Sunday, December 30, 2012

Razor's Edge

Nanday Parakeets
Yes, birders are crazy.  And we love it!  No normal person would have an 11 hour stretch like this, and be absolutely thrilled.

I got up at 3:30 this morning to learn that it was 36 degrees outside.  Great.  I hopped in the infamous Red Van by 4:15 and picked up two of my birding buddies.  By 4:45 we were on I-75 heading south toward Anna Maria Island.  We had one stop along the way (sausage biscuits at McDonalds) and reached Bradenton with no problems.  As we drove along Manatee Avenue West, we passed Wendy's and something caught our eyes.  Were they Nanday Parakeets?  We did a quick u-turn, did another one, and pulled into Wendy's.  Yep, they were my first Nandays since the ABA made honest birds out of them.  Without any further interruptions we reached the City Pier at about 8:15 and hopped out of the car.

I hopped right back in.  Dang!  It was cold and the wind was howling!  The heat in the car on the ride down had led me to shed the hat, the gloves, the scarf and the jacket.  Now, back on went the hat, the gloves, the scarf and the jacket and I added a headband that wrapped around my ears.  I was still cold ... but that wouldn't stop us!

For my non-birding friends, I need to explain something.  Our target bird for the day was the Razorbill.  Simply put, this bird has no business being in the Gulf of Mexico.  Heck, it has no business being in the Atlantic off the Florida coast.  They belong in the NORTH North Atlantic.  Yet, here they are.  None of us had ever seen one, so there we were with temperature in the thirties and the the wind screaming at us, all for a few minutes' look at a bird.

Within seconds I yelled, "Is that it?" and pointed directly at ... a Common Loon.  Dang.  We went out to the end of the pier and camped out.  We waited and waited (and froze) to no avail.  We saw one bird at a distance that might have been a Razorbill, but we couldn't be sure.

After a while we decided to move to the Rod and Reel Pier.  By this time I couldn't feel my finger tips, my cheeks hurt, and and my toes were being assaulted by bees.  And then it was all forgotten.  "There! Razorbill!" One flew right past us and disappeared up the beach.  Definitely a Razorbill, but too fleeting.

"There! Another one! And it landed."  We scrambled to the end of the pier and got the scopes on it.  Soon a second one joined it, this one even closer.  It swam around no more than thirty feet off the pier affording us great looks for many minutes ... long enough that the cold became noticeable again.

We jumped back in the car, looked at our photos, decided that we had what we needed, and started back home.  Well, sort of ... Such a great bird deserved some celebration, but it was Sunday morning.  The traditional life-bird celebration wasn't in order, so we stopped for brunch at Peach's in Bradenton.  It was terrific.

We got back on the road, put our heads down and charged.  I was back home watching football by 3:00.  Seven hours on the road, freezing temperatures, howling winds, and two lifers.  What a fantastic day!

Are you talking to me?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ani-one Want To Go Birding?

Groove-billed Ani
One of the great things about retirement is the fact that I can indulge myself in impulse-birding.  Yesterday was a perfect example.  I had errands to run yesterday morning, so I had no plans to bird.  However, on the way to the first task I made a sharp left and ended up at Paynes Prairie.  What the heck?  Why not?  The errands would still be there later in the day, but the birds may not.  Specifically, I couldn't count on the Groove-billed Ani to hang around forever.  I'd seen one in Alachua County in 2010, so I hadn't hurried out to find the bird when it showed up this year.  Still, it's a great bird, so, again, why not!

My tardiness got me to the prairie close to 9:30.  Along the trail I met four different groups of people, all with the same message.  They had seen the Ani, but each group had found it farther to the west than the previous group.  Also, each group told me they had seen the bird move even farther west as they left.  This was not a trail that I had often hiked in the past, and never much farther than below the Sweetwater Observation area along the Hawthorne Trail.  This time I had already walked beyond that area, past the old fence line, and over a small stream.  Finally, two young guys told me they had seen the bird fly south and pointed to a tall tree in the distance.  Fortunately, after the trail entered some deciduous woods it too turned south toward that tree.  I kept the tree in my sights and continued hiking.  Suddenly the trail turned into what can best be described as a mud bog.  I believe this is the area that is planned to become a water-treatment area with a series of ponds, marshes and boardwalks.  Now it's just mud.  I could go no farther, and still no Ani.  Frustrated, I stood there grumbling when I heard the Ani calling.  Quickly I used my phone to play the Ani call from the Sibley app.  After just a few seconds, the bird flew into a bush just in front of me.  I attached the phone to my scope, turned to the camera app, and got the photo that you see above.  It's not the best, but you can tell from the bill that it is an Ani, and the call was diagnostic. 

White-crowned Sparrow
I hauled myself out of the mud and headed back on the trail.  I got all the way back to the area just west of the horse barn when I saw a lot of movement in the vegetation on both sides of me.  In about ten minutes I added three sparrows to my day list: White-throated, White-crowned and Field. It was a nice end to the day.  Two of the White-crowned Sparrows are pictured at right and below, left. 

Today was very different.  I had planned to go to Progress Park looking for sparrows.  I found one Song Sparrow who refused to be photographed, perhaps because the of the American Kestrel hanging out in the area (bottom, right).  Nothing else showed itself and I ended up with under 10 species for two hours of walking around in what once had been a sparrow-rich field.

Maybe I ought to stick to impulse-birding?

Immature White-crowned Sparrow
American Kestrel

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gainesville CBC 2012

Painted Bunting Playing Peek-a-boo
Yesterday was the Alachua Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.  This is something I look forward to all year long, and it’s finished all too quickly.  You can call me crazy (many have!) but this is a great way to spend a day.

I’m part of Group 3 within our team and my area is, well, actually it defies a simple description.  Think of shopping and dining areas, apartment complexes, and a veterinary teaching facility and you begin to get the idea.  Then there is a section of woods that was taken over by invasive plants.  The invasive plants were killed off leaving a barren-looking wasteland that is just beginning to make a comeback.  Finally there are some woods that look very nice but also host a number of homeless “campers”.  It’s not an idyllic territory to be sure, but it has to be done … and it produced a 70-species day for me!  

 Here are a few vignettes from the day:

** I met my friend Rex at 4:00 AM and by 4:15 we were owling along Lime Rock Road, west of Gainesville ending in the driveway of my former principal.  During the hour we counted six Great Horned Owls, five Barred Owls and three Eastern Screech Owls.  By 5:30 we were at IHOP for breakfast and a meeting with the rest of Team 7.  We ate, we laughed, told a few ridiculous stories, and headed out for the main event.

** We had just dipped on a site where we found a Whip-poor-will last year, and a second site that usually produces a nice mixed flock was disappointing.   I stood there feeling disgruntled when another of my group called out, “Painted Bunting!”  I ran to the spot and there was a gorgeous male.  I’ve seen female Painted Buntings in this county before, but never a male, so this was wonderful!  Getting a photo was tough, but one of got the picture at the top of today’s blog.

Lesser Scaup in an Apartment Complex Retention Pond
**Later in the day we rode through an apartment complex planning to check out the retention ponds.  We were hoping for a Muscovy.  How’s that for low expectations?  We pulled up to the largest pond and were stunned to find 124 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks!  While we were gawking at them, one lone Lesser Scaup floated by.  I whipped out my iPhone, attached it to my scope, and took the photo on the right. 

**We had a lead on a male Summer Tanager that has been hanging around our only old-Gainesville neighborhood.  We parked on the street and started working the area.  No luck.  Along the way I noticed a neighborhood nature walk with a Hermit Thrush calling away.  I took that as a good omen, so I headed off, following the winding path until it reached a dead end.  And there was a lovely female Summer Tanager.  That’s not the one I was expecting, but I was thrilled to find it.  By the way, later in the day I returned to the neighborhood and found the male!

**Behind a group of restaurants is a few retention ponds and a couple of dead trees.  On top of one snag was one of my favorite birds, the Red-headed Woodpecker pictured below.

**Our day always ends with a pizza-and-beer Count Supper.  John Martin puts on terrific slide show, that displays photos of each species, data for that species from all previous counts, and a running count of this year’s totals as each of the 11 team captains call out their numbers.  Nearly a hundred birders watch the display and “participate” with comments, explanations, memories of past counts and cheers when we beat an old total.  By the end of the tally, we could all see that our results had been terrific.  We listed 162 species for the day (I think that is a record high for us), Team 7 had 110 (our best total ever), and my group had 70.   The day was capped by the county’s first-ever record of SIX Black Scoters!

Of course, the Scoters were gone this morning when I went looking for them, but that’s birding.  You can’t win ‘em all.

Red-headed Woodpecker
He's worth a second look!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

iScoping with My Phone.

Red-necked Grebe
I have said before that I am no photographer.  I have relied on the kindness of others who have given me the photos that have made this blog more attractive.  I had a plan to change that.  I was going to buy a Leica camera and scope attachment while I was at the birding festival in Texas.  However, when I got there I learned that Leica has pulled their old products off the market and replaced them with a camera that costs over $2000.  I just can't justify that cost on my retirement income.  Bummer.

The next day I was at Estero Llano when I saw a young woman whip out her iPhone, slap it onto her scope and photograph a Harris's Hawk in a matter of seconds.  I immediately went to her.  "Hey, cool!  How did ya do that?" She was kind enough to show me an attachment from Kowa that slips onto the iPhone.  Actually, it replaces any rubber or plastic cover you may have added to your phone.  When you're planning to do some digiscoping, you screw a metal piece onto the new phone cover.  That slips over the eye piece of the scope.  That's it.  you're ready to take digiscoped pictures with your iPhone.  The total cost, including shipping, is under $50.  So let me see ... $2000 .... $50 .... No brainer!

Loggerhead Shrike
So yesterday my friend Rex and I headed to Tallahassee to try to see the Red-necked Grebe that has been reported for the last week or so.  It would be a life bird for both of us, so we also wanted a photo.  It was time to try out my new toy.  I have a Leica scope, and I quickly learned that I had to remove the rubber ring around the scope's eye piece so that the camera attachment would fit.  That done, I had to experiment with the camera and the scope to try to get things in focus.  You can see the results on this page.  It's not the same as digiscoping with an expensive camera, but it's not bad for my first effort and for under $50.

As to the birding, well, that was a lot of fun!  We got the Red-necked Grebe fairly quickly and then spent some time checking out the other ducks and shorebirds in the area.  There were plenty of Northern Shovelers, some Ruddy Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, Bufflehead and Hooded Mergansers.  Several Killdeer and a Least Sandpiper patrolled the edges while Red-winged Blackbirds and Cedar Waxwings darted around the far shore.  We even had an American Pipit fly over us.  Fortunately, Rex has better ears than I, so he got he on to it quickly.  It was a county tick, so once again I was the beneficiary of the better birding skills of others.  Before we left, I couldn't resist trying my new toy on the Loggerhead Shrike perched on top of a nearby tree.

Sora at St. Marks
Next, Rex and I decided to drive down to St. Marks NWR.  Our targets included some of the birds recently reported around Stoney Bayou 1 and 2. We arrived before 11:00 and set out on what turned out to be a 5 mile stroll.  We started along the north side of Stoney Bayou 1 and then cut over to circle Stoney Bayou 2 and then finished the walk along the east side of SB 1 before heading back to the van.  Rex uses to estimate walking distances, and he told me it was 4.95 miles.  Felt like 49.5 if you ask me.

Shorebirds were numerous with lots of Dunlin and Least Sandpipers.  We also saw some Marbled Godwits, Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers,  Lesser Yellowlegs, Snipes and a Black-bellied Plover.  There were also more Sora than I've ever seen in one day.    At left is the best shot I could get of a Sora, and below, left is photo of a Sora with a Snipe just behind it.

Our hope was that we would locate the Ash-throated Flycatcher that has been reported recently.  We had no luck with that but we did find a Wilson's Warbler, my only Wakulla County life bird of the day.  Then at an intersection in the trail we saw a bobcat (right) that seemed to find us really interesting.  What a beautiful animal!  I've only seen three or four of them in the wild, and each time I felt really privileged. 

On the south end of SB 1 we found the geese we wanted.  There were several Snow Geese and at least two Ross's Geese.  Unfortunately, we didn't see any Canada Geese, but a Red-breasted Merganser joined the group just to add some variation and interest.  We also found a male Vermilion Flycatcher (below, right).  That's a bird that can take your breath away.  He was nice enough to pose for me, so I had to oblige, didn't I?

Eventually, we stumbled back to the car to head back to Gainesville.  But before we could pull out of the parking lot we had to pause to let an otter cross the road.  No picture, but it's a cool memory.  In the end we had about 80 species on the day.  I picked up three county ticks in Leon and one in Wakulla,  Of course the Grebe was a lifer, so that's a state bird as well. And of course, I enjoyed iScoping.  Hey is that a new word?  Maybe I ought to copyright it?

Vermilion Flycatcher
Sora and Wilson's Snipe

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Last Day of the RGVBF


Landing Gear is Down
For me, the final day of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival was memorable, but not for the reasons I had hoped.  Certainly the people were great and the birds we saw were wonderful, if few in numbers.  However, I had really been looking forward to seeing the Santa Ana NWR.  After all, it has a reputation as being one of the jewels of the national park system.  Its brochure brags that it has the second largest bird list in the nation.  However, what I found was a scene of wide-spread destruction and very little of the original habitat that made the park famous.

One of the park volunteers related the story.  In 2010 the area was hit by a hurricane and, shortly thereafter, a massive “rain event” that settled over Mexico and dumped loads of rain on the area.  The result was that the park was under 10 – 12 feet of water.  To make matters worse, the dam system along the Rio Grande held the water in place for a long time.  The results were devastating.  Thousands of ancient hardwood trees were killed.  Today they lie, bleak and broken and in heaps where once there was gorgeous bird-friendly habitat.  It was so incredibly sad.

That said, we made the trip to the park arriving not too long after sunrise.  We started around the new visitors’ center, which is a nice facility with a bird feeder area that was very active.  Green Jays, Red-winged Blackbirds, a Great Kiskadee, some House Sparrows, and a few Great-tailed Grackles flew in and out in a steady stream.

Soon we headed out to the park itself.  Immediately we had a Neotropic Cormorant fly over us, followed a few moments later by a Sharp-shinned Hawk and an American Pipit.  Then we started up the path and I saw the extent of the destruction.  Heartbreaking.  Still, we found Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and a small mixed flock of Black-crested Titmice, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  We also heard a Long-billed Thrasher calling, but he didn’t show himself.  And hunkered down under a couple of fallen branches was a female Northern Bobwhite.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck
The first pond was filled with Black-bellied Whistling Ducks like those pictured on this page.  There were also Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, a Solitary Sandpiper and a couple of Killdeer.  We heard a Marsh Wren calling, but I never saw it.  We were also treated to an aerial display by a large flock of swallows that included Barn, Cave, Bank and Northern Rough-winged Swallows.  Despite the wind, the swallows darted and dove while feeding on the abundant bugs.  There were also a number of Mottled Ducks and Northern Shovelers in one pond and American Wigeon and Gadwalls in another.

Unfortunately, I never got up into the hawk-watch tower.  Another group from the festival (one of the chase vans) was up there for hours searching for their target bird, the Hook-billed Kite.  Apparently they got it, but I didn’t. Oh well, that’s birding!  I got 126 species including 25 lifers during the week, and I raised my life list to 400, so I have no complaints.  It was a wonderful experience from beginning to end. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Estero Llano and #400!

Common Parauque ... Can you see it?
First and foremost, I owe an apology to Julie Zickefoose.  I had misread the program and expected her to be the guide for Wednesday’s Seedeater Sojourn, and I mentioned that she was not present.  That’s because she wasn’t supposed to be there.  Instead, she led today’s field trip to Weslaco, and she proved to be a great trip leader and a really nice person.  I’ve heard that she’s one of the more likeable people in the birding world, and now I can attest to the truth of that statement.

The fourth day of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival started like all of the rest: getting up at 4:30, catching a bus by 5:45, and riding to another birding locale.  Today we started at Estero Llano Grande State Park, and there were birds everywhere.  The feeder areas had Chachalacas, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrashers, Green Jays, and many more.  The nearby roads produced a Harris's Hawk, Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and three life birds, a Common Parauque, a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and a Curve-billed Thrasher.  There was also a selasphorous hummingbird.  One of the rangers said it was an Allen’s, which would also be a lifer for me, so I did some reading on it tonight.  I learned that the Allen’s favors the precise habitat of Estero Llano while the Rufous prefers coniferous and mixed hardwood forests – definitely NOT the habitat of Estero Llano.  So it looks like that was lifer #4 for the day.

Curve-billed Thrasher
Next we went to the headquarters building where I got the day’s fifth lifer, a Buff-bellied Hummingbird.  This was a special bird for me as it was ABA Lifer #400.  Wahoo!!

Next we walked along a series of ponds and found a nice variety of ducks including Green-winged, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Northern Shoveler, and Ruddy and Mottled Ducks.  We had a Peregrine Falcon fly over us, and a Common Parauque that was about two feet from where I stood.  And I have to say that the Parauque is a gorgeous bird, and one of my favorites of the trip so far.

We left Estero Llano to visit the Valley Nature Center.  That didn’t work out too well.  Other than 75 House Sparrows and 20 Plain Chachalacas, there were very few birds.  Somebody in the group reported a Clay-colored Thrush, and I saw a Black-crested Titmouse, but that was it.

Green Kingfisher
After lunch I decided to make it another doubleheader day and drove south to Sabal Palm Sanctuary.  This is a pretty little park that is situated in the last few acres of the USA south of Brownsville. The feeders had White-tipped Doves, Green Jays, Black-crested Titmice as well as the day’s second Buff-bellied Hummingbird.  I also had a nice walk along a few of the trails, another group of ducks, Green and Belted Kingfishers, and a lovely view of a portion of the Rio Grande.  It was a really nice way to end the day’s birding.
Harris's Hawk

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Windy Day Birding

Altamira Oriole
It was a very windy day today, so expectations were low as we set out for Bentsen Rio Grande State Park in Mission, Texas, on Friday moring.  This park is on land donated to the state by former Senator Lloyd Bentsen (remember the ill-fated Dukakis-Bentsen ticket in 1988?).  The Visitor’s Center is surrounded by water features, butterfly gardens, and hummingbird feeders.  Trams run through the park on a regular basis.  Several areas have well-stocked feeders.  There is a hawk-watch tower, a large resaca, and lots of hiking trails.  The four hours we spent there were not enough to bird the whole park.

We spent a considerable amount of time in an area where feeders were spread out along both sides of the road.  In the center was a large covered area with plenty of seating and perfect views of the birds.  The Plain Chachalaca were the bullies of the feeders, chasing other birds away and camping out at one feeder until a bunch of food was gone.  Fortunately there were so many feeders that it wasn’t a real issue.  One feeder was the favorite of the Green Jays where I saw as many as seven at a time.  Another feeder was the favorite of a spectacular Altamira Oriole (above, left) who took turns feeding with a Great Kiskadee (below, right).  On the ground, the White-winged Doves chased the White-tipped Doves around and an Olive Sparrow grazed under a feeder frequented by a Black-crested Titmouse.  The water feature was the hangout of a Long-billed Thrasher and (after a considerable wait) a Clay-colored Thrush (bottom, left).  The thrasher, thrush, sparrow and oriole made four lifers in that spot.  We birded other areas of the park with marginal success.  The wind really was a problem, and very few birds were out.  However, when we got back to the Visitor’s  Center we were treated to great looks at a Black Phoebe, the fifth lifer for the day (bottom, right).
Great Kiskadee

I spent the afternoon browsing through the vendors’ exhibits.  I salivated over the binoculars, the digiscoping cameras, the books and the artwork.  The Raptor Project had a large exhibit with a Bald Eagle, several Harris’s Hawks, two Barn Owls, a Barred Owl, a Eurasian Eagle Owl, two Aplomado Falcons, an American Kestrel, and several others.  It was very fascinating seeing those magnificent birds, and the Barn Owls were gorgeous.

Then I had a fortuitous conversation.  I stopped by the booth sponsored by the Audubon Society in Kingsville and chatted with a very nice woman.  I told her that I had stopped at a cemetery in Kingsville on Monday and named what I had seen there.  When I mentioned Eastern Meadowlark, she stopped me.  She said it was much more likely that they were Western Meadowlarks, especially since there were four or five of them.  She said that Eastern Meadowlarks were more likely to show up one at a time.  Based on that, I might be able to claim another lifer, and the 20th of the trip so far.  Maybe if I get time on Sunday I’ll stop at the same cemetery and take a second look.  What do you think?

Clay-colored Thrush
Black Phoebe

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Let's Play Two!

The Resaca at UT Brownsville
I think it was Chicago Cubs’ Hall of Famer Ernie Banks who so loved the game of baseball that he is remembered for yelling, “Let’s play two!” at the end of a long game.  That’s pretty much how I felt today.  I had just finished lunch after a great field trip when I just felt like going birding again.  Turns out that it was a really good decision.

The day started at what I thought was an unlikely destination, the campus of the University of Texas at Brownsville.  How birdy could a busy college campus be?  Well, it was loaded with birds.  Within moments of getting off the bus I had my first lifer of the day, a Tropical Kingbird that was kind enough to call to us so that we could be sure of its identity.  But our goal was to bird the Resaca at the center of the campus.  It was crossed by a footbridge that gave us a splendid view of one end of the lake with the sun directly behind us.  There were at least a half-dozen Black-crowned Night-Herons, some Neotropic Cormorants, a Green Heron, a couple of Great Kiskadees and off in the corner, a Green Kingfisher (lifer #2 of the day).  

A Very Vocal Couch's Kingbird
 Along the edges were Solitary Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper, and we also had fly-over Snow Geese and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.  In the trees were Nashville, Orange-crowned, Black-and-White and Yellow-throated Warblers.  The grasses had Lincoln Sparrow and Indigo Bunting.  Then we saw another Kingbird, and this one also vocalized – a Couch’s Kingbird and another lifer!  This is a beautiful campus, and the bird life is exceptional.  If you’re in the Brownsville area, it’s worth a stop.

Neotropic Cormorant

Our second stop was at Resaca De La Palma State Park.  While this is a great park, I dipped on my target birds.  No Altamira Orioles and no White-tipped Dove were seen at their usual haunts.  Still, I had good looks at Least Grebe, Green Kingfisher, and the always-spectacular Green Jay. 

Next it was back to the conference center and off to lunch, but I still wanted more.  So I hopped in the car and headed off to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.  I started by birding around the headquarters building.  There were very few birds in the area, but I did find a White-tipped Dove, lifer #4 for the day.  Next I drove out to the lake.  Wow!  There were thousands of American Coots as well as hundreds of American Wigeon, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, a couple of Lesser Scaup, and at least one Redhead.  I also saw a few Roseate Spoonbills, a couple of Forster’s Terns, a Lesser Yellowlegs, and two Long-billed Curlews.  I’m sure I missed some things due to the lateness of the hour, but that was fun!  Next I decided to take one last shot at the bird blind at the headquarters area, but again there were no birds.  The reason may well have been the Eastern Screech-Owl that was peeking out of a pipe in the building just behind me.

Long-billed Curlew
The evening ended with one of those happy coincidences that can make a good birding day great.  My Garmin routed me back to the hotel on a different route than I used on the way into the park.  As a result, I ended up driving along Buena Vista Blvd. south of SR 106 in the dying light.  Up ahead was a white van stopped in the middle of the road.  Before I could go around it, an arm shot out and waved me to a stop.  Why?  An Aplomado Falcon was perched on a fencepost just off the road and no more than 30 feet ahead of me.  What a gorgeous creature, and I had a perfect view.  It was breath-taking, my fifth lifer of the day, and a fabulous ending to a birding doubleheader.  

Eastern Screech-Owl

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Seedeater Sojourn

The Rio Grande from La Laja Ranch
This was an exhausting day.  Officially, it’s the first day of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.  My field trip today was billed as the Seedeater Sojourn with Julie Zickefoose, but she was engaged elsewhere and didn’t make the trip.  That was the only disappointment of the day. 

We left the conference center at 5:00 AM heading for a private ranch in Zapata County.  La Laja Ranch has been in the same family since the 1750s and was the first settlement north of the Rio Grande in that area.  It boasts a border of about 3000 feet along the river.  For most of that stretch, the river is lined with cane that produces the seeds that make up the preferred diet of the White-collared Seedeater.   The owner was very gracious in allowing 38 birder and four guides onto his property for a morning of birding. 

Ladder-backed Woodpecker
We broke into three groups and set out in search of our target bird.  For a long time we had no “target bird” luck at all.  We saw some Cardinals, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a House Wren, a Common Yellowthroat and a Lincoln Sparrow.  There was a Ladder-backed Woodpecker in one tree, and a great view of a Northern Bobwhite in another.  But just when it looked like we might dip on the Seedeater, one of the other groups called our leader with some good news.  We dashed to the spot and then waited.  And waited some more.  Then someone commented that there were some birds moving around in a tree at the end of the cane.  That turned out to be a Great Kiskadee, and standing just above it was a Plain Chachalaca, both lifers for me.  Add them to the Harris’s Hawk we saw along the roadside, and I had three lifers.  Not bad at all, but the day’s target bird was still nowhere in sight, so we waited as the temperature climbed toward 90. 

Northern Bobwhite
Then a gorgeous light-morph Red-tailed Hawk flew over us.  We all got on it and exclaimed over its beauty, but suddenly another hawk decided to share the same rising air.  It was a Gray Hawk and it immediately began calling to us so that there was no question at all about its ID.  What a terrific sight that was, and it was lifer #4 for the day. 

By this time we had been standing in the same spot for at least an hour, hoping for the Seedeater to return.  I’ve said before that birding teaches patience, and this time our patience was being tested.  But good things come to those who stand and wait … and bird.  A female White-collared Seedeater finally appeared, albeit deep in the cane.  It was very difficult to get a clear view, so I stared into the dense vegetation for several minutes trying to get a complete picture in my mind of what I was seeing.  Finally, there it was, the short, stubby bill that is characteristic of this elusive species.  And that was lifer #5!

Very soon after that we headed back to the buses and began the journey back to Harlingen.  Along the way we stopped at a picnic area that had a spectacular view of the Rio Grande with Mexico to the left and the USA on the right.  Of course, I was so taken with the view that I stepped into a low cactus and lanced my shin with about 30 tiny needles.  Pulling them out was no fun at all! 

Tomorrow is west Brownsville and Resaca De La Palma.  I’ll let you know how I do.

Caution:  Cacti May Attack Shin at Any Moment!

The Rio Grande with Mexico Above and the USA Below

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Green Jay!!

Say's Phoebe
Finally!  I’m in Harlingen, Texas, and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival kicks off in the morning.  My first field trip begins at 5:00 AM and doesn’t end until about 4:30 PM.  We’re heading west toward Zapata and Webb Counties in search of the White-collared Seedeater.  The trip is being led by Julie Zickefoose.  I’ve read many of her articles in Bird Watcher’s Digest, so I’m looking forward to meeting her in person.

The drive from Gainesville was exhausting.  I drove for 13 hours on Monday and another 7 or so today.  There was no time for birding yesterday, but today was a different story.  I knew that I had plenty of time to make it to the festival registration by 5:00 PM, so I used an extra hour or two for birding along the way.   I was able to see a nice little collection of “drive by” birds as I worked my way south – all without endangering myself or others.  The best of the roadside birds was a White-tailed Hawk, the first lifer of the trip. 

Vermilion Flycatcher
One stop was at a cemetery in Kingsville.  Actually, I had hoped to bird at Dick Kleberg Park, but it had no birds.  The Escondido River was all dust and no water, and there were no birds along the riverbed, in the trees, or on the fields of the park.  A cemetery was nearby so that became the new target.  Good call!  There weren’t a lot of birds, but the few that I saw were wonderful.  Among them were a Say’s Phoebe, a Vermilion Flycatcher, and a few Eastern Meadowlarks, all of which displayed vibrant colors.

Another birding locale was the famous Sarita Rest Stop on US 77 south of the town of Sarita.  All I can say is, “Oh my God!  Green Jay!”   In fact, there were four of them.  The pictures below can’t really capture what this bird looks like.  It’s an other-worldly experience to see something so beautiful and that I’ve waited to see for 12 years.  They were so compelling that I have to admit practically overlooking the Bronzed Cowbirds with those magical red eyes that strutted around the area.  Instead I chased the Jays from tree to tree and followed them as they fed along the ground.  All I could manage was a few inarticulate phrases like, “Wow!” and “Oh my!”  I spent over 40 years teaching writing, and that’s all I could muster.  
Green Jay
"Wow ... Oh my!"

The Big Red Van pulled in to the festival headquarters at 4:34.  I got registered, bought a souvenir hat and t-shirt, and headed back to the car.  I grabbed my bins and went for a quick stroll under the trees across the street.  On top of one tree I found the day’s third lifer, a Golden-fronted Woodpecker. 

So it’s early to bed and up early in the morning for the first field trip of the festival.  Come back tomorrow evening and see how I did.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Goals and Wild Turkey

Circle B Bar Reserve, Lakeland, Florida
Sometimes I go birding just for the pleasure of being outside and seeing God’s most delightful creatures.  Other times I have a specific goal in mind.  Yesterday was all about goals.  I have to lead a field trip for Alachua Audubon in late November to Circle B Bar Reserve in Polk County.  I’ve only been there once, so I needed to do some scouting, but time was becoming an issue.  Between now and then I’ll be spending nine days driving to and from Texas and attending the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.  So Goal #1 was to scout the Reserve so that I could plan a good trip.  And then there was Hillsborough County.  I’ve been pecking away at that county, trying to get my life list to 100, with little luck.  So Goal #2 was to find six new species and finally reach that century mark. 

Wood Storks Soar in a Perfect Sky
The Red Van Gang left Gainesville at 5:00 AM and got to the park just after 8:00.  If you haven’t been there, I have two words for you: Why not?  It’s a gorgeous place and it’s a birding hotspot.  You like hardwood hammock?  Got it.  Ponds and marshes?  Lots of them.  Grassy sparrow fields?  That too.  Our first problem was trying to get out of the parking lot – too many birds hanging out in the canopy above us.  We had a little excitement when one flew over us and there was a flash of bright red.  The size and shape suggested Painted Bunting, but we were unable to relocate the bird.  Eventually we headed out along the Heron Hideout Trail, and there were the birds!  The place was alive with herons, egrets, Limpkins, Bald Eagles, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal, Common and Purple Gallinules, Coots and Solitary Sandpipers, and so much more.  A Common Yellowthroat popped up here, but you couldn’t look for long because a  Marsh Wren popped up over there, just behind that Swamp Sparrow. But don’t forget to look up!  There were Wood Storks, Sandhill Cranes, Anhinga, Belted Kingfishers, Forster’s Terns, Herring Gulls, a Brown Pelican, Osprey and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  But wait, look back down – there’s a Sora!  Also, I needed to check the top of the hill leading out to the Eagle Roost Trail.  We walked through a small grassy area and quickly located two Grasshopper Sparrows and a Savannah Sparrow.  It took a little patience, but eventually we got good looks at all three.

Solitary Sandpiper
After lunch we headed to Hillsborough River State Park, but they appeared to be fresh out of birds.  Other than a Muscovy Duck in a pond on the way to the park, I had no new ticks to add to my list. We traveled south on 301, eventually reaching I-75 with the intent to go one exit north and to Lettuce Lake.  We never got there.  On the east side of the northbound lane of the interstate, we saw a pond with a bunch of shorebirds.  We took the next exit (Fletcher Ave.), found the little road that runs parallel to the highway, and headed south.  We found the pond and there were Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Stilt Sandpipers – and I was at 98.  We then turned around and headed back up the road.  We pulled over at one spot to look around and saw a Pileated Woodpecker – 99!  Just as I was about to turn away I looked to my left and saw Wild Turkey (the bird, not the drink).  That was #100.  I wanted to celebrate by raising a Wild Turkey to the heavens (the drink, not the bird)!

Both goals were accomplished and we were only a half hour late getting back.  That’s a good day’s work.

Grasshopper Sparrow
Wild Turkey ... The Bird, Not the Drink!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Easy Does It

Red-breasted Nuthatch.  Photo by John Killian.
We all have stories about what it took to get a bird we really wanted to see.  A few years ago I spent nine hours staring at a single tree where a Lazuli Bunting was known to hang out.  That day was the only one out of about two weeks that the bird didn't show.  Typical.  Another time I stood in absolutely freezing temperatures along Bottoms Road waiting until dark for a Short-eared Owl to emerge.  I couldn't feel my toes any more!  Finally most of my group gave up and started back to the cars.  I lingered with a few others and one of them played a Short-eared Owl call once.  The bird exploded out of the marsh right in front of me and flew directly over my head.   It had been there all along.  Lifer!

On the other hand, I got my life Greater White-fronted Goose while driving past a retention pond in front of a Home Depot.  Looked out my window, saw the bird, and kept driving.  And I got my life Scissor-tailed Flycatcher when the bird flew up to me while I was looking at another bird.

Photo by John Killian
Today was one of those easy days.  I had heard that a local birder, John Killian, had two Red-breasted Nuthatches visiting his feeders.   Now, John Killian and I have many things in common.  We both love the outdoors in general and birding in particular.  We both retired on the same day from the same school.  Together we spent about 80 years in teaching.  And to my good fortune, he is also a very gracious host.  He invited me to a stake out this morning on his patio.  I arrived at his house at about 8:32.  He was standing outside his door saying that the bird had been at the birdbath seven minutes earlier.  We moved to the patio, took our seats, and about ten minutes later I was expressing my appreciation as I was making my way out the door.  It was that easy.  The little guy perched on a broken limb right above us and John took the pictures above on the left.  It was my Alachua County lifer #278.  It doesn't get much easier.

On a side note, I received the photos below from a fellow "Red Van Gangster."  She has a hose that leaks in a bunch of spots and is wound into a live oak in her back yard.  The birds love it.  One of the drips has left a small hole in the ground. Earlier today a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker belly flopped into the hole, stuck his head under the dripping water, and played for about five minutes.  I thought you would like to see the pictures.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
"There's nothing like a dip in the pool on a warm day in Florida!"