27 November 2013

The "Sizable Year"

I don't think I've ever addressed the "Sizable Year" in my blog so this seems as good of a time as any.  Yes, strap yourself in, I'm going to be bragging about birds in this post.  See, my birding this year has evolved dramatically.  I started the year out stuck in California where my bird-related job put me outdoors nearly every day.  Ok, cool, right?  Lots of birds.  But... I also was eyeing some rarities that I wanted to chase... so I ended up doing that too.  Red-flanked Bluetail, Sky Lark, and Brambling in British Columbia, Pink-footed Goose and Northern Lapwings in New Jersey, etc.  Sure, quality ticks.  But then I realized that I was going to do a little traveling this year.  Hmm...

Then came a job in coastal Georgia where I worked with shorebirds every day.  But first I had to get there from California.  Well, as any crazed birder would have, I chased stuff along the way.  Additional quality ticks occurred such as Spotted Redshank in Indiana, Thick-billed Vireo and Western Spindalis in Florida, Black-tailed Godwit in Virginia, etc.  Working in Georgia helped me clean up a different corner of the country too.  For example, Swainson's Warblers bred just inland from where I was!  Easy peasy.  After that job finished, I was off to Florida again after some more life birds.  Ash and I snagged things like Black and Brown noddy, Brown and Masked booby, Sooty Tern, etc.

It was about this point that I realized what I was heading for... a decent ABA year list.  Now, this isn't a Big Year, as people often called it (if you're interested though, you should check out Neil Hayward's blog as he's getting close to the record).  But anyway, no, I wasn't hopping a flight to chase single birds, I wasn't driving 30 hours just to tick a year bird.  More importantly, I wasn't going to Alaska or taking any pelagic trips.  Besides, I'm just a poor boy, traveling and doing bird work around the country.  However, I WAS putting some effort into snagging birds along the way.    So... the "Sizable Year" began.

After Georgia and Florida, it was a prime time to head up to New York to visit family and snag a bunch more year birds (Bicknell's Thrush was a prime target, for example).  Then driving back via Michigan, I caught up to Henslow's Sparrow, etc.  One by one, these targets started being achieved.  It was time for south Texas... AGAIN.  Yellow-green Vireos were there and waiting... so that happened.  White-collared Seedeaters were easy; overall, another solid visit to south Texas.  Ash and I birded Arizona a bit and picked up more things like Rosy-faced Lovebirds, Buff-collared Nightjar, Lucifer Hummingbird, etc.

Back home in California, I couldn't rid myself of the bug; I chased some more year birds like Lesser Sand-Plover and California Gnatcatcher in San Diego and Spotted Dove in LA.  There was no turning back now... year birds were on my mind.  I never set out to break any records other than my own; I really wanted to reach 600 in a year, something I had never done before.

The next step came when I decided to work in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for the fall.  This would be a great way to catch up with some more northerly species that I had missed so far.  But just like all my other field jobs... I had to drive there first.  This time I had a set list of targets as I drove from California to Michigan.  I didn't get them all, of course, but did manage to snag Black Rosy-Finch, Himalayan Snowcock, Pinyon Jay, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Chukar, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, etc.  The mountains were good to me... but how about the prairies?  I was running out of time to find breeding species there.  And yes, I missed some gettable birds.  But I also managed to stir up Lark Buntings, Chestnut-collared and McCown's longspurs, and late Upland Sandpipers.  Just before I got to Michigan, I very luckily snagged Golden-winged Warbler and Eastern Whip-poor-will in Wisconsin; it would be silly to miss those!

After reaching Michigan, year birds came fast and furious.  I ended up tallying 28 different year birds during the fall waterbird count there.  I was closing in on 600... but I needed a few more.  I know, I needed another trip to Texas and Arizona!

So, that was the background.  Now that you're up to speed, it's time for me to leave Michigan and head back home to California.... via the loooonnnggg way home.

Leaving Whitefish Point was more difficult than I wanted it to be; we had a blizzard that knocked out power for a day and coated the roads with ice.  Lovely!  I wanted to bird my way down to south Texas and this wasn't the start I had hoped for.  I finally did escape though and this lonely COMMON MERGANSER at the river mouth was one of the only birds to see me off:

Elsewhere in the UP, I had these 5 Tundra/Trumpeter swans fly over.  Sadly, they were going the wrong way and I didn't get a great look at them:

Once out of the UP, I also saw a phoebe in Iowa.  Rather, my niece Phoebe!  I had returned to Iowa for a brief visit and enjoyed seeing family and my former home.  In fact, I drove through Ames and briefly stopped by my old apartment.  The trail out back didn't look all that different from when I left in 2011:

After Iowa, I headed straight for Kansas where I had a few year birds targeted.  First up, Smith's Longspur at Lyon State Fishing Lake near Emporia.  This was a species I had obviously wanted to find in Michigan but it just never happened for me.  But Lyon SFL was my go-to spot in previous years so I had hopes of finding them there again.  Although no one had eBirded any from there this fall, I took to strolling the fields and a few minutes later, boom, 4 SMITH'S LONGSPURS flushed right in front of me.  Excellent.

Another target for me in Kansas, albeit quite easy, was HARRIS'S SPARROW.  This species can be fairly easy in the UP of Michigan but it was another species that just didn't occur at Whitefish Point this fall.  I stopped at a few bushy thickets along some Kansan roadsides and it wasn't long before a hoard of 30 popped up.  Here's one of them:

I had hoped for GREATER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN but, along with many of the grassland chickens, I just wasn't at the right place at the right time this year.  Oh well.  I am quite partial to Kansas though.  Anyone have a bird-related job there for me????

So, I had finished in Kansas snagging 2 of the 3 targets I was after.  Not bad considering my pressed time schedule.  Now it was a straight shot down to southern Texas were a slew of year birds were waiting for me.  With a little luck, I might also see the continuing Amazon Kingfisher and Rose-throated Becard that had been seen earlier.  Of course, it's never that easy.  Stay tuned...

16 November 2013


It's been months since I've updated my own personal blog but hopefully you've been following along at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory waterbird blog.  If you're in desperate need to know what I saw every day, you can always go back and find my daily blog entries at:


However, the fall waterbird season has wrapped up here as winter seems to have an ever-tightening grip on the north woods.  I'll be heading out of Michigan soon and will be birding my way back to California (snagging year birds along the way, hopefully).

But before I leave, I thought I'd share a few photos from my stint here at Whitefish Point....

My job here centered around the waterbird count.  Simply put, I would start at dawn every day and count all the migrants for 8 hours, rain or shine.  The fall season here extends from mid-August to mid-November and has been run every fall for 25 years.  

More specifically, I was counting all the different waterbirds; things like loons, ducks, grebes, geese, and shorebirds.  The COMMON LOONS seem to be one of the most popular migrants that pass by here.  And for good reason; sometimes they'll fly directly overhead:

Perhaps less exciting, I also tallied several thousand CANADA GEESE:

Not all the geese that migrate past here are common though.  For example, this fall we had a rare ROSS'S GOOSE and several different bunches of SNOW GEESE.  Here's one that flew directly overhead:

Although most of the duck species that migrate past here aren't super rare, once in a while we'll get a treat such as this HARLEQUIN DUCK that passed by back in September:

Being surrounded by water, it's no surprise that we had lots of terns around including CASPIAN TERNS:

... and COMMON TERNS which sometimes migrate past by the hundreds:

Strangely, FORSTER'S TERNS aren't usually too common up here.  However, we had a great fall for them; here's one sporting that distinctive isolated dark cheek patch:

With a background in shorebird ecology, it's no surprise that I'm quite fond the shorebirds that migrate through here.  It was actually a great fall for shorebird diversity here at the point.  Here are a few photos of various kinds including this BAIRD'S SANDPIPER:


One of the most abundant shorebird species here were the SANDERLINGS:

One of the rare shorebirds that showed up this fall (multiple times, too) was the STILT SANDPIPER.  Here's one in a puddle up at the point:

However, not all shorebirds are at home out on the beach.  Here's a SOLITARY SANDPIPER that found some flooded woods inland:

The raptors here can be pretty decent too although spring is better-known for the large congregations here.  Here's a NORTHERN HARRIER from early in the season:

The warmer months also gave me bugs to look at, primarily a few butterflies.  Here's a COMMON BRANDED-SKIPPER:


I was also happy to be around some new sulphurs which included the PINK-EDGED SULPHUR (whose larval foodplant is wild blueberries, btw):

The later in the season it got, the colder and more bleak things became:

There were still bright moments though, such as having 3 TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRES at the point together:

... or this attractive first-cycle ICELAND GULL that stayed at the point for a day:

Of course, many birders that visit here hope to catch a glimpse of a JAEGER.  Generally speaking, this is one of the best spots in the Midwest to see jaegers (although they can be quite distant!).  During the course of the last three months, I've seen 40 different jaegers!  Here are a few random photos of PARASITIC JAEGERS:

Then there are always songbirds to snap pictures of if you're in the mood.  Here's the first LAPLAND LONGSPUR of the fall:

The feeders here at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory have a long list of rarities that have spent time there.  Although nothing too crazy showed up this fall, it's always worth a check.  Here's a GRAY CATBIRD that lingered near the feeders for a while:

And although this isn't at the point, there are great spots to see LE CONTE'S SPARROWS here in Chippewa County too (as long as you're in season):

One of my favorites up here in the north woods is the SPRUCE GROUSE.  We had a great fall for these at the point; one day, several of us saw this male throughout the day at different spots:

There is plenty of wildlife besides birds and bugs though.  I saw both moose and bear tracks right on the beach near the waterbird shack!  Then there are things like this MINK that spent almost an entire day underneath the shack:

Being at Whitefish Point for a season gives you the chance to see an incredible array of clouds and sunrises.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Even the waves, especially on stormy days, can be quite magnificent out here:

However, it's time for me to keep moving.  Stay tuned as I target year birds as I venture west.  And, yes, hopefully, I'll keep this updated a bit more frequently now!