Friday, April 4, 2014

Back at It, April 4, 2014

Sorry about the delay in completing my overdue blog posts.  It took a week plus to pull together a program for the Cincinnati Bird Club presented on March 21.  The program was longer than I wanted it to be, about 2 hours, but it is difficult to summarize a whole year of birding to achieve 733 + 2 provisional species, talk about the key highlights and include a lot of the photos.  Even though the program was long, it can be streamlined.  In spite of the length, I got positive feedback from the attendees.  There was a very large crowd of about 47 people present, according to Steve Bobonick.  That is a very large crowd for a Cincinnati Bird Club meeting!  I am happy the attendees liked it. 

After completing the presentation, I have been busy taking care of financial matters related to retirement accounts.  I did not have time to complete the necessary steps last year and needed to complete them before April 1, 2014, which I did.  Following that was the requirement to pull everything together for Income Taxes, which was completed this week.  In addition, a credit card was compromised during the last day of 2013, December 31, my birthday.  What a present!  However, that last day I did get my number 733 species, Smith's Longspur, which will be the subject of one of my next blog posts.  I have taken care of everything needed for the compromised credit card.  That was the second time this occurred during my Big Year, and neither were fun adventures! 

All of these financial activities required digging through accumulated mail from the past year to be sure that nothing important was overlooked.  Fortunately nothing important got thrown away, but a few things were misplaced and took a lot of effort to find.  A massive Spring Cleaning is in order, because there was little time between my last day of work on October 31, 2012 and the start of my Big Year on January 1, 2013. 

Stay tuned for more about my Big Year.    

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Update, March 19

This week I am completing a presentation about my Big Year to be presented to the Cincinnati Bird Club this Friday, March 21.  No additional posts will be made to my blog updating my Big Year until completion of this presentation on Friday evening.  Stay tuned. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hatteras, North Carolina for Great Skua, December 28

Perspective on Search for Gray Partridge:  While I was writing the post about my search for Gray Partridge near Spokane, WA on December 25-27, I checked in eBird and found that 10 Gray Partridge were reported on Old Kuch’s Road near the western end of that road on December 31, 2013, about four days after my search of that area.  Apparently, Gray Partridge were in the area during my search.  However, I was not skilled enough or lucky enough to find them when I was there.  Unfortunately, this can be typical of searches for new birds during a Big Year, particularly late in the year.

To Hatteras:  Neil Hayward and I had been in communication about the Hatteras special pelagic trip for Great Skua with Brian Patteson.  Neil had obtained a motel room with two beds at the Hatteras Island Inn in Buxton and offered to share that room with me.  However, due to the late arrival of my flight to Raleigh-Duham, I would not have much opportunity to share that room.  However, Neil suggested that I come to the motel and call him upon my arrival.  I could catch a short amount of sleep before leaving for Hatteras to meet the boat.
There had also been a plan to chase a possible Grey Heron in Rhode Island on Sunday after the pelagic trip if the bird showed up again and was confirmed as a Grey Heron.  Neil had made tentative reservations to fly out on Sunday morning.  However, the possible Grey Heron turned into an immature Great Blue Heron.  A gray day had turned into a blue day.  Pun intended.

The drive to Hatteras was uneventful.  I was very awake and excited about the possibility of seeing and adding Great Skua to my list.  I had seen Great Skua once before on a Richard Rowlett pelagic trip out of Ocean City, Maryland on February 2, 1974, while living and working in Delaware after graduate school.   That was a long time ago!  It would be good to see one again.  I had gone on several of Brian Patteson’s January and February pelagic trips since that first sighting to look for this bird again, but had never succeeded.
Approximately half-way to Hatteras Island Inn in Buxton, I stopped in Plymouth, NC, at 2:00 am at a Hess Station Quick-stop to pick up food and drink for the pelagic trip and cup of coffee as insurance against feeling sleepy.  The instructions that we received from Brian Patteson were to be at the dock at 6:15 am.   I would not have a lot of time in the morning to pick up supplies.  In addition, on previous pelagic trips out of Hatteras, particularly early in the morning before the trip, I have not had success finding my preferred pelagic trip food and drink to keep my stomach settled, pretzels and 7Up or Canada Dry.  Consequently, I knew from experience going on Brian’s pelagic trips that I needed to stop on the way to Hatteras somewhere to find supplies for the pelagic trip.  I did not pick up any breakfast supplies at this stop, because I believed that Teach’s Lair would be open just before the trip to pick up coffee and some breakfast supplies. 

With supplies in hand, I continued an uneventful trip to Buxton.  As I crossed the bridge across the Alligator Rive, I noticed the moon in the distance.  It was a clear night and it was beautiful.  At the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge across Crotian Sound, I stopped to try a photo through my windshield.  However, it is not a good photo, but gives the correct impression of a long lonely drive.  See photo below.
Small one quarter moon just above Virginia Dare Memorial bridge.

I arrived at the Hatteras Island Inn in Buxton outside of Neil’s room and called his cell phone at 4:22 am.  Neil let me in and fell into bed for another hour or so.  First I unpacked my gear needed for tomorrow.  Warm clothes, boots and wet gear and prepared to leave promptly in the morning.   Soon, I was in the bed with the lights out, but not for long.  It seemed like a few minutes but was actually about 45 minutes.  Neil was up grabbing his gear and heading out the door.  I checked the time and opted for about 15 more minutes of rest.  Then I was up and out the door heading for Hatteras and the dock.  I stopped at Teach’s Lair just before the parking lot for the docks to pick up some breakfast, coffee juice and some breakfast bars.  I was a little late.  It was about 6:20 am.  In the parking lot, I put on my boots, and grabbed all my gear and headed toward the docks.  When I got to the docks, I noticed that there was no boat in the usual place where Brian’s Stormy Petrel is docked.  My first thought was, I was late and they left without me.  Then, I realized that I had not asked where the F/V Skua, Brian’s smaller boat was docked.  Everything was dark except for some lights on a boat across from Brian’s usual docking spot.  I walked across to that dock and found a group of people standing at the steps down to the dock.  One of them was Neil Hayward.  I was in luck!  They had not left without me!  Captain (and birder) Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland (multi-skilled--crew, chummer, photographer, spotter and birder) were preparing the boat with lights on for our trip. 
Soon we were on the boat.  I put on my wet pants, and continued with my breakfast of bars, juice and coffee.  I had taken my seasickness medication, Bonine, at Teach’s Lair with my first drinks of coffee and juice and a breakfast bar.  As we headed out through the inlet, I finished my breakfast, most importantly my coffee, and met the others on the boat, seven total, including Nate Swick (outstanding birder and ABA blogger), Lynne Miller (of the ABA), Bruce Richardson (with lots of birding experience in Australia and the US), my Big Year birding buddy Neil Hayward, and of course, Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland.  At first there were not many birds, but as we got further outside the inlet, approaching the Diamond Shoals (according to Brian), Kate started chumming the mixture of fish parts and beef fat.  The gulls started showing up.  The first good bird to show up was an immature Kittiwake at about 9:00 am.  See photo below.
Black-legged Kittiwake, immature

Later, there was also at least one adult Black-legged Kittiwake.  Then, at about 9:20-9:25 am, a nice adult Lesser Black-backed Gull appeared in the wake to fight with the other gulls for chum.  The times are based on the times recorded when my photos were taken.  See photo below.
Lesser Black-backed Gull
darker gray than Herring Gull, yellow legs and feet

A few minutes before 9:45 am, a Manx Shearwater flew into the wake and took several turns past the boat.  I had first seen Manx Shearwaters in November on a Paulagics pelagic trip out of Lewes Delaware.  However, this was a much better and closer look, and I was able to get photos.  See photo below.

Manx Shearwater
dark above, very white below, white under-tail coverts
white triangle behind ear coverts on face
We were out far enough to see the “Tower,” an old oil drilling platform.  We started heading toward the “Tower” and then headed north.  At 10:52 am, according to Brian’s Patteson’s account, someone said “skua” coming into the wake and gulls but not very loud.  It was Nate who first spotted the skua, and soon the yelling “SKUA” was loud.  I never got on the bird, as the skua flew off into the distance as a speck.  Neil saw it as a speck in the distance and didn’t sound real confident that he had seen it well enough to identify it as a Great Skua.  I knew I hadn’t.  If this was the typical sighting of one quick flyby, I had blown it.  However, due to Brian’s diligence in chasing the skua with the very fast and agile F/V Skua and this Great Skua being a cooperative one, the bird hung around for about 20+ minutes.  It was easy to see the reddish brown or cinnamon color of the underparts and the buffy rufous speckling on the upper parts, which looked almost golden in the bright sunshine, on this Great Skua as it flew around us and back and forth chasing gulls.  Everyone got great looks, and many flight photos were taken as well as a few of the Great Skua sitting on the water.   See my photos below.  My Great Skua photos were taken from 11:14 am until 11:26 am. 

Great Skua

Great Skua
large bulky size, stubby tail, heavy bill
large amount of white a primary base
buffy to golden speckling on upper parts
reddish brown to cinnamon color

Great Skua
taking off from water

This was such a fantastic experience that I have included more photos than I usually do.  It was an exciting twenty minutes or more.  This was my best view of a Great Skua, and an absolutely outstanding experience.  The Great Skua was a life bird for Lynne Miller and Bruce Richardson.  Special thanks to Brian and Kate for making it happen.  I was ecstatic.  I’m sure that Neil was also.  We came!  We tried!  We succeeded!  What a last minute success on long Big Years for Neil and me.  I was particularly happy for Neil that Great Skua put him in position to break the record.  See photo below of two very happy Big Year birders.
Jay and Neil
Big Smiles after Adding Great Skua, photo by Neil
The rest of the day produced very good pelagic birding, but quite honestly was somewhat anticlimactic.  We were north of the inlet at Hatteras and continued chumming the whole way back.  We saw many Northern Gannets, quite well and close.  See photo below.
Northern Gannet

We saw at least one Northern Fulmar, light morph, perhaps two, a flock of Razorbills and a Sooty Shearwater, a special treat to see one in the winter.  See photo below.
Sooty Shearwater

Two Loggerhead Turtles were another special treat.  See photo below.
Loggerhead Turtle

We arrived back at the dock early while it was still light.  Below is a photo of the happy birders and crew--smiles all around!.
Happy Birders
Nate Swick, Lynne Miller, Bruce Richardson, Jay Lehman (back),
Kate Sutherland (front), Brian Patteson, Neil Hayward
Chris Hitt, who lives in Chapel Hill near Raleigh-Durham Airport, invited Neil and me to come stay with him to celebrate Neil’s successful Big Year as well as mine.  Chris set the current record for a Lower 48 Big Year in 2010.  Chris has been tracking our efforts this year on his blog, Slow Birding. 

I headed back toward the Raleigh-Durham area to Chris’s house, stopping only for some gas and a cup of coffee.  Neil arrived later.  He stopped for a longer time for a phone call.  It was fun to sit with Chris and Neil to toast our Big Year successes.  I was really pleased to be able to toast Neil’s fantastic Big Year.  He is a really good guy and birder.  Thanks to Chris for his friendship and hospitality.
I had to break off early.  I still had one bird to chase for my Big Year—Smith’s Longspur in Arkansas at Stuttgart Airport in eastern Arkansas about one hour from Little Rock.  I had made reservations to fly from Raleigh-Durham to Little Rock, Arkansas early in the morning.  The morning would come too soon again!  I also had to return home to renew my driver’s license due by December 31. 

Great Skua raises the total to 732 plus two provisionals, Common Redstart and Eurasian Sparrowhawk as of December 28.   (See the final total for the year, 733 + 2 provisionals, reported on January 3, 2014.)         

Friday, March 14, 2014

Spokane, Washington to Look for Gray partridge, December 25 - 27

I was too tired on Christmas Eve to try to make flight reservations.  However, early on the morning of December 24 before heading out to try for Chukar, I searched the internet and found the e-mail address of the person who had reported Gray Partridge near Spokane, Washington, and sent an e-mail requesting more information about finding Gray Partridge in the areas where he reported them.  I was hoping that e-mail would help me. 

On Christmas morning, I got up early and found a flight to Spokane Washington leaving at 9:50 am through Las Vegas and arriving in Spokane, WA at 2:45 pm.  If I was lucky, I would have enough time to try for Gray Partridge late on Christmas day.  Flights were on time and I arrived in Spokane, WA with a nice Christmas sighting of a Christmas tree fashioned from potted red poinsettias.  See photo below.
Poinsettia Christmas Tree
Spokane, WA Airport

It had snowed recently in Spokane with snow on the ground and the streets a little icy.  The first area that I was planning to visit was Steptoe Butte State Park where 15 Gray Partridge on November 29 and 10 on October 25 had been recorded under travelling protocols of 15 and 12 miles, respectively, in eBird.  This meant the records were either recorded at the end or in the middle of the trip.  I checked the location of Steptoe Butte SP with the GPS coordinates that I had recorded just in case I could not access eBird.  Steptoe Butte State Park was about an hour and 52 mile south of my location in Spokane.  I had just enough light to get to this state park before sunset in hopes of being lucky.  At least I would know how to get there tomorrow morning.  As I headed south, the thin cloud cover near Spokane parted, the sun came out and the temperature rose to above freezing.  It soon became apparent that I was driving into wheat growing country.  The terrain was hilly and covered with either harvested wheat stubble or planted winter wheat.  There were grassy areas in the ravines and swales.  I arrived at the entry road to Steptoe Butte State Park and drove in.  The entry road circles the butte up to the top, and it was about 3.9 miles from entry to the top of the butte.  The reports of Gray Partridge were recorded at the top of the butte under travelling protocol, probably at the end but perhaps in the middle as recommended for the 15 mile travelling protocol.  But that was only a guess.  However, near the lower parking lot, the road became snow covered, because it was shaded.  The sun was dropping, and I decided that it would not be very safe for me to try driving the road up to the top with so little daylight left.  I decided to bird the entry road and Hume Road through good looking habitat back to a small rural town of Oakesdale, a distance of about 8 miles.               
I suspected that the 15 mile and 12 mile routes covered this area for the two reports in eBird.  However, I was not successful in finding Gray Partridge.  I returned to Spokane to stay the night.  Tomorrow, I would start early and try again.  Christmas night I spent time looking up hints on finding Gray Partridge in Washington.  I found information about where hunters find Gray Partridge in wheat growing locations.  Grassy areas along wheat fields and in grassy areas in ravines between fields were good for hunters to find Gray Partridge.  Early morning and late day times were best, and Gray Partridge can sometimes be found feeding in the fields planted with winter wheat or in the tilled fields.  That was quite satisfying to realize that I was looking in a good area.

I got up early on December 26, picked up breakfast and was on Hume road south of Oakesdale as the sun was rising above the hills to the east.  There was not much traffic on the back roads in this rural area; consequently, I was able to drive slowly watching the fields along Hume Road south of Oakesdale to the entry road to Steptoe Butte SP, but occasionally, I pulled over for a vehicle that wanted to drive faster.  About halfway to the entry to Steptoe Butte SP, I noticed a chicken-like bird in a winter wheat field on the east side.  I stopped briefly to investigate, but it was only a hen ring-necked Pheasant.  That was a good sign.  Previously, in Ohio I had only heard ring-necked Pheasant.  Chicken-or grouse-like birds were still active.  I continued to the entry road to Steptoe Butte SP and started slowly up to the top, watching and occasionally scanning for grouse.  The elevation of the top of the butte is 3612 feet.  I was hoping that I was the first to drive this road, but saw a pickup truck ahead of me which had been the first to get to the top, an apparent maintenance person for the phone towers on the top.  Approximately halfway up to the top, I noticed a chicken-like bird along the road a distance up the road.  I approached the area carefully and parked at a wide pull-off along the road.  I walked the edge of the pull-off area, and a cock Ring-necked Pheasant flew out from the edge and downhill from my location into the grasslands on the slope of the butte.  It was a good sign but not the right bird!  I continued up toward the top of Steptoe Butte.  It was cold and quite windy; consequently, I dressed warmly.  There was some ice on the road for the last bit of the road to the top, because this part of the road faced north.  Just as I was going up this last bit of road, the pickup truck came back down.  I parked at the top.  The view was great, and signs said that one could see for almost 200 miles!  Wow!  I noticed a parking area just below the top, which, based on the GPS coordinates, looks like the location from which the eBird results were entered.  Before driving back down to the parking area, I scanned the steep grassy slopes down from the top, but did not find any Gray Partridge. 
Then I drove down to the parking lot just below the top.  There was a lot of ice on the parking lot but I could drive on one part of it.  I scanned the uphill grassy slopes hoping that all of 15 the Gray Partridge reported previously on November 29 were seen in this area.  I also played Gray Partridge calls but was unsuccessful in finding any Gray Partridge.  I continued down the road stopping at pull offs and places where I could scan the steep grassy slopes uphill and downhill, but had no success in finding Gray Partridge.  At least three times, I repeated the process of driving up and down this road to almost the top of the butte, but found no Gray Partridge.  I did not walk the slopes up on the butte, because the slopes were quite steep and snow covered.  It seemed too treacherous and this area was rather isolated with few other people around.   However, gradually as the day wore on toward noon and beyond, there were two or three additional cars that drove to the top of the butte, apparently, to take advantage of the great view from the top. 

I did manage to find a few other birds in the area.  I found a Snow Bunting along the road close to the top, the first time that I drove back down from the top.  Eventually, I found Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel on the butte, and a Rough-legged Hawk down near the entry to the state park.  There were American Robins at a picnic ground at the bottom of the butte, feeding in the apple trees.  Later in the afternoon at about 2:30 pm if found a flock of about 50 bohemian Waxwings.  I got much better views of these Bohemian Waxwings than the first ones I saw for the year in Duluth Minnesota on January 15 in a large flyover flock.  See photos below.                     
Bohemian Waxwings
at apples, Steptoe Butte State Park

Bohemian Waxwing
After about 2:45 pm as the sun was getting lower in the west, I decided to explore additional farm roads in the area.  Mostly, the farm roads were gravel, but care was required, because some of the roads were seasonal and still covered by snow or were very soft and muddy.  I took several roads close to Steptoe Butte State Park which meandered through the farm county and harvested wheat fields.  I found a few grassy expanses in this farm county that looked promising but found no Gary Partridge.  I did have one exciting moment when a saw a chicken-like bird in a grassy fenced in meadow, but it was a cock Ring-necked Pheasant.  The previous female and male Ring-necked Pheasant and this one converted my previously heard bird to a seen bird.  See photo below.      
Ring-necked Pheasant, cock-bird

The sun was dropping rapidly in the west.  I drove slowly back along Hume Road toward Oakesdale, birding as I went.  I found a northern Shrike along this road, but got no photos.  By the time that I got on the main road US 195 north to Spokane, it was almost dark.  I headed to my motel.  Tonight I had to decide on how to spend my remaining time here in Spokane.  I had told Brian Patteson that I would join him on December 28 in Hatteras, North Carolina to try for Great Skua.  Neil Hayward was planning to be there.  As I drove back to my motel, I was not sure if I had enough time left to try a second location early in the morning for Gray Partridge before leaving for Hatteras by flying to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.  I did not have a good internet connection until I got to Spokane to make travel arrangements.
The first thing that I did when I got to my motel was book my flight to Raleigh-Durham, NC.  I had a reservation all made and was ready to pay for an earlier flight that would have allowed me to get a good night of sleep before the pelagic trip out of Hatteras.  However, the connecting flight out of Denver to Raleigh-Durham was full, requiring me to book a later flight that would arrive in Raleigh-Durham at 11:10 pm.  I would then have to drive about 4.5 hours to Hatteras, getting little to no sleep before the pelagic trip.  My flight from Spokane was at 5:15 pm, leaving enough time to try for Gray Partridge early in the morning at a second location.

On ebird, there was a report of 7 Gray Partridge on December 13 at Old Kuch’s and Mayberry Roads about 40 mile or 51 minutes east of Spokane.  I got up before sunrise, picked up breakfast and headed east on US Rt. 2 to Davenport and then south on WA 28.  There was fog and mist in the air.  The trees were ice covered and the roads were slick in spots.  As I got close to my destination, the sun rose in the east and was not up very far when I turned west into Old Kuch’s Road.  The area was a large expanse of grassland and scrub in the midst of farm country with harvested and winter planted wheat fields to the south and west and harvested cornfields to the north.  The area was about 1.5 miles or so wide and stretched west between WA 28 and WA 21 for distance of about five miles.  I started driving slowly west on the gravel road watching the roadsides and fields for grouse or chicken-like birds.  There was snow cover in this whole area; consequently, I looked for grayish lumps in the open grassy areas between the low scrubby brush and also in the wheat fields.  I stopped at the exact location given in eBird and checked this area out thoroughly.  During my first pass on Old Kuch’s Road to the west, I did not find a single bird.  I turned north for about 1.5 miles to Mayberry Road, another gravel road, and headed east.  Along this 5 mile stretch, I found a Rough-legged Hawk, my first bird of the morning in this area.  See photo below.
Rough-legged Hawk
I drove again around this area, stopping to scan and look, and on the second pass on Old Kuch’s Road, I found a Northern Shrike and got photos of the Northern Shrike hovering while hunting.  That was a cool experience.  See photo below.
Northern Shrike
hovering while hunting, gray forehead, some barring visible

I also found another Rough-legged hawk.  See photo.

Rough-legged Hawk

I repeated this process on Old Kuch’s and Mayberry Roads a third time, before calling it quits for Gray Partridge.  The roadsides on Old Kuch’s and Mayberry Roads were fenced with barbed wire; consequently, I did not try to walk out into the habitat to try to find Gray Partridge.  I left the area between 11:00 and 11:30 am.  It was fun looking for Gray Partridge, but somewhat frustrating to not find any in areas where they had been reported.   I never received a response to my e-mail request for information about Gray Partridge.
When I arrived back in Spokane, the trees were still covered with ice crystals.  See photo below.

Ice covered trees in Spokane
My flight to Raleigh-Durham on Southwest was on time as was the connecting flight leaving from Denver.  I got a little sleep on each of these flights.  I arrived in Raleigh-Durham on time, picked up my luggage, got my rental car and was on the road to Hatteras between 11:30 and mid-night.  It would be a long night of driving to get to Hatteras on time for the Great Skua pelagic trip.                               


Friday, March 7, 2014

Searching for Chukar at Antelope Island State Park, December 24

There had been recent snow in the Salt Lake City area.  When I arrived last evening, there was at least 6 inches or more on the ground and with snow still on the edges of the streets and roads.  It was cold.  I decided to wait until the sun was up (sunrise at 7:50 am) to drive approximately 45 miles to the entrance to Antelope Island State Park, because last night when I arrived there were areas on the streets that had a thin glaze of ice.  I picked up breakfast to go and drove north on I-15 along the east side of Great Salt Lake.  The road was clear but with a few snowy and slushy areas.  There had been reports of Chukar in eBird: 10 on 11/03/13 with a photograph on Antelope Island Road, four were reported from another location on Antelope Island Road on 12/09/13 and had been heard from that same location on 11/05/13 and 11/18/13 and 8 were reported along the causeway to Antelope Island on 12/09/13.  I had recorded the GPS locations of all these locations.  I arrived at the entrance gate at about 9:25 am, paid the entry fee and drove slowly toward the island on the causeway, a distance of about 5 miles.  Everything was snow covered on the sides of the causeway road.  It should have been easy to see a grayish Chukar against the snow.  However, I did not find a Chukar along the causeway.

I decided to go to the location where there were three different reports of Chukar during November and December prior to my visit.  Antelope Island Road followed the coast south along the island and was the only road in that direction.  The road was mostly open but had a few places that were ice covered but which had enough open areas with wheel tracks that the icy areas could be negotiated.  I got to the GPS location and got out to scan the rocky slopes and to listen for possible Chukar calls.  It is often difficult to determine if the GPS location in eBird is the location of the sighting or if that just happens to be where the report was entered.  I scanned the rocky slopes with binoculars and telescope, and briefly played Chukar calls.  However, I had no luck in finding a Chukar.  There were Common Ravens and Black-billed Magpies flying along the slopes well uphill from my location.  A white pickup truck stopped, and the driver asked me what I was looking for.  He thought that I was looking for bighorn sheep also found on the island.  When I told him that I was looking for Chukar, he told me that he was a hunter, and that a better place to look was not far south of my location around the corner and uphill from a black-topped parking area with a cable across the road uphill from the parking area.  He told me that there were many Chukars if one walked up to a gravel parking area beyond the black-topped parking area.  I thanked him for the information and decided to check out this location.
Around the corner and south, a herd of bison was in the grassy area on the lakeside of the road.  There were other vehicles there watching the bison.  I continued beyond the bison herd and found the parking area.  I parked in the parking area, gathered my camera, binoculars and backpack with water and wet suit coat and pants just in case I needed another layer.  The road up to the flat gravel area was hard packed snow and slippery and was an elevation change of about 200 feet in about 0.5 mile.  Apparently, the road had been open before being closed, and the vehicles had packed the snow hard.  I walked along the side of the road in the crusted snow, where I had better traction.  The habitat looked good for Chukar.  The uphill steep slopes had rocky outcroppings interspersed with snow covered grass and vegetation.  As the hunter had stated, there was a relatively large flat gravel area, an apparent parking area but now snow covered.  I birded this area for about 40 minutes but found no Chukar.  The flat area had been cut out of the hillside, and the steep sides prevented me from scanning the uphill slopes for Chukar.   At the south end of this flat area, there were trailhead signs for Frary Peak Trail and Dooly Knob Trail.  I climbed the short distance up to the trail head and signs.  As I was scanning the south slopes, I found a coyote, hunting the slope.  The coyote also was watching me, but soon disappeared.  I hiked up the Frary Peak Trail for a short distance of only several hundred yards and maybe only 50 feet of elevation change.  With the snow cover, the trail was too treacherous for the foot gear I was wearing.  It looked like others had hiked the trail with crampons on their hiking boots.  I did get far enough up the trail to be able to scan the uphill slopes, and found only Common Ravens and a Black-billed Magpie, but no Chukar.  However, I did find footprints in the snow, three toes forward and one backward that were probably Chukar footprints.  Apparently, there had been Chukar in this area since the snow fell.  I took a telephoto photo of the uphill area to show the habitat.  See photo below of the uphill area from this trail.

Chukar habitat
I carefully hiked down the trail to the flat parking area, where I found a small flock of American Goldfinches and a Snow Bunting.  At least there were a few birds around.  I continued back down the road to my car, and had some lunch that I carried with me.  More people had arrived at the parking area.  Consequently, I was glad that I got there early.  They asked me about the condition of the road for hiking, and I shared my experience with them.  Two groups started hiking up the road.  The view was excellent from up there.  It is appropriate that this location is named Mountain View Trail Access.  I continued scanning the slopes uphill but was not successful in spotting a Chukar.
I decided to drive to the Visitor Center to see if there might be someone there with information about how to find Chukar.  I arrived at the Visitor Center close to 1:00 pm.  The lady at the desk knew about Chukar.  She said there was a large group every morning when she arrived, waiting for her to fill the feeder.  If I walked around the area outside near the outcroppings, I might still see a Chukar.  I told her of my experience in the morning.  She said that the north end of the island was better for Chukar.  She was not aware of many Chukars in the southern part of the island.  Another place to look was Buffalo Point Trail.  She gave me directions to Buffalo Point Trail.  I knew that Chris Hitt had seen Chukar on this trail during his Lower 48 Big Year.  However, he did not wait until winter to find his Chukar.  I had previously looked at the glossy brochure handed out at the entry booth, but did not find Buffalo Point Trail on the map in that brochure.  However, much later after I had found Buffalo Point Trail, I looked carefully at a two sided one page listing of Antelope Island Trails and found Buffalo Point and the trail on the map.  Should have looked carefully earlier!

I first looked out the window of the Visitor Center at the feeder.  There were no Chukars at the feeder.  As instructed, I walked out of the door to the north to look around and walked the walkway around the west side of the Visitor Center.  There were Chukar tracks in the snow everywhere, radiating out from the visitor center like spokes in a wheel!  See photo below. 
Chukar tracks in snow at Visitor Center
I should have stopped here early in the morning!  I walked out around the rocky outcroppings around the Visitor Center hoping to find a Chukar.  I succeeded in finding many additional sets of Chukar tracks in the snow, but no birds!  It was not too late to give Buffalo Point Trail a try before sunset.                                                     
I found Buffalo Point and the trail easily.  The roads there were completely free of snow and ice.  As I approached the parking lot, a coyote was standing in an open area on the left side of the road and would occasionally throw back its head.  When I parked uphill at the parking area, I could see the coyote throw back its head then hear a delayed coyote howl.  That was fun to see.  The trail up to Buffalo Point was icy and covered with packed snow. The lower part of the trail faced east and was mostly in shadow during the whole day; therefore, the sun did not melt the snow and ice.  I was able to negotiate the lower part of the trail by taking advantage of tracks from previous hikers that formed steps.  Further uphill, the trail became more open where the sun had melted the snow and ice.  I got about half to two-thirds of the way up the trail, but had no success.  Further uphill, the trail appeared to become more snow covered and icy and got steeper.  It did not look promising.  I probably could not reach the top.

However, a more promising area seemed to be close to the southeast edge of the hill off of the trail, on a steep gravel and rock downhill slope to the flat area near the lake.  I worked my way over to the edge.  The footing in this area was much better, because the snow and ice was mostly melted.  I scanned the downhill slope, and played Chukar calls.  Then I moved further down toward the parking area and prepared to do this again.  As I looked over the edge, a Chukar streaked, running along the sloping hillside toward my left.  I saw the white face surrounded by the dark border, but not very clearly.  It was difficult to see other details, because I was looking directly toward the glare of the late day sun lowered in the sky.  I tried to find the bird again, but could not.  Chukar is known to be very secretive and elusive.  I continued down the trail and carefully got down the steep icy part of the trail to the parking lot.  There was one last chance to see Chukar well and maybe get a photograph.  Perhaps, Chukar come into the feeder at the Visitor Center late in the day just before sunset.  Hopefully, this brief view of Chukar at Buffalo Point would not be the only one for me.
I arrived at the Visitor Center at about 4:00 pm.  The scenery was beautiful with the partial snow cover, the lake and the distant snow-capped mountains.  I took several photos.  See below.
Scenery looking east across the lake from visitor Center

Scenery looking southeast across the lake from Visitor Center
Scenery looking south from Visitor Center
I walked into the Visitor Center and down the hall to the glass windows and looked out to the feeders.  There was a Chukar all fluffed up against the cold, huddled on top of a snow covered rock by the feeder!  Yes!  Success!  See photo below.
Chukar huddled at feeder

I carefully walked by the window to not spook the bird and quietly walked out the glass doors on the north side of the building.  I quietly walked over to the corner of the building and peeked around the corner hoping to get a better photo not through the glass.  The Chukar saw me and flew down the hill from the feeders followed by four other Chukars that were hidden from my view from inside the building.  I took several relatively long distant photos of the two birds that were close.  See photo below. 
Chukars downhill from feeder

I went back inside the Visitor Center to let the lady know that I found Chukar at the feeder.  I headed to my car and started driving toward the causeway to head south to Salt Lake City.  As I drove the road toward the causeway with the Visitor Center on the right, another Chukar ran across the road.  I observed it walking toward the feeder as I drove on.  The sun was setting and it was almost 5:00 pm.  Before I got to the entry gate I stopped at a pull off and took photos of the pink alpine glow on the snow-capped Wasacht Moutains to the east and of the sunset to the west.  See photos below.
Alpine Glow on Wasacht Mountains
 at sunset from causeway

Sunset at Antelope Island
from causeway
I was hungry and stopped to pick up some hot chocolate and some snacks.  While I was stopped, I made online reservations at the motel where I stayed last night.  Then I headed back to my motel for the night.  The next day was Christmas.  Chukar was a nice Christmas present to me to add to my year list.  I spent the whole day looking but finally succeeded at the end of the day.  That is not the first time that has happened during this Big Year.

I did not make reservations for a flight to my next location until I was sure that I had found Chukar.  That night I would decide for certain my next location, probably Spokane, Washington, to try for Gray Partridge.  Bob Ake had found Gray Partridge near Spokane during his Big Year, and there were a number of reports of Gray Partridge near Spokane on eBird for November and December.  When I got to my motel, I checked for flights to Spokane, WA.  The next day was Christmas, and getting a flight out of Salt Lake City could have been difficult.
Chukar raised my Big Year total to 731 plus two provisionals, Common Redstart and Eurasian Sparrowhawk as of December 24.   (See the final total for the year, 733 + 2 provisionals, reported on January 3, 2014.)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Search for Lawrence’s Goldfinch at Ina Road and at Rillito River and Santa Cruz River Junction, December 23

I got up early on December 23. wrote and published a short post about finding a Northern Goshawk in the Anchorage, Alaska area.  I had been trying to update my blog but with difficulty, because since August 23, I had been constantly birding morning till night and on the move.

There were recent reports on eBird of Lawrence’s Goldfinch at Ina Road at the bridge over the Santa Cruz River on November 14, December 10, 11 and 12, all by expert Arizona birders, who were birding tour leaders and/or with years of experience in Arizona.  However, the reports were flyby Lawrence’s Goldfinches, apparently by the call which is distinctive.  What this meant to me was that Lawrence’s Goldfinch was definitely present at Ina Road, but could be iffy for me to find if only present as a flyby and to identify by flight call.  There was also a recent post to the Arizona Birds list serve about three Lawrence’s Goldfinches seen on December 7 near the confluence of the Rillito and Santa Cruz Rivers.  I also contacted an Arizona birder who was also looking for Lawrence’s Goldfinch and had heard a particular call found on xeno-cato that she heard at the Ina Bridge on December 18.  I was hoping that this birder had a more recent update.
I arrived at the Ina Road bridge over the Santa Cruz River close to 9:30 am and parked down near the bike trail in the dirt area on the west side.  Shortly before that I had received an e-mail response to my request for information from the Arizona birder.  Two people had told her to go the confluence of the Santa Cruz and Rillito Rivers.  I would head there next if I was unsuccessful at Ina road.  She asked me to e-mail her husband’s smart phone if I found the Lawrence’s Goldfinches.  Later I got an e-mail that they were heading out birding to the Santa Cruz Flats and might stop at the Ina Road spot north of the bridge on their way out of the county.
At Ina Road, right away I got excited, because there were two goldfinches in a nearby tree with a few House Finches.  However, it was not to be.  The Goldfinches were Lesser Goldfinches, the common goldfinch species in Arizona.  I walked the bike path north for about 0.25 mile, listening and watching for finches.  There was a Red-tailed Hawk perched in the tree along the river hunting the tall grass along the river on the west side.  There was also an American Kestrel and a Northern Harrier hunting the area, causing bird activity to be reduced.  I found a flock of house Finches feeding on some weed seed heads, a few White-crowned Sparrows, one or two Swamp Sparrows and a Song Sparrow.  As I walked back toward my car, a group of three small finches, apparently goldfinches flew south and diagonally toward the river and landed in some trees near the bridge.  I watched where they landed, but was unable to find them again after walking back to the bridge. 
It was now almost 10:30 am.

With no success at Ina Road, I decided to find the confluence of the Rillito and the Santa Cruz Rivers and found the Rillito using google maps.  It took me several tries to determine where the confluence of the Rillito and Santa Cruz Rivers was located.  I drove south on the I-10 Freeway Frontage Road to Sunset Road and turned right and parked immediately near the bike path.  It was only 3.4 miles and 6 minutes from the bridge across the Santa Cruz River at Ina Road.  I walked the bike path north to the Rillito, which was only a dry wash.  An old portion of the bike path went west to the Santa Cruz to a service road to a mining operation, and there was a ramp down to the wash before the end of the old portion of the bike path.  There were not many birds active.  I walked down into the Rillito River/Wash and hiked west.  I saw a few house Finches.  As I got closer to the Santa Cruz River, I eventually saw a Red-tailed Hawk.  I was seeing very few birds.  I continued until I found the Santa Cruz River, only a small creek by the standards in Ohio where I live.  I decided to hike along the Santa Cruz River south for a short distance and found a flock of water birds along the river: 75 Black-necked Stilts, 8 Long-billed Dowitchers, 6 Least Sandpipers and about 20 Green-winged Teal.  I headed back toward where my car was parked and found a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s) and a Swamp Sparrow near the river.  When I got back into the Stillito River/Wash, I found some more sparrows, a Lincoln’s Sparrow and another Swamp Sparrow.  I also found a Western Bluebird.  When I got back on the western extension of the bike path, I found a House Finch and Say’s Phoebe.  I headed back to my car.  I needed to turn in my rental car at 2:30 pm, but first made a quick stop at Ina Road for one last look there.  No luck in finding Lawrence’s Goldfinch there.

I headed north to Phoenix and Sky Harbor Airport to turn in my rental car.  Birding in Arizona was a great success.  However, the last two days were disappointing, but overwintering Dusky Flycatcher and Lawrence’s Goldfinch can be difficult birds to find with limited time.  Although there were reports of these birds at other locations in Arizona, it did not seem worthwhile to use my last week of birding in 2013 looking for these birds, given my experience the last two days.  I thought about trying for Spotted Owl in Miller Canyon, which I had missed in August.  I had met a birder from Canada who was going to Miller Canyon with Joe Woodley from Sierra Vista to look for the Spotted Owls.  However, I had communicated with Joe by e-mail and discovered that they did not find the owls, only white wash indicating that the owls had roosted recently.

My plan was to go to Antelope Island State Park near Salt Lake City to try for Chukar.  Antelope Island SP is known as one of the best places to find Chukar.  I thought the change in location and scenery would be good for me and maybe change my recent luck.  I turned in my rental car, and waited for my flight to Salt Lake City leaving at 5:55 pm.  Tomorrow on Christmas Eve, I would try for Chukar.

While I was waiting on my flight I completed communicating with the Arizona birder and her husband, telling them of my lack of success and how to get to the Rillito River where the Lawrence’s Goldfinches had been reported.  The husband had asked questions about how to get there. 
As a sequel to my story, on January 2 Miriam Weber, reported to Arizona Birds that she finally saw Lawrence’s Goldfinch along the Rillito River.  She saw a flock of ten, mostly males, at 1:30 pm.  It was at the location where I had been.  She was the Arizona birder mentioned above.  I sent her a congratulatory note on her success.  It was her tenth try!  As all birders know, it is all about timing and perhaps a good slug of luck and a whole lot of perseverance, neither of which I had in this case!

I arrived in Salt Lake City at 7:30 pm, picked up my rental car and headed to my motel for the night and then got some dinner.  Tomorrow would be a new day.  No new birds added on December 23.   

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Tanque Verde Wash from Wentworth Road, December 22

Here is a special thank you to my birding buddy Isaac Sanchez for sharing the location of the Gray Vireo, which I added to my list yesterday.  Very much appreciated.  I had almost given up on that bird as hopeless to find in December.                     

I got up very early on December 22, completed and published my post that I had started, Last Days at Adak: December 8 –December 9.  Then, I completed and published an updated post, Quick Update Post-Alaska and in Arizona and New Mexico, to give readers the latest news about species seen in Arizona.  Consequently, I got a late start for the morning, picked up breakfast to go just before 10:30 am and arrived at Tanque Verde Wash on Wentworth road between 11:00 and 11:30 am.  I did not expect this late start to be an issue, because the early mornings were quite cool, keeping insect activity down.  I expected more activity for a Dusky Flycatcher later in the morning; at least that is what I hoped, when insect activity should be higher with higher temperatures.
While I was on my way to Tanque Verde Wash, Neil Hayward texted me about reports of Dusky Flycatcher on eBird on December 11 and 14 and a report of Lawrence’s Goldfinch eBird at Ina Road at the Santa Cruz River.  I had texted him yesterday that I was looking for these birds next after giving him a daily update.  When I arrived at the wash, I texted Neil back, joking that it must be ESP, and we were starting to think alike.  I was only 4.6 miles from the intersection of Tanque Verde and Wentworth Road when Neil first texted me, and I had also targeted the Lawrence’s Goldfinch at Ina Road.  Neil texted back, “Big Year birders are birds of a feather!”  I got a good chuckle out of that!

At the parking area along Wentworth Road at the wash entrance, I grabbed my camera, binoculars, packed a coat for the cooler part of the late afternoon, water and a snack in my knapsack.  By the roadside where I parked there were active White-crowned Sparrows at the wash entrance and calling Phainopeplas.  I headed west in the wash.  The Dusky Flycatcher had been seen at least as far as 1.1 to 1.5 miles down the wash based on notes in the eBird reports.  The eBird report of December 11 had excellent photos showing the field marks of Ducky Flycatcher.  The report on December 14 was made by a very reliable reporter.  Therefore, I knew I was chasing a good bird, provided that the Dusky Flycatcher was still present.  I hoped that the Dusky Flycatcher was vocalizing, giving its distinctive “whit” call, to make it easier to find.  Not too far into the wash on the north side, I heard a call somewhat like “whit” but I could not find the source.  Soon thereafter, I found a few House Finches, and suspected that I had mistaken their flight calls.  There were a small flock of about six Western Bluebirds.  As I continued walking and birding westward in the wash, I found a cooperative Abert’s Towhee for a photo.  See photo below.
Abert's Towhee
However, there was not very much bird activity.  I continued west for about a mile, but did not find the Dusky Flycatcher and no other empidonax flycatchers.  I turned around and birded back toward Wentworth Road.  On the way back on the south side, I found a Say’s Phoebe, a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a Black-throated Gray Warbler feeding low toward the ground in a sunny spot.  This was promising, but I found no other birds in this small flock.  I continued back to my car, and had a snack and some water to drink.  I was planning to stay at this location all afternoon searching for the Dusky Flycatcher. 
At about 2:00 pm, I started walking and birding again westward in the wash.  The sun was very warm and there was considerable insect activity.  Close to Wentworth Road, I found two different Vermillion Flycatchers, a first year male and an adult male, a Black Phoebe and a Say’s Phoebe.  See photo below.
Vermillion Flycatcher
adult male

There were also some goldfinches which I followed and studied carefully in case they were Lawrence’s Goldfinches.  Historically, at least, Lawrence’s Goldfinches have been seen in Tanque Verde Wash.  However, all of the goldfinches were Lesser Goldfinches.   In spite of all the flycatcher activity, I did not find the Dusky Flycatcher near Wentworth Road where the other flycatchers were active.  There was another or the same Black-throated Gray Warbler that may have moved toward Wentworth Road and one or two Yellow-rumped Warblers.  I continued westward and saw a large flock of puddle ducks fly over me which included Gadwalls and American Wigeons.  As I got further west in the wash, I found a perched Red-tailed Hawk.  I continued beyond the point where the golf course was close to the wash, and I could see a power line on the north side as I had done before.  However, I did not find the Dusky Flycatcher.  I started back toward Wentworth Road.  Bird activity was decreasing.  I arrived at Wentworth Road and checked the time.  It was after 4:00 pm and rapidly approaching 4:30 pm.  The sun would set in about one hour.  I decided to one more time walk the wash to the west and go as far west as I could but still return to Wentworth Road before dark.   I did manage to get further west in the wash, and returned to my car before dark.  On the way back as the setting sun was streaming through the tree tops, I found a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets feeding high in the trees in this sunny zone, apparently finding active insects there.  However, I remained empty handed with no Dusky Flycatcher seen or heard.
With no Dusky Flycatcher, my string of success in Arizona in December had been broken.  This was the first day of birding with no new bird since December 12.  In ten days of birding in Arizona starting with December 12, I added 18 new species.  Either my luck had changed or the birds I was looking for were more difficult to find. 

At 5:30 pm, I headed toward a motel to stay near Ina Road to be in position tomorrow morning to try for the Lawrence’s Goldfinch that had been reported at the bridge over the Santa Cruz River.
My total list remains at 730 species plus two provisional, Common Redstart and Eurasian Sparrowhawk as of December 21.   (See the final total for the year, 733 + 2 provisionals, reported on January 3, 2014.)