A Brown Booby near Waterloo Alabama was year bird 312 for me.
I wrote this account for the Alabama Ornithological Society Newsletter but neglected to post it on my blog at the time. I thought I should get it up.
Appropriately enough, I began 2019—the year in which I would ascend to the AOS presidency—chasing birds in Alabama. I had spent half of the previous year in Australia, missing spring migration entirely, and I was itching to get re-acquainted with Alabama birds. I’ll contend that I didn’t set out to do a big year in 2019, but I was intent on seeing as many species in Alabama as I could. (Most people would not see a difference between those two goals.)
2019 turned out to be a great year to build a big list. There was a nearly constant stream of unusual birds reported in Alabama in 2019, and the parade of rarities started in January. Baldwin County hosted Allen’s and Black-chinned Hummingbirds; Mobile County had Vermillion Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Black Scoter, Great Black-backed Gull, and Eared Grebe; Houston County had Western Tanager and Bullock’s Oriole; a Smith’s Longspur turned up in a flock of Lapland Longspurs in Morgan County; and, at the Winter AOS meeting, lucky society members on the boat trip on Wheeler Reservoir were treated to Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, and Common Merganser. By the end of January, I had a whopping (given my expectations) 167 species.
A flock of Black Scoters spent the winter of 2018/19 along the causeway to Dauphin Island where I saw them in January for one of my first birds of the year. They disappeared from that spot by February and were nearly impossible to find for the rest of the year.
The run of rarities didn’t let up as winter transitioned to spring. A White-winged Scoter spent late winter at the water treatment plant in Inverness in Shelby County, and in late March, I kicked up a Western Meadowlark near the museum at Fort Morgan. I also started a run of luck that carried through my year of bird chasing. A Yellow-headed Blackbird began visiting a yard in Foley on March 20 when I was busy at work and tired of chasing birds. For more than a week I didn’t go after the rarity, expecting it to disappear. Such a lackadaisical approach is generally the death of the big year. Totally focused big year listers will run after a bird within the same day if they can. Too many rarities do not stick around. I estimate that most rare birds are gone within a few days of when they are first discovered, and many are gone within 24 hours. So waiting 10 days like I did was essentially begging to have one species deducted from my year total. Against the odds, the blackbird hung around (it turned out that this bird lingered until May) and I watched it come to the feeder 10 days after it was first spotted.
I most chased rare birds that other people found during my big year, but I found my own Western Meadowlark at Fort Morgan in March and even got photos of the diagnostic tail pattern.
In contrast to the winter full of rarities, it was an ordinary spring migration in Alabama with few surprises; however, all of the regular suspects made an appearance. By birding more than I probably should have (I work full time), I was able to track down all of the regular spring migrants. I did have a regrettable miss on my way home from an exhausting early May birding weekend on Dauphin Island--I drove right past a Hudsonian Godwit that I didn’t know was at Blakeley Island. I could have driven back down to Blakeley Island from my home in Auburn the next morning and seen that bird, but I didn’t. I can’t say I that I now second-guess my decision not to repeat an 8 hour round trip the day after I had just gotten home. Even big years need a dose of sanity. But the godwit was one less bird that I tallied on my big year.
A key to any big year is getting offshore in a boat to look for pelagic birds. There are no regularly scheduled Alabama pelagic charters. If you want offshore birds for a big year, you have to organize your own trip. So, I organized a 2019 Alabama pelagic trip. On Aug 10, fourteen AOS members piled onto a charter boat and chugged to deep water due south of Orange Beach. It turned out to be a moderately rough and mostly frustrating adventure. The seas had just enough roll that it was uncomfortable for many of us land-lovers, and the abundant spring rains has muddied the Gulf as far out as we could get in a one-day venture. Birds like Bridled Terns and Audubon’s Shearwaters prefer to forage over “blue water”—the clear and deep water that sits over the continental slope. This year, because of discharge from rivers, blue water was so far out it was essentially unreachable. We almost struck out entirely on pelagic birds, but by laying down an oil slick in the deepest water area that we reached, we did draw in single Wilson’s and Band-rumped Storm Petrels. We missed jeagers, Bridled and Sooty Terns, and all shearwaters. It ended up being a lot of pain and expense for two year birds.
Wilson Storm-petrel was one of only two year birds that I got on my August pelagic trip.
Late summer and early fall is typically hot and not particularly interesting, but state birders turned up a succession of mega-rarities in August and September 2019 including Fulvous Whistling-duck, Red Phalarope, Sabine’s Gull, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Brown Booby. I was particularly proud of my effort to get the Brown Booby. It was spotted from the Waterloo waterfront, in extreme Northwest Alabama, hanging out a half mile across the lake on some rocky structure. It was a long view under the best of conditions and if the bird perched on the wrong side of the rocks, it was completely out of view. I decided to bring a kayak with me to paddle out and have a decent look at the bird. Good thing I brought my boat because the booby was not in view when I arrived (at the end of four and a half hour drive). To my disappointment, it was also not in present when I made the long paddle across rough water out to the rocks. It seemed the bird had moved on. But then I noticed a raft of cormorants sitting on the lake west of me, so I paddled for 15 minutes towards the cormorants. Finally, I spotted a suspicious bird in amongst the cormorants—it was the Brown Booby and it did not look healthy. I paddled right up to it, literally 5 feet away and it didn’t even look at me. It seemed to be dying. It was not seen again after I saw it, and I have to presume it died a short time after I found it. No way would I have seen that bird without paddling out to it.
I passed 300 on my year list on August 9. In my opinion, 300 is an outstanding year total for Alabama, and there were times early in 2019 when, in calculating what birds were left, I wasn’t sure I would make 300. I reached 308 on September 6 and 312 on September 28. Birds 308 and 312 were significant milestones for me because in 1996 Adam Byrne and I did big years together and I ended up with 307 species while Adam tallied 311. (You can read an account of that 1996 big year at www.theornithologistsblog.com). Going into 2019, my goal was to beat my personal record and then to best Adam’s old record. Once I had passed Adam’s record, I simply wanted to see how high I could push the total. To my knowledge, only three birders have surpassed 320 in Alabama state big years. Greg Jackson did it first in 1998, tallying 326. Steve McConnell followed with a total in the high 320s and the current record is 330 tallied by Howard Horne in 2013. So 320 was a natural goal once I had passed 311.
Groove-billed Ani at Fort Morgan was a new state bird for me and year bird 319.
I finished the year with a succession of rare bird sightings. A flock of about a dozen Swainson’s Hawks lingered into November in Baldwin County, giving me a chance to see this species after I missed it October. In December, a Groove-billed Ani hung around the fort at Fort Morgan Historic Site just long enough for me to find it the morning after it was discovered. The ani was, remarkably, my nineth new state birds for the year. To put this in context, I had only added about 25 new species in the twenty years since the turn of the 21st century. 2019 was a really good year for a big year.
When I watched a Calliope Hummingbird come to a feeder near Dothan, I tallied my 319th and final bird for the year. I only included officially accepted state birds in amassing my list. Thus, even though I saw Mute Swan, Scaly-breasted Munia, and Whooping Crane in the state, I did not include them in my 319 total because they are not on the current state list. The big year was a fun distraction, but I have no desire to ever do that again. I have much more fun roaming around Alabama working on my county lists.