October Wrap-up

October is drawing to a close and it has been another month of far-away rarities.

We have been patiently waiting for some rare birds to show up within chasing distance (recently upped to 1000 miles) but there have been none so far. We have enjoyed watching the end of the NTMB migration and the trickling in of the wintering nearctic birds, but the rarities scene has been deadly dull. That’s not the case in some parts of the country.Alaska has continued to have a banner year for Eurasian vagrants and the northeast US and Florida have had their share of recent finds. None of these are close enough for me to chase however. Chasing rarities on a budget is a frustrating hobby!

Our local birds (and birders) have provided plenty of pleasant diversions from the waiting-for-a-rarity-in-the-southwest-US grind. It has been nice to get to know the birds on our property more and to meet more of the highly knowledgeable group of people in the Rodeo and Portal areas. But October has still been a birding bust as far as the Eight Years to 800!? project is concerned.

I am sitting at 690 on the new life list. My goal for the year was to reach 700 (after starting at 661, an addition of 39 species for the year). There are many reasons why I have fallen short so far. The most important one is that I have not chased any of the code 4 and 5 rarities that have graced our shores since the spring season. They have not been near enough or reliable enough to fit into the budget birding concept. (I haven’t set a strict budget limit such as the one we used for our Big Year, but I am still very stingy with the birding bucks when it comes to chasing.) Another reason was my zero-for-everything performance when we made a brief trip to Florida over the summer. (I couldn’t even find a Purple Samphen!)

The prospects for reaching 700 in 2014 are not all that great, but it is still possible with our expected future travel. Soon, we will be heading back to Texas to spend the rest of the fall and part of the winter. It is likely that something or other will turn up there (perhaps a Blue Bunting or a Roadside Hawk). Then, in December, we will be heading up to New York for our son’s graduation from Cornell. There are always a few rarities in the northeast US over the winter and we might be able to chase them between our other obligations. Finally, we are looking into the possibility of taking a pelagic trip to see Great Skua with Brian Patteson in Hatteras, NC. (We might even make it down to Florida again, but that will likely be in early January if it happens.)

It is not likely that those travels will turn up 10 more birds, but anything is possible!

A Wrap-up For September in the West

We are hanging out at our NM property, working on fix-up projects here and hoping for some western rarities to chase.

Our recent west coast swing was very productive. (See the earlier posts about the nine new birds added to the 800!? list.) Overall, we saw about 230 species during three weeks in the four western states we visited; Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. That number is almost half of all the species we’ve seen so far this year (473)! We could have had even more, but we by-passed some of our usual birding hotspots in the west (such as the Salton Sea area, “the thrasher spot” near Buckeye, AZ and the marshes near Yuma) because the weather was just too hot and we didn’t want to stress our dog, or ourselves.

We were disappointed in the lack of western migrants during the entire time. Except for flycatchers in the Chiricahuas and the nearby desert in early September, we did not find any true “migration spectacle” in the west as we had seen in the mid-west. Some of the other birders we met suggested that we were a little late and that late August and early September would have been a better time for western warblers and such. We did encounter a fair number of eastern migrants in the migrant traps around San Francisco, and, of course, the migrant Red-throated Pipits near San Diego were a great highlight of the trip.

In general, I still hate urban birding for exotics, but even I have to admit that our successes with Orange Bishop near L.A. and Spotted Munia and Black-throated Magpie-Jay near San Diego came with almost none of the usual headaches (sketchy neighborhoods, traffic congestion, ugly habitats, etc.). Chasing these birds, especially the non-ABA ones may be curious to some but I expect the total of non-ABA exotic birds to be a very small percentage (1.5 or 2 %) of the overall 800!? list, and it was nice to add those we did on this trip, even if they never become “countable” in the future.

Weather during the last three weeks of September was quite changeable and sometimes other than we expected for the region. The fog and cool temperatures of coastal California at Half Moon Bay were exactly what we expected, but the high rainfall in the deserts of Southeast Arizona and Southwest New Mexico was not. 109 degrees F in the desert around Yuma was also higher than we had hoped for during the “fall.”

One interesting by-product of the higher-than-usual, late-season rains in the desert was an apparent burst of late-season breeding by the local birds and bugs. I already wrote about the singing Cassin’s Sparrows and Bell’s Vireos in an earlier post. We also encountered breeding activity by Verdins on September 25th, newly-hatched Scaled Quail chicks (fuzzy ping-pong balls with legs!) on October 1st, and Canyon Towhees with bills loaded with caterpillars on the 2nd. Butterflies have had a population explosion in the desert after the heavy rains and you can’t take a step across the desert grasslands without scaring up multiple grasshoppers.

The weather here in Rodeo has settled in to the fall pattern we expected of warm (80s), dry days and crystal clear nights in the upper 40s and lower 50s. We had one night down to 41 that made us worry about those little quail chicks, but we hope they can fuel up on all those grasshoppers and stay warm at night.

The change to more fall-like weather is welcome and we hope it leads to some seasonal wandering by some rare birds. It’s already getting a little boring with nothing to chase!