Alaska on a Budget … sort of

Things have quieted down considerably in South Texas so we’ve turned our attention to planning for our trip to Alaska this spring/summer.

Travel to and in Alaska is more expensive than we were used to during our Big Year but we have taken some steps to try to keep the costs down. We will be driving up in our camper van rather than flying and renting a vehicle there. We will camp on state and federal lands as much as possible, and we will limit our plane travel once in Alaska.

We had considered taking the ferry up so that we could avoid potential problems with snowy roads early in the season, but the cost was so high (about $3500, one way) that we scrapped that idea. We also thought about flying to Anchorage and renting an RV once there. This was an attractive option because the cost of RV rental, especially during the shoulder season when we are first planning to get to Alaska, is very reasonable. But since we are planning to spend a full two months in Alaska, it works out better if we use our own vehicle, even with the added cost of driving it up there.

Van camping is the obvious choice for several reasons. First, staying in the van is much cheaper than getting a motel every night. Second, camping at the actual birding sites is much better than having to find a motel close enough to where you want to be. Third, a van or RV is much more secure than a tent in bear country.

So, here is what we think we can do and the budget we think it will cost:

0. We will be traveling to visit friends in Washington during the spring migration. It’s not part of the Alaska trip but it is part of the budget to get to our departure point for Alaska. – $800 +/_

1. Driving the Cassiar Highway and other roads from Washington to Homer, AK (2500 miles over 10 or 12 days) – $1000 +/-

2. Participation in the Kachemak Bay Birding Festival in Homer (field trips and lodging) – $800 +/-

3. Exploring the Kenai Peninsula  for two weeks + (boat trips, lodging, entry fees, etc.) – $1800 +/-

4. An eight day trip to Nome at the peak of migration (airfare, lodging, car rental) – $2400 +/-

5. A week at Denali National Park and Denali State Park – $400 +/-

6. A week on the tundra near the Arctic Circle – $400 +/-

7. A week exploring the Gulf of Alaska by ferry (without the vehicle), a poor man’s pelagic trip – $800 +/-

8. The return trip to our place in North Carolina – $1600 +/-

Total estimated cost is $10,000.

That’s a sizable chunk of money (The three month trip will cost us as much as our entire Big Year.), but visiting Alaska is like visiting a foreign country. It is a long way!

In a few days, we’ll write about our expectations for the new birds we can see in Alaska.

We Saw 140 Species on Our Birdathon Day

“Winter” in the RGV is a very birdy time!

Temperatures in the low 80s. Huisache and Spanish Dagger in bloom. Birds singing and calling in spite of the wind. It actually felt like the start of spring.

We started the day at our B&B in Rangerville with a flyover by a Peregrine Falcon. We picked up a Yellow-headed Blackbird at the grain silos in Progreso, and spent the next several hours at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Estero was bit disappointing due to fairly high winds, so we drove north to the salt lakes area to look for arid country birds. We were successful and found Say’s Phoebe, Brewer’s Blackbird, Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin, among others. Lunch was at Delta Lake Park and we added some unexpected species (Eastern Bluebird, for one) without even having to get up from the picnic table.

After lunch, we drove out to South Padre Island to tick off all the shorebirds, ducks, and waders expected there. We missed some fairly easy birds however. It always seems to work out that way; you miss easy ones and pick up unexpected ones. We ended the day at Oliviera Park in Brownsville with great looks at four different species of parrots.

Best of all, we exceeded our fundraising target in support of Frontera Audubon!

It’s Birdathon Fundraiser Time!

My former employer, Frontera Audubon Society, is having a Birdathon fundraiser in less than a week. Please donate!

Frontera Audubon owns and manages a 12 acre urban habitat in Weslaco, TX. If you have visited the Rio Grande Valley, you know it as The Thicket, where such rarities as Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Elegant Trogon, Golden-crowned Warbler, Roadside Hawk, and other rarities and near rarities have been found.

It takes serious cash to maintain a place like that! Each year, Frontera holds a Birdathon to help raise some of that cash. This year’s event is February 21st. Help support wildlife habitat by visiting www.fronteraaudubon.org to make a donation. There is an easy “donate” button on the home page.

Renee and I will be competing with Team Tyrannulet. We hope to see lots of birds and help raise lots of cash!

And the Birds Just Keep on Coming

We’re only five weeks into the new year and already I’ve seen four new Code 4 or 5 species.

This time, a White-throated Thrush appeared at Estero Llano Grande State Park. It was found by Todd McGrath, whom some of you may know as a pelagic bird trip leader in California (Santa Barbara and San Diego, mostly). He lives in Texas now and was visiting Estero Llano Grande to see the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. This is a great example of how one rare bird attracts a crowd of searchers who then turn up even more good stuff!

We got the alert from NARBA about three hours after the bird was first seen and rushed over as fast as we could. A fairly fluid group of about 15 or 20 birders were drifting in and out of the stakeout area at the end of the road to the “Tropical Zone” of the park. There is a fence there and the land on the other side, where the bird was seen, is private land, not open to the public. We all had to content ourselves with fleeting glimpses through the haze of the chain link fence of birds fllying about at a fair distance. Finally, after two hours of looking, several of us noticed a group of Clay-colored Thrushes, mockingbirds, and starlings feeding on the berries of an anacua tree about 35 yards beyond the fence. I moved to get a better view and almost immediately saw the White-throated Thrush eating berries in the tree. The lighting was not great, so my photos are a little blurry.

The bird proved very difficult to see for many of the birders in the group. There was a house and some storage sheds partially blocking the view. I was lucky because I am tall enough to look over the storage sheds and other obstructions but Renee never got a look at the bird. There was such a limited view of the fruiting tree that it felt like we were looking for the bird through a keyhole!

If you venture out for this bird make sure you check all of the fruiting trees in the area. Be patient and it may come to a tree that offers better views.

Another Code 4 From the RGV

Back in early January, while we were still in Florida, our friend, Dan Jones, found a female Blue Bunting at Santa Ana NWR, about a half-hour from where we are staying in South Texas.

Here is Dan’s picture:

 Dan Jones

I made a couple of attempts to see it once we got back but missed it both times. In fact, as far as anyone knows, the bird was not re-found … until today, that is. This morning, on my third attempt to find the bird, and a month after its original sighting, I was able to relocate it.

Even though this is a Code 4 bird, most of us who spend a lot of time in the RGV feel like the bird is present somewhere just about every year. The trick is to find them. They can be quite hard to spot, especially the females, that might be passed over as Indigo Buntings or even cowbirds. This is my first sighting since just before the start of our Big Year. In November of 2011 I managed to get some pictures of this stunning male at the Casa Santa Ana Bed and Breakfast, which is right next door to the refuge.

If you are coming to see the female bird, look for it between the big tower and the photo blind, along the B Trail, and near the photo blind itself.

The Chase List for Rarities in the ABA Area

Throughout our Big Year and at the start of the (now suspended, but not really abandoned) Eight Years to 800!? project, Chis Hitt was nice enough to offer some advice.

Chis is very good at keeping track of the numbers side of the bird-listing game and he pointed out that 800 in a short period of time was certainly possible IF you could see enough rarities (ABA Code 3, 4, and 5 birds) each year. In my case (starting at 659 at the end of the Big Year), I needed about 20 new species each of the next seven years to reach 800 in eight years. I still had a fair number of the easier Code 1 and Code 2 birds that I had not seen (especially in Alaska), so that the number of rarities I needed to see was about 10 – 12 per year. Thus, I made an initial plan to try to chase at least one rarity per month as long as it was within a reasonable distance and budget.

I did very well in 2014 as far as getting the 1s and 2s was concerned and I even met the rarity goal as well:

  • Sinaloa Wren (Code 5) –HuachucaCanyon,Fort Huachuca,AZ
  • Blue-footed Booby (4) –LakeHavasu, near Parker, AZ
  • Slaty-backed Gull (3) – Lake Casa Blanca Park,Laredo,TX
  • Streak-backed Oriole (4) –Rattlesnake Springs,NM
  • Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (3) – SanMiguelito Ranch,TX
  • White-cheeked Pintail (4) – Mad Island WMA,Collegeport,TX
  • Ruff (3) –AnahuacNWR,Anahuac,TX
  • Fea’s Petrel (3) - Gulf Streampelagic,Hatteras,NC
  • Herald (Trinidade) Petrel (3) - Gulf Streampelagic,Hatteras,NC
  • Red-throated Pipit (3) –Dairy Mart Roadsod farms,Imperial Beach,CA
  •  Brambling (3) –Neah Bay,WA
  • Fork-tailed Flycatcher (3) – Laguna Atascosa NWR, TX
  • Red-legged Honey-creeper (5) – Estero Llano Grande SP, TX

I also added some non-ABA birds (what I call Code 0) that I am considering as being “in the bank” for future listing. (Yes, I know about the argument about whether or not “banking” those is “within the rules.”)

But I could have done so much better! I missed a bunch of what I considered easy birds and I had a very poor success rate on rarities in the fall of 2014; so much so that I got frustrated with chasing rarities and drastically scaled back my planned efforts. The main reason was the cost. I want my efforts to be true to the Birding on a Budget concept as much as possible. It will get harder and more expensive as time goes on.

But, what could have been done if I had had a bigger budget and a better success rate (due to that budget)? In other words, what was (and is) out there that I chased and missed or didn’t chase? It turns out that there are and have been quite a few rarities around. Unfortunately, I did not keep a day by day list, but I am starting one now. The purpose of this list is to show what was reported on eBird and NARBA that might have been chased. The main reason for doing this is to see if getting “enough” rarities each year was indeed possible or likely. The list will be called “The Chase List” and will appear under the “Life List” page with all the other lists.

My rules for this list are simple. Each year I will show each new species as it appears on the rare bird reports ONLY if I still need it for MY list. I will show whether or not I actually chased it, and whether or not I saw it. If another individual of the same species shows up at a different time and place during the same calendar year, I will note that in the original species entry but not add a new entry. Thus, the list will show how many rarities actually were out there per year for the next six years or so (or as long as I stay interested in the whole game!). I will start with what I remember of earlier in 2015, even though a month has already passed this year. (Sorry if I leave something out.)

I hope this new list will prove interesting and helpful in some way.

South Texas Continues To Be Amazing!

The 2014-2015 winter season is shaping up to be a monster for rarities in South Texas.

After the relatively slow summer and fall seasons we experienced in North Carolina and New Mexico, respectively, we have had great luck in South Texas this winter. Since November, I have seen two first-for-the-state records (if accepted by the records committee) and two other “code birds” (birds with ABA rarity codes of 3 or higher). Amazing!

The latest is another gem from Estero Llano Grande State Park. The park itself and, more important, the great staff and volunteers there, make this park the very best in the Rio Grande Valley right now, IMHO. Thanks to Huck Hutchens for finding a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat!

My pictures aren’t great, but the bird sure is!

Interestingly, at the same time that I was looking at the yellowthroat, a male Blue Bunting was being reported at Laguna Atascosa. A similar situation occurred back in November when a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was seen at Laguna while everyone was looking for the Red-legged Honeycreeper at Estero. Laguna Atascosa NWR is definitely my runner-up pick for Valley hotspots this season. (Unfortunately, I missed the Blue Bunting when I went to look the morning after seeing the yellowthroat.)

It seems that good birds come in bunches down here this year.

Well, Maybe One More Rarity Chase Won’t Hurt

Despite my recent post about eliminating long-distance chasing of rarities due to the high cost per species of such chasing, I just had to go see the first-ever-in-the-ABA-area Striped Sparrow nearby in Texas.

Actually, I had planned on chasing this bird before I posted to the blog about my disappointment in rarity chasing. I was delayed, however, by bad weather that turned my driveway into a mud puddle and led to me getting my camper van stuck. (Getting stuck was the straw that broke this camel’s back and made chasing the bird decidedly less fun than I had hoped it would be.) After three days of trying to dig out, the weather finally turned better and our landlord was able to get his tractor out of a nearby field and pull my van out. My spirits perked up markedly.

Texas is a big place. That’s more than a cliche, folks. A trip from one end of Texas to the other on Interstate 10 is equivalent to driving from Washington, DC all the way to Orlando, Florida. So, when I say that the sparrow was “nearby inTexas” that’s a relative term. Still, at about 385 miles away, it was within an easy day’s drive and within a reasonable budget (especially with fuel prices falling as they have). I’m not planning to do this kind of chasing very much anymore, but this sort of mega-rarity was an exception to my new “rule.”

The chase itself was a piece of cake. I was the only birder there when I arrived at the stake-out site at first light (about a half-hour before dawn) and the bird was already feeding in the road with a flock of sparrows and cardinals. It was too dark to get a picture and I stuck around for better light. For the next two hours the bird made half a dozen visits, spending about 10 minutes sitting and preening in a tree and shorter times feeding along the roadside. By the time I left at about 9 AM, at least 30 other birders had seen the bird, too.

Even with all these chances, however, my pictures are not good. A small bird at a fairly long distance is hard to shoot well. These are the best documentary shots I have.

As for the budget, this chase only set me back about $150. That’s a cost per bird that I can certainly live with.

Some Thoughts About Budget Birding in Florida

Florida can be an expensive place for birding, especially during peak season and at any time in the Miami area and the Keys.

The best way to deal with the expense is to make a few, very efficient, visits to the area rather than many, less focused, ones. We have a very good situation since Renee’s mother lives in Florida and we can count on reduced lodging costs when we visit her. Even so, we only visited Florida three times during our Big Year and tried to see as many of the specialties as we could each trip (with mixed results). We still have some glaring holes in our Florida specialties list, but we think the following advice is good, in general.

First, late winter and spring (March and April) are the best times to visit Florida in terms of the highest species richness. Many of the most sought-after rarities winter farther south and start to return by then and most of the winter specialties are still hanging on. So, you get the best of both seasons. You also miss most of the crowds of winter tourists and have better and sometimes cheaper lodging options (although the lodging costs can still be quite high in the south, especially the Keys). Late fall and early winter are also quite nice, though some of the more tropical birds are already gone by then. Summer can be good for breeding birds but the heat, humidity, and insects make camping more difficult and tend to increase lodging costs when you are “forced” to stay in motels. The peak season (right after Christmas and through February) tends to be crowded and more expensive for just about everything.

Second,Floridahas a very good system of county and state parks and federal camping options in National Parks and National Forests. You really should do at least some camping to save money and to get closer to the best birding areas. For example, camping in the Everglades National Park at the Flamingo campsite is very reasonable and it is much better than having to drive all the way from the nearest motels in, say, Homestead. Be warned, however, that even the camping in the Keys can set you back $40 or $50 just for a tent site; but that’s still better than $100 to $200 for a motel room. If you are flying in, it makes sense to rent a reasonably sized RV and tour the state. That way, you get your car rental and lodging all in one package. The saving could be substantial.

Third, plan to spend 10 days or more if you want to see the most species with the least cost. Florida is at the far southeast edge of the country and getting there is quite expensive for many folks. Doing a shorter trip and having to come back again when you miss something is always more expensive than a single, longer trip. (You’ll still miss some things, but longer trips are usually better in the long run.) Even when you are coming to Florida to chase a specific rarity it is always a good idea to see if there are other birds to seek nearby that can be reached at a modest added cost in time and money.

So, where do you go for your 10 days or more of birding in Florida? Here are our favorite spots:

1. The Florida Keys- especially make an effort to visit Key West and the Dry Tortugas during the spring. If you can do it during “fallout weather” you could be treated to one of the birding highlights of your lifetime. Camping at Fort Jefferson is a special treat. The conditions are somewhat primitive but it is worth it. Make sure to get reservations as far in advance as you can. Space is limited. Also, there are special rules set by both the National Park Service and the Yankee ferry company, so do your research. Keep an eye on eBird for rarities. There are a dozen or more special birds that are possible in the Keys.

2. Everglades National Park and surrounding areas – water birds are the highlight here, but it is also a great place to see Shiny Cowbird, Short-tailed Hawk, and (if you are lucky) anis.

3. The greater Miami-Fort Lauderdale area – especially good for the many exotic species that are possible in the urban and suburban environment. Traffic and development take their toll on both the birds and the birders, but if you can stand the conditions you will find some good birds. It is imperative that you do lots of research on eBird for the hard-to-find species. We don’t hire guides for most birding but this is one place where you might consider it for birds like White-winged Parakeet, Spot-breasted Oriole, Western Spindalis, Smooth-billed Ani, etc. (Larry Manfredi is the go-to guy for this area.)

4.Sanibel Island and Ding Darling NWR – water birds and Mangrove Cuckoo are the biggest draw here. It can be very expensive staying near here, so plan things carefully.

5. The southern end of Lake Okeechobee- the Stormwater Treatment Areas and other marshes are the big draw in this area. The best spot for Snail Kite.

6. If you are driving in from the west, make a stop at Appalachicola National Forest and look for Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and others. These species are found in other areas, too. Do some eBird research to see where they are likely to be along your route.

7. OscarSchererState Parkand the Venice area for Florida Scrub-Jay. Again, there are other likely spots, so do your eBird research if you won’t be near this area during your stay in Florida.

8. Anywhere that a rarity is being reported – keep in touch with eBird, NARBA, Tropical Audubon Society, and other rare bird alerts throughout your stay.

Even if you follow all that advice, you aren’t guaranteed to clean up on all of the 30 or so Florida specialties (We still have about 10 left for our list!) but you should have made a good dent in those numbers.

This is the end … my friends.

I have decided not to continue the Eight Years to 800!? project. (I’m still heading for a big list, but at a more leisurely pace and no “pressure” to hit a specific goal.)

It’s not because I think that the 800 goal is unattainable. It’s because I don’t think it is attainable on the budget I am prepared to spend. This blog is about Birding on a Budget, after all. After careful consideration of my recent successes and failures (mostly) when chasing rarities and trying to mop up on the more common birds we missed during our Big Year, I don’t like the trend that the “dollars per species” is taking.

It is abundantly clear that the only way to reach 800 species in the ABA area is to see many of the Code 4 and 5 birds that show up sporadically and unpredictably each year. These species can be anywhere and require spur-of-the-moment travel to see many of them before they disappear again. Plus, many of the birds show up in hard-to-get-to (read expensive) places like Alaska, maritime Canada, at sea, etc. During our budget Big Year, we avoided travel to these rarity hotspots because of that expense, but I can’t avoid them anymore if I expect to get a big ABA list. So, the budget part of Birding on a Budget is winning out and I am suspending the rarity chasing.

Another reason is that the project has not been very much fun lately. As a retired person, I realize more than some, perhaps, that there is no reason to do anything if it is not fun. Birding, especially, should be fun!

We still intend to keep birding and blogging (perhaps a bit less frequently) and we will continue with our plans to visit Alaska in the summer, despite the price tag. Alaska has been on our travel radar for as long as we can remember and we have to visit it at least once!

I’ll write some more about my thoughts on budget birding and building a list soon.