Tuesday, February 12, 2013

This Past Weekend: The Chase for 3 Extraordinary Life Birds!

           I had promised myself to spend less time chasing birds this Spring so that I could devote more time to photography, blogging, exercising, etc. In fact, weekend before last, Carl and I did not do any birding excursions at all. Thus, as the week progressed, I was becoming very antsy to see some good birds! And with excellent, much coveted, potential-life birds being reported, I commenced planning my strategy.  After all, a birder just has to chase every now and then!  As it turns out, I was actually able to start last Friday afternoon, right after work! A Ross's Goose had reportedly been  grazing with some Canada Geese in the Village Green neighborhood West of the Ashley! So I e-mailed my colleague and fellow birding nerd from work, Francie, and asked if she wanted to chase it with me. Of course, she replied with an enthusiastic YES! We left work as soon as we could arriving 40 minutes later at our destination -- Ross's Goose on the corner of West Bridge and Stockbridge Roads -- easy as pie -- right where it was reported to be! They could have hung a house number on it.  This was my easiest rare life bird ever!

Ross's Goose --  Village Green neighborhood in West Ashley -- Charleston, SC -- February 8, 2013

          This very small, adorable goose is just a wee bit off course.  Its primary wintering grounds are in the Central Valley of California with increasing numbers occurring in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and the north-central highlands of Mexico.  The grand majority (an estimated 95%) of its population breeds in Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary in the Central Arctic.  The rest breed along the western and southern coasts of Hudson Bay, on Southhampton and Baffin Islands and in the Western Arctic in Alaska.  How wonderful to have it vacation during this winter with us here in the Lowcountry! 

          This particular speciman is gaining quite the following as more and more area birders have come to see it.  While Francie and I were there, another birding friend, John Cox, arrived to take a gander at the goose.  After they left, I stayed on awhile to capture more photos of this cute goose!

Ross's Goose with Canada Goose in background -- Village Green neighborhood in West Ashley -- Charleston, SC -- February 8, 2013

Ross's Goose -- Village Green neighborhood in West Ashley -- Charleston, SC -- February 8, 2013

          With this Ross's Goose, my life list just bumped up another notch to 340!  I was not done yet!  I had made additional plans with birding buddy Andy Harrison and hubby Carl for a Saturday field excursion to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) to go after the Cinnamon Teal that had been reported during the last week.  Our birding friends Pam Ford and Perry Nugent were also headed there.  But since we had also planned a pre-dawn side trip to Bear Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA) to watch the Tundra Swans awaken on Mary's House Pond, we decided to meet them at Savannah NWR later in the morning.  So as not to deviate from the essential topic of this post -- chasing 3 life birds -- the Tundra Swan side excursion will merit a post all its own.  Don't worry, I will let you know when that post is ready!  

           We arrived at Savannah NWR at about 9:30 am and found Perry and Pam at the entrance to the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive.  We birded with them and then Andy and I also birded sometimes on our own behind them -- always keeping in touch by phone when separated to alert each other to our sightings.  Carl, in the meantime, had taken off on foot.  He does not like birding from the car.  Carl moves along the trail more quickly on foot than do we in the car and thus he had the honor of finding the handsome Cinnamon Teal first.  He was lucky enough also to find the bird at a decent photographic range and he shot the photo below.  What a beauty with his russet coloration, the red eye, black bill and green and black feathers along his back!

Cinnamon Teal -- Savannah NRW -- February 9, 2013 -- Photo by Carl Miller
              Of course, Carl called us immediately and we flew along as quickly as we could to catch up to him.  Unfortunately, we had a bit of an anxious moment when we discovered that the bird had disappeared!  Thankfully, someone relocated him again a little further back in the same impoundment!  He was now too far away for decent photography but the views through the scopes were excellent indeed!  We all cheered a big Hoorah as this was a life bird for most of us!  Yes, several other birders had come along to join in on the scoping party!  For me, I now could add another notch to my life bird totem pole -- no. 341 -- the Cinnamon Teal!

             As Carl put it, this bird was LOST!  The normal range of the North American sub-species (there are 4 other subspecies in South America!) is in the Rockies and westward. 

             While celebrating with some of the Georgia birders who had joined in on our Cinnamon Teal scoping party, talk turned to our next target -- the Georgia-based Snowy Owl, newly arrived on Tybee Island -- just across the Savannah River!  This same owl had originally taken up residence in late December  on Sea Island and St. Simon's Island further south down the Georgia coastline.  It apparently is not much disturbed by the multitude of gawking birders who have traveled to see it.  In late December and early January, several SC birders had made the trek to see it but we hesitated and did not.  Then it disappeared for the past month and finally was re-sighted last week on the much closer Tybee Island.  

           Some in our group expressed concern that the Tybee Island Mardi Gras celebration with parade and a street party scheduled for the afternoon would cause this owl to depart.  Would it be worth going down there for no owl?  Considering the distance that we had already driven, now was the time for us to try.  We decided though to continue birding at Savannah NWR rather than head immediately into the hoopla of a parade and closed streets.  A Georgia birder graciously checked his iPhone for the latest updates on the owl's whereabouts.  It had been spotted a 10 a.m. on a building at Strand Avenue and 16th Street.  By mid-afternoon, we were ready to begin our trek across the state line.  The traffic to Tybee Island was not bad at all!  It was only within the last couple of blocks before our destination that the streets became thick with revelers.  Arriving at a roadblock for the still on-going street party, we turned left and entered a huge, crowded parking lot with the Ocean Plaza Hotel on one side and the dunes of the beach and the fishing pier on the other.  Luckily, we found a place to park.  At 4:30 in the afternoon with temperatures beginning to cool, the place was just beginning to thin out. 

          We climbed the beach access ramps and scanned the rooftops.  Top honors go to Carl again who first found the owl!  He is such a good spotter!  The owl was sitting up in the sun on the turquoise roof of a new condominium, facing away from us and very much backlit.  But it was most definitely a Snowy Owl!  We needed to get closer and on the other side of the bird for better photographic options.  So we trekked in that direction but soon lost sight of his roof  behind the thickly grouped houses and condominiums.  Finally, I got around to the other side of the condo and looked up to see him much closer, BUT flying away from me with 4 American Crows on his tail!  He had headed back up the beach towards the east .  We used the top of the beach access over the dunes to look for him again.  Carl again spotted him!  Now he was perched on the sign of the hotel's restaurant where we had parked!  

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 9, 2013
Not knowing how close we would be able to come without flushing him, we took pictures as we approached.  

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 9, 2013
As it turns out, this owl is very much non-plussed by all the attention he receives.  The crows may have flushed him earlier but the people below were not going to dislodge him from his perch.  We were able to hang out in the parking lot and point it out to the departing Mardi Gras revelers and beach goers.  I guess it is just a people-watcher!  Rather than assuming it would be disturbed by the Mardi Gras celebration, perhaps he enjoyed the curious spectacle!  He certainly did not mind us pointing our big lenses in his direction, thankfully! 

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 9, 2013

We were able to watch and photograph him for quite some time. 

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 9, 2013

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 2013

I just loved his beautiful golden cat-like eyes!  I would call this owl, Life Bird no. 342, my King of Mardi Gras!

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 9, 2013
          Our "Mardi Gras King" Snowy Owl is also a bit out of place.  Snowy Owl rarely venture this far south.  They are far more likely to winter in Canada and perhaps the very northern reaches of the Lower 48.  Last year was supposed to be an irruption year for them.  They were showing up in many more southerly regions of the U.S. -- but not here!  This year, however, we get our Snowy Owl!   Hooray!       
           I would have happily stayed longer to watch him take off for his evening hunt.  But I was surrounded by 3 growling stomachs -- mine included.  Thus, Andy, Carl and I concluded and celebrated our fabulous 2-Life Birds-in-one-day in a down-home Mexican restaurant, La Frontera, in Hardeeville, SC.  Yum!  I recommend the seafood soup!  

         Indeed another great birding weekend!  I so enjoyed the chase for the new birds.  You know, I had another similar chasing day back in December about which I have not yet blogged -- it was a 3-Life Bird DAY instead of a 3-Life Bird Weekend!  I guess I need to go work on those photos and deliver on that blog post.  Writing about that day will help me to savor those birding moments until ... I just cannot stand it again.  Then off I will go to find more birds -- hopefully some more really cool, extraordinary LIFE BIRDS! 

  • American Ornithologists' Union. 2003. Forty-fourth supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list of North American Birds. Auk 120: 923-931.
  • Gammonley, James H. 2012. Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/209 
  • Parmelee, D. 1992. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). In The Birds of North America, No. 10 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, Eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York. 
  • Ryder, John P. and Ray T. Alisauskas. 1995. Ross's Goose (Chen rossii), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/162
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2011. Longevity Records of North American Birds.


  1. Wow!!! makes one wonder what/if weather patterns are changing enough to have an effect on these birds over wintering habits. SNOWY OWL in Sc & ga. !!! Amazing............ g