Monday, April 29, 2013


I've updated my year list based on feedback.

Which means I'm back under 500 :(

I've taken out birds that aren't accepted by the ABA:

1. Common Pochard - seen in Vermont in Feb. The bird was banded and thus a presumed escape. VT are not accepting this record so neither is the ABA.

2. Aplomado Falcon - seen in Texas in April. These birds are being reintroduced after extirpation, and are thus code 6 (like California Condor.)

3. Mitred Parakeet - somehow managed to slip in (as I logged it in eBird and then just used that list.) Given how abundant these guys are, it can't be be long before they're added to the list.

It's not all bad news though. I get to add one: Muscovy Duck. It's apparently countable in Florida now as a code 2 established escape. If I have time, I'll try for the "real thing" again in Texas, but happy that I at least have this as a back-up!

Should still make 500 before the end of the month (tomorrow!)...


I'm back in Boston for one night, and then back out again. This time Arizona.

Arizona is, by far, my favorite place to bird (of the places I've visited this year.) Lots and lots of birds, lots of unique birds that can only be found there, and not a ridiculous amount of driving involved.

I'm there for a week, which should make a significant dent in breeding and migrating western and south-western birds.

Highlights should be:

  1. Owling with Laurens Halsey at Madera Canyon
  2. Sorting through all the different migrating and resident flycatchers
  3. Lots of new warblers - including Grace's, Virginia's, Lucy's. Hopefully the rare Crescent-chested Warbler - found last week - is back and showing well next week.
  4. Catching up on some sleep???

Also need to think about other trips in May. I'll probably need to go to:

  1. The Dry Tortugas (Florida - again!)
  2. Back to the Rio Grande and SW Texas (both parrots, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Black-capped Vireo, Colima Warbler)

I still haven't been to California - where there's a whole bunch of new stuff waiting. Including pelagic birds.

Oh - and I missed Sharp-tailed Grouse in CO. Hope I can find an easier alternative - it's quite the trek out there.

I've missed a bunch of migrating warblers which will be on breeding grounds soon. I'll probably have to track them down there, which will take time. I'm worried about: Golden-winged Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Swainson's Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, as well as Black-billed Cuckoo.

I'm also planning to visit the Pribilofs (AK) for breeding seabirds. The logistics of this might be too hard to organize alone, and so I'll probably be forced to join a group.

OK - flight back to Boston...


In a last-ditch attempt to squeeze as much as I could out of this short Florida trip, I headed down to Key Largo in the hope of actually *seeing* a Black-whiskered Vireo. Apparently, the keys are much better than points north (where they're often only found migrating.) My flight was at 1:50, so I had enough time - if I got up early enough. 

"Early enough" was 5:45am - and I seriously considered just going back to sleep. I've now decided good decisions cannot be made at this time, so if I commit to a trip I'm not going to allow myself to talk myself out of it. (That's the theory - we'll see how long it lasts!) It worked this morning though (hence today's post) - and I was at Key Largo (Dagny Johnson) at a very respectable 7am. 

Again - lots of Cape May Warblers and other migrants hopping around - Ovenbird, BT Blue Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, American Redstart, and many resident White-eyed Vireos singing their (also four-chambered) hearts out. 

I had bad memories of this place - and had vowed never to return. It's funny how birders have such strong feelings (positive and negative) about birding places. This was where I walked around for hours listening for Mangrove Cuckoo - at that time, an entirely fictitious bird. 

Today, it only took 20 minutes to find my target - moving slowly around the canopy. The bird wasn't singing, but responded well to pishing. 

Black-whiskered Vireo - can you spot the whiskers?
(iPhone pic through my binoculars)

So Key Largo is back in my good books!

A familiar sign to birders (and birds!) visiting Florida...

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (0): Black-whiskered Vireo heard on last trip, but first visual today.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


I apparently slept through 4 phone alarms this morning, and a wake up call. And I felt great for doing so! Clearly, much in need of a morning of recovery after the insanity of yesterday, I didn't leave the hotel until 7. (That's a shameful 2 hours after the intended departure time.)

Although I'd planned to head straight for Miami, I was sidetracked by some late reports from yesterday: a pair of presumably post-nuptual Gull-billed Terns at Honeymoon Island, and the Black-whiskered Vireo at Fort de Soto. Both these were worth spending the morning tracking down - and potentially the still-elusive Gray Kingbird. Hotel breakfast (nice eggs!) and off...

Even with such a late start, I managed to arrive *before* Honeymoon Island opened (and no, the island isn't named after it's late-morning sleep in - rather the shape.) I did manage to scope some of the bay area, and saw Sandwich, Least and Forster's Terns, but no Gull-billed. Also on the mudflats, darting about around the feeding shorebirds was a lovely Reddish Egret - my first proper look this year at a dark-morph bird.

I left despondantly, cursing the lack of the right kind of Tern, and still not seeing any Gray Kingbirds. Wondering where the hell the latter were, I soon discovered - hanging out in front of ugly condo complexes! I had a bird on the wire, which, after making a bit of noise, flew off to a secluded tree. Here's the bird - lovely big bill, hooked at the end. Note the dark mask on the gray face. Larger than expected, and similar voice to Eastern Kingbird.

Gray Kingbird - they do exist!

Raced back to Fort de Soto, and found the right Vireo area this time - after receiving proper directions from the Florida listserv. There was a real fountain and a house this time - which I should have realized wasn't what I saw yesterday! Lots of warblers - probably more Cape Mays than I've cumulatively ever seen. I love the red faces of the males. BT Blues, lots of Blackpolls, Parulas, American Redstarts, Ovenbird and a singing White-eyed Vireo. Apart from the latter, none of the others were singing - a big difference to seeing migrants in MA where the calls make them a lot easier to find.

Despite the nice warbler variety, I spent a fairly miserable 2 hours not finding the Black-whiskered Vireo. I did find the tree that it's often seen in...

Black-whiskered Vireo tree (mulberry) minus the Black-whiskered Vireo.

The (5 hour) drive to Miami took me across the state on "Alligator Alley". A slight misnomer - it's a regular highway, not an alley, and there (sadly) weren't any alligators. The 10 foot fences on each side of the highway probably made it a little difficult for the critters to enter the alley. Did see Red-shouldered Hawk and Swallow-tailed Kite while driving - there's always great birds to see while driving in Florida.

As the alley hits the civilization of the east coast, I turned off for Chapel Trail - a boardwalk marshland that's famous as the spot for Purple Swamphen. This is an old world species - with many subspecies found throughout Europe, Asia and Australasia. Apparently, the Romans liked keeping them, and was one of the few birds that they didn't bother eating. It didn't occur in the US until the 1990s, when several managed to escape from captivity. Despite an attempt at eradication, they prospered here, and are now an established part of the avifauna. The ABA recognized this by adding them to the list in Feb 2013 - hence the huge number of reports from excited birders who can add a new tick to their lists.

Unlike Black-whiskered Vireos, Purple Swamphens do not hide in trees, not moving or making any noise. Finally - a bird that takes less than 3 minutes to find (including parking, assembling scope, running out of car, locking said car.) Larger than Purple Gallinules, with a red bill and frontal shield, there's a certain hard elegance about these birds.

Purple Swamphen - newly added to the ABA list this year. 
Noisy, gregarious - pretty hard to miss!

I ended the day at Virginia Key, to try for the La Sagra's Flycatcher - reported here as recently Friday. This is a Myiiarchus flycatcher, like the Nutting's and Ash-throated - but almost white below, with little if any yellow. Also, a very distinctive call - "wink." Unfortunately, I never got to hear the call - or see how white the underparts were, or the tail pattern - as the bird never showed. I did, however, meet Angel and Mariel, local birding stars who've found more than their fair share of rare birds.

One of the nice things about Miami is the wild parrot populations. You always have a chance of seeing these as you're driving around. Or - more likely - stopped at lights with endless traffic ahead of you. This time I was driving, and the reflex of shoving my foot on the brake caused the driver behind to almost hit me, and definitely lose her patience, as well as a few curse words yelled through the open window as she passed me.

This was a new bird for me - Orange-winged Parrot. No - they're not countable, but very cute.

Orange-winged Parrot. The orange is limited to a small portion of their secondaries (just visible in this pic.) Predominantly green, with subtle coloring of yellow and blue on the head, and yellow in the (very short) tail.

If that weren't enough, my hotel had a parrot hotel in front of it. Hundreds of Mitred Parrakeets...

Hundreds of Mitred Parakeets feeding in tree.

Mitred Parakeets - even in a massive flock, 3 can be a crowd...

Why aren't these on the ABA list? I've seen way more of these in Florida than all the other escapees added together. These guys are clearly doing very well.

Now, just need to find someone who's fed up with their pet Black-whiskered Vireo, and plans to release it...

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (2): Gray Kingbird, Purple Swamphen.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


I'm really not a morning person. At all. Unfortunately, almost everything to do with birding involves getting up at extraordinary times of the night. Getting up for a flight before a day of birding is one of the worst.

I landed at Palm Beach airport at 9am, and left the rental lot at 9:30am. It never ceases to amaze me, that if you're willing to pull yourself out of bed, and pay someone to drive you in a plane, you can be in far-flung places by the time everyone else is just about getting to work. JetBlue have a convenient, direct flight to Palm Beach, that's timed perfectly for a late morning attempt at Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman's Sparrow (they should advertise this more.)

These two birds are often found together - largely because they're so picky in their habitat preferences. Having picky habitat preferences isn't like being cool and lactose-intolerant, but generally bodes ill for the future of those species. For these birds, they're holding on only due to careful habitat management by the state. The woodpecker has rapidly disappeared from many states in which it was previously found - becoming further concentrated in the southeast.

St. Sebastian River Preserve is actively managed by fire, to maintain a low carpet of transitional growth under the pine forest. The sandy trails, huge buzzing insects, oppressive heat, burned palms give the place a prehistoric feel.

This is not Jurassic Park. 
About 20 minutes into the preserve, as I reached the encouragingly-named Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Link Trail, I hear the trill of a sparrow. Clambering over burned palms, and hopefully not unburned snakes, I get close enough to see the singing bird - a Bachman's Sparrow! It continues to sing, and show off it's gray chest, large bill and rufous head pattern. I thought this might be a tough one - so very happy to get this bird so quickly. In fact - it's my 28th sparrow of the year - (only 5 to go! Damn you Henslow's Sparrow)

Bachman's Sparrow - in song
I continued, along Deer Link. I was looking for the nesting trees of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker - apparently marked by white paint. I didn't see any, but did hear a faint "pic" note. I'd been listening for drumming, or tapping, but this sounded like a woodpecker call. But I couldn't see a woodpecker - even after 5 minutes of scanning the few pines closest to me. Finally, low down on a trunk I spotted some movement. Even before raising my bins, I could see the white cheek patch with my naked eye - a Red-cockaded Woodpecker! I watched as it flew to a nearby trunk, and hop down the trunk, to only a foot or so off the ground. It was foraging for food, sometimes gently tapping, but never drumming. As I looked around me, I could see trees with white paint on - so this bird was presumably not far from it's nesting site.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker - a very rare, and endangered bird. This individual is banded. Males have red tufts, or cockades, on the side of the head. I didn't see any, but they're apparently very difficult to see, which means this could have been either sex.

I was very happy to have my two target birds so quickly and easily. As I retraced my steps back to the car, I had a very cute Brown-headed Nuthatch (sounding like a squeaky pet toy), as well as a baby Pileated, sunning its new wings...

Pileated Woodpecker - a scraggly juvenile.
No Northern Bobwhite though - which are here, and which I keep missing elsewhere. Hmmm. I'm worried this might become a problem bird later in the year...

It was only 1pm, and I thought I'd have enough time to drive to the west coast of Florida, and try for Nanday Parakeets in St. Pete, and possibly check out Fort de Soto, where a Black-whiskered Vireo had been hanging out for the past week. (I'd heard BWVI in Key West, but never saw it - and for a life bird, I really wanted to see it and its famous whiskers.) Also - having missed Gray Kingbird in my previous FL trip (I was slightly too early) I had a chance for this at the Fort.

Driving through FL is a real joy - there are so many birds around that I'm sure most Florida birders keep a car list of birds they've seen (probably larger than most non-car Massachusetts lists.) Mine today included Sandhill Crane, Cattle Egret, Swallow-tailed Kite, White Ibis and Wood Stork. Though vultures (Black and Turkey), by far, are the most common bird seen.

Fort de Soto is a squiggly peninsula reaching out from the southern point of St. Petersburg. It's clear why this place attracts and funnel migrants. What wasn't clear was how to bird this place - I'd stupidly left my "Birding in Florida" guide at home - a book that really is indispensable if you're ever doing anything like the title suggests. I knew the Vireo had been seen "between the ranger's house and the fountain". I immediately found the HQ building, which I took to be the former, and a nearby water fountain (actually two) which I assumed to be the latter. What I didn't find was the Vireo. There were a small number of warblers - common ones which would in the coming weeks would hit Massachusetts in good numbers, and which for now were new year birds: Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler and American Redstart. But no Gray Kingbird. It was windy, hot, there were no other birders, and I still needed the Nandays.

Nanday Parakeet is a bird that I spent a lot of time trying to track down in Miami. That's because if you're trying to track down a Nanday Parakeet, Miami is a pretty lousy place to look. They're there - but not in good numbers, and not at reliable spots. St Petersburg is a "reliable spot". I had several parks to check, so I was feeling pretty good. Until, that is, I wound down the windows to listen for them, which reminded me of the hours in Texas looking for Green Parrot, and I remembered that I hated aimlessly driving slowly around shitty urban areas looking and listening for parrots. And looking like a complete weirdo while doing so. I was just thinking this as I turned a corner, and immediately identified the raucous noise outside as parrot noise - and the bird flying headlong towards the car as a Nanday Parakeet. Black head, green body, long tail. Check. There were about 10 sitting on a chain-link fence. I pulled over, and they all took off, screaming as they fled far off into the distance - reminding me why chasing these birds is so time-consuming, as they cover a large territory.

Nanday Parakeets are now a stable population in the wild (mainly Florida) after escaping from captivity (the birds occur naturally in South America.) They were added to the ABA list in Dec 2012. Also known as Black-hooded Parakeets, which seems like a very helpful name (Nanday doesn't.) But, it was an important exotic tick, and meant I wouldn't have to come back and do this again!

That leaves one other exotic parrot-like bird: Budgerigar. Looking on eBird, there's only one place in the whole country where they've been seen this year, and in very small numbers. That place is about an hour and a half north of St. Pete, and would be where I'd end my day of birding. The previously self-supporting Budgerigar populations (which led to them being added to the ABA list) are no more. In fact, Budgerigar is in serious danger of being delisted - which means I need to see one before that happens!

If driving around a city slowly looking and listening for parrots seems odd, then driving around a small residential street looking into people's yard for budgerigars on feeders, seems, at best, deeply suspicious. Never quite able to get over my inherent guilt while doing this, the final hour before sunset was pretty unpleasant, all the more so for not getting the bird. While checking birds on wires for budgerigars, I did get an oddly out-of-place single Eastern Bluebird. A long-overdue year bird, and definitely not where I was expecting it. Damn you Budgerigar. That probably means I have to come back here. Hopefully they delist it soon, so I don't have to bother!

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (7): Bachman's Sparrow, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, American Redstart, Nanday Parakeet, Eastern Bluebird.

Friday, April 26, 2013


I'm off tomorrow to Florida - for the weekend.

After the pain of the Bahama Woodstar, I thought I'd treat myself to looking at an empty pond - for the third time. The White-cheeked Pintail has become *a bit* of a nemesis bird for me this year, so I thought I'd add another trip to the legend. It hasn't been seen since 4.20 - although it does seem to disappear for days at a time.

Other target birds - which I missed last time:
  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachmann's Sparrow - will try at St. Sebastian River Preserve.
  • Nanday Parakeet - missed these around Miami, so I'll try St. Pete - where they're much more numerous (famous last, pre-nemesis bird, words...)
  • Gray Kingbird - at Fort de Soto, near St. Pete.
  • Groove-billed Ani - had been seen fairly regularly at the La Chua Trail, Paynes Prairie, although not recently. And - that's probably too far to drive!
  • Whooping Crane - introduced birds at La Chua Trail
  • Northern Bobwhite - yes, still haven't seen or heard these this year. Hey - they're not easy in MA!

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Wednesday, the bird blogs and listservs exploded with news of a *Bahama Woodstar*. A diminutive hummingbird with a fork-tail, purple gorget and white collar, this bird has only been reported in the US 5 times - 4 of which were in SE Florida, and the last of which was in 1981. That’s pretty freakin’ rare - and definitely the *best* bird in the US this year (so far.)

Identification was confirmed by banding, after initially being considered a hybrid hummer (for obvious reasons, BAWO wasn’t on many people’s minds.) News broke yesterday afternoon - precipitating a large-scale fall-out of birders to the Denver PA area.

Denver PA is, unfortunatey, not in MA. It’s 7 hours from Boston. My parents had been visiting from the UK, and I was dropping them off at the airport at 6:30am. If I left then, I could make it to the bird with just enough time to get back the same day...

When I left, there was negative news of the bird (thanks to Alex Lamoreaux for the update.) That’s never a good feeling - especially as hummers pretty much need to feed every 30 mins or, well, they stop humming. But still - I had to try. Things went smoothly on the driving front until coastal I-95 in CT. There was an accident, reducing speeds to zero (and potentially less - I regretted not taking the previous exit and seriously considered reversing back...) For some reason, this road is fraught with accidents, which is a problem when it lies between MA and pretty much the rest of the country. I’ve been stuck on this road many times and cursed the state of CT for just, well, being in the way. I guess it does provide a useful buffer zone for Red Sox and Yankees fans, but otherwise...

I rolled into Denver at 1:30pm, 7 hours, 1 bag of nuts, and several repeat NPR shows after leaving Logan. “Hasn’t been seen for 25 hours” - is not the first response you want to hear from a stranger after opening your car door. (I think my question to him was, “hello”.) I joined the small, disgruntled and rapidly dispersing throng of birders staking out the feeders. It was a beautiful day, the yard was lovely, the...wait - there was an interesting bird at the feeders. Yes! A Purple Finch. I’d driven 750 miles round trip for a freakin’ Purple Finch. But - it was year bird number 491, and would be all I could salvage from this day. I gave the hummer an hour and a half, during which time it didn't show, and had clearly moved on.

This bird is not a Bahama Woodstar.

The owners were very hospitable - they’d even rented a port-a-potty for the (doubtless) hundreds, if not thousands of birders that would have descended this weekend if the bird had stuck around. Also - they had a bag of local pretzels out for us - which, like the hummer, had also sadly disappeared by the time of my arrival.

It was a long drive home...

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Purple Finch