Friday, May 31, 2013

Wrapping Up Day 1

Mew Gull
I ended my last post with lunch time on Thursday.  The afternoon and evening weren't as productive in terms of additional lifers, but I had a great time nonetheless.  After lunch I went to Westchester Lagoon and enjoyed a peaceful hour scanning the waters.  An island in the center held two Hudsonian Godwits, a Pacific Loon groomed himself nearby, and a Common Loon swam around the opposite bank.  A Belted Kingfisher chattered his way up and down the lagoon.  Mew Gulls and Arctic Terns dotted the islands.  It was really nice spending time there, but I found nothing else, so I headed south to Kincaid Park.

I reached the chalet and started inside for a trail map.  On the door was a sign warning visitors to beware of a very aggressive female moose with her calf that had been roaming the woods.  I grabbed a map and headed out on one of the shorter trails near the park entrance.  I didn't get very far.  I saw a Swainson's Thrush, a few Robins, several Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Blackpoll Warbler.  And then there was a female moose ahead on the path.  I didn't hang around to find out if it was THE female from the warning sign.  I bailed out and decided it was time to eat and relax for a bit.

Arctic Tern
After dinner I decided to go back to the Potter Marsh boardwalk.  I had covered so little of it earlier in the day and I had heard a few interesting calls that I thought might be worth exploring.  I'm glad I went back.  It was an idyllic evening.  I added a drake Northern Shoveler to the day list and then wandered out to the northern end.  There I watched the tree line and caught a quick glimpse of a woodpecker disappearing into some trees.  I kept a close eye on the area and soon saw a woodpecker fly out and head east.  I watched carefully and clearly saw what looked like a striped upper back.  American Three-toed Woodpecker?  I think so.  I looked at a lot of photos online last night, and I think I have the call correct.

There was one other incident from the morning I neglected to mention.  I watched a bit of aerial combat between a Common Raven and a Northern Goshawk.  The Raven ceded the battlefield to the Goshawk and beat a hasty retreat despite a slight advantage in size.  Very cool.

By the end of the first full day of birding, I had nine lifers: Black-billed Magpie, Glaucous-winged Gull, Cackling Goose, Mew Gull, Violet-green Swallow, Common Redpoll, Northern Goshawk, Varied Thrush and American Three-toed Woodpecker. 

I'll try to get another blog out in the next two days.  Here's a preview: On Friday I had only 19 species, but six of them were lifers.  I saw what may be the most beautiful spot I've ever seen, and a I had a lynx between me and my car!

Looking east from Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage
Red-necked Grebe

Potter Marsh and Anchorage

Potter Marsh
I started the morning today at Potter Marsh, a gorgeous and sprawling marsh just south of Anchorage.  It's spectacular.  Think of thousands of gulls and terns nesting within a few steps of a major highway with the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, and you've got it.  I started at the southeastern end and the first bird I encountered was a Violet-green Swallow (Lifer) perched above the parking area.  A quick look at the marsh revealed both Canada and Cackling Geese, a Green-winged Teal, several Mallards and what appeared to be a swarm of gulls and terns a few hundred yards to the north.  I birded the perimeter of the parking lot and was delighted to see several Wilson's Warblers, a singing Dark-eyed Junco,  and loads of Yellow-rumped Warblers (who knew they were so beautiful?).  Motion on the ground behind a row of mailboxes caught my eye, and after a moment I saw two Common Redpolls (Lifer).

Common Redpoll
Next I headed back toward Anchorage to two pull-offs in the middle of the marsh.  Hundreds of Arctic Terns and Mew Gulls (Lifer) were nesting within a very short distance of where I stood, some in low grass right next to the shore.  Further north is a turn-off that leads to an extensive boardwalk system.  I wandered through this area for a long time, soaking up the scenery and fresh air while watching Tree Swallows buzz overhead and land just a couple of feet away on the boardwalk railing.  One Tree Swallow dropped to the ground right below me and seemed to be gathering nesting material.  He's pictured below.

My next destination was Hillside Park.  It was already late morning and the birds seemed to be resting, but I still had an experience I'll never forget.  When I began birding I was challenged to make a list of my Top Ten Most Wanted birds in North America.  Leading my list was the Varied Thrush.  From the first time I saw its picture, this was a bird I really wanted.  And there it was, no more than a hundred paces from the parking lot.  What an incredibly beautiful sight!  I also found Gray-cheeked and Swainson's Thrushes, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a few other common birds, but the Varied Thrush topped everything.

Well, that gets me to lunch ... and the birds are singing outside, so ... I gotta go birding!

Tree Swallow
 A lousy picture of a fabulous Varied Thrush

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bird Banding, Part Two

Patrick and Jessica, the bird-banding team
For the second time in the last year, I got to observe and take part in a bird banding project sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute.  This is such a cool experience I wish everyone could be a part of it.  We started before 7:00 AM in the same yard in Alachua, Florida, as I wrote about in an earlier blog.  This is a great, bird-friendly yard of about 2.5 acres.  The yard is bounded on three sides by mixed hardwood and pine with a moderate understory.  In addition, about an acre of the property is wooded with a few well-maintained trails winding through the vegetation.  The homeowner is in the process of weeding out invasive plants while planting bird-friendly, native vegetation.  A portion of the backyard is dominated by a massive live oak.  There are feeders, bird baths, and dripping water that bring in a wide variety of birds.  In short, it's a great yard for watching birds.

Downy Woodpecker

It wasn't long after the nets were in place that we got our first birds.  Several Northern Cardinals fell into the nets.  The researchers (Patrick and Jessica) swooped in, untangled and then bagged the birds.  Each was weighed, examined, measured, and had a tail feather plucked.  They were then banded and set free, usually after one or more of us held each bird.  A few Carolina Chickadees flew into the nets, but the first three or four bounced off or rolled out and got away.  Finally two flew in to a net in the back yard and stuck. 

The Downy Woodpecker in the photo at right was captured, but as the species is not part of this project, it was released without further study.  Also captured and released was a White-winged Dove, but not before we took some time to study the feather pattern in its wing.  The Dove is pictured at the bottom.

Better bite a stick than a finger!
In all, seven birds were banded in 2012 and another seven in 2013.  I had hoped that we would recapture one of last year's birds, but that was not to be.  Recently I photographed one of the Carolina Wrens that was banded last July (below, center).  Soon the homeowner will begin to record sightings of banded birds, eventually submitting her records to the Smithsonian's project website.  This kind of citizen science is designed to help researchers learn how long individual birds live and continue returning to the same feeders.  If you ever get the chance to participate in this type of project, don't hesitate.  It's an unforgettable experience!

White-winged Dove

White-winged Dove

Click on and expand the photo to see the bands.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Jewel and an OMG!

Sandhill Crane Family Out for a Stroll
Yesterday was an incredible day from a birder's perspective.  The skies were clear, the temperatures started in the 50s and peaked in the mid 70s, and the humidity was low.  It was perfect for birding.  I decided to try a place I've never visited, so I consulted my handy-dandy Florida State Parks app and found a reference to Fort Cooper State Park in Inverness.

The Red Van arrived just as the park opened at 8:00 AM.  We birded along the entrance road for a bit.  The best bird was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  Then we went down to Lake Holathlikaha.  The first sight that we saw was delightful - a pair of Sandhill Cranes walking along the edge of the lake with their two kids trailing behind.  Beyond them, a Purple Gallinule walked across the vegetation finding tasty morsels for breakfast.  Further out, Common Gallinules and American Coots seemed to be taking a lazy swim around the lake.  Meanwhile, a Northern Bobwhite was calling from the tall grass along one edge of the lake.   We moved over there and it soon walked out onto the beach for just a moment, giving us a great look.  Overall it was a very peaceful and beautiful sight.

Fort Cooper State Park
Next we decided to walk along the hiking trail near the lake.  It's a 1.3 mile loop, and it's gorgeous.  Once again the warbler fallout we were hoping for eluded us, but we still had some great birds.  We had a Blackpoll Warbler, an American Redstart, and numerous Northern Parulas.  A Barred Owl landed in a nearby tree, causing a ruckus among the other birds.  We had a three-vireo day (White-eyed, Red-eyed, and Yellow-throated).  Both Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks patrolled the forest and the lake's edge.  By the end of the walk we had tallied 35 species for the day.

Fort Cooper
Near the end of the trail we came across the ruins of Fort Cooper.  The Fort was built in 1836 and was used as a refuge for 380 soldiers from the First Georgia Battalion Volunteers during the Second Seminole War.   Major Mark Anthony Cooper and his men defended the fort against constant attacks from the warriors of Chief Osceola for 16 days while they awaited a relief column.  Major Cooper's command successfully defended the fort, even repelling one Seminole attempt to scale the walls.  The soldiers suffered 20 casualties but lost only one man.  Afterward, the fort was named for Major Cooper and was used as a reconnaissance post until 1849.  It was a privilege to walk those grounds and remember the brave men on both sides of that conflict.  The remaining portion of the fort walls is shown in the photo above, left. 

We had an excellent lunch at Stumpknockers in downtown Inverness and were heading home when we got "The Call."  It was one I never expected to get but, as a birder, one I had often dreamed about.  "There's a Kirtland's Warbler at San Felasco Millhopper ... I'm looking at it right now ... Hurry!"  I covered the distance from Ocala to Gainesville as quickly as possible given the speed limits and a law-abiding driver.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Kirtland's Warbler at San Felasco Hammock SP
We reached the park and saw several local birders in the parking lot.  They told us where to go and we hurried as fast as our retiree's legs could carry us.  A large group of local birders were gathered on the trail, but the bird hadn't been seen for a few minutes.  We started searching and I found it at eye level not more than 15 feet away.  Oh My God!! A Kirtland's Warbler!!  I mean ... a Kirtland's Warbler!!  This is one of the rarest birds in North America.  I expected to have to make a trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to see one, and there it was right in front of me.  After my jaw returned to its upright and locked position, I tried to snap a few photos.  What I got weren't very good, but they're good enough to provide evidence that I SAW A KIRTLAND'S WARBLER!!  OMG!!

Fort Cooper
Fort Cooper