Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Because It's Fun

There are so many things I enjoy about birding. I love observing different behaviors. I love the feeling of accomplishment when I am able to identify a sparrow or a shorebird that was a challenge in the past. I love knowing where migrants came from and where they are going. I love feeling connected with the natural world. I also love chasing.

If you are not a birder you probably have no idea what I am talking about. Chasing, or twitching, as they call it in the UK, is when you hear about a rare bird that has turned up and you jump in the car with whoever you can find that wants to go and make the trip to see it. It might involve driving all night. It might even involve flights if you have the money or the frequent flyer miles. It is usually for a bird you have never seen, though I have chased birds that I just want to see again.

Why do I do it? The main answer is in the title of this blog, because it's fun. The trip out is always a mix of excitement, anticipation and dread that the bird won't be there. If you have the right companions the conversation is all over the map, usually about past chases and produces laughter to the point of tears. (If you don't have the right companions, you will at least have some stories to tell later about how awful they were, which can also be fun.) You have an excuse to eat fast food that is bad for you, but you secretly love, drink too much coffee and maybe even drive a bit too fast.

When you arrive at the spot, you look for other birders and the conversations start. Have you seen it? Was it seen yesterday? Where? Hopefully, it is easily seen and you can relax. Many times you have to work for it. There is nothing like being the first person in the crowd to see the bird early in the morning. The elation is almost palpable. On some chases it takes a long time. People trade cell phone numbers and go off looking in likely places nearby. If you phone rings, your heart almost stops. Sometimes you realize you aren't going to see the bird. That sucks. Big time.

In spite of that, it is still fun. It is great to run into old friends. The sense of camaraderie can lead to making new friends. Maybe someone is there you have always wanted to meet, a birding celebrity. (The fame of birding celebrities is pretty limited, by the way.) You can either share the joy or the agony. Information about other birding spots is exchanged, new equipment is discussed, even a little gossip is spread.

Another thing that happens is you get to bird in an area you normally don't get to visit. I really love it if it is someplace I have never been. Many times the influx of birders results in more good birds being found, something birders refer to at the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patagonia_picnic_table_effect. The longest chase we have ever done was for an Ivory Gull in Plymouth MA. We had never even talked about doing a trip to the Boston area in winter, but because of the chase, we not only got the gull, but saw a bunch of alcids, a ton of gulls that we rarely get in Texas and some seals! (I don't just like birds and we don't get seals in Texas.)

Anyway, the reason I am writing this is I have seen a lot of disparaging remarks about chasers recently.  Today on Texbirds there was a post about woodpecker behavior that said "Not for chasers and listers", like we are so shallow that we don't care about other aspects of birds and birding. I would never think of adding "Not for people with bird feeders" or "Not for biologists" on my posts about rarities. I have seen people rail against chasers for any number of perceived sins, like not finding their own birds, being competitive and valuing their lists too much.  I say to these people, "So what? I enjoy it. I am not going to let your snobbishness spoil my fun."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wow, I Didn't Expect to See That Bird!

We discussed where we wanted to start the day. Martin was pulling for Frijole Ranch to try again for the titmouse and Willie wanted to go back to Red Bluff. The winds were supposed to increase through out the day, so we decided that we should hit Red Bluff before they got out of hand. Red Bluff Reservoir is one of the best birding spots in Texas that hardly anyone visits. It the desert of west Texas water is at a premium and Red Bluff has plenty. It is way off the beaten track, but we try to get there at least once a year now.

We set up on the west side of the lake, where there is a picnic ground. The light was good and the wind was not bad at all. We quickly saw a handful of Common Mergansers by the dam. There were also some Hooded Mergansers and a few Red-breasteds. It is tough in Texas to find all three species in the same spot. Willie spotted a pair of Red-throated Loons; there was a pair two years before and we thought they might be the same birds. There was a massive raft of ducks at the north end of the lake. As they moved closer we could see it was almost all Common Mergansers. Martin and Willie estimated at least 1.900, which is more than any of us had seen at one time.  We decided to hit the east side of the lake, but were deeply disappointed to find the Sandy Beach area gated and locked. There is an huge amount of fracking going on around the lake, so we wondered if the land owner wanted to keep the workers out.

We went back around to the other side and scoped some more. The wind was picking up and it was fairly cold. We decided to hit the north side of the lake and drove down to the other entrance. As we were driving towards the lake edge a black, gray and white bird shot in front of us, a shrike. The bird lit and we were stunned to see it was an immature Northern, not the expected Loggerhead. We drove in as close as we could, but the bird was very skittish. Martin and Willie walked out into the field, circling around in order to not spook the bird, but trying to get a bit closer. I stayed at the car, in case it flew back to its original perch. Unfortunately, it eluded all of us, but Martin was able to get some record shots, which he has posted on his page. http://www.martinreid.com/Main%20website/NShrike.html The photos of our bird are on the bottom of the page. This bird was the first Northern Shrike recorded in the Trans-Pecos in 25 years! With the birds we had seen in the Panhandle in December, it was the seventh one in about a month. Considering we had never seen any in the state before, we were "gobsmacked", as Martin would say. When we had returned from the panhandle in December, I mentioned that with all of the birds we had seen, it looked like it was possibly going to be an irruptive year. With one that was seen in north central Texas yesterday, it appears that I was right.

We decided to spend the night in Alpine and started driving south. We made a stop at Lake Balmorhea, where we were very happy to see 37 more Common Mergansers. We hadn't seen any on this lake in a couple of years. Two Green-tailed Towhees popped up to check us out, glowing in the late afternoon sun.  We drove to the north side of the lake, where Western and Clark Grebes were in good numbers. The sun had set, so we started to head out. We were thrilled to see a Great Horned Owl sitting up on a dead tree. Any owl is nice, but this one was special. Tripp Davenport had found it a couple of months earlier. It was almost white, instead of the normal gray or brown. We had looked for it in November without any luck, so we were really happy to see it! It allowed us to get quite close and get decent photos, despite the low light. It almost trumped, but not quite, the Northern Shrike, as bird of the day.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

January West Texas, Days 1 and 2- Great Birds and Snow!

I ended up with a few days off in January. I love starting the year off with some great birds, so it was obvious what I wanted to do. The question was where. West Texas has great appeal to me, but we had a great trip to the panhandle in December, so that was tempting, too. Martin and I discussed it and finally decided on hitting the Guadalupe Mountains. Our good friend Willie Sekula asked if he could join us.

We left on January 9 early in the morning in the rain. Our first stop was Red Bluff Reservoir, a under birded lake just south of the New Mexico border. I was trying to be Pollyanna Positive, watching the weather on my phone and saying it looked like the lake was not going to have rain. It is a long drive out and the weather didn't improve in the slightest. We arrived and the rain was steady and very cold, almost sleet. The wind was nasty and we were less than enthused. We scanned the lake from the west shore, but between the rain, the wind and the cold, we gave up pretty quickly. There were some gulls and ducks on the lake, but we figured it would be more productive to head to Frijole Ranch at Guadalupe Mountain National Park.

Martin's main target species was Juniper Titmouse. The Guads are the almost only place in Texas to get this species. He had tried numerous times without success. Frijole Ranch and the headquarters building are considered good places to see it. Unfortunately, the weather was just as nasty. We walked around the headquarters and saw a few Phainopeplas, some Western Scrub Jays and a few other expected passerines. A group of jays were mobbing a hawk that Martin flushed, but couldn't get a solid ID on. Frijole Ranch was just as cold and just as titmouse-less.  We drove up to Carlsbad to spend the next two nights.

The best place in the park for Juniper Titmouse is Dog Canyon. This is a tough area to reach. You have to drive almost 60 miles from Carlsbad, through New Mexico, to reach this area. The state line is the entrance to the park. This is where I got my Texas Juniper Titmouse a couple of years ago. The drive in was complicated by several inches of snow on the road in the higher areas. It was a bit nerve wracking, but we finally arrived. There was a couple inches of snow on the ground in the park. We got out and started working the area past the headquarters. Martin and I walked down hill, listening for his titmouse. Willie stayed up near the parking lot. I was really enjoying the snow!

We walked back up and found Willie, looking up at the top of a tree. Perched up high was a female Evening Grosbeak. This bird was recently put on the Texas review list, as they had become extremely difficult to find. It was a new state bird for me, so I was ecstatic! Unfortunately, the rest of the flock consisted of only Dark-eyed Juncos of various types and Chipping Sparrows. Martin had seen Evening Grosbeak in Texas, so while very happy to see this one, he still was most interested in finding a titmouse.

We decided to hike the trail up the canyon. We were rewarded with a good number of birds. Probably our favorites were a group of Stellar's Jays, a tough bird to see in Texas. We had a single Mountain Chickadee and tons more juncos. We also heard what we thought were a couple more Evening Grosbeaks. We probably hiked about three quarters of a mile when things got very quiet. We continued a bit further, but things were still very slow. We turned back and ran into some of the same birds going down hill.

When we neared the corral area, which is at the end of the trail, I was lagging behind a bit. I could hear Willie saying something to Martin, but couldn't make it out.  Then I heard a low slow tooting. I called out "Isn't that a pygmy-owl?" Willie had just said the same thing to Martin. The call sounded like it was about 100 yards from me. The sound was coming from some pine trees in an area that was rather difficult to get to. The calling continued for a couple of minutes, and then stopped. Martin and Willie worked their way downhill and I walked around the top of the ridge, searching the pines. Despite searching very diligently we couldn't find the owl. We had seen a bird fly from the pines, but only got a very brief, occluded view. It was more than frustrating. Northern Pygmy-Owl is a review species. We went back to the car and made lunch. We listened to a tape of the owl's call and agreed that it was what we heard. We returned again to the area, but never saw an owl.

We worked the area around the headquarters some more and still came up titmouse-less. Poor Martin wasn't very happy. Finally we decided to head back. Along the way we had huge flocks of Pine Siskins, Western Bluebirds, and more juncos. Luckily, the snow was almost gone on the road. We checked a lake in Carlsbad, but it was less than productive, with only coots and a few dabbling ducks.

I do need to add that Cameron Carver went back and heard the same call that we had. He recorded it on his phone. It turns out it might have been a Gray-footed Chipmunk. Several people are working on the tape and because of the questions, I am not counting the owl, yet. Gray-footed Chipmunks hibernate, so it seems doubtful to me, but I would rather err on the side of caution.