Friday, January 2, 2015

Jan 2 - 2014 Greatest misses of 2014 - LOOOONNNGGGGGG!!!!!

I managed to find 617 species in 2014. I am still working on the "Most exciting birds of 2014" and "Luckiest finds of 2014". These will take a bit of time as I must do some mental comparisons between the birds that I did find to decide which were the most exciting/luckiest. Much easier, however, is the list the of birds that I could have found but did not. Fortunately, this this list is rather compact! The birds are presented in the order in which I missed them rather than taxonomically. 

Common redpoll, White-winged crossbill - After an incredible finch year in northeast the winter of 2012-2013, the winter of 2013-2104 was devoid of these specific and other northern finches. They were simply not around the northeast this year. I could not even find someone with a single, reliable redpoll on a feeder in Massachusetts. So, these two birds are hypothetically possible in some years, but not actually possible this year. White-winged crossbill was certainly a possibility out west in the late summer, but this would have been an incredibly lucky find. This was by no means a bird I expected to find this year given their absence from the northeast. These weren't very painful to miss since I did not waste time looking for birds that weren't there anyway.

Black-legged kittiwake - This is bird that I should have been able to find in the northeast in January. It is generally considered pelagic, but can be seen from shore under the right wind conditions. East winds are generally thought to be best as they push the birds closer to shore. I thought I would be able to get in on January 4th or 5th in Rockport, MA. Andrew's Point is a fairly good spot for this species in winter. However, on the 2 days that I was in area, the winds were from the west. This presumably kept the birds a bit farther offshore than what would have been optimal. I also looked for this species at Pt. Judith in Rhode Island, but extreme cold and eventually snow truncated that search. I was hoping to take one last crack at this bird in North Jersey, but yet another huge (12+ inches) snowstorm forced me to motor to Philadelphia a bit earlier than I had hoped. I was not able to make it to the Jersey Coast as a result. This was my last really good shot at this bird. I could not cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (no bikes), so I had to take a more interior/westward route along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Had I been able to go right down the coast and over the Bridge-Tunnel,  I may have been able to find this bird. There was a tiny chance for it in the fall along the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts, but I was just too early to find one this year. They generally move into those areas in the middle of October. By that time I was too far south in Los Angeles and San Diego. This was the single most painful miss of the year. 

Mangrove cuckoo - This is a tough bird to find at any season, but one that I should have at least heard this year. I spent several days looking/listening/taping for this species around South Florida. It was just too early in mid-march. Once the birds get onto territory and start calling regularly it gets much easier to find them. Depite use of a tape in many places, I could not even get one to call back to me for a "heard only" tick. When I was in Sanibel Island, I actually found a banding team that had just caught a cuckoo. They were removing it from the net when I rode past them. Technically, ABA rules permit the counting of banded bird "as soon as they resume normally activity". Although I had counted both Le Conte's sparrow caught on a banding expedition in Georgia and Yellow rail caught during a banding session in Texas, I did not count the cuckoo. This was for 2 reasons. First, I was officially part of the sparrow and rail banding teams. Second, I actually saw both the sparrow and the rail as free flying birds BEFORE they were captured. I was not officially a part of the cuckoo banding expedition, and I sure as hell wasn't going to count a just released bird as my lifer. That would be really shaky in my book. So technically, this bird could be on the list, but I decided not to count it. This was also a painful miss since I spent quite a bit of time of time looking for it.

Gray Kingbird - There was one bird that spent the winter in South Florida. Sonia was coming to visit on March 18, and I did not have time to look for this bird before she arrived. I left Florida before the remainder of the population returned for the spring/summer. This was a moderately painful miss, but I found my only frigatebird of the year during the time I would have looked for the kingbird. Given the time constraint, I was not going to get both kingbird and frigatebird.

Black-billed cuckoo, Yellow-bellied flycatcher, Mourning warbler, Alder flycatcher. I was not able to find any of these on the Texas coast this spring. These birds all fall into the category of "very late spring migrants". By April 27, I had found all of the other migrant birds that I would need to find on the Upper Texas Coast. Strong SE winds were forecast for the last few days of the month. No fronts were scheduled to come through for at least another week. Strong SE winds would be less-than-ideal for birding but absolutely ideal for my 3-day, 260-mile ride to Austin. I could have birded High Island for an additional 4-5 days and found all or none of these birds. Contrast this with a 100% chance of tailwinds if I left when I did. At that point in the year, the really hard riding hadn't started yet. I had no idea how hard the ride across Texas was going to be, and I made the decision that the time I could spend looking for these birds would be better applied to the herculean trek across Texas. Sure, I could have stayed longer and found a few of these birds. I made a tough decision, and I stand by it. Yes, I left a few birds on the table, but look at the run I had after I left that area. Who knows how many of those birds I would ave missed had I been running 3-5 days behind where I actually was? Alder Flycatcher would have also presented special identification problems beyond the other 3 birds. Empids generally do not call during the Texas legs of their spring migrations. In my book, you had better hear the Alder flycatcher to actually count it. A simple visual for all but a few people (if even them) just isn't enough to conclusively separate it from Willow. These misses were moderately painful. 

Five-striped sparrow - I did not even try for this bird in Arizona. Again, this was a tough decision, but I can justify it after the fact based on how well things went after that point. Access to this bird is tough in a 4-wheel drive, near impossible in a regular car, and potentially impossible on a bike. Looking back I probably could have found a way to get this bird, but it would have required someone driving in to meet me with a tent and supplies. Coordinating effort with people also takes extra days. This was a moderately painful miss, but, again, not terrible since I did not push any time into it.

Northern hawk-owl - There are usually a few of these around in either Glacier NP or the Cascades. I chose not to go to Glacier since I thought it was too far. There weren't any accessible birds in the Cascades this year. This is a bird I could have theoretically seen on another year but for which I did not spent any time searching this year. It wasn't really a miss so much as it a distant possibility. This was not a painful miss since I pushed no effort into it.

Boreal owl - The only really reliable report of this species near me this year came from Mount Rainier in Washington in late August. I could have chased this bird but it would have cost me 4-5 days with little food/lodging along much of the way. It would have also been a hell of a climb. to reach the set side of the park from the western, Seattle/Tacoma side. I would have had to go to Rainier had I missed Gray-crowned rosy-finch in the North Cascades, but but by an incredible stroke of luck I was able to get the finch in that location. I did not think it was worth going to Rainier since I had to race to Haystack Rock in Oregon to get Tufted Puffin at the end of the nesting season. As I was cutting the puffin close already, I chose to get to Haystack since it was an easier ride in the direction I was ultimately headed. 

Black-footed albatross, Northern fulmar, Manx shearwater, Storm-petrels, Red phalarope - All of these birds were theoretically possible but highly unlikely from Monterey. It generally takes a huge west wind to see albatross from shore. I never got this wind. I was generally too early for fulmar and Red phalarope. For reasons we don't understand, there were lower than normal numbers of storm-petrels around this year. It probably had something to do with the very warm water that pushed north from Mexico during this El Nino year. Manx shearwaters are present in very low numbers along the Pacific Coast in fall. Again, it would have taken a big lucky stroke to get this bird. I did see a bird in San Diego that I am 80-90% sure was a Manx, but that ain't 100% now it is?

Red-billed pigeon - I spent 2 full days looking for this bird at Salineno with so out so much as as a whiff of it. There were only a few of these seen in Nov/Dec of this year. I pushed in a few days, then cut my loses in time to score some great birds, including the red-legged honeycreeper, further south in the LRGV. 


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  2. What about Cape May Warbler? There are often a few wintering in Florida each year. -Dave

  3. Dorian - I am impressed by how careful you were in your listing. It seems you had to get good enough looks at a bird to be sure of it's identity to count it. I know when I am birding, there are many times when I am pretty certain of a species' identity, but there is still a bit of doubt. I guess it is a very personal thing - when to count a bird and when to acknowledge that doubt and leave it off the list. Were there any birds you counted as misses, that you think you saw but didn't get a good enough look at to count? Thanks for a great year. I am going to do a BIGBY in 2015, but just walking or bike riding from my home, no cross country trips!

  4. I guess to each his own about the Mangrove Cucloo / Yello Rail, LeConte's Sparrow. I've had a number of lifers post mist netting. My first YBFL and LEFL were seen I'm hand then counted after returning to trees.

    I guess this is my biggest pet peeve about birding and birders. What people will and won't count. For instance any audible is generally counted by birders, but how often are we concerned that a mimic might. be the culprit? Obviously the odds are low but it's still a possibility.

    I have a few interesting lifers that I justify based off their free flyingness or reproductive success that aren't on the ABA list, yet I am missing a couple heard only or brief glimpse birds that I am almost certain of.

    We often have strange rationale for what we count and don't and it was fun to see yours for a couple you probably could've but didn't count.

  5. It seems to me that most of your misses are of hard to find birds even without the constraints of having to time your search by bike and weather. You couldn't ride to Alaska for black-legged kittiwake and you couldn't be in Michigan in early June for black-billed cuckoo, yellow-bellied and alder flycatchers and mourning warbler. This goes to the heart of how well you arranged and coordinated your trip to see 617 species. I love your color map at the end of your 12/31 post. Five-striped sparrow is hard in a car along that horrible road and you would have fixed a heck of a lot more flat tires and broken spokes if you had gone that route. Mangrove Cuckoo ... I'm glad to read that this bird does indeed actually exit in Florida. Red-billed pigeon would have likely been a fast flyover above the Rio Grande and, using your strict criteria, you would likely not have counted it anyway. Which, incidentally, it is refreshing and encouraging to read your strict criteria for listing. Thank you for maintaining your standards for listing on your trip. After being on trips with birders who count gray shadows flying over a trail for their life bird whatever ... very encouraging to read.

  6. Congrats Dorian on a fantastic big year! I can't even imagine biking all those miles. Thanks for letting us follow you on your adventure!