Michael Hurben’s Big Half Year—BIRDS SEEN ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD WHILE WORKING A FULL-TIME JOB!
WEEK 2: JANUARY 2 – JANUARY 8, MINNESOTA
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:
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.
WEEK 16: APRIL 10 – APRIL 16, LIMPOPO, SOUTH AFRICA
Working Days: 0
New species identified: 84
Total to date: 923
36.9 % of goal, 30.7 % of year used
Sites visited: Northern sections of Kruger National Park and several reserves to the west
Well. Kruger National Park deserves every superlative it has been given. We didn’t get nearly as many bird species here as we anticipated, but no matter. And we only saw two of the “Big Five” mammals (Elephants and Buffalo), but we don’t care. The overall biodiversity and spectacular geography trump everything.
So anyway, we spent a total of six nights and five days in and around the northern half of Kruger. Two nights at Tsakane Safari Camp, and four nights at their “tented camps” which lack electricity.
These places were pretty basic but everything you need is there. On our final day, while leaving camp in the jeep to head to the river to bird, we came upon a Black Mamba that the guides estimated to be about three meters. Directly in front of the vehicle it lifted the upper third of itself up, as they are wont to do, for an eye-level look at us before throwing itself into the grass. Needless to say, all further walks about in the camp were done with great caution.
A very nice sighting, which I stupidly neglected to photograph, was a pack of about a dozen African Wild Dogs lounging on either side of the road. I learned after the fact just how rare this is; that some local have visited the park for years looking for these animals with no luck. We didn’t see any of the big cats, which was disappointing, but I’ll take the dogs instead.
Final tallies for total species: 135 in South Africa over five days; 199 in Ethiopia over four days. A bit surprising.
WEEK 15: APRIL 3 – APRIL 9, ETHIOPIA
Working Days: 3
New species identified: 185
Total to date: 838 (found two double-counted birds and removed them)
33.5 % of goal, 28.8 % of year used
Sites visited: Debre Libanos and south from Addis Ababa, through Rift Valley to Wondo Genet
We took a red-eye flight from Bangkok late Thursday night and arrived at Addis Ababa Friday morning. First order of business was a lovely, long visit with a very touchy immigration official at the Passport Control counter, who detained us for no good reason for about 30 minutes. After finding our guide in the parking lot (they do not allow anyone to enter the arrival hall) we drove north towards Debre Libanos and got to birding.
Our guide was Negussie Toye from Nurgi Birding Ethiopia. He was a fantastic guide, certainly in the top 5 all-time for us. In four days he got us 199 species: he knows his locations, his calls, and is very efficient at getting you to the birds. We found Ethiopia to be quite beautiful and very birdy. Good food and coffee too.
We toured a variety of habitats, from higher elevations north of Addis and then down into the Rift Valley, where a string of lakes, such as Koka, Ziwa, and Abijata, lead south – and all hold lots of birds. Wading birds were quite abundant and varied.
This was easily the best four days of birding for the trip, in terms of numbers. At times the country can try one’s patience; any time you stop on the roadside to bird, you will be accosted by children
asking for demanding money. Accomodations can be rather poor. But it is probably an underrated birding destination and it deserves a visit.
WEEK 14: MARCH 27 – APRIL 2, YUNNAN, CHINA
Working Days: 5
New species identified: 21
Total to date: 655
26.2 % of goal, 26.9 % of year used
Sites visited: Mt. Zixi (Zixishan) area
We returned to Yunnan this weekend, but this time instead of birding around Kunming, our guides drove us about three hours west to Zixishan, where a number of parks and trails can be birded, along with hotel grounds and the area surrounding a temple. The roads are not very busy, so they are easy to walk and bird as well. It was a nice change from the crowds and traffic that made birding near Kunming so tough last weekend.
The bird of the trip was easily a Black-faced Warbler – a nice change from all of the difficult Phylloscopus warblers that are plentiful here. No photo. Nothing wanted to be photographed, it seemed.
For the first time in this Big Year, we are behind schedule. That will change next weekend when we start the only extended trip of the year: four days in Ethiopia followed by six days in South Africa. I expect to do the next update in about two weeks, covering both African countries.
WEEK 13: MARCH 20 – MARCH 26, YUNNAN, CHINA
Working Days: 5
New species identified: 13
Total to date: 634
25.4 % of goal, 25.0 % of year used
Sites visited: Mt. Xishan, Kunming area, Kunming Botanic Gardens
Ouch, just thirteen new species. All in all we had 38 for the weekend, which was way below expectations, even for city birding. Well, this was no ordinary city birding. On Saturday morning we went to Mt. Xishan, which lies in the foothills to the west of Kunming. We arrived before sunrise and found it to be an enchanting place, with Spectacled and Rusty-capped Fulvettas along with Silver-eared Mesias bouncing around to greet us.
The good birding did not last very long, though, as the area quickly filled with crowds. It was Saturday after all, but we were not prepared for the sheer number of people going up and down the windy road and trails. The trails, at least, had only scores of people; the road featured a constant stream of horn-blaring buses that made ear-birding all but impossible. I’m impressed we did not see anyone get hit by a vehicle, given the speed at which they drive and their proximity. Despite it being an eBird hotspot and having lots of great habitat and potential, the full morning list was only sixteen species. Weekdays are probably pretty good here. I’d never come back on a weekend.
On Sunday we had the morning to bird before heading to the airport after lunch, so we spent it at the Kunming Botanic Gardens in the center of town. As botanic gardens go, it is a very nice one – although frustrating for my botany-loving wife, as there were no signs in English. Birding here was far less nerve-wracking than on the Mt. Xishan road; less crowed and no blaring horns. You could actually hear calls.
The best bird of the trip was also the last; a friendly Scaly Thrush that posed for photos. The quality of his visit made up for the lack of quantity in species. I’ll take it.
So we have hit the quarter mark of this birding year, and we are just barely ahead, at 25.4% of the 2,500 species goal. Based on upcoming trips to Africa and Australia in the next few months, I think I’ll be ahead of the goal at the halfway point in June – after that, it is going to be tough sledding to maintain the necessary pace. Will have to pick locations in the second half of the year very carefully.
Next week – back to Yunnan province, heading to mountains west of Kunming (Zixishan)
WEEK 12: MARCH 13 – MARCH 19, PHILIPPINES
Working Days: 5
New species identified: 38
Total to date: 621
24.8 % of goal, 23.1 % of year used
Sites visited: Subic Bay, Manila
Another whirlwind, groggy weekend. With a flight delay out of Bangkok, we arrived at our Manila hotel around 1:30 AM Saturday… then the guide picked us up at 4:00 AM for a long drive up to Subic Bay. We arrived in time for a flurry of activity and picked up twenty-some lifers in a matter of minutes. By mid-morning it slowed down considerably and it was challenging to add to the list for the rest of trip. All said, 38 new species for the trip; again less than the 50 species per week I am shooting for. On the upside, 37 of these 38 were life birds.
I did manage to get a mediocre recording of a Rough-crested Malkoha calling in the distance; I didn’t realize at the time that this species had zero recordings in xeno-canto; otherwise I’d have tried to get better audio. I uploaded the little snippet I got – my first recording of a previously unrepresented species on xeno-canto.
Next up: Yunnan, China
WEEK 11: MARCH 5 – MARCH 12, THAILAND
Working Days: 5
New species identified: 45
Total to date: 583
23.3 % of goal, 21.1 % of year used
Sites visited: Doi Ang Khang & Doi Lang (Chiang Mai Province)
We flew to Chiang Mai from Bangkok Friday night, and left early Saturday morning from the city, heading north with our guide Somchat. This was our third visit to this northern province, with previous trips over the past few years both being centered in nearby Doi Inthanon. This time we decided try Doi Ang Khang and Doi Lang, as we heard that the species mix is quite different from that in Doi Inthanon. We were not disappointed. With three or so hours needed to get to these sites, and the need to return early Sunday evening, we had about a day and a half to bird. We stayed Saturday night near the small town of Fang, which is a good central location for reaching both areas.
It was quite foggy and cool in the mornings, but activity was good, with Mountain Bamboo Partridge and Hume’s Pheasant out on the road with the low light.
Both sites sit right at the Thailand-Myanmar border; Doi Lang, which is further from Chang Mai, was the better of the two; it was crawling with birds and birders, and it yielded some of the best birds of the year so far, such as Himalayan Cutia, Hodgson’s Fromouth, Rufous-bellied and Vivid Niltavas, Siberian Rubythroat, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babbler, and White-gorgeted and Ultramarine Flycatchers.
As can be seen in some of the pictures below, there are a number of ‘feeding stations’ in the Doi Lang area where worms can be set out to attract birds. Signs were posted to discourage this practice, but our guide (and the other guides working the area) made full use of them. I suppose that I am of two minds about this; in any case, I enjoyed the birds and took their photos.
Next week: Subic Bay, Philippines
WEEK 10: FEBRUARY 27 – MARCH 4, NEPAL
Working Days: 3
New species identified: 58
Total to date: 537
21.5 % of goal, 19.2 % of year used
Sites visited: Kathmandu and environs, Nepal
Thursday March 1 was a holiday here is Thailand (Makhabucha), so we took a vacation day on Friday and made a four-day weekend trip to Kathmandu. Our flight back on Sunday was early enough that we could only bird for about two hours in the morning. So we had the opportunity to visit three locations on the outskirts of the valley: Champadevie, Phulchoki, and Shivapuri National Park; we also visited the small park in the city, Ranibari.
Champadevie is a small village on a hillside south of the city, where we were able to find the only Nepal endemic, the Spiny Babbler. The area did not look very promising: we started within the small village and wandered around between the homes and fields until eventually climbing up the hillside.
We did quite well here, seeing the endemic Spiny Babbler, as well as two Rosefinch species, Rosy Pipits, and several Himalayan Buzzards, among others.
March 1 was also a holiday in Nepal: Holi, or the festival of colors – a Hindu holiday apparently unrelated to the Buddhist one in Thailand. Roving bands of youngsters with packets of brightly colored powders would smear them on one another or douse each other with water. When such a band approached us and asked something in Nepali, my wife made the mistake of smiling at them. They took this as agreement that she wanted to participate.
All four sites we visited were teeming with various Phylloscopus warblers. Some were fairly easy to identify, such as the Grey-hooded and Ashy-throated Warblers. Others… not so much. It seemed that our entire day Friday involved looking at birds all smaller than the leaves. It was a relief to get a White-collared Blackbird come down for a drink.
We were not sure what to expect in Nepal – perhaps a colder, higher India? It seemed less polluted but more run-down. Kathmandu was not nearly the chaotic, congested mess that we found in Mumbai; pretty impressive given that we saw one set of traffic signals in the entire city (and they were not working). The food was outstanding, and the higher and lower elevations warrant a return. Going further afield from Kathmandu apparently requires at least five days, however. Probably need two weeks to really do it justice here.
Next week: Northern Thailand, along the Myanmar border.
WEEK 9: FEBRUARY 21 – FEBRUARY 26, TAIWAN
Working Days: 5
New species identified: 34
Total to date: 479
19.1% of goal, 17.3% of year used
Sites visited: Wulai & Taipei, Taiwan
Flying from Bangkok at 8PM Friday night, we got into our hotel in Taipei sometime after 1:30AM Saturday. Our guide picked us up at 6:30 and we headed into the nearby mountains in Wulai just south of the city. We spent the day in this area and picked up some nice endemcs such as Taiwan Blue Magpie, Taiwan Yuhina, Morrison’s Fulvetta, Taiwan Barbet, Taiwan Scimitar-Babbler, and Chestnut-bellied Tit.
Since my old, beat-up Canon EOS Rebel has been not producing quality images of late, I decided to invest in a newer camera: the Nikon P900 which has become a birding favorite. This was my first trip using it, and it still feels quite alien to me. But the results are a vast improvement.
On Sunday we had only the morning to bird, since our flight back to Bangkok required us to leave Taipei proper around midday. For this reason we visited only the Taipei Botanical Gardens and the Huajiang Wild Duck Nature Park, both within the city.
On a street corner outside the Botanical Gardens, a cherry tree in full blossom had attracted a large crowd of local photographers; they were there when we arrived and several hours later when we left. Of particular interest was a Taiwan Yuhina that was feeding there with the Japanese White-Eyes. According to our guide (a Taipei native that has birded there for several decades), the Yuhina was almost certainly an escaped caged bird.
The Wild Duck Park would be a lot nicer if it wasn’t populated by stray dogs. If you go where the dogs are not, you can still pick up some variety including Crested Myna, Chestnut Munia, and the introduced Sacred Ibis.
WEEK 8: FEBRUARY 14 – FEBRUARY 20, THAILAND
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.
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.(!)
WEEK 4: JANUARY 17 – JANUARY 23, THAILAND
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.
Always nice to see Red Junglefowl – ancestor of the common chicken.
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…
WEEK 5: JANUARY 24 – JANUARY 30, THAILAND
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.
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.
This site was a good place to enjoy the taxonomically-challenged Kalij/Silver Pheasant.
The food and water also attracted gangs of both Greater and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes.
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.
WEEK 6: JANUARY 31 – FEBRUARY 6, MALAYSIA
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At another ‘feeding station’ our patience was rewarded with a White-tailed Robin, a very striking black, blue, and white fellow:
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.
This coming weekend we head to Siem Reap, Cambodia.