SNOWY OWL!!!!! (and other birds near Seattle WA)

The essence of a megatick is to experience a moment that money can’t buy. Megaticks therefore typically require the chaser to go well beyond the usual birding norms. And that is exactly how I felt when I saw my first Snowy Owl just outside Seattle WA. Well yes, a Snowy Owl is not what one would classify as your normal megatick, and I didn’t really go beyond the usual birding norms of many serious birders. BUT, seeing this bird required some tremendous luck, while the closest most of us Africans will ever come to seeing Snowy Owls is spotting Harry Potter’s Hedwig. Here I share short notes on the experience, and also provide an overview of other birds I saw during my first visit to the Pacific Northwest. For the record, I think it’s appropriate to mention I also saw Emperor Goose (probably closer to a true mega than Snowy Owl), while I am also really really grateful for my girlfriend who allowed me to borrow her point-and-shoot camera, since my DSLR is broken :(

Snowy Owl at Ocean Shores WA, March 2012

Snowy Owl at Ocean Shores WA, March 2012

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First casual, then blizzard birding: mid-winter in Istanbul

(with contributions by Lesley Starke)

During my annual trip to South Africa, it has become customary to first find the cheapest plane ticket, and thereafter see how I can maximize my lifelist gains. This year took me through Istanbul in Turkey, which initially really excited me because I’ve never really birded mainland Europe before. But 2011 was going to be different, because my lovely girlfriend, Lesley, joined me for my trip to South Africa– she also happens to have wanted to visit Istanbul for ages. To try to bring some sanity to our trip, she convinced me to put down my binoculars for this layover and do the things normal tourists apparently enjoy. I guess something had to give after our California extravaganza. In reality however, the birding break came at an opportune time as I was rather tired after a month of traveling Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand prior to Turkey (with a one day lay-over in the US in between!). As such, I hope you tolerate that I deviate somewhat from the norm in this post. The written section of this post will mostly focus on birds, while the photos will mostly chronicle the many wonderful Turkish attractions we visited during my first visit (mid December), and a blizzard birding experience during my second visit to Istanbul (end January).

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A day on the Great Ocean Road, with a little taste of Melbourne

Many thanks to Jan and Nerine Erasmus for hosting and making my trip so enjoyable (it was great seeing you both!), and the members of CEED for making me feel welcome at their awesome conference.

Despite the rivalry between Australia and South Africa’s rugby and cricket teams, Australia has always fascinated me. Much of this fascination stems from my interest in weird and wonderful wildlife. After all, which naturalist would not be flummoxed by a mammal with a duck bill and that lays eggs? Or a hedgehog that lays eggs? Or boxing kangaroos? Not to mention the real home of the cockatoos, lorikeets, budgies, and cockatiels that we keep as pets. My fascination with Australia grew stronger during my early graduate years, when papers such as Margules & Pressey’s “Systematic Conservation Biology” made a lasting impression during my formative years as conservation ecologist. Yet, in choosing a PhD destination, I resisted going to Australia because so many South Africans have/are currently immigrating to the continent, and I didn’t want to be simply part of a trend. But, as I continued working on my PhD in the USA, it became clear that Australia’s academics have become leaders in the conservation planning business. With strong personal and even stronger professional interests, I decided that it was time to pay the continent a visit. The main catalyst was a Society for Conservation Biology conference in New Zealand, with an invitation to the inaugural CEED conference combined with a visit to my dear undergraduate friends Jan and Nerine Erasmus sealing the deal. While birding was limited (and preparation even more so), I still managed to see 68 species during a very non-birdy four days in and around Melbourne, the capital of Victoria. Here I share some of the highlights of my trip.

Koala, in the Great Otway National Park, 2 December 2011

Koala, in the Great Otway National Park, 2 December 2011

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Migration Fallout!!!! in the Florida Keys

End 2010 I started working with the USFWS to design a monitoring protocol for the federally endangered Miami Blue butterfly. This butterfly was historically restricted to the coastal areas of southern Florida, but through habitat loss its range has declined so much that it was considered extinct for a few years, until USFWS personnel discovered an isolated population on the Marquesas Keys, part of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge and situated 15km west of Key West. One of the perks of developing this monitoring protocol was regular trips to Key West. Hard life, I know :) Anyway, one of these trips happened during mid October 2011. Frustratingly, I wasn’t able to get to the Marquesas during my week-long visit to the area – the sea was just too rough for the 15km flats-boat ride. Being stuck on the mainland during a storm during migration season however had one massive advantage! MIGRATION FALLOUT!

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Tricky bleached Glaucous-winged Gulls!

Update, Oct 1, 2015: Then there are individuals like this Mew Gull, also seen in the Bay area, which seems more leucistic than bleached. Or maybe just the primaries are bleached? Who knows.

During our July trip to the Bay Area, my girlfriend Lesley and I encountered two rather strange pale gulls. The first was at Zmudowski State Beach, and the other on the Golden Gate Beachfront. Acknowledging that I do not have much experience with confusing gulls, I originally thought both birds were Glaucous Gulls, based on my Alaskan experience with this species. But further investigation revealed these are actually a bleached juvenile Glaucous-winged Gulls.

Tricky bleached Glaucous-winged Gull, at Zmudowski State Beach, CA, July 2011

Tricky bleached Glaucous-winged Gull, at Zmudowski State Beach, CA, July 2011

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Mid-summer birding in Northern California

(with contributions by Lesley Starke)

It’s always exciting when friends tie the knot. It’s even more exciting when the reception is at an exciting (read birding) destination. This about sums the situation when my friends Scott Loarie and Jessica Yarnall recently got married in the heart of California’s Sonoma County. As this was my fourth visit to California, one would imagine this trip would turn into a rather relaxed cleanup session. However, as it turns out, I had company this time, with my girlfriend Lesley bravely embarking on her first ever power birding trip. True – couples twitching together for the first time can be a dangerous proposition. But Lesley was mentally well prepared – she’s read this blog, and had prior experience of day-long twitching sessions (in fact, the birding hobby bit her during some twitching in Boston!). So she was excited about the prospects without any illusions.

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South-western USA birding in late March

My long-time birding friend Duan Biggs happens to find reasons to travel to the USA on a near-annual basis. Those reasons will of course diminish as Duan’s North American birdlist grows. But until then, I’ll be sure to clean my schedule to mix catching up and a little bit of twitching during Duan’s trips. This year a meeting Duan attended in Arizona provided the catalyst. Needless to say, convincing me to jump on a plane en route to lots and lots of lifers didn’t take much effort. Here I chronicle our trip through eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.

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Mixing work and birding in Northern Ireland/England

Though it may not be that obvious from reading this blog, the reality is that I do sometimes work to make a living, currently mainly revolving around finishing a PhD. To keep me sane through this process, I maintain some ‘academic baggage’ from previous positions. The most exciting of these are perhaps the work I do on cheetahs. Working in collaboration with the South African Research Station of Global Vision International, and Gus Mills (with the Tony & Lisette Lewis Foundation), Michael Scantlebury (at Queen’s University-Belfast) and I collect detailed behavioral notes of known individual cheetahs followed continuously for three weeks at a time. Each of the cheetahs we follow is fitted with radio-collars on which we also attached gps devices and accelerometers (collecting movement data in 3D). We will use this data to quantify the energetic output of cheetah behavior, including the cost of hunting, and the impact of kleptoparasitism from other larger predators on a cheetah’s energy reserves. Our project marks the first attempt to quantify the energetic cost of specific behaviors on a free-living large mammal.

 Being successful in acquiring funding for this work has some perks, notably through visits to collaborators. One such opportunity presented itself in February 2011, when I visited Mike in Belfast. Birding was limited during this time, but I did manage to squeeze in a few hours of birding to expand my rather small UK bird list. Here I provide brief notes on my Belfast visit, which included a weekend in Manchester (England) from where we explored the surrounding area. As I did not maintain a comprehensive trip list I will not provide an annotated bird list at the end. Also, as birding was rather low on my radar during this trip I’m also not providing detail about birds I missed (there were many).

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Puerto Montt Storm-petrels a new species!

So yes, there we have it. The Puerto Montt storm-petrels I wrote about a while ago, turned out to be a new species. Originally found by two birders from Oregon, the (new) species status of the storm-petrels off Chile was confirmed during an expedition led by Peter Harrison. It also emerged that two skins at a Buenos Aires museum turned out to be of this petrel, rather than Elliot’s Storm-petrel, as originally thought. And this species is quite common – Harrison’s expedition saw over 1500 sightings of this species in just four days, and estimated the population to be over 10,000 individuals in the region, making it one of the most common seabirds in the area. Twelve birds were collected for scientific descriptions of the new species, and we eagerly await to hear what the new name would be.

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Summer 2010 in Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe

For any twitcher, the first step to amass a decent world-list is to make sure you build a sizeable lifelist at home. My formative years in southern Africa was rather productive in this regard, as birder friends frequently invited me on the odd twitching trip. In the process, I even managed to tick a few species hard on a global scale, such as Asiatic Dowitcher and White-winged Flufftail. Somehow however, the desert riches of Namibia remained unexplored, and, being a student residing in the United States, seemed somewhat out of my reach at least in the near future. Some unexpected potential to visit Namibia started to develop towards the end of 2010, because I decided to skip my customary birding trip between connecting flights in route to my annual visit to family in South Africa. My biggest obstacle remained finding trip companions, since most of my South African birder friends already twitch Namibia, and I didn’t really know the newer generation of South African twitchers. An email to a long-time birding friend Dewald Swanepoel therefore led to a protracted episode of euphoric hysteria when Dewald not only expressed interest in joining the trip, but also dragged Justin Nicolau into the fold. What followed was three birders counting the days until the trip started. After getting all but three of our Namibian targets with five days to spare, our unbridled spirit for adventure subsequently took us through Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe. Top top it all, we walked straight into the maelstrom of rarity mayhem back in South Africa, and finished off with a regional whopper in the form of Golden Pipit. This report chronicles our two-week bumper birding trip during which we saw over 450 bird species!

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