26 August 2013

County Big Year, again: How I found myself chasing my own tail

If you've been with this blog since the start, you might remember that it began as a way to chronicle my attempt at a county big year in 2008.  My goal at the time was 200 birds, an achievement that is honored by membership in the Bridgerland Audubon Society's 200 Club.  I met that goal early in the year, earlier than I expected, and ended up making it a full-scale Big Year.  By the end of the year, I had broken the county record.  At the time, I knew that my number of 242 species was good.  For comparison, there are THREE other birders tied for second place, each having maxed out at 235 species in separate years.  But, I also knew I had missed many species I might have found if I had known where to look, or if I had spent less time out of the county doing field work for my dissertation.

Four Common Redpolls is about double the total records from Cache County before the winter of 2012/2013.  These four were part of a flock of about 40 that I photographed in the first week of February, 2013.  (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

Fast-forward to last winter, 2012-2013: It was shaping up to be a record-setting year.  For the first time since my big year in 2008, there was a Bohemian Waxwing irruption going on.  This normally tough-to-find-species was everywhere.  There was also an unprecedented irruption of Common Redpolls going on: a species that had less than five previous records in the county was showing up in flocks of dozens.  A few individual birds were noteworthy, too: a vocal Blue Jay was spending the winter in Smithfield and a White-throated Sparrow was coming to a feeder in Logan, for example.  These great birds and many others helped the Logan count circle break their Christmas Bird Count record in late December 2012, and indicated a good winter for birding in the county.

This Blue Jay was first reported from Smithfield, Utah, in the middle of November, 2012.  It was only the third or fourth record from the county.  It stayed in the area through at least March 2013.  (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

The great birds stuck around into the new year, and even more locally rare species started turning up.  In the second week of January, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Snow Bunting, and Lapland Longspur were all found.  I had found all of these in 2008, but considered myself very lucky to have found them after quite a bit of effort.  A flock of Pine Grosbeaks (a rare year-round resident that I missed in 2008) was found feeding on the USU campus on January 15th.  On the same day, Black Rosy-Finches were reported from North Logan; I had never seen this species in the county.  On January 26th, two Greater Scaup were found, another species I missed in 2008.  A Harris's Sparrow was found on January 29th, a species I had in 2008 but only once or twice since.  Then, on February 1st, a Snowy Owl was found, only the second in the state since 1967!  A great winter was turning into an incredible one.

Pine Grosbeaks probably breed in Cache County, but they can be very tough to find.  I missed them entirely in my big year in 2008.  A small flock of three, found by Leah Lewis on the USU campus in January, was quite obliging and was a great addition to any Cache County big year.  (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

This Black Rosy-Finch was one of several coming to a feeder in North Logan.  I had never seen this species in the county before this year.  (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

After noticing abrupt changes in the birding habits of a few of my friends, I was starting to realize that my Big Year record might be in jeopardy: at least two people were doing big years in the county, and they had picked the perfect year to do it.  So, around the beginning of February, I decided to join them: to take advantage of a great winter to try to improve on my Cache County Big Year record.  I didn't really WANT to do a big year, but I also didn't want an opportunity like this record-breaking winter to pass me by.

Well, that was unexpected!  A friend of mine had this bright red bird show up at her feeders, and asked for help identifying it online.  She soon learned it was a Summer Tanager, the first record in Cache County of a species that is usually found far south of here.  I saw the record on eBird and was able to see the bird later the same day at her feeders. (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)
This bird was a little less unexpected: Neotropic Cormorants have been moving in to Utah from the south in recent years.  This species was on my radar to find in Cache County, because they've become almost easy to find just a few hours south of here.  I've been carefully checking all cormorants in the area for a few years now.  Still, it was quite satisfying to finally find one last month (the smaller dark bird in this photo), the first record ever for Cache County.   (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

Now, seven months later, I see that I made the right decision.  The good birds have kept coming, including several new species for the county, like Summer Tanager, Neotropic Cormorant, and Least Flycatcher.  And I'm really happy to be taking another shot at a big year now that I have five years' more experience of birding the area under my belt.  I'm finding my birding trips more efficient, now that I know most of the calls of the regular species and I can pass them by in search of rare ones.  I know the birding locations better, so I know where to find each species, and I know the changes of the seasons better, so I know when to look for rare species.  I also know the people of the area better, so I have more friends to go birding with, more people to give me tips, and more people to share their land with me.  In all, I'm glad to be able to give a big year another effort, because it would always bother me knowing that I could improve on my number of 242.

And, improve on that I will.   In fact, yesterday was a special day because I surpassed my previous record: my friend Andy and I found a Northern Waterthrush, my 243rd species of the year.  I can't wait to see how high a record I can set, a record I know I'll be proud of for years to come.

This Northern Waterthrush is among the most regular of the rare warblers that can be found in Utah.  It was a satisfying way to break the record: this bird, photographed on 25 Aug 2013, was my 243rd species in Cache County this year, breaking my old record of 242.  (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

04 August 2013

Ten Best Birds from St. Paul Island, 2012

Last summer (2012) I had the privilege of working as a guide on St. Paul Island, Alaska, with Scott Schuette and Doug Gochfeld.  St. Paul Island is one of the Pribilof Islands, a small group in the middle of the Bering Sea.  Its unique geographic location makes it a famous birding destination: it is slightly west of the easternmost tip of Russia, and so it frequently gets old-world vagrants.  Plus, it is a great spot to see some of the endemic Bering Sea species like Least Auklets, Crested Auklets, and Red-legged Kittiwakes.

Today, I want to show you the ten best birds of my 2012 season on the island.  There are many ways to define the "best" birds.  This is not a science.  The ranking here is strictly based on how much I enjoyed seeing them.  That is of course strongly affected by rarity, but these are not necessarily the ten rarest birds.

10. Wood Sandpiper.  This species is major rarity anywhere in the contiguous 48 states, but annual in small numbers at St. Paul.  I saw up to three individuals in a day, and photographed both juveniles (like this one) and an adult.

This juvenile Wood Sandpiper paused in Town Marsh on St. Paul Island while trying to find its way to Australia or southeast Asia. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

9. Gray-tailed Tattler.  Like the Wood Sandpiper, this species is annual on St. Paul but very rare in the contiguous 48: a bird in Massachusetts last fall was only the third North American record away from Alaska.  We had multiple sightings of this species in their fall migration, up to two in a day.   

This adult Gray-tailed Tattler was photographed on the sandy beach on the north side of the island, probably the first land it had seen since leaving Siberia on its way south. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

8. Little Stint.  Also rare in the contiguous 48, with total records probably around 50 sightings, and less than annual on St. Paul.  We had up to two individuals at a time on the island last year.

This juvenile Little Stint (at front right) joined a few juvenile Western Sandpipers to snack in the mudflats on St. Paul as it was headed south. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

7. Hawfinch.  This was high on my list of dream birds when I was preparing for my summer in the Pribilofs.  This bird, first spotted on May 23rd and still present a week later when our access to the area where the bird was found was closed for the fur seal breeding season, was the 10th record for the Pribilof Islands.  There are no North American records of this species outside of Alaska, and it is less than annual in Alaska.

This Hawfinch, with dirt on its bill from picking at seeds in the grass, is a Eurasian relative of our Evening Grosbeak. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

6. Tundra Bean-Goose.  This species is "casual" (less than annual) in Alaska, and unrecorded elsewhere in North America.  Many earlier records of "Bean Goose"from Alaska had to remain unidentified when the species was split into the Tundra Bean-Goose and Taiga Bean-Goose.  This was an exciting find as our first real Asian rarity of the season, on May 12th.

After we accidentally flushed this Tundra Bean-Goose from a small melt pond, I was afraid we wouldn't see it again.  A few minutes later, it circled back past us and I was able to take a few photos, including this one.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

5. Terek Sandpiper.  Another of my dream birds before arriving on the island, this fall migrant hung around for several days and pleased many visiting birders.  This species is named for the Terek River where it was first discovered, a tributary of the Caspian Sea.

I love the unique head shape and upturned bill of this Terek Sandpiper.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

4. Eurasian Bullfinch.  Wow, what a charmer!  This adult male was found coming to some seed spread by a local resident between houses in the center of town.  Imagine having this on your yard list in North America!  This was the first spring record for the Pribilofs, but there had been a handful of fall records.

The bold and beautiful male Eurasian Bullfinch, peeking up from a meal of millet.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

3. Dark-sided Flycatcher.  Flycatchers in general are among my favorite groups of birds, pushing this drab juvenile into the top three.  This was the seventh of this species reported from the Pribilof Islands.

This juvenile Dark-sided Flycatcher probably found plenty of bugs in the leeward side of an old volcanic cone on St. Paul.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

2. White-tailed Eagle.  This Asian counterpart to North America's Bald Eagle was first found early in the season and continued, off and on, for the rest of the year.  It would sometimes go missing for weeks at a time, and we suspected it might be moving between the Pribilof Islands.  It was frustrating at times because it never seemed to develop much of a pattern, making it hard to track down, but it was thrilling any time it happened to fly past as it hunted around the island.  This was the first time this species had been seen in the Pribilofs.

White-tailed Eagle soaring over St. Paul Island. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

1. Pin-tailed Snipe.  Easily the rarest bird, this was our only Code 5 bird (five or fewer North American records), and this was the fifth North American record.  The previous four records were all from Attu Island, at the western end of the Aleutians.  Attu is far enough west to be in the eastern hemisphere, so including one record from a remote part of the Hawaiian Islands, this was the second record for the western hemisphere.  This photo is about the best I could manage, but fortunately Doug was able to take some better ones!

Out-of-focus Pin-tailed Snipe flushing from the tundra of St. Paul Island (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)