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.

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.