Friday, January 21, 2022

Day 5: Lifer super chase: A bridge (and a bird) too far.

Somedays, one wonders if a plan is just too much, too ambitious and despite valiant efforts one may just be trying to attain the unattainable.  In 1944 in an effort to end World War II, the British Army concocted Operation Markey Garden, to recapture Dutch territory and get a bridgehead on the Rhine into Germany, but despite a big plan, the project was just a "Bridge to far," to steal a movie title about the event.

Quite possibly attempting to get five lifers in five days in four states was, like this 1944 plan, attempting too much and attempting to get a bird too far, and in this case a stakeout on an old and somewhat rickety swing bridge (The Southport Bridge, Boothbay Maine), so my trip to Maine was a bridge and a bird too far....

It was the big dipper of bird chases, for the biggest eagle, and a big nothing. 

Stakeout at the closed Aquarium overlooking Boothbay Harbor

It was a cold 2 1/2 days on a stakeout in snow, heavy wind, and cold, but luckily it was not on the Beaufort scale cold like it was here a few days ago OR like it will be in a few days. I had had a marvelous week of 4 lifers, but after the exhausting two plus days and a day of getting there and back, I was frustrated, beaten. and happy to get home, and I had forgotten the past success.  Like life, birding for big listers is much about the high or low from your last chase, a tick or a dip, and what I will remember about my time looking for the great Steller's Sea Eagle, the king (or queen) of Birds, a huge, one of a kind bird that should not be anywhere close to the Northeast, in fact even seeing one in the Bering Sea islands is a once in a lifetime event.  

So I missed the bird on Tuesday by about three hours, it has not been seen anywhere since. This bird has been seen at least in Quebec, New Brunswick, Massachusetts, Maine, in later 2021, but in March 2021, it (well probably) was seen in Goliad County, Texas, and then in 2020 it was seen and photographed in Central Alaska (which is confirmed the same bird), so this eagle has wondered around the North America some 7000 miles.  

From the Bangor newspaper, I hope to someday get another chance

This morning, the sounds of dozens of long-tailed ducks calling and echoing across the bay was almost as cool as seeing the majestic eagle.  Long-tailed ducks are handsome critters and their incessant calling was neat.  A new group of searchers showed but after an hour of nothing, many wandered off for breakfast or places unknown.  It is hard to stay at a stakeout as long as one may need to.

Long-tailed ducks, handsome even in winter.

Red Breasted meganser

Common Loon

I also saw three species of Alcids, Common murre, black guillimot, and razorbills

Black duck at sunrise before the snow yesterday

How does one evaluate what ended up being a six-day adventure with seven flight segments, three rental cars, maybe a thousand miles of driving, and some really bad meals? All in all, it was a good trip, maybe a bit long, and it ended badly, but was a big epic bird chase, maybe too big.  Maybe the eagle will even head towards Florida.  These eagles go to the southern islands of Japan in the winter.  

It is good to be home.  I was able to jump and earlier flight in Baltimore yesterday afternoon and still, no eagle reports.......but I was exhausted.  I need to get in better birding shape and in shape in general.

You may want to ask me, would I do this again? I will say it now, that I will never have the opportunity to do this again.  Mostly, because I will never have 5 lifer birds on the ground at the same time.  It was a fluke occurrence. The odds are so against it, that I was somewhat shocked it happened.  Of course if it wasn't for sloth and COVID I would not have had this happen, so it was good that I finally....finally got going and out birding.

Maybe it was a bridge too far, and an old rickety bridge, but it was a good bridge, just as it was a bird too far, but it was such a good bird, that if it is refound, I'll probably jump a Frontier or Southwest flight to get myself back up there

Until them, stay warm out there.


Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Day 4: Lifer Super chase: Maryland eastern shore and beyond


It was a very short night.  My flight to Baltimore from Houston TX last night was late and then I remembered why I did not like BWI airport the last time I blew through in 2013, the rental car experience.  First, I could not figure out at 0100 if Hertz was even still open, the phone number for them said they were closed, and then where was the shuttle pickup, it wasn't like ANY shuttle was running, I did see a Hilton shuttle, but then with the help of a parking lot shuttle drive sleeping in his van, he gave me some direction and then I found the stop.  No signs of anything, and was cold outside, cold for even me.

Somewhere about 0130, I'm thinking of do I just sleep in the terminal and scrap my hotel room in Annapolis, and how am I going to even get a rental car?  Then, a bus heads my way, I figure it was a city bus, looked like a city bus and the last time I was here they had individual busses for each rental car line, by then I see Rental shuttle and it steams past me like I am the Devil, some guy a good block down from waves to the bus and it slams to the curb maybe a half a block past him.  He runs, and I think this is my last chance, I run.  Luckily, this older guy is not fleet of foot and I'm cold and desperate and as I near I hear the bus powering up and I hit the last door just as it is closing I throw a hip into it, the door freezes momentarily and then opens up and I peel myself off the door and fall in.  

"Stop blocking the door back there!" I hear on the overhead mic...""If you stopped the f^$$ing bus at the stop..." I mutter and off the bus goes before I sit down.  

I ask the guy next to me "where is this bus going?" I realize there are 6 people on this bus.  

"Rental lot." 
"Where did you get on?"
"At the rental bus stop at "A" terminal."

Surprisingly Hertz had a staff and my car so off I go to Annapolis then I pull up to my hotel "Hilton Garden Inn" at 0200, it turns out, there are two and the other one is on  the other side of town, it is 0220 until I get my room, realize the "buffet breakfast" is another $20 per person and I stumble to my room.

0600 came early and I skip the breakfast and see a Dunkin's, and pull through for a quick birder breakfast.  The credit card machine won't take my card, and finally the girl at the window winks and says just go.  So I got something

The Bay Bridge was nice to see at first light, I forget it is toll, well i think it was a toll bridge, it was hard to tell, but whatever, I'll see the bill later.  I pull into the Northern Lapwing spot, where there was only one report yesterday.  It was not a welcoming spot, no trespassing signs were everywhere, so I put on my flashers in the shoulder of the narrow road and scan from the warm car.  It is cold outside.  I scan the almost frozen pond with some black ducks and a small Canada goose flock keeping it open.  Shore looks frozen tight, and then I see a lump.  I get out my scope as trucks, cars, a bus roll past me on the edge of the road.  I see the head, long trailing crest on the head.  It is hunched down, like it is almost succumbed to the weather, but the head moved.  

Distant photos, but here is what it is supposed to look like
I had not seen one of these in Europe, yet, either and the numbers of this bird have dropped substantially in the last 20 years and it is no wonder that this bird usually seen almost every season in North America has not for the last decade.  I have been watching for any reports.  My friend Jim Brown one of the last ones seen in New Jersey years ago.
It was for me lifer bird number 4!!

It wasn't moving, I looked at the snow geese flocks, spotted a couple of Ross's geese, 
 and then I repositioned the car and could not refind it so at 0800 I made a break for the airport.  A nonstop flight for Portland, so I drove hard.  I sped into the rental car lot, and on the bus to the terminal I booked a ticket, got through security.  Found my gate and boarded, I was off to the last stop, four in the bag.

I think I was in my rental car at Portland before the plane was fully unloaded.  I drove to Boothbay Harbor to look for the crazy Steller's Sea Eagle spotted here and almost everywhere else, Texas, Quebec, and I think this might have been the bird spotted near Denali in Alaska over a year ago.  It has been around New England a little as well.  The Common black hawk of 2018-2019 looks almost sedentary compared to this bird.

I got up there near 130 PM after getting lost, could I get a double?  It was no problem being late, the bird was seen early in the day and sittings.

It was somewhere between frozen and frostbite out there on the stakeout.  I got a tip of where a local saw it near 4 PM but I scrambled to where that was but i found a room and now I await for tomorrow.  This surely is not going to be an easy get.  It may make the bat falcon, seem easy, and a heck of a lot warmer.
Long tailed ducks, something to pass the time

So, tonight, I sleep, tomorrow, I'm wearing every piece of clothing I have with, and we'll see....we'll see if I see the great and mighty eagle.

Stay warm, cause it is cold outside here, 



Monday, January 17, 2022

Day 3: Lifer super chase, The Blues

The morning sky was blue, this morning in New Mexico after I drove past so much flaring of methane in the Permian the flames seemed almost blue at times.  I drove up to Rattlesnake Springs, the first time I had been here since 1993, and I got my lifer Audobon's warbler here, before it was taken away, on my first birding trip in America.  THE PLACE has changed or maybe it is January versus April, IDK. It was cold, many people's skins were blue, and I was driving a sweet blue Rav4 (actually it was a piece of crap, the check engine light was on)

It was a sweet color though

Then there was something far sweeter, the bluest of all blue birds in North America, the elusive blue mockingbird, it popped up right were I was and was only seen badly and many saw it only briefly, there were maybe 20 on the stakeout.  It wasn't good so I was patient, then everyone scattered and many were in groups talking and not watching.  

A half hour went by, some were shivering but it wasn't that cold, so I figured where it would come out again.  I young guy for Albuquerque came over who was birding on the quetzel stakeout a couple years ago.  "I heard a flicer call, was that the mockingbird?"  

"No, that was a flicker"  I replied.  Then I got the feeling someone or something was watching me.  I put up my camera instinctually.  I had it and it was looking right at me, the crazy skuly bastard was looking at me.  I froze, and took pictures.  "The Bastard is looking at me Ray, the crazy bastard is looking at me, I can't move."  It was frozen mid-preen.  My camera was fogging up and all I could do was stay froze eventually a couple of others wondered over and as best we could by voice, gave directions.

   Then finally it relaxed and I could move and change lens quick to something not steamy, it was nice to get a better perspective but it was still watching me.
It flew into a hackberry and fed and despite 10 yards away, i\t was all twigs, almost all the time.  I never got a window and the bird was so flighty and skulky I dids not want to move and no one else did.  No one this time was talking about football or the chase a month ago or New Mexico politics

A most gorgeous bird, just a huge thrush, but it never really came out when it came out.  Then it made the loudest flicker call I have ever heard, and flew back in the Russian olive thicket and amde another call and that....was that.  We walked back to the parking lot happy, shared our good fortune with those still warming up and left
I meandered back to Midland, drank a "Blue" Moon lifer beer, CHEERS!  Lifer beer savored, and then I booked a ticket on the Blue-tailed airline, United bound for Baltimore tonight and the next leg of this crazy trip.  Three days down and three lifer birds.....will number four fall tomorrow?  

I guess all I can say is stay tuned.  The Blue Mockingbird is a cool bird,  but I think the next two are cooler.  

Keep birding out there


Sunday, January 16, 2022

Day 2, life bird chase, It is a long and winding road to Pecos Texas

They say a picture is worth a thousands words, except when it isn't.  Find the Bat Falcon in the above picture..can you?  Clear as mud, I would assume.  I saw the bird with my naked eye and this is already at 7x.  

David Junkin and I were on the morning stakeout for the Bat falcon at Santa Ana NWR at Alamo TX this morning with 200 other people, it reminded me a lot of the Marfa Lights stakeout as neither of them turned up.  A lot of hopeful and some passerby lookers, It was a nice morning (no wind) and after it was a big "dip" about half went home and the others scattered around the park, or mostly around the parking lot, the tower filled up with the 8-10 people on it and we decided to walk in a far corner of the refuge because we had overheard someone say it had been seen on a snag there.  I left my scope in the car so there would be less to carry.  That would turn out to be the first of many errors for the day.

So we walked, and walked and then when a few birders I knew passed us on the trail, and they were on the tower, I got the feeling they knew something so we kept up.  We arrived at the Cattail Pond over look and they were calling ducks, white tailed kites, but did not say anything about a falcon, and then a tiny black dot caught my eye through a narrow window...too far for my bins to discern, but it looked like a falcon, I took a snap shot of the bird and blew it up which on the camera is only the second one and not as sharp as I can on the computer.  "That is definitely a falcon," I said to one of the guys I did not know, I asked to use his scope and then, the bird turned, white collar, red belly, the bat falcon.  My eyes and birdy sense had got it.   Pictures are nice, but it is hard to beat a scope.

It turned out they had seen it from the tower a mile away and were trying to figure out where they had seen it.  Before we could sneak closer and closer may not have helped as that window was pretty narrow, it flew around and was gone, but bird seen and found by me, even with no help and I think we were the only ones to really find it today.  It ended up being a nice 5 mile hike.  It had been a decade since I was down in this location of the refuge. I yearned for my bicycle.

It is amazing how many people come for a few moments look, see "no bird" and then drive away.

It was time to bug out of the valley, I had miles to go and birds to seem so we went to Hertz, David dropped me off, and after a long line, (The Monterrey flight had just came in) I got the last car apparently in town, and drove north and west.  It was a nine hour journey of football, talk radio, Mexican country music, having to back track 18 miles and nearly running out of gas.  I actually filled with more than the stated capacity of the tank, I exaggerate not ( I violated the first rule of western driving), I then found out I bailed only 7 miles FROM a brand new truck stop that was NOT on my cellphone (thanks for nothing Siri!), and then later I was going the wrong way at the freeway (yes, jumped the curb driving a full circle around the wrong way sign), after getting totally lost and have two conflicting Siri's telling me where to go but to places on opposite sides of town (thanks again for nothing Siri!), luckily I wasn't killed, no one paints roads in west Texas.  I then ended up at the wrong Best Western hotel and forced to jump another curb and finally I got a room, and .........a lifer beer.  I needed a beer.  Maybe needed one 300 miles back.

I think all the flaring of natural gas (which should be illegal!) was affecting my mind.  Tomorrow worries me, I have an early appointment with a skulky bird and it is on the other side of the time zone, breakfast starts at 0530, but which 0530?  Sunrise is at 0658 and 0757, but depends on which time zone, and so can I get breakfast before I go or what?  Can I even get out of this hotel?

Natural gas flare, one of thousands in the Permian

The next lifer, a blue mockingbird awaits, we'll see, then I will need to head to the east coast

...and I have only been gone 48 hours...


Saturday, January 15, 2022

Social Birding, Day one of lifer trip

Well, I'm trying to clean up "birds on the board" for my North American life list, somewhat shockingly, I have left 6 birds simmer out there, which is kind of hard to really do.  I left these "ducks on the pond" as one could say because, 1) there was COVID, 2) thinking I had Covid (test negative), 3) I went birding to Puerto Rico, 4) nothing close 5) home for the holidays, 6) family trip 7) make sure I did not get COVID, 8) RV had to go to the shop for recall on a taillight 9) I promised to move someone's hot tub to the dump, 10) Do I want to fly with COVID protocols?  Finally the wife said, "go."  Then a few days later, "why aren't you going?"  I quoted reason 8, then a day later, "Why not now?" I quoted #9, finally yesterday morning I bought a ticket, moved a hot tub, jumped a plane to Texas and here I am in McAllen.

I started this morning at Santa Ana NWR, the place is essentially closed, the visitor center is tore up, no tram. they are not feeding birds, like no one cares, but again, why would the US Government or the local people care about birds and birders down here, how much tourism is birding to the Lower Rio Grande Valley?

I digress.  I was met by local snowbird birders Dave and Sandi at the hotel after  a short night after delayed flights and tight connections.  My shins hurt from the Houston Dash, The cold front met us at the stakeout for the bat falcon, the first one of these little falcons ever seen in North America.  The crowd was large.  a half a million in optic equipment sat waiting for a show.  As it turned out, there really wasn't much of a show

At half light the bird flew over, and with a 25mph gust of wind, it was quick, and was gone.  I took a photo of those watching or missing it. The people immediately next to me never saw it.  It landed on the line 4 power lines down, some people ran a quarter mile and got too close and it was gone, 0730 and the chance was done.  IT LEFT THIS BIRDER WANTING! ....wanting to see it again.

So, we went for the back up bird, a social flycatcher at UT RGV in Brownsville.  It had been there for a while.  We arrived and then we saw what could have been it 80 yards away through grass, my photos were blurry as could not blow them up on the camera to see what it was, then an hour later, we had another quick view.  Then the birds went away, all birds, well not all of the birds, the local Muscovy ducks were there.

Then I practiced shooting photos through the grass at a couple of least grebes and a blue heron, it was not a good location but what do I do, get a machete? 

I looked for butterflies, and the sun came out, I found a tropical checkered skipper

Then four hours at this stakeout, it was halftime and we went for lunch, food sore and hungry.
We came back 40 minutes later, filled with Stripes tacos.  Half time worked.  I spotted it a time time in the grass again a crappy photo and disappeared but then posted next to the trail and the viewing window was tight but photos were had by all, I think.


So we went back to the falcon stakeout and three hours of cold wind later, no bird.  I had missed flights out of town so I found a room, walked to the mall to get food since, no one delivered, had no place sadly to even get a lifer beer and so I came back to my room with Chinese food from a place with a Japanese name, served by a Hispanic, oh well, food is food on the birding trail.  I needed to plot my escape from the valley tomorrow after a third visit to the bat falcon stakeout. 

A lifer bird a day, today, I guess 1 1/2 lifers, we'll say 812.5 lifers, I hope to get better looks and even a photo tomorrow to clean up that half.  I saw it but....., The morning will be cold, I bought a stocking hat, it is going to be nasty at 7AM

more tomorrow on day #2



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