Monday, September 1, 2014

California Road Birding

You know how sometimes when you are having a good time and someone mentions something about doing something similar and you are like - "yeah, that will be great" because you are having a great time when you said that and then you wonder why you ever said that? Well, that's what happened to me and Barbara back in February when we said yes to a 5 day pelagic birding trip in San Diego. It sounded like fun but we have never done anything like this before so we've been a little nervous. The trip is aboard a boat called "The Searcher" and leaves out of San Diego. We will spend 4 nights and days aboard looking for sea birds in the Pacific ocean. The reason that we got all caught up in it is because there are 13 people from the east coast going on the trip who we know either from DVOC or other pelagic trips.

The trip started on Friday with some land birding over Labor Day Weekend around San Diego. We don't actually get on the boat until Monday at noon. I thought I would give you something to read while I'm at sea starting with this compilation of birds perched on man-made objects. 

After checking in to our hotel, the East Coast group went out to Point Loma for some local birding. Our first bird was Western Gull - perched on the security cameras. The cameras are there because the whole Point is really a naval base with a little bit of National Monument mixed in. 

Western Gull
Another very common bird in California is this California Towhee. This one was getting a drivnk from a spigot. 

Western Scrub Jays are also common. This one is waiting for the bus to pick him up.

Western Scrub Jay
Only kidding. These birds did wait for the bus but not for a ride. They waited at the bus stop and went crazy when the bus driver threw a bunch of peanuts or something out the door. Here is a happy bird gobbling up nuts. 

Western Scrub Jay
The East Coast gang is made up of some VERY seasoned birders. These people have already seen a ton of birds. These birders are also "listers" which means that they are VERY interested in seeing as many birds in the US as possible. Some of these birds are "countable" even if they aren't really US birds. Some of them wander into the US and get counted. Others, like this next bird are not US birds but you have probably seen them even if you aren't a birder - at pet stores all across the country. They are countable because they escaped and now live in the wild. Here is Scaly-breasted Munia.

Scaly-breasted Munia
A Western Bluebird perched on this sign post at Cayumanga State Park. I'll tell you all about our trek to the Laguna Mountains later.

Western Bluebird
Burrowing Owls live on the ground. They nest in burrows. What is this owl doing on a power line? Who knows. This photo was taken out by the Salton Sea. More about that later.

Burrowing Owl
Ash-throated Flycatcher was the last bird that Patty and I saw for the Stupid Contest last year. They are very rare in NJ but fairly common in California. Here is one on the lookout for illegal vehicles.

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Swallowing Up Summer

I told you in the last post that people's view of summer and nature's view of summer are sometimes different. Birds are already migrating even though we were boogie boarding today. Tree swallows amass in Cape May in August before taking off to southern destinations. Here is a view of the iconic Cape May Lighthouse obscured by swallows

Cape May Lighthouse
Even the Cooper's Hawk has to navigate through the swarms of swallows.

Cooper's Hawk
Shorebirds are starting to arrive in the Villas and surrounding areas. This Semi-Palmated Plover found a tasty worm on the Villas Beach.

Semi-Palmated Plover
Harvey and I found a few beauties today at Higbee dredge spoil. They were pretty tame and came very close even though Roxy was with us.

Least Sandpiper - Juvenile with fresh plumage
 There is a sandpiper called "Solitary" but it was not so today. We saw at least 6 of them. This one got so close to me and Roxy that my camera couldn't focus anymore. This is after just landing in front of me.

Solitary Sandpiper
The sandpiper caught a sand flea and proceeded to gobble it up. Zoom in to see the flea.

Solitary Sandpiper - with sand flea
Of course, other birds are migrating too. Unfortunately, I don't have any good photos of the many warblers, orioles, or kingbirds that are on the move. I'll have some soon.  Harvey found this really cool moth this morning. No folks, he didn't color it in with a highlighter - that is the real color.

Pink Moth on Sunflower
I can never resist taking photos of any Bald Eagle that flies over. Here is the resident Bald Eagle of the Cape May Canal.

Mighty Eagle
Let's hope for north west winds. That is what we need to bring birds to Cape May.

Monday, August 11, 2014

"Yip" "Yip" "Yip"eee for August

August is a weird month for birders. It's weird because most of the northern hemisphere considers August the epitome of summer. Everyone is thinking about days on the beach. One of my favorite birds nests on the beach. They fly close to the water and "Yip, yip yip" like puppies. They nest in colonies along the beach which are roped off to protect them from beach going vacationers like us. Here is one of the happy couples.

Black Skimmers
 This one has an itch. Check out the schnoz on this guy.

Scratch that itch
Here is another happy couple with their little fluff ball of joy.

Black Skimmers with Baby
The babies are the color of sand. They even have spots that look like shells and stones. Here are 2 little play pals on the beach.

When Mom and Dad are out fishing, the chicks find little divots to hide in. They are perfectly camouflaged - except for that schnoz!
Skimmer Chick - camouflaged
Skimmers' beaks are so big that they can't sleep like other birds with their beaks tucked under their wings. No, they just flop their heads down on the sand.

Napping on the beach
Like mother, like daughter - the chicks flop their heads on the sand to sleep even though their beaks aren't big enough to get in the way yet.

Lullaby Time
Here is a close up to show you what that beak is all about. The bottom mandible is longer than the top and shaped like a knife. They drag that through the water's surface while they fly and feel for fish. When they feel one, they snap their beak shut to snare the fish.

Close-up of Skimmer Beak
Skimmers also put on an aerial show in their free time. Even way up there, you can see that schnoz!

Skimmer Antics
Meanwhile, there are plenty of other birds to see in August. Some of them are already done with all of that chick raising stuff and headed back south - in August. More on that later.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

FarmStock 2014

I made it out to FarmStock this year which was really great. As usual, Mark and Linda volunteered me to lead the "bird walk". The walk is scheduled for 7:30 which means that we start an hour later after everyone rouses themselves, gets much needed coffee and opens their eyes after a fun night of drinks and music.

Of course, the bird walk is more like a walk down to the Buffalo Creek with me hoping that a bird - any bird - shows up or sings or something. And as usual, the walk started off with no birds in sight or earshot. I tried to entertain the group by pointing out butterflies and such but they weren't interested. Thank goodness we heard a few and got to see a few too. Eastern Kingbirds were chirping. This one posed for me later in the day.

Eastern Kingbird
 When leading a bird walk for non-birders, you really hope to see big birds or red birds or blue birds or something showy and flashy. Of course, the only bird that would show itself was this immature Swamp Sparrow. B.O.R.I.N.G. The crowd lost interest and started lagging behind. A leader's worst nightmare.

Swamp Sparrow
We finally made it down to the creek which thankfully was more interesting. The group perked up a little bit when we got to the duck blind. A few birds showed up. We saw this Killdeer and a Solitary Sandpiper too.

Juvenile Wood Ducks quickly took cover when we arrived. I snapped this photo before they ducked (pun intended) behind the reeds.

Wood Ducks
The group lost interest again and we headed back to the camp for breakfast and a tractor ride. I guess all leaders have to suck it up when there are no birds. I think they forgot all about it once the tractor came out of the barn.

Tractor Ride!

A leader's worst nightmare - seeing the best birds of the day after the official walk has ended. Case in point:

Female Kingfisher

This female Kingfisher sat right next to the duck blind and chattered away. Her mate was there too. I could just cry. This is one of those birds that could get someone really interested in birds and birding. God forbid they show up when I have the group with me.  I give up.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Back to Routine

"Routine" in late July means that I am at the shore and looking for the shorebirds to return from their nesting grounds in the arctic. It is always a delight to see the first of them trickle into our beach in the Villas. So it was this past weekend.  Harvey arranged for a few of us to go to Forsythe (Brig) together for some early shorebirds - or as he put it "the shorebird shuffle". I met Harvey at his house at 5 AM and we headed north on the Garden State Parkway to meet the others at 6 AM. Mary, Marc and Eric were waiting for us in the parking lot despite the fact that a mega rare bird was being seen in north Jersey at the same time. They were there despite the miserable weather - raining sideways. They were there because they know, just like Harvey knows, that something good could be at Brig in late July.  

I won't hold you in suspense. There was nothing "good" at Brig when we were there. The only good thing was the company. Mary and Harvey are self proclaimed shorebird nuts and they sure proved it by pointing out subtle and obvious field marks on the common shorebirds that we did manage to see.  We spent much less time at Brig than we normally do. Harvey and I dropped the others back at the parking lot so that they could speed up the Parkway to see the European Golden Plover. I hope they got it. Harvey and I headed south back to Cape May.

The weather finally cleared overnight. I was able to get my first banded Semipalmated Sandpiper resighting this morning. Good ol' 54J arrived on the Villas beach sometime overnight and was as feisty as ever. Here he is from Monday morning. 

SESA - 54J - 07/21/2014
And here he is on the same beach from August 4, 2012. Overcast skies make him look more gray in this photo.
SESA 54J - 08/04/2012
I can't wait for his buddies to return. The beach isn't the same without them. Of course, the Forster's Terns don't seem to mind. This one cruised by at eye level this morning. 

Forster's Tern
This was an odd thing - a Least Sandpiper on the Villas beach acting like a Semipalmated Sandpiper. You can tell that its a Least by the yellow legs. Compare to 54J above which looks almost identical except with dark legs. Least Sandpipers are usually found in more muddy habitat. Maybe he was waiting for the tide to go out and expose the muddy yucky low tide line that occurs on our beach.
LESA - waiting for some mud

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Final Post from UK Trip

My last day in the UK was spent on public transportation. I had a few hours to spend in town before heading to the airport so I planned a trip to Brent Reservoir which is technically in London but like traveling from Center City Philly to the Northeast. I had to take 2 "Underground" lines and then walk over a mile to get there. I targeted the reservoir hoping to get a few last Life Birds which I did manage. Like many of the parks in the UK, this one had a "hide" or bird blind that is managed by locals. They lock them up when not in use so that they are not vandalized or used by homeless people to sleep. You need to be savvy enough to find the contact info for the guy with the keys before you go. I am not that savvy. I emailed the guy the night before but of course it was too late for him to be able to help me out (although he did respond to my email).

One of my target birds for the trip was Great Crested Grebe and although I saw many on the trip, the grebes at Brent Reservoir were particularly accommodating. Here is the classic side shot where you can see the crest on the head and the puffy feathers on the neck. This is a big bird. Probably as large as Western Grebe or even larger. What a sight.

Great Crested Grebe
Here is another shot of the same bird where you can see the crest.

Great Crested Grebe
Other water birds were going about there business too. Check out this Coot baby. Its a wonder that Mom takes credit for that ugly mug!

Coot Mom and Baby
The Moorhen was not so trusting of people. I didn't know it but I got too close to her nest. She freaked out and started swimming away from the nest while wagging her tail - a distraction display intended to make me follow her and leave the nest alone. It worked. I couldn't keep my eyes off of those bright white tail feathers.

Moorhen Distraction Display
Andrew (the guy with the key) was kind enough to review some of my photos to make sure that I got the ID correct. Here is a female Blackcap who landed in front of me and proceeded to go into a torpor (a kind of trance like state where the bird just droops its wings and lays in the sun).

Female Blackcap
Summing up the trip - it was GREAT! Great birds, great people, great scenery, great experience. The only thing that I wish is that my Mom was with me (I should have planned ahead). She would have loved all of it (except the trudging around in the rain part). Oh well, she'll have to live vicariously by reading the posts.

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.