Monday, November 5, 2018

Between the rock and the hard place: the quest for mr. 800

BIG BIRD had a lot of parts changed from the end of our trip into November.  It got a new engine harness, and then, that third fuel pump attuator.  Then it got a new ECM.  All the while, I could tell that Tiffin was becoming tired of me as they stopped emailing me and calling.  Cummins was sounding beaten.  It was in the middle of this while I was sitting at my cabin looking out into the snow and hoping better ducks would arrive out in the lake when I got the alert.  Gray heron in Newfoundland.
            I had officially been sitting on 799 for my North American ABA bird list since August, a number that just seems so unsettling because, it is.  In reality, it had been longer since bird #798, a mistle thrush, I had seen in January of 2018 in New Brunswick and bird #799, a black-backed oriole named Bebe had been refound by me in Pennsylvania in February of 2017, well after it had been first seen over a month earlier. 
          Some birders were so sure that this bird was never going to added to the official list that they never went and saw it.  I only went as I had business in Scranton and Reading seemed like a place nearby (sort of), and so it ended up being a bit of a lucky break.  The state committee did a lot of work on that bird and in the end the national powers-to-be, had no choice but add it on the list, which in August, to my surprise, it was. 
            It had been so long since I successfully chased a bird, I had forgotten which one it was.   I had dipped on a rare warbler in Arizona in the spring of 2018.  So there I was, at 799. I wanted to reach 800 while I was still aged 52, it had taken me until May 2015 for me to get to 700, seeing a ruff in a swamp near Minneapolis while we visited the American Swedish Institute for a lecture.  I think getting the “toughest” hundred in 42 months was about as quick as one can, even taking into account I saw 778 species in 2016 alone.  
         Only three people had ever completed their 9th century of North American birds, the “impossible” 100, and so, I doubted that I’d ever get to that.  I had some relatively low hanging fruit, or relatively so, and if I became motivated, and took some pelagics on the east coast, and hung out in Alaska, I could easily get to 810, but after that, every bird is a good to great bird  so any more will be almost impossible.  Some of the ones the big three, like Paul Sykes (all-time number 2) have seen,  are extinct.  He has seen the extinct Bachmann’s warbler.  He has also seen some birds that will never be seen again in America.  Therefore, 800 is my last big birding mark.
            Bucket list item, #101, Get 800th bird in ABA, 300 in South Dakota and 850 in the new ABA was only 2/3 done.  I had seen my 300th South Dakota bird in May.  The new checklist this summer including the oriole and the mistle thrush had ticked me up to 851 on that list. 
            Oddly and in true Olaf fashion, just as I had booked for the difficult logistics of going to Newfoundland (it is an all-day and quite expensive affair and I had already missed the flight to get there on November 3rd), a spotted redshank, a sandpiper I have seen on Iceland but not in North America had appeared near Detroit.  It seemed everyone was there and unfortunately, I was  committed to the Rock, the local name for Newfoundland.  The redshank would have to wait.
            This is my 7th trip to Newfoundland, 8th if you count a stopover for three hours when I was 14.  I have seen seven lifers there:  common snipe, tufted duck, black gillimot, black-headed gull, yellow-legged gull, willow ptarmigan, and a fieldfare.  I had dipped or missed on two gray herons, a kelp gull, and European golden-plovers and before on the yellow-legged gull, before getting one 9 months later. That first trip didn’t feel so bad since the fieldfare showed up five hours away, and was nabbed.   I’d also found some odd birds there, once seeing a chimney swift in early November that almost seemed like another rarer swift, but, alas no.  I had also been in the middle of a strange jaeger fallout which left the poor birds beaten and recovering (or dying) in some truly odd places, like golf courses and roofs.
               So as my RV sat in a pile of parts,  I headed off to the Rock, flying United and Air Canada. I got upgraded to first-class because, I could.  Flying to the easternmost point in North American in fall/winter was always tough.   I expected delays and when it came, and for no explained reason in Toronto, it came as  no surprise.  It was all part of it--the 2:30 AM arrival, the endless delays, a rough flight that would never seem to land if it landed at all, the cold blustery walk to my car which assuming the rental agent was still around to a car that would be in the far corner of the parking lot, which either wouldn’t start or was the wrong car. I could look forward to a locked motel front door, a cold room, no breakfast, and probably a missing bird.  It was the way of things on the Rock.  It was a hard place, but one filled with nice and warm people, that somehow, survived and thrived in this place that was part of Great Britain and not Canada until 1949.  
               The man in front of me at Toronto airport had a tee-shirt that surmised it all “Fukeneh!”  It was something coined by Mike Myers.  That was the way of things.  Oddly, I stood next to my twin in line, a big oafish Scandinavian, like me.  I listened to his grunts and cut-off words to his buddy, typical male speak, which is half gestures and posture anyhow.  He even acted like me but he spoke Norwegian, was not a Swede, but was very understandable and we had the same face.  He was named Kjell and undoubtedly was going to St. John’s due to the oil or shipping infrastructure.
               The trip in fulfilled my expectations, crossing over Nova Scotia we hit a fierce wind, that on the ground in Newfoundland was clocked at 130 kph in some places, on Cape Race where the weather station was broken, a reading of 52 knots was seen in the lee of a building.  The Alamo guy stayed but I was correct, the farthest car from the rental car place was mine.  It blew and rained all the way to my car.  The lady at the hotel had already given up on me but found me a room.
               Morning came three hours later as I headed the hour and a half to Renews, arriving just after dawn at 6:50.  Like my last chase for this bird, the bay it had been seen was devoid of birds save for a lone gull, a handful of crows and a cormorant on a rock.  I looked, then moved and looked some more.  I could feel the futileness of the morning and then at 7:30, something odd happened, the bird appeared out of nowhere on a rock!  It was like I got pay back, because after two hurried pictures at a great distance, the bird spooked and flew to the other side of the bay.  I ran for the car but as I got over there, it had vanished as easily as it had appeared.

               I looked at my photos to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, it was bad but yes, it was a gray heron, as any heron here is a good bird, and nothing else it could be.  Four other birders showed up but not the heron.  It made us wait for over two hours and then again, I saw it fly out of nowhere.  I called the other birders, and everyone raced to my location, again it was gone as I looked up from my phone, but it had just hidden behind a rock. I had it, they had it, the great 800 was accomplished!  It then came closer for better photos.

               The lighthouse keep at Cape Race, Cliff Doran is the friendliest coolest guy.  Cape Race one of those nasty places where the wind blows all the time and the area is shrouded in fog and rain almost constantly.  In fact, they had not seen the sun in two weeks, but today, it was cold, 38 degrees but the sun was out, showing the lighthouse and the cape for the first time ever to me.

          Down there, everyone was abuzz with a great bird, a Vesper sparrow, found just before I got there--a backyard bird for me back home, but here, only the third recorded sighting ever, which compared to the heron, which has had 5 provincial sightings (only 6 in North America though), that makes the sparrow rarer (here), go figure.

I had chocolate silk cake and coffee with Cliff and the other birders as we warmed up and told stories and Cliff asked me about my RV and Hurricane damaged house.  It was just great.  Newfies are the greatest!   It was the highlight of the trip seeing Cliff even better than the bird!  This was my celebration even though back at the Best Western, alone, I drank my lifer beer alone and toasted myself to a long chase and quest of seeing 800 species.  That is how it should be, bird listing is a personal event and a personal milestone.  
             Bucket list #101 is done, now if I can just go home, a book event and yellow fever and typhoid shots await this intrepid traveler.

I called Cummins on the drive back, and nothing has changed.  I want a Fukeneh! with a Canadian flag t-shirt!


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  2. Will try again on Joan’s I Pad as we are in Kauai, and I didn’t bring my laptop. So, awesome achievement. If it hadn’t been hard, it wouldn’t have been as much fun. Onwards and upwards. Thor

    1. yea, I understand the no pain, no gain theory of everything

  3. Congrats, Olaf! Been following you since the early days of your big year adventure. Very happy to see you hit that great mark. I have quite a way to catch you, but maybe one day I'll hit 800 too.

    Out of curiosity, and if you don't mind a random internet lurker prying, do you have a world life list tally you'd be willing to share? I imagine you've seen a lot outside of the ABA region as well (obviously you have St Martin well covered for example).

    1. Colas,
      It is not that impressive and to be honest incomplete. ebird states 1039 but I have never entered my Belize data, missing some european stuff and not sure how accurate my ebird is for Trinidad and Tobago. Guessing 1200 or so. I found my written journal from 20 years ago a few months back but forgot to enter it. I;m doing some serious international birding this winter, should double it. Never even kept a ABA total until 2013.

  4. Congratulations Olaf! 900 by 70?

    1. without the annual fights out to Attu as it was in the 1990s, I'm not sure it would be possible even if it becomes an overwhelming life I said, if I put my ears down for the next year and just do Searcher Cruise (townsend's storm-petrel and Guadeloupe murrelet) do a week of June pelagicson east coast, 4 birds) do a repo cruise for Hawaiian petrel, and a early fall east coast trip for white faced storm petrel, and can still get the redshank, that and the dusky thrush, long-toed stint, white tailed eagle and little bunting that should be in Alaska routinely put me at 810.....after that, it is mostly code 5s....tough birds, hard birds to chase, like European golden-plovers, etc. to think anybody even me, could get 90 in 18 years sounds doubtful to nearly impossible.....John Pushock who is 20 birds up on me and guides to Attu and is a decade and a half younger has a much better chance if he starts chasing everything he needs, but from Seattle, that isn't easy for Newfoundland, nor cheap. If I was a betting man, I'd pick a guy like him though, JMO. I think I'll max out at like 825 or so....nothing to sneeze at but certainly nothing monumental

    2. Embrace the ABA only 47 to go! Trudge on young man.

    3. I just have to figure out how to get to Layson and the NW HI islands to pick up millerbird et al. I'm missing some other getable HI. IDK. Kauai Thrush and parrotbill might not be around too much longer, so need to go just because of that

  5. I like the foreshadowing of the yellow fever shot. Africa or, more likely, South America?


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