The best chance one has to see and possibly photograph the very elusive yellow rail, a small chicken-like bird, is to attend the Yellow Rail & Rice Festival in Lafayette, Louisiana. The yellow rail breeds in northern Canada and spends the winter in our Gulf Coast marshes. Louisiana is our second-largest rice-producing state and the second harvest of the year, also known as ratoon, occurs in Autumn. This amazing example of cooperation between rice farmers and birdwatchers has been an annual late October event for over a decade.
I decided to trek to southwestern Louisiana to witness this spectacle. I was joined by my intrepid friend, Joe Knowles, who tallied the mega-rare Steller’s Sea-Eagle with me in Maine on New Year’s Day. Joe had worked in Lafayette in the early 1980’s and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to revisit the heart of Cajun & Creole country.
As the farmers drive their combines through the rice fields, birders watch for wildlife – generally rails – which are harmlessly flushed from their hunkered down positions by the loud noise of these huge machines. The birders have an option to sit in the cab, ride alongside the combines in ATV’s, or walk quickly alongside the vehicles paralleling their path. Safety is of utmost importance so many green-vested volunteers shepherd the eager birders and keep them a safe distance from the equipment.
After about an hour, most of the festival’s 75 participants had viewed at least one weak-flying yellow rail. Their large white wing patches are very visible in flight and immediately distinguish them from the other more common rail species that also frequent the fields. But the rails fly a very short distance before settling down beneath the level of the crop. How would I obtain a decent photograph?
Thankfully a group of bird-banders had joined the party and set up their mist nets in one corner of the property. One yellow rail was captured, albeit very briefly, for ornithological research purposes.
Of course, I was pleased to record ABA (USA & Canada) area # 809. But even more enjoyable was witnessing Joe tabulate this rarity to go along with his code 5 Eurasian eagle. Baseball analogy – his lifelist’s “slugging average” is reminiscent of Bryce Harper’s monster play-off performance.
Dear loyal blog followers, I am pleased to inform you that my “bird book” was published yesterday and is available for purchase on Amazon. This 120 page manuscript is basically autobiographical and ties many of my blog posts together chronologically. In short, it captures my quest to see as many birds as possible in the ABA Area (USA & Canada). I hope you choose to order it ($29.95 hardcover) – I profit a whopping $4 for each sale:), read it and send me your comments.
THANK YOU for helping to motivate me to reach (and surpass!) my goal of seeing 800 bird species in my lifetime, as well as documenting this marathon effort in print. The front and back covers are pictured below.
The Oriental Turtle-Dove ranges mainly from Asia to Japan. Technically it has now been seen three times in California but realistically the chances of seeing one in the USA are basically 0% (see #221 below).
I received a NARBA (North American Rare Bird Alert) text that a presumed wild Oriental Turtle-Dove was identified in Palo Alto on February 2nd….while I was preparing for our February 10th Alumni gathering in San Francisco. Frankly, I had never heard of this species. It doesn’t even have a range map in the field guides but heck, a potential ”lifer” is always exciting.
The bird was continuously seen for a couple of minutes every morning around 7:30am before disappearing into a residential area from the 2nd through the 10th. I arrived at dawn on Friday, the 11th and took my place among fifteen or so anxious birders at the ”stake-out” area.
By 7:30 am the crowd had grown to over 50. One elderly lady mumbled ”It isn’t going to show” and walked despondently back to her car. I wondered how she could give up so easily but maybe she was a local and had already seen it. By 8:15 I thought she could be right. Ugh! Then at 8:25 a voice rang out: “in the redwood!”. It was right in front of me about 50 yards away!! Binoculars first for the positive ID and then quick, camera, need a photo for this blog! No more than thirty seconds elapsed and it was gone. But I knew I had captured it. I had a similar confident feeling of exhilaration as the Olympic snowboarder who nailed her first half-pipe (and won gold!). A reach comparison, perhaps, but not for me! Check out the diagnostic orange-red eye!
Oriental Turtle-Dove (Palo Alto)
During the chaotic moment of birders scrambling to view and photograph the dove I noticed a young guy that I thought could be our friend’s son from Sacramento. Three years ago I had shown him a rare Garganey (Eurasian duck) and I am very proud to write that he caught the birding bug after that special experience. But by the time I had snapped my photos, calmed down and gathered my wits, he was gone. So I texted him and immediately my phone rang. Miles Horton and his friend (Alex Albright) had indeed witnessed the same spectacle I had. The pleasure seeing them and satisfaction I felt knowing I had helped inspire a life-long hobby in another person far outweighed seeing ABA AREA #807.
I was hesitating to write any more blogs partly because I have surpassed my goal of seeing 800 species in the USA/Canada but mainly because I did not want to diminish the significance of my recent post recording the INCREDIBLE Steller’s Sea-Eagle sighting. However….the past 24 hours were so unusual, so exhilarating, so unprecedented….I had to share the stories/photos somewhere with somebody. YOU!
The American Birding Association (ABA) defines a code 5 species as one that has been seen five or fewer times in the ABA Area…EVER. Code 6 is extinct. I have seen less than ten code 5 birds in my lifetime. When the opportunity to see THREE (3) code 5 birds in one weekend presented itself, there was no question I would try. Even the leading bird-tour companies are scrambling to offer trips in February, praying these Mexican/Central American vagrants stick around.
Logistically, frequent flier miles pretty much covered the airfare and car rental for a South Texas swing combined with a slight side trip to Carlsbad, New Mexico. With an upcoming Holiday weekend, 72 hours was sufficient time to have a chance to go “three for three” – a hat trick in sports parlance. Seeing one of these three species would be nice, two was my expectation and three was simply too exciting to imagine.
The Central American Bat Falcon had NEVER been reported in the USA until December 18, 2021. It is not even mentioned in the National Geographic field guide nor my phone-app. Guaranteed to be coded a ”5” when accepted by the ABA records committee, the Bat Falcon was being seen fairly regularly in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge near McAllen, Texas. It had developed a pattern of perching on a certain telephone pole on Highway 281 outside the Refuge at crepuscular hours.
My flight from Houston to McAllen arrived in time for me to wait and watch with 60 other birders on a foggy Thursday evening. Nothing. A similarly-sized group assembled ten hours later outside the Refuge entrance before Friday’s dawn. A fly-by American Kestrel elicited several gasps from the anxious crowd. The kestrel is a relative of and similar in appearance to our Batman-looking falcon. Three hours later we had yet to see it. At this point I decided to drive the 60 miles to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) and chase the code 5 Social Flycatcher; then return for another crack at the Bat Falcon.
The Social Flycatcher had been hanging around the UTRGV campus for a couple of weeks. Once I figured out that I had been searching for an hour from the wrong bridge on campus, I found several birders focused on branches overhanging the body of water. I heard the diagnostic ”squeaky toy” call and bam….there was the Social in my view.
After picking up the Social, I birded my way back along the Rio Grande Valley, returning to the Bat Falcon stake-out pole at 4:00pm. Patience is a virtue and birdwatching has helped me develop this weakness of mine. More than an hour passed and nothing except some birdy conversations with folks from Illinois, California and Corpus Christie had ensued. Then at 5:50pm a fellow far to my left hollered: ”That’s it! Flying towards the pole!!”. For the next twenty minutes the Bat Falcon posed on the telephone pole in fading light.
(Santa Ana NWR, Texas)
Full of adrenaline from the success of this last-minute appearance, the 6am flight to El Paso and subsequent two hour drive to pursue the elusive code 5 Blue Mockingbird in New Mexico was not an inconvenience. E-bird was providing hourly reports and the chances of seeing it Saturday afternoon were 50/50. Upon arriving at the much publicized Rattlesnake Campground spot at 12:45, I was surprised that only one other birder was scouting the vast area.
I patiently waited near the deer skull marking a creek-side Cutleaf Hackberry bush where the shy bird was seen at 7am. One hour, then two, then three hours passed. Several birders came and went. I ticked 18 species including a Hermit Thrush and Brown Thrasher in the distant tangles across the stream….both looked very much like our target at first glimpse. But no. At 5pm the sun had dropped below the tree-line and I was beginning to think about reserving a hotel in Carlsbad and return Sunday morning. My flight home was booked for Monday anyway.
The quiet was interrupted by a mockingbird’sh sound to my right. I stood up from my log seat and walked around the corner. Just maybe. Please. Three guys were viewing the interior of a nearby fruiting Hackberry tree. BLUE MOCKINGBIRD! It disappeared across the creek after 90 seconds.
(Carlsbad, New Mexico)
The impending snow storm allowed me to switch my flight to Sunday morning – without any charges:). My lucky weekend. I should be home in time to watch my favorite green-jerseyed birds.
The intrepid Steller’s Sea-Eagle is basically an endangered species native to Russia and Japan. It had NEVER been spotted in Canada or the Lower 48 states until this past summer. Startlingly, one was photographed in New Brunswick, Canada in July, 2021. Covid and location made it impossible for anyone but the game wardens to see it. This vagrant disappeared after a few days and a month later showed up near Halifax, Nova Scotia. After another brief visit, it wasn’t located again until early December …..in Taunton, Massachusetts. Again, a two-day stay and poof…..the “largest eagle in the world” (20 pounds with an eight foot wingspan) was gone. Not to be found again until 3:30pm on December 30….in Georgetown, Maine. National publications have been tracking this incredible individual’s travels.
Lucky for me, I was only 268 miles from Georgetown on Friday, December 31. But it was New Year’s eve. Family and friends were planning to gather at our Vermont home. Was there time to chase this MEGA-rarity, maintain relationships and show up at work on Monday? Yes! Provided one sleeps only three hours, has a VERY understanding spouse, flexible houseguests and a forgiving daughter and agreeable paddle tennis teammates who had already been “calendared” on January 1 & 2 for activities in Haverford, Pa.
Accompanied by my adventurous buddy (Joe Knowles), we left Vermont at 4am New Year’s day, arranged to collect my lifelong friend Jeff Dingle…..THE friend that introduced me to birding in 1968….in NH, and headed to Maine. By 9am we had not received any sighting reports so we drove to the spot our bird was last seen a day earlier. But where were the birders? We expected to see a crowd given that 250 people had posted on e-bird December 31st. Then Joe checked his phone for any possible listserv updates.
We drove the foggy and winding 2.9 miles (in what felt like an hour) to the Five Islands Lobster Company located at the end of a pier. As we approached the sea coast, dozens of cars lined the road. Our hearts raced as we knew the distant bird could disappear behind an island at any moment or become obscured by the accumulating fog. Thankfully the birding Gods delivered an impossibly wonderful New Year’s gift.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope your 2022 starts off as well as ours did.
Apologies for bombarding you with blogposts today but I promise….this is IT for awhile. Besides, I need to keep doing something to fight the red-eye jet lag:)
After the excitement of Mr. Middendorff, my mind immediately shifted to: #800 has to be special. Really special. But I cannot control things out there in Gambell….so relax. Yeah, right. I couldn’t sleep that night as I imagined the possibilities for #800. The Gray-tailed Tattler (code 3) was the most likely statistically but not what I envisioned. Lesser Sand-Plover? Maybe. Another possibility was returning home stuck at 799. Not a bad outcome. But I was there to rack up new birds and I didn’t want to go ”oh-for” the last four days.
The day after Mr. Middendorff’s appearance started like every other Gambell day. Coffee, two hours at the Sea-watch followed by a sweep of the Far & Circular bone-yards. The elusive Stonechat was on our minds as several of us climbed rocky slopes looking for that specialty. Nada. After lunch we kept to the routine of marching through the Near bone-yard when the call came. Far bone-yard, SIBERIAN ACCENTOR. What a cool name I thought. I only knew a little about this Code 4. A native of northern Siberia, it’s a small, shy, sparrow-like bird with beautiful streaked patterns on its head.
Aaron shuttled most of the participants via ATV while two of us power-walked the 3/4 mile at a very brisk pace. The entire group viewed this migrant up close. S-A-T-I-S-F-A-C-T-I-O-N.
SIBERIAN ACCENTOR (#800!)
SIBERIAN ACCENTOR in wormwood vegetation
GCW & Guide extraordinaire Aaron Lang
Truth be told, we found that Tattler two days later. #801. Now what?!
Gray-tailed Tattler (Troutman Lake, Gambell, Alaska)
This bird is sooo special that no matter the number for me, it deserves its own blog-post. I was standing in one of the boneyards, not far from our guide, when Aaron’s walkie-talkie crackled inaudibly. The leader from another group was trying to alert us to something unusual on Gambell’s Troutman Lake shore. Aaron asked for a repeated message and “Middendorff’s” came through clearly. His eyes widened and he beckoned our scattered group to hustle over. Admittedly, I was not familiar with this one. I thought Middendorff’s might be a sparrow.
Aaron had hitched a trailer to his ATV for moments like this. Walking was not an option as the bird was two miles away and not likely to hang around. We piled on and raced down the airport runway towards the distant assembled group. While riding his ATV along the shoreline, their leader had miraculously stumbled upon the very secretive, code 4, Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler! Endemic to Asia, these birds prefer to remain concealed in dense vegetation.
When we arrived, one of our gang politely asked if this stout vagrant could slip away through the grass bordering the shoreline without our noticing. Their other leader responded emphatically, ”NO! It’s as big as a (expletive) eagle”. An exaggeration of course, but he was right. And we photographers were astounded and pleased.
The tiny village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea hosts a number of super rare birds in the Fall that become disoriented while migrating from East Asia and Russia. Because it is a part of Alaska, Gambell has become a must destination for extreme birders who want to add to their ABA Area life-lists.
I had visited Nome and Gambell in May, 2013 and picked up 24 “lifers”. More importantly, I met Aaron Lang of Wilderness Birding Adventures. As I approach the magical number of 800, the most time-cost-efficient trip to close my gap (8 species) was a September trip. Aaron and Steve Heinl were the perfect guides for the nine of us. Talented birders and cooks with a great sense of humour, they made ten days in a crowded one-bathroom house quite pleasurable.
Why do birds bother to stay in Gambell? The fatigued travelers are attracted to the unique green wormwood vegetation and insects that exist around several “boneyards”. These pits contain discarded whale and walrus bones that have been excavated for their ivory. The ivory is carved and sold by entrepreneurial Yupik natives.
The problem is, many of the migrants are small, indistinct, and shy. Photography is key to identifying them. Thankfully, I was able to add three (3) members of the Phylloscopus family to my life-list, a page in the bird guides that I never paid much attention to because of the unlikely chance I would ever see and identify these ”LBJ’s” (“Little Brown Jobs”). My photos aren’t blog-worthy but were good enough for positive ID’s.
But I did flush and spot a different looking bird on the third day. The group surrounded the area I thought the bird landed. Aaron was on it. LITTLE BUNTING he yelled. A code 4 from Asia. And significant enough of a find to make the NARBA (North American Rare Bird Alert) airwaves that evening. I felt pretty good because I was in serious birding company and wanted to contribute something other than calling out a common Snow Bunting or an inaccurate identification.
Each morning we trudged a half mile through pea gravel to the end of the island and stood watch over the open water at dawn looking for seabirds. One morning it did NOT rain and we could see Russia 35 miles away. Remember Sarah Palin? Anyway, this group did not discuss politics….just birds. And I picked up Spectacled Eider and Kittlitz’s Murrelet. I had expected three lifers, hoped for five and now had six bringing my total to 798. And I still had half of the trip remaining.
The Himalayan Snowcock sightings in Nevada were certainly equivalent to winning a birding medal, possibly gold, if such a thing existed. As you know, at this point, it is really really hard for me to add a new species to my American Birding Association (ABA) lifelist. What are the odds that I could add a new species to my total the same day as the Himalayan Snowcock adventure?
Well….. the ABA recently decided that the Red Crossbill population in southern Idaho’s Cassia County is actually its own species and added it to the ABA checklist. This thick-billed population is relatively sedentary (non-migratory) and thrives because of the absence of the red squirrel, a competitor for its primary food source – lodgepole pine cones. WildSide Nature tours conveniently arranges a weekend where a skilled guide helps one attempt to see both of these rarities. Since we were able to add the Snowcock so quickly we had time to drive from Nevada’s Ruby Mountains to a campground in the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho’s south hills and search for the Cassia.
A couple of very cooperative Cassia Crossbills were feeding high up in the campground’s lodgepole pines…..just like the field guides state. Notice their large, hooked, crisscrossed bills that enable them to efficiently crack the large cones and eat the nutritious seeds. Full disclosure, my photographs were somewhat unimpressive. However, my new birding friend (Kisa) gave me permission to publish hers. Same bird but her camera.
There are a couple of American women Olympic gymnasts who fared better than expected partly due to a change in another participant’s situation. I feel a little tiny bit like one of them may feel. Elated to add (and publish photos of) a life bird but also aware that some good timing and luck played into the final result. A reach comparison perhaps but heck, it’s my blog and I want you to know I’m not completely oblivious to the news headlines:). #793!
I believe the most difficult bird to locate in the United States is the Himalayan Snowcock. Native to Pakistan, it was introduced to the Ruby Mountains in 1963 by the Nevada Game Commission to promote hunting and tourism. They are now considered “wild” as an established population of less than 1,000 of these pheasant-sized birds exist above tree-line at elevations greater than 11,000 feet.
The only way to see one is to helicopter through this rugged area (some of you may recall the harrowing scene in the “Big Year” movie) OR hike to a location where a spotting scope is needed to scan the distant ridges.
A 3am departure from our hotel followed by a 45 minute drive and 90 minute ascent from 7,000 to 9,000 feet put us at the only spot in America where one has a chance to view this creature. They tend to be most active at dawn as they descend from the remote ridges to lower level meadows to feed on plants and insects.
Within minutes of arriving at “the spot”, a leader from another bird group exclaimed there were three Snowcocks at the tippy top of the ridge. Too distant for binocular viewing, thankfully everyone managed good looks through scopes as the camouflaged birds scurried in and out of view amongst crevices of the craggy rock face wall.
A Georgia Audubon fellow (Thank You Adam!) did capture a ten second video of one. Look closely!
Incredibly satisfied, our WildSide tour group posed below for a team shot at 6:30am. #792!