#716: Collared Plover

We were not really expecting any new birds during our stay in the RGV, but the birding gods were nice to us.

Last year, fellow birder Dan Jones found a Collared Plover in the RGV while we were summering in North Carolina. We watched the reports on that bird from afar while we planned our next birding adventure to California but it did not stay long enough for us to chase it on our way west. That bird was only the second Texas record and we figured it would be a long time before we would get another crack at it.

Surprise! Another Collared Plover (maybe the same bird) has been discovered at the same location as last time. Pat Heirs was credited with making the first report of an unusual plover at Hargill Playa this time around. Photos confirmed it early in the day and by 3:30 we were at the site determined not to miss it this year. The only problem … it’s summertime in the RGV and it was 102 degrees out there!

The bird was smarter than we were and it stayed out of the scorching sun. We whiled away the hours by drinking lots of Powerade and playing video games on our tablets, making frequent, but short, searches. Four hours later, as the day started to cool off, our patience was rewarded. Our lifer Collared Plover made an extended appearance along the playa shore.

That brings my life list to 716 species since 2012.

Back in the RGV of Texas; Not Quite “Home”

Our “Excellent Adventure” is drawing to a close. We are back in the Rio Grande Valley for a week of doctor, dentist, and car appointments before heading on to our “final” stop of the year in North Carolina.

Our trip list for the time we spent away from the Valley stands at 403 species. We saw 230 or so species in Canada and Alaska and another 170 or so in the Lower 48. At the start of the trip I was trying to see if we could reach 500 species. I’ve seen 19 Valley specialties in the short time we’ve been back, but I doubt that we’ll get to 500 by the time we get to North Carolina. I was too optimistic, it seems. Of course, we missed a fair number of species when we decided to chase rarities instead of taking our time and birding through California at the start of the trip north. Still, it was probably not enough species that we missed there to bring us to 500 either. I’ll just have to be satisfied with 425 to 450 or thereabouts.

It certainly was an educational trip. My preconceptions and expectations were fairly accurate in some cases but very far from the mark in others. The single biggest error I made was thinking that one “BIG” trip to Alaska would be enough. No way! I want to go back again and again! From the standpoint of birds and a life list I was fairly realistic in my expectations. But there is so much more to Alaska than the birds I can still see for my list. I want to go back even if there is nothing likely left for me to see. Native Alaskans have a saying about this: “Most visitors come to Alaska thinking that it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip; and leave thinking that it was a good scouting trip for the future.”

The final budget for the trip was educational as well. We had budgeted about $10,000 to $12,000 for the entire trip. (That’s the same, or more, than we spent for our entire Big Year.) The biggest single chunk of that budget was $3,000 for eight days in Nome. Our actual total cost, for two people, and including repairs we needed for a breakdown of the van, was only $9519. The Alaska and Canada portions of the trip were under $8,000. Birding in Alaska and Canada was not such a budget buster after all, especially considering that we spent 75 days there.

It would have been much more if we had done all of our birding on organized tours with the big-name birding tour companies. They charge $400, $500, or even $600 a day, per person, for tours of the best birding spots. Our average cost was only about $50 per day, per person. From that standpoint, our concept of Birding On a Budget was proven to be sound, and we did not rough it by sleeping on the ground in a pup tent like we did during the Big Year.

On the other hand, we did not see as many new birds as I had hoped and the lists being reported by the big-name groups on the Pribilofs, at Gambell, and on the Aleutians were about a dozen species longer than our list of Alaskan specialty birds. Focused, short duration visits to those sites must be in my future if I hope to get to 800 species in a reasonable amount of time. Whether or not it ends up being a reasonable budget remains to be seen.

One of our biggest issues during the trip was the lack of dependable internet service. There is so much I wanted to write about during the trip but I got lazy about the writing when I knew I wouldn’t be able to post it.  I’ll try to remember and write some more follow-ups after the fact.

Alaska and Canada Wrap-up

We’re still working our way back to our summer home in North Carolina, but I thought I’d do a summary of our Alaska and Canada experience along the way.

First, the statistics:

Total number of species seen in Alaska and Canada: 230

Total number of new species for the life list: 17

Total number of days spent in Alaska and Canada: 75

Total miles driven to, in, and from Alaska to the lower 48: 9350

Total birding dollars spent: $6850

As you can see, this trip was not in keeping with our theme of Birding on a Budget. It was less expensive than most north country birding trips, but it was much more expensive than our usual trip. The north country has some unique birds but it is not an especially diverse place. Our total of 230 species seen in 75 days of travel is fairly low compared to our typical species lists in the lower 48. Also, our cost per new species added to the life list was over $400. It will get even more expensive as I try to add more species toward the ultimate goal of 800!

Our trip up to Alaska and to the Shorebird Festival in Homer took place during the last 10 days of April and the first few days of May. It was an unusual year in terms of snowfall and the roads were almost completely clear. The drive up was easier than we had expected, BUT nearly all of the camping and birding areas were still closed for the winter. In some cases we were unable to find a camping site and had to resort to “camping” in the parking lot of a motel that had outside electrical power for our van. Fortunately, most motels have such power for the vehicle engine blankets needed during the sub-zero weather typical of a northern winter. Our best birding experience during the trip up was the day we spent along the Haines Highway between Haines Junction in the Yukon Territory and the US/Canada border. Kluane National Park and other sites along that road were still locked in the grip of winter, but we still saw a great assortment of wildlife.

Once in Alaska, and especially when we reached the relatively mild climate of the Kenai Peninsula, winter’s grip started to loosen. Our stay in Homer, Seward, and other parts of the peninsula was mostly ice-free and we saw more birds than we had seen on the trip up. The shorebirds arrived right on time for the Shorebird Festival, BUT we were still too early for most of the migrant land birds. Our best birding experience during this portion of the trip was our boat trip from Seward out to the Chiswell Islands. Our biggest disappointment was the Shorebird Festival itself. We did not see anything during our excursions at the festival that we did not see on our own.

The next portion of the trip was our 10-day excursion to Nome. Without a doubt, this was the birding highlight of the trip. We arrived a bit too early for some of the migrants, but we stayed long enough that they had arrived by the time we needed to go. We didn’t see everything that it was possible to see in Nome, but we came close. Our biggest disappointment was that we did not see either of the eider species we had hoped to find.

Denali National Park was our next stop. This was not primarily a birding destination, but we did manage to add Arctic Warbler to the list here. The highlights of Denali were the great scenic beauty of the place (We had spectacular views of the mountain.) and the large mammals we were able to see, especially grizzly bears.

After Denali we headed back to Seward and another great boat trip in Resurrection Bay and the fringes of the Gulf of Alaska. We also had some great birding and photography opportunities sprinkled among the transitions between the trip segments listed here. The best was the time we got to spend at a nest of Great Gray Owls.

Near the end of our stay in Alaska we had some car trouble and we decided to head back home a few days earlier than originally planned. The trip back south through Canada allowed us to revisit many of the spots we had seen during the trip up. It impressed on us the importance of timing when visiting the north country. What had been frozen on the trip up was now bursting with life. Our best birding experiences during the return trip happened when we had returned to the warmer climate of southern Alberta. There was a profusion of birds that we had not seen farther north. Our biggest disappointment was our time in Jasper and Banff National Parks. They had spectacular scenery, but they were crowded with tourists and we did not see very much wildlife at all.

All-in-all, it was a great trip. It is certainly a trip that everyone should make at least once, BUT I was somewhat disappointed that we did not see the great profusion of wildlife that I had expected in many areas and I did not reach my goal of adding 20 species to the life list. I came pretty close, though.

We’re heading out on the next leg of our homeward trip tomorrow. There is still plenty of birding to do along the way. We’ll see you down the road!

Back in the Lower 48

It has been two weeks since we’ve had a decent internet connection and I have some ‘splainin’ to do.

After our second boat trip from Seward we made arrangements to revisit the Denali Highway to look for Smith’s Longspurs one more time. Unfortunately, just as we reached the start of that road, we had a breakdown with our van. The tie rod came undone and we couldn’t steer! Thankfully, we were going very slowly and did not end up in a ditch at the side of the road. Five hours and over $500 later we were towed into Delta Junction, 80 miles away. Two more days and another $450 and we were finally able to get back on the road. We decided to head toward home.

The trip back through Canada was interesting. For about half of the way we retraced our steps from the way up. What a difference two months make. What had been frozen on the way up was now bursting with the life of summer. For the other half of the trip we followed a new route and visited lots of new sites and sights. The Yukon produced bison, British Columbia stone sheep, and Alberta the glaciers and mountains of Jasper and Banff. Then, we dropped down onto the grasslands and coulees and were greeted by a profusion of birds in the warmer climate there.

Now, we are back in the Lower 48 (in Montana). I hope it won’t be another two weeks before I write again!