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!