In Half Moon Bay

We have arrived at Half Moon Bay and are awaiting the pelagic trip on the Pacific Ocean. Our trip from New Mexico was quite eventful.

The most important event had nothing to do with birds. While we were camping in the Sonoran Desert at an Arizona state park our dog had some kind of seizure or stroke and we awoke to find her huddled under the bed of the camper van and unable to walk! She is afraid of thunder and lightning and had taken refuge under the bed during a storm before she was stricken. We got her to a vet in the first town up the road and he was unable to say exactly what had happened to her but treated her for symptoms of a stroke. We’re happy to say that after a couple of days on her medicine she has made good improvement, even though she is still a little wobbly when she walks.

Birdwise, our biggest highlight was the sighting of Bell’s Sparrow near Lancaster, CA. This is the first “new” bird for my list since our pelagic adventures in North Carolina way back in May.Bell’s Sparrow is one of the two new species recognized from the splitting of the former Sage Sparrow by the AOU last year. (The other is Sagebrush Sparrow.) It seems a little like cheating to get a new bird from a split, but I’ll take anything I can get on my way to 800!

Our sighting was at the Rancho Sierra Golf Course east of Lancaster. I had researched probable locations of the sparrow that were along our route from New Mexico to Half Moon Bay and the Lancaster area seemed like the most reliable spot. Sure enough, we spotted several Bell’s Sparrows in the saltbush habitat adjacent to the golf course within just five minutes of beginning our search. Unfortunately, I could not document the sighting with a photo. None of the birds was amenable to posing for the shoot!

On another positive note, we did not add anything new but we had very nice birding at Silverwood Lake recreation area just north of San Bernardino. We saw many of the local specialty birds – California Towhee, CA Thrasher, Oak Titmouse, Lawrence’s Goldfinch – and lots of other species in just a couple of hours at the reservoir. Like all CA state parks it was a little pricey for our taste ($50 for a night of camping) but it was good to be able to tick off so many of our target birds for the trip in one spot.

A big negative event on the birding side was our attempt to find California Condors at the Hopper Mountain NWR / Condor Sanctuary near Fillmore,CA. I had seen this location indicated on maps and in eBird reports but had never read anything about it. Indeed, it is almost as if they don’t want anyone to know about the area. We had traveled in over half of the 15 miles on rough roads before we even saw a road sign of any type. Another five miles up the road, and only two miles from the observation area, we had to turn back because the road became too rough for our van. It would have been nice, and such a simple thing, if the FWS had put a sign that said “4WD only!” That would have saved us a couple of hours of futile effort in trying to reach the observation site for the birds. We’ll make another attempt for condors near Big Sur after the pelagic trip.

Since leaving NM, we have added quite a few birds to our “year” list and the total is starting to look respectable. Some of our favorites are the western shorebirds that we have not seen very often:


I also had some other cooperative subjects on the rocks at Pillar Harbor:

And a few land birds to round out the photos for this portion of the trip:

Next up is the pelagic trip on Saturday. We’ll let you know what turns up.

Just a Quick Follow-up

Today, we start our trip to California for a pelagic adventure with Alvaro. (No, we are NOT going to do a trip from Monterey with the shrew of the sea, Shearwater!) I wanted to do a wrap-up of our week in the Rodeo/Portal area.

Yesterday, we spent the morning in the mountains. We started at 8 AM at Turkey Creek junction, headed down to Paradise to visit with Jackie at Walker House, made a swing by Herb Martyr picnic area and finished up at the Southwest Research Station. After lunch at the Portal Cafe (very tasty) we returned home around 1 PM.

Highlights of the trip were Hepatic Tanager, Plumbeous Vireo, Juniper Titmouse, and seven different species of hummingbirds: Black-chinned, Rufous, Broad-tailed, Magnificent, Blue-throated, Anna’s, and Calliope.

There was a noticeable reduction in the number of migrants flitting about compared to earlier in the week and our migrant count for the week was disappointing. Our total species list for the week, both migrants and residents, was about 100 species. That’s very low by our standards. I guess we misjudged our timing. We’ll need to be a little earlier for the fall migration next time.

We’ll be on the road for a few days and will update our sightings when we get to Half Moon Bay.

Rodeo Round-Up

We’re spending a week at our place in Rodeo, NM (about 9 miles from Portal, AZ) prior to our trip to do some pelagic birding in California.

This is the first time since March (before the spring migrants had returned) that we have visited the west (that is, west of the lower RGV inTexas), so there are plenty of birds that are new for our year list. So far, there hasn’t been anything truly RARE, but it was unusual to see a Thick-billed Kingbird near Portal on Sept. 11.

We usually see that bird farther west in the Patagonia/Sonoita area or out near the Tubac/Rio Rico area, South of Tucson.

We have also been impressed with the late season breeding attempts (or at least singing as if you are trying to attract a mate) by some of the “desert” birds. The summer monsoon rains were good this year and some of them lasted into early September. As a consequence, there are millions of grasshoppers and other insects in the fresh green desert grasses. This seems to have triggered a late surge of breeding attempts by Cassin’s Sparrows and Bell’s Vireos. I hope they know what they are doing. It is already starting to get fairly cool at night out here and the grasses are already starting to turn brown.

Fall migrants have been highlighted by flycatchers and Western Tanagers. In the lowlands, there are hundreds of Western and Cassin’s Kingbirds on the wires and bushes wherever you look. In the canyons there are Western Wood-Pewees, Olive-sided Flycatchers, and tanagers seemingly everywhere. Migrant warblers have been somewhat scarce, although we have seen MacGillivray’s,Wilson’s, and Orange-crowned, along with the summer-resident Painted Redstarts. There are also four vireo species on our list – Hutton’s, Bell’s, Cassin’s, and Warbling – some summer residents and some migrants.

Finally, there have been many (by numbers of individuals, not numbers of species) sparrows, grosbeaks, and buntings, whether residents, migrants or returning winter visitors. So far we have seen Cassin’s, Sagebrush, Black-throated, Vesper, and Brewer’s Sparrows; Lark and Lazuli Buntings; and Blue and Black-headed Grosbeaks.

All-in-all, it has been an interesting week so far. We’ll be making one more trip up into the Chiricahua Mountains before we head further west. We’ll let you know if we find anything out of the ordinary.

Back in the Saddle Again!

Hello, to all our faithful readers! (and by that I mean, “Hi, dad!”)

I don’t blame you if you drifted away during our long, summer doldrums. There has not been much to write about since our Hatteras pelagic trips with Brian Patteson and Kate. It was a long drought with no new birds for the 800 list.

We hope that is about to change. We sold our house in Texas and are now less tied down and able to get out and travel more. Our first trip will be to California where we plan to take some pelagic trips in the Pacific Ocean. Besides the pelagic targets, there are some land birds we will be searching for as well.

This time of year can be an exciting time. Fall migration along the Pacific coast often turns up some nice rarities. Add to that the fact that this is the first trip to the far west since the start of the Eight Years to 800!? project, and we should be adding quite a few species to our new lists.

Even without rarities and new species, the fall is a fun time to be out. The spectacle of migration is in full swing, the weather is glorious, and the summer crowds at the parks and forests have thinned out. We have already been treated to some special treats during our trip west from North Carolina. The first was hundreds of migrating kingbirds and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers settling in to the trees of our campground in Oklahoma. The second was an all-too-brief stop at Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Texas, a beautiful canyon hidden in the flat plains around Amarillo.

We are now in New Mexico. After visiting with a friend in Alburquerque, we will spend a week at our place near the Chiricahua Mountains as we prepare for the California trip. I hope I’ll have plenty to write about in the near future!

Marking Time in the Southern Appalachians

Avian rarities abound across much of the US but things here in NC remain quiet.

That has been the story of this summer. I knew that NC itself was not a hotspot for rarities, but I had hoped that there would be some staked-out rarities close enough to chase during the last few months. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Meanwhile, back in the Rio Grande Valley (and nearby), three birds I still need have shown up, and farther west, even more; not to mention all the great finds throughout the summer in Alaska. Sigh! It has been hard to sit and watch without jumping up for a mad dash across the country.

Why not chase those far-away rarities? There are two main answers to that question. The first is that we are in the midst of selling our home in Texas and we have been waiting to clear up all the paperwork before we hit the road for any major trips. The second is that long-distance chasing is not in keeping with the main theme of my Eight Years to 800!? concept. That is, it is not in keeping with the Birding on a Budget philosophy.

Anyone can see lots of species in a short time if they have unlimited cash to spend on plane tickets and specialty guided tours, but that is not what I’m trying to do. I want to see if a “reasonable budget” can produce 800 species in a “reasonable time.”

So far, I have been a bit disappointed. But that is more because of my innate impatience than the actual results to date. I have added 20 species to my new life list this year; all in the first five months. In the last two-and-a-half months … nada. I had hoped for four or five rarities and specialties during trips from our NC base to NJ and FL. Instead, I missed the European Golden Plover in NJ by a full month and struck out completely on all the FL specialties I still need to see during our short visit there. There have been other possibilities, but none have been sure enough bets to justify the cost of chasing them.

So, here I sit in NC and wait until the promise of fall, when our house is sold and we are free to set off on a merry chase of more rarities across the US.

The Frustrations of the Chase

We just returned from a brief stay in Florida where we went ZERO FOR EVERYTHING when trying to find new birds!

To be fair, none of the birds we were trying to see was a staked out rarity. In fact, none of the reports we followed was even very recent, and all seem to have been one day wonders; no one other than the original reporter has reported the bird again. But it is still very frustrating to spend so much time and effort and come up completely empty.

After spending a few days visiting Renee’s mother in Sarasota, we decided to take a couple of days to look for a selection of Florida specialties that we missed during our Big Year. All of the birds we targeted had been seen in the past few weeks but none were being seen regularly. Indeed, some of the species are quite rare, so we had fairly low expectations. We were hoping to see two of the six target species. Instead, we saw none.

Our first target was Bahama Mockingbird. Several had been seen during the spring but the latest reports were at least 10 days old. Still, we figured that it was worth a shot, since these are notorious skulkers and they might be overlooked. The nearest report to where we were staying in Sarasota was a bird seen at Leffis Key near Bradenton Beach. We tried for that bird, but the weather was hot, hot, hot and we had no luck. The only birds we saw in the area were Northern Mockingbird, Fish Crow, and Laughing Gull.

Our next target was Smooth-billed Ani. This bird was seen near Belle Glade, about three hours from Sarasota, so we drove down to spend a day in that area. The search seemed promising at first, but again weather provided some obstacles, this time in the form of wind and rain. After getting soaked (despite my rain gear) I decided to call it quits and try elsewhere.

The following morning found us at Juno Dunes Natural Area, just south of Jupiter, FL. The target here was a female Bananaquit that had been seen about a week prior (with no follow-up reports). We found the area to be interesting and the birding was fun, but the “quit” did not make an appearance. It was a very long shot to begin with, so we were not too surprised or discouraged by the results.

For the rest of our stay in the area we tried multiple locations for the supposedly more common specialties: Purple Swamphen, Spot-breasted Oriole, and exotic parrots (with one long-shot stop to visit an area where flamingoes had been reported in the fairly distant past). At each stop, we were often encouraged by the habitat but always discouraged by the lack of birds. I did hear a suspected swamphen at one location (the pond at City Furniture in Tamarac) but was not certain of the id. In most cases, the needle in a haystack phenomenon as definitely at play.

Perhaps the biggest frustration was the fact that during our stay in Florida (and before that in North Carolina) rare birds continued to show up in the places we had left. We left Texas in April and Yellow-green Vireo and Green Violetear showed up in May and June. I had been in Arizona in April but the Buff-collared Nightjar and Yellow Grosbeak did not show up until May and June. (The grosbeak added insult to injury by being found within five miles of our place in Rodeo, NM!) It seems the rarities are only being found where we are NOT.

The lesson of this is, obviously, that I need to be more active at chasing the rarities, no matter where they may be. But that takes more time and money than I care to spend at the present time. Once we sell our home in Texas and can spend more time on the road, I’ll try to rectify that. Let’s just hope that the birds are there, somewhere, in the future.

A Brief Trip to Visit Family – No New Birds

We just returned from a short trip to visit our sons, Michael’s father and brother, and Renee’s brother along the east coast. We did some “recreational birding” but there was nothing around to chase for the Eight Years project.

Birding was good. There were lots of birds in the thick of breeding and still fairly large numbers of shorebirds making a late migration push up to the Arctic. We took the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel but there was nothing of note along the shore. We also took the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. We didn’t see any new birds but the captain of the ferry made a special effort to show us a humpback whale in Delaware Bay! One sour note: lots of ticks in the woods of NJ.

We are debating our next trip. We had planned to do a Florida chase but there isn’t anything left down there to chase. We’ll be visiting Renee’s mom around the 4th of July, so we’ll probably do at least a few days in FL.

It sure would be nice to have a rarity or two, though.

Cape Hatteras and Pelagic Birding (3 of 3 parts)

This last installment of our trip report from Cape Hatteras details the real purpose of the trip, two pelagic tours from Hatteras out to the Gulf Stream with Brian Patteson and his First Mate, Kate.

I had never done an Atlantic Ocean pelagic trip before and had only done a handful of trips out west, so I had high hopes for adding to my new Eight Years to 800!? list. I researched the best times of year for me to see new species and chose early in Brian’s  spring season as the best time for most of the regulars and some of the rarities. Indeed, the day before our first trip, while we were being blown about on the beach, Brian had braved the rough conditions with a group of birders and it had paid off spectacularly. They paid a price in seasickness in the rough weather but saw 12 different species of tube-noses, including the very rare European Storm-Petrel (Code 4).

The winds had died down considerably and had shifted more to the west but conditions were still fairly rough as we boarded the boat. Westerly winds are far from ideal. They tend to push some of the birds farther offshore but as Brian said, “If we have half as good a day as we did yesterday, it will still be great.” So, we had high hopes of reaching our goal of getting six to eight new species for the list.

The trip out was rough and wet. Neither of us had ever been seasick before but unfortunately our first Atlantic pelagic changed that. The first four hours of the day proved to be a real birding challenge, with seasickness and a pitching and rolling deck making it very hard to get more than passing looks at anything.

Fortunately, there were hundreds of birds around so even with just fleeting glimpses at many of them we still managed to learn to recognize most of what we were seeing. Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters were not new for the list but Black-capped Petrel and Cory’s and Audubon’s Shearwaters were. We had half of our minimum goal by 9 AM.

As the day wore on, conditions became more calm, and despite the lower winds, birds continued to stream by or come in to the chum behind the boat, including a Pomarine Jaeger and Arctic and Common Terns. Our seasickness had passed and I was able to start getting some pictures of our quarry.

Band-rumped Storm-Petrels joined the Wilson’s and we ticked another new species. A South Polar Skua (not new) followed along for a while as well, posing for some close photos.

But nothing rare had been spotted yet and Brian and Kate turned their attention to trying to find one of the Code 3+ petrels they had seen the day before. Their persistence paid off when a Fea’s Petrel (Code 3) made a couple of passes by the boat, adding our fifth new species of the day.

Soon it was time to start back. Conditions had grown very pleasant and the return trip produced no further seasickness problems, but also no further birds.

Overnight, a front was predicted to pass and shift the winds out of the north. It stalled out a bit to the north, however, and the morning dawned with almost no winds. The ride out to the Gulf Stream was very smooth and no sickness hampered the second day. Unfortunately, with calmer winds, there were fewer pelagic birds in the air. Pelagic birds love to ride the sea winds and more wind usually means more birds.

There were still plenty of the usual Wilson’s and Black-capped’s and the regular shearwaters, but I saw nothing new for most of the morning. Finally, just before noon, a Great Shearwater flew in to the chum and spent a couple of hours following the boat.

Much of the afternoon was spent with long periods of little activity. The north winds had finally arrived and conditions were getting better for seeing birds but the temperatures were warm and the sky was clear so that basking in the sun easily led to the temptation to take a little nap! But we all kept our eyes to the skies and eventually it paid off when a distant Trinidade (Herald) Petrel made an appearance. I was on the bird when Brian called it out but even he was unsure due to how far away it was.

It was getting close to quitting time and I was debating with myself whether or not to count the Trinidade when my problem was solved. A second light morph Trinidade Petrel made a very close pass by the boat and we all were able to see it clearly. Unfortunately, it did not swing around for another look and I was unable to get any pictures.

The ride back to dock was as smooth as I have ever seen an ocean and there were no qualms about napping then. All told, my two pelagic trips produced seven new birds for my list, a very respectable total.

Cape Hatteras and Pelagic Birding (2 of 3 parts)

Cape Hatteras National Seashore Is the topic of this second of three posts about our first birding trip in North Carolina.

It is a long way from our summer place in Franklin to Hatteras, NC; almost 600 miles. The last 60, or so, of those miles, from Nags Head down to Hatteras, are within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Our introduction to the seashore was similar to our trip across the state; that is, we did not see as many birds as we had hoped. Most of the reason for that, it turns out, was that we arrived in the middle of afternoon and traveled only along the main Highway 12 corridor to reach our campground at Frisco. Once settled in at the campground, however, we made a more serious effort to find birds.

We were immediately rewarded by an unusual sighting, our only Northern Gannet of the trip. It was feeding very close to shore as we made our first visit to Frisco Beach. Normally, it takes diligent scanning of the horizon to spot gannets offshore, but this bird was cruising along the surf zone. Of course, I had forgotten my camera, but I immediately returned to the van to get it, in case other unusual birds followed.

And they did. Feeding in the waves was a nice assortment of shorebirds all decked out in their spring best. Usually, we had to be content to see shorebirds in their drab, winter plumage in South Texas, but here, the Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings and Black-bellied Plovers, among others, were sporting their colorful breeding feathers.


The most interesting find of the day was a group of banded and color marked Red Knots that were in the flock of about 40 birds. All together, we found at least seven marked individuals in the flock. We don’t know, yet, exactly where they were banded but our search of the internet leads to a group of researchers in Argentina as the most likely source of the bands. Here is one example of the birds we saw:

As evening waned we heard Common Nighthawk and Chuck-will’s-widow calling over and within the brush among the dunes and listened to the final songs of the day from the mockingbirds, thrashers, towhees and others at the campground.

The next day was very windy. We ventured out to the beach at first light, but the wind was so strong that we could not keep our caps on our heads and I was afraid that my camera lens would be sand-blasted. The birds were still there, however, and I did manage to get some more photos to document the banded knots before deciding to call it quits. As we were leaving the beach we spotted our most unusual sighting of the seashore. An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was feeding in the surf.

The rest of the second day was spent exploring the history and amenities of the islands and dropping our dog off at the boarding kennel so we could get ready for the first of our pelagic trips the next day.

After the pelagics, we spent one more morning birding the seashore. The winds had shifted around to the north after the passage of a weak cool front and many shorebirds were feeding on the beaches and mudflats. Mostly, there were Dunlins, Semi-palmated Sandpipers, and yellowlegs, but we did manage to find a White-rumped Sandpiper in the crowd. We also saw more herons, egrets, and ibises than we had seen before.

As the day wore on, it began to get more and more crowded. It was Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, after all, and the tourists were out in force. We left the barrier islands and headed home.

All told, we had a decent birding experience at the National Seashore, and the story of the banded Red Knots is very interesting, but we know we missed quite a bit. We definitely need to go back again … this time, NOT during a major holiday weekend.

Cape Hatteras and Gulf Stream Pelagics (1 of 3 parts)

We have just returned from our first full-scale birding adventure in North Carolina. We journeyed to Cape Hatteras National Seashore and took a couple of pelagic trips with the dean of Atlantic/Gulf Stream birding, Brian Patteson.

I’m going to report on the trip in three parts: the general birding to and from Cape Hatteras (There are a lot of elevation and habitat changes along the way.); the birding in the National Seashore; and the pelagic trips.

First, my general impressions of the birding on the trip to and from the Cape…

I wrote earlier on this blog about the lack of bird diversity in North Carolina compared to what we were used to in South Texas, and this trip only reinforced that impression. We spent seven days, drove over 1300 miles and visited at least 10 distinct habitats, but still only managed to compile a trip list of 113 species. (The Big Sit at Estero Llano Grande State Park’s deck in Weslaco, TX had more species than that in one day recorded from within a 17 foot diameter circle!)

Admittedly, it was not all the birds’ fault. We were somewhat rushed at times and did not always give an area the time it deserved, but there were several times when we spent some time searching an area and literally did not see a single bird and heard just one or two. Of course, not all areas were that sparsely populated. We had good luck finding “all the usual suspects” in a fair number of places. It’s just that “the usual suspects” tend to be almost the same just about everywhere you go.

North Carolina is divided into three main ecoregions, the mountains, the peidmont, and the coastal plain. We began our trip from a fairly low elevation in the mountains (Franklin is about 2100 feet a.s.l.), drove over to the peidmont to spend the first night at Falls Lake State Park, just north of Raleigh, and dropped down to the coastal plain and over to the barrier islands of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

We did only roadside birding along the way and at rest stops until the state park and did not see very much at all. The park was decidedly better. It is a large reservoir surrounded by mixed deciduous forest and some pines. Our campground was quite birdy and we saw or heard 35 species there in about two hours of birding. Nothing was rare or unusual, but it was the only place that we found Ovenbird on the trip.

From the park we dropped down through mostly farms and fields and into the forests and rivers of the coastal plain. Birding here was the most disappointing of the trip. It may have been that we were traveling through during late morning and early afternoon, not prime birding times, but we saw practically nothing in the wetland habitats we most expected to find birds. Even the trip across the causeways to Cape Hatteras was dull. It was a big deal when we finally saw a Great Black-backed Gull on a piling!

(I’ll write about the barrier islands and pelagic portions of the trip later, but now I’ll finish the general “travel birding” report.) Our trip back from Cape Hatteras was better. We spent several hours in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and although we did not compile a big list, we had some great looks at Prairie and Prothonotary Warblers and added several more species to our trip list. Roadside birding was also better. We picked up more species at rest areas, including Cedar Waxwing and Dark-eyed Junco as we climbed back up toward the mountains.

The best birding, however, was when we decided to take a detour from the main roads and travel about 50 miles along the Blue Ridge Parkway. On this section of the road we climbed from about 3000 feet up to over 6000 feet. At these high elevations many of the birds that are more characteristic of the northern tier of states or southern Canada are found in Appalachian Mountain refugia. For example, we found Canada Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler in a remnant stand of spruce-fir forest near the highest point of the Parkway and we added several other new species as well. Mountain birding was also good at lower elevations as we descended back toFranklin.

All in all, despite being spoiled by the high diversity of the Rio Grande Valley, we saw some nice birds during our “travel mode” birding, and we definitely want to spend more time exploring the higher elevations near us.

(Next up: Birding in Cape Hatteras National Seashore)