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Best Birding Moments, Part II [Flashback Friday]

January 14, 2011

I noticed that the first set of my Best Birding Moments has a heavy bias towards the northeastern US. In fact, all but one take place in New York, and only one of those New York moments was outside of my county. This was not by design, but I suppose speaks to the outstanding birding to be had in Chemung County. Or I’m just really, really good at making lemonade while going stir crazy in the Southern Tier. Whatever the reason, most of my Best Birding Moments between June and December are outside New York, and all are outside my county. Which indicates the latter half of my year was about travel, or by June I was simply sick of the birds in my home state.

Great Salt Lake, Utah, 12 – 15 August
I presented a poster at the Association of Field Ornithologist’s (AFO) annual meeting about one of our acoustic monitoring projects (described here, if you’re interested). Weber State put on one of the best conferences I’ve attended: big enough to see a lot of really great projects, small enough to have meaningful discussions with many of the participants, researchers and students alike. And set where the Wasatch range meets the Great Salt Lake at a time when shorebirds are on the move? Awesome birding in every direction, yielding 86 species in between talks, posters, and elbow rubbing.

Phalaropes on the Great Salt Lake

A whirligig of phalaropes on the Great Salt Lake.

Best birds: Phalaropes! Hundreds of thousands of phalaropes! Best birding event: watching thousands upon thousands of shorebirds taking off from the Great Salt Lake in the dusky, evening sky. The opening night picnic was held at the Garr Ranch on Antelope Island, and as the sun set we watched huge flocks of shorebirds winging their way along the western horizon for their wintering grounds. Identification was impossible due to the distance and the fading light, the numbers were astounding, the whole experience was mesmerizing.

Marsh Wren

A Marsh Wren catches a glimpse of a birder at the Ogden Bay WMA.

Southern California, 16 – 19 August
Missing the AFO’s post-conference, full-day field trip was awfully painful as there were so many Great Basin birds left unobserved. But that remorse was softened by my next destination: I left Utah for a work trip to southern California, where I would deploy autonomous recording units for a fall migration project (the continuation of the very same project I presented at the AFO, linked to above). I flew into LAX and immediately headed north to my starting point in Ventura. My full deployment schedule would take me through Santa Barbara county, including a trip off shore to Santa Barbara Island (SBI), then south to San Diego county. I covered a lot of ground in just a few days and tallied 104 species.

Nuttall's Woodpecker

One of several Nuttall's Woodpeckers I found on my southern California trip.

Best bird: I ticked a nemesis bird when I found a Nuttall’s Woodpecker early in the trip. OK, it didn’t really rise to the level of a real nemesis, but still, a target is a target. But the birds I hadn’t planned for were the most memorable. I knew I’d be on a mini-pelagic to get to SBI, but I didn’t spend any time planning for pelagic species. Nick Lethaby (our partner on this project) knows these species inside and out — well, maybe only from the outside – so I had a great tutor. As luck would have it, the seas were foggy which limited the number of species we encountered. The silver lining was I wasn’t overwhelmed with too many new identification challenges (OK, that doesn’t really rise to the level of a real silver lining). Of the species we did manage to see, it was the South Polar Skua that topped the coolness list. Not only was it a life bird, but “skua” is an awesome name. And anything with “South Polar” in its name is so deliciously exotic.

California Thrasher

I had to throw in a California Thrasher while talking about California, right?

Chincoteague, Virginia, 23 – 27 November
Admittedly, not the best birding trip I’ve had on Chincoteague, but it makes the list because it’s Chincoteague – I love any chance I get to spend time there. It was a working Thanksgiving vacation so my birding time was limited and irregular, managing only a couple of trips to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on top of the daily walks around the neighborhood. Most of the time was spent working on the the newly-remodeled vacation home which, happily, looks right out on the bay so it’s easy to steal glimpses of waterfowl, gulls, terns, shorebirds, and raptors. I managed a mere 69 species on this trip, but I’m already looking forward to an awesome “yard list” while sitting on the deck with a gin and tonic.

White Ibis

White Ibis are not expected at Chincoteague, at least not by me.

Best birds: The visits to the beach included some of the best (read: near shore) views I’ve had of feeding gannets and migrating scoters and loons. The first birds I saw on the island were a flock of White Ibis on one side of the road and a Black-crowned Night-heron on the other. But three Lesser Black-backed Gulls were not only unexpected, they were the first I’ve ever encountered in Virginia. Tick!

Black-crowned Night-heron, juvenile

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron, shortly after being chased by a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Central Arkansas, 21 – 29 December
I already wrote about part of my holiday experience in Arkansas, so you can read more details here. Like my Thanksgiving trip to Virginia, this one barely included any birding, just the 39 species I managed to note around the yard.  So why is this a Best Birding Moment? Because it reminds, and reinforces, that birds are everywhere, which means birding can, and should, happen everywhere.

Northern Mockingbird

Common bird on a common phone wire, but great to see: Northern Mockingbird, the state bird of Arkansas.

Best birds: Serendipity was the name of the game as I not only picked up an unexpected year bird when I encountered Red-headed Woodpeckers in my in-law’s yard, but also when I witnessed the daily commute of thousands upon thousands (upon thousands upon thousands) of blackbirds.

eBirding Everywhere, 01 January – 31 December
One overarching New Year’s resolution for 2010 was to eBird as much as possible. That lead directly to two of my Best Birding Moments (those daily walks around the yard as well as monitoring a series of points on my daily commute), not to mention paying closer attention anywhere I chose to watch birds — sites around New York, work trips to Utah and California, working vacations to Virginia and Arkansas, and so on. This really was the meta-Best-Birding-Moment as it enabled all of the other ones. The second part of the resolution was to keep up on entering those checklists, which I mostly did. They’re not quite all in now (gotta finish up some Christmas Bird Count as well as my scouting trip for the World Series of Birding), but I can already sit back and enjoy a year of eBirding with a few mouse clicks on the eBird site.

Best birds: every single one. ‘Nuff said.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Peggy Gussman permalink
    January 17, 2011 13:13

    Hi, Mike…

    You’ve been some great places and seen some great birds this year! But I like your
    “Best birds: every single one. ‘Nuff said.”
    comment best!
    That’s how I feel. I love adding to my life list, but I love seeing my everyday yard birds, too. They’re my buddies…
    Here’s to another great year ahead!

    Happy birding,
    Peggy

    • January 17, 2011 21:08

      Hi Peggy-

      Thanks for your comment! It’s been unusual this year as I did have some great opportunities to travel, something I’m hoping to continue in 2011. I have to admit, I go through a “grass is always greener” period quite often – when I’m home I’m longing for some exotic birding, but when I’m traveling I’m wondering what I’m missing at home. I get over those feelings pretty quick and try to make the best with what I’ve got.

      Though once you get the travel bug . . . .
      🙂

      Yard birds are definitely special since you have the chance to get to know them, and sometimes not just the species, but the individual. It’s good to have friends!

      Hope you have a wonderful 2011!
      -Mike

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  1. Best Birding Moments, 2010 Edition [Flashback Friday] « Feathers and Flowers

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