50/50/50 Oregon – A Tundra Bean Goose and a Passion for Birding

On November 26, 2018 I chased the Tundra Bean Goose that had been reported at the William L. Finley NWR in Oregon.  I failed to find it.  Not my first miss on a chase, but it had been a long one and it was a mega-rarity.  Was it just another of those one-day wonders – here today and gone tomorrow?  As it turned out – not at all.  It took a day or so for it to be relocated but then as none of us could have known, it moved in seemingly permanently and stayed for several months.   As I wrote in an earlier blog post [See https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/21387] after dinner with my sister on the night of December 1st, I drove back to Finley, slept in the car and was able to find the goose the next morning.

William L. Finley NWR

Finley NWR 1

I had intended to return to that post, amend it and use it for my 50/50/50 experience in Oregon, replacing the experience on the day that I had failed to find the Tundra Bean Goose, but had found 50+ species.  I thought I had done so, but I got caught up in the planning and trips for 2019 and apparently forgot about it.  Actually I just discovered this as I am going through a lot of catch up work and writing after having completed that 50/50/50 Adventure – getting ready for the next phase of it – hopefully a book and a big scale project that I will keep to myself until it happens, if it does.

Better late than never, I am incorporating much of that earlier post into this one and expanding upon it.  I decided to keep much of the non-bird part of that post because there has been much personal reflection as I visited state after state and then completed the project with a wonderful trip to Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas and that was a big part of that earlier post.  Much of that reflection has been about “Why?”.  Why do we do what we do – at least if we have choices?  There will be more about that in a wrap up post about the 50/50/50 Adventure, but repeating some of that earlier post still applies.  Now on with the story…

I had missed the Tundra Bean Goose on my first attempt but it had been seen again.  It would be another long trip, should I try it?  Literally an hour before heading down to Seattle for dinner with my sister, I made an executive decision to try again.  Why?  I asked myself that as I made the decision.  There is almost certainly more to it – some psychology – as will be discussed later, but the answer was simple again.  Successful or not this would be a good story, a good experience, something to look back on with a good feeling and something to write about – and something to affirm that I was “ALIVE” – doing something I loved, following a passion and just getting out there and trying.  AND I had a calm sense that I would find the goose and put an exclamation point on the week and the previous attempt.  I wrote those words just after succeeding in the quest to find the Goose.  At their core they are at the heart of my 50 State Adventure as well – following a passion and confirming and affirming that I was ALIVE.  There is a lot to that.

The Second Chase (Again repeating the earlier post)

After a great dinner at 8:00 p.m. I said goodbye and told my sister I was off to Portland.  She thought I was nuts, and that is likely not the first time she has felt that.  I had thrown a sleeping bag and some pillows in the car and figured I would stop at a rest area somewhere and grab at least a few hours of sleep.  That worked perfectly as I got into Oregon, found a rest area bout 90 minutes from Finley NWR and actually got almost 4 hours of sleep before heading off again around 4:30 a.m.  It was very foggy and pitch black as I pulled into the parking area on Bruce Road near the path out to the blind at McFadden Marsh which is where I planned to start my search.  It would not be light for another hour, but I could already hear geese, swans and ducks cackling, quacking and whistling at the marsh.  I was worried about the fog, but there was nothing I could do about that, and I am getting better at not stressing about such things out of my control – unhappy maybe, stressed, no.  I dozed for about 45 minutes and then walked out to the blind with binoculars, camera and scope.  There were thousands of birds – barely visible.  I was  somehow confident that I would find the goose – even if not just then or right there.  But moreso, I truly was already very pleased, because I had followed through on a wish and executed it well – so far.  I was completely alone and completely engaged in my life and a passion for it.

Just after 7:00 a.m. there was enough light to be able to meaningfully start my search through the scope.  Within not more than 5 minutes among the thousands of birds in front of me I found one that raised my heartbeat as it was a goose that was NOT a Cackling Goose and NOT a Greater White Fronted Goose.  But it had its head turned away and I could not see the tell-tale bi-colored bill that would confirm the ID as a Tundra Bean Goose.  Turn, damn you turn!!  It must have heard me.  It turned and even at 20x magnification in the poor light, I could see the orange marking. Eureka!!!!!  The light was weak.  My ISO was high, the shutter speed slow, but I got a photo.

Tundra Bean Goose – First Photo ABA #694

Tundra Bean Goose First Photo

There was nobody there to share a high five.  Nobody to watch a Snoopy dance.  No congratulations.  On other chases there have often been others or if not, I still gave a shout or did a dance or a jump or a fist pump.  Not this time.  I just savored the moment as deeply as I had any moment.  There was not a need for any outward expression because it was so completely internalized.  This confirmed a really chancy decision and was like the proverbial cherry atop the sundae.  But it was going to get even better.

The goose was resting and I kept my scope on it hoping for better views as the light improved.  About 10 minutes later I heard someone approaching the blind.  When she came in with her birding gear, I asked the almost unnecessary question:  “Would you like to see the goose?”  She beamed.  I lowered the scope and she saw the bill and had a new life bird.  This was the second try for Janet Kelly also.  She had made the 3+hour trip up from Medford, OR earlier in the week on a day the Tundra Bean Goose had been seen by others but not by everyone looking.  She was one of the unlucky ones.  This made up for that.  I was almost as happy for her as I was for myself – almost.

We watched the goose for about 15 minutes and then without any warning it and maybe 2000 other birds took off in a noisy flight and were gone. We had been very fortunate.  We had been at the right place at the right time.  A little bit later and we may have missed it.  I have been in that spot before.  Not more than 5 minutes later, two more birders arrived at the blind and we delivered the words we have all heard and hate more than any others:  “You just missed it!” Our visitors were Bert Filemyr and Casey Weissburg.  To say they are both serious and accomplished birders would be an understatement.  Joining with Laura Keene –  an extremely accomplished and serious birder – they had arrived at the Refuge the day before and had missed the Tundra Bean Goose.  Casey immediately expressed her disappointment and asked which way they had flown.  All we could say was “away”.

Meanwhile Laura Keene had positioned herself at the bridge and this strategy paid off as a few moments later she texted Casey that she “had the goose!!”.  Casey took off imploring Bert to race along with her.  Let’s just say that there is a significant age difference between the two and as I accompanied Bert running with gear on the icy boardwalk, I felt I had to comment that it was not worth a heart attack.  Bert joined Casey in their rented car and they drove the 1/4+ mile to the bridge where Laura had the Tundra Bean Goose in her scope.  Not the world’s best view but when it raised its head, there was that bi-colored bill.  This was ABA life bird 801 for Laura, and number 748 for Bert.  I don’t know about life birds, but it was ABA number 642 for Casey – this year.  As I said – serious and accomplished birders.  It was wonderful to see and feel their excitement as they found this extremely rare species – a sign of its rarity being that none of them had seen it before.

The Tundra Bean Goose was cooperative in that it remained still, but not so much as it mostly rested with its head tucked down being essentially a lump of brown feathers.  Other birders arrived and we were able to show them the mega rarity.  After more than an hour with an only occasional head lift to show its bill, it joined many other geese and flew off – eventually landing across the road in an even more distant spot.  But in flight, it gave us the best views including it bright orange feet.  It also gave me my best photos.

Tundra Bean Goose Flight Shot

Tundra Bean Goose Flight

Among the birders to join our group was a father with two young boys and a couple of other young birders.  I would wager that this day will be part of their cherished memories forever.  And I can say the same for me.  A favorite day.  Anyone reading my blogs or talking to me about birding knows that for me birding is that wonderful activity that inserts me in situations where there is the chance to visit interesting places, meet interesting people and see great birds.  There is never a day of birding that does not provide one of these rewards and on days like this, I get all three.  Pretty great!!  And this day it was in spades.  The refuge is not Cascade mountains beautiful, but it is a lovely place and now had given me two days of special attachment.  All of the birds and their movement at the marsh were majestic with the Tundra Bean Goose being as good as it gets.  And how wonderful to share this time and this bird with these folks.  And it was still early.  There was time for more birding.

People – Knowing of her and especially her incredible Big Year in 2016, I had contacted Laura Keene earlier as a resource to find contacts in states I would be visiting during my 50/50/50 adventure.  She was gracious and most helpful getting me in touch with someone that I did bird with later.  It was a great treat to meet her here in person.  I hoped to see her again some day either on her home turf of San Antonio or in the field.  And I did – finally birding with her briefly at Magee Marsh the following May.  And I would intersect with Bert Filemyr again – not in person but indirectly as he got me in touch with Gregg Gorton who I joined at Heinz NWR near Philadelphia the week before meeting Laura at Magee – which is where Bert was while I was in Philly.  Casey Weissburg describes herself as a nomadic bird biologist living for the love of birds and the natural world.  Have not crossed paths again – yet, but I bet we will someday

Seeing the Tundra Bean Goose was immensely satisfying.  Sharing the wonderful birding experience with Janet, Bert, Laura, Casey and the young family and others there made it magical.

I had seen 21 species at McFadden Marsh.  Surely there would be another 29+ around somewhere.

Finley has mixed habitat with some forest, open fields, ponds, oaks and farmland.  Often retracing my stops from the previous visit, it was not hard to find most of the same species as before.  Since I do not have my notes and specific places from that trip and memory has faded, I will just add photos of some of the birds seen.  A lowlight was trying to find a Wrentit and failing, but that has happened often.  It would be a long trip back again so I did not stay as long as I had previously.  I am pretty sure that with more time and trying to add species I would have found at least another 10 or so but nonetheless was pleased with 62 for the day.

Tundra Swan    Snow Goose

Tundra Swan Standing  Snow Goose

Greater White Fronted Goose

Greater White Fronted Goose

In the oaks – California Scrubjays, Western Bluebird and Acorn Woodpeckers – always a favorite.

California Scrubjay                                                                 Acorn Woodpecker

California Scrubjay1 Acorn Woodpecker

Western Bluebird

Western Bluebird

California Quail                                                      Wild Turkeys

California Quail  Wild Turkeys

Red Shouldered Hawk                                      Northern Shrike

Red Shouldered Hawk1Northern Shrike Juvenile

So another great day with 50+ species, one exceptional bird and some very exceptional people as well.  As I said in the beginning, I wanted to revisit this day and the previous post because of the introspection.  This was before meeting Cindy Bailey who has become another important passion in my life and has participated in several of the 50/50/50 states even though she is not a birder.  Having her in my life has changed some of my priorities but it has not changed my feeling about the role of passion in driving our lives forward and rewarding our commitments of time, energy and action – but two passions is better than one!!  So repeating from that earlier post:

Final Thoughts and Questions – Why We Chase…

  • What all is behind our “wild goose chases” and others?
  • What makes me drive 5  hours from Edmonds to look for a goose in a marsh in Oregon twice in less than a week?
  • What brings Bert Filemyr from Philadelphia to Seattle to join friend Laura Keene who had flown in from San Antonio and drive 4 and a half hours to to look for a goose in that same marsh, joined by Casey Weissburg who came from who knows where?
  • What moves Janet Kelly to drive 3+ hours from Medford to to look for a goose in a marsh after she head done it days before without success?
  • What brings us and others – many, many others – to look for “special birds” with “special” defined differently by each searcher – in marshes and sewage treatment plants and forests and deserts and feeders and mudflats and mountains all over the globe.  Why do we travel miles and miles for hours and hours, give up sleep, endure heat, cold, bugs, flat tires, lost communication and miss birthdays and other important dates?
  • Why do we chase? Why do we chase again and again when too often our chases do not find success – at least in terms of  finding our targets?

Those are some questions.  Are the answers in these defined terms?

  • Compulsion” is variously defined as “a very strong feeling of wanting to do something repeatedly that is difficult to control” or a “strong and barely controllable emotion” or “any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling”.
  • Obsession” is variously defined as  “a compulsive preoccupation with an idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety. – a compulsive, often unreasonable idea or emotion”; or “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling”; or “an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind”.
  •  “Addiction” is defined by the American Psychiatric Association (at least as related to substance abuse) as a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence. People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a certain substance(s), such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life. They keep using alcohol or a drug even when they know it will cause problems.
  • Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
  • Passion” is defined as a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that one likes (or even loves), finds important, and in which they invest time and energy on a regular basis.  Passions are seen as existing in two types: harmonious and obsessive.
  • Love”  – one theory developed by psychologist Robert Sternberg, says there are three components of love: intimacy, passion, and commitment where intimacy encompasses feelings of attachment, closeness, and connection.  Poets may define it differently.

To differing degrees and in different ways, I believe that chases have elements of all of the above.  The definitions I have used for compulsion, obsession and addiction are at least somewhat pejorative if not downright negative.  I think there are other takes on all of them but these potentially negative aspects cannot be ignored and if they are not outweighed, balanced and driven by the far more positive aspects of love and passion, we are possibly in dangerous territory for ourselves, others and even the natural world that we engage.  Our chases are driven by these factors and are not always successful.  It took a while, but I have come to so enjoy the attempt, the pursuit itself, the intersections with people, places and the birds so that I am now at peace with finding my target bird — or not.  And for me, my birding is very intimate as it without doubt encompasses feelings of attachment, closeness and connection.  And when shared with others – even better.  And now in addition to my relationship with birds I have one with a special later.  Even better.

 

 

 

 

 

Crossing the Finish Line in Arkansas

In any relationship there is an evolution as we are informed by experiences gathered, lessons learned and perspectives gained.  When I began this 50 state birding adventure, I saw it as a framework for an activity that would take me on paths familiar and not, but always following my passion for birds and the birders that observe them.  There was no certainty that the objective of finding 50 species on single days in each of the 50 states would be met but I was certain that the rewards from the effort would be great and more than justify the cost in time, effort and expense that would be involved.  I knew there would be many interesting experiences and many interesting people along the way.  I knew there would be many wonderful birds.  What I did not know was the depth of the feelings that would grow within me as I traveled around the country and intersected with so many incredible people who make up a very special community.  These intersections have brought me much happiness and have taught me much about the generosity of others and about my own being.  My last stop was in Arkansas and again I was rewarded far beyond expectation.

The most important part of my 50/50/50 undertaking has been the requirement not just to see 50 species in a day but to do so while connecting with members of the birding communities in each locale.  And that, too, evolved as I continued my adventure and experienced and appreciated the diversity of the people who make up the world of birders.  It was always important to me that in visiting different areas I would explore and hopefully gain understanding of other viewpoints, perspectives, backgrounds and cultures something particularly meaningful in this time of polarization and tribalism in our country.  Noting and appreciating differences while sharing and appreciating commonalities has been a recurring theme and a recurring benefit.  Nowhere was this more true than in Arkansas – a very fitting close to my travels.

On October 2nd, following one of the networking paths that had succeeded in previous visits, I sent an email that began as follows: “I hope I have the email address correct and this is reaching Vivek Kumar in the Fayetteville, Arkansas area.  I got your name and email address from Ebird and the Arkansas ABA Listserv.”  I did not know this person and had never communicated with him or with anyone that knew of him.  It was quite simply a digital plea for help using two of the main social media resources of the birding world as it exists in this second decade of the 21st Century so entirely different from the time more than 45 years when I began my own birding life.  BUT…while technology has so significantly changed much of the game, what has not changed is that this wonderful community is and always will be about interesting people – and the connection between us remains our passion for birds.  BUT (again) there has been another change in those passing years – made possible and aided in part because of the expanded networking and communication possibilities from a very different world of technology – a change in the demographic makeup of the birding world.

In the 1960’s birders were more likely to be called birdwatchers and were most often conceived of as “little old ladies in tennis shoes” like Miss Jane Hathaway in the Beverly Hillbillies or possibly academics in tweeds.  That would change as the American Birding Association was born in 1969 and took flight in the early  1970’s as outlined in my earlier blog about my birding with Floyd Murdoch in Oklahoma [See https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/22978].  Birdwatchers became birders and birding was now also a sport and many especially younger men were participants.  Nonetheless, for the most part, birders were men and generally white men, often well educated and often well off.  There is still a long way to go, but I am happy to say that this is no longer fully the case, and birding with people of many ages, races, genders, cultures and backgrounds has been an enriching part of my 50/50/50 experience, broadening and deepening my views and appreciations of the complex world we travel in together.  Vivek Govind Kumar is but one case in point.  First and foremost an extraordinarily good birder and fine and generous person, he is also a person of a very interesting background greatly adding to the richness of our time together.  Much more on that later, but let’s start with the enthusiasm with which he, like Zach Poland in Oklahoma and Tom Ewert in Kansas on this trip, and so many others in prior trips, joined in my quest.  And this included scouting trips and research in advance of my visit which Vivek shared with me.

With Vivek Govind Kumar

Vivek Kumar

The plan was to meet Vivek on the night of November 8th in Fayetteville, Arkansas at his residence just off the University of Arkansas campus where he is working on his doctorate.  We would have dinner that night and then bird the next day.  Fayetteville was just over 110 miles from Tulsa with about one third of that being in Arkansas.  So like I had done on other travel dates, I did some birding in Arkansas on the way mostly on an arbitrary basis in and around Siloam Springs and then visiting Hobbs State Park and Beaver Lake Nursery Pond, two areas that Vivek had included on his proposed itinerary.  The topography in Arkansas was very different from areas I had birded in Kansas and Oklahoma.  Much more deciduous forest with rolling hills and the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.  Temperatures were pleasant.  There was little wind and some trees were still showing fall color.

My first good stop was along Robinson Road in Siloam Springs, where I found an adult Yellow Bellied Sapsucker, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, and both Carolina Wren and Carolina Chickadee.  The latter two are closely related to the Bewick’s Wrens and Black Capped Chickadees so common in my Washington birding and I include comparative photos of both together.  They are very similar but fortunately have very different songs and calls.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker1

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Carolina Wren and Bewick’s Wren

carolina-wren-e1574196017925.jpg Bewick's Wren

Carolina Chickadee and Black Capped Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee Black Capped Chickadee

Hobbs State Park is one of those places I would love to revisit with more time.  It has extensive hiking trails in beautiful forest and a very fine visitor center which is where I got a chance to do a little birding mostly watching the feeders there.  There was not much diversity at this time but I could definitely fantasize about numerous passerines in Spring migration and maybe even get a much desired photo of a Cerulean Warbler.  I had no warblers on this visit but got fun photos of a White Breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse and White Throated Sparrow.

White Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse1

White Throated Sparrow

White Throated Sparrow1

Backtracking a bit, I then visited the Beaver Lake Nursery Pond.  I was disappointed to find only a few birds on the lake and the pond, but there were many birds on the road down to the Pond.  Species included a Red Shouldered Hawk, Red Headed Woodpecker, a Hermit Thrush and to my surprise Pine Warbler.

Red Headed Woodpecker (Juvenile)

Red Headed WP Juvenile1

Hermit Thrush

Hernit Thrush1

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

I added a Pied Billed Grebe at a roadside pond on the way into Fayetteville for my 34th species of the day.  Not bad considering that I had not made an effort to add species and had but a single species of waterfowl for the day and no shorebirds.  I was confident we would succeed the next day so was not worried.  Unfortunately it was dark as I picked up Vivek for dinner as the town of Fayetteville seemed very interesting with a very vibrant downtown and campus scene with lots of restaurants.  We had excellent Thai food at one and I wondered how long ago restaurants such as this one had arrived in this very southern city.  I asked Vivek to try to explain to me the nature of his research and dissertation.  I had the most superficial understanding of the work in biochemistry but seemed much more about physics and definitely required enormous data processing capacity.

Of more interest and easier to understand was his personal history having grown up in Dubai with some family still in India and having begun birding at a young age following his birder father to many locations.  As had been the case with the world travels of companions Bob Holbrook and Floyd Murdoch in Oklahoma, I was envious of his international experience and the many birds he had seen.  We did share an awe for the Taj Mahal and tigers in the wild, two of my all time favorite life experiences on a birding trip to Northern India in 2011.  Vivek outlined the plans for the following day which included being joined by two of his friends to start in the morning and then hooking up with an Audubon group at Lake Fayetteville a bit later.  I was excited and looked forward to state number 50 and many memories ahead.

On Saturday we started at 6:45 a.m. at Woolsey Wet Prairie where we were met by Barry Bennett and Todd Ballinger.  Todd was a teacher who had just started birding a couple of years ago.  Barry had been birding a bit longer and was keen to bird with us – which I think meant mostly to bird with Vivek who in his short time in Fayetteville has developed quite a reputation for his prowess and knowledge.  Many of the birders I have met along the way on my 50 state journey have overcome a variety of health challenges to be able to spend time in the field and in many cases a love for birding has played an important part in their recovery or dealing with some limitations.  As I wrote previously [https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/22948] this had been the case for Tom Ewert in Kansas after his brain surgery.  Birding has played an important role for Barry as he has managed a long battle with Multiple Sclerosis.

It was soon apparent why this was called a “wet” prairie as we trudged through water underfoot in many areas including on the trail.  I did not have high boots but fortunately my boots were waterproof and I could manage in about 9 inches of water.  It was necessary as among our main targets here were Sedge Wrens and sparrows including specifically LeConte’s Sparrows.  I don’t think Vivek would have let me leave until we found and had good looks at both.  The Wrens were easy but the LeConte’s Sparrows were another story altogether – and fortunately one with a happy ending.  Indeed there were lots of sparrows – only six species but many individuals.  I probably heard and saw more Swamp Sparrows there than I have seen or heard in the rest of my life – over 60.  There were almost as many Song Sparrows.  Other species were White Crowned and White Throated Sparrow, Field Sparrow and yes, LeConte’s Sparrow, with at least 5 seen and at least two of them seen well and one captured in many photos.

LeConte’s Sparrow

LeConte's SparrowR

White Crowned Sparrow

White Crowned Sparrow

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

It was a spectacular morning with only a bit of wind but beautiful and photo friendly sunshine which was mostly behind us as we chased after the LeConte’s Sparrows in the grasses. They really are secretive and challenging little buggers, coming into the open at most for a split second and then disappearing by diving onto the ground beneath the grass and often running like mice between the reeds.  As I had written before, we missed them entirely in Kansas and had fleeting views without photos in Oklahoma.  Vivek was persistent in his pursuit and maybe 30 yards into the grasses we had our first good looks and then some brief poses in the open allowed for the photos.  This was a great way to start the day.

Earlier on this adventure I had worked very hard to get my life photos of a Sedge Wren.  The first one, very poor was at Dauphin Island in Alabama.  Better ones were at the Chatham County Wetlands Preserve in Georgia and with later sightings in Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Oklahoma just recently.  On all of those trips combined, I had seen 18 Sedge Wrens.  This was the exact number we had here at Woolsey Wet Prairie.  And they were pretty photo friendly – again in good light.

Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren1

We also had 2 Marsh Wrens and 5 Carolina WrensHouse Wrens are found here earlier in the year as well.  I recalled how when I first started birding Marsh Wrens were called Long Billed Marsh Wrens and Sedge Wrens were Short Billed Marsh Wrens.  I had only seen one of the latter at Anahuac NWR in South Texas back in 1978 and 40 years had passed until I had another one.

Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren1

The wrens and sparrows were the highlights but we ended with 39 species for the three hours we spent there covering 2.4 miles.  It was as pleasant a morning of birding as anyone could want and when Vivek had a call from Joe Neal who was leading the trip at Lake Fayetteville and he learned that “the waterfowl were in”, we were pretty certain 50 species would soon be on the record book.  On the way to the Lake we added Rock Pigeon to the day list and more importantly I caught a glimpse of two small accipiters, Sharp Shinned Hawks, birds that are often present but not seen.  At the park on the way to the lake we passed by an area where Chipping Sparrows were “guaranteed” as often dozens are present.  Not a one.  “We’ll get them later”.

At the lake itself we went straight to the blind where ten species of ducks had been reported in the phone call to Vivek earlier.  Lots of friendly people on the field trip and lots of birds on the lake, but by far the largest number were the American Coots – maybe 700.  Many of the birds were quite distant and even with a scope it took some work to pull out the 9 duck species – all new except the Mallards.  Nonetheless we did find them and despite again missing Chipping Sparrows later, we added a few passerines and with 14 new species we were over 50 species for the day.  I had done it.  I had now crossed the finish line in my quest having seen 50 species in a single day in all 50 states.  There was definitely a feeling of accomplishment and joy but the day was young and we were having fun which was really the point of each day’s birding in any event.

Todd had to leave us, so Barry, Vivek and I carried on.  We found a half dozen Eurasian Collared Doves and added the species to the day list.  These doves have become abundant in Washington and appear to be replacing Mourning Doves in some areas in Eastern Washington.  Not so in these Midwestern states where they are definitely present but not taking over.  At our next stop I had a special treat – an excellent burrito at one of maybe a dozen food trucks off the highway.  There was quite an offering of food choices: Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Italian and standard American fare.  More than 100 people had chosen this spot for lunch while we were there.  A Turkey Vulture flew right over us – but I did not take that as a sign to worry about the food we ate.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

We visited the Chesney Natural Prairie and in addition to adding a few more species, we had the surprise of the day.  Walking one of the grass lined trails, we flushed a bird that could not have been more than a few feet from us.  I yelled “Bobwhite“.  Vivek changed the call to “Snipe” then to the astonishing “Woodcock“.  Unfortunately the bird flew off fast and away from us for a long distance.  I reacted as quickly as I could and actually found the flying object in the viewfinder of my camera.  I captured some images but focus was impossible.  I have only seen one other American Woodcock in my life – in 1975 on Assateague Island in Maryland.  Definitely no photo and it is high on my list of birds seen without photos that I hoped to photograph.  Certainly not the image I want (and which someday I will get) but I include it here as it was a cool part of the story of the day.  It is also proof that I am a pretty poor photographer – except when I am lucky or circumstances are so good that it is almost impossible not to succeed.

American Woodcock – Clearly (or perhaps unclearly) Atop My Worst Photo List

Woodcock1

We had spent more time at some of our earlier stops than Vivek had planned but certainly no complaint by me as we had great and at times somewhat surprising birds and were well past the goal of 50 species.   There was time to head to the places I had visited the previous day – Hobbs State Park and the Beaver Lake Nursery Pond, but first there was a very strange addition to our route as we took the road through the “Wild Wilderness Drive-Through Safari”.  We did not see any of them but the website for this park lists lions and tigers and bears – oh my – and a lot of other exotic animals.  We did see Wildebeests and Camels and Prairie Dogs and two species of birds – one definitely not countable and one that surprisingly is.  Uncountable were the Ostriches which somehow looked even larger than when I saw them in the wild in Kenya.  What we saw that is countable in Arkansas is an Egyptian Goose.  I saw and counted them in Florida but had no idea that they were countable anywhere else.  But I rarely refuse gifts especially when birds are involved.

Egyptian Goose

Egyptian Goose

Prairie Dog (along the road next to a fence that clearly was not working)

Prairie Dog

Camel – Don’t See These Everyday

CAmel

We were in a race for time as sundown was approaching as we arrived at the Nursery Pond.  Sadly and surprisingly unlike my experience the previous day, we neither heard nor saw any Red Headed Woodpeckers and we saw only a single Pine Warbler.  Nor did we find the Pileated Woodpecker that Vivek expected.  But we did add some Wood Ducks, Horned Grebe, and Hairy Woodpecker.  In the same area I had the Red Headed Woodpeckers the day before there was only a noisy Red Bellied Woodpecker.  We got to the visitor center just as it was closing and added White Breasted Nuthatch.

Red Bellied Woodpecker

Red Bellied WP

There had been some notable misses during the day and some species that Vivek had seen or heard that I had not.  These included Fox Sparrow, Red Headed Woodpecker and somehow House Sparrow.  How had I missed House Sparrow?  Vivek asked if this was important because he thought there was a place we could try although it was now pitch dark.  My first thought was that it was unimportant and not worth any effort.  My second thought was that House Sparrows, like European Starlings and Rock Doves are disparaged, unvalued and almost universally regarded as “junk birds” – a terrible species to be the last seen on my marathon birding adventure.  But upon reflection my third thought was that it would be a fitting and perfect end.

There was no need for glamour and in fact the whole point of this countrywide endeavor was to recognize the beauty and meaning of all birds and birders – anywhere and at any time.  We can find a difference on some value scale for a LeConte’s Sparrow or a lifer photo of a Winter Wren, or an American Woodcock as poor as those pictures might be.  We can appreciate the special beauty of a very white Krider’s Red Tail or the special conservation success story of a California Condor or a Kirtland’s Warbler or a Whooping Crane or the rarity of a Nazca Booby or a Red Throated Pipit or a Bananaquit.  These are all parts of my 50/50/50 Adventure and are very special memories, but when we found a small group of House Sparrows roosting in a tree, completely in the dark but chirping their good night song at a McDonald’s in Benton County, Arkansas, it was special, too.

Every moment, every bird, every person has been special on this personal voyage.  “Unspecial” can be “special” as well.  That is the message for all of us.  We all have much that is special within us.  We just need to live a bit to find it and let it free.  I will write another blog summing up this 50 state undertaking and have thoughts for a book that may get written some day, but I want time to digest and think before that is even started.  This three state trip with Tom and Floyd and Bob and Zach and Vivek and Barry and Todd was beyond fun and beyond satisfying.  Many moments and memories that are now a part of me.  Thankful for them all.

 

 

Oklahoma Day 2 – State 49 Is Now Official

When there were heavy rains on the night of November 6 and the temperature dropped significantly and the winds increased significantly, it appeared that the decision to unofficially get 50+ species the day before had been a good one.  But enter Zach Poland who would be leading the show on the 7th and his preparation, skills and enthusiasm were confidence inspiring.  It also helped that he seemingly had an in with the weather gods as at least where we birded as we did not experience a single drop of rain.  Maybe I had something to do with that as well.  Miraculously in all of the birding I had done in the previous 48 states, I had experienced rain only for small parts of two days – a little in New York and a little in Virginia.  That rain had affected the birding but only marginally.  Similarly there had been little wind and never that combination of the two that may well have made 50 species an impossibility.

Despite a full time job and a family with two young children, Zach Poland is currently the #4 birder on Ebird in Oklahoma for 2019.  I cannot imagine that the three birders who rank ahead of him are better birders than Zach.  He is that good and there is such a positive vibe about him that there was no doubt that we would succeed this day.  And it was pretty clear that he was motivated to beat the 66 species, Floyd, Bob and I had seen the previous day as well as the 81 species I had seen in Kansas.

Zachary Poland

Zach Poland

We began at 7:15 a.m. at Mohawk Park in Tulsa and by 7:45 a.m we had 25 species including both Virginia Rail and Sora, the latter seen briefly.  We also had maybe 1000 Franklin’s Gulls constantly overhead. During my visits to the three states on this last leg of my journey, there would be lots of sparrows – altogether 13 species.  There would be some new ones today and the first of those was a Red Form Fox Sparrow – so different from the ones I see regularly in the Northwest. The best bird came almost at the end.  Zach was pushing through the grass and yelled out something.  I was maybe 30 yards away and could not make out what it was, but from his excitement I knew it was something good and I got to him as best I could – just in time for a quick glance at a Dickcissel – very late for the area.

Fox Sparrow (Red Form and Sooty Form)

Fox Sparrow (2) NB Fox Sparrow

 

It was cold and it was windy but it continued to be dry and we were half way home when we arrived at stop #2, Monument Point at Lake Yahola where there were lots of ducks (8 species) and lots of gulls (3 species) and a brief look at some Least Sandpipers.  Zach’s keen ears picked up an American Pipit, our 19th species at the spot and our 38th for the morning and it was barely 8:00 a.m.   Photos were not so great in the still gray light, but it was pretty hard to miss one of the single American White Pelican on the lake.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

Now we were back to Mohawk Park at the Mary K. Oxley Nature Center.  It was wonderful with a dash of frustration.  The Center is a real gem – over 800 acres with 9 miles of trails and a 70 acre lake that was dug out by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.  More than 250 bird species have been recorded there and in our almost two hours there we saw 42 species including an astounding 10 Red Headed Woodpeckers (both adults and juveniles).  Half of the species were new for the day bringing us to 59 making Oklahoma the 49th state with 50+ species – now officially – important as I wanted this day with Zach and Floyd and Bob as parts of the official experience.

The First Red Headed Woodpecker Seen – Oxley Nature Center Logo

Oxley

Red Headed Woodpeckers (Adult and Juvenile)

Red Headed WP Red Headed WP Juvenile

About that frustration.  Zach was persistent in trying to find a LeConte’s Sparrow for us.  Oxley is the best place in the area to find them in November and the prairie grass habitat was perfect.  A beautiful sparrow, I had missed LeConte’s at Quivira in Kansas and had seen only one in my birding life – a mega state rarity at Discovery Park in Seattle last year.  At Oxley we had lots of Swamp Sparrows and Song Sparrows and White Throated Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows.  Finally Zach found one and then one more in a secondary area along the trail.  But unlike the “Swampies” and Songs and White Throats and very much like a LeConte’s, the two seen were in the open for split seconds before returning to the depths of the grasses out of sight.  Countable? Yes.  Photographable? No.  Frustrating? Yes.  Fun?  Yes that too.

LeConte’s Sparrow – Unfortunately the One from Washington

LeConte's Sparrow5r

It was now approaching noon and the goal switched from 50+ to more than 66 (the previous day’s total). We soon reached that as we found new species at the Spartan College Fields.  My only White Winged Dove of the trip flew off its wire perch as soon as I got my camera on it, but the Great Tailed Grackles were more cooperative.

Great Tailed Grackle

Great Tailed Grackle

Now past 66 species for the day, we moved on to the Keystone Lake Dam and Spillway where Zach promised a Black Vulture to go with the Turkey Vultures that we would see later.  Lots of Gulls, Pelicans, Cormorants and Great Blue Herons but not a single Vulture of any kind – until I finally made a contribution to the day and spotted a single Black Vulture soaring away from us.  I will use that as a segue to talk about group dynamics.

Most of my birding on this adventure has been with a single other birder or maybe two.  A few exceptions have been when joining bird walks – Audubon trips or State Ornithological Societies.  It is usually a plus to have many eyes searching for birds but if too many, that may be accompanied by too much conversation making hearing difficult or even putting off the birds.  Only rarely do personalities conflict and prove troublesome.  That was certainly not the case on this day.  It would be hard to imagine a better threesome to have with me than Zach, Floyd and Bob.  Their birding skills far surpass mine and everyone added to the entertainment value of the day.  All had great stories about immense and diverse birding experiences as well as life perspectives.  There were only little glimpses into Zach’s non-birding life but just enough to make me believe that if alone, we would have found mostly full common ground.  Maybe it was because they were also participating in this day, but Floyd and Bob were 100% onboard from the start that a goal for the day would be to surpass the 66 seen without Zach the day before.  In fact after helping me get to 50 each day, there was no sense of competition at all – just enjoying the time together.

The proof of the previous assessment was in the group’s decision on where to head next.  We could head west for some very different habitats but there was not really sufficient time for that.  Instead we switched the focus from me to Zach.  He is an avid County lister but did not have much experience in either Rogers or Mayes counties where Floyd, Bob and I had birded the day before.  So we retraced steps from the previous day and added birds to Zach’s County lists and our day list.  It was particularly interesting that we saw some of the same birds seen the day before in almost exactly the same spots this next day.  For example we again found the Loggerhead Shrike in the same tree and a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in the same yard.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – Day 2

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Zach had never seen the giant totem pole so we had to make a return visit to Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park.  Here is part of the story:  Ed Galloway (1880-1962) was born in Missouri, fought in the Spanish-American War, and was on his way with his family to California when he took a temporary job in Foyil. He spent over 20 years teaching boys woodworking in the Children Home orphanage in Sand Springs, and retired to property he purchased in Foyil.  Working mostly by himself, Galloway started the Totem Pole in 1937 and finished in 1948. Although sometimes credited as a monument to Native American tribes, Galloway said he built it after he retired so he would simply have something to do. He thought it would be a good thing for youngsters, Boy Scouts in particular, to visit. The totem pole is constructed of concrete over a scrap metal and sandstone rock skeleton. Sixty feet tall, 30 feet in circumference, the pole rests on the back of a giant concrete turtle. Sculpted and brightly painted renditions of spirit lizards, owls, and headressed Indian chiefs climb to the pinnacle.

Who can resist bits of Americana like this – speaking of a different age in America before mass communications and much technology.  I have made a point of visiting similar places on my 50 state journey and they are always good reminders of simple pleasures and how people express and share their passions.  For us it was a fun diversion, an opportunity for some silly photos and also a chance to add Cedar Waxwings to our list.  The place was also overrun by a flock of Yellow Rumped Warblers – our best views of the day.

Blair and Zach and Floyd – There’s A Cedar Waxwing in the Tree, Floyd!

Waxwings

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Yellow Rumped Warbler 1

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

Bob, Zach and Floyd and the World’s Biggest Totem Pole

3 Amigos

We continued retracing yesterday’s route and this time found the gate locked at the Pryor Sewage Treatment ponds.  We were still able to add a number of ducks and the Great Egret but no White Faced Ibis this time.  We ended the day with a large flock of blackbirds that included numerous Brown Headed Cowbirds our 85th species for the day so we did surpass Kansas.  It was also species number 96 for the two day combined – my Oklahoma State Life List.

There was a non-birding spot that caught our interest near the Pryor Ponds on both days.  It is a giant industrial complex in the Mid America Industrial Park that includes the ponds.  There was no signage to identify it but we were told it was a Google server farm.  One picture is from the road and the other is an aerial one from (appropriately) Google Maps.  Neither captures the scale of the complex with huge cooling and power capacities being evident.  I wouldn’t trade it for the birds we saw at the ponds but I am sure a tour inside would be fascinating.

Google

Google

Google or Amazon

I wish I had had a recorder going on these two days in Oklahoma.  Lots of laughs, some debates and lots of stories.  And lots of birds.  With one more state to go I was feeling energized and not at all tired.  In fact I was already beginning to miss the adventure that came with each state, the chance to fully commit to the task at hand while greatly enjoying every aspect of the hunt, the finds, the misses, the varying scenes and habitats, the landscapes and geography and most of all the company of fine people who shared my passion for birds and birding.  There are so many people I hope to see again.  Certainly that is the case for Floyd Murdoch, Bob Holbrook and Zach Poland.  It is not possible to fail to enjoy their company.  Deepest thanks to all three.

 

 

Oklahoma Day 1 – Reliving Some Birding History with Floyd Murdoch and Bob Holbrook – and Making Our Own

It is about 175 miles from Wichita, Kansas to Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Excluding stops and with speed limits as high as 75 mph for much of the trip, my journey on the morning of March 6 would take something over 2.5 hours.  My official day of birding was to be the following day with Zach Poland, but the stars had aligned in an interesting way and there were some exciting developments that would affect that and provide an opportunity for some fun on the 6th as well.  There was also a possible weather complication with showers predicted for much of March 7th.  When possible in my 50/50/50 quests, I had followed a pattern of a birding day in one state followed by a travel day to the next state and then repeating that as I moved along.

The Route

Route Map

The travel day was also an insurance day.  If I had failed to reach the 50 species on the designated birding day, I could try the first state again on the travel day sacrificing sleep if that meant a late arrival at the next destination.  In Kansas as had been the case in every other of the 47 states completed, the bird gods, weather gods and excellent local birding companions collaborated to allow me to find 50 species on the designated day.  So I left Kansas very early on the morning of the 6th thinking I would do some casual birding in Oklahoma along the way and maybe push for 50 that day if possible – a pre-insurance approach just in case the weather gods turned against me.

I had been successful finding 50 species on my own in several states on travel days before, using Ebird research to find good spots along my route to try for the magical number.  Zach Poland had been so thorough in his preparations for my joining him and so persuasive that finding the 50 species would be “a cinch”, that I had not done any research on my own for Oklahoma.  BUT…I had an ace up my sleeve – actually two aces.  In a convoluted path that started with super birder Ken Knittle in my home state of Washington and went through a number of other great birders in a number of states including Oklahoma, I was contacted by Floyd Murdoch who was interested in joining me in Oklahoma.  This was after I had found Zach Poland and arranged to bird with him, but as will soon become clear to those of you who do not already know Floyd’s story and place in birding lore, this was an opportunity not to be missed and one that would add immensely not just to my birding in Oklahoma but to the story of my 50 state adventure as a whole.  And better yet, a good friend of Floyd’s, Bob Holbrook, would be joining us.  They were available on the afternoon of the 6th and all day on the 7th.  I was thrilled and so was Zach.  First a bit about birding on my own in the morning and then an explanation and continuance of the story that will explain the “why” of our excitement.

The plan was to meet Floyd and Bob in Tulsa in the afternoon which left me time to bird on my own earlier.  I had no hotspots in mind which in some ways made it more fun as I simply pulled off the highway almost as soon as I crossed into Oklahoma and just picked a likely road and explored.  It was only 7:30 in the morning (love those high speed limits) when I exited Interstate 35 onto U.S. Highway 177 and then turned onto N. 60th Street in Braman, Oklahoma. This took me through rural farmland with scattered brush and a few trees.  I checked the fields, the wires, the copses of trees and the brush (and a small pond) and in a half hour had 15 species including an unexpected Red Headed Woodpecker, a fairly rare Raven, 2 Harris’s Sparrows and both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks – hearing both distinctive songs.  I really had no idea what was around so I was happy with the results.  Back on the Interstate, I added House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons and Red Winged Blackbirds at a rest stop and then turned east on Highway 412, the Cimarron Turnpike, and quickly added Mallard, Northern Harrier and Hooded Merganser.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Feeling that I was way ahead of schedule, I again got off the highway and added some more species including an American Kestrel and a Red Shouldered Hawk among others and found myself with 30 species by around 10 a.m.  I was something over an hour away from Tulsa where I would meet Floyd and Bob so I decided to forego further birding and head to that rendezvous.

Red Shouldered Hawk

red-shouldered-hawk-1.jpg

Where to start about Floyd Murdoch?  And once started where to end?  There could be many separate blog posts on Floyd and also his buddy Bob Holbrook.  I will start with that it was a blast birding with these two guys and it was like taking a ride through the history of birding in the U.S.  I started birding in 1971 while still in law school at Stanford.  That was a very different world without the internet, Google Maps, GPS systems, Ebird, cellphones, email, personal computers and digital cameras. I had a very inexpensive pair of binoculars and no spotting scope.  You contacted people face to face, by letters or by telephone.  At most phone trees were sources of information about what was seen or being seen when and where.  It was 40 years before the release of the movie, “The Big Year” .

It was two years after Jim Tucker, Stuart Keith and others founded the American Birdwatcher’s Association, which soon was renamed the American Birding Association (the ABA).  I had never heard of that group and my attention was on another much older ABA – the American Bar Association which I soon hoped to join.  Benton Basham became membership chairman in 1971 and he was responsible for much of the organization’s growth in the next decade.  The current membership of the birding ABA is almost 50,000 strong.   For comparison there are almost 4 times as many dues paying members in the lawyer ABA.  Might the world be better off if the number was higher in one and lower in the other?  Readers can decide for themselves.

Unlike the Audubon Society (Societies) which were mostly involved with conservation and research, the ABA was focused on the sport/hobby of birding with listing being a driving force and Big Year’s were a Big Deal.  In 1953, Roger Tory Peterson traveled the U.S. and set the Big Year record at 572 species.  Building on that experience, the Keith brothers added another 27 species coming all so close to the then magical 600 mark.  In 1971 Ted Parker, a college freshman took the Big Year lead with 626 species.  As Scott Weidensaul says in his wonderful history of birding, Of a Feather, “Lists that had once taken a lifetime to accumulate were now the work of a single frenzied, year”. (Page 290).

Enter Floyd Murdoch, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and Kansas teenager Kenn Kaufman.  Floyd took a year off from his research and set out with a goal of seeing 600 species.  Kaufman from the start was out to break Parker’s record and despite very little funds, he did so ending 1973 with 663 species, his story recounted in his popular book Kingbird Highway.  What many people do not know is that it was Floyd Murdoch who set the new record that year with 669 species.  I heard many stories about that year and could easily write a blog about them.  But equally of interest were the many stories Floyd shared about his birding all over the world, his work on the boards of many charitable organizations, his development work in poor countries around the globe and his time as President of the National Audubon Society.  He is a devout Seventh Day Adventist and a life long Republican (forgive him but only because he does not support Donald Trump).

Floyd’s perspective on birding is best summed up by an intro to an article in College and University DIALOGUE :  “Spend an hour with Floyd Murdoch and you’ll walk away a convert—to the joys of bird watching. Even if you’ve never ever looked for a bird, he’ll have you convinced it’s the most exciting thing in the world. For Floyd, bird watching goes beyond a mere hobby. It’s a passion that opens up doors to bigger issues: creation, camaraderie, conservation, a God of love who creates beauty.”  My personal take would omit the reference to a God of love although I would not argue about that for him or anyone else who views the world through that lens, but it is otherwise exactly in sync with my view of birding and especially my experiences with, the purpose behind and the lessons from my 50/50/50 Birding Adventure believing birding to be a passion that opens up doors to bigger issues – especially ones of shared values, shared experiences and shared appreciation of birds and nature and those that love them and finding beauty in that – despite our differences in other areas.

Floyd Murdoch and Bob Holbrook

Floyd and Bob

Bob Holbrook was another Adventist birder and although not as famous as Floyd, his credentials (and skills) were very impressive.  He is not a lister (or at least an admitted or publishing one) but has birded since his youth and has traveled to 95 countries and birded in most of them.  The size of his Life List never came up but I got the sense it was well past half of the birds of the world and I think he has well more than 100 species in each of the 50 states.  He was also a fun companion with great eyes and was often the first to find a bird during our time together.  The photo above was taken at a famous roadside attraction off the famous “Route 66” in Foyil, Oklahoma.  I will include more about it in the next blog about the second day in Oklahoma, because we did return with Zach.  Hint:  it is in front of the World’s Largest Concrete Totem Pole a creation of Ed Galloway.  More later.

We birded primarily in Rogers County northeast of Tulsa starting at the Rogers State University Conservation Reserve.  Eleven of the 19 species we found there were new for the day and it began to look like 50 species would be reachable.   Two species that were often heard on this trip but not always seen were Red Bellied Woodpecker and Northern Cardinal.  Here I had nice photo chances for both.

Red Bellied Woodpecker

Red Bellied Woodpecker (2)

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

I also took advantage of a great photo opportunity for Northern Bobwhite.  Unfortunately these birds were in a pen, so not “countable” in the wild, but I include the photo anyhow.

Northern Bobwhite

Bobwhite

We continued birding in the Claremore, Oklahoma area and found an Eastern Phoebe and a Turkey Vulture and then Bob spied a gray and white bird on a small roadside tree.  Was it another Northern Mockingbird or a Loggerhead Shrike?  It allowed us to get close and the picture is proof that it was the latter, my 45th species for the day.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike1

Species 46 was a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in the same area.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Yellow Breasted Sapsucker

When I had spoken to both Zach and Floyd  before arriving in Oklahoma, they had both emphasized how the timing was working out well since waterfowl were beginning to arrive and would guarantee getting fifty species.  So far on this day the only water birds were a Pied Billed Grebe, an American Coot and a Mallard.  Our next stop took care of that and raced us past 50 species.  At a pond on South Oak Street, still in Claremore, we added 8 new duck species bringing my total to 54.  So the insurance policy was in place and state number 49 was unofficially complete.  If the weather turned against us the following day, there was money in the ban so to speak.  The weather did not turn bad and we did not have to draw on these reserves, but that will be a story for the next blog post.  And there would be more this day as well.

Floyd was familiar with every nook and cranny in Rogers County where the family had a home and in neighboring Mayes County.  It was in Mayes that we had one of my favorite stops and with a favorite story.  When we arrived at the Pryor Sewage Ponds, Floyd was surprised to find that the gate was open.  We had found gates open twice before earlier and counted that up as good luck.  Here was better than good as it gave us access to two ponds filled with good birds.  We found 16 species, half of which were new for the day and included our only shorebirds:  Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs and a Wilson’s Snipe.  We also added two gulls:  Franklin’s and Bonaparte’s and better yet, two waders: Great Egret and White Faced Ibis.  The latter was quite a surprise, not just in being there but in how we found it.  Bob and I walked up to the edge of the first pond and the Ibis must have been no more than a few feet away but down along the bank invisible to us.  Fortunately it just flew across the pond and we were able to get good views and an ok photo.

Franklin’s Gull

Franklin's Gull

Great Egret

Great Egret1

White Faced Ibis

WF Ibis1

As we were about to leave an official looking pick up truck drove up to the gate.  Were we in trouble?  Not at all.  He was indeed an official and was there to close and lock the gate but was happy that we were having a good visit and invited us back anytime.  He enjoyed learning about some of the birds we were seeing and was interested in my 50 state Adventure which Floyd explained to him.  So what could have been a down moment proved to be an up one with yet another person giving his best when given the chance.  There have been so many of these moments during my trips.  We left the ponds with 62 species.  There would be 4 more species ahead of us including one good and controversial one.

Not far away still in Pryor we found several birds foraging in the leaf litter along the road and in the nearby brush and small trees.  We added House Finch, American Goldfinch and Swamp Sparrow to our day list and then all of us focused on a “different” small bird bobbing its tail as it foraged on the ground.  We noted its distinct and large supercilium and its drab yellow brown color.  We all immediately thought Palm Warbler from all of those details and the behavior.  Ebird noted it as a rarity at this time but we did not give it a second thought.  Later I was contacted by the Ebird reviewer who asked for a photo.  Mine was not great, but I felt it supported the identification, and forwarded it to him.  He wondered if it might instead be a juvenile Orange Crowned Warbler.  The ID was not important to me but I recalled the Palm Warbler was a new County Bird for Floyd so hoped we had been correct  It turned out that the Orange Crowned would have been a new County Species for him as well so it did not matter, but we were correct that it was a Palm Warbler.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

We called Zach Poland and told him the good news that we had surpassed 50 species for the day and arranged to meet for dinner.  On the way we found a small flock of Canada Geese, our 66th species for the day.  Dinner was at a fish market/restaurant and I overdid it with too much fried food, my first in quite a while and I hoped the weight I had lost in several weeks of dieting before the trip was not returning.  But it was a celebratory meal and having Zach Poland added to the group was great.  Lots of stories at dinner and it was clear that we would have lots of fun the next day.  Zach was pleased that we had more than the benchmark 50 species, but I was pretty sure he was determined to beat our mark for the day and was confident we would do so.  You will have to read the next bog post to find out if the confidence was well placed and what our total was despite a change in the weather with dropping temperatures, heavier winds and those predicted showers.

 

No Jayhawks and No Seahawks – Birding in Kansas

This was to be the last leg of my 50/50/50 Adventure – birding in Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Kansas was the only state I had not visited before, so even the touchdown at the Wichita Airport was meaningful. I had come close before – about 7 miles to the west as part of the “Chickens” tour with High Lonesome Tours in April 2016. Another member of our group had not been to Kansas either, but we were unable to talk Forrest Davis into a short detour to check off a new state rather than checking off a new species.  I would be birding with Tom Ewert on November 5th. Our email exchanges and telephone calls had been positive and enjoyable. I was sure the day would be fun but Tom was a little unsure if we would be able to get the targeted 50 species as this was a “tweener” time after most of the fall migration was complete and before all of the winter birds were in place. He did not want Kansas to be the only state that failed to produce 50 species in a day on my journeys. I don’t mind breaking the suspense to report that we surpassed 50 species early in the day and with Tom’s excellent guidance we found 81 species – a surprise to both of us. It was also a very fun day reaffirming the major point of my project – lots of great people in our birding community and birding with them is a very enjoyable activity.

Jayhawk and Seahawk

Jayhawk seahawk-logo.jpg
About that Jayhawk/Seahawnk title. At least in the bird world, there are no actual “Jayhawks” or “Seahawks”. The Seahawk is the mascot and name for the NFL football team in Seattle. Birdwise, it is most likely an Osprey but the name itself was chosen as a combination of “Sea” as in Seattle and Hawk – as in many non-specific birds of prey. The history of the Jayhawk is more complex. It is the mascot of the University of Kansas and is supposedly a combination of Jay as in Blue Jay and Hawk as in Sparrow Hawk (now a Kestrel). The name was coined in 1848 and the reader is referred to https://kuhistory.ku.edu/articles/blackmars-origin-jayhawk for an interesting historical account.

As related to my birding trip in Kansas, no Ospreys but lots of Blue Jays and Kestrels but I certainly saw lots of “Jayhawks” on the sweatshirts of KU supporters even though I was birding around Wichita – home to Wichita State University known as the Wheat Shockers – and I can conjure no avian reference there. So much for that diversion – on to the birding. On visits to previous states, I found that several species could be found around my motel before heading off to more traditional spots. European Starlings, House Sparrows and Rock Doves are often around and while almost always found later as well, there is a sense of momentum that comes with an early start to a list. Tom was picking me up at daybreak, but I was up early and so walked around my motel and found a little pond that got me off to a great start without any of those aforementioned species. There were 5 duck species, a Great Blue Heron, a Carolina Wren and a Song Sparrow. It turned out that the Wood Duck observation was the only one of the day. A great start for sure.

Tom arrived ahead of schedule and there was an immediate comfort level reaffirming my good feelings from prior communications. We headed off to Maple Grove Cemetery where we found many of the more common birds that were expected and one great surprise. My 50/50/50 trips are really focused or maybe better “unfocused” on simply finding 50 species in a day unlike many of my other birding trips which are often targeting specific species without regard to quantities. On those excursions I am chasing a rarity or perhaps trying to add to a year list, a state list or my ABA list. No ABA “Lifers” were possible in Kansas but there was a possibility for a new ABA Life photo – IF we could find a Winter Wren. Tom thought it was possible and in fact had scouted some potentially good areas the day before. He had not found a Winter Wren then but this was the time they should be arriving so maybe we would get lucky. As we passed by a small stream – perfect habitat – Tom perked up and said he was hearing the “kilp” call/rattle of our target. These are notoriously skulky birds and are very quick to pop into the open but then disappear even more quickly into brush. This was the act we watched for several moments – with fleeting glances at best. Then it was in the open – for less than a second – insufficient time for me to get in focus. There was one more somewhat open view in abysmal light and I finally got a photo – a very poor one that is better than perhaps only one of my other ABA photos – the equally elusive Sinaloa Wren found onto Santa Gertrudis Lane in Arizona last February. Use your imagination when you look at the photo but poor or not, I was thrilled and our day list was now at 28 species and it was not yet 8:00 a.m.

Winter Wren

winter-wren.jpg

We picked up a few more species on the way to Chisholm Creek Park and Great Plains Nature Center where 3 goose and 3 sparrow species brought us to 41 for the day and Tom was definitely more relaxed. I also saw my first Osage oranges. Fortunately they were discovered on the ground and not after one hit me in the head.  Perhaps not as bad as getting hit by a coconut, but with a diameter over 4 inches and solid, they are dangerous.  Many were seen during the day on the ground and still on trees and several were heard thudding on the ground.

Tom Ewert at Great Plains Nature Center

Tom Ewert

Osage Orange

Osage Orange Osage Oranges in Tree

After the Nature Center, we did one of those things that comes with having local experts and local knowledge. We stopped at a Walmart and got the Great Tailed Grackles that hang out there looking for handouts. Not a pristine environment but in this exercise, a species is a species regardless. At Cheney Reservoir and SP a Savannah Sparrow was species 49 for the day and we still had a lot of birding ahead. Quickly on Silver Lake Road we added another 6 species and there was no longer any concern that Kansas would not join the other 47 states where I had success. A lowly Eurasian Collared Dove was the 50th species for the day.

Great Tailed Grackle – A Walmart Special

Great Tailed Grackle1

One of the fun parts of birding in many different states is seeing the variation in species in different areas.  Song Sparrows and Dark Eyed Juncos are very common in my native Washington and are found in many other states including Kansas.  Note the differences between the typical variations found in the two states.

Song Sparrows (Washington and Kansas)

Song Sparrow  Song Sparrow

Dark Eyed Juncos (Washington and Kansas)

Dark Eyed Junco  Dark Eyed Junco

When I first started planning a trip to Kansas and knew it would have to be in November I thought that waterfowl would have to play a major role in reaching a good total. Inevitably this led me to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Birders I knew said this was a must see place and early conversations with Tom confirmed this and he thought this spot might have to be the place to get us our 50 species. Now with 50 species already in the record book, we headed west to enjoy this special place. The Kansas Ornithological Society had trips at Quivira the previous weekend and Tom had served as a guide. A highlight at the Refuge is the concentration of Sandhill Cranes with a sub-highlight sometime being the inclusion of some Whooping Cranes as they passed through in migration on their way south to Aransas NWR in Texas. On the Sunday before I arrived 4 Whooping Cranes had been at Quivira. We hoped they might have stayed but it was a long shot.

Well, there were no Whooping Cranes – just thousands of Sandhills and by the end of the day we had 52 species at Quivira and had added 25 species for the day – all but 4 being water related. One that was not water related was a Short Eared Owl that Tom spied hunting on a grassland behind one of the ponds. That would turn out to be the only owl seen on the entire trip.  There were also 7 species of sparrows including two of my favorites – Field Sparrow and Harris’s Sparrow.  But the highlights really were the waterfowl with 5 species of geese, 2 swans and 9 ducks.  There were also maybe 100 American Avocets.

American Avocet

American Avocet

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

We had our rarest bird of the day at Quivira also – a late Wilson’s Phalarope that we originally identified as a Red Necked Phalarope but when Tom posted the photo (distant) on a Kansas Birding site, the consensus was Wilson’s.

Wilson’s Phalarope

Wilson's Phalarope

All in all 36 of the 81 species seen during the day were water related – geese, ducks, swans, shorebirds, waders, gulls, grebes or cormorants. We did even better than Tom had suspected in these categories and much better with the passerines although nothing like the experience would have been in the spring or fall migrations.  And while we had hawks and jays, there were neither Jayhawks nor Seahawks.

Sandhill Cranes Silhouetted at Sunset

Sandhill Cranes at Sunset

In my write-ups after these 50/50/50 birding trips, I try to cover some non-birding issues but stress that it is the birding that links us as part of a wonderful community with many wonderful people all with their own stories.  Tom Ewert is a great case in point.  I had contacted him via Wichita Audubon and he had graciously agreed to join me for the day.  He had done great scouting before our trip and was super on the day of birding itself both as an excellent birder and a very interesting person.  Most birders I know are more to the left than the right on the political spectrum, but there are Republican birders out there, and the states I was visiting on this trip are definitely Republican strongholds.  None moreso than Kansas which is very conservative.  Nothing is more indicative of this than that Kansas (and Wichita) is the Headquarters for Koch Industries one of the largest privately owned companies in the U.S. and is home to the Koch family with its enormous influence on the Republican party through massive financial contributions.  Fortunately Tom and I were mostly on the same page so no difficulty there.  His major issues were with Kansas politics that are often at odds with conservation issues and threaten the loss of birding habitat.

I admired Tom’s birding acumen and his activism on conservation issues.  I also admired his personal story of overcoming a potentially serious health threat.  Last year with little warning, he found that he had a meningioma – a tumor that forms on membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord just inside the skull.  It required brain surgery and fortunately as is usually the case was determined to be benign.  Nonetheless there are impacts from the tumor and the surgery that are similar to strokes and require time and lots of rehab efforts to overcome.  Other than a scar on his head where the surgeons cut through his skull, there seem to be no impacts.  The desire to get back into the field to bird was a motivator in his recovery efforts.  It has been my privilege to bird with people like Tom who have overcome major health matters and who continue to add to and benefit from our community.

Some of my good birding friends in Washington are very serious County Listers – a “disease” I fortunately have not caught.  Tom has it big time and while I am sure I have the details wrong, I think he either has already seen or is close to seeing 100 species in each county in Kansas.  This takes on a lot more meaning when you understand that there are 105 counties in Kansas (Washington by contrast has only 39) and that the distance from Northeast Kansas to Southwest Kansas is over 420 miles.

Some other quick reflections on Kansas:  (1) At least where I was it was flat – VERY flat – did not even notice a hill.  (2)  Kansas is an “open carry” state, although I never saw any firearms.  (3) Despite a big downturn with big changes at Boeing, there is a strong aerospace industry in Kansas and the Wichita airport is as beautiful an airport as I have seen. (4)  A big surprise to me was that Pizza Hut was founded by the Carney Brothers while students at Wichita State University in 1958.  And just saying – Carney certainly sounds more Irish than the expected Italian as a “pizza heritage”.  (5)  Kansas is a very religious state including a sizable Mennonite population.  Tom was raised in that tradition but left it.  As with the Amish in Ohio and particularly at Magee Marsh, many in the group are excellent birders – and yes, there is a story there – but not for this blog to tell.

So Kansas was the 50th state I had visited and the 48th state where I had observed more than 50 species in a single day.  I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and like so many other places along the way during this 50 state Adventure, I hope to get back.  I would love to get to the prairies in the western part of the state or to experience migration in the eastern part.  The presence of both eastern and western species is a fascinating part of the Kansas ornithological story and explains why more than 450 species have been recorded in this completely landlocked state.  I was off to Oklahoma and there will be stories to tell from that experience – many.