Monday, June 20, 2016

Review: Lost Among the Birds

In 2013, Neil Hayward did the improbable and broke Sandy Komito's longstanding Big Year record, tallying 749 bird species in the ABA area. It was a year of dramatic and memorable sightings, like the Rufous-necked Wood-rail at Bosque del Apache, which Hayward made even more dramatic and memorable when it became clear his "accidental" Big Year attempt might actually pay off.

Given the vast distances, astronomical expenses, and huge stretches of time involved, you might expect that anyone hoping to make history along these lines would start planning well in advance of January 1. Part of what makes Hayward's story unique and compelling is that he hadn't begun 2013 with a Big Year in mind; in fact, several months had already passed before he would even admit to himself that he was pursuing any goal at all. In his new memoir, Lost Among the Birds, readers can follow along as the idea slowly takes shape, and the idea becomes reality.

As much as this is the story of Neil Hayward's Big Year, it's also the story of his trying to find himself. By 2013 he had quit his job, was reeling from past relationship woes, and about to turn 40. While I was expecting and hoping for a real-life adventure story revolving around birds, the birds are interspersed with riffs about how his commitment fears weigh on his present relationship, how his depression colors his worldview before and after medication, and the need to get his life in order, generally. Personally, I found these bits, particularly about his relationship worries, tiresome. As Hayward himself admits, he hates "pretending to be interested" in the minutiae of other people's lives; I won't pretend these parts were any more enjoyable for me to get through.

But the birding tales are are very good -- exactly the kind you want from a book like this. Certain difficult, highly localized species like Colima Warbler, or Five-striped Sparrow, are birds that most American birders dream about, but are unlikely to see themselves. Hayward traveled everywhere, recounting how he traveled there, what steps he took to locate the bird, and the experience of being in the bird's presence. No less enjoyable is seeing the camaraderie between Hayward and the other birders who play a big part in his Big Year, as they share in their pursuit of each new rarity, often in inaccessible locales, with primitive conditions. Following along with him on these adventures is vicarious birding at its best.

If you've read other Big Year accounts, like Kenn Kauffman's Kingbird Highway, or Mark Obmascik's The Big Year, you already have an idea of how extreme an undertaking this was. Hayward repeatedly criss-crosses the country, often hopping on a return flight soon after landing (you can see his itinerary here). It's hardly a sensible thing to do, what with the ecological footprint (which can't be overstated), constant exhaustion, discomfort, and expense. It's a grueling endeavor, however you look at it, but not without it's joys. Hayward is honest about it all, and by the end, still manages to see birds as more than just a tick in a checkbox. Most of us will never attempt a Big Year; Lost Among the Birds will make you glad that Neil Hayward did.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Bird Bonanza in Bend

In late April, one week after returning from Malheur via Deschutes County, a White Wagtail was reported in Bend. We were still recovering from a jam-packed weekend in Eastern Oregon, and didn't especially feel like retracing that part of our route so soon, but… a White Wagtail? We were powerless against the allure of a dapper Eurasian vagrant. It turned out that the bird didn't stick around long enough for us to have to worry about it, but then we'd begun daydreaming about all those Deschutes County breeding birds, so we started planning a weekend trip anyway.

Target numero uno was Green-tailed Towhee: a would-be lifer, and a bird I'd wanted to make a concerted effort to track down this year. We left after work on a Friday, and arrived in Sisters that evening to look for the Towhees in Deschutes National Forest. This patch of forest looked like the place where trees to go die, and we made slow progress trekking over the terrain as we climbed over old, fallen tree trunks. But there was plenty of places to perch, and offered terrific visibility. One of the first birds we found was a distant Lewis's Woodpecker on a very distant snag. There was plenty of Towhee's around -- Spotted Towhees out in the open the way we wished the Green-tailed would appear. We did catch the decent looks at a handful of Thick-billed Fox Sparrows, though (lifer sub-species!).

View of Mt. Washington from Deschutes National Forest

(Thick-billed) Fox Sparrow

Maureen was having better luck with the Towhee's than I was, and they always dropped out of sight before she could put me on them. It must have happened four or five times that she called them out, and then they'd vanish. At least I could hear them "mew"-ing around me, but with the light fading, I was starting to get desperate. Then just as we were heading back to the car, we tracked one down that popped up right in the open, 10 feet away, and starting singing it's heart out! We thought this would have been our best (only?) bet for Green-tailed Towhee's this trip, but the very next morning, we found ourselves serenaded by a pair shortly after stepping out of the car amid a vast, open expanse of sagebrush. But the most salient, and numerous, birds were the dozen or so Gray Flycatchers, singing, and tail-dipping all over the place. 

Green-tailed Towhee

Gray Flycatcher

We did swing by Hatfield Lake, where the wagtail had been seen. We didn't have any hopes that it had stuck around and eluded everyone else for the past two weeks, but the place is otherwise renowned for vagrants, and would be an easy place to pick up all sorts of waterfowl. We ended up taking a trail that turned out not to be a trail, and flushed something huge that flew off a short distance. We tracked it down, and soon found ourselves face-to-face with a Great Horned Owl. Also along the trail / not-a-trail was a beautiful Nelson's Hairstreak that was intensely committed to a particular Pale Wallflower. We suspected it was laying eggs, but couldn't find any after it flew off. 

Great Horned Owl

Just a neat-looking tree

Nelson's Hairstreak

Next on the agenda: woodpeckers. We got a tip about some spots to look for Black-backed Woodpecker, and some spots for Williamson's Sapsucker. We gave the sapsuckers a go, and were rewarded with brief but spectacular looks at a female flycatching. One foray brought it right out over our heads! Not bad for our first encounter.

Williamson's Sapsucker


Western Fence Lizard? Sagebrush Lizard? I can never tell them apart

We thought we would head to Smith Rock SP the next day and pick up White-throated Swifts, but the place was absolute chaos. We arrived about 10 minutes before they set up for a half-marathon. We were faced with either leaving immediately, or getting stuck there. We opted to leave for Sisters, and were glad for it. But not before a quick stop at Cline Falls SP where we had a nice Prairie Falcon circle overhead for a few minutes.

Prairie Falcon

Some cool fungus

More cool fungus

Common Garter Snake

Our first stop in Sisters was Calliope Crossing, for, what else? Calliope Hummingbirds. We met a couple who hadn't seen them where they're usually found, but we managed to find something special on our own. After establishing that the buzzing that blew past us was definitely a hummingbird, and not a bee, we tracked it to its small, silken nest. What luck! 

Calliope Hummingbird

Townsend's Warbler

Friendly and interesting bugs kept landing on us in Sisters to our great delight. Clockwise from left: ribbed pine borer, mayfly, giant stonefly

Then on to Cold Springs Campground, where a pair of White-headed Woodpeckers was still busy preparing for nesting season. The male was doing all the excavating, while the female was farther off calling to check on his progress. His brief reply seemed to say, "yeah, yeah - I'm working on it." His industriousness outlasted our visit, and he was still hard at work by the time we left.

White-headed Woodpecker getting down to business


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Maureen in the latest ABA Birder's Guide Magazine

I am excited to share with you all that I contributed an essay in the American Birding Association's latest issue of Birder's Guide to Conservation & Community! I was approached late last year about contributing to this issue, and I was ecstatic to do so, especially about this topic. I, along with other great women and strong birders, was asked to write about being a female birder in this male-dominated field. I reflected on how male birders should approach and treat female birders, as well as women's role in leadership in the birding community. 

I am proud and honored to be a part of this latest ABA magazine. I love reading the other essays, too. Together, I think we are able to paint a good portrait of what it's like to be a female birder and how to grow and learn from each other. It's also an important issue for men to recognize to understand their role in incorporating women with open arms into the community.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

More of Malheur

After our first partial day in Malheur NWR, we were ready for another full day. The day started with lovely views of low-lying fog over the wide open marshes, and a Sandhill Crane starting its early morning foraging for its breakfast. We also saw a large herd of Pronghorn prancing up a hill after taking a quick glance down at us.

We drove through the country roads searching for some grassy sparrows, particularly Sagebrush Sparrow, which would have been a lifer for us. But that lifer would have to wait. Instead, we saw a number of White-Crowned sparrows, the dominant sparrow of this whole trip, which is funny since we hadn’t seen any when we visited Malheur last year. But the timing was a bit off as we were here mid April this year versus the end of May last year. But some birds we did see again, and gladly so - like Swainson's Hawk.

Swainson's Hawk

Cabbage White Butterfly

Old wagon at Frenchglen

We did manage to see more of our other sagey friend, the Sage Thrasher. We even found one that had a bill deformity. I had been watching it with my naked eyes trying to figure out if it was the one singing because the sound was coming from that direction, but I couldn’t see its bill move. And then once I looked at it through my bins, I could see that it was indeed opening its bill to sing, but it barely looked like it since its bill was crisscrossed. I thought out loud, “Oh, that poor guy is never gonna land a mate looking like that.” He obviously survived this long to feed himself, but I don’t foresee any females cozying up to him. We also saw another male Sage Thrasher doing some really cool wing displays, likely to either attract a mate or deter competing males.

Sage Thrasher with bill deformity

Another view of deformed bill

Sage Thrasher doing wing display

We saw some other usual suspects as we rounded these back roads, including a lovely pair of California Quails. I never get tired of seeing these anxious little pudgies scooting around – the male with his distinguished head plume and the subdued female with her stylish little top knot.

Male California Quail 

Female California Quail

Majestic looking, curious horses running towards us to check us out

As we kept driving past field after field on Ruh Red Road, I suddenly shouted out, “STOP! I think I see a Burrowing Owl!” We had to back up a bit, and I was right! I knew that silhouette anywhere. And right before the owl ducked down into his hole, I noticed a second one! They both gave us that “I’m not feeling it” staredown, but we giggled in delight for finding not just one, but TWO Burrowing Owls on our own. I recall scanning every field in Malheur last year with no luck, but we got them this time!

Burrowing Owls

Northern Flicker
We rented a Tamron 150-600mm lens for this trip, and it had paid off well so far with the great shots we got of the Mountain Bluebirds on our way to Malheur. And now we were also able to capture the brightest shades of yellow on the demon-sounding Yellow-Headed Blackbirds, the adorable, mischievous-looking Horned Larks, and the sing-songy Western Meadowlarks. Malheur seems to be the optimal location for getting great shots of Western Meadowlarks, as was evident last year, too. 

Yellow-Headed Blackbird among yellow flowers

We also got our best looks at Canvasbacks and Redheads swimming around a flooded field. These are definitely some of the prettiest ducks with their glossy red heads. Canvasbacks especially have such a commanding presence about them with their large bodies and long, tapered bills. Oh, and just for good measure, we got an awesome glimpse of a Wilson’s Snipe at eye level sitting up on a pole right off the road. Surprisingly, he stayed there a good minute to let us snap pics of him.

Pair of Canvasbacks

Pair of Redheads

Wilson's Snipe

After a nice full morning of birding in Malheur, we headed down to Fields, OR – population 7. This tiny town is known for being a literal tiny oasis in the desert, and it can turn up a number of crazy migrants in the little stand of trees. On our way down there, we saw a Badger scrambling among the rocks as we drove, which was super awesome! She disappeared so quickly that we didn’t get a shot of her, but what a cool, unexpected surprise. Another surprise was all of the free-roaming cattle. At one point they caused a bit of a traffic jam.

Old-timey looking photo of a traffic jam between Frenchglen and Fields

Cow Close-up

I think we were still too early in the season and late in the day as we didn’t see much more than a few Yellow Rumps and a Killdeer, as well as a cool little lizard – likely some type of Whiptail. And we also got to enjoy their well-known milkshakes. EVERYONE we met who suggested to come here said we had to get the milkshakes. Not knowing that each one was about 2 pints of ice cream each, we mistakenly each ordered one. And no, we did not finish them.

We got back to our tiny hotel in Frenchglen and wandered around a bit after dinner time. We enjoyed more good looks at a couple of birds we saw quite a bit this trip – Black-Billed Magpie and Say’s Phoebe. We also kept hearing a couple of Great-Horned Owls hooting at each other, and we finally turned them up – one in a tall tree and the other on top of a school building. This one we captured as his throat puffed up while hooting across to his likely mate. I was so glad to finally see this pair after not being able to locate the hooting owls at P Ranch the evening before. It was a great way to end another great day at Malheur. 

Sunset view

Finally capture a good pic of a Black-billed Magpie

Say's Phoebe

Great-Horned Owl hooting