Milestone 700, ch 27, Casuals Friday

Casuals Fridays

Extralimital shorebirds kept falling out of the sky in August, with another Little Stint in northern coastal California, but the bird was a one-day wonder. More unusual was a Common Ringed Plover found near Davis, CA, on 19 August. This bird apparently liked its new southern digs (literally) and continued there until late as 24 August. Common Ringed Plover, for those wondering about the excitement, raise ringlets in Greenland, Iceland, parts of Eurasia as far east as the Sea of Okhotsk north of Japan and, in North America part of the northern Canadian Archipelago. That is pretty much a circumpolar breeding range. Some authorities report that the species is a casual breeder and a rare nonbreeder in insular Alaska. Being a casual breeder, does not translate as having casual sex. In birder lingo, casual means rarer than rare. It has nothing to do with commitment, anonymity, frequency or informality of dress. Birds breeding in North America migrate toward Europe, so any Common Ringed Plovers in the U.S. is especially a big deal. In fact, months ago I made a note to myself that for a North American breeder, Common Ringed Plover may be one of the most difficult species to scribe on my ABA list. Packing my bags for a trip to the Canadian Archipelago or even insular Alaska is not on the schedule. Common Ringed Plovers are well beyond rare in ABA territory. They are casual. Less than a dozen have ever occurred on the east coast from Newfoundland south to Virginia. The Davis bird is the first documented record of a Common Ringed Plover for the western contiguous United States.

David Sibley wrote in his guide that the breeding adult male Semipalmated Plover is “virtually identical to Common Ringed” Plover. In size, the Common Ringed Plover is only ¼ of an inch more lengthy with a wing span one inch greater than Semipalmated Plover. Sibley stated that the weight of a Common Ringed Plover averages 15 grams more than Semipalmated Plover. Why the vital statistics? I think that in the case of the subject two plovers, size does make a difference. Jon Dunn noted differences and similarities of Semipalmated and Common Ringed Plovers, and, in the Geographic guide points out the “more distinct” white eyebrow and slightly wider breast bands of the latter. As for the lack of webbing between the toes of the Davis bird, I am hopeful I will see that. I certainly will be happy to view the feathered characters.

Clearly, I needed to see the Common Ringed Plover, a species considerably rarer than a Little Stint and even rarer than my July sighting of the embarrassing Long-toed Stint too shy to show itself to fellow birders. The Little Stint could not stay put, even for a little while. It was gone well before organizing a chase. On the other hand, the plover stayed at the same place for six consecutive days. Would it be there one more day?

I had been salivating about the plover ever since spotting it on the web, but tomorrow was the first promising day for ringing in a new ABA species. By 3:30 p.m., I had packed the car, kissed my bride, with a promise to give mutual back massages upon my return. It was a long ride down I-5, across the Siskiyou Mountains that made winter trips to the south difficult, passed Mt. Shasta that had shockingly lost so much snow and into the hot Sacramento Valley to Davis, California. My route very roughly followed that of the historical Siskiyou Trail, the one used by the U.S. Exploring Expedition. Early in my career, I looked over Roger Clapp’s shoulder as he attempted to determine localities and dates of a few old Exploring Expedition specimens housed in Smithsonian’s Division of Birds from careful readings of the expeditions chronicles. In 1841, the Expedition nearly traveled the length of Oregon and entered the Rogue Valley not far from where I saw my first Ruff. The party must have passed the small town where I grew up before they summited the Siskiyou Mountains, and dropped down in the California valleys of the Shasta and Sacramento Rivers. After 170 years, my interstate route followed the same rivers. Little did I know weeks ago that I would be near the western terminus of the Pony Express, when, in 1860-61, riders galloped past the southern end of the Ruby Mountains in Nevada on their way to Sacramento.

After five hours of driving, I at last arrived in Davis and found my reserved motel with just enough spare energy to check the local weather. The forecaster talked briefly about a so-called minor disturbance that would be making its way north, reaching Davis sometime around noon. What might be minor to us, but could be major to a lost bird. That pending disturbance worried me. For days since the discovery of the Common Ringed Plover, weather patterns had remained constant. Would this new pattern get the plover’s attention? Would it be at the Davis Wetlands tomorrow morning?

*****

26 August 2011

It is pitch dark when I wake 30 minutes before my alarm would clang and 30 minutes when my back up wake-up call would ring.  I shut off the alarm. The wake-up call should be on time. It is. I answer, “Yes.” On some wake-up calls of yesteryear, I have answered, “Oh ok,” “really” or “oh crap” only spelled differently, but why say anything. There is nothing on the other end. It is all by computer these days, but I remember when it was not and so do some of the employees who received abusive answers to the wake-up services. Anyway, I am up, do my bathroom activities, eat a hearty breakfast of two cold boiled eggs, a dried apricot and probably something else I cannot recall, all washed down with a cup of coffee. Donning a green jacket I wear almost everywhere is just right for the cool morning. Underneath is a wrinkled t-shirt hanging over belted cargo pants. Casualness may brand my dress, but the mission today is far from it.

Sunlight is beginning to the break the dark night as I load the birdmobile for a trip to the Davis Wetlands, a project on 400 acres north of town that turns waste and storm water into a wildlife preserve. Similar projects occupy various localities, but unfortunately not my home habitat. I wonder how many Asian shorebirds have passed over my region because the wastewater was wasted on paved impoundments.

Once out of Davis, my arthritis flares up. The wetland is less than five miles away, but without the correct padding, which is an inflatable donut; this distance seems more like at least 20 miles. According to my doctor, there is the possibility I have arthritis in the coccyx, the tailbone. Cracking it years ago while playing bicycle tag probably did not help. The ache caused by sitting down misses being a pain in the ass by inches. Between the excitement of a new ABA species, unfamiliarity with the rural roads, and trying to ignore what I sit on, I miss my junction, but realize the mistake, double back and, with my directions I brought from home, I soon arrive at the gate I am supposed to pass on the way to see the Common Ringed Plover. A car drives away, the driver having just opened and closed the gate. My instructions are that access past the gate is not permitted until 7 a.m. Not wishing to rankle anyone, I check in at the office near the gate. A woman there tells me a bungee cord secures the gate and that I should just go on in. I do, and in about a quarter of a mile catch up with the same car I saw earlier. A man, maybe 50 something, said he had two emails about the locality of the plover. I said I did also, but neither mentioned anything specific, such as tract numbers that are indicated on the map of the wetland. No matter where you are, it seems most locals assume everyone knows exactly where everything is. One source instructed that all one has to do is enter the gate and look for a bunch of birders. Fine, but the place is relatively large, and I or the other birder does not see other birders. We drive on, perhaps more than a quarter of mile and there, suddenly in view, are four cars carefully tucked barely off a dike road so not to block traffic. The birders are huddled on another dike running off at an angle from the road. The gravely dike is worn by hundreds of birders earlier searching and finding the wayward Common Ringed Plover. Temperature is kind, with just the right touch for comfort in a t-shirt. Mosquitoes, as far as I notice, do not exist. The sun is up. It is so low on the horizon it is impossible to look eastward, but luckily, the anxious plover people are searching to the north.

Davis Wetllands                                               Plover people

The visiting Common Ringed Plover was last seen about 6:15. One birder said the 7 a.m. access rule was a rule to be broken when rare birds were around. As a composer of music and young adult of the 60’s, I agree that many rules are sometimes justifiably worth breaking. Perhaps I should have been here earlier. Where is the plover now? Now, is about 7:15 and more and more birders arrive. Large telescopes mounted on tall tripods are pointing at the mudflat where a few Semipalmated Plovers forage only yards from the growing battery of telescopes and anxious birders. Peeps, probably all Western and Least, probe the mud beyond the plovers. Still further away, and many standing in shallow water, are Avocets, yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilts, dowtichers, an occasional gull and others. If there is anything beyond the usual suspects, I am leaving identifications up to others, the ones with high-powered weaponry, the shorebird experts. My focus is the Common Ringed Plover.

More people arrive until there are birders from one end of the diagonal dike to the other. At least 50 minutes pass. On previous days, according to reports at least, the plover was easily found and observed practically all morning. Lack of any breeze, the absence of the plover and the rising sun begins to make this morning’s wait less desirable. Time is ticking away. A few birders are lamenting that the bird may be gone, with a couple of the plover hunters expressing four-letter disappointment. I am thinking I do not want to spend another night in Davis, but I am considering that might be the only way of seeing the Common Ringed Plover. Will tomorrow be the award-winning plover day?

Suddenly, but not unexpectedly if you are optimistic, a couple of birders maybe 200 feet up the dike are waving, gesturing to get there quickly. Of course, someone spotted the plover. I hurry to the proud group, but do not hurry so much as to look overly plover hungry or be required to push someone out of the way and off the dike. I do rush fast enough to capture a peek at the elusive bird. However, I am too late. I hear muffled groans in unison with my own. The plover flew westward, but no one is sure how far or if it landed behind some marsh grasses only a short distance from the initial sighting. By now, there must have been three dozen hardened birders, with at least 25 scouring the mudflat with 50 sharp eyes, eyes keen to spot the visitor from the north. In a couple of minutes, someone announces they have it. Everyone looks at that person’s telescope, checking its angle and mentally computing their position and plotting the angle of their own telescope. It is something like taking a pool shot, but this time the eight ball would be a Common Ringed Plover in the corner pocket.

Sure enough, there it was, standing all alone on the mudflat, seemingly unperturbed at all by the humans mumbling to one another as they stare at a bird that breeds far away from primates. My first impression of the plover is how wrong David Sibley is in considering the Common Ringed Plover and Semipalmated Plover as “virtually identical.” My first impression of the prized plover is it is noticeably larger than the Semipalmated Plovers I am seeing today or seeing any day. This is a big plover, not a Killdeer, but a large bird. The black necklace jumps out at me. It is wide. The white eyebrow is easy to see, as is the large bill, being longer and thicker than the diminutive Semipalmated Plover. Clearly, the Common Ringed Plover is a great ABA addition.

It would have been nice to hear the call note, described ambiguously by some as flute-like. I am ruling out pan. A flute, the kind in chamber and orchestral music, playing a middle C sounds quite different from a flute playing in its high register that approaches a piccolo in timbre. Others say the call is wooden. Hmm. Perhaps the others mean a flute carved from wood. Maybe it does sound similar to a pan flute, or, maybe not. Truly, sound is difficult to describe verbally, which is why I listened to a recording last night on my new, handy-dandy laptop computer in order to rely on my own interpretation. Actually, after about 30 minutes more on the dike, standing on my feet, with unwebbed toes, I think I hear the call of a Common Ringed Plover. I am not sure and keep quiet about the sound.

After multiple and satisfying views of the plover, I drive out of the wetland, leaving a trail of pale tan dust that already coats the blue of the birdmobile. Several birders are driving behind me. Soon, I am on paved ground and nearing Davis, but following one birder who apparently has a different destination than me, I realize I am heading in the wrong part of town, and then find my way back on track and head for the route home. First, I stop at a local constabulary offering Wi-Fi to check for any rarities that might be waiting for me on the way back to Oregon. No Eurasian Dotterel, stints or anything out of the ordinary are reported. More important than a rare bird, I call home to tell Linda I got my bird, the Common Ringed Plover, my 656th ABA species.

*****

An accumulated collection of dust and dried bugs caking much of the vehicle created a wind drag that decreased the birdmobile’s aerodynamics and lowered the gas mileage for the post plover return home. Certainly traveling from the low 60-feet above sea-level wetlands to the 4,000 plus Siskiyou summit and all the inclines in between caused the birdmobile to shift to a lower gear, thus soaking up enough gasoline to make the round trip, including motel, cost about $150. That is not bad for a species that has never been recorded on the west coast of North America. That is a nice thought during my uneventfully hot drive home even through traffic that seems heavy, perhaps gearing up for the weekend. Anyone driving to see the plover will be disappointed tomorrow since no one relocates the prized waif. How lucky for me. Did the plover respond to the minor change in weather? If it did, and was not a victim of the Peregrine Falcon I saw on Friday, which way did the bird travel? Common Ringed Plovers normally winter in South Africa; perhaps this one will continue south, but to South America.

September brings another reachable rarity in the other direction just off Interstate 5, second busiest only to I-95 that I drove regularly during the museum days. Interstate 5 originates inches north of the busiest Mexican-U.S. border crossing, although many people claim that distinction belongs to either the southern border of Arizona or the Rio Grande. Not far north, the interstate boasts a section near San Diego that is 22 lanes wide! My trip for the new bird de jour took me north past Olympia, Washington at the southern end of Puget Sound northeast to Tacoma where Interstate 5 is only four to six lanes wide. Daily vehicular use in that area of the Interstate runs around 200,000, a far cry from the 4 to 500,000 daily users at the Springfield, Virginia, exit off I 95 just west of Washington, D.C. When I lived in nearby Arlington, people referred unkindly to the interchange as the “mixing-bowel.”

On my return south, after getting the bird, rush hour vehicles and hundreds of 18-wheel trucks virtually covered each square inch of freeway in a grid locked, bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. A few drivers got the bird along the route in digitized fashion, but most patiently maintained civility. The good, bad and ugly aspects of an interstate had helped my day, but not the planet by eating away habitat to fulfill the needs of humans that cannot stop breeding. According to our census bureau, a person is born every 8 seconds and someone dies every 12 seconds. That might not seem much of a gain in population, but doing the math gets one more than overcrowded interstate highways. There is more to the story, but I am getting ahead of myself.

*****

23 September 2011

Crossing of the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington is behind me, as well as the boring southern miles of Interstate 5. I pull into a rest stop for a snack and to unload used tea and water before reaching Tacoma, where I head north a mile or so before turning east at the southern end of Commencement Bay at the mouth of the Puyallup River. The river flows from the Puyallup Glacier from the west side of my favorite mountain, Mount Rainier, provider of magnificence and my life White-tailed Ptarmigan. The drive along the bay provides great views of ships loading and unloading in one of the largest west coast harbors. The deep-water harbor began in the early 1900’s by dredging and channelizing that has led to destroying the Puyallup River Delta, with its huge freshwater floodplain. The estuary and its wildlife were forever altered, but efforts today, partly from an EPA super-fund has allowed some clean up what the (so-called) progress had ruined.

Paul Hicks had posted precise directions for those who do not understand the shorthand localities from local birders. The directions help. Soon, I am traveling north on the two-lane paved Marine View Drive on the eastern shore of Commencement Bay. Lush green vegetation covers the steep hillside to my right. Occasional rows of small homes tucked closely between the road and the flat waters of the bay flank the left. Room to pull off the road is sparse, but my directions take me to the Richard Gilmur Restoration and Kayak Access. Gilmur worked for the Port of Tacoma and helped leverage protection of what today is deemed natural habitat of the bay.

The paved viewpoint is empty. Its small size might hold four or five vehicles, which is a concern. It is 12:45 and all reports of the gull assert the query is most likely observable around now or later. Soon, other birders will surely arrive, but too many birders and too little parking places are not a good mix.

A floating log boom stretches from north to south, maybe 50 yards from the gravely shore. Looking northward, the boom juts westward at nearly a right angle and appears to end. A more distant boom is apparently attached to the nearer boom that runs parallel to the shore. I guess the distance to be around 125 yards from shore. My scope, cranked to 45X is sufficient to allow me to see the black ring around the yellow bill of loafing adult Ring-billed Gulls on the far boom and that they and the adult California Gulls have yellowish legs.

IMG_1100
Log boom, tug and gulls.

 

Three minutes pass. A small vehicle lunges into the parking lot and the driver asks if I had seen anything. I say no. He announces the Black-tailed Gull was here at 10:30. My heart sinks since so far, the gull was routinely thought to be foraging somewhere in the bay and returning to rest on the log booms. Had the gull had its rest and now would it be spending the remainder of the day out of sight? Weather patterns were about to change, making me think the gull may have responded and left the building. While I play a musical lamentation in my mind, the man dashes back to his vehicle and in that brief time, I do see something. It is a gull, flying southward and landing on a nest of logs. The bird disappears as soon as it lands, but before it does, I see a reasonably dark gray back with dark upper wings. There are no mirrors on the black primaries. The tail is all white, completely white, but with a well delineated black band separating the ends of white feather tips and the white above the band. What could it be? In five minutes, I had unfolded from the long drive and found the bird du jour, a Black-tailed Gull.

When the man returns, I tell I had just seen the gull. He asks when and I reply that it was in sight only seconds ago, but I cannot locate where it landed. He hurries off, announcing the bird would be back. Back? As far as I could tell, the gull had not left its landing site. Perhaps I‘m not believed, but what else could I have seen? I had done my homework. Steve Howell and Jon Dunn’s gull book convinced me that in adult plumage, Black-tailed Gull is a distinct species. The lack of mirrors in the primaries quickly rules out species with similarly dark mantles, such as California and Lesser Black-backed. Belcher’s and Olrog’s Gulls have black banded tails and similar bill markings and legs coloration are otherwise unlike Black-tailed Gulls. Even without seeing the bill and legs, I know my first Black-tailed Gull, my 658th ABA species, is out there on the far boom.

Thirty or so minutes later, two cars replace the man in a hurry. Brian from Olympia stares intently at the far log boom, peering through a telescope he apologetically said was old and worn. It did look old, but not as old as one used by the U.S. Exploring Expedition’s Lieutenant Charles Wilkes who named Commencement Bay in 1841. I wonder what the delta and bay were like when Wilkes visited a mere 60 years before Tacoma became a bustling port. The expedition narratives are not specific. What kinds of gulls were there 170 years ago?

First one, then a second tug boat motors to the logjam attached to the far boom. Maybe the boats will cause the Black-tailed Gull to show off its distinctive banded tail. A crew member of one of the tugs steps out on the logs. I am not sure what he is doing since my focus is on gulls, not someone falling off a log. None of the hundreds of gulls on the far boom budge. Black Turnstones, also on the log booms, call out occasionally, but nothing flies. Eventually, one tug pulls and the other pushes the long jam south to the port leaving the booms and loafing birds.

A couple, slightly older than me, also is hoping to see the Black-tailed Gull. The woman, remaining seated in the car will have a great view should the gull alight on the near boom. The man tells me he is trying to find the 600th species for his non-ambulatory wife. Suddenly, I feel more than lucky. While we wait, a mother and son walk up and ask what we are looking for. A responding birder opens a field guide to show them the prize. They seem interested and perhaps that one glance of the guide will mean one or both will take up the watch. Too bad the gull is not visible for the icing on their cake.

Worrying that the parking lot will soon to be filled with gull watchers or someone anxious to launch a kayak and my severe concern about a protesting bladder, I leave for North Point, where a few miles up Marine View Drive will get to a restroom and belated lunch. With lightness in step, I return to find a vacant spot to park at the viewpoint with a hot sandwich obviously from the species Greater Breast-meated Chicken. I keep one eye on the giant sandwich and the other on the log booms. Half of the meal is more than enough and I join three birders waiting for the Black-tailed Gull. Round posts, at least 6 inches in diameter, sitting firmly as barriers at the edge of the viewing area, are at a perfect height for a solid platform for my scope. The water, around 10 feet below the posts is smooth, partly from the log booms cushioning the shore from wave action from passing ships. The angle of the posts and the flat mount on my scope allows me to aim the scope at the distant booms where I believe the target gull is still probably hiding somewhere out there. Just one more look and I will leave.

Two large tugs carefully nudge a colossal ship into the bay, pass the log booms, nudge the huge floatation device 180 degrees, and back the ship into a distant slip. As the ship nears the slip, it churns up the water, which attracts hundreds of gulls. They are far too far away to identify. Two people arrive and unload a kayak, which they walk down a ramp before cruising just west of the far log boom. Most of the gulls of the log boom do not seem to notice the large ship or the tiny kayak since they continue to appear asleep, with some birds occasionally preening partly to help rid themselves of their own brand of bed bugs.

It is two hours and fifty-five minutes since I saw the longish winged gull sporting a black banded tail. The gull has yet to reveal it splendorous tell-tell plumage and I really want to see the yellow bill, with the black band adjacent the red tip. The troupe of birders in wait are revealing their plumages that to a nonbirder might appear casual dress. After all, today is Friday, but the birders are wearing what they usually do, comfortable and practical clothes. The only other casual thing about this Friday is the casual status of the Black-tailed Gull.

Brian from Olympia moved out of the sun to the shade where I am standing. Time ticks onward. Needing to get south of Portland before dark, I give myself a deadline for gulling. At 4 p.m., I tell Brian I have to leave. As I begin folding up my tent, he declares he has the gull on the far log boom. He offers me a look through his scope, remarking the image may seem a little yellow due to the aging scope. Yellow or not, the black tail is spread as the bird preens. Yellow or not, the mantle is obviously darker than any neighboring Ring-billed and California Gull. I get my scope on it. Again, I see the black banded tail and dark mantle. Even at low power, the bill is definitely large for the size of the bird. The late hour western light is not helpful, and even cranking up the zoom lens reveals only that the end of the bill is dark: I cannot discern whether I am seeing black or red. With the long wings unfolded, I again see primary tips lacking mirrors. By now, solar rays are waning beyond what I had planned. It is late.

Other than my initial sighting, I had almost missed the bird by, as they say by a hair, but I say by a feather. Any doubt I had is gone. The gridlock southward does not seem so bad.

*****

Friday casuals continued to fall out of the sky. On Friday, 25 November, a Brambling was near Scappose, a town just outside of Portland. The brambling and a possible McKay’s Bunting reported from the central coast of Oregon, were just too far to drive in the case of the Brambling and too tenuous in the case of the bunting. A mega-life bird, a Red-flanked Bluetail on San Clemente Island was found 6 Dec. The date was not a Friday, but who cares. However, the island is inaccessible for several reasons, one being supposed National Security. The Navy owns it. Besides, even if I had the wherewithal to chase rarities, Friday or not, I am pleased to act as surrogate nurse while, so to speak, watching my favorite birding partner’s back. Days after the Friday Brambling, Linda underwent back surgery, not one, but another surgery a following day! There would be many Fridays of recuperation before she would be, well, be back birding. She will be back, birding.

Regardless of circumstances, having an ear to the ground cannot hurt and can supply some important information to contemplate. In late December, two rare flycatchers well worth chasing including a La Sagra’s Flycatcher lingering in Florida since 26 December. In Arizona, a code 5 Nutting’s Flycatcher was discovered on 19 December ranking as only the third record north of the border since 1998. Nutting’s and La Sagra’s Flycatcher occurring concurrently in ABA land may be the first time in recordable history when both species have graced U.S. soil. The Nutting’s Flycatcher brings back fond memories from reading “The Big Year.” Sandy Komito saw a Nutting’s Flycatcher near Nogales, AZ, on New Year’s Day in 1998, a Thursday although the flycatcher was seen on Friday by other birders. Last time I looked at the web, the 2011 flycatcher was showing off to birders as late as 30 December.

It was not difficult imagining jumping on a plane to Arizona, seeing the Nutting’s, and then flying to Florida to see the La Sagra’s Flycatcher. There is one airline that has cheap rates and is one of the very few that flies out of my hometown. Ignoring so-called convenience fees, baggage fees, maybe toilet fees, I could wing my way to Arizona where I would be interested in the concurrently visiting Smith’s Longspur, but the longspur could wait, perhaps appearing on a trip to Alaska. I would drive west of Phoenix, see the Nutting’s Flycatcher and fly to Florida. The Green-tailed Towhee garnering excitement in Florida would be ignored as I ogled the rare La Sagra’s Flycatcher. If the timing were right, at least one of these casual flycatchers would be new on a Friday. Dreaming is part of life, but wouldn’t it have been fun to write about a week of Myiarchus mustering in a chapter I might name “Flycatcher Flights.” It is entertaining to think of the possibilities. Heck, if a Nutting’s and a La Sagra’s Flycatcher coordinate their visits next winter, I might just actually go for the brass ring. Or maybe not. In the meantime, I might see a Smith’s Longspur in Alaska Both Linda and I, after three years of postponing going to Alaska, realize now that the trip is truly around the corner.

It turns out, the two casual flycatchers were not discovered on Friday. Of the 15 or so rare birds reported in ABA’s online “Peeps” during December, only two were seen on a Friday. Truly, there is no trend for any one day being the day for most sighting of casual birds. There is not a hypothesis such as the later in the week is good for seeing casuals. Thursday was the only day for the most sightings in “Peeps” of rarities in December, but no matter how statistical you become, there is no meaning to finding more rarities on any one given day of the week. Despite good fortune on Fridays, I personally prefer birding Thursdays since many species have gotten over habitat disturbance by humans from the previous weekend. By Friday, some people and their dogs take long weekends that extend into Friday and Monday. Probably most casual species realize their normal habitat is more than disturbed, and gone. That may explain why waifs tend to shy away from the usual suspects. Of course, like casual Friday, rare or casual species also tend to be attracted to their relatives, even if they are oceans apart. Truth be told, birders hoping to nail a casual species should look for birds that stand out from other nearby species, be ready for almost any species and bird just as hard on Friday as any other day.

*****

January to March 2012

Looking back on 2011, four new species increase my ABA list. There is always next year. My county list did not end too badly, with 17 species falling short of the record of 243. Varied Thrush and Mountain Quail, species I see every year, might be targets by some. I cannot complain.

On the first Friday of January, I birded around the county, topping of the year’s first county bird, Steller’s Jay with a handful of the usual suspects. Linda, mending from her two-day surgery, with doctor’s orders to not bend or twist, managed a peek out the bedroom feeder where, she watched her first Common Redpoll foraging about 10 feet from the other side of the window glass. This is a casual species to southern Oregon. The bird was unquestionably not anything but a Common Redpoll. Once I am home and for many following days, even a newly placed thistle feeder brought only the usual suspects. In the meantime, someone in the county reported a probable Common Redpoll, a species that had graced localities as far south as San Diego and New Mexico this winter.

Other casual birds occur on a Friday in early February. Are these casual species checking calendars? Anyway, a male Tufted Duck is on a tiny pond just over the border in California. The next day, Linda suggests we drive down to maybe pick up a life bird for her. We were too late, but the Buffleheads were nice. A later visit to the pond bags her another life species, the Tufted Duck.

In early March, Linda had her three-month check-up, the second post-op exam. Feeling better daily, Linda is ready for more activity and asked the doctor what were her limits.

He said, “You have until June before I release you for more activity or see how your particular body heals.”

By now, we had trained our orthopedist in category 3 ornithology so he was easier to converse with concerning Linda’s activities. Having been on orders not to bend or twist her torso, Linda asked what activities she might now be permitted.

“What kind of activities interest you?”

“Well, yesterday I saw a Tufted Duck just over the border in northern California. Was that ok?”

Grimacing, the doctor remarked that a Tufted Duck is a category 3 species. “I suppose that is ok so long as you space out any category 3 species—maybe not more than one per week. Of course that would also depend on how you saw any category 3 bird. What were the physical circumstances concerning the Tufted Duck?”

Linda happily replied. “Ralph drove. The Siskiyou Mountain summit was snow free and the duck pond was visible from a paved road just off the interstate. I sat in the car.”

The doctor sat on his stool without saying a word for a pregnant 15 seconds then countered “I hope you didn’t twist and turn or shout all about.”

“Well, not much twisting and turning. This was a simple drive-by lifer. Besides,” Linda added, “a little shouting was unavoidable. After all, it was my first Tufted Duck.”

“Ok. You need to know that you should avoid category 4 species unless accompanied by a medical professional. Ralph has not updated his first aid card since the sixties, so be careful. Category 5 species are out of the question until I release you in June. If you are in the vicinity of a category 5 bird, absolutely do not look at it. Ask Ralph to take a picture for you and only view such pictures when braced in a stiff-backed chair. ”

The doctor glanced my way and said “Keep the number of rarities to a minimum.”

Linda and I nodded solemnly.

Of course, very little of the above conversation actually happened. The important truth was Linda passed muster from her surgeon and added a Tufted Duck to her life list. With such good news, we reflected on what a great Tufted Duck it was. The bird was a male. Its tuft was long, maybe as long as they get, and the male was in sight for our leisurely 30 plus minutes stay at the roadside pond. Watching this rarity was far more satisfying than the brief look I had of my first Tufted Duck on the Columbia River in 2009. Actually, the pleasure was beyond seeing a life bird since I was able to see almost every feather of the over the Siskiyou summit duck, and I got to watch Linda see her first Tufted Duck. It was worth shouting all about.

*****

Between rara avis, I also committed to a medical procedure, but nothing near what Linda had experienced. Finally, reaching to age of old fartdom, time had come for cataract surgery and a change in vision. Not that I could not see, I just could not see without the aid of glasses. Linda had cataract surgery two years ago and told me that colors were brighter. Another advantage was not looking for misplaced glasses. Also, at least for me, placing the eyepiece of optics against my glasses put me at a disadvantage since there was so much open space between my eye, the glasses and the optic’s lens. Younger days were filled with oculars shoved into my eye sockets, thereby removing annoying side lighting and even providing more stability during the excitement. I needed that area from eyeball to optic lens shielded from the light, to have a region where the sun does not shine. Having my glasses fog up either on a cold day or a humid day caused the fog to roll in at many inopportune moments. Rain drops, especially in winter in the Pacific Northwest cause problems. How nice it would be to have those problems go away. Seeing is believing and there are birds I need to see clearly.

Cataract removal and placement of the new lens is simple, fast and there is little to no postoperative pain. The cataract team numbs the eye, they hook you up with a shunt for delivering a mild sedative or whatever else might need administered, roll you into a frigid operating room and, for me, it was lights out. I do not remember a thing. Luckily, memory of the clamps to hold my eyes open, those metal objects occasionally witnessed in a horror movie, went in some inaccessible area of my brain. For one week, three kinds of eye drops went in the left eye four times a day. I would then place two kinds of drops two times a day in the left eye for 21 days. I had done this for the right eye. Bearing in mind my mathematic skills are wanting, all this dripping equaled 336 drops, with more when I missed my entire eye.

Having the ability to look at birds without looking through cataracts dulling my vision and not having to use glasses was a great experience. Cinnamon Teals looked more cnnamon and a Black-necked Stilt was sharp and focused. Even “silly” coots got my attention. All those eye drops and a relatively few bucks in copays and I have new eyes. And, no more damn glasses between my binocs and me. Should I restart my life list? It was a familiar experience, with my binocs parked securely against my naked orbits, a nostalgic feeling when I first held binocs to a teenage noggin too many years ago, when almost every species could by a new bird, lifers that are still in need.

The next test of optics would be at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a locality Linda and I visited in 2010 on our way home from Gunnison Sage-Grouse and a new crossbill that may someday be countable. The weather at Malheur was then horrible, with cold blowing rain mixed with sand storms and snow. We vowed to return and 2012 would be our time. Prospects for me of a new life bird are little to none, but opportunity for catching a few eastern waifs that routinely show up in the tree and bush oasis of refuge headquarters is high. I am excited for Linda’s chances for species she can add to her list.

*****

20-25 May 2012

Linda and I head northeast to Bend. Pinyon Jays frequent the region and as luck will have it, we see them. This is a life bird for Linda. We then point eastward to Burns for an overnight motel before driving south to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. On Monday, we first stop by the Malheur Field Station where we unload our belongs for the next few nights. The station is about 30 miles south of Burns and a little further north of the Steens Mountains. The station, created in 1971 and operated by a consortium of universities of Oregon, Idaho and Washington is a non-profit educational and research center. It is between North and South Coyote Buttes at a little over 4,000 feet elevation. We reach the station by bumping down the Central Patrol Road, an essentially straight dirt road running north to south through the narrow section of the refuge from headquarters to near Frenchglen. A dozen or more single-story wooden buildings of varying sizes formerly used by the Job Corps provide housing for the meager staff, and shelter visitors and students staying in the refuge. The 10,000-foot Steens Mountains holds on to the winter snow, whitening an otherwise desolate scene of pale earth and gray-green sagebrush. A light but steady breeze is interrupted by the rare sound of people arriving for a tour of the museum or for overnight lodging and the vocalizations of blackbirds, mostly Yellow-headed at a nearby feeding station. Our mailing address, Princeton, is a tiny hamlet in Harney, the largest county in Oregon, that hosts 7,705 people who receive their mail at only eight zip codes scattered across the county.

Malheur Field Station                     Malheur NWR headquarters

Our home for the next four nights is a three-bedroom house. Other choices would have been a dorm or a private bedroom, with sharing bathroom and kitchen. At the end of the day, we need rest and not dealing with a stranger wanting their turn. Outside, rabbits of various sizes, ground squirrels, lope and duck into holes respectively. Attentive male California Quail call to their mates.

After settling in, I scout headquarters for waifs. Western Tanagers are everywhere. No matter what direction I turn, bright males dominate the scene. Duncan Evered, co-manager with his significant other painter Lyla Messick are biologist of the station and tell me of a site where Linda and I might find Long-eared Owl. Linda and I whip up a meal before heading south of the station for a chance at the owl and Common Poorwills. We drive south of an intersection of the road that connects to headquarters, but no birds, not even a Short-eared Owl. It is quiet. It is too quiet. We suspect the heavy traffic of trucks delivering load after load of gravel and dirt to rebuild the Central Patrol Road has done a good job of scaring off our night birds.

High lights of the next day is an Ovenbird, new to Linda, and scores of Warbling Vireos, but with hardly any Western Tanagers. Day three brings a Black and White Warbler and Empidonax flycatchers, most of which are silent, probably on purpose. I meet Tim Bodeen, manager of the refuge and tell him about my visit in 1962. Water is high and inquiries to him and to Jim Dastyck, the biologist, who I do not meet, offer little hope in finding Least Bittern, a potential lifer for Linda and a species I had seen only once. The bittern could be anywhere in the vast marsh. The oasis of headquarters offers the best chance to find anything beyond the myriad of ducks, stilts, Avocets and of course White-faced Ibis to name a few of the species easily seen in the refuge. The day Linda sees the Ovenbird is the day a couple of Bobolinks, beautiful upside-down blackbirds, forage in a privately owned roadside meadow between the station and headquarters.

Bobolink                                               Black-necked Stilt

A Long-eared Owl flushes from a tree at headquarters early on our last day. At the time, Linda and I are at the field station enjoying a leisurely breakfast. Meanwhile, the owl apparently landed in another tree, but no one could relocate the bird. I use eye drops to wash away the strain of finding the owl. Duncan arrives with a small group of women novice birders. I tell him about the owl and he hopes the owl is gone. “Great Horned Owls will kill it.” Duncan proceeds to tell of a Barred Owl catching a snake at headquarters, whereupon a Great Horned Owl swooped down, landed on the chest of the Barred Owl that was still clutching the snake. The Great Horned was so intent on dispatching the Barred Owl that it did not notice a teenager caring a big stick approach the two owls. Apparently unable to contain himself, the teenager began to beat the Great Horned Owl into submission. It worked. The Barred Owl scrambled to its feet, sans snake, and headed north across the open lake. The teen stopped hitting the Great Horned, and no worse for wear, it tore after the Barred Owl. What happened later is unknown as the two owls flew out of sight. Duncan is convinced that Great Horned Owls will kill and eat any other species of owl, even the diminutive Flammulated Owl.

That night, the last night Linda and I have in Malheur, is our last chance for a Long-eared Owl. With new directions from Duncan, we set out for a willow thicket south of the station. The wind, increasing daily, continues a strong westward flow, chilling the day and, with the sun setting, makes us glad we have jackets and gloves. An owl flies up as we near the thicket. It quickly disappears either back in the thicket or across the open flat. It is a medium-sized bird, slim and dark, but that is all we see. What was it? Only two species are possible, and the length of the ears was not visible, but thankfully there was enough light to discern our bird was neither pale nor tawny below, our bird is overall dark. We cannot relocate the owl. After turning the birdmobile around on the narrow dike road before blackness arrives, we park at the other end of the thicket and wait inside. For minutes, nothing happens, then, suddenly, a silhouette flies down the dike and almost hesitates over us before disappearing to the north. The flight is direct, but does not suggest the direct, buteo-like flight of a Great Horned Owl or the wavering flight of a Short-ear. I am now convinced that we are seeing a Long-eared Owl. Sure, we did not see the vertical barring and the long ears, but it was not a Short-eared Owl and could only be, at least in Oregon, a Long-eared Owl, a bird I had not seen in 50 years and a life bird for Linda.

The next morning, a Friday, we packed for the 300-mile haul back home. We saw 116 species during our stay, including a Blue-headed Vireo that unfortunately, no one could relocate for confirmation, many other migrants including troubling Empidonax species and Linda added four species to her life list. On the way back to Burns, we slow to scan a site we knew from two previous and failed attempts. Finally, there it is, staring casually back at us, an imposing Burrowing Owl.

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