Monday, February 12, 2018

The Best Birding

Prairie birds have left a lasting, indelible mark on my soul. It didn't make the list today, but I highly recommend birding the prairies and wetlands of eastern Montana and western North Dakota during the warm months. This friendly Chestnut-collared Longspur was at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Montana.

Great birding. Don't you love it? Is that question even necessary? I would argue that with all the different ways birders get their kicks now, it is. Now I'm not talking about watching a Black-backed Oriole of dubious origins at a Pennsylvania bird feeder, or driving 7 hours to chase a Northern Parula because it is in a county you have not seen one in before, or the time you had to elbow your way through a crowd of crazed photographers to see your first Snowy Owl...I'm talking about actual great birding. Birding that sticks with you for a lifetime, and the birding that will surface in your mind while you lie on your deathbed, if only for an instant. While some perpetually chase the rarity dragon (or the bizarre County Bird Dragon) without reprieve, others have seen the light and set aside time and resources in search of great birding. Truly great birding often means travel to faraway places and getting drenched in bucketloads of lifers, but not always! Just because familiarity breeds contempt doesn't mean some of the most monumental birding you've ever experienced could not have happened in your own state, or (if you are really lucky) your own county.

Every now and then I get asked about the best places I've birded, and that question is blog fodder without doubt. I've finally given it enough consideration, and so this post is birthed into the Birdosphere. Below, in no particular order, are the places where I've had the best birding experiences. I won't claim they are actually the best places in the world to bird or anything, but these are the places where I've had my greatest successes. It's a bit heavy on California (what do you expect?) and a bit light on Ecuador (never been there), but I had a lot of fun putting this list together. Lots of memories of good times, some bad, but without exception, fantastic birding.

El Cielo Biosphere Preserve (and environs), Mexico - Just like Justyn ("JUH-STEEN") did before me, I had my first taste of tropical birding at El Cielo Biosphere Preserve and surrounding areas in the state of Tamaulipas. The quality of the birding there was unlike anything I'd ever encountered north of the border...Singing Quail, Blue-crowned (now Blue-capped) Motmots, Blue Mockingbirds, Crimson-collared and Hooded Grosbeaks, tanagers galore, Crescent-chested and Fan-tailed Warblers, rampaging mixed flocks the size of Rhode Island, etc. Oh yeah, and this is all less than a day's drive from Texas! That's right, you can wake up in the United States, drive for a while, and be looking at Bat Falcons and Squirrel Cuckoos before the sun begins to set...for you birders wholly focused on the ABA Area, the birds of the Lower Rio Grande Valley are just the tip of the avian iceburg, if you know what I'm saying. Anyways, at some point while we were there I think my face completely melted off my head and dripped into the leaf litter; fragments were carried off into the underbrush by enterprising Spot-breasted Wrens and Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens. Birding there really messed with my priorities in life, and things have never been the same.

The ongoing war with the cartels in Tamaulipas is a huge bummer on many levels...birders essentially no longer having access to the entire state (for safety reasons) is a minor one compared to people dying and families being torn apart, but since we are birders it still sucks. I believe there are currently three cartels in the state currently warring with one another, not to mention warring with the Mexican government. I have no photos from here because one of the cartels relieved me of my camera later in the trip (not near the preserve). I'd absolutely love to come back to this place someday though, if and when things ever settle down.

Red-footed Boobies cuddle at their nest in a Naupaka bush on Eastern Island at Midway Atoll. How can you describe such faces? I suggest that they are "dreamy".

Midway Atoll -  I've blogged extensively about Midway here, so I'll keep this short and sweet. Being among the seabirds at Midway is amazing, and that is not hyperbole. The other birds there ain't bad either (i.e. Laysan Ducks, piles of Pacific Golden-Plovers, Bristle-thighed Curlews). The birding here is quality over quantity for sure - you will never rack up a huge species list, but your experiences with the birds that are here will stay with you forever. Nothing I can say really does it justice. I do hope I can go back someday, but in case I don't at least I won't miss the horrible centipedes. I hate them.

Braulio Carillo National Park (Quebrada Gonzales), Costa Rica - On my lone trip to Costa Rica (seems like it's time for another) I was able to cover a large part of the country, lifering constantly and finding great birding more days than not. With that said, the birding at this particular site really stands out in my mind still. Some of the best mixed flocks I've seen in my life have been here - they were nothing short of spectacular. I'm not even going to tell you what we saw, it won't come close to capturing the size and diversity of the flocks here. I didn't even bother trying to take photos of birds here - that's right, the birding was too good to even bother with photography. If you are going to find yourself birding the Sarapiqui region at any point, DO NOT miss this site.

Also, we totally dipped on Snowcap and Black-crested Coquette at a reliable site just down the road from there, and I'm still pretty torn up about it. Redemption and vindication on this front are much desired.

Almost everyone who has seen Buller's Shearwater well has become enamored with them, and I am no different. Can't wait to see more of these squid-fiends this year. Photographed somewhere west of Half Moon Bay.

Pelagic Trips out of Half Moon Bay, California - I've done more of these than I can remember, and some of them were pretty poor, but there have been so many good ones! We have had some truly great days out there. The seabird diversity can be fantastic, and it is one of the best places in the country to see large numbers of storm-petrels, which includes four regularly-occurring species. I've seen five murrelet species on those trips, and had the honor to be out on the water the day of the Salvin's Albatross. Looking forward to getting back out there.

Blackburnian Warbler is a big deal to a lot of people. This is totally justified. Photographed at the community center on South Padre Island.

South Padre Island, Texas - I've harped on this a lot over the years, but I cannot emphasize enough how different migration is in the western U.S. than it is in the east. There is a reason that California birders are like "oh spring will be here soon, I guess that's cool, some year birds are coming, Lazuli Buntings are pretty" and eastern birders are like "FUCK YES SPRING YES YES YES YES PLUNGE THE WARBLER SYRINGE INTO MY CHEST". Hell, the last BB&B post (RETURN OF THE GERI) was all about birding the Texas coast. Anyways, this is a great migrant trap and I got really addicted to birding there during spring migration, but it's all done in a pretty strange setting.

Yellow-throated Warbler was one of many migrants that had a layover at Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park. I can see why everyone goes in spring, but I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of species recorded on a multi-day October trip.

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida - I was there in October for several days (we camped)...a great time was had by all, and though some days were better than others, the birding was generally very satisfying. No one really birds it in fall, so I didn't know what to expect, but I left with a full heart and a sizable island list. Talk about a scenic migrant trap, goddamn! What a fun place to bird. Some of the newly arrived migrants were really tame, such as the Black-throated Blue Warbler that landed on our picnic table and the Ovenbird that foraged beneath it. There weren't even any Sooty Terns or noddies around (we were too late in the season) and the drip wasn't even running (I overheard some poorly uninformed woman who worked there claim it would prevent birds from migrating south for the winter...astounding), and it was still pretty sick. Need to go back in spring.

A Black Skimmer pulls up after slicing through the waters of Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge (Wister Unit) at the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea, California - The Salton Sea has a special place in the hearts of many. There is nowhere else like it, especially when you consider the human aspects, landscape, habitats, smells and birds as a whole. Birding the sea used to be, well, phenomenal. The sheer numbers of birds was staggering. It's still pretty good, but water levels have declined greatly over the last 20 years and a lot of formerly great spots are high and dry, and the salt and the pollution in what's left is even more concentrated; it's been some years since I birded it but those seemingly unending flocks of birds that used to be such a constant are getting harder and harder to come by. Sadly, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks have disappeared entirely and no Wood Storks have been seen since 2015. Yellow-footed Gulls continue to be dependable at least. The future of the sea is completely uncertain at this point, and it's anyone's guess what the birding will be like in a few decades...but it was glorious.

I try to reacquaint myself with Flame-colored Tanagers every couple of years; the mountains of Nayarit and Jalisco are a great place to do this. This one was parked above an army ant swarm at Sierra de San Juan in Nayarit.

Nayarit and Jalisco, Mexico - This one is really cheating. I can't just throw in two entire states can I? But I did. There are birding sites galore. There is a vast menu of mouth-watering species possible, including regional endemics. There is a lot of variety in elevation, and thus a lot of different habitats. The river trip with Chencho up Rio Lo Tovara is not to be missed! And unlike other parts of the country, there is a lot of high-quality, accessible habitat in these states, and you aren't forced in to birding from the side of a highway very much. I think these states often get overlooked by gringo birders in favor of Oaxaca, Chiapas or the Yucatan Peninsula, but they require your attention, I assure you.

I have no memory of taking this photo, but stoked I unearthed Olive-sided Flycatcher with a tarantula hawk! If this was a female (who possess the famously potent stinger), this is a seriously badass prey item. Photographed at Galileo Hill.

Kern County California oases - Some of the rarities southern California gets really grip me off (Olive-backed Pipit quickly comes to mind), but I really miss birding the desert in late spring and fall, especially the Kern County sites. Galileo Hill might as well have been built by birders for the sole reason to make a giant migrant trap in the middle of the desert - that's not what it is meant for, but that is what it is. In the last few years, state megas like Buff-breasted Flycatcher (the state's first), Gray-cheeked Thrush and Red-faced Warbler have turned up here. California City is not really what it used to be, but Butterbredt Springs is still legendary. Lots of birds, lots of variety, lots of rarities and some distinct weirdness at these sites, and I wish they weren't so far away.

Did you know that Crested and Least Auklets form giant murmurations that rival any flock of sandpipers, blackbirds or starlings? I didn't either, until I got to the Aleutians. It's really something to behold...a magical experience even, particularly when you have the privilege of having these flocks zooming by a few feet overhead. This is an uncropped, unshrunken photo by the way, feel free to double click for a better look at the birds.

Buldir Island, Alaska. Working and living on Buldir was more like being a part of a wildlife spectacle than birding, though we certainly put in our time searching for Sibes and found a modest number of them. By Buldir standards, I was there on a relatively poor year for vague runts (in the next couple of years after I was there, Eurasian Bittern and Eurasian Oystercatcher were recorded!), but I can't complain very much. The seabirds Both the numbers and diversity that nest there are on a whole other level, the likes of which I may not see again. You end up getting attached to birds like Whiskered Auklets and Red-legged Kittwakes, especially if you have to handle them, which is a trip in and of itself.

Honorable mentions of areas that didn't quite make this post go to southeast Arizona, large chunks of Costa Rica, the prairies of Montana and North Dakota, Point Reyes (CA), and the good old Oxnard Plain (CA), which is what I was reared on. And yes yes yes I know how great [insert country here] can be, but chances are I haven't been there yet, no need to convince me. Obviously, a great deal of birding needs to be done in places I've never been before, and just exploring the lands (and seas!) of this continent will take many more years to come.

But I have to ask...what would you put on your list? Anywhere that people wouldn't immediately think of? Light up those comments nerds.


  1. I grew up less than 10 miles from South Padre Island, and I knew I was living in a great birding area, but I mostly took it for granted. But it tore me up inside knowing that there were so many great tropical birds around the Gomez Farias/El Cielo area that were unavailable to me, as I had no way of getting there. I made up for that once I got into college, making three trips to that area in the late 80s and early 90s. Hearing - and then seeing - a pair of Military Macaws flying over the clearing I was standing in on my first trip there still rates as one of my favorite birding moments of all time.

    1. Awesome. I was really stoked to finally see them on my last Mexico trip (in Jalisco state), that's a bird I wanted to see for a very long time.

  2. Lost Maples State Natural Area (not sure why it isn't a state park, but you know-Texas). Of course Golden-cheeked Warbler (lots of 'em) and Black-capped Vireo (fewer, but regular) are the main draws in the summer, but spring migration can be amazing. Some years, it's almost like birds stop there before going either east (Indigo Bunting) or west (Lazuli Bunting)-kind of like the Atlanta airport.

    1. Awesome. I've heard nothing but good things about that place.