Sunday, February 3, 2019

3 February 2019: First species I missed last year!

It was only a matter of time before something turned up that I missed for my Green Big Year last year. It stings a little bit, especially because we're not that far into the new year, and it was very close to home! But I'll still take it!

Just over a week ago, someone reported a flock of mixed Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks about 7 miles (as the bike rolls) from my house. Last year I biked 286.2 miles over 14 trips through open areas where my primary targets were Lapland Longpsurs, Snow Buntings, Northern Shrikes, and sometimes Golden Eagles. The only one I ever found was a Northern Shrike on an additional dedicated trip on December 29th!

So of course I tried to go chase those longspurs last weekend - but just a few blocks from home, it started snowing, earlier than forecast. I wasn't comfortable biking up that road in reduced visibility and with uncertain road surface conditions, so I turned around and went home. Then we got 8-10" of snow, and then the polar vortex set in, so I barely left my house last week.

Yesterday it was not only above 0 F, but also above freezing (!!!), so off I went on my bike. I rode my studded tires, but didn't end up needing them, as the roads were merely wet (which of course meant saltwater mist in my face the whole way...). At the same spot where previously reported, I found 22 Horned Larks... and a single Lapland Longspur!

The longspur is second from right. I watched the flock for about half an hour as they fed on the roadside, then flushed into the field each time a car passed.

Lapland Longspur in front, Horned Lark behind. Edamame, anyone?

The longspur usually gave its rattle call in flight, which helped me pick it out from the flock as they moved in small groups back to the road. The pale stripes on its back were also super helpful once I got my binoculars on them. Seeing any brown bird in that roadside grass and dirt/debris was a challenge, though!

Lapland Longspur, at bottom left, wonders if it's really worth flushing yet again with those flighty larks...
This spot was 1 mile outside my 5MR, but it counts for my 7.5MR, and of course for my green list. The longspur was definitely the first really good bird of the year. The weather can only improve from here (right??), so I'm sure there are more good birds on the horizon!

Check out that eponymous spur!

I'm tracking my green 2019 list in the sidebar (my 2018 list has been moved to its own page) and will keep my patch totals at the bottom of the list. So many lists to keep track of!

Friday, January 18, 2019

Shifting gears in 2019: The 5MR Challenge!

The 5MR Challenge is really taking off! It involves seeing as many species as you can within 5 miles of your house (5 Mile Radius = 5MR) and a semi-official challenge is being coordinated by Jen Sanford (see also the Facebook group). Carbon-free is not required for the challenge, but of course that's how I will be birding, and a few other participants have said the same - 5MR and Green are a great match. 

Wisconsin also hosts an annual 7.5MR Challenge, so I'll have two nested circles to track. Here they are:

The large flags are public hotspots in eBird (blue for 5MR, orange for 7.5MR), and the small orange dots are all my personal locations. Some of the personal ones are incidental (like my lifer Connecticut Warbler behind a random parking lot, which I first heard from the road while in transit for my Green Big Day), but others I bird frequently and could warrant being turned into hotspots. Pretty nice variety of habitat in there - if I could add just one more spot to the 5MR circle, it would be the New Amsterdam Grasslands (AKA berrylands, AKA sparrowlands), but that's just at the top edge of the 7.5MR. Otherwise, I've got lake, river, marsh, bottomland forest, bluffs, and a little agriculture even in the 5MR, which represent nearly all of the habitat types in the county as a whole.

Last year, I ended up with 203 species inside my 5MR (of the total 238 that I saw in WI by bike, of which 219 were in La Crosse County), which reflects the local focus of most of my birding. I had 211 species in my 7.5MR circle, which would have been good for a tie for 5th place in all of Wisconsin (scroll down to the very bottom of the post), if I'd remembered to update my numbers at the end of the year! I'm not sure how many more I could have found within either circle if I'd tried - but this year I aim to find out!

It's fun to have a new challenge for the year and an additional fun, supportive online community to go along with it. The coordinator has also concocted a monthly challenge to keep us getting out there and birding regularly, even if it's not the birdiest month of the year, and even if my patch will never be able to compete (in terms of number of species) with one on the California coast. There are 330 members in the Facebook group now - I can't wait to see how many rarities we find in random neighborhood parks, now that we'll all be out birding in typically neglected spots!

Of course, I'll participate in the statewide Wisconsin Green Birding Challenge again, too, even if I don't leave my home county very often. The official results from last year haven't been announced yet, but it looks like my 238 species put me at the top of the pack - by only three species! (Ross Mueller is still the all-time champ with 243 species in 2016!)

Birding has been slow so far this year. My total (all green) is 28 species so far - 27 of which have been in my 5MR and the last was in my 7.5MR - despite having birded a fair bit in the past week or two. Birders throughout Wisconsin are noting low numbers and diversity this winter. Last year I found 23 species on January 1st alone - this year I had 8 at the same spot! Once spring arrives, though, things will really take off.

Even the typical winter birds, like this American Tree Sparrow, have been pretty sparse this year.

Best bird so far this year is this Merlin - I've seen only 4 per year in the last couple of years, though I would be surprised if I missed it entirely this year. A heard-only Great Horned Owl was nice, too, as owls are surprisingly hard to find in my 5MR.

Anyway, even though I'd intended this blog to be mainly for my Green Big Year, I wanted to post an update with my plans for this year. I'm not sure how much I'll blog this year - maybe only after Big Days or big trips. Maybe more often if I continue to have plenty of free time due to shutdown furlough, though....

Monday, December 31, 2018

End-of-year recap

December 29th ended up being my last day of birding, as my cat got sick that afternoon so I've been staying home with him since then (he is fortunately starting to improve now). So the Northern Shrike was indeed my last bird of the year!

A Big Year is all about the numbers, so here they are:

238 species
2136 miles biked 
59 miles walked
309 hours spent birding (excluding travel time)
0.11 species per mile (total miles biked + walked)
0.77 species per hour of dedicated birding time
268 checklists submitted to eBird
129,660 individual birds counted
121 days of birding (~1 out of 3 days throughout the year - more than I would have thought I could manage while also working full-time and honoring other commitments!)
Longest trip: 12 days, 547 miles, 18 new species

In addition to birding, I biked 2250 miles for commuting and another ~200 running errands, which I haven't counted above because I wasn't specifically birding then (but of course I kept an ear/eye out!). I've also excluded the very few non-green trips on which I birded (with non-biking family) from the above numbers.

Here's how my species and birding hours accumulated over the year:

And miles (biking + walking):

There was a big jump in species and hours during May, but not so much of a jump in miles, because I was birding intensively close to home during spring migration (no need to waste time on traveling then, because the birds came to me!). The next big jump in hours and miles, with a small jump in species, was during my late July/early August 12-day trip to Horicon Marsh and many points in between. Aside from that jump, adding each new species took a whole lot of effort after mid-May!

I was disappointed to miss a couple of trips that I'd hoped to take (Buena Vista Grasslands in April or November was foiled by repeated unseasonable snowstorms; Black River State Forest in June was foiled by Lyme disease; Lake Superior in September was foiled when my knee acted up on the first day) but Horicon Marsh was my top priority, so I was thrilled that that trip went so smoothly. Local birding was better than I could have hoped in terms of gulls in the spring and locally rare birds in the fall, and overall my La Crosse County list was respectable (219 species, easily topping last year's 207 and bringing my 2-year county list to 233) - but I was disappointed that the shorebirds did not turn up as they did in spring 2017 (which was apparently quite unusual for this area).

Best birds of the year included a lifer Connecticut Warbler, which is also rare here (this was the only local rarity that I didn't manage to photograph!), lifer Canada Warbler (my most-wanted bird for the year because they are so lovely; my best look was when I was birding with a group and didn't have my camera). Both of those were self-found, which is always the most exciting; as were nine other local rarities:

(Thayer's) Iceland Gull at Airport Beach, 21 March
Ross's Goose at Airport Beach, 28 March
Lesser Black-backed Gull at Black River Beach, 29 March
White-faced Ibis at Halfway Creek Marsh, 6 May
Sanderling at Airport Beach, 2 October
Harris's Sparrow at New Amsterdam Grasslands, 7 October
LeConte's Sparrow at La Crosse River Conservancy, 12 October
Surf Scoter at Lake Neshonoc, 27 October
Airport Beach is the winning location in that lineup - probably because it's just up the road from my office, so I checked it frequently when conditions were good. It surprises me a bit that October was the best month for rarities. But fall migration is much less well-birded than spring migration, and "rarity" is a function of both the true occurrence of birds and the amount of collective birding effort, so maybe that makes sense. Or maybe this was just a particularly lucky October. Other birders were able to see all of the above except the Harris's Sparrow and Surf Scoter, so that's great too. I was also able to chase four species locally that others had found:

Townsend's Solitaire at Miller Bluff, 1 January
Hoary Redpoll at a feeder on Brice Prairie - generously shared by the homeowners, 10 February
Long-staying Red-necked Grebe at the north end of French Island, 1 May

Even longer-staying Long-tailed Ducks in Vernon County, 22 December
All of the 18 species I saw/heard on my 12-day trip were special, too; aside from Black-billed Cuckoo, which showed up later in La Crosse, they were all species that I otherwise wouldn't have gotten this year. But the most exciting species from that trip were two shorebirds at Horicon that others had found in the days before I got there:

Red-necked Phalarope, aka "Nessy"....
Buff-breasted Sandpiper - not super rare in the area, but not a species I had expected to find this year.

(We're still not talking about the state-first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper that showed up in the same spot just 2 days after I left.....)

It's tempting to make 2019 another Green Big Year and try again for those trips that I missed, but I think I'll make time for other things in the coming year. I will definitely still be birding - and still almost exclusively by bike - but I'll focus more on helping out with the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, which is entering its final year for this round, than racking up as many species as possible. Maybe it will also work out to take one or two of those trips that I missed in 2018.

Overall it was definitely a great year of birding - thanks for following along!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

29 December 2018: Nemesis no more!

I left home at 4:45 AM today and went owling up Smith Valley Rd. Screech-owls have been found there in past years, but not this year... including today. All I heard in 1.5 hrs was one Barred Owl! It was a reasonably nice morning (er, pre-dawn) to be out regardless, with very little wind and not much traffic, although I was pretty cold by the time I made it back down the valley.

As the sky lightened, I biked over to Veterans Memorial Park in West Salem, where Gwyn was seeing a shrike early in the spring and thought she heard it again a few weeks ago. I tried for it at least once in the spring and once this fall/winter with no luck, and the same thing happened with the shrike she found at the Mathy Quarry, so Northern Shrike had become a bit of a nemesis for my year list.

Today I spent over an hour in the area where the shrike was supposed to be ("Puppy Lane," as you might recall from the spring), slowly walking the short loop trails and keeping my eyes peeled. Eventually I figured it was a lost cause - maybe there wasn't even a shrike there at all this winter - and started birding my way through the park to the bike trail, which I planned to take home. The bike trail turned out to be a skating rink, thanks to our recent freeze-thaw cycles. I'd already taken a (pretty gentle) fall in the dark this morning on a surprise patch of ice (those linear ruts that result from someone biking on slush will get you every time), and didn't feel like doing that all the way home! So I turned around to head back through the park and out to the main highway, where I could take a paved bike path most of the way home.

Of course, that meant I would have one more shot at seeing the shrike. I walked my bike back through the park, looking and listening carefully. After I'd passed Puppy Lane, I turned around for one last look - last chance for a shrike for the year! Still nothing. But when I turned back around to keep walking, a bird-shape blob in the top of a tree caught my eye. I'd already identified a bird-shaped nest, a piece of white plastic, and a clump of leaves in the tops of nearby trees, and I was pretty sure this blob hadn't been there earlier. That meant it might actually be a bird. I put my bins on it, and yes, it was a bird - it had its back to me, but I could clearly see gray sides and black wings, with a bit of white splash visible even on the folded wings. There's only one thing that can be this time of year! Northern Shrike for #238! A moment later it turned a bit and gave me a great profile view of its black Zorro mask and hooked bill. Lovely bird.

I looked down to pull out my camera, and when I looked back up, the bird was gone. I'm guessing it flew away from me (the direction it was facing) out into the marsh, of which I could never get a clear view. I tried for another half hour, as it would have been great to get a photo of what might be my last bird for the year! Altogether I spent about 2 hours in the immediate vicinity of the shrike, and I saw it for only 15 seconds. I was very lucky to be looking in the right direction at the right time!

As a sad substitute for a photo of the bird itself, here's a view of the spot... 

The shrike had been sitting in the top of the tallest tree on the left. Yes, it was snowing, contrary to the forecast - luckily it didn't accumulate, or I might have had to head home much earlier, as I didn't have my snow/ice tires.

The park was pretty quiet, bird-wise, with only 17 species on my list. I enjoyed watching a Pileated fly around and forage on dying ash trees and a few Red-breasted Nuthatches twittering at each other. I checked the pine trees for owls, too, but with no luck. 

When I'd initially given up with no screech-owls or shrikes for the day, I decided that I was still glad I'd gotten out to give it a try. Lack of sleep, bone-deep cold (only for an hour or two), and tired out-of-shape muscles (darn flu) were all worth it. I might not see anything if I go birding - but I certainly won't if I don't go! Of course, it all seemed much more worth it (and I felt much less tired) after seeing the shrike! 

The forecast looks decent for the next two days, and it sounds like my colleagues and I will still be on furlough on Monday (and beyond) - so we'll see if I can scrounge up any more FOGYs for the end of the year...