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!