Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Year in Birds, 2014

Red-tailed Hawk –Katy Prairie, TX

My Small Year, Revisited
A little while ago I reflected on the prospects for my first full year balancing the demands of new fatherhood with the pastime of chasing small feathered wildlife around the greater Houston area. My concept of doing a “Small Year” was essentially a manifesto of balance in contrast to “Big Year” obsessiveness. Instead of fitting life into small moments around a year of chasing birds, I wanted to do the exact opposite; fitting my hobby into the tiny cracks of time left after trying to be the best father I could. At the end of the year, I looked back and took stock of what went well, what failed horribly, and what it means.

Bonaparte's Gull
Bonaparte’s Gull – Summerville Pier, Rochester, NY

After all was said and done, it went pretty well. I met my primary goal of putting my daughter ahead of hobbies, in both my physical location and mental focus. 

Lydia in the
Which wasn’t hard…she’s adorable.

I had set a secondary goal of seeing 250 species, which was pretty ambitious[i]. I ended up managing to see 227, 6 of which I had never seen in the wild before. Not quite my target, but better than I expected. Since I made my primary goal, the secondary really didn’t matter.  These are my thoughts on the year, interspersed with some of its birds.

Snowy Plover – Galveston, TX

What went well(-ish)….
Good Baby-to-field Ratio – Part of this was due to choice and discipline, but part if it was also due to extended illness during migration (when I may have been more tempted to go farther afield).  There were no massive single day odysseys or seasons given over to nonstop bird-ery. I didn’t make any long distance jaunts to see new parks or habitats. Most of my time was spent in my own very local patch[ii], and it wasn’t at the expense of time with Lydia that I recall.

Efficiency of time –I ended up (by necessity) being pretty efficient in my time spent per species. Given the few actual excursions, I managed to see a pretty decent number of species[iii]. I’ll chalk some of it up to a growing level of knowledge and experience with my local area, and some of it up to sheer luck.

Nemesis species down – Having heroically conquered the wily Cerulean Warbler last year, my nemesis bird designation shifted to the shifty Fox Sparrow. On a trip to see relatives in Indiana, I managed to find one after enduring a long hike through bitterly freezing conditions. I then found another one a couple weeks later about a mile from my house, in 60 degree weather, near a parking lot. Ironic or not, it’s counted. My new nemesis species is the damnable Prairie Warbler.

New Species – I’ve never been someone to chase new species just for the sake of new species, even before baby time made it completely impractical. And over the past years I’ve seen much of what can routinely be seen in this area and on holiday trips, making new species a diminishing return. So seeing new species involves a good amount of luck, a little local effort, or travel. This year I was not overly lucky, I didn’t have a lot of time to exert effort, and we didn’t really go many places. Regardless, I still managed to see 6 new species[iv].

Christmas Bird Count – This was my first year as the solo leader for our Brazos Bend CBC effort. I was direly worried that the time involved in setting up and executing a ~100 person day-long event on multiple sites (complete with a lot of follow up data work) would be too much to swallow. It was tricky, but in the end worked out well. We didn’t have a record year[v], but put in a great showing and I think I put my own mark on the event. 

My Baby – completely unrelated to birds, but my little girl is astounding. Whether having lots of daddy-time helped or hindered in her achievement is debatable. She even came with me for a couple hikes.

Sanderling (edited version)
- almost a better shot
Sanderling – Galveston, TX

What didn’t work out so well…
Overall field time – I had really hoped to get out and about more. I suppose I was being somewhat optimistic in thinking I could find a lot of in-between time to capitalize on. Sickness, lack of work trips, and the small increments in which free time came were reality checks on this. I only got down to the coast once, and then only to Galveston’s public beach for a lunch break. I probably missed 20 or more species just due to this.

Migration/March-May – I was intermittently sick for much of the core of migration, which meant I missed another 20-30 species I might have easily seen with one or two trips to the coast. Of the hundreds of species that are in this region at some point in the year, many come through only during migration.

Photography – Part of being efficient with time meant that I didn’t spend a lot of time on photographing stuff[vi]. As opposed to the last few years when I’ve managed to get a couple really nice shots just through sheer numbers taken, this year’s offerings were pretty poor, with only a few highlights.

Northern Pintail – Katy Prairie, TX

What I learned…
Not a damn thing.
But seriously, it was a lot of trial and error. I felt like a bad father if I were to take a day for myself now and then. I’m still working on that balance. If anything, this year I erred on the side of staying home, which I can’t complain about. In 2015, I think the only things I’ll try to change are 1) To get the girl out with me more in general, now that she can appreciate some of what’s going on around her, 2) not be debilitating sick in general and especially not during migration, 3) make a concerted effort to get down to the coast, and 4) focus less on the list and more on the journey.
I guess the real thing I learned is what I expected at the end of last year’s migration season. I knew it was my last hurrah for a while, I knew in the grand scheme of things it didn’t really matter, and I knew I could walk away from it (mostly) without missing it too much. In those things, at least, I was right.

Canada Goose with Fall Leaf – Rochester, NY

Here are some more of this year’s birds:

Harris’ Sparrow – Houston, TX

Loggerhead Shrike – Katy Prairie, TX

Calliope Hummingbird
Mallard – Fourth Lake, Adirondacks
Calliope Hummingbird – Houston, TX

Kestrel in
Kestrel in Flight – Houston, TX

American Robin – Houston, TX

Red-Shouldered Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk – Barker Reservoir, Houston, TX

Fox Sparrow
Fox Sparrow – Eagle Creek Reservoir, Indiana

Warren Lake
Ducks in Flight – Warren Lake, Katy Prairie, TX

Snowy Egret – Barker Reservoir, Houston, TX

Field Sparrow in
  Winter Branches
Field Sparrow – Barker Reservoir, Houston, TX

Eastern Meadowlark - Katy Prairie, TX

Northern Mockingbird - Katy Prairie, TX

Tufted Titmouse – Houston, TX

Pelican laughs at your
Pelican laughs at your warnings – Galveston, TX
Song Sparrow – Eagle Creek Reservoir, Indiana

Laughing Gull – Galveston, TX
Horned Grebe – Lake Ontario, Rochester, NY

Black-throated Blue
Sharpie or
Black-throated Blue Warbler – Near Fourth Lake, Adirondacks
Bedraggled Coopers Hawk –Katy Prairie,TX

Purple Sandpiper – Rochester, NY

Hiking with Lydia in
  Bear Creek Park
Northern Flickr – Fourth Lake, Adirondacks, NY
Eastern Bluebird – Bear Creek Park, Houston, TX

Pine Warbler – Bear Creek Park, Houston, TX

Downy Woodpecker – Eagle Creek Reservoir, Indiana

Cedar Waxwing – Houston, TX


[i] For me. My high for the last 5 years is 283, so 250 in a throttled back year is relatively large number of species. In absolute terms among people who leep track of such things, probably not. Some people see that many before June. Or just in one county. Those doing ludicrous Big Years may clock 600-700 species.
[ii] Which, admittedly, contains two of the largest and wildest urban parks in the country, several other county and local parks, an Audubon bird sanctuary, a massive wetland complex, etc. It’s not exactly a dry spot for avifauna.
[iii] Numbers of species seen can be deceptive, as the totals don’t represent a linear progression of effort. The first 80 or so are pretty much gimmes. The next 60 are relatively easy. The next 40 or so take some earnest effort. The next 25 take some specific timing or preparation. And so on. When I’ve hit personally higher numbers (280+) it’s usually involved taking advantage of a good deal of travel that year.
[iv] They were: Calliope Hummingbird (local effort), Monk Parakeet (local effort), Red-cockaded Woodpecker (luck), Brown Booby (tremendous luck), Trumpeter Swan (luck), and Fox Sparrow (effort then luck). 
[v] We still managed 154 species, 4 of which were never before seen on the Count. That’s so-so for coastal Texas, where the best Count circle in the state (and country) usually has well north of 225 species (236 this year). That being said, our tally puts us in the top ~3% of the roughly 1950 Counts in the US. So, you know, not too shabby.
[vi] To illustrate this phenomenon…while out and about over Christmas in NY, I was ending a morning with a trudge down a long pier on Lake Ontario. The day was dismal, the wind was freezing, I was fairly sure I had frostbite on my butt, I was carrying 20 pounds of camera and optics around with me, and I was running late to get back before folks were up and around. At the end of the pier was the bird I’d hoped to see…a Snowy Owl, a rarity down from the Tundra. A year ago I would have spent the next 30 minutes crawling on my belly to get close enough to photograph it. This year I watched it for a few fleeting moments, looked at my camera, looked at my watch, and then trudged back to my car. More important things awaited.