Sunday, 28 October 2012

Personal Milestone

I know some birders think lists are silly.  I maintain certain lists as a way to challenge myself.  A couple years ago, Chris Saunders called me up and asked me about my self-found Victoria list.  I had never even thought of keeping such a list, but I decided I would look over the checklist and determine where I stood.  I can't remember what the total was at that point, but it was probably around 225 species.  I thought more and more about the list and decided it was the best way to push myself to get out and find birds.

I had to set some ground rules for this list, so I searched the internet to determine if anyone had developed some guidelines for self-found listing.  A popular UK birding blog by the name of punkbirder had just the set of rules I was seeking.  That side of the pond has a much more ravenous birding scene, so I don't necessarily agreed wholeheartedly about all of the rules.  For instance, news does not always break that fast here and I don't feel the need to keep my finger on the pulse as tightly as birders do in the UK.  It would be anticlimactic to be waiting for news to happen here.  I only have one bird that fits into that loophole, anyways.  A couple years ago I was away working into the beginning of September and I thought I had been keeping up with the Victoria rare bird news.  Apparently not!  I went out to Saanichton Spit and was thrilled at finding my first Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus) for Victoria!  I came home and posted it and then realized shortly thereafter that it had been found a few days earlier.  I don't abuse the system, so I feel I can take that one.  Another loophole area that doesn't work well here that I had another bird fall under is re-finding a bird.  In Victoria, when most of the birders have seen a bird they stop checking up on it.  I thought I had missed my shot at Clark's Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii) off Esquimalt Lagoon while I was in Costa Rica in December, 2005.  That bird was only the fourth record for Victoria, so it drew a fair bit of attention in the eight days it was known to be hanging out in a raft of 300+ Western Grebes (A. occidentalis).  I hadn't heard a single report of that bird until I spotted a Clark's Grebe off the same beachfront nearly four months later.  A bird like that would never be passed over for four months in the UK, but it's not excessively surprising here.  I'll take that one under the re-find clause, though.

Enough background on the whole self-found listing premise.  Fast forward to the return from my last work trip up to Fort McMurray a week and a half ago.  I was anxious to get back to some local birding, so I drove around the airport and then passed through the Vantreight bulb fields.  The airport was fruitless, but a sizable blackbird flock at the bulb fields drew my attention.  I immediately found my self-found Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) for Victoria.  It was my 250th self-found bird.  I actually thought it was my 249th until just a few minutes ago when I looked over my spreadsheet.  Somehow I had failed to mark off Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) even though I found one on my own years ago at Rocky Point.  I also had one flying over the ocean towards James Island last year.  The Yellow-headed Blackbird was a milestone I had been working towards for the last year with no idea how long it would take to reach.

What next?  I still have some moderately easy holes to fill in on my self-found list, but it's very hard to pick up new species.  For instance, I have never found an American Bittern (Botaurus letiginosus) in the Victoria checklist area.  It doesn't help that Chris Saunders and Ian Cruickshank seemingly live in sleeping bags on the lollipop boardwalk at Swan Lake.  I will have to put in some time up at Somenos Marsh or just luck into one randomly at an unconventional location if I want a self-found bittern.  Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) has evaded my attempts to find them around small reservoirs and ponds, in hedgerows lining agricultural fields, or in fall mixed feeding flocks.  Short-tailed Shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) should be easy enough to pick up if I actually take the time to do some pelagic birding at this time of year.  So, should my next goal be to hit 275 for my self-found Victoria list?

Despite those three relatively easy pick-up species, I actually inched my way up to 251 on October 24th after an enjoyable but fruitless outing with Paul Lehman and Barbara Carlson from San Diego.  They were hoping to see their first Harris' Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) for British Columbia, but the Harris' had other plans.  They only had time for a morning's worth of Victoria birding before I had to drop them back off for their Holland America repositioning cruise to San Diego.  I had taken the day off work, so I figured I'd get in more birding before picking up Janean back in Sidney at 5 p.m.  I was struggling to figure out what to do and through a rather convoluted thought process I eventually ended up at Uplands Park.  I was only out of the car for a couple minutes before a bird knocked my socks off!  I stood next to a patch of blackberry brambles and started pishing.  An unusual call started up and I wasn't able to process it.  I eagerly watched a patch of Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) for the source of the call to pop into the open.  And there it was.  But I still couldn't come to grips with what I seeing - a yellowish patch on the wing?  The bird's tail flicked and revealed salmon-yellow flashes.  American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)!  I then saw all the glorious features you'd want to see even though the encounter was brief.  It was a female-type bird sporting a grey hood, brownish back, and those characteristic salmon-yellow flashes in the wings and tail.  The Victoria checklist published in 2001 lists only two records of American Redstart, but four or five more records have come in over the last decade.  Of those records, none of the birds have really been chaseable.

The American Redstart was not only my 251st self-found Victoria bird, it was my 288th Victoria checklist area bird.  The relevance of this is my next milestone.  I am trying to push towards 300 species in the Victoria checklist area.  I am much more likely to see 12 new species for my Victoria list versus 24 new self-found Victoria birds.  I have only one "easy" tick left to pick up for Victoria, which is Grey Jay (Perisoreus canadensis).  I have been picking up several species each year for the last two years because I have been helping Jeremy K. on his big year quests.  Every time I add a new species, the difficulty of achieving the next seems to get incrementally harder.  I love the challenge and I hope I can keep inching my way along, slow and steady.

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