18 September Update

18 September Update

Will add more photos when I can! Thought it best to get something out while I have the energy.

Sorry about the month between reports, but I’ve been busy. I’m several days into an extended stretch on St Paul Island, currently with just-arrived Zughunruhe (John Puschock’s) group. This followed a day of luxuriating in an Anchorage hotel after surviving three weeks in Gambell (St Lawrence Island). With such a lot of ground to recount since my last report of over a month ago, I’ll try to stick to the birding highlights in roughly the right chronology. 

Craveri’s crapshoot finally a winner
The biggest news on my bird-finding front was/is that following such a ridiculous amount of dedicated effort extended over something like eight trips to sea, I finally got the elusive little Craveri’s Murrelet on 20 August off of Half Moon Bay, California on an Alvaro trip. Conditions were ideal - with spectacularly flat and glassy-smooth seas. After first encountering a pair of similar and seemingly much more common Scripp’s Murrelets at mid-morning, after so much focus on Craveri’s, I began dwelling on the unfolding prospect of not seeing the slightly darker target species during my American year. But then someone spotted a group of three murrelets that we had a brief look before they flushed and headed due east. I’d been told that once in flight, Craveri’s are virtually never seen again – flying just above the surface for great distances. But Alvaro was enthusiastic and the Captain was willing, so with my insistence we pushed the New Captain Pete hard and put on a chase. After several minutes, right at the point of our slowing to turn around and resume course, a trio of murrelets was noticed just a hundred metres ahead. Didn’t take long to clearly recognise the more extensive black markings on head and chin. High fives and lots of excitement all ‘round!

Craveri's Murrelet threesome 

Losing streak ends…
The Saturday Craveri’s-scoring pelagic trip followed a day on the same boat in roughly the same waters that I’d thoroughly enjoyed with Debi Shearwater’s group. We had lots of fun on that trip too, with plenty of birds and whales – even without any new birds for my year-list. After the Friday/Saturday Half Moon double-header I had to get to San Diego for the much anticipated Sunday pelagic trip on the spacious and aptly named Grande. The trip was led by San Diego seabird stalwart Dave Povey. As always happens on pelagic birding missions, I met lots of fantastic birders. In this case, with so many sets of eyes on the lookout (50?) we were destined to find some good birds. Although we never found the sought-after large rafts of roosting storm-petrels – which seem to be the requisite for finding Least Storm-Petrels (typically mixed in Black Storm-Petrels), we did encounter some terrific seabirds, including two ‘drive-by’ encounters with pairs of my old friend Craveri’s Murrelets. Nearly of greater significance however was a ‘near hit’ for me for another tick, a probable Townsend’s Storm-Petrel that I spotted late in the day, no more than 20 metres to the left of the bow. Despite calling it, and having a good binocular view for several seconds before swinging the camera, only a half-dozen or so other birders got onto the bird. This species is a recent taxonomic split from Leach’s Storm-Petrel, which remains well represented in southern Californian waters by the retained ‘Chapman’s’ subspecies. Like most of the other birders on board I saw at least five Chapman’s Storm-petrels over the course of the day, which were dark brown with varying degrees of ‘white’ in rump from nearly absent to off-white. With respect to the identification of the Townsend’s SP, it seemed to me to tick all of the boxes, being very black in overall presentation with a bright white, seemingly single white patch on rump. It flew more erratically – seemingly on shorter wings – and of a ‘chunkier’ physique. Tragically (and I don’t choose that word lightly), there seemed to be no concensus among the few other birders who saw the bird, and my photos, which are poor to very poor, were apparently the only ones taken. This bird isn’t off the radar for my year of birding yet however, and I’ll be giving it my best shot through whatever pelagic opportunities lay ahead.

Untickable likely Townsend's Storm-Petrel

The ‘sure bet’ turned bad Gambell
Fall Gambell birding is legendary for producing lots of stray Asian migratory birds, and is one of those ‘must do’ activities during an ABA big year. During most years there are periods of favourable winds and climatic circumstances to encourage an influx of birds from visible-to-the-eye Russia. Most trips at this time of year result in sightings of all sorts of rarities, from Little Bunting and Willow Warbler to Pechora Pipit and Blue-tailed Redflank. The majority of these encounters take place among the famous Gambell ‘bone yards’ – where upwards of thirty birders comb the known hot spots in unison in order to flush skulking birds into view.  But of course there are also occasional years with less impressive results. I suppose the island was overdue for a ‘worst-ever’ birding result, following spectacular results achieved durng the Fall seasons of 2014 and 2015. And that is precisely what happened during ‘my’ 25-day (22 August – 15 September) Gambell visit, according to Gambell birding guru and statistician Paul Lehman. Paul has been incredibly helpful to me over the year, and especially with planning for Alaska and sea birding. He's about as good as a birder can possibly get, and yet continues to be generous to a fault. The dreaded northerly winds predominated most of my stay, and even during the brief periods of southerly (and even one day of blessed westerlies), few birds veered far enough to the east of traditional Asian migration pathways to drop in for a Gambell visit. The best birding results came in the earliest days of my visit, and I did manage to add two species to my year-list before the start of September: Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and Dusky Warbler. By comparison, if a repeat of last Fall’s results had occurred, I would have added closer to ten species. No complaints however, since this year’s mainland influx of rarities has been absolutely spectacular – sort of a ‘good weather big year’ set of conditions from 1 January when compared to other big year experiences during the past decade. I continue to feel blessed. 

Although I most certainly did flush a Lesser Sand Plover during a morning ATV blitz along the beach, the worst nightmare followed: no relocation by me or others, and no photos. In my case (which I believed, until my birding experiences of this year, is universal) 'counted' bird sightings go on my list if and only if I can lay in bed at night and know that the sighting was certain. I think that’s the best definition of an adequate sighting. I can do that for this sighting, and it is is the first time that I can think of that I’ve also taken into account the perception of others, and it won't be going on my list. Apart from my own personal integrity, for which I'm responsible, I've dealt with and witnessed some unusual and challenging circumstances over the course of this year that in the fullness of time will be appropriate for comment. With respect to Lesser Sand Plovers it’s still possible for another opportunity on St Paul Island.

As in the Springtime visit to Gambell, my Fall trip included a period of participation in Aaron Lang’s Wilderness Birding Adventures organised tour. Aaron is a great guy with a winning mix of birding talent, personal and organisational skills, and wicked sense of humour, and so is perfectly suited for guiding these sorts of trips. Aaron’s Fall trip ran through the first 10 days of September, leaving me to do my own thing for my first nine days and last five days on the island. 

Knowing about my less than confident mindset going into the Alaskan island birding portion of my year, my great friend, confidante, and partner in a crazy mix of business, birding and conservation projects, Tim Faulkner offered to drop everything sane in his world to join me at Gambell for my nine-day stretch prior to the WBA tour. Tim made a huge difference to my experience, providing tremendous support - both moral and technical, while at the same time making a positive impression amongst the early birders and resident Eskimos alike, as is his way. The latest season of Tim’s television show Outback Adventures of Tim Faulkner is only a week or two prior to airing, and the first episode is now excitedly anticipated by many Gambellites.

Irreverent yet indefatigable Tim Faulkner

The other really good thing that happened on Gambell during such an extended period that yielded so few birds is that fellow big-year birders Laura Keene and Christian Hagenlocher were also there banging their heads on the same wall for much of the period. It was really fantastic spending time birding and comparing notes with them. Both are tracking well to achieve their big year goals, which extend well beyond merely seeing as many species as possible – though it is increasingly apparent that they are likely to wind up with a year list that will eclipse the previous record of 749.

I knew it would be tough on the islands, and it has been. Social circumstances haven't always been wonderful... But the encouragement from so many birders both on the islands and beyond has been great, and some of the communications from back home have been as timely as they’ve been brilliant. This came from George Swann precisely on the heal of the Lesser Sand Plover occasion during my Gambell trip: “Well done John! You’re a bloody champion. What a great ambassador for Aussie birding and the devils. We all love you!” I think the message says more about the writer than the recipient – but thanks George, you really helped me when I needed it most. And Paul Andrew, thanks for the support and advice re birding and our conservation projects, you are the real deal. And you California four! Thanks for the advice - which I'm taking.

Mid-August Update

Mid-August Update

I’m finding it harder to put updates together when there aren’t new year-birds on my list to talk about. The good news in recent times is that I got to spend a total of two weeks with Robyn on the road. In the absence of workable rarity chases, we spent the early part of August hanging out in California in order to get off shore as often as possible with Craveri’s Murrelets, once again, in mind. We participated in two whale-watch tours out of San Diego, before driving through LA to Ventura for a full-day whale watching trip on August 4th. After that we participated in pelagic birding trips out of Monterey two days later (which produced no Craveri’s Murrelets on the day, but did produce one there four days later – probably because I wasn’t on board) and to Farallon Islands off San Francisco on Sunday. The Sunday trip with Debi Shearwater produced a bird I’d really hoped – a Blue-footed Booby. A wayward stray from the warmer waters of Mexico and beyond had been reported roosting on Sugarloaf Rock a year earlier. And sure enough, after a too-long stretch of unproductive sea missions, no sooner had we pulled alongside pyramid-like island than the call went out: “Blue-footed Booby halfway up the cliff!”. Almost certainly the same bird of a year ago as one of the birders later told me that it was perched in the identical position on the extensive cliff-face that ‘it’ roosted on last year’s bird. This is a very popular trip for birders and nature lovers as the islands are a spectacular haven for sea-lions, cetaceans and breeding seabirds. As the most southerly breeding outpost for Tufted Puffins, we were treated to some close and personal visits by these spectacular birds.

Sugarloaf Rock. Blue-footed Booby is halfway up the rock just above the tan hat.

Yeah, that's it!

Debi Shearwater in the flesh, under the big bridge. Team Keene (Laura and David) 
to the left of the hat-saver net.

All five of our California sea-going trips produced great whale sightings – particularly in Monterey Bay, where we had at terrific views of Blue Whales and Fin Whales – the two largest of the world’s mammal species. The Hump-back Whales were in big numbers and we were lucky enough to see several spectacular launches from the water. During the week we also saw Sea Otters, Stellar’s and California Sea Lions, a range of dolphin species, and of course plenty of early migration seabirds. Alas, our much-hoped-for Craveri’s Murrelet sighting was not amongst these. To rub salt in the wound there was a Craveri’s on a Monterey Bay trip four days after we were there – a trip that I’d booked and cancelled. I’m coming back in the next life as a Jaeger so as to hunt down and torment Craveri’s Murrelets. Even if all they puke is goey half-digested krill. I hate them that much.

Of special frustration for me was a brief view of what I am certain was a Flesh-footed Shearwater in association with one of the many big flocks of Sooty Shearwaters that we encountered on the Monterey Bay trip (August 6). This trip had very few birders on board, and only a single team leader. Unfortunately, none of these folks noticed the longer-winged, and more deliberately flapping and higher-arcing all-dark shearwater. I maintained a binocular view for several seconds as it flew directly away, before losing it behind the swell. Part of the confusion for me was that it was flying away from me, and I never had the ‘aha’ moment of seeing the yellow bill. It’s a species that I’m familiar with, having seen many thousands spread over many dozens of pelagic trips out of Australia. But I didn’t call it when I should have – in the midst of the dreaded and confounded ‘stunned-mullet’ state, followed by embarrassment to stop the boat while I’m still hoping it would pop up for the showing, to a grittier embarrassment (shame) for not having called attention to what had passed. But then, this isn’t a particularly rare bird off California in Autumn, and I still have a number of good chances ahead to see and photograph it.

I lived in southern California for a couple of years in the early 1980s while working at the long-gone California Alligator Farm in Buena Park. This was supposedly a one year only hiatus from my studies at CU Boulder, after which time I’d return to finish my last semester and pursue a ‘real’ career. Oops. I was nearly 40 when my parents stopped asking me what I was going to do when I grew up. Now I look back at my time in LA as a reptile keeper and showman (gator wrestling was an art form back in those days) with a lot of nostalgia. Being pretty focussed on the reptiles back then, many of my one-day weekends would see me riding my 350cc Honda either to the LA Zoo, or more often, the San Diego Zoo. Then, as now, the zoo was internationally famous for its many conservation-related projects – both in situ and ex. More to the point for me, they always held the rarest and most unusual reptile and amphibian species imaginable, and had larger than life personalities behind the scenes. So a real highlight for me last week was to spend a day with Robyn at the San Diego Zoo, and especially to check out the reptiles and amphibians in the Klauber-Shaw Reptile House. This was the third time I’ve taken Robyn to that zoo in as many decades, and doubt it will be the last.

San Diego Zoo

We also did some general birding in California, filling a couple of holes in my photographic records for the year (but painfully, not for Mountain Quail), and ended Robyn’s latest US visit with a Nevada stopover to show her the beautiful Ruby Mountains and to hopefully upgrade my Himalayan Snowcock experience (see my earlier post) to include a photograph.

Owing to our late post-pelagic arrival to our hotel in Elko, Nevada on Sunday night we made a relative late start (8AM) of our two-mile hike from the Ruby Mountains Recreation Area car park to Lake Lamoille on Monday morning – too late for a serious shot at the transplanted Himalayan Snowcocks by conventional wisdom. But I was hopeful, as I’m fairly certain that they don’t transform into rocks after early morning territorial appearances. But where do they go? The Lake Lamoille hike starts out on one of two trailheads winding uphill in opposite directions. The other trail leads to Island Lake. The bowl-shaped mountainous cirque above the small namesake lake has yielded almost all of this year’s reported Snowcock sightings, though in previous years the cirque surrounding Lake Lamoille was more often the ‘go to’ site. Both tracks require a two-mile hike over a reasonably easy grade.

Lake Lamoille, snow 'n all - but where are the snowcocks?

We had chosen a beautiful still morning for our hike, and the scenery as well as the birding was fantastic. Robyn added at least six bird species to her US list (but no Black Rosy-finches, which I saw along my earlier Island Lake hike). We really enjoyed the hike despite not hearing or seeing our target bird.

The plan for the next day was for a 4:30AM start to Island Lake for our best shot at the super-shy transplanted Himalayan game birds. But that was before we were approached by another birder upon our early afternoon return to the car park, who asked if we’d seen any Snowcocks. I recounted our experience for the day and asked if he had seen any. He said no, but that he’d been up to Island Lake, where he’d met another birder – this one from Washington, who’d had success there, and was intending a return that afternoon to camp by the lake. He was adamant that his plan would replicate that of the Washingtonian, and to position himself just under the cliff-line the next morning for a pre-dawn stakeout of the spot. It was apparent from the intensity and enthusiasm of this fellow that I’d once again picked the wrong morning for a stakeout from a respectful distance of the area the birds try to exist in. Fine, I’d head back up to Lake Lamoille at first light instead.

Since Robyn had the Lake Lamoille experience under her belt, she slept in while I made an early morning revisit, leaving the carpark at 4:30 and reaching the main lake an hour later. Twice I heard distant Snowcock calls, and managed to get a faint recording. But search as I did, I couldn’t visually locate one. By 6:30 I decided to continue up the trail, which passed over a ridge and down into another valley and lake. I may have heard a single call, but again, no sightings. I thought about the little bit of information I’d found and read about the species, and wondered where in the hell they fed. They supposedly forage in coveys, consuming all sorts of plant matter, from berries, seeds and blossoms to root tubers and insects. I scoped through patches of low vegetation along the sides of the mountainous cirque and wondered why they wouldn’t come down to the extensive paddocks of diverse wildflowers, adjacent to the lake. Maybe they do turn into stones after early morning territorial vocalisations. One of the many challenges to Snowcock searching is the presence of sentry ‘Snowrocks’ strategically situated along ridgelines – rocks of the right size and shape to get the heart racing. A little bit disappointed, I made my way back to the car in time to pick up Robyn from the motel and take her to the airport for her afternoon flight to LA and connecting flight home. I began contemplating if the helicopter Snowcock mission featured in that movie really happened – or maybe could happen. Nah.

A whole ‘nother story is that of Robyn’s travel dramas after saying goodbye. Her connecting Delta flight in Salt Lake City to LAX was incrementally delayed – first, by a half-hour, then an hour, then another hour – with an actual take-off time that was four hours late. That was too late for her existing 10:30PM LA to Sydney flight home and indeed impossible to get out of LA at all that night. So she spent a night and following day at a dodgy LA motel and got home a day later than planned.

Though it may not be the opinion of all, I like American Airlines (not their smaller partners like American Eagle quite so much), and stick with them when I can. They just seem to have fewer dramas (yeah, there are still occasions…), and appear to have some sort of corporate-level ideas about customer service that trickle down through the ranks counter staff and cabin crew. But again, I know I’m probably alone on this! So far as car rentals are concerned, again, I reckon I have enough field experience to make a recommendation – which is Alamo (and sister outfit National). Alamo/National is noticeably ahead of the other mobs in terms of reliability, having enough staff at the counter, good personnel with obvious customer relations training, provision of consistently newer cars, and having a smooth operation from online booking stage through the agencies (I use Kayak for flights, cars and hotels, which farms me to priceline.com, booking.com, expedia, etc, for best deals) to not being too pushy about the pre-pay fuel rip-off scheme. But let’s face it, if you want to rent a car at JFK, LAX or Ronald Reagan DC, you’re unlikely to have a pleasant experience on the ground, no matter who you use.

I’d kept the Wednesday morning up my sleeve for a final visit to the Ruby Mountains on my ongoing and elusive mission to photograph a Snowcock. I mean, they are huge birds that everybody else seems to find easily. I knew Chris Hitt and Laura Keene, along with three of their birding pals would be tackling the Island Lake trail that morning. I emailed the guys to let them know that I’d probably catch up with them on site. And sure enough, I got to the car park just as their group of five was setting off up the trail with headlamps in otherwise complete darkness. Both Chris and Laura have been very helpful to me this year with information, suggestions and encouragement, so I was glad to have this experience with them, despite my usual tendency and enjoyment of ‘lone dog’ bush-bashing and bird searching. We made it to the lake before 6 and positioned ourselves up the hill, perhaps a third of the distance to the base of the scree slopes where the birds have been reported regularly over the course of the summer. I was fairly buggered after big hikes the previous two days, coupled with a night full of dramas trying to help Robyn negotiate the dramas of missing her flight in LA, dealing with the the challenges of getting booked on a flight the next night, and of finding a room with two stars or better in LS post-midnight. The later wasn’t achievable, and she ended up in a neighbourhood like none she’s overnighted in before! Like me, she’s getting the whole suite of American experiences this year.

Once in position above the lake – truly within a minute of our initial search with binoculars, Chris announced that he was ‘onto’ a snowcock – no, two snowcocks at the upper edge of the upper-most patch of low sparse vegetation. Soon we were all looking through scopes at these spectacular birds, calmly grazing their way through short and very sparse vegetation. They alternately pecked at seedy heads of grass-like plants and pecking heavily at the ground. When I scoped around the general vicinity I noticed another group of three – at least two of which appeared to be young birds.

Island Lake Cirque - Snowcock Central

Magnificent birds

The whole Himalayan Snowcock birding experience is an iconic component of any ABA big year mission, and getting good looks and distant photographs justified the extra effort I put into ‘upgrading’ my earlier experience.

With Robyn gone and the Snowcock ‘high’ behind me, I got on a plane to Salt Lake City, checked into a hotel before 6PM, and eased back into that ‘fear and loathing’ phase that is increasingly a part of the deal. I’m probably better than most at being alone for weeks and months on end. I thrived on it when ‘out bush’ in the red continent over the decades looking for reptiles or birds. But I’m increasingly finding that airports and planes, hotels and rentals are far lonelier places. And the hop-skip-jump nature of this thing I’m doing seems to have no end in sight. Kind of like Newman’s (Seinfeld) comment about the perceived tendency for his mail delivery colleagues crack and become roof-top snipers. “It’s the mail. It just keeps coming. It never ends!”. Sometimes it takes a degree of mental will-power to get back on the positive. The best medicine of course is a new bird – but they’re becoming increasingly difficult to coax into view.