February 26 Update – Robyn’s mega-adventures

Writing from Denver Airport with long layover prior to ongoing leg to Seattle, for tomorrow’s pelagic out of Westport, Washington.

‘Z’. Upon arrival in San Francisco, and crazy-traffic late night drive west to Merced, in preparation for search for the Ruff the next morning, we formulated a change of plans for the coming days to see a Zenaida dove. Since my strategy remains ‘all about the rarities’, despite the danger that may represent re getting through the 668 non-coded birds that big year birders regard as ‘gimme’s’, we decided that if we got the Ruff next morning, we’d hop on a flight that avo all the way back to Miami (the furthest distance of any lower 48 flight out of Seattle?), for the future peace of mind. Problem is that there were no eBird reports of further Zenaida Dove sightings throughout the day – so we didn’t book any ongoing flights, while concentrating on the birds at hand. We slept in (to achieve 6 hours sleep) and arrived at the Merced Wetlands Reserve later than we should have, maybe an hour after sunrise. The eBird descriptions of where the Ruff was hanging out were gold. The bird was right where it was supposed to be, and Robyn scored her first US mega without even lifting her binoculars. One for one!

At 8AM we were still confident that Zenaida Dove sightings would begin to filter through on my hourly eBird email updates, so we birded the reserve, adding an enormous Great Horned Owl, and a new duck – Cinnamon Teal. Nice. We then went to a nearby general birding area, but didn’t find much action, though California Quail was a nice addition – they aren’t as easy to find in California as they are on the Aussie islands where they thrive. Then early enough to beat the traffic, we drove to a marina in the San Francisco area to try for Black Rail – the tiny black rail that nobody sees, but lucky folks get to hear. Big Year rules clearly allow for ‘heard only’ for any bird species, a rule that stemmed from concerns of people getting too aggressive in pursuit of Black Rail and Yellow Rail sightings. We reached the wetland reserve on the southern rim of the SF bay, and immediately saw some new birds for my list – American Avocets and Glaucus-winged Gull. We walked up and down the elevated steel boardwalk where recent calling BRs had been heard. Nothing. We then went to a smaller and less-glamorous looking boardwalk and viewing platform surrounded by the same ‘cat-tail’ rushes. Not a peep. Busy train-traffic caused annoyance while were we’re in the wetlands, but we didn’t complain when during an extended blast of a passing train’s horn we had the unmistakable response call of a Black Rail, within three metres of our feet, maybe even closer. Hanging around, we didn’t get an encore from the BR, but several Ridgeway’s Rails called periodically (a recent split from Clapper Rail, and a good one to get out of the way), plus a single calling Sora – a common rail that I’ve seen already this year. I checked my email – it was 4PM (maybe 8PM in Florida?) and a single report of Zenaida Dove sighting – with observation time of 8AM! Bloody ‘ell.

With the good news/bad news belated report of Zenaida, I got on line and found that we could still get to Miami that night, leaving our hearts in San Francisco at 9PM and arriving in Miami early enough to score a 5 hour sleep and still get to the morning’s gig at Long Key, 2.5 hour’s drive in pre-traffic conditions. And that’s what happened. Sort of – we got to the site about an hour later than intended. It’s a State Park, and admission had to be paid. The fellow taking the fee said the bird was seen a half hour earlier. We sped, we parked, I ran. The dove had been seen along track where I’d misidentified it as a Mourning Dove a week before it was noticed and identified (buggah! This was the first Code 5 of the year for North America, and I #@!&ed it up) for an extended period, but had disappeared in the thick scrub between trail and shoreline a few minutes before. The guys were very casual, but Robyn and I set up watch on either end of the scrub to cut off any escape. After most of the 15-odd birders impatiently left, I asked the remaining folks what they thought about a more active plan, where I make my way along the shoreline for a peak into the dense bush stuff from fresh angle. Nobody seemed perturbed, and rules don’t always apply in big year attack plans. The dove was resting in plain sight near the shore, and both Robyn and I had great (GREAT) views. Photo attached of the bird and the site. That made Robyn’s mega chase week ‘TWO for two’. We booked flights for Lubbock Texas with vision of a hat trick.

Arriving 11PM in Lubbock we were struck by how nice the tired people at the airport, car rental office, and hotel were. This was to be a recurring reality in this Texas panhandle boom-town that was built on long-gone oil and still-performing cotton. We were in town for the Common Crane – Eurasian and northern European equivalent of our (our?) Sandhill Crane. Researcher Justin Bosler noticed three Common Cranes in the mix of the 30,000 Sandhills that were currently in the region, and part of his PhD study. Where he saw the birds initially is off limits to anyone but himself, but he predicted and later confirmed, that they leave the wetland study site for accessible rural roads surrounding massive farmlands. We were on the job on time, in cold windy conditions while thousands of cranes flew overhead to settle in various locations, mostly too far on the horizon to be sure where. There were three other vehicles with birders doing the rounds, so we exchanged phone numbers and chased around the landscape independently, scoping through groups of cranes numbering in hundreds and thousands. Although one birder in each group eventually reported to ‘probably’ seeing one, I’m not so sure. Robyn and I saw the sun rise and set, with no cranes with the distinct black throat and other plumage details we sought. I found that in-flight birds were easiest to scan, and even with binocs, distant groups could easily be looked at if they were down-sun. I reckon I looked at many thousands of necks and bums during the day, but no bingo! moments. One problem during the day was the constant attack of the flocks by Coyotes.

We really enjoyed another night in Lubbock, and got a welcome relief on the job in the farmlands (45 minutes from hotel) with much warmer (maybe -5C) and calmer wind conditions. The wind was a big problem the previous morning due to scope vibration. The birds also seemingly enjoyed the conditions, spreading further and wider, therefore causing a lot of angst for Robyn and I, as we needed to leave the site for airport no later than 10:30, and by 9 we hadn’t found the ‘mother lode’ of Sandhill Cranes that we needed (the only two previous sightings had the Commons in group of 15,000 and 5,000 cranes). We scanned several groups of up to 2,000 cranes, but no Commons. I could see that a fair number of cranes were landing way off yonder, in the middle of an area surrounded very widely by a rectangle of roads that didn’t get close enough to see them, scope or otherwise. Even though the panhandle is flat, flat, flat, there are some slight undulations in this area, and the mystery flock was apparently in a depression.

Seeing as the time was winding down on us, I could see one group of feeding cranes that I’d already scanned, but no ‘mother lode’. I went up to the top of the mound and re-scanned the swelling group. Over a five minute period I scanned left to right, right to left, but didn’t see any tell-tale black necks among the masses. The challenge was all the more difficult as the birds were feeding – apparently eating planted seeds in the ploughed field, and with heads down, it would only be front row birds likely to be picked from the crowd. But by scanning through the groups enough times, the odds of seeing the right raised head might get to better than even odds. On one scan I noticed a rabbit warren mound in the foreground with two Burrowing Owls standing near burrows. Tick!.  But no lost Eurasian cranes. We agreed it was time to split, but the ole ‘just one more try’ edict applied as always, and halfway from this one last left to right scan I softly said to Robyn: “I think I’ve got it”. Then a little louder: “I’ve got it. I’ve got it!”. We both took turns looking at the Common Crane through the scope, while I pointed the camera in the right direction shot numerous exposures with the hope I could later pick the bird out of the images. Wonderful feeling. High fives and a hunched over slink back to the car, and unopposed travel to the main roads. Whooo-hoooo! On to Washington for the pelagic. Maybe.

Top image is Robyn leading the charge on Zaneida Dove, then the star itself, then the Common Crane with head down in front and centre.