Friday, 6 December 2019

700 Days of Birding... and Counting

December 1, 2019 marked my 700th consecutive day of submitting an eBird list.  I have gone birding almost everywhere in Canada and the US along with Panama and Ecuador since I started my list on January 1, 2018.  Sometimes it was a full day of birding in the rain forest, and other times it was the regular visitors to my feeders in my back yard.  There were days where I didn't see a bird until near sunset and other where I counted pigeons and crows outside my hospital room windows.  I'm hoping to make it to the end of the year without missing a day, but that depends on my surgical recovery later this month.

Since returning from Texas, I have birded mostly at home and out in Hamilton, as I was preparing  for a trip to Southern California, in and around San Diego.  Unfortunately I have suffered a little spinal injury that will require surgery in the coming weeks, so for now I will just be taking short day trips for birds.

Down at Colonel Sam I was able to see a late migrating Eastern Meadowlark and a Long-eared Owl:

A few days later I headed out to Hamilton/Burlington to see if I could find a Barrow's Goldeneye.  They are not rare by any means, but they are certainly uncommon in these parts, so any chance to see one without too much of a drive is always welcome.  On the way to Grays Road, I stopped at LaSalle Marina to see what was there and was greeted by a leucistic mallard,(which according to eBird, someone mistook for a Garganey):

At my next stop, I was able to find the Barrow's Goldeneye, but my only shot of it with his head up was in bad light though my scope, and when the sun did finally come out, he was much closer, but was fast asleep:

Getting back to owls, about a week later the first Snowy Owl of the season arrived at Col. Sam, meaning winter had officially arrived, even if the previous week's snowfall had all melted.

Yesterday was not just for the birds, but specifically for the gulls.  There was a Black-headed Gull down in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which I was unable to see last year, through no lack of trying, and a returning Slaty-backed Gull which I had seen at flying over the Mohawk Landfill in Brantford a year ago, but had a lousy photo of.

With the help of fellow rare bird chasers Garth and Nancy, I was able to see both.  The Black-headed Gull was number 333 for my Ontario Life List, though a photo was not really possible as it could only be seen in flight over the whirlpool rapids on the Niagara River.

I was luckier with the Slaty-backed Gull this time, getting a photo with my DSLR after getting a good look at it though Garth's scope:

Friday, 29 November 2019

The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

Finally, after 8 years, I was able to go to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.  In previous years I alternately went to either Cape May, NJ or The Yellow Rails and Rice birding Festival.  As it happened, the two ABA rarities,(and Lifers), that were reported prior to the festival, a Yellow-green Vireo and a Northern Jacana, had moved on.  However, one of the main reasons for the trip this year was to go to King Ranch and finally get to see a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.  Of course there were other great birds to see along the way, including Aplomado Falcon, Morelett’s Seedeater and a host of south Texas specialty birds and, of course, birders.

The first day I spent at Estero Llano Grande State Park, catching up with Huck Hutchens, the guide who helped me twice during my 2012 Big Year.  He does bird walks that are both educational and entertaining, a few times a week and I joined him and a group of birders from the festival for a few hours of entertaining commentary and a lot of great birds.

Eastern Screech Owl,(McCall’s):

Vermillion Flycatcher:

White-faced Ibis:

Day Two was the day I had been looking forward to since I began birding.  I had heard of King Ranch and the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.  I’ve made numerous trips to Texas over the years, but never had been there at the right time to go to King Ranch when the owls were present.  A group of us left on a bus at 6:00am and arrived just after sunrise in dense fog.  We could see nothing out the windows.

But not long after, the sun came out and the fog burned off and we were out listening and looking for the Pygmy Owl.  
It wasn’t long before we were hearing two of them calling on opposite sides of the road.  A few of us tried to locate the one calling on one side of the road while the rest of the group eventually caught sight of one on the other side.  The three of us ran over, hoping we didn’t miss it, but it sat around, and gave us great views for about half an hour before we needed to move on.  It was a new bird for my ABA Life List, though Sue and I had heard one when we were in Panama a few years ago.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl: ABA 683

Pygmy Owl from behind, with it’s fake eyes:

Later we were all lucky enough to have a Sprague’s Pipit land practically at our feet for a great photo op.

White-tailed Hawk:

My only other Lifer,(1135), of the trip was a Mexican Duck, newly added on eBird as a separate species.  Hopefully it will be added to the ABA List in the near future.  This was down at the Rio Grand River in Salineno at the base of the Falcon Dam.  It was a cold and rainy day and I didn’t spend much time there, but I did stop in at the Salineno Wildlife Preserve, where I saw all three of their specialty Orioles.

Mexican Duck:

Audubon’s Oriole:

Altamira Oriole:

Hooded Oriole:

Lots of other birders from the festival were there and while we were watching the orioles a Olive Sparrow came out from the bushes.

The next day I went over to South Padre Island and was treated to a fine show of migrating songbirds, including male and female Summer Tanagers.

On the way back to Harlingen I stopped along route 100 for a look at the Aplomado Falcon.  I got two for the price of one!

I spent my last full day back at Salineno, looking once more for Morelett’s Seedeater.  Before even looking for the seedeater I spotted a Gray Hawk.

But that was all we were seeing.  After a long wait, a few of the other birders went exploring and found a pair of Barn Owls in a cliff wall nest.  I left the seedeater watch and found the hole in the wall where the owls were peeking out.

Luckily, once I came back from viewing the Barn Owls, I wasn’t too late for the seedeater.  There was woman there looking for the seedeater as well, and we continued the seedeater watch together, and we were lucky to have a Green Kingfisher land practically at our feet.

It wasn’t long after that I heard the seedeater chip note.  We followed the sound and eventually found a female seedeater who posed for a couple of minutes so I could get my first photos of a Morelett’s Seedeater.

I had a great time at the RGVBF and look forward to returning again some year.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Return to California and More Lifers in Ontario

As summer came to an end, it was time to head west again.  Recent fall trips have been to Cape May, NJ, but this year Debi Shearwater was doing final journeys leading pelagics from the San Francisco Bay Area and having been on a number of them since doing my Big Year in 2012 I thought it would be nice to be on her last trip from Half Moon Bay.  This would also be Sue’s first pelagic, not counting all the whale watching trips she’s been on.  And we did see whales and dolphins, but the real stars of the show were the seabirds.  Having been on many of these trips before, I did not get any Lifers, but Sue did and by the end of our trip to California she was close to catching me on on our personal Life Lists.  I also didn’t get sea sick, so along with some great photographs, the trip was an exciting and sentimental success.  

We had flown in to San Francisco and there was a rare bird alert for a Yellow-green Vireo in Golden Gate Park, so we headed straight there from the airport and spent the afternoon searching with a few other birders, but just didn’t have time to stay and find it before having to head to our lodging for the night.  Alas, just before sunset, someone did report it again.  I’ll have to save that one for another chase, but I did finally get photos of a Pygmy Nuthatch after nearly 8 years of trying.

While in the Bay Area I couldn’t resist visiting Apple Park,(where I got interesting looks because of my resemblance to Steve Jobs), and also visit the Winchester Mystery House, where amazing cake artist, Christine McConnell had built a near perfect replica of the house out of gingerbread.

Our next stop was Pinnacles National Park, one of the homes of the California Condor.  We made a stop along the Airline Highway for Yellow-billed Magpies, another lifer for Sue.  On the way to the mountain trail to hike for condors, we stopped at the bridge known for Lawrence’s Goldfinch.  I had tried for them on my 2012 trip with no success, eventually getting to see some in Arizona a few months later.  Within 10 minutes of searching we were hearing and eventually got to see this elusive goldfinch. Sue added another Lifer and passed me on our friendly Life List competition.

I had been to Pinnacles a couple of year ago and did a tough three mile hike to finally see the condors, only months after spinal surgery.  We gad arrived early in the day to beat the heat.  We set out for the bird and what I thought would be a difficult hike and had not even hiked a mile when we spotted one condor, then a second.  One landed in a nest hole and a second landed on the rail of the viewing platform about a quarter mile further on.  We stood there and got great looks and didn’t even have to venture further up the mountain.  Once again the birding luck was with Sue and she added yet another Lifer.

The next day we went to Big Sur, another great spot for condor viewing, but in his case my goal was a photo of a Wrentit,(another bird that is proof that men name birds.  Only birders can talk about tits and boobies and not sound rude).   I’ve seen the skulky and elusive Wrentit  numerous times, but they have always been too flighty to get a clear photo.  Finally, this one sat still out in the open for long enough for us to get good looks and photos.

Back home fall was in full swing with the trees in brilliant color and the migrating birds all but gone.  That didn’t mean a rarity or two wouldn’t show up and that is the fun of fall birding in Ontario.  Twice this fall I have been out of town when a Black-throated Sparrow and Western Kingbird showed up.  Odds of them making another appearance in completely different locations was seemingly low, yet that is what happened, both on the same day.  They previous day I had seen my first Ontario Golden Eagle at the Cranberry Marsh Hawk Watch.  That evening I heard of a Black-throated Sparrow showing up in Oakville and I headed there the next morning along with a gaggle of other chasers from the GTA.  With all those eyes searching it didn’t take long to find the bird.  

Then people started talking about a Western Kingbird seen less than a half hour drive near Hamilton.  After figuring out directions from the sparrow sighting a convoy formed up and we all headed to the Desjardins Canal and again, thanks to lots of searching eyes, we found it in short order and after chasing it to and fro for a while, it settled on a branch for all to see, photograph and enjoy.  That brought my Ontario List to 331 and my year list to 522.

Next stop, The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival!