2 December

"I LOVE French-Canadians" Dwight Stone, 1976

I've spent a bit of time on ‘dodgy ducks’ – having seen the especially dodgy Eastern Spot-billed Duck (looking now to be a hybrid) in Massachusetts a few days ago, and the apparently more valid Common Shelduck in Sept-Iles, Quebec this morning. Both birds were surprisingly shy. The Shelduck took a bit of work in this morning’s snowstorm, and flushed unexpectedly from several hundred metres ahead of me as I followed the river from bridge to sea, whereafter it flew, and flew, and flew. Was very lucky to get camera working quickly enough. The advice from my elders is to ditch the Massachusetts bird, but to put the Shelduck on my ‘provisional’ list, as it is becoming increasingly believable that this species is a natural vagrant to the northeast.  

Bienvenue a Sept-Iles, Quebec!

Bonjour sunshine!

Je te vois malavisee canard!

Moments after seeing the Common Shelduck, and busting out of my skin.
As usual, nobody around to 'high-five', so resorted to mood-capturing, lens-cracking selfie.
The tail-end of 2016 is increasingly feeling like the 'big year' that I signed up for!

A special thank you to Canadian birders Samuel Denault and Patricia Lalonde for the gen on this bird: Merci beaucoup!!!

30 November

30 November Update

Will have to up my carbon offset forecasts fairly dramatically after the last week of travel. Due to terrible timing of unfolding of information about the Pine Bunting that Clarence Irrigoo found, and in recognition of predicted winds that seemed likely to cause cancellation of flights to and from Gambell for next few days, I flew from Seattle to Miami on the 23rd, instead of making the smarter move to Nome and Gambell. I’d heard new intel about the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t La Sagra’s Flycatcher at Key Biscayne, Florida, so thought it was the least of three potential evils – being stuck on Gambell for potentially days on end, missing the La Sagra’s for the third time, or chasing the Massachusetts duck that would probably wind up being uncountable due to questionable provenance. Feeling conflicted and wounded, I wasn’t emotionally prepared for my message updates on my layover in Detroit – about halfway through the 12-hour flight ordeal from Seattle to Miami: the Pine Bunting was still present in Clarence’s backyard, while forecast weather conditions had dramatically calmed. If I could have retrieved my bags, I would have, and turned around. Instead, I cried inside (and maybe just a little on the outside), buckled down, and got on my next flight leg.

Fortunately, the trip to Miami played out well, despite working myself up to the vomit-stage. Laura and Dave were also looking for the La Sagra’s at Bill Baggs State Park, and we kept in touch during our search on Wednesday and Thursday via text messaging. I saw the bird on both the Wednesday (24 Nov) and Thursday mornings. On the first occasion, near the bicycle rental building (which is a few hundred metres from ‘the’ off-limits epicentre of recent sightings), I tracked it down as it was calling, and managed to get sound recordings and one fleeting, but good view. I hung in for another hour without hearing a peep, before searching the perimeter of the restricted areas where I really wanted to be. Thursday morning Laura and I called in to the park office to ask for permission to wander the ‘off limits’ trails where the bird had been sighted on multiple recent occasions.  To our surprise and joy, the reception was very warm, and we were given approval for the day to search the area. We found that the bird was dipping in and out of a large fig tree, though neither of us managed to get a photograph. Laura got a much better sound recording of it after I left, clearly capturing the unmistakeable ‘wheet… wheet’ (higher than Great-crested Flycatcher). We bumped into well-known  local birder Robin Dias, who has been undertaking banding and monitoring surveys of the birds of the reserve for many years, and was on one of her regular birding ‘rounds. She was initially a little surprised to encounter us in the off-limits area, but then was delighted to hear that we had gained permission to be there. She listened to my recording of the La Sagra's - barely audible, and gave the 'thumbs up' (she later also gave higher thumbs up to Laura for her recordings, which are apparently quite good). She told us that the tree where we’d seen the bird was the same one that she had seen it flying backwards and forwards to and from the Gumbo Limbo tree across the track on previous occasions, but was frustrated by not being able to openly share the information.

The inimitable Laura Keane after seeing La Sagra's Flycatcher, 
well and truly surpassing the 750 species mark. 
And no signs of slowing down!

A nice outcome from Laura and my La Sagra’s twitch was that Robin followed up with a discussion with the park management, and nutted out an understanding that so long as birders stuck to certain guidelines, they would from that point on be given access to certain areas that were hitherto out of bounds – including what appears to be the current principal hangout of the La Sagra’s. Here’s something Robin wrote for the Tropical Audubon birding discussion forum.

After changing my flight destinations from Miami - first from Gambell to Boston (information about the legitimacy of the Eastern Spot-billed Duck was in a state of oscillation), then back to Gambell again, I embarked yet again on nearly the longest set of flights possible within the continental United States, for the ‘surely its gone by now’ Pine Bunting. I’d been communicating with Clarence on a daily basis, and although he was seeing the bird at least once each day, he expressed concern about the rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, which included very high winds and driving sleet. One of his photographs from Friday suggested that the bird might be starting to look weak. 

My connecting flight from Anchorage to Nome included my chief competitor for this year’s effort – Bradley McDonald - of pen-name ‘Olaf Danielson’. We took different flights from Nome to Gambell – he on RAVN, me on Bering Airlines, and his flight landed twenty minutes or so ahead of mine. I climbed out of my eight-seater at 4:30PM, with maybe 45 minutes of visible light remaining, and biting cold and windy conditions. I scanned the ATVs that were picking up or dropping off freight and passengers and found ‘John’, a young local family man was prepared to be my guide for the next half hour. Moving in at ‘the lodge’ could wait - we strapped my bags on the vehicle and bolted for Clarence’s house. He was home, and the three of us walked twenty metres or so towards the beach before John said ‘those’ three words: “There it is.” I love those words. “There it is…” Clarence and I could see he was right! The Pine Bunting was bigger than I’d expected – seemingly as big as a Snow Bunting, and clearly with the tell-tale chestnut eye stripe with white ‘patch’ below it. It struck me as looking just a bit dishevelled, and moved around furtively at ground level, allowing an uninvited dog to nearly catch it. Just as I clumsily began firing my camera with rapidly numbing fingers, Olaf appeared and joined the photo session. I said “You gotta admit, this is as good a moment as we’ll ever get together - later on we can go back to wanting to strangle each other.” He didn't disagree. Later, with just Olaf and I occupying the spacious ‘lodge’, there were pleasant discussions about the bird and other subjects – which I certainly enjoyed. It really was the case that we’d both left getting to Gambell impossibly late, and were very lucky to see the bunting. My etremities were so cold and numb that I somehow injured a ring-finger at some stage without realising it. Now it seems to be bent at the first knuckle won’t straighten out by its own volution.

The beach view from near Clarence's back door. That's the Pine Bunting 
in the very centre of image - just before a dog nearly caught it.

The next day saw pre-sunrise ‘birdable’ conditions at 11:00, at which time I set off for a four-hour hike around some of the birding hotspots, including the ‘far boneyard’, along the mountain edge to beyond the ‘mossy pool’ to the east, and to the Alcid rookery areas where cliff meet sea, then back to town and Clarence’s place.

The 'Far Boneyard' - a snowy leg-break trap that yielded no birds. But providing 
as magical and unforgettable an experience as I could ever have asked for.

Life-blood of the Arctic

After a not-so-fantastic week or two, I left Gambell 
feeling better than I've felt in a long time. 

It’s been eventful post-Gambell, but I’ll catch up again soon. Yeah, sure. In the mean time, Ken Blankenship has been helping immensely with the retrogressive uploading of my eBird listings, such as they will be. I expect there will be teething issues, so suggestions are welcome, but save the complaints till the whole process is complete! And nearly through uploading the images I have of the birds on my list. Hopefully by year's end I'll fill some of the missing spaces, but should reach the 95% mark in the next few days. Once I figure out how to edit sound recordings, I'll put up recordings for all of the nocturnal birds for which I don't have photos, except for one - Boreal Owl, which has 'done me wrong' all through the year.

Oh, and wanted to let all of you weary travelers know
that 'Fat Smitty's Place' has it all! For the RIGHT traveler at least.
Some where in Washington - I think about two weeks ago.

22 November

Brief update to advise that Ken and I are working feverishly to get a kazillion images onto my ‘List So Far’ spreadsheet, where after we will launch my equally numerous eBird reports. Please be patient, its a matter of time.

I’ve had several smallish to biggish adventures since my last report, including a spectacularly scenic flight from Anchorage to Larsen Bay on the 17th to look for the wayward egret that had been seen for several days leading up until that day. Robyn and I met up with Alaskan birding stalwarts Rich McIntosh and James Levison, we enjoyed magnificent sunny and calm (but still cold) conditions. Lots of interesting birds to look at, but the egret did a ‘no show’.

Rich had spent the previous day having much more success with the bird, managing to take a fair few diagnostically useful images. Both he and James, and the several people from they had received advice as of Friday, suggest likely ID of Great Egret, not the hoped-for Intermediate. With permission, I sent the images to the Aussie experts (we have both species) who were more direct: It’s not an Intermediate. So when the bird was seen again on the 18th, I resisted the temptation for a return visit, despite the incredible beauty of the place, for ‘other fish to fry’.  Here are a few images from the unforgettable trip. Upon our return to Anchorage Robyn returned home until next time.

Magnificent flight across Kodiak to Larsen Bay 

Larsen Bay

Small Marsh where (Great) Egret had spent previous days in plain sight...

Barrow's Goldeneyes in flight


Mid-November Update

Since my last report there has been a lot of travelling, with mixed results. After returning to the lower 48 after my ‘Great Skua cruise’ with Christian, then a week of birding and organisational stuff, I decided to follow Christian and Laura all the way back up to the Northeast – and then some, to St John’s Newfoundland, to see the Yellow-legged Gull that as predicted had made a November reappearance in the vicinity of Lake Quidi Vidi. Whether or not this bird is the same individual that has been seen around the same haunts during the past few years, from mid-November to February or March, is not certain. But there does seem to be a good chance that ‘it’ is indeed the very same bird that gave me such a challenging time early in the year – when I missed it during two multi-day searches. I successfully twitched a different Yellow-legged Gull in western Massachusetts in February, though this sighting carried with it the complication of less than unanimous consensus among gull experts as to the certainty of its identification, and in the fullness of time there has been a persistent expression of the view that it will be deemed too risky for the relevant ABA-related rarity committee to declare the identification of the bird as a Yellow-legged Gull versus a hybrid lookalike.

Irrespective of any eventual rulings concerning the Massachusetts gull, I had personal business with ‘the’ St John’s bird, and had hoped all along for an opportunity for a ‘round three’ crack at nailing it. I arrived at the St John’s airport on Thursday night, the 28th two days after Laura and Christian had arrived. They’d managed to pick it out of the masses of other gulls on both mornings – and saw it particularly well the second time, when it appeared right where it was supposed to be – tucked in among many hundreds of roosting Herring Gulls that assemble early each morning on the sports fields and adjacent clearings near Lake Quidi Vidi. The usual pattern is for these birds to take to the air some hours later, presumably to get to the city landfill, where gulls by the thousands swarm for relatively easy winter pickens.  When Lake Quidi Vidi eventually freezes over, large numbers of gulls begin roosting on the ice between forays to the landfill, oftentimes making it easier to pick out the slate-mantled Yellow-legged from amongst the many lighter coloured Herring Gulls and much darker Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. To make it a little less straight forward however, there are usually a few hybrid gulls with similar mantle colouration to that of the Yellow-legged, but these are easily separated by the presence of dark streaking on neck and head. The principal reason I missed the St John’s Yellow-legged Gull (again, it’s my unsafe assumption that this is a single returning bird) during the first winter of 2016 was that I waited too long, and the lake thawed prior to my first attempt, where after the gulls shifted their roosting to elsewhere – including, in the thousands, sections of the landfill that are off limits to birders.

I caught up with Laura and Christian at their hotel for a drink and chin-wag, before checking into my room elsewhere. Laura would be flying out in the morning in order to participate in a pelagic birding trip off the coast of Oregon, but Christian stuck around to join Jared Clarke and I for his third morning stakeout of the park lawns and ball fields Saturday morning. Jared knows these birds probably as well as they can be known, and we drove a circuit to four or five vantage points of Quidi Vidi Lake and its grassy surrounds, and of course the ball parks across the road from the lake. We hadn’t looked long before Jared received a text message indicating that it had been seen briefly quite near the lake, but had disappeared shortly thereafter. As the morning progressed, more and more gulls descended onto the sports fields, and eventually local birder Lancey noticed the targeted bird amongst big numbers of lighter mantled Herrings and more similar Lesser Black-backed Gulls and slaty-coloured hybrids that apart from having slightly streaky necks and heads were dead ringers for YLGU. Finally! I figure that owing to the amount of travelling I’ve done in pursuit of this species, it would have to be the most ‘expensive’ species on my year list. Indistinguishable from the Massachusetts bird, it nevertheless will most likely help me avoid a certain amount of unwanted dramas further down the road. 

They’d seen the gull that morning and Laura was leaving the next morning to get to Oregon for a pelagic trip – and she figured, a final chance in 2016 to see a Mottled Petrel.

Halloween morning sunrise saw me connecting with the Amazon Kingfisher in Laredo, Texas, just a few minutes before the next-earliest birders arrived near the junction of the creek with the Rio Grande – the US and Mexican border. In spite of the distinct smell of sewage in the narrow creek, there were a surprising number of kingfishers that comprised the grand slam of ABA kingfishers: a single Amazon, several highly vocal Green Kingfishers, two active Ringed, and a single Belted Kingfisher. The enormous bill of the Amazon was reminiscent of our Aussie kookaburras.

With the kingfisher mission accomplished, I headed to Tucson where I rendezvoused with Robyn. The main purpose of that visit was to spend time with Ken Blankenship – proprietor of East West Birding, who I struck up a friendship early in the year. Ken has been working with me to put at least my year-bird sightings onto eBird retrospectively. I’m happy to say that with Ken’s help, that massive task is nearly complete, and eta to launch is about a week. Whew.

Robyn and I then headed to Harlingen, Texas, where we were intending to participate in at least a couple of field trips associated with the Lower Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (LRGVBF), and one or two of the scheduled social nights. As it happened however, given our late arrival to Harlingen and a tonne of unanticipated homework flowing from my eBird workshop with Ken, we were lucky to make a visit to the evening function on Thursday night, and to attend Neil Heyward’s keynote talk (The Accidental Big Year) on Friday night. It was a sensational talk, and also gave me the chance to catch up with some of my US birding friends.

The other thing that happened during our stay in Harlingen was receiving word about a sighting of Gray-headed Chickadees north of Kotzebue, Alaska began filtering through. John Puschock helped Michael Wald of Arctic Wild Wildlife Tours – who found the birds a week or so earlier, cobble together a group of four big year birders – past (Jay Lehman) and present (Laura, Christian and I), for a one day bush flight excursion to the site where Michael saw the mysterious Arctic slopes on two sequential days a week earlier.

The four of us, plus Arctic Wild birding guide Dave Shaw and legendary Alaskan bush pilot and hunting guide Eric Seih. It was a terrific trip, with several candidates for Gray-headed Chickadee in the mix of Boreal Chickadees, but alas, I didn’t get a tickable encounter. Laura and Christian both wrote up the experience on their blogs/Facebook pages. We all flew back to Anchorage, from where Laura and Christian continued on overnight flights to chase the Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Michigan. I rejoined Robyn at our Anchorage hotel, and spent a sleepless night contemplating the Chickadee mission and what I ‘might have’ and ‘should have’ done differently to have achieved a better outcome. At 3AM I began writing emails to the relevant people, and by 9AM had a plan for returning to the chickadee site the next morning (Wednesday).

Wednesday’s weather was a lot clearer than it had been on Monday, and the views from Eric’s Piper Cub – which has a payload of only one passenger - and tops out at 95MPH as we flew low across the tundra, hills and rivers, and the occasional herd of Caribou or Musk Oxen was in a word - unforgettable. As on Monday’s mission - when Eric shuttled us in the Piper Cub from the creek pebble bar landing site of the bigger and faster Cessna 226, we landed on a small frozen lake about a mile from the spring-fed, and therefore largely unfrozen lake around which chickadee-favoured spruce and willow habitat occurs. As per Monday, I was struck by the extent of mammal foot-traffic revealed in the shallow snow: Moose, Wolf, Fox, Lynx, Snowshoe Hare, and of course, lots of Brown Bear sign. It seems we were. And what a spectacular day Wednesday proved to be – enhanced by rare blue skies to set off the scenic southern slopes of the western Brookes Ranges, providing what was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my year of American travels.
During our limited window of daylight we encountered considerably more Boreal Chickadees than had been the case two days earlier, and on two occasions we both saw birds that were clearly Gray-headed Chickadees, with extensive white cheek patch and overall lighter presentation. I didn’t notice the existence or otherwise of white edging to greater coverts, and can’t say for sure if the tails appeared longer than those of Boreals. Apart from the large white cheek patches, the thing that stuck out most was the namesake dark gray (not brown, and not black) crown that seemed to merge seamlessly with the nape and back colouration – unlike Boreals which have three discrete colour changes, from cap to nape to dorsum.

'Chickadee Lake', southern slopes of Brooks Range, Alaska

Encounters with all of the chickadees in the spruce forests on both days were brief and frustrating, as the birds seem to never stop moving. A choice had to be made between binoculars and camera, and after the frustrations I experienced on Monday, when trying to juggle both may well have cost me a proper look at a bird I ‘nearly’ photographed, that Eric now feels confident was a Gray-headed Chickadee, I led with binoculars throughout Wednesday. It’s perhaps notable that the bird Eric referred to on Monday, plus both sightings I had on Wednesday (which may have been the same bird twice) were all within close proximity of the spot where Michael and his group of photographers had seen two Gray-headed Chickadees flitting around a Salmon carcass a week or so earlier, on two consecutive days. They too struggled unsuccessfully to photograph the jittery birds.

Kotzebue, Alaska from above

During my chickadee chases Robyn patiently waited in Anchorage, though we managed to choof off to rendezvous in Nome Monday night for a Tuesday morning search for early-arriving McKay’s Buntings. We were lucky, and celebrated with a late breakfast at the Polar Cub CafĂ©. After my return to Anchorage Wednesday night, with the absence of new rarities to chase, we decided to chill for a day before heading south to Kansas City to visit my parents, recharge my batteries, and follow up on a recent report of Smith’s Longspur at Baker Wetlands an hour west, near Lawrence. Dad, Robyn, and I duly headed out for an enjoyable Sunday morning of birding, and though we couldn’t find any longspurs, my dad, who never ceases to amaze me first heard, then located a Harris’s Sparrow – the ‘other’ common bird species still on my wanted list. We saw a total of five species of Sparrows, including several Harris’s Sparrows and two Le Conte’s Sparrows at the restored wetlands in the short span of an hour. Our plans for a few additional kick-backed days and relaxed local birding ended with yesterday’s NARBA report of Common Scoter in Oregon.

Going for a spin in Dad’s new boat. Robyn (sitting with Dad) and I get first ride in the new fishing boat – given to him by on the event of his retirement in September. Dad ran the Urology residency program at the University of Kansas for decades. 

Environmental Considerations

As my ABA area big year moves towards its wintry end, and I reflect on just what a mad year its been, I continue thinking about outcomes other than the number of bird species on my year-list. I’ve continued throughout the year to work with partner organisation Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC – www.globalwildlife.org ) on fundraising and support for Devil Ark, and a presently embryonic yet remarkably ambitious ‘Aussie Ark’ (watch this space, exciting developments are well underway), dedicated to preserving a range of threatened marsupial species. I promise that before the end of 2016 to give an account of funds raised over the course of the year, in association with my birding activities. For the moment I can say that it is clearly many times greater than the amount that I’ve spent personally in pursuing my year on the road – which of course is money that will not be recouped through my conservation work.

Also as planned, GWC is providing me with carbon offset options – one of which has been decided upon – purchase of an as yet unquantified area of land in the Amazon basin. Director Don Church has at this stage roughly estimated that that ‘my’ land package will be somewhere between 10 and 20 hectares in size. It will extend the boundary of a GWC-owned property known for exceptional bird diversity and density. We have agreed upon a price, and my commitment is in place. Again, I’ll provide specific details on this blog by year’s end. As many of you know, the carbon offset aspect of my big year has been an important consideration from the get-go.  

Obviously, any plans that Robyn has held for our eventual retirement have long since been relinquished. Fortunately, we both still love what we do, and I cannot wait to get back to it in early January. From humble beginnings when Robyn and I started with a good idea in the early 80s – and hardly two dimes (er, ten-cent pieces) to rub together, the Australian Reptile Park has grown and grown. With the remarkable management and leadership qualities of our co-directors – Tim Faulkner and Liz Gabriel, the business has taken on a seemingly unstoppable life of its own, having become the leading tourism attraction in the region, allowing full time employment of 50 highly talented men and women, and allowing us to create and participate in a number of ambitious yet achievable conservation actions, from invasive Cane Toad control to in situ conservation of Komodo Dragons and Broad-headed Snakes in conjunction with our partners at Sydney University. Our spider and venom production activities continue to be a vital link in the production of antivenoms that save some 300 lives a year. Both of us enjoy a great sense of satisfaction in our work – and as if it isn’t half obvious to everyone I’ve spoken to or corresponded with in recent weeks, I cannot wait to get back. But not until the job here is done!

Late add: Robyn and I saw the Common Scoter in Oregon today!

John Puschock and Andy, one of a stream of birders (Robyn and I included) who enjoyed scope views of Common Scoter from John's third floor hotel room balcony.