Friday, February 5, 2016

Speaking of Sparrows . . .

I finally got to spend a whole day in Cape May birding last weekend. Harvey and I started in the Villas searching for the Varied Thrush that eluded me on my last trip. We spent a good amount of time walking the old fairways and finally got a fleeting glimpse of the bird as it flew past us at break neck speed. No photos and a really crappy way to get a life bird, but it is checked off the list. I hope to see more on my next trip out west which is where this bird belongs.

Once the Varied Thrush was found, Harvey and I headed out to see some other cool birds that were being seen at Beach Plum Farm in Cape May. This is a working farm where they have free range chickens and grow produce for the local restaurants. It is only open to the public on weekends which was fine since we were there on Saturday. Two sparrows were reported there - Lark and Vesper. Both are uncommon species that show up sporadically in our area.

Vesper sparrow isn't a particularly pretty bird. It is pretty drab gray/brown but has one distinctive field mark that you can see clearly - the white eye ring. This bird was very accommodating. When we arrived, the bird was flitting in and out of some hedges but decided to fly out into the driveway to pick at seeds on the ground. There were other birders and photographers there but I crept up the driveway on my knees to get these shots. The bird didn't care at all.

Vesper Sparrow
Here is the bird happily chomping on a seed.

Vesper Sparrow
What the Vesper sparrow lacks in wow, the Lark sparrow has in spades. This is an easy bird to ID in the field with unmistakable face pattern. Once again, creeping on my knees allowed me to get these shots.

Lark Sparrow
Here is the bird happily eating some grass seed.

Lark Sparrow
Back in the parking lot, we couldn't resist spending 25 cents to feed the chickens. Boy are they aggressive. Here is Harvey getting his hand bit off.  I will have to remember to bring the kids that visit us during the summer here.

Harvey's brood
Just down the road from the farm is the site of an old Magnesite Plant that was used during WWII. The plant is gone except for a water tower. The ground is so polluted from the spoils of the work that hardly anything grows there. The habitat is ripe for sparrows. Someone has bird feeders in the parking lot so Harvey and I took the short ride to see what we could see. Best bird was this Fox Sparrow. You can see why they are called Fox sparrow due to the color. Again, this one posed with seed for me.

Fox Sparrow
Why not round out the day by birding the beaches along the ocean. We stopped at Two Mile Beach just south of Wildwood to see some of the damage caused by the recent winter storm which dumped all of that snow up home. Hundreds of Welks washed up on shore. Here is a shot that I staged to show the Welk shells with the damaged sand dunes in the background. Harvey and I each left with a shopping bag full of shells.

Welk Shells - Two Mile Beach
We headed to Stone Harbor Point to see more birds. We caught a brief glimpse of a Pipit and actually heard it call "PIPIT". This Ipswich Sparrow posed briefly before disappearing behind the dune grass. This is another subtle beauty. Ipswich is a race of Savannah sparrow that are only found near the beach in winter.

Ipswich Sparrow
All in all, it was a great day for mid winter birding. Especially since the weather has been too warm to send the ducks, geese and seabirds south.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Broken Ankle, Holidays, Snow, Funerals, Hockey

What do all of these things have in common? They are all deterrents to birding and thus hindering your reading list. The good news is that I think we are back on track. Connie's ankle is healing which means that she can drive herself. The holidays are over. The snow is melting. The funerals are past. Hockey continues. Birding can commence for 2016.

The first real birding that I did in 2016 was to participate in the Philadelphia Mid-winter Bird Census. This year, I had a lot of territory to cover alone. Looking for birds while keeping notes prevented photos.

Photography resumed last week in the form of shooting pictures through my open office window. The birds were very cooperative due to the 16 inches of snow which makes them rely on our bird feeders for a living. Here are a few shots from the day. First is an iconic male Cardinal in the snow.

Next is this little piggy of a Chickadee. This guy has a sunflower seed AND peanut in his mouth.

Speaking of seeds, here are some more photos of birds with seeds. All shot from the open window looking out onto the patio. A Junco in classic gray and white.

 A Song Sparrow.

Song Sparrow
 And of of many White-throated Sparrow with the diagnostic white throat and yellow eye lores.

White-throated Sparrow

As you can see, I shoveled the patio for the birds. Peanut also liked the shoveled paths since the snow was deeper than she is!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Varied Week But Not Today

This week:

  • Our location was varied - started in Florida, spent the night in Virginia, arrived home in Pennsylvania and spent the day today in New Jersey.
  • Our weather was varied - 86 degrees in Florida but only 33 degrees today. 
  • Our TV watching was even varied - we watched shows that we never heard of before in Florida like "2 Broke Girls" and "Pitbulls and Perolees" (not kidding), then football and our soap opera at home.

The only thing that wasn't varied was my luck chasing the Varied Thrush that showed up right in the Villas about a month ago and has been seen sporadically ever since. The Varied Thrush is a bird from the north and west. Of course, with everything that is going on at home (Connie's broken ankle etc) I haven't been able to go after the bird until today. And of course, with my luck you know how the chase was going to end up.

I met Harvey at 7:30 AM and headed out to Cox Hall Creek to look for the bird. Harvey has seen the bird a few times and agreed to help me find it today.  The last report of the bird stated that it was in the Holly Woods near a Bluebird box. The report said that the bird was seen hanging out with another rare bird - the Red-headed Woodpecker. We spent 2 hours freezing our hands and feet off looking. We finally found a Red-headed Woodpecker but the Thrush could not be found.

Red-headed Woodpecker
By 9:30 we needed warmth and breakfast. Harvey went home to do chores and I headed back to the park to look again. I started to feel better when I found another Red-headed Woodpecker. Again, no Varied Thrush but to my surprise, I stumbled on 4 Bobwhites scurrying up the path in front of me. I managed to snap a few shots before they scattered into the grass. They are so small and so cute. I noticed that some of the quail have white faces and some have tan/beige faces. Turns out that the birds with white faces are male and the beige faces are females. 2 of each in this covey.

I re-found one of the male birds huddled under a bush just off the path.

Still no Thrush so I went to Wawa for a Diet Coke and much needed bathroom break. Back to the park for third try. The wind was really howling all day. So much so that even this Merlin was sitting in the woods instead of on top of a snag like he usually does. Merlins are falcons and should be used to the wind, but today was too much for this guy. He really liked watching Peanut running around below him. Good thing Merlins eat birds and not mammals.

I'll cut to the chase - no Thrush. A few other birders were looking for the bird throughout the day without luck either. One guy dipped for the 7th time today. Another missed the bird for the 5th time. I don't feel that bad about not seeing this elusive bird. I hope it hangs around so that I can try to vary my luck.

Friday, January 1, 2016

What Paulie Missed

I'm down in Florida visiting the old folks this week. I dragged Connie down here with promises of mending her broken ankle poolside rather than home. 2 days drive with Peanut in the back seat and 3 days of visiting.

My mother was very anxious to take Peanut to the new dog park that Dave found near their house. The park has a "nature park" attached to it too. Dave borrowed a golf cart for me, Connie and Peanut to bomb around in. Here is Peanut on her first ride.

Golf Cart Ride
We went. Peanut was just OK with the dog park but the nature park was a hit. Late afternoon was a good time to visit. Close up views of Grackles - you can see the purple iridescence when the Florida sun hits them just right.

This female Merganser was showing off her 'doo in the pond. No males were there, so I'm not sure why she was so interested in showing off.

Female Hooded Merganser
The star of the show had to be 2 Meadowlarks in the grass at the park. They let me get really close while they hunted for bugs. This one cranked out the famous musical song right in front of me. Wow.
The pond was full of birds including American White Pelicans, Wood Storks, Egrets and Cormorants. The Pelican is in flight.
American White Pelican with Storks
Paul and Linda are my mother's neighbors. A very nice couple from New Jersey who we see each time we visit. Paulie (as we call him) sent me a newspaper article from the local Villages paper about New Year's Day birding. He wanted to go along. We never made a plan so I knocked on their door New Year's Eve - no answer. I went by the house New Year's Day - no answer. Oh well, I went birding alone (frankly, it was a joy to be by myself for an hour). Here is what Paulie missed:
First bird of 2016 - Eurasian Collared Dove
Eurasian Collared Dove
 Loggerhead Shrike calling from a tree along one of the many golf courses near the house.

Loggerhead Shrike
 A gang of Ibis (or is that Ibi ? ) hunting the golf course edge.

White Ibis
Best bird of the day - this American Bittern in the marsh.

American Bittern
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers love Florida. They are in every other tree along with Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
This Osprey was poised to fish in the mist of the morning. Connie saw him/her catch a fish later in the day.

The Villages are known for having very tame Sandhill Cranes that walk around the golf courses. They are so tame that the golfers have to shoo them off of the putting greens. They don't even move when a ball plops down near them. As tame as they are, they didn't like Peanut. Here are 3 of them squawking in unison as we walked past them.

Sandhill Cranes - upset with Peanut
Once Peanut was in the car, the alert was over and the Cranes allowed more photos. Clam as cucumbers.

Sandhill Cranes
All in all, day one of 2016 was a hit. Easy birding racked up 38 species plus I got to swim and a home made pork and sauerkraut dinner.  Too bad for Paulie. I hope he gets out birding soon.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Bird Count 2015

It's that time of year again - Audubon's Christmas Bird Counts are happening all over the world. CBCs as they are called, take place each year between Dec 14 and Jan 5. Birders concentrate on counting all of the birds of any species in a particular area. I have been assigned to Pennypack Environmental Center area for the past 5 or 6 years now. 

Barbara Granger, a fellow DVOC member has joined me for the past few years since she is familiar with the area. I am glad for the help. In past years, its just been me and Roxy alone in the woods for hours.  This year of course, Roxy didn't join us :-( but Peanut sure had fun on her first CBC! I'm an idiot and forgot to snap photos of my 2 companions this year so sorry about that. 

The area isn't "sexy" as far as the cool birds that other areas have which is probably why it gets left to me. The better birders already claim the good spots. We get the expected Chickadees and Nuthatches, some common sparrows and a few Mallard ducks. We walk over 2 miles up and down the Pennypack creek searching for and recording each bird that we see or hear. Our big win this year was that we saw all of the woodpeckers possible. We started with Downies at the Environmental Center feeders, Red-bellied near the center, added Flicker in the woods and heard the unmistakable call of the Pileated along the path. A few minutes later, we heard and saw Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. That left only Hairy to complete the set. Barbara found one late in our day! Yay.

The only other interesting birds for the day were Great Blue Heron which is not always on our part of the creek.

Great Blue Heron
And Crows. We counted 25 of them at the police horse stables. This one was perched on the coral. 

American Crow
We noticed this unusual wing pattern on another Crow. The primaries shouldn't be white like that. Weird.

Weird Crow
I know that you are probably disappointed with the lack of photos from the day but it is difficult to photograph and count at the same time. I hate to miss a few birds while concentrating on the photos. 

I hope to have something more exciting to report soon. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Soggy, Sparse West Coast Trip

Another week, another work trip. I'm starting to get a feel for what my cousin Susan goes through with her job. Not always fun even when you plan a day for sightseeing and birding. The latest trip was out to Seattle and San Francisco.

I planned to go to Seattle early to meet with a client and then take of to go birding. I need a few species that I missed on earlier trips. The weather did not cooperate. I didn't even take my big camera once I learned of the 100% chance of rain each day. I went out to the park near our hotel anyway to see what was around. You can see how dreary it was. What you can't see is how soaked I was. So soaked that I had to use the hotel laundry to dry my coat and pants.

Here is a close-up of Juncos that flocked around me on my walk. They didn't seem to mind the rain.

These trips are sponsored by Microsoft so that we can talk about some of their donations. We work closely with a small group of people there including James. Here he is showing me his photo of the Resplendant Quetzal from his trip to Costa Rica. I could just scream. The RQ is our nemesis bird - the bird that we most want to see in Central America but haven't been able to locate on multiple trips. Look at that shot! Amazing.

Resplendent James
We headed to San Francisco on Thursday and decided to stay in the city due to the forecast of rain. It didn't rain so Sam and I headed out to Coit Tower to see if we could find some birds. I call this photo "Red-tailed Hawk". Can you see the bird high above the tower? That was the only bird around. We climbed the tower and had awesome views of the San Francisco bay and city.

We took a boat ride out to Alcatraz to tour the old prison. Fun trip. Here is a shot of the island with Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. No birds to mention here either.

 The funniest thing about going out west is their obsession with crossing the street. Honestly, I've never seen anything like it. If the signal is red, nobody crosses the street. Even if there isn't a car in sight. They all just stand there until the light turns green. What is wrong with these people. I tell them all the same thing - I've been crossing the street by myself since I was 4 years old. My mother taught me how to look both ways before crossing. It's a successful strategy. I haven't been run over yet. Sam and I went to a little town called Kirkland which is near Seattle to have dinner. Now these people take street crossing safety to a whole new level. They make you carry a flag with an image of a person carrying a flag when crossing the street. I swear, I can't make this up. Here is Sam safely crossing the street.

Street crossing flag
Glad to be home where I can cross the street like a grown up.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Famous Birders Can Be Nice Guys Too

This week, the guest speaker at the DVOC meeting was a world famous birder and author - Alvaro Jaramillo. He has written field guides, has a tour company, runs pelagic trips in California and has many other accomplishments. The club announced that he would be giving a talk about gulls this Thursday. It drew a crowd. His talk was informative and fun even though the topic of gulls can be daunting for most normal birders.

As always, the club members headed to Cherry Street Tavern after the meeting. Alvaro joined us to continue the discussion and get to know some of the members better.

Fun Times at Cherry Street Tavern
Alvaro was also enlisted to give a talk at the Wyncote Audubon's annual dinner on Saturday night so he was gracious enough to co-lead a field trip with George Armistead and Martin Selzer to Heinz NWR this morning. Once again, he drew a crowd of over 40 participants.

There weren't many interesting birds - mainly basic ducks and a few songbirds.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-throated Sparrow

Best bird for of the day for me was Fox Sparrow.

Fox Sparrow
Anyway, Alvaro is a super nice guy that gave the Delaware Valley alot of his time and knowledge.