Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Travelling Birder

When I started birding 25 years ago, I thought it was a cheap hobby – after all, you just needed a pair of binoculars and a field guide.  Over the years, my gear has expanded and I have learned that there is no such thing as a cheap hobby.  Travelling with all this gear can be a challenge, particularly if one will be travelling on small planes.  Doing the big year last year gave me plenty of practice in packing my gear and I learned a few things along the way that I’d like to share.  First, some basics:  If it is valuable or breakable, carry it with you; if it can’t be easily replaced at the destination, carry it with you.

Carrying all your gear can mean that your carry-on weighs more than your checked luggage – don’t let the airlines weigh your carry-on!  Although most North American airlines allow two pieces of carry-on, that may not be the case for your destination country.  As a result, I try to fit everything in a mid-sized backpack (30 litres).  For my current trip, my pack has binoculars, DSLR camera and two lenses, laptop computer and power supply, a small bag with chargers for camera batteries and tablet, medical supplies, sunglasses, bird book and checklist, flashlight (I was once on an overnight flight where the light for my seat didn’t work), a small toiletry kit and a spare set of clothes (in case my luggage is delayed).
For the most part, the pack stays in the overhead bin for the flight but it is small enough to fit under the seat.  I also wear a small hip belt which contains a compact camera, spare camera batteries and flash cards, noise cancelling headphones (they work great on planes), and a 7” tablet.  On a tip from my daughter, I have attached a small carabiner to all of the zippers to make it more difficult for a pickpocket to get into the hip belt or the backpack.

Last year I travelled with an E-reader and enjoyed the convenience of having multiple books without the bulk.  I also travel with a smartphone and enjoy the connectivity and birding apps but was wishing for a bigger screen.  When I saw the Google Nexus 7, I figured it was just what I was looking for and bought one a few weeks ago.  I have loaded most of the same apps as on my phone and the big screen is wonderful.  I have also loaded copies of all my travel documents so that they are readily accessible.  The Nexus also functions as an e-reader (I can access all of my wife’s Kobo books) and gives me access to the internet.  I considered getting one with cellular data access but chose not to as the phone companies charge (at least Telus does) $15/month extra on your phone plan without giving you any more data.  The smartphone can act as a wi-fi source so the data option is not really needed.  The other tablet I considered was the Kobo Arc which has many of the same features at a slightly lower price.  I chose the Nexus because it also has Bluetooth and GPS (always nice to know where you are in a strange country!).  My phone also has GPS but I found out in China that the phone GPS did not work without cellular data.
As is common in Canada, my smartphone was locked so that I could only use it with Telus.  I like having a cell phone in a foreign country and often buy a cheap phone with 20-30 minutes of talk time.  I was exploring options to unlock the phone and was surprised to learn that Telus (for a fee) will unlock it.  Supposedly my phone is now unlocked and I will be able to purchase a SIM card in anywhere in the world.

My computer is a big, heavy model with a 15.6” screen – why do I choose to lug it around?  I like to edit my photos on the road and I found that a small, low resolution screen wasn’t satisfactory.  My laptop has a 1920 x 1080 HD screen and works great for photo editing (on the road and at home).  HD screens are now available on much lighter laptops but a new one isn’t in my budget.
Pack some back-up gear.  If you are doing a trip of a lifetime, you wouldn’t want it ruined by a malfunctioning camera or lost binoculars.  In Ethiopia a few years ago, my lens stopped working but fortunately I had a back-up.  Last year on one of our big year trips, one of the team left his binoculars in a restaurant and my spare pair was put to good use.  Back-ups also extends to credit and ATM cards ... travel plans can be disrupted if your card gets eaten by a machine!

If you have a travel tip that you'd like to share, leave a comment at the end of this posting.

Happy travels!



Wednesday, 23 January 2013

January Big Day

On Tuesday, Phil Cram and I did a January big day for Alberta in combination with a rare bird chase for a Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

We like doing big days and have been doing them for many years.  The American Birding Association (ABA) keeps track of big day records by province/state by month.  The January record for Alberta was only 27 and we felt confident that we could beat this number.  We can’t compete on the spring big days – factors being birding skill, hearing and stamina – but anyone can do a winter big day as the birds are usually seen rather than heard and the days are a lot shorter.
Here is an edited account of our day that Phil posted on Albertabird (bird names in cap indicate a good winter bird):

Yesterday (January 22) Brian Elder and I did a Big Day in southern Alberta. One of our goals was to see the Chestnut-backed Chickadee in Waterton townsite, found originally by Malcolm and Joan McDonald on December 31. Our second goal was to beat the ABA Big Day record for Alberta in January, which stands at 27 species. We felt sure that this number has been surpassed many times, but evidently not reported to the ABA. With good weather, good roads, a degree of planning and some luck we reckoned we should be able to see 40 species of birds in the day.

Our first sighting was a Great Horned Owl at 8:00 a.m. just outside Pincher Creek, silhouetted against the dawn sky. Black-billed Magpie and Common Raven were seen on the way to Waterton. We could scarcely believe our luck as we watched the feeders on Fern Street in Waterton. Not only did we get great looks at the CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEE (a new Provincial bird for both of us), we also watched from the comfort of our vehicle: Steller's Jay, Downy Woodpecker, WHITE-THROATED SPARROW, Dark-eyed Junco, Mountain Chickadee, SONG SPARROW and Red-breasted Nuthatch. At feeders behind Evergreen Avenue we added EVENING GROSBEAK and Pine Siskin, and heard a PILEATED WOODPECKER, our only “heard-only” of the day. After just over an hour of birding, we left Waterton with 14 species. Despite lots of open water on Upper Waterton Lake and other water bodies, we saw no waterfowl there.
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
We drove east to Mountain View, which yielded Bald Eagle, House Sparrow and Common Redpoll. Driving north on Hwy 800, we added Rock Pigeon and, in Hill Spring, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Northern Flicker and House Finch. Further north on Hwy 800, we saw our first Rough-legged Hawk. We turned west on Highway 505 and a couple of minutes later observed an adult grey-phase GYRFALCON, perched on a power pole next to the highway. Then a SHARP-TAILED GROUSE flew in front of the vehicle, and Canada Geese outside Pincher Creek brought us to 25 species by 11:00 a.m.

We made our way north on Hwy 22, with a loop along Riley Road on the edge of the Porcupine Hills. Surprisingly we saw very few birds, and dipped on all expected open-country species. Two AMERICAN DIPPERS in Chain Lakes PP got us back on track, and a GOLDEN EAGLE just south of Longview tied the “record” of 27 species. Longview itself turned up Blue Jay and Pine Grosbeak, and Turner Valley produced White-winged Crossbill, RUFFED GROUSE and our first Black-capped Chickadee of the day. We knew of a good feeder in Millarville, and there we added MOURNING DOVE and White-breasted Nuthatch. Terry Korolyk had reported a NORTHERN HAWK-OWL on January 16 at the intersection of 240th St and Plummers Road, north of Millarville, and it appeared for us on cue at 2:00 PM: our 35th species after six hours.
Ruffed Grouse

It was time to add some waterfowl, and we made our way to Weed Lake, on Glenmore Trail just east of Langdon. Mallard and Common Goldeneye were spotted en route, and at Weed Lake, just where Terry Korolyk has been reporting them, we saw the Fab Five ducks: Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal and Lesser Scaup as well as the seen-earlier Mallard.
Mallard, Lesser Scaup and Northern Shoveler
Wending our way back to Calgary we were again disappointed not to encounter any open-country birds. The male Hooded Merganser at Elliston Park eluded us initially, but then emerged from hiding. A small flock of Bohemian Waxwings flew over Peigan Trail. A stop in Willow Park yielded nothing new: this can be a very birdy area but it was after 4:00 p.m and becoming cool and misty.

Our final stop by the Bow River in the Hull’s Wood section of Fish Creek Park added Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bufflehead and Common Mergasnser, bringing our final total to 46 species of birds at 4:30 p.m. after 8 ½ hours of birding. We had also seen four species of mammals during the day: White-tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Red Squirrel and -- in Waterton townsite -- a Red Fox.
Red Fox

480 km driven while birding, and a temperature range of minus 11 to plus 6o C. Mostly cloudy in the south, and misty in the Calgary area. Winds gusting to 50 km/hr in the morning in Waterton, and becoming light later in the day in Calgary. And a lot of fun.
Thanks for the report Phil.  The birds cooperated nicely for us on the big day and we’re hoping that trend will continue as we search for some of the other winter birds in the next few days.

Good birding and mammaling.


The Joy of Winter

My wife Barb with me at the Fairview Lookout
overlooking Lake Lousie
Anyone living in Alberta had better get some joy from winter because we get a whole bunch of winter!  There are lots of winter activities and this month I’ve gone downhill skiing and snowshoeing in addition to some birding.

I intended to do at least a couple of posts on winter birding but it has taken me quite a while to get some “postable” photos to accompany the text.  I was finally ready a few days ago but had other priorities – mainly putting together a photo book of the 2012 Big Year I did with three friends.  You can view the book at:
My first outing of the year was to Fish Creek Provincial Park in south Calgary with Bob Storms.  We walked 8 kilometres that day and there was a good selection of the common birds but the lighting wasn’t good for photography. A few days later, the lighting was good for photography but the temperature wasn’t too good for the photographer!  Nevertheless, I went to Queen’s Park Cemetery found some photogenic birds.
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Brown Creeper
White-winged Crossbill (transitioning from juvenile plumage)
Calgary birders usually make at least one winter trip to Exshaw to view Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches.  Phil Cram and I made this trip on Jan. 12 arriving in Exshaw at sunrise.  In the mountains, it takes some time for the sun to rise above the mountains and so we were there too early for any decent photos.
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
En route to Banff National Park, we stopped briefly to view some Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep west of Exshaw.  These animals are almost always present along the road side and seem oblivious to humans.
Bighorn Sheep
In the park, the birds were pretty quiet but the scenery was fantastic.  Eventually, we found a couple of good birds – Belted Kingfisher and American Dipper – near some open water on Vermillion Lakes.
Vermillion Lakes and Mount Rundle - note dipper on ice and photographer (not me) in foreground
American Dipper
Last Friday, Mike Mulligan and I journeyed to the southwest of Calgary.  Our main destination was Brown Lowery Provincial Park which is the best place near Calgary to find both Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers.  Mike and I walked the park trails for an hour but didn’t see any woodpeckers.  The squawking of Gray Jays and the calls of a few chickadees were the only sounds in an otherwise quiet forest. 
Gray Jay
We then went to a feeder near Millarville and finally had some success – Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, and Mourning Doves were all in the area.  It was nice to get good looks at both female and male grosbeaks.
Pine Grosbeaks - female on left, male on right
Evening Grosbeaks - male on left, female on right
Next posting, “A January Big Day” – we’ve done the big day but I’ve some chores to do before I have time do the write-up.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Fur and Feathers 5000

My name is Brian Elder and I am a bird and mammal watcher living in Calgary, AB, Canada.  In 2012, I did a bird and mammal Canada big year with three friends.  Some of you may have followed our Fur and Feathers 500 blog at:
Photo of me in Qinghai, China - June 2011 (photo taken by Phil Cram)
So what does “Fur and Feathers 5000” indicate?  Well, it is certainly not a big year though it would be a worthy target for anyone with enough time, money and energy to do a worldwide big year (an English couple did a birding big year in 2008 [] and recorded 4341 bird species).  The fur and feathers represent my interest in mammals and birds and the 5000 represents my target for the next 10 years.

I’m not starting from scratch – my current total is approximately 4000 though the mammal portion is just an estimate.  I have lists of mammals I’ve seen on various trips but have not consolidated them.  As was the case for the Canada big year, I intend to pursue my goal in a relaxed fashion with many secondary goals.
Quest for Bird Families and Unique Birds
Some of my secondary goals are to see as many bird families as I can (currently 198/227), to see some unique birds (this ties in well with the bird family objective) and to visit interesting places.  For an example, I’ll use a Thailand golfing trip that my wife and I snuck in during my Canada big year.  In Thailand, I made 3 day trips in search of birds and the highlight was seeing Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann’s Greenshank. 

Spoon-billed Sandpiper with Curlew Sandpipers, Red-necked Stints and Terek Sandpipers
At the end of the trip, we spent a couple of days in Singapore and I made arrangements with some friendly expat birders to go look for the Malaysian Rail-Babbler in southern Malaysia.  This is a bird in its own family and is my bird of the year for 2012.
Malaysian Rail-Babbler
My sighting was made more memorable by the effort required to find the bird.  Usually, this bird responds to a recording and is easily seen.  For whatever the reason, it wasn’t so cooperative and we had to track it down a swampy forest.

North America
As my budget doesn’t allow for unlimited international travel, I will be spending most of my time in Canada.  Apart from chipping away on various lists (e.g. I need 2 more birds for 300 in BC, 50 more species to get my lifetime ATPAT to 2000), I’d like to get my Canadian mammal list to 100.  We saw 76 species in 2012 and I’d seen a few others previously so I’ve got 15-18 more to go.
My ABA total is at 693 so, if the opportunity presents itself, I’d like to go for 700.  I thought I might get there with splits but (fortunately) bird taxonomy seems to be stabilizing.  If I make any trips, chances are that I’ll be with one or more of my big year team mates – Ray, Phil and Mike; maybe I’ll even have them make a guest blogging appearance.

Urban Birding
After living in Venezuela and China, my wife and I moved backed to Calgary in 2004.  I was hoping to find a house near one of Calgary’s natural areas but house design, view and accessibility won out and we bought a home in the northwest area of Calgary.  I didn’t have great expectations for a birdy yard but I’m pleased to report that I’ve seen almost 150 fur & feathers species in the neighbourhood.  There will likely be a section of the blog devoted to neighbourhood birding in suburbia.
My home patch in northwest Calgary
I’m also a keen photographer (but still a birder first, photographer second so no tripod for me!) and will keep working to improve my photos for each species.  I’ve posted photos for a number of trips on Picasaweb at:

Here are three of my favourite photos from past years:
Willet - Calgary, AB
Long-tailed Weasel - Calgary, AB
Approaching storm near Brooks, AB
I will try to make regular posts but they won’t be as frequent as were the big year posts.  Your comments are appreciated and the interaction helps establish a connection with the readers (if any) of this blog.

In 2013, my wife and I will be traveling to Argentina.  This is not a birding trip but the binoculars will always be close at hand.  Argentina has a bird list of over 1000 species and we will be traveling to most regions of the country so I am hoping for 100+ lifers.  Of greater interest is the possibility of 3 new bird families- Magellanic Plover, seed-snipes and diving-petrels.

Good birding and mammaling,