Sunday, May 1, 2016

A taste of Minnesota

I like to compare a big year to the game of golf.  It is an individual game but you keep score to compare yourself to others.  It is a polite and gentleman's (or woman's) game.  You don;t really have any control of your opponent's score.  Some holes or courses you know well, or they fit your game.  In my game a big Dog leg right was my cup of tee as I could bend it around the corner like a pro.  However, sometimes on dog leg lefts, I still bent it to the right.

No thanks to United airlines, I landed in Minnesota 5 hours late after some union trouble in Chicago, and they apparently would not certify a plane in O'hare to fly so they found one in..... San Francisco!  When in doubt, never fly United is my saying and I may just shorten it to NEVER fly United.  The airline is a fiasco and I have three free segments on them still and I will need for south Texas but after that...sorry you unfriendly sky people....
but I made it I was in Minnesota, albeit briefly, and this is my home course, so to say.  It was time for my special short cuts, play the secret breaks, as soon I would be in unfamiliar and maybe unhospitalble terrain and I needed all the home cookin' I could get.....

Big Year Total:  617
Coded Birds:  47

Miles driven.  25390
Flight Miles 72,400
flight segments: 77   Different Airports: 34
Hours at sea: 30
Miles walked 166
showshoes 4 (isn't going to be any more)
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded: 24
other animals seen:  gray whale, dolphin, bobcat, ring-tailed cat, elk, bighorn, jackalope, feral pig, California sea lion, harbor seal, bedbugs, iguana, woodchuck, red fox, muskrat

I awoke on Day 121 of this big year in a parking lot of the Gray Cloud Dunes SNA.  Despite violating a permit for another group having a Big Watch, supervised by the Queen of Minnesota Birding, Ranger Sharon from the National Park Service, I saw NO signs against overnight camping and at 0230, where was I to go?  The back of my Volvo XC60 is about 6 inches too short for this 6'3" guy unless I can park the back end up in the air and sleep backwards, as there is a subtle but noticeable downhill to the bed with the seats down....the fact that I even know this is really somewhat sad.

I met Don Harrington from Northfield MN at the Dunes and we went out to the right from the parking lot avoiding the Big Watch Crowd.  I had warned Ranger Sharon from Minnesota Birds and Beer Club about me sneaking in during their event.  She was gracious and a bit confused as to why I notified her.  I have learned that crashing birding events or any even so called "public" event is not something one should do lightly.  Another person asked me if I was going to participate in the event, I kind of smiled and said, "no you wouldn't want a person like me here. I'd just be in the way."

I feel I am sort of the WC Fields of life, in that I believe I should not participate or be a member in any organization or event that would want me in it.  Maybe it is just me but it is hard to know where to go at such events, who not to offend, what to say.    I do go to Minnesota Birds and Beers but they allow me in--an outsider, for comic relief.  It is hard to screw up drinking beer, I guess.

We had a corner of the dune to ourselves and got some real looks at the Henslow, photoed a field sparrow for the first time this year and we got out of their within an hour.

After finding a pond in Cottage Grove with 4 Solitary sandpipers, a "Contradiction" of Sandpipers as they say and with solitary sandpipers even more so, or at least the name implies, we got visited by the police.  Despite no one wanting me to be part of their group, the police are always ready to talk to me.  I'm not sure if I can count this as a 'stop' though.  When she knocked on my window as i was writing field notes in the car, I announced we were birding.  Apparently stopping on the side of a road fully on the shoulder is worthy of attention.  She looked at us like we had a disease and drove on.

 Lock and Dam #2 near Hastings was very birdy.  I got a suspicious waive from their lady cop as I cruised around lost in town looking for a way to make a left turn, but didn't pull me over.  After hearing a rose-breasted grosbeak, out attention was focused on a great horned owl taking a muskrat in a mucky pond under an eagle's nest in broad daylight. You don't see an owl, breast high in pond weed very often.  I got a photo after it had hauled out on a log.  The rat was too much for it to carry off in the woods.  I am curious why the eagle tolerate such an intrusion, like it was REALLY under their nest.  I didn't want to get closer to photograph and I am just me, just a threat like an owl.

We scoured the earth for a sedge wren but dipped out and I left Don to go home and then I went to a campground to take a shower.  It was heavenly and I retrieved some of my belongings from Texas, and I drove up to Grantsburg to search out my wife, daughter, and well as search for a LeConte's sparrow and try to tap up yellow rail.

The sparrow was silent but one popped out and looked at me near the pump house on Crex.  I was in shock, so shocked, my camera was in the car 20 feet away.  I tried to get it and et back but the sparrow, dipped down in the grass.  After trying to flush it all I got was ticks.  I couldn't even get that sparrow out of the grass, such is the life with Le Conte's.  Henslow's are bad, but I think Le Conte's are worse.  To think i got great looks at both and photoed one, that was a miracle, to be honest.

I hung out until dark but it was windy and I was tired.  I gave up at 930, the rail will have to wait for another time.  I had another...yet another early day tomorrow, but I had 4 near year birds.
April 30th
Gray Cloud Dunes, Cottage Grove MN

#614 Henslow's Sparrow

Housing development on 70th Ave, Cottage Grove MN

#615  Solitary Sandpiper

Lock and Dam #2, Hastings MN

#616 Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Crex Meadows, Wildlife area, Grantsburg WI

#617  Le Conte's Sparrow

some pictures of birds I haven't photogrpahed in 2016 (or even seen):

Henslow's Sparrow

Field Sparrow

Prothonotory Warbler

Solitary Sandpiper

Great Horned owl (taking a muskrat in the pond) 

I'm working out the kinks with my new camera but I think it is doing well.  I like it paired with my lens.  We'll see how it does with my "at sea" lens, my Tamron this next trip as it has been returned to me from the company.

Okay.....April is over.  I'm at 617 for the year.  I think that is a big number, I'm ahead of my projections, so that is all good, I'll admit it.  My crazy goal is 700 by the end of May or to get it on my Adak trip.  I know it is just an obscene thought.  It looks, though, my theoretical maximum by that point is only about 690, I could break 700 in Nome, though with a couple of breaks.  I'll leave the champagne off the Puk-uk.  Neil Hayward is on that boat and I should keep a low profile, although the crew knows me and I'm a bit let me say, anything but low profile.  

Many of you have sort of wondered about my attitude of why I say i feel behind.  So, back to golf. My best round of golf came in 1988, when I turned the front 9 on the Michigan Tech golf course at 34, having missed five short puts, and lipping out a 175 yard dead on iron shot for a hole in one.  I could have had even a better score.  I was smoking through the killer back 9 and was still one under par on 17. I was playing with a student form the US Coast Guard Academy and sitting 245 yards out on 17 after a perfect drive, throwing no caution in the wind, I pulled out the 3 wood and hit a monster of a second shot, maybe the longest and best I ever hit with that club, to go try for the green in two.  I curled the shot around a big tree it landed short of the corner of the lake and then it took a big bounce and hopped on the edge of the green.  I was home in two.  I even high-fived the fellow player.  It was the round of my life...what could go wrong?  18 was a hole I may have designed in my dreams, I could par that hole with my 8 iron off the tee...then IT happened.    When I think of all the time I may have wasted on the golf course which from age 15-20 and then again at periods of my life, was basically all the time, it all comes back to this....not the feeling of great ball strikes, holing huge puts, and the friendship, although I don't have anyone to ask me to golf.  I don't laugh at the crazy and miraculous airport runway shot at Voyager Village that won me a trophy, or any of the rest........I remember Houghton, Michigan and the 17th hole. I replay it again and again.  If I was Homer Simpson, I'd be striking my head.  It has left scars so deep, I really don't golf much anymore.  I didn't golf for 4 years after it happened...

I was walking to the green happy, confident, self-assured and then while waiting for the kid from USCG to play from his layup shot, I felt something on my legs, then I looked down...a swarm of black flies had found me, hundreds of them...I had blood running down my legs, on my socks, it was bad, like really bad.  The guy from USGC gave me his extra towel to stop the blood.  Mine was a muddy mess....I was so unnerved by time I got to the green, I 4 putted for a bogey.  I was still par, a 4 on 18 would give me a 72, my best score ever on a real golf course but then after I approached the tee a few more flies, possibly smelling the blood found me again, the marshall on the course came up, said as I was openly bleeding. and since I couldn't stop it all, it was from maybe 40 bites.  There was a rule of the NCAA and Michigan PGA or whatever, organization he cited against competing while openly bleeding and it was being violated.  I was forced to withdraw, right there on 18, and there was nothing I could do about it ...the final tee shot never hit.  There was no  bandages out there, no way to clot up in time, and the guys were coming up behind me on the 17th green.  I had to go.  My best round of golf EVER and the official score, DNF, did not finish....

So is the same with this big year.  As Yogi says, it isn't over to it is over.  All this I've done in 4 months is preliminary, I reached some milestones, but again, a milestone is only used in process to a destination.  I haven't got anywhere yet.  There are some great scores in the clubhouse, Greg Miller, Jay Lehman, Sandy Komito, and Neil Hayward....and there are some players out on the course, still gunning .   I'd rather berate myself for missed opportunity and birds than do any self-patting on the back because...the black flies are out there waiting for me...and even if I break 700 by the second week of June.......big deal, I will have done nothing.  700 isn't even going to win me this year, not even close.   maybe 730 will do that, but maybe not even that.  

With that in mind it is off to San Diego I a friend of mine says........MORE BIRDS!  I need every bird.....Thankfully I'm not flying on United.  The course I'm playing is on a cruise ship, a place I don't even know where to go, or how to play it, I don't even know if I can eat on it.  Everyone asks me if I chose a meal plan, I don't remember doing it, so am I to assume, I have to bring on food?  Just checking in was a fiasco on line, you had to have an account and had to call customer served twice.  I don't understand how older people get through it all, I'm pretty IT savvy. 

 I look forward to this with dread.  If you were telling me I'm leading a church service tomorrow, even a funeral for someone I don't know, complete with a sermon, on say something obscure, The Book Of Amos, or have to teach a two hour course on Organic Gardening, something I do not know,, I'd be stoked....not this.  Not this at all.  I think I'd be feeling better if I had to sing, and I don't sing.  I don't understand cruises, it is the big unknown, in a very daunting and scary place and by myself, it is going to be a bad time.  To think of single people on a cruise, wow what a horrible vacation....yuck!  This is not about the birding, or the seas, I'll figure out the petrels, I've been on really rough boats... just 3 days on a cruise boat, 2500 people on this ship and me, knowing no one even to ask any questions like where or when to eat and if I can go and do anything.  The hotel in Newfoundland had a rather steep learning curve on how to check in, eat, and I never figured out breakfast, I just bailed.  There is no way I'd feel brave enough to ever try entertainment. Going out by yourself is worse than eating alone, I can bring a computer with to eat alone, so except a long blog as there will be nothing else to do.  For shows, I'm sure I'd go where I wasn't supposed to go, when I wasn't supposed to, or not know how to pay.  Will I have the wrong room to use the hot tub?  That would be fun to use, I guess maybe some other place.  These are all questions I ask.  I think the cruise ship people think everybody knows how it all works, not this guy.  I feel more qualified to do open heart surgery.  At east I know what goes where.

I fear, it is going to be a long and lonely time, but I'll tough through it, certainly my first and last cruise.  Like I said, big scary unknown marketed and built for people other than me.

Bon voyage, I guess.



  1. With April in the books its time for another monthly summary. The first number is the year total at the end of April, the second is all coded (3-6) birds, the third is coded 4-6 birds.

    Olaf D 2016: 617 /47 / 19
    John V 2011: 537 / 26 / 8
    Lynn B 2008: 536 / 24 / 9
    Bob A 2010: 512 / 21 / 1
    Neil H 2013: 506 / 20 / 7

    Obviously you are still way ahead, particularly with regard to coded birds. I don't have Sandy Komito's numbers from 1998, however (I have his final checklist but without the dates he saw each bird).

    Regarding the other recent big year birders, May is the month that Neil Hayward really got cooking, By the end of May he caught up to JVP and they then stayed neck and neck the rest of the way, with Neil only pulling ahead in December (separated by two years of course). Their totals at the end of May are equal to your total at the end of April, so you are a month ahead. In terms of coded birds you are more like 3 months ahead. As you say, that doesn't mean you will be ahead at the end of the year, but you are doing great!

    Finally, as you allude to in your blog, you have some healthy competition in your 2016 big year. Christian "The Birding Project" has about 550 birds at the end of April, ahead of all the other lists noted above. I'll try to include his totals in future updates.

  2. Kudos to Jeff for putting together the list of coded birds; I won't be doing that for the other Big Year people until school gets out in a couple of weeks.
    Here are the end-of-April totals for some other birders:
    Sandy Komito 1998: 599
    Bill Rydell 1992: 539
    Al Levantin 1998: 500 (on April 23rd)
    Greg Miller 1998: @508
    Steve Perry 1987: 500
    Sandy Komito 1987: 499

  3. ...and Jay Lehman ended April 2013 with 384!

    1. Yes, its amazing that Jay Lehman finished with 734 after such a relatively slow start. He did have 20 coded birds at the end of April, which put him right in the mix compared to most of the other big year birders, setting him up for a great late-year comeback.

      So I think its safe to say that the two highest totals ever at the end of April are:

      1. Olaf 617 (2016)
      2. Sandy Komito 599 (1998)

      Its worth noting that Olaf has so far seen 14 birds that weren't on the checklist for Sandy.

      Finally, its very interesting to consider who is #3 all time for April. I believe it may be:

      3. Christian Hagenlacher ~550 (2016)
      Aka "The birding project"

      He hasn't updated the list on his blog but we can see him on the eBird top 100 (at 567 as of today)
      He also had about 27 coded birds as of mid-April, an excellent total.

      Props to Christian for doing so well on (by his own admission) a shoestring budget.

      Compare to Olaf, who is going on a luxury cruise just to look for birds!
      Just kidding Olaf, I hope you are surviving out there.

  4. Of course because you are out to sea and unable to chase, the Fork-tailed Flycatcher remains in New Jersey for 6 days in a row. Birding is tough sometimes.



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 ...