Best Birds of 2020

Goodbye, Upper Midwest

Though I hadn’t yet gotten official notice, I was pretty sure this was going to be my last year at NRRI. I had known my funding was running out and there weren’t any new grants in sight. So, I made the best of it by starting off the birding year immersing myself in cool-looking red-tailed hawks. I was lucky enough on a weekend trip to the Twin Cities to see a Harlan’s Hawk (2/1) followed by a rufous/intermediate “abieticola” (2/2). Later that month, I saw a “mystery morph” that was later called some sort of dark “harlani/abieticola/calurus” (2/22) which highlighted how much work is to be done on red-tailed hawk morphology.

My favorite experience this year of guiding the Sax-Zim Birding Festival was spotting a northern goshawk (2/15) in flight close to the bus! All the participants saw it, and this year we saw got to see the bird for longer in flight and perched! It actually perched twice, giving distant but exciting looks for everyone.

Costa Rica

We got in a trip under the buzzer before the pandemic erupted in full! When we walked out of our condo (3/8) there were several cinnamon hummingbirds up the driveway. In the evening, there was a small flock of lesser nighthawks.

The next morning (3/9) we heeded our bird alarm clocks and were treated to views of streak-backed orioles and black-headed trogon again right within the confines of the condo complex! We continued up the road and found stripe-headed sparrow in an area that, sadly, may be marked for development. As we walked back down the road, I saw my lifer squirrel cuckoo and rose-throated becards in the same tree. In the evening, a small flock of white-throated magpie jays came in to the treetops visible from our deck.

We went on to explore Santa Rosa national park. There, we saw our lifer lesser ground-cuckoo, white-lored gnatcatcher, and elegant trogon right along the roads. We also saw my lifer white-tipped dove. At the visitor center, we got knockout looks at pale-billed woodpecker and orange-fronted parakeets.

The next day (3/10) we decided it was worth it to get to Santa Rosa early, and we weren’t disappointed! I finally got good looks at the banded wrens we briefly glimpsed the day before. I was also delighted by the time we were able to spend with yellow-olive flycatchers. Not only did we have great looks at several of them, we learned their song! Along the entry road, we got brief looks at lesser greenlet. Excitingly, we saw a crested guan at the campground! When we were able to enter the casonas parking lot, we found an ivory-billed woodcreeper along the nature trail.

3/11 was our journey to Arenal! Once we got to Nuevo Arenal, we got our lifer palm tanagers. Downtown, we finally got good looks at gray-breasted martins. Once we arrived at our accommodations, Paul spotted our lifer Passerini’s tanagers and long-tailed tyrant. I spotted our lifer piratic flycatcher. Then, we went into town for to lunch. Along the way, I spotted my lifer black phoebes. From the balcony, I finally felt good about calling a gray-capped flycatcher. We came back and birded for the rest of the evening right where we were staying, at Arenal Tropical Gardens. Paul pointed out black-cowled orioles, and we worked together to ID common tody-flycatcher. I got excellent recordings of a vocalizing tropical pewee! Paul was excited to spot his quarry, the scarlet-thighed dacnis. It was a female, and we still hoped to see the male. Then, black-headed saltators flew right into the tree in front of us. Among the last new birds of the evening for us were green honeycreeper and bay-headed tanager from the main building.

3/12 was our only full day in Arenal, so we made it count! We were awakened by a common pauraque singing in the twilight hours, which would bookend our day. We got to the observatory lodge at 6 AM and made our way on the “orange trails” to the garden. There, we saw our lifer scaly-breasted hummingbird, green thorn tail and black-crested coquette. Among the plants were several Black-striped sparrows. Also in the treetops were red-lored parrots and a white-crowned parrot. We went to celebrate our early morning success with breakfast at the lodge. From the window, I spotted my lifer green hermit! We went out to the deck and also saw our lifer stripe-throated hermit. Then, we walked back along Los Monos trail to find a scale-crested pygmy tyrant, but unfortunately only I got to see it before it flew. We took a break after hiking the river trail to get lunch in town. On the way out, I got my most casual lifer of the trip: a drive-by groove-billed ani! We also drove the evacuation road for a short bit, and lucked out finding a pair of gartered trogons building a nest. In the evening, we started on the farm road and were rewarded by spotting a rufous motmot.

We spent our last morning in Arenal (3/13) on the farm roads. On the trail to the hanging bridge, we were pretty excited to be able to confidently separate 2 rufous mourners from the pihas we’d seen the days before. We weren’t as confident in the initial ID until we got great looks at its lookalike. Across the river, we saw a laughing falcon hunting a farm field. As we continued along the dirt road, we saw 2 emerald tanagers in a thicket along the river. Our biggest “boom” of the day was at the shelter, where we ran into a mind-blowing pocket of bird activity! There were so many things moving in and out of the lush foliage that we couldn’t ID everything we glimpsed. We were so glad to get excellent looks at (and even bad photos of) a blue-and-gold tanager. I got a glimpse of a slate-headed tody-flycatcher that Paul saw better. I saw possibly both a tawny-capped euphonia and slate-throated redstart in the same tree, but Paul only saw the euphonia, so I only counted that too. It’s always great to get lifer warblers, and there we saw a tropical parula! Farther down, I was thrilled with another lifer warbler: gray-crowned yellowthroat! As we walked out, we saw several Morelet’s seedeaters. While we continued to bird the rest of our time there, that was a wrap on my lifer additions from this fabulous trip!

Pandemic Birding

Unfortunately, we returned to the hard reality of a pandemic, which led to a drought in many areas of life. I was delighted by a few bright glimmers, though, such as a Bullock’s oriole (5/6) at a random feeder in northern Minnesota. Then, we had a fallout on Park Point (5/26) which was a great sendoff from this place I was fortunate to have lived. I got to see almost all of my birding friends, many for whom it would be the last time before I moved away. Among the many warblers that day, we saw a Connecticut warbler which is always special.

Home Sweet (New) Home

This summer, I had the privilege of moving to one of the top 100 birding spots in the world: Cape May, NJ! The lifers were immediate (post-quarantine) — a singing saltmarsh sparrow (8/20) followed by a great look that weekend.

One of the best fall migration spots in the world

I saw 2 roseate terns coming through a tad late (9/1) to properly kick off my 1st fall in Cape May! Then, the floodgates opened in ways I hadn’t imagined: a little stint showed up that weekend that I was able to successfully chase! (Not a rarity, but that same afternoon, I got to see the first worm-eating warbler I’d seen in over a decade.) The following week, I fully experienced the joy of working with an office full of birders (including a boss and coworker/birding BFF who have a boat) when we ducked out to take a ride up the inlet for a masked booby. The next week, said birding BFF banded an Allen’s hummingbird I got to see! Unfortunately, Paul was away for those, but then he returned in time to see a northern wheatear. This barrage of lifers was so laughable that we joked “things were slow” when I didn’t get my next lifer until the following month: common cuckoo (11/8/20)! Mid-November brought roosting cave swallows at the Montreal. In the same week, I saw my lifer ash-throated flycatcher at my nearest local park!

Heading into Winter

At the end of the month and into the next, we went on 2 pelagics: one for my birthday (black Friday, close enough) and the next on our 6 year dating anniversary! These amounted to several much-wanted lifers: razorbill, black-legged kittiwake, Manx and great shearwaters. The hits just kept coming with a Couch’s kingbird in between, followed by a barnacle goose near home (well, in commuting distance, anyway). This was immediately followed by another rare goose on the east coast: tundra bean-goose!

Christmas Bird Count (CBC)

We went back to Wisconsin for Paul’s count, and though unrelated, the day before we saw a great tit. (It’s not really “countable” to my knowledge, but there’s a small persistent population of them in Sheboygan.)

Though this year was hard for many reasons, it was one of the best birding years of my life! There are many ways to quantify that, and arguments could certainly be made for the greatness of any given year, but my last year like this was probably 2012 (the 1st time we went to CR). It was just kind of unreal all around…while everything societally was tough, the outdoors held so many delights for those who were able to seek them. I counted my blessings this year, in bird species as well as our other nature sightings!

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