Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Atlanta, Georgia, USA – 35 lifers in one day

After a full day of birding near Lima, I was glad to have a complete change of clothes handy before getting ready to board our plane.  When we reached our boarding gate, we realised that my seat was not with Chris and Birdgirl.  We were going to see if I could swap with someone, but we need not have worried.  Huge numbers of people on the flight were called up to be given new boarding passes with new seats.

When we arrived at Lima airport, we noticed that the flight to Miami had been delayed.  We had read on BBC News that Hurricane Isaac was likely to hit Florida in the next few days and Miami airport had been closed.  A lucky few from the Lima to Miami flight were transferred to our Atlanta flight, directly north of Miami.

On the plane, I searched the newspapers for the weather forecast for Atlanta for the next day.  The news was not good, thunderstorms off the back of hurricane Isaac.

Birdgirl and I managed a good night’s sleep on our night flight, but Chris less so.

We arrived at Atlanta, USA on time and were out of the terminal by 9.00 am.  It seemed all very easy, but we had no idea whether we were waiting in the right place.  Chris asked me what the arrangement was with Bill. 

I had contacted Bill Lotz through Birding Pals back in April, when we had booked our flights from Peru and knew that we had a day in Atlanta.  Bill had been great, giving us links to Georgia and Atlanta sites and lists.  I had prepared a list of the birds of Georgia that one of us needed and sent it to Bill, for his information.  However within a few days he had sent the list back with comments against each bird with how likely it was whether we might see the bird and specific sites.  From this, we had whittled the list down to about 50 possible birds, taking into account that our visit would be on the 28th August 2012, before migration really got going.  I know Americans have a reputation for being helpful, but I couldn’t believe that someone I didn’t know would put so much effort to make our 1 day trip a success.

Bill had also taken our flight information, so he could check for delays and sent me his mobile number.  I had said that we were likely to be out by around 9.15am.  A few days before, Chris had suggested to me that I save Bill’s number into my phone.  I had dismissed the idea as being unnecessary, as I had Bill’s e-mail on my I-Phone.

This takes us back to Atlanta Airport.  I told Chris that Bill had said that he would pick us up, but did not specify where.  Although he knew what we looked like as I had sent him a link to our blog.  Chris suggested that I phone Bill to check that we were in the right place, so I looked through my e-mails from Bill trying to find the one with his mobile number.  It wasn’t there.  I told Chris that I couldn’t find the e-mail with Bill’s number and suggested that I go back inside and check if there was anywhere else he might go.  A sleep deprived Chris was not at all happy with the situation.  We were standing outside Atlanta Airport, the biggest airport hub in the USA, with no phone number for the person who was picking us up and no specific arrangement where we should wait!  Well there was no point shouting at me…that wasn’t going to help, was it?

I went back towards the building and spoke to some airport staff, who confirmed that this was the only pick up place for international passengers.  Well that was something at least.  I was praying that Bill arrived to pick us up, as otherwise I was going to be in dead trouble.

As I was walking back to Chris and Birdgirl, I tried connecting to the internet (probably at huge expense) so that I could send Bill an e-mail confirming our arrangement.  Just as I sent the e-mail, I looked up and saw that a pale 4x4 had stopped next to Chris and Birdgirl and they were being greeted by a man in shorts, who must have been Bill Lotz.  He had arrived bang on time at 9.15am into an empty pick up area (so we were easy to spot) and saved me from 2 days of grief for the rest of the journey home.

Bill was a friendly and knowledgeable local Atlanta birder who had taken up birding since his retirement as a travel agent.  As we chatted, he explained to us how County birding worked.  We had never heard of it and the idea is really interesting.  The idea is that you try and see, say 50, birds in each of the Counties in your State.  He told us that Georgia had a high number of Counties compared to most states and that the record was more than 100 birds in County.  I wondered whether that would translate to the UK.  Maybe there are people doing it already?  Obviously, people keep county lists and many are passionate about these, but not many people have more than, say, 4-5 County lists.

We were going to be birding about 30 minutes from the airport at Clayton County Water Authority pools and Recreation Centre.  Bill’s friend, Jeff Sewell, another local birder was going to be meeting us at the pools as he had birded them within the last couple of days.

It was cloudy and Bill confirmed the report of rain.  He had brought his wife’s rain coat with him, which proved a godsend for me.  Bill had also printed a copy of the Georgia checklist and put this onto a clip board.  This was perfect for keeping a tired Birdgirl enthusiastic.  What a star!

Jeff joined us at the first pool and together we birded the pools and the areas around them.  It is always fun birding in a new continent, as so much is new.  Birdgirl and I had studied our target birds in ‘The North American Bird Guide’ by David Sibley in the library at the owlet lodge.  This had been great as we didn’t have a North American Guide Book with us.  We spent an hour looking up the birds we already knew and the bird families that we were completely unfamiliar with.  Waders and ducks were mostly fine, as we had seen so many as vagrants in the UK or in South America.  So were families we had seen in South America or possible vagrants to the UK that were not yet seen by us but regularly discussed and dreamed about.  It was the common land birds that were not likely to be arriving in the UK any time soon that we needed to study: Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Brown Thrasher and Eastern Towee.  We had no idea what these were and could not guess at it.  There was no point trying.  I had heard the names, read about them in autobiographies and should know what they were, but I was ashamed to say that I did not.  At least Birdgirl had the excuse of youth on her side.  It was going to be OK.  Chickadee and Titmouse looked like our tits, Thrashers were sort of like thrushes and Towees were like sparrows except Eastern Towee was bright red on the sides.

As we birded around the pools the rain started and then got heavier.  We then birded around the Recreation Centre before carrying on to Newman Wetland Centre.  Jeff’s wife, Carol Lambert, worked here and showed us around the Centre.  Birdgirl was really interested to see the stuffed Bear, Deer and Beaver.

We left the dryness of the Centre to walk around the boardwalks of the Wetland area.  Within a few minutes the rain became torrential.  Bill and Jeff seemed not to notice the rain.  The rain got heavier when we thought it could not.  We were drenched to the skin and dripping from everywhere.  I suggested that maybe we take shelter as there were few birds about in the rain.  So we stood under a roof for shelter for 15-20 minutes until the worst of the rain had eased.  It was still raining heavily though and I marvelled at Bill and Jeff’s commitment.  I would need a rare British lifer to entice me out in this kind of weather, let alone showing some tourists your common local birds.

At this point, Bill suggested lunch and we readily agreed.  Maybe the rain would ease off.

We arrived at an American Diner, straight out of our TV’s, for lunch.  The air conditioning was on high, so we sat there freezing in our dripping clothes.  Although we were cold, it did help to dry us out.  By the time we got out of the Diner, the rain had stopped and things had warmed up a little.  We were hopeful for a good afternoon, as in all likelihood birds would be particularly active, feeding after the heavy rain.

We headed back to the pools, to see their first Short-Billed Dowitcher of the autumn.  As we looked at this wader (or shorebird as they are called here), I told Birdgirl to have a good look, so that she could maybe find and ID her own bird in the UK one day.  We all smiled at the lovely thought.  Little did we know that she would in fact be looking at one only a week or two later not far from home!  We drove around the pools picking up more of our target birds as we went.

We then drove back to the Newman Wetland Centre and birded the same boardwalks as the morning, but this time seeing lots of new birds.  The sun was extremely welcome and managed to completely dry our lightweight clothing very quickly, which seemed amazing considered how wet we had been only a few hours earlier.

Despite the rain, we had a very successful day of birding with Birdgirl seeing 35 new birds, 33 for me and even 3 for Chris who had visited the states on business a few times.  Highlights were Red-Bellied, Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpecker, White-Breasted and Brown Headed Nuthatch, Blue Grosbeak and Field Sparrow.  It was a brilliant day to end our journey and took Birdgirl well over 2900 on her world list.

Bill then dropped us back to the airport, in time for a Mexican dinner before boarding another night flight, but this time bound for Heathrow.  We had accopmplished our mission for the day: Birdgirl had decided when she was 8 years old that she wanted to visit all the contanants before she was 15 years old.  This was North America visited.  We are trying to keep extensive trips here for our old age, when Birdgirl will be expected to return the favour and wheel us around birding sites getting in some easy birding.  The lifers were an added bonus as was the good company and American hospitality.

Thank you to Bill and Jeff for giving up their day to spend with us and showing us their local patch.  I hope we get the opportunity to return the favour one day.


Birdgirl and Chris with Bill Lotz

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