Only two and 1/2 days until I leave for Austin, Texas and points south. This will be my second visit to the Lone Star State, but my first of any significant duration. In 1996 I spent about 3 hours driving across the Texas Panhandle on I-40, which passes through Amarillo. I don't recall seeing so much as a Turkey Vulture in the flat, dry, red-clay country off the interstate, although several were probably soaring above my light green 1971 Toyota Hilux Pickup. My mind at the time was pre-occupied with a crushing break-up on top of being laid off from my first seasonal position in Denali National Park, Alaska. I was pretty much focused on getting home to, of all places, New Jersey, where I could spend some time with my family, whom I hadn't seen in nearly two years. Plus it was early October, and even though fall migration was in full swing, I was more interested in seeking meditative solace in the peaceful silence of the intermountain west and southwestern Great Plains.
Needless to say, this trip will be much different. I am heading to Austin for NatureServe's first ever Leader to Leader Training followed by their 2010 Conservation Conference, "Biodiversity Without Boundaries." The Training starts on Friday, but I am leaving the east coast early Wednesday morning to explore the Hill Country west of Austin for a day.
On Sunday, I'll be touring Hornsby Bend, a wetland sanctuary that is famous for its great mix of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, as well as eastern songbirds and south-Texas specialty species. On Monday, I'll be presenting at the Conservation Conference on a Mountaintop Removal study I performed for Appalachian Voices.
After Monday's conference sessions, I'll be heading south to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (aka the LRGV). After nearly 20 years of birding, this trip will be a bit of a pilgrimage for me. Most birders make this trip at some point in their lives, as a number of North American bird species are found only in south Texas, and the LRGV has by far the highest concentration of them. In addition, several "vagrant" or "accidental" species from Mexico have shown up on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande on a very rare basis, some only once. For example, just last December, a Bare-throated Tiger Heron, a wading bird found in Mexico and Central America, was seen for the first time ever in the U.S. in Mission, Texas. Birders flew in from all over North America to see it, not exactly an environmentally friendly practice (more on that in another post, I hope). It's this kind of excitement that attracts birders like myself: not only am I guaranteed to find bird species I've never seen before, the prospect of seeing something or even finding something that has never been seen before in the U.S. (at least not in the last 100 years), is utterly tantalizing for a naturalist.
There are about 53 species of "lifebirds" that I could potentially see on this trip. Some of these birds are essentially guaranteed to be found, like the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, south Texas's counterpart to the Red-bellied Woodpecker. These two species are actually very similar, and I would not be surprised if there is a hybrid zone. Another example of similar geographic relationships is the Black-crested Titmouse, which looks much like the East's Tufted Titmouse except that it has a black crest. These two species do in fact hybridize in central Texas near Austin, and it was only about ten years ago that the two species were split.
While I'm in Texas, my friends Warren and Lisa Strobel, the "Bird Couple" (www.birdcouple.com) are experiencing a similar trip in southern Arizona, which is probably the only location in the U.S. that can rival south Texas for its avian diversity and extraordinary composition of "Mexican" species that extend their range into the southwestern U.S. I spent several days there back in 1994 during my formative years as a young naturalist and birder. Living on the road, I camped in the Chiricahua Mountains, where Geronimo made his last stand against the U.S. Cavalry. It was an exhilarating experience, and I recall finding several dozen life-birds in a mere 2.5 days.
Well, the storm this past weekend provided a great deal of adventure, frustration, and excitement to the finale' of my Big January, or perhaps I should say, my "Not So Big" January.
Just to be clear: this was no record attempt. Prior to me embarking on this journey, the most species I had ever officially tallied during the month of January was under 100. Granted, I was much less vigilant about my record-keeping back in the '90's, when I very well could have broken 100, 120, or 140 species in January as a seasonal naturalist in the Everglades without even realizing it, but alas, that information is lost forever......
So this was my first honest attempt at a true "big month", and I decided to keep it all inMaryland, my new home birding state.
I must give credit where credit is due: I took some inspiration from the hard cores of 2009 who broke the MD record. The vicarious thrill of reading about big days and months is hard to resist, and I admit to the perverse desire to chase rarities in frigid weather, probably a spillover from my CBC days on the Maine Coast or grad school trips to Cape Anne, Mass in winter. But it was actually the Bird Couple, Warren and Lisa Strobel (www.birdcouple.com), who really prompted me to act on these (some would say) foolish whims, when a few days before the New Year they told me they were attempting a Big January with the goal of 100 species, very attainable for an active birder in Maryland. We all decided to make a friendly competition out of it.
It turned out to be a real roller-coaster of a month. New Year's Day dawned calm and foggy, and as the fog lifted, birds of all types were just waiting to be ticked off. Maybe this would be another epic month like last year? Then the arctic blasts came down from up North, and soon all waterways were frozen over with ice. Within days, all waterfowl seemed to virtually disappear, and songbirds hid for cover deep in the thickets and woods. Still, some good birds were to be found.
By mid-month, the weather thawed again, and species began returning, like a Glaucous Gull at Jug Bay Wetlands. But overall, this was a really slooow January, especially when compared to 2009's mega-rarity bonanza. For you eBird junkies, I'm sure you noticed the cumulative species tally for 2010 only reached 175 on Jan 31: that's 14 fewer species than Jim Brighton alone had during his big January last year (my apologies to the other record-setters, as I don't know all of their species totals).
Notably absent were any winter finches: pine siskin, purple finch, redpolls, crossbills, let alone Evening or Pine Grosbeaks, a natural occurrence after such a major irruption last winter. Also absent were birds like Eurasian Wigeon, Snowy Owl, and of course, who could count on another Tufted Duck on the heels of last January's?
But as I said earlier, this was not a record attempt. Instead, I ended up learning a great deal about wintering birds in Maryland [i.e. Marsh wrens will stick around in frozen-over marshes, but Laughing gulls essentially depart the state at the very end of December]. I got to meet a lot of folks in the birding community, if not in person, at least electronically and sometimes over the phone. I also got to visit many of the great habitats that up until now, I have only read about. And finally, I had a lot of fun.....
Which brings me to the final weekend, if it could be called "fun". I had several routes planned out to pick up as many 25-30 additional species in the two final days. I was still missing big-time easy species like Barred Owl and American Coot, so my plan for Saturday the 30th was to hit key locations on the western shore for about 6-7 hours and do cleanup: Piscataway Park on the Potomac for RH Woodpecker, Jug Bay area for Barred Owl, possibly Lake Artemesia for Coot, and RB Nuthatch and Wild Turkey at Soldier's Delight/Baltimore County. A private feeder stop would yield Rusty Blackbird and an over-wintering Baltimore Oriole.
Then the snow started to fall.....
It took 3 hours just to get the RH Woodpeckers at Piscataway. Balt Co. was out of the question. Accidents were everywhere on Rt. 301 and the backroads. Fortunately, I've lived most of my life in snow country, and my car is an AWD Subaru. Jug Bay proved fruitless after a mile hike in the snow, so I headed for my feeder stop with an hour of daylight left. Both the Oriole and the Rusties were cooperative in the dim, windy, snowy light of late afternoon/evening. Time to head home and shovel the driveway and rest up before my final "Big Day".
3:45 start and off to Kraft Neck Road for Barred Owl. Nada. Road? What road? Not even a car track. 15 degrees and moderate 10-15 mph winds as the sun came up over the marshes. No Black-crowned Night Herons posing as Yellow-crowneds. Everything was frozen over and locked up again, and apart from the wind and the crows, the eagles and gulls overhead, nothing was stirring in the marshes. An AMERICAN PIPIT at Elliott landing was a nice county bird, but not a new tick for my January. Horned Lark flocks were everywhere along the Dorchester County back roads en route to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, but no Lapland Longspurs or Savannah Sparrows were among them. Instead, large groups of Song Sparrows where congregating along the roadsides, something I didn't see after the big blizzard back in December. The constant "big-day" style pressure prevented me from lingering too long, otherwise enough persistence would have paid off. I arrived at Blackwater only to find the place closed down and gated. No time to wait around for the snowplow, so onward to Worcester County.
Truitt's Landing Road was unplowed, but a pickup or two had made their way down the squirrelly track. A fun, wild, ride through the powder down to the marsh. I love my Subaru. Finally found a MARSH WREN as the road opens out into the wetland. Best bird of the day, my only one ever in January, and its habitat seemed devoid of liquid water: only snow and ice, a mind-blowing experience for me. The temperature was still only 21 degrees F at this point.
Worcester County Landfill was also all but shut down, it being a Sunday after a storm. Finally got permission to look around a bit, found a few groups of gulls, but nothing unusual.
Right around this time, I reached into my pocket for my cell phone so I could call Jim Brighton; what I found instead were my wife's car and house keys that I forgot to put away after shoveling the driveway.
I called her to tell her the news just as she was heading out the door. We negotiated. We compromised. My wife is a very generous soul, and I'm thankful she understood my predicament. Needless to say, my Big January would be ending earlier than planned, as I could not in good conscience stay out until nightfall and make her miss her appointments.
A half-hour later I was at Castaways Campground near Ocean City picking up my last bird of the month: a BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, when the Bird Couple called me. They were stuck in the Finzel Swamp Parking Lot, unable to move their car at all. They were awaiting a snow-plow to pull them out. Later they told me they lost 3 hours there, but they still managed to pick up twice as many species as I did for the day: 6 to my 3 (a flyover Sharpie in Church Creek avoided another big miss).
I figured I had better quit soon before I suffered a similar fate, or heaven forbid, worse. But I had to try for just one more species. Sifting through gulls at OC Inlet, Jim Brighton called to report the Blue-headed Vireo in Wicomico Co. Oh, man, how tempting! It was 20 minutes off the highway, though, and I had just enough time to stop at Hooper's before high-tailing it home so my wife could make her appointments. Today, February 1st, I realize I could have cut through Berlin on Rt 374 and still gotten the bird while losing little time. A lesson in local Maryland Geography learned.
Instead my last stop proved not to be: Hooper's Restaurant entrance was plowed in except for tire tracks where a 4 x 4 truck had barreled through to do some "skijoring" in the parking lot. At the last minute, I committed to turning in with the flow of traffic right behind me. No turning back. I gunned it, but I was too angled and got lodged in the cement-like snowbank. 15 minutes later, the guys with the 4 x 4 pulled me out, but I was out of time. On the way home, a quick stop at Kent Narrows failed to turn up any coot. Most importantly, though, I made it home safe and on time.
My final tally was a modest 120 species, well behind several active birders this year. My best birds were a RING-NECKED PHEASANT in Caroline County, A GOLDEN EAGLE at Bucktown Road, the GLAUCOUS GULL at Jug Bay Wetlands, followed by BALTIMORE ORIOLE (female) in PG County, TREE SWALLOW, SHORT-EARED OWL (both at Deal Island), a close-up PEREGRINE while driving over the Bay Bridge at sunrise, WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS in 3 counties, and, for me at least, the MARSH WREN at Truitt's Landing.
Biggest Misses: too many to mention, really, but the ones that stick out include Wild Turkey, Barred Owl(!), the aforementioned Coot, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Chipping Sparrow, all the marsh sparrows, both Shrikes (I never did make it out for the Loggerhead - thanks to those who provided info); and two gimme birds of the interior: Black-capped chickadee and Common Raven, due to my lack of effort in that part of the state.
Biggest mistake: Not starting out aggressively enough early enough and going after the hard-to-get species right away, like making a trip out west early in the month when time is less critical. And forgetting to put away my wife's car keys.
Biggest surprise: the power of eBird as a virtual scouting and route-planning tool. Oh, and did I mention the MARSH WREN in the frozen marsh? Still can't get over that. As for the Bird Couple, Warren and Lisa, I'll let them chime in if they want to disclose their own results. I won't say who "won" but I will say it was close: only four species separated our two "teams". I'm just glad they didn't freeze to death out there at Finzel yesterday!
Thanks to my wife, Julie, for her support and acceptance of my birding habit. Thanks to Jim Brighton, Jeff Shenot, Lynn and Hal, Mikey Lutmerding, Bill Hubick, David Yeany II, Sean McCandless, Frode Jacobsen, Paul Woodward, Dan Haas, and everyone else who provided information and/or landowner access to some good habitat. I know there were others on email, so sorry if I've forgotten to mention you here.
Oh, and as if birding in 15-degree January weather isn't sadistic enough, looks like I'll see you Pelago-philes on the boat this Saturday if she sails. The perfect cure for post-Big January blues, right?
Tomorrow, Sept. 11, 2009, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is expected to announce her agency's decision on 84 Mountaintop Removal/Valley Fill permits in Appalachia. This permit review is a major step in the new "coordinated review process" that the Obama administration has undertaken in recent months. Conservationists and members of the public have documented the severe environmental impacts of this practice of surface mining.
You can view these permits in Google Maps, thanks to a dedicated team of mappers at Appalachian Voices and the Alliance for Appalachia here: