Proof of Concept: Theoretical 12-week Mini Big Year

Greg-Miller-2010_MayIngredients:

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

Directions:

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

12-week-Mini-Big-YearSurprises 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).

Great birds at the Great Swamp; Rhode Island big year update

In my last blog entry, I mentioned having started a big year in 2012 before getting overwhelmed with work and quitting the whole thing after about a month and a half of birding.  Well, that is NOT happening this year!  It has been a very tough first four months for me, and finding the time and resources necessary to do this right has been difficult, and, accordingly my list has suffered a bit. There are definitely a few winter species that I missed that are not sure things when the weather turns cold again.  That’s certain.  Most notable of these species are Black Guillemot and Pacific Loon, both of which were seen reasonably reliably this winter in Rhode Island, and I just couldn’t make it happen.  It was very frustrating to say the least.  I missed the damned Pacific Loon on four freezing cold occasions! It was hard to take when the bird was seen again a few days later and I couldn’t get over there.

The worst photo ever of a Greater Yellowlegs.  State bird # 148

The worst photo ever of a Greater Yellowlegs. State bird # 148

I now sit at 152 species for the year, which is quite a few species behind in the running on our State listing website.  I’m not too worried about most species, but a few RI birders were lucky enough to get to see an overwintering Rufous Hummingbird at a private residence in Jamestown, and a Long-eared Owl, which will be pretty tough to turn up next fall and winter.

So far this year, my best bird would be a Northern Lapwing.  It was a life bird, as well as ABA area and state bird for me.  There were two seen for several days in Tiverton, RI before the blizzard in early February hit.  The birds were on private property, and not always visible from the road, but with a little tenacity and patience, most birders were rewarded with good views of both birds together.  I only got to see one, but that’s all it took!

Yesterday I took a walk around the Great Swamp Management Area hoping to see the Pectoral Sandpipers previously reported by John Magill.  As I got to the freshwater impoundment I could hear my first Barn Swallows of the year clicking away, as they flew with more numerous Tree Swallows, both species flashing their fresh, metallic blue backs.  A little further down the trail was a pair of Wilson’s Snipes probing deep into the mud, on a small island.  One of the birds flew to another patch of mud and grass, where a lone Pectoral Sandpiper was roosting, score! Number 151.

On the way back to the car, I was watching a proud male Bluebird exalting from the top of an oak tree, when I heard a familiar sound coming from out of my binocular view.  I hadn’t quite put a face to the sound yet, as it appeared in my sight, still calling.  It was an Eastern Kingbird, which then marauded the Eastern Bluebird and kicked him off his perch as it flapped triumphantly and splayed its tail to perch and flash its crisp white terminal band.  It was cool and exciting to see some new arrivals!  I love this time of the year, when there are birds starting to show up, and not really any leaves out yet, but I’m really excited for what’s to come; warblers and of course, leaves!

Spring time, the only pretty ring time...

Birds sing, hey ding. A-ding, a-ding…

I’m shaking in my hiking boots, I’m so nervous.

“Wait for it … Just wait for spring.”  “You haven’t had a Spring yet??”  “Be prepared!!”

And it’s here!  I don’t know if I’m ready … but ready or not, my very first spring as a birder.

I began birding in August of 2012.  About 8 months ago.  I was growing tired of the day-to-day routine of sitting in the car while my toddler napped.  I wanted more than anything for him to just fall asleep in the house, but I had tried everything.  I’d read, play with my phone, or, if the weather was decent, sit on the driveway and soak up some sun.

Oh, how my life was going to change…

It was on one of those sunny days that I happened to glance at tree in my yard.  Not too far away was the most beautiful little bird.  I thought to myself, “So YELLOW!!  This bird must’ve escaped from a cage somewhere!  We only have drab birds here in Central IL, right?”  I watched for a bit and noticed this amazing bird was not alone!  They flew around the neighborhood and in and out of my trees.  I knew I needed to find out what they were.  How have I never noticed these before?

A quick Google search and I was instantly shamed.  An American Goldfinch… wow.  Common??  Where have I been?  What else am I missing?

The next few days were a whirlwind.  I snatched up my camera each day, originally bought to take pictures of my handsome boy, and tried to find as many birds as I could.  Limited only to afternoon nap time, I was trying to find birds with no binoculars, solely from the car, and not wake a baby in the process.  Probably not the most ideal way of starting out…good thing I like a challenge.  😉

Sitting at my dog’s vet appointment, I remembered that the family vet and friend was into birds.  I showed Matt Fraker a couple pictures I had taken while driving around.

“Nice … decent pics … now, what’s this?”  He held up my picture of a tall, slender white bird.  “Um…some kind of stork?,”  I said quietly.  I knew it wasn’t. But I didn’t know what it was and I could’ve died of embarrassment.  “Uh, well, ok…it’s a Great Egret. Let’s see what else you’ve got.”  How kind of him to put it so nicely.

Let me tell you something about myself: I hate to be wrong.  I quickly learned how much it takes to “be right” in birding—and the humbling notion that sometimes, I just won’t know.  Thanks to Fraker, who lent me some decent binoculars and my first Sibley’s field guide … I was finally on the right path.

Rather quickly, I transformed from one who was practically blind, into someone whose eyes have been opened to an entire new world.  From black-and-white to color. I ‘m noticing trees, habitat, flowers, insects, these interesting new people…  Oh, the people.  My fellow birders who have welcomed me into this little community with open arms and ID help.  They are always quick to offer advice, point me in the direction of a next possible lifer, or teach me about eBird, iPhone apps, and ethics.

The bright yellow-gold of a spring American Goldfinch … unbelievable.  I’ll be forever grateful to that striking, common bird.  With spring here, I know I’m in for a wild ride.  Heck, it’s already been wild.  From starting off by snapping pics of House Sparrows and European Starlings in my yard, to seeking out migrants on Dauphin Island, AL, my life list is steadily growing.

I really could go on … and on … but I don’t have time.  I have bird pictures to go through, songs to listen to, guides to study.  Lists to organize.  Spring warblers!  Need I say more?

Really, what did I do before I found birding?  Or actually, before birding finally found me?

 

One of the firsts...

One of the firsts…

How to Annihilate a Record. Part 2.

jen_bEarly April in Cleveland is a truly bizarre and finger-biting time. The state RBA explodes with first-of-the-year migrants in the extreme southern counties of Ohio. You’ve never wanted to see a Yellow Warbler so badly in your life. After a long winter, reading the RBA and seeing “gnatcatcher… Yellow-throated Warbler… Black-throated Green Warbler…” — while there may be a last-minute snowstorm pending in the northern part of the state — is akin to your non-birding friend calling you from a vacation in Florida saying “yeah, I saw this black hawk-thing that eats snails and stuff and when we were in the Everglades your bird watching people found this thing called a La Sangria Flycatcher. I don’t know, its like 80 degrees and humid and the bugs are bad. Eew.”

It kills you. Inside.

Early April can bring rare overshoots, or western rarities blasted east on intense SW winds and fronts, or it can bring an unnecessarily elongated winter. Either migration is early or it’s late. Total tossup. In a big county year in Cuyahoga, you can pretty much bet that you’re going to score all kinglets, thrushes, vireos, and essentially ALL eastern warblers minus Swainson’s, in MAY. So April is for running around finding or chasing rarities. April on the Great Lakes means Bonaparte’s Gulls should make a spring push along the lakefront, and you’ve got one last shot at Black-headed Gull till fall. You cross all fingers and hope that the most easterly Smith’s Longspur flies overhead calling amidst a push of Laplands. The rest of April in Cuyahoga is spent hawkwatching on the lakefront, praying to the gods and winds for Golden Eagle and Northern Goshawk, and hoping for massive weather phenomena to create an early fallout.

NOT THE LEAST BIT

On April 2nd, a dear friend sent me one of the worst and most beautiful camera photos possible. She was driving through Rocky River Reservation, on the west side of Cleveland, a winding park that follows the course of the Rocky River. Rich woodlands, a few tiny marshes, and a golf course, all bordering suburban neighborhoods make this reservation the ultimate skinny riparian park.

The text photo was blurry as heck, showed tree branches, cattails, and an erect brown ball of brown at its center.  She spotted this brown thing while cruising around a corner at 35 mph, sitting in the passenger seat looking through the driver’s side window. She wondered if it was an immature Green Heron. I wondered if it was a freaking log.

In the milliseconds of looking at the photo on my equally horrible non-smart phone, I went from “it’s gotta be an immy Black-crown… oh, SHI… look at that neck, BITTERN.”

Gunning it to the spot, wahBAM!, sits the most striking American Bittern I’ve ever seen in the Great Lakes. Completely out of sorts alongside the road (happens in Florida, doesn’t happen here), under zero cover, this bird spent the next 4 days offering birders and photographers one of Ohio’s most cooperative American Bitterns in the history of all time. Folks came from Michigan and Pennsylvania to see it… because it just stood there… for four days. Hunting frogs. And standing there. In the open. For four days.

In urban/suburban Cuyahoga, with few healthy wetlands of any reasonable size, this was a miracle. Also, wicked point-blank digiscoped photos of its nostrils were obtained. That’s also a miracle. I had no idea how I was going to score American Bit, with few extensive cattail marshes in the Cleveland region. Jackpot.

 

Terrible and awesome. Cell photo by Natalie Moore.

Terrible and awesome. Cell photo by Natalie Moore.

 

Terribly awesome. JB

Terribly awesome. JB

As far as rare and thrilling finds went, early April was “the usual” with those first-of-year Barn Swallows, Louisiana Waterthrush, House Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and an awesome business-park-mudflat-hole Greater Yellowlegs next to a mall. Yes.

I went to Texas with Tropical Birding, to guide some tours at High Island’s Boy Scout and Smith’s Woods. A wicked awesome time.

While in Texas, I got a text: “WHITE-WINGED DOVE AT NICK BARBER’S PARENTS HOUSE”.

Dear god. Please. By all things righteous, keep the thing fat and happy with millet till I get home. A week later… the suburban Cooper’s Hawks must have targeted Mourning Doves instead. BOOM: White-winged Dove in the burbs of Cleveland, #137

Then.

UH-UH

Andy Jones, the Curator of Ornithology at Cleveland Museum of Natural History, happened to be grocery shopping at Heinen’s food market with his lovely wife Michelle, and looked up to the parking lot powerline to see a small crow call “uh-uh.”

Many documentary photos later and keen notes, and BAM!, Ohio has it’s SECOND record and FIRST nesting record of FISH CROWS in the middle of east Cleveland. WHAT? Six of them. WHAT!!???

Cleveland food markets attract first state nesting records.

Fish Crows – a group of 5 – #141

I had a mere few days before jumping back on a plane to Florida, with Tropical Birding, this time to guide field trips and speak at a festival. Least Terns, Wilson’s Plovers dancing around, Painted Buntings, a lifer Gray Kingbird, then it was back home.

On April 29th I attacked the CLE lakefront and picked up 15 new species. Wendy Park, one of the most important greenspaces in Cleveland, is but a mere 22 acres – half of which is mowed grass lot.  On its north side lies a massive harbor and Lake Erie. A small stand of cottonwoods is it’s core (tree lot small enough to be countable in number), but a large patch of goldenrod and some native grass species and brush borders its southern edge, which butts up to a rail yard, a marina, the Cuyahoga River mouth, and an iron ore plant. You cannot fathom how many birds passed and pass through this tiny speck of habitat just outside of downtown Cleveland. It would make you cry – the sheer intensity of birds that use this miniscule park as a portal for survival.

BETTING ON WENDY

On April 29th, I scored a major drop-in (2 steps down from a fallout) of migrants, with Broad-winged Hawks overhead and Lincoln’s Sparrows, Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, Palm Warblers, Savannah Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows just festering everywhere. I was walking a dog-walk path through the grass and brush on the south side of Wendy Park and a GRASSHOPPER SPARROW erupted out of the scrub – the most gorgeous, crisp, and buff-breasted #156 possible. Grasshoppers are extremely rare breeders in Cuyahoga County. We just don’t have sizeable, healthy fields here. Less agricultural fields then fingers on your left hand and we are suburban/urban to the hilt. Grasshop was a major score.

At this point I’m seriously regulating my working 8 hour days during the work week at Cleveland Metroparks by calculating as much possible birding time between dawn and getting to work on time. If I could keep up the pace, I could get in a solid two hours of birding before work and at least 2 hours afterwards. With Wendy Park sitting only 4.362 minutes away from my apartment, it was naturally the immediate choice to bet on for the morning hit.

May 1st. An early morning rainstorm vomited migrant passerines onto Cleveland. I could barely drive down the entrance road to Wendy without nearly hitting dozens of catbirds, warblers, hundreds of Zonotrichias, thrashers, kinglets, gnatcatchers… It was sheer mayhem. I pushed on slowly, knowing that the park must be loaded to the hilt. Turning into the gravel parking lot, a Golden-winged Warbler flew across the hood of my car and landed in a willow just beside. C’mon now. Golden-wing from the car. Score.

Threw the car into park and ripped open the door to hear DZEEE DZEEE. DZEE DZEE. Clay-colored. This is just stupid, now. Point-blank photos of not one, not TWO, but THREE Clay-colored Sparrows at Wendy. This was not on my radar till fall, and even then it’s a wildcard bird. High count record for single day in the region and possibly at one site in Ohio.

Wendy was just filthy with migrants, the entire woodlot just spewing passerines. Ovenbirds, Black-and-whites, Wilson’s, Nashvilles, Blue-headed Vireos, Great Crested and Least Flycatchers. A 12-species pickup landing me at 169.

Deuces. JB

Deuces. JB

CONNECT-ING

The next week was just RIPE. Between inland North Chagrin Reservation and Wendy Park I tagged 22 species, from Philly Vireo to Wood Thrush, Eastern Kingbird, Indigo Bunting and the like. On May 4th I hammered the lakefront then stopped over at my trusty mud-hole pond by Crocker Park mall and nailed Semipalmated Plover for 182.

May 5th and 9th saw more blasts of migrants and by May 19th I’d hit 200 species with Yellow-throated Vireo, and most warbler species under the belt except for the “Lates” – MOWA and COWA and OCWA.

May 20th saw me furiously birding the local lakefront hotspots, scoring a handful of Cape May Warblers (they pushed through late in May 2012 and were surprisingly less abundant then usual), and crossing all fingers for Connecticut. Elmwood Park in Rocky River was my last bet for the morning. A favorite amongst local birders, this park is sandwiched in suburbia but throngs of old oaks and maples rise from a rich streambed with tangles galore, a ballfield and playground. I met up with DG for a last-minute morning run of warblering. We scored another stellar Mourning Warbler amongst a slew of migrants.

“Look at that tangle, man. Look at it. It’s gorgeous. It’s all dark in there and that huge fallen tree… all sunlit and sh**… right up against the streambed… right by the field edge… THAT looks hella good for Connecticut. Seriously man, that would be ace. It looks so good. It just reeks of skulkers. It’s beautiful.”

We popped off 3 Connecticut Warbler songs with the iPhone, then called it quits and started loafing back to the car.

Then, I heard a Connecticut song erupting from behind me.

Turned back glaring and laughing at DG.

“DON’T f**** DO that to me MAN. That’s seriously messed up.”

“DO WHAT? I didn’t do anything.”

“Whatever MAN, you’re playing Connect on your iPhone. Cut that out.”

“It WASN’T ME, you crazy fool.”

“WHATEVER MAN, don’t…”

We looked at each other, cold gray in the face, then turned to the tangle and boooommm:

BEEEECHER BEECHER BEECHER BEECHER BEECH.”

I had a stroke, my heart short-circuited and we crept back to the tangle in a cold sweat.

201: Connecticut Warbler.

Cloud 29. Is there a cloud 29?

May 21st: Yellow-bellied and Alder Flycatchers and Orange-crowned Warbler, Common Nighthawk. 206.

Then, May 22nd happened.

 

IT’S ALL… possible.

At this point, I was a Facebook, listserv, and radar junkie. I was pulling reports, locally, regionally, statewide, and throughout the Great Lakes, analyzing trends, and popping three to four different radar plus 3 weather maps and apps on the laptop and ipad at a time. I was in the matrix, yo.

I landed on a photo and report from “Edward” from Edgewater State Park – across the street from my apartment.

“Red-throated Loon off of Edgewater beach”

RT Loon was on my November “possible” list. Red-throateds are wicked tough on the Ohio lakefront. Jerry McWilliams, from Erie PA, does Fall counts off of Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA, and regularly sees Red-throateds in small numbers. Sometimes more than Common Loons. But Red-throateds essentially STOP moving west at the Presque Isle, PA/ Conneaut, Ohio line. In Cleveland, although we’re only 1.5 hours away from Conneaut/Erie, you’re ridiculously lucky to get one or two in a given year. You can sit at Hamlin Beach, NY, and see hundreds in fall, but further west on Erie, you’re dreaming.

I thought Edward might have been…

Until I hit Edgewater SP beach the next morning and digiscoped the heck out of a gorgeous molting adult Red-throated Loon loafing in the surf off the beach.

208.

(And it would be only 1 of 2 Red-throateds in Cuyahoga in 2012).

Thanks Edward. JB

Thanks Edward. JB

  

WHAT TO DO ABOUT CUCKOOS?

I’d made it to May 30th without either Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos. And chat. I knew I could get both cuckoos as breeders but cuckoos are literally just that and they’re not consistent nor fully reliable, and I was shocked that I’d had neither as a migrant during the mega push days.

In comes Jaite Marsh, part of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

ONE territorial Yellow-breasted Chat, the ONLY one in Cuyahoga, turned up at Jaite, a wide, scrubby, brushy, willowy, riparian floodplain along the Cuyahoga River, bordered by rich woodlands.

I trekked to Jaite, scoring the chat, and exhaustively collapsed in a field. I was chilling on the ground, listening to Blue-winged Warbler overhead and a slew of other residents. Checking out skippers, katydids and beetles. Fried. Taking in the scenery.

A half hour later, a haunting, rich “Cooo…cooo, cooo coo, coo” and a Yellow-billed shot out of a stand of cottonwoods into a set of willows and maples, and a pair stared at me for ten minutes for #209.

Back in the car and winding through the Valley, ANOTHER cuckoo flew in front of the car and landed in a willow. I whipped off the road, refound it, and bam: Black-billed Cuckoo.

In a given year, most Cuyahoga County birders END the year with 185 – 200 species total.

I was sitting psyched at 211 species on May 31st. Time to pray for a summer of strays. And mudflats. For the love of all things good.

 

NEXT:

The Burke Project: miracles happen when you pray for mud. 

Florida Cannonball, part 5: That's a Wrap!

Eight birding locations; 10 hikes; 9.5 hours…

Yes, the boys can definitely cannonball…

I knew there would be differences in traveling with the boys versus Meredith. Meredith’s womanly maturity at 10 is a universe away from the two boys and their squirrelly ways which makes long days together easier. BUT…my days are actually longer with the boys because they get rolling early — not so with Meredith. She is proud and protective of her sleep.

Today we were once again in our car and amazingly rolling by 7:50 AM with ease. Our first stop was at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park — another location with a Mangrove Cuckoo report in the last several weeks. We hiked all three nature trails here — the Mangrove, the Wild Tamarind, and the Grove Trails. They are all well maintained trails of easy and pleasant lengths.

The Mangrove Trail is a pleasant boardwalk through White Mangrove forest. Despite the general inactivity, we managed to find this feral beast on the trail — a large Iguana:

The Wild Tamarind Trail goes through more of a mature West Indian Hammock forest. Here is one of a Great-crested Flycatcher pair vocalizing:

The Grove Trail is a little bit more miscellaneous and ends up out in a food producing open orchard.

After the three hikes, we checked out the cool aquariums in the visitor center and then hit the concession stand for sandwiches, a pretzel, and some ice cream for our late breakfast.

Our next stop was back to the Dagny Johnson Etc. State Park for a re-attempt at doing the nature trail in a more manageable fashion. Early on in the walk Hayden noted to daddy that “This is great! I get to add more painful memories of our trip!!” We did manage a nice hike through this park with Hayden this time finding another lizard with tail issues and allowing him reign on his sweatshirt (it was about 60 degrees this morning):

Near our exiting of this park, this White Ibis was stealthily foraging about the forest floor:

Our third location of the day was up in Kendall, Florida to look for Red-whiskered Bulbul for pictures (as I had found one on a previous trip). The day had become beautiful and we parked by the Kendall tennis courts and walked “around the block” that includes the tennis area. We whiffed on Bulbuls but did find this Broad-winged Hawk hanging out in someone’s yard:

Stop number four was Matheson Hammock County Park. If anyone is birding the Miami area, this spot is a treasure. It’s a gorgeous park that has open park-like areas, lots of mangrove habitat (and Cuckoos do occur here), a pond surrounded by good mixed sub-tropical growth — just a great spot. The boys and I hiked to and fro through the park looking for anything. Here was a welcome sign of things to come back home — a lovely male Black-and-white Warbler:

While I looked for and at birds, the boys played in the trees in an expected prosimian fashion:

We then went farther up the coast to Kennedy Park, hoping again for White-winged Parakeets or Spot-breasted Oriole. We did have a Kestrel and a Cooper’s Hawk here, but only hiked a short ways simply due to the quiet of the area — no psittacines were anywhere to be found here.

Our sixth stop was in the neighborhoods north of the Miami International Airport. We parked at the Fair Havens Nursing Home and walked a big loop down to the golf course and back on the Curtiss Parkway. Like every stop so far, Palm Warblers were easy accompaniment along with a striking Prairie Warbler in the Curtiss median. We also had another Broad-winged Hawk being chased by a Crow.

After our exploring of Miami proper, we headed off to the Pembroke Pines area for Purple Swamphen. We first walked the boardwalks over the very pleasant little wetland that sits off of the Southeast Regional Library. Sure enough — we flushed a gorgeously lit laser amazing Purple….bird with yellow legs. That would make it a Gallinule. But the boys also got to see it, as they did a prowling Green Heron that I got in the scope for both of them.

Having no luck with Swamphen here, we drove the short distance to the Silverlakes development, parked in the North Park area, and did our last long walk of the day down Sheridan Street looking for Swamphen along the marshy areas of the north shoreline of the big lake in the development. North Park is fenced off from the big lake so we had to get around this fence or else walk all the way back out and around to Sheridan Street. During our endeavors, we noticed that there was a White Ibis with a broken wing grazing in this park. We went around the south end of the fence, then walked it all the way to the north where we had to laterally scale a short section of it over some very soft calf deep muck to get to Sheridan St.

We saw Coot, Common Gallinule, and lots of Mottled Duck and Palm Warblers. Dixon gave me a “What are those, Dad?!?” as he found two Limpkins wading out of some thickets; here is one:

We soon found a third one tucked much closer in to where we were walking:

We walked allllllll the way down to the lakes northwest shore and then turned around for the long walk back. Shortly after we turned around, we had a Brown (or Striped) Basilisk do its classic basilisk two legged peel-out right out from under us and pause in feral fashion in this tree:

By the time we made it back to the fence, Hayden was almost sleep walking; none the less, the Fraker boys gunned it up one last time for a repeat fence scaling:

During my walk back, I began thinking that I did not recall Purple Swamphen actually getting its spot on the ABA list; and if I’m not mistaken, it remains uncountable.

From here, I had originally intended on shooting up to St. Petersburg to attempt the now countable Nanday Parakeets. But this day had wiped out me, my boys, and any realistic expectation of making the almost four-hour drive to St. Petersburg followed by the 17ish hour drive home to Btown. So I called off the last target bird and we typed in “Bloomington” to Siri and headed off, getting to Port St. Lucie before my children were about to starve to death. And that is where we are now, at another wonderful Hampton Inn.

Putting this hardass day into perspective is complicated. First of all, there is the zero out of four element. Mangrove Cuckoo, White-winged Parakeet, Spot-breasted Oriole, and Purple Swamphen all missed. Add to that the time and effort we put into a bird that cannot even be a target bird at the end of our day…

But I was not alone today. My undisputed preference for true cannonballing is daddy solo. And yet on this trip, all of my spawn proved worthy. Meredith did not surprise me — that poor lovely lady is held to such a high standard and yet she constantly achieves it. But what my boys just went through for two days — and today they were upbeat as hell all the way to the end — floored me.

If I had skipped the Pembroke Pines area, it would have shortened our day only to have them stuck in St. Petersburg looking for another urban exotic. Instead, they saw a Purple Gallinule, a Green Heron, a Common Gallinule, a Mottled Duck, and a Limpkin all for the first time.

I also have started thinking about the success of a target list not just as how many birds on the list are seen, but looking at them with coded point values. If we take the original working target list (without La Sagra’s Flycatcher as a 10 day “no report” and without Purple Swamphen which is not countable) and give the targets ABA code values here is what we have:

Seen: Groove-billed Ani (2), White-cheeked Pintail (4), Thick-billed Vireo (4): = 10

Missed: Mangrove Cuckoo (2), White-winged Parakeet (2), Spot-breasted Oriole (2): = 6

Spawn of Fraker New Lifers: Priceless

10 + Priceless > 6

It will take a few nights where my brain does not subconsciously continue to scan mangrove hammock canopy for a vertical bead while I drift away. I smell the fertile, stale moisture; I hear the lizards scooting through leaves; like its blue nemesis partner out west, should I ever see one it won’t be the end of looking, but certainly only the beginning.

Until next time you skulky bastard…

Florida Cannonball, part 4: Kid Swap

Friday morning I decided to take a different approach to the Mangrove Cuckoo. I headed over to Tarpon Bay early to rent a kayak and go do the Commodore Creek kayak/canoe trail.

I was met in the parking lot by this Pileated Woodpecker actively destroying a telephone pole that was covered with patch repairs thanks to this crested scoundrel:

I was the first person on the water; and I quickly found a new favorite way to look for Mangrove Cuckoos. It was about a half mile row to get to the trail proper, and then it was silent immersion, the kind of silence where even clearing your throat seems offensive to the air.

It dawned on me that with all of the hours I have logged on solid Mangrove Cuckoo habitat, I had not ever even heard one. There was a lot of tall mangrove canopy on this trail — just the kind of stuff the cryptozoologists who study this creature say they like.

Dale Birkenholz is a fan of birding by kayak and I can see why; many of the birds I did encountered hardly acknowledged me. Here is an indifferent Tricolored Heron:

and a calmly curious young Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with my kayak reflected in its eye:

And here is an eye level White Ibis foraging the shallows:

It was a solitude that is difficult to find on Sanibel; I’m glad I didn’t have it ruined by a Mangrove Cuckoo…

Now, the row in was with the surf behind me and with the current of this trail going with me; the row out which was close to a mile at least was all up the creek so to speak. But I did have a paddle…(for once).

I enjoyed the exercise and finally made landfall. I still had some time in my morning so I zipped over to the Bailey Tract for some general birding and found the opposite of what I had just experienced. There were a ton of people here on foot and on bike. I snagged a pic of a dapper male Mottled Duck:

and decided I was worn out and ready for family. We all gathered back at the crib, watched a little NCAA action while waiting for it to warm up a bit, then hit the beach and the cool ocean for some shelling.

I had planned on going back out into Tarpon Bay on Saturday, but overslept enough (i.e. up at 7:45) that being the first one on the water wasn’t going to happen.

I am a huge fan of Google aerial maps to find odd birding spots. On the aerials I had noticed that Captiva had an undeveloped arm of habitat that came off up where the maintenance area was located. On this wide little peninsula was an obvious track out to its north end.

I drove up to the maintenance complex and talked to a woman that worked there about the trail that took off from behind the complex. She said it was OK to go back there but looked concerned.

“There’s lots of snakes back there…”

That’s a bad thing?? I kept this in the thought bubble.

“Make sure you take your cell phone.”

Well that’s two for two on Fraker Fun.

I parked and walked back to the complex and found my way back to the track. From the aerials, it looked like this would be a shorter more scrubby Mangrove habitat, versus the taller canopy type habitat. And it was — the taller mangrove canopy had clearly been devastated by a hurricane in years past, leaving wall to wall Osprey housing. I had once again figured out going “where they ain’t”, they being the general public. This was a wonderful isolated hike that ended up lacking both Cuckoos and snakes.

Southwest Florida has four venomous snakes all of which have been reported from Sanibel-Captiva but only two have been confirmed. Florida Cottonmouths and Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnakes have yet to be confirmed here, while Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes were last confirmed in 1996 and are unlikely to still be here and the Eastern Coral Snake was last confirmed in 2002 but is likely still here.

This was a Palm Warbler that greeted me on my walk:

I saw my first Magnificent Frigatebird of our trip — this female:

And one for the mammal list, this Florida Swamp Rabbit:

At the end of my hike, a “Florida” Common Grackle had its blues and bronzes lit up nicely:

I went back to find the family was out and about. Sherri texted me that they were going to eat at RC Otter’s. I replied that I was going to take a catnap. Then she replied…

“They have Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA here.”

She wasn’t playing fair…

“Be right there.”

We spent our last day all together beach bound. Sherri and I had dinner at the Mucky Duck that night where I of course had to run for mayor and invite total strangers to join us for dinner. The wait for inside was two hours. But you could order appetizers and have them in ten minutes if you were eating outside. Because there weren’t really any places outside either, I invited a crew to sit with us. We ended up having a fantastic time with this mom/dad/daughter/son-in-law foursome. The son-in-law and I were hell on their Jai Alai IPA stock. He was a microbiologist and we discussed the “Post-Antibiotic Age”. The general idea of this dark specter is that bacteria are blowing away are ability to keep up with antibiotics. At the current rate of developing resistance versus the rate of the development of novel antibiotics, resistance is winning, and at some point — WHEN, not IF — we will no longer have antibiotics that work. It will be the 1700s all over again. And we are destroying all of the places where we should be looking for new weapons. This might only be 20 years away. So don’t get an infection. And have a nice day…

We certainly did, regardless of the apocalyptic talk.

Today, the boys bid farewell to the girls. We took them to the airport to get the boys’ trip started. The environs around the Ft. Myers airport are fantastic for Swallow-tailed Kites and we saw at least four today.

After sending our women into the snowy hell of the Midwest, the boys and I did a Ding Darling scramble to try to get them a few new birds which we did. Then it was a last run at the Captiva beaches. The surf was large today — it was rough and too scary for a dad who knew coming home with only one son would be met rather unfavorably by Sherri Lee. So I allowed the boys some wave bravery while constantly preparing myself for rescue. There was no way in hell we were shelling in this chaos. Then I suggested that we hike up around the north corner and see if the surf was more protected there. What we found was a little beach that only we were at. And the shells were ridiculous. Here is a look at our findings of the day:

Tonight after a nice outdoor meal at The Pointe, we retired to our new room for NCAA basketball.

We left our sliding door open this evening. A dolphin and a manatee graced the waters of the marina outside of our room. That was pretty cool.

Now it’s time…for a little bit more cannonballing.

I mean it’s only fair, right? Will the boys cannonball like their sister did? Will they bring me her luck?

Five targets—just like when we started…

Florida Cannonball, part 3: TBVI

I stirred around 5AM this morning and quickly checked my phone only to find several text messages from my wife all sent after midnight.

This is not usually a good thing.

Nor was it…the devastating hail storm that had hit the southeast had shut down the Atlanta “center of the flying universe” hub. They were delayed an entire day; so my Tuesday Ft. Myers pick-up was now a Wednesday Ft. Myers pick-up.

I bagged it back out for a bit, then stirred for real at around 7:45AM. I hustled up as I wanted to be at Bill Baggs State Park as close to 8AM as possible to tackle the next real target bird, a Thick-billed Vireo that had been here for over two weeks.

I made Bill Baggs by 8:10. My only experience at Bill Baggs was not getting what had been a very dependable La Sagra’s Flycatcher that decided to depart for good just prior to my arrival.

Today, it was me, Angel Abreu (briefly — he has been a point person on this bird), Hank Vanderpol, Bill Del Grande, and four other birders looking with Angel for the Vireo. Meredith had wisely opted for a sleep-in at the castle versus a stand and wait birding adventure — something as of yet she had not needed to do.

And stand and wait we did. I set 9:30 as my departure time to go get Meredith, get checked out, and then come back for a half hour as the bird had been active for two days from about 11AM until 11:30AM.

During our vigil at the “core site”, other birds did come through, including mostly Palm, Prairie, and Parula Warblers.

Here is one Prairie:

and here is one Northern Parula:

We did have a single White-eyed/Thick-billed start vocalizing during this stint, but none of us were able to get enough of the bird to call it.

Time passed, and I headed back to the hotel and had some in-room grub-a-dub-dub with Meredith. We then packed our bags and headed back to Bill Baggs getting there around 11:00. Meredith looked for lizards and managed this lifer — a Common Ground-Dove:

By now it was just Hank, Bill, me and one other birder. Then, Hank and I both got on a song that was at first like a repeated Catbird snippet. I kept thinking it was actually a Catbird (of which approximately 10,000 were around) but then realized it was a very repeated song — this was a contender for our Vireo.

The bird was moving about in some thickets and continued to vocalize. I began recording the song via voice memo as the bird finally popped up into view for these poor pictures:

Features to note on this bird are the dingy yellowish throat; the complete lack of yellow on the flanks; minimal yellow on the wing feathers; and a broken dorsal spectacle; and, well, the thick bill. My voice memo also matched up exactly with the tape of the bird’s song Angel Abreu had acquired prior. Like described earlier — it is almost like a Catbird snippet versus the hard start and stop pop of a White-eyed Vireo.

So 90 minutes of nothing solo on round one; bring Meredith along for round two and after 30 minutes…

She did not see it, as she was completely engrossed by the lizards and this very tame Great Egret hanging around with us that was hunting them down and gobbling them right up.

Anyway…

ABA #684; Fl #227; Ph # 548

So on our hard target list we had gone three for three, as we sort of DQ’d the La Sagra’s. During my first 90 minutes of whiffing on this bird, it sort of dawned on me that without birds I could not plan a trip. If I was not a birdwatcher, I would go catatonic trying to plan something like this. I realized  — in a “stop and really appreciate it for a moment” way — that I loved the modus operandi. Let the rare birds tell me where I am going to birdwatch; meet people from all corners of the planet and hear their stories while you sit and stare at a thicket and a copse. Florida has an infinite amount of natural wonder tucked away in its not yet destroyed corners. How in the hell would I pick which of these infinite places to explore? I don’t have to. Paynes Prairie, Pelican Island, Green Cays, Bill Baggs, — all chosen by the birds. With travel agents like these, why go near a phone?

With the three for three under our belts, and knowing 4-4 would be impossible, I decided that Meredith and I should go whiff yet AGAIN on Miami urban exotics so Mangrove Cuckoo would not be in the high pressure situation of keeping us at 100%.

So we hit the Doc Thomas House in south Miami. I love this spot. It’s crazy — it’s literally old growth tropical jungle surrounded by south Miami. How old growth? Well, here’s some new growth next to the old growth:

Thankfully, we did not find Spot-breasted Oriole or White-winged Parakeet so we were now three for five.

It was time to cross the Florida peninsula and find Meredith HER primary target bird, Burrowing Owl. We smoked into Cape Coral 20 minutes under time and slowly searched the Cape Coral neighborhood for Owls. I quickly found one way out in the middle of an empty lot. It was enough of a view for Meredith to see it, but the heat shimmer made the sighting less than satisfactory. We fixed that in a couple of blocks:

This little dude/dudette was literally a house’s lawn ornament. And it garnered 100% of our very appreciative attention.

My road time with Meredith was now over — we had a 45 minute drive to Captiva to finish out this day and begin the Fraker family vacation. And this we did by thrashing around in a cold ocean until the sun set and then retiring with a great meal. I don’t know how one can measure the perfection of what was held inside this particular capsule of time. There were deep conversations about where our lives were; there were movies watched and music listened to; she writes in her journal nightly and I illustrate it. And there were birds, and she got it. Much more so than I had expected…

Even times like these are dictated to me by a signed legal document. But during times like these it feels otherwise. It’s a short moment falsely free of all that.

It sort of feels like this…:

It will be good to have the family whole again; it will be good to start seeing if we have any Cuckoos in this hizzy…

FL Cannonball Run, Part 2: WHIPped?

On Monday, we had set a rather ambitious Atlantic Seaboard cannonball agenda.

I was gently hoping we could be on the road by 8AM. And…we made it by 7:40. Like I said, she was born to cannonball…

Our first stop was at the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge where a White-cheeked Pintail had been hanging around. White-cheeked Pintails are common in captivity and Florida generally has ignored them in the past. But this bird was apparently “holding water” as they say, with no bands, feather wear, and a rather teal-like skittish attitude.

We made the short walk out to Centennial Pond, looked to the left, and there, in a flock of Blue-winged Teal, was the White-cheeked Pintail. I was beginning to think Meredith is going to need to come with me more often…

We hiked a short distance around the pond to get a closer look and the Blue-winged Teal flock basically ignored us. Which meant so did the Pintail:

Possibly ABA #683; Fl #226; Ph #547

Shoveler. Wigeon, and Lesser Scaup were also present.

Jacked about another quick find, we then drove down to an urban wetland north of Miami called the Green Cays Wetlands where a La Sagra’s Flycatcher had spent some time. Unfortunately, the bird had not been reported in about 10 days, so this was sort of a half-assed try that was more about getting Meredith on the wetlands boardwalk than trying to actually find this Flycatcher midday (which would probably be difficult even if it were still here). We whiffed on the Flycatcher, but the boardwalk was fantastic and Meredith’s eyes were vacuuming up birds left and right. Some pics from the wetland:

A Wood Stork:

Glossy Ibis:

Blue-winged Teal:

and Tricolored Heron:

After one more unsuccessful spin around for the Flycatcher (we decided that the Flycatcher didn’t count as a miss since we knew it had been unreported for over a week), we continued south into North Miami and explored around looking for exotics…

…from about 4pm until 5:30pm…

What the hell was I thinking trying to do the hated urban birding for exotics during Monday rush hour?!? Hey, if anyone needs a travel planner, I AM for hire!!

We did manage to find Mitred Parakeets and Blue-crowned Parakeets feeding in a neighborhood tree. Neither count, but Meredith was having a blast, and she saved my sanity as I wrestled with negotiating 5:00 Miami. I’m pretty sure I would have been harming myself had I been alone. We went south of the airport to look for Burrowing Owls (this is THE target bird for my daughter) but the traffic mayhem and a decent drizzle made this a failed drive-by.

We decided to bail and go hit some high living on Key Biscayne in preparation for a Tuesday morning target bird in a place that I like to miss target birds…

Florida Cannonball Run, Part 1

Nemesis birds…

Jesus Christ…

For me, Emily Walker’s recent (and well-done) foray into this topic is quite timely.

I don’t pretend to see birds I have yet to see. I don’t think about what that first lifer look will be, or how, or where. In kindergarten and first grade, I was obsessed with the Golden’s Birds of North America. I used to dream about seeing crazy birds like Aplomado Falcons or Swainson’s Warblers; but they were distant philosophic fantasies versus actually running the sighting through my head over and over.

And when I cannonball for lifer birds, it’s as much an excuse to birdwatch the place that bird has chosen as it is a chance to see a bird for the first time. But the moment is not ruined on the miss; nor was any time spent pondering how the sighting would go down.

There exists a single exception to these aforementioned thoughts. There is a bird that I see over and over in my head; I see how it will be when I finally see it. Every time I see a photo of this bird there is a mix of absolute wonder and awe, with a thin painful swirling of doubt and “How?!? How can I have missed you this many times?”

I know how. Because you’re a sneaky, skulky, mythical bastard that cares little for moving or vocalizing. And I love you with everything I am because after you I won’t live long enough to have any more nemesis birds like the two that I have had for all of these years.

The Pinyon Jay nemesis is still inexplicable to me. And of course, once I saw them, I figured I would then start seeing them all over the place adding further incredulity to the fact that I was able to miss them for all of these years. But no — I’ve been back and around in primo season and still nothing. Unlike white-headed Gulls that I just want to boxcheck and never set eyes upon again, these are birds I would love to see again and again.

The Mangrove Cuckoo nemesis is more easily explained. And it really is the last bird that I feel like I have to see. I hope to see it like I saw the Pinyon Jays — on my own, without any assistance; I’d love it if this took place on Sanibel Island, as I have a lot of personal history there and it would be perfect closure. Plus, if I do actually set eyes upon one, the “birder’s endorphin release” will probably kill me dead, and Sanibel would be an ok place to pass a final breath…

Which reminds me. I love Florida and I hate it.

The place is so completely otherworldly — an entire planet to itself that even more so than many other statewide ecosystems developed into a miraculously delicate nature with the inner workings of a Rolex watch. It is dumbfounding.

Almost as dumbfounding as what we have done to it — talk about a wrench in the Rolex machinery.

And it is the worst place in the United States to drive to. I’m wide open for discussion on this. Chattanooga is the beginning of the end we know as I-75. The Georgia stretch introduces a driver to just how malignant an interstate can be, and Florida accepts the baton heading south. Continuous eyesore ramshackle roadside commercial development; pell-mell clearings and trashed fields; 1000 three-story billboards per mile telling you how to find a really white Jesus, get fat, or purchase adult fun. Shoulders littered with dead animals, tire remnants and trash. All in a disorganized 80 mph NASCAR style three lane death match.

I had a semi-truck explode today, which was awesome, because this is exactly the kind of place one wants to sit and take in for a bit. To be exact, the TRUCK didn’t explode (in fact it looked undamaged) — his trailer carrying propane tanks did. It looked like he had been hit by an RPG or maybe an unfortunate Cessna. I didn’t notice any plane wreckage. I bet OSHA gets a phone call on this one…

And if you’re all Georgia proud hold onto your peaches for just a second. The state is completely gorgeous. I come from the state that claims what many consider the worst stretch of interstate in the USA — I-80/I-94 south of the lake. It is simply a fact that has nothing to do with Illinois being Illinois. I-75 has nothing to do with Georgia being Georgia.

WHOA!! I should probably back this up a bit and explain what the hell any of this has to do with anything’s anything.

I am on a cannonball run through Florida en route to meet my family in Ft. Myers for a week on Captiva and Sanibel Islands. Meredith is co-piloting with me on the way down and as usual, up to this point in Gainesville, Florida, not only has she not slowed me down at all, but she was born to cannonball. I will be cannonballing back with Dixon and Hayden while Meredith and Sherri fly home. If I survive this — and this is a legitimate concern —  I plan on renting two juvenile Macaques when I get back and driving around with them for a bit just to get a fair comparison…

Florida has been hopping of late with cannonball fodder. The trip has five target birds. We will discuss these as we go, although one should be as obvious as a propane exploding semi-truck trailer.

SO….we left Bloomington on Saturday morning and made it to Chattanooga where we braved the Fuji Steak and Sushi Restaurant next to our Hampton Inn. Tucher had to stay behind this time. By the end of this crazy year, I’m pretty sure he will forget this.

Today we busted it out hoping to make Gainesville in time for an afternoon hike within the Paynes Prairie State Preserve just south of Gainesville. Our first target bird of the Cannonball, a Groove-billed Ani, has been wintering here.

Despite the exploding semi, we still made it in time to have a nice afternoon hike on the preserve. Meredith was all fired-up as she had made a list of her own target birds for this trip, complete with little geographical explanations of where to look for them. And like so many of Florida’s still natural corners, this place was wonderful and teeming with life. In the parking lot, I saw a birder couple and I asked them about the Ani. He kindly explained to me where to go to look for it, noting that he had not seen it for awhile (although eBird had very recent reports). Meredith and I wondered up the main trail and then broke hard west from the barn along a fence-line that ran through some classic xeric Groove-billed Ani habitat. That same couple was quite a distance ahead of us. At one point, I put my binoculars on them and realized that the man was waving me anxiously towards them.

“They’ve got the Ani, Meredith!” and off we went, finally approaching him as he kept his gaze back to our right.

Serendipity strikes again. I just happened to ask the only people I saw in the parking lot about the Ani. They just happened to go in front of us. He just happened to pick it out of some shrub thickets behind us and obscured. We just happened to be in their sight at the time. And the Ani, which apparently has been a fairly difficult bird to see for any length of time if at all, just happened to sit and chill while we all took it in:

ABA #682; FL #221; Ph # 546

Meredith was also there for the Tiger-Heron at Bentsen. Family lifers are pretty hard to come by…

I thanked Frank (Miles?) profusely — he was jacked to see the bird in the scope — and then we went back to the main trail/boardwalk to get after Meredith’s list. It was a great way to make old bird friends new again, seeing her all fired up and calling off lifers left and right. The 15 or 20 Alligators added to the fun, as did one rummaging Armadillo. Some token photos from the day —

a hunting Cattle Egret took a pose:

Meredith requested this photo of a Great Blue Heron:

…and one of several Black-necked Stilts:

It was a classic Florida rush — still amazing to a veteran, and almost overwhelming to a young rookie.

A little worn out and hungry, we hit our Hampton Inn for the night, then jumped over to Vello’s Historical Grill for some decent eats and a celebratory water for her and for me also, though mine had a lot more barley, malt and hops in it than hers did.

Tomorrow we try to burn down the Atlantic Coast barn, although ultra-lites, an inability to know what a lack of reports might mean, and another true skulker all demonstrate we really have our work cut out for us.

I bet one of us gets a lifer tomorrow….

Big Year Planning on a North American Scale

I can hardly believe it has now been 15 years since I did my ABA Area Big Year along with about a dozen other birders including reigning champion Sandy Komito and Al Levantin. The information and tools we used to find out about rare birds and to navigate seem quite archaic now. I did my Big Year without a laptop on the road, no GPS, and I didn’t even have a cell phone then. So much has changed. Now, if you want to be competitive you would not even dream of going out of the house without a smart phone with Internet connectivity.

Greg-Miller-2010_MayFolks often ask me what resources I used to find out where to go and when. My primary information came from the ABA Birdfinding Guides. I used the charts at the end of each guide. Being a geek, I used a numerical representation of the abundance bar charts and put them into a Microsoft Access database. From that data, I could then query the table to find out the best places to go and when to go there. And when I traveled, I took the books with me for pertinent information about my target species. I made a list of target species for each of my trips. That really helped me stay on track.

I still use the Birdfinding Guides because their information is in such an easy-to-use format. They are great aids for any lister’s library. But now I have new ammo for my arsenal of birding resources—eBird. This Citizen Science project is changing what we know about birds and birding in a big way. The tools available online at eBird’s website are very powerful. And you do not have to be a member of eBird to use the data available in the Explore tab. There are maps, and charts, and graphs—in fact, more information than most folks would use. And, one can also download data from eBird, too. For instance, eBird has a section called simply “Bar Charts”. Here you can see occurrence data for every species reported in a given geographical area. The data used for these charts is what eBird calls “Frequency of Checklists”. For instance, if I picked the entire state of Ohio as my region, all years (1900 through today), and all months of the year, the result would give me just over 400 species of birds with week-by-week abundance—really “Frequency of Checklists”. The underlying number is the percentage of checklists submitted that have that species “checked”. If 300 out of 1,000 checklists have Yellow Warbler, that would mean the number used would be 0.300 (or 30%). It doesn’t matter if the observer saw 38 Yellow Warblers or 1 Yellow Warbler—the only data recorded is a like a bit 1 or 0. So this really doesn’t measure how many birds are seen, but it does represent how often a bird is recorded. It is also a crude measure of how widespread a species is during a particular week of the year.

Which reminds me. In the eBird world, there are 48 weeks in a year with an even 4 weeks per month. The first week is the 1st through the 7th. The second week is the 8th through the 15th. The third week is the 16th through the 21st. And the last week is always the 22nd through the end of the month. While this does skew the number of checklists entered during the 4th week of every month, it does very little to change the Frequency of Checklists. Additionally, eBird tracks all the birds in North America which includes some that have not yet been accepted by ABA. That information is really important as it impacts our native species, but it should be taken into account if you are using eBird data for ABA list planning.

The ABA has a ranking for all the species on the ABA Checklist of Birds, called the ABA Difficulty Code. The definitions are listed here on the ABA website. Codes 1 and 2 are easier birds and codes 3 and higher get increasing difficult to find. What if we could merge the sightings in eBird with the ABA Checklist of Birds and the Difficulty Codes? Well, that was my question several weeks ago. And now, here is what I came up with for a first pass of data.

This map shows the total number of distinct species recorded (1 or more times) in eBird by State or Province for the ABA Area which have an ABA Difficulty Code 3 or more.1 This is data from 1900-2013.

Tough-Species-Count-by-State_Prov---ABA-Difficulty-3-or-more

There are 273 species in this category and a whopping 113 have been reported in Alaska alone! Not surprisingly, the best places for total number of rarities are near the perimeters of the continent. This map shows the total number of species seen through history, but does not really give us the best picture of where the places are that would give us the greatest opportunity with a single visit to see a Code 3 species. In future posts I will be providing you with more high level maps and discussing some of the puzzles this data poses. (For this map, why aren’t there more species in the Provinces of Eastern Canada?)

1 – eBird. 2012. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: February 22, 2013).

 

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