Birding Big Year 2016

April 24, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 2: What Happens in Vegas…

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 12:03 am
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Ruby Lake NWR below the Ruby Range

Snow.  Are you kidding me?  At least I am headed in the right direction – south to Nevada, Arizona, and Texas.  Still, I’m a bit concerned about what it might be doing down at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge where I will spend the first night of this 15-day epic birding trip.  Setting anxiety aside, the Jeep rolls across the cattle guard that separates Idaho from Utah.  The loud metal clang flushes the second bird of the trip – Black-billed Magpie.  I might as well check him off early.  Quick to follow are sightings of Horned Lark, Common Raven, and European Starling.  Common birds help prop up a healthy trip list.

The Jeep bounces down the Lynn Road, reaching the all but abandoned community of Lynn.  A right-hand turn takes me up the steep grade that levels at 6,960-foot Cotton Thomas Pass.  I pause to take a few photos of the Goose Creek Mountain peaks and reflect on the utter absence of human beings and the absurdity of a roadside sign that reads:

NO TRESSPASSING
PATROLLED HOURLY

You would have to be a Columbian drug lord to be that paranoid.  I haven’t passed a single vehicle in over 45 minutes, not even as I roll through one of my favorite (not-giving-up-the-ghost) towns in Utah – Grouse Creek.  This unofficial county seat of northwest Box Elder County has a small elementary school, LDS Ward, post office, and the Grouse Creek Mall, a one-room store that boasts “Grouse Creek Mall Has It All.”  A few years back I stopped in for some road snacks.  The Mall did have it all…but only one of each.  I bought the last Mountain Dew, the last peanut butter crackers, and (you guessed it) the last Payday candy bar.  I suppose it’s my fault that they had to drive to Wells, Nevada and resupply.

The high desert is a battle ground between dry air and snow squalls.  As I turn west on Utah Highway 30 (which quickly becomes Nevada Highway 233), the snow surrenders.  Under partly cloudy skies, I push on through one of Nevada’s barely-breathing cattle towns – Montello.  The last census guessed about 84 souls, but in its railroad heyday Montello boasted ten times that. I have passed through Montello a dozen times in 20 years and always marvel at the never-say-die persistence of the town’s two bars and small market. However, I take it as a bad omen for them when listing Trip Bird #11 Turkey Vulture here. Twenty-one miles later, with 10,716-foot Pilot Peak constantly in view, I meet I-80 at the recently deceased dry-spot called Oasis. Next stop Wells.

This stretch of I-80 offers little to write home about, unless you are one of the minimum security offenders placed at the Wells Conservation Camp within view of the highway.  Interstate signs read:

PRISON AREA
HITCHHIKING PROHIBITED

Suddenly, I remember how bald my tires are.  Somewhere on the downhill side of Pequop Summit it hits me.  I forgot to sign everyone’s digital timesheets before leaving the office!  I had caught up all of my email correspondence and left Carl in charge for the next 15 days…but he won’t be able to take care of this duty due to security protocols.  Think…..I have my cell phone with me…..I have my laptop.  I do my best thinking when driving through Nowhere, Nevada.  I also promised myself to leave the car radio off and CD player empty the entire trip.  I want to hear my own thoughts.  I want to see what comes to mind.  I want to let God speak to me through the silence. Ah ha! There’s a McDonalds up in Wells.  I’ll pull into the parking lot, skim the WiFi and take care of this final chore.  I don’t expect to be near the internet for a few days, and my cell phone data plan is hit and miss in these parts.

After topping off the tank in Wells, I drop south on US 93, marveling at the scenic grandeur of 11,306-foot Hole in the Mountain Peak.  By the time I reach Nevada Highway 229, The clouds yield to the afternoon sun, and snow is a distant memory. The highway turns north and over Secret Pass, but I steer south on Ruby Valley Road, along the east side of the Ruby Range.  The awesome grandeur of the Rubies, from Verdi and Liberty Peaks to King and Tipton Peaks (all in excess of 10,000 feet), rival that of any Rocky Mountain Range.  They are to me among the most seductive ranges, nursing my life-long addiction to mountains.

I’ve never met a mountain I did not quickly like
Nor one which did not whisper as bidding me to hike
I have yet to cross a stream not flowing in a dream
Or have failed to meet Your peaks -aflamed by morning beam
I’ve treasured all Your colors: the alpine fl’rs of spring
and sung the songs from mem’ry that all Your birds do sing
Now own my heart eternal, I promise and recount
I will forever climb them, yet never to surmount

Soon the shallow and deeply blue waters of Ruby Lake appear, and I ready the binoculars and camera for what I hope will be the spillway of rapid sightings and hurried listing. First comes Trip Bird #13 Canada Goose, followed by Mallard and coot. Ugh.  I could see these anywhere!  I really didn’t need to drive all this way for the dandelions of the bird world.  But then I hear them: the raucous and rasping rattle of two First-of-year (FOY) Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The male perches perfectly in the sunlight, but my Canon misfires.  Then I remember the birder’s meme – Birders bird, and photographers photograph – one must decide who they will be to maximize success.  I put down the camera and my field of view invites a preponderance of waterfowl. They are all here – teal, bufflehead, ruddy, redhead, ring-necked, etc.

Entirely too soon, the sun slips behind Sherman Mountain.  It’s time to secure a campsite in South Ruby Campground, Humboldt National Forest.  I find site #2 tucked away into the pinyon-juniper woodland and to my liking. Over the howling wind, I hear the familiar sounds of home – Pinyon Jay, Western Scrub-Jay and Mountain Chickadee.  Although my Nevada sky is clear, these winds are hurried north by a storm system exploding over southern Idaho.  The National Weather Service is predicting more than a foot of wet snow there over the next few days.  It is cold here too, and I opt for the added shelter of the Jeep.  My body heat will be retained better in the vehicle than tent; plus, I am too lazy to set it up.  I record my sightings, feast on a can of tuna, and pay one last visit to the comfort station.  I have tallied an unimpressive list of 27 birds for the trip, and only one FOY.  One by one the stars appear; their gravitational pull slowly overpower my eyelids.

Saturday, March 26, 6:05 a.m.  I have spent the last two hours fighting what campers often describe as the dreaded piss-shivers. The pre-dawn morning bottoms out at 15 degrees, and I can no longer neglect the biology of the bladder. The most frustrating malady of winter camping is the precise moment you are forced to choose between internal physical relief or bodily warmth, death by uromysitisis poisoning or hypothermia. I can hear a Great Horned Owl laughing all the way to the comfort station.  Minutes later, with the Jeep’s heater at max, I am toasty, packed, and driving down to the wetlands.  I want to photograph the moonbeams bouncing off the lake, catch the sunrise, and list a few more birds.

I depart the refuge with another dozen species, including Big Year Bird #115 Savannah Sparrow. Not far down the gravel road (and still within the refuge) I am pleasantly surprised to find Fort Ruby National Historic Site (1862-1869). There’s not much here beyond the wayside exhibits, an old cabin, and a vast and lonely landscape.  The fort was intended to thwart skirmishes between California-bound emigrants and Shoshone warriors.  The small military presence also lent security to the Pony Express that ran between Salt Lake City and Carson City.  The War Department called Fort Ruby the “worst post in the west” probably for all the same reasons I am enjoying the place – silence, desolation, a place of undistracted contemplation.  Trip Bird #40 Sage Thrasher warbles in the weeds.  Check!  Moving on.

I proceed south on White Pine County Road 3 (I have no idea where county roads 1,2, or 4 could possibly be).  There are no directional signs or civilization south of the fort. The road eventually leaves the Ruby Valley, crosses over the Maverick Springs Range and enters the accurately-named Long Valley.  I encounter no sign of human life until passing through the Butte Mountains and into the north end of Jakey Valley.  Here, US 50 (aka the loneliest highway in America) leads me east into Ely.  This desolate and almost entirely graveled route covered a distance of 95 miles, and admittedly, I was ready for company.  In downtown Ely, I locate the city park and partake of crackers, a trail mix bar, and water-packed mandarin oranges.

The Jeep now fueled, I take the road more traveled (US Hwy 93 South) toward Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge.  I had hoped to take US Hwy 6 to Nevada Hwy 318 and bird the wildlife management areas from Kirch to Key Pittman, but made a tactical decision to get to Pahranagat as soon as possible.  I am beginning to realize that I need about 20% less driving and 25% more birding.  So when in Nevada, take a gamble.  I’m placing all my hopes on a productive return at the federal refuge.  Upon reaching Cathedral Gorge State Park, I whip in at the overlook.  Tired from driving and depressed that I haven’t seen a trip bird in nearly five hours, I hope to add one on the quick.  Not even a raven greets me.  I take a few scenic photos for the journal, and continue.

Finally, just south of Alamo, the cool waters of Upper Pahranagat Lake can be seen.  I have arrived in time to relax, bird from a secluded campsite, and even set up the tent.  I have also arrived in time to discover that the few dozen campsites are packed with families from Las Vegas on a Spring Break Saturday night.  One by one I drive past perfect campsite, perfectly taken.  At the end of the loop.  I park and walk off into the cottonwoods, hoping for a woodpecker and some idea of what to do next.

Down the highway a few miles is the newly-built and architecturally pleasing visitor center.  I fully expect it to be closed, but then discover that I am no longer on Mountain Time, and haven’t been since 2 p.m. yesterday!  The center is open, and the volunteer at the desk is most helpful with advise.  “I am sorry, I know of no place to camp south of the refuge – not even a private RV park.”  She continues, “I suppose you could drive into the Desert National Wildlife Range on Corn Creek Road for a mile or two and find a level place to park, but it’s a four-wheel drive.”  I consider my tires, and quickly discount that option.

I am 90 miles from Las Vegas.  I just won an extra hour.  Perhaps this is the right time to blow my emergency motel stash and “camp” in a Super 8.  As I cover the desolate miles east of the Sheep Range, I can’t help but think of all the bodies that might have been buried here in a season of CSI.  That cheap motel is looking even better. My plan is to secure a motel on the outskirts of the city, but too soon I am swept into the traffic and carried downstream to the heart of the metropolis, eddying-out a few blocks south of the Strip.  Side streets flooded with vehicles form impenetrable log-jams.  The city pulls me under, and I find myself gasping for air.  After treading for an hour, I swim to a Walmart parking lot that rises above the chaos like an island oasis.  I am done for.  I call Susan.  “How’s it going she says cheerfully.”  In my best exhausted and whiny voice I say, “I can’t find a hotel!”  ….[silence]….”You’re in Las Vegas and you can’t find a hotel? Do you hear yourself? Look around…what do you see?”  “I think I see a Comfort Inn,” I answer sheepishly.  Go get you a room, forget the cost, and just regroup tomorrow.”  Such words of wisdom completely refresh me, and soon I am collapsed in a sea of pillows in an air-conditioned suite.

Total birds after 8 a.m. – 0
Total miles driven today – 400
Total hours birding after Ruby Lake NWR – .1

But tomorrow is another day, and my luck is bound to change.  I’m banking on an entire morning at the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. Somewhere in a distant casino, just before fading off to sleep, I hear a gambler jostling the dice and shouting, “Come on baby, daddy needs a new bird!”

(Stay tuned for Birding Big Trip Part III: Leaving Las Vegas)

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April 15, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 1: Strategery by the Numbers

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 11:14 pm
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The Epic Big Year Birding Trip begins!

Time is a ruthless taskmaster, and the calendar an obnoxious billboard; both reminding me that the appointed date of departure for the one big birding trip this year is looming.  Since early winter 2015, I have been planning meticulously (some might say obsessively) every detail and every mile.  I have engineered the itinerary forwards and back, affirming key dates where I need to be and when, yet trying to work in enough flexibility to stay longer or leave sooner depending on how cooperative the birds are.  I know birds.  They are prone to misbehave and fail to meet me at the designated locations.  If ever there is a time to be bird-brained, it is this week. I simply must think like them, for I am scheduled to take flight at noon, Friday, March 25. My devious plan to see 200 species has to be flawless.

If planning a 5,000-mile/15-day birding trip is not enough, add to it the pressure to keep up the big year list, lest I fall horribly behind my competitors.  Thankfully, I reach my 100th bird on February 21.  The American Dipper presents himself without prompting at the Cassia Creek bridge in Elba.  Shortly thereafter, #101 Golden-crowned Kinglet fidgits in a nearby willow.  But then I suffer through an 11-day dry-spell until Say’s Phoebe and Sandhill Crane migrate in.  All told, my pre-trip total is a mere 113.  My competitors had that many before leap day!  I try to console myself with the fact that I only had 94 at this point in the chase back in 2012, but then remember that I was only 2 behind in 2014.  No, the only consolation I relish is the knowledge that I will get many, many birds on this trip.

Work is unrelenting.  I put in the overtime to wrap up various projects and assignments in anticipation of the prolonged absence.  Conference calls, business trips, and the incessant assembly line of email remind me of the Wac-A-Mole arcade game.  Just when I am sure I have them all answered, four more pop up.  And then there are the honey-do’s, the car repairs, and other off-duty responsibilities.  I still need to buy a camp stove, food, and withdraw my stash of mad-money from the credit union.  Finally, I need to just sit down and finish my itinerary!

The Big Year Birding Trip revolves around two key species: Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler – both endangered species, both potential lifers, and both arriving even now to the Edwards Plateau west of Austin and San Antonio, Texas. The “strategery” of the trip is to reach the area a few days after the first arrivals are typically reported in eBird and soon enough to find them by call and song.  If they pair up and stop singing I’m doomed.  Departing on March 25, gives me just enough time prior to that event to bird my way down through Nevada, Arizona and along the US-Mexico border.  If all goes well, I’ll have a few days in Southeast Arizona to raise the Big-Year tally to 150 or better.  I really don’t know what to expect in the Davis Mountains, but I’ll need a day there just to keep from reaching the Edwards Plateau too soon.

If after bagging the vireo and warbler, and if the plan is still intact, I will race for the border along the Rio Grande and “mine for gold.”  Every birder knows that a serious big year demands a visit to the mecca of hotspots between Laredo and Port Isabel.  Emerging from there, I should be sitting around 200 if I time it perfectly with the neotropical migration.  As I bird my way up the gulf coast from Padre Island to High Island, I’m counting on another 30.  Traveling through NE Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, I could keep raking in the migrants, or at least score 25-30 common birds of the eastern US.  After a day or two of downtime with family in NW Arkansas, I will turn my attention to the Great Plains of Oklahoma, southern Rockies of Colorado, and finally the Colorado Plateau of Utah.

Hours at the computer, I rub my eyes and wonder; have I picked the right refuges, parks, and hotspots?  Have I given adequate time at each stop to make the trip count?  I tally the miles, estimate the cost of gasoline, project the price of camping and food.  I even pad the budget with three random nights in a cheap motel, knowing I won’t be able to live with myself for two weeks without the occasional shower.  In addition to these logistical fear, I worry – have I studied enough?  I cannot afford to spend precious minutes in the field thumbing through field guides just to decide whether I am looking at a Bell’s Vireo or a Gray Warbler.  I need to know that a Cassin’s Kingbird in spring along the banks of the lower Rio Grande is less likely to be seen than a Couch’s Kingbird.  But I also need to remain vigilant, because the best part of birding is catching up to and confirming the presence of a species that by all accounts should never be where it is.  some birds ignore the books and statistics and just do their own thing.

Finally, there are these lingering fears: will Susan be ok while I am gone? Will these Jeep tires really last another 5,000 miles; will I fall victim to highway robbery? (I watch too many movies).  She assures me that she will be ok.  I have far less confidence in the tires.  Thursday night, March 24, I fold and pack the last load of laundry, and add the duffle bag to an already bulging cargo hold.  Fifteen days on the road in spring…one cannot be sure if they will need a parka or pair of shorts – so both make the trip.

Friday, March 25: I spend the first half of the day whacking the last few moles.  I set the out-of-office feature on my phone and email app as a vain attempt to reduce the workload that will be waiting for me on the other side of this trip.  And then it happens…noon.  I point the Jeep south toward the nearly 60 miles of dirt road between me and the Nevada state line.  I haven’t a care in my mind, except the self-imposed pressure to get the birds. I make it a rule not to count any birds for the trip list until I travel the four miles to the Utah border.  Moments later with the Almo Valley in the rear-view mirror, I reach the boundary and grab my pen and notebook: Trip bird #1 – Mountain Bluebird. The male takes quick flight without a sound. A hush falls over the high desert.  It begins to snow.

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 2: What happens in Vegas….)

Epic Wildlife Watching: The Big Year

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — Tags: , — wfkeck @ 12:52 pm

Epic Wildlife Watching: The Big Year

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Planning the Epic Birding Big Year Trip

Written by Wallace Keck* for Windows to Wildlife (Spring, 2016)

Somewhere between bear jams at Yellowstone National Park, once-in-a-lifetime big game safaris in Africa, or ecotourism adventures to Central America, a much more watchable wildlife experience is possible – the Birding Big Year. And it is just as epic! Like so many birders before and beside me, I’m doing a big year.

Some readers might be familiar with the big year, having seen the 2011 movie of the same title, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. These comedic actors represented real-life characters who competed in the calendar year 1998 to see as many bird species in North America as possible. Sandy Komito won that competition with 748 species, a record that remained unbroken until 2013 when Massachusetts birder Neil Hayward topped it by one.

Big year birding is not birdwatching or merely listing birds one has observed. The essence of big year birding is competition, either with other birders or with oneself. Like all competitions, birding can be ruthless and fierce, all-consuming, and let’s face it – expensive. I am a few months into my third big year in the last six, and consequently perpetually and happily broke. I’ve set a personal goal of seeing 300 species in the United States in 2016. This goal is a far cry from the current record, but it is respectable and within my financial reach. As far as competition, I am personally driven to set goals and achieve them, but a handful of my friends are also doing a big year, so naturally a competition (be it real or imagined) can be assumed.

Chasing birds can be expensive. I’ve been socking away extra cash since last September. The costliest aspects of big year birding are fuel, oil changes, and probably a new set of tires before it’s all over. There are only so many birds within the habitats of Southern Idaho, and while it is possible to see 300 species in the state, my best chances for success require travel to the vastly different eco-regions of the country. To date, I have seen 107 species within about a five-county area. As the spring migration begins and Idaho becomes inundated with species from Central and South America, I am sure to pick up another 120. But that still leaves me way short of the goal.

Since early December, I have been pouring over field guides, maps, state checklists, and the Internet for times, seasons, and occurrences of birds, especially those I have never seen before. New birds are called “lifers.” I started the 2016 big year with 460 lifers to my credit – a feat that has taken over 30 years to achieve. Of the 300 species I intend to see this year, I am hoping that a dozen or more will include first time sightings (lifers).

Serious competitive birders do not simply bird by chance or serendipity, we study as if trying to pass the bar exam. I have spent countless hours digesting every piece of information about two target species that are located in the Edwards Plateau of Central Texas. I am determined to add Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler to both my life list and big year list.

These two species (the Vireo and the Warbler) are the centerpieces of a 5,000-mile epic big year trip that will surely include many rare and unusual birds from the Great Basin, to the deserts of southeast Arizona, down the Rio Grande River, up the Texas Gulf Coast, through the piney woods of East Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, beyond the Ozarks, over the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, and finally the Colorado Plateau. Every birding big year should include at least one epic big year trip. However, unless I open a go-fund-me account, I will be birding fairly close to home the rest of the year.

I am well aware of the peer pressure to set a good example of environmental conservation and live a low carbon footprint life. On the other hand, big year birding and traveling is as valuable as pursuing a college degree. The education one achieves through significant study and field experience will last a life-time. By December 31st, big year birders will have gained a deeper understanding of ecosystems in peril, effects of climate change, impacts of non-native species, the interplay between urbanization and agriculture, and the threats associated with fragmented habitat. Not to mention, birders greatly increase their knowledge of botany, geology, and geography, as well as diverse cultures and history. Upon my return from the “big trip” I will have something far more valuable than a list of birds. The knowledge and experiences gained will serve me well in serving the park visitors, school children, elected officials, and colleagues within my sphere of influence. I will be able to speak more fluently about the state of our environment and the importance of an individual conservation ethic. At the very least, I will have some great campfire stories.

Finally, big year birders gain something even greater than knowledge and influence, or personal satisfactions. Birding is ultimately about relationships and life-long friendships. Birders can be cranky loners at times, but we share a bond that breaks all stereo-types. I have birded with high school seniors and senior citizens, complete strangers and Christian brothers. I’ve never met a birder I didn’t like.

If you’re still a birdwatcher, consider stepping up your game. It’s not too late to start your own big year. Join in with a nearby Audubon chapter, or visit your parks and wildlife management areas to attend a bird walk. Better yet, participate in a citizen science project, backyard feeder watch, or Christmas bird count. But be careful, the leap from a bird walk to a big year obsession is shorter than you think. Soon you will be on your way to an epic watchable wildlife adventure.

*About the Author: Wallace Keck is the park superintendent of City of Rocks National Reserve and park manager of Castle Rocks State Park in southern Cassia County. In addition to his obsession with birds, Wallace is an avid writer, public speaker, field botanist, and photographer, tirelessly promoting the parks. You can follow his 2016 birding big year at https://wfkeck.wordpress.com/

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