Wednesday, January 26, 2011

One man's trash (bird) is another man's treasure

Ah, the joys of the traveling birder.

       Here I sit surrounded by suburban sprawl and 12 lane freeways and enjoying some great birding. Being primarily an East Coast birder, I'm visiting family in Pasadena right now and rediscovering western birds. Bushtits and Anna's Hummingbirds flit above heavy traffic and between high-rise apartments. Acorn Woodpeckers store acorns in the palms planted along the street. Exotic parrots screech their way through the neighborhood on their daily commutes. California Thrashers and Golden-crowned Sparrows inhabit the city parks. All treasured birds, rarely (if ever) seen back east, and I see them just walking around the block. And best of all, I can enjoy it all in the comfort of shorts and sandals.

       In a weeks time an even greater treat awaits, for I'll be in Hawaii, soaking up the tropical sun and studying native songbirds in the mountains. This is how winter is meant to be spent.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My biggest year yet!

So, despite having loads of free time and no job for the last month and a half, I've been lazy in regards to updating the blog, so here goes a belated account of my personal best big year of 2010.

A California Condor surveying the land, one of my favorite species of 2010

Up close and personal with a Golden Eagle

          According to Ebird I entered 331 checklists and recorded 477 species, blowing away my previous record of 405 species (2009). The amazing part is that I got paid to see a good number of those species! I worked field jobs in California, Tennessee and New Jersey, with a 3 week long excursion through the southwest providing close to 50 life birds and innumerable memories.

          The year started out strong in January with daily excursions on two wildlife refuges in Southern California while tracking endangered California Condors. The Condors were my overall favorite, spectacular to watch as they fed, played and picked out nesting sites, but numerous other birds captured my interest. Highlights were Loggerheaded Shrikes, Sage Sparrows, Le Contes Thrashers, Ferruginous Hawks and my lifer California Thrasher.

Record shot of my lifer 1st cycle Glaucous Gull
           March and April saw continued forays throughout southern California, up to Monterrey Bay, down to the Salton Sea and out to Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park. Life birds continued to pour in, with Lawrence's Goldfinch, Glaucous Gull, Hutton's Vireo and Mountain Quail being some of the most worked for. Mountain Plover, Yellow-billed Magpie, Zone-tailed Hawk, Elegant Tern, Burrowing Owl, Long-eared Owl and Herrman's Gull, to name a few, were also highlights. I did dip on a few sought after species, especially after high winds cancelled my trip out to the Channel Islands in search of seabirds and the highly local Island Scrub Jay, but that just gives me a reason to come back.

It wasn't all about birds..
          April saw the end of my stint tracking Condors and the start of my most incredible bird-related month ever lived. In 30 days I traveled over 5,000 miles and saw nearly 350 species of birds from California to Tennessee. The first leg of the trip, through the California desert, produced Costa's Hummingbird, Cactus Wren, Scott's Oriole, Phainopepla, and breathtaking views of the desert in bloom after months of El Nino rains. The Salton Sea did not disappoint, with tens of thousands of waterfowl, causing me to wonder out loud if it was indeed possible to walk across the water on the back of all the ducks.
A nest full of Cactus Wrens

Elgant Trogon
Same bird, this time showing off its coppery tail
          Arizona brought me my first encounter with Harris Hawks, Gray Hawks and Zone-tailed Hawks, breath-taking views every time. Flycatchers and sparrows abounded in the desert, winging their way to northern breeding grounds, and then it was time for the meat of the the trip: The sky islands of Southeastern Arizona. My first few hours in Madera Canyon left my exclaiming with joy every time I turned around. Mexican Jay! Bridled Titmouse! Yellow-eyed Junco! Painted Redstart! Birds I had previously only dreamed about flitted through the trees mere feet away. And then in breathless wonder, I spotted it. The Magnificent hummingbird, the largest hummingbird I've ever seen (there are larger, but not in the US). Lucy's Warbler, Olive Warbler, Buff-bellied Flycatcher, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Whiskered Screech Owl, Montezuma Quail, Blue-throated and Violet-crowned Hummingbird continued to delight me as I visited more and more treasured birding locations, but the crown jewel of the trip was the Elegant Trogon. Something like a cross between a parrot and a cuckoo, this pigeon sized green and red and copper bird perched inconspicuously in a low tree held me captivated for nearly an hour.

A Violet-crowned Hummingbird sharing the feeder with a Broad-billed Hummingbird at the Legendary Paton's Yard in Arizona
A Gray Hawk nonchalantly perched on the side of the road. 

Oh to live somewhere where Mexican Jays are feeder birds!
The Chisos Mountains, hogging all the rain.
Lucifer's Hummingbird.
           Reluctantly leaving Arizona behind and promising to return in search of the ones that got away, I forged in West Texas and Big Bend National Park. Picking up Lucifer's Hummingbird at a friendly locals feeders Common Black Hawk at a nest on the bank of the mighty (ha!) Rio Grande, I prepared for the longest hike of my life; a 13 mile round trip hike into the haunt of the Colima's Warbler. The Chisos Mountains are the only place in the United States I could find this large, drab warbler, and it's not a sure bet I'd see one. After a brief glimpse a few miles in, I was finally rewarded at the apex of the trail close to 7,000 feet above sea level with a solid sighting of a singing male directly over my head. It was as if I had entered a whole new
world: Gone was the heat, the sun and the bareness of the desert. This was a land of fog and cloud, rain and mist, moss and flowers. Streams gurgled, rocks towers teetered and the fog was alive with birdsong; Mexican Jays, Painted Redstarts, gnatcatchers and hummingbirds and juncos followed everywhere I went, as if in curiosity of this two legged creature so foolishly intruding upon their domain.
(Mountain) lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

           South Texas was exhilarating and scary and wonderful all at once. Border violence compelled me to skip some spots, but I still managed Muscovy Duck, Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, Altimira Oriole, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, and Fulvous Whistling-Duck among others. A Clay-colored Thrush building a nest was a special treat, as was 10,000 Broad-winged Hawks streaming north out of Mexico. Continuing up the coast, I picked up White-tailed Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, and a plethora of shorebirds and songbirds. High Island was my last stop on the trip and it yielded warblers dripping out of the the trees and a chaotic heron rookery with spoonbills and Wood Storks and Great Egrets all arguing for space and doing their best to avoid the alligators cruising the water beneath their nests.
One of my favorite birds of prey, the ever proud Crested Caracara.

A baby gator tried to block my path, but was quickly bypassed.

The Goose Island Oak, the largest tree in Texas!

A female Cerulean Warbler defending her fledgling.
           May and June found me chasing Cerulean Warblers in the mountains of Tennessee, working on a long term study for a grad student at the University of Tennessee. Bay-breasted, Canada, Blackpoll and Magnolia Warblers passed through and Kentucky, Chestnut-sided, Golden-winged, Black and White and Hooded remained to breed. July and August were largely spent indoors fleeing the sun and heat, but a quick trip to the Adirondacks in upstate NY picked up Gray Jay and Common Loon, but no Spruce Grouse or Black-backed Woodpecker (maybe next year).

A busy day of hawk watching.
           New Jersey was my next port of call, working at the Montclair Hawk Watch recording migrating raptors. In addition to all the expected raptors, I was lucky enough to spot a few Golden Eagles, Northern Goshawks and a single Rough-legged Hawk. And you can't spend that much time outside during peak migration without seeing other songbirds, so Philadelphia Vireo, Rusty Blackbird, Bobolink, Pine Siskin and Fox Sparrow rounded out the list nicely. A few trips down to Cape May provided a few more lifers, including Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper and King Eider, and a twitch out to Connecticut landed me a coveted Fork-tailed Flycatcher.
Fork-tailed Flycatcher, about 3500 miles from home.

          Alas, December rolled in and that was the end of serious birding as snow and bitter cold blanketed NY. It was a year that defied all my expectations, and I can only hope all my birding adventures are half as successful as this year was. I don't know that I'll try to break my record again this year, but someday I'll finally break 500 in a year.
The close of 2010 was spent at home, getting reacquainted with my feeder birds.