Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Cooler water, better birding. That's the message I've been getting from Debi Shearwater as she reports via email on her pelagic birding trips along the central California coast. I'll be out there later this month for two trips, one out of Monterey, the other from Half Moon Bay, north of Monterey. Debi has written with excitement about encounters with flocks of seabirds when the boat carrying her and her clients finds cooler water, water at or very near 60F degrees.
A little Internet research found a report about birding along the Mendocino Ridge, which is north of San Francisco. South of the ridge, which extends 2,500 miles offshore from Cape Mendocino, water depth plunges 5,000 to 10,000 feet. Cooler water from those depths can be pushed to the surface when driven against the face of the scarp. Cooler water, as I understand it, is appropriate habitat for animals, particularly krill, that are eaten by certain seabirds and whales. A report on scientific work done along the ridge said temperature drops of three to four degrees were found, the lowest temp at about 60 degrees. The appearance of cooler water can occur at other points along the California shore, depending on topography of the sea bottom and wind and currents. It is this 60-degree water that Shearwater seeks. Whales alone would make her trips exciting. One day last week she reported seeing 11 Blue Whales plus 20 Humpback whales, the latter feeding together, occasionally breaching near the boat.
My question is what happens to the krill and other creatures eaten by birds and whales if, because of risings sea temps, the preferred colder water cannot be found? What happens to the krill and the birds and whales? Pelagic birding along the California coast would change, I assume, and not for the better. I'm glad I can go out on those boats now.
Birding on the Shearwater trips is the most exciting, the best birding I've ever done. The photo of the Black-footed Albatross was taken on a pelagic trip out of Monterey.
This is about travel, something most of us do, with some birders high on the frequency list.
Later this fall I’ll be in California for two pelagic birding trips, one out of Monterey, the other from Half Moon Bay. I’ll need lodging. Monterey was simple; I’ve been there several times. Half Moon Bay will be new to me. I went online to look at motel accommodations. I usually go to the local Chamber of Commerce web site for a list of motels. I found one I liked. It had open rooms. I tried to book on the motel’s web page, but it was not working. This was Saturday night. I decided to call the next day.
Back on that motel web site Sunday morning I found an 800 number. Why not spend their dime instead of mine? The connection was scratchy, the man I was talking to obsequious. He took my information, then told me the motel was booked full. He’d have to find me something else. Strange, I thought, a 14-hour flurry of bookings at my chosen location. But, a nice offer – to find me a room if his motel had none. I’ve actually had motels do that if they are full and another motel in town might have room. The desk clerks made a quick call or two, and usually found me a room.
The man on the phone did find me a place …. 25 miles from the Half Moon Bay dock from which my birding boat would leave at 6 a.m. No thanks, I said. Drive is much too long. He said he would keep looking.
By this time, the suddenly full motel, the bad connection, the strange man on the phone finally raised the question: who the hell am I talking to. I asked.
motel.com, the man said.
Turns out Google was being overly helpful. It placed the phone number for motels.com on the home page of my chosen motel. I was talking to someone somewhere who did not have my motel on his customer list, and so was lying to me about availability. He was trying to put me into a motel that paid a commission for that service. I said I had to rethink this, thank you, goodbye. I called my motel of choice, and got a room without a problem.
I avoid web sites that offer big discounts on rooms, cars, etc. I am by nature skeptical of just about everything, particularly 50 percent off or cars for $12 a day. At the same time, I expect people to be honest. I suppose almost everyone who uses a computer to find rooms for travel could have told me what was happening. Now I know.
Here’a a great birding story complete with video and photos that comes from the Birding Community E-bulletin, a report prepared monthly by birder Paul Baicich of Maryland and Wayne Peterson, a Massachusetts birder. They open each report with stories of rare and unusual birds seen in the U.S. in the month past. Everyone might not find excitement in a bird they've never seen before, but hundreds of people traveled to New Mexico to see this bird, and the excitement was very real. Here is the E-bulletin report, received Wednesday, Aug. 7.
The rarity focus for this month is proof that you just never know what can turn up when you’re looking for birds.
On July 7, Matt Daw, a member of the Bureau of Reclamation's Southwestern Willow Flycatcher survey team, was birding at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico when an apparent Rufous-necked Wood-Rail simply walked through the viewfinder of his camera while he was getting video of a cooperative Least Bittern. Go figure!
The Rufous-necked Wood-Rail is a bird often found in coastal mangroves from Mexico southward, into Central and South America. The closest this species normally occurs to the United States is in Sinaloa, on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
Until Daw’s fortuitous discovery, this species had never been see in the United States.
You can watch Matt Daw's original video of the Least Bittern and see for yourself the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail walking into the background. Daw was so startled that he turned off the camera after a few seconds:
From the moment of Daw’s discovery the event became a birding phenomenon. Birders near and far came to Bosque to see this bird, and fortunately hundreds were rewarded. Visiting birders stationed themselves by an opening in the willows, on the boardwalk, or anywhere in the general vicinity of the original sightings. The Rufous-necked Wood-Rail sometimes worked the muddy shore on the west side of the pond, and occasionally would come out even further. Early or late in the day seemed to be provide the best viewing, although some days the rail was active even in the mid-afternoon.
The bird and some of the birders were even featured on TV, radio, and in the newspapers. The refuge staff was wonderfully accommodating, and the town of nearby Socorro clearly noticed the boost in traffic and increased occupancy at local motels and restaurants. It was a win-win situation.
Amazingly, this same refuge hosted another phenomenal first-record bird in November 2008 when a Sungrebe appeared there. It was reported in the December 2008 E-bulletin:
Fortunately, the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail was far more cooperative and stayed longer than the 2008 Sungrebe did. The wood-rail was last reported on 19 July. At that time, evaporating water in the pond area may have caused the bird to move on.
To view photos by Matt Baumann from the day of Matt Daw's discovery see:
To see national coverage of this amazing avian occurrence on CBS News, see:
The Birding Community E-bulletin is distributed to active and concerned birders, those dedicated to the joys of birding and the protection of birds and their habitats. This issue is sponsored by the producers of quality birding binoculars and scopes, Carl Zeiss Sport Optics:
You can access an archive of past E-bulletins on the website of the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA):
Months ago, when winter was ending, sort of, and birding was slow, and I was hard-pressed to find interesting things to post here, I thought I'd share my Attu birding story. I broke the story into several chapters, so it would last. I rationed them out, fearing an empty shelf. That was my habit as a newspaper and magazine editor: never use it all. Always have something left for next time. Attu, though, unfortunately got streched right into the reappearance of current events. Two "chapters" remain, the end of the story. Let's get on with it. In case you didn't read any of the previous installments, or read them so long ago that you no longer remember the story, here is a summary: In previous episodes, a friend and I went to Alaska to bird for month. One week was to be spent on Attu, the most distant of the Aleutian Islands. Attu, where the sun shines about 10 days a year, is a very good birding location because storms can blow Asian species to its shores. If you want to build an impressive North American species list, Attu was a must. I say "was" because the trips I'm writing about ceased to be. You still can go, by boat these days for about twice the previous already expensive price. Back in the day, the price was $5,000 for two weeks. Mike and I paid $2,000 for a special one-week trip. The plane taking us out there was grounded by weather or mechanical problems or other charters for four of our seven days. We got there, finally, on day five. Ours was a short visit. The last chapter posted here discussed the World War II battles fought on Attu, the only Pacific theater fighting on North American soil. Bicycles were used to get from place to place on the roadless island, which had only a small contingent of Coast Guard personnal as residents.
The Attu birding guide said we’re going to East Massacre Valley, which was miles away. Place names on Attu reflected its battle history: Murder Point, Massacre Bay, Navy Town Beach, Artillery Hill, Peaceful River, Debris Beach. Other names recounted the days of Russian fur traders, come for the Sea Otters: Nevidiskov Bay, Krasni Point. Birders contributed names: Puffin Island, Smew Pond, Brambling Beach, Tattler Creek.
If you were birding along Debris Beach on the edge of Massacre Valley and someone radioed about a really good bird being seen at Tattler Creek, you were six miles out of position. A long bike ride. A longer hike. This happened all the time. You’d go to where the good bird was. That bird would go back into the brush five minutes before you got there. Your next target bird could be miles away. Back and forth. Back and forth. That was another reason some people opted for three weeks. You needed time.
All of that activity produced big appetites and tired bodies. The food was very good. Sleeping conditions were something else. We had military bunks, metal frames holding cotton mattresses on which we spread our sleeping bags. Each pair of bunks had a small electric heater for drying our always-wet gear. The heaters were six inches square. Mike and I carefully constructed four-glove pyramids in front of the heaters each evening. By morning several fingers would be dry. Some – most – of the men who shared our bay snored. One of them was a virtuoso. He had volume. He had tone. He had an expansive array of snorts. Mike said listening to him snore was like watching someone play the violin with their feet.
The walls of the Attu bunkroom where we slept were covered with birder graffiti. Previous Attu visitors had written their names and life-list totals on the walls before they left. After all, most (all) of these birders had taken the trip to build those lists, North American lists mostly, some for birds seen in Alaska. No harm in bragging a bit.
Seven-hundred North American bird species seen or heard with positive identification was – is – the number that separates the men from the boys if you list. There are many geographically designated listing areas worldwide. The American Birding Association does this, publishing a map with boundaries boldly marked. You would know, for example, how close to shore you must be to consider a bird as being in North America. Or, how much of the water surrounding Antarctica belongs to that continent. Most divisions encompass continents or countries. North America is the most widely chosen, for the obvious reason.
For first-time visitors, almost any bird seen on Attu – well, except for Mallards and longspurs – would likely be new, additional birds for the life list. Stay two weeks, go home with 20 or 30 or 40 new species.
Serious listers, like those on Attu, would almost always be members of the American Birding Association. There are a number of good reasons to join. One could be the annually published list of listing totals, by state, continent, country, whatever. Here is where you could compare yourself to the crowd, measure your accomplishment. (Most recent list is for 2010.) The writing on the bunkroom walls was the only other place I’ve seen such totals.
You could say that Attu birders were members of a club, more frequent visits cementing that status. You were sharing your notes on the wall with people who understood your total of 592 or 671 or 713 or whatever, people who knew what that meant. Places to publish such numbers are very limited. And who among the uninitiated would understand? Or care.
That Alaska trip, a month long, was good for my list. Days in Nome, on St. Lawrence Island (Gambell village), and on St. Paul island in the Pribilof Islands were fruitful. I admit to disappointment, though, about the meager contribution made by Attu. I was minutes away from a third lifer. A friend who was on the island to work as a guide told me months later than just after our plane left a Great-spotted Woodpecker, resident of Eurasia, was seen along the runway. I’d rather not have known.
We had arrived the afternoon of day five and we departed the morning of day seven. That’s roughly 48 hours on Attu. That’s the record I mentioned: 48 hours -- shortest birder stay ever. The only chance that anyone else spent so little time there would have been created by a medical emergency for which a $15,000 air ambulance trip would have been required. I doubt it. We hold the record.
I might also hold the record for fewest life birds seen on an Attu trip. I forget Mike’s total. I saw two. A thousand dollars each for two birds, a Ruff and a Tufted Duck. I saw a Ruff the next year on a golf course in Arizona. The year after that I saw a Tufted Duck at a Minnesota sewage treatment plant.
I had to go, though. I had to be there. I wanted the story.
Here we have the birder’s nemesis, the wood tick. A weekend in northwestern Wisconsin made me, once again, very aware of ticks. We birded along the dikes of an old cranberry marsh being converted to a wildlife sanctuary. Grass no more than six or eight inches high held lots and lots of ticks. I began to wonder just where they were. So, we began to closely examine grass stems as we walked. It didn’t take but a minute or two to find ticks clinging to the grass, waiting for us. Brush the grass, get ticked. Ticks, in case you wonder, are eight-legged creatures, arachnids, related to spiders. The first part of the wood tick’s scientific name is Ixodes, Greek for stickiness. Tick legs sense you coming down the trail. The tarsus of the legs has a sensory organ that detects odors (you) and changes in temperature. The tick bites you with a mouthful of teeth that curve backward, like a shark. Tick saliva contains an anesthesia to numb the bite area, and an anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing. Ticks by instinct climb upwards, seeking a perch from which to grab anything with blood. Grass, weeds, bushes, trees – ticks can be almost everywhere. I got my tick information from the web site of the Maine Center for Disease Control. These ticks might look like they're sleeping, legs tucked in, sort of like your dog. They're not asleep, but alert. It's their habit to tuck legs in while waiting for you.
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