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!


  1. I have really enjoyed reading about your efforts this year. Congrats on the duck, and good luck in the last week of 2018!

    1. Thanks, Greg! I've enjoyed your stories too, and a bird bubbler is on my wishlist now!