Renee and Michael’s Excellent Adventure!

We are off on our great spring and summer adventure to travel from Texas to Alaska and back to our place in North Carolina!

We left a little early because a Slate-throated Redstart made an appearance in Arizona. It was first reported by NARBA on Thursday. We spent the rest of that day and a couple of hours on Friday packing our van and getting ready to leave. By 10 am we were on the road. By 10 am Sunday we were pulling into the parking lot at Hirabayashi Recreation Area on Mount Lemmon, northeast of Tucson; a total of 1160 miles from our starting point in just 48 hours. Unfortunately, the bird was a two-day wonder and had not been seen since late on Friday. Our trip was in vain.

All was not lost, however, as we got a good start on our trip list traveling through three states and three time zones. Our goal is to try to get 500 species as we travel on our trip. (We didn’t start the list until we were already out of the RGV so as not to make it too easy.)

The trip will last about four months by the time we return to NC. Two of those months will be in Alaska, one will be spent traveling to Alaska, and the last one will be the return trip. On the way up we plan to follow the migration north along the west coast. On the way back we will come down through western Canada and the center of the USA. You can see from those plans that we will be traveling over 10,000 miles and visiting a large number of the major ecoregions of the continent, so getting to 500 is certainly possible if we spend enough time birding as we go and don’t get bogged down by the number of miles to drive. (We drove over 60,000 miles during our Big Year, so 10,000 should be a piece of cake!)

Right now we are spending about 10 days in NM and AZ while we wait for the migration to heat up. There have been some interesting birds, including a Black-throated Blue Warbler who is a little lost in Cave Creek Canyon near Portal, AZ. We have seen 120 species so far, a nice mix of wintering regulars, residents, and some early migrants. In a little while I’ll start a master trip list so you can follow along.

Stay tuned for more updates on our excellent adventure.

Some RGV Highlights of the Last Few Days

There have been no new rarities within my short, budget chasing range so we spent some time looking for local birds on the cusp of winter and spring.

Spring migration for shorebirds has started in earnest but passerine migrants are still fairly scarce. We spent several hours looking for warblers and vireos and such. There were some mixed species flocks but we but found nothing that could not be considered a winter visitor as well. A few Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are starting to be seen and there was a single Great Crested Flycatcher but not much else stands out with the flycatcher set.

Among water birds, a few Western Sandpipers are showing up and there has been a noticeable reduction in the numbers of some of our wintering birds (such as American Avocet and many ducks). The highlight for us has been large flocks of American Golden Plovers. All of these have been in basic plumage but they are still impressive birds. There has been so much rain that they are showing up wherever there might be a flooded field as well as at their usual haunts at the sod farms.

Peregrine Falcons are migrating through as well. We found this disheveled young bird along the entrance road at Laguna Atascosa NWR. Notice that it is banded. Also notice that it is starting to molt its back feathers as it heads north, probably for its first season as a potential breeding bird in the population.

Some highlights of local residents were a pair of Groove-billed Anis and a cooperative Chihuahuan Raven also along the Laguna entrance road. Anis have been around all winter in a few locations but these were the first we have seen in quite some time.

Chihuahuan Ravens have also been quite scarce of late. This bird was calling and displaying but we did not see any others around.

We’ll be doing some more checking for the start of our spring migration blitz in the next few days and we’ll let you know if anything big happens before we head west to our staging area for our Alaska trip.

Our Alaska Wish List

There are over 100 species of birds that can be considered Alaskan specialties, but over half of those are Code 4 or 5 rarities. The following list shows our target birds for the Alaska trip (excluding the Code 4 and 5 rarities). The number following the name is the ABA code.

  1. Taiga Bean-Goose 3
  2. Tundra Bean-Goose 3
  3. Whooper Swan 3
  4. Common Pochard 3
  5. Steller’s Eider 3
  6. Spectacled Eider 3
  7. Smew 3
  8. Willow Ptarmigan 1
  9. Rock Ptarmigan 1
  10. Arctic Loon 2
  11. Yellow-billed Loon 2
  12. Short-tailed Albatross 3
  13. Northern Fulmar 1
  14. Mottled Petrel 2
  15. Red-faced Cormorant 2
  16. Lesser Sand-Plover 3
  17. Terek Sandpiper 3
  18. Gray-tailed Tattler 3
  19. Common Greenshank 3
  20. Wood Sandpiper 2
  21. Bristle-thighed Curlew 2
  22. Bar-tailed Godwit 2
  23. Red-necked Stint 3
  24. Temminck’s Stint 3
  25. Long-toed Stint 3
  26. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 3
  27. Common Snipe 3
  28. Red-legged Kittiwake 2
  29. Ivory Gull 3
  30. Ross’s Gull 3
  31. Aleutian Tern 2
  32. Long-billed Murrelet 3
  33. Kittlitz’s Murrelet 2
  34. Parakeet Auklet 2
  35. Least Auklet 2
  36. Whiskered Auklet 2
  37. Crested Auklet 2
  38. Horned Puffin 1
  39. Common Cuckoo 3
  40. Boreal Owl 2
  41. Gray-headed Chickadee 3
  42. Arctic Warbler 2
  43. Siberian Rubythroat 3
  44. Bluethroat 2
  45. Northern Wheatear 2
  46. Eyebrowed Thrush 3
  47. Eastern Yellow Wagtail 2
  48. White Wagtail 3
  49. Olive-backed Pipit 3
  50. Bohemian Waxwing 2
  51. McKay’s Bunting 2
  52. Rustic Bunting 3
As you can see, about half of these species are Code 3 birds or fairly hard to get Code 2s. Our expectation is that we will see only about 20 of the birds on this list and perhaps a rarity or two.

Help us do better than that! Tell us where and when to see the birds on this list. Send an email to Michael (mdelesantro) at his Gmail address.

Alaska on a Budget … sort of

Things have quieted down considerably in South Texas so we’ve turned our attention to planning for our trip to Alaska this spring/summer.

Travel to and in Alaska is more expensive than we were used to during our Big Year but we have taken some steps to try to keep the costs down. We will be driving up in our camper van rather than flying and renting a vehicle there. We will camp on state and federal lands as much as possible, and we will limit our plane travel once in Alaska.

We had considered taking the ferry up so that we could avoid potential problems with snowy roads early in the season, but the cost was so high (about $3500, one way) that we scrapped that idea. We also thought about flying to Anchorage and renting an RV once there. This was an attractive option because the cost of RV rental, especially during the shoulder season when we are first planning to get to Alaska, is very reasonable. But since we are planning to spend a full two months in Alaska, it works out better if we use our own vehicle, even with the added cost of driving it up there.

Van camping is the obvious choice for several reasons. First, staying in the van is much cheaper than getting a motel every night. Second, camping at the actual birding sites is much better than having to find a motel close enough to where you want to be. Third, a van or RV is much more secure than a tent in bear country.

So, here is what we think we can do and the budget we think it will cost:

0. We will be traveling to visit friends in Washington during the spring migration. It’s not part of the Alaska trip but it is part of the budget to get to our departure point for Alaska. – $800 +/_

1. Driving the Cassiar Highway and other roads from Washington to Homer, AK (2500 miles over 10 or 12 days) – $1000 +/-

2. Participation in the Kachemak Bay Birding Festival in Homer (field trips and lodging) – $800 +/-

3. Exploring the Kenai Peninsula  for two weeks + (boat trips, lodging, entry fees, etc.) – $1800 +/-

4. An eight day trip to Nome at the peak of migration (airfare, lodging, car rental) – $2400 +/-

5. A week at Denali National Park and Denali State Park – $400 +/-

6. A week on the tundra near the Arctic Circle – $400 +/-

7. A week exploring the Gulf of Alaska by ferry (without the vehicle), a poor man’s pelagic trip – $800 +/-

8. The return trip to our place in North Carolina – $1600 +/-

Total estimated cost is $10,000.

That’s a sizable chunk of money (The three month trip will cost us as much as our entire Big Year.), but visiting Alaska is like visiting a foreign country. It is a long way!

In a few days, we’ll write about our expectations for the new birds we can see in Alaska.