Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Sheldon, Iowa

Big Year Day 27

Big Year Total:  388
Coded birds:  20
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal, gray whale, California sea lion, pronghorn
Miles driven.  9150
Flight Miles 14600
segments: 17
Hours at sea: 14
Miles walked 45.5
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:12

East Lawn Cemetery, Sheldon IA
January 27. 2016

It has been written, mostly by me, that Iowa is the best kept secret known only to a chosen few and of course politicians.  Having spent two significant blocks of time in Iowa in my life, (doing research on leaf-cutting ants at Iowa City and doing a residency in Waterloo and living in Evansdale) I have some opinions on Iowa, and generally, I like Iowa and Iowans.  The difference between South Dakotans and Iowans is that we know we don't matter.
    I have five birds that I worry about seeing.  I had seen two of them before now and the third is the white-winged crossbill.  I am planning on heading to northern Minnesota this weekend but very few sightings have been reported of that bird.  The closest reports, oddly happen to be in two cemeteries in NW Iowa.  I looked at the map and the checklists.  The one in Sheldon, Iowa was a few miles closer to me than Sioux City Iowa and it had brown creeper, so I decided, I'd go there.   I had breakfast with my daughter and she went off to school, I...I went off to Iowa.
    As you know, I am on a roll..I am in the birding zone as they say.  Things were taking shape and then while I was driving through a ground blizzard, I got a message from Joe Jungers, a Facebook friend.  He wanted to know where I was going in Iowa.  I answered Sheldon.  It turns out Joe found the crossbills in Sheldon, and volunteered to help me find them. Small world.
   I didn't know what to expect, but when I finally drove the 200 miles to the cemetery, it looked more like the Pacific NW than NW Iowa.  The Dutch Reformed people of NW Iowa must have liked conifers 100 years ago and they planted them en-mass in this cemetery and they were huge, bushy, and loaded with cones and seeds, something unlike most everywhere else in the northern forests.  The trees in Minnesota were almost devoid of cones, here, this cemetery could feed a thousand birds, but as Joe filled me in, only three crossbills and two pine grosbeak had found this oasis in the farm land settled by Dutch immigrants.
    We went searching as Joe said, it could take a while.  In Olaf Zone time, that was ten minutes.  I could see Joe found them and soon I was looking at the male red crossbill transfixed by the bird.  A sharpie came by and they took off, unfortunately, I didn't get a photo I was too busy looking at the bird.  I have only seen the red crossbill in Colorado and Arizona previously.  We refound them and they stood out for photos.  Then we easily found the grosbeaks.

#385  Red Crossbill

#386  White-winged crossbill

#387  Pine Grosbeak

I also saw #388  Brown Creeper, but heard it to love those creepers.

Who would have guessed that one spot in Iowa would yield such treasures.  The WWCR was off the board and I also tallied some birds I would eventually see, but heck, they were now seen.  Thanks Joe for all of your help.  It was worth the 400 mile drive, which was actually just to go get groceries........sour dough bread, sandwich meat, toilet paper, milk, and oh, don't forget the pine grosbeak, the white-winged crossbill, the red crossbill and if you don't mind pick out a side of creeper, the brown is the best.  Ummm...creeper.

Is this heaven?

No!  It is just Iowa


The Pink Menace

South Florida

Big Year Day 24-26

Big Year Total:  384
Coded birds:  20
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal, gray whale, California sea lion, pronghorn
Miles driven.  8750
Flight Miles 14600
segments: 17
Hours at sea: 14
Miles walked 45
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:11

"The Legend of the Pink Curse"

Back in the olden days, in what is now called Sweden lived a very stubborn man.  He was called Daniel the thick headed, or worse, the think skull.  In general, he toiled the land in peace and didn't bother anyone, but Daniel did what he wanted when he wanted just like his father and his father's father.  Back in those days, the men and women of this region, now called Darlana, worshiped the old gods, this was long before they had been "reforrmed or saved" by St Anscarius.  The people in this particular region honored the Goddess of Love and battle the great Frejya.
    They built a wonderful temple to the naked goddess and, in general, the land around this area was bountiful, the women stunningly beautiful, and the men virile and happy.
     It was after one of the fertility festivals that the great goddess herself came to the temple to see her adoring she was prone to do.  All marveled in her glory.  Freyja was something to behold when she was happy, something to be feared when she was mad.  It didn't always take much for someone to die in her presence, ill tempered was she.
    Freyja was about to bless the people when she noticed something, someone was missing.  "Who is not here?" She demanded.
     "Daniel the thick skull."  They replied.
     "Order him to appear at the next worship!"  She said angrily and did not bless the people and left.
     "At the festival of the Midsommer when all came again, all came but one man, Daniel the Thick headed was once again absent and Freyja ruined the mead and decided she would punish the man herself.  It was not a happy festival as Freyja was not happy.
      "Why do you not come and worship at me temple."  Freyja demanded of Daniel when she found him in a field, lighting shooting from her chariot pulled by a team of lynx.
      "I chose not to."  Daniel replied.
      "Well then, to punish you, I will make your pastures full of rocks and make you work twice as hard to produce the same harvest.  The trees on this land called Grangarde shall be such that they only grow half tall.  That is the punishment you shall receive for not worshiping me."  Time pasted.

      Freyja was having a happy day months later at the festival of the harvest.  She appeared but again, Daniel was not there.  Again she drove her chariot to him.  Her fury rose as she came nearer to the place by a small lake.
    "Have I not afflicted you?"  She confronted him.
    "You have poisoned my field and weakened my cow, that is true."  Daniel admitted, "You are all powerful and I am nothing.  You do as you will but I worked four times as hard so that it produced twice as much as before.  To spite your torment of me, I dumped half of my harvest out and destroyed half of my cheese.  Now I am even."
    Freyja wanted to strike the man dead, something prevented her.  "Then I shall punish you even greater."  She said controlling herself.
     "Goddess, even you cannot curse the accursed, nor do anything to change me.  I just will not ever do as you demand of me.  You see I am not of this land and I have been cursed by Thor and Odin, yet, here I am, who are you to make my lot any worse.  Those around here are born with wooden spoons and not silver spoons in their mouths.  My lot?   We eat with our fingers.  We are so impoverished even the poor pity us.  If you are going to kill me get it over with, otherwise be gone from my sight."
     Freyja stood there thinking and apparently was consulting with her fellow gods about Daniel.  "What you say is true.  You shall continue to toil in your woe.  I shall though put a curse upon your descendants."
     She raised her arms and then summoned two of her sacred cranes, the birds of which are shown kissing at the very alter of her temple.  She first took the man-crane and grabbed its neck and then in a flash it began to curve, and then she pressed its beak and it bent downward in the middle like no bird ever seen in those parts.  Then she spat on it and it turned the brightest pink, Daniel had ever seen.  Then she did the same to the she-crane so that both were alike.
    "Hence forth, Daniel the thick skull, you shall loath the color pink and these birds shall haunt you in your dreams and on this field.  They will be fruitful and multiply and whenever one of yours and your lot shall come in contact with one, cursed they shall be.  The water they walk in shall not be fit to drink and their flesh shall not be edible.  Many generations hence there shall be one of your heirs that shall be specially afflicted.  This bird will haunt his dreams and he shall seek the bird but it will not be found.  It will be as if it is mocking him.  He will curse it, a ghost bird he shall say. It will be there but it isn't.  He will tell of it, but no one will beleive.  he will seek but he will NOT find.  Pink shall be his bane, his heart ache, and it will almost be the death of him. He will curse the bird and he will curse you.  Bad luck will follow this man whenever he tries and fails to find this bird but if by some chance, he can get the bird's reflection, as if on a mirror, the curse shall be lifted.  Free will be everyone.
     "This man, shall be called Olaf the Large and this bird shall be ever called the flamingo in your language...."

Ft. Myers Florida, present day, January 24th
    It was with a deep sigh and much trepidation that I booked a flight to Ft. Myers to chase the accursed nemesis bird called by me the Pink Menace.  Nothing good had ever happened chasing this dang bird.  Even in St Martin, my refuge, I had spent years trying to photograph one to document its existence as it has been marked as exterpated in 1934, yet, I had seen one twice and another man 4 times yet every blasted time, something inexplicable happened.  I had been on two planes when told by the person on the other end not to come, bird no longer present, but it was too late, the plane had already left.  Dang birds!
    Now I was at it again.  The cursed bird had been reported and was still reported yesterday.  I left home at 1 AM to catch a morning flight after dropping off my wife at the smaller terminal in Minneapolis.  She was visiting her sister in St. Thomas, I had promised to remain one timezone from our daughter.
    I was upgraded and I was worried something was up.  It never went well chasing this dang bird.  dang Falmingoes.  I got internet on the way.and saw no reports of the bird when there should have been some.  I shook my head, the curse was on again.  Dang flamingoes!  Unlike most flights, I had booked this for three days as the bird was coming during low tide to Bunche Beach, low tide was just after dawn so I didn't really expect to see it today, but if it didn't show, that was really bad news.  I swore in First Class.  People looked at me funny.  The stewardess came to calm me.  "Dang flaminoes."  I said to her.  I ordered a gin at 0900.  I needed a drink.
    I landed in Ft Myers dejected and then a birder I knew named Chris Feeney texted me, he was also going to see the bird today.  "Bird just arrived!"  It was eleven, my heart pounded, so I rushed out of the plane and was first off, sitting in seat 6B in a 757, almost ran to the Hertz location.
     Note the best things to have for a big year are medallion status and Hertz gold, you save a couple of days in line.  I never check luggage on a bird chase in the lower 48.  With the Hertz Gold, I walked right to the car and took off.  My Siri told me Bunche beach was 32 minutes away, I made it in 21, only 26 minutes after the door to the plane opened I was parking the car.  No time to pay the parking fee, ticket?  Who cares.  I grabbed my scope and ran to the beach.  I phoned Chris.  "Turn right we have our scopes on it.  I has moved closer."  Two hundred yards of anxiety was exuded during the walk on that sand.  I knew something would happen, it always did.  I reached Chris and two friends with him, the Tommy and Theresa Schwinghammer from Indiana.  I looked up and there it was, the pink menace.
    "Damn flamingo!"  I shouted.  I breathed fresh sea air for the first time without the pink curse.  I then took its picture and something like lightning hit me.  I can't explain it.

#369  American Flamingo

There are very few truly wild flamingoes seen in the US Gulf Coast.  I sizable flock used to come to the Everglades each year but no longer.  These that come are just vagrants from Cuba or the Bahamas where the population is increasing and it is a code 3 bird....for nemesis.

Theresa Schwinghammer asked me what else I needed in Florida.  I couldn't think straight, I was still tingling.  Piping plover I said.  "Like this one?"  She motioned to her scope and there on a far sandbar was a small plover with no black on it next to a couple of semi-palms.  Another year bird.  
    "Yes, like that one."  I gave her scope back.  I didn't even take a picture. It was too far and I didn't care, I had the pink menace, life was...GOOD!"  I will say that I don't think those on the plane had even got there luggage before I was here and had the tick, note to you chasing birds...pack light!

#370  Piping Plover

The Scrub Jay Spot
NW Lee County

My friends went on their way.  I went to McDonald's to plan and use the free wifi.  Well, maybe I thought I should get the scrub jay now.  It was just noon and I had 5 hours of daylight.  I looked it up and saw a spot that wasn't a hot spot but had 12 ticks for the jay recently.  It looked like a neighborhood.  I thought that was odd.  The scrub jay isn't a neighborhood kind of bird.  I wrote the directions on an envelop.  I got lost, then ended up at a preserve somewhere and hiked a bit and then kicked myself.  I needed to "stay on target."  I plugged in my Siri for the address and it took me there.  I slowed for a scissor-tailed flycatcher on wire and got honked at by a guy behind me hauling a tree on a trailer.  He had a huge confederate flag tied to the tree waving as he drove.  I was also in a left turn lane, oh well. You guys wouldn't stop either.  Red neck meets birder...bad news.  I have many photos of them.
  There wasn't really a neighborhood at this spot, it was a subdivision with three houses and abandoned streets and fields.  Three local riff raff punks drove motorbikes at high rates of speed around and made lots of noise. They gave me the eye and I had that, I shouldn't spend too much time here, feeling.  It could get physical. I drove to a spot that looked like it was the spot.  All I had was an x on an envelop.  So it was a spot I had marked, not the actual spot. I saw a loggerhead shrike on a powerline.

It was eating something.  I would have gotten better photos but I was standing outside of my car with the door open shooting the photo having just put on my hat when out of the corner of my eye, I saw something coming at me.  This is when the 24th of January became surreal, maybe even the whole trip became surreal, but I turned as the jay landed right on my head.  It didn't know what to do but then it hopped onto the roof of the car and then after some photos went in the bush was joined by a friend and both scolded me for something.  Maybe it was telling me that Freyja had released her curse.  IDK.  It was odd but then I heard the motorcycles again and I decided that it was time to go while the getting was good.

#371  Scissor-tailed flycatcher
#372  Florida Scrub-jay

Harns Marsh

Okay, 1 pm and the primary target is down, and the secondary target is also eliminated.  I was a little freaked out but I was also on a roll.  Don't mess with a streak, is the old adage.  What to do next?  I figure, Snail Kite.  I had missed it on New Years Day so I sat back in the parking lot of McDonalds mooching their internet and bingo!  30 miles away, someone saw two the day before.  I plugged in the hot spot on Siri and away I sped.
      It was like I was doing the Monoco Grand Prix.  Siri was working overtime spouting out the turns.  Go a quarter mile then left on Straton, then 500 feet right on Olive.  I had names like Sara, 67, 59, 51, and one with a new name, then somewhere near 40 turns I turned in on Terry.  "You have reached your destination"  Siri said as I tuned the corner.
     I had a smile on my face but then the car turned and I noticed something was amiss..

WTF?  I was at a dead end.  I opened the car door to inspect it and there was no trail, nothing.  This is a hotspot?   Fuuudruckers.  I came back and grabbed the map.  Siri was demoted.  I was doing this the old way and I put it on the hood and slammed the car door.  I heard a rustle overhead.  I looked up as two snail kites flew from above me right down the road.  I grabbed my camera and ran.  Sometimes you just realize that certain birds you dang well better get a photo of so no one gives you sh&t.  This was one of those times.  I have never photoed this bird either.  I was like a crazed bull running down this abandoned street.
       I ran for everything I was worth and I dove right into the bushes at the end of the road.  Two large Olaf strides and the undergrowth caught my feet.  I dove, but holding a camera, I instinctively rolled to protect it.  I expected to be hung up or to hit the ground hard but I was suddenly free of the bushes, choosing the hole to the left, somehow, I had broken through and onto the open edge of a canal, I rolled on my shoulder, right up to my knees as the birds were just clearing the canal.  Camera in the ready, I came up firing.

This #373  Snail Kite

"Yes!"  I screamed and did a fist pump.  I made a motion with for a high five....but I had no one to high five with.  I then checked for injuries.  I had branches on me but I was not injured.  I didn't see blood.  Two guys and their dog eventually walked on the other side curious about me and where I came from and told me there was a trail but it was 30 miles to get around from where I was. They did give me a air high five from across the river.  I needed it.

   The curse is definitely lifted.  Yes!  Damn flamingoes!  I am free at last!

I didn't know what to do next.  I was at the end of my list.  To be honest, I hadn't made a list.  I checked NARBA, there was a report of a Green-breasted Mango, but it was sketchy and it was on the other side of Florida.  I sighed.  "Should I?"  I looked at my map when I got back to the car, this time being careful not to make sudden noises.
     I thought about it.  I shook my head.  Crap.  I decided to drive the Tamiami trail (Tampa to Miami)  Hwy 41. Maybe I'd see something fly over?
     I saw nothing and then as the light faded, so did I,  so by dark, I was on the other side and nearing the Native American Casino, I could go no further.  I was dead..
     I sat in the parking lot and checked for a room on-line as it was a long way to the front desk, the parking lot was full.  They had a room and I booked it.  I walked in to check-in, I didn't even bring my suitcase. I thought I didn't like casinos, now I HATE casinos.  At the door, I met a Native with an AK 47, I looked suspiciously at the sign.  They were having a gun show.  There was just something so wrong with that.  I went to check in and began a saga that would take an hour to get into my room.
    Now, mind you.  I've stayed in odd and bad hotels before.  I thought I could roll with anything.  I've had bed bugs at 4 star hotels, and at 1/4 star ones.  I've had hotels where you stuffed a blanket in the crack in the mattress to even it out and ones you had to pay for the water in the shower.  That same hotel had a key passing party the weekend before we got there for something to do.  I've been in lodging that came with your own llama, cat, or room with working guns on the wall.  I've been in ones that turned the power off at midnight, I've stayed in hotels with odd dress-codes and some that were mandatory nude,  I even had a hotel in Iowa that in the morning, a older man wearing nothing but a pair of tidy-whities bright me a glazed bun. Breakfast with a smile had too many meanings. That almost was worth the greenish black and white TV I watched the state girls 6 on 6 state basketball title game on.  I will say it here that this casino hotel had the WORST service ever.
     It took me an hour to get in my room.  The people at the front desk had long since given up on helping me and for the most part feigned being on the phone while 20 of us squirmed in line.  They seemed to only want cash, and maybe paying by credit card was not the best thing.  Maintenance finally came and let me in. I wasn't going to leave my room to go to the casino or look at rifles because I would then be forced to sleep in the hall.
   I ordered room service.  I never order room service.  "What kind of beer you have?"  I asked.
   "I don't know sir."  Came the answer. I tried to order food and the only things they had were alligator tips but I could get a Caesar Salad.  "It will be up in between one and two hours, sir."  She replied.  The tips were not edible.  They brought me a bottle of Heineken when I ordered 'any' beer.  No opener.  I called for an opener.  They had none.  I was going to write a letter to complain, but when I noticed no internet.  I called the desk and she told me I didn't pay for that and hung up never asking if I wanted to pay extra.  I had already gave too much for this bull sock.
   I woke up mad at 0530 and left.  Checkout was even odder and I think the same bored looking people were still playing the slots.  I wanted to go over to one and say "WHY ARE YOU HERE?" There are no rules for payouts at Tribal casinos you dolts!   But this is tribal land and they may just take me out and shoot me....why?  Remember the guns.....  

I drove to Everglades National Park as I thought since it was 48 degrees, it would take a while to warm up the hummers and I had messaged a local guy named Rangel Diaz and he was very suspicious of this report of this bird.  He gave me a tip on a king rail location but it didn't pan out and I went to the end of the road at Flamingo...that name again, and looked around.

I found black skimmers,

and on the sandbar out in front of the visitor center at low tide in a throng of stuff I saw
20   #374 sandwich terns    terns with yellow tipped otherwise black bills.  The lighting was horrible and I should have digiscoped but I didn't. I need to practice more after my loon experience.
       I drove back up the park road heading for Castellow Hammock, the area with the supposed green-breasted mango and came across a large flock of white-crowned pigeons.  A surprise bonus but later I learned they winter down here.

#375  White crowned pigeon

Castellow Hammock Preserve
Homestead FL

    I have never been here before and it is a little hard to find for Siri, it takes you to the wrong side. of the hammock. The important side for hummers is the west side, I may add which apparently used to be a butterfly garden and now the area is kept up as a park.  The flowering shrubs have overgrown much to the delight of the hummers.
    It is clear to me that something other than fate brought me here.  I would have never chased this bird due to the info Rangel Diaz told me.  Although someone on Facebook called me "suspect,"  I have never reported a coded bird to NARBA etc in which no one has previously documented with a vague description like this, with conflicting reports, and no pictures.  One person even admitted hearing its sound, however the sound put on the local Audubon site was for the wrong species of mango. What did they hear?  Was it mass hysteria?   So they obviously didn't hear that sound.
    When I arrived, local birding legend and phenom Larry Manfredi was keeping a watchful eye out for the hummer.  He had seen the 2 Buff-bellied hummingbirds, the third record ever for Miami-Dade county...

There was also a bunch of ruby-throated hummers, including a sort of dark and oddly colored one...but it wasn't that oddly colored.  Here is a plain female type bird.

bit alas, we saw nothing that looked like a big immature male mango.  I cannot fathom mistaking a funny colored ruby-throat for a mango.  It would be a state record if documented, too.  Who knows?  Maybe they saw it, we sure didn't.

I did go a check the tress for other stuff and picked up some warblers.  Here are some bad pictures of...

#376  Black throated green warbler

#377 prairie warbler (nice shot of his rump)

which I kept opening my mouth and the word "pine" came out.  It was some type of warbler stroke or something...IDK.  I couldn't say prairie....I felt stupid.

#378  Northern parula

The crappiest photos of them all, this bugger was down deep in the underbrush, but I still think ID-able from the photo for confirmation to quell any of the doubters out there.  My suspect?  I invited all of you to come along but you have to keep up.

Rangel Diaz, his brother and a cousin (I think) came over and we chatted,  Bs'd is a better word-- looked at the hummers and eventually when Larry and Rangel were ready to leave, I got invited over to Larry's house to see his shiny cowbirds.  Larry had a coded bird coming to his feeders and more than one and they had been doing this for a while.  How that happened is one of those mysteries.
   Chris Feeney and Tommy and Theresa Schwinghammer stopped by to see if I was having any luck later and they got invited, too.  The mango was a bust but what happened next was priceless... as they say.

Larry Manfredi's House
Homestead FL

We chatted about Larry's upcoming tours, the one to Cuba sounded cool as did the Bahamas one and we waited for the three cowbirds.  Things kept showing up, just not what we wanted, the shiny cowbird.

#379 bronzed cowbird

Not every picture is a gem...I also tallied the most gorgeous of all ABA breeding birds,

#380 Painted Bunting

Just no shiny cowbird.  Larry invited us back for a second go at it in the morning.  After my bad night at the casino, I desired a real dinner and real hospitality, so on a whim, I took off at 5 and drove 145 miles to Tequesta and the home of friends Jan and Stuart.  Jan mothered me for the evening, and I slept a few hours and drove back down to Homestead, with a dawn stop at Kendall Baptist Hospital for a recon mission.  I added nothing and cruised into Larry's at 0830, 315 miles under my belt since I had left.

#381  a purple martin flew overhead.

The birds were scared off my a Cooper's hawk and then the other three arrived.  They looked secretive and had been somewhere...humm...I would have to ask Chris.  He had a look of an Army guy that had just said.  You are on a need to know basis and you don't need to know.  I met Chris for the first time, well we played 13 holes of golf together in 1984, he was ROTC faculty at Ripon College then.  It is a small world.

Then the magical birds arrived.

#382  Shiny Cowbird.  Here are male and female at feeder together.


I was glad I got something out of that mango stakeout.  It was something good a code 3!

***disclaimer.  If any of you look at my two ebird locations, although I hate when people do this, I purposely moved the spots away from Larry's house as I am not sure he wants everyone to know where he lives.  I did spend over two hours on his back deck on two days, if you need some proof, ask him,  Olaf was there, the rest of us were also there.

We went to leave and Chris whispers in my ear.  "We got a mangrove cuckoo spot and they were calling like crazy, you want to go?"

     There are a few things that mean an instant yes.  When your wife or a hot blonde says, do you want have sex or more say yes. When someone wants to give you more than your asking price for something, you say yes.  When your grandmother makes your favorite cookies and asks you if you want to eat another, you say yes.  When a friend asks you if you want to go see a mangrove cuckoo, just like the carnal question, you roll your tongue back in your mouth to keep yourself from tripping on it and you nod and follow but try not to drool.
     It was as if I felt we were being followed to this secret mangrove cuckoo spot at Bill Baggs SP  (or maybe it was some place near there?).  I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure no one was following us.  We came we saw we conquered.
    It was cool.  We heard and saw two of them.  In the excitement, I forgot to photograph them.  I have a great photo of the mangrove cuckoo from 2002 (shot at a gas station while pumping gas).  Here is a photo Tommy took of us looking at the 2nd cuckoo.  I had my camera with....IDK.

  that was a good bird!

#383  Mangrove Cuckoo
#384  Great crested flycatcher

I was on a roll.  I had this feeling there was an ani in Florida, I sped to the Fort Myers Airport and looked for one on Snake Road but all I saw was a white-tailed kite pair flying, I love to watch kites anyhow.

Then after I got to Minneapolis, they did have one reported, I was at the wrong place.  One appeared at Loxahatchee.  When I get on a roll, I can call birds.  It has been done before, but I don't understand it.  When this happens, I need to keep at it.  I now could taste 400 for January.  It would be tough but it could be done  

You know, when I got home to South Dakota at 10pm, I had driven on January 26th, 602 miles and flown for 3.5 hours.  all that, and I was ready to head to Iowa in the morning from home, after I sent my daughter off to school, fed the dog and got the mail.  What is a 400 mile day compared to today?  It would just be a short drive for shopping.  I'd go grocery shopping in Sioux Falls and follow a lead for some crossbills!

Like I said.  I can do this all day, everyday.  This is a sleeper compared to a surgical residency--the best thing to prepare you for a big year.  I had exorcised the pink demon and I was at 384.  I met some great birders, had a great chase, and things were setting up nicely, best of all I could now wear pink...well maybe not.

It was an eventful 60 hours

Beware of the pink menace!
dang flamingoes!

...and thank you everyone!  It is very appreciated.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

Some call this hell, I call this home

Northeast South Dakota

Big Year Day 22-23

Big Year Total:  368
Coded birds:  18
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal, gray whale, California sea lion, pronghorn
Miles driven.  7550
Hours at sea: 14
Miles walked 39
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:11

I woke up at 8am to the hug of my daughter and walked out the front door to see her off to school.  I looked at my feeder and tallied a year bird.

#362  American Tree Sparrow

Then my pheasant rooster crowed and ran away in the distance

#363  Ring-necked Pheasant

I hadn't even had coffee yet and I had tallied two birds.  It took me 363 birds to see a ring-necked pheasant the state bird of South Dakota, who would guess?
Besides that 5 minute flurry, I took the day off from birding.  I cashed a few checks, made a few phone calls, and paid a couple of bills.  I also got my glasses adjusted that I slept on in the California Mountains.

January 23, 2016

I awoke at 0410, 5 minutes before my alarm.  I have always had the uncanny ability to awake a minute before my alarm no matter what time I would set but if I had nothing to do, I could sleep until 10am without a problem.
    I headed west to meet a birder buddy I knew, Birding Barry, who knows his way around Aberdeen and had a lead on some key birds.  Barry had texted me that one of his friends had researched the history of big years and as far as he could tell, none of them had ever birded in South Dakota, well all I can say is that, if it is correct,it is no longer true.  I had tallied two South Dakota birds already and was shooting for more.
        Most people who look at a map of South Dakota and who don't confuse it with North Dakota (note: the two Dakotas are NOT the same!) don't appreciate the huge terminal moraine the extends from extreme SE North Dakota and runs at an angle through NE South Dakota and into Minnesota.  Generally, the weather on the east side of the Missouri River in the two Dakotas are similar with it being colder in Minot and a little warmer the more south you get.  The exception is the top of this 40 mile moraine.
      In general, it is windier, wetter, snowier, and colder than the land on either side of it.  My cabin sits right in the middle on Enemy Swim Lake.  The crest of the old Milwaukee Road line as it chugs up the grade is a small town called Summit and through a bit of location, winds, etc. as the air is compressed, it forms fog, and Summit is the harshest part of the land.
     This morning as I left the moonlit city of Milbank and climbed, I was first greeted with dense fog and then, a harsh wind, and then as I slowed and crossed the road closed gates crossing I-29, I was greeted with blowing and drifting snow.  I expected no less in my Bad Weather Big Year.
     I-29 is an odd interstate.  For decades, it ended at Summit and then people used to have to switch to US81 to continue to Fargo beofore continuing on I-29 to the Canadian border.  The road was then extended to Sisseton and finally to Fargo.  However, the planner of the freeway just drew a line to fargo and it doesn't follow any old highways and as such, except for a new casino at the border, it is a lonely and desolate road.  To make matters worse, the engineers forgot about where this road is and didn't elevate it correctly.  As such, any snowfall in the wind makes it accumulate on this road and this stretch is frequently closed and I have driven on that road by feel alone, as once you leave Fargo, there is really no where to go until you get to the casino.  I have also almost ran out of gas on that 60 mile stretch.  Just south of Sisseton when you climb the ridge, I have hit glare ice, four foot drifts, and fog so dense you couldn't see anything.
    The truckstop at Summit has hosted NCAA Division I basketball teams, famous bands, politicians, and assorted tourists and ner-do-wells during some of the worst the Coteau can offer. Today was just an irritant.
     I met Barry in Aberdeem and we headed out to find Screech owls.  We first went to Richmond Lake State Park and began our search before dawn.  We heard nothing.  We started walking the trails and then what looked like a small owl flew right in front of us.  Barry shined my light into the tree I thought it landed in.  It wasn't there.  It was nowhere.  It was definately a small owl, and saw-whets are very rare here, so it had to be right?  Then we hiked about in the quarter then 3/4 light and then flushed a sharp-shinned hawk near where we had seen the "owl."  I guess it could have been a sharpie, but doubt it,  Since I couldn't be sure what we had seen and it never called, it counted as a UFO....pooh!
    We drove around to Barry's lock Snowy Owl sights, unfortunately nobody brought the key, no owls were seen, except a great horned at Mina State park.
We saw some other birds at Mina.
Unfortunately, my daughter had turned off my Vibration Control on my lens, we flushed a Northern Goshawk, and then it perched in a tree.  I shot a photo, it was blurry...oh well, at least it wasn't a rare bird.  We also saw redpolls at the feeder.

#364  Northern Goshawk

#365  Common Redpoll

Then we headed back to Richmond lake SP looking for Pine Grosbeak.  We also looked for the huge flock of waxwings which had 3 Bohemians imbedded in it, they were on private property raiding a cedar tree.  The cedars had a bumper crop of berries this year and the waxwings were stripping them in bunches.  I scoured the 200 or so birds for anything without yellow at 70 yards.  I found two Bohemians.

#366  Bohemian waxwing

#300 now with a picture  American Goldfinch

The goldfinch were also eating the berries.  A common bird but a year bird none-the-less.  We never spotted the grosbeaks.  We looked for the owls some more

The bird police caught me and noticed I saw the bird at #300, which explains why my ebird total was one off from my checklist counting.  All fixed.....I can't even count to 365 it seems

Enemy Swim Lake
    I drove to check on my cabin on Enemy Swim lake between Milbank and Aberdeen.  We built it in 2002 just before we moved from Wisconsin to South Dakota in 2003.  The cabin is extremely isolated out in the Coteau and we leave the heat on but if the snow and wind gets too bad the truck can't deliver propane, and if it runs out...the plumbing bills get expensive.  You would go insane living the winter here although technically you could.
     It is a wonderful lake in the summer.  Some winters I can't get in within 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile. This winter I could get to within 300 yards.  I parked the Volvo on top of a hill and walked in, spooking large white snowshoe hare who got so scared I could still see him or her at a sprint going up the hill a quarter mile north of the cabin. The cabin's furnace was on and no one, animal or human had moved in

Just outside of the cabin I wandered into flocks of snow bunting and lapland longspurs, thousands upon thousands of them lifted off the side of the road.

#367  Snow Bunting       #368  Lapland Longspur

I drove home and did the father thing, I filled up my daughter's car with gas.  I bought groceries, a couple bottles of wine, and some cheese for me.  Life in the Northern Prairies, where we don't panic about any blizzards like those in the east.
     Many call this hell, I just call this home.....

I got a report of a flamingo in Florida, the pink devil, a nemesis bird.  I fly out in the morning.  I'm leaving my paradise for the warmth of south Florida.  I hopefully will be seeing pink when I arrive
Now someone doing a major big year has birded in the real Sunshine State, the traditional and official name for South Dakota

Stay Warm


Friday, January 22, 2016

Giggling for Flounder

Big Year Day 19, 20 , and 21

Big Year Total:  361
Coded birds:  18
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal, gray whale, California sea lion, pronghorn
Miles driven.  7250
Hours at sea: 14
Miles walked 37
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:10

Flight miles:13500

What is that guy doing to that fish? We'll get to that.

I woke up on Day 19 early in Wickenberg, Arizona.  I missed by dog, my bed, and my sauna.  I put my things together and drove into Phoenix into the 6am I-10 traffic jam.  I pulled off the road before that and called owls but all I heard was traffic.  Sick of the traffic, I pulled into Enconto Park a first light and walked around.  I wasn’t very happy with my heard only rosy faced lovebird and since I was here, I looked again.  Someone had reported a ruddy ground dove last week here but it was only marked by an “x” on ebird and I doubted that report.  Beware if x'S o's but that is a song I herad 39 times so far in the last three weeks of this journey.
         I looked at a couple of Eurasian collareds when I could see them.  I found a lovebird on the side of a palm tree after it gave itself away with a squawk.  These lovebirds are much quieter than other parrot-like birds.  They were on my list but I was good to see this one, or so I thought.
            Silja called.  Apparently when Lena walked to the basement to look for crutches for her, she saw running water in our utility room.  We store food in there and it is where we have our sauna.  It is also where the water-heater is.  We had a rust hole and it was spraying out of the side.  Silja limped downstairs and turned off the water. All the food was in tubs, the cat box was plastic, and the wine cabinet was out of harms way.  I think there is a drain somewhere in there under my sauna.  I put it in, so I should know but alas that was ten years ago.  The plumber was called.  Car and water-heater, what was next?
            I got to the airport plenty early for my Southwest flight to Austin, fifth airline in 10 days, some sort of record, no doubt.  I haven’t flown south west since June 13th, 1995.  One may wonder why I know the date so well.  That is a chapter in my birding book from 2013, the chapter called Flashbacks when I was on my way to the birth of our twins.  Silja went into labor when I was in Iowa, she in Pennsylvania.  I’ll spare that story in this rendition but it may be the best father getting to the birth of his children story ever.
            My Volvo was in Austin, but I wasn’t sure if our park and fly receipt was nor the claim check for my bikes at the Hilton.  It could be a problem.  I would hit Refugio and also my plover spot and clean up those birds before heading home and ending the opening gambit of my big year. 
            I got an interesting reply back from the Leica representative.  I was fishing about a sponsorship.  They were out of budget until April.  Greg Miller had their endorsement but apparently his Big Year wasn’t as serious as I first had suspected.  Just a big birder going to see birds.  That could be just a ruse like the ones used by the Owen Wilson character in The Big Year.  I wouldn’t fall for it and I had the gas on and I was keeping the gas on.
            I was also curious about another a-list birder, Paul Mayer, who seemed very eager to go to Alaska after a pochard but after stopping in Yuma for the streak-backed oriole.  Yuma doesn’t seem to be on the way to go to Alaska.  I was sensing competition for the throne.

Palacios Texas, January 19th, 2016
Doing a big year was like a game of golf.  I was just playing myself but I had to keep track of the field.  If Mayer was going to Alaska, so should I, it was like if the guy next to you lays up so should you, or if he goes for the green and makes it so should you.  To be honest, I didnt even know if Mayer was doing a big year and to be honest, like golf, this was my own game there was nothing I could do about it now.  
I was in Texas and so I found my car, convinced the guy in parking to give me a discount since I was such a nice guy.  He couldn’t believe my car had been there for as long as it had and as such just charged me twelve dollars.  I also convinced the valet to give me my bicycles back without the claim check.  That cost me a five dollar tip.  I sort of figures I was $100 up but in all likelihood I had paid for it all in the room tab Jim paid.

I drove hard and fast for the coast. I was eyeing seeing plovers because it was late in the day and I didn’t think heading for the warbler would be a good plan.  I went to Palacios, a town I knew well, but unfortunately I hit the beach at high tide.  I saw a few shorebirds but no plovers.  I then wondered back to a Prairie Wetlands Preserve on the north side of town.  It was either abandoned or under construction.  I had never noticed it before probably because I always came into town from the west and this time I was driving in from the north.
They had overlooks and boardwalks without trails.  I looked for sparrows and then on the last boardwalk I flushed a rail, a bigger rail with a long bill and then it called and so did another….clappers!  I wasn’t even thinking of this bird but I got it, bird number 355.  The whole afternoon wasn’t a loss.  I slid west, flowing along a feeder pipeline I own 5% of and shook my head at the fiasco that was building it.  The story of the Sartwelle lease and pipeline is a book in itself. I found a Motel 6 in Port Lavaca and crashed for the night.
Just outside of Palacios I saw a sign, "Giggling?  Call Ray!  XXX-1234"  "Wtf?" I thought.  Yea, I want to giggle." I said laughed and drove on.

Refugio, Texas, January 20th, 2016
After a night in a rather expensive Motel 6 in Port Lavaca, where I gave back the $100 I saved the day before at the Hilton, I left to call owls on a very busy road.  Everyone in Texas, it seems drives noisy pickups, works at the "plant" and arrives at 0600 or 0630.  No owls found, heard, or tripped over in the dark.  I drove past another sign.  "Gigglers...we like them flat!  For a guide, call Ray...."  Now I was really confused.
Shelly Lions park was just being serviced by the maintenance men when I arrived and again in the parking lot another birder recognized me although he confesses, he hadn't bought my book....yet.  I'd heard that before.  The favorite at book fairs is they would say they'd buy it at the book store as they had a gift card. wasn't at the book store, and two,  it wouldn't be signed.  It is always so surprising how many people come to book fairs who don't read books, but I am getting off track. 
I let the others focus on the flame-colored tanager and I worked the most promising area for the golden-crowned warbler, I wanted that bird.  I had played the song in my head so many times it was burnt into my brain that morning driving over in the car.  It was sort of a raspy call, not like much of anything.  It was a bit of a titmouse or chickadee meets a warbler.
Then at 0850, I heard the sound but was thinking it was just it playing in my head.  Music does that to me and I shock my head. was really there.  I studied the bush ten feet in front of me and the ground covered in a vine I didnt know the name of.  Then for some reason that I am not clear about I got distracted.  I had tried to photograph Audubon's orioles earlier and my camera had a switch turned off and I had fixed that.  The Audubon's was the goal bird of the first time in 2014 I had came here and for the first time, had seen them.  Had I forgotten which bird I was truly after?
I came to my senses and noticed a commotion of birds by marker #9, the sound was at #10.  I walked over instinctively and saw cardinals, an orange crowned warbler, two kinglets and then something caught my eye behind this bush at the top of the river bank, a small dark bird, not unlike an orange crowned, but darker, yellower on the bottom.  I was transfixed and then it moved its head and showed me its crown...THE GOLDEN CROWNED WARBLER!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I was stunned, then I shook myself and brought up the camera.  It was so close I had to adjust my focus.  I tried to find it, then I put the camera down, poof it was gone.  I should of just then dived into the thick crap and down the river bank but I hoped it would forage back my way.....My hope was in vain.  I called the other birders and they arrived with a larger crew, and we looked and no warbler....but I had it, no picture but I had seen the bird and I had sen it's clear fieldmarks clearly although briefly.
later the crew came over to see if the tanager they had photographed was THE tanager.  It didn't look right.  Then I saw they were looking in a tree.  I saw a tanager and I shot a photo.

That was NOT the flame-colored tanager.  It was a very ratty looking summer tanager, no wingbars, blah color and it shouldn't be here either.  Some said they seen another tanager.  I'm not sure anyone believed me about this birds ID, IDK, this was the only bird I saw and to be honest, I was happy, I needed a summer tanager, bird #357.  Maybe there was a second bird....but I could only comment on what I saw and the photo I saw didn't look like this bird but it didn't look like the flamer either but it was an odd angle I didn't have a comparison shot of, maybe there are 3 tanagers?

I chatted with a couple of friendly Houston birders, apologizing for the tanager issues, but it wasn't really any fault of mine, like I said, I was happy with the ratty tanager.  I planned on packing it in and was heading to coast for a plover run, it seemed to not make sense to not give it another try, I was only an hour from the beach.

Goose Island State Park, Texas, January 20th, 2016
On my way south....I saw yet another sign...this on the side of a truck, I copied down his web address and this is his logo but it is the same as the sign, I'd research later.

I drove into the Goose Island State park turn off and realized why I can never remember the name of this place correctly.  My prothonotory warbler spot in La Crosse WI is called Goose Island and so I want to call this place Gray Island, but it is not named that ...and as I was reminded, the whooper spot is not in the park.  To be honest, I had never found the park.  Jim and I looked but couldn't find, this time I followed the signs.  It was so easy.
Hey there is a great boardwalk in this park and it has a view of a sandbar!
It was hot, 84 degrees hot, the boardwalk had high school kids fishing on it on a field trip from somewhere and I set up shop under the watchful eye of the ranger who kept asking me what I was seeing.  I think she was there to make sure I had a fishing license but alas...I was only birding.
It was a good spot.  There was still a lone snowy plover, no pipings however.  But there next to a bunch of willet and to the left of an American oystercatcher was a red knot, a bigger wandering shorebird that is a bit chunky and this time of year not red at all.  It was smaller than the willets and more importantly, bird number #359.  These birds were far out on 65 power on my spotting scope so I wasn't even trying to digiscope them although the heat distortion wasn't present.  Maybe the water made it better?
Finally, I pulled away from the gulf and reluctantly headed north.  I had 1500 miles to go in 2 days to end this crazy opening gambit, and still had birds to find.  I did finally ask a guy what the heck giggling was.  "Boss, you make me laugh."  The guy at the gas station said.  They always called me 'boss' in Texas.  I must of looked like a boss.  I could not open a door for a hispanic man in this state, he just wouldn't walk ahead of me.  In-grained racism?  In San Antonio, the one guy I refused to lead into a store was like my buddy by the time I had bought milk and he, a pizza.  I thought he was going to come over and wash my windshield....
Giggling.....from Wikipedia.  is the practice of hunting fish or small game with a gig or similar multi-pronged spear. Commonly harvested wildlife include freshwater suckers, saltwater flounder, and small game, such as frogs. A gig can refer to any long pole which has been tipped with a multi-pronged spear. The gig pole ranges in length from 8 to 14 feet for fish gigs and 5 to 8 feet for frog gigs. A gig typically has three or four barbed tines similar to a trident; however gigs can be made with any number of tines. In the past people would attach illuminated pine knots to the end of gigs at night to give them light.
Question answered.

Stillwater, Oklahoma, Crosscountry track.  January 21, 2016
I kind of wanted to name this blog, T Bird Pickens, because I was heading to the campus of OSU, which their infamous donor is the oil man, who had his name on everything except, this cross-country track which is an a-list spot for Smith's longspurs.
It was foggy, cold, the fog was condensing out on my camera, me, and everything.  Finally at just before 9 the flock of longspurs, 22 in all showed up.  The landed in a field of short grass, wasn't short enough to see them.  I snuck up, they flushed and circled me, the field and then landed 1/8 of a mile on another clearing.  I walked over to that field and the process repeated.  They flew back to original spot.  Each time I moved I passed this sign.

It was like it was 1K each time I would have to reposition, and did the sign tell me it would take 6 times to get a photo?
On the fourth pass I walked again by a flock of eastern bluebirds in a bush.  I tried to photograph them as I knew in their bluebird ways...they were laughing at me.

You can see how foggy it was, you can't even see the building behind them.  My camera was dripping in condensation and I was tired.  I flushed the bluebirds in frustration and then went after the longspurs.  Up they went...again and I tried to shoot them in the air, and I got dizzy and soon I was in the wet grass looking up into a gray mist of fog.  Now my lens was covered in water.  I was just like down in Texas at Frontera.  Birds!  I walked to the car and gave up looking for a Harris's sparrow.
Many of you may think you can photogrph every bird.  You just can't, you can't do it.  The golden-crowned warbler was too quick and actually too close and these longspurs were too flighty and the day just sucked......
It was then in my frustration, maybe birding greed, I decided to drive to SW Kansas to hopefully road bird a lesser prairie chicken.  It ended up being my only mistake of the trip.  I thought it would waste only 3 hours.  I wasted 5.  I saw nothing that even looked grouselike and to be honest I got lost.
I stopped to photograph antelope
I stood out of the car in a cold wind, on a ranch road in the middle of nowehere, and tried to make sense of where I was and what I was doing.  I looked at the map on the hood of the car.  The nearest town was called Sun City.  It was then that a cold chill went up my neck and it wasn't from the weather.  "Holy F$$^K!!" I swore.
I had just published a fictional novel about a guy finding a rather not-so-friendly to visitors commune in Kansas in my novel The Enumerator.  One of the cities was named Sun City!

Here accidentally, had I really found this place?  I needed to go and I needed to go away from here quickly, my life may depend on it.  It was like my guardian angel was telling me, yelling at me.  "Get the heck out of here!!!"  
I jumped in my daughter's Volvo and headed north as fast as I could, I didn't want to speed as the cops in my novel were the problem.  I was going home, home for safety.
In another county, I sped under bird #361, a rough-legged hawk near McPherson KS and I turned north on I-135, then hwy 81, and I didn't stop.  I only stopped for gas once in Central Nebraska, I slowed driving on iced roads, snow covered roads (what else would I expect in a bad weather big year), I did stop for roads blocked by trains, ...until finally at 1AM I arrived 1000 miles of driving on 1/21.  I was at my home, my home sweat home........the end of the OPENING GAMBIT.  That crazy first three weeks of the big year, was over. I smelled, my feet hurt, I was still a bit antsy from thinking the Sun City Kansans were going to get me (it is never good to believe your own fiction), I was tired, but I had seen 361 species of birds, but tonight it was all a blur.  Had I really seen the western spindalis three weeks ago, it seemed like years ago?
It was 8 degrees, 76 degrees colder than when I left for home 34 hours earlier.  Burrr!

Brighid, the springer spaniel welcomed me and was happy to see me and so was my wife...It was good to be home....

There is no place like home, tap heals, there IS no place like home.'re not in Kansas anymore and it is safe now, you can go to bed!


Golden dreams and memories

  Today brings me to the north suburbs of Chicago.  Although not for a bird even though a lifer bird had been flying tantalizingly close to ...