It was a cold, northerly summer for yours truly this year. Fortunately, that summer was in one of the bird world’s great locations – Churchill, Manitoba. I spent two months ~25 miles outside the town of Churchill at the edge of the tundra along the coast of Hudson Bay conducting research on high latitude nesting of Savannah sparrows and Yellow warblers, while also assisting with the long-term Snow goose research. It’s why I come up here…the Snow Goose. (Photo by Steve Brenner, 2018) Churchill is a fantastic spot for bird work – it’s a relatively accessible and  relatively southern place to study the far breeders of the north. There are multiple research camps nearby, and there is also a hefty amount of Polar Bear activity, research, and tours as well.
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“Mr. Healy, I have a question I’ve been meaning to ask you.” My coworker approached me as I was stowing my binoculars after a brief pre-work survey of the schoolyard. “I’ve been at my place in northern Jersey for years now, but this year I’ve noticed something different. There are these birds, I can only describe them as…finches?” I smiled, having suspected the nature of the question as soon as he mentioned that this season was unusual compared to the past few falls. “They’re small, with a short beak, and kind of yellow and green on the belly…and there are A LOT of them! I saw just one at first, but now my yard is full of them.
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Weather and fall pelagic trips often don’t mix well. The September two-day trip out of Hyannis, Massachusetts that I hoped to attend with the Brookline Birding Club was regrettably called off due to interference from the remnants of Hurricane Florence. The cancellation was a bit of a letdown, but I told myself that I was satisfied with the offshore action I experienced this year. The magical August adventure out of Brooklyn produced plenty of excitement! I’d made peace with the apparent reality that my marine birding would probably be limited to seawatching for the remainder of 2018. However, rough seas struck again. A horrendous forecast for the last weekend of October forced the See Life Paulagics team to reschedule their last New York trip of the year. The new date, on the first weekend of November, was much more favorable for me to join.
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It’s been some years since I worked full-time for any kind of field research project. My current job as a biology teacher doesn’t offer quite as many opportunities to “do science” outside the classroom, but I still find ways to get my fix. Ecology-focused field trips and school projects allow me to share the importance of the natural world with my students. I’m also a big believer in the merits of citizen science efforts. My fondness for data collection and review drove my progression from casual to compulsive use of eBird, and I eagerly count down to Christmas Bird Count season as the holidays approach each year. The style of birding associated with CBCs and similar survey efforts appeals to me strongly. Thoroughly combing through an area to document birds is an engaging, rewarding endeavor with real scientific value.
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When it rains, it pours. Fall migration can feel a bit slow at times when the winds and weather fail to cooperate, but these bouts of inactivity are frequently punctuated by impressive flights and exciting vagrants. Once the conditions finally shift favorably after a few days of stagnation, the action along the Atlantic Flyway can really heat up. Coastal New York certainly knows how to deliver in that regard. Long Island, for all its imperfections, is honestly a pretty great place to find unexpected birds. The back half of October began with a pair of stunners: a subadult Purple Gallinule discovered in Prospect Park, Brooklyn and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher found on a ranch at Montauk Point. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of the Empire State, those two sites are about as far apart as you can get from one another on Long Island.
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The excitement of a rarity chase is one of my favorite aspects of birding, but it’s nothing compared to the thrill of finding something unusual yourself. For me, the feeling of accomplishment that comes with turning up even a minor regional oddity often rivals the triumphant joy of a successful twitch or long-distance trip. That finder’s high is a hell of a drug, a reassurance to yourself and your fellow birders that you totally know what you’re doing. You can find rare birds, you’ve clearly got this whole birding thing on lock. The combined boost to ego and community credibility is a great incentive to get out in the field and search. Who doesn’t dream of fortune and glory? Making an effort to sniff out rare birds has a number of practical benefits that, in my opinion, help to build a better birder.
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Pelagic birding trips appeal to my inner explorer. Searching for wildlife on the high seas offers a special kind of thrill, an opportunity to break from more typical, terrestrial efforts and visit a realm beyond the boundaries of humanity’s collective comfort zone. The inhabitants of this habitat are inherently fascinating in their adaptations and lifestyles. Truly monumental surprises can occur at literally any time. The potential rewards for a traveler who braves the wind and waves are tantalizing enough to draw even chronically seasick landlubbers outside the shelter of the harbor time and time again. Every outing presents a chance to discover something new about how marine organisms navigate Earth’s vast network of ocean currents.
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It was difficult to leave Portal behind after the fantastic experiences I enjoyed while exploring the Chiricahuas. I’d seen so much in such a short period of time that even if the remaining days of the trip were completely birdless I would still consider the vacation a success. Of course, the second half of my visit to southeastern Arizona turned out to be just as birdy as the first. Even though I departed from the Portal Peak Lodge more than 2 hours before sunrise, I was able to start birding on the road to Sierra Vista. Lesser Nighthawks periodically swooped through my headlights as I drove across the desert. Light was beginning to return to the landscape just north of Douglas, where a large, dusty-gray Great Horned Owl flew directly at my car at windshield height.
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The last time I visited Arizona was the first time I visited Arizona. During the summer of 2005, my family embarked on one of our most ambitious cross-country camping trips, driving through the Rockies from New York to California and returning by way of the desert southwest. Our time in the state was focused on visiting the National Parks: Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and Saguaro. Although my 13th birthday was still more than a month away, I’d been watching birds since before I could hold binoculars. At the time, I was just starting to keep track of my official life list. Most of the species I added to my scribbled journal entries were conspicuous, common birds like Cactus Wren and Gila Woodpecker.
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Birds always find ways to surprise us. No matter how much you know, no matter how well you prepare, no matter how long you’ve been tuned in to the wild world of birding, there will be times when you get caught completely off guard. I think that’s wonderful. This Tuesday morning, I was standing in the Tucson airport after a truly incredible week-long tour of southeastern Arizona’s natural marvels. I saw wondrous things and made memories to last a lifetime. I fully expected to be writing up my recap of the trip by now, but I’ll have to take care of that later. The saga that began unfolding before me as I scrolled through my newsfeed at the terminal totally blew me away. The ABA Rare Bird Alert group was buzzing over a most interesting report from Maine.
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