Thursday, August 29, 2013

Quick update on 08/29/13: Arizona

I arrived in Phoenix Arizona at 10:00 pm on Friday, August 23.  This is my first trip to Arizona this year.  In the first three days, I added 34 species including Blue-footed Booby, Black-capped Gnatcatcher and Berylline Hummingbird.  I am now at 624 after five days, adding 41 species, and am focusing on species that will leave soon and not be available later in the year.  More details will follow with an updated list and will address the Baird's Sandpiper and comment later.  Need to keep birding! 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Disrupted, Stymied, Delayed--Bruised, Beaten-up and Angry ....but not Defeated

I arrived home late last month to ensure that my new vehicle's warranty would be maintained with the 30,000 mile checkup and oil change and address a recall that sounded ominous.  What I did not expect was to become embroiled in a property rights, storm water run off issue/battle with a neighboring home owner's association (HOA).  It took 2.5 weeks to get it resolved, a lot of it waiting for tradesmen to respond to look at the proposed job/solution and waiting for return calls from the city manager.  Meanwhile, I looked for nearby birds to add to my year list and did some very hard manual labor on my property, originally planned for next year, to work off my anger.  A resolution of this issue was in sight last weekend, August 17, with the work to be done on Monday, August 19.  The final decision leading to the resolution was a political one, and I believe that my property rights have been violated, and were violated when the homeowner's association  installed erodible landscaping, mulch, on city right of way, with the city's permission, in front of my down spout exit lines and a mandated exit line to take care of driveway runoff.  Both of these water exit lines were in place, prior to the installation of the landscaping about 12 to 13 years ago.  The HOA was informed of the issues back then but chose to ignore the issue.  It would be miraculous for the mulch to not wash away!  None of the final decisions made by the city manager affecting this issue are based on the input from professional plumbers and landscapers who work on resolving these kinds of issues.  It was all politics.  However, for me it was a matter of time and money to get a final resolution favorable to me or not.  Before the work was finally completed on Monday, August 19, I chased down some birds that I needed for my year list here in Ohio.   More about that later.

This has been a year of bad luck for me for doing a Big Year.  It started last fall with a diagnosis of prostate cancer and a relatively large number of follow-ups required.  In the process, I discovered through my personal care physician that a urologist who was managing my care was not being completely open with me about test results.  Consequently, I decided to become an informed patient and subscribed to the latest information about my condition and treatment from Johns Hopkins Health Alerts.  It has been time consuming to read and understand everything I can find and available about my condition and still try to fit in a Big Year.  During the late winter and spring I had to manage an interaction with the urologist who was insisting on a course of action with which I was not comfortable.  Because I am in the low risk category (the urologist seems to agree) based on results so far, I delayed further actions and treatment until later this year when there are no birds to chase.  Hopefully, for my health, this was the correct decision, but I am comfortable with the risk.  However, this issue caused major disruption to any planning and pursuit of birds this year.

When I started my Big Year I thought that I could leave my house and property relatively unattended for most of the year with neighbors watching and with appropriate preparations in the fall and winter of 2012.  I arranged my bills too be paid while on the road.  However, in the spring I discovered that some unexpected things showed up in the mail requiring immediate attention, such as a tax bill with penalties for non-payment, and a demand from the State of Ohio that I demonstrate that I have auto insurance on my 2005 van parked in my drive way, fully licensed.  I have never owned a vehicle that is not fully insured.  The penalty for not responding within 21 days was to lose my license.   I also received a bill from the state of Florida for tolls where they have removed cash payment.  The signs in Florida say that the tolls will be billed to your insurance.  Not so.  The toll bill had penalties and significant fines for not paying on time.  While in Florida, I could not find an online location to pay the tolls but it was on the bill mailed to me.  Fortunately, I was able to catch these things and take care of them in a timely way.  After these incidents, I realized that I needed to check my mail placed on hold frequently and carefully to uncover any unexpected things like these.  In addition, I was not able to clean out my garage fully to accommodate the 2005 van before I started my Big Year.  Just in case someone was reporting an un-driven vehicle sitting in my driveway, fully licensed, after returning from Alaska, I finished cleaning out my garage and parked my van inside the garage out of sight. 

Unlike others who have done a Big Year, I have no trusted friend or nearby family (family is 700 miles to the east in PA) to take care of and look out for my property and interests while I am gone.  Sandy Komito's son took care of his business while he was doing his Big Years (I discussed this with him in the past.), and if memory serves me correctly, his wife looked out for the hearth and home, to alert him of any issues needing his attention.  Chris Hitt, Bob Ake, Dan Sanders and John Vanderpool had family available to look out for their interests and to alert them of issues that required their attention during their Big Years.  Otherwise, they could focus on birding except when wives protested abut being gone too long (John, apparently from his blog).  Greg Miller did not own property and lived in an apartment during his Big Year.  I have discussed this with Neil Hayward by e-mail.   His girl friend is helping him out with his property, but he has had some recent issues requiring his undivided attention costing him some time.   Enough about the issues.  It has not been an easy year.

Back to birding.  On Sunday, August 18, I found the reported Baird's Sandpiper at Lost Bridge in southwestern Ohio.  Baird's Sandpiper was missing from my list, and late summer is the best time to see them during migration in the mid-west.  The Baird's Sandpiper was on the exposed gravel and sand on the north side of the bridge.  I did not get the best and most definitive photos of this bird.  See photo below.  After the Baird's and a quick lunch, I left the Cincinnati area at about 2:00 pm and drove to East Harbor State Park in northern Ohio along Lake Erie to search for the Red Knot reported there in the last few days.  Special thanks to Doreen Linzell for her help by cell phone in finding the exact location of the best mudflats in northern Ohio.  I had never been to this location before.  Doreen Linzell and Dan Sanders, who are very experienced in birding all of Ohio, also had initial problems finding the exact location, requiring three tries driving the loop at this state park.  By 7:45 pm, I was on my way south to Cincinnati.  I saw the non-breeding plumage Red Knot beside a Short-billed Dowitcher.  The Red Knot was approximately the same length as the dowitcher, but with a difference gizz, larger head and more bull necked look, larger, and perhaps fatter body with a shorter than dowitcher very slightly downward curved dark bill, gray back and wings, whitish under-parts and dark wing tips.  In comparison, the dowitcher has brownish back and wings, a smaller head with a long straight bill and a sewing machine motion while feeding.  Red Knots are becoming rare in the east and particularly in the mid-west.  The west coast population is in better shape, and there may be opportunities to see them in the fall in the San Diego area during pelagic birding.  I am very happy to add this bird to the list, but obtained no photos, because the Red Knot was too distant.

I was back home in Cincinnati Sunday night to be available for completion of the work on Monday, August 19, to resolve the downspout and storm water issues, created by repair of a sewer lateral underneath the downspout and storm water exit lines.  I chose the contractor carefully and used a person who does work for the HOA members, who are satisfied with his work.  The HOA members had issues with the quality and timeliness of the work done by the original plumbing company who replaced the sewer lateral; however, their concerns are ill-founded and do not take into account the length of time it takes for clay soil to settle after such a job, from 8 months to two years based on input from professionals.  The work was completed Monday afternoon, August 19, which is one week less than two years after the sewer lateral was replaced.  Most of the landscaping work except for this last storm water issue was completed within one year and three months of the sewer lateral replacement.  Final resolution of the storm water issue was delayed by five months by the HOA, because they sat on, took no action on and did not try to contact me about a suggestion I made to resolve the issue in the spring...but I am to blame.  Such is life. 

I had started making plans to pursue the Curlew Sandpiper on Long Island.  My mind was strong but my body was weak, requiring a good night of rest from the hard physical labor of the past week.  I left early on Tuesday, August 20, but not soon enough to arrive before sunset.  I had looked at flights to NYC, but found that there were usually multiple flights involved and with waiting at the airports and picking up a rental car, it was almost as quick to drive there, just short of 11 hours.  I drove to the Mecox Bay area, arriving just after sunset, and miracle of miracles found a reasonably priced motel in nearby Southampton.

I arrived at the parking area at the end of Dune Road close to the location of the Curlew Sandpiper at a little after 8:00 am on Wednesday, August 21 after wading through major traffic jams.  The parking area is designated for residents only, but I had been alerted by local resident and birder, Eileen Schwinn, that one can park in these areas early but need to leave before 9:00 am to be gone before the police patrols.  Thanks Eileen!  Excellent advice!  I found the Curlew Sandpiper quite easily near a pile of fence wire on an island beyond a man-made sand levee and around the point to the west.  When I first found the Curlew Sandpiper, it had its head tucked but showed the red under-parts and the very long legs.  Eventually, the Curlew Sandpiper woke up and started feeding, showing the downward curved bill, with not as much downward curvature as I have seen before on this species.  The Curlew Sandpiper is rapidly losing the red on its face.  The face is mostly white with a dark eye-line and a white supercillium/line above the eye.  See photos below.

As I left the parking area just before 9:00 am, there were other beach walkers/lovers that were also leaving for the same reason.  After stopping for gas at 10:00 am, I headed west on the Long Island Expressway (LIE) expecting to be back in Cincinnati in about 11 hours.  There were considerable delays on the LIE due to sweeping the road surface and edges, which eliminated the HOV and left hand lanes, reducing four lanes to two in most places.  There were also considerable delays going through the city approaching the George Washington Bridge.  While stuck in the traffic delays, I regretted driving rather than flying.  However, it was smooth sailing on I-78 to Harrisburg and then back on the PA turnpike to I-70 and home on I-71.  I arrived home in Cincinnati at midnight.  This trip took longer than expected, because I stopped to eat lunch and dinner.  All the effort in driving and actually seeing the Curlew Sandpiper, helped to work off some of my anger about my property issues.

Curlew Sandpiper
Curlew Sandpiper with Semipalmated Sandpiper
showing size difference
Baird's Sandpiper, Red Knot and Curlew Sandpiper raise the total to 583.  Next I'm heading west to AZ and So. CA with potential stop in TX.  Hopefully, there will be no delays in my plans this time.  I should have been close to 650 species by now.
Baird's Sandpiper,
 long straight bill, buffy wash on throat
mottling on back and wings but shows signs of feather wear
 at bend of wing, long primaries extending beyond tail, larger/longer than
Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers with it


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Shearwater Jouneys Pelagic Trips, July 27 and 28, Out of Half Moon Bay

Correction:  Chris Hitt (Slow Birding) sent me an e-mail telling me that I did not include Black-chinned Hummingbird in my summary of new birds seen in my blog for Big Bend NP for Thursday, July 25.  I neglected to also add it to my master list as well.  When the correction is made, my list will be 564 before the addition of birds from these pelagic trips.  Thanks, Chris.  Very helpful.   

On Saturday morning, July 27, at 4:00 am, my cell phone alarm woke me abruptly interrupting dream world.  Four hours was not really enough sleep, but I needed to unpack from my flight and repack my stuff in my backpack needed on-board for the pelagic trip.  I was due at Johnson Pier, Half Moon Bay before 7:00 am.  From the gas station quick stop next door, I picked up some peanut butter cracker packs, some cheese cracker packs, healthy breakfast and snack bars to eat on the boat and two bottles of Sprite to drink.  That would have to sustain me for the first day.  I had my usual breakfast at McDonalds of fruit and oatmeal as well as a burrito breakfast meal.  I had my usual orange juice, a small coffee and only one burrito.  The potato crisp and second burrito would have to wait until after the boat trip, because that is not my usual food that I eat before a boat trip.  I was on the way to Johnson Pier on Half Moon Bay, by 5:50 am for the 45 minute drive predicted by Google Maps.  I made it with time to spare and met Debi at the boat before 7:00 am.  It was a not quite but nearly full trip on Saturday. 

Saturday's trip was highly successful, for my first Lower 48 west coast pelagic trip and my first visit to California this year.  Not surprising, because in my experience with Debi Shearwater, pelagic trips  have always been successful.  I added 14 new birds for the year at the dock and on the first pelagic trip.  The weather was typical of the west coast on the Pacific Ocean and in the north, foggy cloudy and cool.  Later in the day, the water surface was almost glassy smooth which helped us find and see birds very well on the water surface.  At the dock, I found Western Gull and on the jetty before the boat left the dock, I found Heerman's Gulls, both new for the year.  See photo below.  Along the jetty, we found Surfbirds, as many as four during the two days, and Wandering Tattler, three as the high count, both new for the year.  On and along the jetty, there were close Pigeon Guillemots and Black Oystercatchers, not new for the year.   See photos of Black Oystercatcher below.  Before leaving the harbor and along the jetties, we found Elegant Terns, new for the year.  See photos below.  Before heading out to sea we were successful in finding two Marbled Murrelets close to shore, locally endangered but not new for the year for me, and I got a better picture than I was able to obtain in Alaska.  See photo below.  We also found a Cassin's Auklet on the water, one of several that we saw over the two days.  They are small and fat like footballs and mostly gray except for the lower belly toward the under-tail with very little white around the eyes.  See photos below.  This was a better view than I obtained on the Attu trip.  Closer to shore we encountered flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes, not new for the year, and seen in Alaska.  Soon we saw the first Sooty Shearwater, new for the year, of which we would see many over the two days.  See photos below.  It is a good comparison to see Sooty Shearwater after seeing Short-tailed Shearwater in the Aleutians in May and early June.  Sooty Shearwater has white in the wing linings that is brighter than the gray patches on the wing linings of Short-tailed Shearwater.  I studied the difference in head shape and bill size on these Sooty Shearwaters.  Sooty Shearwater has a flatter forehead and heavier bill than Short-tailed Shearwater.  However, these differences are subtle and are not necessarily always obvious to the observer.  Then we found Rhinoceros Auklet, one of several that we saw over the two day trip.   This first one was an adult with white plumes still intact.  See photos below.  We also saw immature birds without the plumes during the two days.  Rhino is the one alcid missing from my trip list for Attu, because they are uncommon in the western Aleutian Islands out to Attu.  It's good to add Rhino for the year!  A California Gull, first for the year, joined the Western Gulls following the boat, chum and oil slick.  As we got further out, we started seeing Red Phalaropes, new for the year, which are bigger with heavier bills, grayer wings and back than the Red-necked Phalaropes.  See photos below.  I missed the only brief sighting of a flock of breeding plumage Red Phalaropes on the Attu trip because it was early in the morning and in the front of the boat while I was in the back.  These Red and Red-necked Phalaropes on today's pelagic trip are adults that have left the breeding grounds, probably females, who leave first, letting the males take care of the young before the males also leave the breeding grounds, leaving the young to fend for themselves.  The Red Phalaropes are molting and have residual blotches of light red on them.  Then we started seeing our first Pink-footed Shearwaters, new for the year.  See photos below.  Finally, the first of about two or three Buller's Shearwaters showed up, my first for the year.  Ashy Storm-Petrels, were being seen, but I waited to count them until I good a good, identifiable look.  See photos below.  They are grayish brown, with a long forked tail, grayish wing linings and fly with a shallow wing beat unlike the night-hawk-like flight of the larger Black Storm-Petrel with deeper and slower wing beats.  A South Polar Skua, new for the year, was called from the front of the boat, and I got to see it well enough for an identification as it continued on its way away from the boat.   One Black Storm-Petrel was called from the front of the boat, but I missed it.  It is too early in the year and too far north for this species to be present in large numbers out of Half Moon Bay.  I expect to see them more readily when I take some southern California pelagic trips later this month and in the fall.  I believe that at least one Fork-tailed Storm Petrel was seen on the Saturday trip and one on the Sunday trip.  That's not a new bird for the year for me, having seen quite a few very well on the boat to and from Attu.  Wilson's Storm-Petrels were seen in the large flocks of petrels on the water on Saturday.  Wilson's Storm-Petrel is a cool bird for the west coast, and a new bird for my California list, but I was sort of "ho-hum" about Wilson's Storm-Petrel, having seen hundreds out of Hatteras, NC within the past week.  The final new bird for the pelagic trips is perhaps the best bird.  Two Scripps's Murrelets were found on Saturday.  Finding them was facilitated by the glassy smooth water surface.  They are very small, black and white acids, with relatively short bills, white and no black below the bill in comparison to Craveri's Murrelet and not much white around the eye relative to the Guadalupe Murrelet, formerly the hypoleucus form of Xantus's Murrelet.  Scripps's and Guadalupe Murrelets recently were split from Xantus's Murrelet.  Scripps's lack the pointed partial dark collar and the black below the bill of the much rarer Craveri's Murrelet, typically found, but still rare, in southern California waters.  Scripps's Murrelets have white wing linings, differentiating them from Craveri's Murrelets, which have dusky gray wing linings.  My photos show the white wing linings and were the only photos on-board that were used to verify the identification with wing lining color.   See photos below.  We had large numbers of Sabine's Gulls on Saturday and additional birds on Sunday with at least one flock of about 30 on Saturday, not a new bird for the year.  See photos, included, because they are so colorful and distinctive.  On Sunday, a nice Pomarine Jaeger came in to the chum and oil slick and close to the boat.  See photo included because not previously photographed but seen out of Hatteras, NC.  On Sunday, I spent more time taking photographs, because there were no new birds for me.  We also had Black-footed Albatross both days and Laysan Albatross on Sunday.  The Laysan Albatross seen on this trip is from a southern nesting location off Mexico, while the birds seen on the boat trip to Attu are from Midway Island.  No photos included, because photographed and posted in Attu report.  

Sandy Komito, current record holder for The Big Year at 748, was on the boat on Saturday, and returned Sunday.  I first met Sandy on Attu in 1988 and 1989 and then on west coast pelagic trips with Debi Shearwater after that.  He (re-) introduced himself to me at Fort Jefferson this spring.  I always enjoy talking to Sandy.  He has interesting stories to tell and a unique perspective about birding and life.  Some people are put off by his North Jersey perspective, but I am not, having lived near the east coast, Delaware, not far from Jersey and in New York State.  Sandy is now photographing all of the ABA birds on the list for the ABA Area, but not necessarily photographing them in the ABA Area.  He had camera problems on Saturday; therefore, returned for the Sunday trip.

While I was on the boat on Saturday, I talked to local leaders and participants about what California birds I still needed.  I got a few helpful hints.  After the boat arrived at the dock, I drove Route 1 north a short distance on Cabrillo Highway, Rt. 1, to the vicinity of McNee Ranch State Park, where I found hillside scrub and at least 5 Wrentits, a new bird for the year.  I found this spot and these birds on my own without any local help.  There were also Spotted Towhee and White-crowned Sparrows in the same area along the trail up into the hills.  After that I drove back to Half Moon Bay and continued toward Hayward, where I was staying for the night.  A pelagic participant from Illinois told me that they heard a Pacific-Slope Flycatcher, Wrentit and Chestnut-backed Chickadee at a preserve along Skyline Boulevard off of Rt. 92.  I found the location, which is Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, but arrived too late and too close to sunset and closing time.

I had hoped to see Black Storm-Petrel on Sunday's trip, but it was not to be.  We mostly saw the same birds on both days, except for seeing Laysan Albatross on Sunday but not on Saturday.   Laysan Albatross is not a new bird for me for the year, having seen them well on the boat trip to and from Attu.  On Sunday, I finally met Neil Hayward, who has nearly 700 species on his Accidental Big Year list.  I wondered when we would finally meet.  It was interesting talking to Neil and sharing perspective about doing a Big Year, particularly how difficult it is.  I discovered that we have something in common.  We are both scientists.  Neil worked in Biotech but is a consultant now, part-time due to his Big Year effort.  Below is a photo of me, Sandy Komito and Neil Hayward on the boat on Sunday.  Also, included is a photo of Debi Shearwater and Sandy Komito clowning.  Sandy is choking Debi while Debi holds a large knife.

After the boat trip on Sunday, I went directly to Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve.  In the parking lot near the trail head and outhouse, I heard the small "tseek" calls of a Chestnut-backed Chickadee as a Common Raven flew into the parking lot area.  There was a group of hikers hanging around the immediate area where I heard the chickadee calls, and they weren't moving on.  I decided to hike down the trail about a mile to an intersection with another trail where the birders from Illinois told me that they had heard Pacific-Slope Flycatcher.  I was unsuccessful in finding more chickadees or the Pacific-Coast Flycatcher.   When I returned to the trail head the hikers were gone, and I heard the song/call, a hoarse, rapid "tseek-a-dee-dee" of a Chestnut-backed Chickadee.  I searched for but could not find the bird, but am confident that I identified the call correctly.  I compared it with the Chestnut-backed Chickadee song/call on iBird Pro.  Chestnut-backed Chickadee is the only chickadee found on the California coast in this area, as I was told by California birders on the boat.  This is, at least, in my opinion, true during the breeding season.  For those who are concerned about heard birds rather than seen birds, I will see Chestnut-backed Chickadee later this year on the west coast, as I have done over the years when I have taken pelagic trips out of Fort Bragg.  How can I be confident in identifying heard birds by sound, you ask?  I started this skill at 4-5 years of age, when I first got interested in birds, by drawing pictures by looking at old field guides available back then, encouraged by my mother.  I did not have binoculars at first and stalked birds by following bird songs and calls that I did not know until I could get close enough to actually see them.  I have continued learning and relearning bird songs and calls continuously since then, particularly in different areas of North American when I chased after new life birds.  Despite my advancing age, I am lucky that I can still hear some of the harder to hear bird calls and songs, such as Cedar Waxwings and Black-poll Warblers, both of which have high pitched and thin calls and songs.

I was disappointed that I did not find any Brandt's Cormorants, which I expected to see in numbers as did some of the leaders and spotters on the boat.  Not to worry.  They are common many places on the California coast

Black-chinned hummingbird raises the previous total to 564.  Western Gull, Heerman's Gull, Surfbird, Wandering Tattler, Elegant Tern, Sooty Shearwater, Rhinoceros Auklet, California Gull, Pink-footed Shearwater, Buller's Shearwater, Red Phalarope, Ashy Storm-Petrel, South Polar Skua, Scripps's Murrelet, Wrentit, and Chestnut-backed Chickadee raise the total to 580.

I am headed next to Arizona and southern CA where 40-50 species await, because this will be my first visit there for the year.    

Heerman's Gull, adult-front, immature-back
Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatchers, buddies

Elegant Terns, long slightly de-curved bill

Elegant Terns roosting on jetty

Marbled Murrelet
Cassin's Auklet, taking flight

Cassin's Auklet
Sooty Shearwater taking flight
Sooty Shearwaters in flight
Rhinoceros Auklet, adult-note plumes, not white throat but plume

Rhinoceros Auklet, adult note white plumes
Red Phalarope flying

Red Phalarope
Red Phalarope flying
Pink-footed Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

Ashy Storm-Petrel, grayish brown, long forked tail

Ashy Storm-Petrel, pale mottling on under-wings
Scripps's Murrelet, no black below bill, no pointed dark collar, limited white around eye
Scripps's Murrelets, white wing linings, right wing each bird

Scripps's Murrelets, white wing lining, left bird, right wing
Sabine's Gull, showing wing pattern

Sabine's Gull, note yellow bill tip
Sabine's Gull flock, 11 of 30, two Red Phalaropes on right
Pomarine Jaeger

Sandy and Debi, old friends clowning

Jay, Sandy Komito (Big Year Record holder) and Neil Hayward (has a shot at the record)

Addendum to Thursday, July 25, Big Bend

On Thursday night when I hiked down to the bottom of the campground at Chisos Basin to check out the road to the sewage treatment pond, I stopped at an overview point that overlooks the sewage treatment pond and is an apparent overlook for campers for sunsets through The Window.  I looked and listened for Gray Vireo from this spot, because I could not make it to he sewage treatment pond and back before dark, but without success.  When I turned around to leave, there was a Greater Roadrunner quite close behind me, checking me out and probably curious about what I was doing.  The Greater Roadrunner was also singing/calling, and also, perhaps looking for a handout, which the campers probably do even though is forbidden with signs saying so.  Below is one of the best photos that I have obtained of a Greater Roadrunner.

No change in the year total.

Greater Roadrunner, looking for a handout?