Success and Failure – July 24

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!

Little Stint with three Western Sandpipers at Piute Pond (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

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.

Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard in the Antelope Valley (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

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?

Curlew Sandpiper with Western Sandpipers and a LB Dow (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

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.

Banded Rock Lizard off of I-8 (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

Granite Spiny Lizard off of I-8 (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

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.

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10 Responses to Success and Failure – July 24

  1. Bill Kaempfer says:

    John, I have to add the rest of the story which you already know.

    I have been trying to manage a little “front-man” work for John on the publicity front. Sometime in the late afternoon of the 24th I was in email contact with a woman who is setting up sort of a “get into birding” project here in Boulder. One of the events this fall will be a Hollywood and Birds program where I will be a participant. I had advised her about John and The Big Year movie release at just about that time and she had asked me if John might want to come to the panel, too. I said that I was sure he would if he was around, but that he would probably be off chasing Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper at that time. Then I thought that John had one stint in Alaska and I couldn’t remember which one, so I changed my email to Yellow Grosbeak and Tufted Flycatcher. Immediately I noticed that John had called a bit earlier when I was away from my phone. So I called him as he was en route to the Salton Sea and got the news. I just about dropped off my chair.

    Finally, John, as an economics professor I have to say that I’m really pleased to see that you have learned my lesson about the “optimal rate of failure”. If you don’t have any failures, you aren’t trying hard enough.

  2. Wes Hatch says:

    Hey John there is a spotted Redshank in Northwestern California. According to peeps “on 25 July Lucas Brug found an ABA Code-4, male Spotted Redshank (Tringa totanus) in northwestern California on a gravel bar in the Smith River, Smith River Bottoms, Del Norte County, California. It was seen foraging alone with two Greater Yellowlegs nearby for comparison.”

    Another cool looking shorebird.

    Good Luck!

  3. Jim Vanderpoel says:


    it occurs to me after reading about this adventure that you may very well have gone completely bonkers! Are there really five more months of this? Well, enjoy the ride! More condolences to Linda!

  4. Fred Urie says:

    “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.”

    Or her 3rd choice to call a good divorce lawyer.

  5. Bruce Aird says:

    I was one of the two birders you didn’t quite eat lunch with on the 24th, when the Curlew Sandpiper intervened! Curious – are you going for the Spotted Redshank? Just wanted to wish you good luck.

  6. David White says:

    Bob hit 684 on 7/31
    Lynn hit 684 on 9/13

  7. John Vanderpoel says:

    Hi Bruce,

    Thanks. Next time perhaps there will be time ti finish the Turkey Burger!

  8. LindaVanderpoel says:

    Fred, I’m not yet ready for option number 3. . . but check back with me the end of the year!! My daughter-in-law even call to offer her sympathies. . . and she is now married to a Vanderpoel! I think I’m done with travelling with John for the remainder of the year!

  9. LindaVanderpoel says:

    Oh and John forgot to mention that the car GPS completely konked (sp?) out the last 50 miles of his trek to LA. The GPS said “screw it”, it was fried too! (I’m sure that prior to that he had even forgotten that I was IN California). So he was calling me on his “dinosaur” cell phone to get directions to the Best Western where I was in the middle of LA, as if I knew how to get there! Anyway I stood out on Century Blvd. looking for him to drive up (at this point forgetting what rental car he was in, there had been so many) and to see him pull up with no headlights on was surreal. . . . I guess the bright lights of Hollywood guided him!

  10. Stan Gray says:

    I saw the bird with Jon after waiting for him to drive down from the Bishop area. Was the least that I could do after he and Susan Steele waited for me to drive up to Owens lake last summer to see another little stint. Thanks to Kimball Garrett and Kathy Molina for helping me locate the Piute bird just a few minutes after they found it. After all the phone calls from Larry, Paul, Barbara Carlson and Curtis Marantz once your boat landed–Trust me, we were going to get you in to see the bird one way or another! Good Luck on the last few days/hours of the year!!

    Stan Gray

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