Why Adak in December?

I’m on a northbound plane once again traveling to Alaska. This will be my sixth trip of the year!  My destination will be Adak, which is one of the Andreanof Islands in the Aleutian Chain and is located almost 1200 miles southwest of Anchorage and 445 miles west of Dutch Harbor. In fact Adak is the westernmost city in Alaska.  I’ll be birding with Issac Helmericks of Aleutian Outfitters. Issac is an interesting guy from a very interesting Alaska frontier family. We are going to attempt an actual Christmas Bird Count on one of the days. So why am I journeying to Adak in the middle of December?  I’ll give you several reasons.

1)   Adak is also the southernmost city in Alaska with latitude similar with Vancouver Island, BC. This means that there will be plenty of light to bird (if the holling winds and blowing rain don’t shut us down first). The daytime high temperatures are forecasted to remain in the 30’s while I’m there.

2)   There are two regular birds on Adak that I hope to be able to add to my year-totals- Whiskered Auklet and Whooper Swan.

3)   This fall has seen extraordinary fall weather in Alaska, particularly the western and central Aleutians.  Storm after storm with sustained westerly winds has blown rarities in from the West.  Alaska’s “storm of the century” blasted through Adak right while waterfowl and thrushes were moving south in Asia.  Realistically, there could be other goodies on the island.

4)   So little birding occurs in Adak this time of the year, its an opportunity to add to our knowledge base on bird distribution. By the way, I’ll be adding all my Adak sightings to e-bird

5)   But in the end, the ultimate answer is that it’s going to be a wild adventure.  How many times do you get the chance to do this stuff in a lifetime?  If all goes well I’ll be in a small boat in the Bering Sea in DECEMBER! There are stories here that will hold the attention of my grandchildren for hours. (assuming I’ll be able to remember them when I’m 85 years old). I’m anxious, but first I have a meeting with Mr. Whitekeys and the Dusky Thrush.

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Notice: Pelagic Trip Invitation – Dec. 27, 2011

For over a month now, I’ve been kicking around the idea of scheduling a pelagic trip for Great Skua with Brian Patteson. Yesterday we decided to proceed with the trip. Brian feels that we have a good chance of finding a Great Skua and when Brian talks about east coast pelagic birding people listen and take note.  His credentials are impeccable; he is indeed the Admiral of the Atlantic. We should also see plenty of Razorbills, Dovekie and perhaps Atlantic Puffin, but Brian would better be able to predict what we might see.  This is an invitation to any of you blog readers to join me on my quest. I would thoroughly enjoy meeting you and celebrating a Great Skua with you!!  There is even a possibility that Bob Ake, last years Big Year champion, may join us to lend his support, but that is still up in the air.

Date & Location

Dec. 27 out of Hatteras, NC aboard the Stormy Petrel.  There would be a weather day on the 28th.  We picked this date so that participants could spend Christmas at home then travel on Dec 26.  If no vagrant pops up for me to chase immediately after the trip, there is the possibility that on the 28th  we could journey out into the Gulf Stream to search for Bermuda Petrel.  Of course, this is a long shot, but one never knows.

Contact Information

Please contact Brian directly to reserve a reservation. I’ll be way to busy chasing megas to act as an intermediary.  Brian’s contact information is as follows:

email: brian@patteson.com

phone(252) 986-1363

Hope to see you on board!!!



John Vanderpoel


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Tebow Magic in Florida Canyon

It was pouring out. We needed a little of that Tebow magic.  At the very least we needed the rain to stop so we could actually bird.  Even that was looking pretty doubtful.  It had been raining steadily since Bill V picked me up at the Tucson airport yesterday. This was Tucson for goodness sake not Houston or Miami.  Adding to the depression from yesterday’s rain was the fact that we searched for the Rufous-capped Warbler in the wrong area for the first 1 ½ hours.  We were both cold and wet –chilled to the bone. It was as miserable as I’ve felt while birding since standing in the Texas sun and 105° F back in June.  So we decided to call it quits (actually we pretty much ran out of light anyway) and told ourselves that tomorrow would be a better day.

But when I awoke at 6:00 AM this morning, the rain was still coming down.  What a drag!  No way would we see the warbler.  But we drove down to Florida Canyon anyway, stopping in Green Valley for to-go breakfast at McDonalds.  That was a trip. The room was packed with senior citizens. I thought to myself, “Bet this place is empty at 7:00 PM. Oh well, I’ll be there myself soon enough…but not today and not this year.”  So we drove up to the parking lot at Florida Canyon and waited in the car for it to let up a slightly, which it did around 8:45 AM.  We hiked up the short distance to where the warbler was being seen regularly but again the rains came. S we sought shelter under a tin roof very close to the dam and waited.  After about ten minutes the rain stopped and the sky lightened.  Birds started flitting everywhere. Olive Warbler, Hammond’s Flycatcher, three species of towhees, Cardinal and Hermit Thrush.  I suddenly had a feeling. Bill suggested we go up to the water tank and start searching. A minute later Bill stopped. He’d heard the warbler chattering close. There it was gleening food in a yucca maybe fifteen feet in from the trail, about three feet off the ground!

I ran back to the car for my camera while Bill stayed with the warbler.  But by the time I returned, the sky had darkened and the rain resumed.  We were lucky…though we had put ourselves into position to be in the right spot at the right time…for a little fourth quarter Tebow Magic!  Number 740 and tomorrow morning I leave for Alaska.  Stay tuned. It’s going to be a bumpy ride all the way to the goal line.

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A Pelagic Trip with The Dream Team

Yesterday we all arrived at the Bodega Bay boat dock at almost precisely 6:45 AM. Doug Koch and I had stayed in Sebastopol on Saturday night. I’m not sure exactly where the Dream Team had stayed, but they were all here.  Ken Petersen, Todd McGrath and Steve Howell were on our October 16th trip that discovered the White-chinned Petrel.  Dave Pereksta, one of the leaders of the July 26, Condor Express was also aboard.  With solid credentials as being some of the top seabirders in the world, this group dreamed big – Mottled Petrel, Solander Petrel, Wandering Albatross, anything is possible.  There’s something magical about pelagic birding and I think it has to do with the uncertainty of what’s out there.

However, this trip didn’t turn up an Megas. We did see a very late South Polar Skua and several Short-tailed Shearwaters, but for the most part there wasn’t much out there. Just a few Black-footed Albatrosses, one Pink-footed Shearwater and maybe a dozen Sooty Shearwaters mixed in with the constant flock of gulls and fulmars.

As I write this, I’m once again in the air, this time to Tucson where Bill V. and I will try to rustle up one of the Rufous-capped Warblers in Florida Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains.  Stay tuned.

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The Falcated Teal…Errr….Duck

When I heard about the Falcated Duck yesterday, I immediately called Jon Dunn to give him a heads up.  Our conversation went something like this, “Hey, Jon, where are you”

“I’m in Conneault, Ohio.”

“Oh so you located the Black-tailed Gull? Well anyway there’s a Falcated Teal in California!”


“Of course it’s a duck…do you have it on your state list?  Falcated Teal would be huge for my Big Year”

“Falcated Duck (true to form JLD is a stickler for correct pronunciation).

We discussed this topic for a few minutes then the conversation quickly turned to politics.  Anyways, old habits die hard and I still call the duck by it’s old name, but it is as large as a Gadwall so Falcated Duck is much more appropriate than Falcated Teal.  A handsome duck it was indeed, the green head glistened brightly in the sunlight. The tertial feathers on it’s backside flowed out and over the rump.  A life bird and year-bird number 739 for me.

I’m spending the night at the home of my old high school buddy, John Sensenbaugh, who was kind enough to cook a great Italian dish.  Tomorrow I take it easy though will meet Doug Koch and try to photograph the Ruff in southern Sonoma County.  Then it’s preparation time for the Sunday pelagic trip where my target is Steller’s Albatross…errr…Short-tailed Albatross.



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Salineno, TX Dec 8, 2011

Sunrise. The dawn sunlight filtered through the patchwork of puffy clouds creating a kaleidoscope of purples and pinks.  It was just another morning in South Texas.  I was rolling down I-35 eighty miles from Laredo and had been for over an hour. Two White-tailed Deer had given me a scare in the predawn  They were running full speed parallel  along the highway shoulder, partially hidden in knee deep grass; fortunately I caught their movement in time and slowed before they darted across the road.

The South Texas brush country laid out before me in a panorama as the land sloped gently towards the great Rio Grande.  I was relaxed and my thoughts wandered. What else might be at Saleneno besides the jays?  Bumblebee Hummingbird?  Why not now? Why not me?  I’d always figured that if they were to turn up once again in the United States it would be in South Texas not SE Arizona, where the only two records, both specimens were taken.  How about a Boat-billed Flycatcher? It’s a common enough species in Mexico and could be overlooked as a dull Kiskadee.

Five Sandhill Cranes flew across the highway winging their way to an early morning snack in the crop fields.  Harris’s Hawks and Crested Caracaras seemingly were on every other telephone pole.  Once I past thru Laredo and settled onto US 83 with forty miles to go till Salineno, and wanting to kill some time as I drove, I played one of my mind games. What species might I expect on Adak besides the three I hoped for?  Spot-billed Duck, Falcated Duck , Dusky Thrush and Oriental Greenfinch all came to mind.

At 10:00 AM I pulled up next to the gate in front of the Salineno preserve and feeding station. Three acres of land purchased by the Valley Land Fund with feeders manned daily by volunteers.  It’s been a mecca for birders since the seventies and for the last five days has had two Brown Jays as periodic guests.

A couple was leaving as I approached and they informed me that both jays had been there moments ago but were presently gone. This was an opportunity to preposition my car and grab a hat before they returned.  That’s when things got tense. I drove down  the fifty yards to the bottom of the hill and to the edge of the Rio Grande to turn around, but as I was turning I noticed two Mexicans wading across the Rio Grande with backbacks and rifles held high.  Immediately a Border Patrol SUV came speeding towards me with flashing red lights.  The officer stopped his vechicle, rolled down the window and asked if I was all right?  Then he informed me that there were armed Cartel in the area. I responded that I’d just seen two armed gunmen cross 100 yards upstream. He told me to get out and then sped away.  I didn’t know what to do but decided I needed to warn the birders at Salineo (there were three plus two hosts).  The next forty-five minutes was tense.  Helicopters flying immediately over us, scout planes flying back and forth and the sound of border patrol cars racing back and forth, anxious talking and doors slamming.  Not pleasant.  Apparently two Border Patrolman had positioned their vehicles to keep anyone from entering the preserve, though that prohibited the frightened birders from leaving.  After forty minutes the sounds of aircraft had stopped. I ventured out to ask the Border Patrol if the coast was clear. They said indeed that the Cartel members were now in the hands of the Mexican Military. II glanced across the river and on the Mexican side were at least twenty Mexican soldiers, helmets on and automatic weapons drawn

After everything calmed down I went back to wait for the jays. At 11:15 AM the juvenal arrived. Number 738 with a story to tell my grandchildren to go with it.

Brown Jay at Salineo (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

The Volunteers at Salineno Filling the Feeders (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

I began driving back towards Zapata where I planned on cutting up through Hebronville then back to San Antonio. It would be good to get home, rest and see Linda before I left for Sunday’s pelagic trip. I called NARBA just to make sure I wasn’t missing something in the Valley. Susan Billetdeux said “No, it’s pretty quiet so far today”  I talked to Bill Vanderpoel as I headed north on US 83.  Bill’s closing in on 600 species for the year!  Anyway, he also said that everything was quiet.  A moment later that all changed. I received a text from Ken Petersen that read, “Falcated Duck – Colusa NWR in Central Valley, CA.” A Mega rarity had just hit California!  Sometimes it pays off to dream a little.  Anyone care to guess where I’m heading tomorrow?  You know – I’m getting too old for this kind of stuff.

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Planning Session – 12/07/11

I’m once again in full chase mode and loving it.  Seeing the Graylag Goose gave me a certain sense of vindication. The chance to right a planning mistake on my part; to make things even sweeter, Bland Liz saw her nemesis this morning and Doug Koch and I were able to take photos (see 12-06 post) of the goose while it perched on it’s favorite rock for an hour. But that was then and this is now.  It’s Wednesday evening and I’m racing from Baltimore to San Antonio on a Southwest Airlines flight, which should arrive late tonight.  Sweet Texas has delivered once again. Tomorrow morning, I’ll drive to the Upper Rio Grande Valley seeking two Brown Jays that are visiting the feeding station in Salineno, TX.  This is the first time any have resurfaced north of the border since the Rio Grande R. flooded last year.  After that it’s off to California for a Sunday Bodega Bay pelagic trip with the “Dream Team”. I will try to fit in a play for the Rufous-capped Warbler (it was confirmed today) before I take my last trip of the year to the Great White North –this time to Adak in the Aleutian Islands.  Hopefully, I won’t get stuck out in inclement weather and will return to Colorado on Dec19 with 12 days to chase rarities and hopefully time to fit in a pelagic trip out of North Carolina with the Admiral of the Atlantic himself, Brian Patteson.  A quick note – Linda and I will not celebrate a traditional Chriistmas together this year. Instead she’ll chase with me. I’m inclined to base out of South Texas or Tucson so we won’t be pinned down by weather, but we’ll see.

So this is the plan, tentative though it may be.  I could reveal future birds on my wish/prediction list, but fear I might jinx it, since so many of them have already come true over the last thirty days.  I’m too busy to make a year-end prediction myself, though Chris Hitt, who as many of you know reached 704 in the lower 48 last year, has made some predictions as well as analyzed other “Big Year” lists. It’s an interesting read; if you wish here is the link.



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Santa Comes Early to the Richelieu River

We were eating breakfast at the little cafe about 9:00 AM. Bland Liz, Zeke, Doug and I were all hungry from standing out in the wind, rain and cold.   The geese had all departed to feed in the fields and again the Graylag Goose was not to be seen.  Just as the waitress was bringing us our food the phone rang. Susan Billetdeux from NARBA was on the other line. I smiled. An early Christmas present?  When Susan calls it often meant another chasable rarity has shown up somewhere in North America.  But she surprised me when she asked if we’d seen the bird.  There was a report that it had been seen!  Moments later, Leah den Besten was on the phone asking us if we’d seen the goose.  It was apparently right in front of Zeke and I on the Richelieu R. on the east side.  We’d missed it!

No one was smiling as we wolfed down breakfast. Yesterday it was personal. Today we hated that damn goose.  I mean isn’t it the plainest goose in the world? Of course it was the type species for the genus Anser.  Probably Linnaeus himself named it. We drove the fields trying to find feeding flocks, without any luck so we repositioned ourselves on the west bank at around 12:00 PM and waited….and waited.  There wasn’t a single goose on the river.  Things looked bleak.  I promised myself that if necessary I would stay thru Thursday.  1:00 PM came and went. Then 1:30 PM.  Soon after though, an odd sight appeared down the road moving towards us.  I really couldn’t believe my eyes.

Santa Claus Running on the Rue Champlain (Photo by Doug Koch)

It was Santa Claus and he was running straight towards us.  If Susan Billetdeaux didn’t have an early present, perhaps Santa did?

This gave us a small lift.  We decided to cross back over to the east bank of the Richeliue R. and set up position where it had been seen this morning.  Unfortunatly, the geese came in late.  Around 4:00 PM, 15 to 20 thousand Greater Snow Geese  pored out of the sky to alight on the Richelieu about 1 mile south of us. It was a mind staggering, incredible sight.

10,000 Snow Geese on the Richelieu R. (Photo by Doug Koch)

But where were the Canada Geese. At 4:10PM we heard them.  Three thousand Canadas came in-now all at once and unlike yesterday when they staggered in over a period of 30 minutes.  We had to work fast, light was fading.  There were five scopes on the water, sifting through each Canada to find a goose without the white cheek patch.  Leah spotted it first and believe me folks it was a hell of a spot.  I went to her scope to verify and clearly saw the plain patterning, shorter thicker neck and orange bill.  Soon everyone but Liz was on it, but the light was fading fast and the current was pushing the entire armada down river

Tomorrow, Doug will drop me off in Albany, NY where I will fly to San Antonio, then drive to Salineno for the Brown Jay.  But before we go, we’ll help give Bland Liz an early Christmas present.  Graylag Goose on a silver platter!

Easy Viewing - Graylag Goose on the Richelieu R. (Photo by John Vanderpoel)


Graylag & Canada Goose (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

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Oie cendrée

Fortunately, reinforcements are on their way.  This damn goose is beginning to irritate me.  We know its here.  This morning there were between three and four thousand Canada Geese on the Richelieu R. in the area where the Oie cendrée had been seen the last two days.  Doug and I scanned the flock as best we could without seeing the Graylag Goose. We then went about ½ mile south (just south of the 35 bridge) where another three thousand Canadas and ten thousand Snow Geese were roosting. No luck. Around 8:30 AM all the geese flew out to eat in the surrounding farm fields.  No problem, they would return around noon for a midday lounge on the Richelieu R.  At least that’s what the geese did Saturday and Sunday.  But today they stayed out in the fields and didn’t return till just before dusk, when wave after wave of goose skeins streamed in.  There were too many of them and it was just too dark.

Optimism reigns.  Bland Liz and a birding friend named Zeke will join us tomorrow morning.  The massive flocks are here. We just need to find Oie cendrée. I have no commitments till I must leave Saturday for a flight to California where I will join the “Dream Team” on a Sunday pelagic trip out of Bodega Bay. Till then I remain on a wild goose hunt.

On a personal note, I haven’t shaved for a week and probably look like a street person in Boulder.  This may have given a false impression to tonight’s waitress at the”Greek Cafe” restaurant, which despite the name had no Greek food and even more annoying no adult beverages.  We left when this was translated into English, but after I ate one piece of bread. Linda would have been mortified!

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December 3, 2011

Yesterday (Saturday) some good news buffered the disappointing miss of the Bahama Mockingbird. Larry and Philip Manfredi teamed up to try for the Mockingbird at Boca Chita Key in Biscayne NP.

Larry and Philip Manfredi with John Vanderpoel (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

Things started off pretty good.  Waiting for the boat to leave, in less than ten minutes, we  found 2 Vermillion Flycatchers, a Western Kingbird, 2 Scissortail Flycatchers and an Ash-throated Flycatcher near the entrance of Everglades NP!  There was even a Swainson’s Hawk soaring overhead. For a moment I thought I was back in Texas rather than Florida! Philip was even  yelling that he was a good luck charm!  But the boat trip to Boca Chita revealed several problems.  I was optimistic that the Bahama Mockingbird would hold. Actually though, Boca Chita Key is only a ½ mile from Sand Key which was only an 1/8 of a mile from the larger Elliot Key. So the mockingbird could island hop rather easily.  Also the length of the trip was already on the short side and a slow start out of the docks didn’t allow as much time as we’d like, but we did scare up a mockingbird in the general area where the Bahama Mockingbird was reported. Unfortunately, it was a skulking Northern Mockingbird.  This raised two discouraging possibilities. Either the mockingbird had been originally misidentified or that the more aggressive N. Mockingbird had chased off the Bahama Mockingbird. Larry, who has lead bird tours to the Bahamas for eight years, has seen multiple examples of this behavior in the past.

However, the good news came moments after we landed on Boca Chita Key, Susan Billetdeaux from NARBA called to brief me that two birds of interest had just been reported.  First of all, THE Graylag Goose was relocated yesterday by Sylvain Mathieu, less than 20 kilometers from the original site.  In fact Bland Liz and I had worked this section of the river with Leah den Besten, while the rest of the gang held down the fort at the Chambly Basin.  A gut feeling had convinced me that the Graylag would show up somewhere this winter, though I wasn’t sure it would be in December.  In addition, two Brown Jays were seen up river at Salineno!  These first Brown Jay sightings there in five years and the first sighting in Texas since the Rio Grande flooded in July of 2010.

It was decision time.  The obvious choice on the jays was to wait. Let them settle into a routine. The volunteer at Salineno will keep them well fed (apparently they like fried chicken) then after Adak visit South Texas again, combining the jays with one or two mega rarities that seem destined to show up this winter in the Valley!

So the decision was really between birding Boca Chita and Elliot Key harder on Sunday or leaving for the goose. But the doubts about the correct identification of the mockingbird and a $119.00 Southwest ticket to Boston helped simplify the decision process. I arrived in Beantown at 2:15 PM. Sunday afternoon. I had called Doug Koch during my layover in Philadelphia. Amazingly, he was in Rhode Island and decided to join me. We’re traveling “fast and furious”! Drove to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu tonight and begin our search at dawn tomorrow.  Stay tuned, I’ve been given a second chance with this wild goose chase.  I won’t let it slip through my hands this time.


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