Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Tale of 2 Birders

This year is a big year for what the real birders call "winter finches".  These finches are birds that usually do not migrate south thorugh the US like other birds because they can survive up north by eating pine cone seeds.  That is not the case this year.  This year, the pine crop failed up north which is driving the birds south to find food.  This is good for us birders since we get to see these birds without having to show a passport!

Winter finches are comprised of Crossbills, Grosbeaks, and Redpolls.  These birds have been showing up in our area for about a month.  I am desperately trying to see a Crossbill.  So is my friend Frank who lives in Connecticut. You may remember Frank as the man who organized the now famous Donut Hole hike over the summer.  I have 2 reports from this last weekend about Crossbills.  One from us Phillybirdnerds and one from Frank.  Here is Frank's account from an email:

Well as you know, I attempted to organize an early morning outing to Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison to look for the Canadian elusives, however, two stalwart fishermen and sometime birders, proffered very lame excuses and gave their regrets.  Not to be daunted by this woeful lack of participation, I went there alone, leaving North Stonington at 6:45AM and arriving at Hammo at 7:50AM or so. I studied the map and found my way to the Japanese Black Pine forest at West Beach, which has been mentioned in the COA List as a place with frequent sightings of Red and White-Winged Crossbills and Redpolls. It was cold and windy and I spent about 1 and 1/2 hours getting chilled to the bone and only seeing a few sparrows and some chickadees.  I then spotted a group of birders about 1/4 mile away opposite West Beach who were running along a salt marsh inlet and carrying scopes and equipment that made them appear that they knew what they were doing.  I drove to their area and ran after them but lost them in the tangle of the marsh and undergrowth. I did flush a Rail and was unable to identify it. Sora? 

It was now 10:05AM and I had allowed myself until 10:30AM because we had a brunch invitation in Stonington at Noon and it takes an hour to get back to North Stonington. I slowly drove back to the West Beach Pine forest and saw a small flock of unidentified birds arriving and perching in the top of the Black Pines.  I noticed that real Birders like real fishermen spend a lot of time cruising around in cars or boats looking for  birds and fish.  All of a sudden birders appeared out of nowhere converging on the Japanese Black Pine forest.  Most of them had binoculars to their eyes and were running, some had scopes and a couple had cameras with 4 foot long (it seemed) telephoto lens. (A good friend has such an outfit!) I knew something was happening and happily ran to join them. With their help and narration I saw a White-Winged Crossbill (It was rather fluffy and sitting in the top of one of the wind blown pines eating pine cone seeds). Then a tall lanky older man who was running with the scope (who could have been the twin brother of the late Earl Chronister, a good friend of mine from our cabin in Potter County Pennsylvania) told me to come and see the pair of Red Breasted Nuthatches in some neighboring pine trees, which I did..

For the frosting on the cake, an older but rather trim woman came up to me and said "I'm Toby, what's your name, and did I want to have coffee after birding". I had to give my regrets because of the damn brunch invitation, but did take an extra blood pressure pill in the car.

I had just enough time to make a brief visit to the Meigs Point Nature Center  where the Naturalist asked if I had time to look at some birds in the marsh from the Center's Parking lot.  Regretfully I did not because of the impending brunch , but he said with some authority that there were, Snow Buntings, Lapland Larkspurs, and Horned Larks. 

So I drove home quite contented with myself, however, I neglected to get Toby's telephone number.  So you see what fun birding can be and maybe the recalcitrant invitees will think twice about refusing the next time.

Now, here is our account:

Diane, Barbara and I spent Friday, Saturday and most of Sunday miserably replacing the porch floor in the Green house.  It was physically and mentally exhausting work which took longer than we ever dreamed (naturally).  I told both of them that work would cease if we got a text message about Crossbills.  Well, we finally got a text on Sunday morning.  Di was at Lowe's (again) picking up more supplies. Barbara and I were just about to start some mind-numbing task when the text came in.  Off we went to Cape May point in search of our own Canadian elusives.  By now you know that Crossbills come in 2 species - Red and White-winged.  Red was the bird that was seen. 

We met the guy who sent the text. He told us that the birds flew off into the neighborhood.  We drove along the street closest to the dunes looking and listening. Then, just like Frank, we saw other birders walking down the street with binoculars up to their eyes. This is not recommended as it could result in injury, by the way.  Anyway, we saw a flock of birds flying really high and they definitely sounded like Crossbills. Then, they flew out of sight.  Dag nabbit!

We drove some more, and miraculously came across the same flock of birds flying above us.  I got this photo just in the nick of time. You can see the red adult males and the yellow/tan youngsters and females in this shot.

 Red Crossbills in flight

Here is the same photo, cropped so that you can see just the 4 birds in the center.  You can kind of make out a weird bill on a few of them.

Red Crossbills

They landed in a big pine tree - and completely disappeared!  How can 30 noisy birds land in the tree right in front of us and disappear? 

Red Crossbills landing in Pine tree
 Thankfully for us, Barbara has a bad knee.  She gamely went with us after we parked the car to find the birds. She lagged behind a bit.  I was out in front, leading the charge so to speak, but I could not see one bird in that tree.  She saw them.  Here they are:
Red Crossbills
What's wrong?  Can't you see them.  There are 2 birds in the photo above.  Here, I made it easier:

2 Red Crossbills feeding in Pine tree
Still can't see them?  One is hanging upside-down on the outer edge of the pine needles with his face in the pine cone.  The other is obscured by the bare branches.  You can just see his face poking out between the 2 pine branches at the lower part of the photo.  And, if you zoom in, you can see the actual crossed bill that gives these birds their name.

Honestly, it was torture to see 30 birds land and not be able to get a good photo of any of them.  So, 2 friends from 2 states saw 2 different crossbill species on the same day.  Pretty good.

Monday, November 19, 2012

One of These Things is not Like the Others

Lori and I popped up to Lake Nockamixon and Lake Galena on Sunday to try to see some Crossbills. No luck with those, but we did manage to get a very rare bird - the Pink-footed Goose.  This Pink-footed Goose was seen by August Mirabella a few days ago and has been on the lake since.  It must be the same bird that he found last year and that stayed for a week on Lake Galena.

How fortunate that we stopped by.  How fortunate that we learned long ago that when searching for a super rare bird, don't look for the bird - look for the birders.  That tactic paid off again when we saw a few people with binoculars and scopes hanging around one of the boat ramps not looking at anything.  Then, just as we were joining them they all started running towards their cars yelling "It's at the bridge, it's at the bridge".  Well, Lori and I dragged the dogs back to the car and followed them to the bridge. 

There had to be a thousand geese swimming around the lake. Honestly, who could find something different in a sea of Canada geese?  This photo shows only a few dozen of the throngs, but the Pink Foot is right in the middle.  Take a good look.

Pink-footed Goose with Canada Geese

Here it is cropped. Not really in focus, but good enough to see the pink bill and pink leg. Pink-footed geese live in Greenland and Iceland. They winter in Great Britain. How did this bird get so off course? Twice?  Pretty strange.  While we were there, it let out a honk that made everybody laugh.

Pink-footed Goose
Now, those of you who have seen the movie "The Big Year" with Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black probably remember the angst that they had trying to see that particular bird. I think they finally had to found the goose swimming in a hot spring in the Rocky Mountains (which is completely implausible by the way).  All we had to do is drive 30 minutes to our lake.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saw What? Saw-whet, That's What

If you had asked me on Thursday if I had ever seen a Saw-whet Owl, I would have said "No".  In fact, that is exactly what I was telling people at the DVOC (Delaware Valley Ornithology Club) Annual Banquet when I heard that another member had seen one that day. Boy, I wish I could see a Saw-whet owl.  These little owls migrate through our area in November and sometimes even spend the winter.  The trouble is that they are really small - the size of a man's fist.  Try finding that in a tree.

If you ask me today if I have ever seen a Saw-whet owl, I would still say "No, I've seen 8 of them!"  That's right, I went from 0 to 8 in 2 days all with the help of the club.  The first 7 owls were the result of Marty introducing me to Doris who runs a Saw-whet owl banding program in Chester county.  She invited me to join them on Friday night. It was pretty cool.  She has nets set up on a farm with a loud speaker blaring Saw-whet owl calls to draw them in and catch them.  Every hour, the interns and visitors go out to the field to check the nets. If there is an owl, it gets brought back to the barn to be measured, recorded, and banded.  Here are a few photos.  The intern measures the length of the wing here.  The look on the owl's face is like "ahhh the indignity" although they really didn't fuss that much when they were being handled.

Ahhh, the indignity! - Measuring the wing

Measuring the bill
 One of the ways that they can tell the age of the bird is by using a black light on the underside of the wing.  For some reason, owls that were just hatched this year have feathers that light up as pink under the black light. Older birds' feathers don't light up.  You can see by the next photo that this bird has a mix of pink feathers which means that this bird is going into her second year.  Pretty cool!  And yes, it is a "her" based on her weight.  Heavier birds are female. Males are smaller and lighter.

Florescence on owl wing
  You can see how small the owl is in this photo.  The guy holding the bird is one of the volunteers who assist in the banding process.  Again, the owls are not too upset.  They are also not upset by the bright lights.

Saw-whet Owl
All of that was great, but it got even better when they asked us visitors if we wanted to hold the owl.  You read that right, hold the owl.  Um, hell yeah I wanna hold an owl. The volunteer first let us pet the owl, then showed us how to hold it without being pierced by a talon or beak.

Touching the owl
Next thing I know, I have an owl in my hand and I'm getting my picture taken.  I almost peed my pants.  Thanks to my new friend Deb for taking the photo. Don't dwell on the wrinkles - look at the owl . . .

Holding the owl
The banders captured a total of 7 owls while I was there.  I left after 10 PM and never got home until after 11 PM last night and had a hard time sleeping.  This morning, we had a funeral to attend down south of the airport.  Diane and I stopped by Heinz Wildlife Refuge after the funeral since we were so close.  This is where we got a tip for my 8th Saw-whet owl and Di's 1st.  Another club member had seen a Saw-whet at Heinz Refuge on Thursday.  We never thought it would still be there, but low and behold, we met another birder that we know in the parking lot that told us that the bird was still there.  Off we went and viola:  Look really hard at the center of the photo. 

Saw-whet Owl
Here is a close-up taken through the branches and leaves.  There was another photographer there who helped us find the tree and the bird.  He was also very accommodating to a few other birders. 

Saw-whet Owl
Finding owls in the wild is usually a hush-hush thing.  Once you find an owl, you usually keep it to yourself so that the bird keeps it's secret location.  This bird was so close to the path, that we didn't feel bad about looking at it.  It had already endured 2 days of walkers, dog walkers, birders, bikers, and joggers and stayed put.  Chances are that the bird doesn't really care about the disturbance. 

As if that weren't enough, I took Roxy to Lorimer park for her afternoon walk and, you guessed it, we saw an owl - a Great-horned Owl.  That is a pretty owly 24 hours if you ask me.

Great-horned Owl

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Falcons, Eagle and Sparrows

I have been hearing about a new park along the Delaware river lately called "Pennypack on the Delaware".  The name makes it sound pretty nice.  It seems pretty birdy based on the reports.  It's been mentioned by DVOC bird club members, on the Internet, and even by Tina's husband Phil. So, off we went this morning to check it out.

First of all, the entrance to the park is right next to the entrance to the "detention center" (prison). Second, it has fences with barbed wire. Third, the gate as locked at 8:15 when we arrived. Fourth, it's full of soccer fields.  The park ranger showed up just as we were deciding what to do, so we went in.

Boy are we glad we did.  Connie and I were greeted by a perched Merlin - which is a type of falcon - on a light post above the barbed wire which separates the park from some sort of minimum security detention center.  We could hear them calling out names of the "guests" over the loud speaker as I took these shots.

It was still a little foggy when we first saw the Merlin. I took a chance and got out of the car to take a few quick shots figuring that he/she would take off but it didn't.  It sat there for over 15 minutes preening and looking around.  

 I'm taking a chance and calling this bird a female due to the overall brown coloring. She kept fanning her tail like this while she sat there. The little birds in the bushes below were going crazy chattering warnings to the other birds that there was danger (Merlins eat birds).  She just sat there.

 The lighting got better almost immediately which gave me some better photos. Here she is looking at us.  A few other cars passed too and she didn't budge from her post.

 She sat there so long that we started getting comfortable with each other.  Here she is starting her knock, knock joke - "knock, knock" "who's there" "lettuce" "lettuce who?" "Lettuce out of this prison!"  She thought it was funny. . . 
Merlin - knock, knock
 This is actually the best photo that I took the whole time. She is preening her tail feathers and has just a tiny piece of the feather in her beak.  Check out how big her feet are too.

Merlin - preening
 We walked the path north to see where Pennypack creek meets the Delaware river because Phil said that there was a Bald Eagles nest up there.  We walked past the barbed wire fencing and past the soccer fields into a less developed part of the park. There, we saw a ton of sparrows including this Fox Sparrow which was a life bird for Connie, Lori and Tara!  You can tell right away it is a Fox sparrow because it is the same colors as an actual fox.  Pretty bird.

We also got Swamp, Song, White-throated and White-crowned sparrows, Towhee and Junco (which are also technically sparrows) all within a 50 yard span.  Not bad.  Then, we found the Eagle's nest with the Eagle sitting in it!  Unfortunately, it was pretty far away and all I got was this lousy photo, but it's pretty cool to see a Bald Eagle in the city!

Bald Eagle in the nest
We saw another lady who was looking at the Eagle through cheap binoculars. She quickly hid them, packed up and left before we could approach her. It is funny that she was hiding her actions from us so that she didn't give away the location of the nest.  Here we are with $1000 + binoculars, a camera with a HUGE lens, and she thinks she's hiding the eagle from us by scurrying off.  We all got a good laugh out of that.  Although, she's doing what she thought was best for the eagle by not revealing the nest.  It was still funny.

Funny too, that a Bald Eagle chose a prison site to build a nest in order to be safe.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Meep, Meep

In case you were wondering if we saw Roadrunners, the iconic desert bird, the answer is yes. We went for half the trip without seeing one. Then, I hit pay dirt on the road to Madera Canyon and again at the Visitor Center to Saguaro National Park.  No photo at all from Madera and only this half decent shot at Saguaro.
But then, we were treated to this fine specimen at the Desert Botanical Gardens!  He sat there for a few minutes before running off.  They are pretty big birds.  That is a dead Saguaro cactus that he is standing on. The insides look like slatted fences.

The other bird that is ubiquitos in the desert are Gambel's Quail.  We heard and saw these little gems at every stop in Arizona.  They are mostly shy and run away from you.  But in the botanical garden, they are quite tame.
Gambel's Quail
Gambel's Quail - male and female
 They are so tame in fact, that they came running out into the concession area looking for handouts.  We know that we are not supposed to feed the wildlife, but . . . we really couldn't help ourselves.  The concession stand was closed and we were sitting there for a break and well, you know, they were really cute.  Click on the video below.

When I was going through my photos from the trip, I noticed a pattern.  There were quite a few with man made backgrounds (including the quails above).  Cactus Wrens are everywhere around Phoenix.  This one happened to perch on some chicken wire

Cactus Wren
 This Gila Woodpecker grabbed a crumb from under the picnic table at The Farm at South Mountain which is a cool place with 3 different restaurants.  We had lunch and watched the birds.

Gila Woodpecker
 Grackles also looked for leftovers at the picnic area. This grackle is called Great-tailed for obvious reasons.
Great-tailed Grackle
 This mystery blackbird was mixing it up with the Grackles. I think it is a weird Red-winged Blackbird but would love someone else's opinion.

Mystery Blackbird
 This is a terrible photo of Rock Wren.  You can see from the shadow that it was high noon with really harsh, bright light.  The bird popped around the parking lot for a bit and I just had to photograph it. 

Rock Wren
As you may be able to tell by now.  I have ALOT of photos from the trip.  There are more that I won't bore you with here.  Suffice it to say that Arizona is a good place to be with plenty of time on your hands and a camera.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

More Desert Life

Connie and I also drove down to the infamous Madera Canyon on our forced/extended trip to Arizona last week.  We have been to this magical place twice before,  most recently with Lori and Tara (see this post for details).  That trip was awesome. It was also in April.  This trip was the end of October.  It is a totally different place.  Much more desolate.  Devoid of most birds.  I did however, get 4 life birds on the trip because I concentrated on sparrows and ground birds rather than warblers.

This first photo shows 2 birds.  We originally thought it might be an adult and a juvenile Black-throated Sparrow. But once we looked it up, we realized that the bird on the left is Rufous-winged Sparrow which is very rare in the US.  In fact, the range map on the page shows it only creeping up into Arizona about as far as Madera Canyon. We were quite lucky to see it.  We saw 3 of them total.  The Black-throated Sparrows were all over the place.  These are handsome little birds.

Rufous-winged Sparrow left, Black-throated (right)
 The next interesting bird that we saw was the Phainopepla.  I'm not kidding.  That is the name of the bird. Not the Latin name, the name.  This bird is jet black with a puffy crest and bright red eye.  I think I captured that in the photo below.  They are definitely desert birds.  I can't figure out why they would be black when they live in the desert.  That seems like it would be really hot.

 We hiked out of the picnic area at Madera Canyon down to the little creek to see if we could find some other birds.  I caught movement across the creek and saw this guy scrambling down the rocks.  It is a Coutimundi which is like a long tailed Racoon.  He wasn't afraid of us. He just looked at us and kept coming closer to the creek.  Next thing you know, we are running up the path back to the car!  We also saw a Bobcat later in the trip, but that didn't seem to scare us as much as this guy.  The Bobcat scampered away from us as soon as he saw us.

Further up the canyon, woodpeckers stole the show.  I had 4 species that posed for me.

Acorn Woodpecker

Arizona Woodpecker

Ladderback Woodpecker

Red-naped Sapsucker
 If you haven't been to Madera Canyon, you must go. It is a little slice of awesomeness. Even in October when I was the only person on most of the trails and parking lots, I got to see alot of wildlife.  I even got Hepatic Tanager and Painted Redstart. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Poopy Ponds

Any good birder knows that where there is water, there are birds.  It's easy to get good birds in our area since we have abundant water all around us.  Think Delaware River, Schuylkill River, Pennypack Creek, Wissahickon Creek, Atlantic Ocean, many lakes and ponds throughout the area.  But what if you are in a place that doesn't have abundant water such as, you know, the desert?  Then where do you find birds?  That's easy. You go to the waste water treatment plants or water recharge ponds - otherwise known as the "poopy ponds". 

Western birds flock to the poopy ponds.  I first realized this 15 years ago when I went to Dallas on a business trip and hooked up with the local Audubon chapter for a field trip.  We went to the waste water treatment plant.  I got many life birds. I experienced using binoculars while holding my breath in a few places. I also got to experience sweat in places that I didn't know I had glands. But it was fantastic.

The same thing held true on our trip to Phoenix this past week.  The best birding was at the Glendale Recharge Ponds.  Our friend Sarah never heard of it before we arrived, but then did some research that said the location was in the top ten hotspots for Phoenix area.  I went twice.  I already shared photos from the first trip.  Here are some highlights from the second trip when I dragged Connie and Sarah with me.

Black-necked Stilt
You know that you are at the poopy ponds when you see a sign like this.  You also know that you are in the southwest because it is in English and Spanish!  This American Kestral obliged us by hunting, perching and preening for about 10 minutes.

American Kestral - perched

American Kestral - scanning ponds for a quick meal
 This female Belted Kingfisher was an unexpected treat.  You can tell she is female because she has both blue and rust belts across her belly.  The male only has the blue one. Think rusty bra to remember it is a female.  She perched on this light post above the canal looking for a fishy meal.

Belted Kingfisher - perched
 You know you are in the west when you can take a photograph of both Western Meadowlark and Say's Phoebe in the same frame. The Meadowlark is on the right with the bright yellow belly and chin.  The Say's Phoebe has a salmon belly that doesn't show up well in this photo but I had to share it with you anyway.  The birds are sitting on a plowed field that was just harvested for cotton.  There were cotton fields all over the desert.  Who knew?

Say's Phoebe (left), Western Meadowlark (right)
 Ruddy ducks are some of the cutest little ducks around.  We saw over 50 of them on the poopy pond.  This male is a good representation of the bird's characteristics - big white cheek and stiff little tail.

Ruddy Duck
 Another surprise at the poopy pond were these 3 American White Pelicans.  These birds are HUGE.  You can't really tell from this photo, but they are really big.  They flew off into the desert soon after we arrived.

American White Pelicans
So, once again I am living up to the name - bird nerd.  Who else goes to waste water treatment plants on purpose?  Who else has the nerve to drag other people with them?  Me, that's who.