Saturday, 28 December 2013

Deja Duck

It was January 11, 2012.  I was 11 days into a Big Year and knew pretty much nothing about birding.  But I was chasing birds to see how many species I could see in my first year of birding.  I had already been to California, and had already chased a Smew,(a no show) and a Mountain Bluebird,(it showed), both rare birds for Ontario, when an adult male King Eider had been reported in St. Catherines at the Welland Canal.  When I arrived, about half a dozen birders were lined up at scopes, looking at the duck.  A nice woman let me look through her scope and I saw the beautiful King Eider for about 5 seconds.  The woman, it turned out, was Jean Iron, one of Ontario's most knowledgeable and prolific birders.

Fast forward nearly two years.  I didn't know it back in January of 2012, but I would run into Ms Iron often over the ensuing two years, including today, at Col. Sam Smith Park, looking for a Long-eared Owl.  She was arriving as I was leaving.  I didn't see the owl, but told her I was on my way to see the King Eider.  She wondered if it was the same bird from 2012 returning once again.  Back then I was a naive, uneducated wanna-be birder.  Now, when I bump into Ms Iron, she actually recognises me.  I've come a long way.

So, off I went to St. Catherines, to try and not only see the Eider, but get a good photo of it as well.  Back in 2012, I arrived as the bird was drifting further and further from shore and the old scope I had was not up to the task of re-finding it, after the others had left, so I had no photo, digiscoped or otherwise.  Today I hoped for a different outcome.

Of course, it's me, and nothing ever seems to come easy.  First, when I arrived, I headed quickly down the path where I had seen the Eider the first time, nearly 700 days ago.  Something to do with muscle memory.  My legs just carried me down the path it had been on before.  Mistake number one. I spent time scoping all the Common Mergansers and soon came to the realisation I might be looking in the wrong place.

So as I walked back to the car, I examined the text of the King Eider e-mail alert and discovered that the bird had been viewed from some place called Jones Beach.  Where the heck was that, I wondered as I got back to my car and then looked beyond my car to see, well, a beach.  I walked down to the beach, pulled out my scope and within a minute found the King Eider across the bay.  As I looked up, I saw that it was at the end of a spit with a lighthouse on it and a few birders taking photographs from about 15 feet away.  The question was, how to get there?

I dog walker came by and I asked if she knew how to get to the lighthouse spit and she directed me to get in the car and drive down another road to where I would pick up a path that would lead to the lighthouse.  Fine.  Great.  I hopped in the car, drove up the road, around a corner and down another road, where, about 5 minutes later, I parked my car about a 30 second walk from where I had been parked by the beach.  So far, I had wasted about 40 minutes pretty much going in circles.  I hope that whenever I set out to break the Big Year record, that Neil Hayward is on the verge of breaking this year, I don't spend as much time wandering aimlessly and making so many wrong turns as I seem to do now.

Another birder was coming up the path from seeing the Eider, and, of course, had taken some great photos, as the bird was so close to the spit.  Great.  Now I just had to make my way there.  He gave good directions.  Follow the fence line until it ends, go off through the trees to the right and then make your way back to the spit.  I made it there in fine time, and another pair of birders were just walking out.  The Eider is right there, they told me, just be careful walking down to the lighthouse.  Finally, I arrived.  A pair of birders had just seen it.  Where? I asked.  She pointed close to shore and said, right there, but it just flew off toward the shore.  The very shore I had just come from.  Nooooooooo!

They left and I was left to relocate the bird I had walked so far to find.  The 45 minutes or more I had wasted might have cost me a great photo.  As it happened, the bird must have circled around, because I soon spotted the Eider behind me, not across the bay.  For the next 45 minutes or so I followed the bird along the shoreline trying to get photos, as it drifted further and further away, and then was gone.  I lost hope of getting a good photo and was about to head back to my car when I was inspired to walk back to the end of the spit and just see if he had wandered back to his starting point.

In fact, he had.  I found him quickly, just a little too far offshore to get a good photo, but suddenly the eider took off and flew right in front of the camera.  It then landed close enough to see without binoculars, flew off again, landed close and allowed me to take some decent photographs.  Finally, I had photos of an adult male King Eider.  I already have photos of first winter and summer juveniles, but they just don't compare in beauty and colour to the adult males.

Satisfied, I headed back to Toronto.  I decided to stop once more at Col. Sam and look for both the reported Long-eared Owl and my park nemesis, the Northern Shrike.  No owl, but on my way out of the park, I finally, after at least a dozen attempts, found the Northern Shrike sitting near the top of a dead tree.  The Shrike was another bird I saw but did not photograph in 2012.  I got my photograph and have now seen just over 350 species in 2013.  Not a Big Year, by any means, but I have seen 20 Lifers this year and added photographs of a couple of dozen more birds as well.

My first view of the Kind Eider, just in front of the lighthouse:

Now, how to get there, from here?

After 45 minutes, I am getting close:

The treacherous final leg of the journey to the King Eider:

As I approached my destination, I observed that everything was not ducky between these two:

But, finally, eventually, I found the bird I was here for:

And to top off my day, a Northern Shrike:

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Merry Christmas Birding

It's December 25th.  Christmas Day.  And the power is back on in our house after being out due to the ice storm, forcing us to live down the road in a Holiday Inn for a short spell.  So, what do crazy birders do on Christmas Day for fun, after breakfast and gift exchange is done?  Go birding in the snow, down by the lake in search of Snowy Owls.  We didn't find one by the lake, but a Snowy was quite accommodating up at Downsview Park.

Thanks to another crazy birder out in the snow, we were able to find the Snowy Owl:

Snowy in the Snow:

Monday, 23 December 2013

Winter Birding Back Home

In between cold weather, snow, wind, ice storms and power outages, I have managed to see some good winter birds in and around Toronto, including 3 Snowy Owls, in 3 different locations in one day and the cutest little Snow Buntings, along with a variety of winter water fowl.  Since photos can sometimes tell a better story than words, here is my photo story from the last few days since returning home from Arizona.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Arizona Life Birds: Follow Up

One thing you learn as a photographer turned birder is that just because you can see and follow a bird with your binoculars or see it through a scope at 65x magnification, doesn't mean you'll get a good photo of it, if you even get one at all.  That being said, I did get some nice photographs of some of the Lifers in Arizona this week, along with photos of birds I failed to photograph last year.  I also took some nice photos of the scenery too, along with birds that were new for the year or new for my Arizona Life List.

Juniper Titmouse: 612

Mountain Chickadee: 613

Burrowing Owl:

Say's Phoebe:

Some lovely scenery at the end of a great day of birding:

 Rosy-faced Lovebird: 617

A very thirsty Heron lost in the dessert:

My first Arizona Green-tailed Towhee,(I'd seen a vagrent in Florida in 2012):

The handsome Lewis's Woodpecker: 614,(my new favorite bird)

  Mountain Plover: 615

Rufous-capped Sparrow:

 And Finally, the Code 5 Sinaola Wren: 616,(alas, not great photos)

Life Listing in Arizona

Building the Life List is one of the reasons I love birding.  There will always be species, somewhere, you've never seen.  Sure, it's fun to compile the year list or the state list, when I travel, but it's the ABA Life List that gets me to new places, or, in the case of Southern Arizona, places I've been numerous times, but still managed to miss some birds along the way.

In this case, it was the Mexican Chickadee and the Juniper Titmouse.  However, there were also some rare birds around too, including a Blue-footed Booby and a Sinaola Wren and I really wanted to see those as well.  So after a bonus day in the Orlando area, after my work trip, I headed to Phoenix and drove right up to the Bill William's NWR Visitor's Center.

The lake is full of Western and Clark's Grebes, and lots of Common Goldeneyes.  I had hoped to scope a Barrow's as I did last year, but no such luck.  However, I was just there for the Booby and after about 2 hours of scoping every buoy, mudflat and bank, I finally found it, way over on the opposite side, about 200 yards away.  Having seen the Brown Booby earlier this fall, I knew what I was looking at.  Beak bigger than a cormorant with a kind of white, elongated oval belly.  It was an exciting, if not a satisfactory look.  I had hoped it would fly closer at some time, but never did.  I had the scope at 65 power, so digiscoping wasn't even an option.  The bird flew off after about a minute and that was it.  I stayed until dark, along with another birder, but we couldn't refind it.

I had to head 5 hours down to Benson for the night, where I would begin birding the Chiricahua Mountains the next morning with the help of Melody Kehl.  We started at 6:30 and spent a lot of time driving, but once up in the mountains, it took less than an hour for me to spot the Juniper Titmouse and Melody to find me a Mexican Chickadee.  From there we drove back to Phoenix, where a Lewis's Woodpecker was waiting for me at Reid Park.  When I first saw it, it flew from the park into a tree on the opposite side of the road, then went from tree to post for the half hour we watched it.  The Lewis's Woodpecker is now one my new favorite birds.  I had been in Arizona 24 hours by this point and I had added 4 Life birds, along with a handful that were new for the Arizona Life List and photos of birds I had not gotten a shot of in 4 trips to Arizona last year.

We finished with a trip to the sod fields for a Mountain Plover, along with a great photo of a Crissal Thrasher and Sagebrush Sparrow.  Had we 100% identified what we thought was a Bell's Sparrow, the split of what had been the Sage Sparrow, I'd have counted another new species for the year.

After a very satisfying day of birding, Matt Brown, my guide for Tuesday morning had a lot to live up to, but he delivered in spades.  I stayed at the Stagestop Inn, which feels like the kind of place Wyatt Earp had probably stayed in back in the day, and met Matt early the next morning.  We started with looking for the elusive Montezuma Quail.  We drove to what he felt was a good spot for it, and this year I really wanted to see one.  Last year I heard them, but now it was time to see the bird.  And we finally did.  We heard them calling and finally flushed two of them out of the brush, and I got a great look at one as it flew over the ridge.  I had finally seen a Montezuma Quail.  They are no longer a mythical bird.  Next year I hope to actually photograph one.

We continued on our way to try for a Mountain Bluebird, but as we were looking, we ran into Laurens Halsey, not to be confused with Lauran Harter, who is the woman who found the Nutting's Flycatcher at Bill Williams.  Laurens had just come from hearing a second Sinaola Wren along the Juan Bautista De Anza Trail.  The first one was off limits to me as it was in Fort Huachuca and it is off limits to anyone but American Nationals.  So, this was indeed a gift from the Life List Gods.  Laurens gave us great directions and off we went in search of a Code 5.

We got to the trail, parked, and walked the six tenths of a mile to the hydro polls.  Matt had his GPS out and it was kind of like Geocaching.  Just before we got to the spot, Matt saw a little brown bird in a bush.  It was a Wren.  We slowly approached and we both got a good look at it.  Matt exclaimed, "I think that's it!"  We got even better looks as it darted around the bushes.  Yes, that was the Sinaola Wren.  No stakeout, no waiting, just a bird in the bush being worth more than any two in the hand.  And then it called.  We had listed to its call on the walk up and new what to listen for.  No doubt.  The bird matched the description perfectly and spoke to us in its native tongue.  We had the bird.  My sixth Lifer of the trip and I wasn't quite done yet.

After seeing the bird fly across the path and land in a tree, Matt discovered the tree it had landed on had a nest.  The Sinaola Wren was building a nest hoping to attract a made that would likely never come.  Matt is probably the only person in the US to have seen this bird and its nests on multiple occasions in different locations.  He found the first ever Sinaola Wren in the US, as well.  Great Karma birding with Matt.

The next morning I had to head back to Phoenix, but stopped at Encanto Park for one more bird.  It was the Rosy-faced Lovebird that I had missed the previous year.  This time I arrived in a better location early in the morning, when they are most active and heard them from my car before I was even parked.  Then I was treated to a veritable storm of Lovebirds.  There was a huge flock of them coming in from parts unknown and landing in a fairly bare tree in the park.  Lovely birds each and every one and my seventh Lifer of the trip, number 617 for the ABA Life List and my 20th Lifer of 2013, which as the modest goal I had set for myself this year.

I had just enough time to check out Boyce Thompson Arboretum for a Williamson's Sapsucker, but that was where my luck ended, as far as new birds went.  However, I did see lots of great birds, including both Red-naped Sapsucker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker a nd a few new birds for the Arizona List.

It was a great trip and yes I did drive about a thousand miles between Phoenix, Tucson and Patagonia,  and other locals, but the birds were worth it.  The Lifers were worth it and if I were not a "Lister" I'd have not gone out of my way to see so many new birds.  And really, seeing birds, especially species you've never seen before, including those wonderful Code 4 and 5 birds, is what birding is all about.  Seeing wonderful birds, everywhere you go and going to where the birds are is part of the adventure I love.

I am back home in Snowy Toronto now.  Literally.  Yesterday I found three Snowy Owls.  One in Downsview Park and two in Col. Sam Smith Park.  I love Snowy days, as long as I can look and not shovel.

I shall post photos later, but now I need to run.  Life calling!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Final Days in Florida, Now on to Arizona!

I had a little time to bird one last time in Florida for the year, before heading off Arizona for hopefully a few southwest Lifers.  I'm hoping for Blue-footed Booby, Mountain Chickadee and Juniper Titmouse.  My first stop on my way up from Miami was at Wakodahatchee Wetlands for a Neotropic Cormorant.  It didn't take long to find, as I had great directions to where it was, perched in a nest atop a tree full of Double Crested Cormorants.  It was a new bird for the year and a new bird for my Florida List. Afterward, I went looking for a Common Eider, at a marina south of Merrit Island, but after a long morning and early afternoon of searching, with two other birders, it just wouldn't show.

I continued up to Merritt Island to bag a Scrub Jay, as I hadn't seen one this year, and perhaps a Black Rail.  I discovered, at the Visitor's Center, that the rail was in a part of the refuge not easily driven to, and that every January at the Birding Festival, they have trips to see them.  I had hoped to go this coming January, but it overlaps with our trip to Costa Rica,  so I shall have to wait until January of 2015 for that Lifer.

Instead, I walked the Scrub Trail and found a gazillion Yellow-rumped Warblers,(please do not use this number for any CBC's, as it is a slight exaggeration).  I saw an American Kestrel, Osprey, Mocking Bird, but no Scrub Jay until I was on my way back to the car and the mosquitos were biting like I was on the Snake Bight Trail.  I got a good look and a photo, although the bird was about 100 yards away atop a tree, and moved along.  For some reason, the mosquitos only bit on the back of my knees,(is there a name for that area?), and the bridge of my nose.  Very odd.

Here is the rare for Florida Neotropic Cormorant :