Saturday, December 14, 2013


The drama and excitement of Adak, of birding in the far-flung Aleutians already seems a distant memory as Gerri and I are walking around Home Depot looking for a Christmas Tree. (Unfortunately, so is everyone else in Boston, and apparently, this is something that can't be done online.) There's a small flock of House Sparrows working their way around the chilly lot, and, like every other flock of birds I've seen this year, I can't help scrutinizing each one for something unusual. 

"What about this one?" 

"The bird on the left? Oh, you mean the tree?"

As I'm driving home, trying not to strangle myself on the precarious spider-web of string winding through the interior of the car that's hopefully holding a 7-foot Balsam Fir to the roof, I reflect on the change of pace to my big year. At this point, I'm in a holding pattern: waiting for something to turn up. I've been checking NARBA (North American Rare Bird Alert) and state listservs every few minutes. I'm turning into a nervous wreck waiting for my next birding fix. How much more relaxing it was finding our own birds in Alaska!

So - what do I have left for the rest of the year? What birds are still possible?

Probable (0)

After cleaning up on McKay's Bunting, Whiskered Auklet and Whooping Crane recently - this category is effectively over. I've seen all the common north American birds (Code 1 and 2) with the exception of Common Ringed Plover. (I didn't go to Gambell in the spring, and I wasn't able to chase the one in MA (!) in May. This is a bird that isn't going to make a winter appearance.)

So, any new birds will be rarities (code 3,4 or 5)

Possible (2)
  • Great Skua. This is a bird that's regular off Hatteras, NC in the winter. I'm talking to Brian Patteson about running a trip later in the month - which is how John Vanderpoel saw his Great Skua back in 2011. But - bad weather can easily cancel these trips.
  • La Sagra's Flycatcher - almost a regular winterer in Florida (I chased two and missed both there  in the spring.) The question is, will one turn up before the end of the year?

Improbable - but not wholly impossible (10)
  • Smew - Canada? No, probably not.
  • Masked Duck - could be found in Texas during the Christmas Bird Count?
  • Ivory Gull - another bird I missed by not going to Gambell, AK in the spring. Also, we didn't find one up in Barrow. Still - one could turn up in the north-east. Newfoundland?
  • Taiga Bean-goose - 'tis the season for geese.
  • Graylag Goose - a repeat of the 2011 Graylag in Canada would be nice!
  • Hook-billed Kite - I tried last month at Anzalduas where one had been seen. They didn't breed in TX this year (the drought isn't helping.) My best chance would be to devote several days to hanging around Bentsen, Santa Ana, Anzalduas. The problem is I'm running out of "several days."
  • Smooth-billed Ani - probably extirpated in Florida now, but there's usually one or two hanging around. Somewhere?
  • Brown Jay - could come into the feeders at Salineno for the winter.
  • Falcated Duck - the CA bird could return to Colusa for the 3rd winter.
  • Little Egret - ok. Not very likely. But there was one last December in MA.

I'm at 742+3, which means I guess it's about time for me to start talking about the ABA Big Year record. I've tried to focus on my own big year, but it's getting harder to do that as I'm closing the gap on Sandy Komito's record of 748 (745+3) set 15 years ago. If the birds turn up, and I can get there fast enough, I could conceivably set a new record. The reason I'm trying not to get *too* excited is that I don't want to feel like I've failed if I don't break the record. Seeing almost 750 birds in one year can't be a failure. Heck, seeing over 600 is pretty darn good. Plus all those wonderful experiences that I've written about here - of far-flung places across this continent. I'm excited to be chasing the record - but that's not why I'm doing a Big Year. (But don't worry - that doesn't mean I'm *not* going to try - I'm committed to chasing everything now until the end of the month.)

I guess I should also start talking about Aplomado Falcon. I've had lots of questions and comments about the countability of this bird. I've seen the bird. John Vanderpoel counted it, somewhat reluctantly, arguing that Sandy did, and so, in the interests of a fair comparison of big year lists, he should do the same. Why the controversy? Well, Aplomado Falcon was essentially extirpated from the US by the 1950s (mainly through habitat loss.) A reintroduction program started in 1993 and birds are still being released today to support this population. The reintroduced birds are not countable by Texas, and thus the ABA (similar to California Condors - the reintroduced birds are not countable.) However, the bird can occur as a natural vagrant (from Mexico), but with so many released birds, it's impossible to tell a genuine (and extremely rare) vagrant from the much more common uncountable birds. Realistically, any Aplomado Falcon is likely to be a released bird or descended from one - and thus not countable. I'm still thinking this one through. It seems odd to include a bird on my big year list but not on my life list. I guess it depends on how close to the record I get! I'm hoping it's not all decided by an Aplomado Falcon!

I'm saved from resolving this mental pondering by the phone...

"Probable Little Bunting. Humboldt County, California."

That's John Puschock calling and he's just put me out of my nervous state of waiting. It feels good to spring back into action - to flex those well-tuned logistic muscles and plan a chase. And as I'm preparing to head out for California, I get news that a White-cheeked Pintail is in Florida - at Pelican Island NWR. This is almost certainly the same bird that I chased *twice* in the spring and missed. Maybe this is my chance for revenge? 

Little Bunting is a small bird of the Eurasian taiga, breeding in conifer clearings. And although it would be an ABA life bird for me, I've actually chased and seen one as a kid in the UK. It was coming into a feeder and I was struck by the delicate eye-ring, and the burnished face color. But that was over 20 years ago. It was about time to see another!

It's late when I arrive at Oakland Airport. Late enough for the predictably-bad traffic that snarls around interstate 580 to have unsnarled itself. I'm on the road by 11:30pm. I have 300 miles ahead of me - roughly 6 hours. I make the first 200 miles before I need to pull over and sleep. I've become an expert at reclining the front seat of the car, finding a position that's just about comfortable enough to sleep in, and staying warm when it's in the 30s outside. (A looted US Airways blanket is the secret!)

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I'm awoken by my 5 am alarm. Time to get back on the road. It's a dark road that winds through the redwood giants. As the trees encroach on the edges of the fog-draped road it takes all of my concentration to make each turn. I'm leaning forward, inches from the windshield, trying to find the way.

I pull into McKinleyville around 8:30am. The fog is lifting off, revealing a bucolic scene on both sides of Fischer Road - grass, cows, lazy egrets. I can hear the honking of (Cackling) geese in the background, and Killdeer calling and flying around, trying to make up their mind just which side of the road has the greener grass.

Fischer Road, McKinleyville, CA. Humboldt County.

I'm happy to see that there are birders here. And even happier to see that they're all intently  looking in the same direction: the bird must still be here!

I jump out of the car, and quickly locate the focus of their attention: a small sparrow-like bird with a richly-burned face. It's moving through a thicket of thistles.

Little Bunting! The bill is long and pointed. 
The nape (back of the neck) is gray, like a Clay-colored Sparrow.

It's pretty active, and soon leaps up - emitting a distinctive "zick" -  into the air and circles the field. As I'm wondering if this first view will be all I get, the bird seems to read my mind, banks, and flies back. This time posing on a wire fence:

Little Bunting. Notice the bright red-brown cheek and supercilium.
The tail is forked with white outer edges (very obvious in flight.)

Phew! What an absolutely stunning bird. I'd forgotten just how beautiful they are - and how rich the chestnut wash on the face is.

Although it's always an easier drive back after you've successfully seen a bird, I still had to fight the urge to sleep. Thankfully, I had a lot to think about. I'd received news of a La Sagra's Flycatcher in Florida - one of my "possibles", right on cue! I'm heading to Florida tomorrow morning - now with potentially two birds I need.

And with only 2 weeks left of my big year, the race is on...

+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 743 + 3 provisional (Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart, Eurasian Sparrowhawk)

NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Little Bunting


  1. I think you should count the falcon and I'm sure John and Sandy would not argue against that.

  2. Count me in with the "count the falcon" mob!

  3. really enjoying your blog, a thought I've always wondered about though, if a person's looking for apples to apples consistency, does anyone know what Komito's list would look like if one considered all the splits that have occurred in the last 15 years?

    1. That's a great question. The bottom line is that no two years are the same. There are new birds added (exotics, splits) sometimes lumps, birds that are increasing in occurrence (Nutting's Flycatcher?) and disappearing (Smooth-billed Ani) or disappeared (Tamaulipas Crow.)

      The splits are interesting. It would be impossible to second guess all of them and make sure you saw them in your big year. For example, if Kind and Clapper Rails are split into more species it's unlikely I would have been to all the right places for the new ones. Similarly if Red Crossbills are split. Sandy may have seen both species of the Sage Sparrow Split, or only one (he wouldn't have known to look.)

      It might seem odd that the provisionals are added in future years, but the splits aren't. Neither were on the list during the year of the big year, but only one type is later counted. I guess the provisionals are retroactively added to the year they were seen in. Similarly with lumps which thankfully aren't regressive.

      John Vanderpoel could have added more species (Purple Swamphen, Sagebrush Sparrow, Rosy-faced Lovebird, etc) if he'd done his big year in 2013 not 2011. But he'd have probably have missed Smooth-billed Ani and Hook-billed Kite.

      So - I don't really know the answer! It's really impossible to compare - but it's a lot of fun doing so!

      - Neil

  4. I have to say that the most amazing thing about your Big Year is that you did not go to Attu. Although St. Paul made for a very useful substitute for Attu as it turned out. Best of luck in Florida and keep your eyes peeled for Loggerhead Kingbirds!

    1. Thanks Brian!

      Yes - Attu would have made a big difference this year. They had some great birds. When I think of my big year compared to Sandy's, his was very front-heavy - with most of the birds coming at the beginning of the year. He picked up so much by being on Attu in the spring. I've had the opposite - I've had to pick up those birds in the fall in various AK localities. So - it is possible to get to the 740s without Attu (John Vanderpoel didn't go either) but it takes a lot more trips to AK, especially St. Paul.

      Thanks for the comment.
      - Neil

      (No Loggerhead Kingbirds so far...)

  5. There is one California Condor, identifiable by wing tag, which is not reintroduced but rather was captured from the wild, held in captivity for years, and then released. I think that bird ought to be countable regardless of what the ABA says. I think you're right to leave Aplomado Falcon off the list - maybe you will convince the others to retroactively drop it from their Big Year lists. Good luck in Florida!

  6. Hello Neil! I'm another anonymous birder cruising cyberspace getting more excited for you by the minute! I'm sure there are thousands of us vicariously traveling with you and wishing you all the best! If number 748 happens in Florida, party's at my house! Thanks for all the fun (and great information!)

  7. I do not see Bell's Sparrow on the list.

    1. Neil has Bell's Sparrow at 695.

    2. You are right! Sage Sparrow seen in January has been removed and both Bell's and Sagebrush are counted! I really hope Neil gets the few more birds he misses... Are you still in Florida Neil?

  8. For Smooth-billed Ani in Florida. Have you investigated a small patch in an abandoned lot in Dania Beach? It's near the intersection of Old Griffin Road & A1A. You walk across the train trestle bridge to get in.

  9. Fascinating blog Neil! I've been spending an inordinate amount of time reading your blog lately, you should definitely write a book about this year. Congrats on the LIBU, hope you hit 748 yet!

  10. There is a Rustic bunting in AK, and a possible little egret in the Dry Tortugas according to Ebird. You can do it!!


  12. Heather Aidan PierceDecember 17, 2013 at 9:19 PM

    This post represents why I have been reading your blog since the summer. Like Patch and many others, I have been vicariously traveling with you on this amazing adventure and learning so much. My 7 year old son is showing his first interest in birding and keeping track of your numbers, so exciting! You are right, record or no record what you have achieved is remarkable. Thank you for taking us along with you! We are rooting for you!

  13. my son and I love your blog and are rooting for you. I have had the chance to bird near you a couple times throughout Massachusetts!

  14. Ahhh, the blend of relief and joy when you pull up to a twitch and immediately notice all the assembled glass pointed at one particular spot! Only a birder could understand how that feels. Go, Neil, go!

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  16. Happy 40th Birthday my friend! You're my total HERO!

  17. Surely there must be a way to get out into Great Skua off the East Coast! I was working on a boat off Newfoundland this fall and was getting multiples on a daily basis!

    1. Hey Jeremy,

      Hopefully going out with Brian Patteson on the 28th out of Hatteras. Would be nice to get multiple birds like you've had!

      Thanks for the comment.
      - Neil