What a difference a bird can make; especially if it’s a Fieldfare. Especiallywhen it’s the individual bird I’d been thinking about, and pining over, for days. I was ‘supposed’ to be visiting the eastern British Columbia location for the bird early morning on day two of the year for the Eurasian vagrant – but Canadian border security had other ideas. A few hours after sighting the Great Black Hawk, while attempting check-in for my Portland, Maine flight to Calgary, Alberta, I learned the bad news: at some stage after my last excursion to the country, the rules concerning non-US visitors had changed. Now it seems that Australians, at least, perhaps due to stereotyped patterns of behaviour, cannot enter Canada before being granted a visa, which requires a background check. While still at the airport, I logged onto the relevant site and completed the ‘ETA’ visa application form – only to receive an auto-response email advising that the application process ‘usually’ takes between one and three days. It took four restless days for my approval to come through. Maybe it was the holiday timing, or maybe my past nearly caught up with me.
To fill in time, I had to formulate a sensible one to three-day plan. I decided to start out with a flight that night to Philadelphia to clean up the nearby long-serving Barnacle Goose just an hour to the east. I made the decision in part because the goose was reportedly present all of that day (1 Jan), mixing as it had for more than a week with some 2,000 Canada Geese. A good enough bet under the circumstances. Yeah, right. I spent two precious days waiting for that over-rated goose to show up, scoping through hundreds of Canada Geese between periodic visits to surrounding lakes and potential grazing areas, all the time with the Fieldfare, and my Canadian entry permit in the back of my head. At what stage should I forget about Canada and head for Arizona, Texas, and Florida, where continuing rarities were potentially drying up before I could get to them. Being on the backfoot was really messing with my sense of progression, and balance.
I split at 2PM and raced to the Heinze Wildlife Refuge near Philly airport for the ‘sure bet’ Code 3 Black-headed Gull that was hanging out with a dozen Ring-billed Gulls. The Ring-billed Gulls were there – great, but as the minutes before darkness wound down, I reluctantly threw in the towel in order to make my flight to Denver – to see about Pink-footed Goose. Two days, and two painful dips. Either the Denver goose would be there to greet me the next morning, or the Canada permit had better be on my phone – I needed a win.
Much to my relief, upon my arrival on Friday morning, the Colorado goose, mixing it up with several thousand Cackling and Canada Geese, was still around – seemingly to ease my sense of fairness, and put me back in the groove. The whole Colorado experience proved to be a lot of fun, and it was nice to meet a number of birders – not all from Colorado, and to have dinner with my BBF from High School, Jimmy Tesone. Jimmy and I were amongst the top four high school pole-vaulters in the country during our graduating year – and remarkably, my Colorado state record of 16’ ended up lasting for 15-odd years. Jimmy’s career in football ended with a serious knee injury, while my track and field dreams similarly crumbled with a back injury – we were both 19 years old.
By early afternoon, after the wonderful Pink-footed Goose experience, I’d travelled north to join a similar throng of birders at a site to the north where a rare Gyrfalcon had been sighted irregularly for at least a couple of weeks, and hung out without any luck until nearly dusk. I put in another four hours the next day (Saturday) scoping out the landfill that attracted the pigeons, starlings, and gulls that seemed to account for numerous raptors occasionally making fly-bys. Amongst the 30-odd birders at the site was my friend Wyatt Eggleoff (surely spelt wrong – sorry Wyatt!) at the stakeout, a well-known birder from New Mexico. We had a momentary sense of elation when a Prairie Falcon flew overhead – before its non-Gyr identity was established. Nothing against Prairie Falcons – I worked hard to find one in 2016 – and this one was truly a majestic bird, a big, powerful falcon. It did make me wonder how many distant Gyrfalcon fly-by sightings over the rubbish tip had been potentially dodgy. But the Gyrfalcon was not to be. I headed to Seattle, hopeful that the online Canadian entry permit would arrive, or that I could enter the country by road, and make my case to the customs agent at the gate. It did arrive, about five minutes after I booked my flight to Seattle, rather than to Vancouver – or Kamloops, which I would have tamed the six-hour drive considerably.
So, getting back to the Fieldfare. My good friend Michael Woodruff – who is more gung-ho than even me – and a far better birder, was going to finish his ER shift (he’s an intern at a hospital in Spokane) midnight Saturday and drive directly up to Salmon Arm, BC (six hours), to meet me at the Fieldfare site, bright and early Sunday morning. He was to then drive back to Spokane, for another shift saving lives on Monday. What a lunatic. But sometime around 10PM he messaged me with the bad news that the Fieldfare had been ‘negatively-listed’ for the day. Two birders had staked out ‘the’ fruit tree that it, and a swag of American Robins had been visiting periodically each day for two weeks, from sunrise to sunset. It was clearly a-goner. Devastated, I drove the remaining three hours to my Kamloops motel, while Michael made the wise decision to call off his suicide drive. We’d have plenty of opportunities, along with the other three members of team-Woodruff: Roger Woodruff, Matt Gruber, and Johnny Bovee, in the weeks and month ahead. I stewed all night, convinced I was cursed, and condemned to bringing absenteeism to the rare bird stakeouts that are so much a part of the critically important January (and hopefully February) aspect of any successful ABA big year. A few hours’ sleep, then off for the remaining hour and a half drive to likely disappointment at Salmon Arm. I couldn’t use my telephone, having received a message from Verizon overnight that a bill of over $2,000 resulting from my five-hour use of Google Maps over the Canadian border six hours earlier needed to be paid before reconnection could be arranged. I’m speechless, and phoneless.
I used the car’s built in GPS to find the precise address of the many earlier sightings of the Fieldfare. Quite sure that the bird was gone, I got out of the car without bins or camera, and walked towards the obvious red-berry-laden trees at the Krick St address. I looked up at the plain underside of a bird in a tall leafless tree. Unfrickinbelievable! It was the Fieldfare! Sprint to the car, get the optics, return to the roosting bird. Gone. But there – foraging in the fruit trees with a half dozen similar American Robins – was the bird that had kept me awake for more than one night during my first week on the ABA trail. Up until my up close and personal experience with the Eurasian vagrant, my rarities/targets win/loss record only 2 for 5 (missed Barnacle Goose, Black-headed Gull, Gyrfalcon), the no-show of the Fieldfare – the bird that had seemingly put me on the back foot on day two of the year, when I was not allowed to board my Canada-bound flight out of Portland Maine.
The way the flights looked, I chose to spend time in my Kamloops motel catching up on laundry photo processing, ebird reporting, and a bit of blog-writing, and to get a good night’s sleep, without planning on a detour to Vancouver the next morning (today, Monday) to try for the Ruff that had been present for a week or so. Not a terrible decision as it turns out; it was a no-show on Sunday, and I don’t believe was reported today either. There will hopefully be opportunities for Ruffs in the ‘lower 48’ during the Spring of Fall.
I’m presently closing out Week 1 on a flight to Houston, then onward to south Texas, where the rarities are ‘going off’! Exciting stuff, can’t wait to be in one of my two favourite US birding regions (a close contest with southern Arizona…). I’ll try to put up a blog post at the end of my Texas stay – time permitting – I’m not a natural writer, and it takes quite a lot of time. I may focus more on captioned photos for posts when I’m short of time, or just too buggered.
Closing with some gooey stuff, hardened birders cut out here! First and foremost, a big thankyou to my American birding friends – Laura Keene, Michael Woodruff, Neil Hayward and a number of others for their support and advice over this eventful week – and in earlier planning stages. It’s so rewarding to maintain the friendships I was so lucky to establishe during my 2016 travels, and to establish new ones this time around. I can’t imagine anyone luckier than I am – though I do wish I could also be chasing rarities in Australia simultaneously – e.g. the Tufted Duck currently haunting the Melbourne treatment ponds, and the great birds showing up on Cocos Islands in recent weeks. Thinking of you guys too!
The guys back at work are wonderful, and I’m very lucky to have their support. I promise to be available on phone whenever I can help.
It’s been tough for Robyn – who I love and miss, and can’t wait for her first visit to join me – soon after those busy January holidays at the Reptile Park come to an end.
Finally a big ‘G’day’ to Irwynne, who’s had the worst time imaginable these past weeks: chin up kid – and know that I’m thinking of you!
PS, I know I need to put my species on my ‘list’. Sorry about that, I literally don’t have time. Its hard enough not screwing up my efforts to post on eBird.