Twitching Lessons

I squat on my heels on the side of a county road in remote Cheyenne County, Colorado, gazing intently into a thick tangle of chokecherry bushes. All around me, the roadside vegetation is matted flat, evidence of the hundreds of birders who have visited this exact spot over the last few days. But now, late in the evening, I am the only one left here, feigning patience as I keep my eyes peeled on the greenery, jumping at every twitch in the leaves.

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The Stakeout

I do not normally have the opportunity to chase (or “twitch,” as some might say) rare birds, what with the normal restraints of school commitments and lack of vehicular transportation, so when I had a free afternoon yesterday to jump a couple of counties northward in search of a vagrant Golden-crowned Warbler, I couldn’t resist. Having been up since well before light doing bird surveys 150 miles south of here and after two hours of standing here on the roadside, I am drooping heavily.

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Global distribution of the Golden-crowned Warbler…see that little purple square in Colorado? ©eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Why this bird is here, so far north of where it should be? Perhaps it is purely just lost, or a few maligned lines of code in its little brain giving it the wrong migration coordinates, or maybe even some epic and magical quest. Regardless, when the warbler finally did emerge from the thick tangle for a brief moment of time, it looked right at home. At least on the small-scale…looking around me, I saw rural, agricultural eastern Colorado, without any of the flora or fauna that would make this bird truly fit into place. And, for me personally, that detracted from the moment…this bird is in a sense biologically dead, and while it is a still an absolutely gorgeous bird, and is a big tick on my state list, the experience only made me all the more eager for an opportunity to see it in its native habitat and see where it fits into the world properly.

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Colorado’s first Golden-crowned Warbler ©Glenn Walbek, the original finder of the bird

Regardless, I grinned hugely, and might’ve done a little happy dance. Mentally calculating how little sleep I’d be getting that night, I reluctantly got back in my car, yawned, and started driving back to the next day’s survey transect. There was another day and many more birds to experience coming right up.

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Of Mountains and Murres

Mountains and murres you ask? A fair question, those two things don’t go together in my mind either. Yet here in Homer, Alaska, the still snow-covered slopes of the Kenai Mountains reach right down to the cold waters of Kachemak Bay, where rafts of thousands of Common Murres are staging for summer. Roughly pigeon sized, these matte black and white birds are one of the deepest diving bird species on the planet, reaching depths of nearly 600 feet in pursuit of the small fish they primarily feed on.

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A small flock of murres on the bay below the cloud-capped peaks

The mountains and murres are far from the only attraction to this area. I am here in Alaska for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, held annually to celebrate the massive amounts of migrating shorebirds that visit the area on their journey to their breeding grounds even further north. I was honored to be invited here to speak and guide through support from the Schantz Brothers Foundation, which supports a young ornithologist to travel to the festival every year (and if you feel like you qualify for that travel grant, be sure to check out http://schantzbird.org/ for 2019!).

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A Black Turnstone patrols the stony beach in search of invertebrates

Over the last several days, I have been fortunate enough to be able to thoroughly explore and bird this incredible area of the world. From the opportunity to teach new birders about the local songbirds in the nearby boreal spruce forest, to scampering on wet rocks in the sea break in search of birds like the tattlers pictured below, to birding by boat in the bay, surrounded by swirling flocks of murres and kittiwakes.

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Wandering Tattlers are a unique species to wet, rocky Alaskan coastlines

As I’m writing this from a coffee shop in Homer to wait out one of the frequent rain showers, bracing for a lull in the weather for me to shoulder my monstrously large pack to head back out to the Homer Spit for some last minute birding. I’m catching my red-eye through the night flight back to Colorado tonight, only to start work within hours of getting back. I will be conducting bird surveys for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies through the summer, so expect to hear of some more amazing adventures soon!

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A pair of Harlequin Ducks, one of my all-time favorite species

A huge thanks is in order for the Schantz Family for their support of my travel here, this amazing opportunity would have been completely unachievable for me otherwise! Additional thanks to Robbi Mixon for organizing such an incredible event, and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies for organizing my travel logistics! And finally, thank you to the one-of-a-kind community here in Homer and the new friends I have made, I can honestly say that this is one of the few places I have ever visited that I have genuinely enjoyed at least as much Colorado, if not more. I would highly encourage anyone to consider attending the shorebird festival next year in 2019!

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