New American Big Year birding record

16 July Update

751 + 2 ‘provisional’ species = New ABA Big Year record!

It’s not just a big moment for me, but for a lot of people who have supported and helped me through to this landmark. The support from US birders, including a veritable ‘who’s who’ of big year birding, past and present has been instrumental in my progress. Truly.

Another factor in this process has been my undeterred ambition to be the first year lister to reach the rarefied 750’s. This sense of focus and single-mindedness had shifted up to a gear I didn't know I had from early June due to extraneous matters, but is now a mode that I’m not sure how to shake. With any luck however, a few of the remaining ‘common’ species can be found in the next week or so, where after, as was always intended, my strategy will change from being an endurance contest, to participation on as many pelagic missions I can get on, while anticipating a long and productive period on remote Alaskan outposts – where the best chance for accumulating rarities in Autumn exists.

I'll keep my long-term goals to myself for the time being, but all can be assured that I'm not planning on going soft any time soon.

At this particular moment, I want to get at least an abbreviated report out, before crawling into bed for the longest sleep I’ve had in a long time. Today, as usual, was a big day. I’ve just returned to my hotel after ten hours on the seas (where I only saw one 'new' bird – Buller’s Shearwater, but saw a remarkable range of other species) and a subsequent drive to Foster City for a look at the Red Knots that had been hanging around for a few days.

My intention is to add more colour and content to these latest reports in the fullness of time. I just can’t do so when in race mode, nor in exhaustion mode, so bear with me!

This is the area that Gray Partridges were reported on several recent occasions, with up to 10 birds in view. It took many hours of search before I encountered a single bird - which refused to flush after slinking into thick cover, no matter how much I tried. 

Although I didn't manage to photograph 'my' Gray Partridge, I did photograph several Chukars and California Quails that also inhabited the gullies of Ephrata, Washington.

My pelagic trip from Half Moon today with Alvaro yielded a surprising range of birds and cetaceans. My favorite of course was the early-for-season Buller's Shearwater, which technically speaking became my 750th and a new ABA big year record bird.

Yep, that IS a Blue Whale!

Red Knots and Marbled Godwits in the San Francisco bay area. What a relief!  The scariest bird still on my hit list, due to my commitments during reverse migration is now Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

14 July temporary report

14 July - I'll replace this with a proper report when I can...

A big couple of massive days, which has seen four new birds added to my list. Yesterday Spruce Grouse and Hudsonian Godwit in Alaska; today Vaux's then Black Swifts in far west Idaho.  Will provide details of the trips soon, but need some sleep. Spent most of today in vain after Gray Partridge in central Washington, but tomorrow I'll find the little bugger, and with luck, a second bird that should be a 'gimme' by day's end. Saturday pelagic. Good night.

12 July update

12 July update
Yang tries for a toe-hold

Since my humdinger of a hummingbird trip last week I’ve tried to crank up my year list as quickly, if not efficiently as possible. The strategy has met with a limited success. I think that I’ve been overdue for a setback or two, and an inevitable slowdown of my good luck ‘Ying’ cycle.

The first bit of disappointment came with news of the cancellation of my 10 July pelagic trip out of Ventura a few days prior to the trip, owing to predicted too-big winds. I’d been quietly optimistic about adding a couple of species to my list. But I decided to hit California anyway, and to include a run to the Channel Islands for Island Jay on Sunday – same day and from the same port as the cancelled pelagic. My first stop however would be San Diego on Saturday, where several recent sightings of Red Knot gave me cause for optimism for a bird that shouldn’t be anywhere in the lower 48 this time of year. But after a big day’s effort visiting and revisiting the three locations where the birds had been seen as recently as the preceding day, by mid-afternoon I admitted defeat and headed up the coast to see about a wayward goose.

There are two single Ross’s Geese hanging around city parks in the Los Angeles area this year, having wimped out on the long flight north that something like a half-million of their comrades made several months ago, and I aimed to circle in on the one at Balboa Lake. And that’s what I did, though it wasn’t quite that straightforward. The goose ha been spending the summer away from its northern breeding grounds in a very popular LA recreation park mixing in with a motley assortment of domestic and wild ducks and geese. My California team assured me the bird was ‘tickable’ - and ‘ticked’ it was.

From Balboa Lake I made my way to Ventura, where I spent a king’s ransom for a room and good night’s sleep prior to my Santa Cruz trip on next morning. The Island Packers setup is impressive, and the trip went without a hitch. A big boat with lots of happy campers – most of whom disembarked prior to my stop at Prisoner’s Anchorage. In fact there were only two of us to stay on board for that stopover – the other fellow seemed to be interested in wildlife generally, and wandered off on his own. I had intended to do the same, but boat crew member Lori explained that the area I wanted to get to – the Nature Conservancy required that she come with me. Lori was very nice, and seemed to know her birds, so away we went. But before even entering the supervised-only part of the walk Lori noticed a calling scrub-jay, and so, within minutes of getting off the ferry, I had distant views of the Channel Islands’ endemic bird species: Island Scrub-jay. By then it was 1PM and hot, and I decided after a bit more birding to use the remaining portion of my hour on the island to hunker down under a shade tree and snooze, though persistent yellow-jacket wasps required near-constant shooing, so more of a rest than a snooze.

I’d hoped for a Buller’s Shearwater, or maybe, quite remotely, a Craveri’s Murrelet on the either the outgoing or return 1.5 hour ferry ride – which travels across a 1,000ft canyon with upwellings and attendant plant and animal krill known to attract lots of sea creatures including some good seabird species. But apart from a dozen or so Sooty Shearwaters and a single Cassin’s Auklet, the only birds I saw were pelicans, gulls and terns.

Upon disembarking at the Island Packers wharf at about 5PM I drove like mad to get to the Claremont park where Black Swifts had been reported several times during the preceding days. The traffic was terrible, and I arrived at 7PM, possibly a little late for the early evening timing of all the previous reports. One White-throated Swift among lots of feeding swallows, but no Black Swifts. I decided to hang around the Pasadena area another day, thinking I’d find a MacGillvray’s Warbler up in the Angeles National Forest with ease – they are reported from numerous locations in the Park, including a few recent reports.

Making my way up the famous (for movie chase scenes, think Roger Moore chasing gorgeous female spy in sports cars) and scenic drive from Los Angeles area up, and up, into the Angeles mountains, I reached my first MacGillvray’s hotspot a half an hour or so into the park. Macs like dense shrubbery in mountainous habitat, and there was plenty of that to look through. But unlike my experience in Colorado on a recon effort last year, the birds were very quiet, and very hard to find. In fact, I couldn’t find any at the first four places I looked at and listened to. I figured this would be another dip when I got the urge to give up at about 2:30PM. As so often happens, after I ‘gave up’, I saw yet another spot where maybe I should have a look, and snapped out of it. At times like that I replay John Wayne’s sour line: “Don’t much like quitters, son.” But I really was getting to breaking point when finally, I heard the ‘tick tick’ chips of my target bird. Its actually a very easy chip to mimic, which I did. It took a while but I eventually saw the bird and a not-so-great image. Our conversation of ticks eventually led to a brief emergence of the warbler from the dense scrub into an opening, where I had a sweet view, and chance for better photograph. I was sunburnt and exhausted, but really satisfied. However, I still wanted that Black Swift badly, so made my way as fast as possible through terrible traffic to get to the site by 5:30PM. I walked up and down the designated trail watching for swifts above. I climbed a strategically placed hill and waited as the sun set at 7:30ish. No swift, not even a White-throated this time.

So whilst my California trip allowed me to add three species (Ross’s Goose, Island Scrub-jay, and MacGillvray’s Warbler) to my year list, I struck out on a similar number of get-ables that would have been enough to get me within striking distance of Neil Hayward’s ABA big year record (749). As it stands I’m on 744 with two provisional species, but watch this space – I don’t intend slowing down any time soon.

Global Wildlife Conservation is launching our joint fundraising campaign as we speak, which is incredibly exciting – providing a much needed chance for Devil Ark to play a bigger and more effective role in saving the iconic Tasmanian. This is undoubtedly one of the most achievable yet ambitious conservation projects I know of, and I’ve enjoyed working on it intensely over the past eight years. Its only been over the past few years, with the increasing commitment of GWC that the aims of the project have really come to life. I’ll have more about the fundraising campaign soon.

Hummingbird Express

7 July update
Hummin’ a happy tune!

This one really will be brief as I’m on a flight, and my laptop battery is low.

Sometimes good things come in fours – and that’s the hummingbird story over 26 hour period. A Rufous Hummingbird plus three rarities: White-eared Hummingbird, Plain-capped Starthroat and Green (aka Mexican) Violetear.

A male White-eared Hummer had been reported shortly after my arrival in SE Arizona from remote French Joe Canyon by a researcher monitoring cuckoos. I tried to find out more about the sighting from the discussion groups and telephone round about, but couldn’t track down the fellow reporting it for better details. I’d heard about the canyon previously, from various trip reports including John Vanderpoel’s big year blog a few years ago. Its notorious for being tough on cars and kidneys, as well as being the place where Wyatt Earp shot Curly Joe. Presumably not the French one - nor Larry and Moe’s mate, but presumably a wild west character maybe played by John Ford or Bruce Dern on a Hollywood film set.

So I took the info I had and hiked into the canyon from an hour pre-sunrise, anticipating a hot morning. But as it turned out, it was an easy walk – only taking an hour and a half, and it was a beautiful cool morning following the monsoonal rainfall of the previous afternoon and partial cloud cover. The oak-filled canyon and surrounding rugged scenery is absolutely gorgeous. Curly Joe’s resting place ranks with Chino Canyon near Madera Canyon as among my favourite arid landscapes anywhere. And as per the previous day's trip report, full of birds. Lots of Black-chinned and Broad-billed hummers feeding from the flowering yucca plants, but no White-eared Hummingbird to be seen. I tried hiking up the two creek forks about a mile each, but no big densities of hummers. I climbed the north side of the canyon to get a better look down at the comings and goings of hummingbirds to the enormous yucca stalks. But no sign of my guy, only ‘poor man’s’ White-eared hummers (female Broad-bills). While up above the gorge mid-morning I was re-entered phone/internet range, and therefore got the heads up that a Green Violetear had turned up in Texas. Not at the B and B place in Utopia where I spent two days on a cold Violetear trail two weeks ago, but a private residence west of San Antonio. I felt like Jimmy Durante when he sang about the ‘did ja ever have the feeling that you wanted to go..., but you you still had the feeling that you wanted to stay?’ conundrum. I decided to give up on the French Joe bird and get to San Antonio, maybe in time for a late avo look for the Violetear. But after clearing the canyon area, I had ‘that’ feeling, and like Jimmy, turned around and went back to the upper edge of the treed area for a final look. From ten o’clock I stood for about ten minutes just beyond the edge of the oak growth watching Broad-tailed hummers chase one another to and fro before ‘the’ hummingbird seemed to purposely zip out of the woods to my right and into a hover position at eye level, no more than three metres away, suspended almost motionlessly while seemingly staring me down. I haven’t had had a hummingbird behave quite that way previously, it would be tempting to authropormophise about it. There was no mistaking the identification of bird. Even in its tree-shaded position the dramatic white on ‘black’ facial markings and red-based bill combo was quite stunning. In the three or four second jaw-dropped mode I may have thought about raising the camera, but know from experience that I’d have never achieved focus if I had. It shot straight back into the oak forest – unfortunately not uphill to the exposed yuccas. As exciting as the experience was, I chose to get to the airport asap rather than hope for another view.

Looking above French Joe Canyon

You meet the oddest people in SE Arizona, including territorial Scaled Quail

Another view looking up, from nearly the top of the extensive oak woodlands

With a skip in my step I got about halfway back to the car – just before 11 before my phone rang. It was Becky at the Santa Rita Lodge giftshop. After giving up on the Plain-capped Starthroat the previous day, I’d left my card with her and asked if she’d please call me if any rarities showed up over the next couple of days. Great news! The Starthroat was seen for an extended period ending just ten minutes earlier. I shifted gears and got to the car in double-time. Could I get the Starthroat and still get to Texas pre sunset? I got in the car, and a few minutes later was hammering north towards Benson. Flashing blue lights from the SUV behind me – damn! But the young guy who tapped on my window wasn’t a traffic cop, but a border patrol agent. After a few questions he loosened up and explained that they’d been watching my sort-of hidden vehicle all morning thinking it may have been related to a report of a group of illegals preparing to pass through the French Joe canyon any day. I told him about some clothing and rubbish that I’d seen a half-mile above the canyon, and he was very interested in my photos of the scene.

I got to the Santa Rita Lodge feeders at something like 12:30. There were a number of birders on hand, but the Starthroat hadn’t been seen since 10:30. I did what I hate doing – I sat and waited. Lots of hummer activity, including impressive Magnificant Hummingbirds. But the target bird was elusive, and one by one the birders left. No more than five minutes after the birder left, the star performer suddenly appeared – firstly at the right-most feeder, then one of the left-most feeder. Again, as happens with hummingbirds – the ‘real deal’ is unmistakeable amongst the usual suspects. Awesome bird!  And off to the airport!

Plain-capped Starthroat: hooray!

The best I could do at that stage was to get a flight that got me into San Antonio at 11PM local time (two hours later than Arizona time). There were hassles with the car hire arrangements – but that’s what you get if you don’t stick with Alamo. I got to bed at 1ish, and kept my appointment with the homeowners Jan and Rick at the ‘gig’ at 8 AM. Several gals from the San Antonio Audubon Society were already there. It was a great atmosphere, but the Violetear was not playing ball, and as Micky Mouse’s arms spun ‘round, I began to face the possibility that I was a day late and dollar short – despite Laura Keene seeing the bird the previous afternoon. But it happened. What a bird! No photo initially, so I hung around another hour or so and it made a brief return visit to one of the feeders before zipping over to a roosting spot in an evergreen, where I could point the camera and at least get a distant shot through the window. 

Happy days when team hummer finally nailed down the sporadic Violetear 
from kitchen and living room window views.

Newly renamed 'split': introducing the Mexican Violetear. Back in the old days, a couple of weeks ago, I spent a couple of days in vane waiting for a rumored 'Green Violetear' a bit further west at a Utopia, Texas B& B. I believe that trail was way cold by the time I had my go, so was greatly relieved when this fresh individual hit the collective birding radar.

Three coded hummers in 26 hours. Sometimes when things happen, they really do happen. That’s 89 rarities for the year so far (including the two ‘provisionals’) and closing in on Sandy Komito’s record haul of 96 coded species during his insane 1998 big year blitz. Exciting stuff!

Reflecting more on Arizona - sorry for the backwards and forwarding, but you have no idea what extreme that can be taken to... I confess to a continuing sense of falling in love with the place. I loved the high desert country and sky islands in the winter. But that summer is here - and the heat is buffered by periodic monsoon rains, the birds are breeding, the snakes are moving, and the wildlife is in an apparent state of exuberance. Haven't the birds, mammals and reptiles heard that the world is falling apart? The splendor of nature to my eye isn't skipping a beat - and I find myself increasingly wrestling with an internal attraction to the place.  I don't want to leave!

The rainbow pointing the way to Five-striped Sparrows and 
Black-capped Gnat-catchers at Chino Canyon

Tucson - I gotta get me some of that! Or should I? What's Jimmy's advice?