Tuesday, July 23, 2019

CT Self-Found Big Year 2019

Back on January 1st I began a Self-Found Big Year in my home state of Connecticut. Uncertainty in my work schedule for 2019 meant that travel would be difficult to plan and I would be spending far less time out-of-state than I would in a typical year. I had been toying around with the idea of a "SFBY" for a few years, and the fact that I would be home for most of the year led to an attempt in 2019.

What is a Self-Found Big Year? The idea is that you can only count towards your total those birds that you, well, find yourself! In other words, no chasing, not even for common species. How great is that?! But as it turns out, there is a massive gray area within the definition of a self-found bird, which is something I will illustrate with examples later on. There are no official "Self-Found" rules, so I have had to work through this as I go. I had given the potential ground rules quite a bit of thought over the years and had discussed the concept in some detail with friends, particularly with Ian Davies and Steve Howell, both of whom have developed some version of their own personal guidelines.

I was not at all sure if I would finish the SFBY, or how long I might last. It would all depend on how much fun I was having with it. Back a handful of years ago I started a traditional Big Year on New Years Day. I did not last even two weeks. Chasing all those birds found by others was boring, tedious, and honestly miserable. That is not why I bird. Among many other reasons, I bird for the thrill of the discovery. For the unknown. To explore.

Going into the year, I had some questions. What was my self-found total from 2018, which felt like a typical year in the field for me, just to serve as a reference? What is a reasonable target number?

As it turns out, it's impossible to retroactively come up with a SFBY total. Why? Partially because of that gray area of what exactly constitutes self-found, and partially because it's impossible to remember the circumstances of every sighting. If the presence of any bird at a particular location is known in any way, it does not count as self-found. This means that even if you're walking down a trail by yourself and you overhear someone mention that they had a Bay-breasted Warbler a few minutes ago, that bird can no longer count as self-found if you see it later on. Or if you know the two places where Upland Sandpipers return to breed every year, those don't count either. Without delving deeply into particulars (yet), that is probably the most basic self-found rule there is.

Given the impossibility of recalling such details of circumstances for every species, I couldn't come up with an accurate self-found total for 2018. But here's what I figured based on my knowledge of birding my home state for over 20 years now. I thought that, with some effort, 250 would be fairly easy given my experience level. But 300 is a fantastic traditional (with chasing) big year in CT, so that would probably be out of reach. So, why not shoot for something like 275?

As of today, I stand at 252 for the SFBY. So far, so good!

I know now that I'm going to finish this thing. It has been a total blast, and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

At the end of the year I'll be writing a piece for the ABA's Birder's Guide series and will likely give a couple talks for local clubs. My hope is that the SFBY will gain some traction and become a thing. In the meantime, I will probably provide the occasional update in this space.

 - NB

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Alaska June 2019 - Kenai Fjords (4 of 4)

June 23
What better way to cap a trip than with a day on the ocean? The day-long Northwestern Fjord boat tour out of Seward, just over a two-hour drive south of Anchorage, would be my last bit of birding in Alaska this time around. On board I was lucky to meet Peter Burke (CO) and Kevin McGowan (NY) on the bow, and the three of us stood watch for the duration of the trip.

We lucked out with great weather yet again. Calm seas really aided in alcid spotting.

view from Resurrection Bay
The harbor itself held a few PIGEON GUILLEMOTS and many SEA OTTERS. As we motored out of Resurrection Bay, our first HORNED PUFFINS and MARBLED MURRELETS appeared and hinted at what would follow. The sheer number of birds nesting on the offshore islands was staggering. Seabird colonies in peak breeding season are total mayhem. COMMON MURRES, TUFTED PUFFINS and BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES were particularly abundant, swarming at times.

Sea Otter

Common Murre
Tufted Puffin

Our Captain knew the birds quite well and knew exactly where to take us for those highly sought-after species, the first of which was RED-FACED CORMORANT. We ended up seeing six or seven of these birds today.

Red-faced Cormorants

The Chiswell Islands held good numbers of PARAKEET AUKLETS, my one lifer of the day. As we crossed the last bit of open sea before entering glacier waters, we spotted our first RHINOCEROUS AUKLETS. The narrow zone where the glacier water meets the ocean water is what produced a handful of the local KITTLITZ'S MURRELETS.

Kittlitz's Murrelet

The Northwestern Glacier itself was magnificent. We saw and heard a bit of calving, which added to the experience. It's a shame to think how quickly glaciers like this one are retreating thanks to our rapidly changing climate. The talk on the deck among both passengers and crew was heavily laden with educational points about said climate change and the plastics problem that our oceans are facing. It was refreshing to hear honest and objective conversation about issues that rarely seem to get a fair shake from most mainstream media outlets. These are sobering topics that should not be avoided, but rather discussed...calmly and impartially.

Northwestern Glacier

As we began our journey back towards Seward, the three of us remarked that we had seen eight species of alcid to this point but still had a shot at a couple more. Moments later, while we were really moving northeastward, we kicked up an ANCIENT MURRELET that paced the boat for several seconds for all to see.

As we approached the Beehive Islands, a THICK-BILLED MURRE crossed the bow, and we added another 18 of them on the Beehives themselves. Alcid species #10.

Thick-billed and Common Murres

We encountered two species of whale on the ride back: HUMPBACK and FIN. The Humpbacks were their usual cooperative selves, while the Fins were steadily on the move, as they always are.

Fin Whale

We were still adding species as we crossed our final section of open water: SOOTY SHEARWATER, PARASITIC JAEGER, and LONG-TAILED JAEGER.

It's safe to say that I was in my happy place all day out there. I cannot recommend this trip enough. Eight hours may sound like a long time to be out there, but it really does fly by with so much life to see. There was always something to look at, even while we were running at high speeds between islands.

Surf Scoters

Dinner and drinks were had in town with Peter and the just-arrived Ithaca crew, who would take the same tour the following day. They did even better, seeing all the specialties noted above plus ORCA!

(In chatting with the crew, they estimated that Orcas are seen on 20% of the trips. This remains the only place in the world I've seen Orcas, when I was last out there in 2012.)

 - Nick

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Alaska June 2019 - Utqiagvik/Barrow (3 of 4)

June 19
For this leg of the journey, we traded Matt (who was going to wander around Denali for a few days) for Sarah Dzielski. The four of us touched down that evening in Utqiagvik (Barrow), where we were greeted with bright sunny skies and warmer-than-expected temperatures.

Disclaimer: Our few days in Utqiagvik were a bit of a blur, so this may not all be in perfect order! 24-hour sunlight and a very irregular [read: lacking] sleep schedule made our time there feel a bit like one really extended daytime period...which technically isn't wrong. Up there, north of the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn't set at this time of year.

We had prepared for seasonably cool temperatures (think 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit) with unpredictable cloud cover. We were kinda thrilled to feel much warmer than this, at least for most of our time there.

Anyway, that first evening involved looking unsuccessfully for the Little Stint that had been found near town just the day or two before. We oriented ourselves around town and spent some time along Cake Eater Road, one of the better birding roads in the area. We didn't make it as far as we should have thanks to the constant presence of RED PHALAROPES that were begging to be photographed.

Red Phalarope
June 20-21
The next morning we caught up with the LITTLE STINT near the base of Cake Eater Road. This was a bright adult in high breeding plumage that couldn't really be confused with anything else!

Little Stint (left) with Semipalmated Sandpiper

From there we continued down Cake Eater and Gas Well Roads. PECTORAL SANDPIPERS were abundant and actively "booming" their way across the tundra. POMARINE and PARASITIC JAEGERS patrolled the land. Our first of many LONG-BILLED DOWITCHERS made an appearance.

After some time, we managed to find a pair of STELLER'S EIDER, which held our attention for a minute.

Steller's Eider

Tempted by the day's unseasonably warm temperatures (well into the 60s), Tom, Sarah and I talked ourselves into taking the Polar Plunge in the heat of the day. The iciness of that water is difficult to describe in words, but I can say that after only 20 seconds or so my feet were already tingling. Props to Tom for urging us to do this and being the first one in the water.

post plunge

Turns out, quitting birding is not easy when it's sunny all the time. Tom and Sean took well-deserved afternoon naps while the sun was at its brightest in the mid-afternoon, but Sarah and I couldn't flip the switch to "off" so kept birding. Our efforts paid off, albeit briefly, in the form of an adult "VEGA" HERRING GULL that whipped past on its way to the landfill off Gas Well Road.

The four of us reconvened for a wonderfully sunny evening around Freshwater Lake, where courting PACIFIC LOONS stole the show for a while. As we were on our bellies photographing the loons, a pair of SABINE'S GULLS, which breed at the lake, made a few close passes. The debate over "sexiest gull in the world" rages on, but anyone who doesn't have Sab's in their Top 3 should find another hobby.

Pacific Loons
Pectoral Sandpiper

Midnight came and went, and we found ourselves still on the tundra. Up for a bit of a break from birding, we acted on a tip and went in search of Lemmings, the default tundra rodent in these parts. Sure enough, the little buggers were right where we were told they'd be. Resisting the urge to chase down one of them was impossible. If we could catch them this easily, they must make for some easy jaeger/owl prey.


Invigorated by the stunning golden sunlight amid crystal clear skies, Sarah and I decided we would bird through the "night" while Tom and Sean slept a bit. Looking back, this was a great decision and a surreal experience. Imagine the still, windless tundra cloaked for hours in the sort of sunlight you can only briefly enjoy just after sunrise or before sunset at the lower latitudes we call home. A complete lack of manmade sound - no humans, no vehicles. But this does not mean silence, because shorebirds are displaying in all directions, and Pacific Loons are yodeling all around you, at the top of their lungs. A pair of SPECTACLED EIDER were much closer to the road than usual. Oh hey, there's a bright-eyed male Snowy Owl hunting on that slope, and a dark-morph Parasitic Jaeger drifting between us and the owl. I'm not sure if it was this ambiance, or the lack of sleep, or a bit of both...but I definitely felt like I was in a bit of a trance as we stood there.

Spectacled Eider

Snowy Owl

Parasitic Jaeger

Before and after tundra time, Sarah and I hit the coast for a bit. We took our obligatory Polar Bear Watch from the base of Point Barrow, but per usual could only turn up loafing ice seals. Of note, a Polar Bear had been seen swimming between masses of sea ice earlier that morning...right near where we swam, actually. Over the course of our stay, we would scan for bears from the base of Point Barrow at least half a dozen times, but we never connected.

The 21st was our last full day in Barrow, and the four of us thoroughly enjoyed more of the same tundra birding. A thick fog rolled in that evening, enough to shut down flights in and out of town. There would be no midnight birding on this night.

Snow Bunting

Bowhead Whale carcass, mostly picked clean

June 22
We had one attainable objective for our last morning here, and that was to score a decent view of YELLOW-BILLED LOON. The species was much more elusive than we were expecting going in, and thus far we had only seen a few distant flybys along the coast. Luckily we stumbled across the Field Guides tour led by Tom Johnson and Cory Gregory, which happened to have a couple YBLOs in scopes near the edge of the pack ice. Still not the killer views we were hoping for, but was still nice to get them on the water.

Tom, Sean and Sarah flew out late morning to begin their few days on the Kenai Peninsula. I could not get on the same flight as my three companions so had to settle for an evening departure. Forced to bird Utqiagvik for a few more hours wasn't the worst thing, despite the fact that temperatures had returned to normal, and a few snowflakes even began to fall.

I overlapped by a couple hours with Andrew Dreelin, who had just arrived on the plane that would bring Tom, Sean and Sarah to Anchorage. Right off the bat he wanted to check the start of Cake Eater Road for stints...either the Little Stint we had seen a few days prior or the Red-necked that was just found there early that morning. Well, Andrew's timing couldn't have been better, as we had the RED-NECKED STINT already in view, which was briefly joined by the LITTLE STINT. For a brief moment, the two rarities were in the same binocular field. Double stint lifer for Andrew!

Red-necked Stint

Before long it was time to pack my belongings for my PM flight to Anchorage, a task which I leisurely performed from the bluff by the airport with the scope set up, in case anything interesting flew by. Two whale blows quickly caught my attention, and my mind of course immediately went to Bowhead Whale. However, repeated views revealed them to be GRAY WHALES. Still cool, but not the hoped-for arctic species.

The airport was hectic thanks to the airlines trying to catch up from yesterday's weather cancellations, but my flight left on time and arrived safely in Anchorage that evening.

 - NB

Friday, July 12, 2019

Alaska June 2019 - Nome (2 of 4)

June 15
Tom Auer, Matt Strimas-Mackey and I arrived in Nome around midday and immediately got to birding. Sean Bachman would be flying in later this evening. We started at the Nome River Mouth, which quickly became my favorite birding spot in Nome. This lagoon and sandspit is a concentration site for gulls and terns in addition to providing tidal mudflats for shorebirds and nesting habitat for terns. ALEUTIAN TERN is one of the stars here, present by the dozen. On this first visit we had our only SABINE'S GULL of the Nome leg.

Aleutian Tern

As we worked eastward along the Council Road, we stopped at Hastings Creek and picked up EASTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL. The rest of the afternoon was spent along the Safety Sound, where we had our first BAR-TAILED GODWIT and later two RED-NECKED STINTS. LAPLAND LONGSPURS were everywhere. Less common shorebirds included a RED KNOT and a BAIRD'S SANDPIPER. Tom picked up on a EURASIAN WIGEON among the large numbers of Americans. A lone SURFBIRD flew along the rocky channel at the bridge.

Lapland Longspur

Before we knew it, we had to pick up Sean at the airport. Word had come in of a White Wagtail hanging around the harbor, and we took a quick look for that after we grabbed Sean. No joy. Our first WANDERING TATTLER was nice.

We decided we would run the coast eastward again (Council Road) in an attempt to pick up the goodies that Sean had missed in his absence that afternoon. Nome River Mouth, take two. This is the kind of spot you want to check over and over again. There is a pretty steady turnover happening most of the time. We were excited to see a SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER visit the feeding frenzy in the rip. Tubenoses from shore are always welcome. Two first summer SLATY-BACKED GULLS were also present this time.

Short-tailed Shearwater

Further east, as the sun got lower in the sky, we enjoyed our first of a few SHORT-EARED OWLS on the hunt. Sadly, though, we could not replicate Red-necked Stint success for Sean.

As tempting as it was to stay out past midnight with the sun still above horizon, we all needed some rest at this point.

June 16
This morning it was time to explore in a different direction. The road that runs northward out of town is called Kougarok Road, where we would target Bristle-thighed Curlew at a known location. En route we were sure not to miss BLUETHROAT (heard only) and ARCTIC WARBLER. But our efforts would be focused on the famous Coffee Dome at milepost 72.5-ish. This is known to be a moderately difficult (read: obnoxious) hike thanks to a very uneven and erratically spongy ground. Not quite as expected, by me anyway, was the ridiculous mosquito density. It was about as bad as I've experienced anywhere in some time. Newsflash: we field tested heavy DEET versus some natural crap, and the DEET is what got the job done.

Arctic Warbler

Making it all worthwhile were the four BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEWS actively calling and displaying in the vicinity of the top of the dome. We also enjoyed AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER and of course WHIMBREL, though the curlews outnumbered the Whimbrel for us.

Bristle-thighed Curlews

American Golden-Plover

you can see the cloud of mosquitos around us

Bristle-thighed Curlew habitat

On the way back, a detour down the Hot Springs spur yielded NORTHERN WHEATEAR, but not the hoped-for Rock Ptarmigan. Both GOLDEN EAGLE and GYRFALCON nests were also enjoyed, in addition to a ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK.

Later that afternoon we finally did catch up with the WHITE WAGTAIL in the harbor as we started our daily coastal run. We set up for our first sea watch at Cape Nome, and while not much was moving, a HORNED PUFFIN made a close pass.

Another check at the Safety Sound bridge failed to re-find those stints. We did nab Sean the Eastern Yellow Wagtails we had the day before, though.

June 17
Today was Teller Road day, the last of the three major roads that lead away from Nome. This is the western-most and leads one through a different sort of tundra that held a contrasting mix of breeding shorebirds.

Our first stop was a nesting AMERICAN DIPPER, which was a much anticipated lifer for Sean. Does anyone else remember that awful "Dip" song by Freak Nasty? No? Ok, good talk. Do yourself a favor and don't YouTube it.

Further down the road we ran into our first of several PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVERS (both GP species are present here). A long walk at the mile 34 ridge was very productive - ROCK PTARMIGAN (finally), ROCK SANDPIPER (killer views!), and nesting NORTHERN WHEATEARS. Plus RED KNOT and both GOLDEN-PLOVERS. Our first AMERICAN PIPIT and HORNED LARK of the trip. A herd of MUSK OXEN was somewhat approachable without pissing them off, as far as we could tell.

Rock Sandpiper

Rock Ptarmigan

Northern Wheatear

Matt sniffs the musk

The Feather River crossing was full of wagtails - a very active pair of EASTERN YELLOW plus a bonus male WHITE. We also had killer views of a male WILLOW PTARMIGAN. Matt "flushed" a MUSK OX from the willows; the two would later come to a peaceful understanding of one another.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Willow Ptarmigan

Musk Ox

Thanks to a tip from a friend, a patch of nearby tundra netted us BAR-TAILED GODWIT, PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER, and LONG-TAILED JAEGERS. By the way, LTJA was the dominant jaeger here with Parasitic coming in a distant second. We did not see any Poms in Nome, actually.

Long-tailed Jaeger

Evening along the coast was uneventful, but we never tired of the Aleuts.

Aleutian Tern

Aleutian Tern

June 18
Tom had been itching to do an early morning seawatch from Cape Nome, and this would be the day for it. Unfortunately not much was moving. Most of the Council Road was quiet, in fact.

At our final check of the Safety Sound bridge area, Sean scoped his life RED-NECKED STINT, which we had just about given up on finding for him. This appeared to be a duller bird than the two bright ones we had a few days prior.

Constant scoping for Arctic Loon never produced one, though a SURFBIRD on the beach was nice, especially for Sean who missed the one we had that first afternoon.

Somewhat embarrassingly, up to this point we had not actually seen a BLUETHROAT. So we wanted to make an effort for that before the morning got too far along. Luckily we didn't have to go too far, as continuing birds in the mile 10-12 region of the Kougarok Road came through for us.

With the inland birds out of the way at this point, we were pretty much left to re-checking coastal spots. The Nome River Mouth had a first summer BLACK-HEADED GULL and a nice adult SLATY-BACKED GULL.

Our final evening in Nome was marked by our best mammal observation of the trip. While seawatching at Cape Nome, a local family drove up in their ATV and let us know that they just spotted a WALRUS on the rocks nearby. It flushed out to sea when they approached it, but suspected that it might be unwell and was likely to return to shore. Sure enough, after a while we scoped this massive animal from a distance. It appeared to be making a move back towards land, so we moved closer and waited. A ruckus from more locals seemed to keep it from hauling out again, and it continued down the coast in the direction of town.


June 19
We had a few hours on our final morning in Nome and used it to check the coast in a last-ditch effort at something like a flyby Emperor Goose, which had been very scarce locally this spring. As usual, the river mouth was birdy, but we couldn't pull out anything new.

Midday flight to Utqiagvik (Barrow).

 - NB

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Alaska June 2019 - Denali (1 of 4)

Right around the New Year I put out a feeler to some friends in hopes of quickly arranging a June visit to Alaska. Just as it seemed that nothing would come together in time, Tom Auer generously asked if I was interested in joining a small group that he had already organized on the front end of this year's AOS meeting in Anchorage. Their dates fit perfectly into mine, and I rushed to book lodging...just in time to find some of the last availability in Utqiagvik (Barrow).

We would bird Nome and Barrow as a group. On the front end, I would visit Denali on my own. On the back end, I'd do a Kenai Fjords trip out of Seward before flying home ahead of their conference.

The aeroplane touched down in Anchorage at 1am on June 12th; I picked up the rental car and went to look for what has probably become one of the most-seen mega rarities in Alaska's history, the continuing drake FALCATED DUCK at Potter Marsh, just south of town. I arrived by 3am, and though there is no full darkness in Anchorage around the summer solstice, it was not quite light enough to identify much of anything by sight. Perfect time for a car nap. When the alarm went off at 3:45, there was just enough light to work with, and the duck was pretty close to the road with a mixed flock of American Wigeon, Gadwall, and Mallard. I had been prepared to wait a while, as this bird had been very hit or miss for the duration of its stay. Not a bad start!

Some photographers really crushed the Falcated Duck. I was not one of those people.

Tempted to bolt northward towards Denali, I really had all day to get there, so decided to stop at another local birding hotspot, Westchester Lagoon. Known for migrant shorebirds, there weren't many of those today. I didn't hit the right tide (you want high for birds roosting on the islands), and we were getting late in the northbound migration anyway. The extensive mudflats west of the lagoon didn't have much other than several BONAPARTE'S GULLS. This is a known Hudsonian Godwit stopover site.

After a great breakfast-to-go at the Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop it was time for the long drive to Denali National Park. My first "HARLAN'S" RED-TAILED HAWKS en route were an early highlight.

I had planned a visit to the "Sockeye Burn" north of Willow and was able to find the place without much trouble. OLIVE-SIDED and ALDER FLYCATCHERS were common. Landlocked Ave held several woodpeckers, including a cooperative BLACK-BACKED and a vocal and active AMERICAN THREE-TOED.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Activity waned through the morning, and I continued north, only making one roadside stop that held the first of many singing GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSHES of the trip. Denali (AKA Mount McKinley) was not in view as I approached from the south, shrouded in clouds - this is apparently the case most of the time.

not the ugliest drive ever
I made good time and checked right into my place near the park. I slept through the afternoon and grabbed dinner and beer at the 49th State Brewery in Healy - also recommended. Great atmosphere here with many seasonal employees about; not many tourists on this night.

After a couple more hours' sleep I was at the Denali Bus Depot at 5:30am to catch the 6am transit bus to the Eielson Visitor Center. Private vehicles are only allowed along the first 15 or so miles into the park, which barely scratches the surface, so you need to take one of a variety of buses into the park. I chose the non-narrated transit option, which does make a few scheduled stops along the way.

On the upside, we had a bright, sunny and warm day, so Denali was in view in all its glory. The massive snow-covered peak was more impressive than I had imagined and was every bit worth the effort to see. We were lucky to have a clear morning for viewing.

Eielson Visitor Center with Denali behind


On the downside, we had a bright, sunny and warm day. Birds were quiet and the mammals were hardly evident. Other than some scattered CARIBOU in the valley and a few parties of DALL SHEEP (always a crowd pleaser) up the hills, we didn't see much else in the category of large furry animals. We entirely missed Grizzly Bear, and it was not for lack of trying.

Birds in the park via bus were highlighted by a gray adult GYRFALCON at Polychrome Pass and my first ARCTIC WARBLER of the trip. On the bus ride out, a NORTHERN HAWK-OWL was teed-up in the boreal forest section towards the entrance - a nice surprise as they had not been seen reliably at all this season.

Gyr lording over its valley
Given the warm weather and scarce mammal activity, I figured it best to call it a day earlier than anticipated with the goal of being out for sunrise the next day.

The plan was to spend the first few hours of sunlight along the public portion of the park road in hopes of relocating yesterday's hawk-owl or finding a Grizzly Bear. Neither came to fruition, but I didn't pass up the opportunity to score views of VARIED THRUSH and BOREAL CHICKADEE. WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS and REDPOLLS zipped around all morning.


Snowshoe Hare

hillsides scoped unsuccessfully for bears

At this point I had a decision to make - continue directly back towards Anchorage or detour down the Denali Highway in search of Smith's Longspur and likely a much birdier experience than inside the park itself. That would have added four hours of driving alone, nevermind the walking that I wanted to do. Supposedly a beautiful road, it will have to wait until next time.

On my way back I did stop in to Arctic Valley (ski area) with intentions of hiking for ptarmigan. Upon arrival I was met by many hikers, nearly as many dogs, bright sun, heat, and wind. Not exactly ideal for what I wanted to accomplish. After a short walk for exercise, that was it. Nome awaits!

distant view of Anchorage from the overlook at Arctic Valley

 - NB