Friday, June 29, 2012

Fire and Ice

I flew over Colorado Monday, June 25th, and could see scattered patches of snow still on the ridges of the Rockies through the smoke. The sky as far as I could see looked like someone had brushed it with dirty water colors. A layer of smoke was in the stratosphere all the way to Missouri. The news this Friday is that the fires have eased somewhat. A tragedy.

Meanwhile, John was in the Dakotas seeing Chestnut-Collared Longspur and Dickcissal, Lark Bunting and Vesper Sparrow. Then he drove down through eastern Colorado mostly seeing pronghorns and burrowing owls. Wednesday night he stayed in Grants, New Mexico. A few years ago, we discovered a closed campground just north and east of Grants that had a wonderful variety of mountain birds. This year it was open but not as many birds to see, so Thursday morning, John drove up higher to a fire lookout and saw Red Crossbills, Clark's Nutcracker and got his first good picture of a Harris's Hawk.

Thursday afternoon, John went into Aravaipa Canyon. One of the joys for him in his big year, has been visiting wonderful natural areas. A plethora of peccaries crossed the road, including really young ones.
The saguaros were covered with fruit and birds, Lucy's Warblers, Hooded Orioles, Phainopeplas, Gilded Flickers, Gila and Ladder-Backed Woodpeckers. Purple Martins were nesting in some of the woodpecker holes. The reported Black Hawk would have been a life bird for John, if he had seen it. Drat! Of course, as we were driving on I 10 a few years ago, two immatures cartwheeled by the car and I saw them but John didn't.

John estimates that his big year total is around 550, not many new birds in all his wanderings. Today, June 29th, he goes into California Gulch with Melody Kehl.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Awash in nature

Yesterday, June 24th, John left Duluth for our old stomping grounds, Sax-Zim. He took the long gravel roads into the area. Didn't see, maybe, or hear, maybe, anything new, then it started to rain so he closed up shop. Paved roads seemed to make more sense to return to Duluth. Every paved road he went on either was closed due to flooding or closed due to 'water on the road'. The water wasn't very deep so he chanced it a few times, took some questionable detours and managed to get to Floodwood, aptly named. There were some MDOT repair crews there who assured him he could drive past one more barrier, carefully, and get back on a major road to Duluth.

Today, John went back on the gravel roads into Sax-Zim and stopped to do some recording. In his earphones he heard, galumph, galumph, galumph, turned around and saw a black bear running away down the road. The footprint dwarfed a quarter set for scale. John had been recording the winnowing of snipe and interesting bird songs, bonus bear galumph. Now, besides pictures to process, he will have hours of recordings to puzzle through.

John managed to head west without major road outages and stopped by my sister's place near Ponsford Minnesota. At the wilderness headquarters nearby, he saw a female Hooded Merganser with chicks, a male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird and an Upland Plover. It is nice to see birds on their breeding grounds even if you saw them in migration. At least the HOME was new.

Will he see any target birds in the Dakotas? Will the Colorado fires abate? And just what is John's year-to-date species total?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

tick, tick, tickity tick

John spent the last two days in Wisconsin. Thursday night, June 21st, he counted 9 ticks. Friday night, June 22nd, he had counted 24 by the time I had called him. He always tucks his pants into his socks so he hasn't gotten bitten....yet. Many others are probably crawling around inside the rental car. EWWW! Here I sit, tickless, in Southern California, while John struggles to find birds on his own.

Thursday, notable were pics of Chestnut-Sided Warbler and Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. He definitely heard a Connecticut Warbler too. He also discovered that when he uses my IPhone to review bird songs and returns it to his pocket, sometimes the program spontaneously plays a fragment of a song, fooling him into thinking he has heard the bird. But he can tell. The song is too perfect, not repeated, and not complete. Brief, false hope.

The other tool John uses a lot is Birdseye. The phone app mines EBird and maps the sightings of a target bird near to John's location. Doesn't mean he will see it, but gets him closer. Thanks, everyone who contributes to EBird.

Friday, he saw about 24 Trumpeter Swans, another conservation success story. He is staying overnight in Duluth, then, Saturday, he will head to Sax-Zim, where we attended a festival in February.

On his own, John has spent two days in Wisconsin, and will spend two days each in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Colorado. He will join Melody Kehl in Arizona for a trip into California Gulch June 29th, spend a few more days there and head home to Southern California. We will have been apart two months.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


John called from the Grayling Ramada in Michigan. There wasn't a reservation for him. Turns out I made it for May not June. Wasn't the first mistake I have made like that. Once, we showed up in Yellowstone and my reservation was for the next year! Maybe he will fire me as travel agent! I can only hope.

The hotel did have a vacancy. John did get to go out with the ranger June 18th. They did see and hear Kirtland's Warblers. KIWA is a conservation success story. There were about 2000 singing males counted last year. KIWA territories have expanded into Wisconsin and Ontario. They are picky birds. Large areas of forest have to be clear cut and replanted with pine. The birds will move in when the trees are about 5 feet tall and move out when the trees reach 20 feet tall. John realized that the ranger chose a tract of short trees to visit so that the warblers would be easier to see. Still, the birds mostly moved around inside the trees, rarely singing out in clear view. When the thunder and lightning kicked in, the birders quit.

John continues to find cool places to bird. Later that same day, he visited Otis Bird Sanctuary. It has a cabin on site for rent with a canoe-able stream running by. Maybe, after this year is over, we can revisit some of the cooler birding places he has found, TOGETHER.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

New England Friendly Encounters

When we visited Machias Seal Island 40 years ago, we camped near Cutler, Maine. I remembered the bay that totally emptied of water at every low tide. John remembered the fireflies. He had never seen them before. Across from the campground there is now a wildlife refuge. The bird list had at least 12 birds John needed that were supposedly easy see there. He heard an Alder Flycatcher. If I hadn't gotten earphones and recording equipment for him, he wouldn't have gotten that.

Off to New Hampshire, for the Bicknell's Thrush. By the time John got to the road up Mt Washington Friday afternoon, June 15th, it was closed in preparation for a race Saturday morning. He would not have access until Saturday afternoon.  Saturday evening he had to return to Portland, Maine. Another pothole in the road to his big year.

Then the birding gods smiled down on John. He met Jim and Margaret Vernon on Cap's Ridge Trail to Mt Jefferson. They helped him get the Mourning Warbler, Winter Wren, Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher and the BICKNELL'S THRUSH. Thank you so much, Jim and Margaret.

Now John had time to drive back to Maine and Scarborough Marsh Saturday. He stopped at the visitor cente, and, manning the desk, was Doug Hitchcox, who was with John on Attu. Doug would be free after 4:30 to help John with those little brown jobbies he had missed on his previous visit to the marsh. They found both the Nelson's and the Salt Marsh Sparrows! Thank you so much, Doug.

John has a lot more success when he gets help from fellow birders. Birding is a team sport. His big year total will be due to many such friendly encounters.

Machias Seal Island 40 years later

In 1972, John and I decided to go to the total solar eclipse on the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada. (We were clouded out!) We flew into Boston and rented a car. We were already pretty intense birders, visiting SE Arizona twice. While there, we kept running into the same small groups of birders. There weren't as many of us back then.

John had heard about Machias Seal Island so we decided to visit it while we were in the area. We got to Cutler, Maine, found the captain's house and asked if we could go with him to the island. The next day was the Fourth of July, but he took pity on us, and we had bought the book about him and the seal island. So the next AM, early, we boarded his little mail boat and headed for the island. What a magical day. The Canadian lighthouse keeper led us to the photo blind through hundreds of nesting birds. We had to wear hard hats to avoid diving tern beaks. Once our guide left, the birds relaxed, not realizing that we were still in the blind. Somewhere on the island, there was a team of videographers making a film on remote islands. Otherwise, we were alone. We got lots of cool pictures, donned our hard hats again and made our way back to the boat. Sated with puffins.

Almost 40 years later, June 14th, 2012 John sailed to the island with Bold Coast Charters from Cutler, Maine, in a much bigger boat. The island light house is still maintained by Canadians and the bird population is monitored by them. There are more blinds than before, lots of Atlantic Puffins like before, but you don't have to wear hats to avoid being dive bombed by Arctic Terns. Their breeding population collapsed several years ago and they have not successfully bred since. University students do research on the island during the summer. The boat lands all the passengers a few times a week, other days, it just sails around the island. I booked John on a day when they could land. So there were a lot more humans on the island this time. Boardwalks have been constructed that you must keep walking on, only stopping where there are benches or blinds. The lighthouse keeper still guides you around and you still get great pictures. John had another magical day 40 years later.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bounding on the Maine

As John flew into Portland Maine early June 12th, he could see Scarborough Marsh below. He spent the morning there looking for little brown jobbies, specifically the Nelson's and Saltmarsh Sharptail Sparrows. Others saw them but not John, sigh. On to New Harbor, where two young men were sorting lobsters, 60-70 lobsters or about 90 lbs of lobsters per box. John estimated the men filled about 10 boxes and locked them under the dock with several other boxes. That's a lot of lobsters.

John was in New Harbor to go on a Hardy Boat Cruise at 5:30 PM out to Eastern Egg Island. On that little rock, thousands of birds nest, a couple hundred are Roseate Terns. John was very happy to get good looks and a few pictures of them.

He stayed overnight in Augusta planning to look for brown jobbies again at marshes on his way up to Machias. The little brown jobbies were again saved from him, this time by rain. As most birders know, little brown jobbies can be difficult.

John had time that evening in Machias to look over his lists. He reckons he has 51 new life ABA birds, only 20 that he has seen in other countries, so that is 31 totally new life birds. Not bad. As for his big year, he is up to 534.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A different ocean, the Atlantic

John got to Norfolk, Va, fine, but got a bit lost driving down to Cape Hatteras, so got there after dark. I got a couple calls from him while he tried to find his lodging in Hatteras Village. I was hoping he would get there early enough to find the dock for his pelagic the next morning.

5 AM June 10th, John had to find the dock in the dark, checked in with the captain, Brian Petteson, and then ran over to the store to get food for his breakfast and lunch. The sea was a bit choppy. The boat had to speed out to the continental shelf. There were no birds on the way but plenty once the boat got to the feeding grounds. New bird for the year, Wilson's Storm Petral, new birds and life ABA birds, Black-Capped Petral, Greater Shearwater, Cory's Shearwater, and Band-Rumped Storm Petral. They only saw one Black-Capped, the captain said they usually see 10 to 40 each trip. Well, one is all John needed. I think he is over 530.

The next morning, July 11th, John started back to Norfolk and planned to spend some time in the Dismal Swamp on the way. I called him there to tell him about a boat trip he could take July 12th out of New Harbor, Maine around Eastern Egg  Island. The target bird would be the Roseate Tern, 150 pairs amongst thousands of other terns. It is nice to be able to contact him instead of waiting a week or more for him to be in cell phone range. It is also nice to give him the phone numbers and let him do the booking.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Nome again

John had a great time on his second day of birding around Nome with the Wings tour group. Besides adding the Willow Ptarmigan, American Tree Sparrow and Fox Sparrow to his big year list, his tour group went out on the famous Nome highway.  Yesterday, I wrote about an incident at the Bristle-Thighed Curlew bluff years ago when curlews flew down to the van on the road so that people who decided not to climb the bluff saw them and the people that did climb the bluff did not. Well, this time, most of the group started scaling the hummocky tundra slope while a few stayed back at the van. Sure enough, when the climbing group was about halfway up, the non-climbers radioed that a curlew was flying about the van. Then it flew up the slope nearer to the climbers and they got fair looks. Some members of the group were satisfied and went back down. John and a few others stayed on the slope to try to get better looks and photos. They actually found the curlew again and got great photos. John is very happy. When he and I, did the climb several years ago, I saw a curlew flying away, at least, the guides told me it was a curlew, and John didn't see it at all. Now he has another ABA life bird.

The curlew bluff was at mile marker 72. They went out to 74.4 to see the Bluethroat, turned back toward Nome and at mile marker 42 got sort of looks at the Gyrfalcon on its nest. The best for John was the Arctic Warbler at 24.4 because everyone told John he was too early for it. 

For added fun, a really grizzled grizzly bear lumbered along down the creek next to the road. 

John has an ABA big year total of 526.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

There's no place like Nome!

Finally, a long phone conversation with my husband, John, who is now in Nome, so I have something to blog about!

After Attu/Adak John was up to 500 species of birds for the year to date in the ABA North American Region. After Gambell (5/27 to 6/4) he was at 514 and after one day of birding in Nome his total is 519.

Gambell was COLD and WINDY. It's a village of about 600 Yupiks on the north end of St. Lawrence Island. The island is in the Bering Sea, 65 miles from Russia and 210 miles from Nome. Soft drinks and alcohol are banned there and the Wings tour group John was with were required to bring their own drinking water. The village is wedged between a mountain and the sea. Most of the coastal shelf it perches on is made up of rounded stones, pebble to boulder size. Very difficult terrain to walk on, so the tour group moved around with ATV's. They birded the drainage ditch, the little lake, the air strip, the boneyard (centuries of hunting) and the shore, then did it all again the next day.

Some of the highlights for John were - seeing all the species of eider ducks, comparing Common Ringed (asian) and Semi-Palmated (american) plovers side by side, the Red-Necked Stint and the Lesser Sand Plover. Truly spectacular were the thousands upon thousands of birds streaming past just offshore, heading north to their breeding grounds. As the group were gathering their gear for the flight from Gambell to Nome, a White-Tailed Eagle soared over and gave everyone a good view. A nice farewell.

Nome seemed almost tropical compared to Gambell. In one day, John added Sabine's Gull, Red Phalarope, Yellow Wagtail, Tundra Swan and Arctic Loon to his list, the last loon he needed.

Wednesday, June 6th, the Wings group will head out at 4 AM to see the infamous Bristle-Thighed Curlew. For those who have led a sheltered life, the curlews nest on top of a high bluff covered with spongy hummocks of tundra that John will have to scale with his bad knees. Once, years ago, the birds flew down to the tour van on the road below so the people who opted out of the climb saw the curlews and the climbers didn't. That's what makes birding so much fun!