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!



  1. You blew Komito's January total away and he was all over the country too. Where are you heading next? Pochard? Thanks for sharing your adventure.

    1. Well in the morning, I'm going owling for an eastern screech my friend has in Aberdeen SD, then he has snowy owl locations, and bohemians staked out. Sunday I'm chasing the flamingo in forida. I plan on doing the Bog north of Duluth next weekend. I promised the wife I wouldn't go more than one time zone away until she returns from visiting her sister in St Thomas, she is back the 31st, I'll fly to Kodiak in the 1st, probably.

  2. Very interesting to see a different - and so far successful - strategy to the N American Big Year . . . and very good to see fiction and reality (birding , real life, family etc) blended together in pretty much every post. Also blown away by your 1000 miles in a day drive.

    (in Hong Kong, where 350 sp is the big year record, you're never more than 90 minutes from home, and it all takes place within 400 sq. miles!)

    1. Welcome to my life.....
      Hong Kong always seems like an urban jungle with no green space, never been though. Fortunately, living in the west, driving is a fact of life, we go 280 miles RT for a shopping day in Fargo. We will see how this goes since I've back end loaded Alaska, won't really know how this will look until we find out what shows in AK in September and if I'm on the correct island, thanks



This is not a bird trip organized for sissies.  Seeing the King aside, this almost seems like work.  The typical day is up at 0530, load up ...