Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Ending the Year on a Mountain High Note: The Quest for Rosy Finches

I have now been a birder for 6 years.  In that time I have done two atypical Big Years.  2012 was the beginning.  I began my birding obsession with a Big Year, starting from knowing nothing of birding, working full time and because of my work travel schedule, was able to see 601 species,(596 ABA).  In 2016 while traveling with the Blue Jays I did a Big Year in all the cities and states the Jays visited during the season and counted exactly 400 species. Over all that year, I saw 483, 17 short of the 500 I had hoped for.  In 2017, I have been unable to even see 400 species.  This past year I underwent spinal surgery, not once, but twice back in March and have birded as opportunites and my back health have allowed.  Yet, mostly targeting Lifers, and having very specific targets, I arrived in New Mexico with 8 ABA Lifers for the year, plus a non-ABA Black-backed Oriole.  In 2016 I added a total of 13.  I’d need 5 to match last year and I had my target list, of course: Three species of Rosy Finch, Pinyon Jay and Sage Thrasher.

I got going straight out of the airport.  Picked up my rental, a Ford Focus, which I drive at home, making the trip so much more pleasant.  I drove directly up to Sandia Crest House, where the rosy finches frequent the trees and feeders around the gift shop.  It’s only open on weekends at the moment, and my plane landed just after noon on Sunday and wanted to get there before it closed.  I arrived atop the mountain just before 2pm so had plenty of time on the deck, watching the feeders and even had lunch there.  The rosy finches did not disappoint.  At first it was just a few Gray-crowned Rosy Finches and then I was able to spot a few Black Rosy Finches.  It wasn’t until later when a huge flock arrived and I spotteded a lone Brown-capped Rosy Finch.  




Aside from the birds, the views from atop the mountain were superb.  There was one other exciting moment.  A rare daytime visit from a Ring-tailed Cat, a member of the raccoon family that is normally nocturnal.  Two of the people who worked in the Sandia Crest diner and gift shop had not ever seen seen  one, and the third had only seen one in the dead of winter and only at night.



I was staying at Elaine’s Bed and Breakfast part way down the Sandia Crest mountain, 

and figured I’d go back in the morning and watch the feeder outside the Sandia Crest House.  This time the rosy finches put on a show.  Flocks of hundreds of them and ample opportunity to photograph them all.



Over the next few days I was able to locate both the Pinyon Jay and Sage Thrasher, both birds that have also been long on my target list and finally have added to my Life List, which now stands at 668 ABA Species, with the addition of 5 in New Mexico and the substraction of the Thayer’s Gull.

                 Pinyon Jay:


                            Sage Thrasher:


Other birds and views from New Mexico:

                                Juniper Titmouse:                                                            

             Townsend’s Solitaire taking wing:


                       Mountain Chickadee:                                                                                             


          Cassin’s Finch:





Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Winter Birding Begins with a Barnacle Goose

With the beginning of the winter birding season, even though it was still November, it felt like winter, I was off on a trek through New York and Massachusetts with three very different goals in mind.  And for once, it was not all about birds.  Yes, a Barnacle Goose in Westfield, MA got the ball rolling, but there were a couple of other destinations that made the trip even better.  First, there was a place I’d heard of called “The Grand Canyon of the East.”  Less than 3 hours from Toronto I just had to see if it could live up to the name and I’d actually never been to the real Grand Canyon, so I scheduled a trip to New York over Thanksgiving Weekend to see it.  From there it wasn’t too far to go see the Barnacle Goose, but the third destination was the true cherry on top of this travel sundae.

Off the beaten path is a little known town in upstate New York called Ticonderoga.  It is also affectionately known as Trekonderoga.  For in this sleepy little village one man had a vision of building an exact duplicate of the sets from the original Star Trek TV series.  The one from the mid 1960’s with Kirk, Spoke and McCoy.  I am 57.  In the early 1970’s I was introduced to Star Trek on a black and white TV when it first hit syndication.  It was on at 4pm and I’d watch it religiously when I got home from school.  I’d get home around 3:45 and watch the final 15 minutes of General Hospital, where Audrey was on trial for a murder she didn’t commit, then spend the next hour on the Enterprise, going boldly on fantastic adventures.  I’d play Star Trek.  I’d build my own phasers and communicators.  I even had a failed attempt at building the captain’s chair from the bridge.  It was my dream to one day sit on the bridge of the enterprise in Captain Kirk’s command chair.  Well, folks, 46 years later, here I am:

Sometimes, even the wildest dreams of an 11 year old watching a cheesy 1960’s TV show on a black and white Philco television, do come true.

But back to the birds.  The next day, after a lovely buffet Thanksgiving dinner at truckstop in Danville, NY, I was off on my goose chase.

The Barnacle Goose was not a Lifer, as I had seen one during my 2012 Big Year, but had failed to photograph it and on subsequent trips to get a photo, had not even seen one.  This year, I had high hopes of not missing it.  I arrived early at the water treatment ponds in Westfield, New York, but there were only a dozen or so Canada Geese hanging around.  I hung around for about half an hour, and then decided to drive around and check out other areas where a goose might roost.  Nothing but a lovely old mill and barn that had been turned into a store and apartments by a river.

But upon my return to the ponds, I was greeted by a small flock of geese flying in from the north and landing in the pond.  Amongst them was the Barnacle Goose and I was treated to up-close views of the bird, along with his companion, a Cackling Goose.  I got my bird and I got great photos, digiscoped with my new iPhone X and PhoneSkope’s pre-release iPhone X digiscoping adaptor, as well as a few with my Canon DSLR:

Seems like I am documenting this trip in reverse, so let’s circle back to The Grand Canyon of the East which is located in Letchworth State Park.  It was quite a spectical and yet another amazing place I might have never seen if not for birding.  There weren’t many birds to see in the park, but the view was what I was there for:

Back home I found  a few nice migrating birds to add to my small year list, a Red-throated Loon, Snow buntings and a Snowy Owl:

Finally, in my back yard, the feeders brought in an unusual visitor, a semi-lueisctic House Finch:

Next stop as I finish off the year, a few days of birding in Florida and then off to New Mexico for a few Lifers.  Hopefully a trio of rosy finches and maybe a single Pinyon Jay.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

End of Summer 2017 Update, and More Lifers

It was probably too soon to be traveling but I wanted to add some rare birds to my Life List and there was a Jabiru spotted in Texas and I wanted to go.  There were also rare birds in California and I had also wanted to take a Debi Shearwater Pelagic sometime this year, so decided to pack it all into one trip.  I also wanted to go back to Pinnacles National Monument,(now a National Park), and try again for the California Condor, since it had become a countable ABA bird.

Alas, after a full day of searching in the middle of nowhere Texas, Anahuac, outside Winnie, to be exact, I had to give up and head to the airport for my flight to California.  The group of us who birded together, including a woman doing an ABA Big Year, were lucky enough, though, to hear a Black Rail at the Anahuac NWR, which was a Year Bird for the Big Year birder.

The hoard of chasers sadly missing the Jabiru.

It was then off to California where I was finally going to see a California Condor; especially since it is now on the ABA List and would be a Lifer.  I also was looking for a few other Lifers, and even though I went on a Debbie Shearwater pelagic, I only added one other Lifer, and that was on dry land too.

The hike up to where the condors hung out was over 2000 feet of elevation and was slow going, due to both the heat and my reduced physical condition, still rehabbing from spinal surgery.  The views from above were spectacular...

... and the condors even better.  They were a fair distance away, but were easily identifiable.  (ABA 664)



On the pelagic, we were fortunate to see 3 boobies: Masked, Blue-footed, and Brown.  None were Lifers for me, and thanks to another birder, I have a photo of a Blue-footed Booby:



I also got photos of a Northern Fulmer and a few other cool pelagic birds along the way, including a Tufted Puffin...



Back on dry land, after a failed attempt at a Little Stint at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, below:

It was off to my final attempt at a Lifer, a Red-necked Stint at the Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary: (ABA 665)


Back home in Toronto, we were treated to one of the rarest birds of all, especially for Ontario, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher at Tommy Thompson Park, home of a number of rarities the past year or so, (Ontario 315):