Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Post #55 - Super Bird Sunday - seeking ABA #700!

I obtained my first field guide, The Golden Guide to North American Birds, when I was 7 years old. Mesmerized by the diversity and beauty of the birds there depicted, I dreamed that one day I might see every bird in it. As I established my birding roots around Philadelphia and South Jersey during my youth, I came to appreciate that the 700-species plateau was for many North American birders a lifelong goal. I thus at age 10 decided that I too would do my birding best, through whatever means possible, to join that 700 club. By age 12 I had racked up roughly 200 species in my local area. My inaugural trip to Arizona in 1991 took me to near 300 species, and visits to Texas and Washington State in subsequent years helped push me north of 400. Though academics and heavy drinking distracted me form birding during my college years, I reached 500 species while an undergraduate at Stanford, and 600 on a trip to South Texas in 2008 while I was in graduate school at NYU. Since I quit drinking and obtained my Ph.D. in 2010, the past 5 years have seen a steady increase in my birding activity, most notably my 2014 bicycle Big Year, Biking for Birds, that took me nearly 18,000 miles around the lower 48 states on what was certainly the adventure of a lifetime. Bird photography (view at Smugmug and  Flickr) has become my latest addiction, and I now spend as much time seeking that elusive 'perfect shot' as I do engaged in more traditional birding. 

My best shot from this past weekend......
Northern Pintail X Mallard hybrid! 
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800, Manual, Handheld

Anyway, now that you are up to speed on my birding history, we'll join the present. In the last post, I chronicled my experience at the fantastic Laredo Birding Festival from February 3-6. I arrived at that event sitting at 698 species for North America. I did not expect to add any lifers in the Laredo area, but, as I had made it that far, I decided to use the extra Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday, to run south to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) to chase a number of rarities that had been reported in the days leading up to and during the festival. As the festival concluded at 9pm Saturday and my flight back to LA left Laredo at 6:30am on Monday, this left me just 12 intervening daylight hours to conduct my birding business. I would in the darkness that surrounded that window, need to drive from Laredo to the LRGV and back. The whole thing turned out to be a whirlwind!

I picked up my rental car at the Laredo Airport at 9:30pm on Saturday night. I sprinted to Mission, arriving just after midnight. I caught a few ZZZs, and by 7am was at Frontera Audubon to search for my first two target birds, the Code 4 female Crimson-collared Grosbeak that head been present for weeks and the just-that-week-arrived Code 4 male Blue Bunting. Accompanied by LRGV birding belle Tiffany Kersten, I managed, after a 3-hour search, a brief but serviceable look at the grosbeak for ABA #699! This species in notoriously reclusive, so that I got any look at it was a cause for celebration. Had it not given its distinctive whistle, there was no way in hell I would have found the stealthy bird. As it was, I did not manage any sort of photograph. The bunting proved painfully elusive, and was left on the table when we left Frontera to head to Estero Llano Grande to pursue the White-throated Thrush, another Code 4 rarity, that had been reported from that location for the past 2 days.

The grosbeak was back in that tangle somewhere!

The search for the thrush was anything but protracted. We parked, walked to the fruiting tree around which the thrush had been hanging, waited 2 minutes, and a BOOM - there it appeared 20 feet in front of our faces! Species number 700 was just too easy! Thirty years in the waiting, I finally joined the 700-club! A quiet celebration ensued but was short-lived as we quickly turned our attention to yet another Code 4 rarity, the Northern Jacana that has been hanging around Santa Ana NWR for the past 6 weeks. 

White-throated Thrush for ABA #700 - Woo Hoo!

Tiffany and I spent the next 1.5 hours searching in vain for the jacana. Our frustrations were compounded by the fact that several other people had seen the bird that morning; Even using their advice, we were unable to locate the stealthy wader in any of the Willow Lakes at the refuge. 

Rather than continuing the jacana battle, we decided to double back to Frontera for a second shot at the bunting. We arrived to miss the bird at its favorite watering spot by 2 minutes, but I relocated it not too far from that spot 10 minutes after that. It gave me a brief but breath-taking view in full sunlight before disappearing into the same impenetrable understory that obscured the grosbeak earlier in the day. Tiffany came over and we managed several brief but serviceable views beyond my initial encounter. I did my best to get a photo, but all I could muster was an OOF (out-of-focus) blue blob amidst the tangle. A better photo would have been nice, but the heart-stopping view the bird initially gave me was memory enough. Bird #701 was secured, buffering me from falling below the 700-line when Hoary and Common Redpolls are most certainly lumped in the near future. The bunting was even more stunning than I had imagined, besting the more familiar Indigo Bunting in the iridescent blue department.
Blue Bunting for #701

With the first 3 of my target birds safely secured, it was time to race back to Santa Ana for one last shot at the jacana. Tirelessly walking the trails around the ponds, Tiffany and I scoured the reedy and marshy surrounds for what would be the fourth Code 4 rarity of the day. We had been birding non-stop for nearly 11 hours at that stage, and, as the sun sank lower into the western sky, it took with it our hopes of finding the jacana. We folded our hand at 6:00pm, in time for me to drop Tiffany at home and race back to Laredo by 9:30pm so as not to incur an additional charge on my 1-day car rental.

All smiles, even minus the jacana.
It's tough to argue with 3 Code 4 rarities in a single day!

The entire day was a huge success. It was a great way to record species number 700; That I recorded two other, equally rare species on the same day made it all the more memorable. Tiffany was great company and very patient in helping me chase down the birds I needed, sometimes even ahead of the Blue Bunting that she needed for her own ABA list. Reaching 700 species felt incredibly good, but has only whet my appetite to continue birding and photographing. I have not yet birded Alaska, so that's a destination with loads of new birds and photographic opportunities that is certainly in my future. Sonia, my fiance, has become an increasingly capable birder, and I cannot wait to see what amazing things we will find together in out future travels! Right now my "Seen with Sonia" list might be my most fun!

I want to thank everyone who has helped me in any aspect of my birding over the years, as well as you readers who tune in to hear where my birding has recently taken me. At the end of the day, its the fellow birders that imbue our birding experiences with their most indelible colors. Without the people, birding is, well, for the birds.......

The next life bird bird I'll seek will be Scripps's Murrelet on a February 28th pelagic out of Ventura. Stay tuned, much more birding, photography, and associated nonsense coming your way!

(As a quick aside, I count only well-seen birds on my ABA list. I have heard both Black Rail and Buff-collared Nightjar in the ABA area but neither is included in my total. The Red-legged Honeycreeper from Texas in 2014 is still pending, as is the Gray Thrasher that I observed in San Diego in August of 2015. So, who knows? Maybe I'll be at 703 without having to lift my binoculars!)

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