thurs. nite.

I had a ticket on hold to fly to NYC at 6 AM Friday, but was not all that confident that the gull was still at Coney Island since Thursday was the first day of 8 days in a row that it had not been seen during the afternoon. Also, there was a big Aretha Franklin concert happening Thursday nite at Coney Island which might or might not affect the bird. But since I had the reservation, and because my friends were going to try for it, I finally decided to cross my fingers and hope that it would show up on Friday.

Unlike last Monday evening, my plane took off on time and even arrived at JFK airport early. I rushed out to catch a cab to take me to Coney Island. Fortunately there was not much traffic, and I was on the beach at 8 AM greeting my friends plus a birder from Texas that I had met last year. The weather was not bad--sunny, low 80's and a nice breeze. We proceeded to work up and down the beach, stopping to talk with other birders as we patrolled. We met birders from Colorado, Maryland, and upstate NY as well as locals. The first birders on Friday had been there at first light--6 AM--but as the day wore on the gull still did not come in.

About 1:30 a young woman excitedly informed us that she had just seen the gull on the pier. About 20 birders made a mad dash toward the pier. She said she saw the bird 1/2 way out flying around. We did not find the gray hooded gull, but did find a common tern which like the gull has a red bill and red legs. We figured that she had seen the tern, and thought it was the "bird with a red bill and red legs" that all the birders were seeking. When we relocated her she showed us the picture she had taken on her cell phone of "the bird" to find that it was a common tern.

At 2:15 we had to call it a day so that Dan, Doreene and Bill could return their rental car at JFK, and be ready to catch their flight to Brazil. I decided to join them since I had a return ticket on hold for 7 PM. When I got home last nite I found that the gull never was seen yesterday, and so far not today either, but the crow was seen several times yesterday and again this morning. I did enjoy seeing my friends, but came home with sunburned lower legs and no gray hooded gull or hooded crow for my effort.

While I got used to chasing during my big year in 2010, I much prefer to go birding. I don't really like beaches, but it is pretty funny that the one time I have been to the world famous Coney Island beach was to chase a gull. I am returning to NYC in a couple of weeks to see my son who lives in Brooklyn. Maybe I will get another chance at both the gull and the crow. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Of Mice and Men

The best laid plans of mice and men was the theme of yesterday. I was all set to catch a mid day flight up to New York City in order to have a chance to see the gray headed gull, which is also called a gray hooded gull. But the first sighting of the day did not occur until about 1 PM. As a result, I booked my flight to leave Chapel Hill at 5:20 to fly to LaGuardia. I arrived at the airport at 4:20, and settled in to wait to board the flight when I noticed that the flight to JFK was on a ground delay. I asked the agent about my flight and was told we were still going to leave on time.

So I am thinking if JFK is closed how is LaGuardia still open. Sure enough 10 minutes later my flight is put on ground delay. At 6 PM they load us on the plane, taxi out and shut down the engines because now there has been another ground delay. At 8 PM we taxi back to the gate, but are told we still will be flying to NY that evening.

I am at this point highly skeptical, so I decide to see what the prospects are for getting on the flight to Washington, DC. John Vanderpoel and 2 other birders were driving from Hatteras north, and I checked to see if they might pick me up there around midnite when they passed thru the city. They said no problem. The gate agent said that both DC flights were also grounded, and I should wait for the NY flight. At 9:45 PM they announced my flight was going nowhere, and the earliest flight out today would be at 11 in the morning.

About 10:20 we were informed that the DC flights were also going nowhere. All of this was very perplexing since my son, who I had planned to stay with, kept telling me that the skies were clear or partly cloudy in Brooklyn. As it turned out, there were massive, 40,000 feet high thunder storms in the DC/Philly area that had messed up the entire flight corridor. That said, somehow the JFK flight that I first noticed was grounded did get off while we were sitting in our plane from 6-8 PM.

I called John, Doug and Ken to tell them I could not get to NY or DC that night. Given that they were going to be at the gull site at first light, and the earliest I could get into NY was around 1 PM today, I told them as much as I would have liked to see the gray hooded gull with John during his big year, I was not going to fly up this morning.

It proved to be the right decision when I received a call from them at 8:30 AM telling me that they were standing looking at the gull, and were ready to head off to catch flights home, or to drive home. Doug said he would send me photos of the gull as my consolation prize.

The gray hooded gull raised John's year to date bird total to 691. In the ABA coding system, this gull is an accidental, code 5 bird which is the 2nd code 5 bird for John's big year list. As a reference, last year I had four code 5 birds. John is in excellent shape to pass the 700 level by the end of August. He will be going to Alaska again in September and October, so with some good luck he could end up with a very good total for the year.

For those who have followed this blog, I have discussed the significance of passing the milestone of 700 birds in a calendar year in the full ABA area. Last year I did some research, and based on American Birding Association data, and Wikipedia, as best I could determine, only the following 11 people have seen at least 700 birds in a calendar year:

1) Benton Basham in 1983, 710 birds
2) Sandy Komito in 1987, 721 birds
3) Steve Perry in 1987, 711 birds
4) Bill Rydell in 1992, 714 birds
Sandy Komito in 1998, 748 birds (full ABA area record)
5) Greg Miller in 1998, 715 birds
6) Al Levantin in 1998, 711 birds
7) Dan Sanders in 2005, 715 birds
8) Lynn Barber in 2008, 723 birds
9) Bob Ake in 2010, 731 birds
10) John Spahr in 2010, 704 birds
11) Chris Hitt in 2010, 704 birds in just the lower 48 states (record)

So John should soon be joining a quite small group of birders in the "700 club". I have also mentioned that Matt Stenger is doing a full ABA big year, and provided a link to his blog (716birds). Matt recently passed the 600 bird level. Finally, Gabriel Mapel, an 11 year old from Virginia, is doing what he calls a junior big year (see his blog link). He is currently in Alaska, and has reached this week 334 birds for the year.

Back to the gray hooded gull, I will keep checking to see if it is still at Coney Island over the next few days. I might make a quick trip up soon, or since I am going to Brooklyn on August 17th, I might wait to see if I am lucky enough for it to hang around until then. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 1, 2011

2 Days of Pelagic Birding Out of Hatteras, NC

This year has been a phenomenal spring and summer for white-tailed tropicbirds off of the outer banks of NC. As a result, I decided to do 2 pelagic trips this past weekend on a boat captained by Brian Patteson that is based at Hatteras, NC. Like Debi Shearwater on the west coast, Brian is the predominant pelagic bird trip provider on the east coast. I have been out with him over 20 times in the past 10 years, including 9 days as part of my big year in 2010.

Even though I really do not like summer pelagic trips because of the intense heat and humidity I wanted to go out in hopes of finding a mega-rarity like black-bellied storm petrel. I also knew that John Vanderpoel who is doing a full ABA big year in 2011 would be on the boat. I have been following his blog and progress during his big year, and wanted the opportunity to be able to talk with him about it.

We left the dock at 5:30 Saturday morning with high expectations. John had his fingers crossed that he would get 5 or 6 new birds for his big year. The photo above is of a group of Cory's shearwaters with one smaller audubon's shearwater floating with them--click on any photo to enlarge.

During the day we would occasionally have bottlenose dolphins swim by the boat. Once the fish oil slick is started, which is usually about 8-9 AM, we begin to get a good group of wilson's storm petrels following behind the boat over the slick (photo just below). Your hope is that a rarer storm petrel will also show up. Over the 2 days we only had fleeting glimpses of a couple of band-rumped storm petrels.

We did get a fair number of great shearwaters (photo just above), and black-capped petrels. We had one fly by parasitic jaeger on Sunday. But the highlight of the 2 days was yesterday morning about 10 AM when a white-tailed tropicbird came into the boat, circled us a couple of times, flew off but quickly returned for one more loop before flying on its way. Unfortunately I was not able to get a photo of it, but if you use the link in the right column of my blog to go to John's blog (big year 2011) you can see the photo he took of the tropicbird.

John was quite pumped since this is the kind of very rare bird he needs to build up a big total number of birds seen during his big year. The tropicbird plus Cory's and greater shearwater, and black-capped petrel raised his year total to 690. Over the 2 days we had a chance to compare notes on our respective big years sharing some of our more memorable birding days.

John is out on the boat again today trying for more rarities. Then tonite he will be driving from Hatteras all the way to New York with 2 other birders in hopes of seeing a gray-headed gull that was found at Coney Island a few days ago--this gull is a South American bird, and is only the 2nd one confirmed to have visited the US. If the gull is reported again today I will be flying up to NY to join them. Stay tuned!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Home Again

We are back in Chapel Hill. Our flights home were pretty uneventful, but the overniter from Anchorage to Chicago was bumpy and too short to get enough sleep. After 3 weeks in Alaska it was good to sleep in my own bed again.

On Tuesday morning we headed to Seward from Homer which is about a 3 hour drive barring road work/traffic. We did stop along the way to check a couple of birding sites one of which was a beach that had over 30 bald eagles feeding along the shoreline. I also picked up an aleutian tern feeding out over the water. At another stop I finally found a varied thrush for the trip.

We arrived in Seward mid afternoon and went into town for an early dinner. Since we had not had any fresh salmon yet we ordered the sockeye special along with some local sea scallops. Our starter course was steamed clams that were delicious but did not look like the typical manila clams from the pacific northwest. When we asked about them we found out that they had come from Thailand instead of AK.

The next morning we took a hike up to see Exit Glacier which is part of the Harding Ice Field. The photo just above is of the glacier. To give visitors a sense of how much the glacier has contracted, as you are driving along the road to the parking area they have posted signs with dates on them. The first is like 1815 and just a 100 yards further along the next date is 1900. But then the signs get further and further apart. As you approach the foot of the glacier there is a sign indicating where the foot had been in 1998. In just 13 years the foot had moved about 100 yards further up the mountain. Roughly speaking, the glacier has contracted about 10 times faster over the past decade than it did from 1800 to 1900. One of the birds that we saw often during our time in AK is the sooty form of the fox sparrow in the photo just below--click on any photo to enlarge.

We made the steep climb on a trail that paralleled the glacier getting about 1/2 way up to the top of the glacier where it attaches to the Harding Ice Field before we needed to turn around to have time to make the drive back to Anchorage. The 125 mile drive between Seward and Anchorage is one of the prettiest scenic drives anywhere--snow patches and snow covered peaks abound with beautiful lakes and streams everywhere.

We stopped briefly at Potter Marsh just south of Anchorage to check the bird scene. The photo just above is of a lincoln's sparrow. Below is a sandhill crane.

At one of the pullouts a pair of arctic terns (just above) were squawking at the world. We ended our trip with a picnic in the park where we saw hudsonian godwits and short billed dowitchers, cackling geese, red necked grebes, greater scaup and mallards, a surf scoter, violet-green swallows, mew gulls, arctic terns, and our first starlings of the trip. The total bird count while up in AK was a bit above 100 species seen.

While I love being in Alaska, I have to say other than its unique glaciers and ice fields, you can see equally dramatic scenery in the western US and Canada, and it is easier to get there and less expensive. As a result, any future trips to AK will be to do birding in out of the way places like Adak and Gambell. For now I am home for a bit and may not post again for awhile, but you never know when a rare bird might take me birding, so stay tuned!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Homer Alaska

Two days ago we made the 460 mile drive from Denali NP to Homer. With a short lunch stop it took about 9 hours. Our "home away from home" while in Homer is the Two Sisters bakery and B&B. The bakery is open during the day beginning at 7 AM except Sundays when it opens at 9. It is a hot spot in town based on how busy it has been throughout our stay. On the drive down we saw quite a few bald eagles including the one in the photo just below. I also have posted below the eagle a shot of one of the willow ptarmigan chicks we saw at Denali--remember to click on any photo to enlarge.

The sun was shining as we pulled into Homer but most of the time since we arrived it has been cloudy which makes the mountains and glaciers surrounding Kachemak Bay all the more breathtaking. I am not sure that I have been anywhere that has as dramatic a setting as Homer based on the proximity of the mountains to the town and the bay, and the clarity of the air.

The main purpose for visiting Homer was for us to take a morning boat ride out onto the bay to look for seabirds. Our trip was not scheduled until this morning, so yesterday after sleeping in and eating breakfast at the Two Sisters, we drove down the Homer spit which is 4+ miles surrounded by water. There were not all that many birds about but we did see pacific and common loons, black-legged kittiwakes and white-winged scoters.

After dropping my wife back at the B&B, I drove out East End road to look for boreal species and had the good fortune to locate a northern hawk owl shown in the photo just above. This is a bird that is seen more here in the winter than in the summer, but is never common. I also found some pine siskins feeding with the male common redpoll in the photo just below.

This morning we were up before 7 to have time for a quick breakfast before heading down to the Homer Spit to meet Karl Stoltzfus, the captain of the Torego. There were 2 other couples from New York and Ohio respectively who joined our trip out onto the bay. It was windier than yesterday which made the water a bit rougher than normal, but nothing to keep us from getting across the bay to reach the better seabirding spots. The first was a group of rock islands on which mostly black-legged kittiwakes breed, but also red-faced cormorants--an Alaskan specialty bird. You can see 2 perched on the rocks in the photo just below.

We then began a slow meander up the bay in search of kittlitz's murrelets. On the way we ran into the tufted puffin in the photo just above, plus 100's of common murres some of which you can see on the water behind the puffin. For the next hour we would check out all the murrelets we came across in search of the kittlitz's. We found lots of marbled murrelets, and then finally located a single kittlitz's that flew away confirming by its outer white tail feathers that it was a Kittlitz's. Its quick departure precluded my getting a photo.

We returned to the dock just before noon wishing we had seen more than one Kittlitz's, but still pleased to have seen the one plus the red-faced cormorants. All in all I have to feel good that I was able to see both of these birds plus the gray-headed chickadee last week which are all life birds for me.

I was asked by Aaron while on the raft trip how many ABA area breeding birds I had left to see. I realized I had never thought about that question. Now that I have seen these 3 birds, and having done some research on Aaron's query, I can say that I only have 6 remaining breeding birds that you would reasonably be expected to see in the ABA area. The group includes McKay's bunting, red-legged kittiwake, spectacled eider, whooper swan, common snipe and whiskered auklet--all Alaska birds that will require some additional effort to see on some future trips to Alaska.

There is also the aplomado falcon and CA condor to see again once they are back on the ABA acceptable list. Finally, there are five code 4 (white-tailed eagle, Eurasian dotterel, white-winged tern, eared quetzal, and Eurasian jackdaw) and one code 5 (lanceolated warbler) birds that have been known to breed in the ABA area but seeing them is another matter. For now my wife and I are looking forward to visiting Seward tomorrow before heading back home. Stay tuned!