Tuesday, December 11, 2012

First Ever Gathering of the 700+ Club

As promised, this post today is about the first ever gathering of those birders who have seen 700+ birds during a big year in the full ABA area, or in my case, the lower 48 states.  The gathering happened last week down in the Rio Grande Valley of TX, and was organized by Bob Ake.  Bob did his big year in 2010, and as a result I got to know him some since we ended up birding together quite a bit at the end of the year.  He thought since John Vanderpoel in 2011 had almost broken Sandy Komito's full ABA big year record set in 1998, it was timely to see if he could track down the few known 700+ big year birders.

My research on who those people are had led me to believe that there were as many as 15.  Once we began to search for contact info on my list, we discovered that 2 of the birders based on ABA annual big year info had not in fact done big years, rather their life time ABA list had been included in the annual list.  So that left 13 names on my list, of which only 11 could we find contact info.  In the end last week 10 of those birders came together to share our experiences and do some birding together.

I flew down last Tuesday with my sister, Maria, who had birded some with me during my big year in 2010.  She had never birded in the valley and wanted to check it out while also meeting the 700+ members.  Since the group was not getting together for the first time until dinner on Wednesday, she and I spent the day birding at Salineno and Falcon Dam SP.  We immediately found a couple of birders in from Pennyslvania scoping the river at Salineno when we arrived about 7:30 AM.  Soon we had the good fortune to have a fly over of 4 red-billed pigeons.  Right after that a group of birders arrived who were part of the Wake County, Raleigh, NC bird club.  After we finished checking out Salineno, we all went over to Falcon Dam SP, and spent some time at its feeding station where we saw quite a few birds including ladder-backed woodpecker (photo just above--click on any photo to enlarge), and the rabbit and green jay just below.

We also saw a long-billed thrasher and a pyrrhuloxia.

By early afternoon things were slowing down quite a bit bird wise since the temp had broken thru the 80 degree mark, so we made our way back to Alamo where we were staying at the Alamo B&B which caters specifically to birders--we both highly recommend trying it out next time you visit the valley to bird.

Before going to dinner, we drove up to Violet and 10th St. in McAllen at 5 PM to see if any green parakeets were staging on the wires.  We heard them before we saw them.  We arrived at the Santa Fe Steakhouse a little before 6:30 to find John Vanderpoel, Bob Ake, John Spahr and Benton Basham already sharing a beer in the bar.

We moved into the wine cellar which seats up to 12 people for our dinner, and by 6:45 all expected attendees had arrived.  We had a very nice meal while spending the next 2+ hours sharing our big year experiences.  The other attendees not already mentioned above included Sandy Komito, Al Levantin and Greg Miller--all of whom did their big year in 1998 which led to the book and then the movie--and Dan Sanders and Lynn Barber.  Jeff Gordon, the president of the ABA, also joined us.

I learned a lot more than I had already read about the various members of the group and their big years.  For example, Benton Basham was one of the founders of the ABA, and the first to see more than 700 birds in a big year, and reach 800 birds seen lifetime in the full ABA area.  He also told us that when he met Sandy years ago chasing a Mexican rarity, that he told him about Attu.  Both of Sandy's big year efforts were greatly helped by visiting Attu.

We also reviewed the 3 other names on my list of possible 700+ club birders. Two of the 3 names (Bill Rydell and Steve Perry) were confirmed, but no one knew anything about the third person (B. Shiftlett), who was on my list as a result of information Greg Miller had back in 1998.  Greg could not remember where he got the list that appears in the book, The Big Year.  So we concluded that we all only knew of 12 birders who had seen 700+ birds in a calendar year in either the full ABA area or just the lower 48 states.

The next morning we met at 7 AM at Bentsen RGV SP to bird together, and then went to Anzulduas SP to continue birding.  Our stomachs finally took us to lunch about 1 PM.  We split up for the afternoon.  My sister and I next went to check out Santa Ana NWR before getting cleaned up to attend the talk John V. was giving on his big year to a group at Quinta Mazatlan, which is part of the World Bird Center locations in the valley.  Prior to John's talk, we took a group picture.

 From left to right with year and number of birds seen, front row--Greg Miller (1998, 715), Benton Basham (1983, 710), Sandy Komito (1987, 722; 1998, 748), Lynn Barber (2008, 723), and John Spahr (2010, 704); back row--Dan Sanders (2005, 715), me (2010, 704), Al Levantin (1998, 711), John Vanderpoel (2011, 743 + 1 provisional), and Bob Ake (2010, 731).

After John's powerpoint presentation full of photos and humor, we had dinner together again with the exception of Benton and Lynn who had other commitments.  More sharing of experiences spiced up the meal, and Jeff got to ask a few questions of the group which I suspect he will be writing about in an upcoming ABA article. 

Friday we did not bird together.  Instead my sister and I traveled to the east side of the valley, first visiting Estero Llano Grande.  We met Henry Burton, a birder down from Ohio, who knew both Greg and Dan.  We worked together to find the female rose-throated becard that has been seen regularly near Benton Basham's trailer.  It was a life bird for both my sister and Henry.  He soon took off to go to Santa Ana to look for hook-billed kites.  My sis and I went into the main part of the park to see what else was about. We then returned to the area near Benton's trailer where we found Dan, Greg, Bob and John all looking for the becard which they had heard, but not yet seen.  Maria and I dropped in to say good by to Benton before driving to bird Old Isabel Rd. where we found an unbanded aplomado falcon.

We then headed out to South Padre Island to check out the shore birds and gulls, before returning to look for white-tailed kites (photo just above).  Next up was to drive the access road to Laguna Atascosa NWR where we found a birder who was looking at not 1 but 2 adult unbanded aplomado falcons (photo just below).  We chatted, and found out about a great spot in Brownsville to see parrots at dusk.  Sure enough, when we later visited Oliveria Park we saw well over 300 parrots come in to roost for the night including red-crowned, red-lored, white-fronted and yellow-headed.  It was a fine end to our 3 days of birding.

We rushed back to McAllen to have dinner at 7 PM with John Vanderpoel, and his son and daughter-in-law at Delia's tamales.  We all loved the different tamales we tried.  Maria and I headed back to Alamo to get some sleep since we needed to get her to the airport by 6:30 AM the next morning for her flight back to NC.

I dropped her off, stopped for a Mexican breakfast, and then spent a couple of hours at Santa Ana on the hawk tower in hopes of seeing a hook-billed kite.  I was the only person there until it was time for me to go to the airport when Henry came back to try again himself for the kite.  I did not see any kites, but several harriers, an osprey, and 1 Harris and 1 gray hawk made appearances.

Over the 3 days of birding, Maria and I saw 140 different species of birds, and my sister picked up 22 life birds plus 8 more for her ABA area life list.  The yellow-headed parrot was a new bird for me, but it is not countable in the ABA area.  I am now home without any bird trips planned.  My next post will be at the end of December when I review the year's birding, and talk about chasing a northern lapwing near Boston 2 weeks ago.  Stay tuned!