Wednesday, July 31, 2013


There's something calming and meditative about watching hummingbirds. Like sitting in front of a good log fire, mesmerized by its crackling and warm, pulsating glow. I've been sitting here for over 6 hours and I'm still fascinated, held by the spell of the hummers.

"Here" is Madera Canyon in southeast Arizona. I've been at the Kubo lodge since 10:30 am waiting for the previously-reported Berylline Hummingbird. And there are few nicer places to wait…

Kubo B&B, Madera Canyon.

There are Broad-billed Hummers confidently flying around, seemingly oblivious to everything but the artificial nectar of the feeders. A shy Violet-crowned Hummer sneaks in occasionally, faithful to the same tiny red feeder. And the giant Magnificent Hummers zip around the place pretending to be "real" birds. But still no sign of the Berylline.

And the human birder show is equally interesting. I meet Jon Dunn and Dan Singer and reconnect with Laurens Halsey (who first photographed the Berylline - see here.) Jon is fascinating to talk to - and confirms the rumors that the Sage Sparrow has been split into two species - Bell's Sparrow (the previous subspecies of belli and canescens) and Sagebrush Sparrow (the monotypic nevadensis.) And like this year's addition of Purple Swamphen, and last year's Rosy-faced Lovebird and the Scripp's / Guadalupe Murrelet split, that means extra potential ticks this year that weren't available in the past. Oh - and a sigh of relief that my hard-earned trio of Rosy-finches weren't "lumped" into one species.

It's getting late. Slowly the birders drift away until there's just a few of us holding vigil. How long will I wait? I flew in this morning from California, and I'm tired. I could conceivably spend all day tomorrow doing the same, staring at the same feeder. At what point do I start going insane [Ed - umm….the point where you decided to do a Big Year?

And then at 5:04pm, 394 minutes after arriving, I see it. It's an odd feeling to be staring at the thing you've been imagining seeing all day - a kind of surreal experience. "Umm…that's…there's…oh wow…" I'm tongue-tied as I'm watching a bright emerald hummingbird with bronzed wings and tail. It stays a few seconds on the feeder - the same upper right feeder where it was seen yesterday - and then retreats to the tree behind…

Phew! And what a bird! A tiny beady eye set in the emerald of the head and upper-body plumage, and the bronze of the flight feathers. The bird returns again at 5:15 for a longer view, giving me time for some better digi-scoped images…

One thing I've learned this year is patience. In the past I'd have given up waiting after a few hours. But slowing down and waiting for the birds to come to you - and being patient - can really pay off. Obviously, that's not always the case. See here and here for examples of it not paying off - all involving Mountain Quail!)

My next trip is an entirely different target. I'm trading the diminutive frame of the Berylline Hummingbird for the giant chicken-like one of the Himalayan Snowcock - a bird of the high mountains. But like today's Berylline, it's a secretive bird, and I'm expecting an equally long wait. But hopefully not as long as the Mountain Quail…

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Berylline Hummingbird

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Shocking news for the birding world this week as Mountain Quail - a small confiding ground bird of the west -  has officially been declared extinct. Experts have been surprised at the unprecedented speed of the population decline - a bird that, only a few hours ago, was so common that the ABA listed it as code 1 (abundant.). Sadly, today the Mountain Quail is no longer to be found in the wild in North America.

The extensive research is based on hours* of meticulous driving through much of the range of Mountain Quail** by Neil Hayward. 

Piute Mountain Road - Kern Co, CA

He was joined by Mountain Quail expert Bob Barnes - birder extraordinaire of Kern County, CA. Bob used to see or hear these birds "every week of the year." That is, until today, when, shockingly, Mountain Quails were neither seen nor heard. In a statement released later in the day Bob explained that he was "very surprised." Bob had been so confident of the continued survival of this species that he had "all but guaranteed" a sighting for Big Year birder, Neil Hayward.

Neil was philosophical about the extinction, "Yeah - grouse and quails are notoriously difficult to see. I knew that at the beginning of my big year. They're just so goddam sneaky. I'm totally not surprised that one of them has deliberating decided to pull an extinction on me during my Big Year. That's totally like grouse." Asked how this has affected his Big Year, "Well, obviously this is huge. This is the difference between seeing a whole bunch of birds, and seeing a whole bunch of birds plus one. But, you know, that's life. You just have to move past these disasters."

But it may not be all bad news for the quail. Cincinnati Zoo have a small number of the birds in captivity and there's hope for a reintroduction program. And of course Cincinnati has an excellent track record - the now widespread Passenger Pigeon was brought back from the brink of extinction through just such a breeding program at this zoo in 1914.

One silver lining to driving up and down the Piute Mountains was the sighing of California Thrasher…

California Thrasher - definitely alive and not extinct on July 30

So what's next for Neil in his Big Year?

"When I flew out to CA, I didn't have a return ticket. I didn't know where I'd be going next. Now there's a rare Berylline Hummingbird back in Arizona [ed - where Neil had just flown from to CA] and I'm on a flight to Tucson first thing tomorrow morning."

Neil was very excited about his luxury hotel option tonight - "Hotel SFO - Gate 28"

In-room facilities include odors of Cinnabon, $8 beer and fun games such as "find the outlet."

* 6 of them
** 10 miles

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): California Thrasher

Monday, July 29, 2013


Little Stint is a particularly nostalgic bird for me - and one of the reasons I got into birding. I'd always been fascinated by our yard birds - Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Green Woodpecker (wow!), Dunnock, etc. At age 12 or so I'd started birding local woodlands with some friends. That added some new species - Bullfinch, Jay, Blackcap, etc - but essentially an extension of what I was getting in the yard. Then we heard that people "birded" (or in those days it was the seemingly more passive "went birdwatching") at the local reservoir in Farmoor.

Farmoor Reservoir, just west of Oxford, was smelly, windy and frequently infested with biting flies. We loved it! I spent a large part of my teens - with Jon, Robert, Matthew and John - walking around that place looking for birds. As a land-locked county in the middle of the country, Oxfordshire wasn't exactly the best place to bird. Hence the joke "Farmoor Reservoir - Farmoor birds elsewhere!" But it's where I fell in love with birding. The feeling of walking out onto the causeway never knowing what you'd see - or walking into the sailing clubhouse and checking the well-worn logbook for bird sightings. And, during migration, Little Stint was an uncommon but reliable friend, scampering about on the edges of the water.

Before getting on Debi's boat yesterday, a report had come in of a Little Stint in the Central Valley - but it was on private land. Local birder Mark Stacy had organized a small and successful visit with permission yesterday. And as I was enjoying the day on Debi's boat, that Little Stint was pecking away at the back of my mind. The timing and location were perfect - but could I get to see it?

I spent the night in Fresno, arriving around midnight. I'd been in contact with Susan Steele who was hopeful that we'd get permission the following morning. I told her to call me anytime - however early. 

*Anytime* ended up being 6:49 am, which was early enough to wake me. Susan had permission to visit the site, and I would meet her there. Fantastic!

The Joaquin Valley is the southern part of the Central Valley - a wide, flat basin flanked by the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Range to the west. It's one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country. The natural watersheds of this ancient prairie flow now through irrigation channels, the grassland now gridded into fields growing tomatoes, cherries, grapes, asparagus, cotton, and more...

The San Joaquin Valley - stop and smell the roses
(but not for too long - or you'll get hit by one of the many, many trucks!)

As I arrive at the flooded agricultural fields I'm greeted by thousands of shorebirds. Small shorebirds. Suddenly, the difficulty of picking out the one rare and different bird here dawns on me. It's going to be a long, hot day...

There are thousands of feeding shorebirds here. 
For some reason I managed to photograph the one part where there were none!

Susan and I split up and start searching through the birds. They're mostly Least Sandpipers, with the odd Western mixed in. Despite the heat (it's early morning and already 100F+) it's a relaxing task - sifting through these tiny birds, all running around looking for the next insect to snap up. Occasionally the flocks are spooked, fly around a bit and then return, the pack of birds newly shuffled. And the scanning - bird by bird - starts anew.

I'm not having any luck with the Least Sandpiper flocks. I know from Farmoor that Little Stints love the edges of water - much more so than the mud-loving Leasts. So I focus my attention there. And after a few false alarms (that's it! there it, that's not it) I spot one bird that jumps out at me. It's a small, stocky shorebird, with a tiny, straight bill, and lots of red on the face and neck. I double check before I call Susan - who, thankfully, agrees on the identification. Little Stint!

Little Stint (right most bird in top and bottom pics.)
Reddish wash on the face and neck, with spotting on the later. Faint supercilium and short, straight black bill. Black-centered coverts and scapulars edged in rufous. Black legs. White braces down the back.

What luck! I had today free and was traveling through here anyway. The birding stars really were aligned for this trip. And John Vanderpoel had a similar experience in his big year (see here) - just after getting off his pelagic trip in late July.

Tomorrow I'm meeting Bob Barnes who's helping me track down my nemesis bird - the Mountain Quail. These are pretty much "guaranteed" up in the Piute Mountains. But maybe Bob hadn't heard how desperately these birds were to not be seen (or heard!) by me. Who'd win out - Bob's experience or the quails' stubbornness?

Stay tuned...

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Little Stint

Sunday, July 28, 2013


"Are you Neil Hayward? You're late!" 

I so wanted to make a good first impression with Debi Shearwater. Getting lost on the way to the boat looking for coffee resulted in the lateness. Not having the right cash for the trip resulted in an extra reason for Debi to be unimpressed. 

Debi Shearwater has been running pelagic trips out of California for over 30 years. She's an expert on seabirds, whales, oceanic life. Oh, and North American birders! If you're one of the latter, chances are you've been on a Shearwater Journeys boat with Debi.

After the safety talk (no smoking, standing on the benches, bow-hogging or generally being a pain in the ass) we set off. 

Half Moon Bay is a quick 30 min from SFO airport - where I'd flown in late last night. After navigating the coastal fog I finally rolled into town around 2am. Since I'd be getting up in 4 hours I decided to stay at Hotel Toyota. They charge pretty much the same as Hotel Mazda, but the "bed" is slightly more comfortable. What was not more comfortable was the harbor fog-horn that went off every 15 seconds. I never quite found a way to turn that feature off...

The shorebirds on the jetty were a lot more awake than I was...

Black Oystercatcher adult with young behind. Cool legs!


As we left the harbor for the open ocean we had quick views of Marbled Murrelets and a young, totally dark Rhinoceros Auklet...

Not the Loch Ness Monster - but Rhinoceros Auklet

Inside the boat, the sightings were equally interesting. Firstly, my birding friend from MA - Dave Hursh - was on board, which made for a nice surprise. And as I'm talking to Dave, I realize the guy next to us is Jay Lehman - the other guy who's doing a full-blown 2013 Big Year (check out Jay's blog here.) I wondered when we'd finally meet. And, as with Hans de Grys (mid-year to mid-year Big Year birder extraordinaire) my arch-nemesis turned out to be a really nice guy! It was great comparing notes on places we'd birded, or not yet birded, quizzing each other on strategies, and giving suggestions. But really, there's something nice about talking to someone who knows exactly what you're going through - the travel schedule, decision-making, the thrill of seeing new birds, bird identification, blogging, being away from home, general sleep-deprivation...

While I'm talking to Jay and Dave, my first new year bird whizzes by - the first of many Ashy Storm-petrels...

Ashy Storm-petrel. Pale carpal bar and long tail.

...and then a Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, an unexpected find for the trip. 

And it's not long before the first albatross spots us and heads over to inspect...

"Hey - wait for me!"

Black-footed Albatrosses have a wingspan of  just over 7 feet.
Almost the entire population breeds on Hawaiian islands.

"You know who that is over there?" Jay's pointing to a guy on the other side of the boat. No - I'm pretty sure I've never met him before. But there is something vaguely familiar about him. "Sandy Komito." Wait, *the* Sandy Komito? 

Sandy Komito set the record for a Big Year in 1987 at 721, and then set it again in 1998 with an absolutely incredible 748. That was 15 years ago and it hasn't been beaten since. Wow - I was on a boat with a birding legend!

Pink-footed Shearwater

I spent a wonderful hour or so chatting to Sandy. He's a great and hilarious story-teller, as well as a humble birder. I learned that the key to a successful big year is to "chase the rarities." I'd kind of known this. But it's hard to do that when there's so much common stuff to see! "You can always go back for the common stuff. If you're in the middle of a Minnesota trip that you've spent ages planning, and a rarity turns up in Texas, you go to Texas." I knew he was right, absolutely right, and if I could do this year again, that's probably what I'd do. Well, I still had 5 months left...

An unexpected highlight to the trip - chatting with Sandy Komito.

Sandy's not a huge fan of the book and film, "The Big Year" ostensibly about him and his 1998 Big Year attempt. He explains that parts of it are fictional - especially the invented "competition" between Sandy, Al Levantin and Greg Miller. Birders are competitive  - but only with themselves and will go out of their way to help a fellow birder find birds - which I've certainly experienced this year. The one part of the book that is true though, is that Sandy loves birds. You can see the light shine in his eyes as he talks about them and as he watches them. He's a man with a great passion.

I'm enjoying talking to Sandy and Jay so much, that I barely have time to also enjoy the great seabird show...

Sabine's Gull - such a simple coloration makes for one of the most beautiful of birds. 

Pomarine Jaeger - with spoon-shaped tail feathers. 

Meanwhile, there's action back on the boat...

Debi Shearwater and Sandy Komito.
"No, we're not stopping for another whale"

I think they're joking!

It's getting late so we start heading back to shore. Suddenly Debi screams out, "Laysan Albatross, 12 o'clock!"

Laysan Albatross - named after one of the Hawaiian islands on which they breed.
Based on banding, the oldest known bird in the world - at least 62 - is a Laysan Albatross named, "Wisdom."

As we're nearing the harbor, we start seeing more coastal birds...

Elegant Tern

Patriotic Western Gulls. Adult feeding young.

Whimbrel on the jetty

I saw some great birds and had a wonderful day chatting with Debi, Sandy and Jay. 

Big Year Birders - Jay Lehman, Sandy Komito and Neil Hayward

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (3): Ashy Storm-Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, Buller's Shearwater

Saturday, July 27, 2013


News of a Slate-throated Redstart came through just as I was leaving for home from San Diego. Really, I should be excited and grateful for any rarity turning up - the success of my Big Year is kind of dependent on the randomness of these guys. But with the excitement, there's a pit in my stomach - my much-anticipated - and requested - time at home is possibly going to be cut short. I'm not sure how much more of this Gerri and the cats will understand...

Slate-throated Redstart is a code 4 rarity that breeds from northern Mexico to southern Bolivia. For birders north of the border this is a good year for them: there was a spring record in the Chiricahuas, AZ. I was a week late for that bird (a combination of it not sticking around, and me being way too slow.) So - my chance at redemption.

I decide to rearrange my plans so I leave home almost as soon as I get back. I'll head to AZ on the way to my CA pelagic this weekend and the Mountain Quail chase with Bob Barnes on the 30th. Gerri understands some of this insanity although Sally cat doesn't...

What? You're going away again? But you only just got back?
Birds?! *That's* why you're leaving? Humans!

I land at Phoenix and immediately check for news of the bird. I have an email for the AZ listserv, the subject of which is, "Slate-throated Redstart - NO." Shit. As I'm cursing myself for not coming earlier, I scroll up and spot a message from the same guy that now says, "Slate-throated Redstart - YES." It apparently just reappeared. Phew! I could relax. If it was here this morning, and I had the whole afternoon and evening, I could pretty much tick this bird now. Woo-hoo!

Three hours later, I'm pulling into the military complex that is Fort Huachuca. At this point, I start to recall the comments from the rental car rep, who at the time I was just yessing - "watch out of the monsoon rains." Rain?! Really? I spent my whole life with rain. How bad could rain be? As I'm driving through the base, I'm actually starting to wonder...

Cue ominous music...

The road up here is bad enough, without the ..."eeeeeekkkkk." My phone's pretending to be a fire alarm. No - it's just a National Weather Service alert, "Dangerous Flash Floods in your area." And now the rain starts.

Even with my head 3 inches from the windshield, I can't see a thing. The rain is so thick, and the "road" looks like a river. It takes an eternity to navigate the 1.7 miles to the parking area. I can't go out in this - so decide to wait it out in my car.

"Beep, beep." It's the military police. Are you kidding me? Another speeding ticket? I'm not even moving! 

"The canyon's closed. You need to leave right, now." 

"Ummm...Slate-throated Redstart!!!!...Boston...just arrived...Slate-throated..."


OK. So much for my guaranteed bird. I'll be the first person not to see the bird. I guess this is where my recent luck runs out. As if to confirm this, as I'm leaving the canyon...

Next morning starts better. It's dry. The river road to the canyon has reverted back to the bone-dry bone-rattler as if yesterday never happened. As I get to the dam(n) area, I meet Melody Kehl, who originally found the bird. "It was seen 5 minutes ago, above the dam." Great! It's still here! But nothing in the next 2 hours suggests this to be the case. And then it rains. What if if never stops? What if they close the canyon again? When can I have my guaranteed bird?? Is Gerri feeding the cats?

I'm standing under a bare pine tree realizing why I'm getting so wet, when Laurens Halsey arrives. OK. Now we have a pro (see Laurens' photo of the bird here.) And the rain finally stops - and the birds start singing. We're treated to Painted Redstarts, Red-faced Warbler and distant Elegant Trogons. There's about 10 of us all standing around the dam area. I then start hearing a high-pitched chipping noise. And suddenly someone shouts out, "I've got the bird!" And they do. We're all treated to 2-3 minutes of the bird flitting around. What a beauty!

Slate-throated Redstart.

This is the Mexican subspecies, with a red breast and belly. In Guatamala it's more of an orange, and south of Panama it's a bright yellow.

As we're moving uphill to relocate the bird, we run into this guy...

Bear! Presumably the same guy that ripped apart a car earlier in the week. 
And the reason for the subsequent canyon closures. 

Probably a good time leave...

So - I have the afternoon free. And what better way to spend it that looking for a bird that I keep missing - the Black-capped Gnatcatcher. I've tried at least 6 times this year at Montosa Canyon - allegedly the best place (and this year pretty much the only place in the country) for this bird.

As usual, the place is hopping with gnatcatchers - blue, white and gray birds with long, often cocked, tails. Only they're all Black-tailed Gnatcatchers...

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.
Notice the extensively black underside of the tail feathers.

There are also Varied and Indigo Buntings to enjoy while I'm looking. But it's getting very hot and very insecty, so I decide to leave. I'll just walk up to the bike trail sign and turn around. And that's when I hear it. The rising and falling buzz that I've been listening for. My pishing brings in 2 birds - and both have white undertails (so not Black-tailed) with distinctly long bills and graduated white undertail feathers. It's them! Black-capped Gnatcatchers! Finally!

Black-capped Gnatcatcher! 
White under tail and long bill.

Wow! I came back here more as a kind of ritual than with any expectation of actually finding this bird. In fact, I'd pretty much written off this bird for the year. Clearly the monsoon gods were being kind to me today!

I ended the day at Madera Canyon with one of my favorite, and lazy, birding activities - sitting and watching hummingbirds at feeders. I missed the Lucifer that had been reported today, but did see Violet-crowned and lots of lovely Broad-billed Hummers...

Broad-billed Hummingbird. Sana Rita Lodge, Madera Canyon.

Despite the rains, bear, closed canyon, once again AZ is still my favorite birding place. I'd love to spend a couple more days here watching the buzzing hummers, but my next flight beckons. It's taking me back to California. This time tomorrow, I'll be on a boat.

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (2): Slate-throated Redstart, Black-capped Gnatcatcher

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


This one was too cute to resist. Hence, back to California (3 days after leaving!) and not back home (2+ weeks after leaving.) The temptation: Lesser Sand-plover (code 3.)

There's a good chance I may get this bird in AK later this year, but it's a life bird, the pics I'd seen were so great, and I couldn't risk waiting. The bird was found 4 days ago in the South San Diego Bay area. It's been keeping a fairly regular schedule - appearing in a pool off the bike path at high tide.

I flew out of Orlando after my Budgie and Fork-tailed Flycatcher success and landed in San Diego at midnight the same day. In many ways San Diego is the ideal town: the airport is practically within walking distance from the city (you're so close as you fly in the downtown skyscrapers fill the entire window view), the city is walkable, lots of great Italian coffee shops, great weather, awesome sushi places. And did I mention the coffee? All they need now is a baseball team, and they're all set...

It's a long way to come for one bird and miss. I'm nervous - this is my first rarity chase where I've got on a plane for just one bird. I can barely sleep. When I do get up, I'm still nervous. I'm counting on the bird following its tidal schedule, so have enough time to enjoy breakfast before driving down to the bay. When I arrive at the end of 7th street, I notice lots of birders (good)...
Birders! (adult males in summer plumage)

...who are chatting and clearly not looking at a major rarity (hmm..not so good.)

While we wait for the bird to (hopefully) appear, there's lots to look at... 

Black-necked Stilt - an Oh Wow! bird. 
A common bird here that's not so common back home. 

and my first Belding's Sparrow of the year - a very dark subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow that's found in coastal Southern California...

Belding's Sparrow - P. sandwichensis beldingi
the darkest subspecies of Savannah Sparrow.

and Reddish Egret - always a fun bird to watch...

Reddish Egret.

But no Sand-plover. 

As I'm scanning through the many Semi-palmated Plovers, I hear a shout from the guy next to me, "I've got it. It's flying. Here it comes!" And with that, a brightly-colored plover plops down amid the slightly smaller resident plovers. It's the bird alright - the Lesser Sand-plover...

Not too hard to pick out - Lesser Sand-plover (foreground) 
with Semi-palmated Plover (background.)

It's an active bird: as soon as it lands, it's running around the mud, looking for food...

Lesser Sand-plover. Bright orange breast, white throat and black face mask. 
The sand-colored back really blends in with the mud.

These Sand-plovers breed in Asia - especially above the tree line of the Himalayas. This bird is presumably of the larger eastern subspecies, often called the Mongolian Plover. It's a great little bird (I love shorebirds!) and definitely worth the hassle to get here. Phew!

I'm flying out tomorrow morning so have rest of the day free. Wow - I have some free time! I decide not to update my blog - not knowing at the time that I'll be so busy birding that I won't have time for another week to actually write any of this up - and instead go birding...

This is apparently a good year for Black-vented Shearwaters. This is a bird that turns up in Southern California in the late summer and fall, and can often be seen from shore. I head up to La Jolla - which has a great headland for seawatching - to try.

La Jolla - Scripp's Park. Popular with tourists and sea lions.

The cliffs at La Jolla are smelly - not from the terrible traffic (which really is terrible here) - but from the belching sea lions. Cute to look at, less cute to smell. I set up my scope, and soon start seeing distant shearwaters. They're so far out, all I can make out is the silhouette. Eventually, some come closer into the bay, and I can see the alternating black / brown above and white below and dark under tail. Black-vented Shearwaters.

Ignoring my better judgement to head back to San Diego and get some much-needed rest, I head up to the Torrey Pines reserve to try again for California Thrasher, which I've kept missing. And today, I do a great job of continuing to miss it.

I'm staying at a motel about 300 feet from the car rental shuttle which is about the same distance vertically from the planes that are coming into land right over the motel. But I don't have any problems falling asleep. This time, when I wake up, I'm *finally* going home!

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (2): Lesser Sand-plover, Black-vented Shearwater