The Budget Part of Birdingonabudget

We often get asked the question: How is a Birding Big Year on a budget different from a “regular” Big Year?

Before we answer that question, let’s be clear about what “counts” in our budget and what doesn’t. We count all gasoline costs when we are traveling away from home, which has been the greatest expense for our Big Year. We count all lodging away from home, including motels and camping fees. The budget also includes entry fees to natural areas where we search for birds. We do not count food costs because we would have to eat anyway and eating from a cooler chest most of the time is just as inexpensive as eating at home. (An added bonus to the Big Year is that we have both lost extra pounds.)

So, How does a Big Year on a budget differ from other Big Years?

The main difference is that we don’t hop on a plane to chase rarities. In fact, we don’t have a single dollar in our travel budget for plane tickets. From the very beginning, we knew that we would not beat any records because we don’t chase rare birds unless they are close to where we are or on our way to our next destination. Most other Big Year birders in recent years have logged tens of thousands of air miles, thinking nothing of getting on a plane in the morning to fly across the country to see a rare bird and then return home that same evening. We could never afford that on our budget.

Since there are two of us, the cost of flying is doubled. That makes driving even more attractive…even with the high cost of gas lately. (That’s why we drive a Prius most of the time!) Driving takes more time but with careful planning it allows us to look for birds on our way from one place to another. It also means that we probably won’t see or hear some birds because we can’t be “two places at once”, which is nearly possible when you fly. For example, we spent a great deal of time following the migration all the way from the Dry Tortugas off Florida to San Diego and many points in-between with great success. However, at the same time, we missed some of the grouse and Greater Prairie-Chickens on their leks that we might have seen if we flew. (They are going to be much harder to see or hear the rest of the year.)

Another difference is that we are very careful about our lodging costs and try to camp or stay with friends or relatives as much as possible. However, this has had some impact on where we have gone and not gone. We started the Big Year in the northeast U.S. mostly because that’s where we have family and free lodgings! We really should have gone to northern Minnesota in February to get winter birds, but we didn’t want to pay for motels every night or camp out in sub-freezing weather. (After living in the Rio Grande Valley for 19 years, we are definitely not into snow camping!)

Finally, birding on a budget means leaving certain high-priced destinations and practices off the itinerary. For example, we have limited our travels to the lower 48 because Alaska and many Canadian destinations are too expensive to get to. Second, we have not used the services of a paid birding guide so far this year. Michael used to operate a birding guide service and we certainly appreciate the value of local guides for bird-finding, but we chose not to add that cost to our Big Year. Third, we are limiting our participation in pelagic trips because they often cost quite a bit. (But, see our post about our San Diego pelagic on May 19th. It was certainly worth its price!)

The Big Year on a Budget experience is showing us that we can see many birds on a budget much less than typical Big Years but the budget rather than the time limit will constrain the total we have at the end of the year. 

Heading to the Heartland

Up to now we have spent all of our time in the coastal and southern border states, making a big “U” from Maine to Florida, across to California, and up to Washington. Those 23 states alone could have easily provided a list of over 600 species.

Now, we are getting ready for our first journey into the heart of the country. We will head up through Oklahoma and Kansas to Missouri and Iowa in search of prairie-chickens. Then swing up to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan to look for north-country specialties and breeding birds that we missed on the spring migration. From there, we will head down through Indiana and Illinois before returning home to Texas. If the spirit moves us, and there are some rarities to chase, we might even make a swing over to the northeast. (We let a couple of birds slip through the cracks when we were in the northeast in January and we want to try for them if we can squeeze it out of the budget.)

If you have any suggestions on special hotspots that you think we should visit, or if you have a location for one of our target birds that we listed in our earlier post, please send us an email. (We are keeping the comments feature disabled because of all the auto-php spammers out there who were trying to post inappropriate links to our site. Sorry for the inconvenience.)

It should be a great trip. We haven’t been birding in these areas for years and years, and in some cases, ever. Seeing new areas and new birds will be fun!

Slow Birding (apologies to Chris Hitt)

We’ve been home four days and we finally found the Groove-billed Ani today.

We had a nice day list for Estero Llano Grande State Park but only the ani was new for our year. It is very hard to find anything new here at home right now. We’re hoping for some rarities later in the year, though.

As we prepare for our next trip, this time to the upper midwest, we have a wish list we’d like your input on. Take a look at the list and send us an email if you know a “slam dunk” location for any of the birds on that list in the month of June

  • Target Bird List for Upper Midwest in June
  • 1. Gray Partridge
  • 2. Ruffed Grouse
  • 3. Spruce Grouse
  • 4. Sharp-tailed Grouse
  • 5. Greater Prairie-Chicken
  • 6. American Woodcock
  • 7. Black-billed Cuckoo
  • 8. Great Gray Owl
  • 9. Three-toed Woodpecker
  • 10. Black-backed Woodpecker
  • 11. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
  • 12. Alder Flycatcher
  • 13. Willow Flycatcher
  • 14. Least Flycatcher
  • 15. Gray Jay
  • 16. Black-billed Magpie
  • 17. Boreal Chickadee
  • 18. Winter Wren
  • 19. Connecticut Warbler
  • 20. Mourning Warbler
  • 21. Kirtland’s Warbler
  • 22. LeConte’s Sparrow
  • 23. White-winged Crossbill
  • 24. Evening Grosbeak
  • 25. Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Thanks for your help!

Crunching Some Numbers

At the start of the year, given our self-imposed budget handicap, we expected to get 600 to 625 species for the year. But we never expected to nearly reach our minimum goal by the end of May!

In fact, if we had had better luck with the “winter birds” in January, and if we had been a bit more organized on our first trip away from home, we could have exceeded 600 by now. (There are about 19 birds that we either missed or decided not to chase. If we had seen most of those our number would be over 600.)

Just as important is the fact that we still have over 40% of our budget left. That leaves us enough money to make three more trips at our present rate of expenses per trip. We might even have a little bit left over for a last-chance run to try to rectify our winter misses in December. Our budget has been hurt by the big jump in gasoline prices this year but we have compensated by increasing the number of nights we are camping and reducing the number of nights in motels.

We have been traveling for over 100 days so far this year, but we don’t expect to be able to travel as much as we had originally hoped. We had expected to be away from home for 200 days during the year, but 180 seems more likely now. As our budget runs down we will be spending more and more time at home. But since home is the RGV, arguably the number one birding spot in the country, that’s not such a bad thing! Still, we will be very limited in our ability to chase after rarities that might show up across the US, or even across our own state.

All told, we are very pleased with our progress. We have managed to find 585 birds on $5,581; less than $10 per species!

Note: We have reduced our total to 585. We took a closer look at some of our photos and realized that we had mis-identified the Willow Flycatcher in New Mexico. It was actually a Western Wood-Pewee. Doh!

Mopping Up On Our “Migration Trip”

Since completing our pelagic trip in San Diego we have been working our way back home and following up on tips to find some remaining target birds.

Our success rate has been phenomenal, thanks to all the great info we received from helpful birders and eBird reports. Here are some examples:

Pacific-slope Flycatcher – followed directions from Dan King and found a singing male in about 30 minutes.

Black Rail – followed directions from Henry Detwiler and found a calling bird almost as soon as we had opened the car door and before we could even get out of the car. (A bonus find was Virginia Rail also calling at the same site.)

Greater Pewee – followed an eBird report and found the bird at the third location we looked and while still in the car.

Aplomado Falcon – followed directions from an expert birder and found two birds within an hour. (These are “ABA countable” birds, unlike the re-introduced birds we have back home in South Texas. Due to the sensitive nature of this species we have been asked not to divulge details about it.)

Thank you all for your information!

Man, Were We Wrong About Pelagics!

At the start of our Big Year we had decided that doing pelagic trips was too expensive. It didn’t seem like there were enough new birds on a trip to justify the usually high cost. We sure were wrong about that!

Yesterday we went on a spur-of-the-moment pelagic trip from San Diego. We hadn’t planned on it but decided to go when we ran into Mike McClintock in AZ. Thank you, Mike, for alerting us to the trip and for all your help and information!

The trip was wonderful for our year list. We added 11 new birds in one day. At the numbers where we are, that is a very hard thing to do! We could have added even more, but we missed some of the birds that were called out or just did not see them well enough to say we could identify them on our own. (We didn’t add a “speck in the distance” even if the guides were sure it was a Pomarine Jaeger, for instance.)

The trip started out with good looks at immature Heerman’s Gulls in the harbor. (Only birds new to our list are mentioned here.) We never saw an adult. They are all off on their breeding islands. A short way out we saw some Elegant Terns above the boat and once we started to get into deeper water the pace of “true” pelagic birds picked up: Sooty Shearwaters by the bucketload, Pink-footed Shearwaters by the truckload a little later on, and Xantus’s Murrelet buzzing by or sitting on the water (with their chick!) very near the boat. We also had some good looks at Red-necked Phalaropes in flight and on the water and small flocks of Cassin’s Auklets flying by.

Farther out we saw a couple of Sabine’s Gulls and both Ashy and Black Storm-Petrels flitting over the water. We got good looks at all of these birds, but the highlight of the day was the first of two South Polar Skuas who came to the boat. It zoomed in and harassed some gulls that were following in the wake and then proceeded to circle the boat about a dozen times, often flying so close that we could not keep it all in the camera viewfinder. What a view!

The trip lagged a bit in the middle of the day and we used the time to catch a quick nap and to listen to birding advice from some of the local experts who were on the trip. Thank you all for the tips and information, and a special thanks to Dan King for taking the time to give us detailed locations for some of our target birds.

All-in-all, we had a great time on the boat. The birds were good and the birders even better!

On the West Coast Again

On Wednesday we went from below sea level at the Salton Sea to over 6000 feet at Mount Laguna in a couple of hours, an incredible ride through birding habitats.

The cool pines of the Cleveland National Forest were a welcome relief from the 100 degree days in western AZ and eastern CA. They offered some welcome additions to our bird list too. At Horse Heaven Campground we heard Mountain Quail singing. We made a brief effort to try to see the bird but he just kept getting farther away so we had to be content to list him as heard only. During a picnic lunch at Desert View Picnic Area, a flock of warblers came by for our viewing pleasure. Mixed in with them were at least three Hermit Warblers (including one gorgeous male), the only western warbler we still needed.

A bit farther down the mountain we found a campsite at Cibbett’s Flat. After setting up camp we took a walk through the riparian area. It was birdy but we did not find our target species, Pacific-slope Flycatcher. It was quite warm at the lower elevation so we waited for the day to start cooling off and then took a hike up the Kitchen Creek Road beyond where the Border Patrol has locked the gate. Within a few minutes we saw our target bird, Gray Vireo. Two birds put on a show for us, complete with singing and fussing.

On Thursday we searched for California Thrasher without success before heading off to Otay Reservoir to try to find California Gnatcatcher. We arrived in the middle of the day and the habitat of the area looked pretty beat up so we were less than optimistic. The weather was cool, however, so we decided to give it a shot. We had walked no farther than 100 yards up a small dirt road between the two lakes when two gnatcatchers went chasing across the road. Immediately behind them, two more were fussing at us from a fence and some low shrubs. One even posed for photos.

Today we will be hanging around San Diego looking for a few more target birds and getting ready for our pelagic cruise on Saturday. We’ll update you when that is done.

Thank You, Birding Buddies!

If you need convincing that people are generous and helpful, get to know some birders!

The first part of this post is about our attempt to find the Five-striped Sparrow in California Gulch, near the ghost town of Ruby, AZ, but it is also about the exceptional people who made that trip possible for us.

We met Jim and Sally Lockwood back in January when we were visiting Goose Island State Park in Texas. They had been volunteering there and were on their way back to their home in Arizona. They invited us to get in touch with them when we went west on our Big Year. We saw them again when we visited Lake Patagonia State Park in Arizona. They were leading birding tours there and invited us to come and stay with them while we were in their area.  Then, this month, we needed help getting to California Gulch because the road there was too rough for us to travel in our low-clearance Prius. Jim and Sally offered to put us up in their home and take us to the gulch in their SUV. They even arranged for another birder, Bill Adler, to come along to help us find the bird. Thank you Jim, Sally, and Bill for being the best birding buddies we could ever hope for!

So, what about the sparrow? We’ll let the picture tell the rest of that story:

While we were chasing after the sparrow we ran into Mike McClintock, whom we had met while chasing Buff-breasted Flycatchers together in the Chiricahuas. Mike was watching the sparrows as we rounded a bend in the trail and “found” the birds. He sure has proven to be a good luck charm for us! He told us about a pelagic trip from San Diego he was planning to attend and we checked into it and signed up. Hence, we are heading west, even though we had decided not to a few days ago!

Along the way we stopped at Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR and picked up some good birds for our list. The first was the Yellow-footed Gull and the second is shown by the picture below:

Despite the long distance view, they sure looked like American Flamingos to us and we were excited to find them. There had been no reports on the bird alerts we usually watch so we were completely surprised to find them in Unit 1 of the refuge. We’re sure that we won’t be able to count them for our year list under ABA rules (There are no accepted records for wild birds in the west. They are all considered escapees.), but we are putting them on the list anyway just because of the sheer excitement they caused when we first saw them in the scope! (When we got a chance to look at the pictures some more we decided that they might actually be Lesser Flamingos. There is no entry for that species on the ABA accepted species list so we left our “Flamingo sp.” entry under American Flamingo on our year list. Yeah, we know it won’t count but it’s our list, so there!)

(We saw a third new bird on Tuesday, the Red-necked Phalarope, but we are holding off putting it on the list until we can get a better view. The flock of phalaropes we saw was too far away for us to be 100% sure we made the right id.)

Easy Peasy!

Last time we wrote about how hard it was to find the Mexican Chickadee. We suppose it’s only fair to tell you how easy it has been to find some birds lately!

In the past three days we have searched for and found a bunch of birds that are usually less than easy to see. In fact, many of the birds on our last few days’ list are real stumpers for many a life list. For us they have been easy-peasy!

On Wednesday we headed up the South Fork of Cave Creek to look for the Elegant Trogon. We had driven less than half a mile up the road when we heard a male calling off in the distance. Michael jammed on the brakes and within a couple of minutes we heard the bird again and watched it fly right over our heads and land briefly in a nearby tree. Easy.

After finding our first-of year Dusky-capped Flycatcher at the picnic area we were heading back down the road when we heard a strange call along the creek. Michael looked up and saw a flycatcher in the trees. We jumped out of the car and there was a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher less than 20 yards away. Easy.

On Friday, we were following a tip about Buff-breasted Flycatcher along the Herb Martyr Road. We drove to the parking area and met another birder who was seeking the bird as well. As we were chatting, Michael spotted an empid in a tree less than 10 yards away. Sure enough, it was the Buff-breasted. Not only that, but we watched the bird and its mate at their nest! Easy.

From there, we headed west to look for the Spotted Owl in Miller Canyon. We drove up to Beatty’s Guest House and spoke with the folks there. They gave us information on the last known area and we hiked up the canyon less than half a mile. On the way up we met another couple who were coming down. They updated the location and we walked right to the area and saw the bird in a tree without even working up a sweat on the hot trail. Easy.

Since it was still early in the afternoon, we decided to drive to Madera Canyon and look for the White-eared Hummingbird that was coming to feeders at Chuparosa Inn. Michael dropped Renee off at the inn and went to park the car. Before he had walked down from the parking lot Renee had seen the bird. A few minutes later it returned and Michael ticked it as well. Easy.

Today, we left our campground at 5:30 am and drove to the entrance road where Botteri’s Sparrow was supposed to be. We pulled up to a random roadside pullout and immediately heard a bird singing. We couldn’t get a good look and drove to a better, more open habitat to have breakfast and wait for another chance. Before we had even opened up the yogurt a male popped up in a bush about 15 yards from the car and gave a brief song. He came back later and gave us good looks. Easy.

Immediately after seeing the sparrow, we headed to the Patagonia Roadside Rest to look for a Thick-billed Kingbird that had been reported there. We did not see it but decided to drive along the river to the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and try there. Along the way, even before we reached the entrance we heard the bird but could not see it. We went to the preserve and checked the list and saw that it had been reported there yesterday. We paid the entrance fee and walked in toward the area where we had heard the bird. Within just a few minutes we heard the bird calling. A few minutes later we looked up into a huge cottonwood tree and there he was! Easy-peasy.

So, the next time we complain about how hard it is to find some bird, remind us of our easy finds!

Arch Nemesis, Birding Enemy Number 1 Defeated!

It took us about 10 tries in five different locations but we finally found a Mexican Chickadee.

The Mexican Chickadee is restricted in the United States to the Chiricahua and Peloncillo Mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, respectively. Since the fires in the Chiricahua Mountains, Mexican Chickadees have been hard to find in many of their previous haunts. Much of their former habitat at Rustler Park is gone and nearly every patch of pines was damaged throughout much of the accessible parts of their range. Because of that we had been unsuccessful in finding the birds on all of our attempts and we had elevated the bird to “arch nemesis status” meaning that we were going to make a special effort to see the bird before the year was up.

Our efforts finally paid off today at the Turkey Creek junction along the trans-mountain road. We had tried the area late in the day yesterday and had heard what we thought was a chickadee scolding but we could not get a view of the bird. Today we went out early and tried again. We were rewarded with a very birdy morning but no chickadee at first. Then, despite our general reluctance to play tapes, we decided to pull out all stops, as a last resort, and play some chickadee songs by the side of the road. Michael played the tape once through and put it away. Almost immediately, despite the fact that there had been no chickadee sounds earlier, a single bird popped up from the canyon below us and flew to within 20 feet of him. Renee was a short distance away and by the time she got to the spot the bird had flown up high in a pine tree and she had to be satisfied with a more distant view. That was it, end of show. But it was enough! It was a high-five moment to be sure.

Once we had nailed our main target bird we turned our attention to an Empidonax flycatcher that we had heard as we arrived but had ignored for a long time as we focused all our energies on the chickadee. Very soon after we had seen the chickadee, another group of birders had arrived and had been birding in the area where we had heard the flycatcher. As we walked over we exchanged greetings and information. The leader of their group had seen the empid and told us it was a Cordilleran Flycatcher, another of our target birds!

As we have readily admitted before, we are very rusty on our western bird sounds and we had not recognized the call at first. We knew it was an empid but we had to listen to the tape to confirm that it was indeed a Cordilleran. Off we went to find the bird. We soon heard it calling but it took us quite some time to find the bird and get a good look at its field marks: yellowish color, almond-shaped eye-ring, etc. Our second tick of the day!

Following these successes, we headed to the Walker House to ask Jackie, the owner, for some advice on finding our other target birds. She always welcomes birders to her place in Paradise and will talk to anyone about anything birdy (and the local news around town as well). Thanks, Jackie, for all your help!

We were also fortunate to find Gavin Bieber, from Wings, leading a group at Jackie’s place. When we told him we were doing a Big Year he immediately offered to tell us his favorite  hotspots for the birds we still needed to see. What a great gesture on his part! Thank you for all your information, Gavin. We hope we can follow up and actually see everything you pointed out to us.

Oh, by the way, yesterday we recorded four new birds: Whiskered Screech-Owl, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and Elegant Trogon. That’s not a bad day, is it?!