Almost TOO good to be true! (COMMON CRANE)

So what does one do when they find their target bird in Des Moines, Iowa with time to spare? Drive six hours west to Kearney, Nebraska….the Sandhill Crane capital – one of the oldest and largest migrations in the world. More than 600,000 of these majestic birds, 80% of the world’s crane population, congregate along an 80 mile stretch of the Platte River in March, to fatten up on waste grain in the empty cornfields in preparation for the journey to their Arctic breeding grounds. What are the chances I was going to find the ONE Common Crane (code 4), a Eurasian species, which was reported here two days ago?

The below video taken this morning gives you an idea of the masses of Sandhills frequenting the area, as well as the minuscule chances I had of locating the wayward Common Crane. My message at the end of the video is for my granddaughter, nicknamed “Schmooookie”:)

1000’s of SANDHILL CRANES

But with the assistance of my new birding friend Dave Cunningham whom I met earlier today, my chances were greatly improved. Dave was connected to a couple of hot-shot Nebraskan birders (Doug and Bonnie). Despite the odds, Doug was able to locate the bird in a farmer’s field this afternoon amongst thousands of similarly-sized Sandhills. Doug alerted Dave who called me.

Upon arriving at THE spot, the others let me have scope views. I could identify the bird, barely. But what about a photo for this blog? My digiscoping skills are marginal. Non-existent actually. I have been in this position before. I suggested that they keep an eye on the bird while I try to meet the landowner and garner permission to walk in his fields for a better view and photograph.

Wyatt turned out to be a lovely fellow. I called Dave and five minutes later the gang descended on Wyatt’s property. Wyatt’s eight year old son Lucas led the way on his ATV to a much closer viewing spot.

The black face and neck are the Common Crane’s distinguishing field marks. Lifer #790! THANK YOU to my new Nebraskan birding buddies. I think I’ll have a beer.

Posted in Quest for 700 (*800!) | 26 Comments

SMITH’S LONGSPUR (ELKHART, IOWA)

Fully vaccinated….THANK YOU PFIZER and TEMPLE UNIVERSITY, I boarded an airplane yesterday for the first time in 13 months. Destination: Des Moines, Iowa. For the past few weeks I had been tracking Smith’s Longspur (code 2) sightings in the Midwest. I have always known it would take a special trip to our country’s heartland in the winter to have a decent chance of seeing this secretive “LBJ” (Little Brown Job).

But it was after participating in a friend’s podcast, see TC Scornavacchi’s “tcafterdarkpodcast.com”, that I realized NOW was the time to chase this sparrow-like bird whose camouflaged coloring blends in perfectly with Iowa’s open prairie grassy areas. It prefers “three-awn grasses”, Aristide purpurea, which are disappearing rapidly due to development. Because it breeds in the Arctic tundra, my greatest chance to see one was as it prepares to migrate.

Originally I had thought Oklahoma was my best bet. Then the Little Rock, Arkansas airport. But after many consultations with EBird and correspondences with local ornithologists, Iowan Aaron Brees convinced me that a trip to the Chichiqua Bottoms-Swan Lake in Elkhart, Iowa was very possibly going to yield me ABA Area lifer #789.

After arriving at the exact location, I walked the area and within minutes I heard the longspur’s diagnostic ticking rattle. These elusive 6” ground-dwelling birds give that call right before alighting and quickly disappearing into the sky – pretty much before one can put a binocular on them. I paced back and forth over the several acre area, occasionally disturbing and hearing a Smith’s. But as many of you know, I don’t count “heard-only” birds. I want to see it and photograph it.

Finally, after 2.5 hours of slogging through mud and manure, I detected a movement on the ground within range of my camera. YES! Not only did I finally have a long enough look through my bins to confirm this was a Smith’s, as opposed to its much more common relative the Lapland Longspur, I was able to capture a couple of images.

Posted in Quest for 700 (*800!) | 19 Comments

Oooops. TRY:


HTTPS://winghavengardens.org/events-calendar/lectureseries/lifetime-pursuit-of-american-birds

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WING HAVEN Bird Talk (March 16th @ 10am)

The next best thing to chasing birds is talking about chasing birds. Please consider signing up for my zoom webinar “Lifetime Pursuit of 800 American Birds” on Tuesday March 16th @ 10am, sponsored by and benefitting the Wing Haven Gardens in Charlotte, NC.

HTTPS://wing haven gardens.org/events-calendar/lectureseries/lifetime-pursuit-of-american-birds

Yes, there is a slight charge that helps this wonderful organization. No, I do not receive a dime:)

I hope to learn that you registered for this presentation. And I look forward to answering any and all questions! THANK YOU for your consideration.

Posted in Quest for 700 (*800!) | 5 Comments

HAPPY 2021!

There is one thing as satisfying as chasing (and seeing!) a new bird …..aka “lifer”….and that is witnessing the joy in other birders as they add new birds to their life-lists. This Holiday week, Family in Vermont plus Covid, combined to produce a wonderful “socially-distanced” activity = BIRDING! Brother-in-law Joe was already an avid birder and now his son Carson was beginning his life-list. On top of that, future son-in-law Hunter couldn’t resist participating in the action.

I have spent countless evenings walking the Wilderness Community up here with limited success in hearing the resident BARRED OWL. When Joe & Carson spotted one sitting in the apple tree outside of the Weisbord house at lunchtime, the text exchanges heated up and ultimately created plenty of excitement for everyone.

Photo by Carson Weisbord

Now that several Family members were eagerly talking about birding and posting each sighting on E-bird, I felt compelled to try to find them another special treat of Vermont’s harsh winter climate. But what bird? A quick search of recent sightings in Rutland County showed that EVENING GROSBEAKS were being reported on a consistent basis only 12 miles away in Shrewsbury. These gorgeous birds are hefty members of the finch family that breed in Canada. Their appearance in the Northeast in winter is highly variable.

The four of us took off the next morning with the posted coordinates as our destination. Unfortunately, Waze led us up a dead-end road adjacent to private property. These coordinates were several miles from the written description “Vicky” had provided on her E-bird posts. So we tried the “intersection of Town Hill and Lincoln Hill Roads”. Nothing. Not even a crow. We headed home a bit disappointed but determined to try again that afternoon.

Fueled by anticipation mixed in with innate competitiveness, we returned to the promising intersection of the aforementioned roads. Two Eastern Bluebirds caught our attention when we were politely interrupted. “Are you guys birders”? asked the driver of the only car we’d encountered in 20 minutes. I lowered my binoculars and asked: “Are you Vicky”?. “Why yes”, she replied and after a quick exchange of pleasantries we learned that the birds she had been posting on E-bird were actually seen in her backyard….a half mile from the intersection. She kindly allowed us to stand in the cover of trees and watch her feeders as the sun set. No grosbeaks but several other new birds for Carson and Hunter elevated everyone’s spirits.

Of course, we invited ourselves back to Vicky’s home the next morning and she enthusiastically obliged. Despite harsh winds and intermittent snow, more than ten different species gorged themselves at her feeders. Seconds turned into minutes and after half an hour I was beginning to worry that we would miss our target bird. Then Hunter calmly asked, “What is that on the table”? GROSBEAK! One, then three, ten, twenty! The bright yellow, black and white males lit up the feeding area.

Photo courtesy of Vicky Arthur

2020 was a tough year in many ways but this was a great way to close it. On to 2021!

Posted in Quest for 700 (*800!) | 32 Comments

A FIRST for PENNSYLVANIA!

The Tundra Bean-Goose breeds in the tundra of northern Eurasia. It winters in agricultural landscapes in eastern China, Central Asia and Western Europe. The only reason it is a “code 3” and not a “code 5” in North America is because one can get lucky seeing it in….ALASKA!

This morning I was walking our puppy (“Lucky”) on an extra long route before the impending snowstorm. I glanced at my phone for the time, thinking I was cutting it close for a scheduled zoom call. A text interrupted me….oh good, my call had shifted to 12:30. Just then another text came in from NARBA (North American Rare Bird Alert). It was reporting a Tundra Bean-Goose being seen on the Springton Reservoir in Media, twenty minutes from my house! No way!! I re-read it. It was true.

I immediately called my (retired) birding buddy Win Shafer, half-expecting he had reported the bird. Well, Win was out scouting birds for Saturday’s Christmas Bird Count, and he happened to be at Episcopal Academy on Route 252 near Springton Reservoir. But he hadn’t seen the alert for this mega-rarity, never-ever-been-seen-in-Pennsylvania goose!

Within fifteen minutes I was packing my car with scope, binoculars, camera AND “Lucky” the puppy, when my cell rang. Win was on the bird! “Go to Springton Middle School”. I was off. The 11 mile drive felt like forever. I imagined every car on the road had plans to see the goose. Why was everyone turning where I was turning? Hurry up. Hurry the **** up people!

I turned into the School driveway and was quickly sandwiched between school busses and the entire Springton Middle School parent population in line for early (say snow-day) pick-up. Ugh….I called Win. No answer. Expletive. I drove down a one-way drive, maybe it wasn’t a road actually….I had to get out of there and find Colt Road, the road originally mentioned in the text alert.

I literally drove past Win and then recognized Jeff Gordon – the President of the American Birding Association (headquartered in nearby Delaware). “Have you seen it”? Win yelled. “NO”, I responded frantically. “It’s behind that house” and he gestured across the street. Among the larger Canada Geese stood our bird. Its orange legs jumped out at me.

Absolutely incredible. And I was on my 12:30 work call without a problem.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Posted in Quest for 700 (*800!) | 33 Comments

COVID COMMON CUCKOO!

The COVID lockdown enabled me to concentrate on birding my yard and local areas most of 2020 and I hadn’t chased a rarity since January. The appearance of a Eurasian Common Cuckoo in Rhode Island on November 1st more than caught my attention. Normally this species spends the late fall and winter in sub-Saharan Africa. Clearly this fellow was lost! Only the third time ever seen in the Lower 48 (why it’s a code 3 and not a code 5 perplexes me), the USA birding community mobilized.

I was not able to find 12 hours to drive to “Snake Den Farm” in Johnston, Rhode Island until Sunday November 8th. In order to comply with RI law, I took my COVID test within 72 hours of visiting….and proved negative.

Thankfully the weather has been unusually pleasant and this confused juvenile is content eating the vast supply of woolly caterpillars at the farm. I took my chances and left 19041 at 3am today. Four hours later the appearance of TWO Bald Eagles, our National symbol, eating roadkill on I395 in Norwich, CT, was a harbinger for a successful morning.

I pulled into the parking area adjacent to the farm at 7:30am and was surprised to see more than 20 cars with many different license plates already occupying most of the limited area. I quickly gathered my optics and walked briskly towards the assembled crowd a couple hundred yards away. A friendly couple approached and greeted me with a “Your timing is good”. I replied, “It better be, I just drove up from Philly”. They smiled and said: “That’s nice, we drove 14 hours from Columbia, SC”. This Cuckoo was an attention grabber!

“Snake Den Farm” (Cuckoo in the upper right of bush on left)

Within minutes I had the stout vagrant in my view. I had planned to meet my brother (Wistar) at 7:30 but I didn’t see him. He lives only an hour away so I was about to text him when he texted me: “Where are you? I’m here”. I looked at the two guys to my right and one was him! I had walked past him in my excitement to see this mega-rarity. Blame the masks.

2020 has been a COVID nightmare and it also cost me a species on my life-list. The birding powers decided to lump the Northwestern Crow back in with the Common Crow. So the addition of the Common Cuckoo brought my ABA area (USA & Canada) life-list back to 785. But who’s counting? I AM!!

Posted in Quest for 700 (*800!) | 29 Comments

White-cheeked Pintail (#785)

The White-cheeked Pintail is a Caribbean lake-dwelling duck that every once in awhile makes an appearance in Southern Florida. The Lely Resort in Naples has been the home of this presumed wild (this species is also a popular pet) vagrant for a couple of weeks. Luckily for me, our MLK weekend plans placed me close enough to chase this beauty.

But this particular bird was reported to spend most of its diurnal hours asleep on an isolated shore of the resort’s golf course, hiding its diagnostic facial markings by tucking its head into its body. Finding the bird was one challenge but obtaining an identifying photograph (no, I didn’t have my telephoto lens) was unlikely. And the alligators….

Thankfully, a friendly fellow with a tripod and scope was visible the moment I turned off I-41 and entered Lely Resort. He tipped me off to the bird’s location before I could state my name and impress him that I actually lived in Philly. Spotting the camouflaged specialty on the shore wasn’t a problem because four other bird enthusiasts were already present viewing the distant Pintail. It was on the rocks in front of the snack bar/rest room, a small building perched on a hill between the 9th green and 10th tee. But positively identifying THIS seemingly headless mass of brown feathers was impossible. I needed a closer look.

I waited until the others departed and made my way around the meandering shoreline and approached the snack bar area from behind. My plan was to sneak up on the bird from the side slope of the hill and hopefully snap a photo once it reared its head. I was fully aware that I was flirting with violating the birders’ code of ethics. I looked back to make sure nobody saw me but darn….three more birders had taken a position on the far shore and surely had me in their scopes along with the as-of-yet undisturbed duck.

I returned to the far shore and greeted the three scopers with an overly enthusiastic: “I had to use the restroom. There was a maintenance man between the bird and me. I wasn’t as close as you probably thought. Truncated view, you know”, before they could chastise me. I don’t think they bought it.

Anyway, without exchanging pleasantries, they finally left. I repeated my meander. Nobody in sight. No guilt. Lifer #785…..provided the authorities deem this a wild bird.

Two Mottled ducks and eight (8) Killdeer frame the target bird

Posted in Quest for 700 (*800!) | 18 Comments

Pacific Petrels

Star Princess

In mid-May I endured a three-day cruise from LA to Vancouver aboard the Star Princess. 2,000 folks reveled in the round-the-clock gambling, drinking and other entertainment on this 950 foot long, ten story high monster while I joined 50 bird-crazed people outside on the bow of the ship from 6am to dark, exposed to the cool Pacific Ocean climate. Why? Because this is the best way to catch a glimpse of elusive Pacific pelagic avians (seabirds).

More specifically, the target birds were petrels. Petrels are small, tube-nosed, ocean-going birds which return to land (generally remote islands) only to breed. They appear to “walk on water”, a la Saint Peter, as they hover and flutter over the ocean’s surface. Our leader was one of the world’s premier ornithologists….Paul Lehman. His knowledge is astounding but even more impressive is his endurance. For 2.5 days he NEVER left his feet or took his eyes off the horizon. We stared for hours across the blue-gray sky-sea and except for a few Humpback Whale spouts, the only signs of life were intermittent appearances of common petrels, shearwaters and an occasional puffin. Admittedly, I took a couple twenty minute respites each day to relieve my legs and back….and yes, some boredom. But Paul had his meals brought to him and without his skill, we never would have had the ten second look on our second day at the rare Hawaiian Petrel.

Hawaiian Petrel

The Cook’s Petrel was a target species but unfortunately we were enveloped by fog for the few hours that we crossed its territory and thus we “dipped” on that bird. Murphy’s Petrel was the expected “lifer” for me but it wasn’t until the end of our second day that one thankfully crossed our bow. Lucky for me, if I had rested ten more minutes I would have missed it!

Murphy’s Petrel

Full confession: Neither petrel photograph are mine. But these are the actual birds we saw, albeit briefly. This trip was a rite of passage if you’re going to call yourself a serious birder…..a marathon-type experience that I am unlikely to repeat. No regrets: Two lifers and 784 ABA area species.

Posted in Quest for 700 (*800!) | 14 Comments

Armchair Birding

While the theme of this blog has been chasing “rarities”, I don’t want to leave the impression that only code 4 and 5 birds matter. ALL birds matter, because they are an ecological litmus paper. Remember the canary in the coal-mine? I really do enjoy all species, except maybe invasive European Starlings and nasty brown-headed cowbirds…they don’t even deserve capital letter punctuation.

April produced a nice variety of bird species at my own backyard feeders in Haverford, Pa. So, it occurred to me that anyone reading this may be more motivated to take their own birding interest to the next level, if they knew that they could see pretty cool birds without getting up from a chair. So that’s what is depicted below. A selection of somewhat fuzzy photos (blame the glass) of several species taken from my morning-coffee-chair.

Indigo Bunting

The irridescent blue Indigo Bunting is a stunner that I had not seen at a feeder since 1968 with Jeff Dingle at his grandfather’s home in Coconut Grove, Florida! Seen in mid-April, its presence was a harbinger of true spring and migration.

Hairy Woodpecker

The Hairy Woodpecker is a bigger version of the much more common Downy Woodpecker. It represents the 6th woodpecker species seen in my yard in April.

Carolina Wren

The Carolina Wren’s white eye-stripe distinguishes it from the similar House Wren. If you live in the east, you have likely been awakened before dawn by its LOUD “teakettle-teakettle-teakettle” song.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I believe everyone knows a hummingbird when they see one. And 99% of the ones we will see in the east are the Ruby-throated. This little guy was my FOY (first of year) that appeared April 22nd.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks with Northern Cardinal

Full confession, my desire to share the appearance of TWO male ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAKS accented by a male Northern Cardinal, is what really motivated me to post this blog. They are absolutely incredible looking and these two mark only the second time I have had them at my feeders.

Currently I am winging to LA where I will join a dedicated group of birders this weekend on a pelagic adventure to see unusual off-shore birds…..and hopefully a Blue Whale. The chances of decent photographs of my target species (three types of petrel and the world’s largest mammal) are very slim. But I do hope to have an entertaining story to share!

Posted in Quest for 700 (*800!) | 6 Comments