#792….HIMALAYAN SNOWCOCK (Nevada)

HIMALAYAN SNOWCOCK IN NEVADA!

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!

Posted in Quest for 700 (*800!) | 16 Comments

KEY WEST CODE 5!

An ABA Area first-ever (Cuban sub-species) code 5 Red-Legged Thrush had been sporadically seen in the Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden in Key West, Florida since October, 2020. Because of Covid, I really had not thought about traveling to try to see this bird. Besides, it wasn’t going to stick around this densely forested 15 acre preserve for very long anyway. Wrong! I was surprised to discover on EBird that this strikingly beautiful thrush was still present as late as March 26th.

Thanks to Southwest Airlines, I was able to leave 40F Omaha and the land of the cranes in the morning and search for the thrush in 85F that same evening. No luck though. The fact it barely vocalizes makes it very difficult to locate this member of the Turdidae Family. It’s a relative of our American Robin.

Six hours in the Tropical Forest the following day, accompanied by birders from California, New Hampshire and Ohio yielded some interesting iguana and migrant warbler sightings but no thrush for us.

Earlier that day, Cornell’s Chris Wood…..as in the creator of EBird….had briefly seen and photographed our bird so we knew it was still present. Oh well, at least I was able to have dinner with my Miami-based daughter, Sarah.

A quick change in travel plans allowed me to spend an extra day looking for this 11”, secretive native of the Caribbean. Miami isn’t exactly next door to Key West but adrenaline from Chris’s EBird post fueled me. One of the California guys, a fellow with the third largest life-list in America, saw the fruit-eater associating with catbirds for a split second near the Butterfly Garden. Then it was gone. Three more hours elapsed and my new birding acquaintances all departed for various reasons.

It was after noon and I wondered how I was going to locate this silent bird on my own before the 4pm closing time. I decided to stay around the Butterfly Garden. A pair of cardinals caught my eye and as I raised my binoculars to check for a nest, I saw a dark shape move high in the tree behind them. I moved my eyepiece to the dark shape and a white throat jumped out at me. Unmistakeable it was the RED-LEGGED THRUSH!

I was able to make it back to Miami in time to have another dinner with Sarah. This has been an incredibly satisfying fun-filled Spring break. And it’s only Wednesday!

Posted in Quest for 700 (*800!) | 23 Comments

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