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!
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!
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”:)
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.
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.
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.
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!