Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reaching The Finish Line

Ridgway's Rail
There are the birds we know we will find on our journeys.  And then there are those that are NOT givens. But because of my Big Year(staying in the top 100 of the US), I had to stay very focused and within budget. However, I also had personal goals which were finding several VERY important birds. This journey to California truly focused on the sacred few.  The newly split Ridgway's Rail, the Yellow-footed Gull and the Tri-colored Blackbirds.  Two of these birds are listed as endangered and are losing ground due to habitat loss. Conservation efforts are in place, but over the years, drought, summer fires and farming practices have really had an impact on these birds.  

On a gorgeous day out near the Tijuana Estuary, I walked with my new friend Libby.  It was high tide and a perfect time to find these difficult birds. While walking along the high berm, we spotted 4 of these magical birds. It was definitely a high five moment for both of us.  I've only heard this bird once call from the reeds of Tres Ríos near Phoenix. Rails, in general, are very tricky birds to spot. Earlier this year, the Clapper Rail was split into three new bird species thanks to the new DNA analysis happening within the science community. And it takes time to relearn the new names for a split bird species. Not Clapper for us anymore in AZ:)

Meanwhile at the Salton Sea, the waters are receding. Two years ago Las Aventuras went to visit this interesting birding locale.  While there, we noticed the shoreline met close to the trail near the Sonny Bono Visitor Center.  This time around, the waters had disappeared from several locations and made the spotting of birds much more difficult.  I'm not sure what will happen to this place but it is an important watering hole for birds.  I found my ONE Yellow-footed Gull off in the distance at the end of the Rock Hill trail. This is their northern most range in the US.  They are much more common in Mexico, especially around the city of Rocky Point. 

Yellow-footed Gull(pic taken in Mexico)
Then it was off to another location to find the endangered and declining Tri-colored Blackbirds.  They look similar to the Red-winged Blackbird except that their calls are slightly harsher.  Their wing pattern is also slightly different.  So off I went to Lindo Lake at Lakeside, CA. 

Tricolored Blackbird
It was a beautiful evening out as I watched these birds forage around the ground studying their field marks.  They have a blood red epaulet(shoulder patch) which is darker than those of the Red-winged Blackbird. And that red patch was hidden until they took flight!

When the wings are closed, there is a whitish wingbar present.  So I took careful observation notes to make sure I was seeing the right bird!  Here's a short video on the Tri-colored Blackbirds from UC-Davis. I believe it was filmed around October of this year. 

Back home the race was on.  A White-winged Scoter and two Black Scoters were seen in a large body of water known as Lake Pleasant.  

White-winged Scoter
And so I had great views of the Scoters but the Red-necked Grebe was just out of range for my camera.  And yet I saw it!  I hate calling a life bird without pictures but there was no denying I SAW the bird and could ID it:)  I'll see this bird again.

Loggerhead Shrike
And along the way of Loggerhead Shrikes and Black Scoters and....

Juvenile Male Black Scoter
.....and Common Ravens chasing Red-tailed Hawks.......

Red-tailed Hawk getting chased by a Common Raven
....and passing by feral burros! Keep moving!........

.....I somehow finished the year alive. Exhausted.  But alive. It has been an amazing year, and I am glad it is over.  Birding as a sport interferes with family, friends and sleep!  I'll have my 2014 wrap up next week.  For now, I sip my coffee and watch my Tucson birds from my dining room window.  And it feels good to be normal again.  

Sunday, December 28, 2014


California Thrasher!

The great West can be daunting.  It's even more intimidating when one treks the vast desert alone.  I purchased water and all kinds of rations just in case my car decided to act up.  Cell phones don't work in certain areas and the landscape changes from Sonoran desert into the sandy Imperial Dunes near Yuma.  Eventually the driver reaches the forgotten lands of the Salton Sea full of pesticides, agricultural lands and the infamous Sonny Bono wildlife preserve.  Even further, one must cross the great mountains of rock and alpine shrubs.  Then begins the descent into the crowded urban area known as San Diego. I summoned the courage of the great Indian spirit, Chief Geronimo.  As I shouted his name, I took the plunge one last time into the area known as San Diego!


The end of the year would bring me once more back into Southern California to clean up most of the endemics found in this area.  However this trek was made alone since Pat had to work.  The year is winding down fast and I needed to find more birds! So I went into some of the most eccentric places around SoCal.

White-crowned Sparrow
I hit 4 major places.  The Salton Sea. The Tijuana Estuary.  Discovery Lake of San Marcos. And Lindo Lake of Lakeside.

California Towhee
Within the recently burned city of San Marcos, I found an oasis known as Discovery Lake.  There I witnessed mothers running with their children on the trails listening to annoying songs like, "Let It Go!"  Go ahead and click on the link.  I dare you:)  I was trying to listen to the lesser known "California Thrasher" song.  According to birders, it's one of California's better tunes...even topping the Momma and Papa's "California Dreamin!"

Discovery Lake was a pretty amazing area full of incredible birds!  I think I spent the entire morning there birding.  I heard the California Quail but I never saw them.  I heard all the other birds and DID see them.  Sometimes you just have to learn to "Let It Go, Let It Goooo!"  I had that damn song stuck in my head all day!

Another new bird for me was the Wrentit.  I'm never sure about these combo names in the bird world.  So what is it?  More Wren or more Tit?  Either way, I thought it would be harder to ID.  It wasn't.  The call was distinct and the bird was much larger than the Bushtits also found in the area. 

After getting a visual on 2 out of the 3 life bird targets, I decided it was time to move south to the Chula Vista area for the Brants.  I met up with friends Libby and Bonnie at their place and walked along the waterfront enjoying their company while of course observing the birds!

Surf Scoters
We were super thrilled to spot Surf Scoters.  I don't know why they are so cool, but they are.  Their bill is so strange and colorful!

Scaly-breasted Munia
And then there were these birds!  The Scaly-breasted Munia were almost on every one of my counts this last time.  I would hear them squeek and I'd think, "Are those strange Cedar Waxwings calling?" They can also sound like mice! Then they'd fly up and remind me that they're taking over Southern California.  And as for parrots!  A month ago I reported on the Red-crowned and Lilac-crowned Parrots of Orange County!  Well they are around the San Diego area as well.  I sometimes forget that there are parrots around those parts.  When it finally registers inside my tiny little brain, they are flying over my head!  

This was my road trip song to keep me going.  I want to let everyone know that I'll be catching up with you all soon.  I've been on the road way too much these past two weeks trying to keep up with the end of the 2014 year:) I'll carry on with my report from the other two areas next week. And when I'm feeling intimidated by the challenge, I just have to remember to say, "Geronimo!" 

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Poverty Of Loneliness

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” ~Rollo May

While on our trek finding the Pelagic Cormorants, we observe all kinds of people including fisher people hoping to catch something
No one may understand this.  I don't even think I understand myself why I do the things I do.  This was perhaps the strangest way I could have spent the holidays.  Alone.  And not just alone but among people who don't have money nor the family or friends for support.  Thankfully, my birding plans and two new friends kept my mind busy during this important trek.  After all, the year is coming to a close and I'm running out of time to find new birds!

A beautiful Christmas Eve day at Imperial Pier with Bonnie and Libby!
Birders begin to hit the "Lifer Wall" and we have to go beyond our comfort zones so that we may discover more life birds.  From here on out, life birds will become expensive.  Many of us will share hotel rooms or find the cheapest rates out there to stay within our budgets.  Birds will also guide us into areas that most tourists never see.  So on this trek during the holidays, I found myself surrounded by so many who were alone. The only difference is that I had a choice.  They didn't.

The quiet of sunrise allows me a chance encounter with this beautiful skunk
This was probably the hardest thing I had to do. I want to understand and experience what it's like for a person doing a Big Year.  My family, and even Pat, wanted to know why I had to go and do this trek.  Logistically, it is the best time to go.  Birders plot all the time.  It's the end of the year.  But what's difficult for most birders is this human ritual need of "holiday".  However, the roads are empty and the rates for hotels are super cheap.  So in between all of this push and pull, there is a compromise we all have to make.  I've always been with family and friends during my 41 years of life.  But this year, I wanted to know what it was like to be on the other side of the fence. The homeless Vietnam Vet at Lindo Lake.  The mentally ill woman on the pier.  The single elderly woman who celebrated Christmas Day dinner alone.  The poor families living out of a hotel....alone. I even went to the San Diego Zoo to be among families on Christmas Eve day to experience the world as a single person.  Let me just say it in plain English.  It sucked!

Libby has to wait in line!
Now my new buds Libby, Bonnie and Patty were there to help keep my chin up.  They were so wonderful and even invited me to their potluck, but I had to stick to my route...and budget!  How I would have loved to stay!  Bonnie sent me off with Christmas cookies(lembas bread) that kept me from getting hungry on my hikes:)  SIDE NOTE *I had such a great time with you both!  Thank you from the bottom of my heart for such an amazing adventure! We'll see you again next year! 

We spend a gorgeous night out in Chula Vista(pic by Libby)
So on Christmas Day, I couldn't handle it anymore.  Instead of getting a visual on the California Quail that I heard at Discovery Lake, I hightailed it back home to be with Pat's family. And by early afternoon, there I was inside my clan of crying babies and loud children with their exhausted parents.  Together we ate too much of everything including turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and egg rolls.  And I am grateful for this.  I will never understand the need for physical gifts because for me, it has always been about sharing meaningful time together. 

Young cocky surfers could learn so much from the pros. 

The left side of the pier had the older surfers who were pros!  On the other, we found the beginners learning how to catch the right wave.
While I had a successful birding run into SoCal, I won't forget the experience anytime soon. What will happen to the homeless Vietnam Vet?  People sat with him on the bench and listened to his story while I glanced at the endangered Tricolored Blackbirds.  What will happen to the mentally ill woman on the pier?  I think of her the most.  I don't know why her image continues to linger in my mind.  While observing surfers and watching birds, I listened to her conversations with people around the pier.  She was lonely and needed human contact.  We all do. 

This Ring-billed Gull reminds me of most people going for the last piece of ham on the platter!
No matter how much I try to distance myself from people outside of work, I realize that I am no different than anyone else. These human rituals are important and ingrained within us. We are pack animals and need one another to get through this difficult life. On the lonely road into Southern California, I thought about many things on this birding trek.  And maybe this is what it means to be a birder.  An explorer.  Birds are just a piece of the entire experience.

Red-throated Loon
As I approach 600 life birds, I begin to feel the weight of each new bird. What happens to one at 700 or 1,500?  We change.  Each bird exposes me to yet another human reality or connection to the greater world. 

Pic by Libby.  
This is Patty.  I fell in love with her while visiting with Bonnie and Libby.  So many people do not understand Rock Pigeons.  We think of them as pests and yet I found her to be rather endearing. I also discovered that all she wants most is to be with others. I learned a great deal from her in a short amount of time.  Rock Pigeons, like people, prefer to be in the company of others.  Patty also showed me some of her moves! Pretty cool stuff!  More to come....

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Here At The End of All Things

We explore the mountains of Costa Rica
Step boldly forward.  Change my footing so that my legs do not become tired.  Step beyond personal limitations.  

I fall in love with the Andes mountains between Argentina and Chile.  Sunset was magical
Always remember those who helped me get to this point in my life and keep learning. 

The lagoons of Semuc Champey, Guatemala reveal to me that there are truly magical places out there
Grow bored. Experiment.  Face a fear.  Question this self-inflicted reality. Encounter new people.  Embrace change. 

My first real life challenge....and life change.  Growing up.  Cape Verde taught me many things.  I will go back and confront that life lesson again. 
New bird challenges are interesting.  A birder can play it safe only for so long before s/he hits a "life bird wall".  The risks are higher and the payoffs are either an extreme success or a very disappointing low.  

An island of ancient people live their lives in the middle of Lake Titicaca, Peru.  I see the Milky Way for the first time in their cold clear dark skies.  No light but the stars.  I know nothing. 
One group of experts is replaced by another.  Many territories are unexplored.  It's an opportunity to become an explorer while stringing missing data and personal hunches together to help save our birds. Neil Armstrong. Marco Polo. Vasco Da Gama. Hernan Cortes. Sacagawea.  Any one of us can still discover if we choose.

We climbed Machu Pichu like everyone else.  It tests my physical endurance and my fear of height.  At one point, I break down and cry because of the physical stress.  I move inches to the top.  I discover I can do it. 
That's also the danger.  The uncomfortable truth.  To find a new life bird, I have to challenge myself to be open and smart about what's around me.

Color is life.  Cuzco, Peru
Keep an eye open for strange human behavior, wild animals foreign to me and ever changing environments.

I stand in a dark forest along the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica tracking Howler Monkeys and Scarlet Macaws.  My first experience birding.  I stand alone in the forest and feel frightened.  I am truly in the wild. Alone.
Some places may be safe.  Sip your tea and watch a Blue Tit at a new friend's feeder.  Or climb to the top of a jagged mountain and find a Himalayan Snowcock.  Each bird brings with it a story.  A connection. 

We explore Chile.  Even at great heights we find fish in a small frozen lake.  How is this even possible?
It's time to leave my desert nest and begin the gamble.  1000 life birds?  Is it possible to reach that epic mark in a year or two?  We'll see.  As I leave my safety net of "knowing", I enter a strange world of the new and bizarre.  It will require me to study thousands of strange new species that I've never heard about before.   

I explore a beach for sand crabs
Live the daily routine.  Pay the monthly bills.  And explore when there is an opportunity to do so.  I'm a Cormorant stretching my wings out......waiting for them to dry.  

We explore the Mediterranean Ocean around the Italian coast.  Still not a birder. Sigh. 

For soon I will take flight across the oceans of the world, to the tundra of the North and the glaciers of the South, and touch the sun baked pyramids of the great African desert. 

My travels sparked with this amazing group of people.  I learned a lot about myself....who I was, how to speak another language, how to party like a rock star and......and discover this amazing world.  Today we are all 20 some years older.  The girls are women.  One is a mother!  This year I will return to visit them again.  It has been too long.  Ahhh Mexico!
These pictures were the beginning photo documentation pieces of my work.  Later they would evolve into this blog.  All I can say is that my life has done a complete 360.  It began with culture, plants and photography.  Today, this process has naturally led me into birding and travel. For anyone thinking about blogging, I highly recommend it!

Barcelona, Spain
Everything changes now. In a way, it's sad to part from the crazy road treks around Arizona.  Now my journeys will only focus on life birds.  Arizona still holds a few, but my eyes now wander south to the lands of Mexico.  To the North, Alaska is home to many incredible birds.  San Francisco calls to me again.  The prairies of middle America are home to the ancient mating dances of several types of grouse.  And this "thing" that I have only just begun goes on and on.  Here at the end of all things, I am both sad and happy.  One chapter ends.  Another begins.......

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Tucson CBC-Winterhaven and the Rillito Wash

Each year, Tucson Audubon has their annual CBC(Christmas Bird Count). And each year, I participate.  However this year something changed.  I became a group leader for the first time.  And so our team had a mission to find common and rare birds in Area 23 or as we like to call it.....Winterhaven.
From my photo series called, "Holiday Rush" back in 2011.  The blur represents this crazy time of year and also how fast this CBC went this year!
Winterhaven is a wonderful urban forest full of old trees and landscape. It's also a place Tucsonans visit to get into their holiday spirit!

Some of the largest Aleppo Pines can be found in this neighborhood.  Nesting hawks, owls, and ravens use these trees to nest. 
To make the task less daunting, I was joined by friend Gordon Karre and Jan Wilson.  It was a crazy weekend full of scouting for the "big day". While none of us expected life birds, we did find lots of wonderful birds just a couple miles away from my house. 

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
On Friday, I went with Jan to scout several parks within our area.  Our mission was to cut some time on Sunday and find the reported Bronzed Cowbirds, a roving Cassin's Kingbird, several Great Horned Owls and a family of Harris's Hawks.  Together, with the help from the local neighborhood, we were able to pinpoint known locations of their infamous feathered and VOCAL residents. Some of the people actually replicated their calls!  Not bad at all! I asked them questions about what kinds of things they saw.  One lady described a group of hawks hanging out together in a group.  Then I asked her, "Were they brown?  Did they have yellow legs?" And she invited us to come into her backyard to have a look. Our hunch was correct.  Harris's Hawks.

Harris's Hawk
On Sunday, we were able to find all of them.  It was early to rise for the Great Horned Owl! And it was our first bird for the day as a team!  We also had a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the neighborhood on Friday.  But come Sunday, we weren't able to locate the bird again.  Instead, we found a White-breasted Nuthatch!

A Redhead!  And yet our Tucson CBC circle dipped on two of these birds!  Had I known, we could have poached another group's area to add them to our list!  These were seen on Saturday night!  But  midnight Sunday is when the count officially begins.  
Saturday, Gordon drove down from Phoenix. Here in Tucson it rained all morning! We tried to find the reported Baltimore Oriole and ended up looking at the fantastic waterfowl around the Sweetwater Wetlands and Reid Park.  After a cold and fun day out in the field, we had a nice dinner at a local Thai restaurant. 

Then Sunday came.  Being titled "Area Leader" is bit scary.  It's a big responsibility that required me to pull up the map and really focus on areas with the most birds that were inside our area. Time is a major constraint on these counts. We also worked on some hunches.  Some worked out; some didn't.   I know Area 23 well as I drive it everyday to work.  But it's still a bit overwhelming to lead and guide a team.  I didn't want to fail in the eyes of the Master Planner, Mr. Rich Hoyer.  For two years, he took the time and showed me how a birder must scout for birds in both known and unknown locations.  He KNOWS the routes and areas of his CBC circle well. Not all CBC count leaders are like this. Afterwards, we had a wonderful potluck. Rich made a delicious chili. Everyone eagerly listened to those rare bird reports from around town.  And there were quite a few! 

A Red-tailed Hawk watches us
As I sat with these birders, I thought about how amazing they were. I may not know many of them in person, but I read their reports daily.  There were so many stories, secret birding spots and bird behaviors shared during this dinner.  I went home wanting to know more.  Do more! As birders, we learn crazy things from each other.  We are our best teachers.  

Pied-billed Grebe
A personal goal for me on this count was to explore one of the last wild stands of cholla(pronounced ch-oh-ya) in the neighborhood.  Our Cactus Wren population within the city is disappearing.  Their populations are either declining or stable(depending on which end of the city you're on) due to habitat loss from housing developments.  Many homeowners don't want this plant around their property. 

Cactus Wren
I notice that wherever there isn't cholla cactus, Cactus Wrens are either not present or there are very few. I have them nesting at my work site in Oro Valley within a healthy preserved section of Sonoran desert.  There these birds nest every year in several chollas. Curve-billed Thrashers will also use this very important cactus for nesting. 

A Curve-billed Thrasher nests in a most protective Teddy Bear Cholla
Humans, however, hate this "jumping cactus" as it can be quite painful on the skin. It will hook onto anything that passes by and if that happens, you won't forget the sensation. That is how it spreads:) We had good news on our count that day as we found 3 Cactus Wrens!  That was my highlight from our trek around Area 23 for the day. 

My favorite pic from the day!  Gordon is TALL and so are these Cholla Cactus!  What a trooper! No Cactus Wrens were seen in this area.  There was some nesting evidence in a couple.  As Gordon went deeper into the patch, he didn't notice much in the way of old nest material but he did find plenty of Mourning Doves hiding!
Overall we found 43 species for the day which is higher than past CBC reports from our area.  We added 6 new species to the list! Love was in the air as we observed Red-tailed Hawks "in the mood" and a Costa's Hummingbird showing off for his lady friend. He danced high above us with his high pitched whir.  

Female Costa's Hummingbird
We discovered all birds on our lists from Friday and Sunday minus the Brewer's Blackbirds, Townsend's Warbler,  Rufous-winged Sparrows and Hutton's Vireo.  The top birds from our area that were "must finds" for the count were the American Pipits, Bronzed Cowbirds, and Vermilion Flycatchers. All achieved!

Bronzed Cowbird
Our first team bird wasn't the dreaded Rock Pigeon but the Great Horned Owl!  Our last bird for the day was a beautiful Red-naped Sapsucker. 

Eurasian-collared Dove
The most common birds were easily the Lesser Goldfinches(181 birds), House Finches(359 birds), and Mourning Doves(318). Overall we had a wonderful weekend outdoors!

Target birding is back on for the next two weeks and should be interesting.  How interesting? You'll have to stay tuned for more!  As one year of goals finishes up, a new one will begin and it will take me to far away places:) Opportunities, like this CBC, give me a better insight about what's going on locally with our birds.  When we take this sliver of data and add it to what's happening globally, all of us involved begin to see the bigger picture.  To get involved in the US with the Christmas Bird Count, contact your local Audubon and find out when they have their CBC.  They need volunteers who can hike or just sit in their house and count birds at their feeders. It's really a great experience!  More next week....