(Part of) 2019 in Birds

Well, it took a pandemic and a closure of my college…but I am finally catching up on photo editing and looking back on 2019. I realize that we are over 2 full months into a new year and a new decade, but I am not quite ready to leave 2019 in the history books. And, after all, it has become a bit of a personal tradition to reflect back on my year’s adventures and bird encounters. 2018 was a Very Birdy Year, thanks in large part to my sabbatical semester but I managed pretty well in 2019! I added fewer species to my life list, but many of my encounters were more intimate and meaningful. My ability to identify birds, both visually and aurally, grew this year as did my appreciation for patterns of status and distribution. But, 2019 was also the year that we learned more about the extent of impacts to bird populations and the habitats they depend on. In October, a report published in Science documented that bird populations have declined by 29% since 1970 (this is a staggering 3 billion birds). I have lots of thoughts on this, which I will better articulate in a separate post, but it is clear that translating our passion for birds into actions and choices that ensure the conservation of birds and the habitats they depend on is more timely and important than ever.

My 2019 in numbers:

  • I saw 567 species of birds (compared to 337 in 2017 and 838 in 2018)
  • The bird I most wanted to see in 2019 was the Great Gray Owl….and I did!
  • Of those 567 species, 180 species were observed in Honduras and 165 in Canada.
  • I submitted 468 checklists to eBird
  • Using eBird, I recorded 63,846 individual birds!
  • I added some new states to my eBird map– Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon
  • …speaking of Idaho, I saw my 1000th bird in 2019 – Cassia Crossbill in the South Hills of Idaho.
  • I reached a couple of other birding milestones…my 500th ABA bird (Green Jay in Texas) and my 500th US bird (the adorable Least Grebe, also in Texas).
  • My first bird of 2019 was a Western Bluebird and my very last bird was a Short-eared Owl
  • My first lifer of 2019 was a very exciting one…a Red-flanked Bluetail at the Clark Memorial Library of UCLA – one of only 2 sightings documented in California and only a handful in North America.
  • My final lifer of 2019 was a Tufted Duck at the UC Santa Barbara lagoon

I suppose it was also keeping with tradition that I did a terrible job processing and sharing photos and posting regularly here. So, in the interest of catching up with my 2020 adventures….I will just leave a few of my favorites here!

Winter

January highlights: New Year’s in the mountains, a Long-tailed Duck at Bolsa Chica, a Lifer Mew Gull, a local Western Screech-Owl, and a few 5MR highlights (Merlin, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Vermilion Flycatcher, Burrowing Owl) and new California birds at the Salton Sea (Gila Woodpecker and Red-naped Sapsucker).

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Western Screech-Owl

February was all about local adventures – at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, a female Hooded Merganser, a Sora that cooperated for some photos, and an American Pipit. An Orange County pelagic, a Santa Ana parrot-palooza, and a surprise Blue-winged Warbler!

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Sora at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary
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American Pipit
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Hooded Merganser
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Greater Roadrunner in my 5MR
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Blue-winged Warbler in Long Beach, CA
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Red-footed Booby on a pelagic trip with Sea and Sage Audubon

One of the highlights of February was an impromptu trip to Anza-Borrego State Park. October rains paved the way for an abundance and diversity of wildflower blooms. Arizona lupine, Desert gold, Desert lilies, Hairy sand verbena, Bigelow’s monkeyflower and other desert gems carpeted the forest floor. These “superblooms” attract hordes of caterpillars, a pollinator frenzy, and….lots of food for birds!!!

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Desert wildflower blooms in Coyote Canyon
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Canyon Wren in Anza-Borrego State Park
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Loggerhead Shrike in Anza-Borrego State Park
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Black-throated Sparrow

Spring

March was a busy and exciting month. I traveled to Honduras over spring break to celebrate a “milestone” birthday. It was such an incredible trip and I wishI had taken some time to write more about it at the time. This was my first time birding in central America and there were so many highlights! For example, this glittering beauty – the Honduran Emerald. This striking hummingbird is the only endemic species of Honduras, where its very limited range includes rain shadow valleys and arid thorn forests. It prefers to nectar on the tiny flowers of “Pie de Niño” (Euphorbia tithymaloides), but will also visit the flowers of Opuntia, Calliandra, and bromeliads. Sadly, but not surprisingly, 90% of the original habitat of this species has been lost to agriculture and deforestation and is now listed as an Endangered Species. Critical areas within this hummingbird’s habitat have been set aside for preservation by the Honduran government and conservation groups. On our way to “Emerald Country” we saw a whole slew of other new birds including Lesser Roadrunner, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, Double-striped Thick-knee, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Amazon Kingfisher, Mangrove Swallow, and White-lored Gnatcatcher.

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Honduran Emerald – the only endemic species of Honduras

We stayed at the incredible Pico Bonito Lodge and enjoyed incredible birds while wandering around the grounds – Greater Potoo, Little Tinamou, Pale-billed Woodpecker, and woodcreepers, honeycreepers, hummingbirds galore! I spent mornings at the lodge watching all the activity at the Miconia trees – Black-cowled Orioles, Green Honeycreeper, and White-vented Euphonia. I posted a whole bunch of pictures on Flickr, but here are a few highlights:

Two of my favorites at the lodge were the Chestnut-colored Woodpecker and Squirrel Cuckoo. The Chestnut-colored Woodpecker is a showstopper! The male, and the equally impressionable female, quickly made their way through Miconia trees before disappearing into the forest. I love how the picture below shows how effective the tail feathers are at bracing the bird against a tree as it whacks its tail against the hard wood. The Squirrel Cuckoo runs along branches and leaps more than it flies, pursuing large insects in the canopy. All the while, it drags that super long tail and truly does resemble a squirrel hopping through the trees. This conspicuous behavior is unique for a cuckoo and was just incredible to watch! This was one of three lifer cuckoos I got in Honduras (also Mangrove Cuckoo and Lesser Roadrunner).

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Chestnut-colored Woodpecker
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Squirrel Cuckoo
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Squirrel Cuckoo

My birthday was an adventure! We rode a 100-year old train to Cuero y Salado, with amazing views of the countryside and great birds along the way (lifer Mangrove Swallow, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and Groove-billed Ani). We enjoyed an incredible boat ride through the mangroves with spectacular mountain views. Mangroves dripping with aerial roots were hosts to Boat-billed Heron, Green Kingfisher, Agami Heron, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Northern Potoo, Yellow-headed Vulture, and Swallow-tailed Kite. 

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Crimson-collared Tanager

Honduras was incredible, but I was excited to return to California where the “superblooms” continued following a year of good rains. Our annual trip to the Carrizo Plain National Monument never disappoints, and this year was no exception. The wildflowers were spectacular.

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Soda Lake surrounded by Bigelow’s tickseeds (Leptosyne bigelovii) and the Temblors painted with Hillside daisies (Monolopia lanceolata)

The photos that follow were all taken in the same day – one of my favorites of spring. As we made our way south through the Carrizo, we stopped along way to enjoy the incredible scenery. The Temblors were painted in a dramatic fashion, with brushstrokes of fiddlenecks, phacelia, and goldfields. After stopping for a field of cream cups, we looked up to see a Golden Eagle soaring above. Shortly down the road, Carly and I said our goodbyes and just moments after hopping back in the car, Carly suddenly stopped, jumped out and pointed. She had spotted a den with two San Joaquin Kit Foxes popping out! This was my first encounter with this endangered species and just earlier that day we had been speculating when we might be lucky enough to come across one! Historically, this kit fox was widely distributed throughout  the San Joaquin Valley and adjacent foothills, but agricultural and development throughout the Valley has led to a dramatic and ongoing loss of their native habitat.

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The Temblors painted with goldfields, phacelia, and fiddlenecks
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San Joaquin Kit Foxes among the phacelia

It’s hard to believe, but the magic of the day followed me all the way home. Just south of the Carrizo Plain, I encountered a large flock of another threatened species, the Tricolored Blackbird. I was smiling ear-to-ear and about 10 minutes later rounded a curve to spot FOUR California Condors soaring on updrafts near a cliff face near the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (#’s 328, 480, 570, and 77). This was not my first condor encounter, so I have a few stories to share in a separate post (hint: they are the very first bird on my eBird life list!).

Spring transitioned into summer, but not before our yearly trip to Santa Cruz Island. I’ve been teaching a field course there for years, and this was one of the best-timed weekends we’ve had for wildflowers. Santa Cruz Island is easily one of my favorite places to explore in California and I’ve shared a whole bunch of photos on Flickr! Here are a few of my favorites from 2019:

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Santa Cruz Island Fox
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Island Scrub-Jay
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Calochortus catalinae
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Fairy lanterns (Calochortus albus) and Goldenstars (Bloomeria crocea)

Summer

I am lucky to have the freedom to explore over the summer, and this summer I chose to head north…to look for a Great Gray Owl, birds of the prairie, and to see some of my local wintering birds on their breeding grounds. I wrote about my route north to Canada and finding my 1000th life bird along the way (Cassia Crossbills in southern Idaho). After an incredible Big Day in Calgary, I headed east to Dinosaur Provincial Park…home to prairie grasslands, riparian woodlands, and badlands complete with hoodoos! The campground hosted a great assemblage of birds: Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird, Baltimore Oriole, Black-billed Magpie perched on hoodoos, and Common Nighthawks roosting during the day and filling the skies with their “peent” sounds near dusk.

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Who knew Canada had their very own badlands?
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Common Nighthawk at Dinosaur Provincial Park
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Pronghorn Antelope – a common fixture in the prairie grasslands

Before heading north to the Boreal Forest, I spent a bit more time exploring the prairies, in hopes of targeting some grassland specialists. The southeast of Alberta boasts beautiful scenery in a mosaic of agricultural lands. One of my most “productive” days in terms of lifers was also one of the most logistically challenging days of the trip. While trying to navigate to Tide Like, I made multiple stops to listen for some hard to spot birds. A male Chestnut-collared Longspur stopped me in my tracks and I got super lucky to spot McCown’s Longspur flushing from a pond off the side of the dirt “road” I was making my way down. Ferruginous Hawks and Swainson’s Hawks made overhead passes and sparrows flocked between the tall grasses and barb-wire fences – Vesper Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Baird’s Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow…a sparrow wonderland! I continued to make my way toward the “lake” as the road started getting muddier and muddier until my wheels started spinning. I was stuck in mud…bad. In my defense, I’ve become better acquainted with my truck since then and so this is probably a situation I could get myself out of now but I called in the reinforcements and got towed out (the mechanic that showed up seemed very perplexed as to why I was where I was!). Before I even had time to get upset over the situation, and while I was waiting for the help, I heard the distinct descending, whistling flight calls of Sprague’s Pipit. Well worth the tow!

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Sprague’s Pipits sang their lovely descending flight song. I only got quick glimpses as they hopped up from the tall glasses and took quick flight. 
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Golden Eagle near Tide Lake

After another night in the grasslands, I made my way north toward the Boreal Forest, which I approached with great anticipation. After being in the open grasslands for awhile, it felt wonderful to camp among the trees and share the forest with Red-eyed Vireo, Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-throated Sparrow, Black-throated Green Warbler, Winter Wren, Blackburnian Warbler, and more!

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The songs of White-throated Sparrows filled the boreal forest
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Views of Cold Lake through the Boreal Forest

After Cold Lake Provincial Park and Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park, I made my way west to Jasper National Park. My time in Jasper and Banff National Parks was so incredible….the breathtaking scenery, the birds, the bears and more! So much so, that I think it deserves its own post….and this is getting quite long winded. So stay tuned for: Jasper and Banff, British Columbia and Tofino, and slowly making my way home through Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.

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Summer Road Trip – all 6,143 miles of it!
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Camping in style with my Four Wheel Camper, route planning and online teaching!

One thought on “(Part of) 2019 in Birds

Add yours

  1. Wow, looks like a great year of birding! I love the roadrunner and the condors – would love to seem them one day. Also thanks so much for including pictures of the scenery – so interesting to see 🙂 Congrats on all the birdy milestones you hit this year!

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