#716: Collared Plover

We were not really expecting any new birds during our stay in the RGV, but the birding gods were nice to us.

Last year, fellow birder Dan Jones found a Collared Plover in the RGV while we were summering in North Carolina. We watched the reports on that bird from afar while we planned our next birding adventure to California but it did not stay long enough for us to chase it on our way west. That bird was only the second Texas record and we figured it would be a long time before we would get another crack at it.

Surprise! Another Collared Plover (maybe the same bird) has been discovered at the same location as last time. Pat Heirs was credited with making the first report of an unusual plover at Hargill Playa this time around. Photos confirmed it early in the day and by 3:30 we were at the site determined not to miss it this year. The only problem … it’s summertime in the RGV and it was 102 degrees out there!

The bird was smarter than we were and it stayed out of the scorching sun. We whiled away the hours by drinking lots of Powerade and playing video games on our tablets, making frequent, but short, searches. Four hours later, as the day started to cool off, our patience was rewarded. Our lifer Collared Plover made an extended appearance along the playa shore.

That brings my life list to 716 species since 2012.

Back in the RGV of Texas; Not Quite “Home”

Our “Excellent Adventure” is drawing to a close. We are back in the Rio Grande Valley for a week of doctor, dentist, and car appointments before heading on to our “final” stop of the year in North Carolina.

Our trip list for the time we spent away from the Valley stands at 403 species. We saw 230 or so species in Canada and Alaska and another 170 or so in the Lower 48. At the start of the trip I was trying to see if we could reach 500 species. I’ve seen 19 Valley specialties in the short time we’ve been back, but I doubt that we’ll get to 500 by the time we get to North Carolina. I was too optimistic, it seems. Of course, we missed a fair number of species when we decided to chase rarities instead of taking our time and birding through California at the start of the trip north. Still, it was probably not enough species that we missed there to bring us to 500 either. I’ll just have to be satisfied with 425 to 450 or thereabouts.

It certainly was an educational trip. My preconceptions and expectations were fairly accurate in some cases but very far from the mark in others. The single biggest error I made was thinking that one “BIG” trip to Alaska would be enough. No way! I want to go back again and again! From the standpoint of birds and a life list I was fairly realistic in my expectations. But there is so much more to Alaska than the birds I can still see for my list. I want to go back even if there is nothing likely left for me to see. Native Alaskans have a saying about this: “Most visitors come to Alaska thinking that it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip; and leave thinking that it was a good scouting trip for the future.”

The final budget for the trip was educational as well. We had budgeted about $10,000 to $12,000 for the entire trip. (That’s the same, or more, than we spent for our entire Big Year.) The biggest single chunk of that budget was $3,000 for eight days in Nome. Our actual total cost, for two people, and including repairs we needed for a breakdown of the van, was only $9519. The Alaska and Canada portions of the trip were under $8,000. Birding in Alaska and Canada was not such a budget buster after all, especially considering that we spent 75 days there.

It would have been much more if we had done all of our birding on organized tours with the big-name birding tour companies. They charge $400, $500, or even $600 a day, per person, for tours of the best birding spots. Our average cost was only about $50 per day, per person. From that standpoint, our concept of Birding On a Budget was proven to be sound, and we did not rough it by sleeping on the ground in a pup tent like we did during the Big Year.

On the other hand, we did not see as many new birds as I had hoped and the lists being reported by the big-name groups on the Pribilofs, at Gambell, and on the Aleutians were about a dozen species longer than our list of Alaskan specialty birds. Focused, short duration visits to those sites must be in my future if I hope to get to 800 species in a reasonable amount of time. Whether or not it ends up being a reasonable budget remains to be seen.

One of our biggest issues during the trip was the lack of dependable internet service. There is so much I wanted to write about during the trip but I got lazy about the writing when I knew I wouldn’t be able to post it.  I’ll try to remember and write some more follow-ups after the fact.

Alaska and Canada Wrap-up

We’re still working our way back to our summer home in North Carolina, but I thought I’d do a summary of our Alaska and Canada experience along the way.

First, the statistics:

Total number of species seen in Alaska and Canada: 230

Total number of new species for the life list: 17

Total number of days spent in Alaska and Canada: 75

Total miles driven to, in, and from Alaska to the lower 48: 9350

Total birding dollars spent: $6850

As you can see, this trip was not in keeping with our theme of Birding on a Budget. It was less expensive than most north country birding trips, but it was much more expensive than our usual trip. The north country has some unique birds but it is not an especially diverse place. Our total of 230 species seen in 75 days of travel is fairly low compared to our typical species lists in the lower 48. Also, our cost per new species added to the life list was over $400. It will get even more expensive as I try to add more species toward the ultimate goal of 800!

Our trip up to Alaska and to the Shorebird Festival in Homer took place during the last 10 days of April and the first few days of May. It was an unusual year in terms of snowfall and the roads were almost completely clear. The drive up was easier than we had expected, BUT nearly all of the camping and birding areas were still closed for the winter. In some cases we were unable to find a camping site and had to resort to “camping” in the parking lot of a motel that had outside electrical power for our van. Fortunately, most motels have such power for the vehicle engine blankets needed during the sub-zero weather typical of a northern winter. Our best birding experience during the trip up was the day we spent along the Haines Highway between Haines Junction in the Yukon Territory and the US/Canada border. Kluane National Park and other sites along that road were still locked in the grip of winter, but we still saw a great assortment of wildlife.

Once in Alaska, and especially when we reached the relatively mild climate of the Kenai Peninsula, winter’s grip started to loosen. Our stay in Homer, Seward, and other parts of the peninsula was mostly ice-free and we saw more birds than we had seen on the trip up. The shorebirds arrived right on time for the Shorebird Festival, BUT we were still too early for most of the migrant land birds. Our best birding experience during this portion of the trip was our boat trip from Seward out to the Chiswell Islands. Our biggest disappointment was the Shorebird Festival itself. We did not see anything during our excursions at the festival that we did not see on our own.

The next portion of the trip was our 10-day excursion to Nome. Without a doubt, this was the birding highlight of the trip. We arrived a bit too early for some of the migrants, but we stayed long enough that they had arrived by the time we needed to go. We didn’t see everything that it was possible to see in Nome, but we came close. Our biggest disappointment was that we did not see either of the eider species we had hoped to find.

Denali National Park was our next stop. This was not primarily a birding destination, but we did manage to add Arctic Warbler to the list here. The highlights of Denali were the great scenic beauty of the place (We had spectacular views of the mountain.) and the large mammals we were able to see, especially grizzly bears.

After Denali we headed back to Seward and another great boat trip in Resurrection Bay and the fringes of the Gulf of Alaska. We also had some great birding and photography opportunities sprinkled among the transitions between the trip segments listed here. The best was the time we got to spend at a nest of Great Gray Owls.

Near the end of our stay in Alaska we had some car trouble and we decided to head back home a few days earlier than originally planned. The trip back south through Canada allowed us to revisit many of the spots we had seen during the trip up. It impressed on us the importance of timing when visiting the north country. What had been frozen on the trip up was now bursting with life. Our best birding experiences during the return trip happened when we had returned to the warmer climate of southern Alberta. There was a profusion of birds that we had not seen farther north. Our biggest disappointment was our time in Jasper and Banff National Parks. They had spectacular scenery, but they were crowded with tourists and we did not see very much wildlife at all.

All-in-all, it was a great trip. It is certainly a trip that everyone should make at least once, BUT I was somewhat disappointed that we did not see the great profusion of wildlife that I had expected in many areas and I did not reach my goal of adding 20 species to the life list. I came pretty close, though.

We’re heading out on the next leg of our homeward trip tomorrow. There is still plenty of birding to do along the way. We’ll see you down the road!

Back in the Lower 48

It has been two weeks since we’ve had a decent internet connection and I have some ‘splainin’ to do.

After our second boat trip from Seward we made arrangements to revisit the Denali Highway to look for Smith’s Longspurs one more time. Unfortunately, just as we reached the start of that road, we had a breakdown with our van. The tie rod came undone and we couldn’t steer! Thankfully, we were going very slowly and did not end up in a ditch at the side of the road. Five hours and over $500 later we were towed into Delta Junction, 80 miles away. Two more days and another $450 and we were finally able to get back on the road. We decided to head toward home.

The trip back through Canada was interesting. For about half of the way we retraced our steps from the way up. What a difference two months make. What had been frozen on the way up was now bursting with the life of summer. For the other half of the trip we followed a new route and visited lots of new sites and sights. The Yukon produced bison, British Columbia stone sheep, and Alberta the glaciers and mountains of Jasper and Banff. Then, we dropped down onto the grasslands and coulees and were greeted by a profusion of birds in the warmer climate there.

Now, we are back in the Lower 48 (in Montana). I hope it won’t be another two weeks before I write again!

Another Boat Trip From Seward

We made it as far as Fairbanks before deciding not to drive up to the Arctic Circle after all. Instead, we returned to Seward for another boat trip into Resurrection Bay and the Gulf of Alaska.

We did not see anything new for our bird list, however. Once again, we were working with faulty information and our expectations did not mesh with reality. Our paper bird-finding guide listed species that real, flesh and blood bird guides (Gavin Bieber of Wings and members of the boat staff) told us we should not expect. Still, we did see several species that we had listed as BVD birds (Thick-billed Murre, Parakeet Auklet, Red-faced Cormorant, and Kittlitz’s Murrelet) and we saw lots of sea mammals.

I didn’t get many good photos of the birds, but there were some good photo ops for the mammals. Here is a selection of shots from the trip.

We are on our way home and will be birding back along our route into Alaska, through Canada and through the western US and Great Plains.

Denali National Park

We have been away from reliable phone and internet connections for the last 10 days as we explored Denali National Park and nearby areas. Here is an update on what we have been doing.

After leaving Tolsona Wilderness Campground and its nesting Great Gray Owls we journeyed north to Paxson and the eastern end of the old Denali Highway. This is a 135 mile road, mostly gravel, that travels through forest and alpine tundra from the Richardson Highway to the Parks Highway, just south of the entrance road  to Denali National Park. The road offers beautiful scenery and even provides views of Mount McKinley/Denali when the weather is clear (which is almost never). But our reason for taking this route was the chance to see two of my target birds for the trip; Arctic Warbler and Smith’s Longspur (a BVD bird that is already on my life list). The weather was terrible during our three days along the road. It rained much of the time and even snowed on us three times. Under those conditions it is not surprising that we did not see either of our target birds.

Not wanting to beat a dead horse, we gave up any hope for productive birding and spent a couple of days just getting supplies, doing some general sightseeing, and making sure we were ready for our stay at Denali NP. Fortunately, there was a break in the weather just in time. We had some clouds and wind, but for almost all of our stay in Denali we had great weather for wildlife watching.

Wildlife watching is the correct term. Denali is not a great birding destination. We did search for the Arctic Warbler again, but our main reason for camping in Denali was the hope of seeing the large mammals it is famous for: grizzly bear, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves. We were successful in all cases except that of the wolf. (We did see a coyote. Does that count as half a wolf?)

One of the reasons why Denali is not a good birding destination is restricted access for cars. The lack of cars on the road is a great benefit to the wildlife but having to rely on the shuttle bus system makes birding very hard. It is possible to get off the bus to look for birds along the single park road, but you might wait over an hour to be picked up by the next bus to continue on your way. We did get off the bus and hike in search of certain birds, and we were successful in finding the Arctic Warbler, but overall we had a very low species list for birds in the park.

The story of the Arctic Warbler (the only lifer for the Denali portion of our trip) provides a good lesson on the importance of finding the right people to talk to and getting the most up-to-date information. For most of our trip we have relied on the ABA bird-finding guide for Alaska by George West and on eBird and other internet sources. Our copy of the guide is dated 2002 and we did not see a more recent edition when we were doing our initial research. Much of that guide is out of date and so we have followed eBird whenever we have access to phone or internet coverage. Much of that information is unreliable as well, or is not detailed enough to be of much use. In this case, we finally talked to a park ranger who was a birder and got some very specific suggestions. He had not seen any of the birds yet this season and was not certain that the birds had even arrived yet, but we took his advice and set off to track down these elusive birds.

It turned out not to be too difficult after all. We got off the shuttle bus at the suggested point along the park road and started walking along the road and exploring the suitable habitat that we could see. We had tried this at the main site that was suggested in the bird-finding guide without success but the ranger’s site proved to be reliable. The birds were indeed back and singing and we managed to hear one after only about a half hour of looking. (This greatly pleased Renee since looking for Arctic Warblers means poking around in willow thickets in the middle of prime grizzly bear habitat, and the less time spent looking, the better!) The lighting was poor but I did manage to get a few pictures to document the find.

The next day we got off the bus at another location, and armed with our new knowledge of what Arctic Warbler habitat really looked like, we managed to find four more singing males in about two miles of walking along the road edge. That’s certainly not a high population density, but it was not too hard to find the birds. The light was better, but the bird was farther away for my second (and last) attempt to get a photo.

Our attempts to see the big animals of Denali were much more easily accomplished. The shuttle bus drivers were very good at helping everyone to spot animals and we saw bears, caribou, and sheep each of our four days in the park. (We saw moose on a couple of days, though not from the bus.)

The highlight of our mammal watching came on the last evening of our stay. We had been hiking the road much of the day and were out fairly late (6:30 pm) so we were on the very last bus that was returning from the Eielson Visitor Center to our campground. On that trip, and within the space of just about a half hour, we had three separate sightings of grizzly bears along the side of the road. Most of our previous sightings had been very distant, but these three bears were within a few yards of the bus. One bear put on a hilarious display by using a roadside sign to scratch its back. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment!

We didn’t just look at big stuff. I took photos of plenty of flowers and butterflies and other small critters. There is not space for all of them here, but here are a few of them.

Oh, and one more thing. We did manage to see Mount McKinley. Many of the park visitors only see the mountain shrouded in clouds (as seen in one of my pictures below) but we managed to be in the 10% club of visitors who get to see the mountain without clouds. On one day there was not a single cloud in the sky, but I included a picture of the mountain with a few clouds at its summit. It looked nicer that way.

We are on our way north to the Arctic Circle now. We still want to see wolves and we hope we’ll have a chance there. We’ll let you know!

Great Gray Owls

During our Big Year there were several birds that we counted for our list but that were classified as BVD birds; Better View Desired.

The Great Gray Owl was one of these birds. We heard it in Yosemite National Park during the year but never managed to see one. So, when a report of nesting owls at a campground about three hours from Anchorage reached us, we put that location on our itinerary.

We had to wait until we had completed our trip up to Nome before heading out and the owners of the campground thought the owls might be ready to fledge, so we were worried that we might miss them. That worry was unfounded. The three nestlings are still a couple of weeks away from fledging and the adults are actively feeding. We were able to see all five members of the Great Gray family.

The pictures that follow show a few moments in a typical day in the life of these owls.

#1. The female spends most of the day sitting near the nest in a cottonwood tree. She calls softly to reassure the nestlings that she is still there. Every once in a while she gives a short series of hoots.

#2. About every hour to an hour and a half, the male flies in and hands off a food item to the female. Mostly, the food items are red-backed voles, but I did see what looked like a thrush on one trip and another photographer saw what looked like a grouse being delivered.

 

#3. The female prepares the food for delivery to the nest.

 

#4. She takes the food to the nest and tries to feed it to the nestlings. Sometimes it takes several tries and the food sits on the nest for some time before being accepted by a nestling.

#5. The female watches as the nestling eats the prey before flying off to resume her watch in the nearby tree.

Every once in a while, the female flies off and hunts on her own, usually returning fairly quickly with a prey item.

I’d say we satisfied our requirements for this BVD bird, wouldn’t you?

Crazy Birder Strikes Again

We got back from Nome about 2:30 and by 4:00 I was already chasing a rarity.

True to form, unsuccessfully, I should add.

On Wednesday evening we saw a post about a Terek Sandpiper near Anchorage. Since our flight wasn’t until today, we had to hope it would stick around. It was reported at about 8:00 this morning but by the time we arrived it was gone. It did not return during the six hours we waited and searched for it either. I really have a very bad record of success lately.

But the missed rarity does not detract from our successful Nome adventure. We saw 103 species in Nome, a high number for the arctic for sure. I also added eight new species to the life list. Finally, we did the entire trip for about $3200, or $160 per person per day, about a third of what it would have cost had we taken a typical birding tour of the area.

That’s still a fair amount of money, but it is a good number for our idea of birding on a budget.

Eight Days, Eight New Birds

Today was day eight of our Nome adventure and I saw my eighth lifer.

Today’s highlight was the Red-necked Stint. We had spent days looking for one and were always frustrated. This evening I finally found one at the mouth of the Snake River where it enters the Nome harbor. It wasn’t easy. This is a classic needle in a haystack exercise. It brings to mind the Sesame Street rhyme: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things is not the same!” I had to pick out a single stint from hundreds of Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers in a flock that was constantly moving and readjusting positions. Once I had convinced myself that I had the bird in the scope, it was impossible to find it in the viewfinder of the camera among the shifting mass of birds. So I just fired away and got an image or two, but nothing that is suitable for showing here due to very poor focus and lighting.

Tomorrow is our last full day here. It is highly unlikely that we will find anything else that is new for my 8 to 800 list, so the string of averaging a new bird a day will come to a halt. It was fun while it lasted.

Maybe I’ll just sleep in for a change!