Saturday, November 23, 2013

Imagine My Surprise!

I had "one of those days" today. A Snowy Owl was reported at Sandy Hook NJ yesterday.  Snowy Owl is one of those birds that is mythic. It is rare outside of the arctic. It is regal. It is powerful. It is awesome. I am drawn to it.

Reports were scattered. Some said that they owl was on the beach, others said that the bird was on the move, and still others said that the bird was gone.  I resolved to see the bird this afternoon if anyone reported it. So, at noon I left the office and headed  north on I-95 to Sandy Hook which is the northern most beach in NJ. My friend Harvey called to say that he hadn't heard anything about the bird and that it was pouring rain so I turned around and headed south to the shore  Just then, a text message came in stating that the owl was indeed at Sandy Hook. You guessed it, I turned around again and headed north. I arrived at Sandy Hook 2 hours later and hoofed it a half mile out through the sand dunes to the northern tip of NJ with binoculars, camera, scope and tripod. I emerged from the dunes to see 4 people standing with binoculars. One of them was waving frantically and yelling "There's 2, there's 2! There's 2 owls here!"

You gotta be kidding me. 2 Snowy Owls in NJ in Nov.  Impossible.  Yet there they were - sitting on the beach. My birding friend Alyssa was there too thanking me for having a scope.  We set it up and got great views. I also took some photos.  You can see 1 white spec in the center and another one to the right of that on the horizon. Those are the owls. The day got a little better when the sun appeared and made the owls glow against the sand. 

2 Snowy Owls
We were standing pretty far away from the birds. There was an orange fence on the beach with a sign stating something like "Construction Zone - Keep Out".  As we stood there, a guy with a camera goes walking out past the fence right toward the owls.  I whistled and yelled "YO! Get away from the birds!" (I yelled that a few times and might have had some other choice words mixed in). He stopped and walked toward us. It was only then that I noticed he was wearing a park ranger uniform. Uh-oh.  He came over and said that he was trying to get the birds to come closer. What?!?! Nevermind.

Then I got ballsy and asked the ranger if the rest of us could get closer too. He said he was leaving and we could do whatever we wanted but that Jeanie was still on duty.  We took that to mean "Yes, you can get closer" so we did. We stayed together and walked slowly along the dune stopping every 50 feet to make sure the birds weren't spooked. Then, the guy in the white pickup truck (see photo above) came after us. He isn't a park ranger, he is a security guard for the construction company. We ignored him until he got out of the truck. I told the group that I would handle it (fully expecting to be arrested or something). The security guard said that we were in a restricted area. I immediately said that the ranger gave us permission to go along the dune to see the owls (again, expecting to be escorted off the beach in handcuffs). All he said was "Oh, OK". I asked if he wanted to see the owls through the scope. He was amazed. We were in like Flynn. 

Annie and another guy named Greg showed up met us in the restricted zone too. Then Jeanie showed up (gulp). She is a real park ranger biologist and knows what's what. I thought we were doomed but she was totally cool with us being there. I guess she saw how careful we were being and figured that it was OK for us to bend the rules a bit. She told us that she had a group of Intellectually Challenged kids on the beach to see the owl earlier and it was actually one of them who noticed the second bird.  Way to go! And then, the most amazing thing happened.  Jeanie put us all in her truck and drove us closer to the owls.  Check this out. The first photo is not cropped at all. The blur in the bottom left is the side mirror of the truck.  The owl just sat there and looked at us. They aren't afraid of trucks or cars which allows us to get pretty close. 

Snowy Owl - Sandy Hook NJ
This is the same photo cropped so you can see her markings.  Yes, it's a "her". You can tell that this is female because she has black spots. Males are almost completely white. The other bird also appeared to be a female.  I  wonder if they are sisters.

Snowy Owl
She finally decided to fly to another clump of dune grass. I have a few photos of her in flight but this one is the best because it shows her furry feet. Snowy Owls are one of the few (if only) raptors that have feathers all the way down to their feet which makes sense to keep them warm.

Snowy Owl in flight
Jeanie (who is now known as the best ranger ever) took us back to our starting point and headed out to do her real job. I vowed to send her these photos to post on the Sandy Hook website. We all just stood there in awe for a few minutes and then I just started yelling "I can't believe it, I can't believe it". I almost cried for joy.  2 Snowy Owls. I still can't believe it. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Request for Action - Help the Red Knot

Many of you already know that the Bird Nerds volunteer to help with Red Knot banding projects. This little bird is a long distance migrant. They spend the winter in Argentina and nest in the Canadian Arctic. Check out a globe to see how far that is to fly. I know people that would not even attempt that distance in a plane let alone flapping their own wings.  These birds weigh only a few ounces yet they fly all of that way - twice - once in spring and back again in fall.  Each spring, the birds stop at the Delaware Bay to fuel up on horseshoe crab eggs. They time their arrival in May just when the crabs are laying eggs along the beach. It is a spectacle - hundreds of ugly horseshoe crabs and thousands of birds spread out along the beach. Our house in the Villas right in the heart of this mayhem. It is one of the reasons that we bought property here.

Red Knot numbers are declining. Each year, scientists count and band fewer of these birds. There are many reasons for the decline but Delaware Bay crabs are definitely one of them.  As with everything else in this world, protecting the Red Knot requires money. Scientists and conservationists need to get paid. Boats and planes and other equipment needs to be used. The list goes on. One way to help the Red Knot is to tell the government to list the bird on the Endangered Species List.  NJ Audubon is making it easy for you to do this.  Here is a link to their webpage. All you need to do is send your comment. They even provide sample letter that you can cut and paste into the comment form.  Please do this and send the link to others. We need as many people as possible to help.  Even if you've never seen a Red Knot, please comment.

Thank you. I don't usually ask you to take action, but this is important.

Delaware Bay

Monday, November 18, 2013

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - in Philly

One of the things about the Big Year is that I hear about all of the rare birds in the area via Internet, text, email and phone calls. The other thing about the contest is that when you get a rare bird, you think WOW.  And then it's weird when another one shows up. When a third one shows up, you start to be blase about it. OK, the fourth time it shows I start to wonder how "rare" it really is.  The bird that I'm talking about is usually found in Texas in open field habitat. It has been seen 3 times in NJ and this weekend in Philadelphia.  Philadelphia as in a very urban area. Bartram's Gardens is located in southwest Philly along the Schulkyll river. The gardens are pinned in by row houses and train tracks but it does have an open field that is pretty perfect for flycatchers. 

I took the opportunity to shoot a few photos before a hockey game. At first, I couldn't locate the bird or any other birders for that matter. A few guys showed up with scopes and we went into the woods where the bird was reported. I think there were too many kids and dogs and joggers around the field for the bird to hang around. I decided to go into the field anyway and wait for the bird to return. I made the right choice. I stood quietly near a few bushes in the middle of the field and viola - the bird showed up.  WOW! What a sight. The extra long tail is enough to make this bird special but the salmon flanks puts it over the top.
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
 Here it is flying. Check out that tail!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
The hockey team lost 2-0 but they played great. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shooting for 350

Someone asked me recently - when did the Billings Big Year contest go from "the contest" to the "stupid contest" and then to the "stupidfuckingcontest"?  That is a fair question.  Remember - at first I wasn't interested in entering the contest to win. I just wanted to have fun and set a personal goal to see 300 species in our DVOC area. The DVOC area is defined as south Jersey, Eastern PA, and the state of Delaware. Back then, it was "The Contest". Back then, my friend Patty was in the contest for the same reason.  In fact, her personal goal was lower than mine.

Then in April, the list of contestants was published and I discovered that the only serious contestants were me and Patty.  That information put the 2 of us into direct competition to win the contest.  That meant 2 things. First, we both had to take the contest seriously in order to win with a total that is in line with other winners.  And second, we were no longer working together just for fun.  We were both now very invested in doing a Big Year and we both wanted to win the contest.  Ugh.  Hence, "The Contest" turned into the "The Stupid Contest".

Thankfully, the 2 of us came to an agreement to continue to work together and not hold anything back from each other. It makes sense.  We are both chasing the same birds so why not go together? We met our personal goals by June 1st.  300 species for me, 287 for Patty. June 1st.  Ta-da! Now what? We keep going, that's what.  301, 302, 310, 320, 330 by the end of the summer. Running around chasing all of those birds is exhausting.  No rest for the weary. In August, just when we thought we could start to take it easy, the fall rarities started showing up. Hence, "The Stupid Contest" became "thestupidfuckingcontest".

By now - EVERYONE knows that I'm doing a Big Year. I do mean everyone. Birders all over the country, people from the dog park, people at work, clients, hockey players, everyone.  Most conversations start with the question - "What's your number?"  My number as of today is 349 thanks to the Northern Goshawk sighting at Hawk Mountain last Sunday. 349 is huge for me.  Patty is right on my heels with 345. She should close the gap soon with Rough-legged Hawk and Sedge Wren.  We are both pushing for 350 and will get there next Saturday when we go out on another pelagic (open ocean) boat trip.

A few of the birds that required multiple attempts to see last winter are proving to be pretty easy now.  Here are a few. Black-headed Gull.  This bird shows up every year a few blocks from our house in the Villas. I stood there on the beach at least 4 times with no luck. I also went all the way to north Jersey chasing on at Morgan Ave Mud Flats and busted there too before getting a distant view of one at Heislerville. Very disappointing.  The first one of the winter showed up in the Villas yesterday and I finally got a satisfying view.  My Big Year buddies Lester and John joined me on the beach to watch and photograph the bird.  It's not sexy, but it is a coveted Big Year bird.

Black-headed Gull
 I know what you're thinking - where is the black head?  It only has the black head in summer along with alot of other gull species.  The field marks for this bird are the red legs and bill which can be seen in the photos.

Black-headed Gull
Another bird that we chased a few times is Snow Bunting. These are cute little birds that show up along the beaches in winter.  Patty and I went to Cape May and Sandy Hook NJ separately trying to see this bird. We also drove all the way to Rehoboth Beach Delaware a few times before seeing a flock under the bridge at Indian River Inlet.  Of course, they are showing up en masse in November right along the beach in Cape May.  They are so cute that you have to take photos of them.

Snow Bunting

Snow Buntings at Cape May
The other birds that are showing up now are rare hummingbirds.  My friend Harvey has a great yard for hummingbirds and he keeps getting hummingbirds visiting to this day.  I was there on Saturday photographing a hummer that could end up being my #350 if the experts agree that it is a Black-chinned Hummingbird.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Happy 5 Year Anniversary to Philly Bird Nerd

Today marks 5 years since the very first Philly Bird Nerd post - which was titled "Bird Nerd Overview". I had no idea what I was doing but I thought it would be fun to use the blog as a way to keep a journal of our birding expeditions.  It worked!  I find myself going back through the posts for a good laugh now and then.  Here are some of my favorites.  Please post a comment to let me know which posts are your favorites.

Alot has happened in those 5 years - pets and loved ones passed, new friends made, lots of laughs and tons of new birds added to the life list.

P.S. - if you are reading this through an email, you may need to open the blog from an Internet browser in order to get the links to work properly.

Jill's Big Mistake - Dec 2008 - asking me for a favor ends in birdwatching

Grumpy Old Men - Nov 2009 - our encounter with a Burrowing Owl in Florida

Duck + Hawk + Gull = 3 Life Birds - Dec 2009 - the mega rare Ivory Gull and marathon day

Santa Please Bring Us Some Style - Dec 2010 - call the fashion police

Biggest Nerd Alive - Dec 2011 - you be the judge

Now, About that Booby - Aug 2011 - Brown Booby in Cape May

Will She Shut Up Already - Oct 2012 - quest for the Connecticut warbler

My Lowest Point Yet - July 2012 - the dreaded hike

Big Year Coming Up - Jan 2013 - the "stupid-fucking-contest" begins

5 Owls, Cops and Update - March 2013 - intriguing title

Thanks for reading the posts. I hope you enjoy some of them.  Let me know if you want to go birding sometime.  You know where to find me - I'll be doing something like this:

Linda and Long-billed Curlew at Malibu beach
Golden Plover
Barbara and Linda - first pelagic

Windy Birding

Sunday, November 10, 2013

San Francisco

I spent a few days in San Francisco - on the same day that Twitter (based in San Fran) went public. Alot of people got rich - not me.  Not many birds to be seen but the ones that I saw were up close and personal.  I took a walk from my hotel all the way to the Golden Gate bridge which was alot further than I thought.

Golden Gate Bridge
Along the way, I got close views of some common birds including a Western Grebe.  These are the best photos that I have of this species.

Western Grebe

Western Grebe
I also had great views of Alcatraz from the shore. I tried to get a tour but they are completely sold out for days in advance. Be warned - buy your tickets before you arrive in San Francisco if you ever want to take the tour. I admit that I am so bird obsessed that this photo started out to be of a White-crowned Sparrow until I looked up and notices Alcatraz and the sailboat in the background.
Alcatraz with White-crowned Sparrow
Here are the sparrows up close and personal.  The first is a juvenile which doesn't have the "white crown".  The second photo shows the crown pretty well.
White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow
Another sparrow that caught my eye was this Fox Sparrow. Our Fox Sparrows are much redder. Out west, they are really dark. The field guide calls them "sooty".  Here is a photo of one with a berry.

Fox Sparrow (Pacific)
I had to take a break after walking for miles lugging my camera, jacket and binoculars so I stopped at the Golden Gate Visitor Center and grabbed an orange soda (they didn't have Diet Coke) and some Goldfish crackers. I was soon joined by some friends who wanted to share my snack.  

Brewers Blackbird
 Yes, I rewarded the bad behavior of the Brewer's Blackbirds.  They would come right up and snatch the cracker from my fingers! It was cute and I'll probably get cited for feeding the wildlife but I was lonely and bored and tired from my walk.
I can't wait to get home!  Oh, did I tell you that I get to spend a whole night at home before heading to New Orleans?  Don't expect a bird report thought. I don't think I'll get out of the city on that trip.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Sunny California - My Ass

It never rains in California - but it does get foggy and misty and drizzly - just don't call it rain.  We wanted to do some birding in the mountains near Mt. Wilson observatory on Monday so we left early and headed up, up, up. We hit fog at 1,000 feet. Di did a great job keeping us on the road all the way up the winding, fogged in road to 5,000 feet. Not many birds to be seen but we did get a few new ones for Barbara including a bonus Phainopepla (you read that right).  The Phainopepla looks like a jet black Cardinal. It is the bird on the right in photo sitting with a Spotted Towhee on top of Mt. Wilson.

Spotted Towhee (left) and  Phainopepla (right)
The cool thing about PhotoShop is that you can remove fog from a photo by using an enhancement feature.  One click and poof - no more fog.  The photo above looked as bad as this one of Di and Barbara standing in front of one of the telescopes on Mt. Wilson.

Foggy Outlook
Once we made it back to the sun, we had great looks at some of the west coast's most interesting woodpeckers. One of the more common woodpeckers is Acorn Woodpecker. They remind me of clowns by the way they look and act.  They live in groups which is unusual for woodpecker and are really loud.  They store acorns in holes that they drill into tree trunks and branches.

Acorn Woodpecker
We were treated to a rare sight on Tuesday up in the Santa Monica Mountains - a Lewis's Woodpecker put on a great show flying from tree to tree chasing other woodpeckers away.  This was my one target bird! It is a very unusual woodpecker in that it is green, pink and red rather than black, white and red. The photos aren't great but I think you can see the colors.

Lewis's Woodpecker
 Here is a shot of it flying directly over our heads as we stood int he middle of a field. You can see that it is molting wing feathers in the photo. Check out that pink belly.

Lewis's Woodpecker
We drove along Highway 1 through Malibu on our way to the airport.  We didn't see any movie stars but we got a great look at some stars in the shorebird world including this Long-billed Curlew.

Long-billed Curlew
This bird knows how to use that bill too.  I watched as it plucked sand crabs out of the surf with the tip of the bill and adeptly worked the crab all the way up and gulped them down.  Incredible.  Makes me ashamed that I can't use chopsticks.

Long-billed Curlew
That's it for now. I'm in San Francisco but I don't think I'll have any free time to go birding.  I'll post if I do.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

More Southern California Birds

As I said in the last post - the point of the trip was to visit my uncle which we did. The bonus was to get the Boobies. But our other goal was to get Barbara up to speed on her Southern California bird list.  She hasn't birded this area before so she was itching to get as many new birds as possible - and she did.  She got over 20 new species even though it isn't the "birdiest" time of year out there.  Here are some of Barbara's new birds.

Other birds from the boat trip include this adult Heerman's Gull which was a target bird for me. I don't know how I missed this species on previous trips. I was so excited to see the first one that I took a photo of it waaaaaaay out in the harbor just so that I had something on record.  Little did I know that we would see hundreds of them during our trip.  This is the only gull that has gray body to go along with the wings.

Adult Heerman's Gull
Here is another Heerman's Gull.  Juveniles start out really dark gray, almost black which is pretty handsome.

Heerman's Gull
 Elegant terns were also present along the coast. These are pretty interesting looking with their black crest and long orange bill.  There were dozens of them resting on the beach.

Elegant Tern
 This one looks like he's about to start conducting the tern orchestra.  And a one, and a two. . .

Elegant Tern

Another bird that we saw from the boat was Black-vented Shearwater. Same deal as the gull - we saw one and ran around the boat deck to get a look at it and then saw about 200 more after that.  Unfortunately, these birds are difficult to photograph in evening light.  This is the best that I could muster.

Black-vented Shearwater
 This Brandt's Cormorant was hanging out with the Masked Booby (who was perched just above).

Brandt's Cormorant
The best part about these birds are the stunning blue eyes.  This is another bird that swam by us while we were on the jetty looking at the Blue-footed Boobies. Women pay money for contact lenses to get eyes like that.

Brandt's Cormorant
Speaking of the boat.  Here is a photo of Diane as she was video taping the hundreds of Dolphins that surrounded our boat.  What a spectacle.

 This is the best photo I could get of one of the dolphins. 

Common Dolphin
I have one more post coming from the LA trip. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

LA Boobies

Di wanted me to title this "Wanna See Our Boobies?" but I think it would send the blog into the porn section!  You might remember a post from 2 years ago about a Brown Booby that showed up in Cape May and hung around on a buoy for a few weeks. (Don't worry, another one showed up this year and got counted for the stupid contest)  If not - here is the link to that post.  If so, you will also recall that Boobies are very rare in NJ. Well, they are very rare in California too.  However, 2 types of Boobies are here now - a Masked Booby which is from the tropics and Carribean is doing it's best impression of the Brown Booby by sitting on a buoy in the LA harbor and allowing the dolphin and whale watching boats to get really close.  Check this out. The bird is named after the mask that can be seen around the eyes and base of the bill.

Masked Booby

This guy even mugged for the camera by waving at the passengers on the boat!  Hi there.

Masked Booby waving at the boat

The funniest part of the Masked Booby sighting is that Barbara found coupons for the boat trip and got us booked for Sunday at 3 PM.  We showed up to the dock and stood in line with the normal type of people and families who would sign up for a dolphin/whale watching trip but could see that a few other passengers also had binoculars and cameras.  It turns out that I knew another guy on the boat! What are the chances that a NJ birder that I met in a field in the Pine Barrens was on the same boat?  Crazy right? We just kept shaking our heads and laughing.
The Gang

We also had a great captain - Captain Chris who expertly maneuvered that boat  around the buoy for great photo opps. He also took us out and found Black-vented Shearwaters which was another lifer for all of us.

There is another type of Booby here in LA too - at least 4 Blue-footed Boobies have been hanging around on a jetty and are easily seen from shore.  Photo opps were not as great since we couldn't get close.  Here are a few so-so shots. I hope you can see the blue feet in the photos.

Blue-footed Booby - middle bird with white breast
 Here is another Booby (left) scratching his neck with his big blue paddle foot.  The middle bird is also a Booby but his head is tucked under his wing.  The big bird is a Pelican.

Blue-footed Booby

More to follow. I gotta catch a flight to San Francisco.