Back in the Lower RGV

And, of course, a rarity showed up as soon as we left the West!

Sigh!

It is uncanny how poor my luck has been with chasing rarities lately. We left New Mexico after spending two months and making one rarity chase. Almost immediately after we arrived back in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, a Common Crane was found at Muleshoe NWR in the Texas panhandle. Muleshoe is not “on the way” but it is only a few hundred miles out of the way for our usual return route from NM to South TX. Unfortunately, we didn’t hear of the bird until we were outside my chase radius. With the miserable results of my West Coast chase so fresh in my mind, I am not about to make another exception to my distance “rules.”

After missing all but one of my chase targets on that trip, I was very close to giving up on the whole idea of chasing rarities and drastically altering my Eight Years to 800!? project. After taking a few days to cool down, I have decided to continue, but I am setting new chase parameters (again).

The only way to get a large list, approaching 800 species, is to see a fair number of Code 4 and Code 5 birds. By their very nature, these birds are highly unpredictable and chasing them is a crap shoot. To try to keep my chasing within a reasonable budget, I have reestablished my original 500 mile (more or less) chase radius for most rarities (Code 3 or 4). Going farther than that, especially with the low odds of success on most chases, does not fit my Birding on a Budget philosophy. I will chase Code 5 mega-rarities that show up at longer distances if I think my chance of success is better than 50-50.

Thus, the Code 4 Common Crane is out of range for me.

But, at least we are settled in to the familiar surroundings of the RGV and ready to chase whatever happens our way this winter. How about a Blue Bunting or a Roadside Hawk? Aren’t we due for them pretty soon? Hope springs eternal.

An Epic Chase (4000 miles; 5 target birds) and an Epically Frustrating Result (1 new species)

Be warned. This is a long post.

As I’m sure is true for most of you, Renee grew tired of listening to me moan about the lack of chase-able rarities. “I guess that Eight Years to 800!? won’t work; at least not on a budget.” I said. “It certainly won’t work if you don’t try.” she replied. Thus, the spark was struck that lit the fire for an epic chase; one that was far beyond my original, self-imposed distance limit of 500 or 600 miles (a one-day trip).

I decided to up my limit to about 1000 miles since I had gone five months of the year without having anything within my earlier range. Near that limit, there was a newly-reported Falcated Duck at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, CA, 1096 miles away according to Google Maps. There was also a mega-rarity Eurasian Hobby way up in Washington and a new report of a Brambling near the hobby. These two birds were an additional 800 miles away, but if one rarity was worth driving 1000 miles, then three would certainly be worth driving 1900!

The decision to try this chase was made about 2 pm on Friday and by 6 pm I was on my way in the Sprinter van. My plan was to drive through the night, stopping in roadside rest areas whenever I started to feel drowsy to catch a couple of hours of sleep before pushing on. I knew that time is often of the essence. You never know when a rare bird will stop being seen. By 7 the next morning I as 650 miles away and approaching the outskirts of Los Angeles. I had not done very much sleeping, obviously, and it was clear that I was not going to be able to drive straight through to Colusa NWR (about 10 hours farther on, including stops for food, fuel, and rest) before dark.

So I did what any die-hard birder would do. I went on a search for Spotted Doves at Salt Lake Park in Huntington Beach. The last time that I knew that a Falcated Duck had been at Colusa was during the winter of 2011 – 2012. It had stayed for a couple of months before leaving right before Renee and I headed west in February of our Big Year. Based on this history I took the gamble that it would stick around for another day while I chased after Spotted Doves. It was that, or try to get all the way up to Colusa before dark after having just four hours of rest the previous night. I picked the safer dove option.

It turns out it was the wrong choice. Despite having received some “actionable intelligence” (a tip from another birder) that Salt Lake Park was one of the best places to find Spotted Doves, I whiffed on the bird. My hasty research on the Salt Lake neighborhood turned up trip reports listing up to eight birds as recently as 2010, but I saw only one “likely candidate” and could not confirm the ID.

I am not the only one to miss Spotted Doves recently. The decline of this introduced exotic species has been dramatic. I’m not sure that anyone knows why, and many birders are not going to miss it, having disparaged it as yet another invasive species competing with our native fauna, but I was still disappointed. Unfortunately, that was just the first of my disappointments during this chase.

After driving through the day to get close to my next destination, getting some much-needed sleep, and heading out very early on Sunday morning to continue my drive, I pulled up to the observation deck at Colusa NWR at 7:20 am. I was the only birder there and I was greeted by thousands of ducks and geese milling about or resting in the pond. I diligently began scanning the throng. Over the course of the next five hours I was joined by about 20 other birders, off and on, who also diligently scanned the throng. I spoke with a refuge volunteer who showed us photographs of the bird sitting on a log about 30 yards in front of the observation deck. “It sat there for about four hours yesterday.” she said. I drove the refuge auto tour loop and scanned many other throngs of ducks. It was worse than the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack. It was like trying to find one particular needle in a needle-stack!

The Falcated Duck could be in this picture. Go ahead and pick it out!

So, I left Colusa NWR without the Falcated Duck on my list and headed north. But that was not the end of the day’s disappointments. Renee, who had been monitoring NARBA for me, sent me a text saying that a cold front had moved into Washington and several days of rain were in the forecast. Now, rain in Washington is no big news, but in this case it came with the news that the hobby had not been seen since the rains began. I soldiered on, despite the bad news, confident that at least I still had the Brambling to fall back on. Besides, one morning of negative reports didn’t mean the bird was truly gone, right?

It turns out it did. After another drive through the night with little sleep, this time in the rain, I arrived at Neah Bay, WA about 10 am on Monday. I did a little scouting around for the Brambling first and saw a Tropical Kingbird, of all things, in a bush by the bay shore. I met some other birders, who were really excited by the kingbird news, and who reported that they had just come from the hobby spot with no success. With little hope for the hobby, I redoubled my efforts for the Brambling. That sounds like I had to do something strenuous, but all it really entailed was patiently waiting by the tiny patch of beach where the bird had been seen feeding on beach grasses. After a couple of hours, the bird arrived and posed for some nice photos. What a relief! I wasn’t going to get skunked after all! At least not by the Brambling.

 

The rest of the day was spent in the rain hoping for a glimpse of the hobby. Several locals, who were very amused by the fuss that “their bird” was causing, stopped to tell me that “The hobby was seen by a bunch of people Saturday on the powerline, right there.” or something similar. I’m sure they meant to be helpful, but it was not helping my spirits at all to miss another bird by just a day or two after driving so far.

The forecast was for clearing the next day, and I and several other birders decided to stay one more day and hope that better weather would bring better results. Maybe the hobby was just hunkered down somewhere, his belly full of dragonflies, waiting for better hunting conditions. Maybe he was just hunting passerines on the forest edges, now that the dragonflies had been beaten down by the cold rains, and someone would find his new haunts. Maybe this or maybe that. It was worth a shot after driving 1972 miles. Alas, it was not to be. I spent a very pleasant morning the next day with several new birding acquaintances, but none of us could find the hobby.

While all of this was going on, a report had shown up on NARBA of an Olive-backed Pipit in Anaheim, CA. In fact, the bird was seen while I was leaving LA and heading up to Colusa, but I did not get the report until I was already on the road for a few hours. Rather than turn back and search for the pipit, I decided to wait and see if it was still there on my return trip from Washington. That was another error.

The pipit was fairly regular for a couple of days while I was traveling north. It was not seen one day (while I was searching for the hobby). Then it was re-found during the time I was driving back south. The day before I got back to the LA area it was seen “as early as 8 am and continuing throughout the afternoon” to quote the NARBA report. Do you see where this is heading? That’s right. I arrived at Yorba Regional Park at 8 am on Thursday (after braving two hours of rush-hour traffic that started at 6 am!). I stayed until 3 pm. During that time, none of the dozens of birders who were present saw the bird. Another “You should have been here yesterday.” story; the third in five days. As far as I know, it hasn’t been seen since. But I stopped looking at NARBA. I don’t even want to know!

So, what is the bottom line of all this? Basically, I am seriously reconsidering the viability of the whole Eight Years to 800!? concept. This website is called Birding On A Budget, but it cost me over $800 in travel money to get one new species for my list. That is certainly NOT budget birding. I don’t want to be one of “those” birders! (You know, the kind who throw money at their list.) If I had seen three or more of the five species I targeted, I would have considered that a reasonable expenditure, especially since I had not spent any money chasing rarities for five months, off and on, during the year. But $800 for one bird is obscene! Besides that, it wasn’t even fun, most of the time.

I may just change the name of this project to “However many years it takes to whatever number I end up with.” I’ll have to think about it and let you know.