Monday, May 18, 2020

My CRAZY Yard This Spring

When we saw this house 20 years ago, the yard was overgrown but definitely had potential. The house was perfect for us but needed a lot of work. We fixed up the house and the yard over the years. We built a pond with a little stream that attracts birds. We have come to know many backyard bird species over the years and even seen some good migrants come through. A few warblers have stopped by here and there. This year is different. Really different.

First - we had our old sunroom torn down and rebuilt last year. The construction tore up the back yard pretty bad. It has taken some time but we finally have a landscaper trying to make the backyard livable again.

Second - we are in the midst of a global pandemic which is forcing both of us to work from home everyday. Connie has claimed the new sunroom as her makeshift office.

Third - the weather has been wacky. Lots of rain and colder than normal. But it is finally beginning to feel like spring.

I guess those factors all add up to WOW in the yard. It stared last Monday when I spotted this male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the Dogwood tree above the pond.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Later that same day, I saw a bright red streak go across the patio and into the pond. A male Scarlet Tanager taking bath!

Scarlet Tanager
We've had Common Yellow-throats in the yard before. I photographed this one through the window from my office so it is not a great photo. 

Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Kingbirds are birds of open country so imagine my surprise when this bird showed up at the pond on Tuesday morning.

Eastern Kingbird
I looked to the left and spotted this male Baltimore Oriole in the next tree. 

Baltimore Oriole
The funny thing is that I was actually working while all of this was going on. It's a good thing that my coworkers understand my obsession. I had to hang up on a video call when this Chestnut-sided Warbler started splashing around in the pond.

Chestnut-sided Warbler
A Black and White Warbler isn't unusual but he showed up as I was outside watching the other birds, so I snapped a photo. 

Black and White Warbler
Northern Parulas are also a common visitor to our yard. 

Northern Parula
I know this isn't a bird, but it just goes to show how active the yard has been this week. I found a soccer ball in the yard and assumed it belonged to the neighbor so I kicked it into their yard. The next morning, Peanut started barking at the window. Connie and I looked out and saw the neighborhood Fox trotting down the hill. He stopped and to our surprise, he started playing with the ball! 

Bird action slowed down on Thursday and I headed to the shore which was a kind of a bust for birds. We did have a few good birds including this Bay-breasted Warbler at Cox Hall Creek. This is probably the best photo I've been able to get of one. 

Bay-breasted Warbler
Back home and to work today and here come the birds again! Today, I peered outside and to my surprise, another Bay-breasted Warbler in our pond! Unfortunately, I missed the photo. I also missed a photo of a Tennessee Warbler in the pond. I did manage to photograph our resident Blue Jay getting a quick drink. 

Blue Jay
And, the Scarlet Tanager seems to be hanging around the neighborhood. He patiently waited his turn for the pond.

Scarlet Tanager
Our Ruby-throated Hummingbird is making the most of the trumpet honeysuckle. 

What a week! 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Owl and the Pussycat

Great-horned Owls begin their breeding season in the depths of winter. Courting begins in December when you can hear them hooting a lot in the evenings and see them perched out in the open during the day. Nesting begins in January and once that happens, the owls disappear. The female is hidden on the nest which is usually in a large cavity in a tree and the male is hiding out nearby keeping a careful watch on his mate. This continues through February and March. We hike the trails and never see an owl. In late March or April, things change again and we begin to see an adult owl sitting out during the day. She is watching the nest from nearby now because her babies are so big that she doesn't have room to sit with them in the nest.

Dad is also sitting nearby to keep an eye out for trouble.

The babies are big enough to move around and can be seen in the nest cavity most days. Connie and I have been keeping tabs on the family for the past week.

And now for the pussycat. Well, not exactly a cat. More like our dog Peanut acting more like a cat than a dog. While Connie and I were watching the owlets (who were watching us right back), Peanut found a tree to climb.

She was up there so high, it scared me to death. Here she is scrambling back down.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

That's Why They Call it Fox Chase Farm

Like all of America, I'm doing my best to stop the spread of Corona Virus by staying home and keeping up with the social distancing requirements. I generally work from home anyway, so that part is easy for me. Connie and I are set up in different parts of the house to work (somehow, she got the sunroom). We still get outside every day to walk Peanut. We are going to Pennypack and Lorimer parks which is really nice. Lorimer Park butts up against Fox Chase Farm which has big open cow pastures and a beautiful view.

The other day, I noticed a fox one of the cow pastures at Fox Chase Farm. And, as the name suggests, I watched her as she stalked and chased her prey. She would sit very still with laser focus on the grass in front of her.

Listening for critters
Then, she would leap into the air and come down hard hoping to pin the prey.

The Pounce!
She did this several times. Stare. Pounce. Stare. Pounce.

And finally, one last pounce lunging directly away from my camera lens . . .

Victory! A rodent of some sort to bring back to her kits. She looked directly at me as if to say "Got it!"
She trotted off through the field. What a way to spend 15 minutes before going back to the reality of our pandemic situation.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

In The Box

There are many birds that nest in cavities. Cavities are created naturally when trees loose a branch. Cavities are created on purpose by woodpeckers who drill out holes for themselves. Cavities are also created by us humans in the form of nest boxes. This week, I have photos of 2 nest boxes that I purchased and installed that actually have birds in them. First up, our resident Screech Owl. He or she went missing for a while but is back and sitting in the hole almost every afternoon.

Screech Owl
The second species is the Bluebird. We walk Peanut up at Lorimer park which butts up against Fox Chase farm. The farm is owned by Philadelphia Parks Commission and has acres of pastures and cows that are tended by the 4-H club. Someone, a long time ago, installed Bluebird boxes on the fence posts. I remember seeing Bluebirds in the park years ago but haven't seen any lately and wondered why. 

At a recent DVOC meeting, the speaker told us that Bluebirds need clean boxes to build their nest. It dawned on me that the Fox Chase Farm boxes were probably filled with old nest material so I went around and cleaned out 9 boxes and purchased 5 new ones to install where I saw long stretches without an old box.

My work paid off! Today, Connie and I saw Bluebirds at 3 of the boxes including one of the new boxes.

Eastern Bluebirds
I can't wait to see if the couples actually have babies.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Christmas Bird Count - Florida Style

Last weekend, I did the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pennypack Park, just like I've done for the past 7 years. And, just like other years, the weather was crappy and the birds were common. Don't get me wrong, I like contributing to the Audubon's 120 years of bird data but it's not the most exciting day of birding ever. This year, I had an idea - what if I volunteered for another CBC count? What if that count was in Florida? Genius!

Lucky for me, the Harns Marsh CBC was scheduled for today AND . . . Connie and I were scheduled to visit BJ and Dave starting yesterday. Harns Marsh is only 45 minute drive from BJ's. I contacted the person in charge and got myself in on the count. I met Charly and Meg at 6:45 AM in the parking lot at the marsh. We counted 68 birds and, for me at least, they were way sexier than my hometown birds at Pennypack.

Take this Snail Kite for instance. This is an uncommon bird that can only survive by eating certain kinds of snails. The Kite's bill is adapted to eating only the snails. Harn's Marsh is lousy with the snails and therefore, we saw this Snail Kite along the edge of the marsh. Jackpot.

Snail Kite
Another bird that eats the snails is the Limpkin. Limpkins can also eat other food like worms and other critters that live along the edge of the water. Harn's Marsh has plenty of these birds. They are pretty shy and move slowly. This one flew past us.

Harn's Marsh is also a place to find Gray-headed Swamphens, an introduced species from Asia. Birders like to come here to add them to their life lists. I did that exact thing last year. This year, we saw plenty of them.

Gray-headed Swamphen
Sandhill Cranes are common in this part of Florida. We see them in the marshes, in the Walmart parking lot and on the golf courses. At Harn's Marsh, the Cranes usually stay in the marsh but today, 11 of them were up on the path. We saw the group interacting from afar.

Sandhill Cranes
As we approached, the Cranes were not afraid. We ended up surrounded by them. Here is a cell phone selfie video showing how close they were to us. 

My 400 mm camera lens could only capture the head of this bird squawking. 

Sandhill Crane
We saw a few Bald Eagles flying around but then I saw one perch in a tree. When I went over to take a photo, I was surprised to find another bird in the tree. Here is the happy couple. She is on the right - a larger bird than her hubby on the left. 

The Happy Couple
Roseate Spoonbills are iconic birds of the mangroves in Florida. I was surprised that we found one in the marsh. This bird was hanging out with a mixed bag of waders. You can see why they are called "rose" and "spoonbills" in this photo. 

Roseate Spoonbill
The biggest surprise of the day was spotting this River Otter right at the water's edge. He just looked at us for a few minutes before returning to his search for fish. 

River Otter
We don't get this stuff at Pennypack for sure. All in all, a good day of citizen science. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

More on Ecuador

Hummers and Antpittas were not the only birds that we saw on our trip. Ecuador is home to other fantastic and fantastical birds. One bird that I have really wanted to see since I first saw a picture in a magazine is the Long-wattled Umbrellabird. This is a black beauty in the Cotinga family that has some interesting adaptations. The feathers on the bird's head form an umbrella hairdo. Males have a long "wattle" which is similar to a Tom turkey only much longer with more feathers. You can see the wattle hanging over the branch in this photo. 

Long-Wattled Umbrellabird
I was hoping to see one of these birds but never imagined that we would see 13 of them flying around the farm fields! The wattle is so long that it swings when the bird walks along the branch. 

Long-Wattled Umbrellabird
Umbrella birds are the type of bird that uses "leks" like the Greater Sage Grouse that I saw in Colorado. Each morning, all of the males gather in one area to show off to each other and determine who is the king of the flock. Umbrella birds do a little dance and actually flare out the feathers on their wattle when a female is close by. you can see it here.

Long-Wattled Umbrellabird
Unfortunately for me, the weather was overcast with off and on rain. Not great for bird photos, but a perfect opportunity for me to try to be funny. Here I am with my own umbrella and Umbrellabird. I couldn't resist. 

Another bird in the Cotinga family that many birders want to see is the Cock-of-the-Rock. Unlike the Umbrellabird which is black, the Cock-of-the-Rock is bright red. Like the Umbrellabird, Cock-of-the-Rock males gather each morning at a lek to show off to each other. The lek that we went to was part of Angel's tour. We arrived before dawn to gather in a bird blind so that we didn't disturb the birds as they arrived. This is the top bird in the lek. He had the best perch and chased of many of the other males that tried to get too close. 

Both species are pretty large birds and easy to see which is why they need to be protected from local hunters. Having Angel and other local guides helps to protect the birds and educate the local people of the value of the lek site too. Our tour group paid each of the local guides $20 per person to see the birds which is quite a bit more money than they can make farming or hunting. A win-win for sure. 

Other interesting birds of central and south America include the Toucans, Toucanettes, Aracari and Barbets. We saw a few species but only got photos of some. These two were easy to photograph since they were munching on bananas at our hotel's bird feeders. 


Believe me, I could post many more bird photos from Ecuador but birds were not the only subjects for photography. We also saw some animals, reptiles and plants that you may enjoy seeing. We saw many butterflies. Here are two species in the "glass wing" family. You can see right through the wing. 

Our group is not afraid of snakes. In fact, we hope to see snakes when we are birding. We found 2 species in the rain forest. The first was this Green Vine Snake. It really looks like a vine. She was pretty approachable and completely harmless. 

Green Vine Snake
This snake was also very approachable but the opposite of harmless. This is the Choco Hognose Viper. I don't know how Marty spotted this snake. He was completely camoflauged surrounded by leaves. Our guide used a stick to move the leaves away so that we could get a better look. Check out those eyes! He is looking right at the camera. 

Choco Hognose Viper
Other reptiles that we encountered included several species of frogs. This guy was my shower buddy. He would come in and out of the bathroom window at night. Cute right? 

My shower buddy
There are lots of lizards too. This one was right outside of the hotel entrance. It took me a few seconds to actually see it even when Todd was pointing right at it. It is 2 feet long and still undetectable. Can you see it? 

The rain forest is home to Howler Monkeys. These primates are easy to find since they spend alot of time howling which can be heard for miles. This dude was upset that we were on the trail beneath him. 

Howler Monkey
Last on the list is this freakishly large grasshopper. We found him on the defunct sliding board at the hotel swimming pool (that's another story). Look at the size of that thing. Birds won't even try to eat these things because they are too big and have spikes on the back of their legs that can hurt the bird. 


Friday, November 15, 2019

Mr. Potatohead

"It looks like a potato with legs". That's what Di said when she saw a photo of an Antpitta. You can be the judge.

Antpittas are a group of birds that make their living on the forest floor. They are most often heard but not seen. One of the best places to see Antpittas is in Ecuador at Refugio Paz de Las Aves (Peace of the Birds Sanctuary). The reason that this place is so special is because of this Angel. No really, Angel is his name. Angel is a farmer who figured out that he can make better money showing people Antpittas than actually farming.

Selfie with Angel Paz
He trains the birds to come out of the forest when he calls so that they can get a delicious meal of worms.
Yummy Antpitta Breakfast
Angel calls the birds by name - "Will-a-meeeee-na, Will-a-meeeeeeee-na" as he throws the worms out on a moss-covered log just off the forest path. "Will-a-meeeeee-na" and sure enough, the bird emerges from the dark forest.

Yellow-breasted Antpitta
She's a beauty and allows us to photograph her while she dines. She gobbles up the last worm and disappears back into the forest until tomorrow. Angel leads us to another path. "Sha-keeeee-ra, Sha-keeeee-ra". Same dance, different bird. Viola. Shakira appears for her breakfast.

Ochre-breasted Antpitta
Angel calls her Shakira because she moves like Shakira that singer. Watch how she wiggles.

The don't all have names. Angel used to have a Giant Antpitta called Maria but sadly the bird died after 15 years of fame. He calls out into the forest with a whistle that mimics the bird's call. Another bird emerges. 

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta
She's striking and doesn't seem to mind the paparazzi. We also saw a very secretive Moustached Antpitta. Angel asked us not to photograph the shy bird so that we didn't scare him away so no photos of him. 

After showing us the Antpittas, Angel invited us to the pavilion where his wife served coffee and Bolon de Verdes which are green plantain fritters. They were delicious! We ate our meal while watching some of the amazing hummingbirds featured in the last post. 

We saw 2 other Antpittas on our trip. This Tawny Antpitta accompanied us along our trail at Yanacoacha. 

Tawny Antpitta
And we found this Streak-breasted Antpitta in the rain forest at Playa de Oro. This one was the most wild of the bunch. I barely managed to get a photograph. 

Streak-breasted Antpitta
More birds and critters to follow. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Ecuador - Hummingirds

Ecuador is located in South America and as the name suggests is on the equator. Our gang just returned from a 10 day trip to explore the birds and nature of the country. We signed up for the trip last November so it was a long wait. The trip itinerary included a few days in the Andes mountains where we spent time in various locations and then ended with 4 days in the "Choco" region at a remote lodge.

The itinerary indicated that we could see as many as 600 bird species on the trip. We ended up seeing 360 species. 232 of those were life birds for me. There were so many birds that I have decided to break them up into multiple posts. This post concentrates on just the hummingbirds. The field guide lists 134 species possible - 134! We have exactly 1 specie here in Pennsylvania.

Our trip started on Sat Nov 2nd in Quito which is the capital of Ecuador and located at 9,340 feet elevation and  -0.20562° N latitude, -78.5088° E longitude. Our first stop was to a preserve called Yanacocha which is at 12,000 feet elevation. Joco Toco Conservation Fund helps to protect the area. It was pretty cool at this elevation. We needed jackets for sure. 

Who knew that we could find such cool birds and hummingbirds at such high elevation! 

The first hummer that I saw was this cinnamon colored bird called Shining Sunbeam. 

Shining Sunbeam
Its a cute bird but I didn't understand why it was called Shining Sunbeam until it turned around.

Shining Sunbeam
It should really be called "Rainbow Butt". Look at how it shines in the sunlight!

Next up, a little hummer called Golden-breasted Puffleg. Check out the white puffs on the legs. This dude was itching for a fight with any other hummer that flew past him. 

Golden-breasted Puffleg - ready for action
The most common hummer at Yanacocha was the Buff-winged Starfrontlet. What a name. 

Buff-winged Starfrontlet
And then my eyes almost popped out of my head when this bird arrived at the feeders. This is Sword-billed Hummingbird. Look at the size of that bill! It is designed to get nectar from really big flowers. He must have really good aim to get his bill in the feeder hole at that distance

Sword-billed Hummingbird
There were many other birds at this site but for now, just hummers. On Sunday, we headed out to a remote farm in the Andes located at lower elevation to see some amazing birds which I will tell you about in another post. The farmer has hummingbird feeders hanging around the pavilion where we had coffee and a delicious snack that his wife prepared. Here are some of the hummers from this site.

Andean Emerald isn't stunning but still really cute. This guy ruled the roost.

Andean Emerald
This Purple-bibbed Whitetip is aptly named. You can see both the bib and the white tips.

Purple-bibbed Whitetip
In the diminutive category, nothing beats this tiny Purple-throated Woodstar. She flies like a bumblebee!
Purple-throated Woodstar
Hermits are category of hummingbirds that have long curved bills. Here is White-whiskered Hermit coming in for some sugar water.

White-whiskered Hermit
In the afternoon, we headed to our 3rd hotel in 3 days. The hotel reminded me of an out-of-date Pocono lodge filled with dark wood paneling and smelling moldy. Our rooms were decorated in a Victorian theme with lacy pillow cases and valences around the bed posts. Not what I expected in Ecuador. Luckily, the hotel had some hummingbird feeders that attracted some amazing birds.

Of all of the hummers that I wanted to see, this Booted Racket-tail topped the list. I can't even!

Booted Racket-tail
Look at those "boots"!

Booted Racket-tail
This Violet-purple Coronet was a handsome devil - and I think he knows it too.

Violet-purple Coronet
The coup-de-gras of all hummers at this location had to be Violet-tailed Sylth. The bird has a really long tail which you may be able to see in this photo. He also has brilliant turquoise stripe on his head and purple throat patch that shines when the light hits it.

Violet-tailed Sylth
That's all great but it is nothing like the full Monty! Here he is showing off the crazy shining long tail. It was truly something to behold.
Violet-tailed Sylth
I'll stop there for now. We saw other hummingbirds throughout the 10 day excursion but it gets overwhelming after a while.