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'.