Tuesday, January 31, 2006

January closeout

Some highlights from today's end-of-January outing, which like the rest of this month felt more like April than mid-winter....

First up, a White-crowned Sparrow, which I found cavorting with some juncos along the Poudre River trail just north of Mulberry in Fort Collins...

A late-morning Wood Duck at Prospect Ponds, one of 4 males and 2 females there...

A male Belted Kingfisher, at the southernmost of the Prospect Ponds, just north of the water treatment plant...

And now the lovely female...

A Greater White-fronted Goose, amidst a bevy of Cackling/Canada Geese at the pond just south of the ELC. Damn those heat waves, which made it hard for me to get a non-blurry shot....

And lastly, at Cottonwood Hollow, a partial albino Canada Goose.

The sparrow photo was taken with my digital SLR; the rest were digiscoped.

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Seahawk = Steller's Sea-Eagle?

I just learned from 10,000 Birds that a 'Seahawk', as in the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL in the Super Bowl, is a colloquial term for an Osprey. And all this time I thought it was simply some mythical composite bird.

But really, look at this bird - does that look like an Osprey to you? The bill is way too big, not to mention the colors are all wrong. I'm thinking it's more like a Steller's Sea-Eagle. Certainly as a football team mascot, Steller's is more fearsome, even making the Bald Eagle look like a runt.

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Site update

I've just added a new section on the right column below the blogroll, called "ID Tips". It's a compilation, small for now but sure to grow, of sites that offer useful information on more difficult identification problems.

(In the same vein for those who prefer actual books to web sites, I recommend Kenn Kaufmann's Field Guide to Advanced Birding. It's written for the avid birder who wants to separate out with more confidence birds like Jaegers, Dowitchers, Screech-Owls, and of course perhaps the most perplexing of all bird groups, the Empidonax Flycatchers.)

I've also added a few more sites and blogs to right column, namely the blog SE Colorado Birding, a link to the listserv ID Frontiers (hosted by Surfbirds), and the Internet Bird Collection, run by the creators of the Handbook of the Birds of the World Series. The latter site compiles videos of birds from around the world, and they apparently now have almost 20% of all bird species in their collection.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Birder Envy

Time for a little birdblogger navel-gazing. One thing I've noticed a little bit lately is how it is almost anathema among birding company to admit to any human foible or confusion when it comes to bird identification. Some of this surely stems from the kind of credibility issue that BINAC pointed to some weeks back, but I think there's something more going on here, although I'm not sure what.

A few weeks ago I mentioned at an Audubon meeting that while looking for an unusual bird early one morning in the area, I made a silly error when I heard some Cedar Waxwings in some nearby trees, but thought they were American Goldfinches for a short time. Of course, after about 15 seconds, I realized that I was in fact hearing waxwings, and saw them soon dart off to the horizon squealing as they do. I figured I was just plain out-of-it that morning, having just rolled out of bed and gone birding, and didn't ascribe much deeper meaning to it than that. If anything I thought it was kinda funny. But when I casually mentioned it at the meeting, I got a comment from someone to the effect of, "I wouldn't tell anyone that!"

Now, I make every honest effort to identify birds to the best of my ability, but I also feel unashamed of the occasions when I most definitely screw up. I figure that it happens to everyone - we're only human, right? Sometimes, you forget what a particular species sounds like, and you may miss seeing an interesting bird because you assumed that you were hearing something more mundane or commonplace? Or on some other occasion you watch a bird high up in tree branches, struggle mightily to observe some characters, but when all is said and done (it flits away mysteriously) you still don't know for sure what you saw, because maybe you focused too much on plumage and not enough on morphology or bill shape?

Or is it the case that, perhaps, of all the people who consider themselves avid birders, I am the only one who makes these kinds of pedestrian, embarrassing errors? Could that be?

I'm serious here. I make mistakes. Probably plenty. I do think I get it right most of the time, but I'm not so full of myself to want to hide the times when I mess up. I guess I'm a little surprised at the reticence of some birders to say what they do wrong. I find it especially odd because most of the time I find the people I bird around to be very cordial and pleasant. Must we be so concerned about maintaining our credibility and image that we suppress any inclinations toward honesty about our occasional failings?

Yes, I want others to take me seriously and believe me on the occasions when I tell them I saw an unusual bird in such-and-such place. But personally, I think it enhances my credibility to admit that there are times when I mess up, because if anything, it means that I am capable of questioning my own judgment, of recognizing when my initial thoughts or expectations have deceived me. It also means that I don't mind learning that I was wrong, and that I am more beholden to the truth of the matter than I am to maintaining an image of personal rightness, which I could easily do in matters like this by just keeping my trap shut.

If, as birders, we value accuracy and at least some measure of objective reality, why not allow ourselves to admit our own mistakes - even the ones we made just yesterday? It shouldn't be a secret. Birder envy just compounds the original faux pas.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Magic of Allenspark

After my previous short post on seeing the Rosy-Finches, I thought I should say a little more about them. I made it sound almost like all I cared about was ticking them off on some of my many lists.

As I mentioned earlier, it was a brutally cold morning. Allenspark is at about 8,000 feet elevation, and it's not far from Longs Peak, the northernmost of Colorado's 14ers. A strong westerly wind was coming down the long slope toward Allenspark, and at 7:20am it was about 12 F with 20-25 mph winds, gusting to 40. Couple that with my lack of good gloves, and I was only good for about 10-15 minutes at a time outside, before retreating to my truck to thaw out a bit.

But I had the Rosy-Finches to cheer me up. I was thoroughly charmed by them, and spent much time studying their behaviors. They were already at the feeders when I arrived, so no waiting or struggling see them. And even though I'm a wuss in this mountain weather, the finches are unflappable, just doing their thing in spite of the conditions. They'd arrive and park in the treetops for a few minutes, as pictured here, and after a few minutes a couple brave finch souls would head to the ground to start foraging, either at the feeders, or more often than not, in some other seemingly random area around the inn. The fun was trying to figure out what on earth they were going for, but whatever it was, it certainly had them interested. A few scattered seeds, perhaps - it was hard to say. But they'd walk and hop around, and even get pretty close to me as I stood there snapping photos of them.

I also spent considerable time studying their plumages. They of course come in what is now recognized as three varieties - Gray-crowned, Brown-capped, and Black. I find their colorations difficult to describe, especially collectively; they consist of a subtle yet elegant blend of browns, pinks, grays, and blacks. And it often seemed as if each bird had a unique blend of these colors, with personal gradations specifying a precise age, wear, and sex. Perhaps it was just the cold affecting my brain, but I found it hard to concentrate on watching any individual for long - trying to separate each bird by species and so on became very difficult after a time. Their behavior borders on madcap in character, and coupled with their exotic appearance, I became transfixed not on details or individuals, but on the whole roving mass. If not for the comparative permanence of the camera, I'm not sure I'd remember what I'd seen today.If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend a special trip to see these birds. Hopefully we'll all see them next in more amenable weather than I had today, but rest assured that whatever conditions await you, the Rosies can handle it.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The original spy-cam

Nothing too deep here, just a funny story about a girlfriend caught cheating with another man, with help from the cuckold's African Grey Parrot:
LONDON, England -- A computer programmer found out his girlfriend was having an affair when his pet parrot kept repeating her lover's name, British media reported Tuesday.

The African grey parrot kept squawking "I love you, Gary" as his owner, Chris Taylor, sat with girlfriend Suzy Collins on the sofa of their shared flat in Leeds, northern England.

But when Taylor saw Collins's embarrassed reaction, he realized she had been having an affair -- meeting her lover in the flat whilst Ziggy looked on, the UK's Press Association reported.

Ziggy even mimicked Collins's voice each time she answered her telephone, calling out "Hiya Gary," according to newspaper reports.

On a related note....did you know that "cuckold" is derived from "cuckoo"? The etymology reflects knowledge of Old World cuckoos nesting habits, wherein the female lays eggs in other species' nests, to be raised by those birds. The modern technical term for this is brood parasitism, but in olden days it was imagined that this was a reflection of the female having 'cavorted' with birds other than its presumed mate.

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A quick update

I do have a couple other bigger, more substantive posts in the works, so stay tuned. But for now, a quick birding update.

I had a nice birding day today, commencing with a trip up to Allenspark this morning to see the Rosy-Finches that frequent the Fawn Brook Inn. And I found them, lots of them, flitting about with abandon in spite of brutally cold conditions and howling wind barreling down from Longs Peak. It ain't no thang to a Rosy Finch, apparently, as they were there in the hundreds, and all 3 varieties to boot. It was my first occasion to see a Rosy Finch of any kind since 1996, when I saw them at the 13,000 ft. summit of Mt. Dana in Yosemite National Park.

I also saw lots of geese at Dodd Reservoir outside Boulder, including a Greater White-Fronted Goose and a Ross' Goose. Over at Valmont there were at least 3 dozen Red-breasted Mergansers hanging with some Commons - and on the other side of the Reservoir there were even Western Grebes, and possibly some Clark's, although they were very far away and it was hard to know.

Heading north, I made a fast stop at Walden Ponds in Boulder, and saw lots of nice ducks there, including Wigeon, Redhead, Ring-neckeds, Canvasback, and Bufflehead. And lastly, I stopped in Loveland at Rist Benson Reservoir, and saw the reported Great Black-backed Gull there. And with some luck I also saw a Lesser Black-backed Gull too, on some occasions both were in the same field of view in my spotting scope. A nice finish to yet another great birding day.

That's two great days this month. Does this mean I'm using up all my good bird karma?

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Lark Buntings

Tonight's guest speaker at the monthly Fort Collins Audubon meeting was Amy Yackel Adams who spoke about her CSU dissertation work on Lark Buntings and their population status at the Pawnee National Grasslands. It was a very nice talk in front of an attentive and good-sized crowd. Some take-away points:
  • The Pawnee Grasslands (PNG) are home to the highest breeding concentrations of Lark Buntings (LABU). She says the birds are generally very prompt in arriving on May 1 in spring migration. The males show up about 2 weeks before the females.
  • It's been estimated that LABU populations overall are declining at about 2.1%/year in recent years, which is quite high.
  • LABU juvenile survival rates are about 20-30%, which is pretty low by passerine standards.
  • These low rates are attributable in part to their being ground nesters, and are subject to significant predation, ranging from 13-Lined Ground Squirrels to weasels to raptors. Someone did ask during the Q&A whether chemical contamination may play a part, but Amy couldn't point to any studies that have been done on this. Her anecdotal evidence did suggest some possibility of that, based on failed nests with fragile eggshells, but nothing conclusive.
  • LABU practices "brood division" during the raising of the young. That is, say, in a nest with 4 fledglings, the male and female with each take two "under their wing" and sequester them separately in different locations, for feeding, etc. Apparently only a couple dozen North American species are known to do this, although this may be because other species haven't been followed and studied to the extent that LABUs were in her work.
  • Neighbor Nick asked her what she would recommend as the one single thing that could be done from a conservation standpoint in order to improve the chances of reproductive success for LABU at PNG. She suggested something along the lines of reducing habitat fragmentation, which is a very big problem at PNG. In the case of PNG, this fragmentation reduces the ability of coyotes (which get hunted off) to control their usual prey, the ground squirrels - and thus the LABU end up with more predators of their own.
Of course, there was more, but it's getting late and I want to get this off before heading to bed. Bravo FCAS for yet another great presentation!

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

My 2005 'Birdies'

I promise that this will be my last self-indulgent retrospective posting on my 2005 year. But I had this idea while on a hike last weekend, and thought that I need to do it now if I'm going to do it at all.

Maybe someone else has already done this kind of thing, but regardless, I want to highlight some of my bird observations in the past year with these "awards":

Most Productive Birding Spot, Colorado: A virtual 3-way tie between Fossil Creek/Duck Lake, Lake Loveland, and Dixon Reservoir

Luckiest Sighting. To qualify for this, it had to be a bird that is considered fairly rare or unusual, yet required only the absolute minimum of effort for me to see it. The one that jumps out at me has to be my Life-Bird Glaucous Gull on Horsetooth Reservoir from Jan 2, where I was simply a passenger in our CBC car, and we happened upon a 2nd-year immature after just a half-minute searching some gulls in a scope.

Most Hard-earned Bird: What bird did I try hardest to see, with eventual success? Curiously it was the Lesser Black-backed Gull I saw on the very last day of the year. I had been around some other Lessers (ID'ed by other birders) during the year, but never had good looks at them, certainly not enough for me to feel like I knew for sure that's what they were. It took a rather obvious adult at Lake Loveland to clinch a full year of frustration.

Biggest Failure: A negative category, but should reflect an unsuccessful attempt at a great bird. This would have to be my disastrous attempt to find the Yellow-billed Loon last November on Chatfield Reservoir. I couldn't have picked a crappier weather day to look for it. Luckily I called off the search before I froze away my fingers.

Best Naked-eye Bird: This has to be the Hoatzin in Peru in May. We got such great close-up looks at it. If only I'd had my good camera back then, the pics I could have had. Oh well. I still feel privileged to have been as close to them as I was.

Best Bird Photographed: This isn't the same thing as the best bird photograph, it's just the best bird I got a picture of. My fave is my somewhat fuzzy but still recognizable shot of a Black-throated Trogon in Costa Rica. What a gorgeous bird that was.

Most Common Bird That's Still A Joy to See: Northern Flicker. I just think they're such beautiful birds. I love 'em.

Largest Bird: This is easy. Andean Condor, hands down.

Smallest Bird: Hmmm. Not sure who's smallest, but I think Allen's Hummingbird may qualify.

Best 'Comeback' Bird: This is for a bird that I'd seen before, but perhaps only once before many years ago. I actually had several second-time sightings of birds this year, but my favorite had to be Macgillivray's Warbler at Rocky Mountain NP last June.

Best Colorado Bird: This is a two-way tie for me, between two perhaps unlikely candidates: Cassin's Kingbird and White-tailed Ptarmigan. I picked the Cassin's because this was a bird I saw some years ago in Arizona (may also qualify as a comeback bird), and had expressly hoped to see one again after taking the time to re-study what makes the Cassin's distinct from a Western. It was just a gratifying sighting. And the Ptarmigan, well, I liked it because it was 1) a Lifer, and 2) I had a Zen experience in seeing it. The more I tried to find one, by making it a target bird on trips to Rocky Mountain, the more impossible it was to find. Only by not trying to find the bird, and just spending time hiking in the high country did they come out and make themselves so easily seen for me. On two separate occasions, no less!

Best ABA Bird: I got to make 3 trips to Florida this year. My favorite bird in ABA-land has to be the Roseate Spoonbill. If seeing a bird takes your breath away like that one did, then it almost has to be a best-bird-of-the-year candidate.

Best Tropical Bird: Hmmm, Peru and Costa Rica. Lots of cool birds to choose from there. Way too many. Peru's candidates were Paradise Tanager, Cock-of-the-Rock, Hoatzin, Horned Screamer, and Spangled Cotinga. Costa Rica's candidates included Shining Honeycreeper, Scarlet-Thighed Dacnis, White Hawk, and even the Bay Wren, which I found utterly enchanting. Even these lists leave off other possibilities. But I think the best one of all was Peru's Scaly-breasted Woodpecker. It's a Celeus woodpecker, somewhat resembling its Dryocupus cousins like Pileated, but with a stunning cinnamon full-body coloration, and a bold ivory bill. Just f'in awesome.

Least Likely Bird: Maybe this is the same as rarest bird? I have to think about that. In any case, it would have to be the mind-blowing Tropical Parula that showed up in the Grandview Cemetery in Fort Collins last June, just a mile from my house. It made quite a scene (being only the second state record), and I saw the bird with about 30 other people that morning, all of us suspiciously wandering about the graveyard with our binocs, scopes and cameras.

So there you go. In future years I may have more or different categories. These were just whatever I could think of off the top of my head. If you have any ideas for other categories feel free to pass them on.


Monday, January 09, 2006

It can be a Cackling, even if it's not a Cackling Cackling

I'm still trying to get fully up to speed on the relatively recent changes to the whole Canada/Cackling Goose split. Fortunately there are some good resources out there for those like me - Richard Trinkner posted this link on COBirds a couple days ago to a page maintained by David Sibley which discusses in detail the subspecies alignments among the two species. Like Richard I was a little surprised to learn that all the minima subspecies have been included into the Cackling Goose, and not just the former Cackling subspecies of Canada:
First, to clear up some confusion about the names of the species and subspecies: The former broad Canada Goose has been divided into a large-bodied, interior- and southern-breeding species, and a small-bodied tundra-breeding subspecies. The large-bodied group is still known as Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) while the small-bodied group takes the name Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii). This means that the English name Cackling Goose, which has in the past been more or less restricted to the smallest subspecies (the far western B. c. minima) is now the species name for all four of the small subspecies. This new species takes the scientific name of the earliest-named subspecies and becomes Branta hutchinsii.
Bill Schmoker has some very nice shots of Canada/Cackler combos too, as well as links to a couple other sites that have useful identification tips and more technical information on the split. I have a few photos of my own, with the one above taken recently at Lake Loveland. It shows a Cackler (front right) with 3 Canadas, left behind, and right (off frame). The Cackler is probably a Richardson's, and the Canadas seem like Lessers, although if anyone thinks I'm wrong feel free to tell me so in the comments. And better yet, tell me why!

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

All in a day's birding

Last Thursday I had one of my best birding days since Costa Rica. And I didn't even have to leave town.

At the crack of dawn I headed over to Rachel Hopper's home to see a Pine Warbler that's been a regular visitor at her feeders the past couple weeks. She had advised a prompt 7:30am arrival (I arrived at 7:20), since that's about when the bird always seems to show up. When I got there we went to her back window and she said to wait for the American Goldfinches first, which always presage its arrival. And sure enough, as if on parade, the Goldfinches showed up, and made their way down from the treetops slowly to the feeders. They even did so despite a Bald Eagle roosting higher up in the branches. We then waited for the Pine Warbler to make his entrance down low, and after about 10-15 minutes, there it was, a hardy male. A State bird for me. Woohoo!

Eurasian Collared-Dove, Jan 5, 2005, Fort CollinsNext, I headed over to Prospect Ponds, about 3 miles away, to look for Barrow's Goldeneye. I found a huge raft of waterfowl on the pond closest to Prospect Rd, but no Barrow's. I did spot a Green-winged Teal and a pair of Wood Ducks. And as I went down the road later to check out the other ponds, I came across a Eurasian Collared-Dove perched on a branch above the bike trail. "Just" a Year bird, of course, but still, it was close and easy to see, and I got my best shot of this species for my photo collection.

By 9ish I headed over to Mulberry and LeMay to look for the Northern Waterthrush, originally found by Cole Wild about 3 weeks ago along the Poudre River Trail and re-found right after New Year's by neighbor Nick. I had only a rough idea of where to find this bird, so I had to employ my bird intuition. "If I were a Waterthrush, where would I hang out?" A short ways up the trail from Mulberry, there was a discharge outlet on the far side of the river next to the water treatment plant, with relatively warm water cascading out of it. The water flowed by some riprap rocks and there was a dead branch jumble at the waterline about 5-10 yards downstream of the outlet. "Hmmm, that seems like a good place for a waterthrush. This must be it." So I parked my scope there and waited to see if something might show up.

I saw a flutter over on the far side near the riprap. I looked anxiously - could that be it? The bird had gone behind the dead branches. A minute later the bird revealed itself to be...a Song Sparrow. Harrumph. Stupid Sparrow. Had me going there for a minute. That's just so weird - it seems like a great place for a Waterthrush to be. Where is it? Why just a boring ol' Song Sparrow? I waited a little longer, still scanning the riprap. Then, in the lower corner of my field-of-view, another flutter. Oh my god. There it is! Northern Waterthrush, a new Life bird for me! And here it is, in Fort Collins, in the first week of January. I strung together a stream of expletives, as I often do either when I'm upset or deliriously happy. I was thrilled to have found this bird by myself, based on just some intuition (and well, reasoning) on where it might be. A personal accomplishment in any case.

High off the success I'd just had, I headed home and unpacked all my birding toys. I went online to read the COBirds mailing list, and what's that? Chris Warren reported a Black Brant in the softball fields of Poudre High School just a mile or so north of my house! I've been looking for a Brant for about 3 months now, with no luck. "It's so close, it's worth a shot." So off I went again, repacking my birding toys into the truck.

Now, he'd reported the bird a couple hours ago, so I knew it wasn't likely to still be in those fields. Geese tend not to tarry too long in any given field. And sure enough, when I got there, no geese. Hmmm. Time for more of that bird intuition. "If I were a Brant, and I'd been in this field a couple hours ago, where would I have gone?" Well, after some feeding in a field, I'd look for some open water. The fact that I'm well inside an urban area suggests that I'm not likely to fly all that far to find it, and the closest ponds around are College Lake up in the foothills, or City Park Lake just a mile from here.

Now, College Lake is closed off to the public, so I could only try City Park Lake. I got there and saw about 300 or so geese on it, which was promising. I got the scope out and started scanning, hoping that it would jump out at me. After about 5 minutes, it did! Brant, Jan 5 2006, Fort Collins Beautiful - about the size of a Cackling Goose, but with that gorgeous chocolate brown neck and head, and white necklace. Another new State bird for me, that had eluded me several times back in November and December. The day was just getting better and better.

Brant, Jan 5 2006, Fort CollinsI hauled the scope a little closer to its mid-pond island hangout, by which time it made its way to shore with about 60 other Canada/Cackling geese to feed. I digiscoped this shot of it for a nice closeup, to cap off this terrific birding day. It was a gorgeous weather day, but I decided not to bird anymore - I wanted to end on a very high note, and not run the risk of disappointment after so much success. I don't get days like that too often, so why tempt fate and spoil it?


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

On the Last Day of Christmas, My In-laws gave to me...

...Gulls of North America, Europe and Asia, by Olsen and Larsson. OK, so it's not as catchy a tune, but it does spread joy in this household nonetheless.

What a great book, and a great way to cap off the holiday season. Now I have absolutely no excuse for not becoming a local pro on gulls. Gulls are of course the nemesis of most birders - I liken the phenomenon to the way many otherwise intelligent college students treat math. "Oh, I suck at math/gulls - it's just not my thing." I can understand this feeling, too, for I've shared it in the past. All the North American gulls combined can sport over 200 different plumages and appearances, many of which closely resemble each other. Combined with their "trashiness", they unfortunately become low-priority sightings for a number of birdwatchers. And although I did put forth an effort to learn them when I was back in Santa Cruz a few years ago, my effort was limited and unsupported by either a good guide or by anyone in the area who knew gulls well (I was a much more solitary birder then.)

But the commonness of gulls is a blessing. They are gregarious, and because of that many species can be seen together in relatively easy-to-find flocks, including rarities. All you have to do is learn how to separate them out - a challenge to be sure, but something any birder should take the time to do. And with neighbor Nick, Sibley, free time, and now this book, I hope to make some headway on these birds myself. Thanks, Marilyn and Tim - This is awesome!


Monday, January 02, 2006

2005 List Totals

This should have been included in my previous Year in Review' post, but I instead got all verbose on you. So here are some raw numbers:
  • The Life List - 214 new birds, bringing my life total to 730. (214 is a personal record - my previous record was 185 in 2002.) This includes a Lesser Black-backed Gull seen on Dec 31. Nice!
  • The Colorado List - 227 birds. This includes that Gull as well as an unusual Great-tailed Grackle also seen later that day.
  • The Year List - 508 world birds, 303 ABA-area birds.
  • The current ABA List - 389 birds, with 72 pickups in 2005. (My previous record was 57 in 1998.) This also includes a Marsh Wren seen yesterday on the Loveland CBC.
Now I start fresh with a new World 2006 List and a Colorado 2006 List. Time to get cranking. Some goals for the new Year? I should get ABA #400, for starters. And for the year I'd like to get 300 species in Colorado and 350 ABA birds. (If I can swing trips to California and Florida I may be able to get 400 - we'll see.) And for the Life List...with a possible trip to Europe this summer I also think I have a shot at Life #800 too.

You can see all the details on my main list web pages.