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Dec 16, 2021 | by Alex Lamoreaux

Compiled and written by Alex Lamoreaux and Chris Brown

It’s hard to believe 2021 is wrapping up already! It was so great to be able to get back into our whirlwind of North American birding tours starting in late February, and what a year it turned out to be! Despite the delayed start, we did run 20 of our Big Year tours this year! The combined total across 20 tours was a record 660 bird species seen and/or heard, and we visited a whopping 21 US states. These ‘Big Year’ tours are crafted to maximize species seen at the peak time of year for each region covered, and this year we had some great successes, a few surprises, and a really great time with dozens of guests who were just as eager as us to get back out and start exploring and birding again! Before we get into the details, Chris and Alex just really want to thank of you that joined us for trips this year! We had a ton of fun, and can’t wait to do it again!


The first tour of the year was our northwoods classic, Minnesota Winter Boreal Specialties. This popular trip to Minnesota is one of our oldest tours, and this year’s visit was very enjoyable! Owl diversity was lower this year than typical, but we more than made up for that with at least 12 sightings of Great Gray Owls and 3 Snowy Owls! Large numbers of winter finches were also a highlight, especially the 80+ Pine Grosbeaks we saw! Among quite a few Common Redpolls we also had a total of 4 Hoary Redpolls show well. A few grouse species are regular on this tour, and this year we enjoyed 2 Sharp-tailed Grouse, 8 Ruffed Grouse, and 1 Spruce Grouse. For Alex the best moment of the trip was standing at a forest clearing photographing a Great Gray and looking down to notice we were standing above fresh Timber Wolf tracks in the snow! What a wild place!

One of 12 Great Gray Owls we saw in northern Minnesota, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

To make up for missed trips in 2020, we ran double trips to Texas this spring! Our Texas: Rio Grande in Spring and our short target tour extension for Golden-cheeked Warbler & Black-capped Vireo create a mega-trip combination that nets nearly 300 species in 10 days! Highlights from the Rio Grande include a stunningly close encounter with a Hook-billed Kite, 32 shorebird species, gobs of migrant songbirds including 20 warbler species, Tamaulipas Crows, Red-billed Pigeons, Aplomado Falcons, and our best trips yet for Scaled Quail! Up in central Texas, we focused our efforts on the two target songbirds but also made time for a wayward Purple Gallinule, lots of migrant Baird’s Sandpipers, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, Clay-colored Sparrows, and a handsome Tropical Parula singing on territory! People who combined the second target tour with the second Rio Grande trip were treated to a nice Sooty Tern along the Texas coast as we made our way south to the Valley.

Gabriel Lugo, our Carribean specialist, and Alex ran the Ohio/Michigan: Magee Marsh & Kirtland’s Warbler tour this spring. We spent a few days cleaning up the eastern warblers and other migrants around Magee Marsh and then ventured north through Michigan in search of the rare Kirtland’s Warbler. This trip is timed for the peak of spring warbler migration, and we managed to turn up 32 warbler species! Highlights were Mourning, Worm-eating, Cerulean, Magnolia, and of course the Kirtland’s! In fact, we heard/saw 18 Kirtland’s! Other notable species seen were Ross’s and Cackling Geese, Trumpeter Swans, both cuckoos, Philadelphia Vireos, a nesting Whooping Crane, and Henslow’s Sparrows! A crowd favorite was hearing and even briefly seeing some Eastern Whip-poor-wills!

Kirtland’s Warbler singing its heart out, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Chris and Alex ran two staggered Maine: Mountains & Coast tours in June, followed by a short target tour for the Red-billed Tropicbird. Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, and other seabirds are certainly a focal point of these trips and we saw dozens at the Petit Manan Island colony during a lovely half-day boat trip. High up in the mountains of New Hampshire we enjoyed Bicknell’s Thrush, Red Crossbill, Boreal Chickadee, and American Pipits. Along the Maine coast we saw a lingering Snowy Owl plus the rare and declining Saltmarsh Sparrow. No pure Little Egrets were seen this year, but one of the tours did see a hybrid Snowy x Little.

Although we didn’t technically have any ‘new’ tours added to the schedule this year, in June we ran a newly expanded version of our Oregon Crater Lake & Klamath Basin tour and we largely overhauled our Montana: Rocky Mountains & the Great Plains itinerary. These were great successes, and we look forward to fine-tuning these new-ish tours in the years to come! Both Montana and Oregon are home to staggering numbers of nesting waterfowl and we saw incredible numbers of Cinnamon Teal, Canvasback, Redhead, and other ducks. In Montana we chased after the 1st state record Neotropic Cormorant and then a few days later we miraculously discovered the 2nd state record! What are the odds of that?! Other notable species in Montana were Upland Sandpipers, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Gray Partridge, Golden Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, American Dipper, and Alex’s lifer Baird’s Sparrow! Out on the grassland prairies we had incredible views of Chestnut-collared Longspur and Thick-billed Longspur while Long-billed Curlews and Sprague’s Pipits displayed all around us!

The former McCown’s Longspur was renamed “Thick-billed Longspur” this year, and we got to see the newly-minted birds on their prairie breeding grounds in Montana. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux

The concise tour around southern Oregon kicked off strong with a great Spotted Owl encounter among huge, moist trees. Other northwestern specialities like Band-tailed Pigeon, Williamson’s Sapsucker, White-headed Woodpecker, California Scrub-Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Hermit Warbler, and Pacific Wren were notable. We saw 800 Eared Grebes and 4,000 Franklin’s Gulls nesting at Tule Lake NWR on the OR/CA border, and watched young Prairie Falcons dueling in the air nearby! Western songbirds really stole the show some days, with killer views of Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Green-tailed Towhee, and Lazuli Bunting in particular!

An American Dipper watches from a narrow mountain stream, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Arizona’s “second spring” is world-famous among birders, so there’s almost too much to say about our wonderful tour there back in August. We were after the Sky Island Specialties and did very well – a total of 7 owl species were tallied plus 12 hummingbird species! Elegant Trogons tended to their nests, Varied Buntings and Five-striped Sparrows sang from the lush canyons, and 3 species of thrasher were found skulking through the desert scrub! Gray Hawks and an adult Northern Goshawk were crowd favorites! This is also the ultimate trip for seeing Greater Roadrunners!

Arizona’s most wanted: a male Elegant Trogon, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Our fall tour around the Bay Area and central coastline of California is always a fun and relaxing trip, and this year we did really well on the specialty target birds and had an excellent pelagic out of Half Moon Bay! We started off the week of Ridgway’s Rail and ended the week with Black Rail! In between we saw 26 shorebird species including a self-found rarity: Bar-tailed Godwit!! On the pelagic trip we completed the Pacific Ocean “skua grand slam” by seeing South Polar Skua, Pomarine Jaeger, Parasitic Jaeger, and Long-tailed Jaeger all in one day! Scores of shearwaters were seen including Buller’s and Pink-footed, and we saw a really great collection of storm-petrels with Ashy, Black, Wilson’s, and Fork-tailed all putting in appearances! On the rarity front, we had stellar views of a Nazca Booby! At Pinnacles National Park we saw 6 distant California Condors. Yellow-billed Magpies, Tricolored Blackbirds, California Towhees, Bell’s Sparrows, and Lawrence’s Goldfinches highlight a long list of specialty songbirds turned up during the week.

Flyover Yellow-billed Magpie, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Later in September we ran two Washington: Pacific Northwest tours; our regularly-scheduled trip plus a private tour for the Maryland Ornithological Society. The two trips ran congruently, but in opposite directions. Alex’s tour and Chris’s tour met up in the middle for an absolutely awesome pelagic out of Westport. We saw literally 1000’s of seabirds during a sunny, beautiful day on the Pacific Ocean. Highlights included 4,000 Pink-footed Shearwaters, 1,300 Short-tailed Shearwaters, dozens of Buller’s Shearwaters, South Polar Skuas, Cassin’s Auklets, and 3 Flesh-footed Shearwaters plus a nice collection of marine mammals! Back on dry land we saw Sooty Grouse, Black Swifts, Fox Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Bushtits, and Varied Thrush. At coastal jetties and lagoons we turned up Harlequin Ducks, Cackling Geese, Surfbirds, and 3 Bar-tailed Godwits!

A Sooty Shearwater emerges from an underwater dive, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

As a proud and lifelong New Jerseyan, Chris led a great late-fall trip to Cape May & Hawk Mountain in October. The trip started with a fun day of raptor-watching from the rocky lookouts at Hawk Mountain where dozens of Sharp-shinned Hawks and many other raptors were on the move southward. From there they traveled south to Cape May and highlights at this world-famous birding destination included Eurasian Wigeon, Golden Eagle, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Purple Sandpiper, Red Knots, Great Cormorants, and a very rare Anhinga! A short ferry ride across the Delaware Bay to Delaware produced nice views of Brown-headed Nuthatches at Cape Henlopen.

In November, Chris and Mandy Talpas led our fall tour to the Hawaiian islands. This island-hopping tour totaled almost 100 species with a special focus on the island endemics! We spent a memorable afternoon in Hakalau Forest NWR with a family of ‘Aki feeding at close range. It’s always the begging chick that gets your attention first. Then we were fortunate to eat lunch with a family of ‘Akepa, including a few males which are an amazing tangerine color! They specialize in prying open ‘ōhi’a buds, but our group had sandwiches… We also had better looks at (introduced) Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse than Chris has ever had before!

Also in November, and to cap off our 2021 Big Year, Alex led two back-to-back versions of our Texas: Rio Grande in Fall tours, and undoubtedly the highlight was being able to see the 4th US record Social Flycatcher! We cleaned up on the classic Valley specialties like White-tipped Dove, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Common Pauraque, Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Olive Sparrows, and 3 species of kingfisher! Rarities were peppered throughout, including the 1st Valley record of Williamson’s Sapsucker! Zone-tailed Hawks were particularly abundant this fall, and we were lucky to track down a vagrant Fork-tailed Flycatcher hanging out with some Scissor-tailed Flycatchers! Fall migrant songbirds were plentiful, and many warblers were seen during the tours. On the final morning of the second tour we saw a nice vagrant Crimson-collared Grosbeak at the beautiful little Quinta Mazatlan nature center.

White-tipped Dove, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Alex and Chris thoroughly documented our bird sightings on eBird. All of the 660 bird species seen during the 2021 tours were logged on eBird across 1,487 checklists! Our guides and clients also contributed over 400 photos to the Macauley Library through uploads to our checklists, not to mention uploads of non-bird wildlife sightings to iNaturalist! Recording what we see out there is a simple and easy way to try and give a little back to the birds and the efforts to conserve natural areas we explore.

Our 2022 ‘Big Year’ series kicks off soon, with two California tours just around the corner! We hope you’ll join us this year, and we wish you all a very special holiday season and good luck with any Christmas Bird Counts you might be participating in! See you out there!

2021 eBird Trip Reports!

We are really excited to debut trip reports using the brand-new eBird functionality! Follow the links below to see each of our 2021 tour’s species totals, a map of our routes, photo uploads, and more! These custom trip reports can be shared to our tour guest’s eBird accounts as a special little memory of each trip!

MN: Winter Boreal Specialities (40 species) 

TX: Rio Grande Valley in Spring Trip 1 (240 species)

TX: Golden-cheeked Warbler & Black-capped Vireo Trip 1 (139 species)

TX: Golden-cheeked Warbler & Black-capped Vireo Trip 2 (164 species)

TX: Rio Grande Valley in Spring Trip 2 (241 species)

OH/MI: Magee Marsh & Kirtland’s Warbler (196 species)

ME: Mountains & Coast Trip 1 (152 species)

ME: Mountains & Coast Trip 2 (145 species)

ME: Tropicbird Target Trip (86 species)

MT: Rocky Mountains & the Great Plains (186 species)

OR: Crater Lake & Klamath Basin (175 species)

AZ: Sky Island Specialties (195 species)

CA: Central Coast (184 species)

WA: Pacific Northwest private tour for MOS (155 species)

WA: Pacific Northwest (149 species)

PA/NJ: Cape May to Hawk Mountain (122 species)

TX: Rio Grande Valley in Fall private tour for MOS (184 species)

TX: Rio Grande Valley in Fall (197 species)

Note that we cannot display details of our Hawaii tour(s) due to the sensitive nature of the target species there, but these are available upon special request.

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