Monday, May 26, 2014

New Massachusetts Big Day record – 24 May 2014 (195 spp)

Listening for flight calls and nighthawks in Pittsfield at 3am
(left to right: Peter Trimble, Vern Laux, Luke Seitz, Ian Davies)

On May 24, 2014, a group of four crazed birders set off for an attempt at the Massachusetts big day record, and succeeded, ending the day with a total of 195. Our intrepid team consisted of Luke Seitz, Peter Trimble, Vern Laux, and myself. Starting in the Berkshires and ending on the Cape via Plum Island, our plan was dubbed “MAdness” by Jacob Drucker – a fitting name I think! We drove slightly over 600 miles, with our primary goal of getting 200. Although we fell short of the 200 mark, we managed to surpass the prior record of 193, only by two species! I have not the slightest doubt that 200 is achievable, and I believe that 210 is an attainable total with a lot of planning and a little luck.

We had some unfortunate misses, as always happens (Winter Wren, Cliff Swallow, Lesser Yellowlegs, Eastern Screech-Owl), but also had some completely unexpected species to partially make up for that (Black-legged Kittiwake, Red-necked Phalarope, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron).

We were originally planning on running the day on Thursday the 22nd, but weather precluded an attempt on either the 22nd or 23rd – leaving us with the only option of Memorial Day Saturday. Traffic turned out to not be an issue aside from a couple slow stretches through Boston – a pleasant surprise. At both midnights during the day it was drizzling, which might have helped in our surprising miss of screech-owl, but surely contributed to some of the nice flight calls we heard in the first night.

There was definitely no way that this total could have been reached without some prior scouting, part of which was carried out by team members, but invaluable assistance was also given for the eastern part of the state by Ryan Schain and Tim Spahr, and for the Berkshires and Amherst area by Rene Wendell, Larry Therrien, Jonathan Pierce, Steve Motyl, Gael Hurley, and last but not least, Ed Neumuth. Our thanks to all of you! Ed also provided delicious pasta and warm beds the evening before and for scouting in weeks prior, along with his bottomless knowledge of October Mountain State Forest – there is definitely no way that we could have done this without him.

One of the most enjoyable parts about the big day for me (aside from the birds) is the scouting and planning aspect. You get to take knowledge of habitats and distribution in the state, use it to locate birds, and then string all the locations together into a coherent route that maximizes the potential. Then at the end of it all, you get to go spend a whirlwind day trying to execute your planned-to-the-minute birding extravaganza, and just hope that the feathery fellows cooperate.

At 10:45 on Friday evening we left Ed’s house, replete with caffeinated beverages and ready to go. Most of the ride to the southwestern corner of the state was through drizzle and light rain, which may have ultimately been a blessing to our predawn efforts. Midnight found us near a Sandhill Crane nesting location, where in our brief midnight vigil we heard no birds calling form the natal marsh – perhaps a factor of the rain. Off to our next spot, a Black Vulture roost that is used only half of the time, where we also came up as empty as the branches of the roost tree. However, here we started picking up our first nocturnal migrants, which were moving at lower elevations due to the inclement weather. Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes helped make up for the lack of vultures and cranes so early on. Our next couple stops for Eastern Screech-Owl both came up short, and this was a bird we would eventually miss! Making up for the lack of screech-owl was a completely unexpected Long-eared Owl hoot heard twice (!), coming from the depths of a swampy riverine area in Sheffield. Flight calls were still pumping overhead too, and we got Canada and Black-throated Blue Warblers, Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat, and American Redstart under our belts before 1am!

Heading north along Route 7 up to the Stockbridge area, we stopped at an extensive marsh complex, the only spot where Pied-billed Grebe has been out west this year. In 20 minutes of listening at the edge of the marsh we picked up the grebe, a Great Horned Owl, and a fantastic cuckoo flight overhead – with 13 Black-billed and a single Yellow-billed tallied in this short period! Excited at the prospect of picking up more nocturnal migrants, we continued heading north towards Pittsfield with high hopes for good listening conditions under the lights downtown. A stop at a wonderful marsh in Lenox provided Common Gallinule, Sora, Virginia Rail, and Barred Owl, but not the hoped for Least Bittern or Solitary Sandpiper.

Once in Pittsfield, we stopped right in the middle of downtown (not too crowded at 3am), where we heard more Swainson’s and a second Gray-cheeked Thrush, but no Common Nighthawks or other desired species overhead. The movement overhead wasn’t nearly as impressive here as it had been further south, and one of the major strategy regrets of mine for the day was not finding a well-lit place down near Great Barrington to listen at. Departing here, we stopped at a small lake to pick up Common Merganser visible on the water in the ambient light. After a last nocturnal listening effort, which included some amusing conversation with both a mall cop and the local police force, we ascended to Washington and the wonderful October Mountain State Forest.

Bouncing along dirt roads in the predawn blackness, we arrived around 4am at a spot for Northern Saw-Whet Owl, which cooperated nicely for us. The Whip-poor-will that had been around for the past 3-4 days was notably absent, but before dawn broke we picked up winnowing Wilson’s Snipe, a few more Barred Owls, and American Woodcock. All of this was still in moderate fog and occasional drizzle, so we were lucky that species like the saw-whet were calling!

As the clock neared 5, dawn chorus reluctantly began to greet the gray, damp dawn. This is definitely the most exciting time of any big day, and we quickly began to add quality birds – American Bittern, Mourning Warbler, Ruffed Grouse, spruce groves with Golden-crowned Kinglet, Blackburnian Warblers, and Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pileated Woodpecker, and much more. A quick visit to a Broad-winged Hawk nest that I had found earlier this month resulted in my complete inability to locate the nest tree, even though I’d seen it as recently as Wednesday! This boneheaded move cost us a few precious dawn minutes, but we quickly made them back as we picked various species out of the car window while driving, cutting out future stops for species like Brown Creeper, Purple Finch, and Nashville Warbler. Most fortunately, we had a Broad-winged Hawk calling, salvaging my nest snafu.

After about 30 minutes of daylight the only expected things we still needed from this area were Slate-colored Junco, Winter Wren, and Common Raven. Departing the forest, we picked up the junco, but left the wren and raven on the table for the moment (and we would never get the wren!). A quick visit to a nearby beaver swamp got Hooded Merganser and Wood Duck, with an Eastern Wood-Pewee out the window on the drive adeptly picked out by Peter. A stop at nearby Ed’s house got us Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and the Louisiana Waterthrush cooperated perfectly down the street.

Running slightly ahead of schedule, we began to head east, stopping briefly for Alder Flycatcher and a couple more fruitless attempts at Winter Wren. We even drove through Peru, but the mountains of Peru left something to be desired – not nearly as much cloud forest as we were hoping for, with less South American specialties. Arriving at our second Sandhill Crane location, this one in Worthington, we were dismayed to find the crane fields empty and quiet. This wasn’t helped by the friendly comment of a lady walking past that “the cranes were calling all last night”! We still got a few good species here, with a nice Tennessee Warbler picked out by Luke joining Cedar Waxwing and Eastern Bluebird on our list.

Descending into the Connecticut River Valley, a quick stop at the Northampton-Hadley bridge did not feature the desired Peregrine Falcon, but nearby fields in Hadley were quite productive, with Bald Eagle, Orchard Oriole, Vesper Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, and our only Spotted Sandpipers of the day. Heading south along the east side of the Connecticut River, a brief stop at the base of Skinner State Park got Worm-eating Warbler, complemented nicely by a Blackpoll Warbler along the road nearby. Running right on time, we arrived at Westover Air Force Base around 8am, and were treated to the most perfect grassland experience you could hope for on a big day. Upon arrival, in the first 20 seconds we had Grasshopper and Savannah Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlark singing, followed almost immediately by spotting a couple Upland Sandpipers and an American Kestrel – the entire birding experience took about 4 minutes, and we hit the road for the North Shore ahead of schedule and in high spirits!

The drive helped our raptor list, with numerous Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vulture, and a distant and poor view of Peregrine Falcon on the People’s Bank in Worcester. We also had a Common Raven flyover on 495 – a clutch flyby and our only one of the day. Arriving in West Newbury, we quickly picked up Yellow-throated Vireo, Ruddy Duck, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, but our Ring-necked Pheasant wasn’t calling like he should have been!

Moving east towards Plum Island, we had one our most disheartening stops of the day, where the four Cliff Swallow nests on the underside of the Hanover St Bridge in Newburyport seemed to have no tenants – resulting in one of our more foolish misses of the day. After a quick and unproductive spin through Oak Hill Cemetery and our gas stop for the day, we were off to Plum. We had many species of waterfowl staked out that had been present here in days prior, as well as high hopes for shorebirds and landbird migrants, but Plum had other plans for us. From the entrance through Hellcat, there was no sign of the wigeon, pintail, and Green-winged Teal that had been present, no Northern Harrier, new songbird migrants, or Lesser Yellowlegs. Hellcat did provide a Blue-winged Teal in Bill Forward Pool, but almost nothing else. Against our better judgment, we went down to Stage Island Pool to try for Least Bittern and maybe a Lesser Yellowlegs in the marsh, but had no luck there either. Returning north another quick check of Bill Forward Pool yielded no new dabbling ducks, but a Short-billed Dowitcher here would turn out to be our only one of the day. A quick look off of Lot 1 added Purple Martin in the parking lot and Roseate Tern (nice pick Luke!) in addition to Piping Plover and healthy numbers of Long-tailed Ducks.

Leaving Plum, we checked Newburyport Harbor by Joppa Flats, where our other chance at pheasant came up empty – our consolation prizes being Green Heron, Brant, and Bonaparte’s Gull in the harbor. Another brief visit to the Hanover St bridge cemented our miss of Cliff Swallow. In lower spirits after missing so many staked out birds, we were elated to have a male Wilson’s Phalarope at Pikul’s on 1A – the perfect morale booster, right when we needed it. Since we were running slightly behind schedule, a spot in Ipswich had to be cut to keep us on course, making our next destination Kettle Island.

Rather than check marshes in the hopes of ibis and Little Blue Heron, we had decided to go straight to the source – Kettle Island! Although adding a bit of drive time, this paid off, with both the ibis and heron seen in flight over the island in several minutes of scanning. We also picked up Great Crested Flycatcher calling here (finally!), and were trying to downplay the fact that we still needed Northern Flicker..a truly impressive miss at this point in the game.

One of the most worrisome parts of the day, for me at least, is going through the Boston area. One accident or road/lane closure and traffic could put the kibosh on a lot of the remaining birding. We lucked out this time, and a quick stop at Revere Beach got us Manx Shearwater, a single bird spotted in flight by Vern just as we were about to pack up and leave!

South of the city we hit small pockets of slow traffic, but nothing apocalyptic, resulting in our arrival at Plymouth Airport about 15 minutes behind schedule. We quickly picked up our three targets here (Prairie Warbler, Field Sparrow, and Horned Lark), and were off to Manomet. Manomet Point provided Great Cormorant, Black Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, and Northern Gannet, but no Purple Sandpipers. A quick stop nearby at my yard provided one of the most gratifying experiences of the day – a flicker rocketing across a pond directly at us, saving the embarrassment of missing that!

Next stop Cape Cod, we nabbed Fish Crow and a wonderful Cooper’s Hawk along 3A in Manomet, and proceeded to have an entirely traffic-less drive to Harwich. Here we had flashbacks to Plum Island, as our staked out Greater Scaup and Green-winged Teal of Peter’s had vanished, leaving us with no new species added in our first couple stops. At this point we knew we were within reach of the record, so these two misses really hurt. However, we had no idea what wonders we had in store for us in Chatham.

Cowyard Lane was fairly good, giving us a good slug of new shorebirds, but there were no Red Knot or White-rumped Sandpipers, with the latter species being one we would eventually miss.  Next stop was Chatham Light, and this is where it really got fun. Between fielding questions about what we were looking at, we quickly spotted Lesser Black-backed Gull on the beach, but with no sign of the Iceland and Glaucous that have been around, we were getting nervous. About a minute later, Luke calls out  “small gull coming straight towards us far out over the breakers, get on this!” As the bird gets closer, it banks once, showing us the beautiful mantle pattern of a young Black-legged Kittiwake! I guess the northeast winds helped us out! Following this, Vern had a Parasitic Jaeger chasing terns, and I picked up a small shorebird far offshore, heading north low to the waves with erratic flight – eventually coming close enough to show itself as a Red-necked Phalarope! With these bonus birds under our belt we headed to Morris Island, with the tide perfect for shorebirds.

Viewing off of the south side of the island, we were treated to an incredible spectacle of tens of thousands of birds spread out along the flats of South Beach and North Monomoy, from carpets of gulls, shorebirds, and cormorants to a massive vortex of terns over South Monomoy. Here we finally had a staked out duck remaining, in the form of a male Lesser Scaup hanging with scoter. The thousands of gulls on the flats gave up at least one Iceland, but we couldn’t find a Glaucous. Northern Harrier over South Beach made up for missing it on Plum Island, and another Parasitic Jaeger ruining the evening of many a tern allowed all of us to get on that species. We got Red Knot in a flock of Black-bellieds on South Beach, and then the final crowning moment of the day – a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron departing North Monomoy with a small group of Black-crowneds at dusk!

With about 40 minutes before sunset, we left Morris Island at what we thought was 189 species. A quick stop north of the Morris Island Causeway got us Northern Bobwhite for 190, but no sign of the Tricolored Herons that were so regular a couple weeks ago. We made the perhaps foolhardy decision to try to make it to Coast Guard Beach before sunset to try to get Lesser Yellowlegs and White-rumped Sandpiper. No sign of Common Nighthawk on the drive up, and once we arrived the flats were already covered, signaling defeat on the shorebird front. A scan of distant gulls turned up another Iceland picked out by Luke, but no Glaucous here either. We admitted defeat for daytime birds, and headed to Wellfleet for Clapper Rail.

Arriving at the Herring River marshes, we negotiated a seriously bumpy and narrow road, and getting there at dusk, immediately picked up Whip-poor-will and Clapper Rail for 191 and 192. With good chances at Eastern Screech-Owl and Chuck-wills-widow, as well as a Red-shouldered Hawk nest, we felt pretty good about getting at least two more species. However, a stop in Orleans for Chuck-wills-widow was conspicuously silent, casting a grim silence over the car as we drove back to the Falmouth area for another Chuck, and a shot at screech and the hawk nest.

No dice at our first screech spot, but we collectively breathed a sigh of relief that the Red-shouldered was on its nest and visible – 193. Next stop was for a second Chuck-wills-widow..and we still had a third to try if need be. We pulled up at the spot at around 10:30, and immediately upon shutting the car off, heard the Chuck singing away for #194! Happy but barely conscious, we headed back to Manomet to try two more spots for screech, but in the drizzle we got no response from what are usually reliable birds! At this point we had 20 minutes left, but our collective mental presence could no longer power us to go check a couple other spots for screech, so we happily passed out instead. You might have noticed that I only have the Chuck listed as 194 above – upon checking the tally again the following day, we realized that the Long-eared Owl had not been factored into the 194, bringing the total up to 195! I left the numbers as we thought they were in the field, since we were hanging on every new bird at the time.

The view off of Morris Island in Chatham, where we had so many vital additions and unexpected sightings

Although we didn’t achieve 200, it was still a wonderful day! The real deal breaker was Plum Island, which had potential for as many as 10 species that we did not encounter there. Missing species like Winter Wren and Cliff Swallow, which should be locks, did not help either. I think that with some route tweaking, lingering waterfowl that don’t leave unexpectedly, and a good migration event, 210 or even 215 is possible. But first we need 200 – a great project for next year! Below I have outlined all the misses, and our total species list.


Sandhill Crane
Solitary Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
Eastern Screech-Owl
Winter Wren
Cliff Swallow
Wilson's Warbler


Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Greater Scaup
Ring-necked Pheasant
Sooty Shearwater
Least Bittern
Tricolored Heron
Black Vulture
Sharp-shinned Hawk
White-rumped Sandpiper
Glaucous Gull
Common Nighthawk
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Hooded Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Lincoln’s Sparrow

MAY 24, 2014 SPECIES LIST (195)
The numbers after the species denote coded rarity – where 1 = "easy", 2 = "missable", 3 = "tough", 4 = "very hard", and 5 = species not even factored into planning.

Brant            2
Canada Goose            1
Mute Swan            1
Wood Duck            2
Gadwall            2
American Black Duck            1
Mallard            1
Blue-winged Teal            3
Common Eider            1
Surf Scoter            2
White-winged Scoter            2
Black Scoter            2
Long-tailed Duck            2
Lesser Scaup            3
Hooded Merganser            2
Common Merganser            2
Red-breasted Merganser            1
Ruddy Duck            3
Northern Bobwhite            3
Ruffed Grouse            1
Wild Turkey            2
Red-throated Loon            2
Common Loon            1
Pied-billed Grebe            3
Manx Shearwater            2
Northern Gannet            2
Double-crested Cormorant            1
Great Cormorant            2
American Bittern            1
Great Blue Heron            1
Great Egret            1
Snowy Egret            1
Little Blue Heron            3
Green Heron            2
Black-crowned Night-Heron            2
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron            5
Glossy Ibis            2
Turkey Vulture            1
Osprey            1
Northern Harrier            3
Cooper's Hawk            2
Bald Eagle            2
Red-shouldered Hawk            2
Broad-winged Hawk            2
Red-tailed Hawk            1
Clapper Rail            3
Virginia Rail            1
Sora            2
Common Gallinule            2
American Oystercatcher            2
Black-bellied Plover            1
Semipalmated Plover            1
Piping Plover            2
Killdeer            1
Spotted Sandpiper            2
Greater Yellowlegs            1
Willet            1
Upland Sandpiper            2
Ruddy Turnstone            1
Red Knot            3
Sanderling            2
Dunlin            1
Least Sandpiper            2
Semipalmated Sandpiper            1
Short-billed Dowitcher            2
Wilson's Snipe            2
American Woodcock            1
Wilson's Phalarope            4
Red-necked Phalarope            5
Parasitic Jaeger            3
Bonaparte's Gull            2
Black-legged Kittiwake            5
Laughing Gull            1
Ring-billed Gull            1
Herring Gull            1
Iceland Gull            3
Lesser Black-backed Gull            3
Great Black-backed Gull            1
Least Tern            1
Roseate Tern            3
Common Tern            1
Rock Pigeon            1
Mourning Dove            1
Yellow-billed Cuckoo            3
Black-billed Cuckoo            3
Great Horned Owl            2
Barred Owl            1
Long-eared Owl            4
Northern Saw-whet Owl            2
Chuck-will's-widow            2
Eastern Whip-poor-will            1
Chimney Swift            1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird            2
Belted Kingfisher            2
Red-bellied Woodpecker            1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker            1
Downy Woodpecker            1
Hairy Woodpecker            2
Northern Flicker            1
Pileated Woodpecker            2
American Kestrel            2
Peregrine Falcon            2
Eastern Wood-Pewee            1
Alder Flycatcher            1
Willow Flycatcher            1
Least Flycatcher            1
Eastern Phoebe            1
Great Crested Flycatcher            1
Eastern Kingbird            1
Yellow-throated Vireo            2
Blue-headed Vireo            1
Warbling Vireo            2
Red-eyed Vireo            1
Blue Jay            1
American Crow            1
Fish Crow            2
Common Raven            2
Horned Lark            2
Northern Rough-winged Swallow            1
Purple Martin            2
Tree Swallow            1
Bank Swallow            1
Barn Swallow            1
Black-capped Chickadee            1
Tufted Titmouse            1
Red-breasted Nuthatch            2
White-breasted Nuthatch            1
Brown Creeper            2
House Wren            1
Marsh Wren            1
Carolina Wren            1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher            2
Golden-crowned Kinglet            1
Eastern Bluebird            2
Veery            1
Gray-cheeked Thrush            3
Swainson's Thrush            2
Hermit Thrush            1
Wood Thrush            1
American Robin            1
Gray Catbird            1
Brown Thrasher            2
Northern Mockingbird            1
European Starling            1
Cedar Waxwing            2
Ovenbird            1
Worm-eating Warbler            2
Louisiana Waterthrush            2
Northern Waterthrush            1
Blue-winged Warbler            2
Black-and-white Warbler            1
Tennessee Warbler            3
Nashville Warbler            2
Mourning Warbler            3
Common Yellowthroat            1
American Redstart            1
Northern Parula            2
Magnolia Warbler            1
Blackburnian Warbler            1
Yellow Warbler            1
Chestnut-sided Warbler            1
Blackpoll Warbler            2
Black-throated Blue Warbler            1
Pine Warbler            1
Yellow-rumped Warbler            1
Prairie Warbler            2
Black-throated Green Warbler            1
Canada Warbler            2
Eastern Towhee            1
Chipping Sparrow            1
Field Sparrow            1
Vesper Sparrow            2
Savannah Sparrow            1
Grasshopper Sparrow            2
Saltmarsh Sparrow            2
Seaside Sparrow            3
Song Sparrow            1
Swamp Sparrow            1
White-throated Sparrow            1
Dark-eyed Junco            1
Scarlet Tanager            1
Northern Cardinal            1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak            2
Indigo Bunting            2
Bobolink            1
Red-winged Blackbird            1
Eastern Meadowlark            2
Common Grackle            1
Brown-headed Cowbird            1
Orchard Oriole            2
Baltimore Oriole            1
House Finch            1
Purple Finch            2
American Goldfinch            1
House Sparrow            1

Monday, January 21, 2013

Mexico - Yucatán through Calakmul 12/31/12 - 1/1/13

Gray-throated Chat

A few days after my last post the last two members of our intrepid party arrived, and after our last night in relative luxury with my parents we headed off on our odyssey across southern Mexico. We left on the 31st of December, facing about a 5 hour drive to our home for the night - the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Calakmul is a famous location for birds and also for Mayan ruins, featuring a structure that towers up to 148 feet, one of the tallest of all the Mayan pyramids! Another nice feature here is that the structures aren't roped off, unlike many of the other archeological sites in the region, so you're able to climb to the top and look across the unbroken jungle stretching in all directions.

Panorama from the top of the pyramid - click to enlarge

            We arrived at dusk on the 31st at our destination – a place called Campamento Yaax’Che that rents out tents for roughly $10/person/night and is right along the entrance road to the ruins, something that no other budget accommodations can boast. After a reasonable nights sleep, including being woken up by Howler Monkeys at 1am (my first animal of 2013!) we set off down the 60 kilometer entrance road predawn to try to get there as the sun rose. Unfortunately the gate was not open until shortly after 6am, so we had to content ourselves with hanging around the parking lot right in front of it, which featured Bat Falcons cavorting overhead, underlain by the sounds of Mottled Owl and both Collared and Barred Forest-Falcons.

Ocellated Turkey

            Once the gate opened we headed down the remainder of the entrance road, periodically startling groups of the extremely gaudy Ocellated Turkey off of the pavement and watching them comically trot off into the woods. We finally arrived at the entrance to the ruins a couple hours after dawn due to birding along the road, and upon entering the park proper immediately came upon an antswarm. It was right on the footpath, and featured Ruddy and Northern Barred-Woodcreepers, a pair of Gray-throated Chats, and other species such as Red-throated Ant-Tanager and Hooded Warbler. We spent well over an hour photographing these birds that were completely unafraid of us, feeding almost at our feet on the insects that were fleeing from the mass of army ants that sought to devour them. In fact, we spent so much time there that our window of time to see the ruins and still complete the 4-5 hour drive in the afternoon was narrowing quite rapidly. This resulted in some serious speedwalking along the trails towards the big pyramid: Estructura II. Of course, we had no real idea where it was, and actually took a long circuitous route to get there, but we found it, climbed it, took the requisite photos, and made it back to the car in time to head back out. Our amazing views from the top also featured a couple juvenile King Vultures and a Bat Falcon right at eye level. We definitely wished we had more time there, we walked by so many interesting things in our rush to pack everything into a half-day.

Ruddy Woodcreeper, an antswarm feature

            Back on the road we quickly refueled with some delicious empanadas and then drove all afternoon to the town of Palenque, already off of the Yucatán Peninsula, and where I will next pick up this narrative!

The other three members of the party taking photos of Bat Falcons and other things

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Mexico - winter break 2012-2013

Gartered Trogon, Cobá Ruins

As the title suggests, I am lucky enough this winter to be spending the duration of my time off from school, 5 weeks, in Mexico! I've been here since Dec 16th, staying with my parents in the town of Puerto Morelos, near Cancún on the Yucatán Peninsula. The place we’re staying is nice, a block off the beach with a view over the ocean from the living room of our third floor rental. For the first two weeks I’m based out of here, and then the real fun starts. A few of my friends are coming down as well, and we’re embarking on a 2,400 mile roadtrip from here near Cancún down to the state of Chiapas, across to Oaxaca state, and then back up in a giant loop to where we started. During this we should see over 500 species of birds, including many species that are endemic to Mexico or northern Central America.
Before they got/get here, my parents and I visited some of the local areas – snorkeling off of the beach by our condo, visiting the Mayan ruins of Cobá on the day of “the end of the world”. Somewhat predictably, at 11:11 the world didn’t end, nor at 12:21:12, or at any other time throughout the day. Perhaps next time.
Our first arrival from the states who was part of our initial group was my friend Luke Seitz, who arrived on Christmas day after a long and arduous journey from Portland, ME to Cancun – 22 hours total travel time, and topped off by quite a fiasco of a pickup here at the airport. Once we saw online that his plane had landed, my dad and I headed to the airport to meet him, but of course it wouldn’t be that easy. For some reason, the way that the airport is organized is that the only people that can access the place where arrivals come out are taxis and resort shuttles – no private cars or even pedestrians. In addition, the entire airport is made of one-way roads that all take you back to the very start, so you have to do massive loops each time you miss something. It ended up taking over an hour to successfully get Luke, and required getting airport personnel to cross the fence, go through the gate, fetch Luke, and bring him back to where normal people were allowed to be. Definitely the most difficult airport meeting I’ve ever been a part of!
Luke and I have five days here, through the 30th, until the two remaining members arrive from the States: Jess Johnson and Keenan Yakola, friends of mine from Massachusetts. Between now and then Luke and I are going to be getting SCUBA certified, which we started on the other day, and also going out to nearby Cozumel Island, where there are 3 species of bird that occur nowhere else. The underwater scene here is mesmerizing, with huge Spotted Eagle Rays seen while snorkeling right off the beach, thousands of fish including small colorful species and good numbers of big Barracuda – and even some Green Sea Turtles on our first dive yesterday.
It has been a great trip so far, and I look forward to seeing what the rest of it will bring!

Geoffrey's (Yucatán) Spider Monkey, Puerto Morelos

Friday, October 26, 2012

Alaskan wrap-up

Shot of camp again - the photos in this post consist of some of my favorites of the season

All in all, if you hadn’t gathered from all my posts leading up until now, it was an amazing summer. A unique experience, living in the middle of the wilderness with 5-7 other people worked out quite well since our crew was all good-humored, hard-working, and fun to be around. The potential for social disaster in small field crews is a definite reality, luckily one that was mainly avoided in this case.
The nature up there was out of this world, both at the Canning and then in our post-trip to the Kenai Peninsula. We only had 70 or so species of bird at the field site on the North Slope, but some of them that I talked about above, such as Spectacled Eider or Buff-breasted Sandpiper, are truly special.

Buff-breasted Sandpipers displaying

Of course, not all in the world is birds, as I need to be reminded sometimes, and the mammals exemplified this fact well. We ended up with 21 species of mammals throughout the whole trip, including roughly 30,000 caribou, all members of the Porcupine Herd, a well-known herd of animals that totals around 150,000 individuals whose seasonal migration takes them right past the area of our camp. The large carnivore show was also very impressive, like the American Serengeti as I said before, with eight Grizzly (Brown) Bears, 6 Gray Wolves, and daily Arctic Foxes. The mammals did not stop down in the Kenai area, illustrated with Black Bear and Orca, Mountain Goat and Humpback Whale, Sea Otter and Moose.

Pacific Loon

Apart from the flesh-and-blood life up there, the landscapes and other biota were awesome too, with massive expanses of spongy tundra extending as far as you can see up on the North Slope, to down in the Kenai where large evergreen forests dominate, where you silently walk under the boughs of the conifers on a bed of needles, a world apart from the other side of the state. One of the things that struck me was how primal and wild most of the state still was, even in some areas off of main roads – something that we never really encounter down in the lower 48 states.

American Golden-Plover

I know I have been trying to describe what it was like up there, but there is no real way to convey the experiences exactly as they were. There were the times when you’re slogging through knee-deep water with a 30lb pack, 7 layers on, toting a shotgun, and then the fog rolls in and you can’t see 20 feet away, no knowledge of where you are, where anything else is, and it doesn’t really matter. An hour later the sun could be out, the wind could die, and you could be stripping down to just a thermal layer over your tshirt, and throw on sunglasses, suddenly able to see dozens of miles at the frosted mountains standing vigil over the flatness. You might be walking along and get the feeling you’re being watched, only to turn around and see an Arctic Fox or a Caribou not too far behind you, just watching you.

Sabine's Gull

One of the many unique experiences that came with the trip up there was that of being cut off from the world. I’ve traveled extensively in Latin America, but even there you go to an internet café every few days at the most. Here you get your 10 minutes of satellite phone a week, and that is it. No knowledge of news, politics, sports, gossip, anything. And it was wonderful.
Our final tally for our 5 week season up there was 288 nests found, of which roughly 80% failed due to predation by Arctic Foxes, with another 3-5% unknown whether they were predated or if they hatched. This is a slightly above average for nests found, but extremely above average for predation. At other sites along the North Slope they had normal success years, so it appears to have been an isolated occurrence, and one that will surely even out over time, since it is just part of the rhythm of nature.

Red-necked Phalarope

It was an incredible experience overall, one that I am honored to have been a part of, and definitely something I’m considering returning to next year. Thanks all for reading, and perhaps I’ll find some more topics to write about from the New England area before I travel again – time shall tell.
For more photos than have been shown here, see the below links:
Canning River:
Kenai Peninsula:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

July 14-16 - Kenai Peninsula, Homer

A common sight in Alaska, this moose was expertly pointed out by Alan

The evening of the return from our glacier cruise out of Seward found us headed for Homer, a couple hundred miles away on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula. Since the sun sets so late here, only being dark for 3-4 hours in the middle of the night, we were still driving in daylight even though we were on the road until 11:30 at night.
We stopped a couple places en route, at a supermarket for some sandwich materials and then at the Kenai NWR headquarters for the range-restricted Aleutian Tern, a breeding species there. We were able to pick out one of the terns feeding over the lake just behind the headquarters buildings, the first time I have seen a species of tern for the first time after 10pm!
Eventually we arrived at our destination for the night – a random road in the hills above Homer, where we ate sandwiches on the hood of the car, which we then proceeded to sleep in. For those of you out there who look down on sleeping in cars, our ride was quite a comfy sleeping place in my opinion!

View over the town of Homer from near where we slept

The following morning we checked a bunch of local areas in the downtown Homer area, and then spent the afternoon at nearby Anchor Point, a little coastal promontory that turned out to be great for seawatching. It was also a popular place for fishing, and the large number of fishermen there would fillet their catch and toss the carcasses into the surf edge, which served to attract lots of gulls, crows, and eagles.

This immature Bald Eagle was along the docks on Homer Spit, a peninsula right in downtown Homer

The eagle show was spectacular, with about 20 individuals feeding along the coastline, flying along at eye level less than 30 feet away at times. The congregation of close to a thousand gulls featured a Slaty-backed Gull mixed in with the myriad Glaucous-winged Gulls – this Slaty-backed that we found being the only one in the entire US at that time apart from one other elsewhere in Alaska!

Slaty-backed Gull (left), standing out among the surrounding Glaucous-winged Gulls

Adult Bald Eagle dropping down onto a fish carcass

Landing gear down!

This eagle came and landed in a tree right next to us, this photo is not cropped at all!

That evening we went and searched for Boreal Owl in the wood above town, unfortunately without any form of success. While thinking about our plans for the next couple days, we realized that we had gotten pretty much all of our realistic targets for the areas that we had been to, and that we could make it back a day earlier than planned, thus saving money on the rental car. However, this meant that we had to make it back for 1pm the following day..
4am found us awake in the front seats of the car again, having slept for another night in our luxurious sedan. After checking in vain one last time for Boreal Owl, we started the six-hour drive back to Anchorage, planning on one last birding stop.
We reached the town of Hope a few hours later, and headed up to a nice dirt road that climbed through a valley above town. Here we were able to add some more species that we hadn’t encountered yet this trip, such as Spruce Grouse, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and many other species with boreal flair.

View from the side of the road as we left the Kenai Peninsula

After here we went back to Anchorage for our last few days, hiking around town a couple times and enjoying the remainder of our time in Alaska, before flying home without mishap. I’ll post once more about this trip as a recap of the work that we did and things we saw. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

July 13-14 - Kenai Peninsula, Seward

The view from the highway as you approach the Kenai Peninsula, the mountains on the other side are on the peninsula proper

After a couple days of lazing around in Anchorage Alan and I hit the road again, this time shooting for the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. We snagged the rental car and headed off on the three hour drive, which went past absolutely spectacular scenery, with the usual snowy topped mountains set off by gently rolling forested slopes and mirror-like lakes throughout.
Arriving at Seward, we were so excited to finally be there that after quickly stopping at the hostel we were staying at we immediately headed off to start birding. We checked nearby Lowell Point and then the waterfront of the town itself, which combined had a half-dozen new species for both of us, and other fun creatures such as my first Sea Otters!

This cute little guy was right off the seawall in town

The following morning we headed out on a glacier cruise, the reason for us going to Seward. This nine-hour boat trip is mainly geared towards tourists who wish to see the spectacular tidewater glaciers that calve blocks of ice off into the water below the glacier. However, these trips are also fantastic for large numbers of seabirds, both those breeding on the cliffs around the fjords that you visit, and also species that are passing through on their migratory routes.
There are also some really cool mammals in the area, from those that are aquatic to terrestrial species. I was elated to finally get my first Orcas on this trip, a species that I have always wanted to see! We got to observe a large pod with some really young animals in it move right by the boat we were in, giving great views. In the water throughout the day there were also many Humpback Whales and Sea Otters, with smaller numbers of Dall’s Porpoise sprinkled throughout. From the terrestrial perspective, on the rocky coast of one headland we were lucky enough to see three Mountain Goats that had descended from their normally lofty abode to feed on vegetation at the edge of the ocean.

Part of the pod of Orcas we saw, with a nice young one in the middle

A bunch of Sea Otters loafing around in Aialik Bay, they actually would rock back and forth in the water as we passed, trying to get a better look at the boat going by!

Of course, we were really there for the birds, and they did not disappoint. As a foreground to the stunning scenery we were treated to tens of thousands of birds, including nine species of alcid, a family of birds that are the northern hemispheric counterpart to the penguins of the southern hemisphere. One of the species of alcid, Kittlitz’s Murrlet, is quite range restricted and has a really cool habitat preference. Occurring almost exclusively along the edges of the Bering Sea, these birds have an affinity for the milky gray-blue water that you only get at the base of glaciers – where the glacial silt tints the water this special hue. Every single one of the 31 Kittlitz’s Murrelets that we saw on the trip were at the outflow of glaciers – pretty awesome.

Black-legged Kittiwakes (top left) and Common Murres (top right, bottom left) nesting on the cliffs

Part of one of the Black-legged Kittiwake colonies at Cape Resurrection 

Speaking of glaciers, we got to see three massive glaciers on the boat trip, two that were landlocked and one tidewater, tidewater being defined as a glacier that runs right up to the edge of the ocean. The tidewater glacier that we saw, Aialik Glacier, was simply spectacular. Roughly a mile wide and 300 feet high, this striking powder blue monolith looms over the water below, where we sat in the boat with the engines off and were privileged to watch a couple house-sized chunks of ice plummet off of the face of the glacier, creating 5-6 foot swells that swept out across the bay.

There is unfortunately nothing for scale here, but this is about a mile wide. Simply massive.

On the way back to harbor we stopped at an island that was partially owned by the cruise company and were treated to a buffet dinner as part of the price of the trip – not a bad way to end the day! For carnivores there was a prime rib buffet, and then many other vegetarian options followed by a gourmet cheesecake dessert. Not bad.
After this trip we had seen everything that we wanted to from the Seward area, and rather than paying for a hotel in Seward, we took the bull by the horns and jetted off on the 4 hour drive to Homer immediately after getting back to the mainland, and Homer is where I will pick up this narrative next.