Tuesday, December 24, 2013

And Then There Was Only One Week Left

It is Christmas eve afternoon and all thru the house.....In 2010 during my lower 48 big year I was home today getting ready to spend Christmas day with my family.  This year I am doing the same, and since I was in town this past Sunday, I also was able to join my friends Pam and Perry who walk our property as part of their annual CBC day.  It was unusually warm--record setting warm--here in Chapel Hill.  We really had a pretty slow day bird wise until the very end of the 3 hour tour thru the 230 acres we live on.  We picked up a small mixed feeding flock, and Perry found a barred owl roosting in a pine tree.  I did not have my camera with me, so instead I have posted a photo of a barred owl that I took in Florida back in 2010 (click on photo to enlarge).

With just one week to go in 2013, a short update on the big year birders seemed appropriate.  Ron Furnish has not posted anything since last week's update, but I did see that he entered on the ABA listing central site his year total of 687.  Neil Hayward did make it to Homer, AK where on the 18th he saw a rustic bunting.  He has been home since waiting for another rarity to be found that he might be able to chase.  He briefly thought one had been seen in British Columbia--a possible Eurasian Hobby--but it was decided that it was the prairie race of merlin.  His year total is at 745 + 3 provisionals, and he also has seen an aplomado falcon that he might still add to his list.

The big news for this post is the outstanding job turned in so far in December by Jay Lehman.  As I have pointed out in earlier posts, Jay's big year has developed unlike any of the other highly successful big year birder's efforts.  All those in the 700+ group have started very fast, and generally have seen at least 600 different species by June 1.  Jay started more slowly, and by June 1 his year total was only at 522.  As a result, I suggested in an earlier post that he was the tortoise as compared to Neil's hare.

Jay has proven that an accomplished birder with his kind of experience and knowledge can definitely overcome a slow start.  Through his persistence and diligence Jay is now at 730 + 2 provisionals.  In December so far he has added 25 new birds to his list as he has sought out, mostly in Arizona, many code #1 and #2 birds that were not yet on his list.  In comparison in December Sandy Komito (748) saw only 3 new birds; John Vanderpoel found only 10 more; Bob Ake saw 8 new birds; Lynn Barber also added 8 new species; and Neil so far has seen 8 new birds.  Kudos to Jay for delivering such a strong effort this month.

After this date in their respective big years, Sandy saw 1 new bird; John 3; Bob 1; and Lynn 1.  Who knows what the next 7 days might bring in the way of rarities, but if the weather cooperates, both Neil and Jay are planning to go out of Hatteras, NC with Brian Patteson on Saturday the 28th in hopes of seeing a great skua.  For Neil, depending on what happens with his provisional birds, a great skua would give him the potential to set a new full ABA area big year record.  For Jay, it definitely would tie him for 4th place on the full ABA area big year list and his provisionals give him the potential to be alone in the 4th spot. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

52 Weeks in the Books with Just 2 More to Go

There are only 2 weeks left in 2013 for big year birders to find a few more new species for their lists.  In 2010 by this date I did not yet know that I had just seen my last new birds for the year.  I had gone to North Dakota to see both common and hoary redpolls which on the day that I saw them I thought were my 700th and 701st birds for my lower 48 big year.  Little did I know that because I had not created a bird list on my blog until February, I had left 3 birds off the list when I did my initial 200+ bird entry.  Followers of my blog pointed out an entry error I had made on scissor-tailed flycatcher, and when I went to carefully review my list I found a few entry errors including that I had left northern harrier, blue-headed vireo and hermit thrush off my list back when I first started it on the blog.

Imagine my surprise then to discover that the 2 redpolls were actually my 703rd and 704th birds for the year (click on any photo to enlarge).  Even though I went up to Massachusetts to join a CBC in hopes of seeing a thick-billed murre on the 19th of December, I did not see one, and so my final count for 2010 was 704.

So where are our big year birders with just 14 days left to bird?  Ron Furnish did another post to talk about his recent trip to Texas to see whooping cranes.  This was his 687th new bird for the year, but in his trip report he said he does not expect to do any significant birding before 12/31, and that the cranes might be his last new bird for 2013.

Jay Lehman has been birding so hard that he is not close to caught up on his blog.  He had a very successful trip to Anchorage and Nome, and also out to Adak with Neil Hayward, John Puschock and Bill Sain.  I believe he is currently in Arizona picking up more birds as well.  Jay started his year a bit slowly and then missed 2-3 weeks in August because of a flooding problem at his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.  As a result, he still is searching for some code #1 and #2 birds that he did not have time to find earlier in the year.  His count is now up to 721 + 3 provisionals last I heard.

Neil as I write is amazingly flying back to Alaska to look for a rustic bunting that has been coming to a feeder in Homer for the past week.  I believe that this is his 7th trip since May to Alaska. He had been in Florida where he saw a La Sagra's flycatcher, but missed finding what appears to be a returning white-cheeked pintail at Pelican Island NWR.  With the little bunting he saw in northern California, and the La Sagra's he is now at 744 + 3 provisionals.  He has still not added the aplomado falcon he saw to his list which would bring his confirmed total to 745.  Sandy Komito's record of 748 set back in 1998 is definitely in play.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Just 4 Weeks Left for 2013 Big Year Birders

In 2010 during my lower 48 big year, I was home on this date looking out my kitchen window at my snow covered bird feeding station.  Henry the heron looked cold with snow on his back.  Since I had seen all but 2 of the code #1 and #2 birds that could be expected to be found in the lower 48 states, I was in a holding pattern waiting for a new vagrant to show up somewhere.  As it turned out, I headed to California on the 8th to look again for the brown shrike that was relocated above Arcata.

So what has happened with the big year birders in the past week?  Ron still has not posted any new trip reports and his total is at 686.  Jay had a very successful trip to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia followed by a whirlwind day in Arizona that has brought his year total to 708 + 2 provisionals.  He is in Anchorage today in an effort to find the dusky thrush that has returned to the city for the 3rd winter in a row.  Tomorrow he and Neil will be flying out to Adak with John Puschock to spend 3 days searching for rarities.

After finding the dusky thrush last Friday, and seeing McKay's buntings on Saturday in Nome, Neil decided to make a quick trip to TX where he saw yesterday American flamingo and whooping crane. He is flying back to Anchorage today to be in position to go to Adak.  His year total is 740 + 2 provisionals.  He has now seen all but 2 code #2 birds. During my lower 48 big year I had the good fortune to see in August 3 sub-adult flamingos in the Everglades.

Again, some data points for comparison.  With 4 weeks left, in 1998 Sandy Komito saw just 3 more new species of which two were code #4.  Lynn Barber in 2008 found 8 more new birds with 7 being code #3 or higher.  In 2010 Bob Ake also saw 8 more new species of which 7 were code #3-5. Finally, John Vanderpoel in 2011 also saw only 8 more new birds of which 6 were code #3 or higher.

To wrap up this post, I also will share some new statistical analysis that I have done on big years.  Dan Sanders (full ABA area big year in 2005), and I have been talking for some time now about other possible ways to measure big year success than just a year end total.  The reason for the discussion is because the ABA keeps adding more birds to its list.  Specifically, in 1979 when James Vardaman fell 1 bird short of seeing 700 birds, the ABA list of accepted birds totaled 826.  In 1998 the ABA list was up to 911 species.  By 2008 it had reached 957, and today it is at 981.  Of the total new birds added since 1979, 33 have been code #1 or #2, and 122 have been code #3 or higher.

As I have written in the past, when comparing Sandy Komito's 2 big year totals (1987--725; 1998--748), you would say on first blush that 1998 was far superior.  But when you realize that 21 more code #1 and #2 birds were added to the ABA list between 1987 and 1998, an apples to apples comparison shows the 2 years were much closer.  Sandy in his book about his 1998 big year, "I Came, I Saw, I Counted", talks about this, but concluded he felt overall that 1998 was a "better" effort.

I have also commented in several posts that one reason I think Sandy's record will be broken is because 12 more code #1 and #2 species have been added to the ABA list since 1998. This is one reason Lynn Barber, Bob Ake, John Vanderpoel and probably Neil Hayward have been able to reach ever higher year end totals for the full ABA area since 2008.

So, another possible way to measure big year success might be to calculate a birder's percentage success rate by dividing birds seen against the ABA list total for that year.  Having done this, I have concluded this is not really a good measure because 4 times as many code #3 or higher birds have been added since 1979 as code #1 and #2 species.  The numbers are as follows:  Vardaman 699 in 1979--84.6%;  Benton Basham 711 in 1983--84.6%; Komito 722 in 1987--84.1%; Rydell 714 in 1992--81.5%; Komito 748 in 1998--82.1%; Sanders 715 in 2005--76.7%; Barber 723 in 2008--75.5%; Ake 731 in 2010--75.4%; and Vanderpoel 743 + 1 provisional in 2011--76.7%.

One other point involves the linear nature of a big year.  Specifically, it is interesting to see that there is a strong correlation between how early a big year birder hits 700, and the overall big year total achieved.  Again the numbers since 1998 for full ABA area big year birders who passed 700 birds:  Komito (748) reached 700 species on 7/12; Vanderpoel (743 + 1) saw his 700th on 8/27; Hayward (740 and counting) hit 700 birds on 8/19; Ake (731) got to 700 on 9/6; Barber (723) saw her 700th bird on 10/24; Sanders (715) did it on 11/9; Miller (715) reached 700 sometime in late September; Levantin (711) hit 700 in early October; Lehman (708 and counting) saw #700 on 11/18; and Spahr (704) hit 700 on 12/11.

The final 4 weeks of birding in 2013 could be very exciting.  Stay tuned!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Back from the Valley

I got up early on Friday morning to drive out to Salineno.  I was there by 7:15 and kept a steady eye on the Rio Grande in hopes of seeing red-billed pigeons or muscovy ducks. The 2 year drought was very obvious as the river level was down 3-4 feet from the levels I have seen over my many years of visiting Salineno.  There were far fewer birds around as well with no ducks on the river, and only one double-crested and one pelagic cormorant flew by me during 2 hours of watching.  Needless to say, I did not see any of the sought after pigeons or ducks.

My consolation prize was to spend a few hours at the recently reopened feeding station just above the river crossing.  The state and the Valley Land Trust have been "working" for several months on an agreement to reopen the feeding station which for so many years was a destination for birders in the winter.  The primary draw here is seeing Audubon's orioles, but many other valley species also visit the feeders.  Between the drought and not feeding for many months the numbers of birds were way down.  A eastern screech owl was snoozing in its box though (click on any photo to enlarge).


Over about 3 hours of watching we saw 27 bird species highlighted by the green jays, the greater kiskadees, and a pair of hooded orioles.  We had a crested caracara fly over, and a gray hawk.  4 other birders from northern Virginia stopped in for a second time on their birding trip in hopes of picking up Audubon's oriole, but all of us were disappointed to not have any come to the feeders.

The weather was predicted to get ugly beginning in the afternoon, so about 1 PM I started the 70 mile drive back to McAllen.  Sure enough the rain began on my way there. By 5 PM major thunderstorms were pounding the area, and the temperature had dropped from the mid 80's into the high 40's.  As a result, I decided to try a place that Neil Hayward had told me about called House, Wine and Bistro.  I discovered the kind of restaurant that I had not yet found in the Valley which is dominated by steak houses and all kinds of Mexican food.

I have visited the lower Rio Grande Valley since the late 70's, and I have personally witnessed the vast changes that have occurred with the population growth in the area.  But this was the first restaurant that showed me that modern fine dining had arrived in the Valley.  I enjoyed talking with my wait person who said the place was doing so well that the chef/owner planned to open a second restaurant.  I loved the lime shrimp dish, enjoyed a porchetta sandwich, and a dessert called a choco-mole. 

I was so pleased with my experience that while seated at my table I called Neil to thank him for the recommendation.  He was having coffee with Gerri back home in Cambridge which brings me close to the second half of this post--an update on the 2013 big year efforts. But first I will wrap up the rest of my trip.

I went to Santa Ana NWR Saturday morning where under overcast skies there was not much bird activity.  At the feeder station by the headquarters I met Isaac Sanchez who is a long time friend of Jay Lehman.  He had come down to Texas as part of his photographic big year to see the amazon kingfisher (you can find a link to his blog on the Narba website).  We chatted some about Jay's big year.  When it began to rain again, I headed back to my motel.  I flew home yesterday to even colder temps in Chapel Hill.

As Thanksgiving week is now upon us, the 2013 big year birders have just over 5 weeks left in their adventures.  Ron Furnish has not posted any more trip reports, and his year total is at 686.  Jay Lehman just posted on his blog yesterday about finding a little gull which was his 700th bird for the year.  He has 2 provisionals as well, and plans to continue birding to raise his year end total.

Neil is still not totally caught up on his blog posts, but if you go to his website and check his list you will see that his total is now up to 736 with 2 provisionals.  The one sure bird left for him to see is the whooping crane. He also plans to make a trip to Alaska to see McKay's bunting, and a dusky thrush was reported yesterday in Anchorage.  If he were also to go to Adak, he might pick up some rarities there.  He is still hoping to see a great skua before the year is up.  He also has seen aplomado falcon, but has so far not added it to his list.  He now has seen all the code #1 birds in the ABA area, and all but 4 of the code #2 birds.  He is now ahead of John Vanderpoel's pace in 2011 which means he has a shot at setting a new full ABA area big year record.

For comparison purposes, in 2008 Lynn Barber (723 total) after this date saw 9 more new species of which 6 were code #3 or higher.  Of those birds, Neil has already seen 8.  Bob Ake (731 total) in 2010 saw 11 more species of which 9 were code #3 or higher, and Neil has seen 6 of those 11.  In 2011 John Vanderpoel (743 + 1 provisional total) saw 10 more new birds of which 9 were code #3 or higher.  Neil has already seen 4 of John's last 10. Finally, in 1998 Sandy Komito (745 plus 3 provisionals total) only saw 5 more new species from this date forward of which 4 were code #3 or higher.  Neil has already seen 2 of those 5.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Amazon Kingfisher!!

In 2010 during my lower 48 big year, the first ever documented amazon kingfisher in the ABA area was found in Laredo, TX in late January.  I was in Arizona at the time and stuck with my plan for a few days of birding there, but then decided to try to see the kingfisher on my way home.  Because I waited, I missed it by 2 days, but did run into Jay Lehman at the site.  This is one of the key lessons of anyone doing a big year--when a rarity shows up, the rule of thumb is to stop whatever you are doing and chase the bird.  When another amazon kingfisher was reported about 2 weeks ago near Harlingen, TX, Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman both immediately flew to TX, and were rewarded with a really rare and beautiful bird for their big year lists.

I thought about going to look for it from Sunday to Tuesday of last week, but had a long road trip planned with my brother and sister that was scheduled to begin last Wednesday, so I chose to hope that the bird might stay around.  When it was reported again 2 days ago, I decided to fly down to the Rio Grande Valley.

I arrived in McAllen about 2:15 yesterday afternoon, and immediately drove the 45 minutes to the site.  When I arrived there were 3 birders there who had patiently been waiting for several hours.  Belted, ringed and green kingfishers had sporadically been seen, but no amazon.  About 4 PM two birders from Oregon stopped by in hopes of seeing it again.  They had had good views of it about 4:30 the day before.  By 6 PM it became too dark to see well, so we all headed off hoping for better luck the next day.

I was the first to arrive at the two resacas at 6:30 this morning.  Other birders began trickling in soon thereafter.  We again saw belted and green kingfishers to keep our hopes up.  Several forster's terns came thru about 8 AM.  Finally just after 9 AM the female amazon flew up the resaca from the east, and landed right in front of 2 of us (click on the photo to enlarge).  Even when enlarged, the bird was far enough way that from my photo you can't fully appreciate its relative size to say the smaller green kingfisher, and particularly its bill, so I also have added the photo below taken by Neil Hayward. 

It gave us about 2 minutes of good viewing before it flew over the small side road, and landed on the far edge of the adjacent resaca which was about 100 yards west of us.  From there for the next 5-10 minutes it slowly worked its way along the edge feeding and perching which gave all the other birders good looks at it before it disappeared.  There were plenty of high fives as everyone climbed back into their cars.  I came back by the site about 10:45, and was able to watch it again briefly before it flew off.

I will be birding here in the Rio Grande Valley for the next few days.  Maybe something else special will be found.  I will probably do another post at the end of my stay.  No matter what, I will soon update how the big year efforts are going, but for now I will give a big hooray to Jay Lehman who has reached the 700 level this past week.  Once he finds time to update his blog, you will be able to read what he did recently to make it to that lofty height.  Neil Hayward has also been quite busy, but he too is a bit behind in his blog, so I will not say anything else for now.  Stay tuned!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Just 2 Months Left for 2013 Big Year Birders

In 2010 during my lower 48 big year, I was not only birdwatching.  I also built my year around visiting favorite places, seeing close friends and seeking out good food.  To that end, my wife and 2 friends spent 10 days at the end of October and beginning of November in Italy.  Most of the time was spent in Florence where from the summer of 2003 to the summer of 2004 my wife, daughter and I lived.  We have been back almost every year since to visit our Italian friends and to soak up the pleasures of Italy.

One of our favorite places to visit in Florence is the Bargello museum which is known for its sculptures.  I particularly like this little guy who is the essence of joy to me.

The Bargello also has some animal sculptures including an owl which is a gufo in Italian.

Besides lots of walking the streets of the city, we spent many quality hours at our favorite wine bars and restaurants. 

The handmade ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach a topped with a cream sauce is a regular menu choice, as are grilled porcini in season.

When I returned from Italy in early November 2010, I had a message on my phone from Wes Fritz telling me about an ivory gull that had been hanging out in San Luis Obispo for a few days.  I had gotten home about 5 PM, and was on a plane at 6 AM the next  morning.  Unfortunately I arrived about 6 hours after it was last seen that day so I did not get to add an ivory gull to my big year list.  However, because I was in southern California at that time, I did see a black-tailed gull and a taiga bean goose over the next couple of days which raised my total for the year to 690.

So where are Neil, Jay and Ron as the calendar turns to November?  Ron has done a recent post on whatbird.com which shows that he is now at 679 for the year.  Jay is as I write in Louisiana in hopes of seeing a yellow rail.  As of yesterday he is at 690 + 2 provisionals.  He still has several code #1 and #2 birds to find principally in TX, AZ and CA.  With 2 full months to go, he is confident that he will go beyond 700 total birds. 

Neil spent Wed. evening watching a different kind of bird--the St. Louis cardinals losing at Fenway park to the Boston Red Sox who won their first world series at their stadium since 1918.  It was also the Red Sox 3rd world series championship since 2004 after having gone 86 years without winning one.  I think the jinx of the bambino is definitely over.  Neil ended October with 726 birds + 2 provisionals so far for the year.  I believe that there are 6-7 mostly code #1 or #2 birds that he will definitely see.  Every bird after that will be a code #3 or higher vagrant.

As I did recently, I am going to share some key data from 4 other big years.  Sandy Komito in 1998 was at 738 plus 3 provisionals on Nov. 1.  He would see only 7 more new birds over the next 2 months of which 4 were code #3 or higher.  Lynn Barber in 2008 was at 704 by this date.  She saw 19 more new birds by Dec. 31 of which 11 were code #3 or higher.  Bob Ake in 2010 was at 714 by Nov. 1.  He saw 17 more new birds over the next 2 months of which 14 were code #3 or higher.  In 2011 John Vanderpoel was at 729 by this date.  He saw 14 more new birds + 1 provisional by year end of which 12 were code #3 or higher.  Stay tuned!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Wrens, Lovebirds, Geese and More Boobies

We were back at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery by 8 AM to look again for the yellow-green vireo.  Since it was Saturday morning, there were several other birders who came by including Scott and Linda Terrell who are regular spotters on Debi Shearwater trips.  Unfortunately none of us saw the vireo, and we left at 10 AM to begin the 450 mile drive to Sierra Vista, AZ.

We decided to make a short stop at the Paton's in Patagonia just before sunset.  A plain-capped starthroat had been reported from there the prior week, so we figured it was worth the effort.  I have visited this renowned birding spot for years, and had seen a plain-capped in 2010 during my lower 48 big year, but at dusk we found almost no birds there.  The highlights were the resident violet-crowned hummer, a few pyrrhuloxias and a late migrating lazuli bunting.  After about 20 minutes we climbed back into our rental car to cover the last 45 miles of our trip. 

We were up at 6:30 on Sunday, and were thru the main gate checkpoint at Fort Huachuca at 7:15.  We headed up to Garden Canyon to look for a sinaloa wren, but quickly realized that we needed to be in Huachuca Canyon.  I called Melody Kehl, a local bird guide that I have gotten to know over the years.  She explained how to get to Huachuca Canyon, and exactly where to look for the wren which she had seen again just the day before.  We arrived at the right location for the wren by 8:30, and within 5 minutes it was calling and feeding very close to us (photo above taken by Laura Keene--click on any photo to enlarge).  I had seen a sinaloa wren back in 2009 when the first one ever recorded in the ABA area stayed for several months at Patagonia, AZ.  This bird was a life bird for both Doreene and Laura.

Our next target bird was the rosy-faced lovebird that was added this year to the ABA accepted list.  This exotic has been breeding in the wild around Phoenix for many years, and its numbers are now in the 1000's.  I had first seen them in 2010, but could not count it for my big year.  The ABA rules for adding a newly accepted exotic to one's life list requires that you see the bird again even if you have already seen it in the past, so Dan, Laura and I needed to see it again, and Doreene needed to see it for the first time.  

Since I had found them at the Gilbert Water Ranch outside of Phoenix, and because Laura was hoping to find a ruddy ground dove, we first stopped at the Ranch.  After an hour of looking at mid-day we had not found any lovebirds, or ground doves.  We then drove to Encanto Park in Phoenix where Laura had previously found them.  Within minutes we had one flying around, and others in the palms.

It was now mid afternoon, and the next hour was spent dropping Dan and Doreene at her relatives, and Laura at an old friend's house before I drove back to Chandler to have dinner with Jana, a long time friend who has been living in the Phoenix area for many years.  After dinner I drove part way towards the Salton Sea to be in position to look for a tundra bean goose that had been seen on Saturday hanging out with 2 greater white-fronted geese, and 500-600 snow and Ross' geese.

I was up and on the road by 6 AM.  I arrived at Unit 1 of the Sonny Bono wildlife refuge by 9:45 where I met Neil Hayward.  A bean goose had been found at this same location in 2010.  I say bean goose because while most birders believed the 2010 bean goose to be a taiga, a few of the birding experts thought it was an "intermediate" sub species that left some doubt as to whether it was a taiga or a tundra.  Even though many birders had failed to relocate the goose on Sunday, Neil and I decided to give it a go.

Only about 1/2 the number of geese that had been reported from Saturday were still in the area, and no greater white-fronted geese were around.  We did see a single cackling goose, and 1 first year blue phase snow goose which briefly had us thinking the bean goose had returned.  After 2 hours of scanning from the raised viewing platform, we decided to try to locate other possible water spots that would be attractive to geese.  We found none, but did stop at Obsidian Buttes, and Neil got a nice photo of 7 blue-footed boobies.

We returned to the viewing platform, and spent 2 more hours waiting patiently for a the tundra bean goose to grace us with its presence.  I finally left at 4 PM to make the 200 mile drive back to LA.  Neil kept up the vigil until dusk.  I flew home on Tuesday feeling very good overall about the birding, and time spent with Dan, Doreene, Laura and Neil. I also added 2 more life birds--the mannikin and the lovebird.

I have been asked many times over the years what my ABA area life list total is, and my answer is the same that it has been for 40 years--I don't know.  I mark the birds down in my book, but have not added them all up.  However, after so many years of being asked, I have decided to finally total them up at the end of the year, and will share that number then.  My next post will be another update on this year's big year efforts.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Boobies, Mannikins and Bishops

While the title of today's post might make one think it is some titillating story about the Catholic church, it is just the first installment about my recent birding trip to California and Arizona with Dan, Doreene and Laura.  We all arrived late on Thursday the 17th, and stayed near LAX which put us close to our first bird site--Playa del Rey.  We were out near the breakwater by 7:30 AM on Friday in search of the juvenile blue-footed boobies that have been hanging out there for several weeks.  This year has seen the greatest invasion of blue-footed boobies ever into the ABA area.  Over the past few weeks they have been sighted all along the California coast, and as far north as British Columbia.  Last week during a thorough sweep around the Salton Sea, over 100 were seen.

As we walked out the levee we found several least sandpipers before locating a total of 4 juvenile boobies on the outer breakwater (2 of them at center of photo below taken by Laura Keene--click on any photo to enlarge).  The boobies were ABA area life birds for both Laura and Doreene.

We also saw some western grebes, a willet and a nearby wimbrel.

Our next stop took us to Frank Bonelli regional park in San Dimas.  An arctic loon had been at the lake there for the summer, but it had not been seen for over a week.  We still hoped maybe it was around, but after about an hour of scoping the water, and sorting thru 100's of waterfowl, we were unable to find it.

We then drove about an hour to bird Huntington Beach Central Park.  Our goal was to find nutmeg mannikins (photo above of a male), and possibly a yellow-green vireo that had been reported from the area.  While looking for the flock of mannikins that are resident in the park, we saw 3 photographers, so we decided to see what had there attention.  It turned out they were stalking an orange bishop.  Both the mannikin and the orange bishop are cage birds that have escaped and established wild populations.  The mannikins have been so successful in their breeding that this year the ABA added it to the accepted species list.  Maybe some day the same thing will happen with the orange bishop.  The mannikin was an ABA area life bird for all of us.

We did not find the yellow-green vireo, and since both Doreene and Laura need it for their life lists, we next drove down to San Diego to check out the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery where one also had been reported recently.  We spent about 90 minutes late in the afternoon searching for it, but came up short.  We decided to spend the night in San Diego so that we could try for it again in the morning.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

11 Weeks Left for 2013 Big Year Birders

There are only 11 weeks left in 2013 for this year's big year birders to keep seeking out new birds to increase their year end totals.  When I reached this point in 2010 during my lower 48 big year, I had just come off a short break from birding.  My wife and I, and 3 other couples spent 3 days and 2 nights in Las Vegas eating well, and attending 2 Cirque du Soleil shows.  Then 2 of the guys joined me for a few days of slot canyon day hiking in Utah.  From there I drove my truck back home for the first time since early June.

I got home on September 30th, and was on a plane immediately out to the Seattle area to look for 3 sharp-tailed sandpipers that had been reported north of the city.  I found them, but they were too far away for me to get good photos so instead I am using a photo that Laura Keene took 3 weeks ago when we were at the Pribs (click on any photo to enlarge).

I also met John Puschock for the first time when we tried to locate a horned puffin that also had been reported in the area.  We scoped the water for about 4 hours without any success, but we did see some nice harlequin ducks.

Next up was a trip out to California where I teamed up with Wes Fritz to search for great gray owls in Yosemite NP.  We found a family of 4 one morning which turned out to be one of the highlights of my year.

So where are Neil, Jay and Ron at this point?  Neil and Jay are both in southern California doing a pelagic trip today.  Recently they both have been very busy in Alaska where I was able to have dinner with them a week ago in Anchorage.  We had a very nice meal at Sack's Cafe sharing big year stories,  eating some really good food, and drinking some very nice wine.  They are both birding so hard that they are a bit backed up on posting to their respective blogs, but they will catch up before long.  Neil's total for the year is 723 + 2 provisionals (rufous-necked wood-rail and common redstart), and Jay is now at 680 + 2 provisionals (white-cheeked pintail and common redstart).

As for Ron, I do not know what he has been doing since he has not posted for quite some time.  I do know that on his last whatbird comment his total for the year was 674 birds. 

So how are they doing compared to recent full ABA area big years?  Ron's blog site does not provide a full list of his birds seen, so I can not assess his chances of reaching 700 for the year, and thus I won't offer an opinion.  As I have said many times over the past few months, Jay is a test case as to whether a birder who got off to a slow start can still break the 700 level.  In talking with him in Anchorage, he plans to go all out to reach 700, and believes it is possible because he still has 40-50 code #1 and #2 birds that he has not yet seen.  While he will welcome any rare vagrants that show up until the end of the year, his main focus will be on finding enough of the as yet unseen code #1 and #2 birds.

Neil is still on the pace that John Vanderpoel set in 2011 when he almost passed Sandy Komito's record of 748 reached back in 1998.  He also still has 6 code #1 and #2 birds that he expects to see, but mainly the rest of 2013 for him will be about chasing vagrants.  To give you some idea of his chances of breaking the record, I will share the following data from 4 other full ABA area big years.

First, Lynn Barber did her big year in 2008.  By this date her year total was 698.  For the rest of the year she found another 25 new birds of which 13 were code #3 or higher.  She made a trip to Newfoundland to pick up 3 of those rarities.

Second, Bob Ake did his big year in 2010.  By this date his year total was 714, but it took him almost a month before he added another new bird to that total.  He added a total of 17 more new birds by year end of which 14 were code #3 or higher.  5 of those rarities he saw in Canada.

Third, by this date John Vanderpoel's year total was 726.  He added 17 more new birds to his total plus 1 provisional (hooded crane) of which 14 were code #3 or higher.  Of those 14, he found one in Alaska and 3 in Canada.

Finally, it is a little hard to be certain about Sandy Komito's total by this date, but based on reviewing his book, "I Came, I Saw, I Counted",  I believe his total was 734 plus 3 provisionals (yellow-throated bunting, Belcher's gull and Bulwer's petrel).  He added just 11 more birds of which 7 were code #3 or higher.  All those birds were seen in the lower 48 states.

Based on probabilities of finding code #3 and above birds from Lynn's, Bob's and John's results during the last 11 weeks of their respective big years, it would seem that Neil has a shot to set a new record, but could like John just fall short.  It will be very interesting to see what happens.

I will be going out to California and Arizona this weekend to do some more birding with Dan and Doreene, and Laura.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

BIrding Around Anchorage

I am back home and mostly recovered from the jet lag caused by the red-eye flight from Anchorage to Chicago.  Because I was on an overnight flight that did not leave until 11:20 PM on Monday I was able to spend the day birding around the Anchorage area.  My first destination was Arctic Valley Rd. which is 7 miles long and mostly gravel.  It is a reliable spot for seeing ptarmigan and grouse.  Dan, Doreene, Laura and Jay had all found spruce grouse over the past few days.

As I was driving up the mountain with the sun just rising, I came upon a willow ptarmigan, but a car behind me scared it off before I could get a photo.  Shortly after I had my first moose encounter of the day.

It had snowed in Anchorage about 2 weeks earlier and the mountain caps were still cloaked in snow.

Not finding a spruce grouse on my way up, I ended up driving back down part of the road, and then back up before seeing a spruce grouse (click on any photo to enlarge).  On my return down I found a second one.

Next I visited Carr-Gottstein Park where the week before a siberian stonechat had made a one day visit.  My stroll gave me more lovely views, but the park was all but birdless.

Next I headed down to Potter Marsh which is south of Anchorage.  I have birded here before in the summer when it is full of birds, but this time the only birds were a few mallards, American wigeons and trumpeter swans.

I then headed over to Hillside park where I was able to find some boreal chickadees, ravens and one hairy woodpecker.  Next up was Kinkaid Park.  On the way in I found my second bull moose, and while walking the park I came across a 3rd one.

My last stop was Westchester Lagoon which is right in Anchorage.  New trip birds there were bonaparte's gulls, buffleheads and one common merganser.  My day of birding in Anchorage was so different than the past 3 weeks of tromping around St. Paul island (photo below), but it provided a nice wrap up to my trip to Alaska.

I found 11 more trip birds which pushed my Alaska total to 103 for the 3+ week visit.  My next post will be about how the 2013 big year efforts are progressing.  Neil Hayward has just posted about being among the group of birders who discovered a common redstart on St. Paul 2 days ago--a first North American record if it is accepted.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Pribs--Days 18 to 20

I did my last post mid day on the 18th day of the trip, so I still had more birding to do that day as well as days 19 and 20.  Before heading out to bird in the afternoon, I snapped a shot at the airport of Scott Schuette (left), and Gavin Beiber who was flying out with the second ABA group.  Coming in to join us were 4 more birders.  Of these I only knew Bill Frey who was on the gray-headed chickadee raft trip I took back in June of 2011. 

We got settled into the duplex most of us were staying at for the next few days, and headed out to bird.  We stopped at Antone Lake to scan the water to see if anything new might have come in.  Almost immediately Scott was as excited as I had seen him over the 2+ weeks of birding with him because he had found a spectacled eider (click on any photo to enlarge).  This was a life St. Paul Island bird, and an ABA lifer as well for him.  It also raised his island life list up to just 5 birds behind Gavin's.  He immediately called Doug who was not with us to come out because the eider would be the same for him--a double lifer.  It is also the first spectacled eider seen by any bird guide on the island.  Based on the rarity of this bird on St. Paul, I was ecstatic since it was a lifer for me too.

Not being familiar with the species, neither Doug nor Scott were sure whether we had found an eclipse male or a female.  I emailed Gavin today to get his opinion, and he thought it was probably an eclipse male.  Whichever it is, it is unquestionably a spectacled eider.

With winds coming out of the east and north over the next 2 days, we began to see a few migrants from North America including yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, golden-crowned sparrows, juncos, American pipits, a white-crowned sparrow, a robin and a gray-cheeked thrush.  We also saw 2 more bramblings which raised the trip total for me to 6 in all.  We kept hoping a McKay's bunting would show up with all the new snow buntings coming to the island, but we found none. We did some seawatching which meant more fly-by red-faced cormorants (photo taken earlier by Laura).

The number of seals has continued to decline, but there were still a few mothers around with nursing pups.  My last afternoon I spent a bit of time watching the young seals still hanging around the bachelor beach.  They reminded me of our puppy, Castagno, playing with my daughter's dog, Mira.

On day 19 the sun was out much of the day, and we crossed paths again with the white-tailed eagle near weather bureau lake (photo taken earlier by Laura).  And early in the afternoon on the 20th we saw it again in the upper cut of the quarry, and then a bit later over weather bureau lake.  For 3 of the remaining birders it was a life bird.

As my time here wound down, I had mixed feelings about flying out.  I was pretty tired from all the daily birding in one of the most difficult places to bird because of the terrain and weather, but I was also leaving before the next big storm which could be bringing more Asian vagrants.  Unlike John Vanderpoel, who had a siberian accentor back in 2011 during his big year, after walking through the famed crab pots every day they failed to deliver an Asian rarity during my stay.

I enjoyed almost 3 weeks of very good birding, as well as getting to know some new birders.  Many of them have birded for years, and many of their ABA area life lists are north of 700 bird species.  In fact, Paul Sykes (left) and Larry Peavler rank number 2 and 3 on the ABA area life list at 883 and 882 birds respectively.  Paul is one of the few living people who has the long extinct Bachman's warbler on his life list.  Larry has made 49 trips over the years to Alaska to find new birds.  Having already spent 2 weeks here this fall, they are hoping over the next few days to see another of the Asian rarities still not on their list.  This is the 3rd fall they have visited the Pribs to find more rare birds.  No matter what, they both soon will go see the nutmeg mannikin to raise their totals.

Before leaving ahead of me Laura took a lovely photo of a sunset that we all enjoyed one day.  I am now sitting in my hotel in Anchorage.  Neil Hayward flew in last night from his short trip up to Barrow.  He is waiting to talk with Scott, but may return to St. Paul tomorrow for 3 more days of birding there in hopes of finding a few more Asian rarities before he flies to southern California later this coming week.  I finished up with 92 bird species for my 20 days on the island, and missed eye-browed thrush and parakeet auklet.  I had set a target of 10 new life birds, and ended up with 9 (1 code #2; 3 code #3; and 5 code #4).  After I return home on Tuesday I will do another big year update.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Pribs--Days 16 to 18

There really is not anything exciting to add about the past 3 days as the birding has slowed down dramatically with a change in the weather and the winds.  This afternoon the 2nd ABA tour sponsored group will be flying back to Anchorage.  Among those leaving are Neil Hayward who will be meeting up with Jay Lehman in Anchorage, and then flying up to Barrow with him in search of Ross's and ivory gulls.  Neil did quite well in his time here this past week, but I will not further comment on his birds until he has a chance to post on his own blog.

During my stay we have had our share of rainbows (photo taken by Laura), but today on our way back to lunch the trip bottomed out with a blow out on our bus.  We slowly drove the last mile to the airport to leave our wounded beast of burden.  There was a second bus parked there that almost did not start, but finally did.  I chose not to go to lunch, but will be here at the King Eider Hotel/airport when they all return to catch their flight.

No matter the highs or lows the past 2+ weeks, the one thing that is never very far away is seeing a seal.  The one below probably reflects the sentiment of some on the bus after a couple of very uninspiring days of birding when the tire blew out (photo taken by Laura--click on any photo to enlarge).

I will be here until Friday with 7 other veteran birders.  It appears that the next big storm will not arrive here until Saturday, but the winds are going to be coming out of the west again before it arrives, so who knows what final birding highlights I might be reporting.  Stay tuned!

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Pribs--Days 13 to 15

For those who read my blog during my big year in 2010, you will remember food being part of that year's agenda.  Food here on St. Paul is centered on the galley/canteen of the Trident Seafood fish/crab processing facility.  As I have already said, it is really nothing to write home about for the most part, but occasionally we are surprised.

We have been treated a couple of days by maybe the best cinnamon roll besides the ones my daughter makes.  The fresh halibut has proved to be generally a highlight, but the shocker 2 days ago was the oxtail stew that was awaiting us at dinner.  It was very tasty.

The past 3 days have been probably the slowest birdwise since I arrived here.  On day 13 the winds were not too high and the sun was out.  I added gray-cheeked thrush and eurasian wigeon to my trip list.  We also had another sighting of the gray-streaked flycatcher, and the white-tailed eagle which was hunting over Polovina Lake.  We even had our very first "rarity" of the trip in the crab pots--the 4th island record of a lincoln's sparrow.

On Saturday, the weather was even more accommodating--sunny all day and not much wind.  The birding though was lackluster.  We did find our 4th brambling of the trip (photos just above and below taken by Laura--click on any photo to enlarge).  Neil Hayward finally got a good look at a common snipe which is his 717th bird for the year.

The guides were ecstatic when we found a magnolia warbler in the lower cut on Polovina Hill--only the 2nd record for the island.  For the rest of us it was a yawner since we are all have come out here to find Asian rarities.  For the guides, they not only have a year list going for the island, but also an all time island life list.  Gavin has 223 birds on his island life list and is leading Scott by 6 birds at the moment.  The pipit raised Doug's life time island list to 200.  The magnolia warbler and a marbled murrelet added 2 more birds to my trip list.

Today was once again a beautiful day.  We birded some of the usual places including the crab pots this morning before Laura, Doreene and Dan had to return to the hotel to pack up their stuff to fly back to Anchorage.  They proved to be the sacrificial birders because as they were taking off we found an olive-backed pipit on Hutchinson Hill at the far northeast tip of the island (photo taken by Neil Hayward who is in the bottom photo).  This is my 8th life bird for the trip and raises the trip total to 88 different species.  It is Neil's 718th for his big year which keeps him on pace with John Vanderpoel's big year in 2011.

The key to the arrival of Asian rarities is having low pressure storms moving from west to east in the Bering Sea.  A not very strong low will be coming through in the next 36 hours that may bring us some more "good" birds.  Stay tuned!