Even this far north there aren’t many mid-day departures that look like this…
That’s because Penair has continued their incredible streak of canceling all my flights to and from St. Paul this year. This time though, the culprit wasn’t a volcano. Or even fog. This time, they couldn’t find a plane to take us in. And really, that’s the crucial part of any flight reservation – having a plane. And more bizarrely, after a cancelled 11:45am scheduled departure, our new flight time was the next day. At 4. *AM*. Yeah. Welcome to Alaska!
I’m doing a big year. There – I’ve said it. Or more accurately – I’m doing an Accidental Big Year. I only really committed to a big year around April / May after having some pretty good winter trips and thinking, “wow – if I were ever to do something as ridiculously stupid as a big year, this would be the year to do it” as well as, “Big year? Really? How hard could that be?” Despite the obvious lack of planning and massive underestimate of time and energy required (turns out big years are actually pretty hard), I’m doing surprisingly well: 714 species. I’m hoping to keep pace with John Vanderpoel, who narrowly missed the big year record of 748 (Sandy Komito, 1998) by ending his 2011 big year at 743 (+ the Hooded Crane which has yet to be accepted.) John finished Sept on 719 – so I’ve set myself a target of 5 new birds for this trip. And at this part of a big year, finding *any* new birds starts getting really tough.
After a fantastic spring trip here, I couldn’t resist coming back to the Pribilofs – the far-flung islands hidden amid the Bering Sea fog. Since I’m going to be in Barrow in early October, and the Lower 48 has been pretty quiet for rarities this month, I thought I’d return to St. Paul for a week, hoping for an Asian vagrant. Or five. This week the ABA was visiting too, with a tour group. I was also excited to meet up with Chris Hitt, who’s birding on the island for a couple of weeks. Chris did a Lower 48 Big Year in 2010 and saw a record 704 species. He was here with friend and fellow Big Year birder, Dan Sanders…
The 700 Club
Chris Hitt (Lower 48, 2010, 704 species)
and Dan Sanders (ABA area, 2005, 715 species.)
Also on the island were two veteran birders…
The 800 Club
Paul Sykes (883) and Larry Peavler (882)
(Paul finds birds by scaring the hell out of them with his impressive horn.)
The island looks a lot different compared to spring! The snow and ice is gone, replaced by aquamarine lakes, blue skies and knee-high green vegetation.
A typical birding day starts before sunrise when one of the guides picks us up in the tour bus.
This bus is full of birders eagerly waiting for me.
(Note to self: must get out of bed more than 10 mins before departure time)
First stop is breakfast. It’s hard to choose where to go, as there are so many options for eating out in St. Paul. However, nothing can compete with the eggs at the Trident Fish Cannery. So, that’s where we go…
We rush off the bus, hoping to be first in line…
What? No eggs benedict today?
After waiting for the sun to finally rise (we’re so far west in the Alaska time zone that sunrise is well after 9am), we drive out to bird the island. Sometimes this could be done from the bus…
Red. An excellent choice for birding clothing.
But invariably we’d have to actually get out of the bus. We’d then do the “Putchkie Putsch” – a cruel and sadistic game invented by the birding guides on the island. Putchkie is the native name for the tall, evil celery plants that suddenly spring up when the snow melts.
Putchkie – the local celery, Angelica lucida.
It looks harmless but will easily break a leg if you get tangled up in it.
(And then it’ll reach down and strangle you to death. Probably.)
In this game, the guides convince naive birders that there are actually birds hidden in these vast and lonely patches (there aren’t.) The game starts with one side lining up in formation at one end of the field…
Starting position for the Putchkie Putsch.
(Nick Cooney is confidently playing left flank.)
And then Go! Players start walking through the leg-tripping grass, and back-breaking hummocks. Soon, there’d only be a few left standing…
Veteran Putchkie Putschers – Chris, Doreene and Laura.
The game would end when no birds were found and with players limping back to the bus.
I’m kind of surprised they still play this game here. Last week, one of the players didn’t do so well…
This player broke one of the cardinal rules of the game – they found a bird.
(Replay showed the bird to be a Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler)
By mid-day we’d all be exhausted from the Putchkie. We’d consult Yelp for a lunch place. Often, we’d head to a local hole in the wall place, some well-kept secret -
The Trident Fish Cannery – a great little spot for lunch.
We had excellent guides on the island – Scott Schuette, Doug Gochfeld and Gavin Bieber – who worked hard to find birds. Often in unusual places.
Looking for birds under boards.
Doug with crate expectations.
Crab Pots – not just for crabs!
Getting desperate. Catching birds in the grass.
At times though, I felt they were just a bit too optimistic with potential birds…
And on really slow days, we’d resort to that old favorite – whacking the ground until we scared up a bird…
Gavin Bieber employing the ground whacking technique for finding birds.
(No birds were harmed in this photo.)
After a hard day’s birding, we’d head out to dinner. Our favorite evening restaurant was, umm, what was it called? Oh yeah, the Trident Fish Cannery.
Birders enjoying the local cuisine.
From left to right – Lynne Miller (of the ABA), Karen O’Neil, Ellen Wiggin and Janis Cadwallader.
And, we’d often finish a great meal with a trip to the local espresso place…
Chris Hitt, Lucie Bruce and Susan Jones (ABA board.)
Bill Scheible in the background.
When there were breaks in the birding, we’d hit the local stores. I’m mean store.
Or check out the wine selection at the local liquor store…
(Seemed to be out of vintage wines this week.)
OK – I hear you. Enough with the intro and the lame humor. What about the birds? What did you see? Did you get your 5 targets? Are you ahead of John Vanderpoel? Did they really not have any eggs benedict on the island? Well, I saw a lot. But that’ll have to wait for the next post. I’ve just found out there’s a new restaurant in town. Apparently they serve Putchkie Pie.
Well, this summer certainly is going fast. Here it is August and I still owe you one more blog post, wrapping up Zugunruhe Birding Tours’ spring Aleutian trips.
At the end of the last post, we had just returned to Adak after our second Attu trip of the spring. We ended with 88 species, beating our previous high count, from 2012, by 10. The other two-week trip we did, our first in 2010, had 74 species. Our one-week trip with the TV crew, which had just a day-and-a-half on Attu, found 66 species.
It’s a little difficult to decide what counts as a “noteworthy” bird or even what an Asian species is on these trips. Take for example Bar-tailed Godwit. Most would agree that it’s a “good” bird, but while it’s mostly an Old World species, it has a small breeding range in Alaska, and it’s more or less expected in the Aleutians during spring migration. So is it noteworthy? Asian? This is my dilemma, deciding what the “good bird” count is. It’s just a matter of opinion. Keeping that in mind, this year’s two-week trip was clearly our best yet for the good stuff. There were about 26 noteworthy species, compared to 17 in 2010 and 15 in 2012. Some luck was involved – for example, Jess spotting a White-throated Needletail as it zoomed past him on Mt. Weston – but the storm early in the trip was the biggest reason for this year’s results. (The one-week trip had 10 noteworthy species.)
OK, moving on, there was still some more birding after the Attu trip. A new batch of birders flew into Adak for a pelagic trip out to Seguam Pass and back. Seguam Pass is located east of Adak, and it’s one of the best spots in North America for Short-tailed Albatross. Tidal currents cause upwellings as they flow between the North Pacific and Bering Sea. The upwelling at Seguam Pass is particularly attractive to the Short-taileds.
We headed out of Adak in the early evening. There was enough daylight to make a run around Little Tanaga Pass to pick up Whiskered Auklet. We didn’t just “tick and go”, but we had plans to spend some quality time here at the end of the trip, so while we got some quality looks at the auklets, we didn’t linger. It takes the better part of a day to get to Seguam, so off we went.
When the sun came up, we were approaching the northeastern part of Atka Island. Korovin Volcano dominates this part of the island. At 5030 feet, it’s the highest point on Atka. We encountered huge numbers of Northern Fulmars around here, particularly to the northeast of the volcano, so I suspect there may be a breeding colony here, though apparently none is apparently known from here.
A Northern Fulmar with Korovin Volcano in the background. Photo by Jess Findlay.
Most Fulmars in the Aleutians are dark though individuals range from very light to very dark. “Medium” individuals such as this one were a little more common around Korovin Volcano and Seguam Pass.
Much of the afternoon was spent north of Amlia Island. An immature Short-tailed Albatross made a quick pass off our port side, but otherwise, it was an uneventful ride until we made it to Seguam Pass. Here we were surrounded by thousands of fulmars and hundreds of Laysan Albatrosses. We also had a few Mottled Petrels zip by. There were a few Black-footed Albatrosses as well, but no Short-tailed Albatrosses. We continued on, heading south, but encountered thick fog. After about 15 minutes, it showed no sign of letting up, so I made the decision to turn around. I figured we could get back into the clear out, put out some chum, and wait for some Short-taileds to come in.
Black-footed Albatrosses have normally been fairly rare on our trips with only a few being seen per day, but they were more common this year with 10+ being seen most days.
Many birds did come into the chum, but the species composition remained essentially the same: huge numbers of fulmars with Laysans and a few Black-footeds making up the balance. They were all around the boat in all directions. While no Short-taileds showed up, a pod of Killer Whales made an appearance, a few even approached the Puk-uk.
We were surrounded by Fulmars and Laysan Albatrosses in Seguam Pass. Photo by Jess Findlay.
A feeding frenzy in Seguam Pass.
A few of the Killer Whales made a close pass by the boat.
It was getting late, so we decided to call it a day and head west to the north shore of Amlia Island. We had to proceed carefully, as there are still some uncharted waters around the island. We found a cove and dropped anchor for the night.
The next morning we ran back to the pass while we had breakfast. As we cleared the east end of Amlia, it was clear that something was a little different from the previous day. There were more Laysans milling about, and it wasn’t long before a Short-tailed made an appearance. The first one was a young one, almost all brown. Yes, I did say “first one” because there were quite a few more within the next two hours. We encountered a sub-adult as we proceeded to the southwest, and then a short time later, I called out an adult, but after we started chumming, an older subadult came in. I figured I made a mistake, but shortly we had FOUR Short-taileds around the boat: two subadults and two adults. So I’ll just claim the two-bird theory (or four-bird theory) here.
The second Short-tailed Albatross of the day, a subadult.
Not the world’s greatest photo, but it has all three North Pacific albatrosses in it.
We continued to motor to the southwest. Now that we had our main targets (Whiskered Auklet, Short-tailed Albatross, and Mottled Petrel), the plan was to head as far out over the Aleutian Trench as we could get. The birdlife here isn’t known as well as it is to the north of the Aleutians, so this was a truly exploratory effort. We had a few more Short-tailed Albatrosses come up in the wake, and several Mottled Petrels passed by, but otherwise this part of the trip was uneventful. The sea was getting a little rougher in the early afternoon, so we turned back to the northwest and made for Little Tanaga Pass. We made it back to the islands after dark and dropped anchor in a small bay in the pass itself.
An older subadult Short-tailed Albatross, southwest of Seguam Pass.
An adult Short-tailed Albatross, southwest of Seguam Pass.
One adult Short-tailed Albatross not enough for you? OK, here’s two.
On the final morning, we tried something new: We put the skiff in the water, and five of us attempted to get some of the best photos of Whiskered Auklets on the water ever. Whether we succeeded or not is debatable, but it certainly was fun. Using such a small boat allowed us to approach closer than we usually can on the Puk-uk. More importantly, we were much lower than we would be on the Puk-uk, much closer to eye-level with the auklets. It still wasn’t easy to get close to them, but we managed it with a few. Better light would’ve been nice, but I can’t complain. Being eye to eye with a Whiskered Auklet just 10 feet away was certainly a highlight of the trip for me.
Whiskered Auklet in Little Tanaga Pass.
Whiskered Auklet isn’t the only alcid in Little Tanaga Pass. Here’s a Parakeet Auklet. Other alcids commonly seen in the pass include Tufted and Horned Puffin, Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre, and Ancient Murrelet. Cassin’s, Least, and Crested Auklets are less common.
We finished the pelagic with 31 species, including multiple great looks at two of the “marquee” species (Short-tailed Albatross and Whiskered Auklets) and good looks at the third (Mottled Petrel). Back at Adak, we celebrated a successful three-and-a-half weeks of birding at the ASBAG (that’s the Aleutian Sports Bar and Grill), birded around Adak the next morning, and then flew back to the Lower 48. It was good to be home, but I’m looking forward to next year’s adventure.
The previous few days had a trickle of new birds but no major fallouts, and without any obvious major changes in the weather, we weren’t expecting another one anytime soon. Good birds – great birds – can show up at anytime. For example, we had a Solitary Snipe drop in right in front of us on an otherwise uneventful day in 2010, furnishing the first accepted record for North America. So the lack of a storm to blow in numbers of vagrants just meant we had to cover more territory to improve the odds.
After going over the checklist the previous night, I told everyone that the leaders would go to separate areas the next day [June 4], and they could choose where they wanted to go. I say “where they wanted to go” rather than “who they wanted to go with” because everyone decided to hike Gilbert Ridge with Jess. I was on my own, and Isaac too. I decided to not take it personally since it’s one of the best spots on the island for vagrants and a nice hike. But it was a few days since my last shower…
Anyway, I checked out Big Lake, Casco Point, the runway ponds, and a few other spots around the runways with only a male Eurasian Wigeon near the mouth of the Peaceful River and a heard-only Rock Ptarmigan on the slopes of Weston Mountain to show for it. On the other hand, the tour participants chose wisely. On the radio, I heard they found a Black-headed Gull on Massacre Beach. Then a few hours later, I heard some more chatter. This time it was a Common Sandpiper on the rocks near the base of Alexei Point. I was encouraged to continue searching for shorebirds myself, so I rode around to the docks in front of the now abandoned US Coast Guard base and hiked the shoreline south to Barbara Point. Still nothing for me.
Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants nest on the remains of docks in Massacre Bay. This Pelagic Cormorant flies south from the docks towards Barbara Point.
After returning to the boat, I got a rundown on what all was seen. In addition to what I already mentioned, the group also saw the 2 Smews on a pond at the base of Alexei Point and a Siberian Rubythroat in the same general area. The Arctic Loon from a few days earlier was still on Massacre Bay. Isaac reported that the three Bar-tailed Godwits were still at Navy Cove and that he found another nesting pair of Snowy Owls and FIVE singing male Siberian Rubythroats along the Peaceful River. It’s been proposed that this species may actually breed on Attu, but since birders have rarely (if ever) stayed later than the first week of June, no one is sure. It certainly would have been interesting to stay longer to see if these birds stuck around.
However, the best of the bird of the day was seen by no one. I mean it wasn’t seen by any of us birders. After dinner, I heard from the other guides that Billy, the captain of the Puk-uk, had a bird flying around him as he walked up Hogback Ridge on his morning constitutional that he described as behaving like a swallow but larger and dark. It sounded very much like a swift, and we figured it was probably a Fork-tailed based on probabilities.
You can guess where we were going the next morning [June 5]: Hogback Ridge. Swifts have been known to stick around the same area for a day or two in the Aleutians, so we had some hope of refinding Billy’s bird. As usually happens, we were distracted before we could get to our intended destination. This time we were distracted before we even went anywhere. The day was very clear, and all the peaks were visible. Isaac spotted a Rock Ptarmigan chasing another one in flight high up on Weston Mountain as we were getting our bikes. We eventually got scopes on one of them as it sat on a rock, surveying its kingdom. There are several subspecies of Rock Ptarmigan endemic to the Aleutian Islands, so it’s always good to get the Ptarmigan here, in case there’s a split down the road.
From here, most everyone headed up to the airport and then Hogback Ridge. Jess decided to hike up Weston Mountain to do some photography, both scenic and Ptarmigan. Long story short: No luck with on Hogback. Isaac and Jay decided to head up to the Japanese memorial while the rest of us went back down to Henderson Marsh. There wasn’t much going on anywhere. It was just a warm, lazy day to enjoy.
Eventually, everyone made it back to Casco Cove. Most everyone was at the pick-up spot near Lower Base while a few of us were still straggling in. I was the last one and crossing Kingfisher Creek when Jess came over the radio to report a swift just flew by him about two-thirds up Weston Mountain. I looked up and saw where he was, but there was no chance of seeing a swift from that distance. It quickly flew by him and continued off to the south. He was the only one to see it. He also was lucky enough to photograph it too, especially considering he had just been doing some landscape photography and had a 70-200 mm lens on his camera instead of his usual 400 mm.
I took a look at the LCD display on his camera when Jess got back down to Lower Base. He was assuming it was a Fork-tailed due to some white on it, or at least that’s what he said. Perhaps he didn’t want to admit to considering the much more unlikely alternative. Anyway, as soon as I looked at the LCD, I was hit by several emotions. I gave him a look, paused, and said, “The white isn’t in the right place for a Fork-tailed.” Jess thought maybe it was just a bad photo, but I still thought it was a White-throated Needletail.
Once back on the Puk-uk, Jess downloaded the photos, and now we could see that yes, it was in fact a White-throated Needletail, a species that’s been seen only four times in the ABA Area with the last sighting in 1985. Two previous sightings were from Attu, and the other two were from nearby Shemya. I had mixed feelings. I was incredibly happy that someone on the trip found and photographed such a rare bird. But I wasn’t all that happy about not seeing it! Actually, I was holding up surprisingly well, and I think everyone else was, too. Now, when I think about how the bird flying around Billy the previous day may have been the same swift, and who knows how long it stuck around….Well, I try not to think about it.
White-throated-Needletail. Photo by Jess Findlay.
We woke up the next morning [June 6] to our final day on the island. The original plan was to hike Gilbert Ridge and then Alexei Point one more time, but we felt compelled to hike to the South Beach area first to make sure the swift wasn’t still in the area. It was not, but Isaac turned up another Rustic Bunting near Big Lake. We made it over to Alexei Point in the afternoon. Some of the group hiked towards Gilbert Ridge while I took the others around the point itself. The other group reported that the two Smews were still in a pond near the base of the point. The point was fairly quiet, but we did come across a Bar-tailed Godwit and then an Emperor Goose. After flushing one from Gilbert Ridge a few days earlier without anyone but two guides seeing it, it was good to get this one. We were able to set up scopes and get everyone on it.
As we were returning to the boat, a fog bank rolled in. Jess was the last one back, and as he was walking along the beach, a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel suddenly appeared right beside him. He says the bird looked at him, then looked down and saw that it was longer over water, and then made a quick turn to get back to more comfortable surroundings. I was nearby and saw that it was flying towards the Puk-uk, so I radioed to the boat. A few people came out on the aft deck to see it fly by.
Once Jess and I got back on the boat, the skiff was lifted back on the foredeck and we headed east for the two-day trip back to Adak. We saw all the usual species on the return trip, including Short-tailed Albatross on one day. Our luck with Mottled Petrels continued, too. A few were seen on June 7 and about 50 on June 8. Their behavior on the latter date was interesting. Many of them were flying high and direct, rather than the arcing flight typically associated with gadfly petrels. Before heading into the harbor at Adak on June 9, we detoured over to Little Tanaga Strait to spend more time with the Whiskered Auklets.
We had some of our closest encounters with Mottled Petrels on June 8. This is an uncropped photo from that day.
A cropped version of the previous photo. Despite the close proximity, I wasn’t able to get a great photo.
A few more Mottled Petrels from June 8:
Whiskered Auklets in Little Tanaga Strait on June 9:
Ancient Murrelet in Little Tanaga Strait on June 9.
Tufted Puffin in Little Tanaga Strait on June 9.
I’m very grateful for being able to attempt a birding Big Year in our 50th state. It’s as difficult as you may think it is. Imagine being on the peaks of the largest volcanoes on the planet surrounded by at least 2,400 miles of ocean to the nearest continental land mass. We tolerate more than two seasons in the islands, wet and dry, and can’t forget about mango, lychee, avocado, persimmon, surf and hula competition seasons. Every soil and almost all climate types on the planet can be found in the islands as well. In just a few miles you can find yourself in an area where more than 100 inches of rain fall each year and an area where it rains less than 40 inches.
John Foster Dulles (former U.S. Secretary of State) said, “The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.” As many birders who have attempted a Big Year more than once understand the struggles, I mean, the fun challenges are not the same each year.
This is only my second attempt at a Big Year ever, and both in the Hawaiian Islands. Unlike the other 49 States, here in the islands there are no roads connecting each county (Kauai, Honolulu, Kalawao, Maui, and Hawaii). Inter-island flights, et cetera are required but I won’t go any further about finances other than to say ‘Go for Broke’ (famous Hawaiian-Creole English motto used for the U.S. Army’s 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team).
The first six months of my Big Year Hawaii 2013 is not surprisingly different from last year. Halfway though 2013, I moved from Oahu to Maui. Will it make a difference? Probably. We shall see. I’m not complaining but only one first state record was seen this year so far by local birders, an American Bittern (Oahu by Pete Donaldson) compared to at least three by this time in 2012: Surfbird (Oahu by Eric VanderWerf), White-winged Tern (Molokai by Arleone Dibben-Young), and Elegant Tern (Big Island by Darren Dowell). Those 2012 birds helped me go over the 140 species mark, I finished the calendar year with 142 species.
Oahu Iiwi on camera (Lance Tanino) of a photo (original by Nick Hadjukovich)
Despite fewer first records, the most exciting bird was seen during the first week of the year, an Iiwi, a very rare Hawaiian honeycreeper on Oahu. This is a species easily seen on certain islands and yet this sighting was satisfying since I was able to share it with a group of folks during the Waipio Christmas Bird Count on Oahu. I never thought I would be able to see an Iiwi on Oahu, I seriously thought I was too late since it’s so close to being another Oahu extinction. The morning hours started off with gusty tradewinds (over 30 mph) and passing showers, hardly a day to expect to see any birds, or hear them. This day served as another reminder that we can make interesting bird observations in uncomfortable weather.
Waipio CBC participants
Other highlights so far this year:
The Cattle Egret was the first highlight of the year and not only because it was the first species for 2013. This is also THE species responsible for my interest in birding way back in elementary school. Some conservationists may label them as invasive species but I can never hate them, they are too beautiful and they work so darn hard ridding the islands of pesky insects, even at night under the street lights’ glow.
A vagrant species, the Common Tern is always a treat to see in Hawaii. This adult in winter plumage was present on Oahu’s North Shore, James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge, Kii Unit since Fall 2012 through the winter months in early 2013.
Another vagrant species, Red-breasted Merganser was a brief one day wonder at Ka’elepulu Wetland, Kailua, Oahu.
The Spring 2012 Surfbird was a pleasant surprise in late February 2013. This is more than likely the same bird except in breeding plumage. Who knows if it attempted to fly up to Alaska for the summer, I hope it returns.
April 2013 was a great month for spring shorebirds (Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge) and pelagic seabirds (Kona Coast, Big Island). A breeding plumaged Western Sandpiper was an awesome treat, although it’s labeled as a winter resident, they seem to be vagrants by their infrequent appearances. Relatively large numbers of Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, a Leach’s Storm-Petrel, and an Arctic Tern were unexpected pelagic species off the Big Island. A very easy Wilson’s Phalarope stuck around at the end of April for at least a couple weeks at a mitigation pond behind a shopping center in Kihei, Maui.
ilson’s Phalarope photo by Rebecca Lea
In mid-June, I finally got to hear a beautiful song given by an adult male Maui Parrotbill (critically endangered Hawaiian Honeycreeper) at Waikamoi Preserve on the slopes of Mount Haleakala (House of the Sun). This species could be listed as a half-miss since I’d still like to actually see it at some point this year.
The misses so far this year included:
Tundra Swan – Molokai
Peregrine Falcon – Oahu
Curlew Sandpiper – Molokai
Belted Kingfisher – Hawaii
Yellow-faced Grassquit – Oahu
Red-masked Parakeet – Oahu
Needs that are still possible:
Snow Goose – Kauai
Gambel Quail – Kahoolawe
Black-footed Albatross – Oahu and Kauai
Newell’s Shearwater – Kauai
Mitred Parakeet – Maui
Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush – Kauai
My Big Year attempt is by no means a hard-core effort to break my personal record from last year. I was really lucky in 2012 and I’m very grateful. I’m just doing what I can, when I can. This year’s goals include answering a few questions such as – Was 2012 just an anomaly? Should I make this a yearly habit since the Hawaiian honeycreepers are declining too quickly? Will my Big Year Hawaii 2013 help bring attention to Hawaiian birding to my fellow birders across our country and beyond? I’m very grateful to my fellow American Birding Association members.
June 1: We had high hopes this morning. Yesterday was a HUGE day, Zugunruhe Birding Tours’ best day yet at Attu (IMO, better than finding the ABA Area’s first accepted Solitary Snipe in 2010…and yes, I’m species name dropping now). There were four Code 4 birds and more Code 3s than you can shake a stick at. The question was where to go? It was a difficult decision. I considered doing Alexei Point and Gilbert Ridge again. They’re some of the best places for vagrants, and we had just killed it there the day before. But there was also the chance that we’d just find the same birds as yesterday. The urge to see what other spots held won out, though just barely.
We were anchored in Casco Cove, and we woke to heavy cloud cover and no wind. The cove was flat calm, and the Glaucous-winged Gulls looked like they were swimming on a mirror.
We briefly had a Slaty-backed Gull on the cove, but it wasn’t close and didn’t stick around for long. Very few got to see it, but our first Kittlitz’s Murrelets of the trip were much more cooperative. Everyone who wanted got scope views of a pair of these birds from the Puk-uk’s aft deck.
Isaac was the first guide to go ashore, and a flock of three Rustic Buntings flew past when he got on land. Things were looking good…
…But I won’t leave you hanging. Those buntings were about it for the day. We checked out Murder Point, South Beach, Big Lake, and Blue Robin Canyon but couldn’t find any other vagrants. Either they left overnight or never settled in this area. It was a little hard coming down from yesterday. Later we moved up to the runway area and some of us found a flock of Aleutian Terns (they seem to be arriving later than in the past, and declining throughout the Aleutians) and a few fly-over Pacific Golden-Plovers.
June 2: After yesterday’s showing, we did the only sensible thing – we went back to Alexei and Gilbert Ridge. Some of the birds from two days ago where still sticking around: the two Smew and Wood Sandpiper were on the ponds at the base of Alexei Point plus a male Siberian Rubythroat nearby. The point itself gave us another Asian shorebird, a Whimbrel of the variegatus subspecies. It has a few plumage differences from the North American subspecies, the most obvious being a white wedge on its back.
After finishing Alexei, Jess and a few participants boarded the Puk-uk for a trip over to Massacre Beach. The plan was for them to bird West Massacre Valley and Henderson Marsh while the rest of us hiked west along Gilbert Ridge. One of the most interesting birds of the trip was one that got away from Jess’s group. Just after landing on Massacre Beach, they briefly saw a “Snow Bunting” singing that was all white except for black wing tips. The local male Snow Bunting quickly chased it off. Based on the description, it sounds as though they just missed being the first to document a McKay’s Bunting on Attu. They had a few other interesting birds, though neither was seen very well. A snipe, most likely a Common, was flushed and then lost in the marsh, and an Eastern Yellow Wagtail was seen flying eastward towards the beach.
Meanwhile, back on the ridge, we had an Emperor Goose (but leader-only) and a Short-eared Owl. Just like the Short-eared Owl we saw last year, this one was very pale. The Short-eareds that show up on Attu are thought to be coming from Asia. Otherwise, most of the birds from our big day were gone. We had a fly-by Eastern Yellow Wagtail. It came by several minutes after the group in West Massacre Valley saw theirs, so it may have been the same individual.
At the end of the day, both groups met up to look for the possible McKay’s Bunting. No luck, but while we were just sitting around enjoying some great weather, Jill, one of the tour participants noticed that an Arctic Loon was foraging just offshore. It stayed around for at least 30 minutes, allowing some of the group who had decided to spend more time on Gilbert Ridge to catch up. That bird, coupled with dinner on the foredeck while enjoying the sunshine and the reflections of the ridge on the calm waters of Massacre Bay, was a great ending to the day.
June 3: We made plans to split up today. Even though this was my third year of bringing groups to the island, I had not yet visited Engineer Hill and the Japanese peace memorial. Four tour participants joined me on the climb up to the site of the last major Japanese attack of the Battle of Attu. The 70th anniversary of the attack happened just a few days earlier on May 29. Meanwhile, the others, led by Isaac and Jess, were heading back to Henderson Marsh to try to re-find the snipe from the day before.
As usually happens on Attu, we were a little distracted before we could get to our respective destinations. Isaac found a male Siberian Rubythroat singing from the top of some stream-side vegetation just west of the runway bridge over the Peaceful River. It was a bit more cooperative than our previous Rubythroats.
The trip to the memorial was interesting. Visiting this site where so many died in battle took me out of “birding mode” for the first time in several weeks. Of course, I still noticed the birds that were up here: a pair of Snowy Owls, a Rock Sandpiper near the memorial itself, and a possibly briefly heard Rock Ptarmigan. The ptarmigans are much, much more scarce than they were a decade ago, so this was notable despite the uncertainty.
The other group didn’t have much luck with the snipe. It was briefly heard calling, but it could not be located. Late in the afternoon, I went to check out Barbara Point while Isaac checked the shoreline near Navy Town. He turned up three Bar-tailed Godwits, our only ones for this trip. Everyone convened to get a look. The godwits were conveniently located as we had a 5 PM date near Smew Pond, not too far to the north. US Fish & Wildlife Service personnel were installing a new memorial commemorating Pvt. Joseph Martinez, the recipient of the only Medal of Honor awarded in the Battle of Attu, and they invited us to the ceremony. As we biked up there, an Eastern Yellow Wagtail called as it flew overhead.
As you can imagine, there weren’t many there, so it was a happy coincidence that we could provide more of a “crowd” for the ceremony. We had a small cookout afterward.
When we last left the passengers of the Puk-uk, they had just finished a day of birding in high winds, sideways rain, and sunshine…
After a night of drying out, we ready to go again on the morning of May 31. I thought the weather from the previous two days would have blown a lot of Asian migrants off course and deposited them on Attu. Gilbert Ridge and Alexei Point are some of the best for vagrants, so we decided to ditch the bikes for the day. We put ashore on Massacre Beach and hiked east along Gilbert Ridge. Within 30 seconds of starting, a pair of Bramblings flushed from the path. I was cautiously optimistic. We had begun other days with a quick start only to have no luck the rest of the day, so I wasn’t taking this as a sign of more to come, but I was still hopeful.
A few hundred yards down the ride, we flushed another Brambling. It flew down the ridge in front of us, but we couldn’t refind it. Then as we approached a bend in the ridge, I heard a different call note and a small, long-tailed bird flew around the corner. Based on its tail length and flight style, my first thought was Gray Wagtail. It landed near us on the beach, but took off again before I could get the binoculars to my eyes. I radioed to the trailing members of the group that a wagtail was flying toward them. They were able to get on it as it flew past. Jess thought he saw it put down, but it wasn’t there when we got to the spot.
Brambling – photo by Isaac Helmericks.
The group got back together, and we discussed the bird. Everyone saw yellow on the underparts and agreed that its call note was definitely not that of an Eastern Yellow Wagtail. Then Isaac and I hiked further back to see if it was on the shore. We still couldn’t refind it, but we flushed a male Siberian Rubythroat. Despite seeing exactly where it flew too, we couldn’t find it again for the one birder who missed the one on the previous day.
We gave up on relocating either the Gray Wagtail and Siberian Rubythroat and resumed hiking. There were more and more Bramblings along the way. Then a few birds would fly by us, high up on the cliffs. Their call notes suggested Rustic Bunting. Eventually, one cooperated enough for most of us to see it sitting on the cliff face. A few more Rubythroats revealed themselves. A female perched in the open on a rocky outcropping, so now everyone on the tour had a sighting of this skulking species.
Normally we finish this hike in the morning and have lunch near Alexei Point, but today we were slowed by all the birds. We had lunch just past the hike’s halfway point.
Up to this point, species diversity was a little low despite the good numbers of individuals. But we were soon to add to the species list. Jess quickly stopped to take a few shots of what turned out to be a Dark-sided Flycatcher. A few hundred yards further, at the base of Alexei Point, I noticed a large bird sitting on the road in front of us just as a tour participant asked, “What’s that?” It was a Common Cuckoo. It flew up, passed right over our hands and flew back down the ridge. Some of us followed and got scope views and more photos. The bird then flew back to where it had been originally, putting on a show for those who had chosen not to chase after it.
Dark-sided-Flycatcher – photo by John Puschock
Common Cuckoo – photo by Jess Findlay
At this point, we were starting to get giddy, and we were about to get even more giddy. Moving down onto Alexei, Isaac flushed a Wood Sandpiper from a pond. It flew to the other side, just out of view from the rest of the group. The plan was to walk around to the other side for a view, but there was a distraction we had to deal with first – a neighboring pond held two Smew. As we were admiring them, Isaac radioed that he just flushed another male Siberian Rubythroat. To give you some idea of how things were going, everyone ignored that bird.
Smews – photo by Isaac Helmericks
Siberian Rubythroat – photo by Jess Findlay
After the enjoying the Smew, we moved into position for the Wood Sandpiper and picked it out walking among the pond-side vegetation. Basking in our luck, Jess and I were talking when we heard the loud call note of another bird flying overhead. Simultaneously we called out, “Eastern Yellow Wagtail!” We then moved over to the other side of Alexei. Jess looked up at a gull and noticed a shorebird with a long decurved bill flying from east to west. He shouted, “Curlew!” I looked up too and saw what looked like a Long-billed Curlew. It looked a little dark for that species and giving where we were, I knew it wasn’t that, so I quickly followed up Jess with “Far Eastern Curlew!” Amazingly, everyone was able to get on it as it continued on to the west.
It was about 5 PM, and a few participants decided to retire to the Puk-uk. The rest of us made a clockwise loop around the point. It was surprisingly devoid of shorebirds, but at the southeastern part of the point, Isaac found a Gray-streaked Flycatcher and a flock of three Bramblings. Then we flushed another Common Cuckoo from shoreline. We had such a long and successful day that our reaction to this final vagrant for the day was muted. We were tired.
Gray-streaked-Flycatcher – photo by Isaac Helmericks
Brambling (left), Gray-streaked Flycatcher (right) – photo by Jess Findlay
Here’s the final tally of Asian species for the day:
Eurasian Wigeon – 2
Smew – 2
Wood Sandpiper – 1
Far Eastern Curlew – 1
Common Cuckoo – 2
Dark-sided Flycatcher – 1
Gray-streaked Flycatcher – 1
Siberian Rubythroat – 5-6
Eastern Yellow Wagtail – 1
Gray Wagtail – 1
Rustic Bunting – 5
Brambling – 13-15
The second trip to Attu this year started late. The flight from Adak was delayed an hour, and we didn’t get underway until after 8 PM. Since the wind was coming from the north, we wanted to head out on the south side of the islands for a more comfortable ride, so we headed to Little Tanaga Pass. There were less Whiskered Auklets around than in the morning, but we did encounter several good sized flocks at the south end of the pass.
The next day was uncomfortable with slow going into a headwind and bumpy seas. We saw two or three subadult Short-tailed Albatrosses, four Mottled Petrels, and one Red-legged Kittwake, but the views weren’t the best due to conditions. We had a much more pleasant experience the following day. As we traveled between Kiska and Buldir, I saw we were approaching a rise in the sea floor. I started chumming, and in about five minutes, an adult Short-tailed Albatross flew in from the port side and passed within 30 feet of the stern. It continued on down the wake and sat on the water. We turned the boat around to get another look at it. We had good views of it, but it would never approach the boat though I continued chumming. Later, Bill, the captain of the Puk-uk, told me this Short-tailed was only several miles from where we encountered one on the previous trip, so it may have been the same one.
During the next several hours, we had a few more Mottled Petrels and a Leach’s Storm-Petrel. We also spotted a few sperm whales. We passed north of Buldir just after sunset.
Normally, we would’ve been at Attu before sunrise on Wednesday, the third full day of the trip, but the late start out of Adak and the poor conditions on Monday put us 12 hours behind schedule, so as the sun rose that day, we were still east of Shemya. We had smooth sailing overnight, but the winds picked up out of the southwest around 6:30 AM. It was a bit uncomfortable, but not nearly as bad as it had been on Monday. Early in the morning, a Mottled Petrel suddenly appeared just off the starboard side of the bow. It momentarily flew along with us and then made a left turn to pass in front of the bow. This was our best look yet at this elusive species, but unfortunately only a few of us were awake and above deck to see it.
The next few hours were uneventful until we entered the pass between Alaid and Attu. Isaac Helmericks, one of the guides on the trip, mentioned that Mottled Petrels are occasionally seen in good numbers here, and within five minutes, we started to detect some flying towards the northeast. Then we detect a few more…and a few more. It became evident that we were witnessing a major movement, and the photographers grabbed their cameras and moved out to the aft deck. Petrels were now passing us in an almost continuous stream, and at times five or more could be seen at once.
The petrel show continued all the way to Attu. There were still some flying by us well into Massacre Bay. The last one we encountered was only about ¾ of a nautical mile from the mouth of Casco Cove. Had we made the effort, we probably could’ve have seen some from land. We didn’t count how many we saw, but we estimated 300. Considering that we just happened to pass through this mass movement and have no idea when it actually began or ended, the number of petrels going through this pass that day could have been much higher.
Once we anchored in Casco Cove, we unloaded the bicycles and began birding as quickly as possible. The southwest winds at sea continued blowing through most of the afternoon before subsiding. I didn’t have access to a weather map, but I was hopeful that this weather was a sign that a storm was moving across the Aleutians, raising the possibility of vagrants arriving from Asia. We found a Eurasian Wigeon, a Tufted Duck, several Aleutian Terns, and a pair of Snowy Owls. The owls were in the same location – the lower slopes of Weston Mountain – where we found them nesting last year.
Winds were calm again on Thursday morning. We had been birding only a short time when Jess Findlay, another guide, found a male Siberian Rubythroat at Tattler Creek on the west side of Casco Cove. With such a quick start, I had high hopes for the day, but within an hour, the winds quickly picked up from the northwest. Soon they were howling and the bike ride up the north-south runway became an ordeal. Sustained winds were probably 30-40 mph, and Captain Billy reported gusts up to almost 60 mph back at the boat. At one point, I was riding up the runway when I found myself making an unplanned 90-degree right turn thanks to a gust of wind. Jess said he was literally knocked off his bike. We birded West Massacre Valley but didn’t turn up anything, which wasn’t a surprise considering the weather. In typical Aleutian fashion, the wind was accompanied by rain AND sunshine. Even though it was horrible weather to be birding in, I took it as a good sign that a storm was moving through. The change in the winds, along with their intensity, suggested that a low pressure system had just passed us. I was thinking the next day could be good.
We’ve just returned from Zugunruhe Birding Tours’ first trip of 2013 to Attu. Normally, we do this as a two-week trip, but this one was only one-week long with only two days at Attu. It was so short because we were joining a Japanese television crew’s charter to the island. They were working on a show about the Battle of Attu — this year marks the 70th anniversary of the fighting – and they shared their unused space onboard the boat.
We departed Adak in the early evening of May 19. While there were birds around us immediately, mostly alcids, Northern Fulmars, and Laysan Albatrosses, we had to wait for the next morning to get one of our big targets: Short-tailed Albatross. An adult came up from behind on the starboard side. We slowed and it landed on the water. It wasn’t interested in chum, but it sat on the water for several minutes, giving great views.
Continuing westward, there was another sighting of an adult Short-tailed Albatross about an hour later. It’s hard to say if it was a different bird or not.
The next bit of excitement came late on the same day. Mottled Petrels started to fly from north to south in front of us. They were extremely fast. It was hard to get a good look at them, and there was no hope of a photograph. One would appear every 15 minutes or so, and that continued until we had counted at least nine. There was a break in the action a few hours before dark, but the show continued the next morning. Just east of Buldir, another six or so petrels flew in front of us just like the previous night. Again, they were too fast for photos.
We arrived at Attu on May 22. We had a late start and only birded around Casco Cove, the runways, and the Peaceful River. The only Asian birds of note were six Tufted Ducks and one male Eurasian Wigeon.
On May 23, we birded longer and had more to show for it. At sunrise, there was a Slaty-backed Gull with a group of Glaucous-winged Gulls on Casco Cove. The gulls drifted off before most of the group got a look at the Slaty-backed, but the gull was kind enough to make another showing less than two hours later at the south end of the north-south runway. This time it stuck around long enough for everyone to get scope views of it.
Our next stop was Smew Pond and Henderson Marsh. There was nothing on the pond, so we continued on and birded the hillside on the north side of the valley here. A Brambling made an appearance, giving scope views. Meanwhile, my co-leader, Jess Findlay had been walking around the marsh. He had heard a call note that he didn’t recognize but he couldn’t find what was making it. Most of the group followed him back to where he had heard it, and we quickly flushed a Wood Sandpiper. We got a scope on it, but we momentarily forgot about it when I spotted a small duck flying up the valley – it was a female Smew. Talk about luck.
Departure time came way too fast, and by 6:45 PM we were headed back to Adak. As we passed by the east end of Attu, we were greeted by a large pod of Killer Whales. There were also several flocks of gulls on the water. They were mostly Glaucous-wingeds, but two Slaty-backeds and a probably Vega Herring Gull were mixed in.
On the afternoon of May 24, we were almost at Kiska when a subadult Short-tailed Albatross flew up our wake. We slowed and began chumming. Like before, the Short-tailed wouldn’t join the Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, but it did sit nearby, allowing us to soak it in. We were also able to soak in a second-year Red-legged Kittiwake. When we started chumming, this gull flew right up to the stern of the boat. At times, it was less than ten feet from us. We had seen about 10 adult Red-leggeds previously, but they were all quick fly-bys. This was the best look at one for the entire trip.
May 25 was our last full day at sea. While crossing Amchitka Pass, we saw another dozen Mottled Petrels. Again, they went by too quickly to get a photograph. We made it to the south side of Gareloi Island in the afternoon. Here we found two Black-headed Gulls.
As the sun rose on the final day of the tour, May 26, we approached Little Tanaga Strait, one of the best places on earth to see Whiskered Auklets, and today was no exception. The auklets were scattered about the strait in groups. The largest one had several thousand individuals. We spent over an hour studying and photographing these guys before heading back to the dock at Adak. We’ll pick up a new group and head back to Attu on a two-week trip.
For 4 years Jeff Skrentny and I have been working on an Illinois Big Day route that might beat the (then) standing one-day total of 184 species set on May 17, 1997. We tried west-to-east. South-to-north. North-to-south. The Illinois River valley. Our first attempt went so badly, that by 6pm, our team found itself drowning sorrows in beer and whiskey at an outdoor café on the Fox River. Our next two attempts got into the 150s and 160s, but there’s a huge canyon between that and the rarefied air of the 170s. Last year in June, we tried a new route starting in the far NW corner of our state on the Mississippi River, and finishing south of Peoria…
Great success! This route had some spunk … and an amazing array of breeding birds. Our tally of 163 blew the previous June record out of the water by a clean 20 species—and I knew that with some modification, this route would take the gold. We just needed the right day, and a little magic.
Then, a week before our plans were to meet action, the down-state Big Day Boys: Keith McMullen, Travis Mahan, Tyler Funk and Leroy Harrison raised the bar: they had 187 species on May 6. This was a serious challenge. There have only been 3 efforts that have been in 170s in the past 13 years, and none in the 180s until last week. The heat was on!
The last couple of years taught us a hard lesson: you cannot schedule a big day. It happens to you. Or not. So, in the weeks running up to the “sweet spot” of May 10—15, we put together a plan to have that week open, and be able to make two runs if needed. We chose one date, May 12, and were leaning heavily on May 15 as a back-up date.
That day was good, but not great. Jeff and I, along with Adam Sell, Larry Krutulis, Josh Engel and Karen Mansfield finished with 175 species, and immediately began talking about Wednesday. But Sunday was a hard, raw, cold day that took a toll on us. After birding nearly 24 hours, Monday was shot. We have families, jobs, kids and other obligations. Adam slept through his alarm and didn’t make it to work Monday. He took himself off the team for Wednesday, fearing he might his lose job as an elementary school teacher if he took the day off. Josh couldn’t make it work with his work schedule, and neither could Karen. Jeff and I were getting serious pushback from our families.
Meanwhile, I was watching the weather.
The birding gods were taunting us. Migrants were piled up to the south. Galveston and High Island were still overrun. The massive cold front that made Sunday so miserable went all the way into the Caribbean…but it was being quickly bullied out of the way by a hot, dry system that would result in the most dramatic May warmup (55° temperature increase in 48 hours) Chicago has ever recorded. BUT THEN … but then, another, weaker cold front was to enter the area from the northwest in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. It looked like this when it actually occurred:
Look at how the winds coming from the northwest push into the stronger flow from the southwest. Birds hitting this while migrating at night will not continue. They’ll put down more or less where they hit the cold, oncoming winds. This was to occur right where we were planning to start our Wednesday effort. Here is what is actually looked like, Tuesday night at 10pm:
…see how the blue and green blobs, indicating migrating birds, stops right where the NW wind meets the SW wind? This is the recipe for a great birding day, if those two systems happen to meet over your head in the early morning—which they would. Jeff was putting together a team, while I worked on tweaking the route based upon what we learned Sunday, and new intel coming my way. Monday morning we had a 4-top: Bob Hughes and Larry Krutulis would join us.
But then Adam had spoken with his supervisor at the school where he teaches and was suddenly back in the game! To make renting a van affordable, we had to have a 6th … and, a 6-person team, I think is the perfect number. Big enough to catch most everything, but still operate within the 95% rule. Early in the spring I had asked Michael Retter if he was interested in joining us if we had a slot open. He was. I called Monday afternoon and asked if he was ready and able to do the run Wednesday … and a new team was born. The Mighty Jizz Masters would take to the road once again.
While Jeff carried out the logistics of renting the van, I continued tweaking …well no, let’s be honest: making dramatic, untested last-minute changes to our route. Based on what we learned Sunday, and the intel that came to me Monday, that route would not do the job. Our afternoon and evening would be uncharted territory for us…
11:30 pm, Tuesday May 14
The team assembled at my house in Berwyn. We loaded up the Chrysler Town & Country, grabbed a cup of coffee at the Dunkin’ and head east on the Eisenhower Expressway to Lincoln Park, just north of downtown Chicago. We arrived at the Promenade south of South Pond at 11:54pm, and were watching a Cooper’s Hawk sitting tight on a nest, and several Black-crowned Night Herons, by the light of sodium-vapor streetlamps.
12:00:02 am, Wednesday May 15
We have our first two species of the day, and head west. As was the case on Sunday, these would be the only Night Herons and Cooper’s Hawk we would see that day.
We arrive at the marshes near Lock & Dam 13 on the Mississippi River. I broadcast a Sora call, and nothing answers. Nothing would continue to answer while we were there. I tried Virginia Rail, but they were with the Soras. I tried Common Gallinule, and a Coot responded. But then the Gallinules, as they are wont to do, couldn’t restrain themselves and started calling back. A flyover Dickcissel was our first dirty bird of the day … two of our team didn’t hear it. Time to go.
Our Screech Owl was on-station, and 4am found us trolling the backroads north of Mississippi Palisades State Park listening for Barred Owl. We soon found an obliging pair caterwauling from a steep hillside, and were off for the Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi NWR.
The Lost Mound (as I’ve written before), is an eerie place in the dark. It’s an abandoned Army depot, and crazy-shaped buildings lurk in the overgrown landscape. It’s also an amazing place to find birds. We arrived at 4:30 and trolled the area listening for a Great Horned Owl. Silence.
The wind was near calm, and the temp was hovering just below 70°. As the eastern sky began to color up, the first Whip-poor-wills began calling and that set off the morning chorus. Our list grew rapidly with goodies like Clay-colored Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, Blue Grosbeak, Henslow’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Summer Tanager, Western Meadowlark and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Alder, Willow and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers.
By 6:30am we had ticked over 100 species. An hour later we began working the ravines at Mississippi Palisades State Park. Birds were singing everywhere, and our total continued to climb. Kentucky Warblers and Ovenbirds rang out every hundred yards or so. The place was full of warblers and thrushes. Cerulean, Yellow-throated, Hooded, Prothonotary, Pine, Northern Parula and Louisiana Waterthrush were all on-territory and singing loudly. I spotted a small bird in a brush pile by a stream that I expected to be a waterthrush, but score! It was a Mourning Warbler that teed up beautifully for us. By the time we left the park, we had 131 species, including 28 warblers.
After a few quick stops on the big river (where Adam plucked a couple of Canvasback out of thin air), we headed south. A short stop in Henry county netted a few species, and lunch time found us at Hennepin-Hopper Lakes in Putnam county. The mid-afternoon doldrums had begun, the temps were rising into the 80s and birds were quiet. But the specialty species we came for: Yellow-headed Blackbird and Prairie Warbler were there to meet us. Gotta fly.
We stopped quickly at Banner Marsh in Fulton county to scope an Osprey nest there (tick), and headed south to Clark Rd. and Emiquon NWR. On the way, Adam yells, “hang on .. hold it!” We were zooming down Rte. 24 when he said he saw “white things by the side of the marsh … they were either Cattle Egrets, or trash washed up.” We turned around. They were Cattle Egrets.
Birding with this team was humbling and exhilarating. Adam can pick out a Blue-winged warbler song from the woods while bombing down a back-road at 30mph. Bob’s eyes never seem to leave the skies, and no soaring raptor can escape. Retter’s a professional birding guide, and it showed. Nothing could escape us. If it was there, we’d see or hear it.
Emiquon was hot and slow. But we picked up a breeding plumaged Horned Grebe, Bell’s Vireo, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Snow Goose, Marsh Wren and Eurasian Tree Sparrows that Larry was able to coax out of the scrub near the observation deck.
Now we faced another long haul … but this was into unknown territory for us. The drive to Meredosia was quiet. We were in the mid-170s, the day was running out and we couldn’t see a clear path to 188. Jeff was becoming irritated. It’s the unspoken part of doing a big day. We hear all about the awesome sightings, the strategy and so on … but the grunt-work: the driving (especially, and Jeff is an especially gifted driver), and staying on-your-game when you’ve been up and going at it for 18 hours—with another day’s-worth of work ahead of you—takes a toll. Spirit begins to crash. Jokes aren’t as funny, and you have no idea how important having good jokes is when you’re trapped in a van with 5 guys for 27 hours. As we arrived at Meredosia, we were an hour behind schedule, tired and losing power.
We came over a rise on Toehead Road and there spread out before us, was hundreds of acres of flooded ag fields. We immediately picked out a pair of White-faced Ibis, then a Willet … and Northern Bobwhite called! A Dickcissel was singing nearby, cleaning up that dirty bird. But it was obvious that the hoards of shorebirds reported here Monday had left. We had one more stop for possible shorebirds a mile to the east … but that was it, and then it was back into the woods. We drove down Route 100, looking for a spot described to me by Kevin Richmond and Andy Sigler the day before. We came to what I thought was it, and … empty. The tension radiating from Jeff was palpable. He was hot, tired, and we weren’t going to make it. The back seats were quiet. We started south to cross the river again and head to where we would finish our daylight hours: Siloam Springs State Park. Again, we came over a rise, and saw another flooded ag field, and Bob, sitting behind me, calls out “AVOCETS!!”.
The birding gods appreciate grit, turmoil and angst. They threw us a bone. That stop netted us not just American Avocet, but also Wilson’s Phalarope, White-rumped Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs.
We were at 184 and hauling ass across Pike county. We had 3 target species: Worm-eating Warbler, Bewick’s Wren and Chuck-wills-widow. But even if we scored all 3, that only left us tied. Which was not an option.
We arrived at Siloam Springs at 6:40, and went straight for the old picnic area where the Wormies live—and is also great habitat for migrants, with a happy little bouncing stream. Safely exceeding the speed limit, we cruised through the park to the spot…
…and found the road closed. A mile away from the warblers. Jeff’s frustration was now at a rapid simmer. The birding gods chuckled from their perches, “Can’t make it too easy on them can we? Respect is everything“, they mused.
We turned around and went back to the HQ buildings where a pair of Bewick’s Wren lives. We stood. We waited. We listened. We waited. We paced. We searched. Jeff was about to snap. The team was losing juice. We were hot, sticky-sweaty, very very tired and losing focus. Failure was staring us in the face.
A small bird flew past, and a second later, the ringing song of a Bewick’s Wren erased the heaviness! The birding gods were back on our side, the fickle bastards. Then a Black-billed Cuckoo flew past! We had to find some more migrants. We were still missing Blackburnian, Wilson’s and Canada Warblers, as well as Belted Kingfisher, Sedge Wren, Virginia Rail, Blue-headed and Philadelphia Vireos … there was still hope, but we HAD to find a pocket of migrants, and fast. The clock was ticking, it was 7:15pm and we had to be at our Chuck-will’s-widow location by 8:10pm. We pished until we nearly passed out. We screeched. We found birds, but nothing new. Time was up. Gotta go.
Assuming the Chuck came out to play, that would put us at a tie, and then maybe a V-Rail in the dark would put us over the top. Maybe. We cruised down Co. Rd. 950N, through a gallery of planted pines on one side, and rich oak forest on the other. A large brown bird launched out of the trees ahead of us, and swooped low to a landing across the road. As it did, the pale crescents on the wing-tips flashed out: RED-SHOULDERED HAWK!! We glassed it briefly before it took of down the road again, and then flew up and out to the right. We TIED. Now if only that Chuck will…
…while we were high-fiving, the high piercing whistle of a BROAD-WINGED HAWK came from overhead to the left! Then again, just to make sure we heard it. 188 … we did it. We *&!!*?##ing did it!!! We laughed and cheered like the inmates at Wrigley Field when the Cubs make a base hit.
We got to Buckhorn in Brown County and settled in to wait for Chuck. We were happy to the point of giddiness. Adam started a pool: what time would Chuck-will’s-widow start singing? We all put in our bets, and while mindlessly rubbing the bag of lucky charms my wife gave me to carry on my big days, I blurted “8:27.”
We stood around swatting at midges, talking about how tired we were, our allergies … and we took a picture:
The Mighty Jizz Masters (v2). Left to right: Bob Hughes, Jeff Skrentny, Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis, Adam Sell, Greg Neise, Michael Retter. Note that I am pointing to our mascots, Fluffer and Ms. Thatcher, on the dash. (iPhone photo by Jeff Skrentny)
…soon the sky was deep blue-violet, the woods were dark and ringing from the green depths:
“Hey Adam, what time is it??”
There was a lot of snuffly snoozing in the back of the van as we made the two-and-a-half hour trip back to Hennepin-Hopper.
We arrived at the Urnikis Rd. access, opened the doors of the van, and were flabbergasted: all you could hear were Gray Treefrogs. They overpowered everything in the marsh … what a change from Sunday night’s 39° where all we could hear were bitterns and rails. But speaking of bitterns, he would have none of that, and sub-woofering from the marsh came:
UUMP a BLOONK! UUMP a BLOONK! UUMP a BLOONK! (190)
…and a Great Horned Owl hooted off in the near distance (191).
Time to go home.
The 1997 record mentioned in the first paragraph was the effort of a team that included Bob Hughes. It was especially good to have him on the team that recaptured the title.
A few stats:
COMPLETE CHECKLIST (340K .pdf)
Total mileage: 851
I had calculated 166 tier 1 species (common birds that we should expect to find). We hit 98.7% of those. Misses:
Our day total was 94.5% of our total tier 1+2 species. I had speculated that to set a record, we had to hit at least 93%.
We had 30 species of warblers. The only real “miss” there was Blackburnian, though I would have thought we might see a Wilson’s, too.
We had 17 species of waterfowl, which is about par for the course. Good, but nothing really outstanding, and we missed Trumpeter Swan.
We had 18 species of shorebirds, which like the waterfowl, is par for the course. With all the habitat at Toehead, I would have expected more diversity.
We had 9 flycatchers, which I thought was very good for May 15.
Of the expected breeding birds (there’s ~140 possible on this route) we only missed 3: Least Bittern, Virginia Rail, and Sandhill Crane.
I had predicted 36 Tier 2 species (relatively common, but cannot be counted on): we found 55.5% of those.
I had predicted 36 Tier 3 species (present, but scarce and difficult to find): we found 33% of those.
We had 5 “off the radar” species: Snow Goose, White-faced Ibis, American Avocet, Chuck-will’s-widow and Bewick’s Wren.
Lastly, we wouldn’t have had a chance if not for the incredible scouting efforts by Andy Sigler and Kevin Richmond.
1 obsessed birder who’s also an imaginative geek
1 humongous eBird database with bazillions of records
1 American Birding Association (ABA) – setting the structure & rules for listing birds
3 days of being down with the flu during spring migration
1. Download data into spreadsheets from eBird rolled up by all 63 States and Provinces for all months and all weeks of the year (48 eBird weeks—4 per month) for all years through 2/22/2013 (a snowy Ohio day).
2. Load spreadsheets into a SQL Server Express database that I configured on my trusty laptop.
3. Write pivot queries to flip the data so I can easily analyze data month-by-month and week-by-week and State and Province. Load data into these new tables.
4. Stir in imagination during daily one-hour commutes each way back and forth to work.
5. Get clobbered with a horrendous case of the flu which puts me down hard with a hectic schedule with no wiggle room.
6. Spend first 33 of the first 36 hours sleeping. Spend the other 3 hours close to some necessary porcelain.
7. Wake up with an idea to test out a “mini” Big Year strategy with the data that has been sitting on the sidelines since February. Yeah. It’s been a busy year. The idea is just a proof of concept, before putting in a lot of work for something on a larger scale.
8. Choose 12 weeks of the year to do a Big Year—one for each month. Select the best State/Province and the best week for January. After you have January species list, select the best State/Province and the best week for February that has the most unique species that are not already a part of the January species. Repeat for the remaining months of the year.
That’s my first Theoretical Big Year on paper. Do you like the idea? Haha. It doesn’t matter. I do. If you want to stop reading go ahead…it won’t offend me. I’m obsessed. I love this stuff. I may never execute this plan, but I want to test the concept for a true Big Year. Am I getting ready to do another Big Year? The short answer is “Yes”. The longer answer is more complicated. I need 3 things: 1) Good health—increasingly important in the last 15 years since the first Big Year; 2) A whole year off. I really don’t want to try what I did the first time around. That was a most exhausting year; and 3) Gobs of money. As you may have guessed, I do not have all three of these items just yet. But at least I can prep myself with new data.
As I started to say in the last paragraph before I got distracted with squirrels and shiny things, I am going to tell you more about what my database recommended. There was a lot of good and a few surprises that will need some tweaking. Ready? Here we go.
What States/Provinces, and weeks in each month were chosen and how many species have been recorded in those locations during those weeks?
January 15-21 (week 3) – Texas – 432 species
February 22-28 (week 4) – California – 424 species
March 22-31 (week 4) – Arizona – 358 species
April 22-30 (week 4) – Texas – 497 species
May 22-31 (week 4) – Alaska – 347 species
June 8-14 (week 2) – Arizona – 332 species
July 1-7 (week 1) – Maine – 266 species
August 1-7 (week 1) – Florida – 247 species
September 15-21 (week 3) – Alaska – 289 species
October 8-14 (week 2) – California – 500 species
November 8-14 (week 2) – Kansas – 223 species
December 1-7 (week 1) – Massachusetts – 265 species
Surprises anyone? No Washington? No North Carolina? No Colorado? No Minnesota? No Newfoundland? No Ontario? It certainly did not pick what I would have picked. Arizona in June? Really? I think the birds are not as numerous and seem to be more quiet than in July after the summer monsoons. The degree of discomfort would be high. Speaking of discomfort, can you believe the first week of August in Florida? Ugh. There is so much humidity that it seems like there is not enough air to breathe.
How many total ABA species have been recorded in eBird at these locations during these specific weeks of the year? The grand total is a jaw-dropping 807 species! But this just raises a bigger question: Just how many species can one really expect to see? Of course, no one can run out and see all 977 species on the ABA list. Some of those birds have only been recorded once and can not really be expected to be seen again. I did some tweaking and figure that this schedule represents a possible 626 species for a seasoned birder who has up-to-date local information for each of these locations and knows what to expect. For an intermediate birder with very little planning who just visits all these locations at these dates and randomly birds unique habitats in exploratory mode can easily expect nearly 500 species.
Revised expectations (aggressive advanced/easier intermediate):
January 15-21 (week 3) – Texas – 220/111 species
February 22-28 (week 4) – California – 201/103 species
March 22-31 (week 4) – Arizona – 188/99 species
April 22-30 (week 4) – Texas – 293/133 species
May 22-31 (week 4) – Alaska – 197/110 species
June 8-14 (week 2) – Arizona – 188/96 species
July 1-7 (week 1) – Maine – 166/84 species
August 1-7 (week 1) – Florida – 142/77 species
September 15-21 (week 3) – Alaska – 183/95 species
October 8-14 (week 2) – California – 210/100 species
November 8-14 (week 2) – Kansas – 142/85 species
December 1-7 (week 1) – Massachusetts – 115/57 species
Just looking at these totals might lead one to believe that the easy pace would only net you half the total species of the aggressive schedule of the advanced birder. But that is not true. The number of unique species at each location makes up for this. That advanced total is 626. The easier schedule of the intermediate birder should net 475 species with relative ease at a leisurely pace.
This is not the most pleasant schedule as I touched on above. Nor is it the least expensive way to get to 600 either. Two trips to Alaska are not cheap.
This was very fascinating to me. What does Kansas have to offer? Plenty. I went to neighboring Oklahoma during my Big Year. Things like Smith’s Longspur and Harris’s Sparrow should whet your appetite. Did you know Kansas is good for winter raptors? And don’t forget the waterfowl, too. If I was planning to go to Kansas, I would have chosen central Kansas for the large flight of shorebirds that go north through the heart of the continent.
Did you know American Woodcock is rare on this schedule? Yeah. And Gray Vireo didn’t even rank as a target as the Frequency of Checklist percentages were just too low. These are just a couple of things that occurred because of how I approached the data in monthly sequence.
But this is just the first try. It’s going to take some work to make it viable. And if I’m lucky, I’ll also make it dynamic so I can make educated adjustments along the way. Now, what would I find if I did a big month with 4 trips in one month? I hope I don’t have to wait to be sick again to find out.
There you have it. My first stab at a Big Year on paper using eBird. Do you eBird? You should. Go to http://ebird.org to find out more. To find out more about the rules format and structure for listing bird species, click here.
Citation for the eBird data used in this article:
eBird. 2013. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: February 22, 2013).