Being a brief discourse on my Little Big Year, during which I identified as many bird species as I could within the confines of Santa Barbara County (CA)

Friday, January 4th, 2019

327. That’s how many species I ended up getting.

Among active county users of eBird I finished in first place, one bird ahead of Mark Holmgren, whom I suspect could have beaten me if he’d tried, but who probably didn’t realize it was a contest. The only times I really made up ground on him are when he was on extended birding trips away from the county.

I’m pretty sure there were at least a few other county birders who beat me. My guess is that Nick Lethaby and Wes Fritz both identified more birds than I did in the county this year. But they mostly don’t do eBird, so who knows? (Well, they know, presumably. But I don’t.)

The one-year record for Santa Barbara County is 358, set by Wes in 2008. I finished well short of that, and looking over the list he got that year I doubt I could get into that range, at least in my current state of bird knowledge. Someday, maybe. 

I recorded at least one eBird checklist every day last year; at the moment my streak (which I’ve kept going) is at 382 days. A few times when I was sick I only did a 10-minute count in my backyard, but I always got at least one birding session in. I made a few brief trips to the Eastern Sierra during the year, and on my long-commute days was sometimes reduced to entering a 2- or 3-species list while walking to Starbuck’s through the bird desert surrounding my employer’s office in LA, but other than that it was all Santa Barbara county. I finished the year with 730 checklists entered in the county; the next highest total of checklists submitted was (again) Mark Holmgren with 547.

Fun facts: I had 845 checklists total entered during the year, including those outside the county, which ranks me 484th among active eBird users in the ABA area (North America north of Mexico). I’m not aware of any way to compare my single-county species total with those of other eBirders, but I think I’d probably be toward the upper part of that list, Santa Barbara being such a good county by ABA standards. But I dunno; there are a lot of counties, and a lot of birders more obsessive than I am.

My species total for the ABA area was 350, which ranks me roughly 14,000th among active eBird users in 2018. Tops in 2018 in the ABA area in eBird were Nicole Koeltzow with 775 species, which is amazing, and Barbara Combs with 11,147 checklists submitted, which is also amazing. Barbara averaged slightly more than 30 checklists per day in 2018; some poking around shows that she’s opting for maximum granularity; my guess is she’s basically entering a list of the birds seen in every 15-minute chunk throughout the day, every day.

Things I learned:

  • Birds are not evenly distributed in the landscape. I mean, I knew that already. But now I appreciate it more.
  • They’re really out there (those rare/difficult species I’d always seen in the field guide but never in person) — except when they’re not.
  • Finding is better than chasing.
  • Different kinds of birding are their own discreet knowledge domains. I was a beginner at most of them; still am at some. But I’m learning.
  • So many rungs on that ladder. I’m a way better birder than I was at the start of the year, but I’m more aware than ever of how far below the real experts I am.
  • Avid birdwatchers are a flash mob waiting to happen. All it takes is a report of a rarity (”Mississippi Kite at Alisal Ranch!”) for them to suddenly coalesce. I now know most of the top 20 people in the county eBird rankings from last year, but when I started they were just names. That’s almost all from hanging out with them at the site of reported rarities.
  • eBird is the best. I love eBird.

Favorite bird I saw this year: Prairie Falcon. I saw this species first outside the county, on March 30, during one of the trips I made to the Eastern Sierra. I first saw it in the county during the birding trip I made to the Cuyama Valley on April 29. I also saw it once on Lake Cachuma, and once along Happy Canyon Road north of Lake Cachuma. But the place I saw it the most, on four different visits, was the place I’m going to talk about next.

Favorite place: The intersection of San Miguelito Road and Sudden Road in the hills south of Lompoc. I can’t really describe why this spot is so cool to me. It’s just a grassy valley with a few farmhouses and cows. But in that grassy bowl are about 100,000 ground squirrels and a lot of amazing raptors. It was the last place I went in 2018, on New Year’s Eve, after I’d more or less given up on adding any new species because it was too windy at the other spots I’d chosen. I’d given it the old college try but the birds just weren’t cooperating. So I decided to stop trying, and just go to my favorite spot. So I went, and had a glorious time watching three Golden Eagles and a bunch of Red-tailed Hawks and the one Ferruginous Hawk that hangs out there, and then, blasting straight overhead before it landed on the hillside west of me and ran around harassing squirrels, my fave:

I appreciate all the nice comments people have made about my silly obsession this past year. If you have any questions I’d be happy to go on (and on) about it some more; the Ask Box is always open.

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Between work and holiday commitments I’ve got three more decent opportunities to add to my county…

Sunday, December 23rd, 2018

Between work and holiday commitments I’ve got three more decent opportunities to add to my county year list before the year is over.

Tomorrow I plan to go to Surf Beach to try scoping for scoters. Mark had White-winged and Black Scoters not far from there recently on Vandenberg Air Force Base. I don’t have access to the base, but there’s an Amtrak stop (really just a platform and a sign) that I can get to, with a high dune that gives views of the coast to the south. I’m going to try to be there early before the wind picks up and with the morning sun (hopefully) behind me.

The high surf forecast is problematic; good for surfers is bad for birders, as distant scoters that pop into view only when they’re both a) on the surface and b) on the crest of a wave can be super frustrating to find much less identify. But it’s the only opportunity I have, so I’ll make the most of it.

If time allows I’ll also check nearby Ocean Beach Park for an American Bittern and any unexpected shorebirds or waterfowl. Chances of a new county year bird there are slim, but again, I have to do what I can with the opportunities I have left.

Thursday is the Cachuma Christmas count, where my territory includes a spot where Northern Pygmy-Owls have been seen in the past. I’ll be trying for Grasshopper Sparrows first; during scouting yesterday I got lucky and was able to get photos of one; hopefully I can repeat that on Thursday. Assuming I do I’ll move on to the NOPO spot. I plan to use playback, which I normally avoid, so I feel like my chances are decent. We didn’t have any owls yesterday in that location, but I’ll be by myself and will hopefully have more time on Thursday, so:🤞

My last chance will be New Year’s Eve. I’ll make a decision then what my best opportunity is; maybe one last try for Northern Pygmy-Owl, either at Ranger Peak or closer to home on the Baron Ranch Trail.

I’m in the lead by one species among active eBirders in the county, but I don’t trust Mark; I bet he’s got two or three birds he’s waiting to spring on me at the last second. 😜 We’ve never discussed it; birder “cool” requires pretending strenuously not to care about such things. Or maybe that’s just me, and no one else actually does care.


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Clay-colored Sparrow

Friday, December 21st, 2018



A rarity to Powdermill, this sparrow usually breeds in shrublands, field edges, and thickets across the northern prairies. 

Powdermill Nature Reserve’s avian research center is part of Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s biological research station in Rector, Pennsylvania.  The research center operates a bird banding station, conducts bioacoustical research, and performs flight tunnel analysis with the goal of reducing window collisions.


I’m fighting a cold, but the year’s almost done and I’m tied for the top spot in the county-year eBird rankings. So I set the alarm and headed to River Park in Lompoc, where a Clay-colored Sparrow has been seen lately hanging out with the White-crowned Sparrows.

I spent most of my time checking out a couple of different groups of White-crowns, trying hard to make one of them look smaller than the rest. No dice.

I’d basically given up (again. why is it always like that?) and was heading back to my car past the pond when I saw one more group of sparrows I hadn’t checked before. And there, hopping around with them, was one that was distinctly smaller. And cuter. 🙂

My photo’s nowhere near as good as the OP’s. But it’s special to me.


This could be my last county-year bird of 2018. I’ve got a few chances at a Northern Pygmy-Owl coming up, and there have been some Black and White-winged Scoters seen off Vandenberg not far from Surf Station; maybe I could see one of those. And there’s the method Nick explained a while back to scope for American Bitterns at Ocean Beach Park. Any of those could add another species to the list.

And there’s always the chance of a wildcard. They’re birds; you can’t predict them.

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ostdrossel:Again, no booth pics, but something amazing happened…

Saturday, December 8th, 2018


Again, no booth pics, but something amazing happened this morning – I had a Summer Tanager in my yard! When I first saw him, I thought it was a weird female Cardinal or maybe a female Orchard Oriole (because I have never seen one before), but something did not add up. From what I am reading, their range normally does not even reach as far as Michigan, so this was such a cool surprise! What a spring this is!


Right where it was supposed to be, eating persimmons at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

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debunkshy: Long-tailed Duck Glendale Recharge Ponds, AZ,…

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018


Long-tailed Duck

Glendale Recharge Ponds, AZ, 1-19-17


A female Long-tailed Duck was reported by Nick late Sunday afternoon from Ocean Beach County Park, just far enough away that I couldn’t get there before dark, and would very much not have wanted to anyway since it would have put me in Thanksgiving weekend traffic on the way back. And the next day (Monday) was my day to go the opposite direction to LA for work, so I had to cross my fingers and hope the bird would stay until today (Tuesday).

One eBird report by Libby on Monday showed the bird still there, so I was hopeful. I set the alarm for 4:30 and got there shortly after sunrise. It was cold, which wasn’t so bad, but also foggy and windy, which put a damper on things. I looked around the railroad bridge near the parking lot where the bird had been seen, sifting through the Ruddy Ducks and Eared and Western Grebes, but no dice. I walked to the beach and checked out the Snowy Plovers, then returned to the railroad bridge again, wiping condensation off my glasses. Still no Long-tailed Duck.

Oh, well. Most chases don’t pan out; it looked like this was going to be one of those.

I returned to my car and reviewed my eBird list. As I was about to drive away I noticed that the sun was starting to poke through, and I thought, well, maybe the duck has been tucked away somewhere waiting for it to get nicer out. So I took one last stroll down to the railroad bridge.


What a cutie. 🙂

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oceanodroma: Not a great photo, but a pretty amazing bird. This…

Saturday, November 24th, 2018


Not a great photo, but a pretty amazing bird. This is a hybrid Red-breasted x Red-naped sapsucker in my backyard. You never know what migration (esp fall migration) will bring


The Rrd-naked Sapsucker I was fortunate enough to see today wasn’t a hybrid, I don’t think, which is good for my county year list since a hybrid wouldn’t count.🙂

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ridiculousbirdfaces: IMG_6879 by Ryk NavesRed-necked Grebe…

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018



by Ryk Naves

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)


Sometimes I get a new bird for the county year list out of the blue, an unexpected and exiting rarity (like the Green-tailed Towhee at Jameson Lake last Sunday). Other times I chase a bird previously reported by someone else. Most of the time those chases don’t pan out, but once in a while they do.

A report had come in of a Red-necked Grebe in Santa Barbara Harbor this morning. I didn’t find out about it until I broke from work for lunch and saw the posting on the sbcobirding list. I’d only have time for a quick look, but I could at least go to the harbor and see.

When I got there I saw plenty of Western and Clark’s Grebes, but no Red-necked. At one point I saw a Western Grebe that had been discolored by oil, which was sad, and it occurred to me that maybe that was the bird that had been seen. It didn’t look like a Red-necked Grebe, but it looked different enough to be potentially confusing?

I sat down on one of the benches by Sea Landing, looking out at the main channel of the harbor. I took some photos. The oiled Western Grebe:

An interesting Double-crested Cormorant with a lot of white on it (leucism?):

A Herring Gull (gotta keep working on those gulls – so much to learn!):

It was almost time for me to get back to work. And then, right in front of me:

Yay! 😀

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sunwendyrain:Green-tailed Towhee#322🙂

Sunday, November 18th, 2018


Green-tailed Towhee



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ornithoscelidaphiliac: Canvasback ducks are…

Sunday, November 18th, 2018


Canvasback ducks are lovely.


Canvasbacks are hard to come by in Santa Barbara County. I’d chased after a few that were reported in the past few weeks without success, so it felt very satisfying to find four of them (a male and three females) at Jameson Lake today.

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acryptozoo: Ross’s Goose (Chen rossii) #320Organisms that like…

Thursday, November 15th, 2018


Ross’s Goose (Chen rossii)


Organisms that like to spend time at sewage-treatment plants:

– aerobic bacteria

– anaerobic bacteria

– rare/vagrant waterfowl

– birdwatchers

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oceanodroma:I’ve watched this Snow Goose develop its adult…

Wednesday, November 7th, 2018


I’ve watched this Snow Goose develop its adult plumage over the fall and winter, and it seems like he decided to not migrate up to the arctic and is sticking around hopefully through the summer


At Lake Los Carneros this morning; another case where the bird reported the previous day was right where it was supposed to be at first light. 😀

An immature one (who are often the ones that wander off the normal migration route and make birdwatchers excited), just like the one shown above.

Here’s the one I saw this morning:

Very stylish. 👍

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speakingofnature:A Harris’s Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) has…

Monday, November 5th, 2018


A Harris’s Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) has been staying in the vicinity of my backyard for the last few days. I wonder if this is the same sparrow that visited my yard on November 22, 2015 (see Archives) while migrating south. He is quite handsome in his bright springtime feathers.


I’ve been chasing various reported rarities since I saw a county Vesper Sparrow on October 14, but so far all of them have been fun outings that didn’t produce the hoped-for bird.

This morning was the other side of the coin, where I chase the bird and I’m at the spot it was reported at first light and bam: there it is. Yay! 😀👍

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Dæmon Analysis: Vesper Sparrow

Monday, October 15th, 2018


Personality: Cheerful, outgoing, opportunistic. Vesper sparrows like to see the best in people and in different situations. As a rule, they tend to stay with a large circle of friends, and get lonely easily. People with vesper sparrow dæmons may not seek out change, but if it comes their way they roll with it, and they excel at recognising a promising opportunity.

Historical/Contemporary Figure: Jimmy Fallon (TV show host)

Fictional Characters: Kaylee Fry (Firefly)
                                                                                                         – Raylen


I think it’s my favorite place in the county, San Miguelito Road. Every time I’ve gone there it’s felt special. I was thinking about it yesterday, trying to figure out what it is, specifically. I think it’s the lack of traffic. It’s 10 miles deep in the winding hills south of Lompoc. There are a few farms, and a distant view of the ocean, but the road just ends at the locked gate for Vandenberg (where they do the west coast rocket launches), so no one really goes there. I arrived at sunrise and stayed most of the day, walking down the middle of the paved road birdwatching, and in all that time I think I saw four cars on the road not counting mine.

I was there because there’s a Pinyon Jay irruption happening, and last week someone saw the first Pinyon Jays in Santa Barbara County since 2000 along that road. There’s no reason to think they’re still there; Pinyon Jays are notorious wanderers, thinly spread and hard to find even within their normal range, and these were on the far side of the county from where they presumably entered, via the mountains south of Cuyama. But it was as good a place as any to find them, and I really like going there. So I went.

I mentioned in the tags of a different post about all the great raptors I saw: Golden Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, and Prairie Falcon, for starters, each one a legit bird celebrity that would have made my day on its own. But the real star for me were two little brown jobs skulking in the close-cropped grass next to the road: gray-brown streaking, complete white eye ring, light malar patch surrounded by a dark border; yeah! Vesper Sparrow!

I’d been thinking about Vesper Sparrows a lot lately.

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klemannlee:Blue-Winged Warbler#316This was kind of hilarious….

Saturday, October 13th, 2018


Blue-Winged Warbler


This was kind of hilarious. Nick Lethaby (who finds a disproportionate share of the rare birds in Santa Barbara County) put the word out at 9:28 a.m. that he’d found a Blue-winged Warbler in Carpinteria Creek. This is a big deal; it’s a first county record. And it was 5 minutes from my house, on a non-work day. So yeah; I obviously wanted to go check it out.

But there was a problem: I’d signed up for a table shift at the local supermarket in support of a local ballot measure (Measure X; don’t forget to vote, Carpinterians), and my shift started at 10. I went to Carp Creek and hung out on the 8th Street Bridge as long as I could, but I only had a few minutes and wasn’t really expecting to see the bird. Honestly, I was just thinking well, maybe Nick will be there and will be able to point out the bird to me. No luck, though; no bird, no birders.

At the tabling shift the group texts started coming in: more birders arriving, searching, and eventually refinding the bird, yay! Meanwhile, I was about 150 yards away chatting with shoppers about the city’s budget issues. I got a personal text: “Where are you?”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can!”

At noon my volunteer shift ended and I raced back to the creek. When I got to the bridge and looked upstream I saw the best thing possible: About 10 avid county birders all looking intently at the same point on the creek bank. Yeah!

A minute later I’d joined them and was getting great views of the bird, which was gorgeous.

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debunkshy: Bobolink Schurch-Thomson Prairie, WI,…

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018



Schurch-Thomson Prairie, WI, 6-18-17


One of those birds I’d always read about growing up but never saw, because it’s an eastern species that’s rare along the Pacific coast.

Hugh (same Hugh who got the amazing shot of the humpback breaching on Saturday’s pelagic trip) reported one from Elings Park in Santa Barbara yesterday, so I got up early today and went looking. Conor was there before me, so I walked up and asked if he’d seen the Bobolink.

“Actually, yeah.” Oh wow; when? “About 5 minutes ago.”

I headed off in the direction he indicated, and a few minutes later I saw it: like a big sparrow, but with an overall yellowish wash, pale lores, and pointed wings when it flew. Yay!

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October 6 PelagicI went on what will probably end up being my…

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

October 6 Pelagic

I went on what will probably end up being my last-of-the-year pelagic birding trip out of Ventura Harbor last weekend. The sunrise was pretty. And the birds! The official lists are still being tabulated, but it looks good for 6 new county-year birds for me. It gets tricky because we were passing back and forth through Ventura and Santa Barbara County waters – and actually a tiny bit of LA County waters as well. Because of my county year list obsession I was more excited about the Santa Barbara birds than the Ventura birds. But they were all great.

My sister and brother-in-law came along and it was fun to share the obsession with them. M’Liz volunteers with the American Cetacean Society’s gray whale census, so she’s all about the marine mammals; her favorite part of the trip was when we cruised alongside a humpacked whale that rewarded us with a full-on out-of-the-water breach. Hugh Ranson was one of the people who got a photo of the breach in-progress.

I’ll talk about the new county year birds I saw after a cut to preserve your dash.

Note: Except as indicated, the photos below aren’t by me and don’t show the actual birds I saw. They’re photos I googled up that generous people have shared under a Creative Commons license.

#309: Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus)

Photo by Martyne Reesman, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

We saw several “poms” as we were heading out past Anacapa Island, and kept seeing them as we headed south into the “donut hole” (the circle of ocean around Santa Barbara Island that has been deemed part of Santa Barbara County for bird-listing purposes). One of the birds even had the breeding-plumage “spoons” (long central tail feathers with a twist at the end) that you can see in this photo. I’ve always wanted to see those!

#310: Craveri’s Murrelet (Synthliboramphus craveri)

Photo by Tom Benson

We saw (and heard, one time) a few pairs of these as we approached Santa Barbara Island. Later, on the trip home, we saw a few more pairs, then one trio that I assume was mom, dad, and a chick. They were all adorable.

#311: Least Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma microsoma)

Photo by Alan Schmierer

This is a species that I saw, technically, but would not have been able to identify from the brief look I got if it weren’t for a boatload of experts shouting, “Least Storm-Petrel!” But with the benefit of their input I did notice that this storm-petrel was super tiny compared to the Black and Ashy Storm-Petrels we’d been seeing.

#312: Blue-footed Booby (Sula nebouxii)

Photo by Vince Smith

This was a biggee for me. I’ve always wanted to see one, and I knew one had been seen on the previous Island Packers pelagic trip (which I didn’t go on). Then one had been seen just a few days before our trip, hanging out at Santa Barbara Island with the big group of Brown Boobies that nested there this year, so we were hoping it would still be there. And… it was!

Hugh’s photo of the bird we saw is here. Here’s a shot from my phone of the upper deck after the excitement had started to wear off:

The Blue-footed Booby is actually in the shot; here it is cropped and arrowed:

Those other specks on the cliff are mostly Brown Boobies. It was a very booby day. 🙂

#313: Buller’s Shearwater

Photo by Jamie Chavez

We saw one of these mixed in with the thousands of Black-vented Shearwaters and the few dozen Pink-footed Shearwaters we steamed through in Ventura County waters, so I was primed and on the lookout for another near Santa Barbara Island. No more showed up, though, and I was thinking I wouldn’t get to add one to the county list, when bam! One showed up right next to the boat, zipping by under the bow and giving a beautiful view of that “M” pattern on its upper wings and back. Yay!

These birds are amazing. They breed in New Zealand, then spend the year doing a huge clockwise circle around the Pacific Ocean. Dave Pereksta, the birder who organized this trip, said he thinks they’re the prettiest of the shearwaters. I think he’s right.

#314: Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini)

Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

As we headed back toward the harbor I was happy with the birds I’d seen, and starting to settle into that tired-and-sitting-and-comparing-notes phase that all pelagic trips seem to end on, when the boat slowed unexpectedly. A kelp paddy to starboard had some terns on it… Common Terns, it turns out, which are great birds, though a species I already had for the county year list. But mixed in with them were two Sabine’s Gulls! 😀

Booby addendum:

I’m burying the lead, but the big news from the trip was the boobies: We saw all five booby species in a single day, which Dave Pereksta believes had not been done before in the ABA area:

  • A Masked Booby (my first ever) on Anacapa Island (Ventura County, alas)
  • A Red-footed Booby (also my first ever) that flew alongside the boat as we steamed south (also in Ventura County)
  • The aforementioned Brown Boobies on Santa Barbara Island
  • The Blue-footed Booby on Santa Barbara Island
  • A Nazca Booby that we chased down in a big group of shearwaters southeast of Santa Barbara Island (a great bird, and in the right county, but a species I already saw on a previous trip)

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julesofnature: Rose-breasted Grosbeak female “Every day we…

Monday, October 1st, 2018


Rose-breasted Grosbeak female

“Every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture, and, if possible, speak a few sensible words.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


In the eucs by the Lake Los Carneros parking, where I was looking for (and failing to find, again) the male Summer Tanager that’s been seen around there (just not by me) for weeks.

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mostlythemarsh: Lone Tree(Spot the Hawk) Broad-winged Hawk…

Thursday, September 27th, 2018


Lone Tree

(Spot the Hawk)

Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)


Four of them circling together just south of the hawk watch site in Bella Vista Drive. They’re an eastern species that winters in Mexico; this is the time of year when a few wandering youngsters come down the Pacific Flyway. If you’re in the right spot and have a bit of luck you can see them. I was and I did, so I did! Yay! 🙂

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debunkshy:Chestnut-sided WarblerSPI Convention Center,…

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018


Chestnut-sided Warbler
SPI Convention Center, TX


They’d been seeing it at Winchester One, the same place I saw the Blackpoll. This morning I had a dentist appointment out near there at 9 a.m., so I went and looked at sunrise for the bird. Just before I had to leave Nick showed up and helped me find the bird. 😀

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permagrinphoto: Northern Parula #305Found one myself, in the…

Monday, September 24th, 2018


Northern Parula


Found one myself, in the tipu trees in downtown Carp. It takes a certain (smallish) effort for someone like me, introvert, to walk around a city street with binoculars and a camera staring into the treetops. But then I see a bird like this and suddenly I don’t care at all.

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