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.

31 July Update

31 July Update

There’s been a bit of time between posts – admittedly in part because I’ve been waiting for enough good news to throw into a report. But its been a very inconsistent run since my last update. Dipping is nothing new, but stings far worst when stupidity is a principal factor. I knew that there had been a couple of sightings of a Great Knot up at Nome (11th and 14 July), and that there was some sort of radio-tracking factor at play. But it somehow didn’t properly sink through my skull that the bird at Nome was being monitored on an every second day basis until Aussie shorebird researcher Adrian Boyle emailed me to ask if I’d made the trip to Nome yet. If I’d dug a bit deeper I would have known that. Somehow I concluded that it would be better to head from Anchorage to SE Arizona to the Beatty Ranch for the Berryline Hummingbird than to scoot up the short distance to Nome to try for the Knot. I can’t explain it!

So down to Arizona I went, where I spent one afternoon and following morning sitting and waiting at the Beatty Ranch feeders, only to conclude that I was too late for the hummer. I had a brief view of a small all-green hummer being chased from the scene, which only later had me thinking ‘maybe’. Still, with my ADD kicking in at the Berryline stakeout it dawned on me what an error of judgement I’d made - that the the knot was basically a gift-wrapped sure bet, and that I should have gone to Nome rather than Tucson. I felt ill and gave up on the Berryline late morning and headed back to Tucson after a successful detour west to Wilcox to see a recently reported Baird’s Sandpiper. Then onwards and northwards, spending my third night of the year on an Anchorage airport bench. Ongoing flight got me to Nome mid-morning Tuesday the 19th. Not ten minutes after checking into a room and taking possession of a 16 seater van/bus (the only available vehicle in town), I received a text from one of the researchers tracking the Great Knot advising that it had left the Nome area a few hours earlier. I was devastated. To make it worst, I subsequently could see on eBird that the Berryline Hummingbird I’d given up on at the Beatty Ranch had made an appearance just a couple of hours after I’d fled the scene. It took a couple of days to get past the upset this time, and writing a blog update has been the last thing on my mind.

So I got out of Nome to spend another night at the Anchorage airport, before a Wednesday morning flight to Salt Lake City. From there I did the four-hour drive to Elko, Nevada in preparation for a Thursday morning assault on famous the Ruby Mountains Himalayan Snowcock site at Island Lake. It was a good news/bad news day. Like a couple of the iconic US birding hikes (Colima Warbler, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Nutting's Flycatcher), I found the hike to the Snowcock site somewhat easier than some of the hype had led me to expect – taking about 40 minutes from car-park to lake, on an easy-grade two-mile hike softened by many switch-backs.  From the lake I began scoping the known mountainside ahead from a bit before 6AM. I was shocked to see a group of birders way up on the slope – maybe a half mile up, within a hundred yards, if that, of ‘the’ hotspot for Snowcocks. Undeterred I scanned and rescanned the canyon ahead, occasionally checking out the group of seven or eight birders to see if they were focussed in any particular direction. That’s what eventually happened – suddenly all were looking intently up and to the left. I scanned the area they were looking but couldn’t see the object of their interest. So I began the uphill hike, as per the old adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. Unlike the slow-gradient hike from carpark to the lake, this climb was steep and taxing, and without trail. The high elevation dictated that I could only move uphill a short distance before stopping to catch my breath – usually a count of 30 deep breaths. Owing to the topography I lost sight of the group initially, but when I regained the right angle, I could see that one of them (the guide, as it turned out) had moved 50 yards or so above the group up the scree slope. Through the binoculars I clearly saw an enormous game bird flying very close to the upward positioned fellow before landing on a rock not 20 yards from him. I swung up my camera and took four or five shots before resuming the upward climb. I’d later find that during the walk up my camera had rubbed against my leg and the settings had shifted to smallest possible aperature – f 29-45. My 'point in the right direction and pray' Snowcock shots taken during the climb were therefore of the order of a half second in duration, capturing no discernable features. Some 20 minutes later I finally reached the group. Fighting for air, as soon as I was able I asked for confirmation that the bird I saw was ‘it’, describing the location and movement I observed. They said yes. But it had disappeared shortly thereafter. The guide was at that stage walking back down the hill to the group. The group, which included a couple of birders I knew, had had enough time on the mountain and headed back down towards the lake at about 8:00. Before leaving the guide told me that he’d been to the site the previous morning and that several Snowcocks had flown into view at about 8:15. I sat down to try to reduce my visibility and waited. And waited. I’d given myself until 9AM before I’d have to hurry down to the car park in order to make it back to Salt Lake City to catch an onward flight. Ten minutes before my self-imposed deadline I resorted to a blast of playback, and clearly heard a brief but unmistakeable response from a Snowcock. I didn’t hear it again. Without a discernable photograph, my Snowcock experience feels a bit empty. I’d never considered the chances of arriving on the same morning as a birding group – let alone one that would contemplate hiking right up and into the guts of the regular haunt. Hopefully I can find the time for a return visit.

The view up from Island Lake in the Ruby Mountains at 7AM Where I'd begun scoping at 6AM. The consistent location for Himalayan Snowcock sightings is just above the scree slopes above the snowbank in centre of frame. Group of birders can be seen just below and to the left of the snowbank.

I alternately walked and jogged down the mountain to the lake (20 minutes) and the carpark (another 20 minutes), passing the exiting group along the way, and making it to Salt Lake City with plenty of time for my flight to San Diego. I lost patches of skin from the bottoms of my feet over the following days.

I was in San Diego for a whale-watching cruise hoping for a Craveri’s Murrelet. There were a fair few seabirds, but no tiny black and white jobs. From there I headed up to San Francisco to join Alvaro for his 23 July Half Moon Bay pelagic. I didn’t see any new birds, but it was a great group (seabird groups usually are), with some good birds. It was also nice to see an assortment of whales, including a Blue Whale, and what was probably a Great White Shark. 

So since my 750th bird (Black Swift) it had been a funny spell – definitely feeling the brunt of the ‘yang’ phase of the ‘ying/yang cycle of birding fortunes’.  I was very happy that Robyn was able to fly over and join me for a bit of stability. We rendezvoused at the Phoenix airport, from where we continued on to Kansas City before driving to my parents’ place at a gated community out of Shawnee for my first proper couple of days off since my arrival in the US on 29 December, 2015. 

In the spirit of the bus-driver's holiday, we headed out at mid-morning to nearby Lawrence, Kansas with my dad - a life-long birder, for a look at some waders that had recently been reported. Sure it was more birding, but it was fun to be with Dad, and there would be visit to Cabela's to look forward to that afternoon. An Australian could justify a trip to the US just to visit a Cabela's or Bass Pro outlet.  Instead however, during one of my periodic BirdsEye searches of eBird sightings, I noticed a newly uploaded report of a single Buff-breasted Sandpiper sighting from 10AM the previous morning at Conestoga Lake near Lincoln Nebraska. Since this would only be a three-hour drive from KC, Robyn and I grabbed some bare necessities and jumped into our rental. Apart from Mottled Petrel, this was the only remaining Code 1 or 2 species that I worried about potentially missing, due in this case to its contracted period of fall migration that pretty much overlapped precisely with the Fall Alaskan islands season. The Nebraska Buff-breasted Sandpiper report followed several other recent mid-west sightings that appeared to be one day wonders, so I wasn’t overly confident about our chances. It’s a species that I’m especially fond of, not just because of its attractiveness, but owing to an eventful and ultimately successful twitch of a wayward individual just an hour north my Australian home a couple of years back.

The drive north through western Missouri and SE Nebraska passed through beautiful rolling hills of oak and other deciduous trees, interrupted by advanced cornfields. Lots and lots of cornfields. We stopped for a caffeine break in Mound City, Missouri, which we figured was about as American as America gets. Rural, quaint, and very nice. Queue John Melencamp and Jack and Diane.

As often happens, there was scant information contained in the BBSP report. My GPS methodology got me to a position that I thought would be the closest we could get to the red-flag marker. Once again, if I had the normal compliment of human brain capacities I’d have avoided a fair bit of challenge. The start of the walk along a gated and overgrown access track to the lake was easy enough, passing an abandoned barn and homestead. 

Rural scene walking to reported BBSP site in SE Nebraska  

The overgrown vehicle track terminated at the edge of a densely wooded area, at which point Robyn turned back to wait at the car. I made my way through the trail-less scrub due east to the edge of the ‘lake’, which in its current state was dry/muddy densely covered with dense head-high grassy vegetation. I could see on my iPhone that the red flag marker included in the sandpiper report was a generic reference point for the lake area only, and not the precise location of the sighting I’d hoped it would prove to be. But it was getting late in the day, and I figured I’d still be better off continuing through or around the lake, rather than heading back for a repositioning of the car, lest I miss out altogether. I eventually broke through the reedy lake centre of the ‘lake’ to find a large cleared wet area with at least a thousand waders. Scoping through the group I could see some good birds, including a fair number of Pectoral and Baird’s Sandpipers, a kazillion peeps and Killdeers, a spattering of Dowitchers (I’m never sure which), but no Buff-Breasted SPs. I made my way closer and closer to the congregation of birds surrounding and wading through the tiny remnant of Lake Conestoga – maybe 50 yards from outer edge to vicinity of dam wall, and a quarter mile long, but periodically collapsed through the thin dry mud crust and into knee-high black mud that didn’t easily give up its captive boots (brand new, by the way). 

Contracted 'Lake' Conestoga near Lincoln, Nebraska, a terrific wader migration trap.

Eventually, at a distance of maybe 100 yards from the edge of the contracted lake/pond I decided that I couldn’t get any closer without becoming the cliché quicksand victim, and scoped from my knees with shortened tripod. Bingo! Not one, but at least three gorgeous Buff-breasted Sandpipers were foraging in the foreground on the relatively dry edge of the water. I texted Robyn the good news, and that I’d see her in an hour. We were back at my folks’ place not long after midnight, and had a glorious sleep in. 
Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Happy days.

As planned, we flew up to Minneapolis Wednesday 27 July, and drove up to McGregor area, two and a bit hours north for a try at Yellow Rails at the precise location where I dipped in early June, having waited too long to hear courtship vocalisations. Arriving an hour before sunset, we fed hundreds if not thousands of mosquitos while hoping to hear family groups of rails. At twilight I began periodically playing July-captured recordings from the Xeno Canto bird-sound database. Truth is that those ‘click-click’ calls sounded to me to be identical to those recorded during rites of Spring. In any event, I had two responses – both from the side of the busy highway that transects the swamp - one from a great distance shortly after sunset, the other somewhat louder at nearly full darkness, but coinciding with a passing vehicle, which didn’t help. In both instances I only had a single string of ‘click-click’s. Whilst I’ll probably participate in a ‘rails in the rice fields’ birding tour later in the year to try to photograph one of these little yellow devils, I had no expectations of seeing one on the breeding grounds. Still, I got up early Thursday morning and tried again during the final hour pre-sunrise, but with no additional rail-sounds.

I’m writing these accounts while enroute from Minneapolis to San Diego, where we are booked on two Whale-watching trips over the next couple of days with high-hopes of running into Craveri’s Murrelets.

Well, now I’m writing from San Diego after three unsuccessful Craveri’s Murrelet hunts – Friday and Saturday whale watching trips, and a failed attempt to get off shore with a local birder due to boat engine trouble this morning (Sunday). Feeling a bit snookered at this stage, kind of 'dressed up with nowhere to go'.