Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ghosts of Gone Birds

A little off topic but a cool thing to know about ...


Doing a little PR for a good cause here.  I am fascinated by island endemics, island biogeography, extinct birds, and wildlife art.  A few years ago I came across a project that encompassed all four
things ....

The Ghost of Gone Birds project reached out to artists and asked them to paint images of extinct species (obviously many were island endemics) to raise awareness around bird extinction, etc.  It's very much a UK thing but should probably be much more widely known.  The fact that they included some of my favorite (non-bird) artists prompted a few unexpected purchases ... six of which now hang in various rooms.  If you aren't aware of it, definitely worth checking out ...

There's also a book by Ralph Steadman for purchase Ralph Steadman: Ghosts of Gone Boids which might get someone inspired (or just gather dust on a coffee table).

Great cause though ... felt I needed to give it a plug ....



Ralph Steadman - counter-culture icon with his painting of the extinct Guadalupe
Caracara - just bought it, haven't hung it yet.
Just got this image as a birthday gift - the extinct, giant, flightless, St. Helena Hoopoe - yes, there once was a giant flightless, hoopoe (as late as the 1500's when European's and their cat and rat pals arrived on St. Helena).

The prey in it's mouth is the (almost certainly extinct - last seen in 1967, despite searches in the 70's and 80's) St. Helena Giant Earwig.  Some still hope that this critter still exists somewhere although obviously the chances are dimming with each year that passes.

St. Helena, being so isolated once had a great selection of endemic species, including perhaps 2 rails, a pigeon, a pterodroma, the hoopoe, and a Sand-Plover (which is still hanging on).

There were also apparently once an amazing diversity of plant species (some apparently being slowly managed back from the brink) on an island now dominated by invasive weeds.

Let's hope that the Giant Earwig is clinging on somewhere.

Dodo - this image hangs over the couch in my New York City Apartment.
Palla's Cormorant - another very cool image of a bird we somehow lost.


Discovered by George Steller in 1741 who said that "they weighed 12-14 pounds, so that a single bird was sufficient for three starving men" Though cormorants are notoriously bad-tasting, Steller said that this bird tasted delicious, particularly when it was cooked in the way of the native Kamtchadals, who encased the whole bird in clay and buried it and baked it in heated pits (Source: Wikipedia).  So you can guess what happened to them, and the last birds were seen in 1850. 

A contemporary of such other cool lost species as Steller's Sea-Cow (how cool would it be now to have giant sea-cows hanging around your favorite Alaska birding spots).

This picture hangs over the pool table in East Hampton (along with Audubon's Labrador Duck), although perhaps, given their culinary-driven demise, I should move them to the kitchen ....

Anyway, great cause, hope I got someone interested in checking it out ... fighting for these unique scraps of evolution is absolutely worth it ... you fight battles to win wars.  Don't let the demise of a single unique form go unchallenged ....


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Madeira ... the quest for Zino's Petrel

Random trip to Portugal and my first Life Birds in quite a while ....

So sometimes you have to do something spontaneous.  My plan for last week was just to chill in East Hampton but, after a mellow weekend I got yanked back to the City for meetings on Monday and Tuesday and rather than head back out for July 4th, I decided I wanted to go somewhere different.  After sifting through the available choices on Monday, I hit the phones and the internet and booked tickets to Madeira hoping to pick up some life birds and in particular ... a Zino's Petrel.

I had the flights and the hotel but no firm birding plans so I stalked the folks at Madeira Windbirds hoping to charter a boat for a pelagic trip and figuring I could also add some endemic land birds over the weekend.  After a few false starts Catarina Fagundes from Windbirds called me back and said they could shuffle their schedule, get me out on a boat (if they could get their hands on 60lbs of fresh chum) and also offered a couple of land bird excursions where I could could join scheduled trips and see all the good species and sub-species on the island.  It sounded good so I wired some money for boats and chum, cancelled the rental car I'd booked and jumped on a plane on Tuesday night.

Settling into the somewhat over-formal Reid's Palace Hotel in Funchal - Churchill hung out there apparently and it looks like they're still dressing for dinner as though they're expecting him to show up at any moment - I took some quiet time before the birding started the next day.  After recovering from my jet-lag on Thursday morning, I joined Catarina and her partner Hugo Romano to get started on the birding on Thursday afternoon, local and endemic land birds were promised, and I was excited to see something new.

'Madeiran' Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs maderensis) the local, and blue-ish race of
Common Chaffinch (and not yet split).
'Madeiran Firecrest' (Regulus madeirensis) - almost every authority or listing guru
splits this as a good species (outside the US).  When I asked my local hosts as to
why the AOU hasn't split this yet (?) their response was that 'Americans are a bit slow'.
So land birds on an island are somewhat limited and Madeira is no exception with just a handful of species, but most of which have evolved into distinct sub-species (and perhaps ultimately species). First stop was the Santa António da Serra area where we quickly got 'Madeiran' Chaffinch, 'Madeiran' Firecrest and the local sub-species of European Robin among other things.  Then after a quick stop for Spanish Sparrow and the local sub-species of Gray Wagtail in Caniçal, we headed over to Ponta de São Lorenço in search of more open country birds.
European Robin (Erithacus rubecula microrhinchos) - not sure this is a good sub-species? 
Spanish Sparrow - apparently introduced and declining but we saw quite a few birds at a small colony.  
They apparently nest in the native palms which are being decimated by a weevil introduced in non-native plantings imported from Egypt.  Same story the world over ...
Berthelot's Pipit - a regional endemic which occurs on Madeira and on the Canary
Islands.
The grassland community had some interesting birds including a trio of species - Berthelot's Pipit, Plain Swift and Island Canary - which are all endemic to the Atlantic Islands (Madeira, the Canary Islands, etc.).  We also spent some time looking for, and finally found, some Rock Sparrows (Rock Petronia) and saw several of the local race of Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus canariensis).  Everything here seems to be diverging in some way.


Bulwer's Petrel - first on the chum and with us for the whole trip. 
White-faced Storm-Petrel - perhaps my favorite pelagic species.
Friday afternoon was Pelagic time! You can see more details on the type of trip that Windbirds offers at Winbirds website along with more pictures, etc. We were heading out in the afternoon hoping to intercept Zino's Petrels as they returned to the island in the evening after feeding offshore all day.  The sea at  Ponta de São Lorenço was deceptively flat but as we cleared 'the channel' and headed out to the North side of the island the waves picked up and we pushed our way out 15 miles through quite choppy seas to an area Catarina knew well before deploying chum and settling in for three long drifts in our chum slick (perhaps 5 hours in the slick - and I didn't throw up, even once!).

The trip out might have been choppy but it was also very birdy.  We passed two large feeding groups of Cory's Shearwaters numbering several hundred birds, the first feeding over a group of Bryde's Whales (pronounced Broo-dah's) and Short-beaked Common Dolphins, the second feeding over a Sei Whale and a group of young Atlantic Spotted Dolphins.  In the mix we also had some Manx Shearwaters and a single FEA'S PETREL (as much as a I wanted a Zino's this bird had a hulking great bill and flew like a Fea's - probably the locally breeding 'desertas' race who's island home was visible in the distance).

Once out in the chum slick we spent the time waiting, waiting, waiting with nothing but BULWER"S PETRELS for company.  We always had a couple in the slick but nothing else came to join them until around 8pm when the sun started to get lower and suddenly Storm-Petrels appeared.  First up was a WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL which danced it's way up and down the slick for an hour or so, then a visit from a MADEIRAN PETREL (nice to get Band-rumped Storm-Petrel at a breeding island) and then a late EUROPEAN STORM-PETREL.  Not a bad haul of chum birds, but even though we stayed out so late that we ended up coming back to land in complete darkness, we did not luck out with a Zino's ....

Saturday was a full day looking for land birds.  TROCAZ PIGEON was a life bird for me, the first one in over a year.  I'd expected to have to go to the Laurel forest for them but we went first to a cliff site where we could scope them high on scrubby trees on a relatively sparsely forested slope (although we did see on later at the Laurel Forest site).  An interesting single-island endemic, with perhaps 2,700 birds left on the island (and in the world).

Interestingly it seems that it's ancestor was the Common Wood-Pigeon and that that species apparently arrived and evolved separately on the island on two separate occasions.  The first invasion produced the Trocaz Pigeon, while the second (presumably later) invasion evolved into a distinct sub-species of Wood-Pigeon (Columba palumbus maderensis) which went extinct in the early part of the 20th century.  Who knows, maybe Wood-Pigeon will colonize again (there have been some recent records) and start a third species? Island endemics, and Island Biogeography are endlessly fascinating .... 

The Laurel Forest habitat was actually pretty cool - green and semi-tropical on an island that up until now had looked pretty arid and brown.  In addition to the laurels there were several species of 'heather' some chest high, some basically small trees.  There were also some unique looking plants like 'Pride of Madeira' (left) which is apparently common as a transplant in California and is actually a great hummingbird plant there.  One local tour company famously even used a photo of this species, complete with feeding hummingbirds, on their local tour brochure.  Who knows, perhaps next time I come I'll bring a box of Black-chinned Hummingbirds, I'm sure they'd do well here (kidding).

There is also apparently and endemic dragonfly, no doubt some endemic butterflies, etc. and for a while I was wishing I had more time to explore the non-vertebrates on the island.  I did see a lot of the endemic Madeiran Wall-Lizard (Lacerta dugesii) though so at least I got one new non-bird for the Life List.

The afternoon saw us birding at Ponta do Pargo, again a grassland area where we added Pallid Swift, Red-legged Partridge, several calling Common Quail and the local sub-species of Spectacled Warbler (orbitalis) and Common Buzzard (harterti).  Then after a quick stop for Common Waxbills it was time to go back to the hotel for dinner and a nap before round two with the Zino's Petrels - if the Zino's wouldn't come to me, then I'd have to go to the Zino's ....


Back in the van at 9:30pm for a drive to the Pico do Arieiro - jagged mountain tops 6,000 feet above sea level and well above cloud level that night.  Once we cleared the clouds we were presented with a truly awesome sight, ragged mountain peaks floating above the island under a sea of stars and bathed in silver moonlight.  Truly quite an awesome place to go look for birds.  Hugo and Catarina offer the Windbirds Night Trip for Zino's Petrel during the breeding season and, as it was my best and only chance to actually see one, we were soon hiking off along steep moonlit trails along the mountain tops to one of the few known breeding colonies of this rare seabird.

By 11pm we were set up on a razorback ridge line with steep cliffs descending vertically into the clouds on either side of a narrow trail.  Sitting quietly we'd been told that the birds would come in to exchange incubation duties at nest burrows on the cliffs below us and that we might hear and see some.  Sure enough, not long afterwards we heard a 'whooshing' sound as a bird passed over us in the darkness (the breeders apparently go silently to the nest burrows) followed by the eery calls of several Zino's flying around us (non-breeders visit the colony at night and make lots of noise).  Putting the moon to our backs we were able to see the birds, firstly ghost-like silhouettes, but when they came close and caught the moon light, we could actually see what they were.  Perhaps  half a dozen or more birds kiting around, sometimes in close formation, skimming the cliff edges and blasting by within feet of us as we stood still on the trail.  In minutes, Zino's Petrel went from 'most wanted lifer' to 'heard only' to 'not-quite tick-able views' on the hierarchy of 'not quite on the life list'.  Notwithstanding the rules of World Listing though, it was an awesome experience to be there in such an mid blowing place with this incredibly enigmatic species wheeling and wailing around us.

As luck would have it though, we weren't done yet.  It turns out that we weren't alone on the mountain that night and as we came back up towards the parking lot (several hundred steep steps that were a bit easier going down earlier) we bumped into some researchers who were trying to band and radio-tag petrels.  We'd left them alone earlier but, as they were packing up for the night, we went over to talk, and just as they were taking their nets down, a petrel flew into the mist net (!).  Once they'd processed the bird, they were kind enough to let us see one in the hand - truly an honor - sometimes life just works out perfectly.  And yes, based on what I'd seen so far that night, and seeing this bird go into the net, I did add ZINO'S PETREL to my life list.  One of the best natural history experiences I've had in years.

Back at the hotel - and watching a Barn Owl hunting around the hotel grounds at 2:30am - I had a chance to reflect on the trip.  Very glad I came, a truly wonderful break and great experience - even if they do speak Brazilian poorly here.  Hugo and Catarina are real pros and highly recommended.  Definitely a weekend trip to consider if you find yourself in range of Madeira (it's only 12 hours from New York!). 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Birds, Whales, and Turtles off Hatteras North Carolina

Two days of pelagic birding off North Carolina

Just back from a quick three day trip to North Carolina and Virginia.  It's been a long time (15 years?) since I've managed to get down to do a Brian Patteson Pelagic Trip, but inspired earlier this year, I signed up for two trips last weekend with Alvaro Jaramillo (who also made it easy to link and pay online).

Thursday mid day saw me sneaking away from work and running out to LaGuardia for a flight to Norfolk, Virginia.  Once there, I grabbed a rental car and drove down to Hatteras, North Carolina.  The weather was crappy - thunder storms all the way down - and it was a long drive - but I was optimistic that it couldn't last all weekend so I checked into my hotel, sorted my kit and set the alarm for 4am Friday morning, super excited to get out into the gulf stream for the first time in many years.

Friday morning was windy and raining but I headed over to the dock and when I saw people loading chum onto the boat I figured we'd probably go out.  Brian appeared shortly thereafter and confirmed that we were going, so after a quick orientation we were soon heading out to sea.  The sea in question was pretty rough though and, even though I took my dramamine I was soon throwing up as we plowed through 'snotty' waters for two hours (I'm just not a good sailor what can I say).  Over the years I've got used to this sort of start to the day - praying for death at dawn and throwing up for an hour or two, then my body eventually gets used to it and I'm finally glad I came.  It's sort of an act of faith but as I always say, 'you don't look, you don't see' and in the case of pelagics 'if you don't suffer, you don't see'.  This morning's crew was serious, with Alvaro Jaramillo, George Armistead, Naeem Yusuff (of Brookline Bird Club Pelagic fame), Nick Block, and half of the top birders from Chicago on board ... a very capable crew and a good sign for some interesting birds.  So I slogged my way though the waves and the sea-sickness knowing that it would probably all be worth it in the end .... and it was.

Soon enough (well perhaps not soon enough at the time) we reached the Gulf Stream, the waves died down, and we got started with the birding thing.  As it turns out we got started quickly, as not long after we arrived in the calmer 'blue' waters someone shouted "Tropicbird!" and all eyes went up as a juvenile RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD came over boat.  Not a bad start!

Red-billed Tropicbird - a crappy photo of a really cool bird and an ABA Bird for me.
The next five hours were really very birdy, exactly what you come to North Carolina for.  Cory's, Great, Manx and Audubon's Shearwaters zipped by the boat.  Wilson's, Leaches' and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels followed the chum line, and several Black-capped Petrels came by to check out what was on offer.  All classic Gulf Stream stuff.  You don't get this in New York!

We also got some Bridled and Arctic Terns and some cool cetaceans (Short-finned Pilot-Whales and 'Offshore' Bottlenose Dolphins).  I simply love it out in there - flying fish, sargassum, leaping Mahi Mahi, lots of birds, simply awesome.

Bridled Tern - one of three we saw over the weekend. 
Arctic Tern - always a good bird on the East Coast.
As a special bonus Kate Sutherland (Brian Patterson's extraordinary first mate / onboard biologist) even scooped up some Sargassum so we could look for 'critters' and we got to see several crab and shrimp species plus a few Planehead Filefish (Stephanolepis hispidus) which was a Life fish for me.  The good feelings even got me through the miserable ride back to the dock ... more waves ... ugly ... but I managed to resist the urge to kiss the ground when we got back to the dock (I have done that before).  Great day ....

Audubon's Shearwater - we saw lots of these on both days.
Saturday dawned, well way too early.  Another 4am alarm call and as I stumbled out of the hotel room at 4:30am I was greeted by a spectacular thunder storm with arc lightening and torrential rain.  For a while I though Brian would surely cancel the trip but by the time I got to the marina the rain was dying down and I saw Kate heading to the boat (and heard a Common Nighthawk) so I figured we were probably good for round two.  Sure enough, the storm was heading offshore so, despite the pyrotechnics, we were off again at 5:30am and ploughing through more rough seas (yes, I threw up again) before finding calmer waters when we got to the Gulf Stream a couple of hours later.

Today's birds were not quite as good, in fact it was pretty flat compared to the day before.  We did see lots of Black-capped Petrels, quite a few BAND-RUMPED STORM-PETRELS, but no terns, no Tropicbirds, and in fact the birding was almost dull for those of us who'd been out on Friday (although our fresh faces doing a one-day tip were thrilled with the birds we saw).

Black-capped Petrel  (2 shots) - the only Pterodroma we saw over the weekend,
but we saw lots of them and no-one ever gets tired of watching the amazing wind-surfers. 

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - easy to ID once you have your 'eye in'.
Things picked up and got really exciting though when we headed back in late in the afternoon (and once I'd put my camera away).  First up was a giant LEATHERBACK SEA-TURTLE (my best look ever) and, while we were looking at that incredible prehistoric critter, another Bridled Tern came by, soon joined by Royal and Black Terns.  The we had the 'mega whale' experience ....

Leatherback Turtle  Photo: Alvaro Jaramillo (used with permission)
Although the birds are always top of mind on a pelagic trip, the highlights of this weekend were probably actually the cetaceans.  We had 'Offshore' Bottlenose Dolphins, Short-finned Pilot-Whales, and Cuvier's Beaked-Whales, but the star for me was a pod of FALSE KILLER-WHALES that came to ride our bow-wave for 20 minutes on the way back in that afternoon.  This was a species that I'd always wanted to see in the Atlantic and when they appeared and came over to the boat I was simply ecstatic, awestruck, giddy, whatever.  These fast-moving, super-smart, small whales eat Tuna, Billfish and Mahi Mahi, and use their big brains to catch these fast-moving fish.  They seemed genuinely curious to see us, turning their heads to look at the 'apes' on the boat and coming back many times to try to interact with us,  Such amazing creatures and the wildlife highlight of the year so far.

False Killer-Whales (2 shots)  Photo: Jim Gould (used with permission)

Sunday morning was supposed to be a bit of a let-down after the pelagics but it actually turned out to be pretty good.  An early morning stop at Pea Island NWR produced a juvenile Reddish Egret, a Wilson's Plover and a nice selection of shorebirds including Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet.  Then off to the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, where despite 'Alaska-quality' blood-sucking bugs, I was happy to add SWAINSON'S WARBLER along with lots of Hooded and Prothonatory Warblers and an Acadian Flycatcher.

Special thanks to Alvaro and George for putting this together and all the expert spotting on the boat, and of course thanks to Brian and Kate for running this amazing operation.  A truly great trip, very glad I came.  Remind me to do this more often ....





Sunday, June 1, 2014

Photospot: Vesper Sparrow on Eastern Long Island

Back to the Summer Season in East Hampton and entertaining guests most weekends, but this morning I was able to sneak away for a few hours and birded Shinecock Inlet (Sooty Shearwater, Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Clapper Rail, Red Knot, etc.) and then grabbed a few minutes at Gabreski Airport near Quogue.  This airport (pre-9-11) used to be much more accessible, but given the modern security environment it's hard to get back to areas where we used to see Upland Sandpipers, etc. (who knows if they're still in there).  Still, if you're prepared to ignore the first few "no entry" signs you can still get in far enough to see one of the better, and scarcer, breeding birds on Long Island, the Vesper Sparrow.  Try to go back further though, and you'll be turned away.  Perhaps best to leave the mystery of the Upland Sandpipers alone for now ....

Vesper Sparrow (3 shots) - a small breeding population hangs on in the Pine Barrens
of Eastern Long Island, and sometimes Winter's nearby.  Was lucky to have this bird
fly across the road in front of the car and jumped out to grab a few shots.



Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Catching up on Warblers just North of New York City ...

A quick circuit of state parks and other hotspots North of New York City.

So I thought I might go to Cape May today to look for kites (they had Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites yesterday) but when the alarm went off at 4am, by brain was willing but my body said "No", there was just no way I was up for that kind of drive today.  Just too tired I guess, so I turned off the alarm, got up at 6am and instead headed North to some of the State parks North of New York City in search of some of the warblers that I'd missed this year in Central Park.

First stop was Doodletown Road, a nice trail in Bear Mountain State Park about an hour North of the City.  This park is famous for it's CERULEAN WARBLERS, a bird I'd missed in the Park this year and was obviously popular with New York birders this week as I saw many old friends.  The trail was very birdy with 15+ species of warblers including a lot of migrant Tennessee Warblers, an Olive-sided Flycatcher, and a nice selection of local birds.  My focus was very much in the two specialty warblers there though and I soon had a nice look at a male Cerulean, and then a brief look at a female at a nest.  I also got to hear, but not see, a KENTUCKY WARBLER (thanks to Jeff Ritter).  When I bumped into Rich Cech later he said that you basically come here for those two species, and they cooperated remarkably well.  A very cool spot ... two target species ... done.

Cerulean Warbler nest .... saw the female building it when I first saw it, but
she didn't come back for a photo.
Black Racer ... a very cool snake seen warming up on the trail.

After Doodletown I headed over the Sterling Forest SP with a plan to see a GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER.  As I pulled in to the site I bumped into a gaggle of New York City birder (Richard Friend, Peter Post, Anders Peltomaa, Brian Paden, etc.) who quickly gave me good directions to the warbler sites.  A half hour later, after some advice from some photographers, I did find a Golden-winged Warbler which was singing and vigorously defending it's territory from a Blue-winged Warbler.  The sad thing about this site it that it's very much on the front-line of the war between Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers and sadly the Blue-winged Warblers are winning.  Over the years I've been in New York the number of Golden-winged locations has slowly declined each year as each site has winked-out one-by-one with the Blue-winged Warblers slowly absorbing their sister species and pushing them further North.  We're not sure how much longer we'll have Golden-winged Warblers here and this is basically the last place 'downstate' that you can see them reliably.  But they're still around this year so I made the most of the views .... really neat bird ....

Golden-winged Warblers (3 shots)


Blue-winged Warblers (the villain of the piece) ....
Having got the three warblers I came for, and still having time to kill, I decided to joint Richard Fried and co. and head up to Blue Chips Farm (a 600-acre horse farm) to hopefully add an UPLAND SANDPIPER for the year list.  Richard and I got brief views of a distant sandpiper, one of my favorite North American birds, but couldn't get the others on it before it vanished behind a fold in the field.  So on to the Shawangunk Grasslands, a former airport that has been restored as grassland habitat and had a great selection of grassland birds (declining in the East).  We had Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, American Kestrel and lots of displaying Bobolinks.  We also had two singing GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS - a bit of a surprise as we didn't realize they were there but apparently they've come back with the habitat restoration and numbers are increasing.  This site was also one of the last 'downstate' sites where Henslow's Sparrow used to breed (another species declining sharply in the East) so let's hope they make it back there too.  A very neat spot, and nice to see a grassland habitat on the rebound.  I definitely should come North more often; even though I was only an hour-and-a-half North of the City, it really did feel like a day in the country.

Postscript:  the next week several birders bumped into (Eastern) Timber Rattlesnakes at this site - my most wanted Eastern herp.  Should have stayed longer, and looked harder I guess.  I really need to be more patient ....

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Day off in Newfoundland.

Unexpected day off to actually bird in Newfoundland.

So after the easy hits (and epic birding day) on Monday.  I found myself with a totally free day on Tuesday and planned to simply, well just go birding.  I'd asked Jared Clarke for some suggestions and he kindly gave me some locations so I got up early, hit a Tim Hortons, and headed out for my favorite sort of day ... no plans, limited cell-phone reception, unfamiliar place ... and birds .....

First stop was Cape Spear, which as cold and birdless, so I soon retreated to the boreal forests around the settlement at Blackhead (I presume this was named after a geographic feature, not a skin problem) and spent a happy couple of hours slowly working thought 'boreal' (black spruce) forest.  I wanted Pine Grosebeaks and Boreal Chickadees and got both relatively easily, along with a supporting coast of Pine Siskins, both Kinglets, Fox and White-throated Sparrows, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  The dawn chorus was also supplemented by 'drumming' Ruffed Grouse and 'winnowing' Wilson's Snipe ... a very happy couple of hours for a 'lowland' birder.

Pine Grosbeak and Boreal Chickadee ... rare treats for a largely coastal birder. 

Then back along scenic coasts to the Goulds area where I'd really hoped to get photos of yesterday's Black-tailed Godwit.  No luck with that, although I spent a fair amount of time looking and did luck-out with great views of a River Otter that swam around in the marsh, came up on to the bank (do otters do anything that doesn't look like they're playing) and was so preposterously photogenic I completely forgot to pick up me camera.  Sometimes you just have to look and not worry about the optics, it was a special moment.

Next was Bidgood Park (on Jared's suggestion) where I planned to kill a few hours in what seemed like a pleasant, but not necessarily birdy, local park.  While I was getting out out the car though, and before I was set up, I heard a crane bugling.  "Nice" I thought, "didn't realize they had Sandhill Cranes here".  The bird called a few more times and I looked up, got brief binocular views and got back to business, getting set up to to birding.  It was only after a few steps that I thought to check the range map .... Sandhill Crane it tuns out was rare and accidental in Newfoundland.  With all these East winds and Eurasian vagrants, did I overlook a Common Crane?  Did I see a black neck?  No ... surely I would have noticed that, right?  Yes, it wasn't that high ... I would have noticed.  So Sandhill it was, but it turns out that even that was a rare bird (Alvan Buckley still needs it for Newfoundland) so a good find nevertheless.

The other rare bird I found at Bidgood Park was a bit of an oddity, but in a similar vein.  At the far end of the marsh I heard and saw an Eastern Phoebe.  Again after the fact I sort of had a vague recollection of the locals talking about a vagrant phoebe somewhere and I took photos just in case this was a different bird (they are very rare here apparently).  As none of the locals have since commented on this bird, I'm guessing it was the one that they'd already found.  Rarity is a function of geography it turns out ....

Eastern Phoebe ... garden bird in New York, rare in Newfoundland ...
Next stop was back to look for the European Golden-Plovers in the hope of getting better photos.  The birds were not on the field when I pulled up but just as I was leaving I saw a flock flying by and was able to get a few more shots (not all that much better) and an accurate count ... 58 (Jared's ~60 was pretty good it turns out).

European Golden-Plovers (two more shots)

After that, and chilled to the bone, I sort of gave up for the day, ran back to St. John's and checked the  ponds for ducks, adding 4 TUFTED DUCKS at Kent's Pond and intending to go back to the hotel.  I thought I was done for the day, but the time in the car had warmed me up and, as it was still early, I though better of it and returned to Goulds for another crack at the godwit.  No godwit, but while I was there I met some local birders who (were jealous of my crane but) gave me directions to another Northern Wheatear.  By this time I was getting really cold and chilled but decided I'd like to end on a high note so headed over to Ruby Line Pond (farm?) to the "shit pile" to try to add one more good bird before I gave in.  Sure enough, when I got there, there was a male Northern Wheatear on top of said pile, and I was happy to end my weekend on a high note with a good bird.

Northern Wheatear on a 'shit pile' ... the local term, not mine ...
In the end I had 70 species for the trip, 3 ABA birds and numerous year-birds.  It was a really great adventure and I'm sure I'll be back.  Keep finding those European vagrants and I'll book a flight.  Great trip ...

Chasing "Euro-Trash" Shorebirds in Newfoundland.

A quick trip for some ABA birds in Newfoundland, Canada ....

So OK, I'll admit it.  I have a crappy ABA list.  Most of my friends have at least 700+ but I'm languishing somewhere in the 640s and have never really focused on it.  I guess for two reasons, i) because when I first moved to the US in 1991 the idea of chasing vagrants from Europe in the NorthEast just wasn't all that appealing and, ii) once the World-listing bug kicked in I just couldn't see the thrill of trolling the Southern borders of the US for birds I'd already seen in Mexico, or sitting in the rain in Alaska hoping for a bird that I'd either just seen in Thailand, or which breeds in my parents' garden in Wales.  Time I guess gives your perspective though, and now that I'm safely past my World-listing phase (and now that I've been here a while and see European birds less regularly), my ABA list is starting to get more interesting.

I also blame eBird for this change of heart.  Every day I get an email detailing ABA rarities, and while I'm usually able to ignore it, sometimes birds just stick in my mind.  So after weeks of seeing reports of LaSagra's Flycatcher in Florida I went to see it.  Then I just had to see a Sinaloa Wren in Arizona.  Neither were Life Birds, but both somehow stuck in my mind and just had to be seen (I'm not even going to try to explain the psychology).  More recently, the alert was filled with news of an incredible invasion of Eurasian shorebirds in Newfoundland and, after watching it for weeks, I gave in to the urge, booked tickets, and headed up to St. John's on Sunday.

Before leaving I'd made contact with local birding experts Jared Clarke and Alvan Buckley who assured me that the birds were still there (but that they could leave any day).  I'd arranged to bird with Jared on Monday so counted down the days, checking the eBird reports to make sure the goodies were sticking, until I finally I landed in St. John's in an Ice Storm on Sunday night (quite a change from watching warblers in shorts in New York that morning), scraped the ice of my rental car windshield, and drove through driving hail and freezing rain to the Marriott in St. John's Harbor.  Next morning, after clearing a thin layer of snow (!) off the car (and wondering exactly what possessed me to do this), I pulled up to Jared's driveway at 7:15am, and headed off to look for a troika of rare Eurasian shorebirds, all of which would be new for my ABA list.

First stop was Cochrane Pond Road in Goulds, just South of St. John's.  We pulled up to a field that was full of oddly shaped brown lumps ... cow pies?  No, they were EUROPEAN GOLDEN PLOVERS, lots of them.  We guessed that there were about 60 of them hunkered down in the field, but later we got some decent looks and got some (distant but diagnostic) photos.  First ABA birds of the trip, and it took seconds after getting bins out of the bag .... this was looking promising.

'Cow-pies' turned out to be 60-ish European Golden Plovers hunkered down in a field
(with a diagnostic ID shot down below).  A bird that is annual in Newfoundland but
which arrived in unprecedented numbers this Spring.

So that was easy!  And so, after trying to get closer via a couple of different roads (and failing), we decided to head off to look for the next target - after all, these birds could leave at any minute, the pressure was on.

Next stop was Third Pond in Goulds, where we walked across a race track (horses) to overlook a nice marsh and lake.  The target here was BLACK-TAILED GODWIT and there had been up to three of them the week before.  At least one of the godwits was supposed to be lingering and we learned that it had been seen that morning although the bird was apparently distant and being seen on the other side of the lake.  Setting up scopes, we scanned and .... no godwit.  So we just hunkered down in the cold and kept scanning the area where the bird had been seen earlier that day (left of the plastic bucket apparently).  After ten minutes, Jared, who'd borrowed my scope, got the bird and pulled me over to the eye-piece.  It was a good job he did because the bird, which was frequenting a small muddy area of field that was largely obscured from us, wandered out for a minute or so then turned around and drifted back out of sight.  No photos, but decent views, and a very spiffy breeding-plumage Black-tailed Godwit joined the list ... ABA bird number two.

OK, so two quick ABA birds and time to drive South for the star bird, North America's third record of COMMON REDSHANK (although the records each involved multiple birds) which had been hanging out at Renews, about an hour South of where we were, for the past week or so.  So back in the car and off we went, luck definitely seemed to be on our side.

An hour later, we pulled up to the 'Redshank spot' where another local guide (Dave Brown?) and his client had scopes set up by the side of the road.  We jumped out expecting the redshank, but it turns out that it wasn't there and they were just watching the worlds tamest Northern Wheatear (not exactly a bad bird though).

The world's tamest Northern Wheatear (2 shots)

Nice bird, but not what we were there for, so while I photographed the wheatear, Jared wandered along the beach and within minutes, a shout and excited waving alerted us to the fact that he had 'the bird'.  The Common Redshank turned out to be equally confiding and allowed decent photos.  This is a bird that breeds near my parents' house in Wales and one which I saw daily growing up, but here in North America it did in fact seem very special.  ABA bird number 3.  Mission accomplished ....

Common Redshank - ABA 'Code 5' and a very special bird in North America.

So by 10:45am, we had all three target birds and Dave's client was on the phone changing his flights and canceling his hotels so he could go home early (he apparently had no intention of actually birding on this trip - he was shown his ABA birds and was done).  I had a day and a half left before my scheduled return flight however, and I really wanted to go birding.  Newfoundland was spectacular and I really wanted to get to know it better, see some more birds, and maybe even find a few more things (the locals were convinced that there was a European Oystercatcher out there somewhere).

We don't get a lot of icebergs in New York ... as I said, Newfoundland was different
and spectacularly scenic.
So with an afternoon 'at leisure' we decided to bird Cape Race, dragging Dave's reluctant client along with us.  We saw some really cool things - 3 Snowy Owls, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, Black Guillimots, Razorbills and Common Murres, two Pomarine Jaegers, another Northern Wheatear, and even a dead Sperm Whale.  A really nice afternoon of birding in spectacular scenery.

One of three Snowy Owls at Cape Race ... the last of the biggest invasion in
living memory.
On the way back to St. John's we even added some Gray Jays, a few Merlins, and (even though we were too early for Atlantic Puffins and Nothern Fulmars), enjoyed some great birding in some spectacular spots.

Afternoon birding highlights (for me anyway) included Gray Jays and Ruffed
Grouse. 

By the time I dropped Jared off at his home and wound my way back to the hotel I was exhausted (and realized that I hadn't eaten anything all day) but I'd had a great day of birding, 3 ABA birds, multiple year birds, and a really good time.  Local lobster for dinner, a few cocktails, and an early night.  Great day ...

Postscript:  the Black-tailed Godwit was not seen again after Monday (I looked twice on Tuesday but didn't see it).  The Common Redshank also apparently departed either on Tuesday or Wednesday as an extensive search by Alvan Buckley and Neil Hayward (of record ABA Big-year fame) also came up blank despite many hours of searching on Wednesday.  Seems I got there just in the nick of time ....