One More Once

We are ready to head out to the west coast one last time. We’ll have intermittent internet to keep you all updated on our progress over the course of the next month or so. Until then, Happy Birding!

Migration Is Heating Up In The RGV

We visited our favorite local birding spot, Estero Llano Grande State Park, yesterday and had a wonderful bird list for the morning.

The long, hot summer is finally starting to loosen its grip (barely) on South Texas and the birds are starting to arrive for the fall migration. Most of our local favorites made an appearance as well.

Some highlights:

  • Groove-billed Ani (4)
  • Clay-colored Thrush
  • Red-crowned Parrot
  • Yellow-breasted Chat
  • lots and lots of water birds
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Orchard Oriole
  • too many doves to count
  • three kingbirds – Couch’s, Tropical, Eastern
  • Plain Chachalacas with young

Unfortunately, we found nothing new for our year list. We STILL need Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Does anyone know a public-land site for this rarity?

Give Us Your Ideas.

We have heard from half a dozen friends and blog-followers about our CA target list. Let us know what you think.

We need your help to find our remaining target birds. Here is an updated list of what we might find in CA and on the way:

  1. Sooty Grouse
  2. Yellow-billed Loon
  3. Black-footed Albatross
  4. Northern Fulmar
  5. Flesh-footed Shearwater
  6. Buller’s Shearwater
  7. Black-vented Shearwater
  8. Storm-Petrels – Fork-tailed, Leach’s, Least
  9. Pacific Golden-Plover
  10. Wandering Tattler
  11. Ruff
  12. Red Phalarope
  13. three Jaegers
  14. Craveri’s Murrelet
  15. Tufted Puffin
  16. Great Gray Owl
  17. Plain-capped Starthroat – AZ
  18. Spotted Dove
  19. Ruddy Ground-Dove
  20. Island Scrub-Jay

Contact us at Thanks!

A Banner Year For Rarities?

We were reading on eBird that 2012 is shaping up as one of the best years for rare shorebird reports in a long time and above average for rare birds in general.

Unfortunately, that has not been our experience. It’s not that the birds haven’t been reported. It’s that we have not been able to get to them. Here are our numbers so far:

  • Number of rare birds (ABA code 3, 4, or 5) reported (lower 48): 69
  • Number that we have been able to chase: 37
  • Number that we have actually seen: 25

You can see, as we’ve said before, our budget restricts our ability to chase rarities. We have only been able to try to see a little over half of all the bird species that have been reported during the year (53.6% to be exact). For example, if we were traveling in the east when a rarity popped up in the west, we couldn’t drop everything and jet out west to get the bird. Our record on the birds we actually did chase is not that great either. We saw just a little over two-thirds of the birds we made an effort to chase (67.5%).

The combination of the inability to chase many rarities, and the less-than-stellar record when we do chase them, leads to an overall success rate on “available” rarities of just 36%. We’ll try to do better on our remaining trips this year!

We Couldn’t Do It Without Our Prius

With gas prices the way they are (and rising again) we would be out of money if we were driving anything other than our Prius.

We just completed the financial accounting for our year-to-date and it is clear that we would have spent all of our remaining money if we had been driving our minivan instead of our Prius. We have driven about 41,700 miles, all but about 9,000 in the Prius. That has saved us over 580 gallons of gas compared to our minivan! At an average gas price of about $3.50 this year that means a savings of about $2035, which is very close to what we have left. You could say that the secret to our birding success is the 45+ miles per gallon of our car.

That’s not entirely true, of course, even without our remaining trips we would still have exceeded our original goals, and 631 species would be a fine number to post if we had to stop right now, but it is the car that will make the rest of our year possible.

Our number one piece of advice for anyone doing a Big Year is to get yourself a hybrid and save gas money.

California, Here We Come (again)!

Our budget is dwindling and we are heading to expensive California for our next trip. Realistically, we have funds for just one more trip after that. We have to make every dollar count!

That’s where you, our birding friends and blog followers, come in: We need your help to find our remaining target birds as efficiently as possible. Here is a list of what we might find in CA and on the way:

  1. Sooty Grouse
  2. Yellow-billed Loon – one reported in Half Moon Bay – Stay there!
  3. Arctic Loon – not likely but we can hope
  4. Black-footed Albatross
  5. Northern Fulmar – too early?
  6. Flesh-footed Shearwater
  7. Buller’s Shearwater
  8. Black-vented Shearwater
  9. Storm-Petrels – Fork-tailed, Leach’s, Least
  10. Pacific Golden-Plover
  11. Wandering Tattler
  12. Ruff – one in Tulare – Stay there!
  13. Red Phalarope
  14. three Jaegers
  15. northern gulls – hoping against hope?
  16. Craveri’s Murrelet
  17. Tufted Puffin
  18. Great Gray Owl –Yosemite
  19. Plain-capped Starthroat – AZ
  20. Spotted Dove
  21. Ruddy Ground-Dove
  22. Red-whiskered Bulbul – not countable in LA? (Thought not, but not sure now.)
  23. Island Scrub-Jay
As you can see, most of our targets are the pelagic birds that CA is famous for in the fall. But there are still some important land birds we need to see.

Send us your favorite, “Slam Dunk” locations for these birds!

A Bonus Bird: 631

We had looked for White-winged Crossbills in all the usual places during our year so far – Maine, Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, Washington, etc. – but without success (despite following several hot leads on eBird and rare bird alerts).

Then, we saw a report of a single, male white-wing mixed in with a flock of Red Crossbills at Sandia Crest in New Mexico. At first we were reluctant to chase the bird because of our past negative experiences with such reports. But several things about the report led us to change our minds: it was recent, there were multiple sightings by several observers, the bird was following a predictable pattern, and we knew the area well. (We had visited twice in February and seen all three rosy-finches at the site.) Plus, it was on our way home to Texas and only required a few miles (about 50) of extra driving to get there.

So, we altered our plans and headed toward Albuquerque and the Sandia Mountains to the east. The 13 mile trip up the mountain to the crest seemed to take forever but once there the birding was easy. In fact, Michael went to use the restroom and before he was back Renee had already spotted the bird! We also saw a presumed female that had not been previously reported.

We took the next hour trying to get a good photo but the grainy shots below were the best we could do.

As you can see from the pictures, the birds are not in the best of “natural” settings. At Sandia Crest, aside from the Crest Trail through the spruce-fir forest, there are about a dozen radio towers. A trash dumpster near the towers had been left open and rain water had collected in it. The birds – about 50 Red Crossbills and the two white-wings – were sitting on the tower guide-wires before dropping down into the dumpster to get a drink!

No matter. It still counts as another “tick” on our year list!

Another Milestone

At the beginning of the year we set our sights on a final species total of “90% of a typical Big Year on 20% of the budget.” Today, we reached that goal.

A “typical” Big Year shoots for 700 species. With the addition of Gunnison Sage-Grouse today, we reached 630, which is 90% of that total. (Thanks to John Vanderpoel for his tips about County Road 38 in Gunnison.) The all-time record for a lower 48 Big Year is 704 species (held by Chris Hitt). We just need a couple more species to equal 90% of his total.

And how are we doing on the money side of our goal? Well, we still have over $2,000 left. That means we have seen 630 species on less than $8,000. That amount is less than 20% of a “typical” Big Year’s cost. (Exact amounts are seldom published but most estimates of costs for a Big Year are in the $40,000 to $80,000 range. The bigger amount includes lots of travel to Alaska and chasing rarities.)

We are on our way home now. Our next adventure begins in just a few weeks when we will head out to California for some coastal birding during the fall migration and a pelagic trip with the famous Debi Shearwater. Stay tuned.

More Crowds of People but More Birds Too

Since our last post we have left Yellowstone National Park and visited the National Bison Range and Glacier National Park in Montana.

Much of the trip remains sightseeing among the throngs of summer tourists but we have managed to work in some time for “pure” birding. We spent four or five hours over two days looking for the Gray Partridge with no success. Then, on our third attempt, while driving the back roads in and near the Bison Range early in the morning, we struck paydirt. All-in-all, we saw about 30 partridges, adults and young, in and near the Bison Range. We consider the range to be as near to a slam dunk for these birds as we can tell.

At Glacier National Park we had one of the most unbelievable moments of our year. We had seen some scattered eBird reports for Northern Hawk-Owls in the park and spoke to a ranger about these. He confirmed the occasional sighting in summer and suggested we concentrate on young growth in the burned areas to try to find the bird. As we drove toward one of his suggested sites, Michael was telling our son, Allan, how to recognize the bird: “Look for a bird about the size of a kestrel but with a big head…” Even before he could finish the sentence, Renee called out “Like that!” and sure enough, there was a Northern Hawk-Owl perched in a burned snag by the side of the road!

Needless to say, we were flabbergasted. We never expected to find that bird so easily. In fact, we didn’t really expect it at all on this trip. (We have not seen another since, by the way.)

Our last new find has no picture. We were heading to dinner one evening and we had been talking about the fact that we had not seen any Vaux’s Swifts. These birds are much more common on the Pacific coast but the checklist for Glacier NP lists them as uncommon summer residents and we expected to see them. No sooner had we completed our lament than a single swift appeared among the flock of swallows feeding over the restaurant to which we were headed. Michael immediately called out “Vaux’s Swift” based on size alone (and range – no Chimney Swifts occur this far west), but Allan was skeptical and we made sure to get a good look with the binoculars before he would let us add it to our list!

With these three new birds we have exceeded our expectations for this trip. We are still looking for others out of the corner of our eye but we have mostly settled back into sightseeing mode.

Braving the Crowds in Yellowstone

Since seeing the Chukar at Antelope Island State Park, UT we have done very little birding.

Most of our time has been spent seeing the sights and navigating the traffic jams at Yellowstone National Park. The crowds of people have been large; much larger than the herds of wildlife we expected to see (except for Bison, of which we saw plenty). There were no reports of birds we needed for our list while we were in Yellowstone; not surprising considering that the only birds we might have seen there were Great Gray Owl, Boreal Owl, and White-winged Crossbill, not exactly summer highlights of the region.

We are on our way to Glacier National Park next. Again, it is more of a sight-seeing trip than a birding trip but we might see Gray Partridge, Vaux’s Swift and the others if we are lucky and get some reliable intel on locations. So far, nothing has popped up on our intended route.

If you have any tips to help us out please let us know ASAP.