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.

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.

Golden-crowned Warbler
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.


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.

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 for 2019!).

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.

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!

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!


Sonoran Venturing – Photos

Just a handful of photos from my recent trip to Sonora, México! All photos © Marcel Such.

Birding the basin above Arroyo Santa Barbara for the ReMM Christmas Bird Count


Photography in low-light can be a challenge, but Colima Pygmy-Owl is well worth it
Five-striped Sparrow in its shrub of choice
The trail to Sierra de Álamos was fully socked in, rainy, and windy on the day of the Álamos Christmas Bird Count.
A little break in the weather
Crane Hawk can be a challenging bird in this area of the world!


Finally managed a decent photo of a Greater Roadrunner…even if it was so close I could not quite fit the entire bird into one frame!
Another species that almost never makes it north to the states, the Social Flycatcher!
Birding stinks…when you visit the Álamos dump in search of first state record Common Grackle (lowest left bird), along with the abundant Bronzed Cowbird
Sinaloan Crows were also quite numerous at the dump!
A candid photo of Raymond Van Buskirk, aka the most fashionable birder in the world

Winter Visitors

A couple of random chips suddenly emanate from a nearby fig tree. Could this be the flock we are looking for? My friends and I have been slowly walking this dry arroyo for only a few hundred meters, in search of a specific flock of birds that had been seen the other day by another group of friends. A drab Orange-crowned and a female Black-throated Gray Warbler are the first two birds I see. A Rufous-capped Warbler pauses briefly in the open before diving back into the tangled understory. We hear a bird seemingly mumble to itself, a dark shadow flits out briefly, a Blue Mockingbird exposes itself between two dark tangles in the underbrush…we are definitely not in the north.

Rufous-capped Warbler – ©Marcel Such

A couple of Nashville Warblers make an appearance, then a handful of Warbling and Cassin’s Vireos, all feeding in the dry tropical deciduous woodland that lines the edge of the arroyo. Many of the trees look gray and leafless, and many columnar cacti grow intermittently between them, a habitat that does not appear north into the United States of America. This contrasts strikingly with the floral growth within the arroyo itself, with tall, fully-leafed figs sinking their tangled roots deep into the rocky bed of the wash in search of water.

Fig Roots – ©Marcel Such

Soon enough, twenty-some birds have slowly worked their way past us, chattering amongst themselves as they glean insects from the winter foliage. “There’s the Black-cap!” one of us exclaims, quickly pointing out the bird. This federally endangered bird breeds exclusively in the Hill Country of Texas and Oklahoma, wintering here in western Mexico. Having never visited the Hill Country during the summer, this is my first time observing this unique species. This experience is made significantly sweeter knowing that most American birders will never see it here in its wintering habitat, which is also under attack by development, as are its summer breeding areas.

Finally, the prize bird shows itself…looking quite similar to a normal Warbling Vireo except bright gold and yellow all over, a Golden Vireo. An endemic to the Pacific slope of Mexico, during the winter it is almost exclusively found much further south, so we are extremely fortunate that this particular individual opted to spend the winter in this winter flock in Arroyo Aduana. Despite keeping itself buried deep and low within the brush, I somehow manage to get my focus to cooperate just long enough to snap off a couple of poor quality shots of a high quality bird.

Golden Vireo – ©Marcel Such

Like us, these birds are winter visitors, living in this land for only a period of time before returning for other lands and habitats. This is just a glimpse into the time I recently spent traveling and birding in Sonora, México. There are far too many other wonderful moments and experiences to capture with words, so look here for a small photo gallery to be posted early tomorrow!