Sunday, July 30, 2017

Estes Park and a Southern Slice of Rocky Mountain National Park

The view from the park on the southern shore of Lake Estes.

The drive to Estes Park was gorgeous at times but uneventful from a birding perspective.  I circled Boyd Lake through a series of detours that limited access to the lake at some spots and found very few birds on the water in others.  Loads of Barn Swallows swarmed above the surface, but I saw little else.  I also checked out a small portion of the Big Thompson Trail along the edge of a baseball/softball complex.  Ospreys nested in the light towers over the fields, House Wrens scolded me from the shrubs along the river, and American Robins dotted the outfield grass.  A lone Killdeer worked along the edge of the trail.  Perhaps the most interesting sight, however, was of a yellow-green softball lodged in the tree roots under some shrubs on the other side of the river, a testament to a mighty blast from some anonymous hero. Then I stopped at what is labeled "Jayhawk Ponds" on Google Maps, but I know that isn't the name I saw on the sign.  A small family of Canada Geese occupied one pond and a Bullock's Oriole perched briefly in a nearby tree, but that was all.

Mallards on Lake Estes

Once in Big Thompson Canyon, the wind really picked up.  I felt like I was driving uphill while being pushed back downhill.  The river was high and loud, churning its way down the mountain and filling the narrow canyon with its booming voice.  The wind kept the birds in hiding except for a single Common Raven that windsurfed on by at a fairly high speed.  Other than that, the only thing of note was a memorial to two police officers who gave their lives trying to save others during a flash flood in the canyon.  It was a sobering reminder of the power of nature and the dedication of our often under-appreciated police.

I reached Estes Park late in the afternoon but before check-in time at the hotel.  So I drove through town and eventually to a park that hugs the southern shore of Lake Estes.  I arrived just ahead of a light rain that threatened to soak me but instead just sprinkled a little bit.  I watched a Black-billed Magpie feeding in the grass and enjoyed the aerial antics of a Violet-green Swallow that stayed in the area for ten minutes or so.  Across the water a few Canada Geese ignored the rain while gliding gracefully along searching for food.  A Mountain Chickadee landed in a tree right next to me, a Bald Eagle swooped in low over the lake and snatched a fish for dinner, and Mallards (above) enjoyed a day of the water.  I looked at the stunning scenery and the beautiful clear water of the lake and thought I had found a slice of heaven on earth.

Cliff Swallow at the nest

The birding day ended in the fields below the dam on the eastern end of the lake.  A Mountain Bluebird watched me from the power lines while I enjoyed seeing a Cliff Swallow (above) make multiple trips to its nest.  I took the photo from a distance, so it's not the best quality shot, but I didn't want to risk getting any closer and disturbing its work.

Then as I was leaving the area, a Tree Swallow landed on a nest box and posed for me (below).

Tree Swallow - clean white and electric blue.

That was the last bird of a nice day.  I got to sleep early that night.  I was tired and ready for sleep and already anticipating my first day in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Moraine Park off Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park

Early the next morning I stepped out of my room and immediately felt it.  Wind.  A stiff wind hurried the clouds along while threatening to shake loose every leaf and needle on the surrounding trees.  Any birder will tell you that wind often leads to a really bad birding day, but you don't travel to a place like RMNP and then stay inside because it's windy, so I headed out as quickly as I could.  My goal for the day was to bird along Bear Lake Road, staying to the south of the more heavily visited areas of the park.  It turned out to be a really good plan.

Big Thompson River near Moraine Park

I took  US 36 into the park before turning south onto Bear Lake Road.  I didn't get very far.  Almost immediately I pulled to the edge to scope out the meadow below.  Near Beaver Creek an Elk grazed in the grass while its calf slept in the sun.  Swallows, both Violet-green and Cliff, dashed along using the wind like a sleighs on an icy slope.  Western Meadowlarks sang from both sides of the road.  In one bush along the road I saw a Western Wood-Pewee get chased away by a White-crowned Sparrow that was then joined by a Broad-tailed Hummingbird.  Meanwhile a Northern Flicker peeked at me from inside a bare shrub.

A Black-billed Magpie along Bear Lake Road
White-crowned Sparrow near Bear Lake Road

 I made a quick drive up to the Moraine Park Campground, but there was no place to park and I could see few birds from the car.  A red-naped Sapsucker was the sole exception.  Unfortunately I couldn't get a photo.  Next I drove to the Cub Lake trail head, but again there were no parking spaces.  Eventually I stopped near the beginning of the road to Fern Lake and parked near the restrooms.  I thoroughly enjoyed walking along this road.  It was quiet, picturesque, and sweet smelling.  A Lincoln's Sparrow hopped up on a fence wire long enough for me to take a photo.  Two rangers on horseback passed me on the trail, heading to a cabin up at Fern Lake.  A Hairy Woodpecker stopped by to add to the excitement.

Two park rangers heading "up to the cabin at Fern Lake."

Aspens lining the trail to Fern Lake
This House Wren voiced its indignation at our presence near the Fern Lake Trail

A Lincoln's Sparrow popped up to see what all the fuss was about.

I returned to Bear Lake Road and turned again to the south.  My next stop was Hollowell Park.  I'll tell you now that I fell in love with this spot.  It's stunningly beautiful with a view of snow-capped mountains, a wide expanse of meadow dappled with wildflowers and edged by a creekside marsh, and a small trail that hugs a tall pine forest.  A Steller's Jay checked out the picnic area and a Red-tailed Hawk soared overhead.  Then a Green-tailed Towhee popped up and made the day even better than it already was.

Green-tailed Towhee in Hollowell Park
Elk at Hollowell Park
Farther along the road I pulled into the Sprague Lake picnic area.  This is another really delightful spot.  A short trail with circles the small lake and benches are scattered throughout the easy walk.  Mallards swam on the lake and a variety of swallows added to the scene.  Near the end of the loop I got excited when I saw a songbird with a yellow throat.  I got my binoculars on it to find ... a Yellow-rumped Warbler!  And this was not the pale, washed out and gray throated Yellow-rumped Warbler we are used to seeing at home in Florida.  This one was the western "Audubon's" in its fresh breeding plumage and looking good.  My photo doesn't do it justice, but I'll remember this bird next winter when I see a bird and think, "Oh, just another Yellow-rump."

Yellow-rumped Warbler at Sprague Lake

The birding day ended at Bear Lake, elevation 9475 feet.  This spot was jammed with people, several of whom were annoyingly loud.  I do not understand someone making an effort to reach a spot that is so peaceful and then turning it into anything but with loud music and shouting at people who are only a few feet away.  Anyway, the people and the noise kept the birds well hidden so I saw nothing new.  Still, the stop was worth it.  Bear Lake itself is stunning and is surrounded by impressive mountain peaks.  And I was also happy to note that even at that altitude, by asthma was not acting up.  I knew that the next morning I would be over 2000 feet higher, so this was a hopeful sign for me.

Bear Lake at 9,475 feet.

There was one other incident on the day worth noting.  Near the intersection of Moraine Park and Bear Lake Roads I saw a small flycatcher that I could not identify with confidence.  I wear hearing aids, and the only sound the bird made sounded like static in my ears.  The really upsetting part is that there is a very good chance that it would have been a life bird for me.  I took the photo below from the car with traffic building up behind me and the wind buffeting the vehicle.  If anyone cares to hazard a guess, leave a comment below.

If you have an opinion, leave a comment below.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Colorado 2017: Pawnee National Grasslands

Purple, orange and yellow wildflowers decorated the Pawnee National Grasslands

For over a decade I have wanted to take a birding trip to Colorado.  I finally got that chance in June.  It was a bit surreal to climb out of my bed in Gainesville at 2:00 AM and get a lifer in Colorado that afternoon, but that's exactly what happened!

The arrival in Denver was on time, the rental car was ready, and I immediately headed out towards Greeley.  I was fortunate in that Carl Bendorf of Colorado Birding Adventures had already given me the location of my first target bird, the Mountain Plover.  It was located in the eastern - and less frequently birded - portion of the Pawnee National Grasslands (PNG).  I hadn't even planned on entering that side of the park, but Carl's tip pointed me in the right direction.

The PNG covers nearly 200,000 acres in north in northeast Colorado.  It's divided into two portions, east and west, with a non-park corridor running up the middle centered on County Road 89.  Furthermore, much of the "park" is actually private lands, so most of the birding has to be done from a car.  Also, you might think of a park that's called a "grasslands" as being a vast expanse of just that - grass.  As I discovered, you would be wrong.  Instead, it's a sea of short and tall grass, cattle pastures, wildflowers, rocky fields and a dizzying array of plants - over 400 varieties!

A Pronghorn grazing on the Pawnee National Grasslands
As soon as I arrived it was evident that I wasn't on a Florida prairie any more.  Practically the first bird I saw made that very clear.
Lark Bunting

The Lark Bunting had been a lifer only a year earlier when I saw a small flock in Amidon, North Dakota.  Now they were in the road, on fence posts, and perched atop small bushes throughout the grasslands.  A gregarious little bird, they were rarely alone, often flitting about in groups of ten, twenty, or more.

Back home in Gainesville, my birding colleagues held a special field trip while I was flying towards Colorado.  Over 50 of them gathered to take a small hike to a protected area where Alachua County's only Burrowing Owls resided.  I regretted missing that trip, but I had some luck of my own.  While searching for the target bird, I found several Burrowing Owls like this one who seems to be munching on a grasshopper.

It was already getting late, and my body was still on Eastern Time, but I had one more bird to find.  Fortunately, I found it just past the owls.  The photograph below is not great, but it is a life bird!

Mountain Plover, my first lifer of the trip.

That first day certainly ended on a high note!  The second day started with almost as much excitement.  Before entering the PNG, I made a stop at the Crow Valley Recreation Area.  The birding here was fantastic despite a very stiff wind.  In fact the wind was strong enough to provide some entertaining moments.  Several Western Kingbirds were battling the winds while trying to feed on flying insects.  One Kingbird took off diving into the wind, but was immediately blown backwards.  It spun once, turning its tail into the wind, and sped away about as fast as a Kingbird has ever flown.  Here is that talented flyer:

The real thrill of my time at Crow Valley was that this was the first - and only - three oriole day I've ever been around.  In a small area near the creek, a Baltimore Oriole stopped in a tree a few feet above me, an Orchard Oriole flew around the trees across the creek, and this Bullock's Oriole darted about the treetops near the road.

Once in the PNG, the birding got even busier.  First there were Barn Swallows on the wires of the fences:

Then there was a Cassin's Sparrow perching up, giving me the opportunity for the best look at that species that I've ever had.

And everywhere I looked there were Western Meadowlarks singing their lovely melody for all to hear.

Now let me digress from the bird life of the grasslands for a moment.  If you ever decide to visit PNG, try to do so when the wildflowers are in bloom.  While I was there, the park was awash in color.  Look at the images at the top of this blog and those of the Burrowing Owls and Mountain Plover.  I can see why the Native Americans loved this land.  It sustained their lifestyle while surrounding them with its majesty and beauty.

Butterflies love it too and add their own splash of color:

Okay, back to the birding.  I had one primary target for the day.  I wanted to find a McCown's Longspur.  That proved to be harder than I expected.  I drove mile after mile without seeing one.  Certainly there were great birds everywhere like this Grasshopper Sparrow:

And I was thrilled to see this Horned Lark in the grass!

And then things got better when another one popped up on a fence post showing the world its "horns".

But finally, late in the afternoon, in what was practically my last hour in the grasslands, there it was.  A McCown's Longspur landed just a few feet in front of the car.  And then a second one joined it.  Then another ... and another!  It was lifer #2 for the trip, and a perfect ending for my day and a half in the Pawnee National Grasslands.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Muddling Through May

May is a split-personality month for birders.  It starts with the excitement of migration which begins in April but often peaks in early May.  On the other hand, the month ends with the heat of summer and a bird population comprised chiefly of the usual suspects -- 12-month and summer-only residents.  The migrants that cause the fevered-pitch birding of April and early May are gone.

In Gainesville, April and May were hot and as dry as tinder.  Seemingly endless sunny days offered picture postcard promises, but the lack of rain created a drought of almost historic proportions, and much of the landscape turned brown.  Lake levels dropped and only drought-tolerant plants really thrived.

My friend Rex Rowan and I started the month with a walk along the Lake Pithlachocco Trail in the Newnan's Lake State Forest.  We had a great morning with about 30 species, highlighted by a Cape May Warbler in a wild plum tree.  But my favorite sighting happened when I noticed something dart high into a tree above my head.  We searched for the bird and found more than we were expecting.  It was a Ruby-throated Hummingbird's nest.

We had about 30 species during the morning, including a Cape May Warbler in a wild plum tree and another in some grapevines, but seeing this lovely lady working on the nest felt more like I had been given a rare privilege.

It was a promising start to the month, but the rest of the month was disappointing in some ways.  It seemed that field trips were much less successful than watching feeders in the back yard.  Early May can surprise and delight with rare feeder visitors like this Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Northern Parulas are in their best plumage in May, with fresh, vibrant colors adorning their throats and breasts.

Even the local crowd is breaking out their fresh plumage and putting on a show.  This Red-bellied Woodpecker was sporting the crimson patch on his belly that gave the species its name.

 Of course, much of the bird activity disappears when a Red-shouldered Hawk decides to take a bath.

Still, it's the migrants we're really looking for, and this beautiful female Painted Bunting added quite a thrill.  She showed up on May 7 and hung around for a couple of days.  

 Occasionally Alachua Audubon offers a field trip to the Jacksonville area that typically begins at Huguenot Memorial Park.  I look forward to this trip a lot.  I love the opportunity to study shorebirds and large numbers of gulls and terns.  This year, however, the morning was marked by driving winds that urged the birds into cover and whipped the sand into an abrasive cloud that lashed us unmercifully while we trudged along the beach.  I couldn't hold the camera steady at all, a sand found its way into my ears (sneaking past my hearing as!) and even into my mouth.  Every time I tried to speak, sand crunched between my teeth.  Early in I got this distant photo of a Black-bellied Plover.

A few hours later I saw some Royal Terns doing their best to ignore the wind while ensuring the survival of their species.

 The conditions improved significantly once we left the coast and focused on several spots on Fort George Island.  Unfortunately, photography continued to be a challenge.  Only the larger birds seemed to venture out into the open.  While not a "countable" bird, I appreciated the peacock's willingness to pose for pictures.

A week later I led a field trip to Alligator Lake in Lake City.  Fortunately, we proved we could have lots of fun without lots of birds.  We only had about 25 species, a very low number for such a great environment.  This Eastern Bluebird perched up early on the trail, but it was one of the very few birds to do so all morning.

 In fact, I spent time photographing a Zebra Longwing butterfly on some lantana ... a sure sign of a bored birder.

Meanwhile, three of my friends were using their great cameras to photograph a Wood Duck way out on the lake.  I had to settle for photographing them:

Tina, Jerry, and Stephanie, good birders, photographers and friends.
Meanwhile, back at the feeders ...

Blue Grosbeak
 The combination of the sand blasting at Huguenot Park and a rugged life on the birding trail had taken a toll on my Canon camera.  I enjoyed it a lot, and took many really good photos.  But now it had started doing some odd things at inopportune moments.  I did some internet research and talked to some friends before finally settling on a Nikon Coolpix P900.  Of course, as soon as I got it, I had to start snapping away, whether there were birds anywhere nearby or not.

Mimosa after an early morning rain.
Then I tried shots at distances I could not have tried with my old camera.

White-winged Dove in the back of a yard, well away from where I stood.  Could not have done it before.
Red-shouldered Hawk across a long lawn and up on the wires.  Could not have done it before.
And then there were details I didn't capture before.

House Finch eating Nutrasaff from Wild Birds Unlimited. 
Red-bellied Woodpecker sunning himself on a branch above my feeders.
Great Crested Flycatcher, one of my favorite birds of summer.
Pileated Woodpecker.  This one was looking for a dip in a drip pool. 
Of course, spring migration and fresh plumages are all about the annual ritual of mating, nesting, and raising young.  And this month held true to form.  May ended with a welcome sight, a young Eastern Bluebird, still sporting its juvenile plumage.

April had ended with my 2017 Alachua County total standing at 141 and my Florida total at 197.  Despite the promise of more migrants in May, a variety of factors outside my control had really limited my birding success.  For the month I had only 45 species within the county (my lowest total in over a decade), and a total of 80 within the state (another all-time low).  Accordingly, my county total for the year inched upward by only two to 143, while my state total increased to 203. 

While May was disappointing, June was certain to be very special.  The June Challenge was about to begin, and I had a trip out west that I know you'll want to hear about.