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Games Birders Play

Birders don’t call these games, but consider the following activities.

Life List

The most basic birding game is simply keeping a list of all the birds that you have ever seen anywhere.  Not much beats the thrill of seeing a bird for the very first time, so this game is played by nearly all birders everywhere.  I clearly remember foolishly wondering, shortly after starting my life list, what I would do after I had seen all the birds possible in nearby locations. And, then I learned about all the other birding games.

Cabot's Tragopan on my 2012 China trip. One of my favorite birds ever! Photo by Tony Mills.

Cabot’s Tragopan on my 2012 China trip. One of my favorite birds ever! Photo by Tony Mills.

State List

Many birders keep a list of all the birds that they have seen in a particular state, usually the state in which they live.  This activity usually involves actively “chasing” rare birds that appear anywhere in the state in order to increase one’s state list.

County List

This activity is similar to State List, but for just one county, usually the location of one’s residence.  Even more so than with State List, birders will cancel other plans, call in sick to work, or do whatever is necessary to see any new bird that shows up in their county.

Bad photo, but great bird - the first Whimbrel ever observed in Forsyth County.

Bad photo, but great bird – the first Whimbrel ever observed in Forsyth County.

ABA List

Some birders put the most importance on their ABA list, birds observed in the ABA (American Birding Association) Area, most simply defined as North American north of Mexico.  For some, their ABA list has a higher priority than their life list.  Birders who are obsessed interested in their ABA List may fly across the country to see birds already seen elsewhere just to get them on this list.

Other geographic areas

Any geographic area that you can name can be the target for a birding list – Ecuador, China, Asia, the Western Hemisphere, the Lower 48 (US states) – the possibilities are nearly endless.

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager in Ecuador.

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager in Ecuador.

Big Year (ABA Area)

Until recently “Big Year” meant ABA Big Year. This is the game that was made into a book and a movie, “The Big Year.”  It told the story of three men obsessed with “winning” the most birds in 1998.  People have mortgaged their homes to pursue this activity. It also requires tremendous effort and the stamina to endure heat, cold, loss of sleep, and other discomforts. In spite of these challenges, the majority of us who do not have the time, money, and endurance to play this game have fantasized about it.

If I were doing a Big Year in 2017, this Smooth-billed Ani seen in Florida would be a good start.

If I were doing a Big Year in 2017, this Smooth-billed Ani seen in Florida would be a good start.

Big World Year

This is now the ultimate game – how many birds can you see in one calendar year with the entire planet as the playing field. In 2008, British couple Alan Davies and Ruth Miller traveled around the world attempting to see 4,000 species. They completed the year with 4,341 species and wrote a book about their adventure, The Biggest Twitch. In 2015, Noah Strycker set out to see half the world’s species, approximately 5,000 birds. He also met his goal and set the new world record with 6,042 bird species. Noah’s record was immediately challenged by Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis in 2016. He finished the year with 6,833 bird species.

The closest I'll ever get to a world big year was in 2014 when I went to both China and Belize, where I saw this Great Kiskadee.

The closest I’ll ever get to a world big year was in 2014 when I went to both China and Belize, where I saw this Great Kiskadee.

Big State Year and various location/year combinations

Where I live, Forsyth County (NC) Year List is a popular game, although I don’t know anyone who will admit to playing it. However, about a dozen birders go birding nearly every day. They make it a point to see species that require special effort like American Woodcock, a bird that is usually seen only in particular places at dusk.  If anyone else finds a “good” bird (i.e. uncommon for our area), they will go look for it. I keep trying to break my addiction to this game, but so far I’ve been unsuccessful. And, I’m not sure that I really want to quit. We have the friendliest birding community that I know of anywhere. We don’t compete with each other and everyone is quick to share the news when they find a good bird.

The adult male Anna's Hummingbird in Buxton - a nice addition to my 2017 NC list.

The adult male Anna’s Hummingbird in Buxton – a nice addition to my 2017 NC list.

Want to read more about Big Year birding? There is even a Wikipedia article called Big Year.  The American Birding Association (ABA) outlines the official listing rules at Listing Central and displays the numbers that ABA members have reported.  All of these birding games are made easier by using eBird, which automatically maintains many of these lists for you as well as providing alerts for “needs” and rare birds.

County Birding

This is a little different than the basic County List because it focuses on finding birds in ALL the counties in a state. One common version is 100 birds in every county. In Maryland, which has only 23 counties, they play 200 birds in every county.

50 Birds in 50 States

I have friends who are working on these lists – to see 50 species in each of the 50 US states.  What a great way to see the country!

I don't have 50 birds in Iowa yet, but this young Harris's Sparrow got my list off to a good start.

I don’t have 50 birds in Iowa yet, but this young Harris’s Sparrow got my list off to a good start.

Bird-A-Day

Bird-A-Day is a twist in which one records a different species observed every day for as many days as possible throughout the year.  In 2016, I made it through half the year recording my last new bird on July 1.  I swore that I would not do it again, but here I am deep into it in late February 2017 and plotting how I can beat last year’s attempt.

Photographed Birds

Any of the above games, but only birds that you photograph count.

Great Crested Flycatcher. One of my favorite photos.

Great Crested Flycatcher. One of my favorite photos.

Birders are creative and I’m astounded by the new things that I am learning every day. Day List? Yes, some people even keep lists for each calendar day of birds seen in any location, in any year, but on that specific day.  This list of lists could go on and on, but I’ll quit now and leave it up to you to find more or even invent your own birding game.  I’ve got to go look for a Woodcock now.

Road Trip!

“I learned that hot spots aren’t hot every day, even at the right time of the year.”  I wrote that about visits to Dauphin Island, Alabama, and High Island, Texas, during my big 2012 Texas trip.  It sounds like I learned a valuable lesson, right?  Wrong. I left for Minnesota in late October already counting my life Northern Goshawk that I would see at Duluth’s Hawk Ridge.  How could I miss?  “They fly right over your head” folks said when describing the wondrous spectacle of hawk migration in Duluth.  Well, I did miss the bird.  But, fortunately, I also had other goals for the trip.

I saw this pretty little Song Sparrow before I was out of North Carolina.

I saw this pretty little Song Sparrow before I was out of North Carolina.

Ever since I bought my new wilderness green Subaru Outback two years ago, I have been dreaming of birding road trips.  Until this fall, my longest trips had been to Florida, but now I had an opportunity to test drive a more adventurous trip.  I would also have a chance to indulge my growing obsession with state birding. I have had an interest in seeing the number of states on my birding lists grow for a long time, but the new eBird personal profile pages with maps fueled a need to fill in the blank states.  If I took the western route north and a more eastern route home, I could add five new states.

My first new state was Missouri.  I spent the night just the other side of St. Louis and checked the BirdsEye app on my phone.  Cuivre River State Park was just half an hour away and many birds had been reported there.  Perfect!  I drove to the park on the morning of Wednesday, October 26.  I quickly discovered that the park is huge (6,300 acres) and I didn’t have a clue about where to find the best birding spots.  I did not find many birds that morning, but I enjoyed driving around the park and walking a couple of short trails.  Note for my next trip: you can’t do too much research about birding locations.

A White-throated Sparrow in Iowa

A White-throated Sparrow in Iowa

The next state was Iowa, where I met Tom Dunkerton, an excellent photographer and naturalist who I met in Florida a few years ago.  Due to schedule constraints, we expected to have only one morning together, but Tom surprised me by calling Wednesday afternoon and saying that if I could get to Neal Smith NWR before dark, he would show me around.  That was incentive enough to drive there from Missouri without dawdling along the way with unnecessary stops.  We had about 45 minutes to drive around the immense NWR before dark, a place I will be sure to spend time on my next trip.

A young Harris's Sparrow sings in Jester Park.

A young Harris’s Sparrow sings in Jester Park.

Tom picked me up on Thursday morning and we headed to one of his favorite sparrow spots – Jester Park.  We saw several species, all up close, feeding on grass and weed seeds.  I could have stood there all day soaking in the beauty of these birds.  Tom captured the magic of the morning with this video of a young Harris’s Sparrow singing.

The best surprise of the trip was that LeConte’s Sparrows were still in the area.  I had assumed that they would all be south by then, but a few lingering birds were still around, so we left Jester Park to look for LeConte’s Sparrows.  I was thrilled to get wonderful close looks and even a few photographs.

Le Conte's Sparrow in Iowa

Le Conte’s Sparrow in Iowa

I wish that morning could have lasted for days, but Tom had to get to work and I needed to drive to Minnesota.

It was great to see Diane, one of my favorite birding buddies, and we enjoyed the chance to catch up during our drive to Duluth the next morning.  On Friday afternoon, we met Angie and the three of us went to Hawk Ridge, location of one of the best-known hawk watches in the country.  I was shocked to discover that they had seen very few raptors that morning.  The weather was awful so the prospects for the afternoon were no better.  The hawk counters advised us to come back in the morning at 7:45 AM.

Sax Zim Bog was less than an hour away, so we headed that way and spent the afternoon enjoying the simple pleasures of the bog.  Our favorite sight was a large field with a carcass that had attracted four Bald Eagles, three magpies, crows, and ravens.

My car at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

My car at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

The following morning we returned to Hawk Ridge.  I patiently watched the Goshawkless skies for over four hours before giving up.  The few raptors that had come by were too distant to see well, so I didn’t feel like we’d be giving up much if we left.  If I was going to see a Goshawk, I wanted to see it well.  They did have one juvenile Goshawk after we left, but I did not regret the lovely afternoon drive along the Lake Superior shoreline enjoying a gorgeous fall day with friends.

By this time, I had reconciled myself to missing the target bird of the trip, so when Angie told Diane and me that Sparky Stensaas, executive director of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, was leading a field trip at the bog on Sunday, we immediately decided that we wanted to go.  I was surprised to see about 25 birders show up the next morning.  It would have been worth it just to hear Sparky’s commentary on the bog and its birds.  We learned about Rough-legged Hawks.  The have tiny beaks because they eat small prey, mostly voles.  And, it’s suspected that they can see concentrations of vole urine.  Amazing!  And, we had great views of a Rough-legged Hawk hunting in the bog.

Red-breasted Nuthatches enjoy the feeders at the Sax-Zim bog Welcome Center.

Red-breasted Nuthatches enjoy the feeders at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

We also saw two Ruffed Grouse during Sparky’s trip, but I was unable to get a photo.  Sparky gave us directions for a route back to the highway with good chances for more grouse.  We saw one right away, but a passing truck flushed it into the woods.  And, then we saw another.  This was the most cooperative grouse ever, allowing us long indulgent looks and many photographs.  The bird did look at us with a wary eye, but then went back to feeding on the side of the road, and finally walked into the woods.  It was, as Diane called it, a sacred moment, and one we will always cherish.

A Ruffed Grouse in the Bog.

A Ruffed Grouse in the Bog.

Diane and I drove back to her house near Minneapolis that afternoon and I left for the long, slow drive home the next morning, on Halloween day.

The first stop on my way south was in Illinois, to stay the night and visit with my friend David’s mother, Darlene.  We discovered that Rock Cut State Park was just a couple of miles from her house, so I invited Darlene to go to the park with me on Tuesday morning.  We didn’t see many birds, but did find quite a few butterflies and enjoyed our walk on a gorgeous fall morning.

An Orange Sulphur at Rock Cut State Park

An Orange Sulphur at Rock Cut State Park

Our walk was longer than planned because I took the wrong trail.  We were lost, but we ran into a man walking his dog who gave us directions.  We walked a while longer, following his directions, and suddenly the man and dog were walking towards us.  He had come back to check on us and walked the rest of the trail with us.  He waited with us when we stopped to catch our breath and helped Darlene over a rough spot in the trail.

After this heart-warming start to the day, I drove almost to Indianapolis.  On Wednesday, I continued the pattern that was developing for travel days – visit a park in the morning and drive in the afternoon.  This time is was Indianapolis’ Eagle Creek Park, one of the largest city parks in the nation with 1,400 acres of water and 3,900 acres of forest.

Cedar Waxwing at Eagle Creek Park

Cedar Waxwing at Eagle Creek Park

On Thursday morning, I visited the last park of the trip, Hisle Farm Park, near Lexington, Kentucky.  I picked it because it looked like it wouldn’t be far out of my way, not because I expected much.  No one else was there when I arrived and I didn’t see or hear any birds.  I got out of my car anyway and soon heard meadowlarks singing.  I walked in their direction and soon heard more birds.  I walked about two miles through fields and along the wooded edges.  Song Sparrows were everywhere, Robins and Cedar Waxwings covered the treetops.  In one little spot in the sun, I watched Song, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows, Titmice, Chickadees, Goldfinches, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, and other birds all feeding on the ground and in the low berry-covered shrubs.  The temperature was just right; there was the slightest breeze.  It was a perfect end to the birding for my trip.

Another Harris's Sparrow from Iowa. Can't get enough of these beauties!

Another Harris’s Sparrow from Iowa. Can’t get enough of these beauties!

I really did not see a large number of birds on this trip, just 66 species, but I did add birds from five new states.  It could have been my poor vision and hearing, poor planning, or just plain laziness.  However, the Midwest in fall isn’t the birdiest time and place of the year.  There is a reason that birders love “north with the spring” trips.  Now that I’ve driven 3,760 miles and proven to myself that I like road trips, my next big trip just may be “north with the spring.”

China 2016

View from The Bund on the overcast day we were there.

View from The Bund on the overcast day we were there.

“There are some birders,” said my son, Dave, as we walked along The Bund, a famous waterfront area in central Shanghai.  Birding is unusual in China, so I could hardly believe it, but two men and a woman had binoculars and scopes fixed on gulls in the river.  We walked up to them and introduced ourselves.  Surprisingly, I was familiar with Craig Brelsford, an American birder living in Shanghai with his wife, Elaine Du, and their friend and fellow birder, Michael Grunwell, from the Facebook group Birding China.  We all marveled at the coincidence of meeting there and had a great time talking about China, birds, websites (a common interest of Craig and Dave), and travel.  Elaine was surprised that Dave has been to Baoshan, in the western province of Yunnan, and they compared notes on their trips there.

Dave - all dressed up and ready for the awards presentation, the reason that we were in Shanghai.

Dave – all dressed up and ready for the awards presentation, the reason that we were in Shanghai.

I had arrived in China a week earlier, on March 4, for my fourth trip to visit my oldest son who has lived in Shenzhen since January 2008.  We were in Shanghai for one of Dave’s occasional jobs as an awards presenter for an organization similar to Guinness World Records.  The Chinese take these awards very seriously and about 200 people attended the presentation.  Three awards were given that day, including one for the world’s largest enamel floor.

Images of fish and other oceanic creatures were scattered about the beautiful blue and gold enamel floor.

Images of fish and other oceanic creatures were scattered about the beautiful blue and gold enamel floor.

Dave was done with his responsibilities shortly after noon, so we spent the afternoon exploring The Bund.  Craig and Michael showed me a little group of Black-headed Gulls that I hadn’t picked up with my binoculars and we talked about the identity of the big white-headed gulls, which Michael was confident were Mongolian Gulls.

Probable Mongolian Gull on the Huangpu River.

Probable Mongolian Gull on the Huangpu River.

Dave and I had planned to go to Shanghai’s Century Park the next morning and Craig confirmed that our plan was a good one.  He said that I could expect to find Pale Thrush there and I was pleased that I did find one right away.  Life bird number one for this trip!  A short time later Dave pointed out a bird perched on a branch of a nearby tree.  When I started taking photographs, a young Chinese woman walked right over to where my camera was pointed and flushed the bird.  All I’d seen was a crest like a tit or bunting and yellow on the throat.  But that was enough to identify the bird as a Yellow-throated Bunting, another life bird.

The most interesting bird at Century Park was this Red-flanked Bluetail.  After working with a millipede for quite a while, he finally swallowed it whole.

Red-flanked Bluetail in Shanghai's Century Park.

Red-flanked Bluetail in Shanghai’s Century Park.

Dave and I did a little more sightseeing, had a nice dinner, and flew back to Shenzhen the next morning.

Dim sum for Dave, Amber, and me.

Dim sum for Dave, Amber, and me.

My previous trips included serious birding; this time I focused on spending time with Dave and my three-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Amber.  A bonus was meeting Dave’s girlfriend, Rachel, and her family.

I had arrived on a Friday evening, just in time to join Rachel’s family for their traditional Saturday dim sum the next day.  The American equivalent of dim sum would be a family style meal consisting exclusively of shared appetizers. Dim sum originated in Guangzhou (formerly called Canton), just an hour from Shenzhen.  It just may be my favorite type of Chinese food; I love trying so many different dishes.  Food is an important part of Chinese culture and there is an abundance of it at every meal.

Making dumplings with Amber and Rachel's father.  It's harder than I expected.  Mine barely held together when they were cooked.

Making dumplings with Amber and Rachel’s father.  It’s harder than I expected.  Mine barely held together when they were cooked.

Shortly after we got back to Shenzhen, I spent a weekend with Amber and her mom, Trissie.  We went to Evergreen Resort, a place we had visited in 2014, but this time we stayed overnight.  The resort has lots of outside activities for kids, but it was hard to get Amber away from the hanging bridge.  She is absolutely fearless and walked back and forth on the bridge until dark.

Amber and Trissie crossing the hanging bridge at Evergreen Resort.

Amber and Trissie crossing the hanging bridge at Evergreen Resort.

After the weekend, I was back at Dave’s and we quickly settled into a routine similar to my last visit.  I usually went for a walk to nearby Shenzhen Central Park by myself each morning.  Dave, Amber, and I did something together in the afternoon, and then Rachel joined us for dinner.  Dave is the primary caregiver for his daughter and he works from home, so we had a lot of flexibility with our schedule.

Amber loves climbing trees.

Amber loves climbing trees.

The park was usually busy with people as the Chinese walk, talk, sit, dance, and generally enjoy their parks.  Between the people and obsessive cleaning up, I thought that I might not see many birds.  Still, I managed to see 30 species in Shenzhen Central Park.  I can recognize the songs or calls of only a handful of birds, so I couldn’t bird by ear like I do at home and had to actually see the birds.

Sweeping up fallen flowers in Shenzhen City Park. I have observed this "cleaning up" in all of Shenzhen's city parks.

Sweeping up fallen flowers in Shenzhen City Park. I have observed this “cleaning up” in all of Shenzhen’s city parks.

I was thrilled with Masked Laughingthrushes on my first visit to China.  I saw them again on my second visit.  By my third trip, I realized they were one of the most common birds in Guangdong Province.  Regardless, they are one of my favorites.

Masked Laughingthrush, a very common bird in Southern China.

Masked Laughingthrush, a very common bird in Southern China.

Asian Koels symbolize city birding in China for me.  I loved this proud, bold male singing from a treetop on the edge of the park with apartments in the background.

Asian Koels could be heard calling at nearly every park I visited in Shenzhen.

Asian Koels could be heard calling at nearly every park I visited in Shenzhen.

Unidentified damselfly.

Unidentified damselfly.

Dave and Rachel knew how much I loved going to parks, so they planned fun and interesting outings farther from home on the weekends.  Shenzhen may be the greenest city in China with its many gorgeous parks.  But in spite of much time spent outside, most Chinese seem rather removed from nature.  When we found this little damselfly, Rachel’s first reaction was “get it away from me!”  But, she saw my delight and was soon right there beside me getting as close as possible to get a photo with her iPhone.

Our most exciting nature find was these Clearwing Tiger Moths at Fairy Lake Botanical Garden.  We spent quite a bit of time admiring and photographing these mating moths.  We were on a narrow path and it wasn’t possible to pass us without seeing the objects of our attention.  These gorgeous creatures caught the interest of everyone who came by.

Clearwing Tiger Moths at Fairy Lake Botanical Garden, perhaps the nature highlight of the trip.

Clearwing Tiger Moths at Fairy Lake Botanical Garden, perhaps the nature highlight of the trip.

I was able to plan one day dedicated to birding.  Mike Kilburn, who had guided me for a day on my first trip in 2009, no longer works as a guide, but he generously invited me to join him for some birding in Hong Kong.  Since I had spent very little time in Hong Kong, Dave and I decided to go a day early and do some sightseeing.  We stayed in the area most tourists flock to, Tsim Sha Tsui in the central area of Kowloon.  We enjoyed walking the streets, Kowloon Park, and the Science Museum.

The next day Mike took us to Lantau Island, the largest island in Hong Kong, which is less densely populated than the other Hong Kong islands and primarily consists of mountainous terrain.  First we went to Tai O, a three-centuries-old fishing village which is famous for its waterways, stilt houses, fishing boats and scenery.

Stilt houses at Tai O.

Stilt houses at Tai O.

This was where I got my third and last life bird of the trip, Gray-faced Buzzard, when five birds flew over.

Next, Mike took us to Pui O, a more agricultural area on Lantau Island, which has a resident population of water buffaloes.  Pui O is one of the few remaining areas where they still occur in Hong Kong.

Water Buffalo and Cattle Egret at Pui O.

Water Buffalo and Cattle Egret at Pui O.

I had my best look ever at Intermediate Egret here, which is just like its name suggests – an egret intermediate in size between Little Egret and Great Egret.

Intermediate Egret at Pui O.

Intermediate Egret at Pui O.

It was great to catch up with Mike and especially to hear about his new job as Senior Manager, Environment, Air Port Authority of Hong Kong.  I was impressed that the airport had such a position and knew that no one could be more effective in that role than Mike.  After an enjoyable day, it was all too soon to thank Mike and head back to Shenzhen.

The last few days were filled with family time and visits to the nearby Shenzhen Central Park.  I was fascinated by three White-shouldered Starlings that arrived at the park just before my trip ended.  I had seen them once before (during the Zoothera bird tour that was part of my 2012 trip), but I found these by myself.  That always makes birds special to me and I had time to really study these birds.

White-shouldered Starling. Many species of birds were attracted to these trees with huge flowers.

White-shouldered Starling. Many species of birds were attracted to these trees with huge flowers.

I was in China for nearly the entire month of March, but it went quickly.  After four trips, it now feels familiar and comfortable.  I miss Dave and Amber and the birds of China, but not the seven flights of stairs to Dave’s apartment.  I expect another trip is in my future, but for now it is good to be home and back to even more familiar and comfortable surroundings.  More photos can be found in my Flickr albums China 2016 – Birds & Butterflies and China 2016 – People  & Places.

Amber the explorer.

Amber the explorer.

Most birders don’t head to Florida in the summer.  And, I wouldn’t either if my step-daughters and my best friend didn’t live there.  I lived in Florida, too, for over 30 years, so it still feels like home and I visit every chance I get, even in summer.  Mid-day can be brutally hot and muggy, but nights are usually balmy and lovely.  The fresh gulf air brings memories of childhood summer days spent at St. Pete and Clearwater beaches.  How I wish my mother were here to see how much like her I’ve become.  As a teenager, I wanted to go to the beaches with nothing but pure white sand.  My parents preferred beaches with signs of life – sandpipers, pelicans, fiddler crabs, shells (some still alive).

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover

I’ve had many rewards for summer birding in Florida.  The first was seeing brand-new just-fledged Snowy Plovers on July 7, 2008, on Caladesi Island.  David and I devoted an entire day to searching for these birds which had risen to the top of my most wanted list.  Their light colors blend into the sand in the hot summer sun, but David quickly found a group of five.

Loggerhead Shrikes are also memorable summer birds.  On June 27, 2009, I was thrilled to watch a Loggerhead Shrike family at St. Pete’s North Shore Park.

A juvenile Loggerhead Shrike enjoys lunch provided by a parent.

A juvenile Loggerhead Shrike enjoys lunch provided by a parent.

On June 22, 2013, we enjoyed a group of 14 Black-necked Stilts, including several juveniles, in a ditch between the road and the county landfill.

Juvenile Black-necked Stilt

Adult Black-necked Stilt

 

This year I headed south on June 20, the first day of summer and my step-daughter Debbie’s birthday.  My first stop was Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.  It’s birdier in winter, but I enjoyed watching mama Red-winged Blackbird feed two begging fledglings.  Common Gallinules were accompanied by little fuzz balls.   I tallied 20 species and drove to my motel.

Common Gallinule

Juvenile Common Gallinule. Note the feet on that baby!

I went back to Savannah NWR the next morning and then drove on to Harris Neck NWR, another of my favorite places to stop on the way to Florida.  Harris Neck’s Woody Pond is one of the south’s biggest rookeries and it overflows with Wood Storks, White Ibises, Great Egrets, and other wading birds in the spring and summer.  Harris Neck also hosts breeding Painted Buntings.  They are a little shy, but I was able to photograph this gorgeous male after he flew from the feeder to a close-by tree.

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting

Quinn and me

Quinn and me

I made it to Gainesville that evening in time for dinner with my step-daughter Liz and her family.  For the next three days I went to Sweetwater Wetlands Park for a couple hours in the morning and then spent the rest of the day with the girls.  It was fun to catch up with Debbie and her horse and spend time with Liz and her young daughters, Quinn and Casey.  We took Casey to see “Finding Dory,” the first movie that I’ve seen in years.  Quinn seemed immune to the heat and enjoyed our time at the “weekend park.”

Sweetwater Wetlands Park was created to improve water quality in Paynes Prairie.  It filters pollutants from urban runoff and wastewater which were harming the Alachua Sink with an excess of nitrogen.  The wetlands were also designed to also be an environmentally friendly park.  The result is outstandingly successful.  It is beautiful and functional and 217 species of birds have been reported there since work on the wetlands began in 2008.

 

One species that I especially appreciated was Least Bittern.  I had seen this secretive bird only a few times previously, but at Sweetwater there were lots of them and I even got a photo.

Least Bittern

Least Bittern

Birds at Sweetwater are accustomed to people; Limpkins and Purple Gallinules perch right on the boardwalk rail.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

On Friday I moved farther south to visit David and Val in Dunedin.  We had a rather quiet weekend, but I always enjoy spending time in the county where I grew up.  On my first evening there, Ruddy Turnstones entertained me on the Dunedin Causeway.  My appreciation for this common bird has increased since David and I found a banded one (with color flags) on August 11, 2012.  I reported that bird to Bandedbirds.org and learned that it had been banded along the Delaware Bayshore in the month of May, most likely in Delaware in 2009.  Ruddy Turnstones have a very wide range, but North American birds breed in the far north arctic and winter along the U.S. coast and southwards to the southern tip of South America.  The turnstone that David and I found had already flown thousands of miles in its young life.

Ruddy Turnstone, June 2016, on the Dunedin Causeway

Ruddy Turnstone, June 2016, on the Dunedin Causeway

On Saturday morning, David and I found another banded bird, a Least Tern, and this one had color bands enabling it to be traced to a specific bird.  It had a very interesting history related to us by Dr. Marianne Korosy.  “This bird was banded at the Ulmerton Warehouse complex, a rooftop nesting colony of least terns located just west of intersection of Starkey and Ulmerton Rd. in central Pinellas County in 2011.  It was banded as a chick when it fell off the roof there and survived unharmed. It was banded and then returned to the roof.  The last time this bird was seen was July 20, 2011 on the south end of Clearwater Beach.”  Our report was the first in five years!

Banded Least Tern

Banded Least Tern

Least Terns are also migration champions.  They leave North America entirely in winter, moving to tropical waters as far south as Brazil.

One of the young Least Terns in the flock at Courtney Campbell Beach.

One of the young Least Terns in the flock at Courtney Campbell Beach.

I left for home on Monday morning and decided to try some different birding stops on this trip.  First was Okefenokee NWR in Georgia.  I enjoyed getting to know the place a little.  Several Bobwhites called during my few hours there.  Bachman’s Sparrows were singing all along the wildlife drive.  I made a mental note to go back some time in spring.

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Next was a detour to Tybee Island.  A Lesser Black-backed Gull and Common Terns had been reported recently and I thought it would be fun to see them.  After I finally found the north beach and a parking spot, I walked to the water.  I had no idea which way to walk, so I turned right.  No birds were in sight except for a cormorant and a couple of Brown Pelicans that few over the water.  I resigned myself to having wasted several hours for nothing.  And, then I saw the flock!  Literally hundreds of birds were at the water’s edge where the shoreline curved.  I love this kind of birding; the birds calmly stayed put or flew just a short distance before settling down.  There were no trees for them to hide in.  Yes, beach birding is definitely the way to go for those with poor vision.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

I had no trouble finding the Lesser Black-backed Gull amongst the Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns which made up 98% of the flock.  I also found two Common Terns, a few Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, and two Black Skimmers in the flock.  I love gulls and terns, so this turned out to be a good stop after all.  After taking photos, I hurried back to my car and set the GPS to “go home.”

More photos from this trip are on Flickr in my NC to FL – June 2016 album.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Diane and I headed to Kenai after a couple of wonderful days in Homer.  This area is the heart of salmon fishing country.  At a couple of river crossings, the fishermen were standing shoulder to shoulder in the river in their hip waders.  We took a short detour through Anchor Point SRA on our way to Kenai and we found these gulls on the river beside Slidehole Campground.  In Alaska, Glaucous-winged x Herring Gull hybrids are common and I suspect that at least one of these birds is a hybrid.  Regardless of their identity, the birds were beautiful on their nest on the rock in the middle of the river.

Nesting gulls at Anchor Point SRA

Nesting gulls at Anchor Point SRA

We found this Northwestern Crow when we stopped for gas.  It looks just like an American Crow, but it’s a different species, so it adds to a birder’s life list.

Northwestern Crow

Northwestern Crow

We also had time that afternoon for a stop at Kenai NWR and a walk on the trail behind the headquarters in Soldotna.  This part of the state was quite different from Homer and we found the wooded trail just beautiful.  There was much lush mossy vegetation like that in the photo below.

Along the Kenai NWR headquarters trail

Along the Kenai NWR headquarters trail

Early the nest morning, July 1, we met our guide for the day, Ken Tarbox.  Ken and his wife Connie are largely responsible for the Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail Guide.  Ken is also one of the friendliest and most generous people we have met.  He told us that he likes to go out with visiting birders whenever his schedule allows.  Ken took us to all the birding hot spots around Kenai and Soldotna – the river flats, viewing platforms, the landfill, and even his yard and a friend’s yard.  We felt like we’d made a new friend and hope to go birding with Ken again.

Bonaparte’s Gulls were one of my favorites that day.  We watched this adult swimming and foraging by plunging into a little stream.  Here it is with the little fish that it caught.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

And, I saw my first juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull.

Juvenile Bonaparte's Gull

Juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull

One of our target birds for this part of the state was Spruce Grouse.  On our way to Seward the next morning, Diane and I drove Skilak Lake Road and enjoyed Pine Grosbeaks on the side of the road and Common Loons and Common Goldeneyes on the lakes, but we failed to find a grouse.  We decided that this was another good reason to go birding again in Alaska.

Ken had given us several tips on where to find American Dipper.  We did not find any at Tern Lake, but we found this cooperative bird at the next location we tried, Ptarmigan Creek Campground.

American Dipper

American Dipper

Diane had found the adorable and comfy Abode Well Cabins for our stay in Seward.  In addition to being clean and cute, birds were literally right outside our door.

Our Abode Well cabin near Seward

Our Abode Well cabin near Seward

Just a couple of blocks away was a yard with juvenile Varied Thrushes.  They were fairly easy to see with our binoculars, but they hid in the grass just well enough to make getting a photo a challenge.

Juvenile Varied Thrush

Juvenile Varied Thrush

There were also beautiful butterflies and wildflowers near our cabin.  This is an Arctic White butterfly on fireweed.

Arctic White butterfly on fireweed

Arctic White butterfly on fireweed

On July 3, after a little birding near our cabin neighborhood, we ventured into town.  Seward’s population of 2,500 swells to about 30,000 for the Independence Day festivities.  Main Street is completely blocked off to traffic and the streets fill with people.  Most come to run in or watch the Mt. Marathon Race, which has quite an interesting history.  According to legend, it began with two old guys arguing about whether it was possible to run up and down the rather steep Mount Marathon in less than an hour.  The first official race was in 1915 and it has since become an important part of the July 4th celebration in Seward.

Seward Harbor

Seward Harbor

We drove Lowell Point Road, which runs along the edge of the harbor, where we enjoyed dozens of gulls, a couple of Harlequin Ducks, and Pigeon Guillemots.  We drove the road a couple of times, hoping to get close enough to the Marbled Murrelet to get a photo.  We had stopped at the end of the road closest to town and were watching the gulls.  And, then things started happening so fast that I’m not entirely certain exactly what happened, but here’s how I think it went.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

A group of about eight young people were standing about 20 feet from where we were, also watching the birds.  Suddenly there were two Bald Eagles right in front of us.  One of the eagles caught a fish, the other tried to steal it, and the fish was dropped.  One eagle flew away.  One of the young men picked up the fish and threw it for the eagle.  The eagle swooped in to within 10-20 feet from all of us, but missed the fish.  This happened several times, the young man throwing the fish and the eagle attempting to catch it.  Excitement and enthusiastic shouts filled the air.  With one throw, the eagle came in especially close and the young man shouted “Hello America!”  And, we couldn’t imagine a more American place in the county than Seward, Alaska, on that gorgeous sunny Independence Day eve.

Shelley and Diane enjoying a seafood dinner

Shelley and Diane enjoying a seafood dinner

After a delicious dinner with a view of Seward Harbor at Ray’s Waterfront Restaurant, we ended the day with a drive on Nash Road to see the family of Trumpeter Swans that are regulars there.

Trumpter Swan family

Trumpter Swan family

The next morning it was time to head to the Anchorage Airport again, this time to fly home.  I will forever be grateful for 28 summer days in Alaska, truly the “trip of a lifetime.”  And, I’m especially grateful for the last week with Diane on the Kenai Peninsula.

Bald Eagle in tree

Bald Eagle

This is the sixth and last post about my trip to Alaska.  The other posts are:

Alaska 2015: There’s no place like Nome
Alaska 2015: The Pit Stop is Cancelled
Alaska 2015: Kenai Fjords and Denali National Park
Alaska 2015: To the Top of the World
Alaska 2015: Bird Nest Habitat

The birding trip with Bill Drummond and Dave Hursh was great, but it was rigorous with early starts and no down time.  I found myself looking forward more and more to the relaxing week with Diane on the Kenai Peninsula.  I didn’t expect to get any additional life birds, but it would be wonderful to spend time with a friend and we wouldn’t have to get up at 5:00 AM every morning.  After Diane and I both arrived at the Anchorage airport on June 27, she from Minneapolis and me from Barrow, we spent the afternoon birding close to the hotel.

To Homer and Seward

The next morning we set out for Homer.  It was only a little over four hours, but we had all day.  Our first stop was at Potter’s Marsh just outside of Anchorage, where the highlight was a Greater White-fronted Goose, a life bird for Diane.

Greater White-fronted Goose

Greater White-fronted Goose

We could have stayed there all day, but after a few hours, we got back on the road and continued on to the Kenai Peninsula.

Kenai Peninsula

The drive to Homer was breathtaking and ended with a warm welcome at Paula’s Place, our bed-and-breakfast home for the next two days.  We had the entire beautiful and comfortable lower floor to ourselves.  Paula’s warmth and hospitality made us want to stay forever.

Paula's Place, Homer, Alaska

Paula’s Place, Homer, Alaska

The following morning, June 29, was one of the best of the entire trip.  We spent the morning at Mossy Kilcher’s Seaside Farm.  It’s a real working farm with a hostel and guest cabins.  The place had a hippie atmosphere which made it feel a little like magically stepping back into the 1960’s.  Underlying it all was an incredible respect and love for all the animals who call the farm home.  We were especially touched by a very old horse who was given a large enclosure, food, and loving care even though he was too old to ride.

Seaside Farm

Seaside Farm

Mossy spent some time with us and we enjoyed meeting her as much as seeing her farm and birds.

Mossy and Shelley

Mossy Kilcher and me

She amazed us by knowing every bird and it’s history.  She pointed out one singing Fox Sparrow and told us where his nest was last year as well as this year.  She recognizes each individual bird by subtle differences in his song.  Mossy protects these birds by not allowing free-roaming cats or dogs on her property.

Bird Nest Habitat at Seaside Farm

Seaside Farm

We were delighted by baby birds everywhere.  Mossy told us that many Alaskans think of wild celery as a weed and cut it down, but she lets it grow because it’s good bird habitat.  We caught this pretty fledgling Hermit Thrush flitting around under wild celery.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

We were also treated to our best looks ever at Golden-crowned Sparrows.  Below is a cute baby followed by a photo of it with a parent.

Golden-crowned juvie

Juvenile Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrows

Golden-crowned Sparrows

After spending the entire morning at Mossy’s Seaside Farm, we tore ourselves away to check out some other birding spots near Homer.  After lunch, we went to Beluga Slough where we enjoyed a pair of Sandhill Cranes with their young colt.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Song Sparrows are common across North America, but the sub-species in Alaska is much darker than those in other parts of the county.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

We finished the day with dinner and a drive down the 4-mile Homer Spit, a world-famous birding hot spot.  The shorebirds for which it’s best known had passed through in May, but in June there were still many birds including thousands of gulls.  The photo below shows a flock of Black-legged Kittiwakes, a species we saw all over Alaska.

Black-legged Kittiwakes

Black-legged Kittiwakes

The Glaucous-winged Gulls in Homer were very accommodating photographic subjects.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Diane and I fell into bed that night tired and happy after an amazing first day in Homer.  We were up early the next morning for our boat trip with Karl Stoltzfus, owner and operator of Bay Excursions.  Karl is a serious birder and the local expert on Kachemak Bay wildlife. His small yellow boat was perfect for getting close to the birds. 

The Surfbird’s golden highlights glowed in the sun.

Surfbird

Surfbird

Sea otters were so cute floating on their backs.

Sea Otter

Sea Otter

It was great to get an up-close look at a pretty Black Guillemot.

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot

And, while I’d seen many Common Murres in Alaska, we got closest to them on Karl’s boat trip.

Common Murres

Common Murres

The three-hour Kachemak Bay trip was perfect.  Karl stayed close enough to land that the seas were smooth, a blessing for those of us who get seasick.  And, it was long enough to visit Gull Island and other highlights of the bay.  Most exciting for me was getting a good look at Kittlitz’s Murrelet, my last life bird in Alaska.  I had missed this bird on the Northwestern Fjord trip out of Seward, but with his small boat and excellent skills Karl got much closer to the birds.  Karl is very knowledgeable about the local wildlife and he shows respect for them by stopping his engine at a good distance and letting the boat drift towards the birds, and sea otters, so as not to endanger or alarm them.

Diane and Karl

Diane and Karl aboard the Torega.

Our time in Homer had been wonderful, but we had more places on the Kenai Peninsula to visit, so we packed up and headed on towards our next destination after lunch.  On the drive to Kenai, Diane and I both talked about our dreams of visiting Homer again.

Next story about my trip – Alaska 2015: Hello America!

Our days in Alaska were going quickly and it was soon time for the last segment of the trip – Barrow, the northernmost city in the US.  Barrow is about 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle and roughly 1,300 miles south of the North Pole.  As you might expect, it was cold, and windy too, so we were often chilly even in our warmest winter wear.  Barrow is small with a population of about 4,400; approximately 61 percent are Iñupiat Eskimo.  Like Nome, no roads connect it to any other city in Alaska.

Anchorage to Barrow

Anchorage to Barrow

Our flight from Anchorage on June 25 arrived in the early afternoon and we checked into the Airport Inn hotel.  We started seeing birds before we even got on the bus to go birding.  A Snowy Owl was perched on a tall pole just down the street from the hotel.  Snow Buntings were nesting in a box attached to the side of the house across the street.  We learned that these nest boxes are common because Snow Buntings are thought to bring good luck.

To the Top of the World

Our main targets in Barrow were eiders (sea ducks) with all four of the world’s eider species breeding there.  For many birders, Spectacled Eider is the holy grail of waterfowl.  And, we did see them, although we had only distant scope views.  I did not get a photo, but here is Cindy Shults’ postcard.  More about Cindy later in this story.

Spectacled Eiders

Spectacled Eiders

The most beautiful duck turned out to be Steller’s Eider and we did get good looks at several pair of this species.

Steller's Eiders

Steller’s Eiders

On all of Bill Drummond’s trips, he has everyone vote for their top five birds using whatever criteria they choose.  Steller’s Eider was voted the top bird for our Alaska trip with Spectacled Eider coming in second.

We also saw our first Red Phalaropes of the trip, life birds for me.  Just like the Red-necked Phalaropes that we saw earlier in the trip, the females are more brightly colored than the males.

Red Phalarope

Red Phalarope

After seeing our target birds on the first day, we were free to just enjoy Barrow and more birds for the next day and a half.  During the days leading up to Barrow, trip co-leader Dave Hursh had enthusiastically talked about the booming of Pectoral Sandpipers and how special it would be to hear it.  I didn’t anticipate that it would be all that special.  But I loved the call when I heard it.  I failed to get a recording, but I found a good description of the call in the September 1898 issue of the periodical “Birds and All Nature.”

“The note is deep, hollow, and resonant, but at the same time liquid and musical, and may be represented by a repetition of the syllables too-u, too-u, too-u, too-u, too-u.”  The full text of this short article can be found here Pectoral Sandpiper.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

Another bird that I really enjoyed seeing in Barrow was Long-billed Dowitcher.  While most of the others were scoping distant birds on the water, I enjoyed some quality time with the phalaropes and this bird.  I had never seen a Long-billed Dowitcher at such close range and I usually see dowitchers in winter plumage rather than breeding plumage.  Additionally, there was no chance of mistaken identification because the very similar Short-billed Dowitcher does not range as far north as Barrow.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

The Barrow community is traditionally known as Ukpeagvik, “place where snowy owls are hunted.”  This words on this sign surprised me a little, but it was a stark reminder of the challenges of life in the far north.  Everyone is just trying to find enough food to survive.

Where we hunt Snowy Owls

I enjoyed more quality time with a few special birds again on our second day.  In Barrow, these birds were as common as robins and chickadees are at home, but I had no idea when or if I would ever see them again.  The two birds below were seen from a long boardwalk out over the tundra along with a Semipalmated Sandpiper on her nest and a female Pectoral Sandpiper.

Lapland Longspur (female)

Lapland Longspur (female)

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

A sea watch was the plan for our last morning and I almost didn’t go thinking that all the birds would be out so far that I couldn’t see them.  But, this morning turned out to be a wonderful end to our stay in Barrow.  On our way to the ocean we stumbled into Cindy Shults’ yard, the only one that we saw in Barrow with bird feeders.  The yard itself was interesting and we enjoyed the birds including several Hoary Redpolls, a just fledged Snow Bunting, and an unexpected Pine Siskin, which is rare that far north.

Hoary Redpoll

Hoary Redpoll

Cindy came out to talk with us and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting her and talking about life in Barrow.  Cindy is a freelance photographer who owns Windows to the World Photography.  She was also the manager of the Barrow Job Center until recently when the job center was closed.

Cindy Shults

Cindy Shults in her yard

After visiting with Cindy and her birds, we tore ourselves away and went to watch for sea birds.  That turned out to be more fun than I’d expected.  I did see birds and I learned how to identify White-winged Scoter and Black Guillemot at a great distance.  We also had fun talking with a young man who had recently graduated from high school.  We think that his friends dared him to come talk to us, but he seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing.  He was very personable and smart and he shared his dreams of going to college elsewhere and then returning to Barrow.

Soon, it was time to catch our plane back to Anchorage. We packed up and said goodbye to our new friends, Andrew and Nancy, managers of the Airport Inn.  They hope to buy the hotel and we joked about how it would help business if we returned in February and brought friends with us.

Andrew and Nancy in the Airport Inn breakfast room with their daughter, Ellie

Andrew and Nancy in the Airport Inn breakfast room with their daughter, Ellie

Dave Hursh had left the night before with a few members of our group for Dutch Harbor.  Once the rest of us arrived back in Anchorage, everyone would go different directions, most heading home.  But, my adventure in Alaska was not yet over.  My friend, Diane, would fly from Minneapolis to meet me at the Anchorage airport and we would spend a week on the Kenai Peninsula.  That story is next – Alaska 2015: Bird Nest Habitat