14-20 February

Morning light interrupted by a few cormorants, heading out to sea from Hatteras, North Carolina.

Advance apology to non-serious-birders – this one is more about birds than aberrant human behaviour. Don’t worry, I’m accumulating stories, I see plenty of aberance on a daily basis here.

Mean Streets

In the absence of anything better to do with the extra day I had up my sleeve pre-Hatteras pelagic weekend (16-17 Feb), I chose to spend a day in the vicinity of LAX with the aim of picking off a Spotted Dove – the common-in-Australia widely-introduced species of Asian dove that has had its ABA range severely contracted in recent times, perhaps due to competition from the also-feral Eurasian Collared Dove. The Spotted Dove is now confined to the Watts district Los Angeles, where it’s clearly on the way out, and on nearby Catalina Island, where the invading Collared Dove front has not yet arrived.

By the time I’d cleared US Customs at 7AM after the 14-hour Pacific crossing from Sydney, Los Angeles was experiencing light rains that stuck around during my mid-morning to noon search for Spotted Doves in ‘straight outta’ Compton. I was blown away by the number of Collared Doves – many hundred, compared to my 2016 visit to the area. No Spotted Doves this time, so with the gradually increasing drizzle, I found a safe place to park and wait out the clearing weather before continuing my vain search for the needle in the haystack right up until sunset – binoculars tucked in jacket as I found it increasingly untenable to not appear as out of place as I clearly was, before happily turning my attention to the eastern seaboard.

Sea Legs

I’d intended to be on board for Brian Patteson’s first (of four) scheduled winter birding trip out of Hatteras on the last weekend of January, but plumb forgot about my booking when I got the sudden bone-head urge to visit Adak Island four days earlier (!). I felt even dumber when I saw the post-trip report: The 19 other birders who hadn’tforgotten to show up for the gig were rewarded with encounters with both of my would-have-been target species for the cold-season Atlantic sea-birding – Great Skua and Dovekie. Had I been on the same decks of the Storm Petrel II as the more responsible participants that day, it would have been my only east coast pelagic trip of the year. But in some sort of karmic response to my negligence, the weather-affected gulf stream waters would dictate that I make three trips – to partially fulfil my desired outcome.

I did make it to the Outer Banks for Brian’s second winter trip the next Saturday (2nd February), which did bless me with good views of two other much-wanted species – Little Gull and Manx Shearwater, but no Skuas nor Dovekies. So I made a return trip to the outer banks a week later for the scheduled February 9thpelagic trip. But the weather forecasters had other ideas, and the trip was sensibly postponed for a day to avoid the worst of expected rough seas, and unfortunately, that ruled me out as I needed to get home in time for Irwynne’s send-off. I did, however, have just enough time to swing down to Florida to see the cheeky Dark-billed Cuckoo before continuing on to Los Angeles and Sydney. As it turned out, the bird was seen for another ten minutes after my departure, but has been AWOL ever since.

Rare close look at normally aloof Manx Shearwater

Spot the ‘coded’ Little Gull hiding in a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls

Forster’s Tern

Although the Saturday 16 February trip was postponed a day, due to weather, Sunday totally delivered the goods. I’d never seen Brian step outside of his dead serious El Capitano persona, but the excitement blasting from the ship’s intercom system was unmistakable: “There it is!! Skua!! Starboard side!! There it is!! Three o’clock!! Great Skua!!”. Everyone enjoyed a better than hoped for views of the incoming Great Skua – the biggest and baddest bully above the northern seas. All the efforts and expenses I’d directed at this bird were worth that moment of elation. I’d missed it during the 2016 Hatteras trips, and had to take a cruise ship from New York to Nova Scotia with Christian Hagenlocher much later in the year to get the sea pirate onto my year list.

The great one cometh! Great Skua, the target bird of so many winter Atlantic birding missions.


Iceland Gull – with all-white wings, was a nice intruder in the big mobs of Herring Gulls, Lesser and Great Black-winged Gulls following the Storm Petrel II on Skua Day.

‘Poor man’s Dovekie’ but a great Alcid in its own right – Razorbill.

Although we didn’t see any Dovekies during the Sunday Hatteras trip, we crossed paths with two Manx Shearwaters – one that came in close, a distant Black-capped Petrel, and a boat-following Iceland Gull. It was a classic winter Gulf Stream trip – unforgettable. And before returning from sea, I’d discovered via iPhone that two spectacular birds – a Western Spindalis and a Thick-billed Vireo had been seen earlier in the day at the very same public park on Key Biscayne – just off the Miami coast. I decided that the chance of scoring a Dovekie off Hatteras the following day – particularly with talk of the possibility of weather-affected cancellation with evolving weather forecasts, wasn’t good enough to warrant delaying a run to Florida. Twenty-six hours after the high-fiving on Skua moment on the Storm-petrel II, I’d bagged both the rarities. Life is good.

Brian Patteson in the Captain’s perch, as usual, steering, with foot with binocs and microphone in play, and a portion of the 20 punters aboard each of his four winter weekend gigs. Brian’s winter and spring trips are always booked out for good reason – every American birder hoping for a look-in to the rich diversity of wildlife in the easiest-to-reach stretch of the Gulf Stream wants a berth.

Robyn’s arrival in LAX had been delayed a couple of times, and the decision of where in the country she would actually join me, remained in flux pretty much right up til the last minute. With narrowing options, it looked like the best bet was to join me in Florida to accommodate a second crack at the Vireo or Spindalis, should I needed it. I also figured that in the absence of any mind-blowing rarities showing up in other parts of the country, we could take a bit of time to do some fun birding for a day or two in Florida. But something totally mind-blowing didshow up – south Texas. A young Roadside Hawk, almost certainly the same one that had been intermittently sighted the same Lower Rio Grande Valley location back in December, was photographed and reported. So, after several hours of battling unhelpful windy conditions in outer Miami neighbourhoods in vain search of established ferals Spot-breasted Orioles and Red-whiskered bulbuls, we hopped onto our two-leg flight from Miami to McAllen Texas from which I’ve written this update.

Thick-billed Vireo – TICK!


These dudes will attest to my sighting of the Western Spindalis, which I failed to photograph. Here they are honing in on the Thick-billed Vireo that was (and still does, along with the Spindalis) Crandon Park, Key Biscayne – just out of Miami. Recent sightings of a Bananaquit means Robyn and I will be returning soon. Will try to photograph the female Spindalis while there.

Speaking of second chances for photographic results, we pretty much wasted a day trying for the rediscovered Roadside Hawk at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park a couple of days ago, but did get better views, (with identifiable images) of a Golden-crowned Warbler – hooo-hoo.

The Valley Nature Centre has been adopted by a far cheekier Golden-cronwned Wabler , up from Mexico presumably without papers, that the painfully shy and skulky individual at nearby Frontera Audubon Centre,

Sorry, faithful readers, but I’m going to try to rip through a couple of days to get ahead of the curve – basically here is the story teller – after stomping around all sorts of fields in the Stillwater to Norman Oklahoma area, not having any real clue what Iwas doing, but determined to not fail, I finally got the photographic proof that the odd bird I flushed – some on the legitimate side of property boundary fences, were, as their machine-gun speedy staccato alarm flight calls promised, the almost mythical Smith’s Longpur, so frequently added to life lists, so rarely substantiated wit the old hearts pixels at the back of gen 3 Canons and Nikon.

Gawd, I gotta catch up with the present moment – there’s been a lot of water under the Florida bridge already – fake news in Texas, some luck in Oklahoma, and thankfully 60F degrees warmer in Sax-Zim Bog than when here a fortnight ago, yet still below freezing, and so on. I’ll find time to blog this stuff…

Smith’s Longspur


Glorious Smith’s Longspur