Sunday, January 1, 2017

Looking Back at a Smaller Big Year

Big Years don't have to be that BIG.  I know, I've never done one THAT BIG.  Others have and I congratulate them on their amazing accomplishments in both 2016 and years past.  But I write for the "every birder" those of us who just want to bird but like to have goals too.  No Big Year records, but personal records and challenges. My goal back in 2012 was to see as many species as was possible given my full-time work, nearly nonexistent budget and absolutely no previous birding experience and I saw 600 species,(596 ABA).

In 2012 I birded both where the travel took me and everywhere else I had the time and money to sneak away to, including Alaska.  In 2016 my goals were a little more modest.  A Big Year, but with limits.  I wanted to see if, with a full-time job that including long hours and endless travel, I could still manage to see a lot of birds.  But not just lots of birds, to go birding every day and also contribute my birding efforts to that of eBird and submit at least one checklist every day of the year and finish in the top 100 for both the ABA Area and North America, since we spent 10 days in Panama back in January.

And I think I did all that.  I submitted 483 complete checklists in the ABA Area for 483 species, good for 79th place on the ABA area eBird List.  Overall I logged 665 species in North America, which includes birding in Canada, the Lower 48 US states and Panama, and ranked me in 68th position overall.  I also completed all 12 eBird monthly challenges and perhaps will finally win the coveted binoculars for submitting at least 3 checklists most days in December,(update: I did not).  So, goals for 2017?  I'll keep it simple.  LIFERS!  My ABA List grew from about 30 to 596 in 2012.

In the 4 years since then, I have added 59 ABA species.  This year was pretty good, as I added 13 new birds from Z to A, starting with the Code 5 Zenaida Dove in Florida last February to the, also Code 5, Amazon Kingfisher last week in Texas.  In between there were the Wandering Tattler, Cassin's Finch, California Gnatcatcher and Scaly-breasted Munia in California; Mississippi Kite and Tropical Parula in Texas; Clarke's Nutcracker in Colorado; Flame-colored Tanager in Arizona; Common Ringed Plover and Smith's Longspur in, of all places, Ontario and a Seaside Sparrow in Louisiana.

And I can't forget to mention that Sue with all the Lifers she added in Panama, Florida, Texas, Louisiana and here in Ontario, soared past me on our friendly Life List Competition and now leads the race 951 to 939.  Last year I just wanted to see as big a variety of birds as possible; this year I shall scale back and use my time wisely to see if I can add 10-20 new Lifers as I head toward 700 for the ABA and perhaps pass 951 on the way to my first 1000 for my World Life List.  I will also endeavour to complete eBirds challenge to submit at least one checklist each day of 2017, a new contest that would have been nice in 2016 when I did exactly that... Grrrrr!!!!

With the new year beginning, I shall continue my older blog, which I abandoned to write my Birds and Blue Jays Big Year blog:

Thanks to all those who, with much Bigger Big Year Blogs to follow, took the time to enjoy my limited adventures.  I hope other birders are inspired to take up their own personal challenges, even if North American Big Years are, at least for now, still out of reach.  Birding is amazing, adventurous, competitive, gives nerds like me an opportunity to socialize with people I can actually feel comfortable around, and above all, just plain fun.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

One Last New Bird for the Year? Sure, Don't Saw-whet it...

Last day of the Birds and Blue Jays Big Year, a bonus day, so to speak, as was the case with my 2012 Big Year.  It's day 366 and I had one final day to go birding and no better place to go than Colonel Sam Smith Park here in Toronto.  I have probably birded there more than anywhere else in North America this year, seeing 132 species over more than 50 trips, beginning with a Canada Goose on January 2 and ending with species 483 for the year in the ABA Area, a Northern Saw-whet Owl.  And I have spent a lot of time searching for him in the pines of the park the past six weeks or so.

We got back from Texas late in the day on December 29, after a six hour plus flight delay, and I spent yesterday visiting with my daughter in Kingston.  The final bird of the Texas trip was a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, but missed seeing any other target birds,(Harris's Sparrow in particular), for the rest of our time there.  Still, I was able to add 40 species to my year list during the trip, helping me get into the eBird top 100 for the ABA area.

I also record 229 species in Panama, including 115 Lifers, giving me a total for North America of 665 species, which bested my 601 in 2012 and also put me in the eBird top 100 for North America, another of my goals for 2016.

Tomorrow I shall reflect on birding and eBirding every day in 2016 while spending much of the year Birding with the Blue Jays.

 Northern Saw-whet Owl, my last species of 2016:


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Great End to the Great Texas Birding Trail: Amazon Kingfisher

Since heading to the Rio Grande Valley after seeing the Whooping Cranes, and adding White-tailed Hawk and Cinnamon Teal to my Year List, we have birded in dozens of spots, seeing dozens of species each day and I have added 39 species to my year list since arriving in Texas, including two Lifers: Tropical Parula at Laguna Atascosa,(655) and today, as our trip nears its end: Amazon Kingfisher,(656).

We arrived in the RGV Thursday evening and were up and out the door early the next morning with Mary Gustafson.  She took us around the Weslaco area showing us dozens of species throughout the day and she was a pleasure to bird with.  She brought us to places we might have never found on our own and helped add new birds at every turn, contributing to Sue catching up and passing me on our personal Life Lists.  With her help I added 13 new year birds, including Olive Sparrow and Aplomado Falcon.  However the prize bird of the day was a Tropical Parula at the feeder station of Laguna Atascosa. When we arrived, specifically to search for this bird, Mary went into the office to check us in and while Sue was reading the information boards, I took a look at the feeders.  Much to my amazement the parula was sitting by or inside one of the feeders and before I could even tell anyone about it, the bird flew off.  We spent the rest of the morning looking but couldn't refind it.

The next morning we were off to Estero Lliano Grande State Park and a reunion with Huck Hutchins who has guided me about the Rio Grande Valley a few times since I began this crazy birding adventure 5 years ago.  He conducts a morning bird walk and it was a good chance to catch up with Huck and see lots of birds.  And we did.  There are two specialtiy birds you have to see when visiting Estero, the Buff-bellied Hummingbird and Common Pauraque.  One is easy to see and the other is kind of like playing "Where's Waldo."  A highlight of the walk for Sue was the Least Grebe, and I added 7 new Year Birds along the way.  Afterward we headed over to some grain silos where we were greeted by the spectical of thousands of blackbirds, and were tasked with finding a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Bronzed Cowbirds amongst the great flock of Red-winged Blackbirds.  Using a scope, our second game of "Where's Waldo" also ended successfully with the discovery of both birds.

On our last morning in Weslaco,(sounds like Texaco, for those of you pronouncing at home), we went back to Estero and picked up Black-crested Titmouse and Altamira Oriole.  We spent the night in Rio Grande City, where dozens of State Troupers provided security at the Holiday Inn Express and we saw Rogue One at a nearby movie theater.  And somewhere in there it was Christmas.  

The next morning we were off to Salineno and along with way picked up Green Parakeets and down by the river below the Falcon dam Sue spotted a Zone-tailed Hawk circling lazily overhead.  The wildlife refuge was open for the first time since I've begun visiting the boat ramp by the Rio Grande River in Salineno, and we chatted with the refuge hosts while sitting in their lawn chairs watching birds come their many feeders.  We also walked downriver where I got a good look at a White-collared Seedeater, perched on the island where in spring there are Red-billed Pigeons I've never seen.  The seedeater flew right over Sue's head just as I was raising my camera for a photo.  One thing I've learned about birding and photography is that if your goal is to photograph all the birds then you will often come away disappointed.  I did get lots of photographs along the way this trip, but not of every bird I saw and I've come to accept that some birds just have to reside in memory.  If one carries only a camera with a super-duper long lens,(as I have seen many "birders" do), or you prioritize the photo over the sighting, very likely you will see far fewer species, and that takes much of the fun out of birding.

Speaking of not getting a photograph, after leaving the boat ramp, we drove along the "dump" road, so named for all the trash we saw along the way, to Falcon State Park.  We did stop here and there listening for Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and I did hear and see one, but couldn't get camera focus on it and Sue did not get much of a look at all.  She did, however, spot a Black-throated Sparrow in the scrub beyond a fence appearing and vanishing amongst the legs of a trashed swimming pool ladder.  It was my fifth new Year Bird for the day.  We continued on to Falcon State Park hoping for Northern Bobwhite, Scaled Quail and American Roadrunner, only seeing the roadrunner, not on a road, but hoping from one branch to another in a dense thicket.  We ended the day stopping two more times, once in Zapata where we heard and saw a Tropical Kingbird singing atop at tree in the park behind the library and seeing and briefly hearing Audubon's Orioles at the San Ygnacio Bird Sanctuary.  This used to be called the White-collared Seedeater Sanctuary, and has now been renamed and reinvigorated with a new viewing platform and gardens thanks to generous donations from local and visiting birders.

Which brings us to this morning and the Amazon Kingfisher.  This Code 5 from across the border was making only its third appearence on the ABA side of the Rio Grande River and had been reported every day since even before we headed to Texas.  I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time on its other two visits, so I hoped it would stick around until we could get there this morning.  We were up and out at the crack of dawn and arrived a the Rio Grande River, near the railway bridge and within steps of the border crossing into Mexico, under the watchful eyes of Border Patrol Officers, just in time to see Ken from Mississippi, who had arrived just before us, spot the bird on the Mexican side of the river.  We got binoculars on it right away, then scopes and camera lenses.  Though not a Lifer,(Sue and I had both seen one in Costa Rica), it was ABA species 656 for me and the 13th ABA Lifer of the year, since beginning with the Zenaida Dove way back in February.  

We continued birding along the river, where we had a rare 4 Kingfisher day, seeing Amazon, Green, Ringed and Belted in reverse order of rarity.  We continued up to Zacate Creek along the Las Palmas Trail where we found a small flock of Verdin and a Gray Hawk soaring overhead on the way back, giving me two more Year birds for the day and 39 so far for the trip.  On the World Life List front, I now have 938.  Sue was a couple behind me when we arrived in Texas and now has take a 7 species lead with 945, at last count.  

Today is less about birds and more about horses, as we have reserved the morning to go horseback riding.  Of course, that doesn't mean I won't be birding from horseback,(as long as my back holds out), and there still are a few birds left in these here parts of Texas to add to the year list.

Amazon Kingfisher:


Aplomado Falcons:


Least Grebe:


Common Pauraque:

Buff-bellied Hummingbird:

Black-crested Titmouse:

Black-chinned Hummingbird:


Zone-tailed Hawk:


Gray Hawk:

Vermillion Flycatcher:


Monday, December 26, 2016

Merry Christmas from the Rio Grande Birding Trail: Whoopers

We decided to skip the traditional Christmas season in favor of birding along the Great Texas Birding Trail.  From Rockport for the endangered and lovely Whooping Crane, down to the Rio Grande Valley for Black-crested Titmouse and many birds in between.  Two goals prompted this trip.  One, selfish, I wanted to get myself in the top 100 on both the ABA and North America eBird Lists and the other to give Sue a chance to pass on our overall World Life List.  So far, just past the halfway portion of our trip, both goals have been met.  Still, there are more birds to get, including the elusive White-collared Seed Eater and the very rare Amazaon King Fisher up in Laredo.

We began the trip in Houston hoping to see bats fly at the Waugh Bridge Bat Colonly on our first evening in Texas.  Too cool that evening for the bats to fly so that spectical will have to wait for another time.  However our main goal was to go down to Rockport and take a boat trip for the Whooping Crane.  The guide and captain of the boat was fantastic and we saw 40 species along the way including at least 16 Whooping Cranes.


To be continued...

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Winter Rarities Back Home: Lark Sparrow and Smith's Longspur Lose Their Way

Coming back to Toronto I had only a few days to catch some winter birds, such as Rough-legged Hawk, Northen Shrike and pick up a missed Glaucous Gull at Sir Adam Beck Generating Station.  However, when I got home the first bird I went for was a wayward Lark Sparrow, lost on migration.  Their strange migration route, from the midwest, over the Great Lakes and eventually down to Florida, Texas and Mexico, allows for a lost bird to show up in Ontario every couple of years.  My first Ontario Lark Sparrow was two winters ago in Fort Erie, and now one landed by the railway tracks just east of downtown Toronto and as of yesterday, seems content with a Canadian winter.  It also may be too tired and weak, and possibly injured, to continue its southward migration, which made it easy to find after I parked and walked up to the path parallel to the railway tracks.  Another birder was already there taking photos not ten feet from it.  At times it seemed to walk up to people as if asking for food.  Some birders had already left seed for it, hoping it would gain enough strength to fly south or at least be well fed and perhaps survive the winter.


The very next day a report of an even rarer Ontario bird surfaced.  A Smith's Longspur was discovered down by Longpoint, a little bit north of the provincial park that bears its name.  The Smith's Longspur breeds in the Canadian Arctic and Alaska and its fall migration doesn't normally bring it into Ontario, but the Longpoint area is certainly not too far out of its way.  And good for us Ontario birders.  For me it would be a Lifer, so off I drove early the next morning to Concession Road A.  It was a two and a half hour drive with coffee and gas stops, but an easy place to find.  Some local birders I knew were already there with others showing up soon after.  It was cold, but not the frigid -20c I experienced on my first rare bird chase back in 2012 for a Mountain Bluebird.  After about half an hour of searching, while watching hundreds of Sandhill Cranes fly by, I looked down the road from where I was searching and saw some people crouched down taking photos.  They had the bird.  I walked down the road and, like the Lark Sparrow, the Smith's was just hanging out at the side of the road, eating seeds in the snow.  Hanging around with the Longspur was a Savannah Sparrow and a Snow Bunting.  In fact, there were dozens of Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, American Crows and, of course, the overwintering Sandhill Cranes.  

Smith's Longspur: 654 for the ABA List:


Snow Buntings in winter plumage are sooooo cute:

Sandhill Cranes, a nice appetizer for the upcoming Whooping Cranes I will see in Texas on Thursday:

Horned Lark with horns showing quite well:

The Smith's Longspur was also 937 for the World List, which moves me 3 ahead of Sue, but that lead will be lost soon enough, as we are headed to Texas for our winter vacation and my penuntilmate birding trip of the year.  With the addition of Glaucous Gull and Rough-legged hawk yesterday,(missed the Northern Shrike again), in the Niagara area, I head to Texas with 441 species for the year, hoping to get close to the 59 I need for 500 in the ABA area.  My North America e-Bird List is up to 623 putting me in 99th place for all of North America, which includes Panama, where we spent 10 days last January.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Birding, Patience and Aloneness

Some people like to bird in groups with others and others prefer to bird alone.  I have spent a lot of time birding alone this year.  I haven't had too much choice in where to bird, but wherever work has sent me this year I have been out birding, from my home in Toronto to California and from Key West to Washington State.  I have birded nearly everywhere in North America and with just over two weeks left in the year I am finishing off my last trip to where I had to be, in this case Maryland and Florida.  Next week it's "birder's choice" and I have chosen the Rio Grande Valley of Texas for a number of reasons.  First, even though I've been to Texas twice this year, I did not get far out from Houston or Dallas.  Birding there for ten days will help me get close to 500 species for the year, a selfish goal,(I also want to be in the e-Bird top 100-another selfish goal, naturally).  Second and selflessly, it gives Sue a chance to pass me on the Life List again.  See, so it's not always all about me.

Anyway, back to this trip.  I was working all but a few hours in the mornings in Maryland and though I hoped to get out to find, say, a Great Cormorant, that didn't work out so much, though I did enjoy birding every morning along the Patomic River within walking distance of the hotel and with the occasional view of the Washington Monument.  And I did see a different variety of birds each day, so I had a good time.  But I was biding my time until I could get to Florida, where a wish list of birds awaited me, including a few rare ones I had hoped would stick around.

In fact, each of the birds I was seeking was not exactly hanging around waiting to be found.  These were not the ubiquitous Palm Warblers that are seen nearly everywhere in Florida in the Winter.  After a succsessful search for the Brown Bobby, I was on the prowl for White-crowned Pigeon, Northern Gannet, Spot-breasted Oriole, Red-whiskered Bulbul, White-winged Parakeet, Western Spindalis, Smooth-billed Ani.  I was hoping to see all or most of these species as I enjoyed the solitude of birding in south Florida.  However at this time of year these birds take time and patience to find and though I exhibited lots of patience, I didn't exactly have a lot of time and I spent more time stuck in Miami traffic than I would have liked.  

My first goal was to find Northern Gannets off the Atlantic Coast as I drove down to Miami.  Standing alone, with my scope I patiently scanned the horizon everywhere I could stop and was rewarded with a Gannet feeding frenzy at one point.



My next goal was a pair of female Western Spindalis that had been reported even before I got to Florida in Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.  Every day while I got closer and closer to arriving, the birds were reported on e-Bird.  Then a storm hit and it rained all the way down the coast.  I arrived on the 10th.  It rained on me and there was no spindalis.  Turned out I was a day and a half late for this bird.  I was also late for a lovely male Western Spindalis the week before.

But there were other birds to chase.  The Kendell neighborhood near Baptist hospital for Red-whiskered BulBuls was my next stop.  This seems not to be my year for the bulbuls as my many trips around the neighborhood proved in both spring and fall.  And yet, I didn't come away empty handed, as two birds I was expecting to find elsewhere, Spot-breasted Oriole and White-crowned Pigeon appeared to me on adjacent blocks over the next two days of searching for the bulbuls.  



The next morning I drove around Homestead and did my annual dumpster diving trek around the backs of McDonad's and various other sites looking for a Common Myna.  First time I ever laid eyes on one, I had no clue as to what crazy bird, or juvenile something or other it might be.  Sue figured it out for me, at the time, and now it is an annual tradition to go looking for them.  I found one right behind an Auto Zone.  It would be the seventh and last bird I would add to my year list in Florida, giving me 437, three short of my goal of 440 going into Texas.



Had I seen the Red-whiskered Bulbull and Western Spindalis, the Smooth-billed Ani would have helped me reach my goal.  But birding doesn't always go as planned and birds love to tease and frustrate me.  It would be an ABA  Lifer,(I've seen onen in Costa Rica in 2014).  There was one reported in the spring.  I couldn't find it.  And now, just 30 minutes from where I was staying in Homestead and on my last evening in the Miami area one had been reported in a Brazilian Red Pepper bush on a canal between two industrial sites.  I had to fight ridiculous Miami morning rush hour traffic and had trouble finding the spot, of course.  And I couldn't help but think it would stay around for a day or so.  Right?  Both the male and Western Spindalis had been around a week before I arrived.  Now I was in the perfect spot at the perfect time to drive there at first light and record the bird.  Right?  Of course not!  A morning of walking the half mile stretch of canal proved Ani-less and and drove back to Tampa without a bird in the bush.  

On the bright side, I now know what a Brazilian Pepper bush is.  Never heard of it before, but both the spindalis and the ani were said to be frequenting locations with pepper plants.  Not being a big fan of pepper in it's cracked form, I am now even less of a fan of the plant, as birds I seek within range never seem to be there.   Meanwhile back home, naturally, rare for Ontario birds started appearing the moment I left Toronto for Maryland.  With a little luck there will be lots of birds left for me to count in Texas beginning just five days from now.  

At the end of the day, though, the number and count of birds wasn't as big a deal as I thought.  The chasing, the wanderings, the absolute aloneness was often as wonderful a feeling as finding Brown Boobies.  Birding gives you so many opportunities for solitude, for quiet contemplation as you enjoy the natural world around you and appreciate that nature isn't there for us.  It exists and we have been given the chance to surround ourselves in it and enjoy everything it presents to us.  That we, as birders, can travel around a city, county, state, provence or the world finding birds behind every tree, bush, and occasionally warehouse and trailer park, is what makes it special.  The folks we meet along the way that break up the solitude become even more welcome when you travel and bird on your own.  A golf book from a number of years ago was entitled, "A Good Walk Spoiled."  Birding, if you remain patient, and sometimes embrace the solitude, will always be a good walk made better.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Lots of Boobies

Or is it Booby's?

I had been cooped up in a hotel in a Maryland since Sunday, with only early morning walks to do my birding and nowhere close enough to the coast to look for Gannets or Great Cormorants, but still managed to see a nice variety of species along the Potomac River. 

But yesterday I arrived in Florida for a week of mostly birding,(still have to work a little), and the first place I headed to was the Courtney Campbell Causeway in search of a Brown Booby.  I didn't find one there so headed over to Phillippe Park and found not one, but perhaps as many as seven on an electrical tower in the Bay. 

They were nestled in with Double-crested Cormorants and Brown Pelicans and stood out from the group with their white bellies and thick beaks. There was a lone Booby sitting along the opposite end from where the others were gathered and a got a nice look at it in flight. 

So, after I get my Blue Jays work done I am off to south Florida to add more species to my year list.  The Brown Bobby was number 431 for the year.  My goal is to add 9 more in Florida,(including a Western Spindalis), and then go to the Rio Grand Valley in Texas, where I hope to charge toward 500 as my Birds and Blue Jays Big Year draws to a close.