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Michael Hurben—2018 Big Half Year


Donate to Michael’s Big Half Year HERE
My Big Half Year
My Big Half Year is ‘part one’ of an effort to see 2,500 species in one year while working a full-time job. For most of 2018 my wife and I will be in Bangkok, Thailand, on a work assignment and we will bird throughout Asia on weekends and holidays. I’m pledging $5 per species to Friends of Sax-Zim Bog (for birds seen Dec 26, 2017-June 26, 2018), and to Foundation Fighting Blindness for birds seen June 27-Dec 31, 2018.
Sax-Zim Bog is the Mecca of Minnesota birding sites. It brought us our first Connecticut Warbler, Great Gray Owl, Boreal Chickadee, Hoary Redpoll, and Northern Hawk Owl, to name just a few. Sites like Sax-Zim are priceless treasures, so supporting and protecting it are worth every penny. 
Michael Hurben (bottom right) birding in Ghana
Michael Hurben and friend (note Great Gray Owl in background!) in the Sax-Zim Bog
(**I had the pleasure of running into Michael in the Bog before he left for his year in Thailand. And our meeting just happened to be at a Great Gray Owl along Nichols Lake Road! Good luck Michael on your Global Working Big Year!)


Working days: 4

New species identified: 24

Total to date: 186

7.44% of goal, 3.8% of year used

Sites visited: Bloomington and Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota


1. The only notable outing this week was a quick trip up to Sax-Zim Bog on Sunday, January 7. That is about a 3 to 3.5 hour drive each way from our house. It was a fairly slow day and we missed a number of expected birds; but we did get a long-time Nemesis removed from our life lists, namely, the Black-backed Woodpecker. Must have been about our tenth try for this striking carpintero. Other notables included a Hoary Redpoll mixed in with abundant Common Redpolls, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Gray Jay, Snow Buntings, and several Great Gray Owls, including this one:


With eyes closed, could be something of a big, cold Potoo

2. Since we will be using the first half of this Global Big Working Year to support The Bog, it seemed necessary to visit during our last weekend in Minnesota for the year. We had a chance to meet up with Sparky Stensaas, one of the founders of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog and the instigator of their Big Half Year fundraiser.


If you are unfamiliar with Sax-Zim, you should know that it is truly deserves status as a Holy Site of birding. It has been called the “Arctic Riviera” as it attracts specialties such as Northern Hawk Owls and Boreal Chickadees in the winter. And it is less than an hour drive from Duluth, another Mecca of Minnesota birding where oddball gulls, jaegers, owls (including Snowy and Boreal), and sundry waterfowl find themselves at the end of the natural funnel created by Lake Superior during fall and winter; while spring has tremendous songbird fallout potential at Park Point. Meanwhile there is nearby Hawk Ridge, where autumn sees astounding numbers of raptors channeled into the region in their attempts to navigate the boundary of the world’s largest lake.


Working Days: 5

New species identified: 21

Total to date: 445 (removed another double-counted bird)

17.8% of goal, 15.4% of year used

Sites visited: Krabí & Koh Klang, Thailand

This was a tough weekend. We recorded upwards of 65 species, but we are seeing diminishing returns in the southern half of Thailand now; only 21 of these were new birds for the year. This did include some very good ones, such as Brown-winged Kingfisher, Golden-bellied Gerygone, and Slaty-breasted Rail.


Looking up-river from the city of Krabí

All of our birding was done in the immediate area of the town of Krabí, which is roughly halfway down the peninsula. The area of almost entirely mangroves, and we birded up the river by boat as well as on the island of Koh Klang.



Our guide was rather inexperienced and not well-prepared. We quickly realized that he didn’t know his bird calls; also, he didn’t have a scope, which was a real hindrance with the shorebirds; I relied on taking photos and scrutinizing them later in order to get the IDs. He got several species quite wrong, such as an juvenile Shikra which he called a Peregrine Falcon, and some Black-winged Stilts, which he called Red-wattled Lapwings.(!)


Brown-winged Kingfisher


Working Days: 5

New species identified: 53

Total to date: 258

10.3% of goal, 7.7% of year used

Sites visited: Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

When I was setting up our trip to Khao Yai several months ago, the hotel manager asked me “You don’t want to come here on a weekend, do you?” Meaning that during the winter here in Thailand, this most famous of their National Parks is very, very busy. And they were right. Unfortunately, during a Big Working Year, weekends are the only time to bird outside of vacation days, so we had to brave the crowds; every trail we went on had (noisy) people on them, and Silver Pheasants and Siamese Firebacks were nowhere around, not surprisingly.

Only 53 species; considerably less than what I was hoping for. Three of the four hornbills were seen and heard; the wings of the Great Hornbill make a very loud, somewhat spooky sound when the bird flies over. We saw a pair near a potential nesting cavity – soon the female will be walled up inside the tree for the extended brooding period. Other highlights were Common Green Magpie, Banded Kingfisher, White-Rumped Shama, and some nice looks at Hill Blue Flycatchers, which have the same pleasing color scheme as our Eastern Bluebirds back home.

Hill Blue Flycatcher

Hill Blue Flycatcher


Our friend and birding apprentice Mai, pointing out the dangers of Sambar Deer. They are not nearly as big as elk, as the sign would indicate

Always nice to see Red Junglefowl – ancestor of the common chicken.


Red Junglefowl on roadside

We did (finally) see an Asian Elephant, a pack of wild dogs, and our guide was very good at finding Pit Vipers with his scope. Not sure I would want to find them any other way. Often they were found draped on low-hanging branches; no reason why they couldn’t be at head height right over the trail…


Asian Elephant, an endangered species


Working Days: 5

New species identified: 55

Total to date: 313

12.5% of goal, 9.6% of year used

Sites visited: Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand

A day and a half in and around Kaeng Krachan National Park netted us 92 species, with 55 of them being new for the year; the others were seen in Bangkok or Khao Yai earlier. Kaeng Krachan is about a three-hour drive southwest from the city, and unlike Khao Yai, it was not teeming with crowds on the weekend. The traffic is low enough such that you can stop and bird on the road. And most of the other visitors were there for birds or the hordes of butterflies.

We spent Saturday in the park, and found the higher reaches to be more productive. Specifically, there is a second visitor center about a 45-minute drive beyond the first one. It featured birds such as Great and Blue-Throated Barbets, Black-winged Cuckooshrike, and Olive, Flavescent, and Mountain Bulbuls.


Prime birding spot in KK

Our half-day on Sunday was at the Bo Lung Sin blind. This is a private spot that the guides from Baan Maka (our hotel) can access. For a few hundred baht, the owner will come by and put fresh water in the bird bath and scatter grain and fruit on the ground. The avian (and mammilian) visitors come slowly but they are worth the wait.


The scene at the Bo Lung Sin blind. Red Junglefowl and a Lesser Mouse Deer, which isn’t much bigger

This site was a good place to enjoy the taxonomically-challenged Kalij/Silver Pheasant.

KK pheasant2

eBird (and the majority of opinion, as far as I can tell) says this is a Kalij Pheasant. This crawfurdi ssp. has been placed under Silver as well

The food and water also attracted gangs of both Greater and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes.


Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush


Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush

Grey Headed Woodpecker

Unexpected Grey-headed Woodpecker

One hardly needs a blind for good looks at Pied Fantails, but there was a pair flitting about as if begging to be photographed, often strutting around like little male Wild Turkeys in display.



This weekend we will head to Frasier’s Hill in Malaysia, where I am optimistic about keeping up the ~ 50 new species per weekend rate.


Working Days: 5

New species identified: 63

Total to date: 376 (removed a double-counted bird in my Ecuador list)

15.0% of goal, 11.5% of year used

Sites visited: Fraser’s Hill, Krau Wildlife Reserve, Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam (Kuala Lumpur), Malaysia

Friday evening we flew from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, and then set off early Saturday morning for Krau Wildlife Reserve in Pahang. Our guide was Weng Chun, whom we birded with last year. Weng is an absolutely fantastic guide and worked with Noah Stryker during his Big Year stop in this area. I had sent him a very long list of target birds a few months ago, and he devised an itinerary for us that really maximized our count and gave us one of our best weekend outings in Asia to date.  His website, A Malaysian Birder, has some great photographs of the many specialities in this area. Weng posted his summary of the trip here.

Krau is a great area for lowland species. We didn’t enter the park itself (we could hear elephants vocalizing from there), but stayed around the outskirts. This was a very productive outing.


Rain shortened our stay at this blind, but not before a Black-capped Babbler showed up

Highlights in this area included Sooty-capped and Black-capped Babbler, Little Bronze Cuckoo, Blue-Crowned Hanging Parrot, Scarlet-rumped Trogon, Long-billed Spiderhunter, Yellow-vented, Scarlet-bellied and Yellow-bellied Flowerpeckers (all in the same tree at the same time), and Black-and-Yellow and Banded Broadbills.


Banded Broadbill

On Saturday afternoon we headed up to Fraser’s Hill. If you come from the east, the road up is even more winding and dizzying than the road which comes from the direction of Kuala Lumpur. At one point as we neared “The Gap” and we pulled off to bird, another car pulled off behind so that the occupants could take a “vomit break.” Fraser’s Hill was cold and drizzly, just like it was for us last year.


Roti Pratha, the finest food in Singapore and Malaysia

Saturday night the weather turned ugly, with high winds that persisted all night. The birding the following morning was not very good, although we were able to patiently wait out a White-Tailed Robin.


Quite windy Saturday night in Fraser’s Hill; this scene greeted us Sunday morning

We spent over an hour in a makeshift blind in the rain waiting for the Malaysian Partridge. Several groups of photographers joined us, but gave up after about 40 minutes. They should have waited – he finally showed up and was not even particularly skiittish.

malasia ppartridge

Malaysian Partridge

At another ‘feeding station’ our patience was rewarded with a White-tailed Robin, a very striking black, blue, and white fellow:


White-tailed Robin

The birding Sunday morning in Fraser’s Hill was quite poor, with high winds and very little bird song. We decided to head back towards the city early, in order to have time to bird at the National Botanic Gardens, a.k.a. Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam. This proved to be a very good idea. Three new spiderhunters were found: Gray-breasted, Spectacled, and Little Spiderhunter. And despite it being Sunday, with large crowds and considerable heat, we managed to wait out and see both Blue-Winged and Hooded Pittas between 4 and 5PM. These were the first pittas we have ever seen, having only heard Blue Pitta previously.


Blue-winged Pitta, surprisingly near a lot of loud human (and monkey) activity

This coming weekend we head to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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