Over the course of a “Big Year” all Big Year birders hope for success and need a little luck to reach it. I’ve certainly had my share of both so far. In fact Bill Kaempfer would say I’ve had more than my share of luck. Big year birders must also braise for the inevitable failures and the disappointment that comes with failure. I’ve had my share of this as well, but that’s okay because without some misses along the way it means you’re not taking chances and pushing yourself hard enough. Success, failure, satisfaction and disappointment all came into play yesterday. The end result was an epic one-day adventure that began at 4:00 AM in Santa Barbara and didn’t end until 10:45 PM in Los Angeles seven hundred and thirty miles later.
It all started around 8:40 PM Saturday evening. Though all the birders were tired and many had been dozing, there was suddenly a buzz in the air in the main galley of the Condor Express. There was some scurrying going on and chattering in small groups. Others had now become alert. I knew something was up and since the boat was still racing ahead towards Santa Barbara we were not sinking. Besides Paul Lehman was excited and that can only mean one thing – a rare bird had been located somewhere in California. It turned out that we had just entered cell phone coverage. Paul Lehman, Dave Pereksta, Todd McGrath, Larry Sansone and other heavyweights of the Southern California birding scene were on their smart phones. Very interesting. Finally I checked my voice mail using my dinosaur cell phone and low and behold Jon Dunn had left me a message that he was looking at a Little Stint at Piute Pond on Edwards Airforce Base in the Antelope Valley. He added that this was off limits to the general public and I’d need a pass to enter or go with someone that already possessed a pass. He suggested contacting Stan Gray who lived five minutes from the pond. I nudged over to the caucusing group and began to finagle my way into a group that Larry Sansone would lead in the following morning. He had an annual pass and could bring in three additional people on his pass. Plans and logistics were made; Paul provided directions and informed me that I should allow 2 ¾ hours from Santa Barbara. We agreed to meet at 7:30 AM which meant I’d need to wake up at 4:00 AM once again.
I was brimming with excitement. Adding a possible Little Stint on the heels of a successful pelagic trip that had just added eight year-birds! Maybe that’s what Kaempfer was talking about? Everything was rosy or so I thought. Except that I had completely forgotten that Linda and I had made dinner plans. She would be waiting for the Condor Express to return. The boat didn’t arrive at the dock till 9:30 PM (1 ½ hours late) Our favorite restaurant, La Super Rica Taqueria, would now be closed. Linda was not a happy camper. To aggravate matters, I mentioned over dinner that her choices for tomorrow were to awake at 4:00 AM and travel to the desert with me or list standby on the United Santa Barbara to Denver flight in the afternoon. More on this later.
Anyways I arrived yesterday morning at the rendezvous point outside Piute Ponds at the appointed time of 7:30 AM, The gate was locked and there were two empty cars parked in front of the gate, but no people. Obviously they had entered without me. However, I didn’t need to wait long before the Garrets arrived and offered to take me in on their pass. Eventually we caught up to the group. Paul Lehman had the bird in his scope. An adult plumaged Little Stint! Success was accompanied with a wave of euphoria. A life bird!
I settled in to get quality pictures. No hurry to leave for the Salton Sea and the Yellow-legged Gull. Except that we couldn’t have been watching the stint more than ten minutes before Paul got the call from Guy McCaskie (see May 31, 2011 post). Guy had just found an adult Curlew Sandpiper at Imperial Beach. Guy McCaskie is the Dean of California Birders. I’ve always held him in high esteem. Not just for the contributions he’s made towards California Bird Distribution, but the way he’s always treated me. A strong supporter of the Advanced Birding Video Series, Guy has always taken time to help me. Back in 1988 I had a hot tip that Le Conte’s Thrashers could be seen at Cottonwood Spring Oasis so I was sitting quietly along the trail waiting. I now know that my ”hot tip” was erroneous but didn’t know so back then. Eventually three birders came past me along the trail and they were making noise. The lead birder asked what I was doing sitting there and I replied “I’ve got information that Le Conte’s Thrashers could be seen here. The lead stranger, who I’d find out later was Guy, informed me that I wouldn’t find any Le Conte’s Thashers at this location….may be Crissal’s. However, I was in a foul mood and rashly decided to argue with him. Now he didn’t inform me I was a dumb shit, but instead took me to a spot forty miles away where we actually might find Le Conte’s Thrashers. We didn’t find them that day, but the gesture was remembered. And now Guy may possibly have contributed with a rarity on my Big Year!
Dan King offered to take me to my car the locked gate where Dan and I immediately struck up a conversation. As many of you regular readers know, I’m keeping track of all of Audubon’s quadrupeds I see this year – the “Quest for a Thousand”. Well Dan thought that was pretty cool and before you know it we were looking for lizards. We found a Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard.
We also lost track of the left turn we needed to take. We were lost for fifteen minutes. At the time it didn’t seem like much, we eventually figured our way out and drove fast towards San Diego. We decided to risk driving through the heart of downtown LA and that paid off pretty well.
After a quick pit stop, we arrived at 7th street in Imperial Beach around noon. We hurriedly grabbed our gear and walked towards the pond. We met a birder returning to his car and he said he thought the Curlew Sandpiper was still there. Two minutes later we could see the group at the south end of the pond. Surprisingly, Paul Lehman was walking towards us, though he had just arrived less than ten minutes before us. Paul shouted something. I couldn’t hear what he said but there was no smile on his face. I asked him to repeat what he said. “Well I just missed it by only one minute” he replied. A knot began to grow in my stomach. What the hell was he talking about? Was he kidding? But then Paul doesn’t seem to kid about birds. He seems all business. This just couldn’t be. We walked towards the main group. There was Guy surrounded by the San Diego faithful. Guy looked at me and said. “A Peregrine came by and flushed the flock about ten minutes ago. We can no longer find the Curlew Sandpiper and it’s so bright orange on the breast that we couldn’t have missed it.”
Lot’s of thoughts raced through my mind. I was 10 minutes late and had missed the sandpiper because of a Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard! A damn lizard! Why was I doing this “Quest for a Thousand” thing anyway? Hadn’t I realized how difficult it was to pursue a big year? Success and failure. The sweet smell of this morning’s success and been replaced by the gloom and disappointment of a missed rare bird. They all stayed around for a little while. Guy felt bad I know he did, but they soon all trickled away. Paul and Barbara said they were going to grab something to eat then return. But nobody was optimistic. I guess there is an awful lot of habitat out there in the south end of San Diego Bay. I decided to grab something to eat as well and went to Carl’s Junior with to SOCAL birders. Well, at least this ending would be a nice title to the blog “Success and Failure” you need both to enjoy the richness of life.
Aah but this story has a happy ending. I had just taken my first bite of a Turkey Burger when my cell phone rang. It was Dan King on the other end, the Lizard Man! The bird was back! I wrapped my burger raced to the car and booked it back to Palm and 7th Ave. This time I ran towards the waiting crowd of birders that had once again gathered at the south end. There was Guy McCaskie telling me to look through his scope. Don’t waste time setting up mine. Wow! It was bright rufous. Does it get any better than this?
Success, failure and now success again. Eventually, I came down from cloud 9. The only logical thing to do now was drive east 140 miles to the Salton Sea and find the Yellow-legged Gull. And who better to tell me where to go than “Mister Salton Sea” himself, Guy McCaskie.
I raced east and got the gull even managing to stop along the way to add two more lizards to my Quest for a Thousand list.
Post Script – While I was racing around Southern California, Linda was stuck in Santa Barbara trying to fly standby. Eventually six hours later she made a flight to LAX and got a room at the Best Western. So I decided to drive all the way back to LA to join her. I almost fell asleep driving 5 mph through construction and apparently drove at least the last 30 miles in downtown LA with my lights off.
One heck of a day.