Sunday, January 31, 2016

Bogged Down Birding

Kicking off the new year I went one a pilgrimage to the Sax Zim Bog, perhaps the most singular northern birding mecca in the continental U.S. This was unfamiliar territory for me, territory I did not have a lot of time to cover but territory that nonetheless held massive lifer potential. 
I'll admit, I had also fallen away from the fold a bit, with work, social, and soccer demands substantially cutting into my birding time fall of 2015. The birding gods, they notice these things, and in their caprice they will make one pay for time not spent and homage not given. That is, of course, the only explanation as to why I didn't see the big owls. Also, look at the Gray Jay photo below. See something wrong with it? Exactly, that sky is blue, and no sensible boreal Owl will be perching out in that pleasantness, and it was super pleasant all of day one.


The Sax Zim Bog is also huge and necessitates vehicular birding for the most part, with a few areas and feeder stations being pedestrian friendly. Spending hours in 1st gear looking for perched owls can get somewhat tiresome if the Owls aren't around (and as I mentioned before, the two days we were there no one had any reported sightings), which made the brief excursions into the cold and snow, ironically, a welcome respite.

Black-capped Chickadees were exceedingly numerous, as one would expect, with their abhorrent cuteness masking their dynamic tungsten tonka toughness. Chuck Norris really has very little in terms of tough on a BCCH and their ilk. We also caught small flock of Pine Grosbeaks on the second day, giving me second looks at this species and a first experience with the males. It was too cold for my face to regular melt, but the intense coloration of these birds caused rapid sublimation and instead most of my face transitioned straight to a gaseous state and is still suspended somewhere over Lake Superior.

Also numerous were Common Redpolls, a belated lifer, including one pretty good candidate for the existentially crisised Hoary Redpoll. Knowing this bird was likely going to disappear from lists (which I totally agree with, btw), I didn't stress about it too much. Common is good enough for me.

Snow Buntings provided another nifty lifer, arguably cooler but also less accommodating than the COREs. Mud Buntings or Gravel Buntings might be more suiting monikers for their habitat preferences. Failing to capture closer shots or flight shots of these birds was a substantial point of sadness. Despite my preferences they did not allow for approach whatsoever. Snoots.

Since we weren't picking up the vibe from the SZ Bog by midday on day two, the Iowa Voice and I headed back to the Duluth suburbs in pursuit of Bohemian Waxwings. We struck out on those nomads, but while pausing to have consolidation beers that we had to open ingeniously with a tire iron, we were treated to a Sharp-tailed Grouse clumsily feeding on sapling buds.
I got out of the car to see if this bird would be approachable and sunk to my waste in snow, so that was the end of that.

I had to catch and evening flight back to Phoenix from the Twin Cities, which left us with a few hours for birding on the last day. Given our lack of luck in the SZ Bog and the presence of Gyrfalcons and Snowies in Superior, WI, we elected to work these southern spots. We had also chased these birds the preceding evenings without luck.
We tried for White-winged Crossbills near the Park Point strip, where some pine barrens jut out into Superior. Picking up Northern Shrike was dandy, but the drive out onto this isthmus cost us more time than we anticipated.

We drove unconscionably fast back along the one-lane road, but no amount of hurry is worth passing a Pileated Woodpecker, even if it is simply getting friendly with a utility pole. This is, I am ashamed to say, the first photo I've obtained of this species.

As I mentioned in previous posts, fortified patience was lacking on my end during this trip. We resolved to wait out of the Gyrfalcon first, since Snowy-chasing was erratic. The Gyr was sighted consistently in this industrial area every some point throughout the day. The distance and conditions worsened our circumstances in that we did not have a spotting scope, but after about an hour and a half we finally spied the menacing blob atop some grainery equipment.

Like Ivory Gull, this was not a bird I had been expecting to see during this trip or really in the near future at all. Maybe the universe was just keeping its equilibrium in denying us the Owls while providing these vagrants. Fortunately I can make my way back to this area with more regularity than a vagrant, and I shall have my sweet snowy satisfaction--and no I'm not exclusively talking about snow cones, but they will be a factor.
Gyrfalcon was an awesome lifer with which to wrap up this quick trip. With more time and patience, this is a trip I will make again, or one much like it. Watch your backs, boreal birds.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Starting a New Streak

New Year's resolutions have always bugged me a little bit. If something is worth doing, or a change worth making, why not make the change immediately? Sometimes there are good considerations for waiting, but an arbitrary date? Nah.
That being said, I made a new resolution that does, indeed, coincide with the new year. This also coincides with the fact that I had not been birding much in the weeks preceding the close of 2015, and then did some hardy birding. At this point you're probably thinking, "Get to it already man, this is sorry stuff. Your exposition is boring and you should feel bad. Why are you belaboring the point? God you're like a filibustered on c-span 2." Well who's being long-winded now eh? eh?

That's the rub, fellow Impatients, because my resolution was to be a much more patient birder. My recent trip to Minnesota had some success and some failures that were down to weather and bad luck (or, more specifically, a lack of good luck). But plenty of it also fell on my impatience, an unwillingness to spend long enough in one area or another so that, in effect, I rushed between spots looking for this or that species and ultimately seeing neither. Especially in winter, when the birds are sparse and shy, one has to wait...and I really hate waiting, especially when it's for a cool bird that hangs out at a less-than-cool spot (or a really frigid spot).
I really hate waiting. The DMV gives me ulcers. I take red lights a suggestions. I burn down orphanages while on hold. I hate waiting for my laundry. I hate waiting for videos to buffer. I hate waiting for my waiter at a restaurant because, then, do I not become the waiter??? 
Alas, the simple, prolonged reality is that sometimes, as birders, we have to plunk down in less-than-ideal spots and wait.

While I was out of town over the winter break, a Streak-Backed Oriole turned up in Yuma, about 200 miles west of Phoenix. Rather improbably, this handsome bird stayed from end of December up through my return to Arizona Jan. 6th, and after re-igniting my bird-chasing engine in Minnesota and re-igniting my resolution-motron as well, this bird demanded a chase.

It had been seen foraging in some California fan palms in a little RV park near some wetlands. The dilemma was that in any given day, it would feed in these palms for one or two short increments, and then disappear into the recently flooded wetland area.

So I arrived at sun-up, at this little park without much else by way of birding, and waited. I was determined not to abandon my post. Eventually the bird would come. It's the motto of RV parks, "if you park it, they will come."
Orioles, like vampires and pizza-faced teenagers, need to feed. But 7:30am turned into 8:30, turned in to 9:00am. By 10:00am my species list had climbed to about 6 and the Oriole still was a no-show. My hope had been to snag the bird by 9am and be back in Phoenix by noon time. 10:30 and still nothing. 11:00am came and now I was looking at a 2:00pm return, still with nothing to show for my efforts.
When does one cut the losses? When does one try something new?
Well, the patience wore off and in one last desperate attempt I decided to do what came natural--I went bush-crashing into the wetlands, figuratively speaking. Despite all my lessons learned and promises made about being patient and waiting, I found the skulky bugger in about 10 minutes. 

At first the bird did not show very well, staying deep in the riparian thickets, but of course it was readily identifiable and gave its rattle call on several occasions. Patience and waiting be damned! I had the lifer! Other birders in the area were on the bird quickly too, and pretty soon there was a parapazzi blitz in progress. What happened next? Of course the bird flew across the canal and over to the RV park where I had been waiting dully for 3+ hours.

Photo-ops were a little better there until the paparazzi peloton caught up and the bird flushed back farther into the wetlands, at which point I called it a day 2.5 hours later than I intended. So what are the takeaway lessons? I did indeed exercise much more patience/endurance/perseverance and stayed until I found the bird. On the other hand, this was done by roving and wandering around per the old motions. Should I have stayed at the park and let other birders find and flush the bird over to me? Would the bird ever have turned up that day?

I don't know. Everything is bad and nothing is good. Except for Streak-Backed Orioles. Streak-Backed Orioles are good.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Luck is the Residue of Design...or not

Lately the media and bird-blogosphere is filled with stories of the Malheur NWR occupation and Noah Stryker's impressive global Big Year. Alas, all that media saturation has covered up, by intention or not, some other big birding stories of 2016. Like, for example, Butler's Birds went to Minnesota for 2.5 days this January and saw some cool stuff. I'm still waiting for my Slate interview and sponsorships.

The frozen north was not as brutal with its weather as I expected. At first I considered myself lucky that it was partially cloudy and high 20s most of the time I was there. Turns out this was not so lucky, because species like Great Gray Owl are not going to perch very readily on wooded edges when there is a lot of glare and exposure. I'll give away the disappointing ending right now saying I had terrible luck with the Owls. There were almost no reports in my area for the days I was there, through they were reported right before and right after I left. Revenge is already being planned for next winter. 

Overall I can't complain too much though about my luck (which sucks! I hate that! not complaining is the worst! lamentations!). I booked my tickets a few months ago, but a couple of days before arriving in Duluth something else starkly white, immature, and packing some serious wanderlust arrived in Duluth.

At the Canal Park wharf, about 2 miles away from my Day's Inn, a young Ivory Gull was bringing a touch of elegance and pizazz to the scene. Since this species tends to occur only as a vagrant in northern states (California has a few records of course and Arizona had one bizarre occurrence of this species on the Colorado River near Lake Mead), it was not really on my radar as a bird to see short of an Arctic trip.

After rolling into Duluth around 1:30 from the twin cities, this was literally the first bird I saw on my trip as it cruised around in the early gloam. The bird was almost worryingly conspicuous.

It would seem to be a good omen, that this bird waited for several days (and is still being seen, no small thanks to generous leavings of salmon sacrifices from the local birders) and was so easy to find. Apparently Gull omens do not cross over for owl-finding, or maybe I also had some bad karma coming with me from elsewhere. I'll have to consult Arin Murphy-Hiscock, but I think the message the Owls were sending me was, "Screw you buddy."

Analysis and significance aside, the Ivory Gulls was very impressive to watch. It comported itself with grace and manners well beyond the bounds of its chunkier Herring and Thayer's companions. While birders awkwardly clambered and skidded on the icy jetty the IVGU slid and bandied about like a younger and sexier Brian Boitano.

There were plenty of residual scraps and sundry other detritus left over from previous baiting and good ol' fashion littering, so the IVGU had plenty of foraging to do, which it did so fabulously.

When you've got style, who needs taste?

There were other clunkier Gulls around too, like what I believe to be a 3rd year Thayer's doing its impression of a cat sitting on a coffee table, and a Herring Gull chilling on some of the ice platforms floating around the harbor area.

As we left the IVGU and headed north towards the Sax Zim bog, the clouds burned off entirely and we had a gorgeous sunny day. Little did I know this weather is not really conducive to good Owling, but we were already spoiled for Monday. Starting with an Ivory Gull first's like having filet mignon for breakfast in addition to our tiny McDonald's burritos.