Crunching Some Numbers

Many of the past stars of Big Year birding have said that the true test of how successful a Big Year will be is how many rare birds you see; those birds rated 3, 4, or 5 on the ABA scale.

As we have said before, getting 600 birds is fairly easy, as long as you travel to the right places at the right times, but adding more becomes harder and harder. Or, perhaps better said, more and more expensive, of both time and money.

So how have we done on the “easy” (ABA code 1 and 2) and “hard” (Code 3,4 and 5) birds? Here is an accounting:

  • Of the Code 1 birds regularly present in the lower 48 we have seen about 96%.
  • Of the Code 2 birds regularly present we have seen about 83%.
  • Of the Code 3 birds that have been reported this year we have seen about 50%.
  • Of the Code 4 birds that have been reported we have only seen about 15%.
  • Of the Code 5 birds that have been reported we have only seen about 15%.

Once again, you can see the effect that our relatively low budget of $10,000 for the year has on our ability to “chase rarities.” We just don’t have very many of them on our list. That is not to say that we have had bad luck finding the rarities we have searched for. We have a better than 75% success rate for those birds we have actually chased. We just have not been able to chase many rarities because they are scattered all over the country and are too expensive to get to.

If we assume that we will finish the second half of the year with the same success rates that we have experienced for the first half, and if we stick to our current travel plans, we can predict a final number for our list. (We do not plan to return to the East Coast this year so anything we missed there is “gone forever.”)

Based on past experience and our planned itinerary we can expect a final total of about 640 birds. Let’s see how close we can get to that number!

Back in the RGV

Our trip to the “far north” (including Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, and New Hampshire) is done and we are home in the RGV of Texas.

We were quite successful during the trip. Of the 37 species that we considered target birds for the trip we were able to find 30. Of the seven species we did not see we have a chance to see four of them on our later trips. That means we only truly missed three of the pelagic species (Greater Shearwater, Manx Shearwater and Cory’s Shearwater). Given that we did not take a “true” pelagic trip, that’s not so bad!

Our last bird for the trip was the Black-tailed Godwit that has been hanging around at Brazoria NWR for the past few weeks. Brazoria was on our way home and we did not even have to spend any extra time or money to get to it. Plus, it only took us about five minutes once we got to the location to find the bird. Another easy one.

We’ll be looking for other rarities that are in South Texas during the next few weeks as we plan for our next trip.

 

Man, This is a Big Country!

Driving, driving, driving…but with enough time to stop and get two birds.

We were very lucky to get the Greater Prairie-Chicken yesterday. Even though we arrived at the Karl Bartel Wildlife Sanctuary, in Illinois, after noon, we were still able to flush up two birds as we walked the mowed trail through the prairie. No picture was possible, but we were mobbed by a harrier, who posed for us.

Less than two hours later we arrived at the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in northern St. Louis, MO. It took us only about a half hour to find two Eurasian Tree Sparrows at the parking area near the Missouri River boat ramp. We got a fairly good picture of one.

Today, we head to Texas to try for the Black-tailed Godwit. Driving, driving, driving…

Saltmarsh Sightings

We have been less than thrilled by our return to New Jersey (traffic, rain, rampant development) but we did get a new bird yesterday.

Back during our college years, (We met at Rutgers U. in NJ.) Michael worked as a research assistant along Great Bay Boulevard near Tuckerton, NJ. His brother, Joe, staked out a site for Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow there and it was nice to revisit those old stomping grounds…and to get the bird for our list.

Seven Bridges Road, as the locals call it, (even though there are only five bridges) hasn’t changed much. There are still vast expanses of Spartina grass marsh along its length and large populations of both Saltmarsh Sharpies and Seaside Sparrows. The birds were very cooperative, too.

     

Now, we leave for St. Louis, MO to look for Eurasian Tree Sparrows on our way home. We hope the rarities in Texas are still there when we get there.

Machias Magic

We’re done with our “far north” trip and heading back to Texas by way of NJ, MO and all points in between, but we won’t soon forget the magic of Machias Seal Island, the highlight of our stay in Maine.

Thousands of puffins, razorbills, murres, and terns greeted us as we approached Machias from Cutler, ME on the Bold Coast Charter Company boat. The shore was lined with birds and the sea around us teemed with black and white bodies bobbing in the waves. Overhead, the sky was filled with whirring wings and swooping forms. What a sight!

Onshore, we received an orientation from the lighthouse keepers and were escorted to blinds to view the birds up close. Close, it was! Dozens of birds sat around the blinds and even on top of them. Each time you opened a window there was another bird staring at you from less than arm’s length. In fact, for a photographer, they were too close. We couldn’t get the whole bird in the viewfinder! (You can see some of our images from the island in the June photo gallery.)

The spectacle on the island was incredible, but it was not the only show. The boat trip to and from the island had some interesting sightings too. We saw our first Wilson’s Storm-Petrels of the year and had sightings of gannets and Sooty Shearwaters as well.

If you are ever down east on the Maine coast during the summer months you MUST make the trip out to Machias Seal Island. It is a birder’s dream come true.

Never Give Up.

After looking in dozens of locations across four states we finally found two species that we thought would become nemesis birds: American Woodcock and Black-backed Woodpecker.

In the case of the woodcock, it was our fault that it was so hard to find. We missed it in the winter months after a half-hearted attempt (“We’ll see that later.”) and did not include it in our plans during the spring when it was peenting and displaying and easy to see. (We were not in its range during the entire months of April and May.) So, finding it after it had gone quiet became an exercise in pure luck or beating the bushes in hopes of flushing one up. We tried the latter in the “woodcock capital of the world,” Moosehorn NWR, on a couple of occasions and still came up empty. Then, the former “strategy” kicked in. While walking in to Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge to look for Black-backed Woodpeckers, we accidentally scared up a woodcock and off it shot like a rocket with whirring and twittering wings.

The trouble finding the woodpecker was not our fault at all. It was caused by the simple fact that it is a very rare bird in the lower 48 states. We looked for it at many, many places in Minnesota’s north woods. We scoured spruce-fir forest in Vermont. We spent several days searching down east in Maine. All those areas are likely spots to look but we always came up empty. Finally, acting on a tip from 12-year-old Aiden Moser, who we had met in the Dry Tortugas, and reports on eBird, we visited Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge in Aiden’s home state of New Hampshire.

We spent nine hours over two days searching the forests and bogs at Pondicherry. On the first day, Michael heard the bird’s distinctive rattle call off in the distance but we were never able to find something to look at. In the morning the following day we arrived at sunrise (about 5:30) and after about an hour of looking we heard the bird drumming at the edge of a bog full of dead snags. Again, we could not find the bird hidden among the forest and snags. We spent some more time searching in other parts of the forest without sucess.

We were debating whether to count the bird based on the rattle call and drumming as we walked out of the area when Michael saw a Swamp Sparrow and began taking pictures of it. As he was doing so, Renee spotted a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers in the snags! Her visual confirmation was enough to convince Michael to count the bird on his list for our Big Year, though he certainly wants to see a “lifer look” of his own.

Both of these stories point up the importance of perseverance during a Big Year. It can get frustrating and tiring to be out looking day after day and not finding the birds you need, but try and try again.

Spruce Grouse – Yes!

We have been in Maine for three days now and yesterday we found one of our favorite birds of the year.

It’s getting harder and harder to add new birds and we worked hard to find the Spruce Grouse yesterday. Well, not exactly. Finding the actual bird was quite easy…if you knew where to look. Knowing that was the hard part. We tried dozens of spots in three states before we followed a report on eBird and found “Bruce”, perhaps the easiest Spruce Grouse to see, once you know where he hangs out along the Boot Head Trail near Cutler, ME. (This male bird has been so reliable that the locals have even named him: Bruce Grouse.)

Here is Bruce sunning himself in his mossy habitat.

Now, if only we could find such reliable examples of places to find Black-backed Woodpecker, White-winged Crossbill, etc., etc.

Whew!

After our first three trips of the year, which totaled almost 15 weeks and over 25,000 miles, we thought the remaining trips would be less hectic, more about the quality of the birding than the quantity of the birds (because we had so few species left on our target list).

Yet, here we are in New Hampshire (which was not even on our starting itinerary), after already having spent birding time in Oklahoma, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Vermont, and it has only been two weeks since we left home (but over 4300 miles)! So much for “less hectic.”

With all that go-going, we have fallen behind in both the quality and quantity of our web blogging, so we wanted to take some time to catch you up on our experiences in each of the states mentioned above during the last two weeks. Some of this may be a repeat of what we have already written and it could get a little long-winded, so bear with us.

Inexplicably, we had missed the Mississippi Kite during the spring migration in the Rio Grande Valley and in our travels around the Gulf of Mexico, so we targeted that species during our trip north through the central states.Oklahoma, specificallyOklahoma City, was our choice of where to start looking for the bird. From our past experiences driving across Interstate 40 we knew that the bird should be easy to see there. It wasn’t as easy as we had thought. It took us about three hours of looking before we finally spotted a single bird perched by the side of the road.

In Iowa, we were looking for Greater Prairie-Chicken. It was several weeks past the usual end of the spring lekking season and we knew that it would be much harder to find birds when they were no longer coming to the lek. Our friend, Mel, from New Mexico, had given us directions to a major lek site, where he used to work, near Kellerton. Our hope was that a few birds would still be hanging out in the area and we could flush one up. There were many birds in the area of the lek, but none of them was a prairie-chicken. We saw or heard Bobolinks, Dickcissels, blackbirds, Upland Sandpipers, sparrows, geese, meadowlarks, turkeys, ducks, Ring-necked Pheasants and several more but nothing looked like a chicken or squawked like a chicken, so no prairie-chicken.

Minnesota was a great success for us. Even though we missed four of our target species (Spruce Grouse, Great Gray Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker), we fell in love with the North Country. There was so much open space available for birding (unlike the RGV where 97% of the land is private and behind locked gates) and so many new habitats for us to explore. We were surprised, however, by how few other birders we met during our week-long stay. Except for a few groups of birders we saw in the area around Sax-Zim Bog and a single birder from Pennsylvania who we met near the Big Bog, north of Waskish, we were alone in the north woods. We were also surprised by how hot it got. We had temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s during several days, something we didn’t expect for early June. The warm temperatures seemed to negatively affect the birding and they were a main reason why we decided to leave Minnesota earlier than originally planned. We did find 13 of our target species in Minnesota, (including the elusive Black-billed Cuckoo) so the early exit was not that harmful to our list.

We spent less than one full day in Wisconsin, so it is not surprising that we did not get any new birds there. We tried for White-winged Crossbill and Spruce Grouse as we drove across the state and passed up chances for other species still on our target list because they were too far off our intended route. The point is, there were good birds in Wisconsin, we just did not spend enough time there to have a good chance of finding them.

Our time in Michigan was similar to that in Wisconsin, but this time we had much better luck in finding birds. We missed some White-winged Crossbills that had been reported on eBird but the guided tour of Kirtland’s Warbler habitat hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society, near Grayling, was a slam dunk. In fact, our guide said that they had a 100% success rate finding the birds during all of last season and so far this season. It is a bit of a drive to get to Grayling from most parts of the U.S., but once you get there you will get your lifer warbler.

During the warbler walk we met Charlie and Jane Martin from Massachusetts. We started chatting about our birding experiences and Renee mentioned that we had not seen Evening Grosbeak yet. It turns out that they had just seen some at a state park near Grayling and we got directions, left the warbler walk early, hurried to check out of our motel and hustled over to Hartwick Pines State Park. It only took about 10 minutes for a pair of grosbeaks to arrive at the bird feeders at the rear of the visitor center and we were able to add our second new species of the day. Thank you, Charlie and Jane!

We drove straight through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York without doing any birding, the simple reason being that there was almost no chance of finding anything new for our list in the habitats through which we were driving. We arrived in Vermont late in the afternoon on Wednesday and drove straight to the Okemo Mountain ski area. At the end of the Okemo Mountain Road we parked at the gate and hiked the rest of the way to the summit near the chair lifts and old fire tower (about a 10 minute walk).

Our target here was the Bicknell’s Thrush. It is not a common bird anywhere and is quite hard to see.Okemo Mountain is not the “go to” spot for the bird. Most folks would probably say Saddleback Mountain in Maine is a much better place to see it. But getting to Saddleback and hiking in its notoriously fickle weather is much harder than driving up a paved road at Okemo Mountain and hiking in for 10 minutes. Besides, Okemo Mountain is only about an hour away from Michael’s sister in New Hampshire, where we are staying now. So, even though our chances of finding the bird were lower than at other locations we chose Okemo Mountain as our first site to try for it.

Four hours later, after listening to three other species of thrushes singing in the spruce-fir forest, waiting until it was nearly completely dark, and while dejectedly walking back to the car, we finally heard the Bicknell’s distinctive call note. It was so dark that we could not see the birds (There were two calling back and forth near us.) so we played a short segment of tape to try to get a confirmation of the species by song. Immediately, the male sang several phrases and we had our bird. Unfortunately, there is no picture. Photographs don’t work well in the dark!

Tomorrow we will climb Mount Monadnock, an iconic location in southern New Hampshire, in search of White-winged Crossbills. Again, it’s not exactly a “go-to” spot for the bird in summer, but it is close to where we are and there is a recent eBird report, so why not give it a try? Wish us luck!

The First 600 Were “Easy.”

Easy is in quotes because we traveled almost 30,000 miles to see those first 600 species. But getting more is hard!

Except for the five days at the end of May when we were relaxing at home and did not do any serious birding, we have not gone a stretch of more than a day or two without something new. Today marks the third day without a new bird since we hit 600.

We got tired of chasing after species that we could not find in Minnesota and are now in Michigan heading to see the Kirtland’s warbler. We tried 18 times (!) to see the Great Gray Owl at sites where it had been reported recently and we still missed it. That has got to be our worst effort so far and that must elevate that owl to the top of our nemesis bird list! Fortunately, we still have chances to see the bird on our other scheduled trips in July and September. Other species that we missed in Minnesota are likely to be found elsewhere as well.

So, now it looks like we will be heading “out east” after all. We had originally planned to go to Maine and take the “puffin boat” out to Machias Seal Island but had changed our minds and scratched that trip in favor of spending more time in the midwest. Now, we have changed our minds back and are heading out to Maine again! That’s the great thing about traveling the way we do. We can change our plans whenever we want without worrying about reservation change fees or other stuff like that.

Wish us luck and maybe we’ll see you in Maine!