Monday, March 26, 2012

California Dreamin’ …

Two Cackling Geese, right, along with a Greater White-fronted Goose

California—that land of opportunity and promise, if not the Promised Land.
Last week, in part to escape the stifling heat of northeast Ohio and in part to visit relatives, Susan and I headed west for some much-needed rest and relaxation. Being retired is not a job for sissies.
And did I mention California held potential for me to find three birds for my life list, catapulting me to the 600 mark for birds seen in North America without a trip to Alaska or on the ocean?
Beautiful Santa Barbara offered much this year—rain, fog, along with temperatures in the forties and fifties for example, the kinds of things we expect in northeast Ohio, not southern California.
But ya gotta love the people out there. Where else would you find a kid skateboarding on a remote, treacherous mountain road so steep and pock-marked that you’re afraid your car won’t make it?
I’m trying to be philosophical about this self-imposed goal to hit 600 life birds by mid April. For example, we went off the second day, having crapped out the first looking for the Cackling Goose, in search of the Varied Thrush, a bird more likely found further north, but reported in a nearby park. After a multi-hour, thorough hunt by three keen-eyed birders, we opted to pack it in at lunch time. At precisely the moment when the camera gear was out of sight, Susan alerted us to a Red-breasted Sapsucker—a bird not even on the radar for this search. ChaaChing! Number 598 in the bag, proving that even when the arrow misses the target it will still hit something. Something like that.

Western Winter Wrens livened the forests

The rest of the week was a grim reminder of how tough finding some birds can be. I thought the Cackling Goose would be a slam dunk. Not so. Nearing the end of our stay we decided to go back to where the Cackling Goose had been reported—on a local golf course, perfect habitat for geese. We scanned a burgeoning flock of Canada Geese and found several Greater White-fronted Geese—good birds but not what we were looking for.
About the time I opening my mouth to say, “Oh well,” Susan said, “Aaaawaitaminute! Look at that white ring at the base of the neck on the smaller birds!”
Sure enough! She found Number 599, eight of them in fact, mixed in with the Canadas. These were the Aleutian race of the Cackling Goose that we do not get here in the eastern parts of the country. Big score. High-fives all ‘round.

White-tailed Kite is always a welcome diversion

Now, with three weeks left, the search continues. Early spring arrivals might be the key. The car has a full tank of gas, camera gear is packed, backpack loaded with a change of underwear in case it’s more than a week-long chase. I’m pumped!
Stay tuned, folks. And thanks for your support.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Surprise, Surprise!

A quite uncommon-in-March Common Redpoll

If nothing else, birding provides a never-ending supply of surprises. As we anticipate and chase spring birds at this time of the year, you can imagine my shock (while on the way to the coffee pot for a refill) this morning when I glanced at the feeder and saw two prime Arctic winter birds.
I could hardly believe my eyes. There sat two (count ‘em, two!) Common Redpolls. This is a species that shows up in our area on rare occasions in the depths of winter. Only once in more than 11 years at this address have we had redpolls.
After losing a brief wrestling match with Susan over the “table” binoculars, I ran for the camera. Fortunately the birds sat still long enough for a portrait shot, then were off.
Where did they come from and where were they going? The latter is easier to answer: The far reaches of Canada, totally unconcerned about the brief thrills they provided.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

What Ya Hear Is What Ya Get

Sandhill Cranes

It was a loud, resonant rattling; an almost wooden tonal quality honk. As author David Sibley describes it, a rolling bugle sound. My first thought was that I was about to take a spot between the dead deer and the two squashed raccoons along Ohio Route 95 in Wayne County. I was birding the Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area in hopes of finding the elusive Cackling Goose (or geese) recently reported in the area.
Yesterday I contacted birder Su Snyder who knows the area as well as anyone. She said she’d not seen the geese, however, there were plenty of birds in the area … Okay, that was incentive enough. I was off.
So, there I was, shivering in the 34 degrees, snow swirling all around, wind dancing with my anemometer to the tune of 40 miles per hour in gusts, in the middle of the highway because there was no place else to stand and now some truck driver wants me to move? Couldn’t he see I was laden with binoculars, spotting scope and camera? Some people!
I looked in the direction of honking and saw nothing. Then I looked up. Four Sandhill Cranes, landing gear extended, were right over my head! Fortunately, no one was there to see me fumbling with my binoculars trying to take a photo, realizing that in my excitement I’d grabbed the wrong gadget, then stumbling to get out of the road in case a truck did come along, nearly strangle myself with the multitude of straps around my neck, trying to stop laughing long enough to make a photo. Birding ain’t for sissies.

I avoided stepping on the already flat raccoon and managed to get the spotting scope into a secure spot. The cranes (Were they laughing?) circled and landed in a huge flock of Northern Pintail ducks about 200 yards away. The ducks exploded in a roiling dark cloud and burst of high-pitched whiney quacking.
Then my world went black! Oh shit, I’d forgotten to take the lens cap off. Probably the first time I’ve ever done that trick. Right.
Two of the four cranes took off about as quickly as they landed. The other pair danced around a bit and also left, heading north, into the snowy afternoon.
I was left with the deafening silence created by hundreds of Tundra Swans and thousands of ducks.