Revised 2011 bird total:
437 species

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Oh what a year

As the sun set the evening of this last day of 2011 my Junior Big Year was ending.  What a year it was.  436!  436!  First bird: European Starling, out my bedroom window, January 1st.  Last bird: Bell's Vireo, "The Beanery" Cape May New Jersey, December 30th.  And 434 in between.

A few of the most memorable birds:

Brown Shrike
Horned Puffin
Black-vented Oriole
Green Jay
King Eider
Prairie Falcon
just a few of the most amazing.

Now that the Big Year is done, I'll of course continue birding.  I will continue to grow my life list and keep a year list in 2012, but it won't be that intense traveling and relentless birding.  I will still have plenty of travel in 2012: Glacier National Park in Montana, Canaan Valley West Virginia, and Chincoteague Virginia.

I would like to give my thank yous to everyone that has helped me on this amazing Junior Big Year.  There is a very long list of so much help from so many people that I couldn't begin to list everyone.  But the biggest, most important thank you to my amazing parents for their incredible support.  I literally could not have done this Junior Big Year without you.

On another note, I am happy to say that Skyler Bol of Colorado is setting out tomorrow on his own Junior Big Year, inspired by me!  I wish you best of luck and tons of fun, Skyler.  His blog is

Thank you to all of my blog readers for following my progress on this amazing year.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Day two of New Jersey - 4 more from the shore!

Cape May.  Cape May.  The name is fame for birders.  Hawk migration, best in the country.  Rarities abound.  Cape May is birding paradise.  And today I got to see why.

I started the birding day at Lake Lilly in Cape May where a Eurasian Wigeon has been reported for quite some time on eBird.  We arrived and the ducks were everywhere.  Gadwall, Mallard, and American Wigeon made up the bulk.  But there were others, diving ducks, cormorants, swans, geese and grebes.  There had to have been at least a few hundred waterfowl individuals.  I searched and searched and searched.  I looked through small and large groups of American Wigeons, and Gadwall.  I checked to make sure that every wigeon didn't have a red head.  Several times I thought "it's not here" but what keep getting me was that on nearly every scan I kept finding birds that I hadn't seen on previous scans.  Even very obvious birds, like the only cormorant on the lake and Mute Swans.  If I hadn't spotted them before, maybe I hadn't spotted the wigeon.  I searched and searched some more.  I really had covered basically everywhere on the lake and was losing hope fast.  But there was one last group to check out one more time - a mixed Mallard/Am. Wigeon group on the far shore.  I sifted through that group with my scope.  American, Mallard, American, Mallard, Mallard, American, EURASIAN!  Yes, Eurasian.  And it was.  The male Eurasian Wigeon showing all of his beauty.  Number 433 for my Junior Big Year.  A wonderful success.  From there we headed to the Cape May hawk platform, just to see where the famous spot was.  There we met several birders and they told us a spot that was even better for Saltmarsh Sparrow than the one I had heard about.  After the hawk watch we headed to the "beanery" where a Bell's Vireo has been reported lately.  There were 3 other birders there and the time we were there, no vireo.  We went to the new spot for Saltmarsh Sparrow that the folks at the hawk watch told us about.  We walked around and then I spotted a good looking sparrow fly into a bush.  I approached slowly, pishing and making mouth noises.  No sparrow.  No sparrow in that bush.  I didn't see it fly away, neither did my dad but it was gone.  I knew I couldn't let this sparrow go.  From what I saw I knew that there was at least a 50/50 chance that it was a Saltmarsh.  "there!" I exclaimed quietly.  Then it gave a brief but good look.  It was what we hoped it was, the more common one of the two Sharp-tailed Sparrows - Saltmarsh.  A life bird for both my dad and I and number 434 for my year.  After the sparrow score we headed back to the Avalon Sea Watch where we got the life Common Eider yesterday and where the King Eider is supposed to be.  It took some time just to find the eider/scoter flock but we did, though they were pretty far out.  We had to get to a good location for a good view but we did and I was sifting through a part of a distant part of the flock when I spotted the male King Eider.  How beautiful.  I have long-wanted to see a King Eider but little did I think it would be on December 30 in the last 48 hours of my Junior Big Year.  How amazing.  From there we headed to the spot I originally heard was good for sharp-tailed sparrows to try our luck on the other one - Nelson's.  We walked around for a good while but no luck.  Given my cold and everything we were now tired so we took a brake and rest and ate.  Things were clicking so the next obvious thing to do was to go try for the Bell's Vireo again.  When we arrived there were no other birders, and no vireo to be seen.  We walked around and sat around but the whole time we were looking.   I followed a bird around for a while, hoping it was the vireo but it turned out to be a chickadee.  While sitting I spotted it - the Bell's Vireo!  It sat around and gave a nice look to both my dad and I.  I didn't catch the wing bars, my dad didn't catch the eye marks, but we both caught the yellow on the sides, so between us we saw all the field marks.  Success! Right after I saw the vireo some other birders showed up.  We left a little while after they arrived but never saw the vireo again.  They stayed longer, I hope they re-found the vireo!

Tomorrow I drive home.  I really don't expect to get any more year birds but ending the year at 436 is amazing.   I will do one or two last posts on New Year's Eve and or New Year's Day.  What a year it's been.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Day one of New Jersey trip - number 432

A couple of days ago I came down with a cold so I've been a little bit slow going.  I contemplated not going on this trip but the cold wasn't bad enough to stop me from my last Big Year trip.  Normally I would say "oh, let's just go next week" but at this point in the game there IS NO next week - I am now in the final days of my Junior Big Year.  2 more full days.  

I left home about 9:30 am this morning with my dad.  We went through the Baltimore area on our way here and since I've been there for 2 chase trips in the last 1+ month, I recognized almost every place in the area.  In fact, we drove within a mile or two of where I saw my life Le Conte's Sparrow back in late November!  

Our first stop in NJ would be the Avalon Sea Watch where a group of Common and a male King Eider are being seen.  We arrived to find several other birders there.  The Common Eiders were easy - tons of them, both male and female swimming about.  A lifer for me and number 432 for my Junior Big Year!  There were lots of other sea ducks as well - Black and Surf Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks.  But the King Eider was not to be seen.  One of the birders there said that the King was seen about an hour before I arrived but a boat scared it off.  I will try for it again tomorrow.

Tomorrow is the day - I have 7 targets.  I will start in Cape May and try to locate both a Bell's Vireo and Eurasian Wigeon being seen in Cape May.  Then I will work my way up to Avalon again, stopping in Stone Harbor at a location where Saltmarsh and Nelson's Sparrows are often seen, according to eBird.  It's going to be a great day.

I have some photos of the sea ducks including the eiders from today that I will post on this blog later.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Cape May plan

Tomorrow I'm leaving Virginia for the last trip of my Junior Big Year - heading to Cape May and area, New Jersey.  It's going to be amazing!  In fact I have 8 targets, of course I won't get all of them but they're all possible.

The 4 main and perhaps easiest targets will be:

Common Eider - lots are in the area.  Should be very easy.
King Eider - what a bird to get in the last days of the year.  I've always wanted to see a King Eider.  A male is being seen with a Common Eider flock at the Avalon Sea Watch.
Eurasian Wigeon - a drake E. Wigeon is being seen at a lake in Cape May.
Bell's Vireo - a Bell's Vireo is being seen at a place in Cape May.

The other targets:

Nelson's Sparrow - hit or miss at a certain location.
Saltmarsh Sparrow - hit or miss at the same location as Nelson's.
Razorbill - seen occasionally from the Avalon Sea Watch.  In fact, on Dec. 22 5 were seen.
Black Guillemot - seen occasionally from the Avalon Sea Watch.

It will be awesome.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Heading to Cape May to end my Big Year

The plan for the end of my year has become obvious.  John Vanderpoel's pelagic trip out of NC has been delayed so he will not have time to come to Tennessee for the Hooded Crane after all.  This makes my choice even more clear: I'm headed to New Jersey, the state of my Snowy Owl, only in the totally other part of the state.  I'm headed to Cape May, a legendary bird watching locality.    This is a perfect place to end my Junior Big Year.  You never know what will show up there (heck, earlier this month they had a Bell's Vireo!)  If the 3 birds that are in that area now hold, the NJ trip could bring my year total to 434 and close it off with that.

Right now in Cape May there's a male Eurasian Wigeon that has been hanging around for quite some time.  About 30 minutes north of Cape May there's the Avalon Sea Watch that for the last several days has hosted Common and King Eiders.

I will be leaving Thursday for 2 nights, which will bring me home Saturday, the very last day of 2011.  I will plan to post each day - Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Merry Christmas everyone!  It's Christmas eve day and it's time to announce my plan for the last week.

My hope is to still chase the Hooded Crane when (if) John Vanderpoel ( goes for it.  If he doesn't, my dad and I still may chase the Hooded Crane or any other vagrant that shows up.  I hope to do one more chase before year's end.

That's really the only news.  I'll post when I know what (if any) rarity that I plan to chase.

Merry christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The end is closer than ever

Christmas is just a couple of days from now.  That means one thing: my Big Year is closing in on the end.  What a year it's been!  431 species so far including such rarities as Black-vented Oriole, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Brown Shrike, Garganey, and Rufous-capped Warbler.

My plan now?  I'll be going as strong as she goes right up and on through December 31st.  My next (and perhaps final) ideal chase would be to go to Tennessee to chase the Hooded Crane and meet up with John Vanderpoel.  However, right now there is a Nutting's Flycatcher in Arizona, a Dusky Thrush in Anchorage, and a pelagic trip that John is scheduled to be on out of Hatteras NC on the 27th.  We'll see if it works out for us to meet John in Tennessee.  I'll be watching the listservs for any good rarity.  I'll post on Christmas day if not sooner with an update and tentative plan for the last week.  It's gonna be a great ride to the finish line.

The grosbeak chase

I got up this morning in Harrington Delaware, positioned about 23 minutes away from Denton, Maryland where the Black-headed Grosbeak immature male has been visiting a feeder.

I arrived at the feeder at 10:15 am and luck would have it - the Black-headed Grosbeak was feeding right there when I arrived!  It stayed 3-5 minutes and then flew away.  We went to the car to get the camera but the grosbeak didn't show again soon.  Given that it only shows every approx. 2 hours it wasn't worth us staying.  We got the bird.  We got a great look.  That's what matters.  Another lifer and number 431 for my Junior Big Year!

On a side note, last night we created a life list for my non-birder mama and the BH Grosbeak was her number 295!  Go work on 300 mama.

The Maryland trip was a success.  I'm happy to be sitting at 431.  Let's grab a couple more before it's over.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Black-headed Gull photo

Enjoy the photo of my number 430.

The white-headed Black-headed Gull.  Black-headed Gulls only have black heads in breeding plumage.

Mission accomplished! The white-headed Black-headed Gull

My plan for Maryland chasing was to grocery shop, etc. this morning and chase my two targets (Black-headed Gull and Black-headed Grosbeak) this afternoon and tomorrow morning.  I arrived at the Best Buy Parking Lot of Hunt Valley MD at about 12:30 this afternoon.  There were two wonderful birders (Russ Ruffing and Steve Collins) there both trying for the bird.  In fact, Russ is who first found the gull!  Steve was visiting the area from Texas and the Black-headed Gull would be both a new "Maryland bird" for him as well as a year bird.  Steve has a very impressive year list (I believe it's 487, please forgive me if I'm wrong).  1:00 came and went.  1:30 did too.  Steve had recently been at Paper Mill Flats where the BH Gull often hangs out but he decided to run over there again, just in case it was there while my mom and I kept watch at Best Buy.  Just minutes after he left I spotted a small group of Ring-bills coming in and sure enough, a much smaller gull with a black-patch on the face was traveling with them!  When it got close enough I could see the red beak and legs.  I called Steve (Russ had already left) and he came back.  Unfortunately the gull had already left when Steve returned.  Very fortunately Steve picked back up on it flying a little distance away and it came in and circled overhead for a brief moment.  A lifer for me and number 430 for my Junior Big Year!  Mission accomplished.  That white-headed Black-headed Gull was the reason we came to Maryland in the first place.

But we had more missions.  Another "Black-headed" bird, this one a grosbeak had been discovered in Maryland, only about 2 hours away in the town of Denton.  We left Best Buy headed toward Denton.  By the time we arrived in Denton, it was all too dark to search for the grosbeak so we continued on to the Super 8 of Harrington Delaware where I am now.  We'll spend the night here and are right in position to chase the grosbeak tomorrow and then drive home.

Another Black-headed chase

So I'm here in Maryland on a chase for the BLACK-HEADED Gull and I've just gotten word of a BLACK-HEADED Grosbeak about 2 hours away so we're staying an extra night in Maryland and will be chasing both black-headed birds!

I'll post tonight with what I've gotten and my plan.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

No gull yet - probably tomorrow

i spent from about 3-4 today searching for the Black-headed Gull at Hunt Valley Mall in Maryland. No luck today - just lots of Ring-bills. The Black-headed was seen earlier in the day though. It is being seen daily. We'll really search our heads off for it tomorrow.

I'm at the Mt. Washington Hotel and Resort in the out-skirts of Baltimore and am right in position for the full chase tomorrow. I will post tomorrow evening. Really hoping to get number 430 with this sucker.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Go north now!

The choice has become obvious.  John Vanderpoel is "stuck" on Adak Island, Alaska.  The clock is not only ticking on his Big Year, it is on mine too.  There's 2 birds that I really hope to chase before year's end, a Black-headed Gull to my north and a Hooded Crane to my south.  I want to meet up with John at the Hooded Crane.  But John is stuck in Alaska.  I can't wait for him to chase the crane before I chase any birds.  Heck, a Nutting's Flycatcher showed up in Arizona, John may chase that before he comes east for the crane.  I have to go get the gull.  In all likelyhood, I won't be missing John Vanderpoel because of that.

So tomorrow I'm heading to Maryland to chase the Black-headed Gull.  I can get that bird out of the way and then just focus on watching John's plans and chasing the crane when he does.  I'll post tomorrow night at my hotel in Maryland.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Bird Counting

I spent this weekend on two different Christmas Bird Counts for my 2 local counties - Augusta and Rockingham.

Yesterday (Saturday) I went out with Rockingham CBC coordinator Bill Benish and his wonderful friend Larry.  It was great to be birding with Bill again, he is a great birder and got me my life Acadian Flycatcher back in May. We had a fun, great day and saw some nice birds including a beautiful look at a Merlin eating a bird (titmouse?)

Today I went out with Augusta CBC coordinator Allen Larner, Augusta Bird Club president Penny Warren, and Penny's neighbor Mark who is also a birder .  They're all wonderful people and good birders but especially Allen, he his an amazing birder and a SPECIAL THNAKS to him for getting me many birds over the course of my Big Year.   Today was amazing.  I got up early to join them in "owling".  We didn't hear any owls but got a beautiful look of a Barn Owl in the headlights on a pole alongside the road.  Beautiful!  Probably my highlight was seeing 2 Brewer's Blackbirds, I got them as a lifer in Arizona but they hold a special place for me, they were my number 400 for the year.  Great to see them again.

I plan to chase the Hooded Crane in Tennessee next week and I'll coincide my trip with whenever Big Year birder John Vanderpoel ( is going so I can meet up with him at the crane.  However, at the moment John is "stuck" on Adak Island, Alaska due to a failure with an airplane-related issue.  He may not be able to leave Adak until Thursday!

Let's see how it goes.  For those wondering my count that haven't been following along, my year total is 429.

Friday, December 16, 2011


The last half month of my Junior Big Year is all shaping up.  I'm hoping to chase 2 more certain birds before the year is over.

Originally my plan was to chase the Black-headed Gull  in Maryland early next week but a Hooded Crane has showed up in Tennessee.  I would love to chase that bird too.  I have been following John Vanderpoel's blog all year long who is doing a BIG Big Year and is actually trying to beat the all-time record of 745 species, set by Sandy Komito in 1998.  John is currently at 740 species and right now is on the remote Alaskan Island: Adak.  Best of luck on Adak John!  John's wonderful blog is:  I may actually be able to cross paths with John for the first time at the crane in Tennessee.  John's planning to chase it after he's done in Alaska, if the crane stays around.  My hope is to chase the crane and meet John there before Christmas, if the crane holds and John's going to be there.  If that's what happens, I'll plan to chase the Black-headed Gull in Maryland between Christmas and the end of the year, if the gull stays around.

This coming weekend, I'll be participating in 2 different Christmas Bird Counts for the local counties.

I'm excited about the last couple of weeks!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Black-headed Gull plan

As promised, today I would post my plan for the Maryland Black-headed Gull.  I'll leave here next Tuesday, chase the bird Wednesday and come home Thursday.  I was in touch with the local birders, sharp-tailed sparrows and King Rail are going to be sort of tough and far out of our way.  Will just go for the gull.

Photos from Arizona day two.

Photos from Arizona day two.  Refer to that day's post:
                                                                   Enjoy the photos!

My favorite lifer from Arizona.  Prairie Falcon.

A flock of Lark Buntings, a lifer.

A HORRIBLE photo of a Greater Roadrunner!

The third Vemillion Flycatcher of my life (all on Arizona days one and two) and my first adult male.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Time for a big update

So I'm back in Virginia.  All went well today with traveling from LA and what a trip it was!

My goal for the Arizona trip was to reach 400 species for year's end and I was at 378 when I went to Arizona.  I knew that in all likelyhood that I would pass 400 but never in my craziest imagination did I expect to add 51 new year birds (including 48 lifers!) and be at 429 when I returned home.  W O W!

A few "trivia" bits from the trip:

-I stopped off in Denver on my way to Arizona, hoping for an American Dipper.  Could not find a dipper but got my life Clark's Nutcracker.
-I reached 400 species on the first birding day in Arizona, with 21 new birds that day.
-a flock of Brewer's Blackbirds was bird number 400.
-the rarest bird was the Rufous-capped Warbler seen near Madera Canyon.

I'd like to give a BIG THANK YOU to everyone that helped me on this trip!  An especially huge thank you to Laurens Halsey, our guide in Madera and Florida Canyons on Saturday!  What a time and amazing birds, Laurens.  Thank you.  Thanks to everyone else: guides at Tucson park bird walks, the "Mountain Plover people" that found me Mountain Plover on Friday, and many others.

My plan now?  For the last 2.5 weeks I'll really be in "cleanup" and chase mode in the "local" states and hopefully add a few more birds.  Tomorrow my mom and I will discuss our "chase plan" for Maryland for the Black-headed Gull and other more common birds there.

I will plan to post photos from the trip over the next few days.

Surprise...Birding in C A L I F O R N I A!

Written evening of December 12 2011.

I'm sure that this title gets you all excited!  Well it was a surprise for me too.

Our itinerary home from Arizona was via Los Angeles.  We had a very tight (30 minute connection) in LA.  Heavy rain in Tucson (yes, rain in the desert!) delayed our departure by maybe 10 minutes.  Yet again, bad weather in LA delayed our arrival as we circled around before they let us fly in.  We ended up getting to our gate in LA right as the doors closed for our plane to Washington Dulles.  In fact we saw the plane that we were supposed to be on, a Boeing 777 United getting push back right after we walked into the terminal.  Obviously, we missed the flight to Dulles.  The only other flight to Dulles today was a late flight, arriving in Dulles at 11:59 pm and from Dulles we still had one more short express flight to Shenandoah Valley, and the last Dulles-Shenandoah flight leaves Dulles in the 9:00 hour.  Obviously we didn't want to get to Dulles at midnight and still find a hotel, so we decided to stay in LA.  This was GREAT news for me -- I knew that possible birds including Herrman's Gulls, Clark's Grebes, Long-billed Curlews, and Brandt's Cormorants were waiting at parks within a reasonable drive from the airport!  

Our first stop was a park, just 9 minutes away from the airport known for great birding.  I arrived, and I immediately spotted about 8 gulls (give or take a few) perched on a human-made structure.  I lifted my binoculars and I just couldn't believe it -- they were Herrman's Gulls, every single one of them!  This park was great for other birds as well and some of the waterfowl/shorebirds included: American Coots (by the dozens), Pied-billed Grebe, Mallard, Bufflehead, Marbled Godwit, and plover of unknown species (will be trying to get identification from expert "shorebirders" from my photos and will update blog with result) among others.  We also saw a selepherous hummingbird adult male, I believe it was a Rufous.  I have both North American selepherous hummingbirds so even if I made a mis-ID it doesn't effect my year list.  Other than the Heerman's Gulls my highlight here was a total of 4 grebes that were either Western and/or Clark's and I will also be getting an ID on them (got photos) and will update this post with the result.

After the "Heerman Gull park" we headed to a park that has had consistent eBird report of Brandt's Cormorants, along the Pacific Coast.  I saw lots of cormorants far out but I could not get a positive ID on Brandt's.  I realized that the reports were probably made by excellent "sea birders" (which I'm surely not!) that have 60 X Swarovski Spotting Scopes.  I wish I was one of them, but am far from it.  And my lower quality scope is in a duffel bag at LAX:)
So I'm at 428 (and possibly 429 or 430 with the plover and more likely grebe).

Tomorrow I'm flying from LA back home to Virginia but sometime soon will be Maryland bound chasing.

Update evening of November 13 2011: while on the plane back home to Virginia today comparing my photos to Bird ID books, I looked up the 4 grebes that I didn't know if they were Clark's or Western.  3 of the 4 were Western (which I already have) but the forth was a Clark's!  My photos showed the brighter bill and no black around the eye.  Clark's is a lifer for me and number 429 for my Junior Big Year!  I also looked up the plover, and it was a Black-bellied, which I already have of course.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Arizona day four - at 427 and 89 raptors!

Wow! Today was a great last day of Arizona birding! I got 2 more lifers today which puts my year total to 427.

I started the birding day by spending 45 minutes at one of the best spots that our guide from yesterday Laurens Halsey said that some good birds often come to, including Magnificent Hummingbird and Hepatic Tanager. At the 40 minute mark of my 45 minutes at that location in Madera Canyon this morning the MAGNIFICENT HUMMINGBIRD came on in! It stayed around for about 15 seconds giving a couple of very nice looks! Because I had to wait 40 minutes for it, a sure reminder that patience pays off.

We left Madera Canyon and our plan for this last day of birding was to hit the Sulphur Springs Valley, look for whatever year birds we could find and since raptors or both my dad and I's favorite birds, look for raptors. We traveled the roads, essentially making a big loop covering some amazing habitat in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Even before we got to the valley we pulled over to look for Lark Sparrow. There were lots of Chipping Sparrows here, loads by the dozens if not hundreds. I knew that there had to be at least a few Lark with them. Then I spotted a group of 5, longer-tailed sparrows. 4 kept flying. 1 briefly perched! With it's distinctive facial pattering, I could confirm it as a Lark Sparrow, the second lifer of the day and number 427 for my Junior Big Year!

We had a great day in the Sulphur Springs Valley searching for raptors and ended up with a total of 89 individuals, broken down by by 6 species. Counts were as follows (raptor with highest number to lowest):

Red-tailed Hawk--53
Northern Harrier--15
American Kestrel--12
Cooper's Hawk--3
Harris's Hawk--2

these are the total counts for the whole day, from Madera Canyon to Tucson via the Sulphur Springs Valley. We did very little or no back-tracking so I am confident that no raptors were double-counted.

In the Sulphur Springs Valley we also went to Whitewater Draw to see the Sandhill Cranes which was amazing.

Tomorrow before I fly home to Virginia I will try for a Broad-billed Hummingbird. I checked the listservs for near home, it looks like I may be headed north once again. A Black-headed Gull has showed up in Maryland, ironically in the very same area as where I was for the Le Conte's Sparrow and Calliope Hummingbird a couple of weeks ago. I've been in touch with a great local birder there and he said that both sharp-tailed sparrows and King Rail could be possible in the same general area of Maryland. So I'll be talking my mom into a trip to Maryland sometime before Christmas...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Arizona day three - a day at Madera Canyon with 16 new birds!

Southeast Arizona continues to blow me away.  Laurens Halsey, birding expert and professional birding guide with his guiding business Desert Harrier took us out this morning and my oh my it was amazing!  Laurens gave us much more time and covered much more area than what he normally does for this kind of trip (but he does a wide range of things from day long trips to 3 hour bird walks for Santa Rita Lodge). He was able to get me 15 new birds (including 14 lifers) and tell me what I was listening for for number 16 for the day.  THANK YOU Laurens!  He is an incredible guide and if you're coming to the Madera Canyon area and need a birding guide, no one is better than Laurens and please use him: 

We met Laurens at 7 am at the parking lot at Santa Rita Lodge.  He told us that there had been a Lunar Eclipse and we went to look for the end of it but the moon had already set.  On a checklist provided by the Santa Rita Lodge (which Laurens helped compile!) I circled the birds I really wanted and showed that to him and from what he saw he said the first place we should go was nearby Florida Canyon where several RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLERS had even bred in previous years and 2 had been reported for the first time since 2010 a few days ago.  But we had to swing back to Santa Rita Lodge to pick up my dad's binoculars and on the way added a few common life birds for me at some easy roadside spots: Bridled Titmouse, Painted Redstart (a beautiful bird at a sapsucker sap well), and Mexican Jay (although just heard, until later when they were commonly seen).  On our way to Florida Canyon we stopped at a certain location and was able to pick up Green-tailed Towhee, one of my most wanted life birds.  A beautiful bird and I was able to learn it's distinctive, interesting call (of course, thanks to Laurens who taught it to me).  GTT was number 413 for the year.  On the walk into the Rufous-capped Warbler I added several year birds, which was terrific.  The first one was Acorn Woodpecker, which we ended up seeing by large numbers later in the day.  They were a year bird but the one today that was not a lifer, I got to see them back in 2009 in Monterey, CA.  Great to see them again.  A little bit later Laurens reported hearing Olive Warbler and I quickly picked up on the sound of this number 415.  Later several gave very nice looks.  I was concerned I wouldn't get an OW in Arizona but they were one of my most wanted birds so it was a great thrill.  Soon after Olive we heard Rufous-crowned Sparrow, a lifer of course.  Hermit Thrush was a nice "trip bird".  We met several other nice birders (which Laurens knew) and we searched for the Rufous-capped Warblers.  Someone called out possibly hearing Rufous-capped.  Laurens heard it too, and so did I.  Laurens thought it was Rufous-cap but he said that they were calling an offal lot and actively.  Then one popped up.  Yellow breast and rufous cap!  Oh yes baby!  We watched it for probably a solid 5-10 minutes.  Once complete with the warbler we headed back to bird Madera Canyon.  On our drive out of Florida Canyon Laurens spotted a bird that I didn't see and I asked him what it was.  He replied "probably just a Canyon Towhee" but Canyon Towhee was music to my ears!  I needed that as a lifer and didn't even imagine it on this trip.  Laurens said that the one bird was gone but he knew a trail where they were common.  That trail was our next stop and indeed we found several Can. Towhees as well as 3 other lifers!  We spotted a flycatcher and it was immediately ID'd as one of the empids and because of the active wing-twitching among other identifying things, Hammond's.  That was a very nice bird for me to get because every once in a while I want to kick myself for not chasing one in Texas that was there when I was, but that turned out to be okay because I got it here in Madera Canyon, 2 states to the west.  Soon after that Laurens was pleased and sort of surprised to find a Townsend's Solitare which was my number 420.  425 was really within easy reach this year, and possibly today!  They kept coming with Dusky Flycatcher as 421.  Laurens was a little bit surprised that we found Hammond's and Dusky but not the easier one, Gray.  We went back to the same sap well as we got Painted Redstart at earlier because a Red-breasted Sapsucker had been frequenting that.  And believe it or not, it was there right when we pulled up and gave awesome looks to several birders!  What a gorgeous life woodpecker!  We searched relentlessly for an Arizona Woodpecker and once we found one we found many.  My dad really liked that one as did I.  That was a good 423.  I was inching up to 425.  Laurens took us to a good spot for Yellow-eyed Junco as well as where a Williamson's Sapsucker was seen yesterday.  We didn't find the sapsucker but did the juncos.  It was about time to leave Laurens but I asked him for advice.  Some of my main targets were owls: Northern Pygmy, Whiskered and Western-Screech.  He taught me the calls and locations and said that Pygmy may call in daylight as well.  Maybe 45 minutes later I heard a Pygmy: the double-toot owl, 425! At dusk and shortly after we tried multiple locations for the screech-owls but got skunked.

I was silly enough to forget my camera this morning so I don't have many pictures but after our time with Laurens I was able to see some of the common birds again and will post a few photos from today tomorrow.  

Arizona day two - nine more lifers

Written evening of December 9 2011. 
Wow.  Today was another awesome day in Southeast Arizona!  9 more lifers today brings my year total to 409.

I started the birding day at the Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson, which is known for excellent birding.  Almost immediately I spotted a couple of Lesser Goldfinches but I noticed a Lawerence's with them.  Lawerence's Goldfinch!  That was a bird I did not expect on this trip and an exciting 401.  From there I birded my way around the wetlands but my dad went ahead.  I met some very nice birders at the wetlands and gave a few of them my blog address (hope you like it folks!)  While watching an Anna's Hummingbird (not a year bird of course, but very nice) my dad came walking down "I think I saw that red cardinal-like thing that you were telling me about"  He's not a birder, but I knew what he meant: Pyrrhuloxia.  So he took me to the spot.  First all I saw were Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Orange-crowned Warblers.  But then I spotted the cardinal.  Sure enough, there was a female Pyrrhuloxia!  Thank you papa for finding me 402:)  From there my dad and I walked around, of course looking for one thing: birds.   We spotted a woodpecker fly into a tree and my dad said "Gila, right?"  I responded "I don't think so, let's stay on this bird"  It finally gave a pretty good look showing a lot of red around it's head and I knew it was either a Red-breasted or Red-naped Sapsucker.  I went to look at my Peterson Guide to get the ID but I realized something: my Peterson Guide was GONE.  We went to ask some of the people I had seen before if they had seen it, but they hadn't.  On the bright side of things, they did have a Sibley Guide and they let me look up my sapsucker.  It was a Red-naped, a lifer for me.  Unfortunately I never found my Peterson Guide.  Oh well.  Fortunately I have several copies, although not on this trip.  I have my Sibley Guide that I'm using now that my Peterson is gone.  Happy to be at 403, we left Sweetwater and headed to the Santa Cruz Flats to drive around and do one thing: birding.  One the way to Santa Cruz I spotted a Prairie Falcon along the highway, an awesome life raptor and one of the most wanted Arizona birds. Almost immediately once in the flats I spotted a large flock of birds that I was able to identify as Lark Buntings, another life bird.  After the Lark Buntings, after getting oriented after being slightly lost we had an amazing flyby Prairie Falcon, a much better look than along the interstate.  That was wonderful!  From there we headed to a Turf Farm where Mountain Plovers and other good birds had been reported.  We were fortunate to run into some other wonderful birders.  After a little while they spotted what the man thought was Mountain Plovers so he got the scope out.  Indeed there were about 10 Mountain Plovers, a lifer and number 406 for my Junior Big Year.  Excellent!  Thanks to those wonderful people for their help.  They said that in certain habitat Sage Sparrow and Bendire's Thrasher were not out of the question.  We drove around some roads in prime habitat and spotted a Sage Sparrow!  It gave a brief but nice look.  We ended up skunking on a Bendire's.  After the Sage Sparrow getting slightly lost paid off as a Greater Roadrunner road ran across the road!  That was one of my very most wanted birds this trip, let along this year.  It was of course a lifer and number 408.  We ended up seeing one more Roadrunner later in the day and managed some poor but ID-worthy photos (which I will post and some other photos from today).  From the roadrunner we proceeded to a spot where a Rufous-backed Thrush (AKA Rufous-backed Robin) had been reported.  We ran into several birders including the Mountain Plover people.  We thought we might have had Ruddy Ground-Doves but they turned out to be Incas.  Crested Caracara was a nice "trip bird" there and my first ones since Texas.  The "Mountain Plover people" told us that Lark Sparrows can sometimes be seen at Tucson City Parks so we headed there.  We skunked on a Lark Sparrow but got a beautiful male Vermillion Flycatcher.  On our way to Madera Canyon I decided to bird some good habitat and happened upon a Gambel's Quail, which was my last new bird of the day.  A hare (rabbit) came running through and scared the quail into the brush!  That was quite an event.  

All in all, Arizona day two scored.  And tomorrow is going to be amazing.  We're getting up early to go on a morning bird walk with an amazing and professional birding guide from this area.  I've been in contact with him and he's helped out a lot!  Thanks so much, Laurens.  I will post his guiding website on my blog in tomorrow's post.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Photos from Arizona day one

Here's a few photos from today.  My focus was on observing so not many photos but these are what I got.  Enjoy!

One of many Black-throated Sparrows seen today, and this species is one of 19 lifers today.

Not a year bird, but this Golden Eagle flyover was quite a treat.

We saw many Cooper's Hawks today, as well as a few of their Sharp-shin cousins.

Gila Woodpecker was one of the lifers today.

Not a year bird of course, but this up close American Wigeon was nice.

One of a billion Phainopepelas.  Hard to believe they were a lifer this morning, because we saw SOOOO many today.

Black Phoebe.  Not a year bird but the last "trip bird" of the day, and seen right after I got number 400.  

Day one of Arizona - 4 0 0

Wow.  Wow is all I can say.  Today was birding at it's best for Big Year birding.

I'm at 400 species for the year.  Wow.

I added 21 new year birds today in Southeast Arizona.  19 of 21 were lifers.  I will summarize the birds from each location with brief descriptions (if there are descriptions).

We started the day at Agua Caliente Park with a morning bird walk in Tucson Arizona.  On the drive to the park I added 2 year birds:

Gila Woodpecker -- saw 2 on drive to Agua Caliente.  At Agua Caliente and other locations they were common.
Phainopepela -- saw several on drive to Agua Caliente, they were abundant nearly everywhere I was today.

At Agua Caliente on the morning bird walk I added 9 new year birds:

Abert's Towhee -- single bird, very nice to see
Cactus Wren -- first heard several individuals, then one gave very nice looks.  Beautiful bird.
Rufous-winged Sparrow
Brewer's Sparrow
Western Bluebird -- a few together, one of the 2 year birds today not a lifer
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher -- pair along trail, mellow and giving very nice looks.  Excellent bird.
Black-throated Sparrow -- somebody reported seeing a few, we finally spotted one.  It took about 10 minutes, and we thought the work was necessary, but only if we knew we'd see them by the dozens at a different area later in the day.
Costa's Hummingbird -- nice to grab another hummer.

Happy to be at 390 after the Agua Caliente walk, we headed to the Tanque Verde Wash in hopes of finding Vermillion Flycatcher and sparrows.  There I added one new year bird:

Vermillion Flycatcher

There we met a very knowledgeable birder who said that he had just been on an excellent birding road that we had never even heard of.  So we changed our plans, skipped the Mount Lemmon Hwy and headed to that other road.

What a road it was!  The birds were excellent and the landscape, OMG.  Sugaro Cactus in the lower elevations and pines in the higher elevations, this was amazing.  On this road I added 7 new year birds:

White-throated Swift -- a few flying around. Beautiful birds.
Rock Wren
Black-chinned Sparrow -- 2 at different locations.  Nice bird.
Ash-throated Flycatcher -- a very welcome surprise, this was a bird I never imagined getting on this trip. I spotted it perched atop a small tree, and I immediately thought "Great Crested" since they're common in Virginia in the summer.  But there's no Great Cresteds in Arizona at all, let along them not being in the US in winter.  This bird had a lighter chest and giving field marks, and most importantly range it was clearly an Ash-throated.
Mountain Bluebird
Western Scrub-Jay -- the other bird that was a year bird but not a lifer today
Juniper Titmouse

I was now at 398, just a stone's through away from 400.  To close up the day we decided to go back to Agua Calliente Park and hope for 2 or more birds.  There were still some birds listed on their checklist as  "common" that I needed: Pyrrhuloxia, Greater Roadrunner, Gilded Flicker, and others.  And a few listed "uncommon" that I needed: Brewer's Blackbird and others.  So we were hoping.

I happened managed 2 new year birds at Agua Caliente Park in the evening, just enough to put me right at 400:

Gilded Flicker
Brewer's Blackbird -- year bird # 400!  What a milestone.  It was a flyover flock, and we later found a flock, presumably the same one along the road.

I am so thrilled to be at 400.  I can't believe this!!!!!!!!  And I have 3 more days of birding just to celebrate and add some more birds for 410 or 415.

Tonight I plan to do a photo post with a few photos from today.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Arriving in Arizona with 379 but without a dipper

As I've mentioned previously, today on my way to Tucson AZ I would leave the Denver airport for a while and go to a park (called Lair 'O The Bear Park) to try for an American Dipper.  We got to the park, looked in the places that dippers are known to be.  No dipper.  We drove up the road a little bit and searched along the creek but most of the creek was frozen (not good!)  We hiked a trail along a portion of the creek with open water.  No dipper.  We decided to try Lair 'O The Bear Park one more time.  My dad stayed back and rested but I want walking, looking for a dipper.  No dipper.  Then I saw a bird fly over my head and I saw the black in the wings and large bill, I was 80 percent that it was a Clark's Nutcracker but that would have been a good bird and as all birders know - you can't count it until you're SURE.  So of course I had to re-find the bird.  I spent the following 18 minutes trompsing around a foot of snow in sandals, freezing my feet off to look for a jay-like gray bird.  How many people would do that?  But I'm doing a Big Year, and that would be a terrific life bird and well make up for the loss of the dipper.  At the 18 minute mark (I timed it with my dad's watch) I spotted the bird fly up out of some brush.  I got another in-flight look.  Then it perched atop a tree.  B I N G O!  There was a Clark's Nutcracker perched beautifully.  Number 379 at dipper park but not a dipper.  Colorado was breathtaking with the fresh snow and the foothills of the rockies.  I saw some excellent raptors including both eagles (Bald and Golden).

Now I'm in Tucson Arizona at the Hilton Hotel and tomorrow morning we have a morning bird walk at a local park, followed by an afternoon spent birding in the Santa Catalina Mountains.  4 full days of birding in southeast Arizona..I can't wait!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

In 12 hours I'll be on a plane...

 This is it.  In 12 hours my dad and I will be on a plane with an itinerary to Tucson Arizona to rap up my Big Year with one last big trip and in all hopes and likelyhood put me over the 400 bird milestone.  This is it.  I can't believe it.

My itinerary (all on United Airlines):

Shenandoah Valley Virginia-Washington Dulles
Washington Dulles-Denver Colorado
Denver Colorado-Tucson Arizona

We'll be leaving the airport for several hours in Denver, getting a rental car and going to a local park known for American Dippers and hopefully add it as my number 379.  Gosh it will fell good to land in Arizona with 379, 21 birds is easy.

I will post tomorrow night in Arizona.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The end is near

It's already 4 days into December and there's less than 4 weeks until my Big Year is over, but I plan for it to be a heck of a great 4 weeks.

In just 3 days we're southwestward, heading to Arizona where I hope (and in all likelyhood will) advance over 400.

When I'm back from Arizona I'll be in cleanup mode.  Maybe a run to the coast for both sharp-tailed sparrows and King Rail or a vagrant chase or two.  Who knows.

It's going to be an awesome four weeks!  Unless I manage to score on a rarity before I head to Arizona (which would mean one has to show up in one of the local counties, because no traveling is on the board until Arizona), my next post will be Wednesday Night.