Author Archives: Derek

FIELDFARE in Newcastle (and a rare April case of Rarity Fever!)

Last week was an incredible week in Maine birding. First up was the state’s first Vermillion Flycatcher that appeared on Hog Island on Monday the 17th. While it was #15 on my list of “Next New Birds for Maine,” HOW it was discovered defied imagination: it was seen by on observer watching the Hog Island Osprey Cam, as the black-and-scarlet little bird sallied for insects from the platform. Simply incredible.

Then on Wednesday, a long overdue(#10 on my predictions list) Fieldfare was discovered in Sheepscot Village in Newcastle. No, it wasn’t within a flock of thousands of wandering American Robins of the subspecies/clinal extreme from Newfoundland, it was in a front yard with a handful of “normal” robins. And Jeff Cherry saw it on his way to work.

I have been very busy of late with the new book, spring business at the store, the peak of the flight at the Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch, the obligatory spring yardwork, and all of those usual things in life, plus – and most importantly and distractingly – our dog’s failing health. With Jeannette running the Boston Marathon on Monday, chasing the Vermillion fly wasn’t in the cards for me. Neither was skipping out on the 7,000 seed delivery on Wednesday morning when the Fieldfare was found.

But when the bird was reported again at 2:30pm, I dropped what I was doing and raced up to Newcastle. I spent a couple of hours unsuccessfully looking for the bird. A Vesper Sparrow was a small consolation prize.

Now, I don’t chase very often, but a first state record within an hour’s drive is usually fair game. And I really like Fieldfares. And I’ve wanted to see one in Maine (or anywhere else in North America) for a long time. I’ve daydreamed about finding one as I searched through wintering robin flocks in orchards or migrants passing Sandy Point in late fall or Bradbury Mountain in the spring.

While it was not seen on Thursday, but I made a dumb decision of heading inland to look for a possible waterbird fallout. There was no such waterbird fallout. My first of year Ruddy Ducks at Sabattus Pond and a singing Louisiana Waterthrush at the Papermill Trail in Lisbon were the highlights. Not a Fieldfare.

My book release party was Thursday night, and I was down in Salem, Massachussetts for a book signing and presentation to the Essex County Ornithological Club on Friday night.  The Fieldfare was refound on Friday afternoon.

During a wet and dreary – but fairly productive, actually – birdwalk on Saturday morning, the Fieldfare was reported again, and it continued to be reported for regular intervals throughout the day. And as the cold and rainy day tempered business in the afternoon, Jeannette says “you should probably go” despite having plans to chase it with friends on Sunday.

So I went. And after a mere fifteen minutes, it popped out into the open. FIELDFARE!

In addition to being my 375th species in Maine (although it just fell out of the top 25 of my personal next birds in Maine), it was a new “ABA-area” bird for me. This was a good one.  I spent an hour watching it for a few minutes at a time, as it hopped between a copse of dense scrub and young trees and a mowed field, foraging with a small group of American Robins for a few minutes before disappearing again into the brush.

After about an hour, a total of 24 American Robins flew up from various corners of the fields and into the tops of some nearby Red Maples, where it lingered for about 5-10 minutes before flying off towards the center of town.
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Drizzle, fog, and distance precluded very good photos, but I did Facebook Live the sighting for about 30 seconds…just because.
 
Of course, I was semi-responsible as I headed back to work, while a few other folks relocated the bird much closer to the road in the village. Oh well, I still had Sunday morning.

Terez Fraser, John Lorenc, Erin Walter and I drove east and met up with Paul Doiron and Kristen Lindquist, and about 50 other fellow birders. It was not being seen, so people were beginning to split up and check other areas, besides the fields across the pond from 611 Sheepscot Road, where the bird was most often seen (including by me in the previous day).  So the 6 of us began to mosey down a promising side road, and as we strolled back to the corner, we saw the crowds were on the move.

It was seen in roughly the same spot (other side of the island of trees between the fields on the other side of the pond), but most people had scattered by now, so only a lucky few saw it (and apparently saw it pretty well). Unfortunately, it had disappeared into the larger island of trees by the time we got to the edge of the pond.

So we waited. And waited. And then waited some more. At least it was nice out.
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Then a couple of hours later, it was spotted in the leaf litter within the dense, young woods. It was glimpsed by many, frustratingly missed by others, and seen well by no one over the course of about 45 minutes.

Unfortunately, I had to force my carpool to depart (although we were all very much ready for lunch by then) to head back to the store for a meeting, which was frustrating to me as I had to pull my friends (only 2/3rds of which had unsatisfying glimpses) away from the stakeout. I was also the genius who suggested we walk first and caused us to miss that initial, decent observation. Well at least we had a great lunch at the Montsweag Roadhouse!  (And yeah, I did see it decently at one point, but not like I wanted).

But such is birding life.

More frustrating to me is the selfish birder who decided to walk down through the woods, opposite the group of more than 50 patient people, pishing (which thrushes don’t respond to, by the way) as he went. At one point, when the bird was coming out in the open, people could see this dumbass through their scopes, and he clearly flushed the bird back into the deeper depths…where it was not, as of at least 3:00pm that day, seen again.

While one might be able to argue he pushed the bird into our view, it seemed tough to argue that he didn’t directly ruin the opportunity for it to come out into an open edge for all to see, including those who had driven in from several states away. Of course, we all know who it was, and we all know how selfish some birders can be. And frankly, if there was one prick in the state of Maine who would act this way, it would be that guy. Thanks, buddy.

Anyway, we had a beer at Montsweag and that made me feel a little better.

Moving on…

So in the course of about a week, there was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in East Machias (also on Monday morning), a Vermillion Flycatcher in Bremen, and a friggin’ Fieldfare in Newcastle. I feel a bit hamstrung right now to hit the field as hard as I like to find out what else might be out there. Perhaps I’ll find the next one tomorrow…

Townsend’s Solitaire at Bradbury Mountain!

It was a very good day up at the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, sponsored by Freeport Wild Bird Supply and Leica Sport Optics. The 2017 Official Counter, Zane Baker, had the day off today, so I was the counter for the first half of the day. Jeannette took the second shift, and were it not for Sasha’s declining health, I definitely would have remained until day’s end. We were having too much fun!

With light southwesterly winds aloft (and light and variable at the surface), record warmth, and perfect timing, we knew it was going to be a big day. Zane could not stay away, and Katrina Fenton, the 2012 through 2014 Official Counter, was visiting from New Hampshire. Several other local birders were present as well, as were hawkwatchers from New Hampshire and Mid-coast Maine. After a slow, somewhat chilly start, the day, and the hawkwatch began to heat up.

At approximately 11:10, I spotted a Black Vulture soaring over Hedgehog Mountain. It was low and relatively close, affording prolonged scope views for over five minutes before it drifted away to the north or northeast. Several personal first-of-years included 7 Northern Flickers, 1 Barn Swallow, and 3 Yellow-rumped Warblers. 2 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and 1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet were also first of the season for the count site.  We also had a steady trickle of migrant Tree Swallows, along with a smattering of other passerine migrants. Later in the day, two Sandhill Cranes (our 6th and 7th of the season) also passed overhead.

A steady light flow of raptors was adding up, too. 209 were tallied when I departed at 1:00, led by 59 American Kestrels and 37 Broad-winged Hawks, but a decent total of 11 species in all. (A goodly 361 was our final tally by day’s end).

Sure, we had a little rarity fever on our minds, especially after the Black Vulture (downright expected on such conditions in early to mid-April), but all hell broke loose at 12:18pm EDT. 

Then, a medium-small passerine came flying towards us, moderately high, and suggestive of an Eastern Bluebird with a thrush-like flight and shape. But as I lingered on it, I realized it was definitely not a bluebird – its flight was faster, steadier, and it was solidly colored. It also seemed a little larger and longer. It was backlit by the sun, it was coming right at me, but it was looking odd. 

As it got closer, I said “get on this passerine…Katrina, get your camera!” as she was closer to her long lens than I was to my superzoom. As it passed right overhead, still a little backlit, I yell, “TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE!”

A slim bodied, long-tailed, thrush-like bird passed overhead, with a screaming wide, bold, and buffy stripe through the near-center of the wing (obviously known to be the base of the flight feathers).

As it flew over, then headed straight away, it was finally getting into better light. And it looked gray. Quite gray. As I was calling for it to “turn, turn!” Katrina was unable to find it in the viewfinder, so switched to bins. Zane got on it, as did a couple of other birders, including Don Thompson.

Unfortunately, it did not turn, and I never saw the upperwing. I also never got a real handle on the tail, beyond silhouette.

I don’t think we had really clinched the ID yet, even though I knew it had to be a Townsend’s Solitaire. Only the Catharus thrushes share that wide and distinct buffy wing stripe, which I will address in the notes below.

I stepped aside, turning over the watch to Zane, and wrote two pages of field notes. Only then did I consult a Sibley, and I discussed the bird with others, especially Katrina who was the only other person it saw it fairly well in binoculars.

  • Bold, buff wingstripe obvious, from based of inner secondaries to end, or nearly so, of outer primaries. Wide and fairly even throughout.
  • With sun behind it, it first looked all-dark, with little to no contrast (actually thought of a blackbird at first), but got lighter as it passed roughly overhead, distinctly solid gray as it went straight away. But it was never in perfect light.
  • First impression was of a thin tail, which it may have then partially opened at one point, but as it was going away, no detail was seen (i.e. overall color or white fringes).
  • Only other possibility was a Catharus thrush, but that seems even less likely to be overhead at 12:18pm on April 11th in Maine. While Hermit Thrushes are just now arriving, and we do occasionally see “morning redetermined migration” throughout the day (e.g. some Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, along with at least one surprisingly high Eastern Phoebe today), Catharus thrushes usually don’t reorient, and if they do (at least at Sandy Point in the fall), it’s immediately after sunrise.
  • Question: could the back-lighting have made the wingstripe look wider and bolder from below? From my experience at Sandy Point, when in fact a Catharus does go overhead, that wingstripe is obvious, but it is not as obvious as in this bird. And of course, no lightening scenario would make a brown bird look cool gray.
  • Tail seemed long, and the body especially seemed too slim for a Catharus. It did not have a broad chest or pot-bellied appearance, as it was uniformly more tubular (even slimmer than a bluebird). Smaller and much skinnier than a Wood Thrush, yet larger and longer than a Veery, we of course went to Hermit Thrush as a fallback (due to seasonal status; but see discussion below).
  • Upperwing not seen. Tail pattern not deciphered.

Discussion:

– Katrina: “When I finally got on it (in bins; heading away but now in the best light we had it) it did not look brown at all, and definitely appeared gray.” Zane also thought it looked gray, not brown.

– Katrina thought the tail looked long, body slim and not pot-bellied like a Catharus. And she reviewed my notes with no additional comments or edits.

– We then consulted Sibley Guide to Eastern Birds (2nd edition): Underwing coverts not obviously pale as in Hermit Thrush, wing pattern of solitaire only similar to Swainson’s or Gray-cheeked Thrush/Bicknell’s Thrush. Of course, what would one of those species be doing here now, and flying overhead in the middle of the day? Even if a vagrant/pioneering individual of one of those species wintered far north of usual range, why would it be in flight in the middle of the day? But Townsend’s Solitaires are on the move about now, and do migrate diurnally (like bluebirds).

The light was simply not perfect, and we were unable to get photos, so we carefully discussed the bird. With several birders of various levels of experience around us, we took this as a “teaching moment” to go through the process and exemplify the caution needed to make a call of a rarity under less than ideal circumstances.  But through the process of elimination, we simply cannot come to any alternative conclusions. It was too gray, too slim, and too out of place for a Catharus thrush; we could not figure out how the lighting or the view could have resulted in a solidly-gray undersides with little noticeable contrast (definitely no spots!). Also, I’ll fallback a bit on my initial excited call of Townsend’s Solitaire.

While we would have loved a longer and closer look in better light (or a brief alightment on a nearby tree!), and of course a photo, it is impossible for me to believe this was anything other than a Townsend’s Solitaire, a rare but regular vagrant to the Northeast. This was a new record for the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, and the park in general. And it might very well go down as the bird of the season.

Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide (Coming soon!)

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I am most pleased to finally announce that my next book “Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide” will be out shortly. I’ve been working on it for over three years now, but of course, all of my birding in Maine for the past 13 years has gone into the development of its concept and content. I sincerely hope you will be pleased with the final product, as I believe it will be an essential asset for birding in the great state of Maine.

With nearly 450 species of birds recorded, Maine offers an abundance of birding opportunities for people of all levels of interest and experience, from those looking beyond their backyards for the first time to knowledgeable visitors looking to plug a hole in their list of sightings. The state’s wealth of undeveloped land and its extensive coastline, countless islands, and varied habitat combine to host an impressive diversity of birds at all times of year. Birders travel to Maine from near and far to seek hard-to-find species, from the only Atlantic Puffins breeding in the United States on offshore islands to Bicknell’s Thrushes high in the mountains.

This book fills an important niche for the birdwatching community by offering comprehensive entries detailing the best locations for finding birds throughout the state for enthusiasts of all levels of skill and interest. It contains descriptions of 201 birding sites in Maine, with explicit directions on how to get there, for all sixteen of the state’s counties (several as large as other New England states!). Each chapter features a county map, my brief overview, numerous specific site guides, and a list of rarities. The book also contains a detailed and useful species accounts guide for finding the most sought-after birds.

Using a county-by-county approach, with chapters by Seth Benz, John Berry, Kirk Betts, Ron Joseph, Kristen Lindquist, Rich MacDonald, Dan Nickerson, Luke Seitz, Allison and Jeff Wells, and Herb Wilson, Derek tapped the knowledge of local experts to offer the most comprehensive and authoritative birdfinding guide the state has seen. And I guarantee there will be many sites completely new to you!

The Official Release Party will be at Blue in Portland (650 Congress St) from 5-7pm on Thursday, April 20th. This will be the first time the book will be available, anywhere.

We’ll also be offering a presentation, full of photos of Maine’s birds and birding places, on Saturday, April 29th at the Freeport Public Library at 7:00pm. This too is a free event, open to the public, and part of the annual “Feathers Over Freeport: A Birdwatching Weekend” events.

For more information about the Blue event, click here.

And for Feathers Over Freeport, click here.

We’re currently taking pre-orders online via our eStore.

Other free events around the state are being scheduled. You can check them out via Facebook on the page of “Birding Books by Derek J. Lovitch.”

Book release Blue

Birds on Tap: Gulls and Growlers!

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With windchills around -15F, even the gulls looked cold today. And there’s no way to sugar-coat it: it was brutally cold. The coldest temperatures in over a month – and one of the coldest days this entire winter – greeted the start of the first edition of the “Gulls and Growlers” tour in our “Birds on Tap – Roadtrip!” series with our partners, The Maine Brew Bus.

Donning plenty of layers, we hit the road and headed north to an unusual destination – well, only unusual if you’re not really, really into serious birding: the Hatch Hill Landfill in Augusta. And the swirl of birds that greeted us quickly explained why we were here on this bitter day.

1,000-1,500 Herring Gulls (with a few Great Black-backed Gulls sprinkled in) would rise up in a swirling cloud every time one of the 8-10 Bald Eagles made a close pass. Add to that 500 or so American Crows and a few hundred European Starlings, and you have a lot of biomass! We learned a little about aging of eagles as birds passed overhead and perched in the towering pines behind us. We sorted through the masses of gulls for any unusual species, and the sight of so many birds in one place allowed for us to forget about the cold – at least for a moment.
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My original plan was to spend 1 to 1 ½ hours here, watching and photographing eagles and studying gulls, hoping to tease out a rarity or at least foster an appreciation for just how approachable gull identification really is. But I’m also at least somewhat rational – well, unless I had spotted a rare gull! – so we knew when to say when and boarded the bus for a short ride to one of the local gull roosts.

At least 300 gulls were present, with dozens arriving every few seconds, so it would have been the perfect opportunity to carefully sort through them. Unfortunately, the 20+ mph wind was directly in our face. We soon moved on.

After a quick coffee/hot chocolate/bathroom stop – perhaps the most welcome stop of the day! – we shifted gears a bit and focused on the Kennebec River. Starting at Mill Park on the north side of Augusta’s downtown, we made several stops as we traveled south to Gardiner (often using the bus as a windbreak!).
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In doing so, we spotted at least 4 more Bald Eagles, and a tallied 132 Common Mergansers. In fact, the mergansers stole the show today, with several rafts actively displaying and some birds fishing in close proximity, diving into the strong current and surfacing between chunks of ice. It was a good count for this time of year, but we enjoyed uncommonly good views of many of the birds.
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We checked through a few small groups of gulls – mostly Herring and Ring-billed as expected – and even though we were freezing, we were reassured that spring is right around the corner thanks to the Turkey Vulture that was weeble-wobbling its way through the gusty winds over Gardiner.

Mike, our driver and beer guide for the day, took over as we traveled between our last few birding stops, offering an abbreviated history of alcohol in Maine, and for a dark period, lack there of. Maine was at the forefront of the Prohibition movement, but now, we are back at the forefront of local, innovative, and cutting edge production of beer, cider, spirits, and much more.

Our first stop in the beverage half of today’s tour was Lost Orchard Brewing/Crooked Halo Cidery where David Boucher and his father, Nick are doing some really “crazy” things with hard cider. By using all sorts of different yeasts and adding lots of creative ingredients, David is working to make “a traditional style untraditional” with his self-admitted “mad science.” And speaking of untraditional, their repurposing of an old church as their tasting room – complete with a bar on the alter, which Nick constructed from the wood of old pews – made for a very unique place to visit. They even offered to turn the organ on for us!
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Closed to the public in winter, they opened their doors just for us, and treated us to some special drinks. In fact, we were the first members of the public to sample their new Exodus, a McIntosh apple cider fermented with farmhouse yeasts and Brettanomyces, which made for a well-balanced cider that was just tart, sweet, and dry enough.

Genesis was drier, “more like an apple wine,” and Hellfire – a strawberry-jalapeno-infusion – played with our taste buds with sweet strawberry up front and a jalapeno burn on the back end. Sour Sister used sour cherries and four strains of souring yeasts, and then David dipped into their private reserve to tantalize us with Dante’s Inferno. Aged in cinnamon whiskey barrels loaded with cinnamon sticks, this is my new favorite cider – and one of the favorite drinks of the day for the group. Our only complaint was that they didn’t have anything bottled for sale at the moment; I know I would have left with a case of Dante’s Inferno!
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Heading south, our second stop was the brand-new Flight Deck Brewing in Brunswick. This was another special treat for the tour as they opened a mere two weeks ago, and we were the first tour group to visit. And we immediately saw first hand how well it has been received by the community, as the place was packed – as it has been since the day they opened; over 5,000 people were served in their first week alone!

Another really cool renovated building, Jared and Nate’s burgeoning brewery is housed in the former indoor small arms range of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. The path is paved with cement blocks cut from the walls to install windows, and they have an entirely electric, seven-barrel brewhouse run on 100% renewable energy from the old base’s micro-grid powered by solar and biomass.

Head brewer Jared described the process and their brewing philosophy, while Nate joined us to describe their unique system, location, and goals for the new business. Meanwhile, we sipped a few of their delicious beers. We started out the Pilot’s Porridge Oatmeal Stout, a “session stout” that was light in body compared to many stouts, and fairly low in alcohol, it still had the flavors we know and love in stouts.
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Our next beer was 44th Parallel IPA, a traditional and straightforward IPA, and one that will no doubt be a standby for locals. But for me personally, both were overshadowed by the Irish Breakfast. A pale ale base with a day-long steeping of Irish breakfast tea made for a unique and fun beer. The tea definitely stood out, but its bitterness and herbaceous-ness was balanced by a sweet, malty backbone. I’m getting into some of these tea-beers, and I think this is a solid effort (they were already out of their Hibiscus Tea beer that was my favorite on a recent “scouting mission” here).
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Winds were still howling, and temperatures- believe it or not – were dropping again, so we decided to forgo a search for Snowy Owls (none had been reported recently here, or we would have definitely cowboyed up!) and head home. While learning that Portland (well to the south of our sojourn today) reached a mere 17 degrees above zero, setting a new all-time record-low high temperature for the date didn’t make us feel any warmer, it certainly proved we earned our afternoon beverages!

While I can’t control the weather, or the birds, I do love the Birds on Tap – Roadtrips! because I know the beverages will always be there for us! And I believe this was a great itinerary that I look forward to leading again next year…hopefully with a few more degrees on the thermometer (and a little less wind!).

I have a feeling it will be warmer on the next eight Roadtrips we have in 2017, starting with the annual favorite, “Spring Ducks and Draughts” on Sunday, April 2nd. Oh, and by the way, as of today, there are only two spaces available! I hope to see you aboard one of our unique and exclusive trips, all of which are listed on our website.
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Intriguing Apparent Hybrid Gull at Niagara Falls.

Jeannette and I took our annual pre-Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch (starts on Wednesday!) roadtrip this year to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.  We went to Buffalo on a pilgrimage to visit the Anchor Bar – the birthplace of the Buffalo Wing. And we spent the rest of the time in the gull-watching Mecca of Niagara Falls.

On our first day at Niagara, wind gusts over 60mph were ripping over the falls (the local airport recorded a gust of 72 mph!) and birding was brutal at best, but essentially impossible (at least for a vacation). We spent a couple of hours in Niagara Falls State Park, but although it looked pretty that day, it was a day to go to the Anchor Bar! We also checked out the Olmstead-designed Delaware Park while in the big city.
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The next day (Thursday, 3/9) it was quite a bit colder, but the winds were “only” 15-25mph. It was far from pleasant, but it was most definitely bird-able! And the birding was very good!
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Despite the relatively late date for the peak of “winter” gulling here (despite what it felt like), we sorted through the many thousands of gulls (predominately Herring and Ring-billed, with a small number of Great Black-backed) and conservatively estimated at least 31 Iceland Gulls, 23 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and 8 Glaucous Gulls in and around Goat Island alone.
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Third-cycle “Kumlien’s Iceland Gull

And then there was this one:
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I identified it as a possible or “putative” Laughing Gull x Ring-billed Gull hybrid on account of several features:
– near-complete blackish hood with smudgy white around the eye.
– mantle was 1-2 shades darker than the surrounding Ring-billed Gulls.
– overall size and structure was comparable to Ring-billed Gulls, and didn’t bring one of the smaller hooded gulls to mind.
– large white apical spots on the outer primaries.
– dark orange bill with a blackish band, slightly smaller and thinner than nearby Ring-bills.
– yellow-orange legs

And frankly, it looked a lot like photos I have seen of this presumed pairing, such as this one from Amar Ayyash in Chicago.

Jeannette photographed it and we moved on. We never felt a need to flush it, and the bird clearly was not going to raise its wings on its own for us! But feeling the identification was solid, we enjoyed it, left it alone, and went on our way (perhaps we were simply being ultra-conservative about disturbance after the Great Gray Owl debacles this winter!)

A few minutes later, we ran into another birder, and alerted him to our find. He saw it, got some photos, came back to chat, and then went back to the bird. We continued to bird our way around the island.

I knew I needed to take a look at the photos on the computer, and do some homework. A couple of things really bothered me.  But before I had a chance to study the photos and re-evaluate my initial ID, chatter broke out on the area’s birding listserve. Chris Kundl was the birder we met, and he went back and spent some quality time with the bird, extensively photographing the wing pattern, which we – unforgivably!- did not. He, and several other local birders, then identified it as a (rarer) Black-headed Gull x Ring-billed Gull hybrid, based on the extensive white in the wingtips and the white leading edge to the wing. (His photos are here)

Kevin McGowan posted a link to a basic-plumaged individual of this presumed combination, and it definitely looks similar.

However, as Shai Mitra then pointed out on the listserve, a few things are a bit off for that combination. “(T)o me, this bird looks so unlike a Black-headed Gull that I remain puzzled. Specifically, it looks large, thick-necked, large-headed, broad-winged, and heavy-billed. Black-headed Gull is only half the mass of a Ring-billed Gull and very differently shaped, whereas this bird looks quite similar to Ring-billed Gull in overall size and structure. It is of course possible for hybrids to tilt toward one parent or the other in various ways, as opposed to showing intermediacy, but note that the Sullivan County bird from 2002 showed much more intermediacy in these very features (e.g., more obvious influence of Black-headed Gull in terms of size and shape). Looking more closely at the plumage, I also note that the hood seems to lack any of the brownish tones usually evident in Black-headed Gull, and that the mantle appears subtly darker than those of Ring-billed Gulls (Black-headed Gull is notably pale-mantled).”

The size, structure, shape, blackish (not brownish) hood, and darker mantle was what led me to the call of Laughing x Ring-billed. But how else does one explain that white leading edge to the wing? And the extensive white on the outer primaries? A hybrid Bonaparte’s Gull would explain that (and the black tone of the hood), but that’s even smaller and daintier gull than Black-headed.

So what does this mean? Simply: I don’t know. My initial ID does not explain the wing pattern, and that really bothers me.  So what is this? It looks like I have some more homework to do – and I will be sending this blog around to gather additional insight. I also want to look up when the various hooded gulls acquire their alternate plumage, as this seems incredibly early for a hooded gull to be hooded. Keeping in mind that not all hybrids are perfectly intermediate, that backcrosses occur, and that it’s hard to “prove” parentage, I think this bird is worthy of a little more debate.

Of course, we looked at everything else during our visit, including a couple of Harlequin Ducks off Goat Island, and goodly numbers of a wide variety of ducks (especially Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Buffleheads) at a number of locations. And later, we finally caught up with a “as good as they get” Thayer’s Gull – a spiffy adult at Devil’s Hole State Park (after passing on labeling a couple as such at Goat Island earlier in the day).
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The Niagara River Gorge and the Whirlpool from Whirlpool State Park.

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Unfortunately, it was already time to head home on Friday, so after another walk around Niagara Falls State Park, we began the trek eastward, birding Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, the winds were very strong once again and our time was limited, but we thoroughly enjoyed the hundreds of Tundra Swans (it’s been a while since we’ve seen any!), good numbers of many ducks especially Ring-necked, and sorted through many thousands of Canada Geese at the refuge and nearby cornfields (13 Cackling Geese in Gypsum Pond were our only non-Canadas, unfortunately) before beginning the long drive home (made much longer by snow squalls and that darn Norlun trough that set up over southern Maine!).

Our time was far too limited, as always, but it’s time to get ready to count some hawks!  And at least we still have this gull to mull over.
Falls from Goat Island

Northern Pintail x Mallard Hybrid in York (Wood Ducks, too)!

While birding The Nubble on Tuesday (not seeing Dovekies or Thick-billed Murres), Jeannette and I chatted with a local birder who turned us onto a Dickcissel that was in the House Sparrow flock at the entrance to Sohier Park.
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Chatting a little longer, we learned of some overwintering Wood Ducks in York. Now, the occasional overwintering Woodie in Maine is not a shock, especially when a mild winter finally turns cold. In fact, I have seen a few this winter, including a bird that was at South Portland’s Mill Creek Cove for almost a month. But the location he mentioned was new to me, and I like learning about new places.

So we found our way over to tiny Abbott’s Pond, where, well, a few ducks overwinter.
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During our visit, we chatted with the landowner, who had come to feed the flock. He said it started with a few geese and other ducks that “people dropped off,” and then it was discovered by wild ducks. Mallards love little places like this, and in winter, the numbers swell, as if often the case where handouts are offered. And A LOT of food is offered here, fed daily from a silo holding three tons of waterfowl feed!

A bubbler and the heat from so many birds keeps some water open, which keeps numbers up during the middle of winter (or, as in now, when winter finally arrives).

And what’s so fun, from a birding perspective, about places like this where multitudes of Mallards congregate (such as Riverbank Park in Westbrook or Mill Creek Park in South Portland), there are bound to be a few unusual species now and again. This winter, a pair of Wood Ducks was recently joined by a second drake.
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Comfortable among the habituated inhabitants, the photography opportunities are unparalleled. But even more exciting, we spotted this stunning drake Northern Pintail x Mallard hybrid that has been present here, on and off, for a month or so. This rare (especially in the East) combination is not something I had seen before, so we were excited to photograph and study it!
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But even if it’s just a bunch of Mallards – the gorgeous drake would be more people’s favorite duck if it wasn’t so common – to enjoy, I know I will be back (in fact, I’ll probably be adding this unassuming little spot to the itinerary of Sunday’s Birds on Tap – Roadtrip! “Seaducks and Suds!” which does, by the way, have a few spaces left).

So a casual conversation led to finding one of my new favorite southern Maine birding hotspots. Who knows what has shown up here before, but I know I’ll find out what shows up next!

Hawai’i!

In January, Jeannette and I headed to Hawai’i for our winter vacation. Like all of our vacations, birding is first and foremost, but local food is a close second. And beer.  Oh yeah, and Jeannette was also running a marathon.

In 2013, we visited Oahu and Kauai, which I recounted in this blog. This time, it was Maui and the Big Island.

The Big Island is special to me, as my first field job out of college was there, working with the Palila. Seeing this endangered, finch-billed honeycreeper was one of the primary motivations of the trip, as Jeannette had not seen it before. Nor had she seen hot molten magma. I also left the island without seeing two of its endangered endemics. And neither of us had yet been to Maui, which featured another three endemics.

So off we went.

After an 11-hour non-stop flight from NY’s JFK, we arrived in Honolulu. It did, however, take me all of those 11 hours to confirm that the familiar-looking face just one row in front of me was my cousin Gloria that I hadn’t seen in 25-30 years!  What are the chances!

We reconnected briefly, and then went our separate ways for now. Common Mynas, Zebra Doves, and Cattle Egrets greeted our arrival to the 50th state, but it was dark by the time Jeannette and I landed on Maui – about 20 hours of travel later.

1/13: Day 2/Day 1 of actual vacation.

Needless to say, it was not an early start, but we did eventually motivate and get things started the right way, with macadamia nut pancakes.
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We then checked out the Kanaha Pond Wildlife Sanctuary near our hotel, where we were greeted by Pacific Golden-Plovers (Kolea) on the path…
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…and much to our surprise, a wayward flock of 6 immature Snow Geese.
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After our first plate lunch, in Kihei, we checked a nearby wetland, where Jeannette got here lifer African Silverbill and photographed from Scaly-breasted Munias.
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We then spent a few hours birding the Coastal Boardwalk of the Kealia Ponds National Wildlife Refuge…
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..enjoying Hawaiian Coots and “Hawaiian” Black-necked Stilts,
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…a plethora of Black-crowned Night-Herons,
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…and no small number of Cattle Egrets.
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We spent a while in the shade of the viewing platform at the end,
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…when I began to shout to Jeannette, “Large Gull! Take Photo!”
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After some review later and consulting others, it was clear that this was indeed a 2nd-cycle Slaty-backed Gull – a real mega-rarity for the islands, and quite possibly the first on Maui.  Not that we came to Hawai’i to see a Siberian bird, but still! And since the mechanisms of vagrancy fascinate me – especially how they result in the colonization of islands and the eventual adaptive radiation that leads to mind-blowing speciation (and specialization) – and are one of my primary interests in visiting islands as we so often do, this discovery was not only thrilling, but also fit the theme of why we were here.

We decided to celebrate at Maui Brewing Company, which included one of my favorite – and Jeannette’s most favorite- brew of the trip, the Imperial Coconut Porter.

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…followed by a delicious dinner at Da Kitchen, where the ubiquitous spam musubi was taken to a whole ‘nother level with a panko crust and a little deep-frying!
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1/14: Haleakala National Park

This was a relaxed day of sight-seeing and casual birding in Haleakala National Park. What a remarkable place!
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While Chukar was the only bird we saw in and around the crater,
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…we did have some good birding a short distance downhill at Hosmer Grove.
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There, we caught up with Jeannette’s lifer Hawai’i Amakihis (a possible future split), and our first endemic, the Maui ‘Alauahio.
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Gorgeous I’iwis and Apapanes were impressively abundant, with many of the I’iwis dropping down from the tall, non-native trees to feed in the Mamane tree blossoms in the native scrub-forest.
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1/15: Race Day!

Jeannette was a little busier today than I, partaking in the Maui Oceanfront Marathon, starting in the dark at 5:00am and finishing (a new personal record) 3:57:17 later.
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A swim at the beach was followed by an absolutely outstanding lunch at Star Noodle, including these pork katsu buns…
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Kohola Brewery was our next stop – Jeannette earned it (and I had to drive here there), which offered what turned out to be my favorite beer of the trip, their Mighty 88 DIPA.

Afterwards, we took the twisting and turning our way around the north side of the island back to Kahului.
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1/16: Waikamoi.

Today was a special day for us. Thanks to our connection to Chuck, a docent for the Nature Conservancy on Maui, we were granted permission to join him on a tour of the famous Waikamoi Preserve. Some years ago, Chuck actually hired me to show him his lifer Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows here in Maine, and then we reconnected in the restaurant of the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad!
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This was our one chance of the trip for the two critically endangered endemics on Maui: the Akohekohe and the Maui Parrotbill. As we spent a good couple of hours waiting, watching, and listening from the platform.
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Unfortunately, wind and a lack of Ohia blossoms likely impacted our birding, and we only glimpsed two quick fly-bys of the Akohekoke. The shape, size, and overall dark color eliminated anything else, but even though the looks were good enough to identify, Jeannette and I decided we didn’t want to count it.

We also heard a Maui Parrotbill, but with a 6-acre territory, the chance of spotting one of these inconspicuous mid-story-dwellers was not good. We did see plenty of Maui ‘Alauahio, however, and regardless, we felt truly privileged to even have the opportunity to visit this special place.

Of course, the day after a marathon, Jeannette could have done with a few less than the 250+ stairs!
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After a little picnic, Jeannette and I poked around Hosmer Grove some more, working on photographs of Apapane…
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..and I’iwi.
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We worked our way downhill, into the adorable little town of Paia. There, we rendezvoused with our friend Amanda – the former cook of the Schooner French here in Maine, on which we take our Birding by Schooner tour – who flew in from Kauai just to say hi. OK, and join us for an amazing dinner at The Mill House, where local ingredients and flavors were taken up a few notches.

1/17: Last day on Maui.

Amanda joined us for a little casual birding at Kahana Pond, where we once again ran into the flock of Snow Geese.
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Jeannette and I then headed back to Kealia Ponds NWR, to visit the interior portion of the refuge.
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Chock full of Hawaiian Coots,
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…Black-crowned Night-Herons,
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…tons of “Hawaiian” Black-necked Stilts,
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..and a really great variety of ducks. A vagrant Great Blue Heron was spotted – another nice addition to my Hawaii state list.

We then made a cultural stop at the Sugar Museum on our way back to town.
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Tin Roof, the restaurant of Top Chef contestant Sheldon Simeon, was our lunchtime destination, and it most definitely did not disappoint.
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And with a little extra time before our flight, we checked out the backside of Kahana Pond, where we literally were attacked by a very defensive Nene.
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While the video does the encounter more justice, I can assure you, we did NOT pass this sign! If we had, we might not have survived.
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A Belted Kingfisher was yet another rarity for us to discover – although I later learned it was probably a bird that was around for a little while.  We also took some time to photograph some of the introduced birds, like Common Mynas.
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And then it was off to the Big Island for the second half of our trip.

1/18: Hakalua National Wildlife Refuge

We joined a tour with Hawai’i Forest and Trails in order to venture up the slope of Mauna Kea – on the opposite side of the mountain where I worked with the Palila – and into the wet forest of Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge in search of the two endemics that I have not seen, and a few more lifers for Jeannette.

The howling winds in the saddle caused some consternation, but we arrived at the Puu Akala tract of the Hakalau NWR under crystal-clear skies and without even a puff of wind. In addition to being incredibly gorgeous, weather-wise, the mature forest of massive Koa and flowering Ohia trees was just chock-full of birds.
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There were lots of I’iwis and Apapanes, and plenty of Hawai’i Amakihis.
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But a mere 15 minutes into the hike, the primary quarry for many, the critically endangered Akiapola’au was detected by our guide, Gary.
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We observed this confiding juvenile for over 20 minutes, as it demonstrated its unique adaption. The “Swiss army knife” of honeycreeper bills, the Aki uses its lower mandible to hammer like a woodpecker, and it’s long, decurved upper mandible for extracting tasty larvae and for exploring in lichen and moss.  It’s the best remaining example of the extraordinary evolution that began with one flock of wayward Asian rosefinches (or so we know believe).
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The forest was just beautiful here, and although there was some pig damage, the combination of invasive species control, fencing, and the elevation above the current mosquito line (and the devastating avian diseases they carry) hinted at the diversity, abundance, and wealth of unique life that was once found throughout all of the islands.
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While we were looking at that first Aki, our lifer Hawai’i Creeper joined it, and another was seen even better a little later. We also caught up with a couple of pairs of spritely and colorful Akepas.
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The creeper and the Akepa were the last two endemics I needed to see on the Big Island, but Jeannette also cleaned up with her lifer Omao, Hawai’i Elepaios, and her most-wanted, the I’o or Hawaiian Hawk.
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Thinking about more of the wonders of island biogeography and evolution, we glanced down to check out the native mint that perfectly fits the pollinating bill of the I’iwi.
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And back at the van, we marveled at the success of the Endangered Species Act and its resultant invasive predator control and captive breeding program that brought back the state bird, the Nene, from the brink.
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With the Endangered Species Act and other environmental safeguards under ravenous attack in Washington right now, it serves us well to never forget that extinction is forever. If we don’t act quickly, Akiapola’au, I’iwi, Hawai’i Creeper, Akohekohe, Maui Parrotbill, and so many others will go the way of the 95 species of endemic birds that have gone extinct since the arrival of humans in Hawai’i.

As we descended from the mountain, Pueos (“Hawaiian” Short-eared Owl) were conspicuous, and late in the day, Gary pulled out a flock of introduced Red Avavadats from a roadside ditch – another life bird for us. Cute lil’ fellas.

Dinner at Kona Brewing Company was outstanding, with their Pineapple IPA being my favorite brew of the evening. Clearly they were a lot more than the rather pedestrian Longboard Lager that they are most recognized for.

1/19: Palila Hunting.

But speaking of Endangered species, today was our day to search for Palilas in the dry forest of Mauna Kea, where this specialized species lives almost exclusively on the flowers, seeds, and insects hosted by the Mamane.
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We met up with our good friend Lance Tanino, who runs Manu Conservation and Birding Tours.  There wasn’t anything professional today, just out birding with a friend whose four-wheel drive and high-clearance vehicle was critical in making it to the Palila Discovery Trail within the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve.
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It was a long, hot, and windy day, and unfortunately, we had to work really hard for only a brief view of a Palila (and a couple of others heard calling). It wasn’t overly satisfying, to be honest, but Jeannette had a “countable” look, and I did spend four months with the species!

It’s not usually this hard to find, even if there are probably less than half the number of birds as when I – and two years earlier, Lance – worked with the bird.  But eventually, walking around on lava in the heat brought back some of the less fond memories from our time here, so we headed downhill.

A photogenic Pueo was spotted on the way,
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…and then we found some Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse at a new location, which was exciting as this was the one introduced bird we both really wanted to see. Because sandgrouse are wicked cool.
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Despite the disappointment of not seeing the Palila as well as we would have liked – even though we tried to claim we were satisfied with the effort- we still decided to celebrate at the Big Island Brewhaus, where we devoured these outstanding Kung Pao macadamia nuts..
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And enjoyed one of the most interesting beers of the trip, their Red Sea of Cacao, brewed with molasses, chocolate, pink sea salt, and pink peppercorns. We at least had sandgrouse and friendship to celebrate!  And great food and beer!
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1/20: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

On this solemn Inauguration Day, we could think of no better way to celebrate what is great about our country than visiting one of its premier Crown Jewels. Volcanoes are unstable, unpredictable, and at any moment can erupt and cause massive death and destruction. It seemed even more appropriate today for some reason.

And Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is truly a remarkable, special place. If you haven’t been…you must!

We heard several Omao, spotted a few Hawai’i Elepaio, saw an incredible number of Apapanes, Hawai’i Amakihis, some Nenes, enjoyed White-tailed Tropicbirds soaring around the caldera of an active volcano, and spotted Black Noddies offshore.

However, today was about volcanoes, geology, and Earth at its most raw and primal. There are the steam vents and sulfur deposits,
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…not-very-old-in-the-big-picture flows of hardened lava,
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…and stories of yesteryear in intriguing petroglyphs.
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Eroding lava creates sheer cliffs and arches,
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…and some impressive scenery.
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Lava tubes and collapsed craters showed where molten magma once flowed.
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But it’s Kilauea that steals the show, especially when she’s this active.
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And while the caldera, as viewed from the Jagger Museum and observatory is pretty amazing, it was well worth the effort to make a late-day trek out to see the ocean entry, where “new” land is meeting the sea.

We rented bikes for the 3.5 mile ride (on a nice, fairly flat gravel road) to the overlook of the active entry. It’s just far enough to be safe – but also just far enough for decent photos, but this at least gives you a hint at the fireworks.
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1/21: Back to the Dry Forest!

Despite our late night viewing hot, molten mag-ma, we were up even earlier than usual the next morning. Lance was not surprised to get the message that we “needed” to try again to see the Palila better, and luckily he was free and willing to take us back up the hill.
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The wind was really howling down low, and the forecasts of increasing trade winds really had us worried. We almost called it off. But Palila. So off we went.

Arriving at the Palila Discovery Trail, we were greeted by clear skies and barely a puff of wind. It was simply perfect, and in only about 20 minutes we had great looks at a feeding male Palila. We had even better looks at perhaps the same male a little while later, and Jeannette finally had her satisfying lifer view. No luck with photos, unfortunately, but she did finally get some good Hawai’i Amakihi shots.
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We were all a lot happier as we headed downhill this time, back into the howling winds along the coast. We walked Waikoloa Beach in the hopes of stumbling upon a Bristle-thighed Curlew, but alas, all we had were a few Koleas and a couple of Wandering Tattlers.
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Birder beach gear.

After lunch, we bid adieu to Lance and worked some local hotspots, padding my state list.  It’s rare that it is do far into a Lovitch vacation before we visit a sewage treatment plant, but wow, the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant was incredible!
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I tallied a remarkable 6 state birds, headlined by the mega-rare Marsh Sandpiper that has been present here this winter (we had previously only seen them in Thailand). Western Sandpiper and Buffleheads were a little less rare, but still new for Hawaii for me, as was Cackling Goose…
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…and both American (several) and Eurasian (one drake) Wigeon.
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Yellow-billed Cardinal was actually new for Jeannette, as well, although we would see a bunch more in Hilo.
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Nearby Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park was the home of my 100th species in Hawaii – an overwintering “Black” Brant.
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Two Laughing Gulls was another nice addition, and we took some time to study and photograph some of the more common shorebirds, like this Ruddy Turnstone – one of the few common, regularly-occurring migrants that spend the winter in these distant islands.
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Oh yeah, and a bunch of Green Sea Turtles as well!
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We really needed another day (or two, one on each island), but this was our last evening. Pineapple’s in Hilo was a great last meal, where I had the “Hilo Plate,” which was a finer version of the plate lunches we have been eating so often.
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And appropriately enough, we parked near this mural.
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1/22: Last Day.

There’s never enough time in any vacation, and that reality set in this morning. In fact, despite lodging at the lovely Inn at Kulaniapia Falls for the past three nights, we hadn’t even seen the waterfall in the backyard during the day!  Jeannette went for a run in the morning, so I just strolled around the property, enjoying the flowing falls (that was really showing the signs of the heavy rain overnight) and some of the common introduced birds from all corners of the globes: Northern and Yellow-billed Cardinals, Scaly-breasted Munias, House Finches, Japanese White-eyes, and Yellow-fronted Canaries. I also had an unusually cooperative pair of Hwamei – where was the camera when I needed it?
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The rest of the morning was spent casually birding Hilo, between rain showers, mostly to procrastinate on heading to the airport. Wailoa River State Park (that produced a number of life birds for me nearly 20 years ago!) offered up a rare Canvasback – my 25th state bird of the trip (here with the two migrant Ring-necked Ducks that were present)
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Among the multitudes of mutt ducks of questionable origin,
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…there were Hawaiian Coots, another vagrant Belted Kingfisher, and this unreasonably confiding Nene with a satellite transmitter on its back.
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We said goodbye to some of the familiar friends of birding in the islands, especially the adorable little Zebra Dove.
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Lokowaka Pond yielded another Canvasback among some Lesser Scaup, and a bunch of roosting Cattle Egrets, but there was no better way to finish a trip to Hawai’i than with brunch at the famous Ken’s House of Pancakes, ending the trip the same way we began…with macadamia nut pancakes!

But just to extend the trip a little longer, we picked up some flavors of the island at the airport gift shops.
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We departed Hilo for the short flight to Honolulu, passing by Maui which poked out from the clouds,
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…including the marathon route.
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And then it was time to board our long flight back to the East Coast and begin our journey back to the real world.

Unfortunately, the long flight afforded plenty of time to reflect on said real world, including the endemic Hawaiian birds that we got to see, and the ones on Maui we did not. While we had a great trip on so many levels, including seeing some of these spectacular birds (that truly do put “Darwin’s finches” to shame!), the reality is not as happy as our vacations might suggest. A litany of threats is impacting these birds: development, invasive species, disease, and climate change. The Endangered Species Act – the only reason there are still Nene, for example – is under assault, and without it, most of these endemics don’t stand a chance.

If you enjoyed this blog – and I of course hope you did – please take a moment (I mean, you made it through this excruciatingly long entry; you can spare a few moments more.) to learn more about these imperiled species. The American Bird Conservancy’s Hawai’i program page is a good place to start.

Then, take a minute to call your Senators (here’s a link to all of the local offices where you can leave messages). Tell them to uphold, protect, and increase funding for the Endangered Species Act, and to reject the assault on one of our foremost environmental statutes. Urge them to reject Ryan Zinke for Secretary of the Interior, and any other nominee who has spent a career attempting to gut the ESA.

Because the Palila needs us right now.