Monday, June 8, 2015

Gems of the National Park Service, Part 2: Glen and Bryce Canyons

Many a John Ford western featured this view of Monument Valley

I really didn't want to leave The Grand Canyon.  The weather that morning was brilliant - cool, clear and cloudless.  Yet the bus was loading so there was nothing to do but get on board.  Joe, our tour director, had promised more spectacular scenery later in the week, but topping The Grand Canyon was impossible.  Wasn't it?

Capt. Brittles's Office in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Our first stop was a "trading post" in Cameron on the Navajo Reservation, and I was determined not to blow my money on cheap trinkets!  Of course, I was picturing a tourist trap with lots of cheap souvenirs.  I was only partially correct.  It certainly was a glorified souvenir stand.  It had its cheap stuff like key chains, coffee mugs and touristy t-shirts.  I really liked the shirt with the photo of the rifle-toting Navajo warriors and the caption:  "Homeland Security - Fighting Terrorism Since 1492."  On the other hand, the Navajo pottery, Kachina dolls, sand sculptures, blankets, leather, artwork and clothing ran the gamut from nice to exquisite.  I was particularly impressed with the etched pottery by (and I really hope I'm remembering this name correctly) Renisha Etsitty.  Her pottery was so delicate, the etchings so intricate, and the earth tones so beautiful, that I returned to that table over and over.  In the end, I had to buy a piece.  I had to.

Our goal for that morning was to reach Monument Valley in Utah, site of John Ford westerns like Stagecoach, The Searchers, and of course She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  Goulding's Trading Post and restaurant are built adjacent to the movie set made famous by Ford and John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  The tiny office used by Wayne as Capt. Nathan Brittles is still here as is another building used in several scenes.  I remember Joanne Dru looking lovely while standing on its balcony and watching the troops below.  After a tasty lunch, most of the group piled into jeeps for a tour of the scenic valley.  I had had issues with a bad back for weeks before the trip, and heeding the cautions of the tour director, I chose to stay behind.  Instead, I walked through the surrounding desert a bit, chased an occasional House Finch, found a House Sparrow coated red by the desert dust, and marveled at the gorgeous desert flowers.  I also visited Goulding's trading post, but unlike the one in Cameron, they had higher prices and fewer customers.

Looking Across Lake Powell.
Eventually we arrived at Lake Powell late in the afternoon.  We had a short time to check into our rooms and then find some place to eat.  The main restaurant was packed, and I wasn't very hungry, so I settled for a salad and a slice of pizza at the Wahweap Grill on the edge of the property.  Actually, it was quite good.  The evening then turned cold, windy and rainy - not the best conditions for strolling around, so I headed to my room and caught up on some much-needed rest.

The next day was advertised as a relaxing, full day at the resort.  Well, yes and no.  After a wonderful breakfast in the Rainbow Room, I went outside and strolled the grounds for a while.  The rain had mostly cleared away, and I had a good time chasing Brown-crested and Ash-throated Flycatchers around the gardens, stalking a Yellow Warbler that refused to come out of hiding, and trying desperately to get a photo of the many Violet-green Swallows that dashed frantically above the lake looking for their own breakfasts of yummy bugs.

Antelope Canyon. The high water mark is over 120 feet up!
Next we took a tour boat ride around a small portion of Lake Powell.  The lake is located within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and it's huge.  It has more shoreline than the west coast of the United States.  Skeptical?  Go ahead and Google it ... I'll wait.

See? Over 2000 miles of shoreline make this one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.  Unfortunately, it has problems.  After reaching its full capacity, the lake's depth has been steadily receding for well over 20 years.  In the photo on the right, you can see the high water mark where the canyon walls turn from white to dark red.  This "bathtub ring" circles the lake and is a constant reminder that we need to address our water needs before the crisis becomes a catastrophe.

None of that made the tour any less spectacular.  After sauntering up to the Glen Canyon Dam we turned into Antelope Canyon.  This is a "Slot Canyon" - high-walled and very narrow.  The cliffs rose out of the water right next to the boat and towered above us.  I kept wondering if we would have to back out because there was no room for turning around.  Yet at the end of the canyon was a small pool that was just big enough for a u-turn.

A Violet-green Swallow feeding above Lake Powell
After the boat ride we had just enough time for a quick lunch before hopping on the bus for a short ride over to the dam museum.  We spent a little time there and then headed for our next touristy site - Walmart!!  Yep, that's right.  Walmart.  If you've ever done a bus tour, you know that by mid-week, some supplies start running low and many people need a stop at the old Supercenter.  We had a secondary reason.  The next day's lunch was going to be picnic-style in Bryce Canyon.  We needed to buy food for lunch that would keep for a few hours on the bus.  I settled for a large ham, turkey, lettuce and cheese sandwich that had some mayo on the side in little packets.  Turned out to be perfect!

Back at the resort, the evening turned cold and the skies threatened rain again.  I stopped at the Wahweap Grill, got some more pizza, and took it back to my room.  I read a little, looked at my photos, and fell asleep.

After yet another great breakfast, the sixth day of the tour turned its back on Lake Powell and headed for Zion National Park - but with a memorable stop in Kenab, the town known as "Little Hollywood."  Over 100 western movies and television shows have been filmed here including some of my favorites - Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and The Lone Ranger.  We pulled into Denny's Trading Post for a bathroom break and a visit to their back yard.  It was a somewhat small-scale replica of an old western town.  I had loads of fun looking at the artifacts of the cowboy era.  I still watch westerns every chance I get, so I soaked this up for as long as I could. 

Soon we reached Bryce Canyon National Park where we pulled into the parking lot at the lodge.  In the lobby I wolfed down my sandwich and then headed out to see what the big deal was about this place.  A short walk brought me to the canyon's edge:

Holy Lord on His Throne!  If this isn't evidence of the Divine Artist at work, I don't know what is.  I was utterly unprepared for this.  I had never even heard of Bryce Canyon before, and yet here was one of the world's most extraordinarily beautiful vistas.  Why isn't this mentioned in the same breath as Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Canyon?  I listened to the legend of the hoodoos - those tall stone pillars - as the petrified souls of bad people, but I listened with only a small part of my brain.  The rest of me tried to memorize every rock, crevice and snow-capped peak.  I wanted to remember this for the rest of my life.

After a bit, a small sound from the world around me brought me back to reality.  I was hearing something that I didn't recognize.  I looked up just a few feet above my head.  There perched for the world to see - while the hundreds of people around him were completely absorbed in looking at the canyon - was another rare beauty.  A spectacular Western Tanager (right) posed against a perfect sky would have sent birders from all over the world into a frenzy, but in this crowd and in this site, he was ignored except by me.  Fortunately, I snapped a few photos before he flew away.

I hiked along the canyon rim and climbed to one of the higher points for an even more impressive view.  I saw a Stellar's Jay in the pines along the rim and a small flock of Western Bluebirds feeding in a small grassy area near the cabins.  But all too soon we had to get back on the bus and head toward Zion.  For my money, I could have skipped Lake Powell - as wonderful as it was - and spent more time exploring Bryce and surrounding forests.  As it is, I thanked God for the opportunity to be there that day.

Old Mining Town behind Denny's Trading Post, Kenab, Utah - a.k.a., "Little Hollywood"

A House Sparrow coated by the red desert sand in Monument Valley

Western Bluebird at Bryce Canyon National Park

Wildflowers in the desert at Monument Valley

The trail down Bryce Canyon

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Gems of the National Park Service: Part 1, The Grand Canyon

The view from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on a hazy July evening, 2015.

Montezuma Castle
Birding trips and vacations are not alike.  Certainly, there may be great sites to see on a birding trip, but the focus is on the birds.  And certainly birds can be found on a sightseeing vacation, but the trip is about the destinations, and the birds are a happy accident.

Such was the case recently when I embarked on a long-discussed, long-desired vacation.  It was billed as a trip to the Grand Canyon by Caravan Tours, but according to the tour literature, most of the time was to be spent in other places.  Furthermore, the Grand Canyon was listed as the first destination and a two-night stopover.  Odd, I thought.  Why did they plan such a big trip and put the crown jewel up front?  But when I asked the tour director why they hadn't saved the best for last, he smiled and said, "We did."  As it turned out, that extraordinary treasure of the American southwest came in third on the list of my favorite places.

A gorgeous view toward the town of Sedona, AZ.
The first day of the trip was spent in Phoenix on organizational details.  I was early enough to get some birding in, and a walk around the area surrounding the Doubletree Hotel proved to be productive.  I watched White-winged Doves race about courtyards and a Gila Woodpecker scurry from one palm to another.  Great-tailed Grackles busily chased late afternoon snacks while House Sparrows did what they always do ... chat noisily while eating everything in sight.  My reverie was suddenly broken by a fluttering above me.  I looked up and was startled to see a Prairie Falcon looking back at me from not fifteen feet away!  While I stood there with my mouth agape, a car stopped.  "You a birdwatcher?"  I nodded that indeed was what I was doing.  "That's our local hawk right there.  I watch it every day from my fourth floor office window right up there."  Again I nodded, "Well, actually it's a falcon ..."  He wasn't interested.  "Yeah, well, it's pretty cool whatever it is.  I hope it hangs around for a long time."

The next morning dawned cool, crisp and clear, with none of Florida's humidity.  We hopped on our bus, met our driver (Bob, and he was terrific) and tour guide (Joe, equally terrific), and started out on the road.  By mid-morning we reached our first destination, Montezuma Castle National Monument, a relic of Sinagua communities that thrived south of Flagstaff between six and nine hundred years ago.  While snapping photos of the Castle, I noticed basket-like nests affixed the the cliff walls.  Cliff Swallows!  Sure enough, a flock of them danced crazily above us for fifteen minutes before moving on the their next feeding site.  Down below us at the river's edge, a Black Phoebe found some tasty morsels for a late breakfast.

My first lifer of the trip, a Mountain Bluebird in Valle, AZ
Back on the bus we turned toward Sedona and what was for me the least appealing stop on the tour.  Yes, the scenery around the town was spectacular, but what was billed as an artists' community turned out to be nothing more than a tourist trap with a couple of blocks of non-stop souvenir and confection shops and restaurants.  Still, the Bell Butte and the view across the valley to the real Sedona were beautiful sights, and a Western Scrub Jay added to the day's pleasures.  Then later at a rest stop near Valle I got my first life bird of the trip - a Mountain Bluebird - one of my Ten Most Wanted!

Finally, we turned toward the Grand Canyon, arriving there after 5:00 PM.  The day was hazy and photos weren't as clear as I wanted, but there is no denying the extraordinary beauty and indescribable scope of this treasure of the American southwest.  In truth, it lives up to its Grand name.  It's a vast, intricate, colorful and unending maze of painted canyons nestled between towering buttes and mesas. I kept thinking, how can this be real?  Surely it was a Hollywood blue-screen set for some fantasy-world movie.  But there it was - just inches from my shoe tips, gaping wide into a chasm that dropped for thousands of feet.  It was overwhelmingly, stunningly beautiful.  Soon I was to beg the question, can one take too many pictures of the Grand Canyon?  Around every corner, at every dip in the trail, there was another breath-taking view.  Whether from the narrow ledge of the Bright Angel Trail, from the Watchtower at Desert View, or right outside our hotel window, every glance screamed for a photo opp.  I snapped away and have since enjoyed looking at every one of them over and again. 

Navajo Spear Dancer with eagle feather adornments

This dancer used extremely intricate footwork!
I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Navajo dancers.  Wrapped in their native clothing and feathered adornments, the dancers were a brilliant whirl of colors, shapes, motion and energy.  I was glad to learn that the ancient Navajo ways have become a source of pride and interest for today's youth, and that the Navajo language is once again being taught in their schools.  The rest of us need always remember that this was the language of the famous code-talkers of World War II whose exploits saved thousands of American lives and directly contributed to American victories on some the war's bloodiest battlefields of the Pacific theater.  Then they went home and kept their heroic role a secret - even from their own families - obeying the final order from their officers.  These same code-talkers were the children and grandchildren of the Navajo who had their land taken from them by the American army and eventually were confined to the least valuable and least productive portions of that land.  If it weren't so tragic, the irony would almost be laughable.  I wonder how many of today's "patriots" would have served had they been confined in poverty to a reservation before being asked to volunteer for service to "their country."  Yet they did so - by the hundreds - and made a very tangible difference in the outcome of the war. 

Looking toward the Colorado River from Desert View
We spent two nights and the intervening day in the Grand Canyon.  I can attest that the sight never got old.  But the people-watching was also a constant source of thrills - and not always in a good way.  There was a large contingent of Japanese youth in red jackets throughout the park.  Like teens everywhere, they were exuberant, filled with energy and life, and apparently believed themselves to be invincible.  This led to some shockingly unsettling sights for this old school teacher/field trip leader!  The scariest was a group that crawled its way out to the edge of a rocky point thousands of feet above the canyon floor, only to stand in the gusting wind then shout and wave with gigantic smiles while taking dozens of photos of each other with their tablets and selfie-sticks.  Every teacher instinct in me wanted to jerk them up and send them scurrying back onto the trail where they belonged!

The funniest sight was a trio of these same red-jacketed tourists, two young men and a lovely girl.  The boys surrounded her, seemingly vying for her attention while she laughed and scampered just ahead of them.  A storm was brewing and the gusting wind suddenly lifted her newly-purchased Grand Canyon hat and tossed it over the cliff's edge.  It hung up on a tree top about thirty feet below us.  Shocked and dismayed, she called to the two boys and pointed down the extremely steep slope to her cap.  They walked to the edge, glanced down, looked at each other then at her.  Slowly, they both shook their heads.  I didn't need to understand Japanese to know that discretion is in fact the better part of valor regardless of the language, culture or attractiveness of the young lady.

Brown-crested Flycatcher - Beautiful in Its Own Right.

That green ribbon, way below, is the bottom of Bright Angel Trail.  I didn't walk down because I couldn't have walked back.

This Brewer's Blackbird and I shared a view of the Canyon (below) before we both turned away from the edge.
Nightfall approaching the Grand Canyon, South Rim

Monday, March 23, 2015

Third Thursday, Part 2

Part of the Third Thursday crowd stretched along La Chua Trail

Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland.
As I read my last blog, two thoughts struck me.  First, I did an okay job of summarizing what happened. I organized this thing, we went here, we saw that, we ate at this or that place.  Good time had by all.  Blah, blah, blah!  Second, I did a lousy job of expressing what I experienced throughout the seven months.  There were anxious moments, nervous moments, frustrating moments, silly moments and and just plain fun moments.  Make that hours of fun!

Let me clarify something that I glossed over in my previous blog.  My intent was NOT merely to plug in a mid-week birding experience here and there.  Rather, I wanted to build something that would be both a birding AND a social experience.  I really like the birders in Gainesville, and the retired birders in the area are such great people.  Yet, unless I did a weekend field trip, I rarely saw them.  And aside from one or two Audubon-sponsored social events, I never saw them in a non-birding context.  I wanted to fix that.

A bubbling spring feeding the Suwannee River at SRSP
The mid-week birding idea is not a new one.  Alachua Audubon did it years ago with organized field trips, and a group in Tallahassee is doing it now.  The latter group is very flexible in that they can decide where they are going to bird on the morning of the event.  I wanted to take a little from each and see what would happen.  As I said, I wanted to have both a birding experience and a social one.  Meet for breakfast and then go birding.  Or go birding and then go have lunch together.  Let the group decide where to go each month and suggest restaurants for the meal.  I wanted to organize, but not make all of the decisions.

Some of it worked out better than others.  I picked out more of the birding destinations than I wanted, but not all.  Others in the group suggested restaurants, but I ended up making the call.  I guess that was to be expected, and I'm fine with it.  In fact, I think the whole experience was fantastic, and I'm eagerly looking forward to repeating it next year.  Why?  Judge for yourself.  Here are some of those moments I mentioned above:

Sweetwater Sheetflow Project

Looking pretty on the prairie
•What if I organized an event and no one showed up?  My first fear was that the whole project would die for lack of interest.  Those early fears began to ease after the first trip was announced and the lunch reservations started coming in.  Fifteen for lunch?  Okay, 15 is a good start.  Then about 25 people showed up on the morning of the first Third Thursday trip.  Relief!  Validation!  Yay!!

•Minutes after I met Jim and Lil O'Donnell, I was chatting away with them like we were old friends.  Were they really that nice and easy to get along with?  Well, actually, yes.  They're great people.  But we also share another connection that came to light when we discovered our joint connection to northeastern Pennsylvania where I was born and raised. What a pleasure to talk about home with people who have been there.

•My birding life flashed before my eyes as I watched my Leica Televid scope topple over and smack into the gravel at Circle B Bar Reserve.  Silently, I uttered one blistering cuss after another at myself.  How could I be so careless?  And then relief when I saw that the optics were just fine.  A piece of the plastic was a bit out of alignment, but no serious damage done.  Thank you, God!
The Withlacoochee as it joins the Suwannee at SRSP

•I laughed out loud as I listened to Lee Yoder and Bill Pennewell toss playful insults back and forth at each other during lunch at Peach Valley in Gainesville.  They reminded me so much of my brothers, especially of my oldest brother who teased me unmercifully - but always in a way that let me know it was in fun and never hurtful.  The same was true for Lee and Bill - all in good fun and no harm intended or done.  They were just funny, and I soaked it up.

•I had no idea where to eat in Lakeland.  I was completely at a loss.  Up stepped Howard Adams with a link to TripAdvisor that forever changed my way of searching for somewhere to eat.

•The frustration leading up to the January trip was getting a little intense.  The destination was still an active construction zone, and we were told that all participants had to wear safety vests.  They had 10 we could use.  We had 37 birders coming.  Even my math skills were sufficient to suggest we might have a problem brewing.  Then Debra Segal stepped up and got a bunch.  Next Bubba Scales at Wild Birds Unlimited chipped in a few more.  Soon other people wrote to me offering us the use of their extra vests, and others who weren't planning to attend sent me theirs just to help out.  Birders are just good people!  And then the night before the event the construction company backed off and said no vests were needed.  I thought some bad words.  The next morning as the group gathered in a Winn-Dixie parking lot, I was greeted by Charlene Leonard who had baked some orange muffins for me to say thanks.  All was good again.
Alachua Sink on Paynes Prairie

•The first bird on the La Chua trip was a Barn Owl in her nest.  So as not to disturb her, we backed off and used my scope to try to peak into the nest.  We were rewarded with a clear view of a beautiful bird.  Slowly, we got everyone a moment with my scope and all participants saw her.  As the last person walked away, I decided to take one more look for myself.  Suddenly I was calling to everyone.  "Holy Lord above!! There's a baby in there!  No ... there are two of 'em!!  Get back here!!"  People scrambled back and those who were closest got to see at least one of the cutest little owlets I've ever seen.  Momma soon pushed them down and away from view, but I felt really blessed and sent a quick prayer skyward in thanks.

•And when my oldest brother passed away near the end of February, it was hitting the birding trail with this same group that helped me out.  Talking with Rick Drummond and Santiago Salazar on the drive to Suwannee River State Park; getting teased by John Hintermister for my complete lack of knowledge about trees; hearing Mercedes Panqueva and Santiago talk about their homelands of Columbia and Ecuador; tearing into a terrific meal at All Decked Out in Live Oak and thinking, "Life is good" - all of these things helped me stop cursing the stars and start thanking God for the many wonderful things and people that fill my life.

So this has been an extraordinary experience.  I think I took far more from it than I put into it.  The April trip is coming up soon, and I can't wait to see what's going to happen.

That's me on the left.  My theory is to lead from behind.

"Are you lookin' at me?  Are YOU looking at ME?"

"Hey dude, can ya do this?"

"Giddy up, horse!  I ain't got all day!"

"I do love frog legs for dinner.  Don't you?"

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Third Thursday, Part 1

A small part of the inaugural Third Thursday
As I approached my retirement from 41 years in teaching, I often joked that I was retiring to become a full-time birder.  I'm trying very hard to meet that goal.  But one of the obstacles was a complete lack of organized birding activities during the traditional work week.  My idea was to do something about that.

I'm a member of the Alachua Audubon Society, one of the most active and (in my view) best Audubon chapters in the state.  From September through the end of May we sponsor about 45 birding field trips, all on either a Saturday or Sunday.  During nearly every weekend over a nine-month stretch, I have one or two field trips I can attend and share the birding experience with a lot of really great people I've come to think of as friends.  But during the week?  Nothing.  My friends and I were on our own. So about a year ago I approached the Alachua Audubon officers about sponsoring a mid-week birding field trip once each month.  I also suggested combining the field trip with a social activity - lunch at a restaurant.  The result has been a series of terrific days that have come to be known as Third Thursday.

Yellow Rat Snake at Bolen Bluff
We started in September with a walk around Bolen Bluff in Gainesville.  The crowd was enormous; too big, in fact.  We split into groups, took opposite directions on the trail, and agreed to meet back in the parking lot three and a half hours later.  Initially, the birding was slow, but a waterthrush here, an owl there and (eventually) a few warblers resulted in a really nice day.  A Yellow Rat Snake (right) also added to the excitement.  Afterward, about 15 of us descended upon Blue Highway in Micanopy for some of the best pizza I've had since leaving Pennsylvania almost 30 years ago.  It was an encouraging start, but could it be sustained?

The October Third Thursday visited San Felasco Hammock State Park in Alachua, known locally as Progress Park.  This time the group was smaller, as I had expected.  I had originally pictured this as an activity for retired birders.  Our initial group had attracted a number of retirees as well as several college students and a few people playing hooky from work for a day.  The October group was all retirees.  The pace was a bit slower, but the birding was really good.  For a quiet day, we tallied 35 species then found our way to Conestoga's in "Beautiful, downtown Alachua" for a fantastic lunch.

Black-crowned Night-Heron at La Chua Trail
November's trip was a gem.  We walked out the La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie State Preserve, one of my favorite spots on earth.  Essentially, I forgot I had a camera with me as I scurried this way and that to see a Barn Owl, a White-crowned Sparrow, a Common Yellowthroat, a Black-crowned Night-Heron (left), a Swamp Sparrow, a Bald Eagle, a Green Heron, a Wood Stork, a Ruddy Duck, a Northern Harrier, a Purple Gallinule, an American Bittern, a Vermilion Flycatcher or any of the 40 species we saw.  The group was bigger this time, and stretched out along the trail quite a bit.  That made a large group feel smaller, but kept me busy trying to touch base with everyone.  Truthfully ... I loved it.  So much fun!

Then it was time for lunch and we swarmed into Peach Valley in Gainesville.  I had called ahead to warn them that a group of 14 was on its way.  Who would have thought that a second group, also of 14, was just a few blocks away?  They beat us there and got our tables, and we were relegated to the patio on a very cold day.  Problem?  Not for this group.  No one complained, the restaurant manager brought out some area heaters, we plowed into a wonderful lunch, and I was introduced to the delights of apple fritters.  We told stories, laughed ourselves silly, and generally had a terrific time.  How can you not love this group?

Two of the three groups stopped to watch the Forster's Terns.
December was consumed by a combination of the holidays and the Christmas Bird Count, so our Third Thursday group didn't meet again until January.  When we did, it was incredible.  We were allowed to tour the Sweetwater Sheetflow Project, a water treatment facility being built on the edge of Paynes Prairie.  Soon this fantastic park will be open to the public, but that hasn't happened yet.  Nonetheless, through the efforts of Debra Segal and Alice Rankeillor, we were granted the necessary access.  As soon as word got out, I was swarmed with emails from people wanting to join our group.  Eventually we had 37 people attend, and we broke into three groups.  That said, the place is so big that it felt empty.

But there were birds everywhere!  I love looking at ducks, so this was a good day.  There were Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, Blue and Green-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Lesser Scaup. Bufflehead, and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.  There were White, Glossy and White-faced Ibises.  Eagles soared overhead causing American Coots and Common Gallinules to scurry for cover.  Killdeer and Least Sandpipers probed the mud while Forster's Terns patrolled the skies.  Snipe and Pipits darted by us while Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs ignored us as we walked along the berms above them.  Limpkins and Roseate Spoonbills added their own unique touches to the gorgeous vistas throughout the park.  The day ended with an excellent meal at Chuy's Mexican Restaurant.  I waddled out of there stuffed, but very content.

This Anhinga (at Circle B) is a gorgeous bird!
Our February trip took us far afield from our usual Gainesville haunts.  We traveled to Lakeland in Polk County to bird at Circle B Bar Preserve.  This is always a great birding destination, and this time was no exception.  We had a 40+ species day that included great looks at all of the expected waders and a few ducks as well.  But the day's biggest surprises came from two little warblers.  At almost the same time, I called out, "There's a Prairie Warbler!" while Howard Adams called, "Northern Parula!"  Two beautiful and unexpected warblers on a cold day in February topped off an excellent birding day.  We wrapped it up at Palace Pizza, one of the highest rated restaurants in Lakeland, according to "TripAdvisor" and the twelve of us who squeezed into three tables in their small dining area.  I must say, we did ourselves proud by polishing off a huge amount of excellent Italian fare.  This was the first time I had searched for a restaurant using "TripAdvisor".  It proved to be a really good strategy that I would use again a few weeks later.

After a birding trip to Peacock Springs State Park, "TripAdvisor" led me to a restaurant in Live Oak called "All Decked Out."  I loved it, and as it happened, it was really close to our next Third Thursday destination.  Sometimes, things just go right.

Barred Owl at Suwannee River State Park
Our March destination was Suwannee River State Park in Suwannee County.  We made the hour-long drive to the park and began walking upriver on the River Trail.  The birding was slow at first, but picked up considerably as we encountered two separate feeding flocks.  Mixed with the Yellow-rumped, Pine and Black-and-white Warblers were Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue-headed and White-eyed Vireos, and the usual Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Chickadee.  On the return trip along the creek, we saw an Orange-crowned Warbler,  three Hermit Thrushes and a very cooperative Barred Owl (right).  Later in the pine forest along the Sandhills Trail we encountered Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Towhee, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Yellow-throated Vireo and a single Bald Eagle passing overhead.  Finally we made our way to Live Oak and All Decked Out where I had my second superb piece of coconut cream pie in under two weeks. 

Our final Third Thursday for this birding year will come in April when we visit Cedar Key.  I hope we are swarmed over by a horde of migrant warblers, tanagers, and orioles.  I don't know where we'll eat yet, but it will be good, I'm sure.  I'm already thinking about next year's trips - which will we repeat and which will we replace with something new.  But most of all, I'm looking forward to renewing the camaraderie of a terrific group of people who have made this an exceptionally good experience.

Some of the Third Thursday Regulars at Suwannee River State Park

Green Heron at Circle B Bar Preserve in Lakeland, Polk County, Florida

Lunch at Peach Valley Restaurant with some of the Third Thursday crowd

A nesting Barn Owl at Paynes Prairie State Preserve.  There were two chicks in the nest as well.

American White Pelicans at Circle B Bar Preserve

Blue-winged Teal at Circle B Bar Preserve

Monday, February 16, 2015

Bird a Day

Look closely - that red eye = White-faced Ibis
For as long as I can remember, I've enjoyed setting goals for myself and working toward accomplishing them.  I win some and lose some, but I always enjoy the effort.  So I was intrigued when I read about a challenge called "Bird a Day."  I don't know the entire history behind the challenge, but I heard about it through an email sent by south Florida birder Trey Mitchell.  The idea is to start on January 1 and add one bird each day that you've seen or heard during that day to your Bird a Day Year List.  Once you list a bird, you can't use it again in the same calendar year.  So you can see a Cardinal every day, but you can only use it once.  The goal is to see how far into the year you can go before you go through an entire day seeing or hearing only birds that you have already listed.

It sounded interesting to me, so I decided to give it a shot.  Now, I know I won't make it through the year - not even close.  Until 2014 I never had a year in my life with as many as 365 species - and the idea of getting them to fall just right so I had a unique one to add each day is absurd.  On the other hand, I've had as many as 20 species in my back yard on a weekend, so getting through a month would actually be pretty easy.  So I set a goal of 100 days ... that should certainly be possible, and if I make it that far I'll keep at it as long as I can.  I also decided to add a little wrinkle for January to make it more interesting.  I set a goal of using only birds that are winter residents of this area or migrants passing through during the first month of the year.  No Northern Cardinals or Mockingbirds, no Red-bellied or Downy Woodpeckers, no Turkey or Black Vultures, no Carolina Wrens or Chickadees, etc.  If I could do that, February would be easy and by then I'd be more than half way to the 100 mark.

Bullock's Oriole
The year started well.  I attended a field trip to the Sweetwater Sheetflow Project here in Gainesville and saw a locally rare White-faced Ibis.  I also saw a score or more of winter birds I could use -- but you can only use one a day.  And I wouldn't see those birds for several weeks.  The Sheetflow area is not yet open to the public, so all of those great birds would be out of sight and unusable.  By contrast, January 2 was a blur of activity culminating in taking my son to an airport about 90 miles away.  After the feast of January 1, this was a famine day.  I had no time to bird and saw very little - but I got lucky.  As I pulled off the Interstate near the airport I passed a retention pond holding a small flock of Ring-necked Ducks.  By the time I left the airport, it was dark.  Too close!

The next day was easier.  I visited a friend who had a Bullock's Oriole coming to his feeders.  Easy, rare and gorgeous - that's the best way to do it!  The rest of the week was also easy, if not quite so spectacular.  I picked off the Rusty Blackbirds that were making their annual visit to Magnolia Park just a couple of miles away.  A Black-and-white Warbler, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Hooded Merganser were all quite cooperative and right where I needed them to be, so one week was in the books!

Swamp Sparrow
Here in Florida there are two large groups of "winter" birds - ducks and sparrows.  I had used two ducks during the first week, but no sparrows.  I set out to change that by visiting Hague Dairy, another great birding site just a few miles away.  That was a good call.  January 8 and 9 added Swamp and Vesper Sparrows.

Then on January 10 I joined other members of Alachua Audubon on our annual winter trip to St. Marks NWR.  Again, the frustrating aspect of this challenge reared its ugly head.  I had dozens of winter birds to choose from, but I could only use one.  And I couldn't even open an escrow account and bank a couple of good ones.  In the end I used a White-throated Sparrow. I had missed the species in 2014 and I hoped I would have more opportunities to see the ducks elsewhere later in the month.  I did not use a Chuck-wills-widow either because I know I can get one in June.  Still ... so many birds and I could only use one ... ARGH!

This Whooping Crane has spent the winter here.
The next couple of days were easy.  A House Wren landed in a bush a few feet from me.  A Song Sparrow perched up nicely back at Hague Dairy.  A Greater Scaup swam just off a beach in Dixie County.  A locally famous Whooping Crane posed for photographs on the University of Florida campus.

[Here's an aside for you non-birders.  The Whooping Crane pictured here appears to be wearing some colorful jewelry.  In fact, they are banding rings that identify this specific individual.  They are placed on the bird prior to its release into the wild and the color and placement are unique to this bird.  I submitted the data to a banding website and learned about his unique and fascinating life story.  If you're interested, you can read about it here: ]

The third week started with another of those "feast" days when I led a field trip into the Sheetflow area.  This time I counted a secretive American Bittern and turned down a bunch of great ducks.  Two days later I had another famine and had to count a Baltimore Oriole that visits my feeders.  I was thinking of my feeder birds as my emergency stash, and this was the first time I had to dip in.  The rest of the week was a blur of trips to Hague Dairy chasing an apparently invisible Lark Sparrow.  I struck out a couple of times, but finally saw it while adding American Pipit and Savannah Sparrow to the list as well as an Orange-crowned Warbler seen in a yard in Alachua.  The week ended with a trip to Merritt Island and a beautiful Northern Pintail.

The last ten days proved that using only winter species was indeed a challenge for me.  I saw several good species in or near the town of Alachua - Cedar Waxwing, American Robin, Blue-headed Vireo and Ring-billed Gull.  I added a White Pelican on a miserably cold day at Alligator Lake in Columbia County.  And I got lucky with a Lincoln's Sparrow on La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie.  A small but ferocious Sharp-shinned Hawk finished off the fourth week.

Lousy day - lousy photo of White Pelicans
The patriarch of the Flying Wallendas once said that the most dangerous part of walking the tight rope was the last few steps because that was when the hardest part of the task was over, safety was in sight, and the concentration wavered.  I've always remembered those words, and they almost bit me in the butt on this challenge.  On the 29th I had a terrific bird - an Eastern Whip-poor-will, and with only two days left in the month I thought I was home free.  And then for two days I went birding and saw NOTHING new.  Instead, I had to rely on that emergency stash of winter birds coming to my feeders.  A Gray Catbird and the ubiquitous Palm Warbler closed out the month.  Perhaps I had staggered across the line using low-hanging fruit, but January was done and I had ticked off 31 winter species.

As I write this, I'm still in the competition after 47 days.  I've added some pretty cool birds to my Bird a Day list, but I've used a few 12-month resident birds along the way.  That, however, is a story best saved for next month.

Full disclosure:  All of these photos were taken during January, but not all on the day I actually counted the species.  I just like the pictures!

January 31 - A month of winter birds was successfully concluded when this Palm Warbler visited my feeders.

January 30:  This Gray Catbird consumes huge quantities of suet every day at my feeders.

One of my favorite birds - the elegant Northern Pintail.

This Black Scoter was a nice Dixie County surprise.