Hits and Misses
That the South Hills Crossbill had life before death, that the species lives for some, but not in the AOU scheme of things, that the crossbill was not countable when Linda and I saw it, did not deter having fond memories of Idaho mountains, the foray along the Rio Grande or the cold morning watching Gunnison Sage-Grouse dancing for sex. It also felt good to surpass the halfway point toward 700 ABA species. The only restraining factor to curb birder enthusiasm back home in Oregon would be the long and hot dry summer. With the usual suspects in place, with Hermit Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats singing in their customary Pacific Northwest habitats, I braced myself for dull birding months ahead. However, being home was not without event.
When non-bird eating Cat greeted us upon our return, she did so with a weaker meow than normal. Her health had not been the best in April before we drove eastward, but we were confident she would rally. We were wrong. Cat also had lost weight. By early June, she barely ate and we noticed she no longer pooped, her hind legs were less and less stable, despite drinking water, she became severely dehydrated and for about a week, she uncharacteristically preferred to be alone. The vet told us recuperation would be improbable since she was no longer a spring kitten, not to mention the likelihood that her kidneys and other organs had given up. It became obvious that Cat was in considerable pain and would soon die. On 10 June, rather than her continue to suffer; we sadly took Cat to be put to sleep. Her death was not without our tears. We lovingly bury her in our back yard knowing that it will be difficult not having her company anymore.
By July there was more to mourn. Our awareness of the river of BP oil rushing into the Gulf of Mexico since April had grown from surprise to disgust and sadness. It is beyond our belief to trust predictions when the flow may end and strains our realization that cleaning away the crude will never be complete. The attack could smother the sea and its shore, beyond mourning and is a lesson that no one should ever ignore. Finally, after 153 days, the polluting well was completely sealed, but so is the fate of oiled coastal marshes. Time will tell the extent of the sordid tale.
August approached with thought of looking for the Himalayan Snowcock in eastern Arizona. It is the third year for the possibility of hunting the species, but my back went out. Driving the round trip, around 1200 miles, hiking up a steep trail and scrambling over uneven rock terrain would not be possible. “Maybe next year” is becoming my snowcock battle cry.
A Lesser Sand-Plover was poking around Ocean Shores, Washington, on 26 August 2010. According to my handy-dandy mileage calculator website I use when planning trips, the bird is 436 miles away and that I could get there in slightly over 7 hours. That computes to an average driving speed of 62 miles per hour, through road construction, snarled traffic in Portland, small town speed limits and tourist during the last hurrah of summer. Sure. Maybe I will see the plover in some other lifetime or when some other navigationally impaired Lesser Sand-Plover is beach combing more in my striking distance.
September arrives with the expectations of gentler temperatures and migration, and, perhaps a waif, a rare bird, something missing from my ABA list. If September fails to deliver, the next months, with possible avian strays and winter accidentals, might be helpful, may expose me to new and wondrous species, gifts from the north, the sea, any direction is welcome.
Fortunately, my waif wishing is answered before September is out the door. Another Lesser Sand-Plover visits the tidal flat in Oregon’s Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. The bird was located on Sunday and seen again on Monday. It is not a one-day wonder. That Bandon Marsh is only three hours away and that the plover has stayed put a couple of days beg the question: should I chase this one. Tuesday, the third plover day, is out. Tuesday morning is the day the glass people substitute a faulty window, one that came with six other good windows last week. The painful truth is the flawed window is going to cost me an ABA opportunity. Wednesday, the fourth plover day, is also out. Jon Dunn is stopping by, but then he emailed to reschedule later in the month. Even so, I worried that the plover would be gone four days after the initial sighting. Just as it appeared I would be ploverless, Linda suggested that I leave for Bandon once the new window is in place.
21 September 2010
The window workers arrive at 9:30 a.m., yank out the faulty window, slide the replacement into the frame, screw it into the wood, caulk it inside and out and help me slide my giant “L” shaped desk back in place. I pay the balance of the job and chomp at the bits since, in the intervening time; there are no new web reports of the Lesser Sand-Plover. Mike Patterson, birder sage of Oregon’s northwestern coast, once determined that 61.6% of rare shorebirds visiting his region stay only one day, while those that stay more than one day, linger for an average of five days. In interior Oregon, Linda and I found an off-course Sharp-tailed Sandpiper on its fourth day, the last day before it disappeared. I managed to see a Wood Sandpiper nine days from the day of discovery near Eugene, Oregon. Certainly, many variables may keep a lost individual shorebird from making its learned and genetic appointed rounds, and size of the bird and its habitat as well as the number of searching birders are important variable influencing detection of rarities. Once discovered, the number of eyes needed to relocate an out of place species will usually influence the number of detected days of a waif.
The Lesser Sand Plover at Bandon National Wildlife Refuge had been seen by Noel Stryker of ABA fame and by many others who must have stopped by yesterday or the day before to see the plover that graces North American shores only occasionally. Today is near the half-way point, the average five days, according to Patterson‘s data, and then, theoretically, the Bandon Marsh Lesser Sand Plover will depart. Knowing my odds are waning every minute, I back out the driveway, with trepidation and hope.
To get to the coast in southwestern Oregon, it is necessary to first drive 85 miles north. It was 10:20 when I hit I 5 on my way to a little town of Green, then at last, head west on Oregon State 42, then 42S to Bandon. The drive is a familiar one, uneventful except for construction at nearly every bridge crossing the Coquille River, work from federal stimulus money. Waiting for the signal from the flag person, I wonder if I should feel guilty spending money to chase birds during the country‘s economic crises. By the second stop at another one-lane bridge, I answer no. For years, I worked hard and long, luckily with enjoyment most of the time. My retirement income is steady and suitable for a thrifty yet reasonably comfortable life somewhere in the realm of middle-classdom. No, I cannot chase the next rare avis anywhere in the ABA area, but I can afford to chase the plover 170 miles from my home.
The tidal wetland at Bandon Marsh is under water. No one is at the boardwalk viewing area. Although the tide is ebbing, but not being sure when the flat will be exposed, I dash north, cross the Coquille River, submit again to delays caused by bridge repairs, and finally head into Bullard Beach State Park. The beach itself is crowded with humans and their dogs, both cavorting up and down the sand. Neither is attached to leashes and extra time is needed to cross the fore dune in order to avoid impending canine caca. A flock of about 50 Sanderlings is more nervous from the mutant wolves than from any advancing surf. I check out the rocks near the lighthouse. Not a Surfbird to be found, but I do hear the plaintive shout of a Black Oystercatcher, probably in response to people on the north spit. Invertebrates attached to the rocks reveal that the tide has gone out further than realized and I hurry back to the Bandon Marsh viewing area.
The tide is out and hundreds of Black-bellied Plovers are taste testing their newly exposed feeding grounds. A Pacific Golden-Plover, still in breeding plumage, forages alone or is it. I see smaller birds beyond the plovers. Repeating to myself, there are smaller birds out there, birds that require identifying. The temperature is pleasant, but I begin to tremble, partly from the reaction of a landlocked birder seeing so many individual shorebirds, partly from possible low blood sugar, and partly from the anticipation of observing a Lesser Sand-Plover.
Not being all that sure whether I should wait for the small shorebirds to come closer, wait for more birders, who surely will be arriving to help, or attempt to walk the mud flat adds to my uneasiness. A welcome veggie burger from the ice-chest keeps me busy while scoping the shorebird assembly. The big plovers seem to own to mud flat. Eventually, some of the smaller shorebirds land closer, but are well north of the viewing area. Even after the last veggie bite, the expected throngs of birders never arrive. I step off the viewing platform and into the 3 to 6 inch tidal grass. The Black-bellied Plovers and a few dowitchers do not mind me being closer. There is a worn and soggy path tracing north through the short grassy vegetation bordering the tidal mud flat. Most of the sea has drained from the path leaving the grass dry from the faint breeze. In about 75 yards north of the platform, I see more flocks of small shorebirds. Most appear to be Western Sandpipers, probing in close proximity of each other. A looser gathering of maybe a dozen birds forage in front of the peeps and my binocs, at the 200-yard distance, show them to be Semipalmated Plovers, but demand a better look. A tantalizing hint that not all the plovers are the same raises my pulse. The scope helps some, but the breeze is now a wind that causes my rickety tripod and scope to move. Fortunately, a large piece of driftwood, tall enough and big enough for me to lean against and to steady my scope is the ticket. Just as I suspect, one of the supposed Semipalmated Plovers had rusted. It is the Lesser Sand-Plover.
As much as I stare, the sand-plover refuses to come closer. At least it is close enough to identify and to be reasonably certain it is a juvenile as originally reported. Attempting a distant photograph is pointless and I trek back to the viewing platform and hope the lost plover will wander my way. Finally, a birder arrives. He is armed with binocs, a big scope on a hefty looking tripod, rubber boots and about 30 or more years to get to my ripening age. I ask, foolishly, if he is looking for the Lesser Sand-Plover. He says he is, and wants to get a photograph of it. I tell him where I saw the bird. We exchange names and I recognize that Russ Namitz is the birder that discovered the Lesser Sand-Plover on 19 September. As we talk, something vocalizes overhead. Russ seems to hesitate, then announces the calling bird probably is not the sand-plover but more likely is a Short-billed Dowitcher “chattering.” I wonder, since the call reminds me of the plover’s call I heard from my home computer a few hours ago. My experience identifying shorebird calls is too meager to do more than guess. We never hear that call again. Russ says he is going to walk out onto the flat. Should I join him? It is getting late and knowing myself, that I would be late, I decide to remain on the platform. In the event he locates the plover, he offers to call me and quickly enters my cell number into his phone. Lacking any technological dexterity, I cannot enter his number in my phone. Could my embarrassing lack of what is nominal techno savvy suggest losing a new ABA species? Probably, but at least today, I can check off the plover the old fashion way.
Russ’s stroll onto the tidal flat barely disturbs the shorebird feeding frenzy and soon he is walking through the location where I had seen the plover. Nevertheless, my phone does not ring. Any possibility of a second look at the plover is diminishing as fast as the time advances. The clock reminds me that I should head home, proudly, with my 652 ABA species. Now I am ready for the next 48 species.
For the next several days, I monitored OBOL for additional sightings of the Lesser Sand-Plover. Russ and some other local birders tried to find it, but came up empty. The Lesser Sand-Plover had apparently disappeared. I hate it when I am the last to see a rare bird. Are there suspicious people back in the marsh saying, yeah, sure? My answer is someone has to be last. Days later, a Northern Wheatear is found just across the tidal flat at Bullards Beach. Was the wheatear there on 21 September? Possibly. Is the sand-plover hiding with the Semipalmated Plovers in Bandon Marsh? That is the frustration of it. That is the fun of it.
A few days post sand plover, Jon Dunn called from a rest stop about 50 miles to the north. We had rescheduled our meeting on the Monday following his talk given to the Oregon Field Ornithologists meeting in coastal Newport. Jon parked near me in front of a seafood restaurant of my home turf around 6 p.m. We signed up for a table in the congested foyer and asked to be called from the noisy restaurant cocktail room.
The crowd in the small space did not notice our fervent conversation as we were forced to shout over other conversations words such as Cyanocitta, mtDNA, allopatry, Black Rail, AOU, BOU, intergradation, and evoked names including Zink, Cicero, Banks, Captain Bendire and more. Not one in the crowd seemed to notice, although some might from phrases such as selective mating or retarded plumage. We do not care. We are enjoying ourselves although I admit my voice is getting a bit raspy from talking louder than is normal.
Jon and I had not had a real conversation of any length since he was visiting the museum in the 90’s while working on the Peterson guide to warblers. We had managed to stay in touch since then, mostly by sporadic emails. On rare occasions, we attended the same meetings and last year we met over hummingbirds at Tom Beatty’s place in the Huachuca Mountains. These were brief encounters. Tonight, over a dinner of what the restaurant billed as “never ending shrimp,” we would try to cover more ground (and more shrimp), with focus on taxonomic issues, especially those relating to the AOU Check-list Committee, which Jon is a card carrying member. We talk about scrub, Steller’s and Mexican Jays, crossbills, three kinds of geese including my personal favorite, brant, White-breasted Nuthatch, Marsh Wren, bushtit, a reasonably full gamut of species that present taxonomic conundrums.
We also discussed a few people we know. Having lived a few years (Jon is 10 years younger), we made brief surveys of a small number people who died in the line of duty, including a couple of guides Jon knew who, separately, succumbed to a tiger and to a venomous snake. With age, it is also easier to learn of more and more individuals who die of less dramatic causes, such as cancer or simply so-called “old age.”
16 October 2010
Yesterday, the computer was full of posts on first a probable, then a certain if not definite, Crested Auklet foraging adjacent to the commercial harbor of Port Orford, Oregon. The first computer message was from Russ Namitz, the one who found the Lesser Sand-Plover north of Bandon, only 30 minutes up the coast from Port Orford. Russ said harbor staff discovered the auklet and that the then assumed Crested Auklet had been photographed. Two photographs were soon on the net and my pulse quickened and silently sounded the alarm that a rare bird was within striking distance. By now, the computer chatter is leaning to the bird’s identity as a definite Crested Auklet. Several birders, including Alan Contreras’s failure to view the small Alaskan momentarily dampen my spirits. The auklet must be a one-day-wonder. Wayne Weber from British Columbia related that a Crested Auklet was off Vancouver Island for a week in 2003 and posted a query. It was a question I needed answered. What was the actual date of the initial sighting and photographs?
The Crested Auklet was initially seen and photographed on 14 October, the day before it was ever mentioned on the web. What is a modern birder to do? Maybe I should place my phone number on telephone poles that states if any rare birds show up, please call M. Ralph Browning at my phone number. Is checking the computer for RBAs fast enough to grab up the rapid fire of a rarity here today and gone tomorrow?
Perhaps the Crested Auklet is not a one-day-wonder. My rare bird alarm was no longer sending out blasts of sound to alert my internal bird finder, but it was on vibrate. It was something, but the level of alert was getting lower and lower. Still interested, I told Linda the news of the auklet and that I might chase this one. Upon learning that the auklet was first seen a day earlier than when first reported on the web and that it had been seen only briefly by the photographer on the 15th, did not help inspire a three and half hour drive to see only the usual coastal suspects. Would the Crested Auklet stay put one more day?
At 7:40 a.m., I am off to the races, driving the accustomed route north on I 5, then west on Oregon state highway 42. Weekend travel is something I like to avoid, but today has its advantages. The road crews so prevalent last month are not working today and as a bonus, Saturday traffic is relatively light. At Bandon, I stop south of town at one of the mart stores. I do not need gasoline, but have gas or something; my stomach does not like the egg breakfast and sudden travel. A small package of miniature donuts, the kind that have shelf lives in years, does the trick. Just like the navy chief back in the day told me about avoiding seasickness: fill up on pancakes, bread, and other baked goods, which I now take to mean well-preserved donuts. In 30 minutes, I arrive, with calm stomach, in the coastal hamlet of Port Orford.
Port Orford, now around 1200 people, has the supposed distinction of having the only dry dock harbor on the west coast. People have to operate cranes to lift boats and their catch from the water below the dock. Possibly, because of such labor, a worker spotted a small dark bird he had never seen. Lois Miller, the chief Port Orford birder, must have gotten the word out to be contacted should anyone see something unusual. Somebody did and that is why I am here. I am not the only one today standing on the dock. A man, probably a few years older than me is at the north edge of the dock, peering intently through a hefty telescope. We introduce ourselves. Richard, from Gold Beach, had been on duty, with eyes peeled, since 8:30. In a few minutes, a white van pulls up where we are ineffectually standing. From the looks of the van, it belongs to a dock worker. A youngish woman, relative to my age, which is making more and more people youngish, walks up boasting binocs and a scope. The three of us peer over the water. Another man arrives and asks if we have seen the Crested Auklet. I say, “Not yet.” The three birders seem to know each other. Eventually, I walk to the other side of the broad dock to check the water to the south. A loose smattering of Surf Scoters is joined by three White-winged Scoters and a Common Murre. I pass the end of the dock, stare seaward beyond a rock jetty and spot a Marbled Murrelet before rejoining the lamenting birders.
If we cannot find the auklet, we can enjoy other birds. One of us finds a few winter plumaged Rhinoceros Auklets just beyond easy camera range and passed the giant brown kelp floating a few yards away. Someone asks about the status of Rhinoceros Auklets. Not recalling what the Oregon book that I helped write stated, I offer that they breed on Goat Island, a large island approximately 50 miles down the coast. I do not say that Bill English, working on a Fish and Wildlife Service grant, and I discovered Rhinoceros Auklets breeding there in 1968. An estimated 1,000 now nest on Goat and Hunter Island, the latter about 30 miles south of Port Orford.
Lois Miller arrives, on her lunch break. She is sporting a camera with a telephoto lens that is surely reaching for the 30-inch mark. She appears disappointed that the auklet has not made an appearance and says she will be looking for it when she gets off work, including all day tomorrow. I congratulate her for finding the bird. We all continue to search and after a few minutes, everyone leaves. I stay, eat a ham and cheese sandwich I brought from home and search some more. A public rest room thankfully at the landward end of the dock allows me to abandon my jaundice and finish my tea before a drive up to Nellies Point where a coast guard station once stood to guard us from possible enemy attack during WWII. One of the birders at the dock said it is possible see birds swimming below. Today, the dizzying view of the churning sea is birdless.
With time to spare, I drive back the short distance to the dock and scan again. While looking, I run into the dockhand that first spotted the Crested Auklet. I thank him and continue my vigil, ultimately making myself nearly seasick while scoping the pulsating kelp floating offshore. No Crested Auklet is in sight. The wind, at first mild, has become annoyingly strong. It is difficult to use the scope, let alone binoculars. My knit hat and trusty green jacket help fend off the cold. Coincident to the strengthening bluster, the sun is now more westerly, creating a glare over more and more possible Crested Auklet substrate. It is time to give up.
Back in Bandon, I fill the gas tank and make a quick run to Bandon Marsh overlook. The tide is exceptionally low. At first the mudflats appear abandoned, but the more I strain, the more shorebirds I detect. I look for an elusive Curlew Sandpiper, but all the birds are too far for my scope and abilities. Perhaps there is one there; perhaps the Crested Auklet was somewhere near Port Orford and perhaps I‘d be luckier next time. Three hours later, I am home, tired but not crestfallen.
Several rare birds were reported in November. California had a Black-tailed Gull and an Ivory Gull. A Rufous-backed Robin was in Arizona and three Old World Geese were found, including a Graylag Goose in Nova Scotia, a Pink-footed Goose in New Brunswick and a Taiga Bean-Goose in California. There are so many birds and no time or money to chase them. Of course, there is always hope that some of the Alaskan rarities, maybe a Jack Snipe, will make their way south or the Ivory Gull will leave California and stay a while in Oregon. Perhaps something, anything, would fly within my chase zone.
My hope of some rare bird, some species I needed for my ABA list, came with a posting of a Brown Shrike near Arcata, California on 21 November. A couple of winters ago I thought I found a Brown Shrike in the southern interior of Oregon, just miles from where I park the birdmobile. It was a brown shrike all right, but not a Brown Shrike. The bird was unquestionably brown above and had a definite black smear behind each eye. Its size was not right. When the cloud lifted, I could see forever and realized my mountainous error. The bird was by far the brownest Northern Shrike I had ever witnessed on a foggy afternoon. When I read of the Arcata Brown Shrike, I winced. Even though Arcata is within chasing distance, the sighting did not fit my schedule.
The November issue of Birding arrived the day after the Brown Shrike was found. Inside the issue was the 21st report of the ABA Checklist Committee, which listed Brown-backed Solitaire as a new species for the ABA checklist. About a month ago in a restaurant parking lot in Oregon, Jon Dunn told me the solitaire had been accepted. In order that the species is accepted by ABA, it had to have the stamp of approval from the Arizona Bird Committee. Despite Jon’s information, the Arizona committee‘s website did not reveal the thrush as accepted. The Birding announcement of adding the code 5 solitaire to the list was welcome, but I wondered why the Arizona Bird Committee had not stated on their website the acceptance of this new species. I wrote them, asking if there was a problem in keeping the website up to date “or, for some reason, the committee decided to keep us solitaire observers wondering if we can count or not count the thrush.”
Kurt Radamaker, an Arizona Bird Committee member replied:
“Apologies for not updating the website, it is updated now. We have been busy with preparing the latest ABC report for Western Birds. The Solitaire was accepted and I have taken the liberty to give you a sneak peek of the account for the Brown-backed Solitaire in the upcoming report.” The copy of the report included all the journalistic w’s, the who, what, when and where and stated “The A.B.C. was concerned that this individual may have been transported in, and escaped from a cage, as Brown-backed Solitaire has been found to be a “common” cage bird in Mexico. Acknowledging this, the committee felt that this is an “unanswerable” question. They concluded there was just as much likelihood that the bird was naturally occurring, and given that the bird was in natural habitat, behaving naturally, well away from any border crossing, the committee has chosen to accept it. An additional record of one below Madera Canyon, 4-7 Oct 1996, was not accepted by the A.B.C. based on questions of origin (Rosenberg et al. 2007); this record is currently being re-reviewed.”
It is interesting to see some of the inner-workings of a rare bird committee. I wonder, owing especially that the Brown-backed Solitaire was a potentially new species for the ABA area, why the committee did announce it once it was approved. Why keep Paul Sykes, many others and me on tender hooks? Once I raised the question of updating the website, the solitaire was suddenly listed as accepted. Secondly, since acceptance of the 2009 bird partly rested on distance from the Mexican – U.S. border, using the same logic would seem to foster acceptance of the 1996 bird. Compared to the 2009 solitaire, the 1996 thrush was found further from the border and in an area experiencing far fewer incidences of immigrants that might traffic such a bird. Why worry so much? Perhaps being the curious cat is partly why I worked so hard finding the 2009 bird and why it feels good to be one of the first to see a brand new ABA species, let alone that the Brown-backed Solitaire is my ABA 653 species. Only 47 to go!
Meanwhile, back home, I monitor the Brown Shrike that has become a dangling carrot. At first, it looked as if it was a one-day-wonder, but, although missing for a day, the shrike was relocated and birder after birder was catching glimpses of the Asian breeder almost daily. Brown Shrikes rarely show up in the Aleutians, although one wintered at California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, staying about five months. Perhaps the Arcata bird would hang around. The carrot suddenly appeared reachable.
4 December 2010
Linda knew I had been chomping at the bits to look for the Brown Shrike. We also hope that a change in environment might alleviate Linda’s sinus infection. Even if we both cannot see the Brown Shrike, we plan to have an enjoyable drive to the invigorating north coast of California.
The windshield is periodically awash with rain as we descend the serpentine twists along the emerald-green Smith River. Several miles back, a yellow sign stated that if flashing, the highway is closed. Closures are from infrequent rockslides. Our route, US 199, is pockmarked with killer boulders hurtling from the cliffs above. Happily, the road is clear. Just west of US 101, our highway leaves the Smith River to virgin redwoods, with the black pavement inches from towering trees obscuring our next abrupt turn. Then, suddenly, we are out of the ferns and shadows and traveling south on the west coast highway 101.
Nearly an hour later, I start looking for the pull off, the place a would-be Brown Shrike hunter should park. I see cars in the lot but drive on to northern Arcata to our motel. Linda inhales the sea air, but declines to tramp the wetlands and dunes called home by the shrike. I hurry north for a little over five miles, take an exit at Clam Beach, and then immediately take the ramp to head south on 101 to the next exit, a so-called vista point. A couple of birders are standing at the overlook. There, David Fix, the Arcata go to bird guy, instructs to go through the hole in the fence. That is what the couple did, but the man snagged his foot on the barbed wire and twisted one leg so badly he could not go further. Leaving his friend to lend aid, I think that could be me, but luckily I can follow David’s route and travel north on a bike path “about five minutes” and then walk southwest into the shrike site. The five minutes is really between two and three minutes before coming to a sign and a wide opening in another fence. The sign marks a conservation area.
Brown Shrike hunting grounds
The area frequented by the Brown Shrike, assuming my math is correct, is about 25 acres. Two shallow freshwater ponds sit near the base of a sandstone bluff, which is about 148 feet at its highest point. Low growing alders dot the wetter landscape among sparse patches of pampas grass that reach greater heights. The clumps of cottony white seed heads are growing mostly on some of the drier shores of the ponds. West of the ponds, four to five feet tall sand dunes muffle the breaking waves. The drill is to walk along the western edge of the ponds, avoiding any wetland vegetation by hiking a few feet west along the dry dunes. In fact, some observers suggest scanning the pond areas from the higher dunes. That is because the Brown Shrike often stays low, feeding on the ground and occasionally perching but not necessarily on the highest vegetation.
Rubber boots were advised, but I decide to stick with my waterproof hiking boots. In a few feet, I meet a birder returning to the bike trail. He does not look happy, but tells me he thinks “they” have it at the south pond. They are about a dozen birders. I see their tracks and tracks of countless others who trudged along the edge of the dunes. Being a scout, I am prepared for the worst of weather, but the raincoat and fast walking and occasional bouts of trotting contribute to clamminess only a tropical birder might appreciate. At the southern end of the south pond are at least a dozen people standing. Some are talking; others are scanning toward the east side, about 350 feet away. Two men are looking happy. One triumphantly shows his photo of the bird. It is a beautiful Brown Shrike. If I had been there a couple of minutes sooner, I too would be triumphant. Instead, I am hot and disappointed. Sand is not an easy surface to traverse. About the time I catch my breath, the same two men are waving their arms back and forth. Lamentably, the two have traveled at least a thousand feet north. The group runs north in unison, but travel only a few feet. Some of the group does continue to trot forward, others stop, and the remainder walks, then run, then walk, then breathe hard and harder. We all know that we are like the juveniles in a nest. The ones with the biggest mouth will be fed first. We know that the birders getting to the two waving men last will most likely not see the shrike. I arrive, huffing and puffing. The shrike is gone.
The two men leave. They had seen the bird just feet away and had pictures to prove it. Each time they saw it, I was tantalizingly close. The two misses are hard to accept, but maybe there will be the charming third opportunity. I watch the dwindling light and realize it is not going to give me the time I may need to see such an elusive bird. An abandoned road borders the shore of the north pond, just where someone saw the shrike, very late yesterday. Two others are looking along the old road when I arrive. Other than Song Sparrows, Marsh Wrens and Yellow-rumped Warblers, there is not anything to cause alarm. It is getting darker. I tell a couple from Reno that I suppose I will have to go get my flashlight.
It is dark when I roll up to the motel. Linda asks about the shrike. I tell her my two misses. After a dinner nuked in the microwave, I set the alarm and dream of flocks of Brown Shrikes perching at arm’s length.
5 December 2010
My plan is to get up at six, but I roll out of bed at 5:30. A couple of eggs boiled before leaving home are breakfast and I pack enough snacks and water for the day. It is dark at the parking lot above the sleeping shrike. I am the only one there until a car, then another, park at the far end of the lot. I do not see any binoculars. A crack in the eastern clouds allows morning to seep into the sky and a distant Wrentit bounces its song from below. About that time, the Stricklands from Reno park to my left. We chat a minute or two before wresting through the hole in the fence and trekking north on the bike trail. Six eyes together might increase our chances. By the time we half way pass the north pond, I see something that gives the impression of having a brown back and white undersides. It is close to the size of the shrike and is heading south or did it turn or stop? We cannot relocate the bird. We wait. Another person joins the search but no matter the amount of scanning, we come up birdless.
The new person is from Bend, Oregon, and asks how people stringing along the ponds are communicating. He said his two compatriots have walkies, whereupon I realize I left mine in the car. Yesterday, people said they were using cell phones, but that only works if everyone has everyone else’s phone number. Lacking my walkie, I exchange phone numbers with Steve from Bend.
The sun is in our eyes as we move southward, and it is apparent that the styles of the other birders do not exactly fit mine. Leaving the Reno couple, I follow a few yards behind Steve. All the while looking for the shrike, I also search for a dead mouse impaled by an alder stem. The two men who were so lucky yesterday found the mouse and wondered if it was Brown Shrike larder. The mouse is either gone or I missed it. Steve and I independently reach the south end of the south pond where we comb every bush and stem between the bluffs and us. The Stricklands catch up. We scare up a flock of Bushtits and about six Black-capped Chickadees in the marsh along with White-crowned Sparrows and other usual suspects. A lone Hermit Thrush, because of its size and general coloration, send our pulses up momentarily.
The only thing left to do is to trek north. We walk, stop and scan over and over. While standing on a stubby dune and scanning for anything that moves, Steve receives a call on his walkie.
“It’s at the north pond!” Sand flies behind Steve as he runs and almost disappears from sight.
Knowing this day may be my last day and now having somewhat trained yesterday in the art of sprinting for shrikes, I hurry as fast as my 66 year-old legs and lungs will allow. The hot raincoat is tucked away in my backpack. Only my portable three-legged stool, my aching back pacifier, is trouble as it bounces with my gallop causing the aluminum legs to tap routinely on my head. The route must have been just less than 1800 feet, but I complete it without any need of a medevac and without washing all of last nights applied under arm deodorant down into my socks.
Peter Low from Bend stands atop a dry sand dune a few yards west of some alders. Further east are more alders and pampas grass. Several other people are looking eastward with binoculars. Most of us are panting and the sprint and anxiety interfere with holding my tripodless scope steady. Turning the scope down to 15 power barely helps and my binoculars are now almost too heavy to use. I sit on the portable stool to allow my lungs, somewhere a few yards south, to catch up. Peter had the Brown Shrike in his scope when he called Steve, but in the interim, the bird flew to the ground and out of sight. A couple of people also on the small dune spot what they are reasonably certain is the shrike. The bird is moving south. Was this the same bird I saw earlier? Perhaps. Announcing to some in the group, I mention other sightings seem to show that if the shrike is moving in a particular direction, it will continue to do so until reaching the end of its rather linear home range. Thinking I am being ignored, I begin scanning areas further south, but see nothing. Peter moves further south, stops shortly, looks, then hurries to another high dune. Planting his tripod firmly, he aims across the wetland and announces he has the bird. He calls over the third member of the party from Bend for a look. After that, he offers his scope to others. I am second in line and about 360 feet away is the Brown Shrike, but it has its back toward us. Someone, after looking through the scope comments it could just as well be a church mouse. Before disappointment of this unsatisfactory pose settles in, the shrike moves and Peter once again has it sitting at the apex of a tall alder with its brown back, white belly and black mask for all to see.
The group moves south again, hoping for another look at the Brown Shrike. I thank Peter before departing back to the birdmobile. Shortly after a required stop to water some of the taller sand dunes, I see nine of the birders straggling back to the bike trail. All are smiling. I toss down some food and water at the car as one of the birders arrives in the parking lot. We talk about our good fortune and plan to drive to a vacant lot in tiny Trinidad where a southern flycatcher had been seen for a couple of days. Two reports identified the bird as a Dusky-capped Flycatcher, a species I had seen in Arizona and one report believed it to be an Olivaceous Flycatcher, a species I have never seen. At Trinidad, one of the Brown Shrike birders turns with a negative nod as I approach. Wouldn’t it be ironic for the northern Brown Shrike to have crossed paths with a southern flycatcher? It would have, but the flycatcher was not there, it was a miss.