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 Gwen 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...

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Mid December 2018: CBC and a great winter FOGY

It's been a while since my last post! Birding (and biking) has slowed down due to bad weather and flu. I managed to cover my small section for the Christmas Bird Count by bike, though. We had by far the best weather out of the three years I've participated in the CBC here, so it was a nice day to be out. Most unexpected for my small, suburban section were a Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel - neither is at all rare in the area, but I don't usually see them in my section. I was also pleased to find a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches at the Onalaska cemetery, which is full of various conifers.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are irrupting south this year in a big way, due to poor food availability farther north, but this is one of the few areas in the count circle where I've reliably found them (they were even there last winter, pre-irruption). This guy was trying to find somewhere to cache a small seed.

One of the small parks in my section - a fishing access area that isn't an eBird hotspot but is my favorite hidden local gem, and just a few blocks from home - yielded all five woodpecker species in the space of a few minutes, so that was fun: Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Yellow-shafted Flicker. There's an outside chance of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker here in winter, but none were found this year. Other birders in the count circle found several very late-lingering migrants, including our CBC's second-ever record of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (common during short migration windows, but not now), and the Baltimore Oriole must have been similarly unusual.

Otherwise, I did very little birding for about three weeks! I caught the flu despite having dutifully gotten a flu shot, and while it wasn't too bad (and not as bad as Lyme disease!), I was really low on energy for a surprisingly long time. I think I'm finally recovered now - just in time to do some birding yesterday before leaving for a holiday trip today. 

I decided to head south into the next county, where two Long-tailed Ducks had been reported on the Mississippi two weeks ago - a very unusual species to find around here. The two previous reports were by two birders whom I don't know, and while the descriptions sounded pretty good, there weren't photos - so I wondered a bit if the identification had been correct in the first place. (The fact that I don't know those birders means my doubts were definitely nothing personal!) Two weeks would be a long time for any bird to stick around, too, but I knew my chances of finding them would only get smaller as the winter progresses and the water freezes further. Waterfowling is fun in any case, and I would have some options to stop and scope at additional places on the way back if the Long-taileds didn't turn up where previously reported, so it seemed like a worthwhile outing.

Unfortunately, getting there meant biking all through the city of La Crosse (from my home in the northern suburb of Onalaska). There's no direct route through the city that's safe for bikes, and while the indirect route is (mostly!) signed with directions for bikes, there's a couple of annoying intersections and plenty of opportunity to lose the route. That's why I've never actually gone birding south of town before - despite Goose Island, the county's most diverse hotspot, being <15 miles from home.

Yesterday's trip took me a couple of miles past Goose Island - so I've still never birded there! - to a few parking areas on the side of the highway. The parking areas are well separated from the highway, and I could even get entirely off the pavement in all three places, either on the grass or on this convenient platform:

I love having overcast skies when scoping waterbirds - no glare, no backlight, and less thermal distortion off the water. There was only a light breeze, which was enough to keep me on the cold side (temperatures were in the upper 20s F and I always freeze the moment I stop biking - but I put on my down suit and warmed up after about an hour of scoping), but not enough to interfere with birding, so conditions were pretty ideal - especially for winter. (No snow on the roads, either!)

There was plenty of open water to scope, as perhaps you can see in the above photo, but not a whole lot of ducks. The Long-taileds had been reported with Common Goldeneyes, so I was checking those small groups carefully. However, the previous reports had also noted several dozen Canvasbacks - which were no longer present... so I wondered if the Long-taileds might have left too.

But within a few minutes at the second overlook - there they were! Long-tailed Duck for #237!

I couldn't believe they were still there! They were pretty distant from the second parking area (my scope is pointing at them on the platform pictured above), but identifiable. I was happy to find that they were much closer to the third overlook, where I took the above digiscoped pictures (which are clearly nothing to brag about - the ducks were still pretty far out). Long-tailed Ducks are accomplished divers, and when these two were foraging, they dove together and stayed underwater more than above. That made them tough to keep track of, especially when trying to get my camera on them through the scope. But I was thrilled to get photo documentation of this local rarity - not to mention my first FOGY in six weeks! This is only the second time Long-tailed Ducks have been recorded in Vernon County in eBird, and there are only three records in somewhat-more-frequently-birded La Crosse County just to the north.

The end of the year is looming near, especially as I'll be out of state most of this week. Fingers crossed that the weather allows for a couple of birding trips next weekend, and I might take Monday the 31st off work for a last-ditch effort (or maybe, as a federal employee affected by the current shutdown, I will still be on furlough then...). I'd love to try for Eastern Screech-Owl, which would be a lifer - but I can't safely bike to the place that is currently most reliable for them, so I'll have to try my luck somewhere else. Hopefully I can also try again for Northern Shrike, which seems to be my nemesis for the year! I might have a chance at finding a Golden Eagle, and maybe I'll really luck out and come across a flock of Snow Buntings along the way... but otherwise, the remaining options for the year are pretty sparse. But you never know what will turn up until you get out there and look!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

11 Nov 2018: Pipit surprise

I've been out waterfowling a couple of times since my last post, including a long day (or as long as you can get from sunrise to sunset this time of year) biking to, through, and back from Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. That refuge is a nice spot for ducks, with a variety of other habitat. Much of the refuge is accessible along several dikes where you can walk or bike, but not drive, and they're each a couple miles long, so a bike is a perfect way to bird there. Alas, there were no Snow Buntings on the dike that hosted two for at least a week at this time last year. I didn't bring enough food with me that day, and by the time I got home (56 miles later), I was beat! I seem to need a regular reminder that calories are crucial...

Today I headed to another area of Trempealeau County - the agricultural fields north of the town of Trempealeau. It's the biggest stretch of open, flat ag land around here, presumably providing the best chance of birds like Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs, and maybe a chance of a Northern Shrike in the shrubby edge stuff. Snowy Owls should also be possible at this time of year, and maybe Short-eared if I'm ever there late enough in the day for them to start foraging. Pipits seemed possible there, but it's getting toward the end of their migration through the area, and they are always sparse at best around here. So all of those species would be pretty long shots. I'd covered this area last fall and this spring without finding anything of note, so my expectations were low for today. It was a good day for that route, though, with a forecast for a tailwind both ways! I also wanted to put on some miles to test my knees and cold-weather gear in case the weather and my schedule allow a longer trip in the next few weeks.

Winter is definitely starting to make itself felt here. We had a dusting of snow the other night, which resulted in slick-ice roads the next morning (three cheers for studded bike tires, bright lights, and bike lanes or a wide shoulder throughout my commute!), but the roads were dry by the end of that day. It's still chilly, though, with temperatures 30-35 F today (several degrees colder with wind chill, but biking with a tailwind takes care of that!). I was glad I'd brought a thermos of hot water today, and my down jacket/pants for when I was biking slowly and stopping frequently to look for birds.

The ag fields typically don't have a lot of bird activity, which means that every bird spotted in that area is a nice surprise. I enjoyed the flocks of American Tree Sparrows, a couple of Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks, a Hairy Woodpecker that I initially tentatively ID'ed by the flight silhouette and was pleased to have it confirmed when it called (I'd already seen/heard several Red-bellied but something about the silhouette seemed wrong for that species), and noisy Blue Jays. A couple of fields were freshly tilled or manured, so I stopped at those to give them a careful look, as those seem to be the most attractive to birds. The roads out there are so quiet that I usually didn't even have to move off the road when I stopped, and I had plenty of warning when a car was coming so I could move over.

Toward the end of the route, I stopped at a freshly tilled field, but couldn't see or hear anything in it. As I started off again, though, three birds popped up and then back down at the edge of the field. The usual suspect in a place like that would be Horned Lark, which can be abundant here. But those calls did not sound quite right for a Horned Lark! I'd studied up on pipit calls and these sure sounded good. I grabbed my brakes and got my binoculars on them as quickly as I could. American Pipits for #236!

I'm still figuring out how well my new camera deals with various settings, and learned a couple of things not to try today... but at least the birds are identifiable. Definitely need to bump up the f-stop (I have many photos like the above but worse, where only a thin layer of cornstalk debris is in focus), but not so far that the shutter speed goes down to 1/40, unless the bird is sitting still (like in the photo below).

I was especially glad for the quiet roads while I was standing there trying to get a clear photo of these guys! 

Today's ride totaled 42 miles, which seems like a lot for one new species - and a pretty sparse overall species list (just 21 species on my checklists, plus a few more en route). But getting out is always worth it for the experience, fresh air, and exercise, even when I see nothing new at all. The pipits were definitely a nice bonus, though!