Impromptu Big Weekend

Kelley NunnRecovery Big Year

Brown Booby in flight at the Baltimore Harbor, MD

Brown Booby in Baltimore, MD – Friday, November 13th

While I was visiting the Ashland Hawk Watch last weekend, my friend Dan Walker suggested I go to see the Brown Booby at the Baltimore Harbor in Maryland. Brown Booby would be a very unexpected life bird for me in my recovery big year! He couldn’t believe I hadn’t gone yet to see it, but when I first heard about the Brown Booby via rare bird alerts, I assumed it was out of my geographic range– maybe 2 hours away in central or Western Maryland. But as it turns out, the bird was just over an hour from my house! Dan gave me perfectly detailed instructions for how to see the bird, so on our next free day, Hannah Greenberg and I made our way to the Baltimore Harbor.

Brown Booby at the Baltimore Harbor, MD

Brown Booby at the Baltimore Harbor, MD

Our trip to see the Brown Booby was like an amusement ride for birders. Per Dan’s instructions, we parked on Hull Street and walked to the end, where we boarded a Canton water taxi with a few other birders. The water taxi staff could tell by our binoculars that we were there to see the booby, and let us know exactly where we’d see the bird. About a minute into the ride, one of the staff pointed out the bird by saying, “There it is, on the 5th or 6th pylon with the cormorants.” These guys were practically booby-spotting pros at this point– they were on the bird way before all of us birders! The views of the bird were fantastic, but the difficulty of snapping a photo on a moving boat with vestibular issues cannot be underestimated. To the right is one of my best photos: you can see the bird just left of center with a group of Double-crested Cormorants. And just like that, the bird was out of sight, and we were docked on the opposite end of the harbor.

Brown Booby in flight at the Baltimore Harbor, MD

Brown Booby in flight at the Baltimore Harbor, MD

Brown Booby in flight at the Baltimore Harbor, MD

Brown Booby in flight at the Baltimore Harbor, MD

On our water taxi trip back, we were treated to amazing looks of the Brown Booby in flight! How incredible to experience a mega rarity like this. From beginning to end, the entire water taxi trip took about 30 minutes and we were back at our car in no time. I was absolutely thrilled by our adventure, and this positive momentum carried into the rest of my weekend.

Golden Eagle(s) at the Ashland Hawk Watch – Saturday, November 14th

View from the Ashland Hawk Watch - Fall of 2013

View from the Ashland Hawk Watch – Fall of 2013

Strong 15+ mph winds were forecasted for the following morning, and I wanted to be up at the Ashland Hawk Watch in case any Northern Goshawks or Golden Eagles would fly by. I got up first thing in the morning and joined my friend, Mike Gardner, on the hill. The watch was somewhat slow at first, but eventually there was a flurry of Eagle activity. We picked out a subadult Golden Eagle in the first group of birds, and about 10-15 minutes later, had an adult Golden Eagle contender that we couldn’t confirm; the second bird had the shape of a Golden, with it’s short head and long-tailed appearance, but we weren’t able to pick out any definitive plumage field marks from the bird’s silhouette. Amazing! One and a half Golden Eagles was a stellar start to the day. I spent some time deliberating as to where I’d go next– I felt great and excited at the possibilities of where my body could take me. A Rufous Hummingbird had been banded and reported by Nick Pulcinella in Chester County a few days earlier, and I decided that taking a trip to see this bird was where I was going next.

Rufous Hummingbird in Elverson, PA – Saturday, November 14th

Elverson, PA was exactly 60 minutes away from the Ashland Hawk Watch, and I was planning to make the trip solo. 60 minutes! To put that in perspective– the last time I drove myself 60 minutes anywhere was when I went to visit my close friend, Adina, in Philadelphia back in February of 2014. That’s over a year and a half ago! I had packed adequate snacks and water for myself to accommodate a trip like this, so I had my bases covered, but as I sat in the car and typed the hummingbird coordinates into my phone, I felt unsure. I knew I could do it! I felt ok, and I wanted it badly enough. Plus, if at some point in the drive I got too tired to continue, I could always call my family to pick me up. So, I did it; I started the drive.

Adult Male Rufous Hummingbird in Elverson, PA -- November 14th, 2015

Adult Male Rufous Hummingbird in Elverson, PA — November 14th, 2015

As I exited the Ashland parking lot and made my way onto Route 41, I felt downright giddy. The only thought running through my head was, “Am I really doing this? I’m doing this!” And as I got closer and closer to Elverson, I felt more and more sure of my capability. After I arrived at the Rufous Hummingbird stakeout location, I was treated to multiple stunningly gorgeous views of this adult male hummingbird. The flashing yellow-green-orange of the bird’s gorget feathers was unbelievable, and I was so excited to see it. The homeowner was very friendly, and it was a treat to talk birding with a lifelong birder such as herself. Unfortunately, the only photos I was able to get of the bird were through a screen and window, but here’s one to the left.

Struble Lake and Greater White-fronted Geese in Chester County, PA

View from the Dam at Struble Lake - Panorama

View from the Dam at Struble Lake – Panorama

When it comes to my vestibular migraine fatigue, I can sometimes push myself and feel great until the moment that I finally stop going going going. At this point, all I could think was, “Why stop now?” I had plenty of food and water left, and there were endless possibilities of where to go next. I was hoping to find a fallout Franklin’s Gull, and the closest body of water to Elverson is Struble Lake in Honeybrook, PA, so I met my friend, Brian Quindlen, on the lake’s dam. From here, we had a nice flock of Bufflehead ducks and assorted gulls, but nothing spectacular to write home about. So Brian and I parted ways and I continued on to see the previously reported Greater White-fronted Geese at the Coatesville Reservoir.

Greater White-fronted Geese at the Coatesville Reservoir - 14 November 2015

Greater White-fronted Geese at the Coatesville Reservoir – 14 November 2015

When I got to the reservoir, there were maybe 1,500+ Canada Geese on the water, adding a small degree of difficulty to finding the rare Greater White-fronteds. I struck out at the first two viewing points I scanned from, but eventually found the Greater White-fronted Geese spread out amongst the Canadas. Eventually, the birds grouped together, and I was able to snap a photo from across the lake. (You can see the birds in the photo to the right– they’re swimming along in a single file line.) How cool! I’ve encountered Greater White-fronted Geese only a handful of times in my life, and these birds are always such a treat to see. “Where to next?” I wondered. At this point, it was less than an hour before sunset, and I figured I should be making my way home; I didn’t want to push myself too far.

Sunset over the Route 82 Farmlands

When I had seen Brain Quindlen back at Struble Lake, he and I had been discussing how well-suited the habitat adjacent to the body of water was for attracting a Short-eared Owl. (Short-eared Owl is the only expected species of owl I have yet to see in Chester County, despite multiple unsuccessful attempts. I have seen numerous Short-eareds in Massachusetts back when I was living in Boston.). I figured it was worth stopping at the Route 82 farmlands, which were on the way back to my house, and scanning at dusk for these crepuscular owls.

Minutes After Sunset at the Route 82 Farmlands in Chester County, PA

Minutes After Sunset at the Route 82 Farmlands in Chester County, PA

As I pulled up to the usual viewing spot, low and behold, there was Brian’s car! Brian and I spent the next 30 minutes or so scanning for these elusive owls with no success, but did enjoy the spectacular views of rolling hills throughout the expansive valley. I swear, I’ll never see this species in Chester County! That’s one thing I absolutely love about birding– it’s an endless supply of hope and optimism. No matter how many times I fail at seeing this bird, I can’t help but think that the next time will be the lucky one. It’s this exact hope and optimism that kept me sitting up to check the feeder when I was bedridden and that keeps me driving to local birding hotspots despite all of my health struggles.

After today, my total number of species observed for the year is sitting at 244. (Brown Booby, Greater White-fronted Goose, and Golden Eagle were all first-of-year birds) Only 6 species left to go to hit my goal of 250! I hope I can do it with just a month and a half left. The grand total between the two days was only 54 species, but seeing a Brown Booby, Golden Eagle, Rufous Hummingbird, and four Greater White-fronted Geese in a span of just over 24 hours was just incredible. And to make the weekend even more amazing, I was able to drive myself around for an entire day of bird watching totaling 2.5 hours and 80 miles of driving. I can’t believe I did it! How downright awesome is that. I’m definitely paying for my over-exertion yesterday now in the form of exhaustion and dizziness, but it was absolutely worth it.

Exactly one year ago, I had been misdiagnosed with a brain infection and thought I would die in my bed before anyone figured out what was wrong with me– I couldn’t drive myself or walk around. But this weekend, I achieved something extraordinary and unthinkable. I am so happy to have a diagnosis and to be improving, and can’t wait to see where I’ll be one year in the future.