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From the Home/From the Field

May 18:

Jake Mohlmann on how he fills in his cancelled-tour time

I have been fortunate enough to have my other occupation both flexible to some degree and deemed essential by the states of California and Nevada where I work as a biologist surveying and monitoring threatened and endangered species. Near Desert Center California I spent a week monitoring several Desert Kit Fox dens to see how the families were progressing this season. In the early spring families of foxes are having pups and tend to be more approachable than usual.

 

A young Desert Kit Fox pup emerges with mom nearby.

Most of my research this spring has been with the endangered Mojave Desert Tortoise, hoping to confirm that populations of this reptile remain healthy.

 

Inspecting a Desert Tortoise for distinguishing features.

 

Taking measurements on an adult tortoise.

While traversing the seemingly endless desert there's never a time I stop birding. Despite the reputation of the desert being deserted, wildlife thrives in this region with beautiful annual flower blooms, huge migrating flocks of birds, and sometimes rare denizens like nesting raptors. Occasionally I'll flush a roosting owl in the large washes meandering through the landscape, like the other day when a Long-eared Owl was just as surprised to see me as I was to see it turned out to be the bird that flushed from an Ironwood Tree at close range.

 

Long-eared Owl breeds in the desert southwest

 

May 15:

Fabrice Schmitt on his quarantine in France

Two months locked down at home during spring migration! The last time I can remember anything as painful was quite a few years ago when I made a much anticipated vist to a restricted wetland filled with waders... and I realized I'd forgotten my binoculars and telescope! At least I now have time to edit most of my pictures and some of my sound recordings (although I still have enough of these for Covid-20, 21, and 22, at least).

Luckily, after five weeks with my nose glued to my apartment window and my eyes scanning the sky for migrants, I am now participating in professional bird inventories in Lozère (South of France). This gives me a legal way to get outside, and enjoy at least the tail end of the spring migration. One of the places I am monitoring is filled with breeding Northern Wheatears and Meadow Pipits, and a male Whinchat was still waiting for his female during my last visit.


Northern Wheatear


Whinchat

Spring is delayed at this high-altitude location and the splendid Pulsatilla rubra are still in bloom, and Viviparous Lizards are just starting to warm during sunny days after their long hibernation.


Pulsatilla rubra


Viviparous Lizard

On the way to the study area I sometimes spot recently-arrived migrants, such as Golden Oriole, Western Bonelli’s Warbler or European Cuckoo.

 
Golden Oriole


Western Bonelli's Warbler

Stay safe and hopefully the fall migration will be more convivial!

May 10:

Steve Howell on the Local Bigfoot Year, not by choice in 2020

The idea of a Big Year has become part of today’s birding culture: “How many species can I encounter in a year?” Some people cover the whole of North America, others a state or province, others a county, a few even the world—it can be done at any scale, although 2020 would have been a bad year to pick for almost any area. The exception being around your home. For better or worse the previous two years have prepared me for an unplanned year of very local birding.

Back in 2018, as things moved into February I wondered if I could find 200 species in the year just on foot around town, here on the coast of central California. To put 200 species in perspective (after all, one could find 200 species in a morning in eastern Ecuador!), a decent county year list is in the order of 260 to 280 species. So this seemed a plausible, but not necessarily easy goal. Plus I threw in two more criteria—no scope and no chased birds. I didn’t plan any long hikes, just walked in and around town, which translated into birding within a 1.5 mile radius of my home. So how did it work out?

Well, I learned a lot about the local birds and got to know many of the local humans, even showing one person a roosting Northern Saw-whet Owl, another a roosting Barn Owl, and being given invites onto private property.

 

My first species for 2018 was Wrentit, heard from bed on New Year’s morning.

 

This roosting Barn Owl was in a tree on the corner of my block, just for one day but appreciated by a passing cyclist.

 

Whereas this Northern Saw-whet Owl stuck around for a week or so, helping keep down the local mouse population.

The 2018 Bigfoot Year also confirmed that time in the field is the number one factor for finding rare birds: I saw what most people would consider a ‘rare bird’ for only about one minute in about every 30 or 40 hours of birding—a pretty low return put that way, but fortunately it wasn’t about rare birds. Purely by chance, though, 2018 turned out to be a really ‘good year' for vagrants in central California, and I hit 200 species by noon on October 1st (a Baltimore Oriole, only my second in the county). Well, that was easy, and by the end of the year I reached 218 species, which had a nice ring to it—218 in 2018.

In the next post I’ll summarize my 2019 Bigfoot Year (hey, don’t worry, for better or worse we’ve got time ;-), and then bring you up to date with Bigfoot 2020, in progress. Meanwhile, here are some photo highlights from 2018.

I recommend a Bigfoot Year to anyone, anywhere, if you have the time and inclination—and in 2020 it seems we have the time... Even a Bigfoot month. You only compete against yourself and the birds, and learn a lot along the way. Depending on where you live, your Bigfoot Year goal might be 50 species, or 123 (no reason it has to be a round number!), or if you live in Amazonia, maybe 400 species. And it’s a lot cheaper than chasing around a country or even a county. Lastly, a big thanks to local birders Keith Hansen, Catherine Hickey, Mark Dettling, and Diana Humple for their company from time to time, even though all of them saw at least one species I missed for the 2018 Bigfoot Year!

This young male Broad-billed Hummingbird was ‘downtown’ (just over a mile away) at Keith Hansen’s feeders, but because I wasn’t chasing birds in my Bigfoot Year I waited 3 days before I was going down to the store, when I always stop in and visit Keith’s feeders next door—fortunately the bird stuck around, and it sure stood out among the local Anna’s Hummingbirds.

OK, I know I like molt, but when I found this bird on 8 October (here) it was molting so heavily it was a challenge to even identify—a Painted Bunting on some private property a few blocks from my home, and ‘officially’ the rarest bird of the year. I was able to follow its molt for a month and it turned out to be a normal preformative (‘post-juvenile’) molt both in timing and extent—that is, almost complete, just retaining some inner primaries, outer secondaries, and primary coverts. It was simply undertaken in the wrong place. 

On 15 October, the tail starting to grow...

On 23 October, tail mostly grown, outer primaries still growing...

On 7 November, finished and the last date I saw it, and hopefully it headed off to Mexico.

‘Unofficially’ the rarest bird of the year (for me) was this pseudo Broad-tailed Hummingbird, a male Anna’s xSelasphorus hybrid a few blocks from home on 10 July.

May 8:

News from Rich Hoyer, happily riding things out at home.

I was actually planning on being home for most of April and May anyway, looking forward to spending time in my new home and yard. I have plans on making my residential Eugene garden more friendly for wildlife, as well as preparing for a summer of growing as much of my own food as possible – even before I knew I might be spending the rest of the year at home and needing to lower my monthly food bill. I’m already well on my way to having a full freezer and pantry of canned food this coming fall, barring any catastrophes.

 

The previous owners had already planted fruit trees and berries as well as lot of perennials beneficial to our many species of native pollinators. There were several clumps of sunchokes, doubling as food native bees and humans, and one clump offered up 25 pounds of roots this winter. But with the warmer spring weather, they were starting to sprout, so I quickly put 3 pounds of them up as pickles.

 

I added several nest boxes, a bat box, and have sunk over 50 native plants into what used to be lawn and will someday be something resembling a native brushy prairie.

 

It was exciting to see the first returning Violet-green Swallows in early March and even more exciting to see that a pair has exhibited great interest in one of the boxes I made and put on the east side of the house in the past week. I find that its beauty rivals that of any other swallow in the world.

 

I also planned ahead to be home during the exciting time of spring migration, building up my new yard list. I’m adding birds almost daily. Flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese en route from their staging area in the Klamath Basin to Alaska flew right over my yard starting on April 19, becoming species number 90 on the list.

 

Four days later a most obliging Dusky Flycatcher, a rare migrant in western Oregon graced my and my neighbor’s yard, becoming number 95. 100 is well within sight.

May 6:

Paul Holt on his lockdown activities in the U.K.

Following tours to Myanmar and North India I couldn't get back to China and ended up, reluctantly, returning to the UK where I remain. Three months on from when I left Qingyu, my partner and the ‘fixer’ for all of our myriad China tours, is still under lock down in our apartment in Beijing. Very local birding in East Lancashire has given me a chance to reacquaint myself with many of the common birds of my youth (and has brought home exactly why I left!) In between various chores I've been busy sound recording several commoner species in the garden. A few of my recordings, nearly identical to the thousands of others already on the internet, can be listened to at –

Common Blackbird https://www.xeno-canto.org/544271
Song Thrush https://www.xeno-canto.org/546323
European Robin https://www.xeno-canto.org/546325
Mistle Thrush https://www.xeno-canto.org/546314
Eurasian Blackcap https://www.xeno-canto.org/546304
Rook https://www.xeno-canto.org/546319

That’s all for the moment. You really wouldn’t want a photo of me right now – I’ve not been anywhere near a barber since mid-January and look positively Neanderthal-ish.

(Editor's note: Paul may be right that there are thousands of internet recordings of the above species but there aren't many of this quality. If you have time for only one, try the Eurasian Blackcap.) 

May 4:

Susan Myers on her at home photo explorations of Anna's Hummingbird.

In lieu of leading my tour in the Philippines, I decided I would just stay put and go photograph Anna’s Hummingbirds… Well, this might not be an entirely true representation of my personal recent history, I have to say that local birding in Seattle has been rewarding and fun, if rather lonely. One of my projects that I’ve set for myself is to improve on my photography skills - slow down and spend the time, work on techniques and wait for the bird to show some interesting behaviour. Anna’s Hummingbird is a common garden bird all along the west coast but it’s always a challenge to photograph them. I’ve been lucky to find a perfect model - I made the acquaintance of this male Anna’s last year and was delighted to find him back in exactly the same place this year. I’ve now spent many hours in his company, so here I present the many moods of an Anna’s Hummingbird in spring.

April 27:

Luke Seitz on quarantining in Maine.

April showers bring May flowers, or something like that? The past few weeks (days? months?) of quarantine/time-warp here in Maine have not felt very spring-like, although April always holds a few surprises. Pictured here is a friendly Prothonotary Warbler that showed up in a small park in Portland, viewed while wearing a face-mask and standing at least six feet away from other birders!

He seemed unconcerned about germs and droplets as he foraged along the edge of a pond, coming far too close to focus…

But most importantly, being stuck at home has been a good excuse to work on illustrations for an upcoming field guide to the birds of the Caribbean. I’m a very slow painter so feelings of progress or accomplishment are hard to come by, but there’s no better way to do it than just…sitting down and painting all day, every day, right?! Here’s the setup, including a few partially-finished plates and complete with delicious homemade raspberry muffin.

April 13:

Rich Hoyer on his recent abbreviated Jamaica tour

We ended our Jamaica tour a day early this year, with worries that the reduced number of flights back to the US might make returning home more difficult. It turned out we would have had most of our regular flights home anyway, but this year’s itinerary was a day longer than recent years, and we didn’t miss much more than a chance at some fun open country, marsh, and mudflat birding. Once again, all of the island’s amazing endemics made it to the official tour list, though Crested Quail-Dove was much less cooperative than in the past – we all heard the skulkers, but only one or two participants saw it well. But we had repeated views of everything else, saw all of the rarer endemic subspecies, and delighted in absorbing ourselves in the amazing world of island endemism amongst the lizards, butterflies, snails, and plants.

This year Greater Antillean Bullfinches were particularly common and easy to see on the Ecclesdown Road at the far eastern end of the island.

 

In the Blue and Port Royal mountains, this Jamaican Spindalis appeared out of nowhere just a few feet from the group and fed on flower buds.

 

A fascinating break from the birding was provided by this lynx spider which was munching on an endemic Jamaican Calisto butterfly.

 

An afternoon trip to the southern end of the island was very productive, adding a rare Prothonotary Warbler and some cooperative Clapper Rails to the list in addition to a pair of this very confiding Bahama Mockingbird.

 

One of the highlights of the tour was getting to visit the biologically and geologically fascinating Cockpit Country.

 

Here we finally had views of both endemic parrots perched, here the more common (this year) Black-billed Parrot.

 

We even had a few endemic butterflies here, including this rarely seen Jamaican Crescent, Antillea proclea.

 

Everyone’s favorite place, as usual, was Ann Sutton’s home, the estate and great house of Marshall’s Pen. For the third time ever, we had Greater Antillean Elaenia on the grounds, but this time with the best views ever.

 

The resident pair of Jamaican Owls successfully fledged a chick earlier in the year, and we heard it nightly begging for food. On just one day were we able to find its day roost, typically right up against its mother.

 

Jamaican Tody never stops eliciting oohs, ahhs, and awws, and we had our best views while at Marshall’s Pen.

March 28:

Susan Myers on her recently completed tour, Japan in Winter

Our winter tour of Japan started off in the forests of the Japan Alps with some great birds including the scarce Japanese Waxwing as well as Japanese Accentor, Japanese Green Woodpecker, and Varied Tit. We then took a brief break from our birding to visit the so-called 'Snow Monkeys,' a.k.a. Japanese Macaque, which love to take to the hot springs of the Jigokudani or Hell Valley, due to the many steaming volcanic vents dotted throughout the area.


Japanese Accentor


Japanese Macaque a.k.a Snow Monkey

Continuing our journey over the Alps to the Japan Sea we visited the Katano area south of Kanazawa where our main target, the increasingly rare Baikal Teal loves to spend the winter. This area is particularly rich in avian life and we found many great birds including fabulous Taiga Bean Goose, Japanese Cormorant, Smew and many others. 

Flying south, we spent a couple of days in the Arasaki area to take in the amazing spectacle of over 14,000 cranes of four species, although the numbers are very much dominated by White-naped and Hooded Cranes. We picked out a single Sandhill and two Common Cranes from the many thousands of others, which was quite fun. A bonus prize was a wonderful vagrant Demoiselle Crane! We had a great day exploring the whole area with two particularly outstanding sightings, amongst many, being a collection of the very rare Black-faced Spoonbills and a small group of the often elusive and cute Chinese Penduline-Tit.


Hooded Crane


Black-faced Spoonbill


Chinese Penduline Tit


Demoiselle Crane

From the cranes, we headed east to the Kyushu coast for our meeting with the endemic and very cute Japanese Murrelet, said to be the world’s rarest Alcid. With my friend and expert skipper, Kurogi san at the helm, we headed out for the short boat trip into the harbour and soon found a small group, which we were able to watch at close range. On our return, we were met by some friendly representatives of the local tourism board who made us feel like a bunch of celebrities! And you our great delight, we were presented with gifts of Japanese Murrelet stuffed toys!


Japanse Murrelet


Celebrities!

This year we enjoyed some superb weather in the north and our birding on Hokkaido was fun and productive - even if a little on the cold side. Spectacled Guillemots, with their startling red legs, showed well and the Big Three; Steller’s Sea-Eagle, Red-crowned Crane and Blakiston’s Fish Owl were, well, stellar!


Steller's Sea Eagle


Steller's Sea Eagle


Japanese Crane


Blakiston's Fish Owl

Without doubt the Northern Island is the highlight of this journey around Japan and not only did the birds not disappoint, but the scenery, food and friendly people made for some great memories.


Another remarkable meal...

March 24:

Jake Mohlmann on his recently completed tour, Nebraska: The Sandhills and the Platte River

We just wrapped up five days cruising through the heart of the midwest in search of various avian highlights.


Our group thrilled to be out seeing life birds.

Our first night we marveled at the amazing aerial flight displays of recently arrived American Woodcock, picked out a lone Franklin's Gull from the droves of Ring-billed Gulls floating on Lake Manawa, and had a pair of Barred Owls land right before our eyes and stare at us with their pitch black eyes.

 
A beautiful Barred Owl was a lifer for some.

Sparrows are usually a highlight of this tour and this year was no exception. From fleeting Swamp Sparrows, to Song Sparrows melodies echoing across the marsh, bulky Fox Sparrows perched high, and the ultimate treat for any birder not from the midwest the beautiful Harris's Sparrow. This year at Schramm Park we had a total of 11 of these North American specialties.


Harris's Sparrow gave extended, and fleeting, views this week.

Pileated, Red-bellied, and numerous Downy Woodpeckers were heard drumming advertisements that rang loudly through the Missouri River's hardwood forests, but recently arrived Red-headed Woodpeckers took the prize for best performer.

 
Red-headed Woodpeckers were back in force.

The Sandhill Crane show on the central Platte River was astounding, with perhaps 25,000 birds seen in the sky at one time. One day we drove for 20 miles along dirt roads with seemingly endless congregations of feeding Cranes fattening up before continuing north to their breeding grounds.

 
Sunrise was unforgettable with thousands of Sandhill Cranes for company.

Waterfowl also abound this time of year and we had fun picking out the less common species like male Hooded Mergansers showing their namesake well, velvety Canvasbacks in just one location, and a pair of beautiful Trumpeter Swans defending their nesting location from the encroaching Canada Geese.

 
A pair of Trumpeter Swans along the South Loupe River.

A couple of blinds set up seemingly in the middle of nowhere did have a purpose as we sat and watched both Greater Prairie-Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse practice their dance moves at close range. At least 11 Grouse were amazing to watch as they stamped their feet, stretched out their wings, and tried to outmatch each other for the right to ensure the brief company of at least one female for the upcoming breeding season.

 
A male Sharp-tailed Grouse performing in the day's first rays of light.

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