Category Archives: Birding

Planning an International Birding Trip

So Neil and I had decided to go to South Africa on our birding trip (as I discussed in my last post), but we had no idea where to go or what there was to see. The next step was to gather information. A lot of information. For this phase of the trip planning, it’s helpful if you like to play with data. The first thing I did was order Princeton Field Guide’s Birds of Southern Africa, 4th edition, by Sinclair et al.

This book has seen some wear and tear…

I love this book. It has thorough coverage of the entire region, outstanding artwork, informative text, and a great layout (with drawings, text, and range maps for each bird organized together on facing pages). The first thing I did was just flip through the book, looking for “cool birds,” and noting in which part of the country they could be found.

Wanna see some awesome barbets? Check out the northeast quadrant of the country!

I also ordered the Southern African Birdfinder book by Cohen et al. It covers all of South Africa, in addition to several neighboring countries like Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.

One of the things I really liked about this book was the huge (3 ft x 2 ft) foldout map that came with it, showing all of the hotspots listed in the book. The map really helped to give me some perspective on South African geography.

The Birdfinder book was definitely helpful, but certainly not sufficient. It has about 200 pages to cover South Africa’s nearly half a million square miles. At almost twice the size of Texas, South Africa is a vast country covering a huge multitude of habitats. I needed more information, and I turned once more to eBird. The trusty Explore Hotspots feature suggested that popular birding areas with high species diversity included the northeastern part of the country and the southwest near Cape Town.

As I didn’t have time to cover the entire country, I decided to focus my attention on the northeast quadrant. I liked the look of those orange and red pixels. Zooming in, I could see many different promising hotspots. What was that really dark red one about 200 km northeast of Johannesburg? Nylsvley Nature Reserve! According to eBird, 385 species have been recorded there.

Notice that there are buttons in the dialog box to see Bar Charts and View Details. The Bar Charts button takes you to an annotated list of species, showing each one’s relative abundance every week of the year.

You can change the dates to include only species that are there during certain times of the year, say the austral winter between June and August. But the coolest feature is located at the bottom of the bar chart. There is an option to Download Histogram Data in the bottom right corner.

Once you download the data from eBird, you can copy it into the spreadsheet of your choice. Now the real fun begins! I averaged the frequency of observations for each species for all of the weeks from June through August for Nylsvley Reserve.

So we really shouldn’t have been surprised to see Ostriches at Nylsvley – they are recorded there on 28.4% of eBird lists during the austral winter. I guess I was just surprised to see them IN MY FACE.

I poked around the map of northeastern South Africa using eBird’s Explore Hotspots feature until I had a couple dozen sites picked out, and downloaded all of their data into a single Excel workbook. I cross-referenced this list of possible sites with the Birdfinder book, and made sure to add any locations recommended by the authors. I put each hotspot in its own separate tab. Then I made a master checklist of every common species in South Africa (thanks to eBird for that as well). By using the VLOOKUP function, I was able to see the frequency for each species at each different location on the master list tab.

I used the MAX function to determine the best place to see each bird. A column using the SUM function gave me a rough idea how common and widespread each species was. Using these columns, I created a custom abundance code for each species at these couple dozen selected locations. I let “1” be the code for the most common 100 species, “2” be the code for the next 100 most common species, and so on. This gave me a shorthand way think about how “findable” each species is, for studying and planning purposes. I added conditional formatting which highlighted in orange better than average places to see each bird. By summing the total probabilities for each site, I could also get a rough idea about how important each site was, and how long I might want to spend at each place.

Not being familiar with South Africa previously, I decided that I needed to see visually where all of these new hotspots were. The map from the Birdfinder book was helpful, but it didn’t include all of the new locations I found on eBird. Also, I didn’t know how long it would take to get from place to place. Neil and I used the “My Map” feature on Google to create a custom map showing the locations of all of the promising hotspots we had found.

Google My Map showing NE South Africa

Google maps also helped us figure out how long it would take to drive from one birding site to the next. I was a little skeptical about how accurate these drive times would be, but they turned out to be excellent estimates.

We also needed a place to spend the night. Neil suggested that if we drank enough coffee, we could bird 24 hours a day for several weeks straight. I insisted that we sleep at least some every night. He grudgingly agreed. Google once again helped us find places to stay near the locations we wanted to go birding.

Apparently Dinonyane Lodge is just minutes away from Nylsvley – and 3.8 stars for about $51/night!

I cross-referenced the accommodation suggestions I found with TripAdvisor and the accommodation’s own website (if they had one). South Africa was surprisingly inexpensively. Every place that Neil and I stayed was clean, safe, and quite comfortable, and we usually spent between $20 to 35 each per night. You could frequently get a delicious hot meal for $2 to 4. I was pleasantly surprised by both the quality and value to be had in food and accommodations throughout the country.

By this point, we were constructing a tentative daily itinerary for our trip.

The itinerary starts to take shape

Then we hit a bit of a snag. We had planned to stay at least four nights in world famous Kruger National Park, but the dates for our arrival there coincided with the week of Nelson Mandela’s birthday (July 18). Mandela is, of course, a national hero in South Africa, and many South Africans go on holiday to celebrate his birthday. Some of the rest camps where we wanted to stay overnight in Kruger, like Satara and Skukuze, were completely booked up. This was a real problem, since the only place to stay in all of vast Kruger Park is the official rest camps, operated by South African National Parks (SANParks). I was really surprised by the unavailability of places to stay, given that our trip was still almost six months away. In the end, flexibility and persistence paid off. We snagged one of the last few “bungalows” available at Letaba and Oliphants rest camps, and I continued to check for openings at the other rest camps on a daily basis. One day I spied an opening at Skukuze, and grabbed that one, too. We were almost set.

As our itinerary on the ground firmed up, we were also shopping for car rentals and flights. Neil reserved us a great all wheel drive small SUV that would be perfect for our epic road trip across the southern tip of Africa. Using Expedia, Kayak, and Google Flights, I figured out that I could get a ONE STOP flight from Seattle to Johannesburg (with a layover in Dubai) for about $1100 round trip on Emirates. Not too bad! I was even more impressed when I discovered that South Africa is pretty much on the exact opposite side of the world as Seattle. There is a cool website that allows you to find the antipode (direct other side of the world) of your current location. It turns out if you tunnel directly down through the center of the earth starting at my house, you pop out in the Indian Ocean southeast of South Africa.

Here’s a trivia question for you geography buffs out there. If you fly the shortest route from Seattle to Dubai (the great circle route), what direction do you head leaving Seattle? The answer will appear in a future post!

Our major planning was nearly complete at this point. Neil surprised me by sending me a beautiful custom spiral-bound book for our trip.

It included all manner of checklists, logs, maps, accommodation and travel details, info from the internet, etc. In addition to having all of our critical info in the same place, it provided a fun place to record our sightings every evening in South Africa over a couple of beers.

At this point, we had answered some of the most important questions surrounding our trip: Where to go? Where to stay? How to get there? What will we see? But there was one major bit of preparation that remained: How will we identify what birds we are hearing and seeing? Since our trip would be almost entirely self-guided, it would be up to us to learn about 450 South African birds by sight (and a smaller number by sound as well). This enterprise would turn out to be challenging and full of hard work, but also fun and interesting. I will detail more about this process in my next post.

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South Africa Birding Adventure: A How To Guide

Edging along the dirt path through the thorn scrub forest, I could almost see the watering hole in the distance. The early morning sun was starting to warm my back, and I unzipped my lightweight jacket but did not take it off. A cisticola rattled, unseen, in the nearby weeds. My friend Neil was a few steps up the path (as usual), and already peering through his binoculars. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the dry vegetation was bathed in the golden light of an July winter morning. “I see some blesbok, and some wildebeest… and I think a Marabou Stork,” whispered Neil. Three days earlier I was packing my bags in summery Seattle. Now I was exploring the wildlands of the Nylsvley Nature Reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo province. There was a rustling through the trees, a stone’s throw distance away. I froze. Neil glanced up from his binoculars. There was silence. Then came the crashing sounds of a large animal moving towards us. I caught a glimpse of something dark and shaggy bounding in our general direction. An 7-foot male ostrich burst onto the path, gave us a quick look, and then slipped away back through the forest. My eyes were big as saucers, my mouth had formed a round “O” shape but no sound had escaped my lips. I looked at Neil, whose face mirrored mine. Then he grinned, and said, “Welcome to Africa.”

When I told some of my friends that I was planning an independent birding trip to South Africa, they were quite surprised. How will you know where to go? How do you know where to stay? How do you know what birds you’ll see, or how to identify them? Is it safe? How will you get around? While an international birding trip, like our visit to South Africa, certainly requires some advance planning, it’s not a particularly difficult task. And traveling by yourself or in a small group can be hugely rewarding and much cheaper than going with an organized tour. In this post and the ones that follow, I’ll explain how I planned and executed my recent birding trip to South Africa.

The first step is to figure out if you are travelling alone or going with a group. For this trip, my traveling companion would be Neil Hayward, famous birder, author, adventurer, retired biochemist, and international man of mystery. I first met Neil during my big year in 2013, and we spent four memorable days birding Nome, Alaska. In 2015, we birded our way across Costa Rica for two weeks in August.

Neil Hayward, in his element

Neil checks all of the boxes for a birding buddy. He is a brilliant birder, adept at spotting skulking individuals and ID-ing cryptic species. He can survive for days on a diet of dried almonds and coffee, and is comfortable driving all manner of vehicles on both the left and right sides of the road. His boundless energy and enthusiasm are matched only by his encyclopedic knowledge of ornithology and his dry but hysterical sense of humor.

The next step was deciding on a destination. Neil and I talked about a number of different options, including Peru and Ecuador, southeast Asia, Australia, and South Africa. I perused the eBird.org website, using the Explore Hotspots feature. This function allows you to see where other people have submitted checklists, and color-codes the established hotspots according to the number of species which have been observed there (as recorded on eBird). Higher numbers of species diversity is indicated by warmer colors. Thus, if you want to see a lot of species, it helps to go someplace red and orange on the maps.

Latin American eBird Hotspots

Central America was promising, but we just went there in 2015. Peru and Ecuador were strong contenders, and we debated about planning a trip there.

Australasia Hotspots

Southern and southeast Asia were also very promising. We investigated several countries in that region of the world, but ultimately decided that this was not the time for them for several reasons. (One reason was that our travel window in July was extremely hot and/or rainy in many of these destinations.) Eastern Australia was tempting, but both Neil and I had been there before, and we decided to save that for another trip.

Africa eBird Hotspots

And then there was Africa, a continent that neither of us had visited. After some research, we settled on South Africa. The country has a mix of many different ecosystems hosting a huge array of avian species. Visiting South Africa is very safe and relatively inexpensive, and the people there are very friendly. Their infrastructure is excellent, with good roads and lots of birder-friendly places to stay. There are also excellent field guide and bird finding books, and a lot of information on eBird and other websites about where to go and what to see. It was now time to begin to plan our trip in earnest, which is the topic of my next post.

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The Canyons Keep Calling Me Back

It’s spring break, which means some folks are headed to Myrtle Beach.  Some lounge around on the couch and watch a lot of TV.  One teacher friend of mine curled up with a big stack of English papers and a green pen (yikes!).  I traveled to southeastern Arizona for some quality time alone in the deserts and canyons.

Saguaro National Park

Well, not alone exactly – I went to spend some time with the birds of the arid Southwest.  April is a great time to visit.  The weather was beautiful during my trip, mostly sunny with highs in the 70s to 80s depending on the elevation.  I have to say that even though it is more pleasant temperature-wise in April, not all of my favorite birds are really back yet from their wintering grounds (I’m looking at you, Red-faced Warbler!).  May, and even late July and early August score slightly higher on the cool bird index.  Still, it was a great week here in Arizona.

Magnificent Hummingbird

Hummingbirds were a highlight.  I’ve seen nine species, which isn’t too bad.  A late summer visit can net you 12-15, depending on how many rare ones are about.  The one pictured above is the aptly named Magnificent Hummingbird.  Light refracts off of special feathers on its head and neck giving rise to amazing iridescence in the sunlight.  Even in the shade, they can look pretty remarkable.  The one below is a male Broad-billed Hummer.

Broad-billed hummingbird

While the deserts have a few specialty species, many hummingbirds are found at slightly higher elevations.  I had some good hummingbird watching in Madera Canyon, Miller Canyon, and Ramsey Canyon.  Speaking of the canyons, another one of my favorite canyon birds is the Acorn Woodpecker.

Acorn Woodpecker

They look (and act) just like clowns.  I love to watch their noisy antics.  Acorn Woodpeckers are a fascinating species.  They often live in loose colonies, and practice cooperative breeding strategies in which not only the two biological parents but also other members of the colony participate in raising the young.  The colony also usually maintains a “granary tree” – which is a tree or snag that is used for storing copious numbers of acorns.  A woodpecker drills a small hole, and then stuff a single acorn in so that it fits tightly.  A granary tree many contain thousands of cached acorns.

While I was in Ramsey Canyon at the Nature Conservancy preserve there, I noticed that the next door Ramsey Canyon Inn is for sale.

Photo Apr 07, 7 36 44 AM

I’m very happy as a teacher, but in my daydreams I think it would be awesome to cash in all my savings and run a birder’s B&B somewhere.  It’s probably a ton of work, and not nearly as much fun as it seems in my dreams.  But it gives me something nice to think about as I drift off to sleep here in my last night in Tucson.

Lest you think that my days were all filled with fun and frivolity, I want to set the record straight.  Birding in Arizona is a highly perilous affair, with dangers lurking around every corner.  Take for example, the sign I saw in Florida Canyon, south of Tucson:

Photo Apr 04, 7 32 44 AM (1)

 

I was lucky to escape with my life.  And even luckier to see a pair of very rare Black-capped Gnatcatchers building a nest.

Despite finding most of the birds I was looking for this week, one particular Arizona species has been giving me trouble for years – and this trip started no differently.  When you’ve been birding in Arizona as many times as I have, there aren’t many birds left to see here for the first time.  But when I arrived, there was one on the rare bird alert that had managed to escape me during all of my previous trips: Rufous-backed Robin.  These birds are quite uncommon, but there are usually multiple individuals sighted each year.  They are most likely to appear in winter, however, and I usually visit in the spring and summer.  Also, they can be very sneaky and skulky.  I have looked for them on multiple occasions – perhaps 7 or 8 times in total.  But they had always eluded me.  These Robins are, in short, my nemesis bird.

The week before I left Seattle, I noticed that a particular Rufous-backed Robin had been hanging out at Catalina State Park for several months.  Nemesis bird, prepare to meet your match!  Actually, the Robin lived up to its nefarious reputation.  I spent nearly four hours scouring its last known location on my first morning in Arizona, but it was a complete no show – and it hasn’t been seen since.  Damn you, robin!

Then, last night, as I was deciding about what to do with my last full day in Arizona, I saw another report of a Rufous-backed Robin.  This one was in Cienega Creek Preserve, a protected natural area just south of Tucson.  I had never been there before, in part because a permit is required just to enter the preserve.  I didn’t have a permit.  But I found that you can apply for one online; three hours later, the completed permit was emailed to me.  I was headed to Cienega!

The day dawned cool and cloudy.  I parked at the Preserve’s dirt parking area about 20 minutes after sunrise.  I placed a copy of my permit on the dashboard, and headed off down the trail.  Cienega Creek Preserve is spectacular.  The trail winds through a vibrant Sonoran desert scrub.  I had to shuffle my feet to keep from stepping on several coveys of Gambel’s Quail as I was serenaded by Cactus Wrens and Bell’s Vireos.  About two miles in, the trail entered an extensive stand of cottonwood trees, and the creek began to flow faster and deeper.

Cienega Creek Preserve

The cool air was scented with sage, cottonwood blossoms, and sweet petrichor.  I arrived at the place where the Robin was last seen, and began to search.  And search.  And search some more.  Then I took a break.  And a walk.  And had lunch.  And searched some more.  Suffice it to say that there were no robins on the trail this day.  Part of me was pretty disappointed that my nemesis bird had again somehow escaped my grasp.  But part of me was also deeply grateful that I keep missing these birds.  If I hadn’t been tempted by the prospect of maybe meeting my nemesis, I never would have bothered applying for a permit to visit this unique and beautiful area.  And I never would have gotten to know this special place.  My nemesis taunts me, sure.  But it also encourages me and inspires me, goads me on and fires my determination.  So laugh, robins, laugh while you can.  On my next visit, I’m going to hunt you down.

And thus ends this visit to Arizona.  I don’t know exactly when, but I’ll be back in the not too distant future.  There is always more to see.

Cactus flower

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Short Trip to the Shortgrass Prairie

It’s been almost a year since I posted to this blog, which kinda makes sense.  I started it to chronicle my “really big year” of traveling to see birds and visit schools, a year that ended in June of 2013.  I thought about whether I should “retire” this blog, or to keep using it to share new travels.  When I returned to work full time in August of 2013, I vowed to reserve a little room in my busy life for the sort of adventures that occupied much of the 2012-2013 academic year for me.  And so in that spirit, I have decided to keep using this blog from time to time, as the occasion arises.  While I will not soon repeat the kind of Big Year that began for me two years ago, I hope to keep the spirit of inquiry and adventure that I kindled in myself that year alive, to make every year at least a little “big.”

It was in this frame of mind that I cashed in some frequent flyer miles for a short trip to Colorado.  While I don’t consider myself to be the kind of birder obsessed with lists and “ticking off” the next lifer, I do enjoy seeing birds that I haven’t seen before.  And I was also only four birds away from having seen 700 species in the ABA Area, a milestone of some note.  I turn 40 in January, and it would be pretty cool (although perhaps not totally practical) to reach 700 by then.  Also, my friend Neil Hayward keeps pestering me about getting to 700, so I guess there’s peer pressure too!

I flew into Denver on Wednesday morning, and headed northeast to the Pawnee National Grassland.  This area is some of the best preserved remaining shortgrass prairie habitat in the United States.

Short Grass Prairie at Dawn

Shortgrass prairie used to be fairly widespread on the western Great Plains.  This habitat was shaped by relatively low rainfall and by the consistent grazing of abundant herds of American Bison.  The loss of the bison, overgrazing by cattle, and human development have greatly reduced the quality and quantity of this kind of prairie in Colorado and elsewhere in the American West.  Pawnee National Grassland is one place where you can still find vast swathes of unbroken shortgrass.  Interestingly, it is administered by the US Forest Service, although Pawnee is nothing but a forest of grass.

Flowering cactus

And cacti.

Caterpillar

And crazy, huge caterpillars.

However interesting the shortgrass prairie is in and of itself, I was here for the birds.  And one bird specifically: McCown’s Longspur.  This species breeds in a thin slice of shortgrass prairie from Alberta down through Montana, Wyoming, and northern Colorado, and it winters in northwest Texas.  In other words, it’s not a particularly easy or convenient bird to see if you live outside the mountain west.  And while you can find them somewhat reliably on their wintering grounds as skitterish flocks of drab grayish birds, I wanted to see them in their summer glory: the males in their full breeding plumage (black, white, and chestnut), singing, and doing their parachuting display flights over the prairie.  So here I was in rural NE Colorado, with less than 40 hours to find the longspurs before my return flight to Seattle.

Driving along the few gravel roads that transect Pawnee, there was plenty to see.  Lark Buntings, the state bird of Colorado, were incredibly abundant.

Lark Bunting

I saw probably 200 breeding pairs on territory in a day and a half.  Horned Larks were also very common.  I didn’t get any good pictures really showing how dramatic their “horns” can be – I guess that’s a job for another trip.

Horned Lark

A real treat was finding a pair of Common Nighthawks sleeping on a rusty fence.  These birds, a member of the goatsucker or nightjar family (I love those names!), are usually most active at dawn and dusk.  These two were definitely snoozy.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

After a few miles, in the distance, I thought I caught the jumbled song of a longspur!  Trekking out into the prairie, I watched a lone male leap into the air and come fluttering down while singing his complex song.  I wanted to stay a while and watch him, but the wind was whipping up, and over my left shoulder I could see a serious storm building.

Storms Coming

Beating the rain and lightning back to the car, I vowed to come back early the next morning to get a better look.

I drove through the afternoon thunderstorm back to Fort Collins, where I had dinner at local institution that holds a special place in the hearts of chemistry teachers everywhere.

Avogadro's Number

This being a birding post, I’ll spare you the significance of Avogadro’s number to the realm of the molecular sciences (but you can read about it on Wikipedia if you are really interested).

Serious birders are in the field at dawn during the spring and summer.  And dawn was about 5:20am.  So I dragged myself out of bed and raced for the prairie.  After a bit of searching, I was rewarded with fantastic looks (and mediocre pictures) of about a dozen McCown’s Longspurs displaying, singing, foraging, and generally loafing about the prairie.

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur

I spent the rest of the morning exploring more of Pawnee.  Sparrows were a highlight, including this Grasshopper Sparrow who posed for me:

Grasshopper Sparrow

I also found this amazing short-horned lizard:

Short-horned lizard

Some people call these critters “horned toads,” but they are reptiles and not amphibians.  This guy was only about 2 inches long, and almost perfectly camouflaged amongst the rocks on the side of the road.

All too soon it was time to head back to Denver for my flight home.  It was a very short trip, but I feel like I made the most of it.  My big year lives on, at least in little ways.

 

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Birding, Gamification, and Implications for Education

Amongst those strange souls who are wild bird enthusiastists, there are bird watchers, and then there are birders.  I often describe myself as a “bird watcher” because that describes my hobby in the most simple terms.  I go outside, I find birds, I watch birds.  Bird watchers enjoy birds on an aesthetic level, and are often keen to understand their behavior and natural history.  I also like the term “bird watching” because it is less opaque that the rather bizarre term “birding.”  In the past when I have mentioned to acquaintances that I spent the weekend birding, on more than one occasion I have been asked  what kind of shotgun I have, or how many pheasants I bagged.  After all, if you met some guy at the beach who claimed to be “fishing” with binoculars (but without a rod and reel or a net), you might wonder if he’d lost his marbles.

Birders are similar in many ways to bird watchers, but the term ‘birder’ usually connotes someone who is more serious about certain aspects of the hobby, particularly identification and keeping various kinds of lists.  Birders are more likely to consider their passion for birds beyond the realm of merely a hobby.  If you hear someone at a hawk watch debating the gender and age of a soaring raptor a mile away, or a person out on the mudflats discussing the exact parentage of an immature hybrid gull, you are probably listening to self-described birders.  They might travel extensively, hoping to add a never-before-seen species to their ‘life list.’  Birders are also more likely to do various flavors of Big Days or Big Years, in which they attempt to find as many birds as possible within a certain geographic area in a specified span of time.  As someone who has just completed a Big Year spanning the continental United States and Canada, I’m a birder too.

High Island

Essentially, birders have taken bird watching and converted it into a game.  And what a game it is.  If you think football is impressive with its 100 yard field and hundred-man teams, or think a five day cricket test match is something, you have never really pondered the epic scope of a North American birding Big Year.  The ‘field of play’ is nearly 8,000,000,000 square miles and spans from the Florida Keys (24° N latitude) to Ellesmere Island, Canada (83° N latitude) and from Newfoundland (52° W longitude) to the end of the Aleutians (179° W longitude).  There are 20 billion players in this game, perhaps 50,000 human teammates (or competitors?) and billions and billions of sparrows, hawks, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, loons, and warblers who don’t care a whit about playing a game with people but are nevertheless the star participants.  The game lasts 365 days in a row (the length of 2920 football games, at three hours each, played back-to-back).

Some of these birds are relatively easy to find, like Surf Scoter or Rough-legged Hawk:

Surf scoter

Rough-legged hawk

Some of them require going to a specific place at a specific time, like Whooping Crane (Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas) and Rufous-capped Warbler (Florida Canyon in Arizona).

Whooping Crane

Rufous-capped Warbler

Some are so rare that even within this vast playing field that you can’t really count on them to show up at any specific location, like Crimson-collared Grosbeak or Barnacle Goose.  You just have to ‘chase’ them if and when they show up.

CC Grosbeak

Barnacle Goose

The rules of this game are pretty simple: find and ID as many birds as you can in the prescribed geographic area within the time limit.  The birds have to be alive, wild, and unrestrained when they are seen.  No dead birds.  No pet shops.  No eggs (?!).  Oh, and you have to engage in ethical behavior while you’re watching them (no harassing or killing birds, no trespassing, no disturbing endangered species, etc.).  Other than that, you can pursue the game any way you like.  Want to rent a helicopter?  Or limit yourself to species seen on foot, bike, or kayak?  No problem.  Want to bring a friend or hire a guide?  Ok.  Want to count birds you ID-ed by song or call, but didn’t actually see?  Totally fine.  All of these variations are sanctioned by the American Birding Association.  Of course, you can also ignore the ABA completely and make up your own set of rules.  As birders say, “it’s YOUR list” – meaning, you can play whatever game you want to.

Beyond the epic scope of a Big Year, the things that make it fun are the many challenges.  Just finding a particular species can be tough.  Can you pick out the rare Eurasian Widgeon from a huge flock of American Wigeon?  Do you know where to go to find the tame but often maddeningly elusive Spruce Grouse?  Will you actually see that secretive rail or sparrow out in the endless expanse of saltmarsh?  And then there is the challenge of identifying some birds.  There are 11 species of flycatchers in the genus Empidonax, many of which are almost identical except for the tiniest differences in physical structure and plumage.  Some birds can only reliably differentiated by voice.  Others show important but subtle ID clues in flight.  Still others are best identified by a combination of range, habitat, and/or behavior.

And what you do “win” if you play this game?  Mostly a batch of enjoyable memories, a sense of accomplishment, and perhaps the thrill of discovering something new.  There are no cash prizes, no trophies, no fame for the “winners” – perhaps just a little recognition and admiration from the tiny fraction of the overall population that claims to be serious birders.  People often ask me how birding is “refereed” – how do you know that a birder has seen the birds that he or she claims to have seen?  The short answer is that birders operate on the honor system.  There are very few “cheaters” for the same reason that so few people cheat running marathons, or climbing mountains.  Sure, there are always a few people willing to take the subway, but most people run marathons for the sense of accomplishment.  They do it to get in shape, to push themselves, to join a community of runners, to add meaning to their lives.  Cheating would defeat the purpose.

Spending this past year playing my own version of a birding game while simultaneously visiting a large number of schools has lead me to think about the ‘gamification’ movement in education.  Evolutionary biologists tell us that the origin of play and games in many species may be an adaptive response to make learning new skills fun.  Lion cubs might play with each other to hone their hunting skills, while human cubs engage in games to sharpen their athletic prowess, intellect, or social skills.  Teachers look to capitalize on this natural fit between learning and games in their classrooms.  Games may help to motivate students to practice skills or gain knowledge, hoping to accumulate prizes or “level up” – or just because the act of playing is fun.  Playful learning can foster collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.  Many games allow students to model the real world, and let them interact with this model in authentic and compelling ways.  Simulations can teach students cause and effect relationships, arm them with new strategies or tactics, or simply provide them with different perspectives or new points of view.

Tower

Manipulatives

Of course gamification is not a panacea for all of our educational ills.  And it can be done poorly.  If the game becomes disconnected from meaningful learning experiences, it ceases to be a valuable education tool.  Some birders get so wrapped up in the game of birding that they also begin to disconnect from the other meaningful aspects of their hobby.  I’ve seen a few birders who will drive eight hours straight to see a new bird, watch it for all of 5 seconds, tick it off their list, and hop back in the car.  Gone are an aesthetic appreciation of the creature, a curiosity about its behavior and natural history, and a sense of wonder and connection with our world.  For these reasons, I try to remind myself that I am a bird watcher and not just a birder.  And when I go back to teaching this fall I will embrace fun and games with my students, but I will also remember that games by themselves cannot replace wonder, curiosity, and a passion for understanding our world.

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Alaska Wrap-up

My Big Year is over.  What began at Falls Creek State Natural Area in Minnesota on June 13, 2012 ended at my house in Washington state on June 12, 2013.  My official tally is 647 species of birds – a few short of my goal of 650 (I was hoping to add about five species on my cancelled trip to Gambell).  But  this was the only possible measure by which my year fell short.  In all other ways, it exceeded my hopes and expectations.  I will be writing more about my thoughts and observations about the year in general later on this summer, but for now here is my Alaska wrap-up report.

Miles by car: 1802

Miles by bus (Denali): 95

Miles by boat (multiple trips): 30

Miles by foot: 25

Number of new Big Year birds seen: 23

Total species seen: 123

Number of moose I had to swerve to avoid on a four-lane road 5 minutes from the Anchorage airport: 1

Number of glaciers seen: 7

Number of new arch-nemeses/birding friends: 1

Hans and Neil

Coolest mammal seen: Lynx

Reason I did not get a picture of the coolest mammal: I was too busy sitting there with my mouth open, thinking “That is the most ENORMOUS bobcat I’ve ever seen!”

Coolest birds: Tie between Willow Ptarmigan:

Willow Ptarmigan

Bluethroat (photos by Neil Hayward):

Bluethroat by Neil Hayward

Bluethroat by Neil Hayward

And Long-tailed Jaeger (photo by Neil Hayward):

Long-tailed Jaeger by Neil Hayward

Rarest bird: White Wagtail (photo by Neil Hayward)

White Wagtail by Neil Hayward

Bird that I have a new appreciation for: Red-throated Loon (photo by Neil Hayward)

Red-throated Loon by Neil Hayward

In Washington we mostly see them while they are in their winter basic plumage, so it was a treat to get to see them in all of their high breeding splendor.

Coolest Experience: Visiting the many seabird breeding colonies around Seward and Homer by boat, getting very close to thousands of nesting puffins, murres, and kittiwakes.  Here is a quick video I took of Gull Island near Homer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8sUJIJgwy4.

Quirkiest Town: Nome

Abandoned Railway

Subway Movie Theater

Velvet in pickup by Neil Hayward

There aren’t many towns in the U.S. with abandoned railway cars sinking into the tundra, a combo Subway/movie theater, and a caribou named Velvet who rides around in the back of a pickup.

On the whole, Alaska was an amazing experience.  I will definitely be back!

Coming soon, a post that attempts to answer the question many people have asked me recently: ‘After visiting all of those great schools and interesting teachers throughout the U.S., what did you learn about the state of education/effective schools/good teaching?’

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Gambles That Don’t Pay Off, And Those That Do

The plan was to spend the last three days of my Big Year in Gambell, a tiny Yupik community on the very northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island.  It’s the bit of North American land that is closest to Siberia, only 46 miles away.  On a clear day, you really can see Russia from your house.  Even when visibility is less than perfect, you can see tomorrow.  The International Date Line is only 23 miles distant.  I wanted to go to Gambell.  I wanted to see tomorrow.  I wanted to see the millions of sea birds that are said to fly by the sea watch there.  I wanted to know what Siberia strays would get blown across the strait.  I wanted to see how people live in that tiny corner of our world.

But in order to get to Gambell, you need to take a tiny plane from a company like Bering Air.  But Bering Air doesn’t fly when the weather is bad, and lately it hasn’t been too pretty in Nome.  As warmer air blows in from the south, it hits the pack ice and cools, creating thick fog.  Thick fog means no flights to Gambell.

planes waiting

I went to the airport on Sunday morning.  The weather was marginal in Nome, but Gambell was completely socked in.  The flight was delayed.  And then delayed some more.  I updated my blog, and waited.  More reports came in.  The weather was still bad.  This was frustrating.  There wasn’t much to do in the small one room waiting area.

waiting room

Then, miraculously, the weather in Gambell improved enough to maybe land a plane.  But in the meantime, the fog in Nome got worse, and now the plane couldn’t take off.  We waited some more.  Eventually, the flight was canceled.  I was stuck in Nome.  I scrambled to find a hotel room for my unexpected stay – there was one room at the Aurora Inn.  I was told that maybe we could go tomorrow.

It was still only 5pm, so I wandered the streets of town.

Foggy Nome

Nome Church

I stopped by the combination Subway/movie theater.  I’m betting it’s the only Subway in the world that has a movie theater inside of it.

Subway Movie Theater

The new Star Trek movie was playing – I could tell by the Nome-style movie poster.

Nome Movie Poster

I bought a ticket.  The theater itself was small, but really nice.  I enjoyed the movie quite a bit.

Early the next morning, it was still foggy – but… was it my imagination?  Was it a tiny bit less foggy?  I went to the airport.  It was my imagination.  The flight was delayed, and then delayed again.  Then, Nome got less foggy.  A flight to Savoonga actually left.  Gambell was marginal.  We might go.  Then the fog rolled in again, and the flight was canceled.  Maybe we would go at 4pm this afternoon.

I caught a ride into town, and toured Nome.  I went to the Nome museum, and learned about the native people who have lived in western Alaska for thousands of years.

Ivory carving

I learned that Wyatt Earp actually travelled from Arizona to Nome during the gold rush of 1900.  He opened a saloon here, and sold supplies to the prospectors for two years before heading back to the Southwest with a load of cash.

Wyatt Earp

I also learned about dog sledding.  Alaskans take their dog sledding very seriously.  Nome is the official ending point for the Iditarod Dog Sled Race.

End of Iditarod

I ate lunch at the Bering Sea BAR (and restaurant).

Bering Sea Bar

I admired the fact that at 65 degrees north latitude you can mount solar panels on the SIDE of a building.

Side mounted solar panels

I even went inside a store that sells real things.

They Sell Real Things

I did not go inside this bar.

Sin City

After a while, I took a cab back to the airport.  At this point, I have taken both cabs in Nome at least three times each.  Bering Air is still on weather hold.  I wait in the tiny room for news.  Then the news comes.  The flight is canceled.  Maybe it will go tomorrow, but the weather forecast is the same as today (and yesterday).  I call my wife to discuss options, and listen to her calm and thoughtful words over the loud and crackling static.  She is very supportive of anything I want to do.  I have now wasted two of my original three days scheduled for Gambell.  I don’t know when I will be able to get there.  And more importantly, I don’t know when I could fly back.  Bering Air has canceled the last five flights to Gambell, and no one has gotten on or off the island in almost three days.  I don’t want to be stuck there, especially since there are no restaurants and almost no places to buy food or supplies.  I am frustrated and discouraged.  I call Alaska Airlines and get reservations for the next flight back to Seattle, which is tomorrow.  I call Bering Air and tell them to take my name off my list for the morning Gambell flight attempt, and they start processing my refund.

I walk home through the fog, a bit sad.  I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to try to go to Gambell again.  This was supposed to be the grand finale of my Big Year, and instead it was a grand letdown.  After several attempts, I finally find a place to stay the night – at the Nugget Inn, and I begin to walk to the hotel through the dense fog and the surreal eternal daylight of summer Nome.  The evening is calm, the air is cold, and the gulls stare back at me from their perch on a small iceberg just offshore.

As I walk, I begin to think of the fog as a metaphor, both for my Big Year and for my life.  Fog can be frustrating – you think you can see a bit of the future up ahead, but it is hazy and uncertain.  Many times you just want to look across the strait and see tomorrow clearly – it seems so close – only 23 miles!  Sometimes you think you have things figured out, you think you know what’s coming – but then out of the mist comes an unexpected surprise, an unplanned wrinkle, an unforeseen detour.  Often these surprises that appear out of the fog are unwelcome, annoying, or even painful.  But occasionally out of the fog comes something wonderful: a kind new friend, a delightful new experience, a marvelous new view of the world that you weren’t expecting.  The fog helps to keep life mysterious and exciting, full of wonder and anticipation and novelty.

When I started my Big Year last June, I had some idea of what was in store, but so much was unknown.  I stared into the fog and tried to make out the landscape ahead.  But hidden behind a veil were a great deal of things I just couldn’t predict.  Many of them were wonderful surprises: bonding with my wife over two White-tailed Ptarmigan chases up Mt. Rainier, meeting amazing teachers at Bronx Science and Groton in the same week and becoming inspired by their shared passion and their different paths to educational excellence, seeing the amazing seascape of the Dry Tortugas and hearing Wes Biggs tell unforgettable (and hysterical) stories, watching master teacher Bill Palmer do extraordinary things with very ordinary resources, showing up in Massachusetts just in time to see mega-rare Northern Lapwing and Little Egret and enjoy a spectacular burst of late fall radiance on Cape Cod, and experiencing an extraordinary four days exploring the sea and tundra around Nome with my instant new friends Neil, Abe, and Joe.  I was graced with all of these surprise gifts appearing out of the fog, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend a whole year stumbling my way through this undiscovered country and uncovering unexpected wonders.  If it weren’t for the uncertainty of the fog, there are many experiences I probably would have skipped, and my year would have been immeasurably poorer (and I’d have fewer embarrassing and funny stories to tell).

When I got back to the Nugget, I was still a bit disappointed to be missing out on Gambell, but I had a new appreciation for the fog.  My friend and mentor, Than Healy, believes that metaphors can help us make sense of our lives and our experiences.  I will try to embrace both the literal and metaphorical fog in my life, and appreciate the mystery and majesty that it brings.  Even though I often tell myself that I hate surprises, the wonderful little surprises of my Big Year are what made it special.  There will be another time to visit Gambell, but for now the last surprise of the year is for my kids: Daddy is coming home a little early.

Signpost

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Roaming Nome

The last three days have passed in a blur.  With 24 hours of light (including 21 hours when the sun is actually above the horizon), there is a surreal sense of timelessness.  One day blends seamlessly into the next.  Fog rolls in, fog rolls out.  Rain changes to sleet, and sleet into brief bursts of sunshine.  The pack ice on the Bering Sea blows in, and then blows out.

Bering Sea Pack Ice

The ice patches that still dot the landscape melt and re-freeze, making interesting patterns and formations.

Ice columns

Many times I’d forget whether it was time for breakfast, dinner, an outing, or bed.  I’d get back in the truck after a short hike across the tundra to find (to my amazement) that it was nearly 10pm.  One day I brushed my teeth four times, the next I forgot completely.  I couldn’t remember if an event happened earlier that day, or the previous day, or the day before that.  But the one thing I know is that Neil and I typically spent a good 14 hours in the field, sometimes longer, and we saw some amazing things.

Our trusty steed was a 2002 pickup with 149,000 miles on it.  It came with one half-flat tire, and one-quarter tank of gas.  But as soon as we pumped up the left front tire a bit and put about $100 worth of gas in it, it was good to go!

gasoline in Nome

On our first full day, we headed out Kougarok Road.  Highlights included Northern Wheatear, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and Rock and Willow Ptarmigan. A female Willow Ptarmigan even posed in the road for us:

Female Willow Ptarmigan

We also saw Muskox; some were distant adults:

Muskox

And one adorable baby muskox briefly ran along side the truck:

Baby Musk Ox

In the afternoon we drove back along Council Road, where Neil’s sharp eyes picked out a group of four rare Steller’s Eiders floating along on a small piece of sea ice.

Steller's Eiders

They were too far away for my wimpy camera, but we got great looks through the telescopes.

The next day we explored the third road out of Nome, Teller Road.  A moose greeted us on the edge of town.

Nome Moose

Our jaunt down Teller was another great success.  We found singing Bluethroats, and Neil got some amazing photos of this Old World thrush (or is it now considered a flycatcher?) that barely ranges into Alaska.  He promised to send me some of his pictures.  Neil also found a White Wagtail, a rare bird even for the Nome area.  This Asian vagrant fluttered about the edges of the Sinuk River near a bridge, and I snapped some blurry but identifiable photos for posterity:

White Wagtail Nome June 7 2013

For our final full day in the Nome area, Neil and I again teamed up with Abe to look for the mythical Bristle-thighed Curlew.  There is exactly one accessible location in North America where this shorebird breeds, and I use the word “accessible” loosely.  First you have to fly to Nome, via Anchorage (and maybe some other places).  Then you have to secure a vehicle and drive 72 miles north on the Kougarok dirt road.  Then you have to climb across the wet tundra up a mountain ridge to the Curlew’s nesting grounds, a hike that has been described as “walking on bowling balls” due to the nature of the low but very thick plant life there.  Then you have to identify the Curlew, which looks extremely similar to the Whimbrel, another shorebird that nests in the same area.

Neil, Abe, and I left Nome very early, stopping only to search (successfully!) for Arctic Warbler about 20 miles up the road.  We arrived at milepost 72 by 9am, and began the relatively short but squishy hike up the ridge.  I have to hand it to these curlews – they picked a remote but spectacular place to raise their young:

BT Curlew Nesting Area

After getting to the top, the first large shorebird we spotted was a Whimbrel.  But a short time later, another bird came flying in, giving the Bristle-thighed Curlew’s characteristic call, and showing its distinctive unstreaked, buffy rump.  This is one of the hardest birds in North America to actually see, and we were all pretty happy about finding it.

Abe and Neil

We hung around for a while, watching an American Golden-Plover and some displaying Long-tailed Jaegers, and then headed back to the truck for the long drive back to Nome.  After vowing to “go to bed early for a change,” Neil and I were again out birding past 10pm before I finally convinced him to go back to Nome for dinner.  I was tucked in no later than about 1am.

This morning I was scheduled to fly to Gambell, a tiny Yupik village on St. Lawrence Island.  Unfortunately it is very foggy at the Nome airport today, and I’ve spent the last four hours in the waiting area at Bering Air to see if our flight will go out.  The only good part about this is that I’ve finally been able to catch up on my blog a bit.  Currently we’re still on “weather hold” and the fog does not appear to be lifting.  If the flight is canceled, I’ll try to find a place to stay in Nome tonight (the place I’ve been staying is full up!) and maybe try to get on a flight tomorrow.  Travelers to Alaska sometimes have to be flexible and patient.  But it’s worth putting up with the weather and the delays to be able to visit a special place like this.

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