Mid-November Update

Since my last report there has been a lot of travelling, with mixed results. After returning to the lower 48 after my ‘Great Skua cruise’ with Christian, then a week of birding and organisational stuff, I decided to follow Christian and Laura all the way back up to the Northeast – and then some, to St John’s Newfoundland, to see the Yellow-legged Gull that as predicted had made a November reappearance in the vicinity of Lake Quidi Vidi. Whether or not this bird is the same individual that has been seen around the same haunts during the past few years, from mid-November to February or March, is not certain. But there does seem to be a good chance that ‘it’ is indeed the very same bird that gave me such a challenging time early in the year – when I missed it during two multi-day searches. I successfully twitched a different Yellow-legged Gull in western Massachusetts in February, though this sighting carried with it the complication of less than unanimous consensus among gull experts as to the certainty of its identification, and in the fullness of time there has been a persistent expression of the view that it will be deemed too risky for the relevant ABA-related rarity committee to declare the identification of the bird as a Yellow-legged Gull versus a hybrid lookalike.

Irrespective of any eventual rulings concerning the Massachusetts gull, I had personal business with ‘the’ St John’s bird, and had hoped all along for an opportunity for a ‘round three’ crack at nailing it. I arrived at the St John’s airport on Thursday night, the 28th two days after Laura and Christian had arrived. They’d managed to pick it out of the masses of other gulls on both mornings – and saw it particularly well the second time, when it appeared right where it was supposed to be – tucked in among many hundreds of roosting Herring Gulls that assemble early each morning on the sports fields and adjacent clearings near Lake Quidi Vidi. The usual pattern is for these birds to take to the air some hours later, presumably to get to the city landfill, where gulls by the thousands swarm for relatively easy winter pickens.  When Lake Quidi Vidi eventually freezes over, large numbers of gulls begin roosting on the ice between forays to the landfill, oftentimes making it easier to pick out the slate-mantled Yellow-legged from amongst the many lighter coloured Herring Gulls and much darker Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. To make it a little less straight forward however, there are usually a few hybrid gulls with similar mantle colouration to that of the Yellow-legged, but these are easily separated by the presence of dark streaking on neck and head. The principal reason I missed the St John’s Yellow-legged Gull (again, it’s my unsafe assumption that this is a single returning bird) during the first winter of 2016 was that I waited too long, and the lake thawed prior to my first attempt, where after the gulls shifted their roosting to elsewhere – including, in the thousands, sections of the landfill that are off limits to birders.

I caught up with Laura and Christian at their hotel for a drink and chin-wag, before checking into my room elsewhere. Laura would be flying out in the morning in order to participate in a pelagic birding trip off the coast of Oregon, but Christian stuck around to join Jared Clarke and I for his third morning stakeout of the park lawns and ball fields Saturday morning. Jared knows these birds probably as well as they can be known, and we drove a circuit to four or five vantage points of Quidi Vidi Lake and its grassy surrounds, and of course the ball parks across the road from the lake. We hadn’t looked long before Jared received a text message indicating that it had been seen briefly quite near the lake, but had disappeared shortly thereafter. As the morning progressed, more and more gulls descended onto the sports fields, and eventually local birder Lancey noticed the targeted bird amongst big numbers of lighter mantled Herrings and more similar Lesser Black-backed Gulls and slaty-coloured hybrids that apart from having slightly streaky necks and heads were dead ringers for YLGU. Finally! I figure that owing to the amount of travelling I’ve done in pursuit of this species, it would have to be the most ‘expensive’ species on my year list. Indistinguishable from the Massachusetts bird, it nevertheless will most likely help me avoid a certain amount of unwanted dramas further down the road. 

They’d seen the gull that morning and Laura was leaving the next morning to get to Oregon for a pelagic trip – and she figured, a final chance in 2016 to see a Mottled Petrel.

Halloween morning sunrise saw me connecting with the Amazon Kingfisher in Laredo, Texas, just a few minutes before the next-earliest birders arrived near the junction of the creek with the Rio Grande – the US and Mexican border. In spite of the distinct smell of sewage in the narrow creek, there were a surprising number of kingfishers that comprised the grand slam of ABA kingfishers: a single Amazon, several highly vocal Green Kingfishers, two active Ringed, and a single Belted Kingfisher. The enormous bill of the Amazon was reminiscent of our Aussie kookaburras.

With the kingfisher mission accomplished, I headed to Tucson where I rendezvoused with Robyn. The main purpose of that visit was to spend time with Ken Blankenship – proprietor of East West Birding, who I struck up a friendship early in the year. Ken has been working with me to put at least my year-bird sightings onto eBird retrospectively. I’m happy to say that with Ken’s help, that massive task is nearly complete, and eta to launch is about a week. Whew.

Robyn and I then headed to Harlingen, Texas, where we were intending to participate in at least a couple of field trips associated with the Lower Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (LRGVBF), and one or two of the scheduled social nights. As it happened however, given our late arrival to Harlingen and a tonne of unanticipated homework flowing from my eBird workshop with Ken, we were lucky to make a visit to the evening function on Thursday night, and to attend Neil Heyward’s keynote talk (The Accidental Big Year) on Friday night. It was a sensational talk, and also gave me the chance to catch up with some of my US birding friends.

The other thing that happened during our stay in Harlingen was receiving word about a sighting of Gray-headed Chickadees north of Kotzebue, Alaska began filtering through. John Puschock helped Michael Wald of Arctic Wild Wildlife Tours – who found the birds a week or so earlier, cobble together a group of four big year birders – past (Jay Lehman) and present (Laura, Christian and I), for a one day bush flight excursion to the site where Michael saw the mysterious Arctic slopes on two sequential days a week earlier.

The four of us, plus Arctic Wild birding guide Dave Shaw and legendary Alaskan bush pilot and hunting guide Eric Seih. It was a terrific trip, with several candidates for Gray-headed Chickadee in the mix of Boreal Chickadees, but alas, I didn’t get a tickable encounter. Laura and Christian both wrote up the experience on their blogs/Facebook pages. We all flew back to Anchorage, from where Laura and Christian continued on overnight flights to chase the Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Michigan. I rejoined Robyn at our Anchorage hotel, and spent a sleepless night contemplating the Chickadee mission and what I ‘might have’ and ‘should have’ done differently to have achieved a better outcome. At 3AM I began writing emails to the relevant people, and by 9AM had a plan for returning to the chickadee site the next morning (Wednesday).

Wednesday’s weather was a lot clearer than it had been on Monday, and the views from Eric’s Piper Cub – which has a payload of only one passenger - and tops out at 95MPH as we flew low across the tundra, hills and rivers, and the occasional herd of Caribou or Musk Oxen was in a word - unforgettable. As on Monday’s mission - when Eric shuttled us in the Piper Cub from the creek pebble bar landing site of the bigger and faster Cessna 226, we landed on a small frozen lake about a mile from the spring-fed, and therefore largely unfrozen lake around which chickadee-favoured spruce and willow habitat occurs. As per Monday, I was struck by the extent of mammal foot-traffic revealed in the shallow snow: Moose, Wolf, Fox, Lynx, Snowshoe Hare, and of course, lots of Brown Bear sign. It seems we were. And what a spectacular day Wednesday proved to be – enhanced by rare blue skies to set off the scenic southern slopes of the western Brookes Ranges, providing what was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my year of American travels.
During our limited window of daylight we encountered considerably more Boreal Chickadees than had been the case two days earlier, and on two occasions we both saw birds that were clearly Gray-headed Chickadees, with extensive white cheek patch and overall lighter presentation. I didn’t notice the existence or otherwise of white edging to greater coverts, and can’t say for sure if the tails appeared longer than those of Boreals. Apart from the large white cheek patches, the thing that stuck out most was the namesake dark gray (not brown, and not black) crown that seemed to merge seamlessly with the nape and back colouration – unlike Boreals which have three discrete colour changes, from cap to nape to dorsum.

'Chickadee Lake', southern slopes of Brooks Range, Alaska

Encounters with all of the chickadees in the spruce forests on both days were brief and frustrating, as the birds seem to never stop moving. A choice had to be made between binoculars and camera, and after the frustrations I experienced on Monday, when trying to juggle both may well have cost me a proper look at a bird I ‘nearly’ photographed, that Eric now feels confident was a Gray-headed Chickadee, I led with binoculars throughout Wednesday. It’s perhaps notable that the bird Eric referred to on Monday, plus both sightings I had on Wednesday (which may have been the same bird twice) were all within close proximity of the spot where Michael and his group of photographers had seen two Gray-headed Chickadees flitting around a Salmon carcass a week or so earlier, on two consecutive days. They too struggled unsuccessfully to photograph the jittery birds.

Kotzebue, Alaska from above

During my chickadee chases Robyn patiently waited in Anchorage, though we managed to choof off to rendezvous in Nome Monday night for a Tuesday morning search for early-arriving McKay’s Buntings. We were lucky, and celebrated with a late breakfast at the Polar Cub CafĂ©. After my return to Anchorage Wednesday night, with the absence of new rarities to chase, we decided to chill for a day before heading south to Kansas City to visit my parents, recharge my batteries, and follow up on a recent report of Smith’s Longspur at Baker Wetlands an hour west, near Lawrence. Dad, Robyn, and I duly headed out for an enjoyable Sunday morning of birding, and though we couldn’t find any longspurs, my dad, who never ceases to amaze me first heard, then located a Harris’s Sparrow – the ‘other’ common bird species still on my wanted list. We saw a total of five species of Sparrows, including several Harris’s Sparrows and two Le Conte’s Sparrows at the restored wetlands in the short span of an hour. Our plans for a few additional kick-backed days and relaxed local birding ended with yesterday’s NARBA report of Common Scoter in Oregon.

Going for a spin in Dad’s new boat. Robyn (sitting with Dad) and I get first ride in the new fishing boat – given to him by on the event of his retirement in September. Dad ran the Urology residency program at the University of Kansas for decades. 

Environmental Considerations

As my ABA area big year moves towards its wintry end, and I reflect on just what a mad year its been, I continue thinking about outcomes other than the number of bird species on my year-list. I’ve continued throughout the year to work with partner organisation Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC – www.globalwildlife.org ) on fundraising and support for Devil Ark, and a presently embryonic yet remarkably ambitious ‘Aussie Ark’ (watch this space, exciting developments are well underway), dedicated to preserving a range of threatened marsupial species. I promise that before the end of 2016 to give an account of funds raised over the course of the year, in association with my birding activities. For the moment I can say that it is clearly many times greater than the amount that I’ve spent personally in pursuing my year on the road – which of course is money that will not be recouped through my conservation work.

Also as planned, GWC is providing me with carbon offset options – one of which has been decided upon – purchase of an as yet unquantified area of land in the Amazon basin. Director Don Church has at this stage roughly estimated that that ‘my’ land package will be somewhere between 10 and 20 hectares in size. It will extend the boundary of a GWC-owned property known for exceptional bird diversity and density. We have agreed upon a price, and my commitment is in place. Again, I’ll provide specific details on this blog by year’s end. As many of you know, the carbon offset aspect of my big year has been an important consideration from the get-go.  

Obviously, any plans that Robyn has held for our eventual retirement have long since been relinquished. Fortunately, we both still love what we do, and I cannot wait to get back to it in early January. From humble beginnings when Robyn and I started with a good idea in the early 80s – and hardly two dimes (er, ten-cent pieces) to rub together, the Australian Reptile Park has grown and grown. With the remarkable management and leadership qualities of our co-directors – Tim Faulkner and Liz Gabriel, the business has taken on a seemingly unstoppable life of its own, having become the leading tourism attraction in the region, allowing full time employment of 50 highly talented men and women, and allowing us to create and participate in a number of ambitious yet achievable conservation actions, from invasive Cane Toad control to in situ conservation of Komodo Dragons and Broad-headed Snakes in conjunction with our partners at Sydney University. Our spider and venom production activities continue to be a vital link in the production of antivenoms that save some 300 lives a year. Both of us enjoy a great sense of satisfaction in our work – and as if it isn’t half obvious to everyone I’ve spoken to or corresponded with in recent weeks, I cannot wait to get back. But not until the job here is done!

Late add: Robyn and I saw the Common Scoter in Oregon today!

John Puschock and Andy, one of a stream of birders (Robyn and I included) who enjoyed scope views of Common Scoter from John's third floor hotel room balcony.