Getting caught up: Part 3 of 3

The midget of Okanagon County. Or that’s what the local name for Great Gray Owl is. Supposedly. I call it Sir. And I call Khanh The Owl Whisperer.

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.

I don’t even remember exactly where this was, we covered so much spectacular ground in Washington and Oregon. Somewhere in the backroads of Okanogan County, where the scenery is in keeping with the many bird treasures in wait.


Greater Sage Grouse(s)


Khanh, Robyn and Vicki drill into a trio of Greater Sage Grouse.


Now You see me…


Now you don’t. Or is it that now I don’t see you? Northern Pygmy Owl.


WOT THE???? Long-eared Owl


Norther Saw-whet Owl – yet another owl we encountered in upland Washington that went on the ‘heard-only’ list of my 2016 Big Year list.


Red-breasted Sapsucker catching breath before another suck.


My beautiful big sister Vicki (and my little sister is also beautiful – but hasn’t been bitten by birding bug – yet, leaving Vicki in a class of her own). Vicki lives in Boise Idaho, and will hopefully be able to join me for other chapters of my year on the road.


Khanh receiving the commemorative Owl Whisperer of 2019 award from appreciative fan club.

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.


Gargany Paparazzi


Gargany (centre) feigning membership in Blue-winged Teal club in the wilds of Sacramento, California.


A gargan-tuan and spectacular addition to anybody’s ABA year list – Gargany.


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.


The telltale military shoulder-ware of a Tricolored Blackbird. After picking through a gazillion Red-winged Blackbirds and Grackles, I found a nice little flock of my target bird species, most likely plotting something sinister.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco -view near Clark’s Grebe tick. True story, I first saw, and vividly remember, steaming towards, and under the bridge as a four year old on cruiser journey from My Dad’s medical posting on Okinawa Island, Japan in 1959. My folks tell me it was the ‘Arabia’. I remember streamers (ribbons) being hurled at our departure, presumably from Tokyo.


Not a Clark’s Grebe. Sorry Rohan. Dark flanks, ‘hood’ slipped down over eye to snout, and wrong bill colour: Western Grebe.


The ‘real deal’. The rule of thumb is that you have to pick through ten Westerns for a Clarkes. Since I combed the San Francisco Bay and probably 100 Western/Clark’s Grebes, I eventually scored with this early breeding plumaged individual.

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.

When I finally reached the tiny flood-protected ‘wetlands’ area where the Ruff had been sighted prior to the big downpour, I was relieved initially to see that the depth wasn’t wader-exclusive, with a legion of Long-billed Dowitchers still in attendance.


Sweet potatoes! Ruff was still present, and happy with the hydrological achievement of the ecologists who provided protective berms to repel big-rain flood events like the one that occurred the night before my arrival at the site south of Ventura, California.

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.

Ted Stevens is a thing! Only few can see him, but he’s real. This lady unwittingly nearly sat on him. The Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage remains my favourite airport in the world. Trust me, I’ve seen them all.

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.

Odd man out: McKay’s Bunting on the out, but still trying to make peace with cohort of Snow Buntings.


OMG. That’s all; just OMG.

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).

Gawd I love it when a half-arsed plan comes together.


I sat next to this gorgeous Native Alaskan kid on the flight from Nome back to Anchorage; her Aunt was in the seat behind her. She was so incredibly organised with her computer and phone gear, and regularly checked up on how her Teddy was going.


Crikey! This lady – Miss Barbara, who bags groceries in Anchorage, was interested to hear me tell the checkout chick that I didn’t want to join the Carrs Grocery Savings Card thingie because I’m not an Alaskan, let alone an American resident. She asked where I was from and I told her. Miss Barbara immediately went into a rave about how much she misses Steve Irwin, and what a tragedy his death was to her ‘and all Americans’. I told her that Steve and I were once close friends. She was so impressed, she hugged me. I had to commemorate the moment with this image. She expressed concern about tabloid suggestions that Terri is going to secretly marry Russell Crowe. Crikey indeed.