Looking Forward to a Year-ending Trip to the Eastern US

The RGV has quieted down after the excitement of the Thanksgiving holiday and we have been under the weather with “chest colds” so there is nothing new to report. But, we hope that we’ll have a chance to see some eastern specialties over the Christmas holiday.

Our son, Allan, graduates from Cornell University in December and we’ll be there to see his big day. Following that, what better way to celebrate than a visit to the famed Sapsucker Woods for some winter birding? (Well, for us anyway.) Then, it’s off for holiday visits to family in New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Florida – a regular smorgasbord of East Coast birding opportunities (with free lodgings to boot!) Let’s just hope that a rarity or two turns up during our whirlwind tour.

This final birding opportunity of 2014 will easily push my Year List over 500 species, but I’ll have to be extremely lucky to hit my Life List goal of 700 species by the end of the year. Still, in the first year of my Eight Years to 800!? project, I’ve done fairly well. I have added 32 species to my list during 2014, bringing my total to 693, just 7 less than my round-number goal.

Unfortunately, I have not done too well on the Code 3+ rarities. For the most part, I did not chase many rarities unless they were very close to me; and when I did chase later in the year I had a success rate of only about 35%. Let’s just say it has been a learning experience. I hope I’ll do better from here on out. I’ll need to to get anywhere close to 800 in just 5.5 more years!

On the budget front, I did fairly well. I expect my birding-related expenditures will be about $6000 for the year. That’s about what we normally spend for travel in a given year. Future expenses will need to be much higher, especially since we will be making some trips to Alaska in the coming years.

We have planned a two-month visit to AK for 2015 and our costs estimate is about $12000. Not all of that will be for birding, but considering that we did an entire Big Year for about $10000, Alaska is a budget buster!

The RGV Comes Through …

… with not one, but two rarities during our first month back!

The Thanksgiving holiday was a pretty spectacular one for birds in the Rio Grande Valley. First, at about noon on turkey day, a MEGA rarity was reported at Estero Llano Grande State Park. About a half-hour later the Red-legged Honeycreeper was reported on NARBA. This is a potential Code 5 rarity that has appeared in the ABA area before (in FL) but which has, so far, not been accepted by the state bird record committee and, therefore, is not yet on the ABA list. It is possible, even likely, that the Estero bird will also be rejected as an escaped cage bird, but it’s presence sparked a birding frenzy during a busy birding holiday!

I was home nursing a chest cold, not wanting to infect the whole holiday gang, while Renee was at Thanksgiving dinner with friends. I wasn’t feeling too well and birding was the farthest thing from my mind, but when Renee called to tell me that she had just received a phone call from our friends Larry and Judy Geiger (as relayed by Ben from the Parks and Wildlife Department) that a honeycreeper was at Estero Llano Grande, I recovered remarkably fast and was out the door in 10 minutes!

The bird had been seen two or three times by the time I arrived at the park but it was far from regular and the views had been fairly brief. A small group of birders were staked out at the original site and we settled in to wait. Throughout the afternoon the birder numbers grew, but the honeycreeper did not reappear on Thursday.To add the the excitement, during the stakeout a report came in that a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was at Laguna Atascosa NWR, about 50 miles away.

On Friday, Renee and I went to Laguna first. We arrived at about 7:45 and drove along the entrance road where the bird had been reported. On our first pass we spotted one Scissor-tailed Flycatcher but not the Fork-tailed Flycatcher. We turned around at the end of the entrance road and headed back for a second pass. This time, we spotted a small group of cars ahead of us and hurried up to see what had attracted them. Sure enough, it was the Fork-tail!

As you can see from the photo, this was a beautiful adult bird with a splendid forked tail to live up to its name.

Since we had seen the Laguna bird at 8:20 am, we still had plenty of time to head over for another attempt at the honeycreeper. We arrived at Estero about 10:00 and I joined the stakeout again. This time, after about two-and-a-half hours, the bird made another of its brief visits to its original “favorite tree.” The view was brief, but definitive, but there was definitely not enough time for a photo. Throughout the rest of the day, and even on Saturday, I spent more time trying to get a photo, without success. The bird was seen during that time but it never became a regular visitor to any location.

As I write this, I have not seen a positive report on the honeycreeper for two days and the flycatcher also appears to be gone. I was certainly fortunate to see both of these rarities in one day on Friday.

It almost makes up for the horrid luck I had earlier this fall.

Back in the Lower RGV

And, of course, a rarity showed up as soon as we left the West!


It is uncanny how poor my luck has been with chasing rarities lately. We left New Mexico after spending two months and making one rarity chase. Almost immediately after we arrived back in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, a Common Crane was found at Muleshoe NWR in the Texas panhandle. Muleshoe is not “on the way” but it is only a few hundred miles out of the way for our usual return route from NM to South TX. Unfortunately, we didn’t hear of the bird until we were outside my chase radius. With the miserable results of my West Coast chase so fresh in my mind, I am not about to make another exception to my distance “rules.”

After missing all but one of my chase targets on that trip, I was very close to giving up on the whole idea of chasing rarities and drastically altering my Eight Years to 800!? project. After taking a few days to cool down, I have decided to continue, but I am setting new chase parameters (again).

The only way to get a large list, approaching 800 species, is to see a fair number of Code 4 and Code 5 birds. By their very nature, these birds are highly unpredictable and chasing them is a crap shoot. To try to keep my chasing within a reasonable budget, I have reestablished my original 500 mile (more or less) chase radius for most rarities (Code 3 or 4). Going farther than that, especially with the low odds of success on most chases, does not fit my Birding on a Budget philosophy. I will chase Code 5 mega-rarities that show up at longer distances if I think my chance of success is better than 50-50.

Thus, the Code 4 Common Crane is out of range for me.

But, at least we are settled in to the familiar surroundings of the RGV and ready to chase whatever happens our way this winter. How about a Blue Bunting or a Roadside Hawk? Aren’t we due for them pretty soon? Hope springs eternal.

An Epic Chase (4000 miles; 5 target birds) and an Epically Frustrating Result (1 new species)

Be warned. This is a long post.

As I’m sure is true for most of you, Renee grew tired of listening to me moan about the lack of chase-able rarities. “I guess that Eight Years to 800!? won’t work; at least not on a budget.” I said. “It certainly won’t work if you don’t try.” she replied. Thus, the spark was struck that lit the fire for an epic chase; one that was far beyond my original, self-imposed distance limit of 500 or 600 miles (a one-day trip).

I decided to up my limit to about 1000 miles since I had gone five months of the year without having anything within my earlier range. Near that limit, there was a newly-reported Falcated Duck at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, CA, 1096 miles away according to Google Maps. There was also a mega-rarity Eurasian Hobby way up in Washington and a new report of a Brambling near the hobby. These two birds were an additional 800 miles away, but if one rarity was worth driving 1000 miles, then three would certainly be worth driving 1900!

The decision to try this chase was made about 2 pm on Friday and by 6 pm I was on my way in the Sprinter van. My plan was to drive through the night, stopping in roadside rest areas whenever I started to feel drowsy to catch a couple of hours of sleep before pushing on. I knew that time is often of the essence. You never know when a rare bird will stop being seen. By 7 the next morning I as 650 miles away and approaching the outskirts of Los Angeles. I had not done very much sleeping, obviously, and it was clear that I was not going to be able to drive straight through to Colusa NWR (about 10 hours farther on, including stops for food, fuel, and rest) before dark.

So I did what any die-hard birder would do. I went on a search for Spotted Doves at Salt Lake Park in Huntington Beach. The last time that I knew that a Falcated Duck had been at Colusa was during the winter of 2011 – 2012. It had stayed for a couple of months before leaving right before Renee and I headed west in February of our Big Year. Based on this history I took the gamble that it would stick around for another day while I chased after Spotted Doves. It was that, or try to get all the way up to Colusa before dark after having just four hours of rest the previous night. I picked the safer dove option.

It turns out it was the wrong choice. Despite having received some “actionable intelligence” (a tip from another birder) that Salt Lake Park was one of the best places to find Spotted Doves, I whiffed on the bird. My hasty research on the Salt Lake neighborhood turned up trip reports listing up to eight birds as recently as 2010, but I saw only one “likely candidate” and could not confirm the ID.

I am not the only one to miss Spotted Doves recently. The decline of this introduced exotic species has been dramatic. I’m not sure that anyone knows why, and many birders are not going to miss it, having disparaged it as yet another invasive species competing with our native fauna, but I was still disappointed. Unfortunately, that was just the first of my disappointments during this chase.

After driving through the day to get close to my next destination, getting some much-needed sleep, and heading out very early on Sunday morning to continue my drive, I pulled up to the observation deck at Colusa NWR at 7:20 am. I was the only birder there and I was greeted by thousands of ducks and geese milling about or resting in the pond. I diligently began scanning the throng. Over the course of the next five hours I was joined by about 20 other birders, off and on, who also diligently scanned the throng. I spoke with a refuge volunteer who showed us photographs of the bird sitting on a log about 30 yards in front of the observation deck. “It sat there for about four hours yesterday.” she said. I drove the refuge auto tour loop and scanned many other throngs of ducks. It was worse than the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack. It was like trying to find one particular needle in a needle-stack!

The Falcated Duck could be in this picture. Go ahead and pick it out!

So, I left Colusa NWR without the Falcated Duck on my list and headed north. But that was not the end of the day’s disappointments. Renee, who had been monitoring NARBA for me, sent me a text saying that a cold front had moved into Washington and several days of rain were in the forecast. Now, rain in Washington is no big news, but in this case it came with the news that the hobby had not been seen since the rains began. I soldiered on, despite the bad news, confident that at least I still had the Brambling to fall back on. Besides, one morning of negative reports didn’t mean the bird was truly gone, right?

It turns out it did. After another drive through the night with little sleep, this time in the rain, I arrived at Neah Bay, WA about 10 am on Monday. I did a little scouting around for the Brambling first and saw a Tropical Kingbird, of all things, in a bush by the bay shore. I met some other birders, who were really excited by the kingbird news, and who reported that they had just come from the hobby spot with no success. With little hope for the hobby, I redoubled my efforts for the Brambling. That sounds like I had to do something strenuous, but all it really entailed was patiently waiting by the tiny patch of beach where the bird had been seen feeding on beach grasses. After a couple of hours, the bird arrived and posed for some nice photos. What a relief! I wasn’t going to get skunked after all! At least not by the Brambling.


The rest of the day was spent in the rain hoping for a glimpse of the hobby. Several locals, who were very amused by the fuss that “their bird” was causing, stopped to tell me that “The hobby was seen by a bunch of people Saturday on the powerline, right there.” or something similar. I’m sure they meant to be helpful, but it was not helping my spirits at all to miss another bird by just a day or two after driving so far.

The forecast was for clearing the next day, and I and several other birders decided to stay one more day and hope that better weather would bring better results. Maybe the hobby was just hunkered down somewhere, his belly full of dragonflies, waiting for better hunting conditions. Maybe he was just hunting passerines on the forest edges, now that the dragonflies had been beaten down by the cold rains, and someone would find his new haunts. Maybe this or maybe that. It was worth a shot after driving 1972 miles. Alas, it was not to be. I spent a very pleasant morning the next day with several new birding acquaintances, but none of us could find the hobby.

While all of this was going on, a report had shown up on NARBA of an Olive-backed Pipit in Anaheim, CA. In fact, the bird was seen while I was leaving LA and heading up to Colusa, but I did not get the report until I was already on the road for a few hours. Rather than turn back and search for the pipit, I decided to wait and see if it was still there on my return trip from Washington. That was another error.

The pipit was fairly regular for a couple of days while I was traveling north. It was not seen one day (while I was searching for the hobby). Then it was re-found during the time I was driving back south. The day before I got back to the LA area it was seen “as early as 8 am and continuing throughout the afternoon” to quote the NARBA report. Do you see where this is heading? That’s right. I arrived at Yorba Regional Park at 8 am on Thursday (after braving two hours of rush-hour traffic that started at 6 am!). I stayed until 3 pm. During that time, none of the dozens of birders who were present saw the bird. Another “You should have been here yesterday.” story; the third in five days. As far as I know, it hasn’t been seen since. But I stopped looking at NARBA. I don’t even want to know!

So, what is the bottom line of all this? Basically, I am seriously reconsidering the viability of the whole Eight Years to 800!? concept. This website is called Birding On A Budget, but it cost me over $800 in travel money to get one new species for my list. That is certainly NOT budget birding. I don’t want to be one of “those” birders! (You know, the kind who throw money at their list.) If I had seen three or more of the five species I targeted, I would have considered that a reasonable expenditure, especially since I had not spent any money chasing rarities for five months, off and on, during the year. But $800 for one bird is obscene! Besides that, it wasn’t even fun, most of the time.

I may just change the name of this project to “However many years it takes to whatever number I end up with.” I’ll have to think about it and let you know.

October Wrap-up

October is drawing to a close and it has been another month of far-away rarities.

We have been patiently waiting for some rare birds to show up within chasing distance (recently upped to 1000 miles) but there have been none so far. We have enjoyed watching the end of the NTMB migration and the trickling in of the wintering nearctic birds, but the rarities scene has been deadly dull. That’s not the case in some parts of the country.Alaska has continued to have a banner year for Eurasian vagrants and the northeast US and Florida have had their share of recent finds. None of these are close enough for me to chase however. Chasing rarities on a budget is a frustrating hobby!

Our local birds (and birders) have provided plenty of pleasant diversions from the waiting-for-a-rarity-in-the-southwest-US grind. It has been nice to get to know the birds on our property more and to meet more of the highly knowledgeable group of people in the Rodeo and Portal areas. But October has still been a birding bust as far as the Eight Years to 800!? project is concerned.

I am sitting at 690 on the new life list. My goal for the year was to reach 700 (after starting at 661, an addition of 39 species for the year). There are many reasons why I have fallen short so far. The most important one is that I have not chased any of the code 4 and 5 rarities that have graced our shores since the spring season. They have not been near enough or reliable enough to fit into the budget birding concept. (I haven’t set a strict budget limit such as the one we used for our Big Year, but I am still very stingy with the birding bucks when it comes to chasing.) Another reason was my zero-for-everything performance when we made a brief trip to Florida over the summer. (I couldn’t even find a Purple Samphen!)

The prospects for reaching 700 in 2014 are not all that great, but it is still possible with our expected future travel. Soon, we will be heading back to Texas to spend the rest of the fall and part of the winter. It is likely that something or other will turn up there (perhaps a Blue Bunting or a Roadside Hawk). Then, in December, we will be heading up to New York for our son’s graduation from Cornell. There are always a few rarities in the northeast US over the winter and we might be able to chase them between our other obligations. Finally, we are looking into the possibility of taking a pelagic trip to see Great Skua with Brian Patteson in Hatteras, NC. (We might even make it down to Florida again, but that will likely be in early January if it happens.)

It is not likely that those travels will turn up 10 more birds, but anything is possible!

A Wrap-up For September in the West

We are hanging out at our NM property, working on fix-up projects here and hoping for some western rarities to chase.

Our recent west coast swing was very productive. (See the earlier posts about the nine new birds added to the 800!? list.) Overall, we saw about 230 species during three weeks in the four western states we visited; Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. That number is almost half of all the species we’ve seen so far this year (473)! We could have had even more, but we by-passed some of our usual birding hotspots in the west (such as the Salton Sea area, “the thrasher spot” near Buckeye, AZ and the marshes near Yuma) because the weather was just too hot and we didn’t want to stress our dog, or ourselves.

We were disappointed in the lack of western migrants during the entire time. Except for flycatchers in the Chiricahuas and the nearby desert in early September, we did not find any true “migration spectacle” in the west as we had seen in the mid-west. Some of the other birders we met suggested that we were a little late and that late August and early September would have been a better time for western warblers and such. We did encounter a fair number of eastern migrants in the migrant traps around San Francisco, and, of course, the migrant Red-throated Pipits near San Diego were a great highlight of the trip.

In general, I still hate urban birding for exotics, but even I have to admit that our successes with Orange Bishop near L.A. and Spotted Munia and Black-throated Magpie-Jay near San Diego came with almost none of the usual headaches (sketchy neighborhoods, traffic congestion, ugly habitats, etc.). Chasing these birds, especially the non-ABA ones may be curious to some but I expect the total of non-ABA exotic birds to be a very small percentage (1.5 or 2 %) of the overall 800!? list, and it was nice to add those we did on this trip, even if they never become “countable” in the future.

Weather during the last three weeks of September was quite changeable and sometimes other than we expected for the region. The fog and cool temperatures of coastal California at Half Moon Bay were exactly what we expected, but the high rainfall in the deserts of Southeast Arizona and Southwest New Mexico was not. 109 degrees F in the desert around Yuma was also higher than we had hoped for during the “fall.”

One interesting by-product of the higher-than-usual, late-season rains in the desert was an apparent burst of late-season breeding by the local birds and bugs. I already wrote about the singing Cassin’s Sparrows and Bell’s Vireos in an earlier post. We also encountered breeding activity by Verdins on September 25th, newly-hatched Scaled Quail chicks (fuzzy ping-pong balls with legs!) on October 1st, and Canyon Towhees with bills loaded with caterpillars on the 2nd. Butterflies have had a population explosion in the desert after the heavy rains and you can’t take a step across the desert grasslands without scaring up multiple grasshoppers.

The weather here in Rodeo has settled in to the fall pattern we expected of warm (80s), dry days and crystal clear nights in the upper 40s and lower 50s. We had one night down to 41 that made us worry about those little quail chicks, but we hope they can fuel up on all those grasshoppers and stay warm at night.

The change to more fall-like weather is welcome and we hope it leads to some seasonal wandering by some rare birds. It’s already getting a little boring with nothing to chase!

Three Days in San Diego – Three New Birds

San Diego is one of our favorite birding locations and this visit was another good one for us.

We arrived in the San Diego area around noon on Tuesday and checked in to a campsite at Lake Jennings Rec. Area. Lake Jennings is a favorite campsite because it is far enough out to be away from much of the bustle of the city, yet near enough to be within easy driving distance to all of the local hotspots. Plus, it is a reasonable cost for a California campsite; only $33, compared to $45 or 50 at a state park.

A couple of hours after checking in, and after waiting for the heat of the day to start to abate, we headed over to Lake Murray to look for Spotted Munias. (This is an exotic species of finch which was recently added to the ABA list. It is also called the Scaly-breasted Munia or Nutmeg Manikin.) Populations of these birds have become established in several southern cities, notably Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston. We were following a tip from a local birding buddy, Dan King, whom we met on a pelagic trip from Point Loma Harbor in San Diego during our Big Year.

Dan’s tip turned out to be a good one. We saw a total of six of the birds; two striking, adult males, three females, and an immature male.

On Wednesday, we went looking for a Yellow-green Vireo that had been reported on eBird. Actually, there had been two recently reported vireos in the San Diego area and two more reports from farther up the coast as far north as San Francisco. We were hoping to finally get this bird that we should have seen in our own back yard of the RGV. Unfortunately, this bird continued to be a nemesis bird for us and we missed it again.

After leaving the futile vireo scene, we headed down to Dairy Mart Road and the Tijuana River Valley. This is the farthest south that you can go in California and it has a strange mix of birds from Mexican strays, rarities, and exotics to Siberian vagrants. We had not seen any recent reports of species I still needed for my list so we were just seeing what we could see. It turned out that we did not see much at first and we spent a couple of hours just sitting in the shade and waiting for the afternoon to cool off. (You can see that waiting for the heat to abate was a common theme on this trip!)

I couldn’t sit and wait any longer and we started to explore some likely habitats with the idea that we would mark some locations to which to return the next day when the weather was cooler. One of the areas we wanted to see was the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park Bird and Butterfly Garden on Hollister Road.

We decided to find some shade and watch for birds in the garden. I was just starting to park the van when a flock of Black-throated Magpie-Jays flew by. This is a Mexican species and the population here is established from escaped cage birds. We had seen them on a list of notable exotics of the area and had hoped to see them. The birds seem to be fairly reliable and well established. It is only a matter of time before they qualify for the ABA list.

As you can see from the photo, this is a large and impressive jay! The long tail streamers are especially notable. They wave and shimmy as the birds move about. The flock we saw had 7 or 8 individuals and was quite noisy. Even so, it was hard to get close enough for a good picture.

After spending quite some time trying to re-find the jays and get better photos we decided to call it a day and head back to camp. Unbeknownst to us, some other birders had found some Red-throated Pipits at the Dairy Mart Road sod farms shortly after we had left. The next day, as we were preparing to leave San Diego, I read their reports on eBird and we rushed back to the area to try to find them.

So often, we have been in an area and found nothing rare to chase, only to have a rarity show up as soon as we had left. This time, we got the report soon enough to avoid a repeat of that scenario. Instead, we arrived back at the sod farms at 9 am on Thursday and Renee found the pipits by 9:15! These are Siberian birds that are notable for their long-distance migration and the fact that they frequently stray east during the fall and wind up along the coast of California instead of ending up in southern Asia or Africa, where they belong.

This was a true lifer for both of us and was a great bird to add to my list on our last day in San Diego.

The first image shows the warm brown tones, pale streaking on the back, boldly streaked flanks, and pale legs (peeking through the grass) that confirm the identification.

The second image, though highly magnified from a distant shot and blurry, even shows the hint of a red throat on one of the three birds we saw.

Our California trip was very successful. I added nine species to my list (seven ABA and two non-ABA) and it only cost about $1300 to see them all – just a little over $100 per day – and that includes the costs of the pelagic trip from Half Moon Bay. (Traveling in the camper van is not as cheap as “the Prius and a tent” but it is fairly cost-effective.) If all my trips could be this productive I’d be able to reach 800 on a budget after all!

We are back in New Mexico now and are hoping for another rarity to chase somewhere near enough in the next five or six weeks. Let us know if you see anything.

An Adventure With Alvaro and a Non-ABA Stunner in the Bank

We have had a busy few days since my last post and have been out of internet contact. I apologize for not getting this done sooner.

What a difference a couple of years make! In 2012, we tried to do a pelagic trip from Half Moon Bay with Debi Shrewater and … well, I won’t go over those nasty details again. The trip with Alvaro’s Adventures was the exact opposite of that earlier fiasco: good weather, good birds and good people. (Let me stress that last point. Everyone with Alvaro’s group was a pleasure to be around.)

We started with thousands of Common Murres and Sooty Shearwaters in Half Moon Bay itself and watched Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers harassing the Elegant Terns very close to shore. A little farther out we started to pick up some Pink-footed Shearwaters and a few phalaropes. About 15 miles out we had our first Black-footed Albatross (lifer).

Almost immediately after, we saw the first of three Tufted Puffins (lifer) for the day; an immature bird.

There seemed to be a constant stream of birds around the boat: jaegers, shearwaters, gulls (including Sabine’s), terns (includingArcticand Common), Cassin’s Auklets, and a few storm-petrels (Black and Ashy).

At 20 miles we found two Brown Boobies on the Half Moon Bay weather buoy. This caused quite a stir with the local listers. Brown Boobies are very rare that far north.

We also had a close and extended encounter with a small pod of offshore killer whales. This turned out to be the rarest sighting of the day. The offshore ecotype of Orca is very seldom seen inCalifornia.

In the afternoon we ran into three Buller’s Shearwaters and saw two Long-tailed Jaegers. Both of those species were lifers for me. We also had some very close looks at albatrosses at the “chumsicle” that the crew put out to attract more birds.

Soon after, our luck changed and we hit a dry spell. The captain and spotters were working hard to try and find some storm-petrel flocks but we came up empty. We did have a great look at an adult Tufted Puffin, though.

All told, I added four species to my new life list; a very respectable showing for my first cold-water pelagic in the Pacific Ocean.

On Sunday, we birded around San Francisco and added some interesting species but found nothing new for my list. Then we drove down to Pinnacles National Park. Pinnacles is one of the release sites for California Condors. Unfortunately, birds have wings and the condors had flown elsewhere.

Monday, we spent the morning at Pinnacles and the middle of the day driving down to Los Angeles. We could not find any good, recent reports for Spotted Doves, so we decided to try for the exotic Orange Bishop (Northern Red Bishop) instead. We arrived at the Peck Road Water Conservation Park inArcadia at about 5 PM. By5:30 we had seen the bird and were on our way back to the van. That’s the way I like to chase!

The bishop is not anABAbird, yet, but I have it in the bank if they are ever well enough established to make the list. It is a stunning bird. I hope they add it for that reason alone.

For my Eight Years to 800!? list, I am counting birds like the bishop that may be added at a later date. That means I have added six new species to my list, so far, on this trip, and there are still six more days left in our travel plans.

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.