Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Going dark

I have been birding blind for the last few days.  I slammed my computer power chord in a car door and I lost use of my computer.  I could not find a replacement for it.  I bought one at an airport and alas, the Lenova adaptor they had was wrong.  I finally got to a Best Buy and they had a spare that worked and so....I am connected again.  I have been rolling up year birds as I'm starting to get a little angry and as such this is going to be a long blog as I am merging just 96 hours of birding but a gob of stuff.  I will start with a newspaper submission that will be in this weekend's Watertown Public Opinion.  This will save me some writing

This big year of mine is bringing me to a lot of hidden corners of American history. One of these corners is old Ft. Jefferson located 2.5 hours west of Key West by boat out on the Dry Tortugas.  Much like Santa Cruz Is. In California all birders eventually strive to visit this Civil War era fort and this place maintained by the National Park Service and reached only by a daily ferry.  You may ask why is that?

Dry Tortugas is the only location in the Continental US or Canada that have breeding colonies of not one, but three birds:  Brown noddy, sooty tern, and the masked booby.  It is not only a three-fer spot but also during spring migration, depending on the wind and weather, it can be a prime fall-out spot and on April 18th, 2016, we had significant fallout.  It is the first speck of land that many of these birds see doing an over gulf migration.  You never know what might be out there.  All I can say is WOW!!  Not only was the inside of the fort teaming with warblers and other assorted migrants but on the way across on the Yankee Freedom III we met hundreds of little warbler still struggling to make it to land, any land, as they finished up their one night hop across the Gulf of Mexico.  Looking at these poor birds struggling right above the ocean trying to go forward into a stiff wind is always a little hard to fathom.  Life is tough, life is rally tough for these little guys.

It was so windy on the Fort, that searching for other rarities was almost impossible.  I did see a smaller blackish noddy with a different head patch of white and a longer bill sitting on a cactus, but getting a photograph was impossible.  In fact, my whole set up blew over into the sand and I just terminated any thoughts of that.  Then I lost it.  The black noddy was a life bird but one that didn’t leave me feeling satisfied.  I kind of kept quiet about it too.  The birds didn’t loaf where you could see them well out on the old coal dock and just trying to look through a scope was a challenge. Only two brown noddies even visited the pier. The wind buffeting you makes it hard to sort birds at a great distance.  It made it hard to even stand, you get sand in your face, and your equipment takes a beating.  Terns are also constantly moving in and out and so focusing on one bird is just something you can’t do.

The boat captain took us so far from Hospital key, I wanted to write a complaint but who cares about birders?  Besides the three expected birds, and the rarity, I tallied an Audubon’s shearwater enroute, another on the way home,  Plus my missing swallow—a bank swallow, and one species of warbler I still needed—the blackpoll warbler.  All that along with three common migrants seen in Key West at the sister fort:  Ft. Zachary Taylor brought my total up to 578.  I got 31 species on this trip and three lifers for Florida, but why was I feeling so disappointed as my plane flew over the Gulf?  Was it because there were no brown boobies out there?  Another birder spotted one near Key West.  I saw no such bird.  No, I was relieved I got that bird in California.

Birders have something called the 24 hour rule.  It is a rule that loosely means, that the most likely time a rarity is going to show up is within 24 hours of you leaving.  This rule struck me in less than 24 minutes.  I guess, ever the impatient one, I should have expected it quicker.  Exactly 24 minutes after I had been dropped off at the Key West Airport to make a flight to San Antonio, it happened. I was meeting a friend and we were going to tour the King Ranch, something that I could not afford to miss as two birds awaited that I was at risk to miss and these ranch tours are filled up already for the spring.  Using a metaphor, lightning then struck.  The first EVER appearance of something called the Cuban vireo showed up at the Ft Zachary Taylor, maybe 30 minutes after we had left this morning.  It was heart-breaking boarding a plane leaving when I knew people were driving hard to get to Key West and see that bird.  I stood on the steps outside the Delta 737 and didn’t want to go in.  I rolled my eyes at the stewardess when she welcomed me aboard.  I was not happy.  I’m not sure what I was but I was definitely NOT happy.

It sort of hit me then—the futility of it all.  There were also ultra-rare birds seen yesterday in California which a friend of mine was flying overnight to get.  There was fallout of European golden plovers in Newfoundland, although they were having a blizzard now.  The tufted flycatcher I had dipped on in Arizona a few weeks ago was now even back in Arizona.  Every direction had rare birds except the direction I was now going, Texas.  I sat down in seat 10A and put my head into my hands.  Today is a good day, why did this have to happen?  I cried.

In a nutshell, I was being humbled by the shear randomness of what I was trying to accomplish.  I did have some luck down here in the Keys, a second extremely rare vireo, the thick-billed vireo appeared in Ft. Lauderdale two days ago and we went up and were some of the few to see that bird.  After a slow start, I bagged almost all of the warblers I needed.  The ying goes with the yang and just as unlucky was a report of a fork-tailed flycatcher in Key Largo which I missed by either 200 feet or 5 minutes.  The fork-tailed flycatcher is almost an impossible bird to chase as it is the one-day wonder of all birds, here today, gone tomorrow.   I was thinking being 28 miles from where it was reported would be close enough but alas, this bird had other ideas and disappeared never to be seen again. 

I also missed a pretty common Antillean nighthawk and a second species of tern both of which seem to have not migrated yet this year.  I have seen them both as early as April 19th, and there has been a couple of reports of them around Key West,  but I think anyone reported them any earlier in the year is just not identifying the bird properly.  These two birds look like other birds and can be tough calls, especially if you don’t hear them. I didn't.

Unfortunately then, I will have to come back to Key West.  In fact, if the Cuban vireo holds, I will be back in a few days, such is my life this year.  I write in my blog that “wherever I am or wherever I am going, I find I need to be somewhere else.” This motto is holding true on this day in the middle of April.  I am giving this big year all the effort I can, but the birds are not giving me any slack or any room for error.   If I fail in my quest, that failure will be taken back to April 19, 2016, mark your calendars, which is also the 16th birthday of my daughter.  April 19th is a day that is always special to me as 16 years ago, while we were chasing snowy owls near Duluth, Minnesota, my wife went into labor and a few hours later, my sweet daughter Lena was born in Spooner, Wisconsin.  It is a marvelous memory.  I won’t blame the date, I can’t blame the date as today is definitely a GREAT day whether or not I ever see that silly Cuban bird!  Sigh, I just have to keep birding.

Big Year Days 107-109  FLORIDA

Big Year Total:  578
Coded Birds:  42

Miles driven.  22250
Flight Miles 65,100
flight segments: 67   Different Airports: 31
Hours at sea: 30
Miles walked 133
showshoes 4 (isn't going to be more)
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded: 23
other animals seen:  gray whale, dolphin, bobcat, ringtailed cat, elk, bighorn, jackalope, feral pig, California sea lion, harbor seal,

John I Lloyd State Park Ft Lauderdale FL

563.  Cape May Warbler

564.  Thick-billed vireo

Fort Zachary Taylor

565.  Northern Waterthrush

566.  Blue Grosbeak

567.  Indigo Bunting (photo from Dry Tortugas)
568.  Prothonatory warbler

Dry Tortugas trip
569.  Audubon's shearwater
570.  Masked booby

571.  Sooty Tern

572.  Brown Noddy

573.  Bank swallow
574.  Blackpoll warbler

575.  Black noddy

Ft Zachary Taylor, Key West

576.  Chestnut sided warbler
577.  Wood Thrush
578.  Baltimore Oriole  (photo from Sotuh Padre island 4/20)

Okay, I flew into San Antonio and was ready to bird.  I picked up Jim Terrill a non-border friend of mine from Minneapolis and we went right to work.  I went to a sod farm on the 19th SW of San Antonio an netted four species, good ones

579.  Upland Sandpiper
580.  Buff breasted sandpiper (3)
581.  Western kingbird
582.  American Golden plover

I had a problem there.  Those people didn't like us.  I had people come and park right next to me and blare their music so load, my scope shook.  I was never more that 5 feet off a black topped road.  Some lady walked down with here dog to ask me if I needed help.  Another local dude followed us in a black car until I turned west a mile away.  I got the finger, people stood on their lawns and is a GD sod farm people!!  Holy cow....advise to you all...don;t go their.  They had buff-breasted but i was so wound tight, if I would have got accosted, my walking/monopod is a weapon and I could have done terrible things until the guns came out and I don't pack one.  I just don't get it.  This is a hotspot.  It should carry a warning label.  It is a SOD FARM...

We woke up at 0430 after spending the night in Kingsville, Kings and Birds, I always say.  I wnet right to work on my list.  Coded bird.

583.  Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
584.  Brown Crested flycatcher

was on a powerline opposite the owl

You know, I'm not a real fan of tours.  We saw birds out the window but you really couldn't get photos, and there were 8 of us on this tour.  I have seen all of these birds before and except for the parula, have really good photos of all of them, and our guide did a good job

585.  Dickcissal

586.  Botteri's Sparrow

587.  Yellow headed blackbird 

588.  Tropical Parula

589.  Northern Beardless Tyranulet

590.  Grasshopper sparrow 

Then we bid adieu to the others and sped to South Padre Island for migrants. I ran into Ben Basham again, he was calling out warblers and looking to be having a ball.   I, though, had a bit of a problem.  My camera got jarred in King Ranch and I went to speed control and all the photos went black.  Ben would not have been pleased with me.  Sigh, I was NOT pleased with me.

We saw.

591.  Orchard Oriole (2)
592.  Least Flycatcher
593.  Red-eyed vireo (2)
594.  Grey-cheeked thrush
595.  Swainson's Thrush
596.  Western Tanager (make and female)
597. Yellow-breasted chat

maybe 20 indigos, and lots of Tennesee warblers, I did salvage a picture of that too.

all that I can apparently salvage from 85 photos sadly is this photo of black-bellied whistling ducks and the above photo of Baltimore oriole.  It was a downer

at least I got a picture of the three toughest birds of the day earlier.  I would have been crushed if I had screwed that up.

Shrimp Bridge, Cameron County Texas

598.  Semipalmated sandpiper

Big Year Days 110-111, South Texas IV

Big Year Total:  598
Coded Birds:  44

Miles driven.  22750
Flight Miles 65,100
flight segments: 69   Different Airports: 31
Hours at sea: 30
Miles walked 135
showshoes 4 (isn't going to be more)
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded: 23
other animals seen:  gray whale, dolphin, bobcat, ringtailed cat, elk, bighorn, jackalope, feral pig, California sea lion, harbor seal,

I got a new powercord, but I still feel behind the gun here. I need 2 birds for the next milestone, 600 and they will be had tomorrow, although I only have two endemic LRGV birds left to get.  I kind of feel sorry for Jim as I ended up behind the 8 ball.  600 on April 21,

On non-Alaska migrants or seabirds, I'm down to

2 rails
5 sandpipers
0 gulls, 4 terns
2 cuckoos
3 goatsuckers
3 swifts
3 hummers
10 flycatchers
4 vireos
1 wren
2 thrushes
1 longspur
1 pipit
12 wood warblers
6 sparrows
4 cardinals/ tanagers
2 blackbird/oriole

that is only 61 species
plus 4 owls, 4 grouse/ quail and a single woodpecker, IDK, maybe I'm not so behind?

Thanks again everyone



  1. I'll keep trying to hunt up those owls for you. Which ones do you still need?

    1. Short eared. Flam. My friend has nest box. Whiskered screech and elf owl.

  2. I'll keep trying to hunt up those owls for you. Which ones do you still need?

  3. Elf is a slam at Madera as is Whiskered. If Thor's Flam is a no show I know a spot in CO (summer).

  4. Assuming you've seen Mangrove and YB Cuckoo but not BB, what's the second non-alaska Cuckoo you still need?

  5. Sorry you got smoked by the Cuban. Maybe you need more bicycle mileage?

    1. I know. I'll put the rack back on when I start birding in car again.

  6. 65 species, by that count... plus the other 9 you cite.

  7. Behind? I don't think so. I don't have dates for the most recent Big Years, but Sandy hit 600 on May 2nd during his second Big Year. I have the other dates at home; I'll post them once you publicly hit the milestone.

    1. 600 on April 22. Black capped vireo. Today. I have to be ahead of komito as he has that great Attu trip. No the four coded birds I'm not chasing make me feel this way although 605 tonight and if can nab the Colima in am easy enough I can leave Texas with only an ani on the table

  8. If you survived the hike I'm sure you found the Colima. Cuban Vireo still there today so hope you can key to Key West in time. Hard to get anywhere quickly from Big Bend though. Good luck -Mark


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