Happy Leap Day!

Since 2012 is a Leap Year we got an extra day for birding today. We didn’t think that was fair so we spent the day preparing for our return home from our northwest adventures.

Just kidding. The weather was awful (again), so we spent the morning getting some maintenance done on the van and doing some shopping. By early afternoon it looked like it was starting to clear up some so our friend, John, and his son, Ewan, graciously offered to take us on a birding trip to Sequim Bay, just west of Port Townsend.

Our target was the Yellow-billed Loon that was being seen off and on at John Wayne Marina. We spent some time scoping the bay but the weather turned fickle again and it started to rain so we headed over to the Audubon Center at Railroad Park instead.

The staff at the center was very helpful and provided us with directions to locations where we might find some of our other target birds: Evening Grosbeak, Northern Goshawk, and especially, Northern Shrike. While at the center we saw chickadees, juncos, sparrows, and a Purple Finch at the feeders.

We decided to concentrate on the shrike since it was starting to get late and we didn’t have time to chase after all three targets. We drove the back roads and visited about a half dozen birding spots but were unable to find a shrike anywhere. We did see a Short-eared Owl on the prowl and many other species.

So, our birding in northern Washington ended on a sour note, but the trip has been great overall. We will leave with a few misses but our hits will far outnumber the misses.

A Change to Our Big Year Criteria

We are changing our criteria for our Big Year. Here’s why:

1. Recent surges in the price of gasoline (+10% since we started our year) have hit our budget pretty hard.

2. We are driving about 30% more miles than we had thought we would, further increasing fuel costs.

3. We are spending more on lodgings than we had planned due to the fact that we have had to stay in motels when many campsites have been closed for the winter.

4. Taken together, these added costs will necessitate that we find ways to reduce future costs to stay within our $10K budget.

Therefore, we are removing all travel to Canada from our plans in order to save miles and money.

Our Big Year is now “officially” a Lower 48 Big Year.

Alcids at Admiralty Inlet

Today we spent about four hours at the lighthouse at Point Wilson in Port Townsend, WA.

The tide was running out strongly and there were hundreds of birds flying into Puget Sound from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Unfortunately, they were far out near the limit of our scope and identification was difficult. Patience proved to be the key.

Every once in a while birds would fly by fairly close to shore and some, especially the Pigeon Guillemot, scoters, mergansers, loons and grebes, would land within easy binocular distance. The excitement really ramped up when one of the “flying footballs” (the alcids) would streak by. After a while it became fairly easy to tell the Common Murres from the murrelets and auklets, even at great distance, but still, we wanted to see definitive looks of the birds before making our identifications. We waited and scoped some more.

A Common Murre landed and drifted with the current less than 50 yards from shore and we got great views of its finest details. But, we had already counted that bird and we kept hoping that a murrelet or auklet would come in close. Finally, we got our wish. Several pairs and small groups of Marbled Murrelets and Rhinoceros Auklets drifted by close enough for us to get good scope views of their defining field marks.

Still, we were not quite done. We wanted to try to see Ancient Murrelet and Tufted Puffin. We waited and watched some more until we saw a pair of Ancient Murrelets far out in the current. Their plain, gray backs (lack of white patches near the rump and shoulders) and blackish crowns were visible and allowed us a confident tick of the species. We never did see a puffin, however.

A little later we walked along the rocky shore and turned up several Surfbirds mixed in with a flock of Black Turnstones. This gave us four new species for the day.

Windy, Wet (and even some White) Western Washington

We spent a couple of days traveling to and around the coast on the Olympic Peninsula in search of seabirds and some rarities.

The day started cold and snowy on February 25th and we were a bit worried about driving through snow over the southern Olympic Mountains. But the weather began to clear almost as soon as we started out and we were graced by a family of two adult and four young Trumpeter Swans along the way. By the time we reached the coast the sun was shining off and on between short rain and snow showers. The only problem was, it was blowing with gale force winds! We prepared for it with multiple layers of clothes and rain gear and we were determined to find the Snowy Owls that had been reported at Ocean Shores, wind or no wind.

As we drove south to Damon Point we saw a few geese on the golf course where the Emperor Goose had been sighted. We had planned to look for the goose later in the day but decided to give the geese a quick look. Sure enough, even before we had stopped the car to look, we spotted the white head among the Canada Geese. It was so windy that the camera lens was being buffeted so hard it was difficult to get a steady shot, but we managed a documentary picture.

We continued on to Damon Point. The wind was so hard that it made even the simple act of standing still difficult. Still, we picked up the scope and camera, pulled on our balaclavas, and became ninja birders on a quest for the Snowy Owl, our nemesis bird from the East Coast trip. It was a long hike to the end of the sand spit and at first we were unable to locate any owls. We were not the only ones out looking, however, and soon a photographer flushed an owl and we had our bird! Michael tried to get close enough for some photos but the strong wind made holding the camera steady difficult. Out of a hundred shots the following picture was the only one that was sharply focused.

What a gorgeous bird!

The morning of the 26th dawned with almost no wind and we were primed to find the alcids that are the main targets of our Washington trip. Unfortunately, the surf was still quite rough and we had no success as we drove up the west coast and along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

We added the Northwestern Crow at Ruby Beach when a pair of birds were very vocal and we could distinguish the hoarse, low calls that separate this species from the American Crow. We picked up the Barrow’s Goldeneye at Pilar Point, but except for a possible guillemot at very long range, we missed the alcids. We also had a surprisingly hard time finding the rocky-coast shorebirds, Black Turnstone and Surfbird. (We had seen the Rock Sandpiper at Ocean Shores.)

We decided to suspend the search and head to our ultimate destination in Port Townsend to stay with our friends John and Deb. As we came into town we decided to make a swing through the harbor area near the Whidbey Island Ferry terminal and see if anything was around. There were two of our target birds, the turnstone and the guillemot, as easy as could be! We could have just driven straight from Ocean Shores to Port Townsend and saved ourselves a day of frustration! Hanging out with the turnstones was a Red Knot, a nice bonus bird for the day.

The weather today (Feb 27) is wonderful, and as soon as we have finished this, we’ll be off to explore the waters around Port Townsend some more with visions of murrelets, auklets, and puffins dancing in our heads!

California Dreamin’ … and a little bit of a nightmare

Since leaving the Nutting’s Flycatcher near Lake Havasu City, AZ we spent the better part of three days cruising through California on a mission to reach Point Arena, the hangout of Big Al the Laysan Albatross.

On February 22nd, we drove through some incredible forests in the Coast Range, picked up a couple of new year birds, and arrived at our destination about noon. Alas, Big Al was nowhere to be seen. Not to worry, though, there was plenty to see even in his absence. We had a good time picking through flocks of gulls and ticking off Western, Herring, Thayer’s, Mew, and Glaucous-winged; the last three being year birds. Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants were also present, along with Pacific Loon and Black Oystercatcher.

We spoke with some local birders and fisherman and learned that Al had been around in the afternoon the previous day. So, after lunch at the Chowder House, we bundled up against the stiff breeze that was blowing and settled on a bench at the end of the pier to wait. Two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock…Al was still absent.

We decided to go make arrangements for our camping spot and to return around sunset to see if Al had settled in for the night. Sure enough, when we returned after 5 pm, Al was there and we got some nice views of him (her?) loafing near the rocks in his favorite spot just north of the pier. What a gorgeous bird! The light was poor, so the picture below does not do him justice.

All was not rosy in California, however. We had a hard time finding camp sites. In many cases, the campgrounds were closed for the season, even though we did not feel like the season was very difficult at all, in terms of weather. In other cases, it seems that the big budget cuts that were enacted last year have taken a toll and some services, like camping, were eliminated from an area. In one case, we drove miles out of our way up a narrow mountain road to get to a campsite, only to find that the campground was “closed until further notice.” A simple sign at the beginning of the entrance road would have saved us a lot of trouble! In all cases where we did find camping, we were surprised by the high cost, as much as $35 per night for tent camping with no electricity, no water at the individual campsite, and showers that required you to feed in quarters to get clean. I’ve never seen such a thing in good, old Texas state parks!

All-in-all, our trip through California was a success. We added 23 new year birds.

Nutting’s!!!

The Nutting’s Flycatcher near Lake Havasu, AZ was kind enough to stick around for some photos.

The pictures here are not great. The bird was easy to see but hard to photograph. It spent most of its time out of good range of my lens or hidden in the brush. Still, the photos are diagnostic.

The first photo shows the colors of the feather edgings on the wings. The white – yellow – reddish pattern (left to right on the right wing) indicates the Nutting’s.

This blow-up of the distant bird is blurry but shows the pattern of the tail feathers that indicates Nutting’s flycatcher. The orange color of the feather extends to the feather tip.

The photos are not really needed. The bird was very vocal and was identified by sound long before it was seen!

Three More Days in Arizona

And the birds keep piling up!

February 17th started out cold and dreary but things warmed up fast when we spotted the Rufous-backed Robin at Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. This sighting was followed by the Western Screech-Owl and Gray Flycatcher at the preserve and Lazuli Bunting at the Paton’s House feeders. Then, while heading back to our campsite, we ticked off a Canyon Wren at the Patagonia roadside rest area. Despite unseasonably cold weather and some rain (and even snow at slightly higher elevations) we were able to add five species to the year list.

The 18th was not as prolific. We missed the Streak-backed Oriole at Tubac, AZ (Nobody had seen the bird for several days.) and did not turn up anything new on the drive to Madera Canyon. But Florida Canyon made up for the slow start to the day by producing two Rufous-capped Warblers that were so close we could practically touch them!

Unfortunately, despite several more hours of birding, Madera Canyon continued to disappoint. We added nothing new the rest of the day or in the morning of the 19th.

Later today (Feb. 19th) we got back on track with another five-bird day. As we were leaving Madera Canyon we swung through Box Canyon Road and picked up a pair of Rufous-winged Sparrows. Then, we drove up to Buckeye to look for some late longspurs in the ag fields south of town. The longspurs were gone but we did see a Prairie Falcon there. A short distance away, at the intersection of Baseline and Salome Roads, we spotted both Bendire’s and LeConte’s Thrashers and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. (Thanks to eBird and the AZ RBA for the heads up on the “thrasher spot!”)

Now, we are holed up in a motel in Parker, AZ, just 20 miles away from the Nutting’s Flycatcher that has been holding court since late December. Let’s hope tomorrow is as good to us as the last three days have been!

Catching up…again

We have been without internet for a few days…again. Our trip west from our property in Rodeo, NM has been fantastic! Southeast Arizona never fails to impress, no matter what the season. Some highlights:

Sparrows, sparrows, sparrows – We think that all the rest of North America must be devoid of sparrows, considering how many we have been seeing in Southeast Arizona. The flocks of Brewer’s, Chipping, and White-crowned Sparrows are huge and several other species add impressively to the mix. We haven’t seen many of the specialties of the area but that is due to the season. Later in the spring will be better.

Spring is here (sometimes) – Trees are budding and spring wildflowers are blooming already in much of the area. It certainly feels like spring…until a light dusting of snow comes along as it did today (above 5000 feet). The birds must be confused. Swifts and swallows were flying about yesterday but today is cold and dark with hardly a bird in the air.

Rarities are being added at a fast rate – We have had great success with the rare birds we have been targeting so far. One of our success stories deserves a special mention. We were looking for the Black-capped Gnatcatcher at Lake Patagonia SP when we met up with Alan Schmierer and his wife Anna. Alan gave us a tutorial on the characteristics of the individual birds we were looking for and we realized that we had already seen one of them and had passed it off as a “not enough info to identify” bird. We went back to the spot we had seen the bird and spent about 45 minutes to an hour relocating the bird and trying to get photos to confirm the id. We were finally successful and we could add the bird to our list with confidence. Thank you Alan and Anna!

The birding community is full of “small world” moments – Today we were at Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve looking for the Rufous-backed Robin and we met Bert Filemyr. We noticed that he was wearing a DVOC (Delaware Valley Ornithology Club) hat. Michael asked about the hat and it turns out that Bert lives in Philadelphia and knows Michael’s brother, Joe, in New Jersey. Small world! (By the way, we got the robin.)

The Paton’s house stands the test of time – We first visited the Paton’s feeders way back in 1977 and we were just as impressed on this trip, 35 years later, as we were back then. We will definitely be back for the summer hummingbird extravaganza!

Now, we are getting ready to head even farther west and try for even more rarities. Again, we will be out of internet reach but we hope you’ll stay tuned and look for us in a couple of days!

Bird Feeders and Our Big Year

Wild bird feeders are wonderful for Big Year birders. When we go into a new area,  feeders allow us to see some of the most common birds quickly and then spend more time focusing on the less common birds that don’t come to feeders.

We also have seen a number of rare species at feeders that we might have never seen in a more natural setting. We have seen Crimson-Collared Grosbeak, Brown Jay, and Rosy Finches all at feeders. Although those were the target birds, we also saw other interesting birds while looking for the rarities.

Today while looking for the Juniper Titmouse at the feeders at the George Walker House in Paradise,AZ, we also saw Bridled Titmouse, American Goldfinch, Lesser Goldfinch, Cassin’s Finch, Black-Throated Gray Warbler, Acorn Woodpecker, and many other birds.

For Renee, a beginning birder, feeders also provide an opportunity to really see the field identification marks of the bird so that it can be more easily identified in a natural setting where there may only be a quick glance. Really knowing one bird well can also help when similar birds are encountered elsewhere. For example, we saw a Downy Woodpecker several times at a feeder inNew Jersey. When we first saw the Hairy Woodpecker inNew Mexico, it was much easier to identify it.

Some of our favorite feeders are at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge where they have microphones so you can listen to the birds while you are watching them from inside the visitor center; the hummingbird feeders at the Southwest Research Station in the Chiricahua Mountains; and the feeding stations at Sapsucker Woods, near Ithaca, NY, where waterfowl can be watched out one window and passerines can be viewed out an adjacent window, all while you are sitting inside the warm visitor center.

What are your favorite feeders? Where they are located? What are the specialty birds that you can see there? Reply to this post and let us know.

Although we are aware of the controversy concerning the feeding of wild birds, feeders definitely offer an advantage to Big Year birders and they provide data for research on many species.

Birding and Technology

Technology and birding don’t seem to go together at first, but in reality technology has become an integral part of a Big Year.

It is hard for us to imagine how Ben Basham got over 700 birds without Internet, GPS, or cell phones. The Internet provides regular updates on rare birds. We were able to find the Barnacle Goose in New Hampshire and the Mountain Plover in Texas solely from information posted on the Internet by people we don’t know and may never meet. We learned about the Rosy Finches at Sandia Crest from a website. Weekly summaries posted by birding groups around the country let us know what to expect (and not to expect) in a new area. Range maps in books only go so far. Rare Bird Alerts and specialty websites like NARBA have become a necessity and not just a convenience.

Blogs posted by previous big year birders, such as Gabriel Mapel, Matt Stenger, and John Vanderpoel allow us to learn from their experiences. Blogs and e-mail facilitate communication with avid birders from around the world.

After constantly getting misplaced (or lost) last summer, we bought a GPS. Although it is not perfect and lacks information on natural areas, it usually gets us close enough to find signs or people who know the area well. We even received GPS coordinates for a burrowing owl from Larry and Judy Geiger. We plugged the coordinates into our GPS and there was the bird sitting on a culvert at that exact location.

Although we don’t always have cell phone service in rural areas, Renee’s smart phone allows us to look up directions, park hours, camping and other information. We sometimes text back and forth when we go different directions while searching for a bird, thus not disturbing the birds or other birders.

So birding and technology really do go together, but behind all the information on the Internet and the smart phone are people. Without people posting up-to-date information, the Internet is as bad as an outdated book. We have also found that the Internet is best for rare birds or birds that are out of range. Talking with local people is the best way the find the common birds for an area. When we were looking at the Rosy Finches at Sandia Crest, Jason Kidd provided tips on other birds and birding areas nearAlbuquerque. One of these tips was that Cackling Geese come to theRio GrandeNatureCenterState Parkevery afternoon. Since the Cackling Geese are not rare birds, we didn’t see this on any Internet site but that tip got us a new bird for the year.

In short, the technology certainly helps but it will never replace friendly local birders who are willing to help.