Saturday, May 7, 2016

Bi-coastal craziness

Chapter 40:
Big Year Days 122-28

The Impossible Chase
San Diego-Vancouver-Victoria, BC- Newark NJ

I sit here writing this blog at the Delta Sky Club in Newark, New Jersey, a state I have not visited since 1994, and watch it rain outside.  My trip started in a Sky Club in Minneapolis and it looks like it will end in a Sky Club, a full circle.  I sit here and think about how did I even get here?  If you would have told me that I'd head west and end up here 6 days ago, again on the Atlantic, I would have laughed at you.  In fact, even if I knew, why...  What bird I was chasing, I would have still laughed.....a fork-tailed flycatcher, the most unchasable of all I missed just 28 miles from a fresh report in Florida, it would be unthinkable, I would not be so stupid as to waste my time chasing one, but here I was.. surprisingly it was a bird I now had.  But what didn't I have?   A Philadelphia vireo, that is for sure.  I even heard about that missed call in Texas from a birding guru on a ship.  Word gets around.  I posted a correction after I thought about it an hour later but the deed was done. I  also didn't drive a car this whole period. I was helped by birders.  I didn't have a Hawaiian petrel nor a fond memory of the cruise ship industry.  but I'm getting ahead of myself....this all goes back to May 1st...when I sat on a plane in San Diego........

Big Year Total:  644
Coded Birds:  51

Miles driven.  25490
Flight Miles 79,200
flight segments: 83   Different Airports: 34
Hours at sea: 96
Miles walked 167
showshoes 4 (isn't going to be any more)
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded: 27
other animals seen:  gray whale, baird's beaked whale, humpback, dolphin, bobcat, ring-tailed cat, elk, bighorn, jackalope, feral pig, California sea lion, harbor seal, bedbugs, iguana, woodchuck, red fox, muskrat
San Diego, CA

The trip started innocently enough as Bill Thompson, a birder from San Diego I met a couple years back in Key West picked me up and we headed out to clean up what I needed locally which wasn't much.  Bill had some distressing news, he had staked out his favorite Gray Vireo spots and even hiked three days in the Pacific Coast trail and had heard nothing.  Well, we decided to start simple and he took me to a couple of cool lagoons.  We found elegant terns and then a warbling vireo and then we started seeing hummingbirds with rufous on them.  Allen/ Rufous is best you can say about them as they can't usually be told apart but as an expert told me, that 99.9% of them are Allen;s now. I looked at one.  I snapped a picture of it flicking it's tail.  I blew it up.....there was a noticable notch on the 2nd feather and wide 4 and 5s tail feathers indications for a roofie, or a rufous hummingbird so I entered it in ebird, somewhat cautiously.....

okay....before you go and hit me, call me names or we get back to this Philly situation and think I'm over calling....yes I claimed my rufous hummingbird from Southern California, indicating I think I saw the .1%.  It had green on it too, a male.  I'm sure the notch is NOT absolute, or it could be a hybrid, IDK, but I saw the notch, and I can't put down it as an Allen... BUT, four days later I saw 4 in Victoria BC, so give me a break.  I'm not totally daft, but I saw a roofie in San Diego.  Maybe it showed me its tail feathers so it wanted to be counted?  I have given you pictures of both below.  I made sure I had a back-up bird in their prime territory in the northwest.

Bill and I went home to his house north of San Diego for lifers, we just needed beer.  We plotted theories about gray vireo, and I went to sleep.

The morning found ourselves in the Kitchen Creek area up the mountains east of San Diego and the Sunrise Road, this latter place, a place I had birded in January and got in trouble for throwing snowballs.  We looked for gray vireo and stopped at mile 14.5, whee someone was sleeping in their car, we called the bird, I am not too proud to admit that....Bell's sparrows flew, Bullock's oriole sang, but no gray vireos sang.....we moved on.  We went to the Pacific Coast trail, we walked.....all the historical nemesis birds came, black-chinned sparrow, mountain quail, Lazuli bunting...a year bird...Scott's was a really good spot....problem vireo, notta.  We gave up and went to Yellow rose  springs area up the road a half a mile, it had big trees and didn't look like a good gray vireo location.  There were warblers in the trees, Hermits, Townsends, Wilson's....Lawrence's goldfinch, another nemesis, that let me take its picture, and then we got a couple of year birds....western wood-pewee, and a late migrant, an olive-sided flycatcher, and more Lazuli, the olive-sided got away from my camera efforts....

then Bill saw it fly in, it sang only once, four rounds of its call and then flitted around in a tree with a friend ..........WE HAD THEM  gray vireos!  I said, a couple of big year birders from years past just felt a little unexplained pain in the chest, as the moist worrisome breeder IMHO had just been seen and counted by me.  I'd get a dusky grouse, this bird if it goes quiet, and they seemingly have already, can be big trouble, ask Sandy Komito.  But that pain, would in a couple of days, be mirrored by another seemingly unexplained feeling of joy, such is watching a big year from afar and even being in the middle of it.  A moment of joy and relief can change to anguish in's victory, tomorrow's failure.

I took Bill out for breakfast...maybe my last meal, I didn't know, Bill was a great host for a day and was going to pick up his son in Colorado, school is out for the summer

my last meal.......?

Westerdam Cruise

Nervously, I shook Bill's hand and thanked him and made my way to board the ship.  I was nervous that mostly I wouldn't be able to get in my room and would have no food for 3 days.  I don't get nervous without reason, typically.  I walked in, stood in three lines and finally got my room key card, 5030.  The woman who gave it to me told me I would have a wonderful time, a first cruiser....she didn't know what I knew.  It would be a long lonely three days.  I could feel it.  I boarded the ship...and dropped my spotting scope on the securities officer's foot.  It didn't looked broken so I breathed a sigh of relief.  I walked up to the room and it didn't open.  I sighed.  I knew it.  I went back down to the office of the ship.  The woman gave me a new key card, 10 minutes later and now really hot and sweaty, I returned for another, dragging my stuff with as it still wasn't opened.  I looked at the European woman, "and this fun because?"  She brushed me off and said she had no record of my booking.  I told her "you did 10 minutes ago and so did the woman outside."  I echoed the wonderful time statement from outside.  She sneered at me and eventually without a word came back with a 3rd key card.  This one worked.

I met my cabin boy this time up there who was just usually in my way.  About as useful as a 1 legged dog in my opinion. I had lugged my stuff around the whole ship three times.  I asked him when he said "did I need anything?"  for a wash basin for my feet....that... he didn't have.  In fact, he wasn't much help at me wrong directions to things and some wrong info, like I legged dog.  One with a mandatory tip.

 As the ship readied to set sail, there was an informal meeting of the birders on the boat, and for a WINGS tour a more formal meeting.  I stood aft and looked around pondering why?  Why did people go on these things?  What do they do for two days at sea in the cold northern Pacific?  I was not impressed nor would I be.  Let me summarize that on the 3rd day, I figured out that people liked the faux elegance, the watered down booze, the phony art auctions, the casino, the decor, and as I think it made them feel important.  I just got pissed at the sneering woman in the office, the shifty cabin boy sneeking into my room.  This was NOT wonderful, all I saw was rude or indifferent staff, and people trying to part me with my money.  I met no non-birder guests.  But this was a birding cruise....and it was ALL business.

Every morning at 5am, I walked up to the Lido deck for coffee......I passed the topless carvings of Neptune and Venus

I said a little prayer to the birding gods and we birded for fifteen hours until I passed by these same statues and either cursed the gods or thanked them and the day was done.....

this was the typical position spent by all except for runs to the bathroom, and I emphasize the word--run.  Or you ran up stairs to grab a handful of sandwiches or cookies for the birding crew for lunch.  We stood out there on our scopes in wind, waves, everything....because at any moment...something might fly by and you didn't want to miss it.

breakfast was eating fruit loops out of the box on deck, if your sandwich fell on the floor from the wind on the deck, you ate it.  Drink...water from water bottles.  Like I said...all business.  A friend told me, if Paul Lehman was out on the deck, so would you be.  If he went to the bathroom, you went to the bathroom, otherwise, you looked for seabirds.  

We birded hard that first night and by 8 pm I was hungry, and you couldn't bird after dark.  I could convince no one birding on the ship to eat at the restaurant with me, so I ended up dining alone 5 minutes before closing at the buffet.  "Wonderful..?"  I got the end of the meat, the real end, fat and rind.  I had the end of the fruit, and a sneer from the woman serving ice cream.  Food on cruises?  Are you kidding me?   It was about as elegant as a highs school cafeteria.  I would have liked a beer with dinner, the alcohol would have taken the edge of, but I could not figure out how to get one, it took me 2 days to figure out how to even get a diet coke, before that I basically took two from my mini-bar.  They never restocked it.  Holland America...yea, how do you drink or eat here?  I refused to drink the beer in my mini-bar, how sad is that to drink beer from a mini-bar?

      On the 2nd night, L learned there was a sit down restaurant in this boat, really there is and it was included in the price of a cruise.  How do people learn this?  I convinced a Victoria birder named Mark to eat with me, as damn it, I paid for this food, I was going to restaurant.  The buffet at 750 pm far as I know, we were the only 2 of 30 birders to set foot in the restaurant.  Birders are singularily focused but I like a little dinner after 14 hours on a scope.  My sore knees needed a beer.  I also learned that they had servers here that tried to be nice.

 Birding with Paul Lehman, the seabirding guru, is like playing a round of golf with Tiger Woods in his prime, I did not even belong on the course with him.  Some of these birds I have never seen before but I see well, just not fork-tailed storm petrels they match the ocean and due to a color deficiency I think I have, I can't pick them up well.  I did okay onboard and I just looked and tried to shut up and stay out of everyone's way although it is hard, I have a big mouth.  I don't like admitting I'm doing a big year, I feel stupid.  It is an idiot's folly doing this, everyone knows that.

 The second day was calm, almost totally and for seabirds that was a death knell, nothing was flying, so besides a great sighting of a south polar skua, in prime Cook's petrel areas, we saw only one and that one, late in the day.   I was on the other side of the boat, the call came and I ran.  I almost missed it and for a few hours I thought I did as I looked where everyone was looking and I saw a funny looking bird. It was very white, had white under wings highlighted with black, looked like a small pink-footed, and someone said, i could hear "no, that is just a pink footed shearwater."  I figured it was the bird i was looking at.  I looked beyond it, and saw nothing.  That never sat well with me.  I finally looked at internet pictures and saw a bird at the same angle, it wasn't a shearwater I saw, it was the Cook's petrel.  It was only flying flat in the windless air and this was confirmed when I quizzed another person who had seen the bird and said, no it wasn't arching, it was flying flat. That, though was the only Cook's seen.  a few days before, Paul Lehman had seen 170 Cook's this run...this time, almost nothing.  On this day, besides the Cook's, the best thing seen was actually a Baird's beaked whale...

    Day 3 on the boat was another story.......heavy wind.  Birders succumbed to seasickness, and the deck was closed but we ignored that, we went under the tape.  No one came and booted us out.  It was so windy that the Murphy's petrels, another rare petrel, were doing such flying it boggles your mind.  We saw quite a few but no Hawaiian petrel, so I gave back a bird to others on earlier and later cruises...I would not see that bird now or ever.  By the end of the cruise I would see some new birds although most of them would be on my Adak cruise but I got ashy storm-petrel and the skua, two worrisome birds, so all was not lost.  The birding gods on the boat had a purpose for me still or so it seemed.

     You have to do this cruise if you are doing a big year, or you don't have a chance and I got 2 out of 3 of the goal birds, luckily just getting the second one so I still was in the game.

Vancouver -Victoria BC

I got off the Westerdam avoided the myriad of topless women statues, there should be a warning for all those sensitive people about nudity....?  Did WINGS do that?....and thankfully the people trying to sell me stuff had all gone away.  The old guests rushed off well they don't rush but want to be first in line.  I avoided them and I walked out of the cruise ship terminal, took a right and ended up in 5 minutes at the float plane base.  I was taking a DHC Otter to the Harbor in Victoria.

This is an adventure so why not take the adventuresome route?

The plane held 11 passengers and a pilot, and it was very tight seating especially for a big 6 foot 2 guy like me.  A woman sat next to me and then thought better of it, and took the only other open seat. Olaf, as usual, sat alone.  The lonesome dove, should be my nickname.   I watched from the second row the instruments on the dash of the airplane.  I have flown this model Otter about 20 times, sometimes ones needed service or gas.  This one had a full tank.  Although I have never flown one in BC, I wanted to so I was not scared.  It was cool splitting the bridge that goes from Stanley Park to North Vancouver, and it was a cool day to be in a small plane.  It was also fun, seeing the good looking young business woman flirt with the governmental official sitting in front of me.  She feigned interest and was playing with her hair for 30 minutes in the plane.  She would be a good catch, I bet those two end up on a date.

Matt Cameron, musician and birder from Victoria, a guy I befriended in January, picked me up and took me out to the field to bird.  You could say that it made little sense for me to come to Victoria at all, but I had bought tickets and I did need a bird, and there had been a coded sighting on the island, a red-throated pipit, a bird that I would have a 99.9% chance to get in Alaska in the fall, but I was here, was a nice day.

It took us 15 minutes to get from the harbor to me having a confirmation sighting of a rufous hummingbird, something that I saw in San Diego I repeat again, after counting tail features and seeing a notch, BUT, knowing all the hummer experts, I probably still messed something up and caused doubt with that ID, so here is a real rufous hummingbird, I won't wait to below, I know you don't believe me.

Okay, past clean-ups done, we went a little farther and got the goal bird

MacGilvray's Warbler

the bird was out briefly, I got a camera on it for one shot and that was it.  We didn't want to use calls as the bird was on territory but I got some looks enough to claim the bird.

I also got a first of year photo on a violet green swallow, albeit a bit sketchy.

  Violet Green Swallow

Next we drove over to Panama Flats, in Victoria to find the pipit.  It is an odd thing, here a day ago, a coded bird was found and today, no one was looking for it.  The two birders on the flats were interested in a pectoral sandpiper of all things and had not even looked for the pipit, although it had been seen earlier that day.

While Matt was getting no info from a birder, a lone dark pipit crossed from left to right.  It was clear in the air and it was making a perfect red-throated pipit flight call.  I don't know much, but with all the pipits in St. Paul Island when I was there, I had pipit flight calls burned into my brain by birding legends, Cory Gregory and Doug Gotchfeld, not to mention Scott Schuette.  That was not an American pipit that flew by, however, we couldn't locate it.  A day later, i may have seen it bug out as I like saying.  It wasn't seen again,  At least it waited for me to get it.  We found the flock of American pipits and they were not with their rare buddy, and after an hour, I had to leave, without a second sighting or photo op.  But I had the coded bird, so it was good.  Matt had photographed the pipit yesterday.  4 from the cruise ship were arriving, but we had to leave without saying hello.  They took the ferry...the float plane had an advantage, a one bird advantage.

I quickly bit my cheek and made the reservation, I knew I had to go and it was an overnight to New Jersey.  They had seen the fork-tailed flycatcher for the fifth day and well, I knew I would not see it, but I guess I had to die trying.  It was an overnight flight from Vancouver to Toronto, then onward to Newark at 8am.  I needed some luck, maybe the birding gods would give me this bird...this time?

I stopped by the airport for a 5 minute photo op of the skylarks and they did not disappoint as I did not get a photo in January.  Here..............


South Windsor to Atlantic City New Jersey

I once said from standing on Brigantine, a unit of the E Forsythe NWR, that you could see Atlantic City rising like a cancer from a perfectly good beach, Jim added, that it was like a tumor that had outgrown its blood supply, now necrotic at the center....yea, why anyone would ever go there on vacation is a bigger mystery than going on a cruise.

...the fork tailed?  I don't want to talk about was my saddest moment....NO I got the bird.

I got the unchasable, the impossible, and a photo.....BUT, is a long story, and a great embarrassment.

My friend Jim "Arvid" picked me up at the airport.  Jim had gotten married since our last birding episode together, my last crazy trip to Victoria where he hadn't even met the woman Sonja he married yet and before the whirlwind romance....well today we drive to this lake in the rain and the cold.  Assunpink Lake was wet, muddy, and abandoned and we got out of the car not sure of where to start and the eagle eyed Jim says standing next to the car, his door not even closed, "there it is"..........

I can't even see the tree he sees, about 300 yards off.  But eventually, I do as we walk toward the bird. We get amazing looks at this bird, out in the open, it's long tail dropping down.  It is a cool bird.  fork-tailed flycatcher.  I take 30 or 40 of the perfect shots, perfect lighting, everything and it is raining to boot.  I am able to shield my camera and so finished we walk back to the car, our legs and shoes soaked due to the long wet grass.....I am so proud of the photos.........then, I click to show Jim my best shot, the last one, it was 20 yards off and the golden crown of the bird was sitting perfect.  Then I notice the error message on payback..........I HAVE NO CHIP IN THE CAMERA!  I say swear words that sailors don't say.  I let out a cry of frustration.  I had flown all night for this.

Jim made an immediate u-turn on the dirt road.  We drove back for a second find, and this time the bird was not very cooperative, and the rain was worse.  I did find the bird and we did get a second look and a real picture but it wasn't the same quality or anything. Now, I was beyond wet.  Both of us were drying socks in the back of Jim's 20 year old car.  I sulked all the way to Brigantine, and so seeing the dinge of Atlantic City again for the first time since 1994 and even spying a fallout of chimney swifts and identifying saltmarsh sparrow, did not elevate my mood....I was still frustrated and I was dog-tired.

I tried to find a better saltmarsh sparrow or warblers but despite working our way up the coast, all we got new for the year was a scarlet tanager and a striking pose of the bird too, but all we talked about was my chip problem.  In the end, I was a birder and the most striking pose of that flycatcher was in my head.  I wished I could share it but should be happy I saw it, but.....

I spent the night in Newark after booking my Delta flight out of Jersey.  If I booked the one-way home, to Minneapolis, it was $622.  If I booked a one-way to Omaha, the cost would be $422, if I booked to Phoenix, $164, and it went through Minneapolis.  As I never check on luggage, I will get lost changing gates in MSP and end up at my car.....why these prices issues?  I don't know but knowing them saves me money.

The list

5/1  San Diego CA

618.  Elegant Tern
619.  Warbling vireo
620.  Rufous hummingbird  
        four more seen 5/5 Victoria BC

5/2  Kitchen Creek Area

621.  Lazuli Bunting
622.  Western wood-pewee
623.  Olive sided flycatcher
624.  Gray vireo

Westerdam Cruise  
Southern California

625.  Black-storm petrel
626.  Sabine's gull

5/3  Northern California

627.  Black-footed albatross
628.  South Polar skua
629.  Parasitic jaeger
630.  Layson albatross
631. Tufted puffin
632.  Cook's petrel
633.  Ashy storm-petrel

5/4 Oregon Coast

634.  Leach's storm-petrel
635.  parakeet auklet
636.  Murphy's petrel
637.  Fork-tailed storm petrel
638.  Arctic tern

5/5  Victoria British Columbia

639.  MacGilvray's warbler
640.  Red-throated pipit

5/6 Assunpink WMA, New Jersey

641.  Fork-tailed flycatcher

Brigantine Unit E. Forsythe NWR

642.  Saltmarsh sparrow
643.  Chimney Swift

Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

644.  Scarlet Tanager 
Other birds of the Trip

Scarlet Tanager

Gray Vireo

Chimney Swift

Pomerine Jaeger

Black-footed Albatross

Brown Booby over a pair of dolphins

Arctic Tern

Sabine's Gull flock

Rufous Hummingbird (CA)

Rufous Hummingbird (BC)

Lazuli Bunting

Lawrence's Goldfinch

Warbling Vireo

Black chinned sparrow

Western wood pewee

Conclusions........I added 27 species on this trip, 4 coded birds, but I missed a key bird. There was nothing I could do but to bravely soldier on.  I am still on goal for breaking 700 by Alaska.  I should still be up on the year birders this year except for the Aussie Champion now listing in the dark. I haven't run into him but now heard of him twice, secretly sneaking around.  I didn't think he could have me but he did get the Hawaiian.  Was in Newfy twice....I have already added to my budget due to him and what seems like his unlimited resources.  I planned on zooming through my home territory birds, saying hi to the family, and heading back out before I got stuck on planned trips.  I could now not let up even for an instant.  I may not break a record but I vow not to be out-listed by an Australian for the year.  I at least want to have the 2016 really big year, so sorry. ....I think him listing dark is a mistake as maybe rightly, I assume he is got everything and as such, I need to keep not only plugging but charging, he will be up on me in mind until he admits his list so I cannot let up for an instant.......yea, I need to shave two days off midwest migrants so I can chase one more is going to be a brief home visit... I have little time before I start the next circum-continental tour.  Michigan --North Carolina --Arizona---to Alaska then back to Maine.  I leave in 10 days.  Before that, I need every single bird---perfect weather, and luck.  My birding gods in the Westerdam have sailed to Alaska without me so now I am on my own.



  1. You scored your fork-tailed prize, so your luck is on the rebound.

  2. Olaf, keep being blokey and ignore the drongo. He's being a wuss.

  3. Reliable report of Curlew Sandpiper in Nova Scotia today. Cape Sable Island (3hours by car from Halifax airport). Apologies if you have one of these already!

    1. no, hadn't heard, i wonder if the sandpiper in New Jersey and then in New York has moved north? I need that bird....thnaks Nick, a little leery to chase such a distance especially if same bird and has been moving every other day.....hum. Is there a NS birder page?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. The finder, Mark Dennis, keeps a great blog on birding in that southwestern-most tip of NS. ABA provincial list-serves (just like those for states), will have that under NS RBA.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Here's Dennis's report now on his blog:

  6. As an Australian reading (and thoroughly enjoying) your blog, who is the Aussie attempting a big year?

    1. John Weigel. Sounds like the real deal to me. I have not crossed paths with him but missed him by a day in Newfoundland and he was on an earlier Repo cruise than I was. Then he went back to Newfy, no one goes twice to Newfy in February unless they are doing a big year, I have been told some contents of contacts with birding guides he has been/spoken with to confirm this.

    2. He certainly smashed the Australian big year record on two occasions and he is not short of cash by all accounts. That said he wouldn't have your 'local' knowledge.

  7. I met John on a pelagic in Tasmania during his 2014 Australian Big Year. Nice guy, good company with some good stories (seems to be a requirement).

    He set the Australian record then did it again as he thought he could beat himself; very driven. I never found a blog for 2014 only comments from others when they met him.

  8. It seems two attempts also seems to be a requirement.


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