Monday, July 21, 2014

Sitting Ducks

I knew that I wasn't going to be able to do any "real" birding when I got to London. I didn't have time to make a trip out of the city and frankly, we were all lucky that no one was hurt when I rented the car in Manchester, so I didn't want to tempt fate and attempt to drive in London. With that in mind, I did a little research on places to see birds in the city. Regent's Park, Hyde Park, St. James Park and Burton Reservoir all made the list.

On Sunday, I hoofed it all over town to get to some of the parks. Of course, it was overcast and drizzly when I got to Regent's Park but it did clear up later. Regent's Park has a lake where Tufted Ducks were reported which is definitely a bird that I wanted to see. Tufted Ducks are rare in the US. One or two show up each year but they are usually way north. You may remember that one showed up in NJ last year which I immediately left the office to go see for the Stupid Contest.  Here is a photo from London where I saw about a hundred of them. Great looking duck.

Tufted Duck
They even nest in London. Here is a mother who slipped under the fence. The babies were frantically trying to get over the fence. She eventually swam back out to retrieve them.

Tufted Duck Mom and Babies
I saw a few other Duck Moms and Ducklings. This is Pochard which is very similar to our Canvasbacks.

Pochard Mom and Babies
There were Greylag Geese there too.

Greylag Goose
And then I saw more ducks and geese, but it started to get really weird. Other geese were mixed in with the Greylags which shouldn't be lazying about in downtown London.

Barheaded Goose

Barnacle Goose

Egyptian Goose
Odd ducks started to appear too. Ducks that should be in far away places.

 I had to look this one up on the Internet. It doesn't even show up in any of the Field Guides that I have.
Maccao Duck

Red-crested Pochard
And the one that sealed the deal - Smew. Check out a range map for this duck. They are arctic specialists.


And then it hit me - Regent's Park also has a zoo. Doh!  Oh well, I got to see and photograph pretty birds without traveling to Svalsbard or wherever.

Saturday, July 19, 2014


Did I mention that I rented a car for the 2 days? It was a harrowing experience driving on the "wrong" side of the road. Did I mention that the car was a manual transmission? So, not only did I have to drive on the wrong side of the road but I had to change gears using my left hand. It is a wonder that no one was hurt. I did pretty good - especially in traffic since I could just follow along. It was only in the countryside that I had to really concentrate on where to point the car when coming around a corner or "roundabout".

On the "Motorway"
My Birding Pal, Rachel must be a glutton for punishment because after spending the entire day with me on Friday, she agreed to take me out to the coast on Saturday . I think it's that British politeness that is bred into her. I had already researched a place called Dee Estuary and that is exactly where Rachel suggested that we go.

The Dee Estuary looks like Delaware Bay on a map. It is a wide Bay that dumps the River Dee into the Irish Sea. When we arrived at the Point of Ayr, it reminded me of Cape May Point. In fact, we parked in a parking lot that could have been Sunset Beach (sans the concrete ship).  It even had a lighthouse and an ice cream parlor.  The only difference is that the Point of Ayr is in Wales! And I thought the best thing in Wales was Tom Jones (even I think he's sexy).

Out on the beach, we didn't see many birds. I was expecting some sea ducks or loons or something. We saw a few gulls and a few shorebirds until we came around the point. Then we were greeted by hundreds of Oystercatchers sitting on a sandbar. Behind them, in the grassy area were about a hundred Black-tailed Godwits and Curlews too. Thank goodness Rachel brought her scope!

Oystercatchers - Point of Ayr
Oystercatcher in flight
We also got to see some other birds on the beach like this Pied Wagtail. Wagtails really do wag their tails a lot which makes them easy to see and identify.

Pied Wagtail
This Ringed Plover looks a lot like our Semipalmated Plover.

Ringed Plover
I had to touch the Irish Sea. My Father's Father was aboard one of the ships (Lusitania?) that was sunk by a U-Boat in WWI just off the Irish coast. He was rescued by a fishing boat and spent 3 months in Ireland recuperating. The water was surprisingly warm.

Linda and the Irish Sea
We left the beach and headed to Burton-Mere Wetlands in hopes of some other shorebirds. We were very successful. We saw a few Red Shanks, Spotted Red Shanks, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, and Ruffs plus more Black-tailed Godwits. No photos. The birds were too far away and the day was too overcast for any of the photos to be presentable here.

The Brits do a lot of birding in "hides" which are bird blinds. The hide at Burton-Mere is nicer than our shore house! It has huge glass windows to allow viewing the main impoundment in comfort. The hard core birders lined up outside of the hide while trying to find the most obscure birds. Rachel and I struck up a conversation with a few of them. Of course, my accent gave me away as a tourist. The guys asked me about my trip and I casually told them that one of my target birds was a Little Owl. They looked at each other and then looked back at us and then looked at each other and looked at us again. OK, what gives? Turns out that there was a Little Owl sitting in a tree at the end of the path. NO SHIT!?!?

Little Owl
It made my day! Of course, all of the other birds were awesome but the owl was a treat. Rachel was a doll. The guys were terrific. Oh, and I was in Wales for Christ sake. A good day all around.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Birding Pal on the Moors

The timing of our trip to the United Kingdom meant that we had to stay over the weekend. We started the trip in Scotland and then went to Manchester on Thursday. Friday, Saturday and Sunday were all on our own  My coworkers made their plans and I made mine. My plan involved - don't be shocked here - birding. I know from past experience that it can be difficult to go birding alone in a new place. Luckily, I have friends who are very experienced with international travel. Marc recommended that I check out a website called The site matches travelers with local birders who are willing to take them birding. 

I signed up and sent messages to a few birders on the list. Someone responded but said that he would be out of town during my stay.  He said that his friend Rachel would be happy to help. Thankfully, she was. We agreed to meet up on Friday and explore "the moors". It was terrific - the birds and the moors and the "pal". 

Indian Head Rocks
 The hike yielded some excellent birds. It is amazing how many sat up on the boulders and posed for us. This is Mistle Thrush which is huge compared to our Wood Thrush.

Mistle Thrush
I am always thrilled to see a grouse. This is Red Grouse which is actually a Red Phase of the Willow Ptarmigan.
Red Grouse
This photo should give you some perspective of the size of the boulders. Can you find the whole family of Grouse?  There are at least 6 of them.

Red Grouse family
One of my target birds for the trip was Ring Ouzel - just based on the name. "Ouzel" My birding pal Rachel knew that there was one in the area and quickly pointed it out. Here he is bringing food back to the nest.

Ring Ouzel
In England, the grazing and property rights are different from the US. Sheep seem to be everywhere, and people are allowed to hike through pastures.  Here are a few sleepy sheep on the moors.
Sleepy Sheep
Here is a photo of Rachel on the moors. You can see how vast the space is in this part of England. There is also a gruesome story that goes along with the photo that I won't share here. Suffice to say that it is just one more benefit of finding a local to go birding with.

Rachel and the Moors

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Rainy Lady

One of the places that showed up in my search of birding locations near Edinburgh was a place on the coast called Aberlady. Sam and I had the morning free before our colleague arrived from San Francisco. And remember, the UK is 5 hours ahead of US time, so we couldn't even do our regular work in the morning so we decided to go.  We figured out how to get there by city bus and away we went.  Of course, it was pouring rain!

The bus driver was kind enough to drop us off at the Scottish Ornithology Club (SOC) headquarters so that we could get some information. The lady that worked there kept trying to talk us into birding sites that had nearby cafes or the seabird research center where we could sit inside and watch seabirds on video. No way. We came to Scotland to see real live birds not videos or cafes so off we went trudging through the marsh.

Here I am in my fashion poncho. It worked pretty well to keep the rain off of the camera but it was definitely not pretty.

Poncho Lady
Here is Sam. We bought a cheap umbrella that he used. Pity we didn't think to buy galoshes too. He feet were cold and soaked for the rest of the day.

Umbrella Man
Tidal Marsh
We did see some really good birds on the trip. Of course, almost everything is new to us here.  Remember the Northern Lapwings that showed up in NJ last year?  Well, this is where they are supposed to be. We saw several along the coast here and more in the cow pastures near Manchester.

Northern Lapwing
It doesn't take long to see a Meadow Pipit in the UK. They are probably the most common bird in the field. This one was trying to feed babies in the bush along the path.

The 2 best birds of the outing for me were Sedge Warbler and Skylark. Here is the best shot that I could get of Sedge Warbler in the rain. All of the warblers look alike in Britain. You will see that in upcoming posts.

Here is Skylark. Not much to look at. Frankly, none of the British birds are very colourful (see how I did that "ou" thing?). However, Skylark has been on my "must see" list for a long time.

This is the full frame of the Skylark photo to show you how obscure it is on the path. I mean, you really have to look for these birds. Also note how similar the Skylark is to the Meadow Pipit. Geez.

Skylark on path
It was so rainy and wet that the path was lined with slimy things - black slugs and snails. The slugs were huge.

Slimy slug
 The snails all had these psychedelic shells.


Friday, July 11, 2014

"Working" Hard in Scotland

Tally Ho from Scotland! I am on the other side of the pond this week for work and of course, doing my best to see as many British birds as possible. We started our trip in Edinburgh Scotland and I can say that you should make the trip if you can. It is a terrific little city - a bit like Philly but with really old castles and stuff. 

Castle in Edinburgh
Sam and I wandered around the city near our hotel, took the bus tour, saw the castle, and climbed Arthur's seat (more on that later). My first UK bird was Wood Pigeon. These are like our pigeons only on steroids. They are huge. We also saw Gray Wagtail in the city.

Sam thought it would be a good idea to climb up "Arthur's Seat" which is a massive hill/mountain/volcano remnant that is right next to Holyrood Palace which is where the Queen held her annual picnic just last week. Check out the steep climb and the view from the top. Needless to say, I felt like I was back on the Donut Hole Trail again.

Arthur's Seat trail

View from Arthur's Seat
I am really electronically challenged over here. My little laptop that I use to download and edit photos crapped out on me for the first few days. My cell phone doesn't work over here like I thought it would. I can't get Internet everyplace. So, you'll have to wait for bird photos for another few days until I can get them downloaded. The best that I can do for now if offer this photo of Kestral hovering at eye level from the top of Arthur's Seat. Ta for now!


Friday, June 27, 2014

Donut Hole Trail - 3rd Installment

Happy Hikers
Once again, Barbara and I joined Frank on an overnight hike along the Donut Hole Trail. This part of the trail is in Clinton County near Lock Haven. We stayed overnight at a quaint hotel in Lock Haven on Thursday night. We took in some local fare at "The Saloon" and turned in early. 

Lock Haven Town Hall
We dropped Frank's brand new Jeep at the ending point in Farrandsville and Connie dropped us off at the starting point near Hyner Run State Park. We made great time over the first part of the trail. Then, we couldn't find the trail. Then,we realized that we weren't on the trail. We wasted 2 hours. Ugh.

I didn't lug binoculars or a camera on the trail. I decided to put my ears to the test on this trip. We made out pretty good considering the warblers were still singing up a storm even on June 21st. I thought they would be quietly tending nests by now but they were singing away. Some are easy to identify like Ovenbird "teacher, Teacher, TEACHER!" and the thrushes flute like songs. Buzzy Black-throated Green and Blue warblers were singing throughout the woods. Other birds were tougher to identify. I recorded those with my iPhone to identify later. One of my triumphs was identifying a pair of Mourning Warblers who were scolding us for being to close to their nest. I matched the chip call to the iPhone. We never saw the birds but we didn't have to. 


4 Pileated Woodpeckers put on a show for us at one of our rest points. They were really squawking up a storm. The best critter of the day was a Hognosed snake. It looks like a baby Rattlesnake which scared us a bit. Look closely. The snake was only about 1 foot long. 

Hognosed Snake
Did I mention that I was sick? A summer cold has had a grip on me for over a week. I trudged through but it wasn't easy on the first day. I came in last. Sigh. 
Medicine - can of beer
To top it off, we were so late that we had to camp in someone's front yard while a bulldozer graded the road. 

Tents - with spotlight

The second day was a different story. I was determined to get to the car before dark and we did. This is one of very few breaks that we had. 

Rest stop
Roxy was a real trooper.
If you can figure out this bird call - post a comment. 


Monday, June 2, 2014

All the Way to Pittsburgh

Why would I drive to Pittsburgh after driving all the way across Pennsylvania into Ohio 2 weeks ago? The only reason would be for a wedding. Connie's cousin Danny married Emily and it was one of the best weddings that I have attended in a long time. The ceremony was quick and to the point. She looked fabulous, her family was a blast and Danny is happier than I have ever seen him.

Of course, I took the opportunity to go after a life bird while everyone was sleeping off their hangovers. I was up and out of the hotel at 6 AM (with a mild hangover) and up to the grasslands by 7. The "grasslands" turned out to be a couple of fields that had grown over a strip mine. It turns out that grown over strip mines are actually good habitat for some birds such as my target - Henslow's Sparrow plus other cool birds like Bobolink and Meadowlarks.

I'll save you the suspense and get to the same old story - it took me a long time to find the Henslow's Sparrow and when I did, it wasn't the wonderful experience that I had imagined. All of the other birds sat up and sang, did their flight displays, posed for photos but not that Henslow. No, he hid in the middle of the field. He didn't sing for 2 hours. Then he sat up on the top of a piece of grass for about 20 seconds - you know, just long enough for me to find him before he dove back into the grass.I'm counting that as a life bird but hoping to see another one soon.

Here are some photos of the friendly birds starting with a Savannah Sparrow. This was his favorite post. He let me get really close with the car.

Savannah Sparrow
Bobolinks were all over the place singing their weird songs and fluttering around. I love these birds.

Bobolink - weird beak

This is Grasshopper Sparrow which looks alot like the Henslow but has a better song.  This guy was going gangbusters singing, singing, singing away. He looks like it takes alot of energy doesn't it?

Grasshopper Sparrow
Meadowlarks were all over the fields too but I couldn't get a photo of one sitting still. Here is one flying around showing off.

The bird that stole the show was this male Northern Harrier which is also known as Gray Ghost. They hunt birds over the marsh and fields. He put on a show cruising over the fields and occasionally diving down to try to catch a meal. Look how menacing he looks coming across the field.

Northern Harrier
 Here he is focused on something that he heard or saw in the grass - just about to pounce!

Gray Ghost
Maybe that's why the Henslow's Sparrow was too scared to sing!  I was back at the hotel by 10:30 in time to say goodbye to the bride and groom.