Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Quingentésimo ABA Anual Ave 2010

Birder: a person who engages in bird-watching; bird-watcher
Lister: one that lists or catalogs

Our family and friends know we're birders. Much of our travel has been predicated on birding. The ugly fact is, we're also listers.
Sometime during the four months after leaving Wisconsin in June, it dawned on us that we were racking up annual bird sightings at a pretty good clip. Perhaps we might wind up seeing as many as 500 species in the ABA count area by year's end. ABA? Count area?
ABA: The American Birding Association, a North American non-profit organization which provides leadership, guidance and a code of birding ethics for birders. The organization does much, much more but for the purposes of this blog entry we'll stick to the part about the ABA's checklist of bird species and the ABA official count area.
The ABA checklist includes birds native to North America, regular migrants, and casual and accidentally occurring birds that have strayed into the ABA count area. The count area is defined as the 49 continental United States, Canada, the French island of St. Pierre et Miquelon, and adjacent waters to a distance of 200 miles from land or half the distance to a neighboring country, whichever is less. Excluded by these boundaries are Bermuda, the Bahamas, Hawaii, and Greenland.
Determining a boundary can get a bit nit-picky at times. For example, if you were to stand on the U.S. and Mexico border on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande River, and you saw a bird on the Mexico side, you couldn't count it as being in the ABA area. But if that same bird flew over halfway across the river toward the U.S. side or further, then bingo - it would be countable
Without going into too much detail, suffice to say the ABA has stringent guidelines, rules and procedures about what constitutes a countable bird. At present the ABA checklist stands at 957 species. So, seeing 500 ABA species in any given year - more than half the species possible - is kind of a big deal to birders like us.
Mind you, there are people way crazier than we are when it comes to chasing an annual ABA tally. Down right competitive. Some folks pursue a "big year", an attempt to see as many bird species as possible in the entire ABA count area. We believe the current record stands at 721 species. We've heard that this year a birder has been trying to beat the current record and has so far seen 714 species...and has spent over $40,000 dollars thus far (including three separate trips to Alaska). By comparison our meager quest for 500 may seem rather underwhelming.
However, consider that our attempt had to be completed in 11 months given that we are to leave the U.S. in December. In fact since we had already spent three weeks in Ecuador in February and another week in Cozumel (both non-ABA count areas) our time to accomplish our goal had been whittled to just 10 months. Also consider that we never went any further east than Ohio or Louisiana; we missed the entire east coast including bird-rich Florida. Of the 49 continental United States we only birded in 17: TX, LA, MS, TN, IL, WI, OH, MN, ND, MT, ID, WA, OR, CA, AZ, NM, and CO. We didn't do any pelagic trips to find ocean-going birds. In fact we didn't start the year with a goal of 500 in mind. It wasn't until we were nearing Texas and hit 490 that we felt we had any shot at all. It should be noted that while Tom had 490, Carol was at 488 having missed two birds that Tom had seen earlier. A Common Poorwill in CA and a Barn Owl in TX.

Spotted Owl

Bird #490 was a Spotted Owl found in Guadalupe Mountains NP followed quickly by Scott's Oriole and Gray Vireo. Wood Stork and Common Black-Hawk were #493 and #494. The count remained stagnant at 494 as we pulled into our winter site at Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort in mid-October. New birds were getting to be as scarce as hen's teeth. How come?
Well, we were running out of new birds to find. By now we had seen 49 of the possible 53 species of warblers (2 of the remaining 5 were Mexican accidentals). Of the woodpeckers we had 21 of a possible 23. We had 16 of 17 hummingbirds. We missed the Berylline's, a species we usually see when in AZ but picked up the accidental Plain-capped Starthroat. Go figure. We'd found 31 of 35 possible Tyrant flycatchers - 2 of the missing 4 were also Mexican accidentals. See where this is leading? Of 31 countable hawks, kites and eagles we had missed only 4. 3 of the missing were commonly found in areas we had not been to nor would we visit this year. Oh, and don't overlook the fact that we would miss the bulk of northern finches and owls because of our being loath to be any place that was subjected to snow, ice and freezing cold. We didn't even have an American Tree Sparrow for goodness sake (although we did have 33 of the 40 possible sparrows). Yes, there were still plenty of other birds to see - just in parts of the country we wouldn't be visiting this year.

kettle of Wood Storks

What was going to have to happen was an influx of some of the accidental and vagrant Mexican species if we were to flesh out our list. But attempts to find difficult species like White-collared Seedeater, Red-billed Pigeon and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl failed. It didn't help that several popular and reliable birding sites were closed due to earlier severe flooding. Even our next door state park was mostly closed due to damaging high water levels.
We followed TexBirds, the Texas state online bird reporting system and chatted up local birders for tips on available species. We got instructions on where to find a series of rural roads and wetlands which netted Aplomado Falcon, #495, and Purple Gallinule, #496. After a birding dry spell a Ruddy Ground-Dove appeared at Estero Llano Grande State Park. #497 was added.
Another Mexican accidental, a female Crimson-collared Grosbeak popped up at the Valley Nature Center. We spent a couple of hours scouring the grounds along with a dozen or so other birders and were just about ready to give up when we found it feeding high in an Acatia tree and alerted the other birders. #498.

wintering Mountain Plover

Then another dry spell. We attended part of the Rio Grande Birding Festival, mainly to catch up with the lads from Tropical Birding and our friend Erika Wilson from Sierra Vista who was also in attendance. Erika was the birder who so valiantly tried to find us a Spotted Owl in AZ. During the festival we learned the location of wintering Mountain Plovers, a bird we typically found in CO where they breed. Our first attempt failed. But during a second attempt the following week while on our way to South Padre Island, we found one feeding along a dusty, gravel Texas farm road. #499.
Around the same time a Rufous-backed Robin had been seen at the North America Butterfly Association property. We could see the new building and headquarters outside our RV back window from our site in Bentsen Palm Village, we were that close. Alas, after only one sighting the bird failed to appear again. However reports on TexBird had another Rufous-backed Robin being seen at Laguna Astascosa NWR. We were again headed to South Padre Island to meet a friend and Laguna was on the way - sort of. It was morning when we stopped (reports had it being seen only in the afternoons) and we didn't see it. Apparently the bird had never gotten the memo: "the early bird gets the worm".
Reports persisted on TexBird that the robin was still being seen but only in the afternoon, roughly between 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. We decided to make one more try.
On the Thursday evening before we drove the hour and a half drive to Laguna, a cold front had moved through. The overnight low had been 39. On Friday morning a stiff wind kept temperatures lower than normal. In fact a not very often heard phrase in south Texas was uttered: "wind chill". As we drove over we wondered if the weather would be a serious setback. Perhaps the robin had moved on?
At 2:30 we arrived and stood/sat/huddled with a small group of die-hards to await the robin. On the two previous days the robin had been fairly punctual; appearing about 3:00ish and again between 5:30 and 5:45. We sincerely hoped that it would be sooner rather than later but were totally committed to stay until we saw the bird. Hey, we're from Wisconsin. We know cold.
At 3:12 the cry went up, "There it is!". At the far edge of a man-made stream next to the visitor center the robin appeared, took a brief drink then retreated back into the dense shrubbery. Long enought for a positive ID. So on November 26 with just four days left to get to 500 it happened. #500.
High fives all around! Carol, who was at 497 - and now 498 - was most gracious in her enthusiastic response and support that one of us had made it to 500. Not that 498 is anything to sneeze at. It's still over half of the ABA possibles. Not too shabby. Not too shabby at all.
On our drive back we reflected on some of the "easy" birds that, for various reasons, had escaped us during the year. Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Beryllline's Hummingbird, Connecticut Warbler, Western Screech-Owl, Black-capped Vireo, and a Barn Owl for Carol. There were many more. And the year's biggest rarity?  Easily the Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. Not only a first-ever record for ABA, we were also in the group of five that counted the tiger-heron on a January 5 Christmas Bird Count that made more ABA history - the first-ever record for this species in any ABA CBC.
Ho-hum birds? A tie between House Sparrow and European Starling. The longest sought species? A previously heard-only Swainson's Warbler back in 1999. Our rule for adding a life bird is that we have to see it, not just hear it. Once a bird is a life bird though, just hearing for the purpose of adding an annual bird is fine. The most unexpected bird to show up, aside from the tiger-heron: a tie between Plain-capped Starthroat and Spotted Owl. Of the 500 species found, 17 were ABA life birds and of these, 12 were life bird ticks. Our previous 12-month annual species tally? 437.
Even with our nomadic lifestyle we are not likely to repeat hitting 500 any time soon. Not without investing in a fair amount of zig-zag traveling. Not that we prefer traveling in a straight line. We rarely do. It's just that to get high numbers one has to move quickly to be in the right spot at the right time. And it's a big count area. Maybe we'll concentrate instead on boosting our overall ABA life list. 700 is a doable goal as we both have well over 600 species (Carol more than Tom). This would mean getting out on some boats and taking pelagic trips.
Had we taken our quest more seriously earlier on who knows how many species we might have ended up with. But you'll hear no complaints from us. Birds are only part of the experience of full-timing and while birding will remain high on our list, we'd be foolish not to appreciate all the other benefits our travels have brought us. Unparalleled scenery, sampling foods of different locales, meeting and making new friends and our continuing sense of discovery.
A little perspective on our 10-month 500 ABA bird species quest. The combined number of bird species seen during two trips to Ecuador that totaled a little over a month: 739. Too bad Ecuador isn't in the ABA count area!
Speaking of Ecuador, we're departing December 1 for a three month volunteer host gig at Tandayapa Lodge in northern Ecuador. We'll return March 3 but after a little over a week's time we will depart again, this time for Costa Rica to shepherd a small group of birding friends. During our time out of the country we will have little if any reliable Internet access. So, our blog is taking a four month hiatus. Hopefully the next entry will occur sometime in April 2011. Until then, Good birding!


  1. Congrats on the 500 and thanks for the re-cap! I enjoyed the read. What a great year it's been for birding.

  2. 500 that's awesome ... I am still shooting to get 400 lifetime birds! 498 is awesome too Carol! ;-)