The 400 Bird Quest - Long overdue update

Count Update: 387 / 400

It has been a busy summer. But mostly I have been busy neglecting this blog. Some large work projects have consumed the summer. Birding has been here and there as time allows. Here’s a recap of the species added to the Big Year list:

Went on an annual fishing trip to Northern MN with some college friends. “Elective” detours found these four species :

#374 Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Rice Lake NWR, June 09, 2018 - I heard several singing on their breeding territories along the automobile tour route.

#375 Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Sax-Zim Bog/ St. Louis county, June 12, 2018

#376 Canada Warbler, Sax-Zim Bog, June 12, 2018 Both species were heard singing in the mosquito infested bog one early hot muggy morning. It was one of the worst mosquito environments I can remember.

#377 Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Essentia Health-Duluth Miller-Dwan Hospital Building parking Ramp, , Duluth, MN, June 12, 2018. I stopped in Duluth and located this very rare MN visitor. Perched on a parking ramp fence. It spent the summer in Duluth and had been reported by many birders that had come to see it, before and after I did. This guy was a “lifer” for me.

#378 Prothonotary Warbler, William O'Brien State Park, Scandia MN, June 17, 2018. Another Lifer for me! They are uncommon but not rare in MN. I was lucky to get him. I first heard him sing from an island in the river. Not far across the water from where I stood without a boat. I listened for some time. Finally he flew into view for just a few seconds, and then resumed singing from the cover.

#379 Blue Grosbeak, Flying Cloud Fields, Eden Prairie MN, Jun 24, 2018. It took me 2 trips to these ball fields to find this often reported “stake out”. Blue Grosbeaks are regularly in only the very SW corner of MN. This individual spent the summer way out of range in the SW metro area. Strangely, last year, there was one in Ramsey, MN (Anoka County) equally far from its normal range.

On a separate trip to northern MN with my Mom in July we added these:

#380 Boreal Chickadee at Big Bog State Recreation Area, Near Red Lake in Beltrami County, July 08, 2018. I encountered a small group of Boreal Chickadees on the 1 mile board walk through the bog. Very cool bog walk. If you are every in that area this walk is very interesting. Thompson Forest Road in Beltrami County was also buried in fresh, ripe blueberries. What a treat!

#381 Nelson's Sparrow at Agassiz NWR, Marshall County, MN July 09 2018. Heard in the cattails, in full daylight. Agassiz NWR is another, don't miss spot for waterfowl and other birds if you are in that area.

#382 Western Kingbird , Hwy 10 and Armstrong Blvd., Ramsey MN July 10 2018. During 2 trips to Western and NW MN, I had Western Kingbird on my mind. I failed to find one until we returned to our own “back yard”. Some one reported them at this location in Ramsey. So I talked Mom into a 5 minute detour on our return home. Mom was skeptical about the "5 minutes” . There were 3 Western Kingbirds perched just as reported days before. We found them right away and were literally back on the freeway in 5 minutes. So take that Mom!!

#383 Whooping Crane, Minnesota Valley NWR, Hennepin County, MN Aug 15 2018. Whoopers in MN…what!? I really wish I could say I found this pair. But these were stake outs that many other birders had reported. This pair is really special. They were so close to extinction. Wikipedia says that in 1941 there were only 23 left on the planet! Now there are 800+. Still not many, but better than 23.

#384 Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Jirik Sod Farms, Dakota County, MN Aug 17, 2018. Another stakeout reported on was worth the trip on a beautiful August evening. Buff-breasted are another lifer for me!

#385 Baird's Sandpiper, Jirik Sod Farms, Dakota County, MN Aug 17, 2018 I found this bonus species among the other misc shore birds on the same wet field. A “two-fer” ! Time well spent.

386 Rusty Blackbird, Old Government Road, Rush City, MN Oct 12, 2018, Sitting in a tree with a flock of Red-wing blackbirds.

387 Cackling Goose, Pine City WTP, Pine County, MN Oct 14, 2018 “All the best things in life happen at sewage ponds”. This stakeout bird was reported by others for 3 days in a row. So we drove up there, sorted through 50 plus Canada Geese with the scope at a long distance, and finally spotted one. But the best part of it was fresh waffles and chicken brunch with good company! Thanks Joe and Joyce!

So that brings us up to date. For those of you that have not been following this Big Year story on CNN, I’m sorry for the long gap in coverage. I’m sure it is a huge relief to know that my birding expeditions have not ceased due to a fatal attack by mosquitoes, poison ivy, or a red fox.

I did not get any quality photos of the species listed in this post, but here are a few others from along the way.

The 400 Bird Quest - Spring Migration Winds Down

Count Update:  378 / 400

Managing work and chasing birds this spring has been a challenge.  But thanks to rare bird alerts and an especially huge thank you to my good friend Big Tom Nelson, I've been able to locate most of the expected Minnesota birds this spring, on limited time. Tom traveled the north half of the state with me for 3 fun days in May and guided me on a key June 3rd morning trip to Three Rivers Park, (Murphy-Hanrehan), south of Savage, MN, to find an impressive list of uncommon "specialties":  Acadian Flycatcher, Hooded Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and Henslow's Sparrow, plus Bell's Vireo at Cliff Fen.  Thanks Tom!

Other memorable and fun finds were Canada Warbler, in the mosquito infested Sax Zim bog, the staked out Eurasian Tree Sparrow that is spending it's summer in Duluth, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Rice Lake WMA.   

With the year count at 378, my 400 goal would seem easily in hand.  But to find 22 additional species in MN will be very hard.   The 400 goal may turn out to be a good excuse to trip in the fall?

The 400 Bird Quest - it's raining migrants!

Count Update: 313 / 400

 I got a chance to ride along with Big Tom on Monday in a attempt to break the Ramsey County April Big Day record, which was 102 species.  It goes without saying the your best chances to find a high number of species in Minnesota in April is going to be on the last day of the month.  That gives you the best chance to see birds arriving from the south.   And they really did!  We saw Nashville Warbler, Orange Crowned Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and dozens of Palm Warblers, and White-throated Sparrows, that for the most part where not here the day before.   We birded from 4:30 am to about 7:00 pm, which is an early whined down for most Big Days.  We had a reason. Due to Tom's excellent scouting, route management and keen ears, we accumulated 111 species, scattering the previous record.   The most memorable bird of the day, by far, were 4 Red Crossbills!  The sat in a pine in clear view at Vadnais-Snail Lake Regional Park in Vadnais Heights.  It was a delightful day!  Big Days are fast moving, there is not a lot of time for photos so I did not get many.  


The 400 Bird Quest - Frozen Lakes

Count update:  306 / 400

It's been 10 days since our spring blizzard, and most the snow is gone.  But Anoka County lakes are still frozen solid like the rest of Minnesota. Arriving waterfowl have no where to go except the rivers.   Coon Rapids Dam is as great place to visit right now to see a variety of waterfowl up close.  I stopped in there yesterday and found these birds.  In all I counted 45 species of birds there.  A respectable April list for a short visit.



The 400 Bird Quest - The Journey Home

Count Update:  303

It's snowing sideways outside today.  Nevertheless it's good to be home from FL.   I made this trip a personal challenge to seek rarities, advance my 2018 year bird species list toward the 400 goal, and try to surpass 100 lifetime species in as many states along the way as I can.   I left FL on March 26 and arrived in Minnesota on April 5th, car camping every night along the way.   Spring songbird migration was just beginning when I left, but I quickly passed it up traveling north.   

Needless to say I did not log many highway miles.  For the most part, I avoided all but the smallest towns, zigzagging through state parks, wildlife management areas (WMA), mountains,  seashores, farm fields and various green spots on the map.  One exception was Gatlinburg, TN.   I entered the Great Smokey Mountains in North Carolina on a Friday afternoon and found unexpected 'up north' birds like Common Raven and Ruffed Grouse before camping at 5000 ft elevation.  There was hardly a soul around. Natural solitude. It was extremely peaceful...but cold.  I woke to 24 degrees.  It was late Saturday morning when I finished winding down the Newfound Gap Road (US 441) and tumbling into downtown Gatlinburg. It was jammed with tourist traffic and swarming pedestrian families stampeding the shops and restaurants that were smashed side by side along the street.  A dramatic contrast from the nearby mountains, and a bit of a culture shock to this unprepared Grizzly Adams.  The town is a Branson wanta-be, complete with  a Dollywood theme park, Ripley's believe-it-or-not, an enormous King Kong clinging to one of the tall hotels, and all the standard issue souvenir shops.  On the why through town from the car, I  had no trouble picking up Pigeon, House Sparrow, and Starling for my TN list, but I was glad when traffic freed and it was behind me. 

Temps were cold and snow was covering ground most of the rest of the trip.  We got 3" of fresh snow one night on the IN, IL line. This provided excellent birding in open field ag land.  The snow concentrated migrants to the uncovered gravel roads, making them easy to spot.   I found Lapland Longspurs, Vesper, Song, Field, Tree, and Chipping Sparrows, American Pipits (100's), Horned Laks (100's), Snow Buntings, Pectoral sandpipers, Wilson's snipe  and more.

Other birders have reported uncommon birds they found at  I chased some of those reports and re-found the following:  American Golden Plover, Smith's Longspur, Ross's Goose, Surf Scoter, and Mute Swan (this wild pair was countable).  I also spent hours looking hard for Long-tailed Duck, Snowy Owl, Greater Prairie Chicken,  Seaside Sparrow and others in many places they were reported, but came up short.  In all I added new 28 year species to the year list and broke 300.   I also expanded my list of 100+ species to 11 states.

So that is it recorded somewhere here is a list off my favorite journey home hotspots: FL: Kingsley Plantation area, Big Talbot Island; GA: Jekyll Island, Paulk's Pasture WMA, Altamaha WMA, Harris Neck WMA; SC: Bear Island WMA,  Seabrook Island; NC: Great Smokey Mountains TN: Norris Dam State Park; IN: Patoka Lake, Sullivan County; IL: Dixon Wildlife Refuge, Lake Bloomington;  WI: Buena Vista Grasslands

Here are some photo highlights with captions from along the way.

The 400 Bird Quest - Where's Waldo?

Count Update:  275 / 400

For every good photo I take, ten more are terrible.  So let’s use some of them and play a game.   Each of the 21 numbered photos below has an animal in it there somewhere.   Can you find the critter, and identify it?  Find the answers are further below in the next set of photos with the corresponding number.  There is prize money.

The Questions:

The Answers:

Here are the answers in numbered photos format with embedded comments. with the species name.  Scroll to the right to advance to the next answer.

How it you do?  If you tried all 21 you have incredible patience.  If you got half of them right you are a star.  If you got them all right you're a bold faced liar. Nevertheless, for winning a charitable donation will be made in your name to the The Special Committee for the Conservation of Special Committees.  Thanks for playing.

The 400 Bird Quest - A fish this long…

 Count Update:  275 /400

Our son, Jeff, came down from New Hampshire to visit for a few days. We went offshore fishing to celebrate his 30th birthday.   A 42’ boat took us 15 miles out into the Atlantic on a beautiful blue sky calm day.  We trolled for a while with no luck and then anchored up.   We were fishing on the bottom in 85’ of water with heavy gear.  We caught and released a couple of nice red snappers that were out of season.  Jeff hooked a large cobia, about 3 feet long which broke the line right alongside the boat.  This type of fishing is not like in Minnesota.  With such heavy gear it is a mild chore just reeling in an empty hook.  

Snapper Jeff FL 3-2018.JPG

I felt a bite that meant business. The stiff rod bent over immediately.   I pulled hard and tried to keep reeling as I was instructed, but this fish ignored the suggestion.  It went where it wanted and took out line.  It felt like there was a car on the line, and not a Camry, more like a Dodge Charger or one of those 2 story dump trucks they use on the Iron Range.  The virtual stalemate went on for minutes, but seemed like hours.  Slowly I gained a bit more line then it took out and eventually worked the monster up near the surface.  No fish is compliant at this point in the process.  It is the point in any fight when you can almost hear the fish repeat its self-affirmations aloud and resolve to fight with new found energy.   It was not a fish. The boat captain saw it identified it at a large sandbar shark, which are estimated to be 6’ long and weigh 100-200 pounds. I felt it pull its hardest yet and then it was gone.   Moments before the line broke, Jeff recorded this short video along with the standard issue “ridicule” at my expense.   The captain claimed that since I had reeled it all the way up to the sinker (we had 6’ leaders beyond that), it is counted as a ‘catch’.  I don’t know about that?   In the fog of war, I don’t know how far in it was.  All I could do was hang on to the rod and try to stay in the boat.   I don’t think the shark ever broke the surface.  I never saw it.     The Captain said they would have cut the line anyway.  They don’t take large sharks on board the boat.   According to my Youtube research later, that’s a good policy.  When it was over I was totally spent.  My arms arched and were sore for a couple of days after.  Unforgettable!  A big thank you to Jeff for having the foresight to film it. 

Out at sea, we saw a few Northern Gannets. The only new bird for the year was a distant Jaeger chasing a Laughing Gull. I could not determine if it was a Parasitic Jaeger or Pomarine Jaeger.  Both are known to be in this area.  Technical note on bird list:  While I have found Mute Swan, Indian Peafowl, and Yellow-crowned Parrot in Florida, I am not counted them at this time.   Although 2 are on the official American Birding Associations (ABA) official species list, they are not on the official Florida Ornithological Society (FOS) checklist. These species are established in Florida from escaped domestic birds but have not established wild populations here long enough or large enough to be considered truly wild at this time.  Due to the ABA - FOS list conflict, I am not counting them on my lists at this time.

The 400 Bird Quest - Florida Brush with Fame

Count update:  273/400

In between visiting friends, family and the small amount of work I've done, I've birded quite a bit in central and eastern Florida.   I visited many memorable places:  Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands,  Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, Blue Springs State Park,  Mead Botanical Garden, Topeekeegee Yugnee Park, Loxahatchee NWR, Ponce Preserve, and Lake Woodruff NWR to name a few.    I have been fortunate to find some great birds and meet some great birders along the way.  Thanks to Sam K. with gull identification.   Bob S, who stopped to size me up as I stood in the dark by my vehicle on the dirt road he lives on, listening for a Chuck-wills-widow to sing.   Bob was at first concerned about this strange stranger, as he should be.  But he turns out to be a birder and after a brief chat he invited me to his property. We walked out into his pasture and heard the Chuck-wills-widow sound off almost right way.   I doubt that I would have heard it from the road.  Thanks also to Professor Scott R. who I met randomly on a marsh road.  We were both there in the early morning trying to re-locate a LeCounte Sparrow that had been reported previously.  During our 30 minute successful search we chatted. He shared his joy of birding in China and South America.   I told him about my 400 bird quest, and  he causally mentioned he has tried a Big Year in the 1970's.  He did not say much more about it.   He is a very modest man.  When I googled him later I learned he has spent time with some of the most elite US birders, as well as bird authors.   He did a 640-680 range Big Year when the US record was not much more than that.  Another huge feat: Scott also held the World Record Big Day of 331 with partner Ted P. from 1982 until it was finally broken in 2014!  Both big days were conducted in Peru. 

There were many good chances for photos recently.  I've included several here. I also got some "Lifers" - this month (birds I've never identified before), but could not get good photos of all of them:  Fulvuos Whistling Duck, Eqyptian Goose, Red-Crowned Parrot, Monk Parakeet, Red-Whiskered Bulbul, and Burrowing Owl (finally!).

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018.

The 400 Bird Quest - Florida

Count update:   248/400

We’ve landed in Ponce Inlet, a Daytona Beach suburb, on Florida’s east coast.   From here I’ve had several great local day birding trips.   

Merit Island National Wildlife Refuge felt like old home.  I’ve visited there in years past, but keep going back because the area is so large, has diverse habitat, and the birding is so good.   This is the same island that Kennedy Space center is on and the SpaceX rockets are launched from.    On this trip, I found a couple first of the year birds.  These included the Florida Scrub Jay, which is classified as a threatened species, and Greater Black-backed Gull. With its 65” wingspan, this is the largest gull in the world.

Hal Scott Regional Preserve and Park – I visited this park for strategic reasons.   Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are known to be here.  This is another threatened species that can be hard to find.  Two other common species are also there.  Bachman’s sparrow, and Bobwhite quail.  All 3 of these birds are most active in the first hour of daylight, then seem to melt into the vegetation the rest of the day.   So I got up a 4 am and walked the foot trail 2-3 miles out to the best spot in the dark.   It was an immensely pleasurable walk in the still, silent warm air.  I concentrated to hear distant owls all the way out, with no luck.   Before the sun even peaked through the scattered tall pines, I got the sparrow and the quail.  I continued walking the long trail farther into this 9,387-acre preserve.  Soon I heard a woodpecker tapping gently nearby.  I approached quietly and scanned frantically with my binos.  This could be my only chance!  Then just like the climax of a suspenseful movie it appeared… except… wrong bird.  It was the ever common Downy Woodpecker.   Needing to get back to our rented condo by a certain time,  I knew I could only walk 10 minutes further before I absolutely, positively had to turn around and start the long hike back to the car.  So I walked 15 minutes farther in.  In the nick of time, I spot movement on a distant mature pine tree trunk, snapped the binos to my face, and there it was…..the Red-Cockaded woodpecker…. in profile with its white cheek in full view.  Bingo!   Then on my brisk walk back a Barred Owl volunteered to sing out loud.  Who ever said that birding was not the most exciting sport ever?!!

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018.

The 400 Bird Quest - Alabama

Count update:  239/400

I followed Alabama’s limited Gulf shoreline into the Florida panhandle.   Much of this is already developed with homes, condo’s, hotels and the like.   But I did find an excellent section of virtually untouched preserved National Seashore.  This peninsula is over 5 miles long.  At the very end are the ruins of Fort McRee, a small abandoned US military post.   It has not been in use since WWII.  Everything has been removed except for some cement foundation and fort walls.  Over time sand has drifted up against the once tall walls so they are now only waist high.  I guess they could still defend against enemies that are under 3 feet tall?  The beauty here was not the historic fort, but the 11.5 mile round trip deserted beach walk to it.   Birds were not plentiful but the views were spectacular!  Few things in life feel better than walking miles on a deserted beach with gentle waves and sunshine.  To top off the day, I got back to the car just in time to enjoy a perfect sunset.  I’m both surprised and grateful there are still places like this in the US.

While in northeast Alabama last year I found 88 bird species.   By staying near the salt water habitat this year it was not hard to add new birds to my state life list.  It now totals 101, making ‘Bama the 7th state with 100 or more lifetime species.  But only Horned Grebe was a new species for the 2018 year list.  I crossed into Florida with 235 for the year. 

A professional bird guide I met last year lives in Gainsville, FL and told me that Sweetwater Regional Preserve was a great place to spend a day.  So I stopped in.  He was right! This marshland was thick with all sorts of water related birds, waders and ducks were everywhere.   In a 2-3 mile walk I encountered many species and had great views of them, including 4 new 2018 year birds: Glossy Ibis, Cattle Egret, the noisy Limpkin and the "ugly bird of the day award" goes to Wood Stork.

The 400 Bird Quest - Louisana to Mississippi

Count update:  234/400

So there I was minding my own business…

It was still full dark at 5 am.  I had just woken up, but was laying in my car.  The evening before, I had pulled off a rural country road. I backed onto a field entrance, next to a rusty padlock on a metal gate.  The land beyond the gate was farm pasture with no livestock in sight.  In fact, there were no houses, buildings or anything else in sight.  Traffic was less than one car per hour.  I enjoyed the silence broken only by the begging call of a nearby great horned owl as I drifted off to sleep.   A car pulls up and stops.   As the sweeping beam of a spotlight washes back and forth over my SUV, I have a hunch what this is about.   I turn on my light and roll down the window as a boyish, slight sheriff’s deputy in an oversized uniform asked me to step out of my car.   I put my bare feet on the gravel and handed over my driver’s license.  As he examined it, I pointed out that I thought sleeping in my car was a legal activity.   He agreed, but then questioned my ownership on this land it was parked on.  Once he established that I did not own it or know the owner, he informed me that I could not sleep there because it blocked the farmer’s entrance to his pasture.   I pointed out there was not a “no trespassing sign”.   I was parked just 20 feet off the road, not disturbing anything, and that I could easily move if the owner needed pasture access.   The officer was very professional but he wasn’t having any of it.  He instructed me to stand in his headlights as he returned to his warm car to radio my license.  As I waited irritated, barefoot and chilled, I considered pressing my case further,  “It would be a rare event that the owner of this pasture had a spontaneous inspiration on that February night  between 10 pm and 5 am to suddenly bolt out of his bed and plow up his pasture right there and then.  But okay, let’s assume for a moment that it is a common Louisiana farming practice. His mission would be delayed by the amount of time it takes me to drive my car 20 feet onto the roadway so he could get his equipment by.  Easily less than 1 minute.  Assuming this spontaneous farmer is a careful planner and remembers to bring the gate key, he would have to dismount his vehicle to remove the paddock providing me extra time to move.  I also reasoned that the farmer would probably need a flashlight and a can of WD-40 along to get the old lock to work.  Now we have already established that I can walk on gravel in my bare feet, so we can assume that I can also drive my car 20 feet without any delay to put on shoes.   So Mr. Officer, if we work out the math, the farmer’s actual delay in entering his field would be less than 15 seconds.   With all due respect Mr. Officer, I have to ask how exactly am I putting modern society at risk by sleeping in my car at this tiny spot in which no other human has passed by in months or years?”

… but when he got back out of the car I bit my tongue and kept my thoughts to myself.   Instead I was polite and enthusiastically explained that I was traveling on a bird watching trip hoping to find and identify 400 species of birds in the US.   By his eye roll,  I could immediately tell we were not kindred spirits.  His expression showed he was thinking, “that’s not even a real thing”.   By now, the first bit of daylight was threatening in the east and I heard the first Cardinal of the morning singing.  Still trying to persuade the cop that there was legitimacy to my existence in his County, I doubled down and blurted out , “hear that?  It’s a Cardinal.”  Epic fail!  He wasn’t buying it.  

By now a second squad car rolled up, and a more senior deputy got out.  I know this is supposed to be a serious event, but I could hardly keep for laughing out loud thinking, Junior called for backup?  For this situation?  Really?  

The second officer was also very professional, but after my limited success enlightening the Junior officer on the merits of birdwatching, I decided less detail was better.    I simplified my story to: “I was sleeping”.  

It had been a long wait. The radio voice finally came back stating that they could not find anyone with my name.  Junior then repeated my name into his shoulder mic, this time including my last name!   This time the voice came back much faster with an “all clear”.   The second officer then left and junior told me I was free to go, but could not sleep in that spot.   I moved on.  In all I was detained a good 30 minutes. When I recounted the experience to my wife, Ann, she asked me if Junior escorted me to the county line.   He did not, but  I thought to myself why not?    Who knows, maybe he got another call, or maybe he is not old enough to have a driver’s license?

So that was the end of my Louisiana crime spree and it was on to Mississippi!  I followed the southern coast so I only saw a small piece of the state. But I did stop and enjoyed Buccaneer State Park where I heard and saw the Clapper Rail in the fading light.  I also got all bit up by no-see-um insects. They provided 24 hours of intense itching entertainment.  Still, was worth it for the Clapper Rail.

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018. 

The 400 Bird Quest - Louisana

Count update:  233 /400

South Louisiana is known for its low wet elevation.  I had never been there before.  But I discovered it to be even truer than I had imagined.  They got 2-3 days of rain just before I arrived and many of the road ditches had swollen almost up to the payment.  In wandering through LA I was able to find 19 new species for the year.  Most are wintering species that commonly summer back home.   But a few are rarely found in Anoka County, Minnesota:  Anhinga, White-faced Ibis, and Carolina Chickadee   In all I had 101 species in Louisiana making it the 6th state in which I have 100 or more birds on my life list after Minnesota, Texas, Florida, Arizona, and California. 

The 400 Bird Quest - Leaving Texas

Count update: 214/400

If you know me, you know I am frugal to a fault.   Since I’m traveling alone with a flexible route plan and I see no need to do the hotel thing.  I have a tent, but when there is no campground handy, sleeping in the back of my SUV is quite comfortable.  I know I will not convince you, but it does save $ and time, avoids noisy room neighbors, and puts me under the bright backcountry stars, and occasional night singing birds.     Why the confession?   Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (east Texas) is many miles from any city.  Camping out in the boonies nearby got me there at sunrise, enjoying the hiking trails and birds hours before the “city slickers” arrived.    Having the place to yourself in the early morning is glorious. I encountered many birds (56 total species) that were likely silent or hiding by mid-morning, plus deer and other non-bird critters.   This alligator's estimated length is 15' nose to tail. It would just fit corner to corner in your average kids' bedroom.  Of course your kid would certainly not be average if they had this in their room.  The Wild hog shown here is scurrying away.  Wild hogs are feral escapees from domestic farms, unlike the smaller Javelina which is truly wild.

Roseate spoonbills wade in shallow water strutting along sweeping their head side to side to strain shrimp from the water.  They also get small fish and other critters, but the shrimp in their diet gives them that rich color.


 Aransas NWF is the primary wintering range for endangered Whooping cranes.  The fog on this morning was too thick for distant viewing.  I heard Sandhill cranes but no Whoopers.

Aransas NWF is the primary wintering range for endangered Whooping cranes.  The fog on this morning was too thick for distant viewing.  I heard Sandhill cranes but no Whoopers.

The 400 Bird Quest - 206

Texas has been very good to me!  Especially the Rio Grande Valley at the very south tip of the state.   The area combines many on Minnesota’s wintering species plus a large number of southern “specialties” that have a limited range in the US.  Like these photos all captured near the Mexican border:  (l to r) Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, Great Kiskadee, White-tipped Dove, Northern Crested Caracara, and White-tailed Hawk

I also got to spend some time with my mother, a winter Texan, my sister, and a friend.  Delightful!

Leaving Texas with count of 206 is a big jump from 168, but I am growing concerned that 400 is a high bar for the year.  Largely because I have set my own limitation of no substantial extra travel other than that already planned.   Although it is only February and it is winter, may of the species found so far will be a “sure thing” this spring in Minnesota.  All time spent birding is a joy for me. But number-wise, with each new species found, finding the next NEW one becomes a little harder.  It will be interesting to see how it turns out.

The 400 Bird Quest - 168

Count Update: 168/400

In our last few days in Arizona we enjoyed visiting, sightseeing, hiking and birding with friends.  We got to experience the rare lunar ellipse, blue moon, blood moon combo.  I took these 2 photos just minutes apart.

Blood blue full moon 2018 AZ 2 feb 7.JPG
Blood blue full moon 2018 AZ feb 7.JPG

Here are petroglyphs etched in rock long ago by the native Americas.   I guess westerners did not invent graffiti after all?


In the Gila Mountains of New Mexico I picked up Pygmy Nuthatch, Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Mountain Chickadee, and Green-tailed Towhee.

I also had a remarkable day-hike that included Devil’s Hall canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains on the New Mexico/Texas border.   This hike included impressivs rock formations from narrow slot areas to a natural amplitheater.  

Devil's Hall Gaudalupe Mountions TX  1 feb 7.JPG
Devil's Hall Gaudalupe Mountions TX  2 feb 7.JPG

The area was parched for rain and the stream bed was bone dry except for one shaded very deep hole in solid stone.   That water attracted many birds including this junco and the  Townsend’s Solitaire and Hermit Thrush which are rarely photographed together.    Hermit thrushes mostly stay low in the forest brush.

 Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

 L to R:  Townsend Solataire and  Hermit Thush

L to R:  Townsend Solataire and  Hermit Thush

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018. 


The 400 Bird Quest - 148

Count update: 148/400

I got out for an all day hike at Lake Pleasant Regional Park, north of Phoenix and enjoyed spotting a few of the regular local birds.   I hiked 7 miles, tallied 20 species in the dry desert surrounding the lake. No year birds.  Still, what an interesting day!  I encountered 3 bands of wild burros….

They were somewhat wary, but not as much as most mammals.  I encountered them unexpectedly on a bend in a small canyon. They ran a short ways, stopped, and froze like rabbits do.   It seems like a ridiculous concealment strategy for a 350 pound critter in sparse vegetation.  Although I suppose they have few predators, so they may not care.

Walking amongst the numerous saguaro cacti, I saw just one jack rabbit.  Now and then a tiny lizard would sprint for cover with incredible speed.

 Common side-blotched lizard

Common side-blotched lizard

One huge Saguaro cactus caught my eye and I approached it with admiration.   Saguaros this big are about 200 years old.

cactus surprise 1.JPG

Impressive yes, but look closer…

cactus surprise 2.JPG

It was only when I got right up to is that I was shocked to discover this little guy…

 Grey Fox

Grey Fox

A grey fox 11 feet high resting in shade!  I knew they climb trees, but a vertical spine covered cactus?  That’s just crazy talk?  While I concede I observed it during a long remote hike in the desert sun, I assure you I did have plenty of water.  It happened.   I took the close photo first and then backed away for the others.   Eventually he jumped down awkwardly through a palo verde bush and ran off in a flash.

Later I googled “grey fox and climbing cactus”. The behavior is mentioned in the text but I could not find any photo of a fox on a cactus anywhere.

What a memorable day.

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018. 


The 400 Bird Quest - 136

Count update:  136/400  Jan 20th

My friend Leigh and I left Phoenix a few days ago for a trip to Denver.  In northern Arizona, we hit Montezuma’s Well and the Grand Canyon, then toured the Upper Antelope Canyon (slot canyon) which I recommend highly.  Then on to Arches National Park. These views are also breathtaking.  In addition to adding a few birds to the year list, we found elk, pronghorn antelope, coyote, and spooked a herd of 20-30 Javelina.  Utah yielded few notable new birds. We were mostly driving.  But we did get one flyover Golden Eagle, and saw mule deer.  After Denver, we headed south through New Mexico, then west over the Gila Mountains back to Phoenix

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018. 

The 400 Bird Quest - 115

Count update:  115/400

Thursday was my last day with Tom before he had to depart.  We enjoyed the beautiful view from high up Picacho Peak State Park before visiting Casa Granada National Monument.  Then we birded the back roads through cotton, hay, and farrow winter fields on our way back to Phoenix.  We encountered many grassland sparrows and other expected birds along the way, about 20 in all.   The best was when Tom spotted a Prairie Falcon glide across the road in front of us.   We watched it cruise low over the field until it was out of site.  What a treat! This is only the 2nd or 3rd Prairie Falcon I have ever seen.  This Falcon was clear bird of the day.

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018. 

 Spotted Towhee  photo by Jim Hughes

Spotted Towhee  photo by Jim Hughes

The 400 Bird Quest - 111

Count update:  111/400

It has been another amazing day in Arizona adding 10 new “year birds”.  Tom and I did an early walk in light rain at Saguaro National Park, through century old saguaro cacti as tall as a house (yep, that’s a real estate reference).  Next we stopped by a sewage pond in Alma, where a confused Brown Pelican has wandered far from its normal salt water range.  The highlights of the day were at the bird feeders at Santa Rita Lodge in the evergreens of Madera Canyon.  This has been a historic birder destination for many years.  We found the feeders loaded with lots of unusual species including several new year birds and one I’d never seen before: Rivoli’s Hummingbird (lifer!).  We topped off birding with dinner at Lin’s Grand Buffet.  My gravestone may well read, “I’ve never met a buffet I did not like.

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018.  Although significant, 400 is a modest “Big Year” goal for birders. A larger goal would require more travel.  The national record is around 750. 


Rivoli's Hummingbird ( formally named Magnificent Hummingbird) and Acorn Woodpecker - photos by Jim Hughes

The 400 bird Quest

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 species of birds in the USA in 2018.  In my 4+ decades of birding I have identified 414 different species of birds in the wild.    This year I hope to discover some new species for the first time (lifers) but at the same time rack up 400 total species for the year.  Yep, that is a thing. Sort of like the movie "The Big Year" but without going too far out of the way,  from plans already made.


We are nine days into the year and on a vacation to Arizona.  I casually found 48 species of common birds in the first 7 days this year.  Yesterday and today we kicked into high gear,  Life long friend and bird expert Tom joined me in the Tuscon area.  We made a visit to Gilbert Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch east of Phoenix.  Then on to Sweetwater Wetlands near Tucson. These are both sewage treatment facilities turned into parks.  It's not what you think.  They are beautiful odorless green parks loaded with birds.  We chalked up many local birds plus a couple local rarities:  Northern Parula, and Greater Scaup.  Anna's Hummingbirds were buzzing everywhere, as we walked, laughed and searched.

Today Tom's bother Bruce, a true adventurer, joined us. We made a second visit to Sweetwater Wetlands followed by a trip to the top of 9100 ft Mount Lemmon east of Tucson.   Highlights included a Steller's Jay, one bright male Vermilion Flycatcher, a flock of Cassin's Finchs (lifer!), and a Black and White warbler (rare for AZ).  Great birds and great company.  

That brings the total to 101.  It is a good start, but of course the first birds are the easy ones.  Each species only gets counted once so each new species it harder to find.


Great Egret - photo by Jim Hughes