Wild Goose Chase


Tundra Bean Goose – photo taken just a few minutes before fog rolled in and would have made ID impossible.


As the fog descended, the Tundra Swans at the William Finley National Wildlife Reserve faded from view.

I’d arrived in Phoenix with the view of spending a few days rounding up reported SE Arizona rarities (Ruddy Ground Dove west of Phoenix, Roe-throated Becard down at Tubac, and my seemingly taunting nemesis-bird, Rufous-capped Warbler at Madera Canyon area), before enjoying some more relaxed birding in the beautiful ‘sky islands’. I wanted to get on top of my Arizona winter bird list before getting together with my friend Ken Blankenship, who has offered to help out. Ken’s ears and bird-sound recognition should be classified Gen 3 military-grade weaponry – accounting in large part for his popularity in Arizona and elsewhere as a birding guide. But at this early stage of the year I feel the need to earn every feather on my own – which Ken (and a couple of other birding mates [Larry, John and Jared]) hopefully understand(s). I fully intend to enjoy time with all these guys – all absolute savants – but just a little later in the year when the birding will be more about fun, than the tracking down of tough birds.


But just two days into my Arizona mission, albeit with the ground dove and becard both in the bag (Saturday and Sunday respectively), my time for the dipping on the pair of Rufous-capped Warblers supposedly residing in Lower Florida Canyon became limited to two (unsuccessful) three-hour sessions, when two ‘must-chase’ rarities were almost simultaneously reported from the northwest: a Tundra Bean Goose north of Eugene, and a Dusky Thrush on Victoria Island, BC. Both would be new for my life-list, so there was no time for thinking about it. My birding pal Michael Woodruff, while doing his medical residency in Spokane Washington had a rare couple of days off, and we schemed to meet up at the Bean Goose site early Monday morning. Yeah, he’s another ‘savant’, but he’s an especially persuasive savant. The plan was for me to fly into Eugene the night before, while Michael would drive through the night, as is his way, before spending all of Monday birding with me, and drive through the next night to make his next ER shift Tuesday morning. The guy is a birding machine, powered by boundless enthusiasm and truly awesome birding skills. Blessed with exceptional faculties, Michael seems to have breezed through the rigors of med school, as well as his early training as a physician, without really slowing his pursuit of birding opportunities. What a guy!

The Bean Goose was Michael Woodruff’s 700th ABA species! This photo taken later in the day when fog had lifted – but he was still smiling!

The only problem with our off-the-cuff plans was that following the bean goose sighting on Saturday, Sunday’s eBird listings didn’t provide any bean goose sightings. Maybe we should have headed to Victoria instead, about the same amount of driving for Michael, for the Dusky Thrush – dozens of happy birders reported sightings throughout Sunday? Would we be stuck all day on a fruitless wild goose chase?

Well, with Michael around, things always seem to happen – and they certainly did. We weren’t ten minutes into our scope-scanning the lake from the ‘gazebo’ viewing area when Michael stopped panning his scope: “What!?” pause “Wait!” pause “I think that might be it!” short pause “That’s it!! Like I said, what a guy. As the fog rolled in, and another birder arrived, the plainly visible Tundra Bean Goose, at the very front of the thousand-fold flotilla of various waterfowl, predominated by Cackling Geese and showy Tundra Swans, soon disappeared, with the rest of the scene, with descending fog. In a matter of less than a half an hour from our arrival, viewing became impossible. We truly would have been stuck in waiting for many hours.


A wonderful day of birding.

This was one of ‘those’ magic moments that make the grind of travel and relative failures so worth while. And to top it off, Michael chose that moment to share the fact that the goose represented his 700thABA (mainland) species. Whoo-hoo indeed! The rest of the day was icing on the cake, but that was some mighty fun icing. We picked up a range of local species, Apart from my photographed species, Michael heard and ticked a few additional species from distant chips that I didn’t even hear, since we both had the time to do it, we drove in Michael’s car to the coast, and had a ball scoping through many hundreds of seabirds, including Surf Scoters, White-winged Scoters, Black Scoters, loons, cormorants, grebes, merganzers, a couple of Common Murres, and a half-dozen Ancient Murrelets. What an experience. During my scan of the horizon I just caught a glimpse Humpback Whale tail disappearing during a dive – and saw several spouts.

From Oregon, Michael drove home to Spokane, and I hopped on a plane to Victoria, British Columbia for a visit the next morning (Tuesday, 22 Jan) to the Nanaimo region where the Code 4 Dusky had continued to be sighted throughout the day on Monday. In relatively uneventful circumstances, which is fine by me, I drove for two hours through drizzly conditions, joined several birders in increasingly wet conditions for prolonged scope views of the thrush, hanging out with several American robins while foraging on the ground (the thrush was far more active than the robins, constantly digging and scratching, thrasher-like – if not turnstone-like, and was clearly coming up with more morsels than the robins, who relied more on tell-tale movements or sounds from the earthworms, or whatever it was they were eating. By now the drizzle had turned to rain, and I opted out of any further birding, driving back to Sidney with an ‘i’ for some down time at motel (hence the possibility for this blog entry).

Long distance view of energetic Dusky Thrush working in the rain on Victoria Island, British Columbia, Canada.

Before hitting the sack, I received a heads-up from John Puschock that a hunter friend of his, with a little birding experience, had reported seeing swans (potentially Whoopers) out on Attu Island, as well as a couple of raptors. Adak is a former Naval base halfway out along the Aleutian chain towards Attu, and the Russian coast (speaking of Attu,John’s 22 April – 8 May Attu and pelagic expedition requires a couple of more birders to make happen– please sign up if you want to experience the advdenture of a lifetime, and to help give me a chance of a big year record this year!). So yeah, I’m currently enroute to the remote island with high hopes.

I’ll finish this post with some images from Arizona – taken during the couple of days pre-goose chase:

Ruddy Ground dove with squatting Inca dove at recent hangout west of Phoenix. Took three visits, but it finally showed up, allowing me to head south to see about a Rose-throated Becard.


Sagebrush Sparrow – seemingly the Arizona equivalent to Australian grasswrens.


Yes! Female Rose-throated Becard at Tubac, not far from the Mexcian border.

A family of Peccaries followed me through the De Anza Trail area near Tubac, taking bits of granola bars from my fingers. Nice.


I took this photo through the mirror in a public toilet block, to try to get a side view of ‘the beard’. Yeah, it clearly revealed the truth, the beard had to go. RIP the beard.


The squeaky gate at Lower Florida Canyon, above which the pair (or pairs) Rufous-capped Warblers that everyone else seems to find, continue to elude me. I’ve now put in five multi-hour efforts.


Tucson Desert Park. Not really the name – but I’m in an airport with little time to research where it was, with boarding for Adak Island flight in 20 minutes.