Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Moderate Year

I'm a fan of The Big Year, by Mark Obmascik. If you're not familiar, it's the story of three birders who spent the same year unofficially competing to see as many different species of birds as they could within the continental U.S. and Canada. (It's a birder thing.) Obmascik did a really nice job not only of conveying the birding aspect of the story, but of the human side of it as well. Now Hollywood is actually coming out with a movie about it this fall, starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin. Not only did I like the book, but I've met the author, birded with the eventual winner, and bumped into a bit character in the story while looking for a rare bird in the state of Washington. So I'm into the whole thing.

At the same time, I had a whole bunch of domestic travel scheduled for this year. Nancy had a conference in San Diego in January, will be doing a writing retreat in New Mexico, and then will head down to New Orleans for another conference, and I'll have joined her for all of them. Additionally, I'd already scheduled a South Texas trip with a birder friend, and we went down there last month.

With all of this travel and with Big Year on the brain, I decided that it might be fun to do a Moderate Year, seeing how many species I could see this year without undue effort. (My so-called friend Liz likes to refer to it as a "Mediocre Year", a term which has already infected Nancy, who would like to support me by using my version, but keeps slipping.)

At the beginning of the year, half of the winning total of 700+ species seemed like a reasonable goal. (I won't say exactly how many in case you want to read the book or see the movie.) But after the Texas trip, it became obvious that I'd blow by that goal. And after a very successful month of May birding here in Massachusetts, it's clear that I'm going to get to 400 as well. As of this writing, I'm at 363 species. I don't know what to expect out of the New Mexico trip, but it seems plausible that I'll be closing in on 400 by the Fourth of July.

The question then becomes how far I should take it. I don't know precisely how much effort is undue effort, but if I can see my way clear to 500 species in the U.S. in one year, that would be hard to pass up. I have some frequent flyer miles to burn by November. Florida? Southeast Arizona? The Pacific Northwest? Somewhere out on the prairie? Dunno yet. I think "undue effort" means using up all of my vacation time, or spending more than I otherwise would, so if I can avoid doing that and still reach 500, I'd be pretty happy. I'd encourage you to stay tuned, but that doesn't seem fair to ask when I haven't blogged in more than a year and a half...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Brown-chested Martin!

It's been a lonnnng time since I've posted anything on this particular blog, so I trust that you as a reader are well rested.

On Sunday I went with Linda Pivacek and Patty O'Neill down to the Cumberland Farms fields in Middleborough to join Eddie Giles' BBC walk. We had a fine time on a gorgeous day. What we did not have was an austral vagrant, of any variety. But the next day Jeremiah Trimble and Marshall Iliff sure did, in that very location -- a Brown-chested Martin!

Naturally I lamented my fate, not only because we'd been down there a day too early (or worse, that we'd been right on time but we'd overlooked it), but also because I'm a working stiff and did not have Columbus Day off. I figured I'd missed my shot.

Then it was reported again on Tuesday. Mary Keleher sent me a Facebook note asking if I'd seen it, and then when I responded in the negative, she jokingly suggested that I call in sick today. I laughed that off, being a good and responsible sort of employee, but when the bird was reported again this morning, I couldn't help but start to ponder the feasibility of taking a quarter day off to drive down to Middleborough when my afternoon meeting was over. (It's a longish hump from Beverly.)

When, as the sun shone, my afternoon meeting suddenly got postponed, I didn't hesitate -- I put in for a half day off and hopped in the car.

There were gobs of birders already down there, especially for a Wednesday afternoon, but of course this bird was big news. I didn't have to wait long at all before our hero showed up, almost straight above us. There was some debate about whether or not it really was the bird, but I was in the pro camp, and I believe that ultimately the cognoscenti were with me. The flight seemed suspicious -- it seemed like the bird was gliding for waaay too long (not that I'm qualified to say), and he looked pretty substantial, even in the immediate presence of an optimistic harrier that harbored a fantasy of having martin for high tea. Regardless, I wasn't satisfied with that sort of look at what I hoped would turn out to be a life bird for me.

So I was very very pleased when, a few minutes later, Vernon Laux shouted out that the bird was heading our way. This time it came in very low, just over the fields at eye level, and passed right in front of us. The overall size, length, and visible-to-the-naked-eye band across the chest left no room for uncertainty. Ka-ching! It quickly flew off, but made an encore several more minutes later, again making itself plenty obvious.

Flushed with that victory, I rounded up a small party to go down to Wareham for the Sandhill Cranes. A splinter group had gone for them after the BBC walk on Sunday, without any luck. This time, armed with explicit instructions, we had no trouble finding the particular spot, and with a fellow birder already staking them out, we were on them in no time flat. I had my second state bird, and Leslie Kramer her second life bird, within the space of an hour. Sweet. For good measure, we stuck around to get an eyeful of them flying off, which they cooperatively did right in front of us.

Good day. Nancy had a pretty good one herself, for entirely non-bird-related reasons, and we celebrated at the Duck Walk. The noodle curry was especially tasty...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Whippoorwill reprise

Mea culpa. A few other birders were culpa, as well: it seems that the Whippoorwill I thought I'd seen last week was really a Common Nighthawk.

Both species are very cryptically colored nightjars, which when perched essentially look like lumps on branches. There are some subtleties you can use to distinguish them in this situation, but I don't know them off the top of my head. When birder friends told me that there was a Whippoorwill along the Pines trail, I believed them. And when I got there, it certainly looked like one to me, and I had no reason to doubt them. And I completely understand their error, because this Whippoorwill wannabe was right where you'd expect a whip to be, and right where they were known to be hanging out this season.

But in the end, a Nighthawk is a Nighthawk, and there's a lesson in this for young birders everywhere. Fortunately, I'm not a young birder, so I can skip it and repeat this kind of mistake over and over again.

And I still got my Whippoorwill fix for the season. Nancy, who is not a birder, nevertheless appreciates a good show, and she'd been much impressed when we'd gone to see Whippoorwills the year before. So she was happy to come with me again to look for them last night. We were rewarded when over the course of the evening we heard not one but four Whippoorwills calling - no chance of mistaking that - and got to see one on the road.

At least I think we saw one, because we'd just heard a couple of them calling, and it was in just the right place for one to be, and...and...and as I said, I'm not a young birder, so a Whippoorwill it was.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Worth it

It was a good month.
  • 32 species of warbler, or 33 if you count the brief, blurry, fly-away glimpse of the Kentucky Warbler that Peter and Fay Vale had been looking at.
  • Three different species of nightjar, including a perched Chuck-will's-widow, a perched Whippoorwill, and a Common Nighthawk.
  • And a Mass Audubon Birdathon that I was so into that I literally birded until I puked.
No, really. After a few hours of birding on Friday evening (Manx Shearwaters!), I got far too little sack time, and was up at oh-dark-thirty. Or maybe quarter of oh-dark. So I started the day overtired. And underdressed. Somehow I had the notion that it was going to warm up throughout the day. I wore a pair of shorts and a couple of t-shirts. It was cold but tolerable early, and I kept going, because hey -- it was going to warm up. I brought something to drink, but not really enough. So I was a bit dry. And did I mention cold?

The offshore breeze in Nahant didn't help. But I got a break whenever we got back into the car, and hey -- it was going to warm up. As the day wore on and the birds piled up, I was officially cold, and officially dehydrated. I tried to ignore the physical discomfort, which began to coalesce into a whopping headache. But I'm a gamer (if I spin it right), and we were raising money for charity, and the more birds the better.

So we kept birding, and I kept ignoring, and we made it all the way through to the end of the count at 6 p.m. And then I crashed. The headache was brutal by this point, and I'd been cranking the heat in the car well beyond the usual preferences of my good-sport carmates, Linda Pivacek and Sherry Smith. They'd both offered to drive earlier, but I'd thanked them and said it wasn't necessary. Now it was starting to sound like a good idea. I stopped to buy some Advil, and after a too-little-too-late stop for a Coke and a few hot fries at the McDonald's on Route 1, I handed Sherry the keys.

Some people have problems with motion sickness when they ride in a car. I'm not usually susceptible, but this wasn't usually. And when one is susceptible, it seems that the driver's seat is the place to be, because it gives you a focus. But there I was in the passenger seat, and I started to feel funny, so I clearly had some more ignoring to do. I kept ignoring for a while, when my wife Nancy called. After a brief conversation with her that I cut rather shorter than I would have otherwise, I asked Sherry to pull over, and I stopped ignoring and commenced heaving.

But you know what? I'd seen 101 species in the previous 24 hours, including the Chuck-will's-widow that Sherry had spotted, and we'd raised a bunch of money for Mass Audubon's Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield. And once home, I took a hot shower, and Nancy put some food into me, and I felt like a slightly washed-out version of myself again. And it was all worth it.