2020 as representing the calendar year and 20 20 as representing perfect vision could not be more different as nothing seems to be clear at all in the year 2020 with the Covid-19 Pandemic raging and the buffoon in the White House and his cultish sycophants making a mockery of every institution and value that I had believed were the foundations of our country. I have NOT contracted the virus and so far nobody I know has been hospitalized. Similarly nobody I know has been directly affected by the police brutality and ensuing demonstrations and counter-demonstrations and violence that have followed. So I really have no right to complain – at least comparatively.
But it is now September and looking back there have been six months of constrained activities and travel and political unrest that have made this year quite awful. Looking forward, it is two months of ugliness until what will be the most important election in our history and probably chaos afterwards regardless of the victor as the foundation is laid for discrediting the vote and challenging the result. Birding has always been my escape from troubles – finding solace in the beautiful places, wonderful people and the birds themselves that are part of this passion. Not so this year. Birding friends are on their own as am I and the thrill of the chase is just not compelling.
I birded exactly three times in August – a pelagic trip on August 1st and two brief visits to Eide Road and Fir Island. My August list was 60 species – exactly half on the pelagic trip and half on the other visits. It is significantly lower than my usual counts and compares for example to 247 species in August 2017. Unlike in other years, there was just no drive and/or ability to chase rarities – of which there were many in Washington and especially in Arizona where up to 6 life birds were possibilities. More importantly, there was no relief from the malaise that has set in – much gray despite the many sunny days. I usually average at least 2 or 3 blog posts a month. Writing them is enjoyable and cathartic, reinforcement of good times. My last post regarding birds recently seen was almost two months ago describing my glass as less than half empty and more than half full. Today the relationship that underscored that calculation remains strong so if the glass is my life, the assessment still holds, but my birding glass and my writing glass are losing volume every day – not quite empty but trending that way.
Maybe I will be able to bird somewhere in the next week which may help. With no current birding to write about, today I sat down to write something – anything to engage the positive memories and some joy and appreciation – something to lift my spirits. These are just random recollections, written about before, remembered today. Ten really good times before the two existential threats of a pandemic and a would be monarch darkened our world – ten reminders of the joys of birding.
But first I need to at least show the “missed” Arizona opportunities to get them out of my system adding Plain Capped Starthroat, Ruddy Ground Dove to the Berylline and White Eared Hummingbirds, Eared Quetzal, Common Crane, Buff Collared Nightjar, Crescent Chested Warbler and Flame Colored Tanager that I whined about missing in my earlier Blog Post about my half full glass.
Plain Capped Starthroat
Ruddy Ground Dove
OK so much for birds not seen. There may never again be a time to have a chance for 5+ ABA lifers in one place and there have been 9 in Arizona this summer, but then again there is always next year – assuming there is no civil war going on.
While I cannot say that the following ten experiences are my best ever, they certainly are among the best for a combination of great birds (or animals) or places or events. They are in chronological order starting with the Harpy Eagle nest and chick seen on my trip to Brazil in 2005. I worked with a tour company but did the trip on my own. I had a guide only for two days at Cristallino in the Amazon and not all of my time was spent birding as I enjoyed time in Rio, at Iguassu Falls, the Pantanal and the Amazon. All told I saw 273 species including many spectacular birds. More than half were at Cristallino and 69 were in the Pantanal. Among the best birds were 6 Aracaris and Toucans, 19 parrot like birds including Hyacinth Macaws, 17 Antbirds, 5 Trogons, 16 waders, 2 Tinamou species, a Sungrebe and 14 raptors including my favorite for the trip and one of my favorite stories.
To get to Cristallino, I flew first from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo, and from there to Alta Floresta and then by boat to the Lodge. While waiting for the boat I met a tour group led by a famous Brazilian guide. While he was regaling his group in the building I walked around looking for birds. Unbeknownst to me there was a Harpy Eagle nest up one of the trails. I found it in shock and it was occupied by a mother and chick. I raced in to tell the others and blew his story as he was just about to lead the group to see one of the most sought after of Amazonian birds.
Harpy Eagle – Amazon – September 5, 2005
I chronicled a favorite memory of my trip to Kenya in “The Circle of Life” blog which I published on October 4, 2016. [See https://blairbirding.com/2018/08/06/keen-on-kenya/%5D, That post included some birds but was primarily about “my father’s leopard”, a magical emotional encounter with this beautiful animal at Samburu National Park in November 2007 – perhaps a “gift” to me from my father who had passed away three months earlier. That will always be the best moment of that trip, but there were many more. We had been watching a Lilac Breasted Roller by the Samburu River when for some reason I turned and looked out the back of our jeep and saw a Leopard, the first of our trip. We forgot the Roller and followed the Leopard which sprawled on a tree right before us. My father’s last words to me before he died were to say hello to a leopard in Africa for him. I did – through my tears.
Lilac Breasted Roller/Leopard – Samburu. Kenya – November 1, 2007
In 2011 I was scheduled to have my first “major” surgery, a complete replacement of my right shoulder. Hoping for the best but being aware that there were always risks, I decided to do the top thing on my bucket list – just in case the surgery did not go well. That was seeing a Bengal Tiger in India. I signed on for a trip with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (the same group I joined in Kenya) that promised Birds, Tigers and the Taj Mahal. The birds were great and the Taj Mahal remains one of my all time favorites, but nothing was better than watching a Tiger stalking a deer at Kalindi Kinj Park
Bengal Tiger – January 5, 2011 – Kalindi Kinj Park – India
The shoulder surgery actually did not go well and I had to have it redone in 2012. That was the first year I truly chased birds for my Washington State List. The following year after a good start in January and February, I decided to do a State “Big Year”. There were many great birds that year but my favorite for sure was the Lesser Sand Plover. This species used to be called a Mongolian Plover. I had seen my first one in Washington on September 1, 2013 – a drab bird not in breeding plumage. I had seen my first one in the world on the Esplanade in Cairns, Australia in September 2003 – a place where this Australasian species is regular. I discovered the bird featured here on a Audubon field trip that I was co-leading with Tim Boyer. We were driving on the open beach near the casino and were seeing numerous Semipalmated Plovers in casual water that had collected in little ponds in the sand. As we sped past one of these ponds I spied a small plover with the distinctly orange-rufous chest marking of the Lesser Sand Plover. I stopped the car and jumped out without even turning off the motor and leaving my passengers quite stunned. The Plover was very cooperative and posed for photos. Best yet, it remained for another week and many people attending the WOS Conference the following week also got to see this little gem.
Lesser Sand Plover – Ocean Shores – September 1, 2013
The best way to add to a “getting longer” ABA Life List is to get to Western Alaska if you have not already been there. I had not, so I jumped at a chance to join John Puschock and his Zugunruhe Tour Company on a trip to Adak Island with an extension to Nome in 2016. The visit included land birding on Adak and then a 3 day pelagic trip from Adak. Closing was a three day visit to Nome.
Great birds on and around Adak included Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Aleutian Tern, Far Eastern Curlew, Rock Ptarmigan and Common Snipe before we took off on the Puk Puk for our offshore adventure and then a Hawfinch when we returned. As an interesting aside, the great group of birders included Neil Hayward who then held the ABA Big Year record and Olaf Danielson who was on a quest to set a new record. He ended up beating Neal’s mark but was outdone by John Weigel that same year.
A main quest for the pelagic trip was Short Tailed Albatross. Unfortunately we found only one – a juvenile who was seen with a Laysan Albatross very near our boat giving me the chance for the striking photo below. It is pretty hard to make a Laysan Albatross seem small but the Short Tailed did it. Other lifers for me were Red Legged Kittiwake, and Crested, Least and Whiskered Auklets.
Later on three marvelous days in Nome, I added Gray Cheeked Thrush, Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, Bristle Thighed Curlew, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Willow Ptarmigan and Spectacled Eider. Thus there were 17 Lifers on the trip. [See below for an even larger addition in Florida the next year.]
Alaska – Adak – Short Tailed and Laysan Albatrosses – May 31, 2016
Mt peregrinations for my 50/50/50 Adventure took me to every state and to many very special places and had many special birds. In May I had the chance to visit Magee Marsh for the first time. No lifers there but many lifer photos including a stunning Connecticut Warbler. New (and continuing) girlfriend, Cindy Bailey met me at Magee and then we went north to the Tawas birding festival in Tawas, Michigan. I was able to find my 50 species in a day there and on a great morning field trip added the endangered and iconic Kirtland’s Warbler. It was a very fun visit and the warblers at Tawas in the afternoon were even more cooperative if less numerous than the ones at Magee.
The next day we visited an area in Southeastern Michigan, where we had a chance for another lifer – a Henslow’s Sparrow. We flushed one and never found it again partially because our visit was shortened by quickly arriving heavy rains accompanied by a very loud siren. At first we had no idea why there was a siren screaming at us. When we realized it was a tornado warning, we wondered if we were safer staying put or heading off – possibly into the danger zone. We never saw a funnel and were glad we did not. It made for a memorable birding adventure though – even without another chance to refind the Henslow’s.
Kirtland’s Warbler – May 18, 2019 – Tawas MI
Florida in 2017 was a great visit with Edmonds friend Frank Caruso hooking up with Paul Bithorn, a guide out of Miami that Ann Marie Wood spoke highly of. We would combine private guiding by Paul with a three day trip to the Keys and the Dry Tortugas with the Tropical Audubon Society. For me it was a chance not only to add some ABA Lifers but also to get photos of Florida specialties that I had seen on visits to Florida in the 1970’s when I was not taking pictures.
The birding was excellent and both life photos and ABA Life birds were many. Starting with a Spot Breasted Oriole and concluding with a Red Cockaded Woodpecker, I added 21 ABA Lifers and almost 40 life photos.
It was not a Life Bird I had a Life Photo from the previous day, but it was certainly right up there with my favorite photos and experiences ever. We had seen a couple of Swallow Tailed Kites earlier but on April 27th, while in the Everglades, two put on a great aerial show, with one within ten feet of us on several swoops. I took many photos and would have had even more except the Kite was so close, I could not focus the camera on it. Exhilarating moment.
Swallow Tailed Kite – Everglades – April 27, 2017
At 6:45 a.m. on the morning of August 31st, the following post appeared on “Tweeters” – the main birder communication site in Washington: “There’s a Swallow Tailed Gull at Carkeek Park now w(ith) California Gulls!!!” I was in my pajamas in Bellevue figuring out details for the remainder of the day that was going to include some dog sitting, checking out the mail at my condo in Edmonds and more steps to get rid of way too much stuff filling a storage unit. The post was from Ryan Merrill. Had it been from anyone else, I would have dismissed it as a joke, a mistake, a very late April Fools prank, but this was from Ryan – as good as there is and as caring and sharing as there is. Rule #1 for any chase is “GO NOW!!!!!!!”
I was dressed and out the door within 5 minutes – out into the drizzle and hoping that the traffic would not be too bad and of course that the gull would remain. Oddly I had just read something about Swallow Tailed Gulls a few days earlier when I was online looking up info about Swallow Tailed Kites and Google had pulled up the Gull before I finished entering the full inquiry. Wait – had I misread the post – was it a Swallow Tailed Kite – still extraordinary and cause for a mad dash – but at least more plausible than a Swallow Tailed Gull which belongs in the Galapagos?
Clearly this was going to be an incredible day – there was NO TRAFFIC – almost as rare in Seattle as – well as a Swallow Tailed Gull. I called Edmonds birding friends Steve Pink, Ann Marie Wood and Jon Houghton and broke the news to them. None of them had seen Ryan’s post. All would join later. I was at Carkeek Park by 7:30 and down on the beach across the railroad track I could see 4 birders looking at a flock of gulls gathered on the beach. They were not disinterestedly just looking about. They were looking at the gulls and I was then sure they were also looking at THE GULL. And one of them was Ryan Merrill. I joined them as fast as I could and as I approached they smiled and invited me to look into the scope and at – yes the Swallow Tailed Gull. WOW!! And that was a word that would be repeated many times over the next two hours as others would join the group. There it was – a beautiful unbelievable Swallow Tailed Gull in a group of 100+ other gulls. It was in adult plumage – dark head, white tipped dark bill, red around the eye – black and white patterned wings, white spot at the base of the bill, and of course – a swallow tail. Way beyond WOW!!!
The Gull stayed in the area for over a week making some notable stops in my hometown of Edmonds where I was happy to meet birding friend Deb Essman from Ellensburg. For Deb to come across the mountains was a big deal. This was a BIG DEAL and she joined perhaps 1000 people from all over the world that came to see this beauty.
Swallow Tailed Gull – August 31, 2017 – Carkeek Park, Sept 8 2017
Arkansas was the last state in my 50/50/50 adventure – finding 50 species on single days (50 of them) in each of the 50 states. With the expert guidance and company of Vivek Govind Kumar, we found more than 70 species with the best of them being many LeConte’s Sparrows (and even more Swamp Sparrows) at Woolsey Wet Prairie. There were also many Sedge Wrens. At first Vivek would find a LeConte’s only to have it pop up briefly and then disappear – no photo. Finally a few cooperated resulting in the photo below.
My Lifer LeConte’s Sparrow was a very unlikely one at Discovery Park in Seattle. I had raced down there after a posting on Tweeters our birding listserv. It is not my favorite place to bird as it is very large and I am not familiar with landmarks. Somehow I had found the right area. Several birders were spread out and I got lucky and found the skulking sparrow in some shrubs and even got a few nice photos.
The LeConte’s in Arkansas was my only one actually seen in the 50 state saga and I have to include it as representing the successful conclusion of my 50 state quest.
LeConte’s Sparrow – Woolsey Wet Prairie, Arkansas, November 9, 2019
My last “cloud lifter” was the “wild Kingdom” or Disney story of the Ross’s Gull at the Seattle Arboretum in December last year. The Ross’s Gull is a sacred iconic rarity in ABA birding – generally found only in the north of Alaska or Canada. It rarely makes an appearance in the lower 48 and always draws a crowd when it does. I had been one of the many Washington birders that was able to see the Ross’s Gull that Charlie Wright found at Palmer lake in December 2011. That after a long fast drive through the snow to get there with 3 others.
The saga of the Arboretum Ross’s is detailed in an earlier post [https://blairbirding.com/2019/12/02/two-extraordinary-days-featuring-a-ross’s-gull-and-a-mountain-plover/]. It was another mad dash after a posting on Tweeters. Fortunately I guessed the right path to take me to spot where maybe 20 birders were already looking at the mega rarity sitting on a platform. Unfortunately after maybe a half hour the gull left the platform and was almost immediately taken by a Bald Eagle as soon as it hit the water. We watched in horror as it was killed and eaten. Many birders arrived too late to see anything but feathers plucked by the Eagle.
Although I had not planned it this way when I chose the Eagle killed Ross’s Gull as the last of these random moments, but an experience yesterday (September 9th) confirms it as a good choice. While up at Eide Road searching for (and not finding) a Stilt Sandpiper, a single immature Ring Billed Gull was out on the large mudflat. Suddenly it had company as a Peregrine Falcon zoomed in and grabbed it in its talons. A few seconds of struggle and the gull became breakfast. A couple of Great Blue Herons flew in considering whether to challenge the falcon. They did not. But a few minutes later a Red Tailed Hawk did so and the Peregrine left the carcass. It repeatedly attacked diving at the hawk which stood its ground. Another natural drama between a gull and a raptor with the same result.
Ross’s Gull – December 21, 2011 – Palmer Lake – December 1, 2019 – Arboretum