Category Archives: Birding “Away”

Vancouver to LA – Birding and Cruising.

The trip was really supposed to be in celebration of the completion of a writing project. But when I booked the trip, I knew that if said project was not completed, the trip would be a much-needed break – a welcome respite – from a project that has, well, been quite a project! Unfortunately, it’s the latter, and even worse – I’m working on the project on the plane, in the hotel, and on the boat (OK, so working on the boat didn’t actually happen). But the birding has been amazing, and the break has been very welcome, and downright therapeutic.

Boarding my flight in Portland dark and early on Wednesday the 4th, a long-awaited birding adventure was in store. But yeah, I was leaving Maine at the peak of rarity season! Of course, when I landed to – barely – grab my connection in Chicago, I see the report of a Townsend’s Solitaire at Schoodic Point and the reappearance of a Franklin’s Gull at Sebasticook Lake (and so it begins!). But it was of little consequence; life birds awaited!

For a couple of years, I’ve been wanting to join Paul Lehman and company on a West Coast “repositioning cruise.” This is when those massive cruise ships move from one port to another, mostly to switch from the starting point of one season’s itinerary to the other. Sailing predominately well offshore, passengers come aboard for a short getaway, or just a long weekend escape. And these trips are a helluva deal! For birders, the passage through deep, open water from a large, stable platform that even allows you to use a spotting scope to study passing seabirds – it’s low-cost, multi-day, deep water pelagic.

Good friends Adam Byrne and Brad Murphy from Michigan were joining me, as we joined Paul, Barbara Carlson, and several other birders for a sail from Vancouver, British Columbia to LA. But Adam, Brad, and I were meeting up early to do some Pacific Northwest birding. None of us had been to British Columbia before, so we had a few life birds each to seek, and more importantly, since we had to fly all of the way to Vancouver – we might as well get our money’s worth, right?

Frequent flier miles delivered me to Vancouver a day before Adam’s arrival, so I took a train to our hotel, settled in, and took a walk. Of course, I began to experience the culinary delights of this fantastic foodie city, as well as sample some of the birdlife in a few small urban parks. I started to get familiar with how dark the local Song Sparrows were, and reacquaint myself with the snappy call note of “Oregon” Dark-eyed Juncos. I also refreshed my memory about how impossible it is to identify large gulls in the Pacific Northwest, although at least a few adults looked identifiable. My dinner at a Ramen bar was a perfect end to the day, and a good way to ring in my trip to this cultural city.
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I could enjoy these dark Song Sparrows all day!

Day 2, 11/5: Vancouver.
I covered over 10 miles this morning, walking from my downtown hotel to Stanley Park, and around the entirety of its perimeter. Passerines weren’t in large supply, but it’s been far too long since I have seen the likes of Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Anna’s Hummingbirds. An American Dipper at the bay’s edge was a welcome surprise.

And the birding along the shoreline was spectacular. I very well may have seen more Barrow’s Goldeneyes this morning than I have seen in sum throughout the East; there was one raft of over 150! A couple of Eurasian Wigeons joined big groups of American Wigeons, a few Cackling, one Snow, and one Greater White-fronted Goose were in lawn-feeding groups of Canada Geese, and Surf Scoters were plentiful. Mew and Ring-billed Gulls, a few Thayer’s Gulls, and a mess of large gulls that were mostly – in quantity and presumably genetically – Glaucous-winged.

More of these dark Song Sparrows and lots of “Oregon” Juncos, several Bald Eagles, and impressive cityscapes – not bad for a morning walk!

Adam arrived in the early afternoon, and after lunch at a Frites Granville (deep fried poutine, need I say more…but the kimchi and Korean beef-topped fries was much better), we spent a pleasant few hours, including a little bit of sunshine at Stanley Park. Adding a few more species to the triplist, including “Sooty” Fox Sparrow, we mostly spent the time taking advantage of the nice light to photograph Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Mew Gulls, among others.
Am in Stanley Park.
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Korean-Belgian-Canadian fusion!
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Pm…back in Stanley Park.
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River Otter devouring flounder.
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So many Barrow’s Goldeneyes!
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Day 3, 11/6: Vancouver.
Light rain and drizzle returned by dawn, as Adam and I headed for the hills. Rain continued, steady at times, as we hiked around Cypress Provincial Park looking for forest denizens, especially Sooty Grouse. While we didn’t see much – the conditions were not very bird- or birder- friendly, seeing scattered Varied Thrush was a real treat, along with a Red-breasted Sapsucker, several small flocks of Red Crossbills, and other resident species.

We fetched Brad at the airport; or triumvirate now complete. Real Chinese food (noodles with roasted chicken, broth, veggies, etc.) stuck to the bones – which was needed for the damp and chilly visit to Delta’s Boundary Bay. Adam needed Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, so we thought we would just spend a couple of hours trying to get lucky.

We were a little unprepared for what a task finding one specific shorebird would be. I’ll let the photos explain.

There were easily several hundreds of thousands of birds, 90-95% or so were Dunlin and Northern Pintail. Healthy amounts of American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal were supplemented by Black-bellied Plovers, 10+ Eurasian Wigeons, groups of gulls – mostly Glaucous-winged and Glaucous-winged intergrades, some Sanderlings, a couple of Western Sandpipers, and one particularly interesting, short-billed peep. Perhaps the one that got away!

Am in Cypress Provincial Park.
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Boundary Bay.
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Day 4, 11/7: Vancouver.
Rain was falling in earnest as we departed the city, once again heading for the hills. Thanks to a tip from a local birder, the suggestively-named Grouse Mountain ski resort was our destination. The rain continued, and got heavier and visibility dropped to near nothing as we gained a little elevation.

But the place was busy, and the Skyride tram was running, and for a price, we were whisked uphill. It was still raining…hard. Was this worth it? What self-respecting bird would be out in this?

And then Adam found a Sooty Grouse!

The only non-pelagic lifer for all three of us expected on the trip, this was a most-welcome development. For a moment, we forgot how soaked to the bone we were. And this was no dumb grouse! He would come out to feed in a little weedy garden, and then return to a shed/small livestock pen to preen. After a bit, it was back out into the rain.

We too finally went inside, the triumvirate triumphant, had some coffee and/or hot chocolate, and then went back out for another visit with the grouse, and some quality time with Black-tailed Deer and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches.

With rain still falling, wind and fog as bad as ever, we packed it in, dripping our way into the tram, and back down the hill. Unfortunately, conditions were even worse at Cypress Provincial Park, and although the donair stop for lunch was great and hit the spot, the rain finally defeated us all on a near-birdless walk at the park. It was time to retreat.
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It might be raining a little…but Sooty Grouse!

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Day 5, 11/8: Vancouver.
Stanley Park was the destination again today, wanting to spend more time looking at birds – any birds – than driving to more distant sites. I added a few more species to my trip list, including some good studies of Pacific Wren. But the tame Chestnut-backed Chickadees, joining Black-caps in looking for handouts stole the show.

Making our way towards the airport, we spent our last hour of birding in Vancouver at Sea and Iona Islands. More huge flocks of Dunlin were impressive, and several additions to the list ranged from Pied-billed Grebe to Long-billed Dowitcher to Trumpeter Swan.

But before we knew it, it was time to return our rental car, hop on the train, and make our way to Canada Place and the Star Princess – our floating-city home for the next three days, and our big, steady platform for pelagic birding. In other words, the real reason for this trip was only now about to begin!

Another morning in Wonderful Stanley Park.
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“Do you think the Chesnut-backed Chickadees get fed here?”
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I will always stop to photograph Wood Ducks!
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Anna’s Hummingbird.

Setting Sail.
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Day 6, 11/8: Victoria.
As the sun came up, we were docking in Victoria, only a short trip across from the city of Vancouver. While Brad and Adam set off in search of Skylarks and Red-breasted Sapsuckers, I joined the rest of the group of birders in walking to Beacon Hill Park. The triplist grew with the likes of Barred Owl, Bewick’s Wren, and Ancient Murrelets.

I lingered too long at one thicket, lost the group, but spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering around this lovely park. Oregon Junco, Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Spotted Towhees were everywhere, with the ponds chock full of Mallards and American Wigeon. Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Anna’s Hummingbirds were plentiful, as were “more bona fide” Northwestern Crows (if there is truly such a thing). Feral Common Peafowl added a splash of color, and a “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco was on the rare side of things. I passed through a couple of waves of Bushtits, adding a dose of frantic and noisy excitement to the walk.

I took a spin through a sliver of downtown, finding a single “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler in a small city pocket park, along with several Bewick’s and Pacific Wrens, and a bunch of Oregon Juncos. Rhinoceros Auklets in the inner harbor were a very pleasant surprise.

The boat departed at 2:24 – next stop: LA! While we only had a couple of hours of daylight left, we made the most of it, as birds were plentiful. Masses of Mew Gulls, rafts of Common Murres, and later, scattered Northern Fulmar – our first tubenose of the trip – were encountered, while my last additions to my Canada List were ticked off – Brandt’s Cormorant, Black Brant, and Heerman’s Gull. Our first two Pomarine Jaegers, a single Red Phalarope, and two White-winged Scoters were added to the trip list as well.

The sun was setting, as the productive waters at the mouth of the Straight of Juan de Fuca off Flattery Point, Washington were just coming into view.

I bet you can tell which day the sun finally came out!
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Barred Owl.

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Golden-crowned Sparrow.

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1st winter Glaucous-winged Gull (presumed close enough to pure).

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“Sooty” Fox Sparrow. Worst-placed bread-bag clip litter.

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Spotted Towhee.

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Brown Creeper.

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March of the Mallards.

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..and American Wigeon.

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Anna’s Hummingbird.

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Common (Feral) Peafowl.

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Hen  Eurasian Wigeon (note nearly concolorous head, neck, and body and lack of black gape spot. Underwings, especially the axillaries, were gray, clinching the ID.

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“Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco.

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Rhinocerous Auklet in the harbor.

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The Olympic Mountains.
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There were a few Mew Gulls on the water.
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11/10, Day 7: Off Oregon.

Whoo-ee!

Passing through Washington waters overnight, we awoke in Oregon, about 40 miles off the north-central coast. As soon as there was just enough twilight to see, birds began to appear. And other than about an hour in early afternoon, it did not stop until it was dark. And the most dedicated of us had to drag ourselves, exhausted, achy, and hungry, off the bow.

It was amazing.

Birds all day. Marine Mammals were constant. At one point a dozen Humpback Whale spouts, a hundred or so Pacific White-sided Dolphins, and perhaps thousands of birds were in view. Northern Fulmars were the most abundant tubenose through early afternoon, when Sooty Shearwaters began to take over. I picked up two life birds, Buller’s Shearwater (well over 30) and Flesh-footed Shearwater (after frustratingly missing one earlier, I found one in the big evening feeding frenzy and saw the third of the day). Unfortunately, I also missed the “bird of the day,” an early morning Mottled Petrel. I wasn’t the only one, and unlike most everyone else on the trip, that was the one Pterodroma that wasn’t a lifer for me, so if I had to miss one great bird on the trip, that’s the one I would be least disappointed about. But still.

My lifer Northern Right Whale Dolphins joined Dall’s Porpoise, a Fin Whale, a Minke Whale, Northern Fur Seals, Elephant Seals, and California Sea Lions on the day’s mammal list, while additional avian highlights included Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, Black-legged Kittwakes, Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets, a single early Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, a few Pomarine Jaegers, a couple of Pacific Loons, Common Murres, and plenty of gulls, including the first Western and California Gulls of the trip.

One of my other highlights, and just possibly my “highlight of the day” were several “nursery groups” of Mola Mola. Young molas, in groups of 4-7 or so, were moving south or lounging at the surface, usually with a gull or few in attendance. I’m not quite sure why I was so smitten with these, but I kinda wanted to hug one. I know, very scientific of me.

It truly was an amazing day, and as dusk was falling, the boat passed through a massive aggregation of dolphins, gulls, Sooty Shearwaters, and plenty of Pink-footed and Buller’s Shearwaters. This was the group that contained my lifer Flesh-footed Shearwaters, so it was a stupendous finish to an absolutely fantastic day on the water! And yes, with near constant activity from dawn to dusk, we are all exhausted, and frankly, I am unsure of how I am even seeing a computer screen right now.

I think I will sleep well tonight, although the anticipation of what tomorrow might bring will no doubt impact a needed full night of rest!
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Off the Oregon Coast.

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Northern Fulmar.

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Black-footed Albatross

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Laysan Albatross

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Buller’s Shearwaters.

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Black-footed Albatross.

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Pacific White-sided Dolphins.

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Mola Mola.

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Buller’s Shearwater.

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11/11, Day 8: Off Northern California.

The air and seas were warmer as we found ourselves due west of Point Reyes shortly after sunrise. A nice following breeze – strong enough for seabirds to be flying, but in just the right direction to keep us warm and comfy at the bow – raised expectations, especially after the stellar day yesterday,

A Black-footed Albatross at first light also stoked the excitement, but as the day went on, and the lack of seabirds continued, many were left to reminisce about yesterday. Red Phalaropes were the most abundant bird of the day, by far, with a fair number of Northern Fulmars. Ashy Storm-Petrels started to show in 1’s and 3’s, including one that was grounded on the ship and was trying to hide in a corner. No doubt disoriented by the ship’s lights during the night, this “wrecked” bird could have had a long day were it not for two alert walkers who let us know. We raced over, identified it, inspected it, and then let it go off the stern – none of us had ever seen a storm-petrel fly as fast and direct as it booked it away from this floating island full of two-legged predators.

A Peregrine Falcon likely rode with us for a while today, and later in the afternoon, the regular appearance of a Brandt’s Cormorant – far from its nearshore environs – suggested a bird that was also resting on the boat now and again. The flock of 34 European Starlings, nearly 60km offshore, was a little harder to explain, however!

The long, tiring day of scanning the waters only produced a few new species for the trip, including a few Leach’s Storm-Petrels and a couple of Red-necked Phalaropes. But other than a scattered few Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, several Pomarine Jaegers, a couple of Buller’s Shearwaters, and early Laysan and a handful of Black-footed Albatrosses, it was a slow day on the water. Very slow.

A few pods of Common Dolphins, several Humpback Whales, and a loafing Blue Whale were mammalian highlights…until dusk, when four Orcas steamed towards the ship, breaching and tail-slapping as they went by. While today was not the epic seabird and mammal day that yesterday was, the few of us still hanging on to the bitter end were rewarded with an Orca show. I for one was not complaining. Because breaching Orcas.

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Off Big Sur, California.

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Wrecked Ashy Storm-Petrel.

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11/12, Day 9: Los Angeles.
Docked in the busy port of Los Angeles well before sunrise, I stepped outside to take in the crisp, dry air, and take a gander at some Western Gulls and a flycatching Black Phoebe. Adam, Brad, and I were anxious to disembark, ready to pack in a full day of twitching LA-are specialties.

Three thousand plus people trying to jam through customs is never quick, but apparently today was particularly nightmarish. Two and a half hours later, we were finally off the boat, picking up our rental car, and finally on our way.

The first stop was Huntingdon Beach Central Park, in pursuit of now-countable Scaly-breasted Munias. It didn’t take long, and although introduced, these really are festive little birds, and an ABA-Area bird for all three of us (we had all seen them elsewhere around the world). A few White-faced Ibis, Black and Say’s Phoebes, and other common urban park denizens were also noted.

It took us longer to find our quarry at Legg Lake Park, but after covering the entire park without any luck, Brad’s lifer Tricolored Blackbirds were right at the parking lot where we began – exactly where my friend Catherine Hamilton told us they would be. Luckily, we had some other fun birds in the meantime, including single Townsend’s Warbler, Hutton’s Vireo, Lesser Goldfinch, and a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls. The trip list grew by 14 species.

The time to find the blackbirds and some traffic en route put us way behind schedule as we entered Compton and headed for Colonel Leo H. Washington Park – the last “stronghold” of the once-common, established exotic, the Spotted Dove. I have a confession to make: this was a bird that only I needed. Yes, I was chasing an exotic. But honestly, it was such an interesting place to head to for a new bird (for the ABA-area), that there was a little bit of allure added. Readers of this blog know how much I love urban birding – and it doesn’t get anymore urban birding than this!

Unfortunately, despite quite a bit of searching, the Spotted Dove remained unseen. With so few left, they can be tough to find, and although Catherine promised they have been reliable here of late, she also cautioned that they are easily missed. We talked to a few residents who seemed to be used to random birders showing up in an otherwise less-than-touristy neighborhood and one guy playing soccer stopped to tell me about the Cooper’s Hawk that was catching rats in the alley behind his house; a short while later, a Coop flew overhead. Several other conversations helped prove that many inner-city residents do have a connection and appreciation for nature, as described by a recent study on urban residents’ recognition and valuation of birds in cities. I often sing the praises of the value of urban greenspaces to migratory birds, but these places are even more valuable to residents packed tightly into a confined space, desperate for the connection to fresh air and recreation of all kinds.

But yeah, all of this musing was really displacement behavior for my 1) decision to actually look for Spotted Dove instead of heading to straight to a park that would have had a lot of good birds, perhaps including my nemesis, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and 2) our failure to see it! We also checked Salt Lake Park – perhaps no longer hosting the dove, but at least that park had a few more birds, including some treats for us Easterners – Acorn Woodpeckers and Cassin’s Kingbird in particular. But alas, no Spotted Doves. Two residents, taking a break from chatting, pointed out a Peregrine Falcon on a transmission tower high overhead. Perhaps it knew where to find the doves.

By the time we took our first spin through Washington Park, we realized that with traffic building there was no chance to hit another site, so we just used up the remainder of daylight not seeing Spotted Doves. But, there’s little doubt I would never have seen Compton or Huntingdon Park were it not for searching for these birds, so there’s that. I guess.

As the sun set, Adam and Brad dropped me off at a hotel near the airport (“conveniently” located directly under landing planes) as they headed off to catch their red-eye flights. Thwarted by traffic and our dip on the dove, our afternoon of birding with Catherine turned into a dinner and beers. We caught up and reflected on Spotted Doves, or lack there of, and the meaning of life and listing. Or perhaps we talked more about the flavor composition of the beers we enjoyed.

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Legg Lake Park.

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Brewer’s Blackbird.

11/13, Day 10: Los Angeles.
A Cassin’s Kingbird was calling on the roof of my hotel to usher in the dawn, as I boarded my airport shuttle for the quick trip to the final leg of my journey. I have little doubt that I will be on another “Repositioning Cruise” sometime soon – I might be hooked. It sure was more comfortable than rolling around on a dedicated pelagic – and with unlimited food (but yeah, “bland” was my most used descriptor…I used a lot of hot sauce!) and several bars, this was pelagic birding in style!

Although I only ended up with three life birds (Sooty Grouse, Buller’s Shearwater, and Flesh-footed Shearwater), one ABA-area bird (Scaly-breasted Munia), three California birds (Buller’s, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, and munia), and a boatload of Canada birds (I had not birded west of Ontario before), I would deem this trip an utmost success. In fact, I had a great time, enjoyed birding with good friends – old and new – and experienced a completely different avifauna. And no “Megas” were missed here in Maine!

Here’s my total triplist, in order of appearance:
Vancouver:
1. Rock Pigeon
2. Mallard
3. “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco
4. Song Sparrow
5. European Starling
6. House Sparrow
7. Northwestern Crow (with “better” birds later in Victoria?)
8. Glaucous-winged Gull
9. White-crowned Sparrow
10. American Robin
11. Black-capped Chickadee
12. House Finch
13. Lincoln’s Sparrow
14. Canada Goose
15. Cackling Goose
16. Ring-billed Gull
17. Red-breasted Merganser
18. Great Blue Heron
19. Double-crested Cormorant
20. Barrow’s Goldeneye
21. Golden-crowned Kinglet
22. Horned Grebe
23. Thayer’s Gull
24. Northern “Red-shafted” Flicker
25. Surf Scoter
26. American Wigeon
27. Pine Siskin
28. Common Merganser
29. Bufflehead
30. Belted Kingfisher
31. Spotted Towhee
32. Mew Gull
33. Pelagic Cormorant
34. Bald Eagle
35. Bonaparte’s Gull
36. Common Goldeneye
37. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
38. Anna’s Hummingbird
39. American Dipper
40. Eurasian Wigeon
41. Greater White-fronted Goose
42. Brown Creeper
43. Downy Woodpecker
44. Snow Goose
45. Chestnut-backed Chickadee
46. Red-breasted Nuthatch
47. Hooded Merganser
48. American Coot
49. Red-winged Blackbird
50. Golden-crowned Sparrow
51. Fox Sparrow
52. Common Raven
53. Lesser Scaup
54. Red-necked Grebe
55. Red-breasted Sapsucker
56. Varied Thrush
57. Red Crossbill
58. Hermit Thrush
59. Northern Harrier
60. Eurasian Collared-Dove
61. Brewer’s Blackbird
62. Northern Shoveler
63. Northern Pintail
64. Green-winged Teal
65. Dunlin
66. Black-bellied Plover
67. Sanderling
68. Western Sandpiper
69. Herring Gull
70. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
71. SOOTY GROUSE
72. Stellar’s Jay
73. Pacific Wren
74. White-breasted Nuthatch
75. Wood Duck
76. Western Meadowlark
77. Gadwall
78. American Goldfinch
79. Pied-billed Grebe
80. Peregrine Falcon
81. Long-billed Dowitcher
82. Sharp-shinned Hawk
83. Trumpeter Swan
84. Red-tailed Hawk
Victoria
85. Black Turnstone
86. Harlequin Duck
87. Barred Owl
88. Bewick’s Wren
89. Ancient Murrelet
90. Common Loon
91. Purple Finch
— Common Peafowl
— “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco
92. Bushtit
93. “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler
94. Rhinoceros Auklet
95. Common Murre
Cruisin’
96. Pigeon Guillemot
97. Pacific Loon
98. Brandt’s Cormorant
99. White-winged Scoter
100. Red-throated Loon
101. Northern Fulmar
102. Heerman’s Gull
103. “Black” Brant
104. Pomarine Jaeger
105. Red Phalarope
106. Pink-footed Shearwater
107. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
108. Sooty Shearwater
109. Cassin’s Auklet
110. Black-footed Albatross
111. California Gull
112. Black-legged Kittiwake
113. Laysan Albatross
114. BULLER’S SHEARWATER
115. Short-tailed Shearwater
116. FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER
117. Ashy Storm-Petrel
118. Leach’s Storm-Petrel
119. Red-necked Phalarope
Los Angeles
120. Black Phoebe
121. American Kestrel
122. Great Egret
123. Snowy Egret
124. White-faced Ibis
125. American Coot
126. Green Heron
127. Greater Yellowlegs
128. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
129. SCALY-BREASTED MUNIA
130. Say’s Phoebe
131. Osprey
132. Turkey Vulture
133. American White Pelican
134. Ruddy Duck
135. Lesser Goldfinch
136. Hutton’s Vireo
137. Townsend’s Warbler
138. Orange-crowned Warbler
139. Western Grebe
140. Northern Mockingbird
141. Black-crowned Night-Heron
142. Cooper’s Hawk
143. Mourning Dove
144. Common Yellowthroat.
— Red-whiskered Bulbul
145. Great-tailed Grackle
146. Tricolored Blackbird
147. Allen’s Hummingbird
— Yellow-chevroned Parakeet
148. Acorn Woodpecker
149. Cassin’s Kingbird

Mammals:
1. Eastern Gray Squirrel
2. Douglas Squirrel
3. Harbor Seal
4. River Otter
5. Black-tailed Deer
6. Dall’s Porpoise
7. Humpback Whale
8. Elephant Seal
9. Fin Whale
10. Northern Fur Seal
11. Pacific White-sided Dolphin
12. Minke Whale
13. California Sea Lion
14. Short-beaked Common Dolphin
15. NORTHERN RIGHT WHALE DOLPHIN
16. Blue Whale
17. Orca
18. Fox Squirrel

The Bahamas!

Bahama Warbler

Bahama Warbler

Jeannette and I traveled with our friends Paul Doiron and Kristen Lindquist for a 10-day escape from winter’s grip. While the 5 endemics (species found nowhere else on Earth) of the Bahamas (not including the “new” hummingbird on the Inaguas that was split after we planned this trip) were our primary targets, these were, in all reality, the excuse to visit, not the sole reason.

Like all of our journeys, Jeannette and I use species of interest as a guide, getting us to interesting places, seeing great birds, eating great food, and perhaps even resulting in a little rest and relaxation. When most people think of the Bahamas, they think of resorts with expansive landscapes of concrete pools and golf courses, or casinos. Yeah, we didn’t visit any of those. Instead, we prefer the periphery of where the hoards of tourists flock (sorry for the pun, I couldn’t help it). In other words, we flock to where the birds are.

We arrived in Nassau on the heavily-developed island of New Providence less than three hours after departing from Boston. That short trip resulted in a welcome gain of over 70-degrees. I was soon hot.

We had a relaxed afternoon, mostly being “regular” tourists around town, including a visit to the John Waitling rum distillery where the opening scene of Casino Royale was filmed, and where some fine rums are made.
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Wintering migrants such as Yellow-throated and Prairie Warblers foraged in gardens and street trees, and Jeannette scored her lifer White-crowned Pigeon as it came into roost in a tree just outside our downtown hotel. Eurasian Collared-Doves were ubiquitous, but it was interesting to see them here. Besides the surprising “dark morph” birds in the city, there is a fair amount of ornithological history with these birds: it was here in Nassau that they were released in 1974 and from here, rapidly colonized the North American continent, now breeding all of the way to southern Alaska!

The next morning (2/27), we were already back at the airport, this time for the short 30-minute jump over to Abaco. Now it was time to really go birding!

Poking our way from the airport to Marsh Harbor, as Paul adeptly navigated the “wrong side” of the road for the first time, we soon found just how outdated the Birder’s Guide to the Bahamas was. Nonetheless, we still found the first lifer for all four of us – LaSagra’s Flycatcher. Shortly after arriving at our quiet little cabin rental at The Lofty Fig (much more our speed than a loud and bustling downtown hotel!), the first of the five endemics we were after flew overhead – 4 Bahama Swallows!

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LaSagra’s Flycatcher

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Black-faced Grassquit

A short walk over to the Abaco Beach Resort yielded lifer Greater Antillean Bullfinches and Thick-billed Vireo, and lifer Western Spindalis for Jeannette in the neighborhood nearby. The spiffy, white-bellied resident race of American Kestrel was exciting to see and we became familiar with the common cast of migrant warblers that would appear at almost every “pish:” Prairie, Cape May, Yellow-throated, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-and-white, and especially Palm, and of course one of our favorite birds, the Bananaquit.
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Thick-billed Vireo

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American Kestrel

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Western Spindalis

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Saw-scaled Curlytail.

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The 28th was our most important birding day, with three endemics and several other regional specialties on the agenda as we birded the south end of the island. Following breakfast in a little shop in Sandy Point (lifer Guava Duff!), we immersed ourselves in the pine forests of Abaco National Park.
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Homemade next door, hand-delivered with extra sauce.

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Bahama Swallow

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Atala

Olive-capped Warblers and Cuban Emeralds were abundant, Cuban Pewees were scattered about, and we teased out two skulking Bahama Yellowthroats – endemic #2. We finally picked up a couple of Bahama Warblers – their long, decurved bill and yellow bellies rapidly separating them from Yellow-throated.
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Cuban Emerald

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Cuban Pewee

When you think of mockingbirds, you think of bold and conspicuous, but apparently not so for the Bahama Mockingbird in the middle of winter. We only saw one bird on our trip, and it was a skulker. After a bit of gentle squeaking, however, it popped out and offered a short but satisfying moment. Apparently, we were lucky to see one at all at this time of year.
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While looking for it to give a second good view, a female Bahama Woodstar zipped by and landed on a nearby bush – our third endemic of walk!
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We wandered around a little bit before arriving in the afternoon at the Bahama Palm Shores to look for the endemic subspecies of the Cuban Parrot. It took us all of about 10 minutes before we heard parrots, and a handful of yards further down the road, we found ourselves surrounded by a confiding flock of 20 or so feeding on fruit.
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Having cleaned up on our first full birding day, the agenda was more relaxed on our second full day on the island. We worked our way north to Treasure Cay, stopping at a roadside coppice which yielded more migrants, another Bahama Warbler, and more Thick-billed Vireos than we could look at.

Thanks to two mutual friends, we hooked up with local birding expert Woody Bracey. Woody generously offered to show us around his part of the island. Mentioning we hadn’t yet seen our life White-cheeked Pintails, Woody took us to a local golf course pond, where 48 pintails were present. What a gorgeous bird; here’s one where the field guides definitely don’t do them justice! Cute and elegant, dapper and colorful all at once, these great little ducks were a great way to start our birding day together.
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Cool “gray-morph” or somewhat leucistic pintail.

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“Please take MY picture! Or, give me bread.”

Interestingly enough, the rarest bird in the pond was a vagrant Canada Goose, which arrived here in November – a great bird for the islands. Three Mallards, if indeed genuine vagrants, would be a close second for their rarity. The Blue-winged Teals and Pied-billed Grebes, however, were common and expected.

Further exploration yielded our lifer Loggerhead Kingbirds, and much improved views of both Bahama Yellowthroat and Bahama Warbler.
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As luck would have it, after working hard for West Indian Woodpecker to no avail, we heard one call right behind our Marsh Harbor lodging on the morning of the 2nd. However, in about an hour, it only yielded two glimpses as it darted between tall ficus trees. Four Loggerhead Kingbirds were more conspicuous however, and a small thicket of trees held a nice mixed species foraging flock of overwintering warblers, included a Black-throated Blue and a Worm-eating.

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I’m a fan of fried chicken, and the fried chicken was darn good down here, such as at the little “Just Chicken” shack that Jeannette and I ate at tonight.

Today we took the short ferry ride to Hope Town on Elbow Cay. Wandering through the village – which reminded us all a little of Monhegan Island (but with palm trees) – we did the touristy thing before heading out of town and walking the edges of coppice habitat outside of town all of the way to White Sound. And guess what we saw – West Indian Woodpeckers! Two, about 20 feet away foraging on a roadside tree for over 10 minutes. Isn’t that always how it works out? No Key West-Quail Doves as we hoped for, however.
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Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls from our lunch stop.

Early in the morning on March 3rd, we departed Abaco, and arrived back on New Providence. With 6 hours until our next flight, we splurged on a car rental and checked out some birding sites on New Providence. The Harold and Wilson Ponds National Park was the most productive of the destinations. Our trip list grew with Snowy Egret, Neotropic Cormorant, Tricolored Heron, Virginia Rail, and Sora, plus 6 more White-cheeked Pintails. Another female Bahama Woodstar entertained us at the Clifton Heritage National Park, which unfortunately, we ran out of time to explore.
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Following the shortest flight of our lives, we arrived on Andros Island a mere 15 minutes after takeoff. We even took off early, which resulted in our arrival time being our scheduled departure time!
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Jeannette did the planning for this trip, and once again, she had us in prime position for our target bird. This time, it was the rarest bird of our trip (and therefore my “most-wanted” species), the critically endangered Bahama Oriole. We checked into the Lighthouse Yacht Club Marina motel, a place that’s glory days are long since past. While its history was fascinating, it was a tired place, but we weren’t here for the ambience – or thankfully, the “pool.” Instead, we were here for orioles.
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And within about 10 minutes of stepping outside into the front “yard,” an oriole sounded off. We hustled down the entrance road, and Paul spotted the bird teed up on a dead snag. It turned out that a pair was present, and they afforded good views. Now, with the last of the island endemics checked off, we could finally relax a little!
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There wasn’t much of a town here in Fresh Creek, but Hank’s Place – the only restaurant open in the area – was not just a great meal, but had the local color, character, and ambiance that one misses staying at gated resorts. Bahama Swallows were on the wires as we crossed the bridge, but unfortunately, we didn’t rediscover any extinct three-foot-tall Barn Owls on the walk home.

The next morning, White Ibis were out on the front lawn of the Lighthouse Yacht Club, and then spent some more quality time with the orioles – at least three were in the area, including two males counter-singing.
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Soon thereafter, we took a cab for a short ride over to our final destination of the trip, the Small Hope Bay Lodge to end our vacation in style. Wandering around the grounds and some of the trails yielded more quality time with Thick-billed Vireos, Cuban Emeralds, Bananaquits, Greater Antillean Bullfinches, Black-faced Grassquits, and pockets of North American migrants. Vocal Clapper Rails were added to our trip list.
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Paul finally gets into his element.

Jeannette and I took a bike ride (5 miles on old bikes and mostly rough dirt roads, so this might have been slightly more effort than we had anticipated!), through pine forest that was alive with the songs of resident Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, to the most impressive of the local “blue holes.” Circular sinkholes into the limestone, blue holes are famous for their relaxing swimming. In we went.
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The next morning, one of the resident guides, Tarran Simms, took us on a van tour two three blue holes, taught us about traditional medicinal plants, and brought us to one of the more productive coppices for two of our last “target birds.” Although the notoriously challenging-to-see Key West Quail-Dove was heard twice, it was not surprising that we couldn’t track it down through the impenetrable forest. However, although we heard at least two different Great Lizard-Cuckoos, we weren’t able to spot one of those either. We couldn’t complain, though, as these were our only to “misses” of the trip.

And Paul finally got to go fishing, and reel in a bunch of Bonefish. A “Fisherman’s Lifer.”
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Two Least Grebes were at the Rainbow Blue Hole, along with a chance to dip your feet in for a little fish-exfoliation treatment. A Merlin was new for our trip near Cousteau’s Blue Hole, where Tarran also pointed out an old Barn Owl nest. It’s certainly not where I would have expected to see a Barn Owl nest, but without any barns around, clearly they make do. No one was home at this season, but several pellets below proved they have been eating rats nearby.
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After lunch, Jeannette, Kristen, and I rode into “town” to check out the Androsian batik (fabric) factory and store, passing a small pond that hosted a few waterbirds. An Osprey, of the regional subspecies “ridgewayi” with a nearly all-white head flew over, our first (surprisingly) Osprey of the trip.

On our last morning on Andros, Jeannette and I briefly spotted a Bahama Oriole in a Coconut Palm as we left our cabin. We then took a longer trail through the property, hoping for quail-doves or lizard-cuckoos. We didn’t hear or see either, but we did get an unexpected lifer: Swainson’s Warbler. One of the few eastern North American birds neither of us have seen, we’ve never been in the right place at the right time to look for one, so it was exciting to first see the bird in its “wintering” grounds – the place where it spends almost 8 months of each given year. A really good look at a Red-legged Thrush was nice, as well.

For a chance at seeing some seabirds, Jeannette had booked us on the ferry from Fresh Creek back to Nassau, instead of flying back. The boat left from near the Lighthouse Marina, and as we departed, a Bahama Oriole was singing away, teeing up for one last look as Bahama Swallows zipped around the creek.

It was a nice boat ride, and seeing 6 flying fish was pretty neat, but we only had one distant seabird in the three-hour journey: an unidentified shearwater that was really far away, but presumably an Audubon’s (which would have been a lifer for Jeannette). A few Laughing Gulls were finally around as we approached Nassau, and once in the harbor, we added Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls to our trip list.
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Jeannette and I like to splurge at least once on a trip, if possible, and we went all out on this one: dinner the Greycliff in Nassau. And it was fantastic…and amazingly expensive. But you only live once, right? Besides, while waiting to be seated, we strolled the impressive gardens as dusk approached. A Louisiana Waterthrush wandered around the edge of the tile-lined pool, and a Red-legged Thrush foraged in the garden. White-crowned Pigeons and Eurasian Collared-Doves were arriving to roost in the palms and other trees around the property. And the refined guava duff (no Styrofoam clam-shell here!) was exquisite.
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March 7th was our last day of vacation, so Jeannette and I wanted to make the most of it. Paul joined us for a walk around the tourist Mecca/hell of Paradise Island. It was not our cup of tea, but thickets of vegetation, especially around a couple of stagnant but very productive ponds, were surprisingly birdy. Especially around the ponds, there were White-crowned Pigeons and Bananaquits in the trees, all of the now-expected wintering migrants at every pish, and several really good looks at Red-legged Thrushes. Mourning Dove was new for our trip.
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Phone-binned Red-legged Thrush

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Great Egret with begging fish and turtles.

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Paul peeled off, and Jeannette and I set out on two missions. One, was my now-desperate attempt to find a place that had invasive Lionfish on the menu (I’ve heard it tastes great, and with the damage it is doing to the reefs of the region, I was hoping to single-handily increase demand for it!). No luck there. Our other mission was to find the introduced Cuban Grassquits.

We walked towards a well-known place to see them, finding a great little café (Le Petit Gourmet) for lunch, before we arrived at the Bahama Art Handicraft Gift Shop on Shirley St. We soon spotted some feeders, and within seconds, Cuban Grassquits started arriving. There were at least twenty of these darling little birds…and a rather gorgeous one at that; the field guides didn’t really do it justice. House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons, and a single Common Ground-Dove were the only other visitors to this feeder, but the grassquits were yet another life bird that offered stellar views and solid “life bird moments.”
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“We’re going to see a life bird here?”

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Phone-binned photos of the Cuban Grassquits

It was a long, hot walk back to our hotel, making a couple of stops in pursuit of leads on Lionfish, but finding another grassquit at Betty Cole Park near the waterfront. Then, the four of us rendezvoused back at our downtown Towne Hotel, and took the bittersweet cab ride back to the airport. It was time to head home: back to winter, back to work, but back to Sasha and the climate I am more comfortable in!
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This is our triplist, in order of first appearance. Birds marked with an (*) were lifer birds for me and Jeannette, and two (**) were the two species that were new for just Jeannette. Endemics or regional specialties are in all caps.
New Providence Island:
1. House Sparrow
2. Northern Mockingbird
3. Killdeer
4. Laughing Gull
5. Eurasian Collared-Dove
6. Rock Pigeon
7. Yellow-throated Warbler
8. Prairie Warbler
9. Black-and-white Warbler
10. American Kestrel (endemic subspecies)
11. WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON**
12. Cape May Warbler
13. Smooth-billed Ani
14. Common Gallinule
15. American Coot
16. Great Egret
17. Belted Kingfisher

Abaco:
18. Common Ground-Dove
19. Bananaquit
20. Black-faced Grassquit
21. LASAGRA’S FLYCATCHER*
22. Ring-billed Gull
23. Magnificent Frigatebird
24. BAHAMA SWALLOW*
25. Little Blue Heron
26. Red-tailed Hawk (resident subspecies)
27. Tree Swallow (actually, a pretty good rarity)
28. American Redstart
29. Northern Parula
30. Greater Antillean Bullfinch
31. Red-legged Thrush
32. Palm Warbler
33. Yellow-throated Vireo
34. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
35. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
36. THICK-BILLED VIREO*
37. Red-winged Blackbird
38. European Starling
39. American Oystercatcher
40. Indigo Bunting
41. WESTERN SPINDALIS**
42. Turkey Vulture
43. Limpkin
44. Pine Warbler
45. “GOLDEN” YELLOW WARBLER
46. Northern Waterthrush
47. CUBAN EMERALD*
48. OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLER*
49. CUBAN PEWEE*
50. Great Blue Heron
51. BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT*
52. BAHAMA WARBLER*
53. BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRD*
54. BAHAMA WOODSTAR*
55. Hairy Woodpecker (endemic subspecies)
56. Ruddy Turnstone
57. Royal Tern
58. Double-crested Cormorant
59. CUBAN (BAHAMA) PARROT
60. Reddish Egret
61. Common Yellowthroat
62. Worm-eating Warbler
63. Yellow-rumped Warbler
64. WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAIL*
65. Blue-winged Teal
66. Pied-billed Grebe
67. Canada Goose (mega-rarity!)
68. Mallard (very rare)
69. Forster’s Tern
70. Gadwall
71. LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD*
72. Peregrine Falcon
73. Spotted Sandpiper
74. White-eyed Vireo
75. WEST INDIAN WOODPECKER*
76. Black-throated Blue Warbler
77. Ovenbird
78. Willet

New Providence:
79. Snowy Egret
80. Neotropical Cormorant
81. Tricolored Heron
82. Virginia Rail
83. Sora

Andros Island:
84. BAHAMA ORIOLE*
85. Magnolia Warbler
86. White Ibis
87. Green Heron
88. Clapper Rail
89. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
90. Least Grebe
91. Merlin
92. Osprey (ssp. Ridgewayi)
93. Swainson’s Warbler*

New Providence Island:
94. Lesser Black-backed Gull
95. Herring Gull
96. Louisiana Waterthrush
97. Mourning Dove
98. CUBAN GRASSQUIT*

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The Deal With Alpha Codes, and some Florida Pics.

This week, my blogging was hosted by the American Birding Association. A synthesis of the results of a query that I put out to the Maine-birds listserve regarding why the use of “four-letter (or “alpha” or “banding”) codes on listserves elicits such strong responses is featured in “Open Mic: The Deal With Alpha Codes.” I hope you’ll check it out, and I hope you’ll enjoy (or at least be thought-provoked by it).

Part 1 is here.

And Part 2 is here.

Please consider joining in on the discussion in the comments field of the ABA blog.

Meanwhile, Jeannette and I escaped the ice for a quick four-day trip to Florida for a wedding, a day with family, and an all-too-short day and a half of birding. I’m not sure if I will get a chance to write much of a blog about it, so let me quickly summarize the highlights:
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Florida Scrub-Jay was a life bird for Jeannette.  I think this is a “countable” view!
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Jeannette’s first ABA-Area Limpkins were among a lovely diversity of birds at the Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland, one of which posed nicely.
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And while our mutual-lifer Nanday Parakeets were serendipitously spotted as we stepped out of breakfast at a Waffle House (itself a successful “twitch”), a stop in Gulfport for another look (also successful), presented an unexpected photo session with some, let’s say, very cooperative Wood Storks.
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As for local birds, I was happy to see the Townsend’s Solitaire was still at Florida Lake Park in Freeport this morning as I took Sasha for a stroll. I spent about 25 minutes with it today, as it alternated feeding on Winterberry and Multiflora Rose, and in classic solitaire-style, perching up on the tallest trees around. That was a nice welcome home.

Finally today, I wanted to steer you over to the Tri-Town Weekly (Freeport-Pownal-Durham) which ran this nice little feature on our store’s 6th Annual Snowbird(er) Contest for our Saturday Morning Birdwalks.

The Nova Star Ferry to Nova Scotia

I love birding Nova Scotia, but it’s been a few years since I was last there. This year, with the rebirth of ferry service from Portland, I knew it was time; there were no more excuses.

I finally got a chance to make the voyage this week, with two primary agendas: explore the birding potential of the Nova Star (and scout for the potential of making this a new weekend tour), and visit with my friend Eric Mills for a little southern Nova Scotia birding.

Ever since we lost the Scotia Prince, I have been hoping for a bird-able boat that traverses the Gulf of Maine. The short-lived, high-speed catamaran that replaced the Scotia Prince was of little value – it had almost no outdoor space whatsoever, and it moved far too fast.  With the return of ferry service, and this time with a ship that moved at a more reasonable speed for birding, I was optimistic for a new pelagic birding platform.

I waited until August to take my trip, as the warmer late-summer waters host more pelagics now (especially birds that arrive from their sub-Antarctic breeding grounds). Furthermore, the high cost of a trip on the Nova Star would not permit me to take many journeys this year, unfortunately (and will clearly be the biggest hurdle in running a tour that utilizes this boat), so I had to choose my dates wisely.
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Boarding at 8pm on Tuesday night for the 9pm departure, I settled into my spartan, but plenty comfortable, bunk.
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Next, I walked every corner of the boat in search of the best location for my birding. There’s no access to the top deck, the bow, or anywhere close to it on the sides. The only forward-view was the piano bar with occupied tables, and less than a desirable view to the sides. Really, the only places to view are outside decks on the stern. Not expecting a big ol’ cruise ship to attract many following birds, I was concerned about the birding potential. Quite concerned (especially at this price).

Come morning, the viewing locations were the least of my concerns, however. We were socked in with fog, too thick to see a thing.
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It wasn’t until we were about to enter Yarmouth Harbor that we finally exited the fog, but other than a single Northern Gannet, there would not be any seabirds for me this morning.
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Entering the harbor, however, the sun was shining, gulls were busy with newly-arrived Herring trawlers, and the mudflats were lined with shorebirds.
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After disembarking (and I must say, having the relatively few walk-ons wait until every car had offloaded was just stupid; I get why we couldn’t walk down the deck with traffic, but had we been allowed to go first, we all would have been clearing customs before the first cars were being offloaded, but I digress), I met Eric, who I had not seen in four years; it had been way too long.  After the usually greetings and pleasantries, we of course immediately began birding.

The first order of business was Yarmouth Harbor, where I was evaluating the birding potential of a vehicle-free tour. Good shorebird habitat, with decent numbers of Black-bellied Plovers and Short-billed Dowitchers were close by, and we encountered perhaps the last two Laughing Gulls (rare but regular in Nova Scotia) from the fall-out of this species that was caused by Tropical Storm Arthur – the first addition to my Canada list on the trip. A couple of thickets and small parks hold potential for migrant landbirds.
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Moving on, we drove up and down the Yarmouth Bar (Nelson’s Sparrow, Peregrine Falcon, more shorebirds) and north to Mavillette Beach Provincial Park (more Nelson’s Sparrows). After dipping on two Black Skimmers that had also been lingering post-Arthur, we met up with local birder Ronnie D’Entremont for a shorebird survey at Cook’s Beach on Pinkney’s Point. Well, the survey was easy! All of the birds were jam-packed into one gravel spit due to very high tides. The estimation, however, was not easy, but we came up with about 1500 Semipalmated Plovers (a very impressive count), joined by about 750 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 100 Least Sandpipers, 51 Short-billed Dowitchers, 20 White-rumped Sandpipers, 17 Black-bellied Plovers, 2 Killdeer, and 1 Ruddy Turnstone.
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What was particularly cool about the roosting Semipalmated Plovers was that once we rotated to the side of them, we saw how carefully lined up they were in little, linear depressions in the cobble beach.
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One last check of Yarmouth Harbor – OK, there are three lingering Laughing Gulls, apparently – and then it was beer o’clock and dinner time at Rudder’s brewpub.

On Thursday, the birding hotspot (to say the least) of Cape (Sable) Island was our destination, and it surpassed all expectations!  Jeannette and I birded here in late September during our first visit to the province beyond Yarmouth 8 years ago, but here in August shorebird season. it was in its full glory.  First, we twitched a vagrant American Avocet that had been present for about a week, finding it within seconds of pulling over.
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While we missed peak shorebird density at Hawk Point by perhaps as much as an hour, one of the 4 pairs of American Oystercatchers in the entire province were visible, as were plenty of shorebirds, with a combined guesstimate of several thousand Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plovers, with smaller numbers of Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Least and White-rumped Sandpipers, along with handfuls of Ruddy Turnstones, “Eastern” Willets, and Sanderlings. Only one Whimbrel, however, and no Hudsonian Godwits.  I was still impressed – especially if we had missed the peak – and thoroughly enjoyed the waves of shorebirds streaming overhead and out of the bays, heading towards their high-tide roosts on the sandy barrier island of Cape Sable.

Next up was South Side Beach at Daniel’s Head. Wow. Simply, wow. We knew there was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper here, and we knew a lot of shorebirds roost here at high tide, but we definitely did not know there would be this many birds!  The narrow strip of sand was coated with shorebirds – the best Eric has ever seen here, and we estimated around 10,000 total birds!  Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers led the way, followed by goodly numbers of White-rumped Sandpipers, 3 Black-bellied Plovers, 2 “Eastern” Willets, and 1 Short-billed Dowitcher.
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Oh yeah, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper was there, too.
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After lunch, we picked up another staked-out rarity in a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, as my Canada list grew nicely. Back at South Shore Beach, we found very few shorebirds – another birder saw two harriers flush them out, so Eric and I considered ourselves incredibly lucky to have hit the beach at prime time. While we were there chatting, small numbers of bird began to return as the tide just barely began to recede.

The weather forecast for the day had been a concern, leading us to expect rain on and off throughout the day. But we lucked out, as the rain stayed away until around 2pm, at which time we were already working our way back to Yarmouth, with a detour to Lower West Pubnico.

My short trip was coming to an end on Friday morning, but the most important part – professionally anyway – was about to begin. Eric and I said our goodbyes (after a quick check of the harbor once more), promising it won’t be nearly as long this time until we see each other again, and I boarded my vessel for the return trip.  Unfortunately, the view in the harbor, and for quite some distance offshore, looked familiar.
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We departed at 10:00am ADT with nearly zero visibility.  A small hole in the fog just outside the harbor presented a Red Bat that circled the boat a few times before moving on.  It wasn’t for an hour and a half that the fog lifted enough to see much else, and a short-lived hole produced several Great Shearwaters and Northern Gannets: a frustrating tease as the fog closed back in.

We were in and out of dense fog for the next two hours, but whenever there was visibility, I was on deck, scanning the gentle (today!) seas. Great Shearwaters, Northern Gannets, a few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and two Atlantic Puffins were welcome, and then several Leach’s Storm-Petrels. I could only help but wonder what was out there as thick fog once again swallowed the boat, and I set off to find some lunch (the buffet was not very good, especially for a hefty $17…it felt like a mediocre college dining hall; breakfast was only marginally better).  Sitting at the window, doing my best to get the most out of my dollar, the fog started to clear, and views of Leach’s Storm-Petrels sent me scrambling for the deck at 1:10 EDT. I sat down again at 6:25 EDT.

When the fog cleared, the winds were light and the seas were fairly calm, and birds were everywhere. As it turned out, my scouting of birding locations worked out – the corners of Deck 9 provided a decent view from about 2:00 (using the bow of the boat as 12:00) on out. I couldn’t see what was crossing the bow, but I could pick birds up before and after. And, the height of boat gave me great visibility to see well away on either sides, where I spotted most of the action.
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Nonetheless, I would not have guessed that the birding would have been this good!  Shrouded in fog, I was beginning to think my money had been wasted. By the time we arrived in Portland, I was thinking about how I could bring a group aboard and when I could afford to take the trip again (a rather large hurdle, especially for a tour).

I swept all of the expected tubenoses (4 shearwaters and 2 storm-petrels), with the count of Leach’s Storm-Petrels most impressive. While most phalaropes were too far to ID, there were plenty of Red Phalaropes to be seen. Four Fin Whales, 9 Mola Mola (including a patch of five in close proximity), a pod of wake-riding Atlantic White-sided Dolphins, and a breaching Blue Shark were among the non-avian highlights.  At nearly the mid-point of the crossing, well south of Mt. Desert Island, a wayward Yellow Warbler came aboard.

When all was said and done, I had one of the better pelagic birding trips that I’ve had in Maine (list not including near-shore stuff on either end, plus Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls of course):
173 Great Shearwaters
167 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels
131 Northern Gannets
105 unidentified phalaropes
55 (!!!) Leach’s Storm-Petrels
10 unidentified storm-petrels
10 Laughing Gulls
7 unidentified terns
3 Cory’s Shearwaters
2 Sooty Shearwaters
2 unidentified jaegers
2 Atlantic Puffins
2 unidentified passerines
1 Manx Shearwater
1 Common Tern
1 Ruddy Turnstone
1 Yellow Warbler

While the height of boat preclude great photography opportunities, I did alright with “documentation” shots of Leach’s Storm-Petrels as they flew around, bounded like sea-worthy nighthawks.
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Great Shearwaters, however, were a little more cooperative.
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Passing south of Matinicus Rock…

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…and Monhegan Island!
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So while the birding situation is not optimal, clearly the boat passes through some productive waters. I’m sure not every trip will hit this much activity (‘tis the nature of pelagic birding), but at least my concerns about the feasibility of birding (at least for a small group) from the Nova Star are alleviated. Fog and inclement weather will always be a concern; this is the Gulf of Maine after all.  As for a future weekend tour, I have a plan in mind. Let me give this some thought (and make some calls). But at the very least, suffice to say that birders traveling to and from Nova Scotia, or those just looking for a ride to sea, have another option now, albeit an exceptionally expensive one.

Colorado!

It’s been 18 years since I have been to Colorado, and over 10 years as part of Jeannette’s family. Yet I had not made the pilgrimage to her aunt and uncle’s ranch in Ridgway. In other words, I was overdue for a trip to this wonderful, and bird-wise, exceptionally diverse state.

We arrived in Denver late on the 8th of July, and somewhat early the next morning began our birding at Genessee Mountain Park. It was a very birdy location, and I enjoyed a host of birds that I have not seen in a good while, including Cordilleran Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Green-tailed Towhee, Lesser Goldfinch, and so much more. Like just about everywhere we went in the state, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were talkative: their chirpy-buzzes created by their namesake tail feathers whipping through the air. Animated Black-billed Magpies worked the picnic areas, and Western Wood-Pewees called here and there.
Genessee Park, 7-9-14_edited-1(Don’t forget to click on the images for a full-sized photo).

GTTOGreen-tailed Towhee

Reynold’s Park was next on the agenda, rapidly growing our trip list with the likes of MacGillivray’s Warblers and Townsend’s Solitaire. But as we departed for our drive out of town, I was left still not believing that Williamson’s Sapsuckers actually exist.

This was primarily a friends and family trip, but of course there would be plenty of birding involved. While there were plenty of birds we hoped to see, the primary target species was the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. An overdue candidate for the Endangered Species List, this range-restricted and declining bird was a priority for us. But we were here in mid-summer, not when the males are “booming” conspicuously on the lek in the early spring. We knew we had our work cut out for us, and didn’t truly expect to find this needle in the sagebrush haystack.
Gold Basin Road, Gunnison, 7-10-14

After over two hours of walking up and down roads along and off Gold Basin Road (just south of Gunnison) first thing in the morning, we resigned ourselves to the expected failure, but enjoyed the multitudes of Brewer’s Sparrows and Sage Thrashers. Then, about 100 yards from the car, a big, brown chicken erupts from the side of the road. Gunnison Sage-Grouse! A female, and only about 15 feet away!
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We watched her mosey up a small hillside (did she have chicks hiding nearby?), and so we retreated to some rocks and waited. She didn’t return to the grassy road edge, so we walked around a small rocky mound to get a better look. And that’s when we flushed another one!

We really couldn’t believe our luck as we returned to the car, our mission complete and our spirits high. We also both were happy that we wouldn’t be tempted to try again on the way back to Denver at the end of the trip.

At a more relaxed state now, we birded around the Curecanti National Recreation Area, adding a nice array of waterbirds to our trip list, including a single California Gull, and unexpected over-summering hen Common Goldeneye, and about 25 Western Grebes. One pair of grebes was displaying, head bobbing and posturing to each other. Eventually, they rose to their feet and ran across the water, wings tucked in, necks bent, crests raised, and in perfect unison. I have always wanted to see Western Grebes display.
Curecanti National Rec Area, 7-10-15

Even though it was after noon, and the temperatures had risen well into the 80’s, we decided to give Grace’s Warbler – another potential lifer for me – a shot. Jeannette and had done some excellent research for the trip, and as soon as we stepped out of the car at an unassuming road junction, we heard the male singing! We walked into the open woods here and after a little pishing, the female popped out a mere 15-20 feet away! Then, the male resumed singing and continued to do so until we had fully soaked in his beauty and committed the song to memory (or, at least, attempted to).
GRWAThe cooperative female.

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Pronghorn Antelope as we drove back to the highway!

It was hot, but Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was not to be missed. I for one had not known much about the place, and I was stunned by how impressive it was. Black-throated Gray Warblers worked the brush, White-throated Swifts chattered overhead, and the glorious song of the Canyon Wren echoed from the cliffs below. But it was the scenery more than stole the show here.
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We arrived at Deedee and Peter’s Ridgway Ranch in time for dinner, and in need of a good night’s sleep. Come morning, we were greeted by Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds at the feeder, Western Meadowlarks in the fields, and Western Kingbirds around the house.
Hummers 2Black-chinned Hummingbird

Hummers 3Rufous Hummingbird

Hummers1Broad-tailed Hummingbirds

Family ranch,7-11-14 And this view!

We visited Ouray for lunch, and then hit Box Canyon Falls. How have I not heard of this place? Although I had seen Black Swifts before, I had never imagined there was a place to see them like this – there was one nest about 15 feet off of the staircase! At least three nests (out of about 12 known here) were very easily visible, and looking into these nests was a remarkable experience.
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COFL - Box Canyon
Not to mention what might have been the world’s most confiding Cordilleran Flycatcher.

Birding up Camp Bird Road, we encountered lots of singing White-crowned Sparrows and Swainson’s Thrushes, a few Gray Jays, and runners taking part in a grueling ultra-marathon.
Camp Bird Road, 7-11-14

On the 12th, we got an earlier start and ventured north into Colorado National Monument. While the park itself was the primary motivation for this outing, the chance at my lifer Gray Vireo only added to the anticipation. And with two birds well seen at our first stop (the Devil’s Kitchen picnic area), we were free to take in the scenery, and enjoy the likes of Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black-throated Sparrows (a favorite of both of us), cute Juniper Titmice, and comical Gambell’s Quail. Oh, and the scenery was simply breathtaking.
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lizard - Colorado N.M. Does anyone know what kind of lizard this is?

Making a big loop, we climbed into Grand Mesa National Forest where Jeannette caught the birding bug while working on a field biology project with Boreal Owls. Wilson’s Warblers, Lincoln Sparrows, and an Olive-sided Flycatcher were added to the triplist, but I was more interested in hearing Jeannette reminisce. No Boreal Owls, however.
Grand Mesa,7-12-14

Half-way through our trip on Sunday the 13th, we were content with our birding successes (well, expect Williamson’s Sapsucker, but that doesn’t exist) so we planned a relaxing day in Telluride. Or so we thought.

We went out for a big breakfast before heading southwest, steadily climbing into the mountains. A hike to work off breakfast was in order, so we headed up the Bear Creek Trail from downtown Telluride. Cordilleran Flycatchers were impressively vocal and conspicuous in town and the trail, which also held lots of Warbling Vireos, Pine Siskins, and “Gray-headed” Juncos.

But our less-bird-centric day would take a turn just over a half-mile up the trail. Jeannette and I stopped dead in our tracks as we heard the enchanting song of a “Winter Wren” emanating from the gully. But Winter Wrens aren’t supposed to be here. Plus, it doesn’t sound right – the song is a higher-pitched, buzzier, and more mechanical than what we are used to. Pacific Wren!? Well, that’s not supposed to be here either. We listened longer, and I made a recording of this complex song using my iPhone. We briefly sighted the bird on the top of a spruce on the other side of the stream. It looked dark, and lacking the pale-throated contrast of a Winter Wren, but the lighting was poor, and the look was distant and short.

We checked the range map on the Sibley app. Hmm…neither Pacific nor Winter Wrens are supposed to be here. And it sure has heck sounded to us like a Pacific Wren. I had limited cell signal, so I shot a text to our friend David LaPuma, who was currently in the state as an instructor at the American Birding Association’s Camp Colorado. I asked him about the status of Pacific Wren in Colorado in the summer, and he simply replied “Unheard of.”

But by the time we received that exhilarating and intriguing response, the bird had ceased singing, and we had continued along on our hike. The scenery was beautiful, the songs of Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes were emanating from the woods, and a close encounter with a foraging pair of Evening Grosbeaks was enjoyable. But we were distracted.
Bear Creek Trail, Telluride,7-13-14

We were going to email some birders in Colorado to determine just how “good” this “good bird” was once we got back into town, but just to be sure, we decided to try for better documentation and very specific directions so that others could re-find it should they so desire. The bird was once again belting out its vocals at the same spot, so we took careful field notes, made some more recordings, and this time I was able to take this “documentation” shot by holding my phone up to my binoculars.

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After listening to the bird for over 20 minutes, observing it as long as we could, and discussing the song as compared to our knowledge of the variation in Winter Wren (a species we are very familiar with from a wide part of its range) – unlike Pacific Wren, which neither of us have heard in some time. In fact, the last time either of us heard one, it didn’t have the name of Pacific Wren (it was a group of subspecies under the moniker “Winter Wren’)! But we were convinced.

When Tony Leukering replied with “…no summer records and less than five overall…” for Pacific Wren, we realized the magnitude of this “Mega.” We sent him, and others, including Ted Floyd, our notes, the voice recordings, and the lousy photo for what it was worth.

The next morning, two local birders re-found the bird, and managed to get “crippling” photos of it. Not only that, but they watched it building a nest! The close-up photos showed the rich buff color of the throat and upper chest that we expect on a Pacific Wren, although these two species are notoriously challenging to separate. Preliminary analysis of the song – including by those very familiar with the two species – seemed to confirm our identification (but since we’re still learning how to separate these two “new” species, we know there is always the chance our judgment could be overturned; the song was going to be analyzed with a spectrograph for example).

We were elated! Finding a mega-rarity on vacation is outstanding, especially on a day when birding wasn’t a priority. But isn’t that always the case? The unexpected love to show up when they are least expected, aka when you don’t have your real camera.

But we still had 2 1/2 days of vacation remaining. Could we top the wren? Probably not, but we did enjoy more good birding. Presumably set off by the onset of the monsoon season, most places we visited were full of birds – and unlike July in the Northeast – full of birdsong. This included the family ranch, where a morning stroll added Virginia’s Warbler to the triplist and a Calliope Hummingbird arrived at the feeder (yay, 4-hummingbird species at a feeder!). Two flycatching Lewis’s Woodpeckers were a pleasant surprise over the downtown Ridgway as we began our journey back to Denver.

We had one last target bird, and as soon as we got out of the car just outside of Montrose, we heard Jeannette’s lifer Sagebrush Sparrow singing. And then saw four. Score!

The rest of the day was spent traversing the countryside to get back to Denver. Beautiful scenery was to be had at almost every bend of the road.
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Arriving at my friends’ place in Denver – a dear friend since college – we settled down into a couple of relaxing days of catching up, being tourists, and enjoying way too much food, and a little beer.

Of course, Jeannette and I would go through withdrawal if we didn’t pick up our binoculars once a day, so while Jess pushed the stroller (for her son, not us, for the record) and guided us through Washington Park, Jeannette and I padded our trip – and my state – list with Black-crowned Night-Heron, Snowy Egret, Blue Jay, and Chimney Swifts (yup, back in the “East” now!). An afternoon in downtown Denver included a walk around Confluence Park – hmm, I think this would be my “patch” if I lived locally; it looked very intriguing for migration I thought
Confluence Park, Denver, 7-15-14

We had the morning of the 16th to bird before departing for home, so we headed over to another urban park, Belmar Park in Lakewood. Cooper’s Hawk was new for our trip list, but a low-soaring Swainson’s Hawk was the highlight. A brief stop at nearby Sanctuary Park – it looked like it had some birds from the road – trumped Belmar Park. “The pond of fuzziness” including chicks and young juveniles of a surprising array of birds: Mallards, American Coots, Pied-billed Grebes, and Redheads. The latter three, along with a single hen Northern Pintail, were all state birds for me.
PBGR with kids Pied-billed Grebe with chicks.

REDH Redhead juveniles.

Sanctuary Park,Lakewood,7-16-14 It’s a fuzzy romper room!

But alas, eventually it was time to go home. We said goodbye to Jess, and little Stone, but had some more time with Adam as we carpooled to the airport. We encountered an impressive 120 species on this rather-casual trip, and my state list grew by leaps and bounds. On our way to the airport, Western Kingbirds lined the roadways, and we said goodbye to the birds of the Mountain West as we took off and returned to our favorite state of them all.

“Bicknell’s Thrush and the White Mountains” Trip(s) Report

June is my busiest guiding season. Bicknell’s Thrush, Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrows, Roseate Tern, and Atlantic Puffin are my most popular requests, and there is little doubt that I could fill my entire month with Bicknell’s Thrush tours!

My first visit of the season to the realm of the thrush was last week, as part of a very successful three-day tour for a client visiting from Vancouver. We saw 7 of 8 of our targets: Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrow, Great Cormorant (3!), Bicknell’s Thrush, American Woodcock, Atlantic Puffin, and Manx Shearwater. And most we saw very, very, well. We only missed Razorbill due to a strategic decision that we agreed upon, and in the end, said decision worked out very well as we had unbelievable views of the shearwater.

DSC_0006_GRCO1,CapeNeddick,6-10-14_edited-1 First-summer Great Cormorant.

DSC_0049_MASH1,Revere,6-12-14_edited-2 Manx Shearwater!

In addition to the species we were seeking, we ran into several other highlights, the most noteworthy of which was an unseasonable subadult male Common Goldeneye at Cutt’s Island in Kittery. Other highlights included a truant Olive-sided Flycatcher at Reid State Park, and an Arctic Tern – usually an offshore feeder – feeding with Roseate and Common Terns off of East Point in Biddeford Pool.

Then, this past weekend was my popular annual “Bicknell’s Thrush and the White Mountains” van tour. Meeting at the store on Saturday morning, we headed for the hills, beginning with a surprise detour to West Paris.  For this:

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That’s right, a Snowy Owl in Maine in June! Really remarkable. And how’s that for a way to start off a weekend tour?  We then made a turn for the White Mountains, and after a couple of stops, arrived at Trudeau Road for this:

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Of course, as awesome as a Snowy Owl and a nest-ful of Black-backed Woodpeckers (this is the male above, who kindly paused to preen between visits to feed the young. We also had a great look at the female, who nearly dropped a fecal sac on the group!) are on a birding tour, this is a thrush trip, so our remarkable day of birding would rapidly fade into memory if we didn’t find our one true quarry.

After an early dinner, we boarded the specialized vans of the Mount Washington Stage Line for our private charter up the mountain. It was gorgeous at the base, but looking up, we knew the summit would be different.

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And it was!

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Luckily, the thrushes’ habitat was below the clouds tonight, and so after visiting the summit and checking for American Pipits (too windy, but the flowers were fantastic), we dropped down and began our real mission.

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Although it took a lot more work than usual, we were all eventually rewarded with good to great views of this enigmatic species. We saw two or three different birds, and heard up to 4 others – a good count for the short stretch of habitat that we cover. It was even the 700th ABA-area bird for one of the clients – a fantastic bird for an impressive milestone. A short celebration was called for upon our return to our hotel.

On Sunday morning, the second day of this two-day “target species” tour, the weather looked gorgeous, but the birding was challenging. Granted, it was going to be hard to top Day 1 anyway – we were probably the first tour in history to see a Bicknell’s Thrush and a Snowy Owl in the same day!  It certainly was a novel – and a completely unexpected – experience for me.

Birding the Caps Ridge Trail in dense fog and cool temperatures to start the day was less productive than usual, but it was still a nice walk into boreal habitat and enjoy the beautiful forest here. Blackpoll Warblers and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers were conspicuous today, at least.

Very strong, downsloping winds cleared the skies for us at our next few stops, but those winds only increased, and birding became a challenge. My favorite spot for Philadelphia Vireo, for example, was just too windswept. Actually, standing upright was occasionally a challenge. But finding some shelter on the backside of a mountain via a short, but steep hike, a few of us were treated to another view of a Bicknell’s Thrush – just as a little more icing on the cake.

A great lunch followed our birding, fueling us for the drive back to Freeport (or, at least, until the ice cream stop) and capping another successful “Bicknell’s Thrush and the White Mountains” weekend.  With one more private thrush tour next weekend, I can only hope my luck with the weather and with seeing the thrush – a mythological bird to some – continues.

IMG_3632 Happy Thrush-watchers!

Three Days of Migration Watching in May -Day and Night.

In my blog last Wednesday, I made some prognostications about what we might expect for birds in the coming days. Let’s see how I did so far.

Rain began to fall Wednesday evening, and continued, heavy at times, through Thursday morning. With a persistent easterly wind, overnight migration was non-existent. In the rain on Thursday morning, Katrina and I checked out Florida Lake Park, but found only about 20 Yellow-rumped and 10 Palm warblers – fewer than in recent days. The local River Otter pair, however, put on a great show. Nothing new under the feeders at home (or at the store), either.

Afterwards, I took a spin through the local farms and fields, but found nothing out of the ordinary; it’s too early for most shorebirds anyway. Admittedly, however, I had vagrants on my mind (and still do! As usual). Although the southerly winds conducive to southern overshoots (as I discussed in the aforementioned blog) had yet to kick in, the deep easterly flow that we have been ensconced within could offer up its own surprises. With reports of the “largest incursion of Icelandic/European birds to Newfoundland in recent memory,” including amazing tallies of European Golden-Plovers, 9 Black-tailed Godwits, North America’s 4th (or so) Common Redhank…yeah, the “Rarity Fever” in me can’t help but kick up. Perhaps something will ride one of those Iceland-Portland cargo ships that are in service these days!

Light rain continued through Thursday morning, diminishing to drizzle and fog until the afternoon, when a shift to westerly winds began to clear things out. Overnight, light and variable winds suggested a good migration should occur, but the radar wasn’t showing more than a light flight.
1am radar, 5-2-14  1am velocity, 5-2-14

However, it was foggy for much of the night, and fog can obscure the image of birds on the radar, especially if they are flying low. “Birding by radar” is not infallible, and I had a feeling it might have been a little misleading this morning. A steady trickle of Yellow-rumped Warblers moving over the yard at dawn confirmed this. The weather was just too-not-terrible for there not to be a lot of birds on the go.

So off to Florida Lake I went.  And, for a change this spring, I was not disappointed.  100+ Yellow-rumped Warblers, 20+ Palm Warblers, my first Northern Waterthrush and Black-throated Green Warbler (finally!) of the year, a singing migrant Greater Yellowlegs, and much, much more. I caught the lingering pair of Green-winged Teal copulating; are they going to breed here? Ring-necked Ducks had increased to 16 and there is still a pair of Common Mergansers here.

As the fog burned off, the sun shone brightly, and heat began to rise in swirling thermals, hawks took to the skies on the light westerly wind. I had to pull myself away from the hawkwatch kicking and screaming at 12:30, but by then we had eclipsed (at 10:35) our all-time record count of 4,474 birds when a Merlin streaked by. 388 Broad-winged Hawks and 22 Sharp-shinned Hawks were included in the total of 429 migrant raptors when I departed.

Last night’s passerine migration – yup, the fog on the radar definitely obscured the intensity of the flight! – was still evident well past noon, as Yellow-rumped Warblers were still on the go, reorienting inland after last night’s flight. Well over 200 had passed the summit by the time I departed, as did my first two Chimney Swifts and Eastern Kingbirds (also 2) of the year. And by day’s end, 705 raptors led by 583 Broad-wings were tallied, adding to our record totals. Around 4:00pm, our 5000th raptor had passed – a milestone we never thought we would reach.

Come nightfall, the radar was active once again.  Here are the 1am reflectivity and velocity images for example:
1am radar, 5-3-141am velocity, 5-3-14

Notice the dark greens in the center of the return, but overall the rather narrow diameter of the image?  My guess is that mostly overcast skies and a light westerly winds, perhaps including some turbulence from the passing cold front, kept birds low once again.  But, without fog around, it was certain that this was birds – confirmed by the distance SW-NE pattern of the velocity image, and its speed. I think it was actually a lot of birds.

And come morning, Yellow-rumped Warblers were overhead as I stood on the back porch at dawn, and the Saturday Morning Birdwalk group and I headed over to Florida Lake.  Yeah, it was good.  Very good.

In the past few days, we’ve also finally had the first couple of reports of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Baltimore Orioles, so that those have just begun to arrive.  As I mentioned the other day, food is in short supply for these backyard favorites, so feeders are going to be important for the first arrivals.

But no vagrants from the south, or East …yet!