A Weekend with Birding Buddies

We just spent the weekend van camping with friends at Falcon Lake State Park.

It was a fairly intense weekend of birding with about 16 hours spent in the field, but even though that can be tiring, it was a rejuvenating experience for a crazy birder like me. It is always great fun to be with birding buddies who appreciate the outdoors as much or more than we do.

We first met our friends Larry and Judy during a bird walk at Goose Island State Park where they are seasonal volunteers. During the Big Year we visited them at their cabin in Wyoming and they helped us find Dusky Grouse, Calliope Hummingbird and other birds for our list. They are always interesting, cheerful, and great people to be around!

This weekend, we birded the Falcon Lake area, Chapeño, Santa Margarita Bluffs, and Zapata. We dipped on the most sought-after rarities of the region but we built a respectable list of over 90 species.

  1. Greater White-fronted Goose
  2. Gadwall
  3. American Wigeon
  4. Mallard
  5. Mottled Duck
  6. Blue-winged Teal
  7. Green-winged Teal
  8. Bufflehead
  9. Ruddy Duck
  10. Plain Chachalaca
  11. Northern Bobwhite
  12. Pied-billed Grebe
  13. Eared Grebe
  14. American White Pelican
  15. Neotropic Cormorant
  16. Double-crested Cormorant
  17. Anhinga
  18. Great Blue Heron
  19. Great Egret
  20. Snowy Egret
  21. Cattle Egret
  22. Black Vulture
  23. Turkey Vulture
  24. Osprey
  25. Northern Harrier
  26. Cooper’s Hawk
  27. Harris’s Hawk
  28. Red-shouldered Hawk
  29. Gray Hawk
  30. Red-tailed Hawk
  31. Crested Caracara
  32. American Kestrel
  33. Common Moorhen
  34. American Coot
  35. Killdeer
  36. Spotted Sandpiper
  37. Least Sandpiper
  38. Laughing Gull
  39. Ring-billed Gull
  40. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  41. White-winged Dove
  42. Mourning Dove
  43. Inca Dove
  44. Common Ground-Dove
  45. Greater Roadrunner
  46. Great Horned Owl
  47. Ringed Kingfisher
  48. Belted Kingfisher
  49. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  50. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  51. Eastern Phoebe
  52. Vermilion Flycatcher
  53. Great Kiskadee
  54. Tropical Kingbird
  55. Couch’s Kingbird
  56. White-eyed Vireo
  57. Blue-headed Vireo
  58. Green Jay
  59. Chihuahuan Raven
  60. Black-crested Titmouse
  61. Verdin
  62. Cactus Wren
  63. Bewick’s Wren
  64. House Wren
  65. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  66. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  67. Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
  68. Clay-colored Robin
  69. American Robin
  70. Northern Mockingbird
  71. Long-billed Thrasher
  72. Curve-billed Thrasher
  73. European Starling
  74. American Pipit
  75. Cedar Waxwing
  76. Orange-crowned Warbler
  77. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  78. Common Yellowthroat
  79. Olive Sparrow
  80. Black-throated Sparrow
  81. SavannahSparrow
  82. Northern Cardinal
  83. Pyrrhuloxia
  84. Red-winged Blackbird
  85. Western Meadowlark
  86. Great-tailed Grackle
  87. Brown-headed Cowbird
  88. Hooded Oriole
  89. AltamiraOriole
  90. Audubon’s Oriole
  91. House Finch
  92. Lesser Goldfinch
  93. House Sparrow

Michael had just led a birding trip to some of the same areas for Estero Llano Grande State Park and had struck out on the rarities, too. As Larry said: “I’m beginning to think that those birds are figments of the imagination!”

A Recap of My First Chasing Trip of the Eight Years to 800!? Project

While our son was home for his semester break, we took a trip out to Arizona and New Mexico. The main purpose of the trip was for him to conduct some research on his senior thesis project, but I also planned four days for chasing birds.

The first few days were travel days and research days. Then, on day four, we made a successful try for Sinaloa Wren at Fort Huachuca. This chase was the perfect example of how we all wish rarity chasing would be: you might have to travel a long way to get to the bird, but once you get there, it’s a slam-dunk, easy-as-pie tick. If only all rare birds were as cooperative as this one!

After a couple of more days of casual birding in between activities with our son, we took the afternoon of one day and the morning of the next to chase Rosy-faced Lovebirds near Phoenix. These are not rarities but are newly added to the ABA list and we had not looked for them back in 2012. The tick was not quite as easy as the wren, but almost.

We also took some time to look for Sagebrush and Bell’s Sparrows. These were recently split from the Sage Sparrow. We had Sage Sparrow during 2012, but we did not make a note of which form(s) we saw. Besides, when a split is made it is customary to make the effort to re-see both new species even if you have seen them in the past as subspecies on the previous list.

After a few attempts at various locations, we did manage to see and photograph Sagebrush Sparrow. It replaces Sage Sparrow on my list. I also saw what I took to be a Bell’s Sparrow at the Baseline Road/Salome Highway “thrasher spot” near Buckeye, AZ. However, I was not able to get a photo to confirm my id so I am not adding it to my life list yet.

Just a couple of hundred miles past Phoenix and Buckeye there were continuing reports of a Blue-footed Booby at Lake Havasu, near Parker, AZ. After dropping our son at the airport in Phoenix for his flight back to Cornell U., we made that trip. It was another case of easy-peasy birding – arrive, see, photograph, what’s next?

We really did not want to add many more miles to our trip, and there was nothing else worth chasing nearby, so we started back toward Texas. We had been watching NARBA for new reports on the Streak-backed Oriole that had been seen near Carlsbad,NM but there was no positive report for about a week. We debated it and decided that since the site was less than a hundred miles out of our way on the trip back home we would chase the probably-already-gone bird anyway. We spent about three hours at Rattlesnake Springs, but had no luck. The final 800 miles back to the Rio Grande Valley were uneventful.

The final reckoning for the trip: travel to and from all chased birds was 3200 miles at $0.10 per mile in our Prius, or $320; lodging costs (calculated at the single person rate for the places we stayed, mostly Motel 6 and independent motels) averaged $40 per night for 8 nights, or another $320. (I swear, that’s just a coincidence!) I saw three new birds for my life list; a code 2, a code 4, and a code 5.

That’s $640 for three new birds; over $200 per species. I’ll see if I can bring that number down some on future trips!

Blue-footed Booby at Lake Havasu

Another bird showing impressive site fidelity and longevity …

the Blue-footed Booby at the Bill Williams River NWR was co-operative. We arrived around noon and there it was sitting atop the guano stains on a rock known locally as Heron Island. It was fairly far away and photos do not show impressive sharpness, but they do identify the bird.

To see this bird, head north on Arizona Highway 95 from Parker, AZ. After passing Parker Dam, begin looking for a large-ish rock island close to the shore of Lake Havasu that has a large white guano stain near its base. (If you pass the turn-off for the Bill Williams NWR headquarters you have gone too far.) Pull out on one of the scenic views of this island and look for the bird near the top of the stain. It may be fairly hard to see as it sits still with its back to the road and is well camouflaged.

We’re on our way home now and hope to have something else to chase along the way!

A Code 2 for Tick Number Two

Recently, the ABA added a small group of species to the “official” checklist of ABA-area birds.

Among these were several exotic species that the ABA considers to be sufficiently established to represent permanent additions to the North American avifauna: Purple Swamphen, Rosy-faced Lovebird, and Nutmeg Mannikin. (Note to ABA: I’m still waiting for Yellow-headed Parrot!)

During our stay near Phoenix,AZ we made a try for the lovebird. eBird and other sources show that the species is widespread in the Phoenix area and there is no shortage of web-based information on finding these birds.

Our first stop was the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, AZ. The area is not especially well known for lovebirds but it is one of the premier birding spots in the region so we wanted to have a look. Despite its fancy name, the site is really just a series of recharge ponds for the local water treatment plant that have been incorporated into a park. Still, it is well designed and maintained and we saw many species of water birds and birds typical of the riparian areas of the desert. We dipped on the lovebirds, however. Following the Water Ranch we tried cruising the nearby neighborhoods listening for “parakeet screeches” to alert us to lovebirds coming to their evening roost. Still, no luck.

The next morning we went to an area for which there had been several recent reports of birds in some palm trees near a pond. Figuring that the palms might be a roosting site, we arrived before dawn, hoping to catch the birds before they left their roost. Nothing was stirring in the cold morning temperatures (37 degrees in Scottsdale,AZ seemed cold to us.) so we drove around some neighborhoods with lots of palm trees. We had no luck again so we returned to the pond for another look. This time, Michael heard what he thought was a lovebird and saw a likely candidate bird streaking away from a hedge of thick bushes. Soon after our son spotted a blob high up in a palm tree across the road from the pond. It was our lovebird! As the sun rose higher the birds became more active and our first bird was joined by as many as 13 or 14 others milling around in a small cluster of palms. They had been there all along, hidden among the fronds.

The distance to the trees and their height made it hard to get good photos, but I did get a few decent images to document our find.

To find our “lucky spot” navigate your way through the streets of Phoenix and Scottsdale and take Scottsdale Road north to E. McCormick Ranch Road. Turn right a very short distance to the Chart House Restaurant on the shores of Camelback Lake. The birds were across the street from the restaurant in palm trees in front of a large home.

Happy hunting!

First Chase of the Year – First New Tick

Since starting the Eight Years to 800!? adventure I have been at home most of the time. Recently, I started the first chase for new birds by heading out to Arizona.

The main purpose of our AZ trip is to show our son around for a project he is doing at college. He’s interested in the varied aspects of copper pit mine reclamation and we’re visiting several mines in NM and AZ for him to learn more before he heads back for school in late January. Along the way, I am hoping to see several rarities that have been hanging around in those states.

Today I had my first success and the first new bird added to my Eight Years to 800!? life list. We took the morning off from mine tours to visit Fort Huachuca (near Sierra Vista, AZ) to try for the Sinaloa Wren that has been in Huachuca Canyon since early fall.

We arrived near dawn and even before we could use our phone GPS to verify that we were at the right spot, the bird verified it for us by giving a couple of “rattle” calls almost as soon as I had stepped out of the car. It called again (scolding like a kinglet on steroids) but moved upstream before we could see it.  After about 15 minutes of searching along the stream I heard it call again and found it about 50 yards from our original spot.

It moved into a low pile of branches from a small fallen tree and stayed there for about 15 minutes while we tried to get diagnostic looks and photos. My fingers were nearly frozen from the cold camera (It was 35 degrees in the canyon.) so we went back to the car to warm up and check the photos to see if they were any good.

Most of the shots were very blurry due to the fact that the sun had not made it into the canyon yet. Fortunately, while I was looking at the pictures and warming my hands, my son was keeping track of the bird and it was still foraging in the branches. I went back out and spent another 15 minutes trying to get better pictures before the bird finally left its brush pile and moved off toward the stream. I let it go without causing it any further trouble.

This wren has been delighting birders for several months. It is near the same location where another Sinaloa Wren showed up in 2009. That bird lasted just over a week before it split. This bird has been very regular and has shown remarkable site fidelity during its stay.

To find it, enter Fort Huachuca via the main gate, get a fort map, and navigate your way to Hines Road where it enters Huachuca Canyon and becomes Huachuca Canyon Road. Almost immediately you will pass through a yellow gate and the paved road will turn to gravel. Less than a quarter mile farther on you will see a picnic area on your right. The bird is seen near the first picnic table with a metal awning. This table is marked “Camp Santa Cruz” with a metal sign. Search the stream behind the table and the edge of the parking area in both directions.

Next, we are heading up toward Tucson and Phoenix to view more mines … and make a try for Rosy-faced Lovebirds. Stay tuned.

Planning for the Next Six-and-a-half Years

During our Big Year we talked about the two basic ways there are to tackle the problem of seeing as many birds as possible on a limited budget: visit major regions and habitats or chase rarities.

For us, the first option worked well in 2012 and we did comparatively little chasing. But, for a big life list, chasing every rarity that is feasible to chase is the way to go. (For Big Year birders with lots of cash it’s the way to go too.) The rationale here is that rarities (Code 3 to 5 birds) are what make a big list and finding the Code 1′s and 2′s we missed during the Big Year should sort itself out as we chase rarities around the continent.

Chasing on a budget is another problem. During our Big Year our average cost per bird was about $16, but the cost per new bird at the end of the year was over $200. If we project the same kinds of costs to finding the next new 139 species, starting at about $200 per species and going up to about ten times that for the last few birds, we can easily envision a total cost over the next 6 1/2 years of birding of at least $60,000 (a little under $10,000 per year). We felt that a budget of $10,000 for a single Big Year was a reasonable goal for a “normal” birder but doing that for many years in a row would stretch just about anyone’s idea of normal.

So, how do we plan for Michael to see lots of birds without lots of money? We haven’t worked out all the details but our main strategy is to become part-time RVers. We’ll combine our love of travel with our love of birding and cut back on costs by not keeping a full-time home. This might stretch your definition of “normal” birders a bit, but it is becoming more and more common for retirees like us to sell off the “ancestral home” and take to the road.

We will still maintain our property in New Mexico as a place to park the RV when we need a break from travel and we recently bought a place in a retirement park in North Carolina for an eastern base, so we won’t be on the road all the time. With the eastern and western bases we can make our birding travel more efficient, we hope.

That leaves the need to get to Alaska as our only remaining big problem in terms of the birding travel budget. It seems as if it could be an insurmountable problem when you look at the cost of a typical birding tour to Alaska. There is almost nothing for less than $4000 per person and it only gets worse when you go to the must-see locations like the Pribilofs, Adak, Gambel, or Attu. (Two weeks on a boat to and from Attu will set you back at least $8000!)

Our goal is to get to Alaska four times over the next six years. To save money, we hope to be able to use our RV to volunteer for the Fish and Wildlife Service or for the Alaska State Parks. By being seasonal rangers, camp hosts, or doing similar jobs we could maximize our chance to be in Alaska at the right time to see some of its many rarities. We’ll still need to pay for the trips to the islands, but the cost will be a little less if we are already in Alaska as volunteers.

We’d love to hear your ideas on birding on a budget. Drop us a line at the info@ email or send Michael a message on facebook or to his gmail.

Off to a Slow Start

The quest to amass a life list of 800 species over the next six and a half years is not like doing a Big Year; and certainly not like doing six and a half Big Years all in a row.

The pace is decidedly less hectic. During our Big Year we had to visit all of the major birding hotspots in a short period of time. The Eight Years to 800!? adventure lets me spread out those visits, and since I am starting with a list of 661 species already in the books from the Big Year, I can skip many of those main habitats and hotspots entirely, since they hold no new birds for the list. Instead, the focus shifts to chasing rarities.

I am off to a slow start in that regard. Because we had already had some things planned to start out the new year I won’t be able to get away from home until the middle of January. At that time I’ll head out to Arizona and see if the Sinaloa Wrens and Blue-footed Boobies are still there. Then I’ll have to rush back to the Rio Grande Valley to lead some bird tours for Estero Llano Grande State Park (Estero for short).

The park has become one of the premier birding locations in the Valley in its short history because of its varied habitats, friendly and knowledgeable staff, and central location. Be sure to make it a prominent part of your itinerary when you come to the Valley and if you come during this winter season sign up for one of the birding van tours. They are a great introduction to the main hotspots of the area. (Tours are planned for January 23rd and 30th, February 8th, 13th, 20th, and 27th, and March 4th. Cost is $30 per person. Visit the park website for details or email me.)

So far this year, I have spent only a couple of hours in the field, mostly at Estero. I have started a new species list and there are about 65 birds on it already, but there has been nothing that we did not see in 2012. Keep an eye on that list and on the Eight Years to 800!? list to follow my progress.

What Does it Take to Reach 800?

The thoughts that follow are Michael’s preliminary guesses based on information that is readily available on the internet. No attempt was made to verify every “fact” that is referenced (that’s why there are so many “weasel words” like “about” and “almost”).  ;-)

The list of ABA area birds has been growing by leaps and bounds as more species are discovered in North America, more splits are made, and more non-native birds establish themselves in local populations. About 980 species are now included on the list! (Some of those are Code 6 – extinct.) Based on that, it might seem that finding 800 species for a life list would be no big deal. 800 is only about 80% of the total possible birds. But, while 800 does seem to be getting easier, (Several top birders report upwards of 870 species on their ABA lists.) it is still no walk in the park.

If you travel enough and make a decent effort, just about anyone can expect to have a life list of about 675 species. That’s the approximate number of Code 1 and 2 birds that are on the ABA list, plus a few easier Code 3′s. Seeing them should be no big deal if you go to the right places. (Of course, getting to some of those places can be quite expensive. That adds a layer of complexity to the birding-on-a-budget quest for 800.) The key, of course, is how many of the rarer, Code 3 to 5, birds you see.

There are over 300 of these rarer birds on the ABA list. As I mentioned above, some of those Code 3′s are fairly easy and you should be able to add another 25 species without much trouble, bringing your life list to 700 (IF you have the budget to travel). Then the fun begins. To reach 800 a birder who had ticked off the 700 1′s, 2′s, and easy 3′s would have to see 100 more of the harder to find birds.

There are two keys to seeing these harder to find birds. First, you have to spend enough time in Alaska (or, to a lesser extent, Canada). Second, you have to spend enough time on the internet. Let me give you my take on those two keys.

The Alaska connection is critical. There are about 50 species of birds that are only found in Alaska, especially the maritime and island habitats. A few of these, such as the Red-faced Cormorant, might make a rare appearance farther south, but for all practical purposes, you had better go to Alaska. The big problems with Alaska birding are the unpredictability of it’s weather and the cost of it’s travel. (I’ll detail my plans for Alaska later this year.)

The internet connection is the 250 or so species of rarities that might show up at any place or any time. eBird, NARBA, and a variety of smaller services have made chasing these rarities much easier than it used to be but it still requires constant vigilance and the ability to drop everything and chase a rarity when it shows up. The chief problem with this is the cost of chasing across a continent as big as North America.

During our Big Year we estimated that about 40 of these internet rarities showed up during the year, about half of them in Alaska. Assuming you could chase most of those rarities (say 75%) each year and you had a decent success rate (say 50 to 60%), you could expect to find about 15 to 18 species a year. Of course, the number of new chase species for your life list would go down year after year.

In my case, I am starting with a life list (since January 2012) of 661 species and need 139 species over the next six and a half years to reach 800; a little over 21 new species a year. I can’t expect to get all of those species without visiting Alaska multiple times and chasing many rarities. What an adventure that should be!

Eight Years to 800!?

We start the new year with a grand new adventure!

You all remember our 2012 Big Year Without the Big Buck$ when we found 659 species of birds in the Lower 48 on a budget of “just” $10,376.  Now, Michael is embarking on a new birding adventure and he’s inviting you all to follow along on www.birdingonabudget.com.

He’s calling this new project “Eight Years to 800!?” The goal is to find 800 species of birds in theABAarea in just eight years. The question mark is there to indicate that he’s not sure that he’ll be able to reach that goal. The adventure is really about seeing if it is possible. For most birders, 800 species on a life list is akin to the Holy Grail. That number is very rarefied territory indeed. To get there usually takes a lifetime of birding. To try to do it in just eight years is a worthy challenge for any birder.

As before, all his birding will be done with an eye to getting the most bang for his birding bucks. He’s not setting a pre-determined budget limit but he’ll definitely keep track of birding expenses and try to keep them to a level that a “normal” birder could afford.

Michael will start out on this new adventure by counting all the species we saw during our Big Year and a couple more we saw during 2013. The time we spent birding will be subtracted from the total of eight years. That means he will start with a life list of 661 species and continue to add to the list until his birthday in June of 2020.

Join us on another birding-blog adventure!