To join Greg on one of these tours visit BigYearTours.com or call 888-875-9453

In 1998, Greg zig-zagged 130,000 miles across the USA, while trying to hold down a full-time job, aspiring to reach at least 700 species of birds in one calendar year. "The Big Year," a novel by Mark Obmascik detailed his travails alongside two competitors. The book was later turned into a movie of the same title that starred Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson!

Where’s Greg? (Nov 2019 edition)

Where’s Greg? (Nov 2019 edition)

Me with my handicapped brother, Brent

For the last (almost) 3 years I have been spending a lot more time caregiving. My brother has been intellectually handicapped since birth. It’s a mutation in the gene KPTN that also causes epilepsy. He requires full care including diaper changes, clothing, bathing, feeding, and personal care. He is also non verbal and does not even respond to yes or no questions. This is difficult when something is obviously causing him pain but we don’t know where. In the last 3 years Brent has lost his ability to walk or stand. Everything we do at home now involves a full body sling, lifts, and wheelchairs.

But many of you already knew this. Thank you for your patience and understanding. We have 40 hrs/week of help from Medicaid on weekdays. Brent still lives at home with my 88-year-old mom, Charlene. I’m pretty sure she wears a cape and has super powers. She’s an angel of a human and has spent her life caring for Brent. I also have a healthy brother, Ned, who has a full time job. He’s been amazingly supportive through all this and helps out on weekends and every time I am gone. So when you see me at a festival, it’s because of him that I can travel away from home for short periods of time. It’s a great strain on him to work all day, go straight to mom’s, and help her with the evening duties every single day, then all day on weekends. This is why I’ve trimmed back on my travel. And it’s why you don’t see me as often.

Team Miller requires effort around the clock, 7 days a week. There are no vacations in caregiving. If one of us (like me) is gone off to a festival, it means that 3 people are now doing the work of 4 people. I am deeply grateful for the support we have from those that help with Brent. But I am also thankful for those of you who understand why I am not out birding all the time.

In caregiving, it is of utmost importance that the caregiver is healthy. In a small team like ours, if one of us has health issues then we are contributing to the care load and at the same time diminishing the resources. And that brings me to 2019.

I’ve been battling type 2 diabetes for more than a decade. And obesity. And high blood pressure. And high cholesterol. And high triglycerides. I’ve been a walking time bomb. I tried a number of diets. And exercise. But the more times I failed, the more horrible I felt about myself. I wrestled with the monstrous emotions of guilt and shame. Because I was at fault for all of this, right? I was eating too much food and not exercising enough. That is what I was told. That is what I believed.

The last straw for me happened this spring. I had a peep of hope. I had done a mostly vegetarian, low fat version of the Mediterranean Diet. I had lost 10 lbs since my last doctor’s visit. And I had increased my daily exercise. But I was dismayed at my blood numbers. My hbA1C went up instead of down. I became more diabetic—not less. My triglycerides also went the wrong direction. I had already doubled down on my efforts to eat less, eat better, and exercise more. That was what I was supposed to do, right?

Then I visited my sister, Ann, in Ft. Worth on my way to Galveston FeatherFest. I recounted my frustration with my failed efforts at lowering my blood sugar. She told me that at my level of blood sugar that I may be starting to get some permanent eye damage. Permanent eye damage? I have already lost a good deal of hearing. Losing eyesight too? That is too much to bear for this birder. She suggested that I take a look at the Keto Diet. I didn’t have a clue. I never heard of it. What’s a Keto?

I spent the next couple weeks doing a deep dive into this Ketogenic Diet. I am 61 and have struggled with obesity most of my adult life. I’ve done at least 20 different diets in my lifetime. I’ve probably lost about 20 lbs on each of those diets. And I don’t think any diet lasted more than a month. Every diet left me feeling weak and deprived and often foggy-brained. So 20 diets times 20 lbs is 400 lbs. I’ve lost over 400 lbs in my lifetime and I’m fatter and more diabetic. And I felt like even a worse human being. So I was not about to try yet another diet just for the sake of weight loss. I wanted some evidence. I desperately needed a solution for my health problems.

My quest for evidence led me to Virta Health (virtahealth.com) where I found a study where they had a 60% reversal of diabetes with their version of this ketogenic diet. The diet they recommended was very low in carbohydrates, moderate protein, and high in fat. This is so counter to everything I’ve heard for decades. But reversing diabetes is something that I had never heard of either. I couldn’t afford their program. So I watched their YouTube videos and read the information on their website. Since then I’ve read books, watched videos, and listened to podcasts from many other people, too. I decided to give this diet a try for 5 months. That was the date of my next visit to the doctor’s office.

About 8 years of blood lab resuts

And bam! Success! DIABETES REVERSED! I am off all my blood sugar medication. My high blood pressure? Gone. I am off all my high blood pressure medications. I am medication-free! The best side effect of this diet? The weight loss. I’m down 45 lbs since I started this 6 months ago.

Different people have different results. For me the results were dramatic. I’ve never been on a diet where I don’t have to be hungry, tired, or less-than-functional. So if you’ve got a diet that works for you, great. But if you’re searching then I suggest you start at Virta Health for information and evidence to help keep you motivated. Also, you should know that I have no ties to Virta Health. I get no money. I don’t know anybody. And they don’t know me. But I am thankful that I have finally found a way to be healthy longer.

If you want to help out, I’d be honored if you traveled with the folks who’ve bent over backwards in their support for my situation, Wildside Nature Tours (wildsidenaturetours.com) I am very privileged to be a part of such a great team of people. We have some amazingly talented guides who are doing a wonderful job. I want you to treat them as you would me.

I’m at the Wildside Nature Tours booth this week at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Drop by and say “Hi”!

Maine: A Place of Serendipity

Lighthouse off the coast of Maine -digital art by Greg Miller

Maine holds a special place in my heart. It is a place where I love to visit. The mountains beckon. The incredible rocky seashores are striking. And the islands off the coast are home to many seafaring birds. Maine has a great concentration of nesting passerines, too. Many of our migrant warblers end their journey in Maine to breed.

The mornings are often cool and crisp, but inviting. Foggy mornings often give me a feeling of mystery. My curiosity is always aroused. What is out there that I cannot see? (In a good way, I mean–not like a horror movie!)

By early June, the forests are carpeted with rocks, moss and lichens. It is absolutely beautiful. Hiking in the forests here is like treading on sacred ground. It gives me such a sense of awe. The stands of trees allow rays of light to gently touch the forest floor. And the sound of a tiny Winter Wren sounds almost other-worldly.

Maine has good food, too. Of course there is seafood. Yes, there is lobster. But you should also try lobster roll while you are there. Or a whoopie pie. Or blueberry anything–like blueberry muffins, blueberry pancakes, blueberry scones, blueberry jam, blueberry ice cream, and blueberry pie for starters.

Off the coast one can find Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, Black Guillemots, Arctic Terns, and Common Murres. Along the coastline there are Common Eiders and Black Scoters. On land one can find a number of nesting warbler species, flycatchers, and other passerines. And one can hunt for a few boreal species like Bicknell’s Thrush, Canada Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse, and Black-backed Woodpecker.

This is a very enjoyable Big Year Tour with Wildside Nature Tours. You can check out all the details here. This year, 2019, it will run from June 2-June 8.

Warblers – Where To Go And When

Spring is finally here. Well. Early spring. Weather teases us with warmer temperatures and then bashes us with the last blasts of winter’s fury. It’s an up and down time for weather. But the birds know that change is in the air. And birds are looking for favorable winds from the south to help them on their perilous journeys north to their breeding grounds.

If you are like me then you love that family of small cheerful birds called warblers. These are wonderfully colorful gems that grace us with their presence on their way. If you get to see a Blackburnian Warbler (pictured above) you may be seeing a bird that has traveled from as far away as Ecuador! They must have so many stories…

This is a large family of birds in North America with over 50 species. Chances are good that you have seen at least some of them no matter what your level of experience. But even if you get out birding often, you may still have a few holes in your checklist. And you want to fill them. I hope I can help you with that.

Below is a list of warblers (in 2016 taxonomic order). Data is taken from eBird from 2006-2016. Counties are taken from my own list of most-eBirded counties (most eBirded means counties with the most checklists) in the United States for that 10-year period. Peak dates are narrowed down to the week that gives a birder the highest probability of adding this species to their checklist. The %ofChecklists column is the same as eBird’s frequency of checklists. For example, if a county has 1,000 total checklists for a given week and yellow warbler was marked (one or more individuals) as seen on 600 of those checklists then the %ofChecklists would 60%. So that 60% would represent your relative probability of adding it to your checklist.

Below is a list of all the warblers recorded in eBird between 2006 and 2016 (I’ve included Yellow-breasted Chat for us old folks). Note that for rare species, the data I have can easily be skewed by one cooperative bird showing up in an easily accessible public spot. But for most everything else I think you’ll find the results to be quite accurate.

-Greg Miller

SpeciesStateCountyPeak% of Checklists
OvenbirdConnecticutLitchfieldJun 22-3062.7%
Worm-eating WarblerFloridaMiami-DadeSep 15-2142.0%
Louisiana WaterthrushKentuckyPulaskiJun 1-732.5%
Northern WaterthrushNew YorkQueensAug 15-2145.1%
Golden-winged WarblerIowaJohnsonMay 8-1422.2%
Blue-winged WarblerNew YorkDutchessMay 15-2138.6%
Black-and-white WarblerNew YorkNew YorkMay 1-763.3%
Prothonotary WarblerLouisianaEast Baton RougeJun 8-1439.8%
Swainson’s WarblerTexasJeffersonApr 8-1410.0%
Crescent-chested WarblerArizonaSanta CruzJan 22-310.5%
Tennessee WarblerKentuckyPulaskiSep 22-3053.6%
Orange-crowned WarblerTexasHidalgoDec 1-767.4%
Colima WarblerTexasBrewsterMay 22-3113.3%
Lucy’s WarblerArizonaYavapaiApr 1-729.1%
Nashville WarblerWisconsinMilwaukeeMay 8-1443.7%
Virginia’s WarblerNew MexicoLos AlamosMay 8-1416.2%
Connecticut WarblerGeorgiaClarkeMay 8-148.8%
Gray-crowned YellowthroatTexasHidalgoFeb 1-72.6%
MacGillivray’s WarblerPennsylvaniaDauphinNov 22-3024.8%
Mourning WarblerTexasHidalgoSep 8-1418.1%
Kentucky WarblerKentuckyPulaskiJun 1-738.6%
Common YellowthroatKentuckyPulaskiJun 1-772.3%
Hooded WarblerGeorgiaCobbApr 22-3040.7%
American RedstartNew YorkNew YorkMay 15-2163.8%
Kirtland’s WarblerOhioMontgomeryMay 1-78.3%
Cape May WarblerOhioLucasMay 8-1434.5%
Cerulean WarblerIndianaMonroeMay 15-2121.8%
Northern ParulaFloridaSeminoleAug 15-2158.2%
Tropical ParulaTexasHidalgoJan 15-214.4%
Magnolia WarblerKentuckyPulaskiSep 22-3064.3%
Bay-breasted WarblerOhioLucasMay 15-2136.7%
Blackburnian WarblerOhioLucasMay 8-1436.1%
Yellow WarblerNew YorkSenecaMay 15-2171.0%
Chestnut-sided WarblerGeorgiaCobbSep 22-3047.7%
Blackpoll WarblerNew YorkNew YorkMay 15-2148.7%
Black-throated Blue WarblerNew YorkNew YorkMay 8-1456.2%
Palm WarblerFloridaPolkNov 8-1474.0%
Pine WarblerGeorgiaCobbApr 8-1458.8%
Yellow-rumped WarblerMississippiHancockDec 15-2178.8%
Yellow-throated WarblerKentuckyPulaskiJun 1-745.8%
Prairie WarblerFloridaMonroeSep 1-757.3%
Grace’s WarblerArizonaCoconinoJun 8-1413.8%
Black-throated Gray WarblerCaliforniaVenturaOct 8-1428.8%
Townsend’s WarblerCaliforniaSan FranciscoOct 1-745.2%
Hermit WarblerCaliforniaMariposaJun 15-2129.5%
Golden-cheeked WarblerTexasTravisMar 22-3114.3%
Black-throated Green WarblerMaineHancockMay 22-3156.3%
Fan-tailed WarblerTexasBrewsterSep 1-74.7%
Rufous-capped WarblerArizonaCochiseOct 1-73.2%
Golden-crowned WarblerTexasHidalgoJan 1-71.5%
Canada WarblerNew YorkNew YorkMay 15-2139.2%
Wilson’s WarblerCaliforniaInyoMay 15-2150.3%
Red-faced WarblerArizonaCochiseJun 1-79.8%
Painted RedstartArizonaCochiseJun 1-721.9%
Slate-throated RedstartArizonaCochiseOct 1-73.2%
Yellow-breasted ChatKentuckyPulaskiJun 1-762.7%
Help For Your Hearing

Help For Your Hearing

Pocketalker personal amplification device, headphones, and mic
Pocketalker personal amplification device, headphones, and mic -photo by Greg Miller

 

I grew up with many, many ear infections as a child. In my early 30s, I had a surgery on my right ear called a mastoidectomy. It was greatly successful and I recovered 100% of my hearing. But about 20 years later I noticed a mild decline in hearing. I was straining to hear Cedar Waxwings and Brown Creepers. In another five years I was straining to hear Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, and Cape May Warblers. Aargh! I thought I was losing some high range frequency.

But what those around me knew—and much faster than I was willing to admit—was that my degradation in hearing was more than just high frequency. I was losing hearing in all ranges. And my right ear—the ear that had the surgery—was failing faster than my left ear. By age 60 I was having problems occasionally hearing people’s conversation. It was very hard to accept. It was hard to come to grips emotionally. I felt like the hearing that once gave me an advantage as birder was now less than average.

Not too long ago I remember watching a Black-throated Green Warbler open its bill to sing. All I heard was two buzzy notes, zee-zee. I was stunned. The full breeding song for that species in Ohio sounds something like zee-zee-zee-zu-zeeee. I watched that bird sing for what seemed like a long time. I was filled with disbelief and then disappointment.

To complicate matters I have had serious difficulty with colds/allergies from late fall through early spring. If I don’t heal within a couple weeks it seemed like I would develop ear infections and then temporary hearing loss that was very dramatic. Maybe you have seen me at a birding festival wearing headphones just so I can hear human conversation.

I did see a specialist. I got my ears tested. The news? The surgery is starting to degrade in my right ear. And there is no fix. Hearing aids are in my future. But I currently don’t feel like my ears are bad enough yet to deserve going for the expense of hearing aids. But I sometimes still strain at phone calls and human conversation and I’m missing out on lots of birds. What should I do? Well, I found a temporary solution. It is not perfect. But it does help. And it may help some of you, too. I have wanted to write about this for a couple years and have just put it off. Until now.

I tried a handheld parabola. That increased my ability to hear everything. But it required the use of one of my hands. And using binoculars with the other hand was less than pleasurable. It was the best boost for hearing, but I compromised ability to see birds with only one available hand.

I tried a Walkers Ear from Cabelas. It was ok. But it didn’t stay on my ear securely. And the battery compartment was small. And the switch to turn on high frequency was maddeningly difficult for me. High frequency was either on or off. It sounded very tinny and thin. And it magnified annoying sounds to an irritating degree. Sounds like folks walking on gravel or shuffling in dry leaves would test my patience. And even the sound of rain jacket material crinkling bothered me. It did help my hearing. It did help with higher frequency. But the loose fit and the irritating sounds made it less than fantastic for me.

I continued to try new things. I bought a headset with a microphone on top designed for hunters. It was big and clunky. But this was better for me than the Walkers Ear. But they were heavy. In hot weather I could not wear them long as my ears would sweat. In fact, I couldn’t wear them for more than 2-3 hours. The pressure on the ears made them moderately uncomfortable over time. I could change the volume, but I would have to remove the headset entirely every time I wanted to make an adjustment. This offered a greater hearing boost. But I found out just how busy many places I visited were. It seems as if there is always an airplane overhead. And I am always in earshot of traffic. I think I could hear trains half way around the world, too. Ok. I may have exaggerated. A little. Also, wind and rain seemed to be new factors with this setup. But I felt like I was getting closer to a workable solution.

For the last five years or so I have owned a pocket-sized amplifying device called a Pocketalker made by Williams Sound. I still own the old model. There are several newer (and better I suppose) devices now available. I bought my device from amazon.com for about $99. It came with a cheap headset and a little microphone. The headset is one step better than something you’d get on a long flight. And the microphone has no cord. It just plugs directly into the top of the unit. The unit runs on two AAA batteries. Even if you didn’t add anything to this rig it is better, in my opinion, than anything else I had tried.

In using the Pocketalker I tried a couple different placements on the body. The cord for the headset barely reached into my pants pocket. I tried it there first. But as you guessed it, the sound of the mic rubbing against the inside of the pocket was less than desirable. Not to mention that the sound of outside things was slightly muffled. And I wrestled with the cord to my headphones.

I tried clipping onto my belt buckle on my right side. This was better, but I still wrestled a bit with the cord for the headphones. Although I got less material sound than inside the pocket I was surprised how often the mic would brush my shirt where it met the top of my pants.

I often wear nylon fishing shirts when I am out birding. These shirts have two pockets in front. I use my left pocket for my phone. So I tried putting the Pocketalker there. I was able to stuff the excess cords into the pocket without messing things up too badly. This was the best spot. But, the material in my pocket still rubbed against the mic.

The mic was an issue in all three locations for the Pocketalker. After reading a number of reviews, I found that many folks had a good workaround. The Pocketalker has a place to plug in any mic and a place to plug in any headphones (that are wired, of course). So I upgraded my headphones and also purchased a small lavalier mic with a clip and a long enough cord that I could use it anywhere on my body.

I got my lavalier mic made by PowerDeWise on Amazon.com. I just recently bought a replacement. The cord eventually got pinched and shorted out. I got my headphones at Walmart. Simple noise-cancelling headphones by Sony with a cord. Boom. I’ve got my setup.

As a birder, I move around a lot. I found the best place to clip my mic is actually onto my headset, right at the very peak, and pointing in the direction that I am facing. This reduces annoying feedback sounds and is conveniently pointed where I am looking. I like the Pocketalker in my right front shirt pocket. I have less wires to contend with when it is there.

I clip my mic to the top of my headphones
I clip my mic to the top of my headphones -photo by Greg Miller

 

This is what my hearing system looks like
This is what my hearing system looks like – photo by Greg Miller

 

There are two dials on my Pocketalker. On one side I can see the word “off”. To turn the unit on simply turn this dial and it will click on the power. A little red light goes on up on the top of the device. This dial has numbers from 1-10. On a new set of batteries I usually like starting out at about level 3. This is great for conversation as well as just a little more sound than normal for bird songs. When I am walking I sometimes will turn it up to 4 or 5 (if I’m not on leaves or gravel) to listen for more distant sounds. If you turn it too loud you will get feedback.

The dial on the other side is for frequency. This wheel will not change the pitch or frequency. But it will filter out noise. The thinner the line on the dial, the more low frequency is filtered out. This is what I use to magnify higher frequencies of bird songs. Of course, if you use this indoors in a crowded place you’ll want more thickness on the dial. This will filter out the higher frequency sounds and make conversation more pleasant.

The Pocketalker Personal Amplification Device
The Pocketalker personal amplification device with volume & frequency dials – photo by Greg Miller

 

Pocketalker uses batteries
The Pocketalker uses 2 AAA batteries. I get about 3 weeks of all day birding out of one pair of batteries – photo by Greg Miller

 

Mic Requires 4- to 3-pin adaptor
The mic I use requires the included 4- to 3-pin adaptor to operate properly – photo by Greg Miller

 

This is my go to setup. It serves my purposes well. And with practice with this unit you may find out you can hear more than you thought. Yes, you might feel a little awkward wearing headphones in public. But this, to me, is far less awkward than not being able to hear as well as most everyone else. This will give you more confidence again and make you feel like you are no longer missing out the wonderful experience that we all call “birding”.

I am not an audiologist. I am not a medical professional. I get no money from any of the makers of these products. These are my own personal views and recommendations. If you purchase a setup like mine I hope very much that you will enjoy it as much as I do.

Good birding!

-Greg Miller

IBG Spotlight – Where To Go in January: Santa Clara County, California

IBG Spotlight – Where To Go in January: Santa Clara County, California

Chicago Marsh, Alviso
Chicago Marsh, Alviso – photo by Greg Miller

 

IBG is my creation–Impatient Birder’s Guide. Latest data in my database is from the 299 most-eBirded counties in the United States from 2006-2016. I am highlighting Santa Clara County, California today. Why? January is the “best time to go” to Santa Clara County for the greatest number of anticipated species seen in one week by an average birder. To a local Californian who knows all the nooks and crannies in this birdie county you may end up with a substantially higher number.

Santa Clara County is a fabulous place to bird. This county lies at the south end of San Francisco Bay. In the west are coastal mountains. In the east are the large grasslands of central California. On the northern edge is the southern part of San Francisco Bay with fabulous marshes and mudflats. The birding can be pretty spectacular all year. You can look at a map here.

How many species can you expect to see in a week? Well, according to my data, 128 species. You can see some good birds in the mountains and some in the grasslands. But to me, the marshes and mudflats of the southern Bay Area are some of the finest. The shorebirding here is simply amazing. And there are tons of waterfowl, too. The sheer number of birds can be dazzling.

Some of the best places to bird in the county include: Palo Alto Baylands, Sunnyvale Baylands Park, Shoreline Park, and Los Gatos Creek County Park. There are many other great spots, too. You can check out the best eBird hotspots in the county here.

An illustrated checklist of birds can be found here. And an overview of county birding in eBird can be found here. As of the writing of this blog, 386 species have been reported in the county. A total of 269 species have been recorded in January alone. Check out this bar chart of species reported in Santa Clara County, California in January here.

If you want to visit Santa Clara County on a guided trip, why not join Wildside Nature Tours on the Big Year Tour that spends a week in the Bay Area. It’s called CALIFORNIA: Northern Mountains and Coast.

-Greg Miller

Big Year Tours Spotlight: Florida – Reddish Egret

Big Year Tours Spotlight: Florida – Reddish Egret

  Back in 2015 I was sitting with Kevin Loughlin, owner of Wildside Nature Tours, in his house near Philadelphia. We were brainstorming about an idea I had to do a few “Big Year” style tours. Together we came up with 11 one-week tours. These 11 tours were crafted around Wildside’s busy birding festival schedule… Continue Reading

IBG Spotlight: Cape May Warbler

IBG Spotlight: Cape May Warbler

What is IBG? It’s the Impatient Birder’s Guide. It’s my own creation from eBird data at eBird.org. The latest iteration is from data collected from 2006-2016 as of September, 2016. I have data from the 299 most eBirded counties in the United States representing all 50 States. Nearly half of all the checklists for the… Continue Reading

Where The Wood Warblers Are – 2018

Where The Wood Warblers Are – 2018

Do you want to know where your favorite warblers are right now? Check out these links to eBird for up-to-date maps of the most recent sightings of 55 species of wood warblers for 2018! Wood Warbler Species (click on species name to view a map): Ovenbird Worm-eating Warbler Louisiana Waterthrush Northern Waterthrush Golden-winged Warbler Blue-winged… Continue Reading

DIY Big Year: Breaking It Down By Strategy By Trip By Priority

DIY Big Year: Breaking It Down By Strategy By Trip By Priority

In the first section I discussed with you several strategies for doing a working person’s Big Year using 4 weeks (or 20 days) of vacation. The four strategies are: Four one-week trips for 400+ species without Alaska & Hawaii Four one-week trips for 400+ species with Alaska & Hawaii 10 Long Weekends without Alaska &… Continue Reading

DIY Big Year: 10 Long Weekends Species Master List (with Alaska & Hawaii)

DIY Big Year: 10 Long Weekends Species Master List (with Alaska & Hawaii)

Here is a big list of all 553 “possible” species listed in eBird format. By possible I mean any species that has been submitted to eBird, an online database of checklists, between 2006 and 2016 as of mid September 2016. I have further filtered the data so that what is listed are all at least… Continue Reading

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