Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Adventures in the Great White North

Day One: It's Gyrrrrrrreat!

Okay, so I know how to pronounce Gyrfalcon, but since I'm low on clever titles, bear with me. My other choice was "Bogs are stupid", but we'll get to that later.

Around noon on Friday, I left my house to head south to Montgomery to pick up my friends, Beth and Chad, who would be joining me on the LONG, and not just long- but VERY LONG, drive to Sax-Zim Bog. Since my van had better tires than their car, and I knew the road conditions up north would be rough, I decided to drive down and pick them up so we could take my van instead. 

Three hours south, and we get loaded up and on the road. At the very least, Montgomery sits along I-65, so it's a straight shot up into Tennessee from there.

I drive the first five hours, and then Chad takes over. While I love driving, I tend to get sleepy whilst driving at night, so since he's a better night driver, I just find it best to switch off and catch some Zs. 

I wake up around the time we hit central Illinois, and my excitement about the trip keeps me awake. Daylight hits once we're in Madison, Wisconsin... and Beth decides to start looking up rare bird sightings. We figure- why not find something cool along the way? This is how we would learn of the location of the Gyrfalcon that a poster on Whatbird got photos of. It was about an hour and a half out of our way but come on! It's a Gyrfalcon! When would I have another chance this year to see one?

So, we make the drive north to Buena Vista Grasslands. Roads are definitely not clear here... which would set us back a little more time... however, the Gyrfalcon would make an immediate appearance, making things easy for us. As soon as we arrived on County Highway W, it only took a couple miles before we found him. He flew alongside our van for a good half mile before finally landing in the top of a tree. We pull over to get photos, when he decides to fly across the way and hover over some long grass. Snapping off more photos, not great ones, I decide to walk back to the van when Chad shouts, "Amber! Overhead! Get a photo!" I literally turn, put my camera up, and start shooting. No time to adjust settings or even worry about focus. All I can hope is that they come out IDable. I was pleasantly surprised to have gotten this shot:


The Gyrfalcon eventually flies out of sight. With such a great start to our trip, we drive around hoping to find some Greater Prairie-Chickens, but can't seem to locate any. We only stick around for another thirty minutes or so before heading west towards Eau Claire to get back on track.
The roads are solid sheets of packed-down snow and ice.... making our trip to Eau Claire over two hours long. It sets us back an extra hour... but we push through. We had gained a lot of time overnight making minimal stops and maybe driving a little faster than we should've... maybe. :)
From Eau Claire, we'd reach Sax Zim about 4 1/2- 5 hours later at 4 PM-ish.
Once arriving, my 4G signal is spotty, so a lot of what I bookmarked on my computer cannot be pulled up. Let me tell you, Sax-Zim area is HUGE. Unless you know where you're going, forget about it! We eventually figure out where the visitor's center is... and at this point, have seen next to nothing. The feeders there mostly frequented by Black-capped Chickadees, and a few Pine Grosbeaks show up. At least the Grosbeaks are a lifer/new year bird! At the visitor's center, there is a white-board with sightings, and we run into a gentleman and his wife who help us find our first Northern Hawk-Owl along Owl Avenue. Apparently, photographers have been baiting him with mice, so if you stop and get out of your car, he will fly in to the nearest tree and make an appearance.

Northern Hawk-Owl

Bogs were suddenly less stupid. We decide to check out McDavitt Road and Admiral Road for a Great Gray. On the way, along Arkola Road, a Black-billed Magpie flies in front of the van.... Along McDavitt Road... we find a lone Ruffed Grouse in a bush...  am able to get IDable photos, but the best I can do in the lighting conditions.

Otherwise, by this point, darkness was really settling in, and we would be unlucky to find much of anything. Around 7 PM we decide to head back towards Duluth to book our room at the Days Inn. The next day would be far more "adventurous" with more birds, and more mishaps. 

Day Two: Crash Into Me and the Great Gray Ghost

So, we start Sunday off super early, but fall behind while checking out of the motel. We arrive to the Sax-Zim area around 6:30 AM. Chad had met a lady from Tallahassee, who he shared our phone numbers with, so she could tell us about need birds she might see. So, while driving on Arkola Road, she texted that she was watching a Great Gray Owl on Admiral Road near the feeder station.

Now, a bit of advice... don't let someone from Alabama ever drive your vehicle in the snow. They just don't know how to compensate when they hit a patch of ice. And these roads were covered in it.

I direct the way, and when we turn onto McDavitt, Chad loses control of my van and crashes it into snow on the embankment. I don't think he had any idea that plowed up snow piles are not cushy pillows... no... they are ice. Our front end is lifted off the ground, and we have no traction to get out. The Tallahassee lady texts that the Great Gray had flown off. Of course it did! I get out of my van and start finding pieces of it in the pile of snow and on the ground around us... and I might even cry at this point. I am lit. At this point, I'm the only one driving my vehicle, because I have half a mind just to throw my hands in the air and go back home.

Finally a tow truck arrives to pull us out, and I see that I'm basically missing the driver's side portion of my bumper, and there's a couple small dents in the fender. Cosmetic really, except now my van drives with a rumble and shake... so pretty sure it also threw my alignment out of whack. Either way, it's driveable and no real significant damage is done... however it sets us back an hour, so we can forget about seeing the Great Grays- as most of the sightings are early morning (before 8 AM) or in the evening (after 5 PM).

Our first stop is at the Admiral Station feeders, where Gray Jays and Black-capped Chickadees are congregating. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers arrive, and we stick around for ten minutes waiting on the Boreal Chickadees to make an appearance. They don't, so we move on to the visitors center.

Gray Jay

We get there around 10 AM, and talk to the lady indoors, who tells us where to find the Evening Grosbeaks. She says that they only seem to stay at the feeders in the morning, and since the location was over 10 miles away, we better get going. So, we head to the private home whose feeders are hosting the Grosbeaks. We knew exactly where to stop, since you can't miss the "Welcome Birders" signs in the front yard. The homeowners allow birders to pull in and walk the driveway to get pictures of the birds at the feeders. We'd see a White-breasted Nuthatch, some Black-capped Chickadees, a couple Hairy Woodpeckers, and our target bird: The Evening Grosbeak.

Evening Grosbeak

We stay awhile, snap a bunch of photos, and head back to Zim Road. We've heard there's a Snowy Owl hanging out near Highway 7, and I need one for the year. Sure enough, he was sitting up high in a pine tree, where we would see him each time we passed during the day (about three times).

Snowy Owl

This day is already proving to be more successful than the first. Before we spotted the Hawk-Owl the evening prior, Beth and I dubbed Sax-Zim a "stupid bog". We jokingly refer to birds that elude us or things we don't like as "stupid". Today, it would be "stupid" grouse, as we dipped on Spruce and Sharp-taileds on the trip... the Sharp-taileds were a bit sobering, as they seemed to be toted as a "sure thing" at the bog. But we checked the two spots given where they'd been seen and they were nowhere to be found. Bummer.

At this point, we decide to head over to Meadowlands to find Black-billed Magpies. I was the only one to see the one who had flown in front of our van the day prior, and Beth needed them for the year, so we decided to go look. We didn't have to look long though, as we saw several along Highway 133.

We hadn't seen one of our target birds yet: The Boreal Chickadee. Next we would head back up to the Admiral feeders after breaking in Duluth for lunch at Five Guys. (Awesome burgers, BTW..) We would meet two photographers who would give us advice on the Great Grays, and wait for the Boreals to show up. Within about five minutes, they flew in to enjoy the feeders and peanut butter slathered on the branches.

Boreal Chickadee

They were adorable little cherubs... and made photos easy. They stuck around for a couple of minutes before taking off. At this point, nothing was coming to the feeder that we hadn't already seen, so we went back to Highway 7 and Arkola Roads to watch for Sharp-tailed Grouse and the Northern Goshawk, both of which we would end up dipping on.

Around 4 PM, we start cruising up and down Admiral and McDavitt Roads, hoping to spot a Great Gray, but unfortunately winds are high, which isn't good for viewing opportunities as the owls will perch lower and blend in more. We stay until 6:15, along with several other birders, none of which would spot one. This bummed us out the most, as I'd always been told "Great Gray Owls are everywhere at the bog". Apparently, this year it was just not the case.

All in all, we got 10 of our 15 target species, without a guide, and 10 hours of daylight total to bird in, I'd say we did a phenomenal job. Next time I go, I know where to look, and where to get information. I plan on heading up again sometime later in the year for those Grouse and the Great Grays. Hopefully next time, they won't be so elusive.

Until next time...
Happy birding to all of you!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Twice in One Week?

On Friday, the 7th, I packed up and drove to Ohio with my friends, Beth and Chad. My target: Northern birds. Yes, we are planning a trip to the Sax-Zim Bog for this upcoming weekend (the 22nd), but I wanted to knock out as many northern wintering birds as possible before the trip, since we are driving it and won't have mountains of time to chase birds.

First stop- Deer Creek State Park in Mt. Sterling to see a reported Long-tailed Duck. I already had this bird for my list, but Beth and Chad didn't, so I wanted to swing in and nab it for them.

Next, we would head northeast over to Woodbury Wildlife Area in Coshocton. Last year, this was a super reliable spot for Northern Shrikes, but we would dip on these and continue on to Cleveland.

We hit 72nd Street and start scanning the ice for gulls. Great Black-backed and a lone Glaucous are present along with some Lesser Black-backed and hoards of Ring-billeds and Herrings. We would see Red-breasted and Common Mergansers in decent numbers in some of the only open water on the lake.

Next- we travel over to Lorain County airport to try to nab some Short-eared Owls (again, for Beth and Chad), but dip on these as well. We drive back east, towards Warren, to hit Mosquito Lake in the morning for Long-eared Owls.

At the crack of dawn, we're up and getting ready to head out. I was given explicit instructions on where to find the Long-eared Owls. It was snowing pretty heavily... and Beth and I decided to walk the road so we could see better. (Not to mention, it was quieter than puttering along in a car) We walked for over an hour, scanning the area they were to be found, and nothing. Chad swears he heard them hooting in the distance, and I accepted the possibility that they roosted high to ride out the weather, as they were found later in the day by somebody else. Really disappointed to dip on these guys, as I've been searching years for them and have never seen one.

The snow holds us back, and even through that, we swing over to the airport in Wayne County where a Snowy has been seen. The snow is heavy, visibility is terrible, and there's no sight of the owl. Just another species to dip on...

We are behind, but make two stops in the Dayton area- the first to nab White-winged Scoters for Beth and Chad, and then to nab some Trumpeter Swans. I am counting these birds, due to the fact I am not submitting my Big Year to the ABA, and it's not necessarily known where these birds actually originate from. I am comfortable counting them, and have for my list. In the grand scheme of things, eliminating one bird from my list wouldn't be the end of the world, and I would do it if I felt I had to.

I started the Ohio trip with a target list of 17 species and came home with only 7. While 7 is better than none, it certainly bummed me a little to miss out on so many.

However, I decide to head north again on Wednesday (the 12th) to chase a Prairie Falcon at the Sommerville Mines in Indiana. This trip would prove to be successful. 

The drive to the hotspot was actually very easy, and short (considering my other trips). From my door to the spot was about 4 1/2 hours. Approaching the hotspot around 7 in the morning, the first bird to notice as I was driving up Indiana-61 was none other than the Prairie Falcon himself (herself?)! Obviously, since I was driving, there is no picture to be had. However, it's not a bird that any semi-experienced birder would mistake for anything else. Too light to be a Peregrine, too big for a Merlin, and all sorts of beautiful. 

I would continue to drive around the mines, hoping for some Short-eared Owls to pop up. I wouldn't see any (they are a photo nemesis bird), but I would flush a male Ring-necked Pheasant, and see a Northern Shrike in my searching. I only had one target bird for this drive, and racked up two extra year birds- bringing my year total to 220.

This week, I have a trip to Tallahassee to meet up with a birder I know to nab some more year birds, and then the big Sax-Zim Bog trip this weekend. Stay tuned for more Big Year updates!

Until next time-
Happy birding to all of you!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Today marked the third day that I didn't actively look for any birds.

I am going through withdraws.

I tried to keep busy indoors, with the gloomy and rainy weather.... I cleaned up my house which I've neglected during this whole Big Year thing. Three hours and I feel like I only put a dent in it. Normally, you can eat off my floors, though not sure I would suggest such a thing right now.

Played with the young kidlets. Made cookies. Did all the house-wifely things I should be doing, if I wasn't a freakin' birding addict. If I wasn't going for a poor (wo)man's Big Year.

And still, I was twitching for something. Nothing new really comes into the yard anymore.... and I'd have to wait until nighttime to owl out in the woods out back. So, I get on my laptop, bring up eBird sightings for Alabama and see a sighting of a Northern Saw-whet Owl reported in Jackson County. The spot is a little over an hour away- near the Tennessee state line.

I need a Saw-whet.

It's dark now, and raining... and I still am fighting the urge to hop in my van and go find that tree. (Which would prove difficult at night)

Birding withdraws are rough. I need to get back to this Big Year thing. Being cooped up in a house is just not working out.

This weekend- chasing a possible Code 4 and Code 3 on the east coast with my new friends, Beth and Chad. Stay tuned.

Until next time....
Happy birding to all of you!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

I've Got a Twitch- For a Sprague's Pipit

As a member of several birding groups on Facebook- especially surrounding states- I am always looking for rarities being reported. I mostly chase in Tennessee, but couldn't ignore reports of Sprague's Pipits (and some uncommon gulls as well) in northwest Mississippi.

So, with all five of my kids in tow, I make the 500 mile round trip to Robinsonville and Sardis Lake in somewhat nearby Sardis, MS.

The first stop is Sardis for reported Lesser Black-backed and Glaucous Gulls. Both of which I would dip on. But, that is the nature of the chase. My next stop would be Arkabutla Dam, as it's on the way to the Sprague's Pipit spot. While I find more gulls there, and a possible Great Black-backed (however none of the photos cinch the ID, so I cannot add it to my list), I still dip on anything uncommon.

Onto the next spot- Buck Island Road. This spot hosted about 16 different Northern Harriers, which put on a show the entire time I was there scanning for Short-eared Owls. A quick drive down the road got me the bird I was really twitching for- the Sprague's Pipit. While it was too far for my measly 300mm lens to get great shots, I got IDable ones. He stood out like a sore thumb amongst the darker, and far more numerous Savannah Sparrows. I would also see Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks in the surrounding fields.

Sprague's Pipit #208

Before leaving, I watch two Harriers dive-bomb a Short-eared Owl (#209)... this trip ending with 209 year birds and a new lifer.

Today was a day of rest. I have driven over 4000 miles in the past month, and needed a day to relax. This week: back to chasing and finding more birds for the year.

Until next time-
Happy birding to all of you!

An Unintended Big Year

I have this friend... my best friend... who also happens to be a birder. He's not just a birder, but he's a passionate birder such as myself. If I am hyped about a sighting, or a potential new hotspot- he's the first person I call to tell about it. When I started listing last year, and setting number goals... when I whined that I could never hit 300, he was the first person to help me have a little bit of faith in myself. He has always believed in me more than I have.

So, when I started off this year with 100 within the first two weeks, pretty much knocking out the vast majority of northern Alabama birds, I got excited. I got hyped. I just wanted to see ALL THE BIRDS. Therefore, I start talking about a trip to Texas, to Florida, to Ohio... I want to go somewhere! A trip with a friend to St. Marks gets cancelled, and it leaves me an open weekend. At the last minute- I decide on the Rio Grande Valley. I tell my friend how exciting it would be to have 200 on my year list by the end of January.

When he hears that, he makes the comment that it would sound like an awesome start to a Big Year.

An awesome start to a Big Year. Those words would change this year for me forever. Completely inspired by what seemed like such an innocuous statement, I decide to go for it. I may not have the what-seems-like unlimited resources that the hardcore Big Year birders have... but I have a van, a couple weekends free a month, and the drive to see as many birds as I can- even if that means all I eat on a trip is energy/protein bars and coffee. Even if that means I have to sleep in my van instead of a motel. Even if that means I drive 36 hours in a weekend, just to bird for six. I have the drive and determination, and I believe, though it may not get me to the 700 club- I believe it will take me far this year in my search for birds.

Now I will end this post with the obligatory thank you to that friend, who I will refer to as "C" from now on. Thank you, C... for always believing in me. For always listening to me ramble on about birds and sightings, even when working, even when it seems everyone needs to talk to you, and your phone is going off non-stop. Thank you for the inspiration, the time you take to help me through my trips. Just, thank you for being my best friend and being you.

Until next time, everyone. Happy birding to all of you.