Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013: The year in review

So it's almost the end of 2013, and it's been quite a birdy year!

According to eBird, I've seen 220 birds this year, with 127 of them from Texas, 121 here in Maine, and 19 in Canada (during the pelagic puking trip). There are duplications in those figures (between states) of course, but (unless a miracle happens and I get to go birding before the new year) I'm finishing the year with 415 lifebirds. Wow.

So how many lifers for 2013? Let's review:
Harlequin Duck (finally!), Dyer Point, ME
Glaucous Gull, Bath Public Landing, Bath, ME
Ah, the month I got my concussion while working. Sigh. It's always nice to get a lifer gull; it's never easy, as gulls are so incredibly hard, but Glaucous and Iceland gulls hang out in Bath every winter, and that day I got lucky. As gulls go, these two are easier to spot because they're "white-winged" gulls, so all those Herring and Ring-billed gulls disappear when you see the blazing white. I'm hoping to see Iceland Gull in January 2014.

Down the entire month with a concussion. No reading, no TV, no writing, no nothing. Though I will confess that I sneaked outside and played in the four-foot snowdrifts (over two feet of fallen snow):

Do I look a little dazed here? I was pretty out of it. I shouldn't have been outside, but I had cabin fever and AB agreed to let me go out for a little while. She still shakes her head at this.

Prairie Falcon
Clark's Grebe
Canyon Towhee
Montezuma Quail
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Mexican Jay
Scott's Oriole
Black-chinned Sparrow
Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Green-tailed Towhee
Plumbeous Vireo
Bell's Vireo
Brown-crested Flycatcher
Red-naped Sapsucker
Black-throated Sparrow
Lucifer Hummingbird
Scaled Quail
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Canyon Wren
 Black-throated Gray Warbler
The annual big trip to Texas yielded all sorts of amazing goodies, as sister Mary and I traveled to the Big Bend (her favorite part of Texas). So much greatness there; I'd love to spend a full year there, just to rack up the lifers and experience that gorgeous desert and those mountains in every season. Still, it gets pretty hot there, so we went early in the year!

And look at that list--probably my favorite (that I got a photo of, anyway) was probably the Black-throated Sparrow. Or the BTGray. Or the Verdin. Or--

Nothin'. I did see a Chukar, a probable escapee from someone's flock (raised for hunting, sadly), but of course he didn't really count. Still, he was beautiful! He hung around for most of the summer, squawking from the tippy-top of the neighbor's chimney!

(dangit, Blogger is in a bad mood and is suddenly not letting me post photos)

Northern Beardless-Tyranulet
Groove-billed Ani
Wood Stork
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Least Tern
Least Bittern
Magnificent Frigatebird
Red-crowned Parrot
Gray Hawk
Nelson's Sparrow
Back in Texas for my high school reunion and dealing with the HEAT! Another great trip to the birdiest state in the union, with all those great birds except for the Nelson's Sparrow, which I saw at Scarborough Marsh here in Maine.

Nothin'. That month was spent moving into our newly purchased home! No time for birdin'.

Atlantic Puffin
Pomarine Jaeger
Manx Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Great Shearwater
South Polar Skua
Leach's Storm-Petrel
Wilson's Storm-Petrel
Northern Fulmar
Need we discuss the puking? Let's just focus on the birds I managed to see, NOT the ones I slept/puked through and missed.


Snowy Owl
My Thanksgiving owling paid off again, as I got my first Snowy!

I tried to get a Barrow's Goldeneye today but found only Common, which are beautiful of course--but I wanted a Barrow's. AB was with me and we were supposed to be headed to Bath to go shopping at Reny's, so after two separate stops (New Meadows Marina and the Sabino Rd. Town Landing in West Bath), I figured I shouldn't push it and ask her if we could go and look for Iceland Gulls at the Bath Landfill. I know--who wouldn't want to check out the dump?

Not a bad year! That's 45 lifers--fewer than last year, but still a decent haul. Next year, because we're getting married, there won't be a big trip to Texas (gotta save money!). Still, maybe we'll get some good birds in the spring migration, and who knows what the rest of this winter will bring.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Lifer Snowy Owl!

We've been having quite the irruptive year for Snowy Owls here on the east coast, and a bunch here in Maine. After going into a food coma yesterday and missing out on my Thanksgiving Day birding, AB and I went down to the shore near the Biddeford Pool (about an hour away) to look for a Snowy that had been seen there last week.

We went out to the shoreline at the end of Orcutt Road:
 It wasn't anywhere this green out there (image is a screen capture of Google Maps). You see the little island there in the right corner, the one on the left? That was easily visible from Ocean Avenue, where I parked. I walked a little path through the brush to the rocks, my eyes fixed on a white blob on the rock.

Once I got to the rocks, I set up my little scope, focused, and BAM:
I know this is an awful photo, but that white shape on the rocks is a SNOWY OWL! Bird number 415!

We watched him for a while, and we were joined by others looking for the same owl. After seeing some Ruddy Turnstones (beautiful!), Common Eiders, a Horned Grebe, Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, and a lone female Harlequin Duck, we headed home.

Sweet success!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

FINALLY! A Brown Creeper photo!

I've been compiling a lifelist since 2006, and sometime after that point (when I got a camera) I started keeping a lifephotos folder as well. It took many, many sightings, but I finally got a good photo of a Brown Creeper for my file:
What a sweet little bird! He's up here in the frozen north, though I would think he'd have headed south by now. The weather's awfully chilly today (24 degrees, with gusty winds up to 28 mph; windchill in the low teens), so I hope he's okay.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pelagic puking trip!

If you're a friend on Facebook, you know that I finally went on a pelagic trip. I was so confident that I would see tons of birds, a whale or two. And I wouldn't get sick! Of course not! I was going to take Dramamine or Bonine, AND I was gonna wear some of those Sea Bands.

It was all going to be fantastic, and I was going to see lots and lots of lifers! Amazing birds I couldn't see on shore, birds that all look alike but are different! Shearwaters and skuas and petrels and storm-petrels and I would see them all!


So I did see a few lifers:  

Northern Fulmar

Great Shearwaters--so many they were trash birds by the end of it

Razorbills! I love them.

Sooty Shearwaters were mixed in with the Great Shearwaters

and Puffins! Atlantic Puffins! We saw three of them, and I managed a photo.

I say "managed," because most of the trip--all eight friggin' hours of it--I was puking my guts out or I was lying down, praying to be BACK ON LAND. Oh my sweet god, I can't even describe what it was like, other than THE WORST time of my life. I mean, I've been concussed, I've been sick, I've had broken ribs. But this... this was just awful. The most awful part was that I was TRAPPED. Trapped on that rocking rollercoaster ride from hell for eight hours. That little whte baggie is one--only one!--of my sick sacks.

Gretchen and Laura were on the boat as well. I will only say that one of them threw up even more than I did, and one threw up less than I. But suffice it to say that we were SO INCREDIBLY GLAD TO GET BACK ON LAND.

Okay. That's enough of that. So I did get some lifers. I didn't get many pictures because I was too dizzy to take pictures. Lifers:
Northern Fulmar
Great Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Manx Shearwater
Wilson's Storm-petrel
Leach's Storm-petrel
Atlantic Puffin
Pomarine Jaeger
South Polar Skua

I wish I could've gotten photos of all the lifers, but like I said--it wasn't possible. And I missed some others: Great Skua, Red-necked Phalarope, Parasitic Jaeger. And two Humpbacked Whales.

So I got ten lifers. Ten lifers for eight hours on a boat. Ten lifers for four sick sacks.

I'll take it.

Monday, July 15, 2013

High school reunion birding: Part 4, wrap-up

After the big dinner-dance on Saturday night, there was only one more reunion-related event to attend: the memorial walk on the beach, which featured big photographs of our classmates who've passed. It was a cool idea, well executed. Sadly, AB and I were a little late AND we went to the wrong spot so we missed most of the people who came, but we did see the photographs and some friends, and AB got to dip her toes into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time ever.

As we walked onto the beach on the Schlitterbahn boardwalk to get to the walk, however, we lucked out yet again:

A beautiful Magnificent Frigatebird! Lifer 402! It was getting crazy now; my giddiness was almost out of control. I had not expected to see one of these birds this far south; all the eBird sightings were farther north, but we got lucky AND I got photos! That silhouette (cloud cover = terrible backlit photo) is unmistakeable. So cool!

So after some farewells to the good old friends I'd been lucky enough to see again this weekend, AB and I went to the sand flats north of the Convention Center, a great staging area for lots of shorebirds back in the winters I've gone to Texas. As usual, the Valley delivered.

Here's a Caspian Tern somehow managing to gulp down a huge fish he'd just caught in the Laguna Madre -- apologies for the low-light low-quality images:

Check out my catch!

Okay, I'm ready for this... I'm so ready for this....

Oh. My. God. It's like I just swallowed a pillow. 
Please, digestion, PLEASE begin now.

Also found among the many Caspians were these two (I think?) Black Terns:
I'm guessing that's an adult molting out of breeding plumage on the left, while the one on the right seems to be hanging onto his cool outfit, per description in Kaufman.

Lots of Wilson's Plovers were being cute and giving us the stink-eye:

And the Least Terns were practically dive-bombing us and screaming at us. We were at least 25 yards away from where several of them were sitting on the sand, but I'm guessing that was still too close so we backed off.
GET LOST. Beat it. Scram. I mean it. Boys, GET 'EM.
We left!

We hit the Birding and Nature Center once again, hoping to get pics of the Least Bittern -- which I showed you last post, pathetic though they were! -- and we also saw the regulars:

Tricolored Heron in full regalia

Snowy Egret, just after snagging a tasty morsel

 a terrible but ID-quality photo of some Cattle Egrets, 
birds I grew up calling "cowbirds" because they were 
always hanging around the cows

Pied-billed Grebe, apparently not so common here in 
the summer; this was the only grebe we saw the whole trip -- 
no Least Grebes, so no temptation to scoop one up and put
it in my pocket! I was sad AB didn't get to see one of those.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck baby butts

I'm guessing this is a Mexican Ground Squirrel, a common sight in South Texas:
His (her?) markings aren't as impressive as the images online, but I can't find any other similar mammal match for the area.

And, as always happens when I go to the Island, I just HAD to try for the Aplomado Falcon. Longtime readers of this bloggy KNOW my tales of woe, my years of frustration and getting stuck in the mud and arguing with my sister (oh wait, I spared you that story)... and yet, I couldn't NOT go for it, you know?

AB and I looked. And looked. And looked at TUVUs, at seagulls. At cactus. At the non-muddy road. No Aplomado. No nothing.

Again, I assert that, like the Unicorn, the Aplomado Falcon is a mythical beast, and all sightings of him are merely the rantings of those who could use a stint in the booby-hatch.

I also engaged in my other usual Texas activity -- trying to make a common bird into something exotic, because it's TEXAS, dangit! -- . This trip's entry:

Try as I might to make these youngsters into Cassin's or even Botteri's Sparrows (which have been reported in this area, Old Port Isabel Hwy) , I'm guessing from the size, shape, and beak that they are baby House Sparrows. Any input? You can be honest. I refuse to devote any more time to it!

We had several Swainson's Hawks:
Western awesomeness.

At this point, it was Sunday evening, and I had one more potential lifer to chase: Red-crowned Parrot, seen near a Baptist church right in Harlingen. We'd tried on Thursday night but hadn't seen anything, but this time we doodled until right at sunset. I took AB to see the Iwo Jima memorial, and while we were out on the loop we saw this:
I can't begin to tell you the emotions that went through me when I saw this sign. It was just so amazing to me. See, when I was a kid, growing up in the Valley, the worst insult you could hurl at someone was "faggot." (It still IS in many places, I realize.) I didn't even know what the word meant, but I began to see a few limp-wristed guys in the movies or on TV that everyone laughed at as girly guys to be laughed at; I didn't even connect the whole "gay" thing with anything sexual; I was that naive. I was raised by pretty strict parents who took us to church every week, and I didn't know a lot about the world. I won't bore you with the details, but I didn't figure things out until I was well into my adulthood, and there was a LOT of angst during that process -- a LOT of angst and heartbreak and drama. Coming out was tough for me; the time I grew up, in the place I grew up, this kind of stuff just wasn't discussed

So... to see this sign, an official state sign, in Harlingen -- well, I gotta tell you. I almost cried when I saw it. And to have my fiancee by my side... well, it was just pretty special.

After that, only a lifer would do! So we went out and got us one:

Now remember, I told you it was around sunset -- so the lighting was bad. I tried a flash and that helped, though I doubt the parrots enjoyed it much.

They were so raucous and loud! It was so great! I was now at a ridiculous (for me) 403 lifebirds. Life was good. We could leave Texas now.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

High school reunion birding - Part 3

Our trip to Texas seemed to flash by in an instant, though it didn't feel that way sometimes when the sun was burning down on our little heads. Still, as with every trip, the clock started out by going at its regular pace and then sped up as Monday (departure time 1pm) approached.

At this point, I needed two more birds to hit 400 and we hadn't yet gone to South Padre Island. The SPI Birding and Nature Center never fails to disappoint; I knew we'd see some great birds.

There were five Marbled Godwits (a number eBird questioned, but I had all five in my sights at one point) hanging out in the shallows of the Laguna Madre, along with this American Avocet:

This was a neat bird, as I'd never seen one in breeding plumage. Beautiful!

That's when we started hearing a distinctive sound and this guy appeared:

Clapper Rail! Number 399! I had a video of him calling that somehow I deleted, dangit. Oh well.

We moved on, and we saw a flash of color -- LEAST BITTERN! I would not get good photos of this bird on this day or the next, but we definitely saw him! It's like every time he appeared, we saw him clearly, both with and without bins, but I never got my camera up in time. He was nothing like the LEBI in that Matthew Daw video (in which the LEBI is upstaged by a Rufous-necked Wood Rail, the photobombing of the century), who posed cooperatively down in New Mexico.

Here is the best I got when we came back the next morning:

What, you can't see him? Okay -- I understand. Here he is:
See him there? He's moving left to right. In the next shot, he's almost vanished into that black gap in the cattails:

That's his little bum there, circled. Difficult to photograph, but oh-so-easy to ID with those crazy distinctive colors. 

NUMBER 400! I was so giddy that AB was just laughing at me; I was SO glad she was there for this accomplishment. On all of my previous big birding trips AB has stayed behind (to preserve her sanity, quite honestly), so she's missed a lot of the big moments. This time, she was right beside me -- and it was perfect.

She was such a trooper, dealing with the heat and the bugs and the almost-constant bird fixation, but at times she had a lot of fun. She fell in love with the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and who can blame her?

They were everywhere: perched on a phone wire in town (awkward!), flying overhead, hanging out with their buds:

One of the neatest things was seeing all the babies. Here's a Mottled Duck and three of her ducklings:

I wish that cattail leaf hadn't blocked the adult's eye. We also saw this Black-bellied Whistling Duck family:
Look at those crazy markings! Hard to believe they'll grow up to look like their parents, but they will!

Not only would I get 400 at SPI, but I'd start on my way to (gulp!) 500 with this Least Tern:
I love that little black tip. These terns were flying all around at the birding and nature center, but I got this pic the next morning on the sand flats next to the Convention Center. So there we were, me with my 401 birds, when we had to leave to get to the big dinner/dance on the Island for the reunion.

What would Sunday and Monday bring? Stay tuned for the final part of our Reunion Birding trip story!

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

High school reunion birding Part 2

There's nothing like the prospect of having to pack the whole house to motivate me to do OTHER things. Things like blogging, sleeping, getting a root canal... anything to avoid the packing!

So here we go on Part 2 of our reunion/birding trip to the Rio Grande Valley. We stayed at a hotel in Harlingen so we'd be centrally located between the farthest west point, Bentsen RGV State Park, and South Padre Island. This turned out to be a good tactic, though I bet staying on the Island probably rocked really effing hard. Still, after spending a hot morning at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and then having breakfast at a place where I had to stumble through ordering food in probably the worst Spanish that waitress had heard since the snowbirds were around last winter, we decided to brave the heat and hit my favorite winter birding place, Estero Llano Grande State Park.

The heat was already stifling, but a good application of Deep Woods Off kept the bugs to a minimum. There were very few birds, probably due to the fact that all the ponds had been drained for summer maintenance. Still, we saw a few Black-necked Stilts, a yellowlegs of some sort (felt like Greater), a zillion Purple Martins, and this lizard:
He was gettin' some air on his parts, I think.

After not seeing much, other than Great-tailed Grackles, we headed back out of the park. As we drew up to the sidewalk behind the visitor center, a short snake wriggled off the sidewalk and into the bushes. I was able to get this shot of his patterning:
Texas Ribbon Snake, maybe? He was probably two feet long, kinda fat (at least an inch across his girth, so over an inch in diameter). So I don't know.

Three lifers, and it wasn't even lunchtime! Throughout the trip, we saw so many butterflies that it got a little ridiculous. Here are a couple of highlights; click to embiggen!

I haven't even had time to ID them. The second one looks like a very pale version of a Hackberry Emperor, but I wouldn't even know where to start on the IDs.

AB was really the eyes of this trip, spotting the morning's Groove-billed Ani in characteristic fashion: "What's that big black bird out there? It's probably nothing." Previous AB chestnuts include, 
  • "Is that just a plastic bag out there in that tree?" (Bald Eagle)
  •  "See that white thing out there? Probably just a plastic bag." (Snowy Egret)
She's got great eyes, even when she's knirding. She also spotted the Northern Beardless-Tyranulet that morning. I love birding with her because she'll just be walking along and then she'll see some tiny molecule or something and it will turn out to be a great bird!

The next day, we headed out early for Bentsen RGV State Park in Mission, hometown of Tom Landry.

Bentsen is one of those birding hotspots that I've only visited once before; it's so far west (about an hour an a half from Harlingen) and so huge that I have a tough time appreciating it as much as I should. That morning, we braved the 100-degree temps and high humidity to chase after the Yellow-billed Cuckoo that had been seen there recently, as well as any other treats we might find.

First thing off, we saw another Groove-billed Ani and this time I was able to get a snap:

Not a very good snap, but a snap nonetheless! It was a bit overcast and those pesky twigs pulled the autofocus right onto them. So annoying.

One of the coolest things we saw was this courting display from a male Bronzed Cowbird to a rather disinterested female:
This dance was elaborate: He fluffed and vibrated his wings and walked back and forth in front of herr. He then pulled out all the stops and flew up about a foot-and-a-half off the ground and hovered there for at least six or seven seconds! I was so amazed that I didn't even get a photo; I wish I'd gotten video. He came back down, did another little pirouette or two, and then the lady LEFT. AB offered that she might be beckoning him to follow her to someplace more private, given the gawking humans standing there (at a respectful distance, mind you!), but she flew one way and he flew off in another direction.

Love is so hard. Sigh. Thank goodness I didn't have to perform such a difficult dance to get AB. I did, however, bring her a gift of a worm or two. (Kidding!)

After getting lost on the trails and walking about a mile more than we had to, observing almost NO BIRDS most of that way, we finally figured out our way back. We saw a bird blind along the way and though none of the feeders were filled, we entered for a few moments of precious shade.

Lo and behold! As if by magic, the object of our search appeared!

Yellow-billed Cuckoo! LIFER! He posed so courteously for me, though I didn't get to hear his keeyo! call at all. Still -- LIFER! What a beautiful bird. Look at those huge soulful eyes!

We were now so close to 400 I could almost taste it! I needed just two more birds!

And speaking of those two more birds: Although we saw no Gray Hawk or Lesser Nighthawks, both of which had been seen regularly at the park, we did get a lifer and photos out of Bentsen. It was just too hot to explore the whole park, especially after our missed left turn at Albuquerque, so we headed home for a swim in a sun-heated, bathtub-temperature pool at the hotel.

Stay tuned for Part 3, in which I hit 400 birds and AB dips her toes in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time.