Thursday, June 5, 2014

June Challenge Kickoff!

A small portion of the sheet flow water treatment project being built near Paynes Prairie in Alachua County

Bachman's Sparrow. Photo by Stuart Kaye
In Alachua County, The June Challenge (TJC) is a month-long birding competition that culminates in a terrific party highlighted by some nice prizes; a big, honking trophy and lots of beer.  I really love the whole experience, so I eagerly awaited the first of the month and our annual kick-off field trip, typically led by Rex Rowan.  Then I got a note from Rex.  He would be out of town on that day, he said, and wanted to know if I'd be willing to lead the trip.  My immediate reaction was, "I can do that!  I've led many field trips.  This one should be easy and fun."  Well, it was fun.  And successful.  Easy?  You can decide.

The plan was to start out at 6:30 AM at Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve for a few target birds, head to Powers Park to see what was around Newnan's Lake, and then meet up with another group at Paynes Prairie by 8:00.  Yeah, right.

Twenty-seven people showed up in the parking lot at Longleaf.  The early arrivals were treated to an aerial display by several Common Nighthawks who swooped and buzzed over our heads.  It was our first target species of the day and it came right to us.  Great start.  We walked into the park a bit and soon hear a singing Bachman's Sparrow, our second target.  I turned to the group to point to the bird and realized that they stretched out over 100 feet behind me, chatting merrily and greeting old friends.  I shushed, I waved, I pointed ... the bird was perched in the open at eye level only 30 feet from the trail.  You could never get a better - or easier look at a Bachman's Sparrow in your life.  Of course, it flew off as the folks in the back of the line were just reaching the spot and several missed it.  

Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  Photo by Stuart Kaye
We continued along the trail to another Bachman's site, and while we heard one singing, we couldn't locate it.  A distant look at a Blue Grosbeak was a nice consolation prize.  At another spot I heard a Pine Warbler's dry trill.  We found him easily and, in the same spot, added Brown-headed Nuthatch and Great-crested Flycatcher.  Then I realized it was already 7:30 and we were a long way and one additional stop away from Paynes Prairie.  I herded the group back to the cars and we set out for Powers Park.

We had three targets here:  Yellow-throated and Prothonotary Warblers and Limpkin.  The Yellow-throated was easy.  Right above our heads, it sang a greeting to the new morning while dancing from limb to limb in search of breakfast.  The Limpkin was easy; two were perched in the open near the fishing pier.  The Prothonotary was not so easy.  We heard it, but only one of the 27 birders actually saw it.  Since TJC is all about seeing birds - without disturbing habitat - that was a dip for the rest of us.

Blue Grosbeak.  Photo by Stuart Kaye
By this time the group was spread all over the park from the pier to the bathrooms.  I walked about. waving and calling out, "We need to get to the prairie while it's still cool enough for a long walk.  Let's go."  We did ... eventually.

Timing is everything in birding.  When we reached the La Chua Trail parking lot, the first thing we heard was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  I played a Cuckoo song for just a few seconds, and it flew to us.  If you're a birder with any experience with Cuckoos, you know how hard they can be to see in a tree.  They pick a spot, never in the open, often high up, and don't move.  At all.  Getting 27 sets of eyes on the bird was really tough.  Then I realized that several people had already started down the trail.  Should I go get them or stay here and help people locate it?  The dilemma was solved when the bird abruptly flew away, but not before Stuart Kaye got this gorgeous photo (above, right).  Also, a singing Summer Tanager put on a little show for us before it too disappeared.

King Rail
Once on the prairie, I realized my hope of getting the group together was long gone.  A few had taken off in their own direction.  They missed the cuckoo and tanager, but they were rewarded with a Yellow-breasted Chat which the rest of us dipped on later in the day.  At first things were a little slow as we strolled along the boardwalk.  We saw the usual waders and Common Gallinules, but nothing out of the ordinary except a Black-crowned Night-Heron perched across the water from us.  Then we made the turn onto Sweetwater Dike and things got better very quickly.  A couple of singing Orchard Orioles gave us great looks, and even seemed to follow us down the trail for a while.  Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings flew back and forth across our path for the next hour.  At least three Least Bitterns darted low across the ponds.  Several Purple Gallinules thrilled all of us and provided lifers for some of the younger birders.  Next I got the best look of my life at a King Rail that stood in the open and preened while ignoring us.  Then we found a juvenile Pied-billed Grebe.  That's a terrific find for June in Alachua County.  Many years go by without a Pied-billed being recorded on anyone's JC checklist.  Then the cute factor went into overdrive.  We found a momma Purple Gallinule with at least three chicks following close behind her.  A bit later a couple of noisy male Common Yellowthroats popped up near us.  Gorgeous bird!  And why isn't it called the Masked Warbler?

At this point, much of the group peeled off and headed for home.  The remaining ten or so turned toward the long walk that would get us to an area I had been hoping to see for months.  A water treatment facility is being built on land that sits adjacent to the prairie.  Modeled in part after Green Cay in Broward County, a series of ponds are to be surrounded by shelters, berms and boardwalks that will allow people to stroll though the facility, enjoy the tranquil setting and watch the birds.  A classroom building that is now under construction is sure to become prime destination for local kids to learn about ecology and the aquatic world around them.  The area isn't formally open to the public yet, but local birders have long known that on Sundays, a long hike and a scramble through some tall grass would reward you with a look at the project.  So the remaining June Challengers marched to the end of Sweetwater Dike and stepped out onto the southern berm.

Even in its partially-built state, the place is fabulous.  A slow walk around the berm and we found several of the birds we were hoping for.  Black-bellied Whistling Ducks congregated in one spot.  A couple of Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers roamed around another.  An American Coot and several Mottled Ducks swam among the reeds.  Red-winged Blackbirds chased a Red-shouldered Hawk off to our left while a Roseate Spoonbill joined a flock of White Ibises in a low and lazy flight over a pool to our left.

After a long walk we crossed a flat area, forded a stream, climbed a fence, trudged along a short trail and finally found ourselves on Sparrow Alley.  We rejoined another section of the original field trip group and learned that they had located an Acadian Flycatcher.  I tried for the Yellow-breasted Chat in the spot where it had been found in the morning, but struck out.  The field trip finally ended around 1:00 PM after a very successful morning.  But I wasn't done yet!

Brown Thrasher
After a quick lunch in the parking lot (thank God for air conditioning in cars!!), I drove out to Hague Dairy.  I arrived as the rain started falling, so I was confined to my van.  I picked off a few easy "farm birds" (Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird) and then turned to Cellon Creek Boulevard.  A short, slow drive produced some Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbirds, and Rough-winged Swallows.  Usually this is a great spot for American Kestrel and Northern Bobwhite, but neither were seen.  I heard a Bobwhite, but with the rain I had no chance of seeing it.

Next I drove through the charming little city of Alachua and checked the wires for White-winged Doves.  No luck, but there were a few Eastern Bluebirds.  By checking various feeders I found Brown Thrasher, Tufted Titmouse, Downy Woodpecker.  Through all of this time, the rain fell in sheets, scouring the streets and keeping the birds hunkered down where I couldn't see many of them.

A Moe's burrito made for a good dinner before I drove out to a cemetery in  Newberry.  Last year I found Northern Flickers and an Eastern Wood-Pewee here, but once again, the rain was an obstacle.  By now it was beginning to get dark and I had one more stop to make.  I drove to Watermelon Pond Road to a spot that has never failed to produce a Chuck-will's-widow for me in June.  I parked and lowered my window to listen.  I immediately raised my window and searched for a towel to clean my glasses and wipe rain off the door and my shoulder.  I opened the opposite window and listened.  Nothing.  So, I thought, why not play a Chuck's call for a few seconds and see if anything responds.  Almost instantly, a Chuck flew out from a low perch in a nearby tree, crossed right in front of my windshield, and disappeared into the night. Yes!  It had been a challenging day, with long walks in unrelenting sun and then driving rain in the latter part of the day, but it had also been quite successful.  I had seen the water treatment facility for the first time, scored 72 species for the day, found many of my target birds, and successfully herded the cats ... ah ... the field trip participants through three different parks.  I'd call that a winner of a day and a great start to the 2014 June Challenge.

SPECIAL NOTE:  I owe a big salute to Stuart Kaye for the gracious use of his photos for this blog.  For the most part, I forgot I had a camera with me, so this would be nearly all text without his contributions.  Check out his work at:

Brown-headed Nuthatch at Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve.  Photo by Stuart Kaye.

Here's another look at the King Rail that we saw along Sweetwater Dike.  Photo by Stuart Kaye.

Blue Grosbeak.  Photo by Stuart Kaye

This Summer Tanager was singing in the La Chua Trail parking lot.  Photo by Stuart Kaye

Red Rat Snake near the La Chua Trail parking lot.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Chasing Miami Specialties

The idea of doing a Florida Big Year - seeing as many different species of birds in the state as possible in one year - has always been intriguing to me.  However, its demands are more than my time or my wallet can bear.  As a result, I've never pursued that goal at all.  Then back in December, Elliott Schuncke of Tallahassee suggested a new form of the Big Year.  Noting that the multiple demands keep most people from ever attempting one, Elliott suggested compressing the Big Year into twelve days comprised of one Big Day each month (the 12DBY).  To add a little spice to the effort, he further suggested that participants would be required to announce their Big Day efforts in advance by posting it to a Facebook page.  He also created a shared spreadsheet where we would post our cumulative bird lists.  I thought this was a great approach to doing a Big Year, so I decided to give it a shot.

Mangrove Cuckoo (Photo by Toe Torres)
My first four days have been confined to the area around Gainesville and one really rainy day at St. Marks NWR.  I've enjoyed each day, but I knew that to make my 12DBY list somewhat respectable I'd have to get out of town.  Some birds that grace our state simply don't visit Gainesville, so I would have to go to them.  So I planned a trip to the Miami area to search for several species that reside there.  I enlisted the help of Roberto "Toe" Torres, one of the really good people I've been blessed to meet on the birding trail.  Toe has already helped me gain a bunch of lifers, and I even "kicked the bucket" on board his boat while chasing a Manx Shearwater off Key Biscayne (a story I'll save for another blog).  This time I sent him a list of target birds that included what would be four lifers:  Mangrove Cuckoo,  Purple Swamphen, Red-whiskered Bulbul, and White-winged Parakeet.  I also listed five other birds that I hoped we could locate: Spot-breasted Oriole, White-crowned Pigeon, Black-whiskered Vireo, Common Myna, and Cave Swallow.  Toe's answer was almost immediate.  Not only was he willing to help, but he would join me for the entire day.  Then he added two more birds to our list: Connecticut Warbler (another lifer for me) and Bronzed Cowbird.  Honestly, I thought he'd taken leave of his senses with that warbler.  I mean, seriously, wasn't he reaching quite a bit?  Still, that would be a terrific find, so why not hope for the best?

Connecticut Warbler (Photo by Toe Torres)
The Red Van Gang picked up Toe at his home at 6:45 AM on May 8 and immediately headed toward Black Point Marina to look for the Mangrove Cuckoo.  As soon as we arrived, Toe started doing his own imitation of the bird's song.  I expected to spend a lot of time looking for this bird.  I've dipped on it over and over because it's really hard to fi...... Oh, there it is!  Maybe it took five minutes, but I don't think so.  More like three.  So with a lifer and a nemesis bird already on the day list, we headed toward Cutler Wetlands.  We picked off a Gray Kingbird and several Cave Swallows along the way, and saw some Black-necked Stilts, Blue-winged Teal and Mottled Ducks in the marshy area.  What a great start to the day!

Then we reached A. D. Barnes park and began the search for a Connecticut Warbler.  We searched the most likely locale in the park for a long time and saw almost no birds, let alone a Connecticut. But before we left, Toe suggested that we search one more place in the park.  Why not?  So we drove to the new spot, walked in and Toe said, "Let's walk back into this little area."  We took a few steps in and there it was, a Connecticut Warbler perched up on a branch.  I was so startled and so engaged with watching the little guy hop around that I forgot I even had a camera with me.  Fortunately, Toe snapped off the terrific shot you see above, right.

Purple Swamphen, Immature
As far as I was concerned, this was already a successful day, but Toe was certain we could add to the day list.  He led us to a subdivision in the Kendall area where we began looking for three of our targets.  We drove up and down each of the streets of a couple of neighborhoods but at first it looked like this would be out first failure of the day.  Finally we got fleeting glimpses of a White-crowned Pigeon and a Spot-breasted Oriole.  While our looks were unsatisfying, they were enough to add them to the day list.  Unfortunately, there was no sign of a Bulbul, so we decided to come back here later in the afternoon.

As time consuming as that search was, the next one was even easier than getting the cuckoo had been.  We drove over to the Dolphin Mall, parked, and dodged traffic to cross the street.  It actually took longer to cross that street than to find the target bird.  As soon as we reached the retention pond we saw a Purple Swamphen in an open patch right below us.  Check.  That was the third lifer and seventh target bird for the day.

Common Myna (Photo by Toe Torres)
Next we decided to search for the White-winged Parakeet.  We drove to the area around an Ocean Bank building in a very busy, very noisy part of town.  As we searched for a parking place, Toe shouted, "Stop! Look right over there!  Common Myna!"  Sure enough, another target bird was ticked off the list.  Eventually we decide to have lunch outdoors at a Latin Cafe.  We picked a table where we could easily monitor the palm trees across the street just outside the bank building.  The meal was huge and the food was delicious!  Meanwhile we watched parakeets fly in and out of the palms.  Some were Yellow-chevroned and others were White-winged.  After eating we waddled across the street to get a closer look and snap off a few photos.  Unfortunately, only the pictures of the uncountable Yellow-chevroned Parakeet were good enough to include here.  Still, the day's fourth lifer and ninth target bird were in the books.

We next drove to another part of town - no, I don't really know where - and parked at a gas station.  We got out and started watching the skies.  Within just a few minutes we had a Sharp-shinned Hawk skirting the trees across the road and more Cave Swallows darting out from under the nearby bridge.  And eventually we got clear, satisfying looks at a White-crowned Pigeon.

Red-whiskered Bulbul
The afternoon was starting to fade, so we decided to take one last shot at finding a Red-whiskered Bulbul.  We returned to the subdivision we had visited earlier in the day and began roaming the streets again.  After covering nearly the entire neighborhood, Toe did it again.  "There it is!  A bulbul!"  I hit the brakes and we piled out of the car.  We got terrific looks and a few long-distance photos.

That's when the truth hit me.  I turned to him and babbled something like, "We got all five lifers ... I never expected to get all five lifers, but we got all five lifers!"  Yup, that's me, the articulate one with the PhD. 

In the end, the day's list was remarkable.  The group only tallied about 45 species for the day.  However, I may have mentioned that FIVE of the them were lifers.  I'm at 489 now with a big trip to Arizona and New Mexico about ten weeks away.  Also, fifteen of them were new for my 12DBY list putting me at 173.  That's a small number compared to the state's big guns in the birding world, but heck, I'm thrilled.  As to our target birds, we missed only the Black-whiskered Vireo, a long shot at best.  And finally, eleven of them were new for me in Miami-Dade County, breaking the 100 barrier for the 37th time among Florida's 67 counties.  That, my friends, is a successful day!

Toe, I owe you, buddy.  Again.

Another Look at a Common Myna

Purple Swamphen Adult

Yellow-chevroned Parakeet

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Day Worth Writing About

Black-throated Green Warbler
During spring migration, seeing a large number of migrants on a single day is a matter of some science, some luck and a lot of patience.  On their migration route, many birds have to cross the Gulf of Mexico, flying all night until landing, usually on the first bit of land they see where there is some food to be had.  Usually there is a steady stream each  night for a few weeks, but occasionally a series of storms in the Yucatan, for example, might prevent birds from launching for a few days, packing loads of migrants into one night's flight. Their path across the water is affected by several factors including the presence or absence of storms and wind speed and direction.  So, based on some lucky circumstances, a single area of the coast and a mulberry tree filled with ripe fruit can become a bird magnet.  Unfortunately, predicting which area of the coast will get all those birds on a given morning is a tricky business.  When you guess correctly,  and you hit the right place at the right time, it can be a day worth writing about.

Tennessee Warbler
April 14 and 15 were stormy and windy in the Yucatan, over the Gulf and along much of the coast of Florida.  I went out birding on both days and saw very little, but the conditions were ripe for a fallout on Wednesday the 16th.  For a variety of reasons, I hoped Cedar Key would be one of the hot spots.  The Red Van Gang pulled into the Episcopal Church parking lot early in the morning and was greeted by Rex Rowan who pointed to a tree and said "Black-throated Green!"  What a great bird!  What a great way to start the day!  Two trees over was a Tennessee Warbler.  Behind us in the mulberry trees were 50 or more Cedar Waxwings and both Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks feasting on ripe berries.  Over in the bushes were several Indigo Buntings and at least six Orchard Orioles.  Then everything scattered as a Merlin flew through in hot pursuit of a breakfast of a different sort.  Soon a Black-and-white Warbler made an appearance, skittering along the branches of an oak.  Then a Worm-eating Warbler was seen nearby.  We scrambled over to the spot and saw it almost immediately.  Amazingly, all of these birds were in a space no bigger than a third of an acre, packed tightly together like a big family at a reunion buffet table.

Baltimore Orioles
Eventually we crossed town to the cemetery, usually a really good birding spot.  At first there was little to look at.  Then we reached the northwest corner and things got better quickly.  A Blue-winged Warbler grazed in one tree while a male American Redstart ate in another.  Two Baltimore Orioles hopped from tree to tree.  There were several Indigo Buntings in the grass and a Summer Tanager overhead.  Other species included a Blue-headed Vireo, a Prairie Warbler, a Common Yellowthroat and several Yellow Warblers.

With all of the day's success, I hadn't yet seen a Scarlet Tanager.  We heard there were several at the museum, so we headed there next.  We struck out on that bird, but found several others worth noting. Another birder told us of two birds we definitely wanted to see, a Wood Thrush and a Lincoln's Sparrow, both in the brush beyond the house.  We walked over there and saw the thrush right away.  A little effort paid off and we found the sparrow - a real surprise for April.  We also added a Northern Parula to our day's warbler list.

Yellow Warbler
Suddenly our museum visit was cut short by a phone call - there was a Nashville Warbler downtown.  We raced to the site, but soon learned that the bird had disappeared into the bushes along the canal.  We weren't able to relocate it, but were rewarded with a Gray Kingbird, an Ovenbird, a Hooded Warbler, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Then the phone rang again.  There was a Cerulean Warbler back at the church parking lot, just a few blocks away.  We dashed over there and this time we had success.  The Cerulean put on a nice little show.  She moved too quickly for my photography skills, but I got several good looks at her.

Our next destination was the Trestle Nature Trail.  As soon as we arrived we saw a gorgeous Magnolia Warbler, but the trail itself was nearly devoid of birds.  But Grove and Live Oak Streets were busy.  Several Indigo Buntings and the day's second Lincoln's Sparrow were within a few feet of the trail's entrance.  I also saw a Least Flycatcher that had been previously seen and identified by several others.

After some discussion, we decided to go back to the museum to search for the Scarlet Tanager.  On the way, we drove through some neighborhoods, searching for anything new.  Other than some Purple Martins and Tree Swallows, we had little luck.  And once again, our museum visit was cut short by a phone call.  A Kentucky and a Swainson's Warbler had been found at the sirport.  Another mad dash got us there in just a few minutes.  We dipped on both of them but saw a wonderful Golden-winged Warbler. 

Scarlet Tanager
It was getting late, but we weren't ready to quit just yet.  We decided to check the church again, and at first there was nothing new.  Then I saw a flash of red fly into a bush behind the mulberry trees.  I couldn't see anything up high, and the rest of my view was blocked by a fence.  I got closer and peered through a narrow opening.  And there at last was a Scarlet Tanager.  I put my camera to the opening and snapped a few shots.  You can see the results on the left. 

With that success under our belts, we decided to go back to the neighborhood near the Trestle Nature Trail.  It was still quite busy.  Several Yellow Warblers darted from tree to tree.  While we followed them, I saw a flash of a rich reddish-brown moving through the leaves.  I looked again and saw a bright yellow cap looking down at me.  It was a Chestnut-sided Warbler in brilliant, magnificent, gorgeous spring plumage.  The photo below isn't perfect, but it's the best we could get.  Still, you can clearly see how spectacular the bird was.  Our persistence had paid off, and it was a fitting end to a day worth writing about.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Orchard Oriole

Black-throated Green Warbler

Baltimore Oriole

Indigo Bunting

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Feeder Watching

Pool Party!  Yellow-rumped Warblers enjoying a dip on a hot day.

There are many reasons to love the fall.  When I lived in Pennsylvania, it was the reds, golds and oranges of the leaves and the cool, crisp days before the long winter.  Now it's college football and fall migration ... and Project FeederWatch. 

Are you talking to me?
PFW is an initiative of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Under its auspices, thousands of bird lovers around the country agree to watch and count the birds that come to the feeders and birdbaths in their own backyards.  I should mention that there is a small fee for participation ($15, I think).  The rules are simple.  You agree to count the birds you see over two consecutive days by recording the largest number of each species that you see at one time.  You agree to do this no more than once a week (or once every two weeks if you want to mail in your forms) from mid November until early April.  It's not a problem if you can't do it that frequently, you just can't do it more than that.  Also, you don't have to agree to a certain amount of time during a count period.  You can just glance out a window whenever you pass by, or you can sit and count all day long.  It's your call.  But for me, it's a reason to sit on my porch with a cup of coffee and simply enjoy the birds in my backyard.

Pine Warblers love the peanut butter and jelly suet.
As you can tell from my blogs, I can get a bit obsessive about birds.  That carries over to my feeders.  At this time of year, I have as many as 25 feeders including suet, thistle, millet,  sunflower,  meal worms, jelly and sugar water.  I also have some dripping water.  As a result I get a decent variety of birds, usually between 14 and 18 species over the two days and up to 30 species over the course of the winter.

But PFW is about more than the numbers.  I've learned so much from watching the "ordinary" feeder birds.  I've learned about the grab and fly birds.  The Tufted Titmouse will fly in, grab a seed and fly away to a safe place to crack it open and eat.  Then there are the leisurely eaters like the House Finches that come in and sit a while.  There are the skittish birds like the Gray Catbirds that fly at the first sign of movement.  And there are the calm ones like the American Goldfinch that freeze when I move.  If they decide I'm not a threat, they just go back to eating and ignore me.  And of course, there is the "Hour of the Cardinal."  It seems to me that Northern Cardinals are the last birds to eat before dark, congregating in bigger numbers as dark creeps in.

Goldfinches show up in big number and eat LOTS in March.
Over the years I've learned that Goldfinches come and go more than once.  I get a couple early in winter, then none.  Then a bunch will show up in January or February, and then they'll disappear again.  Finally they come back in huge numbers and empty all of my seed feeders in a few days until they migrate out of here.

Also, I've watched the House Finch numbers decline dramatically as they fell victim to the eye disease that blinded so many of them.  I used to get 12 at a time.  Now I rarely see more than three.

I love to watch the bathers.  Gray Catbirds in particular really love the water.  They'll get in the pool and flutter and flop for the longest time.  I believe they're in the water much longer than it takes to get clean, so I think they're just having fun!

Carolina Chickadees and Chipping Sparrows are bold!  After I've filled a feeder, I get no more than a few steps away and they're back at it.  They often sit right above my head as I fill the  feeder, squawking at me, telling me to hurry up!

I was stunned when this Eastern Bluebird stopped by.
I was thrilled to learn that three types of warblers love suet.  I regularly get Pine, Yellow-rumped and Yellow-throated Warblers, especially at the peanut butter suet cakes.  I've also had three woodpeckers eat the suet, Red-bellied, Downy and on one memorable occasion, a Hairy.

Which brings me to my last point for today.  The more you watch your feeders, the more likely it is that you'll be present when the surprise bird shows up.  I'm convinced that many more birds come to my feeders than I actually see.  But during PFW season, I watch more frequently and as a result, I get more surprises.

My greatest surprise was probably looking up into a nearby pine and seeing an adult Bald Eagle staring down at me!  And there was the New Year's Day when I was shocked to see seven Pine Siskins spread out among the feeders.  I was thrilled to see a Pileated Woodpecker do a belly flop into my birdbath.  And this season I had two really unusual visitors at my feeders - an Eastern Bluebird munching mealworms and an Orchard Oriole enjoying some grape jelly and orange suet.

I'm tempted to rattle on for hours here.  Instead, I'll draw this blog to a close by urging you to consider becoming part of Project FeederWatch.  Why should I be having all the fun?

Dang it!

Usually the Red-bellied Woodpeckers like the nut suets, but this is fruit cake.

This Orchard Oriole was a surprise visitor last month

This Brown Thrasher likes the fruit cake suet.

Tufted Titmouse.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Wrong Turn, Right Place

Surfbirds at Barview Jetty near Tillamook

Surf Scoter
Newport, Oregon, February 21, 2014
Tillamook and Netarts, Oregon, February 22, 2014

I knew that I had to cross the bridge and then immediately turn right, so I did.  I didn't know I had to turn left shortly thereafter, so I didn't.  As a result, I ended up exactly where I needed to be.

It was late on Friday afternoon when I finally pulled into Newport after leaving Corvallis and crossing the Coast Range.  I had heard about a Long-tailed Duck that might have been hanging out at the end of the south jetty, but my sense of where I had to go was fuzzy at best.  Instead of taking that left, I stayed to the right, passed some place that looked like it was hosting a party or giving away free beer, and ended up at the Marine Science Center.  I parked and looked out the window in front of me - Pelagic Cormorant, lifer.  I got out of the car and a California Gull flew right over my head - lifer.  After tracking it I looked out at the pier ahead of me - Brandt's Cormorant, lifer.  I took a few steps along the water and looked down - Western Grebe and Surf Scoter - lifer, lifer.  I raised my eyes to heaven to thank God, but stopped mid-way - Northern Fulmar, lifer!  This was incredible.  I could hardly take a breath without picking up another life bird.  I'm still breathless just thinking about it.  I'd like to say that as I saw each new bird, I gazed lovingly at it, carefully noting each field mark.  I did that eventually, but at first they came so fast I barely had time to register one when the next presented itself to me.

After that initial flurry I looked around and realized that I wasn't where I had planned on being and that time was slipping away.  I drove out to the end of the jetty, stopping at a few spots along the way.  At one I saw a Yellow-billed Loon, another lifer, the seventh in the last hour.  I also saw a beautiful Brant.  I had seen a Brant in Florida, but it was not in a beautiful plumage like this bird.  However, my luck changed the farther out I drove or walked.  The wind whipped over the dunes, staggering me as I tried to find a spot to scope the Pacific.  The combination of sand and wind made my face sting.  I checked the nearby waters to no avail.  There was nothing new.

I would have loved to stay there for another hour or two but there was little daylight left and I still had a couple of stops to make.  A local birder had mentioned an eider at the 68th Street boat ramp.  Russ Namitz had told me to look for the bird at Moolak Beach which was a little farther north.  I decided to check them both if time permitted.  Unfortunately, it did not.  I scoped the ocean from the end of 68th but saw only Surf Scoters.  By the time I packed up, it was getting dark and I had to drive all the way to Tillamook.  That proved to be my only real regret for the entire trip.  I had hoped to bird my way up the coast, but the darkness prevailed.

Find the Sanderling among the Surfbirds
On Saturday morning I started a bit north of Tillamook at the campground at Trask River and the north jetty at Barview Jetty Park.  At first, the birding was slow.  A Robin and an American Crow were the only species in the first half hour.  Then it got a lot better quickly.  A secretive Wrentit showed itself long enough to make an ID.  Then a Varied Thrush, Hermit Thrush and Spotted Towhee popped up looking for a little attention.  Then there was a commotion of birds at the far end of the campground from where I stood.  I walked over and immediately heard Chestnut-backed Chickadees in the trees near the entrance.  It took some patience, but at last I got a clear look.  What beautiful little birds!

I walked out to the jetty and saw a flock of shorebirds swirling out over the channel between the jetties before returning to the rocks ahead of me.  I put the scope on them and saw about 25 Surfbirds!  There was another bird I had wanted for years.

I then spent some time chatting with a birder from Portland.  Actually, he was new to Portland having moved there from Michigan.  I told him it was about time for me to head back to Portland for a plane for home at 6:00 the next morning.  I wish I could remember his name, because I owe him one.  He asked me what bird I still hoped to see and I mentioned two, Rock Sandpiper (but there were none anywhere) and Western Gull.  We shook hands and parted, but less than a minute later I heard him yell my name.  He pointed up at a gull flying over him and toward me - a Western and what proved to be my final lifer for the trip.  He gave me a thumbs up and turned away.  Whoever you are ... thanks.  I hope someone does the same for you some day.

Western Gull
There was still much to do, but it is brief in the telling.  I glanced out at Tillamook Bay from the roadside pullout with the historical marker commemorating Captain Robert Gray, the first American to circumnavigate the earth, and Markus Lopeus, one of Gray's crewmen who was the first man of African descent to enter Oregon.  I drove out to Cape Lookout State Park but saw no birds.  I drove along Netarts Bay and saw some waterfowl, but nothing new.  I ended on the beach at the town of Netarts, in awe at the Three Arches and charmed by the town itself, but again there were no new birds.  So I turned to the northeast and Portland and a 3:00 AM alarm.

The final tally was wonderful: 116 species and 32 lifers.  Oregon itself was gorgeous and its people were friendly.  I'm also a real fan of their many, many coffee kiosks, and I made really good use of them throughout the seven birding days.  I needed another day or two along the coast, and I should have planned to bird some in the high desert of the eastern half of the state. But that's the thrill and the trap of birding ... there could be something really great at the next spot, and there's never enough time to get to all of the next spots.  And so the birder is always left with the same thought.  Maybe next time.

Tillamook Bay from the pullout with the Captain Gray historical marker

The North Jetty at Barview Jetty Park

The Three Arches, Netarts Bay

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Finley NWR and a Lost Couple of Hours

American Kestrel
Corvallis, Oregon
February 21, 2014
Friday morning was overcast but without rain.  Again, my luck was holding.  I had encountered plenty of rain and snow on this trip, but it had little impact on my birding.  Yesterday's snow storm and downpour had all occurred while I drove and was gone now.  Left behind were hundreds of ponds in farm fields and roadsides.  All of which had the potential to attract birds.

My goal for this day was three-fold.  First, I wanted to take a look at Finley National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Corvallis.  Second, I was curious about an eBird report from a day or so earlier.  A Western Grebe and a Clark's Grebe, both potential lifers,  had been reported in a place called Cartney Park, somewhere to the southeast.  Finally, I needed to reach the coast at Newport and bird my way north to Tillamook.  As it turned out, the plan was a bit too ambitious.

Varied Thrush
Finley NWR was wonderful!  As soon as I pulled off  SR 99, I had to pull off to look at an American Kestrel who stared down at me from his hunting perch on the wires.  Farther in, I saw birds on both sides of the road.  On one were ponds with Blue-winged Teal, Hooded Mergansers and Northern Shovelers.  On the other, Killdeer scoured the earth for tasty treats and a White-tailed Kite did the same from above.  I saw an observation platform up ahead, so I stopped, but it took me a while to get to the deck.  I was distracted by Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows, and White-crowned Sparrows in the brush near the parking area.  A Rough-legged Hawk found something to eat not too far away, and in the distance what I believe to be a Great Horned Owl perched briefly on a tree top before flying away for a morning's rest.  Dark-eyed Juncos and Golden-crowned Sparrows soon joined in the feeding frenzy.  And now a Northern Harrier joined in.  This was wonderful birding!

I tore myself away from that area only to find myself  in yet another one filled with birds.  A large pond to the right of the road held some Mallards, Northern Pintails, and Green-winged Teals, each one gorgeous in its own way.  A Stellar's Jay noisily moved from bush to bush, and then I froze.  I saw one of my all-time favorite birds - a Varied Thrush.  I had seen my first one at the very top of a Sitka Pine in Alaska only eight months earlier, and here in Oregon I had caught a few quick glimpses of several others.  Now here was one right in front of me.  I slowly reached for my camera, not wanting to startle the bird.  Agonizingly slowly, I unhooked it from the Spider Holster attached to my belt, raised the camera, and got off only two photos before it took off.  The photo above, right, is the better of the two.

Hutton's Vireo
A little farther on I saw something perched high on a snag well off to my right.  I decided to use my scope, but as soon as I got out of my car I got distracted.  I heard the song of a Hutton's Vireo.  It took only a moment to find it, at eye level in a dense shrub right in front of me.  It took some patience, but I finally got a clear view of it, the first lifer of the day.  Then from behind me I heard another sound.  What was that?  A small, secretive brownish bird hid and scolded repeatedly, rarely giving me more than a very brief and partial glimpse.  Could this be a Pacific Wren, another of my most sought-after targets?  Finally, I got a good look - a Bewick's Wren.  It's a great bird, and only the second or third of my life, so I had no right to be disappointed, but still ...

I hopped back in the car and drove out to the parking lot at an observation pavilion that overlooks the lake.  I scoped the area and found Wood, Ruddy and Ring-necked Ducks.  A large flock of Canada Geese flew in while a Bald Eagle circled the lake.  Meanwhile, a Spotted Towhee chattered in the brush beside the pavilion.

Mallards at Finley NWR
Everywhere I went in this park there were so many birds!  I hadn't covered a quarter of it yet my allotted time was well past.  Now I had a decision to make.  I had much more I could do in this park, I could head southeast and look for those two grebes, or I could turn my back to the Willamette Valley and drive to the coast.  Many of us as birders are driven by the possibility of what might be around the next bend in the trail and what we might miss if we don't turn that corner.  I chose to turn that corner because I couldn't stomach the idea that I might miss those two grebes,  I left Finley and started looking for Cartney Park.

It took a lot longer than I expected.  To reach the park I had to drive south to Junction City before turning east and crossing the river at Harrisburg.  Then I turned north to look for the park.  It was not where it was supposed to be.  The Google Earth pin placed the park squarely in the middle of a plowed field. I finally found a road to a boat ramp that appeared to lead to the park.  The park, however, was gone.  The road led directly into the river, the yellow line disappearing into the murky water.  The little building that holds the restrooms was in the middle of the river.  The only bird in sight was a single Great Blue Heron.  There were no grebes anywhere.

I hurried back to Harrisburg and grabbed a quick sandwich at a Subway.  I realized that it was getting very late, and that depending on weather and traffic, I'd have only a couple of hours of daylight on the coast.  Determined to make the best of the time I had left, I drove north to Corvallis and took US 20 toward Newport.

Dark-eyed "Oregon" Junco

A Bewick's Wren hiding from me

The Restrooms at Cartney Park