Birding Big Year 2016

February 21, 2016

To Kill a Chickadee

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 1:53 pm
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Mountain Chickadee before the incident

I am easily lost in the drama displayed this early morning at the feeders.  Feet propped up on the desk in my home office; fingers interlocked forming a make-shift headrest.  I watch as Pine Siskins attack the thistle socks dangling from the roof of the covered deck.  Only ten feet and a glass door separate my perch from theirs.  The room is dark, so the glare prevents them from seeing in. Still, somehow they sense my presence and periodically dart into the juniper a few feet from the sock.  They take a breath (I hold mine); They look both ways and quickly return to breakfast.

Juncos pace around the deck floor cleaning up what the siskins drop.  Occasionally, they will stick their head into the feeder mounted to the deck rail, but mostly they prefer the floor or the ground ten feet below.  The birds have their black-oil sunflower seeds and I have my black-only straight-up Starbucks.  Sunrays strike Cache Peak a few miles away.  The rich-blue sky is crisp, and junipers stand at perfect attention – no wind today! Everybody is enjoying the morning.  And now a Mountain Chickadee pops in from who knows where, and gets everyone excited.  Chickadees are always the life of the party.  They chatter on, but never really scold in anger.

I still remember my first Mountain Chickadee: September 8, 1990.  Susan and I had spent the day before driving 460 miles from Billings to Glacier, arriving just in time to get the last available campsite.  We were living and working in Devil’s Den State Park, Arkansas in those days, and the trip to Glacier was intended to feed my need for mountain inspiration and the fragrance of sagebrush.  I got up with the sunrise and birded my way down to the lake.  Once Susan woke up, and after a quick bowl of blueberry oatmeal, we hit the trails. One grizzly, four miles, and a few lifers later, we found ourselves at the next trailhead – this one to Apikuni Falls.  Susan stayed in the Trooper, while I ran up the trail for photos.  (I am still a sucker for waterfalls).  But I am always birding, so when I walked into a thicket of chatter, I stopped and took note.  I gave a quick “pish” and a Mountain Chickadee presented himself front and center.  The black eye-stripe immediately separated him from the other Chickadee members in the ranged: Black-capped, Chestnut-backed, and Boreal.

Mountain Chickadees are a true western species, confining themselves to the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Basin and Range, Sierras, and Cascades.  When I see one, I know I am in the right place – which is why their appearance at my feeders reassures me that building a home on the southern slope of Cache Peak was a good decision.  I watch this one dart in and out of the feeder, seed in beak and off to a hidden juniper branch to crack it open.  Less than a minute later he is back for more, and this time with his mate.

I may not be the only one watching birds.  curled up on a deck chair cushion is our adopted cat affectionately named “Mere Cat” – short for “Come here cat” and also because his voice is more mere than meow.  Mere Cat is watching with all the interest of a cow taking notice of a magpie.  I take heart in believing that Mere Cat doesn’t like birds, and from all indications, prefers rabbits and rodents.  Susan thinks Mere Cat may be the grown-up kitty that was raised under our front porch in the summer of 2012, so we have allowed it to take up residence with us.  I’m not a cat guy, but Mere Cat has grown on me, and follows me around when I do yard work.  Dogs and cats become family members once you start talking to them, and I have to admit, Mere Cat and I have had more than a few conversations.

Almo, like most rural communities, has its share of feral cats. On some days, I might see as many cats hunting as hawks.  A feral cat is one which has been born into wildness and has learned to survive on its own without human interaction.  We do not feed Mere Cat.  He came with skills, and feeding the birds is costly enough.  A recent study by the Smithsonian estimates that 2.5 billion birds are killed by cats (feral and domestic) annually in the US.  World-wide, some 33 species of birds have become extinct due to cat predation.  Cats are just superb hunters, and domestic cats often kill for sport.

I know the statistics, but I have spent many hours watching birds and Mere Cat.  They seem to tolerate each other in this paradise I call home.  But then who wouldn’t be intimidated by 50 screaming pinyon jays arriving at the feeder in force?  Mere Cat just lays there, filled and contented from last night’s hunt.  My affections for chickadees surpass most birds and all cats, but as a naturalist and admirer of the Creator’s work, I find joy and fascination with all life.

My coffee mug is empty, and it is time to get on with the day. I turn my attention to the laptop to balance the checkbook, check Facebook, and give Instagram a look.  Suddenly a loud crash resonates from outside.  What the heck?!!  I run to the living room windows to get a broader view of the deck.  All the birds have scattered, and perched over my Mountain Chickadee is Mere Cat’s southpaw – death for breakfast.

I stand there in shock and disbelief. A rush of emotions smack me like a bird to a window. I am angry with the cat, broken over the departed, and so disappointed with my naivety. Its mate appears from the juniper, perches on the rail above and looks on.  Does it understand what has just happened?

Evolutionists might recount matter-of-factly the survival of the fittest principle. I might no doubt be chastised for anthropomorphizing the whole incident. And of course a thousand fellow birders will shake their heads in disdain. I have become the problem.  “Cats don’t kill chickadees, people do.”  Adding to my guilt, I recall the words of Jesus, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father.”  If an omniscient God takes note of the death of a house sparrow commonly used in ancient sacrifices, how much more a chickadee who is called to bring Him glory! Scripture also states, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

I installed the bird feeders that attracted the birds; I kept them fat and contented. I gave Mere Cat his cozy perch and permission to stay. I assumed, then, that they would abide by the house rules: (1) bring joy to the master of the house, and (2) no fighting!  And yet, in my conflicted state, I am reminded of all the times this winter that the feeders at the visitor center attracted flocks of birds, which in turn attracted bird predators: Northern Shrike, American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Goshawk…and feral cats.  Predator and prey relationships, as the biologist will say, is the circle of life.

Some theologians argue that in the Garden, animals were vegetarians, but that predator/prey relationships began with man’s original sin.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Judeo-Christian followers believe that the original relationship of animals will return in the new heaven and the new earth.  Isaiah writes, “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.

Three things I painfully learn from this incident: (1) I killed the Chickadee – my own sins of omission; and for that I must give an account as steward of His creation. (2) Despite the million dollar view from my deck, the song birds at my feeder, and the cute little kitty curled up on my deck, this is not paradise.  And finally, (3) Birding is all fun and games…until somebody gets hurt.

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Mere Cat (kitty) 2012

February 14, 2016

Truckers and Chukars: White-knuckle Birding at Rattlesnake Pass

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 11:53 pm
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A Barn Owl escort down refuge road

I have been consoling myself of the second place finish coming out of January with the knowledge that I would soon be birding the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  That day has now come.  A medical appointment in Salt Lake City gives the whole adventure legitimacy.  I am not skipping work for birds, but neither will I skip birds for sick leave.  Fortunately the refuge is on the way (practically in the way) of my intended destination, and birding is always therapeutic.

Hours before my darkened departure, a weather system has arrogantly dumped four inches of fresh snow on already ice-covered roads. I am leaving plenty early to compensate, but creeping down the highway at 40 mph will certainly cut into my birding time at the refuge.  Mile after mile from Narrows Road to Utah 30, I have the highways to myself, and so I take my half out of the middle, and keep it in four-wheel drive.  But once I hit I-84, it’s a video-gamer’s nightmare.  Truckers from hell (or maybe the arctic) appear from nowhere. They race at me, overtake and splash me.  The asphalt is buried in slush that leaps to my windshield with every passing rig of rage.  God help me!  (Short, heartfelt prayers are most effective).

Even in the clouded dawn I can see white knuckles gripping the wheel, anticipating certain death.  The blood has gone into hibernation and muscles are clinched and locked.  I try to console my fingers with split-second stretches, but they aren’t listening.  On the uphill grade of Rattlesnake Pass, the truckers that passed moments ago have now met their match.  They climb the mountain in low gear.  I am forced to take the left lane and pass them, but this lane is unplowed. A northbound truck plunges into the medium. I pass within 20 feet of him.  Now the blood is draining out of my head.  hold on!  I warn out loud to no one…or maybe to my fingers that seem to be warping the wheel with superhuman strength.  The stress-o-meter rises and I feel that I might black-out in the white-out conditions.  Just keep rolling, I hear myself say.

Thirty miles later, the jeep rolls into the refuge parking lot, and a surreal sense of calm descends upon me.  I made it; I have no idea how, and very little recollection of the past 40 minutes.  I am the only visitor (survivor?).  It is silent and cold, and slightly snowing. Inside the visitor center, I check with the local birding experts about refuge conditions, what’s frozen, and what’s hot.  There is very little open water, and the refuge roads are reportedly slick, narrow, rutted, and occasionally muddy.  American Pipits are being seen along the road edges – I need those.  I am also hoping for a look at the handful of waterfowl remaining on my list.

A smile creeps over my face as I wander down the refuge road.  I am still alive, and I am birding.  Life is good.  …but the refuge is dead.  Very few birds are active or even present.  I take joy in seeing a small flock of starlings – at least its something!  A coot swims down the canal; a single house sparrow yields the road; an Eurasian Collared Dove makes a distant flight.  Even the bad birds can be good in times like these.

And then it happens…that moment when nature throws you a bone – or in this case – a Barn Owl, maintaining a flight path and pace with the jeep.  Normally birds veer off, up and away, but this one mysteriously remains at eye-level, and parallels my route just 30 feet beyond arm’s reach. I have done some stupid things in my life, but what I am now contemplating could easily earn a spot in the top ten.

The refuge road is straight but narrow, and on either side – deep water-filled canals.  I can’t continue to watch the road and photograph the owl at the same time.  I simply have to choose.  And its an easy decision.  Most birders I know will take the shot.  Pressing my left knee up into the steering wheel and my right foot on the gas,  I twist my torso counter-clockwise and become a multi-tasking Gumby.  My knee drives and my hands and eyes perpendicularly steer the 400 mm zoom lens squarely at the owl. I rip through 80-100 images like a Gatling gun. Now…I can’t be sure, but I suspect that I traveled more than a quarter-mile at 25 miles per hour without ever confirming the road.  Fortunately the owl chooses to perch on a gate post just before the road takes a 90 degree left.

A few miles later, gulls and grebes play in the unfrozen water. Shifting periodically from binoculars to field guide, I spend time to the excess, trying to confirm if the gull in scope has pink legs or yellow.  The light is horribly washed.  I really want this to be a Herring Gull, but I just can’t be sure.  He takes flight and my last hope for a new bird vanishes into the frozen sky.  I am simply out of time and need to get down the interstate to my appointment.

New and more vicious truckers surround me, forcibly escorting me south I-15 to the inner sanctum of Salt Lake City. Wipers work overtime, until like horses that have been ridden too far too fast, they give out and collapse. The right-side rubber blade is ripped from its arm by accumulated ice. I am blind. Somehow, beyond my own vision and wisdom, I arrive at the clinic.  There is just enough time to lower my blood pressure, and allow for the color to return to my fingers.  The doc walks in with all the serious single-mindedness of a busy professional, “So, what have you been doing?”  “Um…White-knuckle birding.”

A few hours later, with a fresh tank of gas and new wiper blades, I rejoin the insanity headed north, I-15.  The weather worsens.  All the elements of danger return, and the blood in my knuckles rush to my heart as if to sustain the essential organs.  I can’t remember my last deep breath.  Lungs are not necessary.  Suddenly I am back on the northbound grade of Rattlesnake Pass.  Truckers to the left of me, truckers to the right.  Here I am, stuck in the middle again.

But then, like when a passing storm is silenced by the awe moment of a rainbow, I see them. Truckers fall away in a stroke of courtesy, giving me a timeless moment in the midst of the storm…to see a pair of Chukar happily feeding in the medium.  Their presence is unexpected and out of context. They are oblivious of the storm and semi-tractored chaos. This is the thrill and essence of birding, the risk and reward.  My first Big Year bird of February comes at a hard physical cost, and yet completely restores my soul.

February marches on.  The following day under sunnier circumstances, I am presented with Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, and Snow Goose east of Declo.  Howell Canyon offers a single Brown Creeper, early Sunday morning, February 7.  The following Tuesday, the Twin Sisters give up their only Canyon Wren; and two days later, a return trip from Boise leads to a successful detour into Hagerman.  The day before the birding festival, I steal away with three needed species – no charge: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Wood Duck, and Gadwall.

Life is fleeting; birding is forever. I have cheated death once more.



February 8, 2016

Last Day, First Month: A Big Year

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 2:09 am
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Bushtits dashing in and out of sagebrush

Already I can feel the self-inflicted pressure of underachieving. Today is the last day of the first month of the big year.  Reality inevitably trumps fantasy.  I had dreamed of listing 100 birds by close-of-business, January 31.  I suppose if I were being completely transparent, I actually had the audacity to believe I could list a hundred birds on January 1.  But that’s sort of like those juvenile imaginations of dating a cheerleader, winning the lottery, or climbing Mount Everest.  My list sits at 82.

With a heightened sense of urgency, I give the Sunday morning benediction and dash for Declo.  I hear tell of tales – easy Pintails and Teal just a short drive away.  I still need Gadwall and Bushtit, Creeper and Wood Duck.  All of these are high on my hit list, and cheap targets based on tips I received earlier in the week.  Gone are the days of new birds haphazardly arriving to the visitor center feeders, like the large flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds a week ago, or the swooped-in Goshawk, or the Lesser Goldfinch that yesterday fed alongside its duller cousin American Goldfinch.  I seriously have to go get them now.

Although sunny, the weather outside my jeep is frightfully chilled.  Winds drive the late-morning temperature into the miserable.  At the junction of Hwy 81-new and 81-old, east of Declo and huddled in the warmth of the vehicle, I peer into the frozen wetlands that mark the deserted end of Marsh Creek. This is where Kathy claims to have seen too many Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal to count.  There are no ducks here now, just a marsh hawk, looking for voles.  He’s hungry, and my list is starving.

Wood Ducks elude me along the sure-fire habitat of Granny’s Pad Road, and even her lagoons are frozen.  I am in need of open water.  I find some north of the I-84 Snake River crossing, but even here only a few crazy Goldeneye and a Common Loon dare to swim.  Perhaps it is the same loon I checked-off last Wednesday on my way to Walcott.  This will not do.  I am due a new bird, somewhere, somehow.  I can feel the minutes ticking by.  I am starting to panic.

And now I am hungry!  I need to pick up bird seed at C-A-L Ranch and check the open waters that separate north and south Burley, so I might as well grab a #3 at McDonalds.  Birds eat better than birders.  With ketchup and grease still moisturizing my lips, I swing into Lex Kunau Park and erect the scope.  A raft of waterfowl is huddled on the frozen bank of Cassia County, a few football fields away. Maybe I can tease out a Gadwall.  Unfortunately it is the mallards that tease. Just as I am about to rush back to the Jeep’s warmth and fragrance of fries, an odd “duck” is swimming with a dozen-plus Canada Geese.  Back out comes the tripod and scope.  Even in the glaring sun distantly down river I can make out a goose of another color.  Partly assisted by the wind-chill, I stare frozen, waiting for this odd goose to turn into the light.  Finally, it reveals a patchy white lore that is almost all that separates a domestic Graylag from a rare winter find – #83 Greater White-fronted Goose!

I give up on Gadwalls and head back to Almo in hopes of a last minute score on Cassin’s Finches or Bushtits. An hour later, I am at the office unloading 40-pound bags of black oil sunflower seeds.  Out the window, I see a pick-up pull-up.  We are closed on winter Sundays, but I am always ready to serve.  Low and behold it is Rob and Cindy from Twin Falls, driving an hour and a half in hopes of listing the Northern Goshawk and Lesser Goldfinch at the feeders. I had posted earlier in the week these arrivals to Facebook.  The odds of seeing the Goshawk today are only slightly better than my future summit of Everest, but the Lesser Goldfinch is quickly “bagged.”

In separate vehicles we caravan to Smoky Mountain Campground.  Rob needs a Juniper Titmouse.  Cindy is in Sunday shoes, and waits in the truck while Rob and I walk the frozen loop.  Snow and ice crunch below our boots, making it difficult to hear even a raven.  We talk of future birding trips, and the respectable showing we both have made in January.  Still, we can’t help but feel a stronger finish is within reach.  We scurry to add one or more before sunset.

Despite the cold, I lower the window and drive slowly out of the campground. My plan is to stop every 50 yards and attempt to call in a titmouse.  Instead I catch the faint chips and twitters of Bushtit.  I jump out, and signal for Rob to cut his engine.  They are here somewhere in the tall sagebrush just north of the road.  Rob can hear them too, and their quick dash here and there focus our attention.  Finally, dangling upside down on a dried sagebrush flower stalk, is #84 Bushtit. High fives and cheers quickly follow.  We are emboldened to get one more.

With Rob and Cindy following, I proceed toward Bath Rock, stopping at the occasional pinyon-juniper woodland to call out for Cassin’s Finches.  The only thing we get is colder.  The sun is slipping behind Mount Mahogany.  At Bath Rock, snow drifts thoroughly obstruct further progress. At 4:30 p.m., we are the only ones in the entire park.  It is here we must make our final stand for January.  A Townsend’s Solitaire takes note atop a naked aspen snag.  He hears my Cassin’s call, and probably muses, “its too early for them.”

Yet the recorded noise is enough to spur a woodpecker to leave one hidden perch for another.  We see its undulating flight, but only for a second at a distance of 50 yards. I immediately think Hairy Woodpecker, partly because I need one, but also because it just seemed bigger than downy.  Rob and I close the gap between the parking lot and the pinyon pine it landed in near campsite 54. The snow is piled high from a dozen December storms, and we posthole our way to a proper distance.  I “dial-up” the call and play it once.  Rob quickly reports that the bird has moved to the very tallest snag.  “It’s a Hairy!” he shouts twice to convince both him and me.  I lock in and confirm to my own satisfaction, the bill length to head width ratio is indeed more than half.  A Downy Woodpecker is less than half and noticeably diminutive. Another round of high-fives are served.

Rob and Cindy descend the long road out of the “City” and back to Twin.  It’s a school night, and teachers need their rest.  I have hopes for one more bird, but 20 minutes later, even I must acquiesce to dusk and bitter cold.  Rob finishes the first month of his big year with 83, I with 85, and Kathy, according to her Facebook post – with 87.  That places me somewhere in the top 25 of Idaho Birders in 2016, based on Ebird checklists thus far submitted.

Here’s the crazy thing, no one is really competing with me, at least not officially. My second place standing among two other birders means nothing. My competitive human nature wars against my joy of nature.  Such internal conflict can only be resolved by the practice of helping other birders find what they have yet to see.  Kathy regularly texts rare and unusual sightings, and Rob also passes on hot tips as he gets them.  Other birding buds continue to invite me to bird their area, and Travis is my inside man for what’s happening at Walcott. Such is the nature of big year birders. We are our own champion and critic.

But then with a hint of deviousness, I begin to plot a secret trip to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  I think I can pull ahead this week!



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