Friday, June 28, 2013


This has been such an incredible birding week - highlighted by some rare, and very colorfully-named birds: Red-billed Tropicbird in Maine, Yellow-green Vireo in the Rio Grande Valley, and Flame-colored Tanager in Big Bend. June had been good to me - I was sad the month was fast coming to an end. 

As I'm discovering, the second half of a Big Year is going to be very different from the first half - as noted by Chris Hitt in slowbirding. I've seen 652 birds in the first half, and I'll be lucky to get more than 50 in the second half. The rarities have slowed down, and apart from a couple of owls (Barn and Northern Saw-whet) there wasn't anything anywhere near the East Coast for my Big Year upon my return to Boston.

These were the thoughts of a very sleepy birder flying back from Texas on Thursday. As I touched down at Logan I was greeted by the familiar skyline of Boston...

Turning on my cell phone as we land, I almost jump out of my seat (which I think is some kind of capital offense now) and race toward the door (which I'm sure is probably even worse.) The reason for my near arrest and imprisonment are the words: "Red-necked Stint" - a tiny, brightly-colored shorebird from Asia, paired with the words "Plum Island" - about an hour north of where we're currently taxiing. 

Red-necked Stint holds an prominent position on my list of nemesis birds - birds that I've chased and missed (often painfully.) And this one's an international nemesis! As a kid growing up in the UK, I remember chasing this bird with my birding friends Jon and Robert. We drove 4 hours (a distance that's considered almost inconceivable in the UK - undoubtably flasks of tea were brought along with a stash of Cornish pasties) to north Norfolk on the east coast. The bird was only the second record for Britain, and had been present for several days. On the way up we called "Birdline" (yeah - no listservs in 1992, we had to call a phone number to listen to a recorded message of rarities) to check that bird was still there (it was.) We arrived, having already mentally ticked this bird, enjoying adding a super-rarity to our British lists. As we walked towards the blind in front of which the bird was feeding, we met a birder coming in the opposite direction, "Sorry mate, it just flew off, high towards the east." We spent the rest of the afternoon there, looking for it, but knowing that it wasn't coming back. And it never did. We missed the bird by about 15 minutes. No amount of tea and pasties was going to make up for this loss.

Amazingly, a Red-necked Stint turned up in MA in 2010. Now was my opportunity for revenge! The bird was on south beach, Chatham, Cape Cod. It requires a boat to get out there, and then several miles of wandering the beach in very hot and very buggy conditions. A whole day there produced exactly zero Red-necked Stints. This was a game I wasn't winning:

Red-necked Stint 2 - Neil Hayward 0

Gerri picked me up from the airport, and amazingly we made it up to Plum Island (a) an hour before sunset and (b) without a speeding ticket. There were birders there - which was good. But they weren't looking at anything - bad. We met my friend Jim McCoy walking back, who hadn't seen the bird. Shit. 

Red-necked Stint 3 - Neil Hayward 0

Maybe it was too much to expect after such a record week. But the bird had been moving around a lot based on the tide. I felt hopeful the next day the bird would be relocated.

Friday morning the magic words appeared in the subject line on the Massbird listserv, "Red-necked Stint - YES" We raced to Plum Island, ran to the beach, and were met with a crowd of smiling birders - "It's in the scope now if you want to look." Really? I'd finally get to see this tiny beauty / bastard? Yes - I would. And I did.

And it was a beauty...

Red-necked Stint. Notice the reddish neck and stippled necklace. 
This is a small shorebird with a short, stubby bill, which it uses to feed in the tidal mudflats.

Holding the half moon yoga pose.

I was finally on the Stint scoreboard:

Red-necked Stint 3 - Neil Hayward 1

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Red-necked Stint.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


I awoke this morning to Canyon Towhee babies hopping around the car. And, more importantly, no Black Bear attack. I'm hiking up the Pinnacles Trail to Boot Canyon today. I did this in May (see here.) The hike is very steep, and very, very hot. That's why I told myself, "I'm never doing this again." With several expletives mixed in to really stress the sentiment. Apparently my short-term pain memory apparently doesn't even last 8 weeks!

Here we go again!

The views up are incredible, but I'm more single-minded than last time. I hike to the top of the Pinnacles in an hour - stopping for no bird or view. A 10 minute rest for water and Mexican Jay viewing...

...and I'm off to Boot Spring in Boot Canyon.

I only realized there was an actual boot here after reading Hans de Grys' post (see here
- must pay more attention to scenery in future!

I arrived at Boot Spring to find it alive with birds: Black-headed Grosbeaks, Acorn Woodpeckers, Colima Warblers (an adult and young bird), and a beautiful Painted Redstart:

But no Tanagers - except a Hepatic Tanager that got me briefly excited!

The Flame-colored Tanager male has been reported most frequently just past the intersection with the Juniper Trail. It's often seen associating with a female Western Tanager. That's not unusual - these two species do interbreed, and hybrid birds are encountered - most recently in Southeast Arizona. Anyway, looking for 2 birds should be easier than 1, and the one I'm interested in is bright orange. How hard can that be? Actually, quite hard! I spent 3 hours in this exact location in May and never saw the bird (but did, frustratingly, see the Western Tanager!)

As I'm waiting trying to identify the female and young hummingbirds buzzing past me, I spot two birds chasing each other out of the corner of my eye. Chasing is good! Even without binoculars, I can see one of them is bright orange. But I lose them in the upper canopy and don't get better views. While this may sound good, it's pretty agonizing - I'm sure the orange bird is the Flame-colored Tanager, chasing the Western Tanager. But I didn't get a good enough view to positively identify (and thus tick.) So I'm in birding limbo - having  seen the bird, but not really seen the bird.

I spend the next few hours hoping for a repeat performance of the Tanager chase. This time I have enough water, and there's a cool breeze blowing through the canyon that it's unusually pleasant up here. But I can't get too comfortable: in  the back of my mind is the hot 90 minute descent and the 7 hour drive to Austin - I can't spend the whole day here waiting. 

At noon I suddenly start hearing soft Tanager calls. I spot the female Western on the other side of the stream. And as I'm watching her, a bright orange bird flies in...Flame-colored Tanager! (Phew!)

The Odd Couple: female Western Tanager (left) and male Flame-colored Tanager (right)

The male really is stunning in his flaming orange plumage. The birds stick around, high up, for about 5 minutes before chasing each other away.

In this shot you can see the large gray bill and white wing bars.

Male Flame-colored Tanager. Notice the dark auricular (ear) mark on the face. A better photo would show the two "teeth" on the bill - the Latin name for the bird is Piranga bidentata.

My second attempt and cumulative 6 hour vigil finally paid off. And what a stunning bird! Maybe I can even promote the Big Bend from my "never, ever (*ever*) again" list of places, to "that's a fun hike with great birds." Or maybe no - half-way down the baking 100F descent I remember why it's so painful. But the memory of the Tanager sure makes it a lot easier.

I'm flying back home to Boston tomorrow morning. Despite all the driving and hectic pace, I've had an incredible week: Red-billed Tropicbird in Maine, Yellow-green Vireo and Flame-colored Tanager in Texas. All life birds for me, and ones I really didn't expect to see this year. June has been an amazing month - from the freezing temperatures and sea ice of Alaska, the boreal forests of New Hampshire and Vermont, the buggy bogs of Minnesota and North Carolina to the tropical south in Texas.  I've seen some great birds, and had some wonderful shared experiences, especially with Hans, Abe and Gerri.

Bring on July!

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Flame-colored Tanager


I'm sitting in a rental car, it's 1am, and I've just driven 1,040 miles in one day. I'm about to recline my seat and convert my vehicle into my hotel. This is the level of insanity / stupidity to which this Big Year has devolved. Oh, and did I mention that my car is parked at a trailhead at Big Bend, TX? A place to which I'd sworn recently never to return. And I've just seen a Black Bear outside…

Big Bend at night.

I'm half-way through what is (hopefully) the most physically demanding trip of the year. Here's the itinerary:

MON: Wake up at Vinalhaven, ME. Ferry to Rockland, ME. Drive 4 hours home to Cambridge, MA. Shower, feed / say hi to cats, pack, head to airport. Fly to Austin TX via Charlotte.

TUE: Arrive at Austin at 12:45 am. Rent car. Drive 6 hours through the night to Brownsville, south Texas. Look for Yellow-green Vireo at Resaca de la Palma. Drive 10.5 hours to Big Bend. *Sleep*

WED: Hike 11 miles up and down the Pinnacles ("death march") Trail to Boot Canyon for Flame-colored Tanager (for the second time this year.) Drive 7 hours to Austin. *Sleep*.

THU: Fly home, shaking from all the buckets of (probably very bad) coffee I'll have drunk. But hopefully with 2 new birds.

The Flame-colored Tanager has been haunting me ever since I hiked up Big Bend in mid-May and missed it. It's been seen more regularly since, and appears to be breeding with a female Western Tanager. The Yellow-green Vireo has been around for almost 2 weeks. Both birds are pretty rare (code 3), and I've been reading the reports with a  growing sense of unease, knowing that I should probably go. So, here I am, on a 1,500 mile, 2 day, double-rarity chase in Texas. In the summer. I already know exactly how I'll feel if I miss them.

With a couple of (stationary) naps on the drive, I made it to Brownsville in one (heavily caffeinated) piece this morning. As I arrive at Resaca de la Palma I meet one of the park rangers, Jade, who shows me on a map where the bird was last heard. It's a mile away on the tram route… which, of course, isn't running today. I team up with 2 other birders who've just arrived, and we walk out to the location. It's a hot and sticky 100F.

Resaca de la Palma - recent host to a Yellow-green Vireo

Two hours later and we're all very hot, tired, and have a collective list of exactly zero Yellow-green Vireos. To add to the frustration, the local Mockingbirds are confusing us by singing parts of the vireo song - they clearly were exposed to this visitor and incorporated aspects into their own song. Mockingbirds are mimics, the ultimate cover artists among birds - their repertoires are based on other songs they've heard, and presumably thought - "Hey, that's a cool song, I'll add that to mine."

As the two other birders decide that this is no longer fun (technically, this point was reached after only 20 minutes) and leave, I stick around reviewing my options. The longer I stay here, the later I'll arrive at Big Bend. I absolutely need to sleep - I'm exhausted already, and the hike tomorrow will be hell. The bird clearly isn't here - Yellow-green Vireos love to sing, and will often sing all day, so we should have heard it already. I then remember there was a recent report at a different location in the park. It's another mile further into the park, and it's getting hotter. But I know I can't face the long drive if I haven't tried everything with this bird. So - I head off to the Yellowthroat Trail, wishing I'd brought water (yeah, right - I thought this would be a quick 30 min bird!), and trying to avoid the snakes…

I hear it immediately as I reach the trail. A cross between a House Sparrow and a Red-eyed Vireo. It's noon, and the bird is singing persistently. Yellow-green Vireo! The relief is palpable. Some part of this whole boondoggle now seems worth it! Here's the song:

Song: Yellow-green Vireo with images of my feet!

These birds are real skulkers, and tough to spot. They'll sing from deep within a tree or bush, have a ventriloquial sound, making them hard to locate. And they tend not to move, so looking for movement isn't helpful either. Eventually, after staring at a tree for 10 minutes, I spot the bird. It's big, and is indeed yellow and green, as advertised:

Yellow-green Vireo - large vireo with long bill. 
Notice the yellow hues, especially on the flanks and undertail coverts.

As I walk back to the car (where my supply of water is very inconveniently located) I'm reminded that I was on this very trail back in May, during migration. The place was hopping with migrants back then - including my only Philadelphia Vireo of the year. But thinking of this Vireo double-whammy is about all my brain can process - my head is close to the point of sublimating, or at least melting…

I'm not looking forward to the grueling hike tomorrow (note to self: remove water from car and put in bag), but I'm very happy that I have at least one of my target birds. 

I'm turning the light out now and hoping this crappy Nissan rental car is bear-proof...

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Yellow-green Vireo.

Sunday, June 23, 2013


This was absolutely the wrong day for rain. This was a big, multi-transportational chase - my biggest this year - and it was raining. I was not feeling at all confident while eating my (surprisingly delicious!) Huevos Rancheros in Rockland. (Check out Home Kitchen Cafe!) Gerri and I had driven 4 hours from Cambridge to be here in time for the ferry. The ferry would take us to Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine. From there, we'd be taking another, smaller boat a further hour or so to our final destination: Seal Island. And there, finally, we hoped to see the rare Red-billed Tropicbird. 

The weather wasn't on our side. But we did have one lucky charm up our sleeves - John Drury - the "Tropicbird Man." He'd been taking people out to Seal Island for the past 7 years - ever since this tropical bird - nick-named Tropi - had taken up annual summer residence here - thousands of miles north of where it should have been. The man had an almost tangible bond with the bird and we were hoping that John could work his magic today.

The ferry ride was smooth with lots of Black Guillemots in breeding plumage to keep us busy with our binoculars. An hour and a half later the ferry disgorged us into the tiny fishing town of Vinalhaven. Brightly-colored skiffs bobbed in the harbor, lobster pots crowded the quiet streets, and we felt the cool summer breeze on our sweating brows. The rain had stopped.

Vinalhaven, Maine

Amid the clapboard New England Cape houses, there's a refreshing French influence to the architecture - including where we were staying - the Payne Homestead. 

If this was Nantucket at this time of year, it would be crowded and obnoxious. But this is rural Maine at its best. No TV in the hotel (except the "TV room" which has no cable, but a VCR machine (!) with a bookcase of video *cassettes*) or internet. But plenty of friendly hospitality.

John Drury was waiting for us in his new boat, Skua. He's a tall, quiet man, who espouses shoes, small talk and knows these islands like the back of his hands. Stepping aboard, John coaxed the boat gently out of the harbor…

John Drury at the helm of Skua.

It felt almost appropriate that we were flying the Welsh flag - only one country away from my birthplace, and home to my best friend back home, Jon.

It's about an hour out to Seal Island. On our way we saw Common Eider mothers forming communal rafts, shielding the chicks hidden in the center. A new urgency to this protection has been the recent and dramatic increase in summering Bald Eagles. We saw up to 12 birds. Eider and Cormorant (including several pairs of breeding Great Cormorant) chicks provide regular and bite-size snacks for the Eagles.

After missing the Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire (the face in the rocks that fell down in 2003) we were happy to see an alternative in Maine…

Can you see the famous film director? 
Appropriately, he's among the birds (the one bird here is a Bald Eagle.)

As we reached Seal Island, we were greeted by the irresistibly-cute Atlantic Puffin. 

Atlantic Puffin. 
During spring, the bill increases in size and color which may play a part in mate selection.

As well as a pair of Long-tailed Duck in rare breeding plumage, and Common Loon…

Common Loon.

and the breeding colony of Arctic Terns:

Arctic Tern - notice the very short legs, and bright red bill.

i.e. - everything but the Tropicbird! The delightful Puffins had quelled my nerves for a while, but now they were back. Where was Tropi? There had been one sighting this year back in May. Could this be the final year of the Tropicbird? John circled the island hoping a different view would help. While we were searching we had a pair of breeding-plumaged Common Murres:

A pair of Common Murres.

Unusual this far south at this time of…."Tropicbird!" The scream comes from behind. Gerri's shouting and I almost fall out the boat in surprise! As I wheel around to see why the hell she's shouting a huge bright white bird with an impossibly long tail and blood red bill glides silently past…

I shout out too, and soon we're all shouting "Tropicbird!" Well, everyone except for the yogically calm John, who's nodding, and ready at the helm to follow the bird. After strafing a few terns the bird lands amid a group of Common Loons. We approach close enough to admire the bird:

For the next 15 mins we watch as Tropi takes off and flies among the terns. Despite its huge size, it's a surprisingly graceful flier. John explains that when the bird first arrived it wanted to roost among the terns. Must be pretty lonely being the only Tropicbird in town But the terns were having none of it, and kept chasing it away. In return, Tropi started strafing the terns and generally annoying the hell out of them. This game has gone on for 7 years, and we witnessed some of these playful interactions:

This has been one of the my most amazing birding experiences - such an enigmatic bird, and a really fun trip out to see it. I was happy to share it with Gerri - who's celebrating her birthday this week (Monday.)

Thank you Mr Tropicbird Man! Contact details for John Drury if you're interested in an awesome afternoon out in coastal Maine: 207-596-1841.

So - it's June 23rd and I've seen an amazing 650 birds! I started this year having no idea I'd be doing this. A January trip to Arizona was just a winter break from the (relatively) birdless Massachusetts. It wasn't really until March / April that the audacious thought first entered my mind: this is pretty good start - maybe I could do a Big Year? Back then, a Big Year would have been 550. As the months and birds have rolled by, I've been upping my targets - 600, 625, 650. And now I have a good chance to get into the 700s. John Vanderpoel, who saw an incredible 745 birds during his 2011 big year was at 654 by the end of June (his 650th bird - coming on June 26th.)

Anyway, back to reality. A good night's sleep on Vinalhaven (there's no return ferry after 4:30 so we're stuck on the island) and then back to Boston.

Happy Birthday Gerri! Hope you enjoyed the Tropicbird and Puffins!

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (2): Atlantic Puffin, Red-billed Tropicbird.

Friday, June 21, 2013


This is the kind of birding I like - you arrive at your destination, and there's a sign warning you that your target bird is in the area. With photos! *And* telling other people not to shoot it!

Certainly a lot more welcoming than New Hampshire, through which Gerri and I have just driven. The state motto "Live Free or Die" sounds relatively lame compared to this welcoming sign...

I'm at Moose Bog in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont - less than 30 minutes from the Canadian border. I'm here to work on my grouse. This is an annoying group of birds - largely because they're so unpredictable and darn difficult to find when you're looking for them. Depending on the species the strategy can involve driving slowly for miles around mountains, woodlands, or fields. Or doing all that on foot. Although the habitats are different, the one constant with all grouse seems to be doing the above as early in the day as possible. Which, of course, means getting up really early.

Even though it's "only" 3.5 hours from home - I didn't like the prospect of a 2:30 am start, so we stayed in a cheap motel in NH. I've found there's an inverse correlation between the cost of accommodation and the number of hand-made signs (and often the grammar and overall legibility.) This was a cheap place...

So - throwing domestic objects in there is ok?...The owners didn't seem to appreciate the made-in-America TV that I tossed in as we were leaving. Guess that's Living Free in New Hampshire!

Moose Bog is home to the Spruce Grouse, an endangered bird in Vermont. It's a boreal species, and round here this is about as far south as they range. A short (3/4 mile) and very narrow trail winds through dense spruce forest, softly carpeted with moss.

At this time of year, the delicate Lady's Slippers are blooming...

The grouse walk through this area slowly and silently. Your best bet for spotting them is to do the same. At the start of the trail a tiny Winter Wren belted out its tinkly song. Blue-headed Vireos chatted, and Blackburnian Warblers squeeked out their incredibly high-pitched song. We scanned the forest floor for movement - but nothing. I'd already mentally prepared myself for making this trip at least 3 times, figuring our chances were about 30%. Guessing that we'd miss the grouse the first time, I was treating this as a scouting trip.

As we moved towards the end of the trail, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. Something was walking behind a pile of logs. We waited and then a black-necked head popped up. Spruce Grouse! I couldn't believe our luck! It was very tame, and didn't seem to concern itself with our presence.

Um..we can still see you!

Spruce Grouse male. Notice the black chin and red eye-combs. 

Action shot!

We watched the bird for 15 minutes, before it slowly walked out of sight. It was a magical morning in a beautiful part of the country. Thank you Liz Southworth for suggesting I try Moose Bog.

So - I'm feeling better about grouse than I'd have thought at this point of the year: I've seen all three Ptarmigan, Spruce Grouse, Ruffed Grouse, Dusky Grouse, Gray Partridge, Prairie Chickens and both Sage-Grouse. But I still have some tough ones left: Sooty Grouse (West Coast), Sharp-tailed Grouse (mid-west) and Chukar (???) Oh - and I'm debating whether to go for the ridiculous Himalayan Snowcock - an introduced bird found only at the top of the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. That's the place that offers helicopter rides to go see them!

We stopped for coffee on the way back in North Woodstock, which has some pretty interesting bathroom decoration...

Looks like the guy on the right 
really did have a gun in his pocket and wasn't just pleased to see us...
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NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Spruce Grouse

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Thank you Dan Brown for keeping me awake on the drive back from Philly, and to Enterprise for giving me a rental car.

And thank you Boston for providing more birding opportunities for my big year! Today I set out for two quick trips north of the city - to Revere for the summering Manx Shearwaters, and to Plum Island for my last sparrow of the year - Saltmarsh Sparrow.

Revere Beach has seen better days - almost all of them in 1895. That was when it became the nation's first public beach. With a new dedicated railroad and boat service connecting it to Boston it drew holiday-makers from around the country. The Great Ocean Pier (long since gone) reached confidently into the bay and housed a dance pavilion and skating rink. Amusement rides and roller coasters plied their trades where luxury apartment buildings now tower over the beach. If there was anything close to the Jersey Shore in Boston - it was Revere Beach.

Revere Beach - located in Reveah, MA

Today, the long white sands are shared by runners, sun-bathers, bad accents, birds and the occasional birder. While searching for my target Manx Shearwaters I arrived at the roped-off section of the beach - home to the Piping Plovers. The roping is more for the humans than the birds, who seemed to take no notice - they were all over the beach. I saw adults, zipping around at full speed:

Piping Plovers - protected birds in Massachusetts

and then started seeing the irresistibly cute fuzzballs...

can you spot the baby bird?... it is! Baby Piping Plover.

After enjoying these tiny balls of feathers, I turned my attention to the water. Manx Shearwaters have been spending the summers here since at least 2008. For birds normally seen well out to sea, this small colony - presumably nesting on the one of the rocky islands off the coast of Boston - can often be seen sitting on the water - a rare treat from land. This year, they didn't disappoint. I had 8 birds just offshore, bobbing on the gentle tide.

Manx Shearwater - one of 8 just offshore.

This is only my second Shearwater of the year - after Short-tailed in Alaska! Note to self - must go on a pelagic trip soon!

An hour's drive north is Plum Island, one of my favorite birding spots in MA. It's a long, thin island, one side facing the Parker River, the other the Atlantic. The extensive areas of saltmarsh attract some great marsh birds - including my target bird of the day - the appropriately-named Saltmarsh Sparrow.

As I arrive at the Maintenance Buildings I can tell it's summer. Barn Swallows are on the nest...

and a young male Purple Finch is experimenting with its new wings...

Then I start noticing two sparrows flying around the Spartina marsh grasses. Saltmarsh Sparrows!
Saltmarsh Sparrow. 
Notice the much stronger streaking on the breast compared to 
last week's Nelson's Sparrow. And the rear supercilium is less clean.

I'm almost half way through the year. I've checked off all the regular sparrows and warblers, and I'm starting to run out of birds! The next month will (hopefully) be big for seabirds - I haven't taken an east coast pelagic trip yet! Oh - and I'm planning a trip to California (my first for the year) - where there's a whole bunch of endemic birds to catch up with.

But first, the northeast still has a few surprises left. Stay tuned…

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (2): Manx Shearwater, Saltmarsh Sparrow