1 March Robyn and I flew from Chicago to Portland to meet up with my sister Vicki, a microbiologist and birder who lives in Boise, Idaho, and the owl whisperer himself, Khanh Tran. Its such a small world – Khanh and Vicki had many of the same teachers and mentors at Colorado State University – though many years separated their stints there. This would be Robyn’s last birding trek before heading home. The plan is that she’ll come out five or six times during the year to join me and attempt to realign my mental state as required.
Try to make this video work:
If it doesn’t work, try this:
2-4 March We had an insanely fun and successful trip with Khanh – encountering seven owl species, and a truck full of other birds. Six of the owls were new for my year-list: Western Screech Owl, Barn Owl, Long-eared Owl, Northern Pygmy Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Great Gray Owl. Other notable NW species included show-stealing Greater Sage Grouse, and ever-tricky Gray Partridge.
5 MarchDuring Robyn’s last day of her first visit for the year, she took a detour from her progression from Portland to Sydney to help me look for the Gargany that had been hanging out in a small lake west of Sacramento California. After exchanging phone numbers with another birder, I left the twenty-odd birders waiting for the duck to emerge from thick reeds, to take Robyn to the Sacramento airport in time for her flight to LAX. We were nearly at the airport, I got the call that the Gargany had emerged into clear view. The drive to the airport took 30 minutes, the return run took 20. Luckily, the Gargany played nice for another twenty minutes or so after my return, before disappearing into its reedy retreat again for the day.
6 March– I decided to stay in California overnight to try (successfully) for Tri-coloured Blackbirds and Clark’s Grebes at proven locations along the drive to San Francisco. It took several stops for each of the two species, but its nice to have these tough species out of the way. My flight from San Francisco to Santa Barbara was delayed three-hours due to – being a United flight. I don’t seem to be catching on to the pattern regarding United: forget about their previous reputation and capabilities, they have had to make too many sacrifices to remain competitive, and the win-loss record requiring a healthy fleet of aircraft has this year totally plummeted. At least for me, based on about a dozen flights.
Because of my post-midnight arrival to Santa Barbara, the car rental guys were long gone, and I couldn’t make the drive to Ventura to try for the Ruff that had been around for a few days. Heavy overnight rains meant that the drive to the subject wetlands south of Ventura required crossing flooded portions of rural roads – sometimes with water up to bottoms of doors, all the while with the stressed mindset that there was no way that bird – or the Long-billed Dowitchers that it was associating with, was going to be in the same county, let alone the formerly three-inch deep waters they’d been feeding in. But good fortune, and emerging sunshine accompanied my arrival at the site: a purpose-built berm, funded, apparently by bird conservationists, had kept floodwaters out of the birdy wet area, which had taken on no more than an extra few inches of depth. Within the acre or two ‘pond’ area were fifty-odd Dowitchers, a Greater Yellowlegs, and one sight-for-sore-eyes Ruff. Big win, that I needed at that moment.
7 March– I spent the previous afternoon, and most of today (OK, I’m writing this intermittently) dipping – once again, on inner-city Los Angeles Spotted Dove. I’ve wasted something in the order of 14 hours of walking self-consciously in inner-City LA neighbourhoods, and have finally declared surrender. I’ll take a ferry out to Santa Catalina Island sometime in the coming year – where Spotted Doves haven’t yet been displaced by Eurasian Collared Doves. One Hispanic gentleman asked me what I was doing walking periodically in front of his house, rigged and hatted for some sort of safari, or Disneyland visit. I took the time to tell him about Spotted Doves being displaced by Collared Doves, and how his neighbourhood was so lucky to be the last stronghold of the initial feral invader. He surprised me with a well presented theory that ‘those Cubans’ (Miamians) who he said have incrementally moved westward, brought doves with them – releasing them from time to time in some sort of religious ceremony meant to cleanse any not-so-good vibes from the houses they move into. He told me the name of the religious movement, which he says has become very popular in the Hispanic parts of Los Angeles, but I’ve forgotten it. A variation of Catholicism. Hopefully without priests.
With sunset, and acceptance of defeat, I forced myself to snap out of the glum, and do something bold. I’d been avoiding going to St Paul Island Alaska, about halfway from the US mainland and Russia, to try for two raptors that I’ve never seen – a White-tailed Eagle and a Long-legged Buzzard, thinking that surely they’ll both disappear any day – probably the day before my arrival at that hard to get to outpost. But, at least until recently, they’ve hung in there. As a plan took shape I figured that I can swing up to Nome from Anchorage with an eye on scoring a wintering McKay’s Bunting – kind of like Snowy Buntings, but even whiter. Nome in the wintertime is the only realistic hope ABA birders have of seeing the species, when it hangs around town, usually in the company of Snowy Buntings, periodically dropping in for a feed at one or two bird-feeding households.
8thMarch– writing above bit from my flight from Anchorage to Nome. We haven’t taken off yet, and I’m starting to worry. Nope, the door is being closed in prep of takeoff.
Update on a BIG day, and it’s not over yet.It’s still the 8th. After I arrived in Anchorage at 4am, I found my favorite Ted Stevens International Airport bench, and caught four hours of sleep. When I woke up, I couldn’t wait, heading for a quick trip to the restroom. When I returned to my ‘camp’ with two suitcases and everything else I own, a female police officer was in the process of arresting my stuff. She seemed satisfied with my answer to the question of why I left my bags unattended (I would otherwise have peed in my pants), but didn’t appreciate when I asked what all the excitement about unattended luggage in airports is. I don’t think she’d really thought much about that, but clearly had the perceived reality, and the law on her side, and I rightfully apologized for the cheek.
I arrived OK in Nome, but it wasn’t until 1PM that I was finally in a rental, and driving around the neighborhoods looking for buntings. Not surprising, after a sleep-deprived night, I left a bag in the cab from the Nome airport to the rental car place, and I lost a half hour getting it back. Shut up Glen. The house where Robyn and I saw several McKay’s Buntings in 2016 was still there – and they were still feeding birds. So far so good. But despite regular returns to the honey pot, no sign of birds there, or anywhere else I searched. Crazy amount of snow in Nome this year, and predictions of another blizzard tomorrow, due to hit around noon – meaning that I just wouldn’t be able to chance staying overnight for a morning shot at the Buntings – the only option being a 12:40 departure. So, with just two hours left before I needed to head to the airport for an 8:20PM flight back to Anchorage (I’m in the Nome Airport now, getting ready to board that flight), I decided to sit and wait at the patch of birdseed strewn on the driveway of the stakeout house. Finally, a flock of 14 or so buntings descended to the powerlines above the driveway. I had such great views that it was almost immediately apparent that every single one was a Snow Bunting – not a ‘whiter-than-white’ McKay’s among the lot. Damn it. They were disturbed by an overly friendly giant German Shepherd, and without ever stopping for a meal, headed off towards the main town of Nome. As disappointing as that was, I actually felt better, knowing that at least I’d given it a shot, and that if I’d been able to stay for the next morning, chances were that I’d have only seen Snowies. I messaged several friends with images of the snowies, and admitted that I was giving up in order to make my flight. But as happens at such times, I calculated the details of exactly what the last minute would be when I’d have to go, and garnered an extra 15 minutes; I only needed five. Boom! A flock of eight or so Snow Buntings landed on the power lines – with one outsider, parking a couple of metres to the left of the others. You’d have to be blind to not instantly see the difference: McKay’s Bunting. Yes indeed – and another toughie I don’t have to worry about later in the year. So feeling on top of the world (which is just about where Nome is), and psyched about an R and R day in Anchorage, ahead of my raptor mission to St Paul Island. (Update, I’m editing all of above from my crappy motel in Anchorage today, Saturday the 9th, and getting excited about tomorrow).