(Opening photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here are highlights of our family’s Big Year for 2014. Our goal was 200 birds, but we collected 256 Species, 50 of which were in another part of the country while on vacation. It was such a fun and extraordinary hobby for the whole family, we will be doing it again this year. And it is so much a part of what we do and who we are, I’ve even created a new space just for Birding on the home page. You’re welcome, my Birding Friends.
Enjoy this little recap, and we hope you will commit to your own Big Year and get right smack dab into nature’s glory…one beautiful little bird at a time.
The First — Calliope Hummingbird
The Calliope Hummingbird was a surprise appearance to our nectar feeders in and of itself, but when he settled in across from a Rufous Hummingbird — another “life” sighting — on January 1, he kicked off our Big Birding Year in high fashion. If you don’t know hummingbirds, it is rare for individuals, particularly from different species, to share a feeder for any stretch. You can read about it in the blog post here.
The Last — Clay-colored Sparrow
A pair of Clay-colored sparrows showed up to our backyard December 30 and proceeded to eat seeds off of weeds (that I refuse to pull this time of year) just outside of our living room window. In the winter time, rather than tidy the yard meticulously (like neighbors will do), we mulch only and leave everything as it is so birds can continue to eat seeds and berries even when food is scarce. We watched them at close proximity undisturbed from the warmth of our living room.
The Best Day
Hoping to see some new warbler species, we took an Easter weekend family trip to LaFitte’s Cove in Galveston along the coast. We were not disappointed with this place — we logged 25 new species there! You can read all about our fun day, because it was just too good not to blog about.
The Worst Day
On Christmas Day, our family drove back over to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge to see if we could spot some more water birds before the closing of the year. Though I did manage to get a handful of photos from within the car, the mosquitoes were so bad outside that a body had a distinct windward and leeward side; even with a steady 15-20 mph breeze, thousands of mosquitoes would congregate on one side to voraciously bite through jeans and shirts. After one or two attempts to hike with them, the kids and I finally gave in and flat-out refused to get out of the car under any circumstance. So we went home with 1 new species (Savannah Sparrow) for all the trouble.
Of the the Yellow-throated Warbler and Red-breasted Nuthatch of last year did return, much to our chagrin.
Families — Crunching The Numbers
Of the 57 families of birds that can be found in our our area at different times of the year, we rounded out — that is 100% of the birds that can be seen — 19 of those families including Stilts, Cormorants, Crows and Jays, Falcons, Finches, Ibises, Kingfishers, Kinglets, Gnatcatchers, Osprey, Pelicans, Quail, Shrikes, Starlings, Storks, Storm-petrels, Tanagers, Vultures, and Waxwings. There were 114 species remaining in 38 families and we scored a big fat zero on 7 families including Boobys, Creepers, Frigatebirds, Larks, Parakeets, Swifts, and Verdins. You can see these missed opportunities as strike-through’s on our up-to-date and final Big Year list.
Learning Experience For All
If it wasn’t for our inability to quickly identify or take a decent snap shot for later, we might have gotten more Sandpipers, Plovers, or Sparrows. We also will have to consult our local Audubon Society to find places where we might view Owls, Nighthawks, and Cuckoos for next year. The Greater Prairie Chicken and Whooping Crane — two endangered bird species in our area — will remain high priority to see in the future; neither one graces our collective life lists.
Funniest Bird Sighting — Spruce Grouse
While driving the roads of Yellowstone National Park this summer, the truck came to a screeching halt with some apparent commotion ahead in the distance. Expecting a bear, fox, bison or some other furry critter off the road resulting in on-lookers slowing down any passing traffic, nothing seemed amiss. Why the jam? Was it an accident? We crawled along the road for a full 20 minutes. As we got closer, we noticed a man who had gotten out of his vehicle in an apparent attempt to shoo whatever it was off the road. It was a single Spruce Grouse, intent on strutting his stuff right there on the center line, causing the pile-up of dozens of cars. We added him to our list but, sadly, did not get a photo (I was on the wrong side of the vehicle).
Rarest and Luckiest Home Sighting — Great Kiskadee
We were sitting out back by our creek as we normally do on the weekend mornings early spring when I heard a faint and unknown bird call from the trees next door. With binoculars (always), Scott and I walked toward the sound to see if we could find the chatterbox. Once spotted, we shared our different “pieces” verbally from our unique positions on the ground, but neither one of us had any inkling what bird it was, much less what family he might be in (where we could begin perusing field guides). It was not until our son — a veritable bird encyclopedia of facts — came out of the house to hear our descriptions; I attempted to sing his song back to him. “Try a Great Kiskadee,” he said flatly. We looked it up in the iBird Pro — a smartphone app that allows us to look at ranges, photos, and even hear sounds — and he was…right! Not only is this bird rarely sighted in our area, but it took teamwork — with just a touch of autism — in order for him to make it onto two lists — The Big Year and our Life Lists.
Bird of the Year — Harlequin Duck
As we tucked the girls into bed for our second night in Glacier National Park this summer, I gazed once more at the Harlequin Duck photo hanging above their bed. We had been actively looking for the American Dipper since we arrived in the American West more than a week before, but I secretly dreamed about seeing a Harlequin Duck in the wild. Aside from the Wood Duck who graces our creek back home regularly, this one has to be the most beautiful, most striking duck I’d ever seen in photos, particularly as it was portrayed by this photographer.
“Tomorrow, maybe we’ll get the American Dipper along the rapids,” I told them. “Man, wouldn’t it be nice to see one of those while we’re at it.” I pointed up at the picture.
“We’ll get that Dipper, Babe,” Scott said, “but fat chance on that duck.” I dreamed anyway.
The next morning was Father’s Day and Dad wanted to spend his last full day at the park looking for birds. After spending two solid days of cold rain either driving or playing in the rec center of the hotel, it was now or never to see the wonders of this place first hand. We’d driven a long way from home, not to hit the trails.
Angie was in the lead as usual. The Trail of Cedars is one of the more popular spots in this temperate rain forest of hemlock and cedars, a long hike leading all the way up to an iconic scenic lookout on a glacial lake. Occasionally stepping off the beaten path for birding and wildlife opportunities, she took us to Avalanche Creek just a few yards off the trail. Dad put up his field lenses first and saw him straight away, down the rapids in the distance. It was a single, distinctively marked duck in the rapids.
“You will NOT believe this, but I think it may be your Harlequin Duck.” he said.
The kids thrust up their field lenses and I the camera lens. It was a Harlequin duck! The kids burst into excitement, jumping up and down, whooping and hollering, breaking the steady din of the rapids. I began rattling off shots with the camera as the rest of the family ceremoniously high-fived each other. Certain that we were looking at a bear or moose or some other large creature, curious onlookers rushed our overlook to get a photo op.
“It’s just some duck,” one hiker muttered as he went on his way. No one but a fellow birder might know the significance of a sighting like this; this was a rare opportunity to see a most beautiful subject in his natural setting.
As the commotion settled, that duck did the most incredible thing: he flew up the rapids and proceeded straight toward us! In just a few seconds, my struggling to keep him in focus with shutter fully engaged in drive mode, he ended his flight in churning water right in front of me, just a few feet away, as if to say, this, DirtNKids, is just for you. What a gift for Father’s Day that was — we got the Dipper on the same the trail soon after!
Happy New Year, Friends!
And thank you for following for another (4th) year.
Big Year 2015 Count: 9 Species