27 January Update

24 January (Sunday): Well, I was on the job for the Green-breasted Mango (hummingbird) at 7:15 this morning, but hearing a few doubters in the crowd, and also beginning to suspect that it was a Buff-bellied Hummingbird, and that the GB Mango never existed. Buggah. I continued at the stakeout til noon, but after hearing that the Blue Bunting in Sth Texas was seen yesterday - a second sighting, I made the decision to book a flight to Brownsville and get there fast. So three hour drive to Ft Meyers, then a connecting flight to Houston for a two hour layover, before boarding for final leg to Brownsville. The plan is to score the Aplomado Falcon for sure, and to take a gamble that the Blue Bunting actually exists, and that I can find it. Since I’m sort of running out of January rarities to chase, I figured it wasn’t a totally whacky plan.

In the mean time sad news concerning the sensational Ivory Gull that I finally saw a few days ago had come in. Despite getting fed by keen local birders, it’s reportedly in a weakened state, unable to stand long, and drooping a wing. It is expected to die tonight. Very sad ending for a brave little bird. And a metaphor for what’s happening to this endangered arctic species that depends on pack-ice scenarios that are rapidly disappearing. This seems to be the pattern playing out throughout bird-world. Most of the birding ‘hot-spots’ I’ve visited in the US so far are tiny vestiges of what existed in previous centuries, and tiny islands of life in a surrounding sea of bland biological sameness. Sth Texas and Sth Florida are basket-cases, but for those tiny bits of remaining natural environment. An exception is Arizona, which seems to have been less exploited/exploitable. Of course we Australian birders know about shrinking islands of healthy habitat - its apparently universal. My Australian birding big years were bittersweet experiences, traveling hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometers through overgrazed, over burnt and over feline-f@#ed expanses for vestiges of relatively healthy environments. As Robyn used to say when she joined me on some of the big inland and northern drives “There’s smoke ahead - we must be coming up to a National Park."

25 January (Monday) Got to Laguna Atascosa at the late time of 8:30 and began looking for the Blue Bunting around the visitor centre. That’s after getting lost trying to find the place, and nearly loosing it when I got to a ‘You have arrived at your destination’ in the middle of nowheresville, after the road to hell. The half hour drive from Brownsville hotel took an hour and a half. No early sign of the bunting, so when the volunteer guides at the reserve told me they were going to the Aplomado ‘staging area’, where I’d hoped to go for best chance of seeing one of the dozen or so Aplomado Falcons on the reserve, I jumped at it. And though we were forbidden from getting near the artificial nesting setup, I had descent scope views of three birds that are second or third generation representatives of the reintroduced prairie-hunting falcon. Back on the job for the bunting for the rest of the day, but no luck. Back again the next morning (26th), and though my year-list of common birds ticked along nicely, by 10AM I was restless, so checked the Internet rarities sightings sites. Boom! Shining Cowbird, a Caribbean vagrant at someone’s feeder in Florida City - not 5 miles from the Green-breasted Mango site. Damn!  So I raced back to Brownsville for a 7PM flight back to Florida. The  important thing that popped up on the web was a report of a Smooth-billed Ani from north of Miami.

Following three images, in order, are Aplomado Falcons at the Laguna Atascosa Texas reintroduction station; Shiny Cowbird - a Caribbean species, also in human context, at Larry Manfredi’s bird feeder in Florida City, Florida (also in picture, bigger birds - Red-winged Blackbird and Common Grackle; and one of the best birds for me so far, Smooth-billed Ani, technically a cuckoo species, and reputedly always in a state of disheveled appearance, near Boynton Beach, Florida.

ALSO, Finally got a photo (at Miami Airport) with one of my childhood hero - Bill Haast of the Miami Serpentarium, compliments of a punter. 

Rarities to date:

1 Streak-backed Oriole Yuma, Arizona 1 January
2 Rufous-backed Robin Phoenix Arizona 1 January
3 Tufted Duck Long Island New York 3 January 
4 Black-headed Gull Brooklyn, New York 3 January 
5 Pink-footed Goose Hartford, Connecticut 3 January 
6 Western Spindalis Miami, Florida 5 January
7 Northern Jacana Santa Ana Reserve, Texas 7 January
8 Clay Colored Robin Weslaco, Texas 7 January
9 Crimson Collared Grosbeak Weslaco, Texas 8 January
10 Tropical Parula Weslaco, Texas 8 January
11 Siberian Accentor Vancouver, British Columbia 12 January
12 Redwing, Vancouver Island, British Columbia 13 January
13 Common Pochard Kodiak, Alaska 14 January
14 Steller’s Eider Kodiak, Alaska 14 January
15 Black-tailed Gull Carlyle, Illinois 16 January
16 Golden-crowned Warbler Refugio, Texas 17January
17 Flame-coloured Tanager Refugio, Texas 17January
18 Black-capped Gnat-catcher Florida Canyon, Arizona 18 January
19 Rufous-crowned Warbler Florida Canyon, Arizona 19 January
20 Ruddy Ground-dove Yuma, Arizona 20 January
21 Ivory Gull Duluth, Minnesota 21 January
22 Brambling ?? Ohio 22 January
23 Flamingo Bunche Beach, Florida 23 January
24 Aplomado Falcon, Laguna Atascosa Reserve, Texas 25 January
25 Shiny Cowbird Florida City, Florida 27 January
26 Smooth-billed Ani Muccisuki (spell) reserve, Florida 27 January

Barnacle Goose, a sweet victory after failing in both NY and Connecticut in early days - a prime reason why I was so down.

23 January Update

This bit written last night at Cleveland Airport waiting for delayed flight that meant I couldn’t get to Florida till next morning at best.

Ying and Yang. I’m coming back in the next lifetime as a potato.

Ying: The Ivory Gull experience will never be forgotten.

Yang: Literally seconds after I pushed the ‘book this flight’ trip from Duluth to Cleveland for the Brambling, an 
eBird update came in with news of an American Flamingo near Ft Meyer, Fla. It was a surprisingly expensive flight, so I kept it, with the hope that if the Flamingo hangs around for a second day, it will stay on for three.

Ying: The good news thereafter is that the long-serving Brambling was easily found early avo when I finally got there. It was also about that time that it became apparent that whilst the Flamingo had been sighted in the morning, it has quite possibly split the scene, since there are no other reports throughout the day – and there should have been plenty. Still, I figured it’s a smart move to get to Florida, and if the bird isn’t around, maybe spend a day or two of birding, as I’ve just about run out of vagrants to chase.

Yang: Finishing the Brambling so early, I tried to change my flight to an earlier one, since the intended arrival was after midnight. No good, so I pulled my photo storage device (with all my precious photos so far – offering nice confidence against any future nay-sayers re some of the rarities) out of the suitcase to put in my carryon after pulling over to top up fuel. I got to the airport with close to four hours up my sleeve. Got through security screening and sat down to start editing photos. No storage drive in my carryon. So back through the airport and the rental car shuttle bus with heart in stomach, or however the expression goes. I rang the service station while on the bus in case it was left on the snowy carpark where I did the luggage rearranging – no.

Ying: The girls at Hertz were pleased to see me, asking if I saw the bird I’d told them I was here for. Yeah, but the end of the world is nigh. One of them got on the phone and had the guys on the lot look for my car. Five long minutes later: YES. Whew. Back through security, ready for flight to Atlanta then Ft Meyer. Guess what?

Yang: The flight is delayed by two hours, so I’ll miss the connection. Have booked an expensive hotel in Atlanta, and will get to Fort Meyer 10AM tomorrow.

Note: above was written yesterday, which seems a week ago. I’m resuming now, and have lost interest in the ying-yang yo-yo approach. 

I finally got to Fort Myers this morning at 10AM. But was caught up in Budget waiting line for a precious 45 minutes. The Flamingo had been reported at 7:30, which put a lot of wind in my sails. And windy it was – with 35mph with 50mph gusts forecast, and seemingly in play. The bird had disappeared at 10ish yesterday, so I was getting pretty fired up by the time I got my car. Followed the gps to the site – a 35 minute drive, with dry mouth and wet palms. Screeched into the makeshift dirt carpark at ??? Beach and grabbed a woman with binoculars with the knowing “Is it there?!” She said “YES”, take your time, it’s a five minute walk along the beach to the right – but it’s a long way out. I pulled a groin muscle running – and saw a woman with a camera pointing it to sea, about the time my lungs were were ballooning in and out of my mouth. I scanned with the binocs, and only saw something big, flying away. Way away. Jogged a bit closer to the woman and scanned again. Holy crap!! It was much closer to shore. Much redder and chunkier than the replica Greater Flamingo I situated at the back of Lake Wilson on Cocos last year in the best birding practical joke ever, though it has not been properly acknowledged as such, yet. Mainly because loose lips sunk the ship (Geof with one f!). The real bird I saw this morning was genuinely the best bird I’ve ever seen. It’s a 'coded' rarity, and a great one to have under my belt. I’m still stunned.

So I drove the three hours to Miami Dade County site of the reported Green-breasted Mango (a hummingbird from the Bahamas) and arrived at 3:30PM. Probably a dozen other birders there – and the good news was that one person said he'd seen it at 2ish, and several people reported that they had heard it. I saw two Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and a half-dozen Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which was a great experience. No luck with the Mango up til too late in avo, so I’m hunkered down in a way overpriced dump, with hormone-driven teenage kids running up and down the hallway and suspicious itches already. Will spend as long as it takes tomorrow to either see or give up on the mega hummer tomorrow. Following images are of the best bird ever, and the Brambling from yesterday.

PS: I miss Robyn, and am looking forward to her joining me in about three weeks’ time.

20 January Update

I arrived in Yuma (about “3:10 to Yuma” [remember, Paul A?], actually) early enough to make it out to the Ruddy Ground-dove (RGD) site with a half hour of daylight to spare – to at least scout the place out for a more effective morning assault. It’s a strange place in a strange land – of course I forgot to photograph it. It’s a rare well-treed but funky fenced in property about a hectare in size. An old dilapidated ‘Animal Farm’ sign is sort of fixed to the fence. Within is a mishmash of ducks, chickens, goats and donkeys milling about under willows and other trees that are separated by bare earth. In one of the willow trees, spilling to surrounding shrubs was the 30-odd Inca Doves that two RGDs were reportedly hanging out with. Separating the two species is a lot harder than I’d thought it would be, but I’m pretty sure the target birds weren’t in the mix of doves that appeared to be hunkering down for the night. There were also hundreds of much larger Eurasian Collared Doves, recent invaders to the US that are spreading far and wide. So, back to Yuma for a good night’s sleep, but I thought it would be smart to swing around to a supermarket and grab a bag of birdseed. Couldn’t get any sense from Siri, but Googled ‘Safeway Supermarket’, and got a bite. I was driving, so probably could have been more careful with my choice for the Google Maps queue. Anyway, I didn’t realise the weigelisation til I was way the #$%^ (my Mum is on the mailing list guys, so please behave) out in the middle of nowhere. I was planning the next day or two in my head, but when when Kelly, the GPS girl said “you have arrived at your destination”, I was out in the middle of a citris farm, irrigated by Colorado River water, maybe 20 minutes on the wrong side of Yuma. Crikey.

The RGD had been reported on the 17th and the 19th, so I was pretty confident for my 20th morning attempt. Still, I got to the intensely fecal smelling animal farm an hour before sunrise so as to secretly blanket targeted areas over the fence with birdseed. Unfortunately, the place has a residence at the back, and the house dog barked at me immediately. Not wanting to blow the gig I abandoned the seed idea and got back in the car to drive off and kill an hour or two. Returning at 730ish, I was displeased to hear occasional 4:10 shotgun blasts coming from within the property – presumably picking off Collared Doves, which must be good eating, as I didn’t hear any lead shot whizzing past my head. Still, not a nice start to my hunt. Whether it was the gunfire or whatever, the Inca Doves were not on the job. I walked around the roadside front of the property and had a look around the nearby caravan park where a single RGD had been reported three or four days before having been seen at the dove ranch. Didn’t find the mother lode, but noticed thousands of Collared Doves flying fairly high overhead in a particular direction, with the occasional flock of up to 50 Incas as well. Then I saw a good sized flock of the tiny Incas drop steeply into the animal farm. Yeah baby, I’m in – so long as the cease-fire lasts. The Incas were spread around cluster of trees, shuffling gradually away, toward the dogs and guns. Once gone, I got brave and sauntered around the side of the property for a look. When I got to the access driveway I saw three things at the same time – a bunch of doves and chickens feeding in front of the house, a probable owner looking at me with palms up and ‘what’s up?’ look, and thirdly, his dog barking at me and heading my way. I spun on my heal, not wanting the fatal ‘piss off’ directive just yet, and headed back to the car. An hour later, when I figured the scene had cooled, I approached the front fence again, and was pleased to see a big mob of small doves mixing it up with chickens, and feeding from a spread bit of chook feed – in just about the same place I’d planned on throwing birdseed early on. Thankfully I’d pored over images of RGD vs Incas, as the differences are very slight. But in reality, the two target birds were fairly obvious, being slightly smaller, a little bit warmer coloured, and with spotting on scapulars and gw coverts that in photos look very obvious. No scaling on neck or elsewhere, so not a Common Ground Dove. Bingo! 20th mega on my 20th day.

So where now? Freezing cold Duluth, Minnesota, obviously. The Ivory Gull I missed last week in -33C arse-freezing conditions has made a return, after a near death experience when rescued from a gang of crows four or five days ago in someone’s backyard, and was seen yesterday avo, and this morning, and in both cases given a descent feed of fish stuff by local heros. It’s a big big hit in Duluth, with lots of media interest in the bird, and the seemingly endless stream of birders coming to see it.

So at 9AM, minutes after the RGD tick, I had bookings right though from Yuma to Duluth. Fine. Except that once we boarded the 11:25 first leg to Phoenix, the Captain announced that there was a problem and that we’d be dis-boarding. I couldn’t get any information – and in a potentially expensive decision decided to abandon ship book the next flight to Phoenix, and change my onward flights to Duluth. Man what a lot of drama. It’s a small town and a small-town airport, and the US Airlines guys couldn’t figure out how to bypass the system challenge that dictated I couldn’t board a flight while still in the air on another. Eventually it worked out, and I’m now in Phoenix airport putting a spin on the events of the last day for you lot. Can’t attach images of the dove, but I will, hopefully along with images of the bird I want most – the first year Ivory Gull

I’ll need to find time to recount the story of the scary hunters in room next door in my Arizona stay a couple of nights back. Had to request a room change as I’m convinced there was a murder in the making.

January 19 update

I’m running out of ‘stored up’ rarities around the country.

The good news is that I got the two target birds at Florida Canyon – Black-capped Gnatcatcher yesterday, and initially considered that I'd seen a Rufous-capped Warber (but later decided to not put it on list as doubts crept into my sleep). Its going on noon here at Tucscon airport, and I’m on the next flight to Yuma. The plan is to find the Ruddy Ground-dove that was reported from a caravan park about 40 minutes west of town. There’s a renewed report of a Slaty-backed Gull out of Seattle, so I’ll go there tomorrow night.

I’m on 19 raraties (for 19 days – far better than I’d hoped for in my planning last year). I must say that this is not 'my' kind of birding. This is airport and rental car chasing. I live in hope that the flow of rarities will soon end, and I can start real birding, and maybe even connecting with my homeland in some sort way.

I’ll attach a few images of recent megas that I’ve written about. In order from top to bottom are Redwing from BC, Black-tailed Gull from Illinois, three birds from sth Texas from a couple of days back (Barred Owl [not a rarity], Golden-crowned Warbler, Flame-coloured Tanager [female], and at bottom is Black-capped Gnatcatcher from yesterday.


15 January update

Feeling a lot better! I no longer feel as though fate had it in for me, with the healthy trend of more wins than losses emerging.

From the -33C Duluth disappointment (missing the Ivory Gull by hours) on the 12th, I made it to Vancouver lickety-split and the next morning I had poor views of the Siberian Ascentor at Surrey just before 8AM. Other birders began arriving an hour later, and many of us stayed right up until near-dark at 4PM. Long, long, stand-around wait, which takes a toll on my back. The site is a dilapidated house with blueberry farm behind, all fenced off. The bird was hanging around with Dark-eyed Juncos and a range of sparrows including Golden-crowned, White-crowned, Song and Fox.

Had to speed to get to the Vancouver Island ferries, but got on the 5PM, arriving at Victoria an hour and a half later. The ferry is like a luxury cruise vessel, amazing. Unfortunately on both the outward, and the return trip next day, I had too much organisational things to do on laptop to look for Alcids. 
The captain called a Killer Whale on the return trip, but I really couldn’t afford the minutes, while trying to get flights, cars and rooms, the usual activity.

Spent night in downtown Victoria hotel, not far from the Redwing site in time to do laundry and some calm planning. Nice. Next morning I was on the job at early light before 8:00 at the vacant block in affluent neighbourhood where the bird had been making appearances in a row of dense Holly trees in generous berry providing status over the last couple of weeks. About a dozen Canadian birders eventually arrived, and 11ish, Mike gave the much-appreciated ‘There it is!’. I’d been looking the most intensely, but fine, got to see it well and photograph to the usual sub-standard standard.

On ferry back to mainland, in luxurious sunny conditions for seabirds, as I mentioned earlier, I was bound to the laptop, organising a trip to Kodiak Island, Alaska for the Common Pochard that had made a reappearance, with sightings on 11th, 12th, and 13th. The reports had all come from Rich Macintosh, who gave the comforting advice that the bird seemed settled with a group of Ring-necked Ducks, and since the lake was unlikely to freeze in the near future, it should be around for a while. Very exciting news – I began to breathe for the first time in a couple of weeks. But then I hit the US customs officer from hell at the Vancouver airport, where all the immigration screening happens prior to getting on US bound planes. Because I’d booked my flight at the last minute, my boarding pass had the ‘SSSS’ high-risk code – I think that started the trouble. He then couldn’t find my stamped one year visa in the passport, somehow thumbing through it too impatiently. When he did find it he mumbled, took a scan of it, and said there was a problem as I’d already been to the US, so I can’t use that Visa. Holy f%$k, end of my year in under two weeks. He paged someone to take me to the immigration office, where I waited with my stomach in my mouth for ten minutes, thinking that even best-case scenario here, I’m gonna miss my flight. I could hear two officers talking about my passport and boarding passes, and though I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I didn’t like the tone. Finally I was called to the counter. The fellow was nice! He said that the rubber-stamp wielder hadn’t come across that sort of visa before, but that yes, its multiple-entry, and I’m free to try to catch my flight. In shock.

Got the flight, had the red-eye 6 hour layover in the Anchorage airport, and got to Kodiak at 7:15. I was surprised that the airport and area was as developed as it was. I picked up car, made my way to Lake Louise, and waited in the car for first light. It was cold, but minus 10C kind of cold, not Duluth killing cold. I could see starlight, and was confident of a successful morning – I had until 5PM to get to the airport for my ongoing flight to St Louis for the Black-tailed Gull. I waited some more. It became 9AM and still dark. I googled to find that sunrise would be at 9:40. I bundled up on the warm outerwear, strapped on the camera and binocs, and walked up to the lake, which is pretty much surrounded by barracks-style housing for the (interruption to typing, just hit bumpy patch on flight from anchorage to Seattle and I’ was soaked with spilt water on the crotch and the keyboard, which somehow seems to have survived. I wont be able to get out of my seat til it dries or people will think I pissed my pants.) coast guard personnel who have a huge presence in Kodiak.

So, with heart pounding, in the usual pre-game excitement, I crept up to the lake for a scan in the earliest scannable light. What was it that Rich said in his positive report of the Pochard? “Lake unlikely to freeze in near future”. The  thing was frozen over its entirety. Only a half inch thick, but absolutely quackless. I was devastated, thinking that maybe there is some sort of conspiracy of gods emerging. Over the next hour I drove and walked to all corners of the lake. Where the water was flowing into it, there was a canal-like passage with clear surface, but only 6 Mallards and a Common Merganser. Sick in the guts. I calmed down and resolved to search surrounding lakes. In getting online to more thoroughly read earlier reports of sightings of the Pochard, I got onto an Alaskan bird discussion group where Rich Macintosh had left his telephone number in one of his posts. I rang him to ask where he might suggest I could look. Wow, he was amazing. He said wait twenty minutes, he’d pick me up and we’d look together. Amazing – and a lesson that maybe I need to ask for help much more regularly. So we went for a drive to Lake ?? where straight away we could see two separate groups of ducks way way way far on the other side. We drove to a position that’s as close as you can get, and quietly walked to shoreline to scan the two groups that I’d guess would be 300?M away. Rich picked up a Tufted Duck – a code 3 bird that I’d already seen in NY, but still, nice to see through Rich’s scope. Then “a candidate – definitely a candidate…” followed by “naw, another Lesser Scaup”. Then a soft but confident “Bingo”. Yeah baby!! That’s one of my favourite words. So again, I didn’t find the bird, but who cares? I got plenty of time watching it in the scope. I’ll be eternally grateful to Rich, whose generosity then extended to giving me a quick tour of some saltwater duck sites, where we saw tonnes of birds, including Code 3 Steller’s Eider, and plenty of Emperor Geese. So many beautiful duck species – things like Buffle-heads, Common and Barrow’s Golden-eyes, Long-tailed Ducks (very nice), Ring-necks, both Scaups, Gadwells, Harlequin Duck (wow) and more. Also my first Acids, with Pigeon Guillemot and Common Murre. Great views of majestic Bald Eagles, and time to go. My all-important rarities list is now at 13.

So feeling much better now, I got to Anchorage by early night, got a good sleep, and am enroute to St Louis. The Black-tailed Gull has been showing well each day, and in fact there was an Ebird sighting already this morning (6AM Anchorage time). Excited! But I won’t get to Saint Louie til nightfall, so it’s a tomorrow morning job, with onward flights organised in avo to San Antonio, from where I’ll drive to Refugio for a second go at the Golden-crowned Warbler, and also with hopes to see the Flame Tanager that arrived in same small Lion’s Park three days ago.

Still unhappy about Bowie passing. That wasn’t supposed to happen.

11th January Update

Its my 11th day on the ABA big year road, which is more than long enough to make at least some early judgements about how it compares to an Australian big year. Frankly, there’s hardly any comparison. At this stage, I’m in a driving/flying race to see the accumulated rarities - the sites usually being attended by birders - kind of like when good vagrants are in Australia. I’m looking at and recording other birds out of the corner of my eye (and there are some amazing birds, don’t get me wrong), but this ain’t birding. Yet. Its more about super airports, super-highways, and masses of people everywhere you look. It couldn’t be any more different than the bush-whacking days of 2014 that I enjoyed so much.  I also wonder about when, if ever, I can actually write blog entries, and not just these updates to you bunch of pelicans!

So far I’ve spent time in Arizona, Texas, Florida, New York (drove past the Statue of Liberty, the famous skyline, and no doubt, George Castanza’s high school driving from Brooklyn neighborhoods that looked like the set from NYPD to snooty end of Long Island), Pennsylvania, Joizey, Connecticut, and Minnesota/Wisconsin, where I just missed the fucking Ivory Gull that waited for me patiently for two weeks before leaving just prior to my visit I’m now on a bumpy flight from Minneapolis to Vancouver – first heading 3 hours south to Dallas, then doubling back and a bit more westerly towards the Canadian locales of two current megas – a Siberian Ascentor near Vancouver, and a Redwing near Victoria, where I’ll also try to see introduced Skylark.

I’ve had mixed fortunes, and at times have felt a bit down and out about the luck factor. I’ve seen 10 megas, and missed six. SIX. Some, like the Barnacle Goose near Hartford Connecticut, by less than an hour. That hurts. I’m trying to remember to take scenery and ambient photos, but need to improve. Some of the scenes have been incredible: New England on an unseasonably beautiful winter day; Arizona Saguaro cactus deserts,   . But then there are those highways and freeways, all of which are chocka-block, seemingly 24/7, and a blur of airports and hire car setups.

The intention is that after the first two to three weeks, I’ll run out of established rarities to chase, and new birds will slow down to every few days or so hitting the radar – at least that’s what happened in the ABA area last year. Then I can start doing some birding – I’m really looking forward to that. But it is an El Nino year, and there are more birds this winter than last – which I’m not complaining about. There seem to be more gull rarities showing up presently, but hard to get them to stay long enough for me. Kelps, Slaty-backs and now a Black-tailed, would certainly be appreciated ticks.