The Birding Chronicles

My brother Ron and I have decided to do what what we are referring to as an “Average Year”. This is essentially a scaled down version of what birders commonly refer to as a “Big Year” where the objective is to find as many unique bird species in a calendar year. The “Big” adjective is a bit daunting as neither of us have the extra funds or spare time to chase birds anywhere close to the 650+ low water mark of the upper echelons in the birding community – not to mention my own life list just made it to only the 300 mark last December. I am not sure yet what kind of numbers we will be able to put up, but I think we would be very happy if we could hit around the 250 range. I can tell you we got off to a great start each putting up over 130 in the first week in January alone. The problem is the effort over time looks like an exponential graph – easier to rack up numbers at the beginning of the year, but as the species count goes up, the harder it becomes to find ones that will ding the new bird bell. This should be a lot of fun and siblings pitted against each other usually generates some great stories along the way. To be honest, when we are together in the field the competition part drops away and our efforts become joined – on our own though… well that is a different story hehehe.

We have tried to set up some rules for our friendly competition. First off all, almost all the rules from our previously established “Field Guide for Competitive Birder Rules of Engagement” (link here) still hold. For Ron’s sake, we did suspend rule 6 requiring a featured blog post to get the bird added to the count. After some initial debate, a photograph of the bird sufficient to confirm the ID is still required (rule 4), although now a web gallery is not required (rule 20). Note, if we are both at the same place, see the same bird, but only one of us accomplishes a photograph, then the other person can use that other individual’s shot for the count. This gets rid of the caveats of one getting penalized for being at a bad angle or missed the shot due to pointing out the location to the other person etc. etc.. Unlike politics, we still strive to be civilized.

Thanks to Ron’s Sliver program (link here), we are now able to provide a Google Earth based video of the places we bird throughout the year – super cool! I’ll update this periodically when he is able to generate a new video for us. This video covers my Texas outings and several places we caught on our return trip.

To help chronicle the journey and allow my readers to watch our progress, I’ll be putting up monthly totals along with graphs and details throughout the year. We’ve created quite the elaborate spreadsheet so we can monitor the competition – figure I’ll just grab screen shots of those counts and graphs and put them here for convenience. Looking forward to seeing how this plays out. What I can say is it has added a lot more stress when we are out in the field, especially when traveling to various birding venues – we cannot afford to miss the target birds if we are going to get anywhere near the 250 range.

Now how about some current metrics!

Here are the snapshot metrics.

Our cumulative species count.

As we now have entered the second month, this graph is slightly more interesting. You can definitely see the slowdown as we deal with cold temps in Illinois.

I actually like the daily graph the best as it adds that spirit of competition ha! It is a bit unfair as I am still reaping the benefits of the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio and now Mississippi birding, Ron is holding his own with some nice adds since he has been back.

Update 02/2/822: Headed down to Springfield to see Mom and thought it would be worth a shot to get the Wood Duck at Washington Park. Failed the last time we dropped by there, but I have seen them there before and one was reported several weeks back. Linda parked in the lot next to the ponds and I jumped out in search of the brightly colored duck. Tons of Mallards, an American Widgeon pair that didn’t mind me getting close to them and the expected invasion of Canada Geese – no Woods to be found. Frustrated, headed back to the SUV to share the disappointment. A quick discussion on where else we could try was quickly cut short when I made a final glance at the pond as we came up to the parking lot entrance – THERE IT WAS! more technically there they were as a drake and its mate were cruising by right where I had been standing not 10 minutes ago. Leaped out and got plenty of shots for the days target – sometimes life gives you a wonderful surprise.

Update 02/25/22: While getting ready to take a quick trip up to the Quad Cities (time to play a belated Santa), I looked out the kitchen window and spotted a Northern Flicker on the side of nearby tree. Took me a couple of blinks to convince myself it was not a Red-Bellied Woodpecker and then immediately grabbed my camera – nothing like starting the day off with an easy +1. Not one to waste an opportunity, grabbed the camera as we headed out – never know what you are going to find along the Mighty Mississippi. Headed down to our standard eagle hunting grounds on Concord St to see what the Eagle population looked like. Last year was relatively light, however, there was a definitely a rebound with a rough guess around 30 specimens. Put a significant drain on a digital card watching an Eagle devour a fresh catch. Note 4 White Pelicans, an surprising number of Hooded Mergansers and the usual fair of Goldeneyes, Gulls and Canada Geese. From there we headed over to Credit Island. Was not as many Eagles over there. Spotted around 10 Tundra Swans in the waters to the east of the entrance road and then moved to the back part where the feeders are (and the very nice foot bridge). Scored a Brown-Headed Cowbird there – surprised it had taken me that long to find one of those. Spotted a few Common Mergansers pretty far into the water on our way out. Very happy with the +3 for the day!

Update 02/10/22: There has been some random adds and removals as Ron and I begin to process the pictures from our birding adventures in January. We had some IDs off causing us to remove some previous field IDs that were incorrect when we took a deeper look into them at home. Had some surprises as well when we determined we had tinned something we mistakenly took for a bird we already had – love it when that happens! This week a sighting showed up on e-Bird that caught my attention. Linda and I had a number of appointments in Peoria/East Peoria so took the camera in hopes of finding a White-Winged Scoter that was hanging out on the Illinois River near the Bob Michel Bridge. Found a bunch of Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers and even Hooded Mergansers, but no Scoter. Others continued seeing it at different places along the river. Went down there for the 5th time this morning and I am glad to report SUCCESS. A new lifer for me! It was an immature or possibly adult female, but I’ll take it.

Update 02/05/22: Definitely seeing the expected slowdown of overall combined progress as we are both back at our homes in the tundra so pickens are definitely slimmer. I’ve been able to tin some of the easy winter fare around our house including the Dark-Eyed Junco which finally decided to show up a few days after we arrived. Was surprised they were not around when I first went out to look after returning home as they are always hanging out in our woods and under the feeders during the cold months, especially when there is snow on the ground. The White-Breasted Nuthatch and House Finch just required me to hop out on the porch for a quick snap before the fingers got cold. We will be gearing up to hunt down the Snowy Owl soon, Linda is already reviewing the nearby sightings. Ron managed to get some really nice adds as of late. The Common Redpoll he found at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, IL. He also ticked off both the Tundra and the Trumpeter Swans – usually I only come upon the Trumpeters, so will have to work a bit to catch up on that.

Update 01/28/22: Decided to start the day with better shots of the Bonaparte’s Gull. I took a look at the ones from the day before and many of them were blown out thanks to the constant changing lighting conditions. Since this was a +`1 it was worth investing a small amount of time to improve if I could. Once done with that, snapped a few Double-Crested Cormorants just to get that checked off the list for the year. A refreshing change from the Neotropic variety that dominated the Texas coast. From there we headed up to Marion, AR as the last stop before making the push for home. Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge sits just beyond the KOA there giving us a quick chance to catch some additional checks for the month. I have threatened numerous times to remove this site from my birding list. Prior to this stop it had rained every single time and their roads become a mucky mess when that happens. It is also a bit eerie as we are usually the only visitors there when we stop by. Good news, no rain, but they are also in a cold streak causing a lot of the shallow swamp water to freeze – translated no ducks or waders in any of the roadside waterways. In one last ditch effort Linda drove out to their levee area. More wildlife there including the largest flock of Mallards I’ve ever witnesses. No Wood Ducks which was a disappointment. Linda spotted a Pileated Woodpecker hanging out in trees which was a nice add. Snagged a Downy and then noticed a large number of Crows passing overhead. Took a bunch of shots and on a hunch, pulled out the Bird Net app and recorded their vocals as they passed. Surprise, Surprise, it identified it as a Fish Crow – score. Not much else there and called it a day. Time to go winterize the RV for the cold trip back home.

Update 01/27/22: As we head home, decided to stop back at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park in Jackson, MS. I found several Hooded Mergansers there on our first visit, but that was technically December and didn’t count towards our Average Year. They have been there every time we’ve come and sure enough, they were enjoying the ponds/lakes in the park once again. Managed to get a new lifer with a Bonapart’s Gull that was hanging out with a small flock of the Hoods. Linda wasn’t feeling the greatest, so we opted to stay overnight giving me a chance to walk their very nice nature trail. Racked up several birds (over 20) along with a confirmed 9 for the Average Year list. May be able to add a couple of more once the Wren pictures are checked against the reference (Winter, House or both!). They have a ton of Red-Headed Woodpeckers here and a surprising number of Palm Warblers. White-Throated Sparrows were a nice add along with a brief visit from a Hermit Thrush. A small group of Cedar Waxwings decided to show themselves as well. Highly recommend this place to any birders. Nice campground and the trails are nicely cut and rocked with several boardwalks.

Update 01/25/22: Did some birding around Galveston Island. First stop was Galveston Island State Park. The rain had subsided finally. A lot of the park is shut down as they rebuild the camp grounds. Once again found a Clapper Rail on the Clapper Rail Trail at the first boardwalk. Little Blue Heron was hanging out at the end of that road. Managed to get two White Tailed Kites in a tree as we were exiting the park. So far, been able to get that species on every visit there. From there went down 8 Mile Road. Nice area to bird from the car with multiple ponds and the bay to hunt. Linda spotted a Falcon perched on a field across a field. Had to put the tele on to even have a chance of figuring it out. From the looks of it and some flight shots, guessing it was a Peregrine. Further down that road spotted a Merlin in a nearby tree. That was a lifer for me. That road provides a good chance of getting Sandhills if you need them.

From there went on to the Texas City Dike. Large amount of Gulls and Terns there. Will need to get the reference books out to figure out what they are. Saw three Loons while we were driving the dike, but the real find was the flock of Eared Grebes. Also found Turnstones, Willets and a Sparrow that still needs to be identified.

Busy day as we then headed to Anahuac NWR in hopes of getting better pictures of the Short-Eared Owl. Road to back part of refuge where we fond the Owls hunting previously was too mushy to take the RV and turned back for a quick run through the auto-tour. Usuals where there along with loads of Black-Bellied Whistling-Ducks. While shooting a small flock by the boardwalk, noticed two of them were slightly different than the others. Remembered they had seen Fulvous Whistlers there – sure enough I was staring right at them which added another +1 to my lifer giving me 2 for the day! Shot a few Raptors, Hawks or Harriers as we made our way down the last loop of the tour. A busy day, but worth it for sure

Update 01/19/22: Today I managed to tin a new lifer thanks to a new State Park we visited called Guadalupe River State Park – considered the second prettiest river in Texas! Can’t wait to get back and start posting on all the new finds … wait.. scratch that.. I can wait a bit longer to go back into the Illinois ice box ha!